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.


It’s hard to describe the appeal of THE THREE MUSKETEERS

7190The appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo is simple: it's an awesomely epic story. Every contour of it is just so outsized. The draconian punishment that's inflicted on the Count for no reason; the tiny little missteps that seal his fate; the length and horror of his imprisonmnent; the size of his eventual fortune; the magnitude of his revenge.

Now, though, I am reading The Three Musketeers and enjoying it, but it does feel like a much smaller novel than The Count of Monte Cristo. Not just in length (though it is half the size), but in terms of scale and focus. Even though TTM deals with events of geopolitical importance (the conflict between the King of France and his first minister), nothing seems that serious. I mean, if all this stuff was a big deal, the musketeers probably wouldn't be constantly getting drunk and fighting random duels and bollixing stuff up, right?

I think that most novels, not just adventure novels, succeed or fail on the basis of the world that they create. For instance, Tom Jones, which I just finished reading, had such a fascinating view of morality. The hero, Tom, was in TWUE WUV with his neighbor, Sophia, but he still can't help cheating on her constantly. And all of his servants can't help betraying him or stealing from him. And Sophia's father can't help brutalizing her. Everybody has remarkably good intentions, but they're all slipping up constantly. Which is a different view of morality than most books present. In most books, your actions are a reflection of your essential character. If you steal from your benefactor, then that's a reflection of some deep flaw inside you or within your relationship. But not in Tom Jones!

And it's seeing people operate inside that world which is interesting.

Similarly, TTM builds a great world: you've got these drunken, oafish musketeers rumbling around Paris trying to uphold the honor of the king against the polished, spit-shined Guards of the Cardinal. And you've got D'Artagnan running around in the midst of it, not understanding what's happening, but somehow very attracted, on an aesthetic level, to these musketeers.

Incidentally, I think that's why lots of modern adventure novels fail. They think that what they need is to tell a new story in an old setting: their authors want to write what is, in essence, the further adventures of the three musketeers or the further adventures of Horatio Hornblower. When really what they need is to breathe to life a setting that feels as vivid as the ones that actuated the classics that they loved.

On a sidenote, there's a translation of TTM by my favorite translator of Russian novels, Richard Pevear (well, half of my fave translator, since he translates the Russians in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky but he did TTM alone) and that was obviously the translation that I defaulted to. However, there is something really wonky about his translation of the book. For instance, on p21 Pevear writes:

…few gentlemen could lay claim to the epithet "faithful." …Treville was one of the latter; he was one of those rare organizations…who had been given eyes only in order to see if the king was displeased with someone...

My eyes stumbled over that puzzler and I re-read it, trying to figure out what he meant by 'rare organizations.' And finally I went and bought a different translation, the Modern Library translation, which translates that same passage as:

...but few gentlemen could boast that of loyal, which constituted the first. Tréville was of this small group, and high among them for the rare combination of virtues that were his. Quick of eye and prompt of hand, he seemed to have been endowed with sight only to discern who displeased the King...

Which makes sense. I mean, come on, Dumas is not the most masterful prose stylist in the world. When you translate him, you just need to have the result make sense. So I'm reading the ML edition (translated by Jacques Le Clercq) instead. Sorry Richard.