I knew these books were going to be good before I read them, and I was right.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – It’s surprising how little personality David Copperfield (the character) actually has. The entire book is fairly episodic, and the only real throughline is David Copperfield’s involvement with each episode and character, but it’s not easy to get a grip on Copperfield’s character. It’s hard to say anything about what kind of person he is. In fact, when Copperfield becomes a novelist (about 2/3rds of the way through the novel), it kind of comes as a surprise, because there had never seemed to be anything of the artist about him. Still, this book ultimately succeeds because of David Copperfield’s narrative voice. There’s something very kind and worldly wise about him. The book is filled with memorable caricatures: the penurious Mr. Micawber; the scolding Betsey Trotwood; and David’s first wife, the silly Dora. But they only come alive under the kindness of Copperfield’s tone, which is really just a distilled version of Dickens’ overall narrative outlook. Under a harsher gaze, the characters all would’ve seemed like scoundrels and fools, but the virtue of this book is that, even though it’s about really harsh stuff like being an orphan and losing your home and having to work in a bottle factory, it never descends into horror.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson – I’m not sure why Shirley Jackson has become so indelibly associated with speculative horror (other than the vaguely fantastic nature of the short story “The Lottery”), since her work doesn’t seem notably stranger than other writers of grotesques, like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner. Still, regardless of genre distinctions, I really like her two novels (both this one and The Haunting Of Hill House). Both her novels start off very nice, and then become terrifying, particularly this one. Her talent is developing situations that you really care about—families and communities that seem like they should continue on in merry eternity—before brutally destroying them.
Burmese Days by George Orwell– This is kind of a speculative novel. It’s what George Orwell imagined his life would’ve become if he had never left the Burmese Civil Service. It’s a naturalistic novel about an 40 year old civil servant who’s living a life of quiet desperation: he’s hated by the natives and by his fellow civil servants alike. The novel is filled with Orwell’s eye for detail with his satirical powers. I really have no idea how Orwell does what he does. Every page of this novel so sharp, and all his character portraits are so clear and severe.
Just Kids by Patti Smith – Patti Smith’s memoir about rollicking around in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe when she was in her twenties got a huge amount of favorable press coverage when it came out last year. I think this is because book critics are huge nerds, and they really love it when they get to interview rock stars (although I am still not quite sure how much of a rock star Patti Smith is, I’d never heard her music before reading this book). Still, if you love stories about 23 year old bohemians, then you cannot dislike this book.
In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck – I think this is the fourth book I read this year that had a strike in it (the others were Germinal, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Jungle). But this one was the best of the lot. In it, a (Communist) Party organizer goes out to California’s central valley to foment a fruit-picker’s strike. It’s almost a documentary novel, it’s all about the give and take of the strike: the tactics, shifting movements, and compromises. There’s a lot of fire in this novel, but also a lot of loss. Probably a better strike novel than any of the others, because it’s not heroic, but that also makes it kind of disquieting at times. Steinbeck was really schizophrenic. It’s so strange that the person who wrote novels like this and Grapes Of Wrath could also write novels that idealize working class life in the way that Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat did.