Tag Archives: Italo Calvino

On Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees”

16 May
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

I can’t possibly go a full year without reading and reviewing another Italo Calvino novel, and I’m growing my collection faster than I can read (par for the course). In fact, I’m known at the local bookstore as “the girl who buys all the Calvino,” a distinction of which I’m rather proud. Calvino’s fabulist The Baron in the Trees, though, didn’t seduce me the same way Invisible Cities did, and definitely didn’t completely bowl me over the way If on a winter’s night a traveler …. On the surface, The Baron in the Trees is a simple story of an eccentric nobleman who, on a whim, leaves his life of comfort and takes up residence in the trees, never to touch the ground again during his entire adult life. The surface story is a pretty wrapping for Calvino’s usual fare of intelligent commentary on communist politics and the philosophical concept of independence.

In a novel that reads like Don Quixote and reminds me more than just a little of Robin Hood, we learn about a young Baron named Cosimo whose wayward spirit and rebellion against a society of hypocritical nobility leads him away from the comforts of his home and into the trees of the Italian countryside. It’s the late 18th century, and Cosimo is 12 when he first climbs into a tree, never to set foot on earth again. Neither the pleading of his noble parents nor the fraying bond with his younger brother Biagio can convince Cosimo to go back on his decision. Once in the trees, the young baron learns to travel via a highway of twisting routes through oaks and olives and ilexes. He hunts with the help of his well-trained retrieving dachshund names Ottimo Massimo. He befriends the local peasants and helps them with fruit harvests. He even falls in love. Anything that can be done on earth, Cosimo can do in the trees, albeit with a dash more of eccentric flavor.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Mossimo the dachshund.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Massimo the dachshund.

The Baron in the Trees is nothing if not a goofy, entertaining parable of independence. The whole story is narrated by Biagio, the brother left behind on the earth, and he curates the stories told him by Cosimo who, as he grows into a man, becomes less and less reliable in his recounts of amorous escapades or friendships with brigands or battles with pirates. Cosimo and Biagio aren’t your typical unreliable narrators, but they are story weavers, sometimes taking a seemingly roundabout route to a destination, making TBitT feel like a rambling oral account from a doddering uncle who spends too much time refilling his punch cup at family functions. While this is fun and all, the only passage I felt I truly enjoyed and admired was the book’s final two pages where Calvino’s vivid imagery really breaks through.

"... anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it."

“… anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.”

Read it if … you enjoy the fabulist genre. TBitT reads like a grown-up’s fairy tale: it’s short, sweet, and full of blatant symbolism.

Don’t read it if … you have a phobia of jagulars who drop down on you from trees when you look up at them. Also, don’t read it if you don’t want to spend a decent amount of your time untangling Calvino’s symbolism and political/cultural references. You may still get a lot of enjoyment from Cosimo’s escapades, but this is much more than rom-com in the Italian countryside.

This book is like … Candide, in all its ironic and fun-loving trappings. Voltaire even plays a small part in TBitT. If you like the genre, though, you should also look up H. Rider Haggard for more adventure or Ambrose Bierce for more sadness.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino. The man. The myth. The legend.

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Top 10 of 2013

31 Dec

Happy New Year’s Eve, world! I won’t be like everyone and say, “I can’t believe how fast this year went by,” so I’ll just say, “I can’t believe how slowly this year went by.” We get 365 days and I only managed to read a handful of books! Here’s to a fuller 2014 with more books and more book reviews! For now, it’s time to wrap up the year by reflecting on the important things. Here is my list of the top ten books I read and reviewed this year with excerpts from and links to my reviews on each of them! Enjoy, and thanks to all my followers, casual readers, friends, and family for helping me enjoy myself with this little, whimsical blog.

The Top Ten of 2013

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

10. To Be or Not To Be  by Ryan North

Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground. …

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni's Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni’s Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

9. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too. …

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

8. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Richard Forthrast—the billionaire, draft-dodger, former drug-runner, T’Rain founder—and his niece Zula find themselves invited to a figurative party of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, ex-military rogues, MI6 agents, and Islamic terrorists (obviously) that even Gatsby would envy, it’s so elaborate and wrought with confusion and angst. The plot that began with relatively simple, moneymaking scheme/computer virus becomes frightening and life threatening. But isn’t that how it always goes? …

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press' Letters.

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press’ Letters.

7. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites. …

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

6. Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

I think, at this point, I can officially classify myself as a Sarah Beauhall fangirl. When I saw the series as Powell’s for the first time, I decided I’d read it on a whim, not expecting anything more than brief entertainment or maybe something to write a scathing review on later. Lo and behold! I have to take back those thoughts of an unbeliever! Forged in Fire is J.A. Pitts’s third Sarah Beauhall installation, and I had more fun than ever. Pitts created a cast of full characters and a massive enough world to keep this series going strongly as Sarah Beauhall uncovers more dark magic, learns about a new secret order, and forms some important human bonds that help her understand the meaning of family. …

As troubling as it is genius, A Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood's iconic prose.

As troubling as it is genius, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood’s iconic prose.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s dazzling The Handmaid’s Tale and got a bitter taste of how scary religion can be. From my comfy seat in America, looking through my blinders out at the world, I can safely say I feel pretty free in comparison, and that other religions (*ahem* Islam) have gotten a little out of control. But Atwood’s beautiful novel is more like a slap in the face: America, already a so-called Christian nation, is short skip and a hop away from a society mirroring modern-day Iran’s or Afghanistan’s, a society that forbids the interaction between men and women, that “shelters” women with thick cloth and heavy restrictions for their “protection” and “purity,” that uses indoctrination and propaganda to destroy hope, to remove all routes of escape. Atwood’s dystopia is, in the end, much more frightening then the dystopias I grew up with—1984 and Brave New World—because it’s infinitely more possible. …

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

I don't usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

I don’t usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

3. The Devil in the White City by David Larson

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror. …

John Fowles's first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

John Fowles’s first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

2. The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVUCSI, andCriminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well. …

And the winner of the LitBeetle’s Pick of the 2013 is …

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time. …

A special runner up mention goes to …

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan's beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan’s beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So I didn’t technically review this book, but I spent the better part of the first quarter of 2013 rereading Robert Jordan’s modern classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, which culminated in this joint effort with author Brandon Sanderson. A Memory of Light ended a fourteen-book series and what was, for a lot of fantasy readers, an era of genre bliss. The Wheel of Time was my escapism from the minor horrors of high school, and A Memory of Light was a fitting end.

It would be a mistake to say I’m not obsessed with morbid mystery novels. I am. Just going to come right out and say it. Gillian Flynn’s novel goes above and beyond, taking morbidity to high entertainment. I won’t say Gone Girl is great “Literature,” but I enjoyed it the most out of all the books I read this year, and I think it will stand up to the test of time.

I can’t wait to read another several dozen books next year! Thanks, again, to all my followers who tagged along with me on my silly adventures through literature (and not-literature)! Send me book recommendations and help me make 2014 a more exciting year for books than 2013!

The Complete List

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

The Collector by John Fowles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North (and Shakespeare)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Vurt by Jeff Noon

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Stranger by Albert Camus

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts

A Lifetime by Morris Fenris

Underground by Haruki Murakami

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict

A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

City of Glass by Paul Auster

Ghosts by Paul Auster

The Locked Room by Paul Auster

Suicide Game by Haidji

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

On “Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985”

29 Aug
Pu

Edited and introduced by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin, and published by Princeton University Press. Make sure to grab a copy.

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites.

I almost fainted when I was contacted by Princeton University Press to do a review on this collection–the first collection in English, and translated by the wonderful Martin McLaughlin–and when it came in the mail a few days ago, I almost fainted again. It’s a hefty book: 640 pages (534 are his letters) of content and end notes, plus a wonderful introduction by editor Michael Wood. There’s something weighty, too, about reading one of your favorite author’s personal correspondences. It’s at once the guiltiest read, the most pleasurable voyeurism, and the highest praise (aside from imitation, of course). Reading Calvino’s letters humanizes him (he gets excited about buying a new pen!) and deifies him:

“The poet turns in on himself, tries to pin down what he has seen and felt, then pulls it out so that others can understand it.” (May 11, 1942)

Calvino wrote this in a letter to his peer, Eugenio Scalfari … when Calvino was a 19-year-old school boy. This is not a new concept. Calvino wasn’t coining anything profound here. But the confidence and grace and terseness with which he writes as a teenager (as well as the reader’s gift of hindsight) augurs his rise to literary stardom.

In another life, Tony Danza plays Calvino in the biopic directed by William Dear.... *shudder*

In another life, Tony Danza portrays Calvino in the biopic (but the later years are played by Rowan Atkinson) and it will be directed by William Dear… *shudder*

Wood captures the letters that map out Calvino’s political life, from his school days writing articles for L’Unita, through his fervent Communism, into his nearly ex-patriot days of his seniority. I’m not really a political person (what does that even mean???), and this type of sincere Communism–the purer, Marxist Communism–is of another time. Instead, the beginning of his life inspires me to get published. The middle of his life inspires me to resign from the Italian Communist Party. The close of his life inspires me to return to academia for a master’s in comparative literature (and because I’m not comfortable with how small my debt to the US government is).

The collection begins with a romping, joshing letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari, dated December 16, 1941, in which Calvino pretends himself to be an angel and cajoles Eugenio into visiting him in San Remo, and it ends by citing Erwin Schrodinger in a letter to Primo Levi, dated April 30, 1985. The citation was from one of Schrodinger’s lectures in which he “anticipated the concept of ‘genetic code,’ seeing it as analogous to Morse code.” So appropriate from the man who wrote in one letter, “I see art as communication.” He tackles theater (“Then there’s Chekhov. You say he’s not relevant and I get mad.”); film (“I’m for Federico.“); and, of course, politics. But I came for the insights into his own writing and his literary criticism. I didn’t realize I was coming to the snail-mail version of demolition derby. Calvino knows how to dish it out, and not even (or maybe especially) his closest friends are exempt from his harsh feedback. I can only imagine that if he were some liberal arts school’s creative writing instructive, he’d have everyone either pissing themselves or sobbing. What this collection shows, though, is whether through his now-classic fiction or his letters to friends and colleagues, Calvino valued the conveying of information, with beauty and brevity, above all else.

He was born in Cuba, but he claimed he was from San Remo. And he was. His hand motion in this picture proves how Italian he is.

He was born in Cuba, but he claimed he was from San Remo. And he was. His hand motion in this picture proves how Italian he is.

After the war, Calvino jumped into his long career as an editor. He immersed himself in his work, fearful (as many writers are) of the “immaculate sheets of paper” waiting for him at his own desk. In fact, Calvino would go for long stretches without writing and didn’t even want to write novels in the first place. He was fond of short stories. He thought them neat and square–every letter and element absolutely necessary to the coherence of the piece.

“My stories are full of facts, they have a beginning and an end. For that reason they will never be able to find success with the critics, nor occupy a place in contemporary literature.” (May 10, 1942)

Yet his novels sold. And his novels made him the preeminent writer of Italy and the champion of the fabulist genre. In many letters, Calvino describes how difficult the writing process is for him. He tries to avoid it at every step. Maybe his letter to writer Raffaello Brignetti gives us a hint as to why:

“It is impossible to write about anything except what one has lived through for years and years and which far from amusing and interesting us has bored us and made us suffer.” (June 11, 1953)

It turns out Calvino just writes about boring, painful things. How, then, does he produce such beautiful prose, and more so such singular narratives? You will need to purchase his Letters to find out for yourself, and then purchase all of his works, and then read some biographies, and maybe you’ll get some hints, but for now, here are a few other excerpts on his process.

“For me … writing has always meant setting out in one direciton, staking everything on one card, yet with the awarenses that there are others, the awareness of risk and of not being able to exhaust all I have to say.” (March 2, 1950)

“In short, what I tend toward, the only thing I would like to be able to teach is a way of looking, in other words a way of being in the world. In the end literature cannot teach anything else.” (December 10, 1960)

“It is no accident that I’ve gone to live in a big city where I know nobody and no one knows I exist. In this way I have been able to realize a kind of existence which was at least one of the many existences I had always dreamt of: I spend twelve hours a day reading, on most days of the year.” (February 7, 1973)

Maybe this last quote is his true secret: Calvino developed a style and structure different from anyone else, and yet above all he was a reader. So read on, all you hopeful authors! Read everything by everyone from everywhere, and maybe one day Princeton will collect your letters. (After all, do authors write letters any more? What will the editors collect from this generation? Neil Gaiman tweets? Don DeLillo’s emails, collected and introduced by the NSA?)

Famous New York Books contributor David Levine published this depiction of Calvino on June 25, 1981.

Famous “New York Review of Books” illustrator David Levine published this depiction of Calvino on June 25, 1981.

For more reading of Calvino’s outright brilliance, check out this “Paris Review” article and interview from William Weaver, probably the most well-known English translator of Calvino’s works, and Damian Pettigrew, the Canadian filmmaker, author, and artist.

Writers write what they can. The act of writing is a function that becomes effective only if it allows one to express one’s inner self. A writer feels several kinds of constraints—literary constraints such as the number of lines in a sonnet or the rules of classical tragedy. These are part of the structure of the work within which the personality of the writer is free to express itself. But then there are social constraints such as religious, ethical, philosophical, and political duties. These cannot be imposed directly on the work but must be filtered through the writer’s inner self. Only if they are part of the innermost personality of the writer can they find their place in the work without suffocating it.

Happy reading, everyone!

"Escher vibed Italo Calvino" from Debut Art.

“Escher vibed Italo Calvino” from Debut Art.

On Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” (and Relocation to a New/Old Town)

4 Jun

It finally happened. After four years of self-imposed exile from the West (Best) Coast and a six-hour, non-stop flight (that I spent worrying my poor, poor baby cat would suffocate) from Boston Logan to Sea-Tac International, I have finally returned to Seattle, my true home. Never mind having been born beneath the smoggy, salty skies of Los Angeles. Never mind the eleven years I spent twiddling my thumbs in the arid high deserts of Eastern Oregon. This gloomy, passive-aggressive, over-educated, under-socialized Emerald City is my home.

Almost dropped my phone off the Ballard Bridge taking this, so you all better appreciate it.

Almost dropped my phone off the Ballard Bridge taking this, so you all better appreciate it.

Nothing makes Seattle more my home than the attachments I formed over its bookstores: I live about a football throw (and that’s my throw, and even though I have a mean spiral, it’s only a mean spiral for about 20 yards) from Mercer Street Books; the famous and tragically relocated Elliott Bay Book Company; Third Place Books; Queen Anne Book Company; Capitol Hill’s Twice Sold Tales; and the uncountable Goodwills, Value Villages, and Half Price Books.

But the one that takes the cake, the one that cradled me through the terrors and trials of my college years, the one I would have to killed to work in–Ophelia’s.

I don't think I have ever walked out of this store without a newly purchased old book in my hands. (Photo from Yelp)

I don’t think I have ever walked out of this store without a newly purchased old book in my hands. (Photo from Yelp)

Besides the books and their stores, there are the tiny things–the ways strangers like to nod at each other but never speak, or the way I can stand at a certain corner in Fremont and simultaneously smell Thai food and hamburgers and pho and Greek food and pie, the way people use their bicycles and the buses, the way a young man in flannel can stand so close to an older woman dressed for the theatre and they board the same bus and go to the same place and see the same things. These tiny things remind me of me and the way I was me four years ago. I’m still not sure if I love Seattle as it is love it as I remember it.

I returned to a city full of old selves and nostalgia. I must constantly remind myself to look for the new city. I look around me and see signs: everything represents something as it was. “There was this one time that I … .”

The more I move, city of desire to city of desire, the more I understand Basho’s poem:

Even in Kyoto–

Hearing the cuckoo’s cry–

I long for Kyoto.

It happens to be a poem I tattooed on myself. At the time I let a strange bald man stick me with a needle and make it a permanent part of my skin, I thought I understood it. I was a transient child and was always returning places. I still feel transient, and this poem becomes truer to me by the day.

ARE YOU JEALOUS OF MY AWESOME BOOK? Good.

ARE YOU JEALOUS OF MY AWESOME BOOK? Good.

And here’s where this post actually becomes a book review. On my second full day in this city of memories, I made an epic journey across the road to Mercer Street Books and made probably the third most important purchase of my adult life: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In this novel, Marco Polo finds himself lingering in the court of Kublai Khan, telling and retelling details of all the cities he traveled to and through and around and under during his escapades. The Khan listens to Polo tell him of all the cities in his empire that he will never see and never know: like Hypatia, a city of signs, or the trading city of Chloe, or Leadra, the city of two gods, and Eusapia, where the city of the dead slowly reconstructs the city of the living.

Each of the cities Polo relates has its own personality, desires, births, deaths, and it becomes obvious some exist outside the scope of time or plausibility. As Polo’s cities become more fantastical–places where the dead live fuller lives than the living, places where all cities are mirrored in the stars or the lake or the piles of refuse and decay–the Great Khan’s musings become more fantasticaly introspective. Or maybe the Khan’s introspection builds/destroys Polo’s fantastical cities …

imagesThis short novel is saturated with Calvino’s customary musings, too intense for a brief reading. The book is only 165 pages long, but it’s rich like steak, and I can’t handle more than a few bites at a time, and every line written is a line about my Seattle, a line about Marco Polo’s Venice and Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Gertrude Stein’s Paris. Khan asks Polo why he hasn’t heard the merchant talk about Venice. Polo replies:

Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. … Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.

Calvino is just one of those writers that make me think to myself, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” at every phrase. “Oh, jeepers! Italo and I are, like, twin souls! We’re exactly the same!” I’m sitting here furiously writing down quotes into my little journal and find out I’m just rewriting the whole novel. Calvino can do this, though. He has the talent and the breadth of experience to know what cities are to human beings. His Kublai Khan is trying to understand the empire he’s conquered through another man’s memories of cities. Polo valiantly tries to describe what every and no city is through those memories, and as Calvino knows, “Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”

I know, as I reread it and reread it, Invisible Cities will become one of my favorites through all time. It’s language and its cities are my language and cities, and yet I reach the end thinking I understand nothing. This is the way I want books to leave me.