Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get all geared up to read some classic, I’m not sure whether I want to love it or not. If I don’t love it, then I’m all like, “Pshaw, I wasn’t missing anything! Stupid literati with your “canons of literature”! This book is entirely nonessential!”

But on the other hand, that leaves me wading through an often quite long book just because Harold Bloom told me too…and who’s the stupid one in that scenario? However, these books did not pose that delightful conundrum, because they were exactly as great as they were supposed to be. Although “predictably good” is the largest category in my ranking system, there are not so many entries below, since…there’s really just not that much I can say in a paragraph other than “Wow, you know how people always say this book is good? Well it definitely is”.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I already blogged about this one, a long time back.

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow – I have a love/hate relationship with Saul Bellow. What’s not to hate? All his books are about cranky old guys who go off on pages-long pseudophilosophical rants, argue with their emasculating wives, and conduct torrid brofairs with brilliant best buddies who eventually become their enemies. But all the love I have for him is due to this book – the first I read (and the last he published [at the age of 84]) – which contains every single one of the above elements, but makes them work, somehow. I think that in many of the books I’ve read, Bellow strives for the elegiac but takes a detour into self-pity (usually managing to struggle out before the end, though). This book is content to make no judgments and to draw a really masterful portrait of Abe Ravelstein (apparently based on Bellow’s colleague Allan Bloom). It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. However, while reading the book, I did have a tendency to screw up my face, adopt a witch’s scratchy voice, and mutter “RAAAAVELLLLSTEEEEEINN”. I’m pretty sure that’s a major point in its favor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre is totally cracked out. I kind of expected it to be a love story. It kind of wasn’t, which made me really glad, as the parts I most enjoyed were the parts without the insufferable Mr. Rochester. Like, one fourth of the book is taken up with Jane’s boarding school days, and one fourth of the book consists of a crazy interlude with these cousins she finds while she is wandering around homeless in Northern England.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Okay, this book is also definitely not a love story. I don’t know what it is. It is totally bizarre. Even the narrative frame is bizarre. A guy comes to rent a house and gets told the story of Heathcliff, etc, from his housekeeper. Also, half the novel is the continuation of the story into a second generation after most of the original cast of the story gets killed off. Totally awesome.

World War Z by Max Brooks – Okay, this is probably not in Harold Bloom’s Canon, but it definitely is in any canon of best SF books published in the last ten years. And it is one of the best. It’s very gripping.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – I kind of felt like I should mention this in the writeup somehow, because it was so good…but I can’t think of that much to say.

334 by Tom Disch – Thomas Disch is in Harold Bloom’s canon, but for his far less good novel Wings of Song (which is still really good). 334 is a series of interlinked stories about growing up in a near future (well, alternate present, since it’s basically set now [it was written in the early 70s]) with overpopulation, increased social control, etc. But the specifics of the SF scenario are not terribly important. It’s my favorite kind of dystopian-ish scenario: one that focuses on how people would actually live, and not on some crazy overthrowing-the-government or fighting-the-man situation.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’ve been a fan of Fitzgerald ever since my Sophomore year of college, but I resisted reading The Great Gatsby because I was forced to read it in high school (I didn’t remember anything about it except that I finished it). Surprise, it turned out pretty good.

Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy – Hardy was Ramanujan’s mentor. He was also apparently a pretty good mathematician himself. Late in life, he wrote this strange, heart-breaking document defending a life spent in study of pure mathematics. The brilliancy of this work lies in its brutal specificity. He’s not defending some abstract thing, he’s defending the specific worth of mathematics, of pure, useless math with no application or utility, and of his own life and life’s work, as in this quote:

My choice was right, then, if what I wanted was a reasonable comfortable and happy life. But solicitors and stockbrokers and bookmakers often lead comfortable and happy lives, and it is very difficult to see how the world is richer for their existence. Is there any sense in which I can claim that my life has been less futile than theirs? It seems to me again that there is only one possible answer: yes, perhaps, but, if so, for one reason only:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – I kind of thought that Berlin Stories was not a replicable feat, based as it was on the author being present at the right place, during the right epoch, with a unique insight into the subcultures of the Weimar Republic. But…it sort of was. I found the overarching loss-of-a-lover plot to be passable, and not particularly sad,  but the wealth of detail and observation and kindness in this novel surpasses that of the Berlin Stories.

Parallel Lives, Volume II by Plutarch – Okay, so, why is all of our study of the Roman Empire basically confined to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty? I mean, seriously, that might have been the height of their military-, artistic-, and insane sex-crazed dictatorship-related achievements, but I think we should definitely give some more love to the first century BC. This volume (at least in the Project Gutenberg version) goes into long detail about Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, and other such guys (with parallel explications of the lives of famous Greek tyrants like Kimon). Oh, and he talks about Cato and Aristides. A good volume, all in all (although the next one has Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, so…)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – This was definitely the best book I read this year and is perhaps my most favorite book ever. War and Peace has something like 500 named characters and maybe 30 major ones. Anna Karenina has seven major characters. It’s more than 400,000 words long. By the time it’s over, you know everything about those characters. Also, I received a major epiphany from the ending of this book. It was that good. Read the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation (the Oprah translation!). It is supposedly very good.

Democracy in America – Volume One by Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America is like pornography for the American intellectual. I’m not actually sure how true any of these observations is (or was), but it’s always great to hear a French person confirm all the things that Americans believe about ourselves. This volume is mostly about our system of government. I believe the next volume is mostly about our customs and mores, which sounds like it’s going to be totally awesome.

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

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.

TO BE CONTINUED!

December = Wrap-up Season, Baby!

I love all kinds of summarization: epilogues, epitaphs, eulogies, back-cover blurbs, New Yorker profiles, obituaries, the closing arguments in lawyer shows, dramatic monologues in which the villain reveals his plan, quarterly earnings reports, monthly bank statements, lifetime achievement awards, Nobel prize lectures, speeches in the locker room during halftime of the championship game, wedding toasts, Year’s Best collections, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, the Western Canon, boxes of knickknacks stored on the top shelf of the closet, report cards, rap sheets, resumes, author bios, Wikipedia entries – my god, of course, Wikipedia entries…how was that not the very first item in my list – and paragraph-long scattershot lists of disparate items that serve to define the furthest boundaries of a given category.

But the kind of summarization that I like the MOST is the year-end blog wrapup. And with December coming, it’s wrap-up season, baby.

I’ve been somewhat remiss in writing about all the books I’ve read this year, so I’m planning on subjectively sorting them into somewhat arbitrary categories and giving my little takes on them, and probably divulging my writing stats for the year, etc. All kinds of good stuff like that.