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