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.

Some books that you may not have heard of or perhaps didn’t know were good book

10866233The second part of wrapping up my year’s reading is talking about all the books that were a surprise to me: the favorites that came out of nowhere. In many cases, these books were only a surprise to me, since some of them (most of them) were actually bestsellers within their categories. But still, you probably haven’t heard of lots of them, so whatevs, I will claim credit for discovering them.

Mentor by Tom Grimes – Fantastic book. One of the best writer memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s about a writing professor who made a big splash with his debut novel and then sold a much-hyped follow-up, but who never quite lived up to his initial promise. Here he charts both the decline of his career and the progression of his friendship with the famed director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop: Frank Conroy. This book is honest and sad but also very alive. I’ve never read anything else like it.

Friendship by Emily Gould – The internet loves to hate on Emily Gould. In fact, this summer some dude published a twelve thousand word article about how terrible she is. And yes, I can sort of see how someone might be annoyed by her article about blowing through a 160k book advance or the blog post about negotiating down her credit card debt. But I thought this novel was fantastic. I stayed up all night reading it, and it made me feel emotions. It’s about two aspiring writers who live in Brooklyn and are best friends and are sort of getting to the place where they want more stability in their lives but they don’t have that stability and they’re having issues with their professions and their personal lives and those issues eventually start to damage their friendship. Great stuff. Very vivid. It’s also about people who’re a lot like me, and that’s part of what I like about it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – A character study. Angel is a working-class girl in early 20th century Britain who decides, one day, that she’s going to write books. And then she does: horrible, schlocky, romance novels that horrify the literary world. And she also has a very brutish, nasty disposition and abuses everyone in her life. But I loved the book and, on some level, I also loved Angel herself. She has such an indomitable will to survive. I suppose she’s a lot like Scarlett O’Hara, but without that veil of flirtatiousness. The section where Angel falls in love is one of the subtlest and most remarkable performances in literature.

The List by Vivian Siobhan – I somehow thought that everyone in the YA world knew about this one, but I was at a lunch with a bunch of other YA writers and they hadn’t heard of it. This book is amazing. One of the two best YA novels I read this year (the other was Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now). The book is about a school where an anonymous prankster releases an annual list of the most beautiful and ugliest girls in each grade. The novel is told from the point of view of the 8 girls named in this year’s list, and it’s a stunning performance. Eight points of view. Eight stories. Four different grades. And each voice is so distinct. I was captivated.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff – This was the year where I read a lot of really good literary memoirs. In this one, Rakoff describes her first year in New York, when she worked for JD Salinger’s literary agent. The ‘hook’ for the memoir is that Rakoff at some point started answering Salinger’s fan-mail. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s really just about being very young and still feeling entranced by the glamor of the literary life and the way that glamor contrasts with the squalid way you need to live if you’re part of that life. Everything in this book, from the agency to the character of Salinger himself, has that dualism: beautiful from one angle, but very lonely and wretched from another.

As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams by the Sarashina woman – A memoir by an anonymous court lady in Heian Japan. Written a thousand years ago, but instantly captivating, from the very first paragraph. Also, a very interesting and calculated document. It is not a diary. It was written as a single, unitary document when the woman was nearing the end of her life. And it’s a sort of ode to the interstices of her life. To the quiet moments. To the romantic moments that never came. To the journeys she took between one place and another. To the times when she was shut up alone and all by herself. She spends maybe three sentences talking about her children and her husband, but goes on for pages upon pages about the man that she met on one rainy autumn day and how he asked her which was her favorite season.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill – In very short vignettes, this chronicles a young writer’s journey into marriage, success, domesticity, motherhood, and divorce. Loved it. Each little paragraph has so much voice. And the picture that develops is so careful and nuanced.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett – The third literary memoir on this list. Novelist Ann Patchett writes about her lifelong friendship with Sarah Lawrence and University of Iowa classmate Lucy Grealey (Lucy was, in turn, famous for writing a memoir about the facial deformity that had rendered her mostly chinless). I loved the portrait of Lucy that develops in this novel. She’s capricious and bitchy, but you also see why Patchett loved her. Also interesting to see the ups and downs of a young writer’s life. Very honest look at the schooling, at the fellowships, and at the financial aspect of the writing life.

As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams, by Sarashina

0140442820.1.zoomYears ago, I read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, and found it to be thoroughly delightful. It’s not quite a diary, more like a series of anecdotes, lessons, and complaints by a courtly woman in Heian Japan and was written in about the 11th century AD. What came out most strongly from the book was just the personality of the writer: short-tempered, irritable, but also charming and perceptive.

Anyway, I recently realized that The Pillow Book was not an isolated document. It was part of a whole genre of Heian-era courtly memoirs. I checked a few out of the library, but the one that caught my eye immediately was the one by an unknown author who’s only known as the Sarashina lady. I mean, look at the first lines of the book:

I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.

This document is also not quite a diary, since it was not written as a daily chronicle. Instead, it was written towards the end of the author’s life, as a sort of memoir. I say “a sort of memoir” because it’s actually quite strange. The book spends pages upon pages talking about a man who she met on a rainy day and discussed trivialities with…but mentions her husband and three children for a total of maybe three sentences.

In fact, that’s most of the book: a succession of pilgrimages, hotels, windy nights, and fragments of poems.

It seems random, but it’s obviously not. The book isn’t a traditional memoir. It’s not about doings. Instead, it’s more like a novel. It’s about a person’s emotional development. This is a woman who was obviously very sensitive. A woman who, from the very earliest part of her life, had a strong sense of what was right and beautiful. For instance, she rights of her recurring fantasy, during her teen years, that a man would come along and shut her up in a distant tower and then visit her for only one day a year, and leave her, the rest of the time, to walk alone along the windy battlements. Which is a beautiful image (partially derived from the Tale of Genji) but also a bit perverse.

And the book is about how that person–the girl who dreamed that dream–survived and changed throughout a lifetime that didn’t really include very much that was beautiful or Romantic.

I find that most ancient documents (at least those that are in prose) don’t have the virtues of modern literature. They don’t describe sights and sounds and smells and emotions. They’re about great doings or adventures or amusing incidents. Only in ancient Japanese literature, really, is there that fine-grainedness to the perceptions that strikes me as very modern. I highly recommend this book. It’s also really short, maybe 80 pages long.