If you’re gonna make a speech in your novel, you should just make a speech!

url_quotThe_Junglequot_By_Upton_Sinclair-s312x475-108352-580John Scalzi recently linked to his review of Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my own post about the book (which is, incidentally, my favorite novel).

And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.

However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.

The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.

I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.

And I think that’s great.

People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.

If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).

I am rereading an old favorite, and it’s just as much of a page-turner as I remember it being

Mr. DarcyAfter my post about how no book could possibly interest me, I realized the solution was to reread a book that had already interested me.

This is a big step for me. I normally don’t reread books. It’s just a matter of time. There are too many books in the world and not enough time to read them. I also feel like I’m pretty good at remembering the books that I read (at least the good ones).

But since the alternative seemed to be that I would read nothing, I decided I could relax my stance on this. And subsequently went in search of a novel that I felt like I could bear to reread. I decided that it should probably be something it’s been at least four years since I’ve read. And it should be something that I enjoyed reading quite a bit. So far, so good. But I also felt like it should be something triumphant. Something that celebrated the human spirit. Because as much as I enjoy The Bell Jar and Journey To The End of the Night (two books that I considered), I do not feel like they are the best things for a bad mood.

Anyway, with these criteria, I narrowed it down to a few contenders: Vanity Fair, Emma, Anna Karenina, and Main Street. Since most of these books are in the public domain (except for AK, for which I own a Kindle copy of the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation), I was able to sample them all.

I really wanted the book to be Anna Karenina since it’s a fantastic novel, and when I read it for the first time I was a much less sophisticated reader than I am now. However, I read about a tenth of the way into the book and wasn’t feeling it. I mean, the brilliance emanates off the page. I am at a loss for how someone could read the first page of AK and not be completely blown away. As famous as the first line is, I feel like the first paragraph is even better:

All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household. They felt that there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at any inn have more connection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys…

That just says it right there. “They felt there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at an inn have more connection with each other…” I love it. So there was no problem with reading further. I just wasn’t connecting with it emotionally.

Umm…but then I did. I don’t know. Sometime around when Levin is trying to propose to Kitty, I was all like, “Yes, I am totally into this.”

What I’m noting this time about AK that I hadn’t noted the first time is how well-observed it is. Tolstoy generalizes about people in such a surefooted way that even a modern reader can say, “That’s absolutely true.” For instance, when Levin is trying to figure out whether it’s possible for Kitty to love him back, Tolstoy writes:

He had heard that women often love unattractive, simple people, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful, mysterious and special women.

It drives home the idea that these are people just like us (albeit much richer than us), and that these dramas are normal human dramas.

Anyway, I’m moving right through. The book is very fast-moving. Chapters are only a few pages long. Time moves at a rapid quick. Fortunes go up and go down in the blink of an eye. And even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I still feel the pressure of suspense: How do Kitty and Levin get together? How does Vronsky seduce Anna? What happens to the Oblonsky marriage

Eight writing manuals that are not an absolute waste of time

artMost writing books are a terrible waste of time, because they give you pretty basic Creative Writing 101 type advice about point of view, tense, plot structure, etc. and then combines it with a few workshop platitudes like “show, don’t tell”; “start strong”; “characters have to change during the story”, and then wrap it up with some canned advice like, “the most important thing is to write every day and read widely.”

If you don’t know that stuff, then maybe one of those books might be worthwhile. As I recall (this is way back in the dusty recesses of my memories from my last year of high school), I found Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction to be fairly useful. Oh, wait, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers was also really useful, actually. It’s all about how to cut words and make things cleaner. Well worth a read. And I thought that Donald Maas’ Writing The Breakout Novel was a fairly good overview of things you should think about when you’re trying to write fiction with commercial appeal.

Mostly, though, I don’t enjoy books that are about how to write. I am sure that there are some good ones out there, but I think that the craft of writing is something that you mostly get a sense for by reading books and then trying to do the things you’ve read. For me, the best writing books are the ones that give a sense of how to go about your life as a writer. Honestly, I can’t remember even a tenth of the actual advice that is in any of the following books, but each of them gave me this very vivid sense of a writer who’d developed their own systems and modes of writing. To me, these books are more like commencement speeches than handbooks. Their mix of advice and autobiography inspires you to go out into the world and find your own way of looking at it.

  • About Writing by Samuel Delany – The best writing book. This is my bible. For several years, I had it on my bedside table and whenever I was feeling down, I’d leaf through it. Delany’s intelligence is so vast and cool. It flows from whatever he is talking about. There is plenty of advice (good advice) in here about the actual writing. But there’s also advice on how to conduct yourself as a writer. The overwhelming lesson of this book is that if you want to write good fiction, you should be as serious and curious as Delany himself.
  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas – Typical acerbic wisdom from Nick. Half the book is about writing fiction and the other half is about freelancing. Mamatas is a contrarian, and in these essays he largely aims to explode myths propagating by other advice-givers. If you’ve been reading his livejournal for the last eight years, then most of these essays are probably already familiar to you. However, if you haven’t, then you absolutely need to get this book. His persona is pugnacious, but also literate and sensitive. He’s the reigning defender of the uncommercial side of commercial fiction.
  • On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner – The author of this book taught inside the academic creative writing industry for years (as did/does Delany, of course), and serves as a kind of voice from over there. Over there is a weird place, where they do things pretty differently. For instance (as I recall), his chapter on publication basically says, “Publication will come when you’re ready.” That advice is insane. But you know what else they do over there? Write some good fiction. Gardner’s advice is a bit more froofy and mystical than you’ll find in creative writing books written by spec-fic writers (although, by the standards of literary writers, it’s pretty hard-nosed and practical), but that’s okay. Sometimes you need a little froofiness.
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – Literally ten letters written to an aspiring poet by Rilke. Hard to describe them. They’re exhortations. They’re about finding the silence inside of you and learning how to feel your way to the point where poetry rises out of you. The letter format is wonderful, because it feels like he’s literally writing to you. It’s also beautiful that he took so seriously the aspirations of someone who really hadn’t produced anything yet.
  • What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – Almost no other creative writing book dares to tackle the topic “What kinds of things should you write about?” But Tolstoy goes there. Spoiler: You should write about stuff that’ll improve the reader’s moral and spiritual condition. The most insane performance in this book is when Tolstoy summarizes (and then dismisses) two thousand years worth of aesthetic theory. He also takes down ballet and the opera for being immoral, and then he rails about the millions of people whose lives are being blighted by art. This is brilliant stuff. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. After reading this, you will spend twelve hours absolutely convinced that Tolstoy was right. Of course, it’ll eventually wear off (thank God).
  • Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer – Advice about how to organize your writing career. In retrospect, I was perhaps a bit too early in my career when I read this book, since I didn’t really have any publications or any kind of profile yet. But it was mostly revelatory because it’s the only writing book that concedes that there is this thing, this “booklife,” as Vandermeer calls it, which threads throughout your writing career and which you need to nurture and manage.
  • On Writing by Stephen King – This book is half writing advice and half Stephen King’s autobiography of his life as a writer. The writing advice is take it or leave it; the autobiography, though, is gripping. Stephen King is the spec fic phenom of the latter half of the 20th century. How can anyone not want to get in there and figure out how he did what he did? In this book, he comes across a bit like a Stephen King character. Always slightly down-at-heel, but hopeful and self-educated. It’s a resolutely blue-collar image of how to produce literature.
  • Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury – This book is actually a bit depressing. I am not sure it’s possible for me to work as hard as Bradbury did. The story I remember most is that he’d sit down on Monday and write the whole first draft of a story. Then on Tuesday he’d write the second draft. Wednesday he’d write the third. And so on until Friday, when he’d write the fifth draft and then mail out the submission. That is insane.

Hmm, that was significantly more books than I thought there’d be.

P.S. I know someone is gonna mention Elements of Style. Don’t even get me started on Elements of Style. That book might be a fine guide to grammar and usage, but it’s no good on style. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some old (and dead) dudes tell me that I can’t incorporate business and military slang into my writing.

The insanity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

les-miserablesMy grandma doesn’t have wifi, but I thought that upon returning to New Delhi I would be reunited with my love. However, I soon discovered that the internet in my parents’ apartment is down. The four of us are reduced to using a 3g internet dongle to put cellphone internet into our computers. Truly a barbarous situation. There are so many unsync’ed Evernotes on my iPod Touch.

I am nearing the end of Les Miserables. It is truly a masterwork. I started reading it because my friend Becca was doing a re-read. She’s been blogging out it part by part by part, so if you’re interested in plot and such, that’d be a good place to go.

I like it a lot. In many ways, it reminds me of two of my favorite books: War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged (unsurprising, since Hugo was Ayn Rand’s favorite author). This is a book that contains worlds.

The primary method of world-delivery are these gargantuan digressions. The book starts with a 22,000 word novella that describes a guy—the bishop—who literally only appears for like three scenes in the main plot. That is far from the most irrelevant digression, though. There is a whole dissertation on the battle of Waterloo that could actually be cut from the book in its entirety without harming the work’s structural integrity. In fact, it’s disingenuous to even call them digressions. The book is full of charming page-long digressions that you barely notice. Those are not what I am talking about; I am talking about massive essays that stick out of the novel like shrapnel from a cannonaded corpse. In fact, I have prepared a list of some of the longer ones:

Digression Length (words)
The wealth, history, habits, character, and selected incidents from the life of Bishop Myriel(i.e. the bishop guy who lets Jean Valjean off after JV steals from him) 22,000
The Battle of Waterloo (which takes place well before the start of the action in the novel and really has no relevance to anything at all except that Thenardier appears in it for like a split-second at the end) 21,000
An exhaustive description of the organization and rules of the convent where JV and Cosette take shelter after fleeing 11,000
Why convents are TERRIBLE things 5,000
A discussion of underworld slang and whether it belongs in real literature 9,000
The habits of Paris street urchins (and why they represent all that is good and true in the soul of France!) 8,000
The nature of riots (and why they’re awesome!) 3,000
A description of the Paris sewers 15,500
The character of King Louis Phillippe (and why he deserved to be overthrown, even though he really wasn’t such a bad guy) 6,000

That’s over 100,000 words out of a 550,000 word novel. I compare it to Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace, but it’s actually nothing like that. Those works had long digressions, but their longest expositions were organic outgrowths of the plot and were also concise statements of the author’s life philosophy. Galt’s speech at the end of AS is about 33,000 words long…but it’s also the centerpiece of the book. The same is true of the long-ass (50,000 word) tract about Napoleon that comes (in conveniently skippable form—if you’re so inclined) right at the end of War and Peace.

Les Miserables is nothing like that. It reads like the work of a madmen—a person who has no concept of what people want to read or what is appropriate. I mean, it starts with 22,000 words (half of a Great Gatsby!) about some random guy. The closest thing it comes to is the weird 100 pages at the beginning of Demons where Dostoyevsky explicates on the odd love between an old professor and his patroness. But at least those two are characters in the book! They continue to appear! And at least that is largely told in scenes, with plot and stuff happening. I mean, the Myriel section is not as plotless as later essays will be, but it’s definitely not traditionally structured fiction.

It’s astonishing that Les Miserables exists and was successful and continues to be successful today. And that success is, in large part, not in spite of the digressions, but because of them. I enjoyed almost all of them (except the one about slang—god help me, I never want to hear the word ‘argot’ ever again). Some of them (particularly the one about the convent) were intensely fascinating. They add such a flair to the story. In War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged, you’re always like “Welp, here’s more objectivism” or “Welp, here’s some more stuff about the silliness of Napoleon”. But in Les Miserables, you really have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s like…”Hmm…alright…I guess we’re talking about the sewers now.”

And…I liked that.

The book is also real good. All kinds of interesting things happen in it. The characters are, like…characterey? Okay…I guess all I really wanted to talk about was the digressions. If you’re looking for a translation, I’d say that my Wilbour translation was eminently readable, although I think it’s like a century old.

I just wrote a 71,000 word novel in 8 days. And you know what? It’s pretty good.

This entry is almost certainly going to be a little long and hard to follow. It will probably contain a fair number of dropped words and typos, too. It’s 2 AM on Wednesday morning, and I just finished about half an hour ago. I know that I’m not going to be able to sleep for hours, so I figured that I might as well get all of this down.

I just wrote the first draft of a novel. I began it on May 31st at around 2 PM. I just now finished it. That seven and a half days contained one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I’m not saying that it’s some kind of impossible accomplishment. I mean, Stendhal wrote the Charterhouse of Parma in 52 days and we still read it 200 years later. That is an accomplishment. In SF and Fantasy, given the number of books some authors put out, I think it’s not an uncommon skill to be able to put down 10,000 words a day of first draft.

Nonetheless, it is not something that I had ever imagined I would be capable of doing. It was an experience that was not only incredibly intense, but also one that I was not really looking for. It was something that came upon me almost like some kind of miracle. Now, normally when miraculous, ecstatic experiences come upon me, I don’t write about them in this blog, because they’re not only incommunicable, they’re also kinda off-topic. But this is a writing / book blog, dammit, and so I think it might be of interest to document a writing miracle.

I don’t normally talk too much about my writing process, but this experience has given me a lot of insights into what I do. These insights gradually spiraling into a massive blog entry. The blog entry is pretty good, but it’s also five thousand words long. There is no one in the world whose writing I like so much that I’d read a five thousand word blog entry from them. If Tolstoy had a blog, and he wrote, “Further acquaintance with this topic caused such an intense ferment in my spirit that I was impelled to write an online essay totaling some five thousand words to examine the stirrings of my soul”, I would still click back on that. So I am splitting this entry up into seven or eight entries that I am going to post over the next few weeks.

Anyway, if you want to know what the book is about, then I have just four words for you: Vampires In High School.

Sure, it’s more complicated than that. The word vampire never appears in the novel. They don’t suck blood or fear the sun. But that’s not what vampires are about. Vampires are about sexiness. And my novel is about preternaturally sexy creatures who like to have sex with high schoolers. It’s also gay. And an alternate history. And a work of science fiction. But mostly it’s a vampire novel. Normally I’d be ashamed of that, but….it’s not like I spent eighteen months on it. I wrote it in eight days.

I’m normally pretty tight-fisted with details about my unpublished works (because I figure there is a good chance that if they’re unpublished, they’re bad) so I don’t think more plot details will be forthcoming. But you won’t need them for the posts that follow.

            Next: How This Came To Happen

The Cossacks

The Cossacks

Have you ever noticed that every major writer has some kind of essay collection detailing their musings on life and art? I had not noticed that until I read this bomb review of Orhan Pamuk’s collection.

I have read and enjoyed many of these collections.

The one I enjoyed most was Tolstoy’s What Is Art? Well, it’s not really an essay collection. It’s a pretty unified work. But still, I think it counts. I also liked Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. I’m going to read D.H. Lawrence’s Studies In American Literature soon and Coleridge’s essays on Shakespeare are on tap, eventually. And I also have one by Octavio Paz floating around.

Reading What Is Art is what made me love Tolstoy. I mean, sure, Anna Karenina was great. It was a masterpiece. But something about the over-the-top, wild-eyed craziness of What is Art? made me very excited. I think that excitement – the ability to feel that excited about something I was reading – affected me more than any of the notions within the book.

I’ve probably mentioned before that I generally don’t make it a point to seek out the minor works of major authors. These works just don’t excite me, somehow. But with Tolstoy, I have.

I just finished reading The Cossacks. Like all of Tolstoy’s novels (seemingly), it is about a man going through a series of spiritual revelations. And also some other stuff.

I get the impression that Tolstoy went through many spiritual revelations in his life. But I only get this impression because I have read many of his novels. In each novel, the man-in-search-of seems to have forgotten about all the other times he found some sort of truth. The man-in-search-of always seems to be some kind of spiritual degenerate, who is uplifted in one cosmic flash of insight one hundred pages before the end of the book.

The strangest thing about The Cossacks is that Tolstoy makes fun of the young man’s spiritual insights. And by the time the book ends, the insight has already begun to fade, and the man has already come down to earth.

Something that is less strange but kind of offputting is that the novel is not a masterpiece. In it, one can see flashes of Tolstoy’s great talents. The main character is very well drawn, and so is the aged Cossack who becomes his friend. That is unsurprising. It is almost expected.

What is strange is that there are characters who are not well-drawn.

There are situations that are not vivid.

There are boring parts.

It is kind of shocking. The Cossacks was published in 1863. In only six years, Tolstoy would write War and Peace, which is (literally) twelve times longer than the Cossacks, but which did not, at least for me, contain any boring parts.

Wrap-Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – I had to read On The Road for a class in college. It was okay, you know, nothing special. A friend recommended Dharma Bums to me, it was really good. Usually when Americans do Eastern religion, it highly annoys me. But Jack Keroauc’s Buddhism is so simple, so silly, and so stupid that it’s hard to be annoyed. Yes, it is strange that he thinks of himself as a bodhisattva. But it’s incredibly endearing that he also thinks all of the cast-aways, stumblebums, and drop-outs he meets along the way are also bodhisattvas.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Okay, so, like, I read Babbit before I read Main Street. And Babbit was really good. You know, it was all about skewering the pretensions of America’s upper middle classes. So I read this other book by Sinclair Lewis – one written before Babbit, and one which had been his first big success – which supposedly did the same thing but for the small town. And it was nothing like Babbit. It skewered the small town, but it also tried to understand the small town, and it skewered the small-town reformer, but also tried to understand the reformer. And there’s a scene near the end of the book, an interaction between a husband and wife, that surprised me so much that I had to put it down and go walk around the house and try to understand what I was reading before I could come back and finish the book. I have no idea what happened to Sinclair Lewis after he wrote this book. Somehow, in this book kindness and satire are balanced, but somehow each of his books seems to have less and less basic human kindness and more vicious satire until finally one ends up with the unpalatable mess that is Dodsworth (and, I suppose, all the books written after Dodsworth that I didn’t bother to read).

News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is a non-fiction book. A brilliantly written, interestingly structured nonfiction book that is told like a novel. A novel that is not a work of magical realism. It is about the kidnapping of ten journalists by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in order to force concessions from the Colombian government. It’s a very taut, minute-by-minute account, very thrilleresque, very true-crime-esque. And like most true crime stories, the most interesting thing about it is not the crime itself, but why we bother talking about it. What made this crime so much more important, so much more interesting, than every other kidnapping that has happened in Colombia? Or murder? Or bombing?

Down And Out In London And Paris by George Orwell – When Orwell goes slumming, he really outdoes himself. He really brings the experience of hunger, of vagabondage, of working sixteen hours a day for a pittance, to life. But the thing that one appreciates the most about George Orwell is that he always wraps it up with a truism, like:

“The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but it’s truthy. It gives you the feeling that if you were just to open your eyes, you too would be able to generate well-worded truisms. It’s this tendency that I most enjoy in Orwell’s non-fiction, which I began consuming at a rapid pace after reading this book.

Parallel Lives, Vol. I by Plutarch – There was a certain era of British and American history — when Parallel Lives – which is a series of biographies of famous Greeks paired up the biographies of famous Romans, followed by a short comparison of their virtues – formed the cornerstone of a young man’s education. This becomes very clear when one reads, say, Emerson. Every single one of Emerson’s little anecdotes about Roman or Greek history comes from this book. It kind of makes you respect all those jerks a lot less. And then you realize that most of what you know about Greek or Roman history came from this book, in which Plutarch, a 2nd century Greek, basically mashed together every extant source on the lives of 50 totally baller dudes (mostly politicians and conquerors). I read a Project Gutenberg version, translated by George Long, which is one of the better translations I’ve ever read. Also, the biographies are of just the right length and level of detail, perfectly poised somewhere in between a Wikipedia article and a book.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Some seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine gave me a copy of this book, saying that I would enjoy it. Since then, I have made literally ten attempts to read it. I’ve never gotten past page twenty (where the main character’s father looks at three drops of blood from his nose that have fallen on the prayer mat and lay there like jewels). But, when I picked this book up on January 2nd of this year, I raced through it, totally gripped, and finished it at 3 AM on January 4th. I have no idea what was different this time, but I am glad to not have this book hanging over my head. Now I just have to figure out a way to give it back…

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare – Okay, so it’s a little pretentious to read William Shakespeare, but I’ve always wanted to try to understand what the fuss is about. I read a number of his plays this year, and what I found was that there are a lot of good lines and good speeches, but that his plots are generally ridiculously contrived and, dare I say, totally arbitrary, and his characters can often be unpredictable, inconsistent, or just plain opaque. I mean, which is not to say that he’s not great fun, it’s just that I wasn’t really feeling the high emotion. However, that impression was shattered when I read H4P1. I’d seen it performed a few years back, so I was primed to like it, but still, this is an amazing play. It has none of the faults I mentioned before, and it has a number of amazing characters, Prince Hal, Henry IV, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. There were even points when I cried a little. Like when Hotspur died….hey, it was sad. Stupid Bolingbrokes.

Kokoro by Natsume Soeseki – So, my Kindle makes it easy to read electronic files. That means that I spend a lot of time reading various free translations on the internet. Most of the time, this turns out not to be a good idea. Often the translations are from the Victorian era and are utterly antiquated. But the free online translation of Kokoro that I read was not only good, it was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as many passages in a translated novel before. And believe me, there is no writer who is so good that his words sound good even when they’re being translated badly. So yeah, if you read Kokoro, read this version (translated by Edward McClellan, published 1957). Oh, and the book is stunning too. It’s apparently a big deal in Japan, I had never heard of it or Soeseki before coming across a mention in one of those lists of “Great Books”. But it is great, so great.

Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal – This early 19th century book has an extreme number of amazing and somewhat unique parts. The description of the Battle of the Waterloo is gripping in its utter confusion. The political maneuverings of Gina and her lover, Count Mosca, are really fun, and Gina is probably one of the only non-tragic feminist-type heroines of all of 19th century literature. And the love affair that the hero Fabrice Del Dongo gets involved in is so over the top in its ludicrousness that it’s difficult to describe. He falls in love by communicating with his jailor’s daughter through a series of improvised signals from his window.

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – This is the crankiest book I have ever read. Late in life, Tolstoy became a religious nut and started believing: a) that all art should convey moral instruction; b) that the best art should be universally comprehensible; and c) that, hence, 99% of what was commonly termed art (including Tolstoy’s own masterpieces!) was utterly worthless. And then he proceeded to use the full force of his wit, erudition, and genius to try to prove these points, and insist that the highest art is fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Bible. For instance, in the course of ten pages, he briefly summarizes and dismisses the writings of about fifty aestheticians on the nature of art and beauty. And by the end of this book, you will be convinced. I mean, a day or so later, you will shake off its mesmerizing effects, but for a day, or maybe for just a few hours, you will be totally convinced.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – When I’d gotten 20% through this novel, I said, “This is the most utterly disagreeable character ever, I can’t believe that I am going to read a novel about him.” By the time I got to the end of the novel, Ignatius hadn’t changed, but I had. I was totally rooting for that jerk.

Candide by Voltaire – Some books are done a real disservice by those who would call them literature. Candide is just straight-up fun. There’s nothing else for it. It’s a romp. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, Jackass-style romp. You can read it in like two hours. I suggest you do. I read the Project Gutenberg version and it was pretty good.

Double Helix by James Watson – Alright, so Watson and Crick discovered DNA and got the Nobel prize. At the time that they did this work, Watson was my age, he was 25. And it shows. Watson tries to pimp his sister out to Crick in order to get the latter to work with him. And at one point they’re trying to get models of the DNA molecule built (like, out of metal, by a tool company), and Watson is like, “Well, we couldn’t do any work, since the models were not built yet.” And I was like, “Umm, really? So your plan is just to play around with these models like Lego blocks and literally construct a model of the DNA molecule? Really?” And then the models get built and that’s what they do. And get Nobel Prizes. Wow.

Bridge Over The San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – So, for a long time I thought that this was a book about a bunch of PoWs who were forced to build a bridge over a river in Indochina by sadistic Japanese wardens. But then I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in the Paris Review, where he cites this novel as one of  his favorites, and then I went and looked it up and realized that this novel is not about that. I was thinking of the movie Bridge Over The River Kwai. This novel is about something altogether cooler. It’s so high-concept that I can’t really do it justice. But you should read it.

The Collected Stories by Richard Yates – I blogged about this at exhaustive length

Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

 

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – I had to read On The Road for a class in college. It was okay, you know, nothing special. A friend recommended Dharma Bums to me, it was really good. Usually when Americans do Eastern religion, it highly annoys me. But Jack Keroauc’s Buddhism is so simple, so silly, and so stupid that it’s hard to be annoyed. Yes, it is strange that he thinks of himself as a bodhisattva. But it’s incredibly endearing that he also thinks all of the cast-aways, stumblebums, and drop-outs he meets along the way are also bodhisattvas.

 

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Okay, so, like, I read Babbit before I read Main Street. And Babbit was really good. You know, it was all about skewering the pretensions of America’s upper middle classes. So I read this other book by Sinclair Lewis – one written before Babbit, and one which had been his first big success – which supposedly did the same thing but for the small town. And it was nothing like Babbit. It skewered the small town, but it also tried to understand the small town, and it skewered the small-town reformer, but also tried to understand the reformer. And there’s a scene near the end of the book, an interaction between a husband and wife, that surprised me so much that I had to put it down and go walk around the house and try to understand what I was reading before I could come back and finish the book. I have no idea what happened to Sinclair Lewis after he wrote this book. Somehow, in this book kindness and satire are balanced, but somehow each of his books seems to have less and less basic human kindness and more vicious satire until finally one ends up with the unpalatable mess that is Dodsworth (and, I suppose, all the books written after Dodsworth that I didn’t bother to read).

 

News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is a non-fiction book. A brilliantly written, interestingly structured nonfiction book that is told like a novel. A novel that is not a work of magical realism. It is about the kidnapping of ten journalists by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in order to force concessions from the Colombian government. It’s a very taut, minute-by-minute account, very thrilleresque, very true-crime-esque. And like most true crime stories, the most interesting thing about it is not the crime itself, but why we bother talking about it. What made this crime so much more important, so much more interesting, than every other kidnapping that has happened in Colombia? Or murder? Or bombing?

 

Down And Out In London And Paris by George Orwell – When Orwell goes slumming, he really outdoes himself. He really brings the experience of hunger, of vagabondage, of working sixteen hours a day for a pittance, to life. But the thing that one appreciates the most about George Orwell is that he always wraps it up with a truism, like:

 

“The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

 

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but it’s truthy. It gives you the feeling that if you were just to open your eyes, you too would be able to generate well-worded truisms. It’s this tendency that I most enjoy in Orwell’s non-fiction, which I began consuming at a rapid pace after reading this book.

 

Parallel Lives, Vol. I by Plutarch – There was a certain era of British and American history — when Parallel Lives – which is a series of biographies of famous Greeks paired up the biographies of famous Romans, followed by a short comparison of their virtues – formed the cornerstone of a young man’s education. This becomes very clear when one reads, say, Emerson. Every single one of Emerson’s little anecdotes about Roman or Greek history comes from this book. It kind of makes you respect all those jerks a lot less. And then you realize that most of what you know about Greek or Roman history came from this book, in which Plutarch, a 2nd century Greek, basically mashed together every extant source on the lives of 50 totally baller dudes (mostly politicians and conquerors). I read a Project Gutenberg version, translated by George Long, which is one of the better translations I’ve ever read. Also, the biographies are of just the right length and level of detail, perfectly poised somewhere in between a Wikipedia article and a book.

 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Some seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine gave me a copy of this book, saying that I would enjoy it. Since then, I have made literally ten attempts to read it. I’ve never gotten past page twenty (where the main character’s father looks at three drops of blood from his nose that have fallen on the prayer mat and lay there like jewels). But, when I picked this book up on January 2nd of this year, I raced through it, totally gripped, and finished it at 3 AM on January 4th. I have no idea what was different this time, but I am glad to not have this book hanging over my head. Now I just have to figure out a way to give it back…

 

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare – Okay, so it’s a little pretentious to read William Shakespeare, but I’ve always wanted to try to understand what the fuss is about. I read a number of his plays this year, and what I found was that there are a lot of good lines and good speeches, but that his plots are generally ridiculously contrived and, dare I say, totally arbitrary, and his characters can often be unpredictable, inconsistent, or just plain opaque. I mean, which is not to say that he’s not great fun, it’s just that I wasn’t really feeling the high emotion. However, that impression was shattered when I read H4P1. I’d seen it performed a few years back, so I was primed to like it, but still, this is an amazing play. It has none of the faults I mentioned before, and it has a number of amazing characters, Prince Hal, Henry IV, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. There were even points when I cried a little. Like when Hotspur died….hey, it was sad. Stupid Bolingbrokes.

 

Kokoro by Natsume Soeseki – So, my Kindle makes it easy to read electronic files. That means that I spend a lot of time reading various free translations on the internet. Most of the time, this turns out not to be a good idea. Often the translations are from the Victorian era and are utterly antiquated. But the free online translation of Kokoro that I read was not only good, it was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as many passages in a translated novel before. And believe me, there is no writer who is so good that his words sound good even when they’re being translated badly. So yeah, if you read Kokoro, read this version (translated by Edward McClellan, published 1957). Oh, and the book is stunning too. It’s apparently a big deal in Japan, I had never heard of it or Soeseki before coming across a mention in one of those lists of “Great Books”. But it is great, so great.

 

Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal – This early 19th century book has an extreme number of amazing and somewhat unique parts. The description of the Battle of the Waterloo is gripping in its utter confusion. The political maneuverings of Gina and her lover, Count Mosca, are really fun, and Gina is probably one of the only non-tragic feminist-type heroines of all of 19th century literature. And the love affair that the hero Fabrice Del Dongo gets involved in is so over the top in its ludicrousness that it’s difficult to describe. He falls in love by communicating with his jailor’s daughter through a series of improvised signals from his window.

 

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – This is the crankiest book I have ever read. Late in life, Tolstoy became a religious nut and started believing: a) that all art should convey moral instruction; b) that the best art should be universally comprehensible; and c) that, hence, 99% of what was commonly termed art (including Tolstoy’s own masterpieces!) was utterly worthless. And then he proceeded to use the full force of his wit, erudition, and genius to try to prove these points, and insist that the highest art is fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Bible. For instance, in the course of ten pages, he briefly summarizes and dismisses the writings of about fifty aestheticians on the nature of art and beauty. And by the end of this book, you will be convinced. I mean, a day or so later, you will shake off its mesmerizing effects, but for a day, or maybe for just a few hours, you will be totally convinced.

 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – When I’d gotten 20% through this novel, I said, “This is the most utterly disagreeable character ever, I can’t believe that I am going to read a novel about him.” By the time I got to the end of the novel, Ignatius hadn’t changed, but I had. I was totally rooting for that jerk.

 

Candide by Voltaire – Some books are done a real disservice by those who would call them literature. Candide is just straight-up fun. There’s nothing else for it. It’s a romp. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, Jackass-style romp. You can read it in like two hours. I suggest you do. I read the Project Gutenberg version and it was pretty good.

 

Double Helix by James Watson – Alright, so Watson and Crick discovered DNA and got the Nobel prize. At the time that they did this work, Watson was my age, he was 25. And it shows. Watson tries to pimp his sister out to Crick in order to get the latter to work with him. And at one point they’re trying to get models of the DNA molecule built (like, out of metal, by a tool company), and Watson is like, “Well, we couldn’t do any work, since the models were not built yet.” And I was like, “Umm, really? So your plan is just to play around with these models like Lego blocks and literally construct a model of the DNA molecule? Really?” And then the models get built and that’s what they do. And get Nobel Prizes. Wow.

 

Bridge Over The San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – So, for a long time I thought that this was a book about a bunch of PoWs who were forced to build a bridge over a river in Indochina by sadistic Japanese wardens. But then I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in the Paris Review, where he cites this novel as one of  his favorites, and then I went and looked it up and realized that this novel is not about that. I was thinking of the movie Bridge Over The River Kwai. This novel is about something altogether cooler. It’s so high-concept that I can’t really do it justice. But you should read it.

 

The Collected Stories by Richard Yates – I blogged about this at exhaustive length