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.

 

I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

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Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

Books I have read / am reading while on vacation

I’ve lately tried to ease off and stop keeping such a tight control of what I read. Instead, I’m just reading whatever I’m in the mood for. I’ve found that this pattern tends to lead to short-lived enthusiasms, where I read 3-5 books in a single thematic area, and then leap over to something else. In a way, it makes me sad for all the books that I don’t read. Each time I become enthusiastic about something, I make plans to read dozens of books in that area, and most of those books are things I’ll never get to. But it also keeps things a bit fresher.

I’ve already written a bit about The Privileges, which was the first book I read while on this trip. I followed it with Jonathan Dee’s latest book, A Thousand Pardons. I can’t say that I enjoyed this one as much. Where The Privileges felt like it had a good sense of what it was trying to do, A Thousand Pardons felt too thematically incoherent. It’s about a woman whose husband has a scandal, so they get divorced and she goes to work at a PR agency. But too many things happen–there’s a whole subplot with a movie star that she knew as a child, for instance–that don’t feel like they add up. Although it was fun to read, it left me feeling a bit empty.

Then I am ashamed to admit that I read Chad Harbach’s nonfiction anthology MFA vs. NYC. From reading that title, I know that people are going to assume that this book is about whether or not to get an MFA. That is, however, emphatically not what it’s about. Harbach assumes that all literary writers will get MFAs. Instead, the book is about whether to try to make a living within the commercial apparatus of publishing (mostly located in New York) or by teaching at an MFA program. Since it’s an essay collection, it doesn’t have a sustained point to make, it’s mostly about examining the contours of the literary world as they exist now. Although it felt a bit onanistic, I still enjoyed the book, mostly because I’ve lately come to have my doubts about whether the university setting is conducive to creating good writing. However, I am also not really enthused by the idea of moving to New York. It kind of seems…overdone? Like, doesn’t the world have enough stories about New York? Also, it’s expensive there. I don’t know. It was food for thought, anyway.

After that, I read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Enjoyed it alot. The book is about a Princeton-educated Pakistani who becomes disillusioned with life in America after the 9/11 attacks. What I found distracting, though, was the monologue format of the book. The whole thing has this whole “I am sitting across from you in a cafe and telling you a story” form that felt extremely artificial, because it meant the narrator had to say things like, “Oh, do you see that man standing across the street from us and how he is shifting his weight from side to side and looking at us. Oh, and smell how the jasmine is so sweet and the air is full of the shouts of hawkers, etc.” The whole conceit was just absurd and didn’t feel real at all. Still, the novel succeeded in spite of that.

Then I read Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, which is about a clinically depressed kid who checks himself into a psych ward after seriously contemplating suicide. Really loved it. Lately I’ve become sensitized to the cutesy wryness that so many young adult novels have. So many of them sound like the opening of Catcher In The Rye, but completely sanitized and spineless. It’s okay for the teen protagonist of a YA novel to not be edgy, but what’s unforgivable is when someone completely whitebread tries to narrate like they’re edgy and then expects you to just buy into that. This novel didn’t really do that. The protagonist just doesn’t care about anything, and that’s what he’s about.

My next book was Richard Hughes’ A High Wind In Jamaica, which is one of the craziest books I’ve ever read. This 1929 novel is about a family of English children who’re being shipped from their farm in Jamaica to their new home in England, except the ship gets captured by pirates, who take the children away. There is something very surreal, but also very psychologically honest about the kids’ time with the pirates. This isn’t Lord Of The Flies: people don’t lose all their humanity and start destroying each other. But…changes do take place within them. One of the kids dies, and the rest of the kids never talk about it, even though they feel the loss. You get the sense of the huge depths within these kids, and the ways that tragedy affects people in strange ways.

And now I am reading another YA novel, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which is about the first year in college of a girl who’s a popular fanfiction writer and also an identical twin and also suffers from fairly-severe social anxiety. So far, I am liking it alot. One of the most emotionally affecting scenes, for me, was the one where her professor sits her down and tells her that her fanfiction assignment is plagiarism and that there’s nothing original about it. The professor isn’t trying to hurt the girl, she’s trying to guide her, but you can still feel the incredible damage that’s being done. I can’t help but think that some of my own students will probably think of me in that same way. The one bad thing about the novel, though, are the numerous excerpts from the actual fan-fiction (it’s basically Harry slash Draco fiction, but for a made-up property that’s not Harry Potter even though it strongly resembles Harry PotteR). I do not like the excerpts. They are boring. So far I’ve been skipping them and I think my comprehension of the story has been harmed not at all.

On a sidenote, how amazing is this cover? I hope my covers are half this good.
On a sidenote, how amazing is this cover? I hope my covers are half this good.

On a sidenote, there will be plenty more reading before this trip is done. My flight from Chicago to Baltimore got cancelled before I even began the trip, so I got them to reroute me through San Francisco (after I spend about 8 hours in Seattle airport). I’m spending a night in the Bay Area and then leaving tomorrow afternoon. I’m not going to get back to my home until like midnight tomorrow.