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.