Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

I feel great, like extremely good. It’s unaccountable, since I’ve felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can’t explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren’t a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it’s kind of like, well you’ve just got to stick with this. But really it’s not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, “Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn’t get far…maybe I’ll try again.”

To which I’m like, “No! What’re you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn’t effortless, then don’t force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it.”

So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what’re some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it’s easy to read, but that’s because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we’ve been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff’s Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.

Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I’ve read something like twenty books by him. But he’s frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn’t have that problem. It’s a hundred thousand words long–relatively compact, by Trollope standards–and the plot also isn’t quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who’s slowly going broke and/or a woman who’s married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it’s about the warden of church-run old folk’s home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It’s essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you’re like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except…he also really doesn’t do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it’s a great first introduction to Trollope.

So that’s five novels that are marvelous from page one. What’s a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I’m going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It’s like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn’t finish it.

And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I’ll choose…Dangerous Liaisons? That’s an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It’s an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it’s witty and brilliantly structured. I’ve looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.

You know what, I’m gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it’s romp. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read: it’s the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I’d say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I’d relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I’d be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like “Cow dying on a bridge.” It’s really dumb, and potentially racist? It’s hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Other readable classics…hmm…Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It’s actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don’t care for the philosophy.

Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it’d be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn’t limited myself to before 1900 there would’ve been more women, I swear). But although their works aren’t quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There’s something about the way she plays with time that’s really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.

Books I read this year which I really did not enjoy as much as I would have wanted to

beach26I usually don’t really do negative reviews, but once a year I make an exception, so I can list some of the books that frustrated and annoyed me.

Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas – I read this right after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which might’ve been a mistake, since this is a very different sort of book. Where Monte Cristo has a very focused narrative and a strong throughline, Three Musketeers is just a set of loosely connected incidents that I, in most cases, found rather dull. Maybe this was just because none of the characters really charmed me; they all seemed insubstantial and foolish. I got 2/3rds of the way through the book before abandoning it.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I abandoned this one about 20% of the way through. I’ve read lots of books by Dostoyevsky, but nothing in the last three years. Maybe I’ve just outgrown him, or maybe this wasn’t his finest. I really just couldn’t get into it. None of it seemed at all alive.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Oh my god, this book was so boring. At the time, I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it because that was the only way to get through it, but in retrospect I find nothing in it that was redeeming. It’s a history about a fascinating figure and a fascinating time…but it doesn’t include any of the actual fascinating stuff about that time. Rather, all the good stuff takes place off-stage, and all that you see is a lot of waffling about and misdirection.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I had to read this for class, and I hated it, which is weird, because I love Edith Wharton. She is a fantastic writer: subtle and thrilling and full of interesting characters. But this novella had none of those things. It was a big lumbering Gothic horror story about doomed love. Which, in my opinion, doesn’t really play to Wharton’s strengths. I have no idea why they teach this. I suspect that it’s simply because the book is short and teachers are always looking for things that students can read in a week. However, that is not a sufficient explanation: Wharton is famed for her novella-length work, and I think that something like The Touchstone is much better and more representative look of her virtues.

Antifragile by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – I forget how far I got into this, but I couldn’t finish it. I loved The Black Swan. It was a brilliant and eye-opening book. But even in that book, Taleb’s posturing got on my nerves. In this one, the posturing has been dialed up to eleven. It’s absolutely unbearable, especially in a book that’s as light on content as this one.

Mercedes Lackey – I tried to reread several books by Mercedes Lackey and just couldn’t do it. The writing is terrible.

Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Halliday – Oh my god, this book has zero content. Do not buy it.

The Annales by Tacitus – Do you really care which general invaded which Germanic province in which year of Nero’s reign? No. Nobody does. What put the boringness of Tacitus into such stark relief was that immediately afterward I read Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which covered exactly the same years, but was much more fun and personality-driven.

Ten books I read this year which are exactly as good as you think they are

count-of-monte-cristoNormally, I divide my year-end book list into two categories: books that are as good as you think they are and books that are surprisingly good. I do this just because it’d feel weird if I stood up and was like, “Hey, I read this amazing book. It’s called Anna Karenina! Have you heard of it?!?!” However, I do think there’s value in noting which classics / much-hyped books are actually worthwhile.

Anyway, the nine predictably-good books I chose to highlight for 2014 are as follows. All links are links to my original blog posts about those books.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas – One of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Some people on Twitter said they thought it started to drag somewhere in the middle, but not for me, I was on tenterhooks the whole time. The Count Of Monte Cristo is driven by a very simple engine. Basically, you get introduced to the families of the main villains, and then you see the count begin to ingratiate himself with them. But all the villains’ relatives turn out to be relatively cool kids, and you’re like “Oh no, is the Count actually going to revenge himself on them?” And you just don’t know. Because the Count is, maybe, just crazy enough to destroy the lives of innocent people in order to get back at their fathers. The book is incredibly long, but it’s one of the few books that I wished was longer. (Here are my original blog posts about it)

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos – My other favorite novel of 2014. I can’t get over the fact that this book was actually written in the 18th century. Its heroes are so unspeakably villainous (they’re French aristocrats who plot to despoil a virtuous woman) that they’re shocking even by today’s standards. However, the real fun of the novel comes from its incredibly intricate construction. It’s an epistolary novel where each letter is, itself, a plot point. The receipt of one letter triggers the sending of another letter. And when letters get intercepted or forwarded or stolen, things get even knottier. It really puts you in scene: you realize that each letter is not only being written by someone; it’s also being read by someone.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov – Ivan Oblomov is a 19th-century Russian nobleman who’s completely useless. He doesn’t even get out of bed for the first 200 pages. In the end, I think Oblomov ends up being a character who almost escapes his author’s control. I think he’s meant to be a pitiful figure: an object of satire; or perhaps an allegory for the schlerotic condition of the Russian state. But he ends up being much more than that. There’s something very sympathetic about a man who refuses to undertake distasteful activities.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – Can’t believe it’s only been a year since I read the first book in this series. Since then, I’ve read both the sequel and the final book, so I can state, for the first time in a long time, that I’ve read a series to completion. None of the books, though, are more worthwhile than the first book. There’s something very dreamy and beautiful about it. It’s one of the few books that manages to interrogate the unsavory parts of fantasy wish-fulfilment novels…while simultaneously being a fantasy wish fulfillment novel that evokes all those escapist feelings in the reader. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, has drawn a lot of flak for being arrogant and self-absorbed, but I found him very sympathetic. Maybe because I saw a lot of myself in him.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata – I don’t think I wrote about this book when I first read it, though I can’t think why. It’s an extremely simple novel: a writer goes into the city to see a woman with whom he engaged in an adulterous affair when she was just a schoolgirl. Afterwards, he wrote a novel about her which became something of a success. Nothing much happens in the book. He just wanders around, looks at cherry blossoms, and talks to her. But you feel the, err, well, the beauty and the, like, the sadness and stuff.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee – Another book about terrible people: a Wall Street banker and his wife. I think the book is meant to be more sociological in nature: there’s lavish detail of how they live; their social set; how they spend their time. You keep expecting something to go dreadfully wrong, but it never quite does. The ending does go off the rails a little bit, but whatever. I enjoyed this book so much that I can’t even quantify it. First of all, these people had a passionate, but mature, love for each other: the kind of thing you rarely see in literature. Second of all, they’re just so brilliantly alive. Even at their worst, they never succumb to ennui and inertia. Also, in my opinion, the first chapter (their wedding) is beautiful and subtle and touching in a way that I’ve rarely seen done: you see all of the young couples’ petty rivalries and spites and disappointments…and then you see how their marriage manages to transcend those things.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (second post) – This book actually explains how they made the atomic bomb. It explains it on every level, from the theoretical to the technical to the organizational. I’ve never seen anything like it. The most amazing thing is that the first third (of this very long book) has all of this detail on theoretical physics that seems like it’s a bit too much…but then all of that stuff becomes very relevant in the rest of the book. After reading it, I finally understood how and why building the bomb was such a massive operation.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding – This book was written in 1742. Aside from the work of Defoe, this is the oldest English-language novel I’ve ever read. And it made me laugh. Laugh out loud. Multiple times. Sometimes multiple times per chapter. Just think about that. The humor of this book is not just translatable across more than 270 years…but it also comes across so clearly and instantaneously that it can make a modern person laugh. The middle, where Tom is traveling, does kind of drag a bit. But the end, where he becomes part of London society, is really good. I also think the characterization of Tom is very subtle. He’s not exactly the steadfast and constant Romantic hero that he thinks he is. He’s a bit of a knave. But his heart is in the right place.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf – I’m sure we all kind of know that our beauty standards are socially-constructed, but we’re so much in the grip of them that it’s hard to really understand that the things we see when we look at another person are the things we’re being made to see. The most valuable thing Wolf does is put our beauty standards in their historical context. According to her, it was not as important, before the 1970s, for women to be beautiful. She argues, somewhat convincingly, that the depth of our modern anxiety over beauty is something new.


It’s hard to describe the appeal of THE THREE MUSKETEERS

7190The appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo is simple: it’s an awesomely epic story. Every contour of it is just so outsized. The draconian punishment that’s inflicted on the Count for no reason; the tiny little missteps that seal his fate; the length and horror of his imprisonmnent; the size of his eventual fortune; the magnitude of his revenge.

Now, though, I am reading The Three Musketeers and enjoying it, but it does feel like a much smaller novel than The Count of Monte Cristo. Not just in length (though it is half the size), but in terms of scale and focus. Even though TTM deals with events of geopolitical importance (the conflict between the King of France and his first minister), nothing seems that serious. I mean, if all this stuff was a big deal, the musketeers probably wouldn’t be constantly getting drunk and fighting random duels and bollixing stuff up, right?

I think that most novels, not just adventure novels, succeed or fail on the basis of the world that they create. For instance, Tom Jones, which I just finished reading, had such a fascinating view of morality. The hero, Tom, was in TWUE WUV with his neighbor, Sophia, but he still can’t help cheating on her constantly. And all of his servants can’t help betraying him or stealing from him. And Sophia’s father can’t help brutalizing her. Everybody has remarkably good intentions, but they’re all slipping up constantly. Which is a different view of morality than most books present. In most books, your actions are a reflection of your essential character. If you steal from your benefactor, then that’s a reflection of some deep flaw inside you or within your relationship. But not in Tom Jones!

And it’s seeing people operate inside that world which is interesting.

Similarly, TTM builds a great world: you’ve got these drunken, oafish musketeers rumbling around Paris trying to uphold the honor of the king against the polished, spit-shined Guards of the Cardinal. And you’ve got D’Artagnan running around in the midst of it, not understanding what’s happening, but somehow very attracted, on an aesthetic level, to these musketeers.

Incidentally, I think that’s why lots of modern adventure novels fail. They think that what they need is to tell a new story in an old setting: their authors want to write what is, in essence, the further adventures of the three musketeers or the further adventures of Horatio Hornblower. When really what they need is to breathe to life a setting that feels as vivid as the ones that actuated the classics that they loved.

On a sidenote, there’s a translation of TTM by my favorite translator of Russian novels, Richard Pevear (well, half of my fave translator, since he translates the Russians in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky but he did TTM alone) and that was obviously the translation that I defaulted to. However, there is something really wonky about his translation of the book. For instance, on p21 Pevear writes:

…few gentlemen could lay claim to the epithet “faithful.” …Treville was one of the latter; he was one of those rare organizations…who had been given eyes only in order to see if the king was displeased with someone…

My eyes stumbled over that puzzler and I re-read it, trying to figure out what he meant by ‘rare organizations.’ And finally I went and bought a different translation, the Modern Library translation, which translates that same passage as:

…but few gentlemen could boast that of loyal, which constituted the first. Tréville was of this small group, and high among them for the rare combination of virtues that were his. Quick of eye and prompt of hand, he seemed to have been endowed with sight only to discern who displeased the King…

Which makes sense. I mean, come on, Dumas is not the most masterful prose stylist in the world. When you translate him, you just need to have the result make sense. So I’m reading the ML edition (translated by Jacques Le Clercq) instead. Sorry Richard.


Can’t recommend THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO highly enough

Remember this movie! It was decent. I bet the TCOMC would be be even better as a television series, though.

Whenever someone wants to praise a fantasy or an adventure novel, they’ll talk about the complexity of its characterization and the ambiguity of its morality. Because there is something inherently very suspect about the act of killing or harming people, even when you’re certain that they’re villainous. For one thing, what if you’re wrong? Also, what social good is achieved by killing them? What makes you better than them? Why are you allowed to rise above society’s laws?

In many adventure stories, these problems are elided. My knowledge of superheroes is limited to movies, admittedly, but I’ve never seen Superman worry about whether or not he was doing the right thing by going out and punching people on the street.

But I think the adventure stories that are even worse are the ones that make a nod towards these problems, but don’t dramatize them. For instance, Batman is always taking shit for being a lawless vigilante, but all the people he fights are: a) extremely powerful; b) totally evil; c) fully insane; and d) way beyond the capacity of Gotham’s legal system to punish. Also, Batman claims some moral high ground because he doesn’t use guns, even though, in reality, if you go around punching people really hard and flinging batarangs at them, then you will kill a few.

Generally, though, adventure narratives aren’t like Batman or Superman. Most of them don’t contain easy answers, because that’s just what it means to be good literature. In The Iliad, you have the question of whether this war is worth it, and why exactly the Trojans are going to be destroyed even though they’re so much more noble-minded and civilized than the Greeks. In The Mahabharata, you have the question of why a million people need to die just so that one group of cousins can rule instead of another one. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s the question of what good it did Enkidu to be civilized, and whether he ought not have remained in the wild.

All I’m saying is, it feels a bit passé to say that some work is more morally ambiguous and complex than most adventure narratives, because that’s what good adventure narratives do.

In any case, The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be amazing. The last third is, almost impossibly, even more suspenseful than the first third. And it’s in the last third that you really begin to think about some of the lingering questions of the narrative. Like, does Edmond Dantés deserve to succeed in his quest for revenge?

Because as the novel goes on, the mask starts to slip a little bit, and you begin to see the madness that lurks underneath the Count’s civilized demeanor. You begin to see that he’s willing to kill and betray all the people he’s befriended. And you start to see all the little tics and rituals he’s built up in order to convince himself that what he’s going to do is okay (he’ll bring a man right up to the precipice and tell him to jump…but he won’t push him).

And you start to wonder: Is he going to through with it? Is he really going to destroy all the thoroughly harmless kids and wives and grandparents of the men who betrayed him?

I really have no idea. But only a fifth of the book is left!

(Of course, that fifth is roughly a hundred thousand words long).