Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Three Chinese Poets

There couldn't be a much greater contrast between two of the books I read this week: THREE CHINESE POETS: TRANSLATIONS OF POEMS BY WANG WEI, LAI BI AND DU FU by Vikram Seth and WINTER PREY by John Sandford. Seth's three poets were writing at the time of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. Autumn leaves, the breeze in the pines, moonlight and mountains, peach blossom and bamboo, wood smoke and the sound of running water: these are the images that stay with me. The poems are full of a sense of transience. I read this, because I'm learning Mandarin and, being someone who learns best through sight rather than sound, I want to start getting to grips with Chinese literature. How good Seth's translations are, I can't yet judge. And it may be a very long time before I can!
WINTER PREY I was actually re-reading. I first read this maybe thirteen years ago and it had stayed in my mind - particularly one striking passage. I hadn't been able to put the book down and I wanted to go back and see how he had done it. And yes, it was pretty much as compelling as I'd remembered. He sets the scene - deep winter in Minnesota - brilliantly. And the part I remembered, where the main character, Davenport, is protecting a woman doctor who is almost lured to her death, was still gripping. It is a first-rate crime novel, and yet . . . I also remembered why I only read one or two more in the Prey series and why I have stopped reading novels by one or two other writers whom I used to enjoy. There is an the element of sadistic violence that I find repellent. Some writers seem to feel that they must up the ante by increasing the violence from novel to novel. I think it is a mistake on every level. Something like this has happened to Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series and I have to confess that because they are otherwise so wonderful, these I haven't stopped reading. But I prefer the earlier ones in the series and I really wish he'd tone it down a bit.

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