Conversational Reading collected five of my favorite reads this year, new or old, a list which wound up hitting Los Angeles, Japan, Mexico City, China, and spanning the mid-1940s to this year:
Despite the excitement he reliably gins up among his readers, Mario Bellatin, the Peruvian-Mexican author of numerous short, unconventional books, has as yet barely entered the English language. Thanks to the young Mexico City-raised, Los Angeles-based poet and translator David Shook, however, the Anglophone world at least has one more of his categorization-resistant works to enjoy. But first, these Anglophone readers must to accept its title character, a 20th-century Japanese author driven by the trauma of his freakishly outsized nose to write esoteric works up to and including a book in a deliberately untranslatable invented language, as neither real nor fictitious. To their credit, both Bellatin, in the Spanish original, and Shook, in the English translation, somehow make the punishingly passive, borderline academic prose that lays out Nagaoka’s chronology entertaining, perhaps as a result of the contrast between the tone of the language and the utterly ridiculous life story it tells. (You can listen to my interview with Shook, conducted this year, here.)
As commercially viable forms go, the writing of place – or, if you prefer, the less accurate but more saleable label of “travel writing” – strikes me as the most versatile disguise for pure essayism. Peter Hessler, currently residing in Cairo but best known for River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving, a trio of books written out of his years spent in China, here collects pieces composed not just in the Middle Kingdom but urban Japan and rural Colorado as well. Most of these, all driven by the vividly described personalities of his local subjects, originally ran in the New Yorker, which clearly hasn’t discarded its penchant for the long-form essay, nor for commissioning observations of parts lesser-known. How heartening it feels to see a fellow compulsive world citizen given an expansive space to practice his craft. (Incidentally, I also interviewed Hessler, and you can read it here.)
Read the whole thing there at Conversational Reading.