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.

Watched the recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP

Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN was one of my favorite reads of 2016. It was the first work she ever completed (that we possess a copy of) and was never published in her lifetime. And not only is it awesome, but it’s very un-Austenian. There’s relatively little moralizing. And Lady Susan herself is completely unlike any other Jane Austen character: she’s sly, amoral, and unrepentant.

They recently made a movie adaptation of this novella! It came out last year! It’s called LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP. I watched the movie just now, and I liked it quite a lot. The movie really attempts to capture the slyness of the original. It doesn’t go for laugh-out-loud comedy: everything has a more mordant air. The problem is, in large part, the acting. Oftentimes, characters are trying to be sly, but they come off as vacant. You’re like, “Do they get it? Do they want us to get it? What’s happening here?”

Eventually though people seem to get onto the same page, and the movie settles down into this maneuvering between Lady Susan, her daughter, and Lady Susan’s sister-in-law. And it’s great. Also Chloe Sevigny is in it as Lady Susan’s equally amoral, but slightly better-situated, American friend. The movie is 90 minutes long. Stick it out when it comes to the first thirty of those minutes. When it starts to get going, it really gets going. Usually this isn’t true of movies, which are shot out of sequence, but in some ways the movie felt like a play: the actors eventually got warmed up and got into their roles and everything felt much more natural.

Actually I think the biggest problem is the male romantic lead, who had zero personality. And no chemistry with Lady Susan! You’re like, why does he even think himself to be in love with her? What’s going on here? Ay mi. Anyway, it’s worth a watch. And it’s free on Prime.

WRAP UP SEASON 2016: The ten books I liked best this year

The-Lover-by-Marguerite-Duras-Book-Cover

This year’s been a good one for reading. I started it out as part of the jury for an award, which consumed my reading for the first few months. Then I got kind of depressed and couldn’t really read anything: I just had no taste for books anymore. But somehow Proust was the only thing I could still enjoy, so I read all of In Search of Lost Time, and it was amazing! Even better than the first time! Whereas during my first read, I’d sometimes needed to fight my way through the books, with this one that only rarely occurred (except during the fifth and sixth volumes, where there’s a distinct sense of repetition). I’ve posted about Proust at length on this blog, so I won’t discuss it too much here. This time I had more interest in his descriptions of walks and subtle psychological states, but to me the series is still, at its core, a novel of manners. This about the complex relationships of a very tiny segment of society: the highly-fashionable people of Paris, and the social climbers who want to be part of that set. The novel starts on the edges, by showing you Swann, who’s an interloper who made his way into the center of society. Then it circles back around and nibbles its way around the edges. In the second book, Marcel lives in an apartment bloc owned by the leader of fashionable society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. He attempts to know them and is rebuffed. But he gets in through a side door because of his grandmother’s friendship with a distant relative, the Mme de Villeparisis. Who in turn introduces him to a scion of the house: Robert de Saint Loup.

And so he spends three books circling through these characters, showing them to us in all their complicated relations with each other. Then he turns everything on its head, introducing the passage of time. Suddenly the Fauborg St. Germain we know begins to change. People who were on the outskirts are now working their way into the center. The catalyst is the Dreyfus Affair, which tore apart French society for reasons I still can’t quite understand. Somehow support for Dreyfus became identified with opposition to the nobility and the church and all things traditional, and the Fauborg, in order to shore itself up, starts admitting certain people, so long as they are very anti-Dreyfus.

Then the wheel turns again, and we’re suddenly after the Dreyfus affair, but things are different. The Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes are sadly changed. Mme de Villeparisis is dead. Robert de Saint Loup is fallen. Swann’s widow, who everyone once decried as a prostitute, is at the top of the social heap. And the terrible bourgeois, Mme Verdurin, runs her own highly fashionable salon.

The whole work is an attempt to span time. To catch it, and make us understand its passing in ways we wouldn’t otherwise: not just as the aging of individual people, but also as the destruction and construction of entire systems of relation.

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, and then I did, for five hundred words. Sigh.

This year I also read a lot of Anthony Trollope. I read all the novels in his Palliser series. Each one is easily 300-400k long, so that makes something like two million words of it. And the series is so fucking good! It’s all about people falling in and out of love in 19th century Britain (like all Trollope novels), but these people are also Members of Parliament, and Cabinet Secretaries, and, sometimes, Prime Ministers.

In this series, Trollope is at his most realistic. He shows us what can happen to people: the ways they can be twisted and destroyed. He shows us the ways that character matters, not just in national affairs, but especially when it comes to those we are closest to. And you don’t come out with easy answers. In one book, he’ll seem to say one thing is right (you should always cleave to your husband, for instance), and in another book you’ll have a situation wherein that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The first novel in the series is fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. Three years ago, I got a hundred pages into it, and then threw it away because I was so bored. This time I was riveted throughout. The political element doesn’t get introduced until halfway through the volume, so wait for it. The best books, though, are the fifth and sixth. Here everything starts to pay off. You have these two characters, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora, and it’s such a delight to see them grow up and change. Neither is perfect. Neither is quite a hero. Plantagenet is too stern and unwavering (he becomes Prime Minister and then messes everything up). And his wife really doesn’t have very good judgement (even as a matron and mother of adult children, she’s getting into weird and poorly-thought-out schemes). But they’re both strong-willed and good-hearted. Highly recommend.

The absolute best book I read this year was Emma Cline’s The Girls. The language in the book is fantastic. Few authors are truly able to create novel combinations of words. Cline actually manages to put things in such a way that you’re like: A) That’s beautiful; and B) I can now see this thing in a new light. Not to mention the story itself is pretty good! I mean it’s a little sensationalistic for my tastes; I didn’t love the whole Manson murders aspect. But I liked the bildungsroman hidden inside, and I think the ending is perfect. I can’t recommend this book enough. It ought to win the Pulitzer Prize. The only other writer who I can compare Cline to, on a sentence by sentence level, is Virginia Woolf. She’s that good.

Otherwise, I have the usual grab bag of books I loved. The latest on my list was added only yesterday. Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is her earliest complete work. It wasn’t even published during her lifetime. It’s also fantastic, and, in my opinion, significantly better than a couple of her novels. You’ve never read a Jane Austen character like Lady Susan: she’s an amoral schemer who sort of gets away with her schemes! And the whole thing is told in letters too, so you can see her sly asides right alongside the confusion of the people she’s trying to fool. You can read this book in like two hours, and you should.

For the last few months my friend and fellow writer Erin Summerill has been sending me romance novel recommendations, and I have faithfully read all of them. Most are or were initially self-published, and most are mega-bestsellers. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is also the creepiest: On The Island, by Tracy Garvis-Graves, is about a thirty year old woman stranded on an island, after a plane crash, with her sixteen year old pupil. Yeah. They don’t hook up until after he turns nineteen, but that’s still pretty sketchy!

And yet despite all of that, the book is so visceral. The struggle to survive is so immediate that you forget about the age stuff. These are just two different people trying to stay alive for another day. And the age gap serves an important purpose: it keeps them apart. Without it, they would’ve hooked up on day two: the sexual tension is that deep and simmering.

Umm, what else…I read East of Eden. And it was a very good book, but also a little…perplexing. This is the kind of book that hooks you and keeps you reading, but when you look back on it six months later, you’re like, “Why?”

Oh, The Caine Mutiny! Herman Wouk is one of those writers, like Margaret Mitchell, who were hailed as literary in their own day (his book won the Pulitzer Prize) but now seem to only be real by average people who’re looking for good books (i.e. not critics). The Caine Mutiny is unbelievably complex, though. It does the interesting trick of actually showing you, within the narrative, the situation in which the titular mutiny arose, and then making you see that mutiny in a completely different way when it gets picked apart in the courthouse scenes. In the end, it makes you see how multi-faceted reality is. And in the end you’re left wondering, “Were they right to mutiny? Was Captain Queeg really incompetent?” You’re never quite sure.

I also read Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke and found them both to be extremely worthwhile.

Oh wait! The Girls was NOT the best book I read this year. As I look at my notes, I realize that the best book was actually Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. This is also a book with questionable sexual and racial politics. It’s about a fifteen year old French girl, a colonial in French Indo-China, who has an affair with a Chinese man who’s in his thirties. The book is short and amazing. The narration loops around on itself, threading forward, through World War II and into the narrator’s current life, and then going back into her girlhood. And it’s about a girl coming into her sexual power. Which sounds terrible, I know, but it’s about how double-edged that is. She’s now seen as a sexual being, and that’s enticing to her in some way, but it’s also dangerous. Agh, I explain it all better in my original blog entry about the book.

The only novel on my best-of-the-year list that I haven’t yet mentioned is Henry James’s The Bostonians. It’s really good, but it’s also Henry James, and you have to like that sort of thing. It’s early Henry James though, so it actually does kind of tell a straightforward story! It’s one of his political novels (don’t snicker, he was very political). I thought the novel, particularly the ending, was both brutal and very true.

Okay, so that’s my short-list. If I had to recommend five books you should seriously consider trying to read, they would be, in order: The LoverThe Girls, Lady SusanThe Caine Mutiny, On The Island, and the first Palliser novel Can You Forgive Her?

 

 

Does the world really need another retelling of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

eligible-review-ewRecently listened to Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, which proudly announces itself, on the cover, as a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. This strikes me as something the book is unduly proud of. It hits the notes of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in such a straightforward way, almost as if it feels there’d be some punishment if it deviated too much from the story.

The book is about five sisters, Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, who are the daughters of a Cincinnati blue blood, Mr. Bennett, who has run through his fortune and whose wife, Mrs. Bennett, becomes obsessed with the idea of marrying off her eldest daughter, Jane, to a newly-arrived doctor, and reality TV star, Chip Bingley.

I enjoyed the book. I liked Sittenfeld’s debut, PREP, and I enjoyed PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as well. But throughout the novel I kept asking myself, “Why?”

For what reason does this exist? The characters are so close to what they were in Pride. Mr. Bennett is sarcastic and long-suffering, but fundamentally ineffectual. Mrs. Bennett is silly and frivolous. Liz is moralistic. Kitty and Lydia are shallow. Mr. Darcy, who’s another doctor at the nearby hospital, is principled but ungracious. It’s all the same! So why bother with it?

Sittenfeld is a talented and observant writer, and it was fun to see her map these characters to modern times. Liz, in particular, benefited from the juxtaposition. In PRIDE, Liz thought well of herself but had no reason to. She had sense, but she was still living the same shallow life as her sisters, because nothing else existed for women of her time and class.

In ELIGIBLE, Liz doesn’t get off quite so easily. Although she’s the only sister to support herself (as the writer for a women’s magazine, clearly based on Ms., in New York), there is a certain frivolity and aimlessness to her. And it’s not like those qualities aren’t present in the original source material. Liz was always the witty one. She was always the person who enjoyed the repartee at parties while pretending not to enjoy it. After all, if it wasn’t for that, Wickham could never have been a draw for her. But in Pride and Prejudice, the structure of society forced her into the role of society girl. Here that’s not the case. She could reject all of that, but she doesn’t. Because of that this version of Pride and Prejudice becomes a more personal story: it’s about her growth into a belated adulthood.

In fact, the best part of the book is the middle, when the story morphs suddenly into Cold Comfort Farm. Liz, realizing her family is badly in debt, starts to rapidly fix up the lives of her sisters: pairing off some and forcing others to get real work. Romance falls almost by the wayside as she takes everybody reluctantly to task. I can’t remember if this is part of the original source material, but if it is I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Ultimately, the book was really…fun? I’ve been reading a lot of light domestic fiction lately, and this one felt a lot more lively than most. The characters were better defined and more humorous. But I hesitate to give the book a pass for that, since a part of me wonders if I mightn’t have been better off simply rereading Pride and Prejudice.

In which I unveil the theme for my upcoming year’s reading

I’m in Mumbai right now. Both of my parents grew up here, so it’s kind of the motherland. I’m also still reading Les Miserables. As such, I have no recent books to blog about, so I will instead post scattered thoughts

  • I just renewed my membership in SFWA. I know that when I first qualified for it, I blogged about how I wasn’t sure if it was worth the money, but I think I’ve gotten my $80 worth. It was through SFWA that I got to participate in the Baltimore Book Festival and get profiled by the Baltimore Sun and meet Cat Rambo and Sarah Pinsker and a bunch of cool Baltimore Science Fiction Society guys. And there’ve been a few other interesting opportunities, like the SFWA banquet in New York, that I had to pass up the first time around but will definitely avail myself of in the coming year.
  • I’ve been seeing a bunch of awards recommendation posts lately, and I have to say: I don’t know how anyone manages to vote in the best-novel category. I’ve read exactly three novels that were originally published in 2011: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, and Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman. And, while I enjoyed all of them, I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable nominating any of them for an award—I literally have no idea what books came out in the last year. How many people have actually read more than twenty novels that came out in the last year?
  • Also, why would you want to read so many recent novels? I guess there’s something to be said for being in touch with the zeitgeist, but I can’t help but feel like that would entail reading a lot of mediocre novels.
  • My Daily SF story: “We Planted the Sad Child, and Watched”) is one of 256 stories on Tangent Online’s recommendations for stories published in 2012.
  • I see so much buzz for N.K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed’s novels and I am sure that all of it is well-deserved…but I have no desire to read them. It really is just a prejudice against the format. I don’t think I can ever again read another fantasy trilogy.
  • For that matter, I actually don’t think I’ve read a published secondary-world fantasy novel in years. I guess maybe Nabokov’s Ada? But…er…that doesn’t really count, does it? Nowadays I tend to avoid anything with swords in it. I don’t know why that is: until well into my twenties, I read tons of that stuff. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get back into it eventually.
  • Normally, I give myself a theme for each year, to guide my reading. In 2010, it was Russian Literature. In 2011, it was Proust. And in 2012, it was the Victorians. This year, I considered reading the Modernists but…in the end…I decided to stick with 19th century literature for another year. Sorry everyone, there’s just so much of it and I like it so much. There’s still tons of Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky that I haven’t read. And, honestly, Modernism doesn’t excite me. I am sure I will love it someday, but someday is not today…
  • Other themes I considered:
    • The Ancients – Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, etc.
    • The 18th century – Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift
    • Eastern Classical Novels – The Story of the Stone, Journey To The West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I kind of already made a big start on this one by reading The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book)
    • Medieval and Renaissance Literature – Montaigne’s Essays, Pascal’s Pensees, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Canterbury Tales, etc.
  • But no, I am sticking with the 19th century. Sometimes you just got to go with what makes you happy.
  • I especially want to read more Eliot. The more I think about them, the more Middlemarch and the Mill On The Floss grow in my mind. Those were two truly excellent reading experiences. She doesn’t have the bagginess of so many Victorians: pretty much every page was good. Are any of her other books similarly interesting? I am thinking of reading Daniel Deronda.

In addition to being one of the English language's top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass--all the movies that've been made about Jane Austen's (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.
In addition to being one of the English language’s top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass–all the movies that’ve been made about Jane Austen’s (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

Quick Reactions To Books That Probably Deserve Long Reactions

Okay, so sometimes I feel like I am neglecting this blog. That is not really true, I guess, but I built up quite a lot of posting in March and February, and I am getting slightly more traffic than I used to get, so I kind of feel like I owe it to you folks to post something once in awhile. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and right now what it wants is to unsystematically ramble about the books I’ve read so far in April.

The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss – I am so embarrassed to have read this book. I mean it. I was seriously considering never telling anyone that I had ever read it. It is basically about nerds who form little clubs where they try to scientifically figure out how to pick up women. And I felt compelled to mention it because this book is the most entertaining book ever. It supplants my old most entertaining book ever, which was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (a memoir growing up in a polygamous Mormon splinter sect). Yes, I guess there is something about creepy sexual subcultures that just really appeals to me, nonfiction-wise. I am going to do my best not to explore what that means.

The Game is so amazingly ridiculous that it is hard to believe it could be real. I am convinced that everyone in this book is gay. They are so homosocial. They’re all about just bro’ing out together and forming little cliques and having all this drama with each other. All the heat and sizzle in the book comes from relationships between men. Women are barely a presence at all.

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga – When I originally read this book, around a week ago, I had so much more to say about it. In fact, I realize now that I never wrote about The White Tiger, which I read two months ago and really loved too. Basically, both these books are supreme poverty porn. There is something deliriously intoxicating about how miserable it is possible to be in India. The beauty of Aravind Adiga is that he writes poor characters as if they were rich people transplanted into the lives of poor people. He makes the lot of a Delhi-based driver, who is richer than 75% of Indians, seem like the most miserable thing imaginable. It’s not psychologically accurate, but it is emotionally compelling.

Parallel Lives, Volume III by Plutarch – Classically educated people are huge fakers. You know how, when you read old writers, like Emerson (especially Emerson), they’re always mentioning little anecdotes from the lives of Romans and Greeks that you’ve never heard of. And these anecdotes usually illustrate some sort of moral point? Well those guys had just read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which is a collection of little anecdotes about famous Romans and Greeks that he uses to illustrate moral points.

You know, the novella length is really ideal for biography. I don’t really want to spend 100,000 words learning about some guy, even if he is an awesome guy. But sometimes I do want to know more about a person than I can find in their Wikipedia entry. The length of each of Plutarch’s lives is about perfect (15-20k words). Also, at least in the Project Gutenberg version, each volume focuses on a different part of Greek/Roman history. Volume III was about Alexander’s conquests and about Rome’s Civil Wars. It had a lot of big guys in it: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Cato. I liked it. I know that the right way to learn history is systematically, and not by studying the biographies of great men, but sometimes it’s fun to say ‘Screw that’ and skip straight to the exciting stories and colorful personalities.

Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – There are some authors whose work I really like, but who I never look forward to reading. I really enjoyed Coetzee’s Disgrace when I read it last year. I stayed up and finished it at like 3 AM. But I never even felt tempted to pick up anything else by him. Waiting for the Barbarians is a fantasy novel though! Well, kind of. It’s fantasy without any magic. Or worldbuilding. It’s basically like Kalpa Imperial. It’s about an unnamed magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire that is at war with some pretty generic barbarians. It’s really hard to pin down the appeal of this book. But it is totally captivating.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – I’ve been reading through a number of Wilde’s essays lately, and I was like, “Hmm, I am totally unfamiliar with his artistic work. If it kind of sucks, then it would be somewhat foolish to take seriously these essays about producing art and the nature of art and the awesomeness of being an artist.” So I read some of his plays. This one is amazing. You know how when you read the comedic portions of Shakespeare, you end up being kind of amazed at how quick and clever everything is, but you’re not actually amused because it’s too much work to figure out what is going on and anyway the jokes are in old-timey language so your brain cannot really interpret them as jokes and anyway a lot of the jokes are puns, which don’t really do it for modern audiences anyway? Well, reading this play is what it must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to read one of his comedies. It is that good.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Ever since reading Emma, two years ago, I have steadily read through every single one of Austen’s books (except Pride and Prejudice) without ever being really satisfied with any of them. All of them have bits and pieces of what I liked about Emma (in this case, I found the slow, fitful plotting and some of the dialogue to be to my taste), but none of them have quite done it. I really wanted to like this one just because most people do not like it. But in the end I could not, for exactly the same reason most people can’t. Fanny Price is totally insufferable. What is her deal, seriously? What makes her so much better than everyone else? Also, the novel is severely confused about some things. If Fanny is good because she wasn’t spoiled, then why are her brothers and sisters (who grew up with much less nice stuff than she did) not good as well? Does being rich make you good? Or does being poor make you good? This book is confused. All it can say for certain is that if you put on an amateur theatrical in your house then you are totally beyond-the-pale in terms of your evilness. Oh well, I guess I will finally go read Pride and Prejudice.


The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre – I’ve been reading JLC, but somehow don’t really have anything to say. What book of his should I read next? I’ve only read this one and Call For The Dead (which I almost kind of liked better?)

Methland by Nick Reading – This is a very entertaining book. It’s about meth in small town America. I am fascinated by small towns and the way that they’ve gone, in the national consciousness, from idyllic places to hellish dystopias. But I just need to say one thing. The drug problem is over. Drug use peaked in 1980. Since then we’ve had 30 years of drug use at roughly current levels (went up a little in the 2000’s, but not nearly to 80s levels). What we have now is systemic. And we have learned to live with it. It’s not going to get worse. It’s probably not going to get better. Why do we keep pretending like drugs are something new? They are not. They are not new. They are nothing to get worried about. Oh, another problem that is totally over (briefly touched on in this book) is illegal immigration. Seriously, look at the number of illegal immigrants entering this country. That number has dropped precipitously. And you know why? There are no jobs for them here anymore. There aren’t even any jobs for us. We solved illegal immigration by becoming poor. Also, amphetamines were basically legal in the 40’s and 50’s (in the form of things like Benzedrine inhalers). Cocaine and heroin were legal in the 20s. If the drug problem is merely one of supply and demand, then why were these eras not a hellish, swirling vortex of drug abuse? I think there is a good chance that drug use actually was really high back then*, but since it doesn’t fit into our cultural narratives, we have forgotten about it.

*I mean, Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater was about getting narcotized to all hell way back in 1804. And yet, somehow, we never think of Regency England as high-tide for druggies (The reason Mr. Darcy was a jerk was probably because he was in withdrawal)

A Jane Austen novel that enlightened me as to the curious joys of the non-masterpiece

As I’ve alluded to before, one of my greatest reading experiences of 2009 was staying up until 4 AM (on a Monday) reading Jane Austen’s Emma. It was all the more surprising to me because back in 10th grade, Pride & Prejudice was the very first school-assigned book that I didn’t read. I mean, I got about a third of the way through it and then I literally flung it across the room and read the plot summary in Cliff’s Notes instead (as I recall, I even found the plot summary dreadfully boring).

Since then, I’ve been unable to approach Pride & Prejudice. Time and again I consider it, only to quail as a wave of boredom rears up out of my past and fills my limbs with a dreadful languor. However, I have been systematically making my way through the rest of Jane Austen’s ouvre.

I read Sense & Sensibility, which was pretty good, except that I had a hard time following the plot and who was who (it might have been the high fever I was running at the time).

Then I read Persuasion, which was okay, except it was…how can I put this delicately…quite humorless. I don’t know, it was good though. It’s the only Jane Austen novel I’ve read that devotes any time to the actual “falling in love”. Most of her novels seem to pretty much elide it and focus on confusions and previous engagements and the obstacles of being penniless (which is just the way I like it, don’t get me wrong).

But you know what Jane Austen is completely and totally the bomb? Northanger Abbey. I just finished reading it a few days ago. It’s definitely the lightest one of her works that I’ve read. Nothing serious happens. It’s just clever authorial asides, witty exchanges and send-ups of Gothic-novel tropes (the heroine is a girl who loves herself some 18th century Gothic romances). I found it delightful. Northanger Abbey dismisses the details of this “falling in love” stuff with one paragraph and a wry grin:

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

Sometimes I am quite torn about the merits of exploring an author’s backlist. Usually authors have one, or two, or at most three real masterpieces. Given that there is only a limited number of works I’m going to read in my life, I wonder whether it might not make sense to read more of the masterpieces and fewer of the trial runs.

But as this novel proves, sometimes the trial runs can make us realize exactly what we loved about the masterpieces. Northanger Abbey has none of the structural complexity or plotting of Emma. I mean, really, it barely has characters. But it has the same sort of sparkle. And when that sparkle isn’t being overshadowed by the overbearing presence of Emma Wodehouse, it can be appreciated all the more.

You should read Northanger Abbey because it doesn’t need any reason to bust out with stuff like this:

“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—”I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

“My journal!”

“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”

“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”

“Shall I tell you what you ought to say?”

“If you please.”

“I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.”

“But, perhaps, I keep no journal.”

“Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”

Sense and Sensibility

Although my book-blogging has long been in abeyance, I do write, in my spreadsheet, little one-line summaries of the books I read. However, they are remarkably short on any literary insight. I just finished Sense and Sensibility and my review reads: “I found this book to be frequently somewhat tedious, and occassionally confusing, but the fact that it has held my interest through four days of headache, Guantanamo-like sleep deprivation, stomach pains, intestinal problems, and general physical and emotional exhaustion, it is probably a much better book than I think it is.”