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.

 

Completely captivated by Richard Rhodes’ THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB

coverNonfiction is such a huge category. In my mind, I tend to divide it between works that are trying to describe things and works that are trying to make some normative point about the world (there are also personal narratives, like memoirs). Obviously, there is alot of overlap here, because most descriptive books also contain some element of “This is how things ought to be.” And either of those things can contain enough of a personal narrative that they might qualify as memoirs. In a rough sense, the division is between polemics and history books.

Although they contain many facts, I’d say that The Feminist Mystique, Studs Terkel’s WorkingSilent Spring, Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and  Tolstoy’s What is Art?  all fall into what I’d call the polemical mode.

In general, I tend to respond better to polemics (even when I disagree with the essential point) because there’s something very charismatic about listening to a person who believes so strongly in what they’re saying. A good polemic provides a measure of security in this world: it tells you that values and standards do exist and that it is possible to arrive by them through some mix of belief and reason and intuition.

However, I have also consumed a number of more straight-forward explications in my life. Amongst these, I tend not to prefer books that are straightforwardly about personalities or mere recitations of events. I think that once upon a time, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a fashion for books that were about events and people. And I just can’t take those. Any biography, in particular, that doesn’t aspire to be more than just a description of a person’s life, is boring to me.

I need a book that attempts to use facts to systematize and try to understand the world. That’s why my favorite biography is Robert Caro’s The Life of Lyndon Johnson. It’s an amazing, sprawling set of books (I’ve written about before), that’s about nothing less than how government works, on a practical level, in America. By looking at Lyndon (who was an awful man, though a fairly good President) and the people that he encountered and befriended and destroyed and the institutions that he changed, the book shows us how the sausage gets made: How does someone get elected? How do they maintain power? How do they create and pass legislation?

It’s hard to tell when a book is going to be worthwhile in that manner, because many people just read nonfiction books because they like colorful stories. Thus, it’s possible for a nonfiction book to receive tremendous acclaim even though it doesn’t really have much analysis. Randy Shilt’s And The Band Played On is a nonfiction book with almost zero analysis, for instance. It doesn’t look at why the public didn’t respond to the AIDS crisis or why men’s organizing efforts failed or didn’t fail in the way they did. (I’m not saying that was a flaw in that particular book, since that wasn’t its mandate. The book was written in the midst of the crisis and its role was simply to capture the facts. I’m just using it as an example).

This is a really long way of saying that I am in love with Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. For the first twentieth of it or so, I was engaged but mildly dubious. It seemed to be spending lots of time on the personality and life history of various physicists and on the details of physics experiments that I only sort of understand. But then it went into a long riff about World War I and poison gas and the mechanization of warfare (as a prelude to the line of thinking that would make the atomic bomb seem like a good idea), and I was completely hooked. Last night, at 1 AM, I was like, “Hmm…I could just stay up for a few hours and read this…”

Now the book is about Budapest and how Hungary created a lot of stellar atomic scientists! Not sure how this will fit into the larger storyline, but I am loving the section! (I do have a weakness for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything I’ve ever read about it makes it seem simultaneously schlerotic and vibrant. And it produced some amazing writers: Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Stefan Zweig, Dezső Kosztolányi)