According to Oscar Wilde,
It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
In an effort to remain someone for whom I can have respect, I have been trying my hardest not to devolve into constantly reading fluff. Even though I’m haven’t yet been quite intrepid enough to pick up the various postmodern novels bound together with those I read in my Comparative Literature classes, I’ve still been trying to stick to things I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading on the Metro.
It’s a diverse and international collection, but the thread through all of the following books is history. From historical fiction to novels written in other eras to books exploring the way the past is inextricably linked to the present, all of these works are well worth a little of your own time.
Haruki Murakami: Dance Dance Dance (Dansu Dansu Dansu)
Ben Stone recommended that I read anything by Haruki Murakami, so the next time I was at the library I dutifully looked for his name among the fiction shelves. The only book the library had by Murakami was Dance Dance Dance. I was suspicious of the title, but since it seemed interesting enough so I took it home with me.
And I am so glad I did.
The story follows a nameless protagonist who returns to a location from his past in an effort to make sense of what has happened since. The book borders on the surreal, but if you relax, slip into it, and accept that not everything will make sense, it is wonderful. What struck me the most about Dance Dance Dance was the imagery. Murakami certainly has a way with word-pictures. I can only wish that I had been able to experience it in the original Japanese.
This book left me feeling melancholy yet oddly satisfied (or satisfied yet oddly melancholy – I’m still not sure). I highly recommend it, and will certainly be on the lookout for more Murakami novels myself.
Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies & River of Smoke
These recommendations came from Matt Miller.
These two novels are some of the most richly and meticulously detailed works of historical fiction I have ever read. The first of the two, Sea of Poppies is set in colonial India in 1838, right before the Opium Wars. The aspect of this book that struck me the most was the way in which the dialect of the dialogue instantly immerses the reader in the the world of the story
The second in what will be the Ibis Trilogy (the third book is not yet published) is River of Smoke. When I picked it up I was looking forward to re-immersing myself in the language and locales of Sea of Poppies, but River of Smoke is surprisingly different in scope and feel from the first book. While many of the characters carry over from the first book, is set in primarily Canton as the Opium Wars are beginning in 1839. My disappointment barely lasted beyond the first few pages however, as River of Smoke turned out to be just as arresting and deeply imagined as Sea of Poppies.
Tana French: Faithful Place & Broken Harbor
Since I loved In the Woods so much when Kate Williamson recommended it to me, I had to track down the rest of the ongoing series. You can find my reviews of In the Woods and The Likeness here. The third and fourth books, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, were enough like the first two that they were satisfying, yet different enough that they remained unpredictable.
Each book centers around a character who had a supporting role in the preceding story. In the Woods is from a detective’s point of view, The Likeness from his partner’s point of view, Faithful Place from her former boss’s point of view, and Broken Harbor from his old rival’s point of view. I appreciated this device immensely, as it meant that with every succeeding book the worlds of the preceding ones became richer and more detailed as previously unsympathetic or minor characters became more three-dimensional and their personalities and motivations were revealed to be more complex than it initially appeared.
Tana French’s novels also fit extremely well with the theme of history running through this post, as each book examines an event in the central character’s past in terms of how it affects their work and relationships in the present. This focus on motivation and the psyche of the individual takes what would otherwise be ordinary police thrillers and elevates them into something much more compelling.
I would highly recommend the whole series.
Lev Grossman: Codex
Codex was a fast-paced, gripping read…that was ultimately disappointing. The set-up of the novel was fascinating, yet it did not achieve enough depth to remain so. Furthermore, the ending felt rushed and none of the many puzzle pieces fit together quite as well as they were meant to.
So read Lev Grossman, certainly. Just stick to The Magicians and The Magician King (which I did not review in my first post but probably should have). The first is a work of fantasy that borrows shamelessly from the Harry Potter series and the Chronicles of Narnia (and slyly alludes to many other well-known works of fantasy), yet somehow manages to still stand up in it’s own right. The second takes the story further, to a darker, less Christian, version of Narnia itself. Both are lots of fun (if something so dark can be fun) for avid Fantasy readers. How many references can you catch?
Jane Austen: Everything
I just went on a Jane Austen binge. I read Persuasion, and then Mansfield Park, and then Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and finally Pride & Prejudice.
What can I say? They’re all classics for a reason.
The real beauty of Jane Austen novels lies not in the romance, but in the characterizations. Her characterizations are as astute and well-drawn as Dickens’, without crossing the line into caricature (although some do come close – Mr. Collins, anyone?).
So, read these. You too, men.
Alexandre Dumas (Père): The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) & The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo)
The Three Musketeers was one of my favorite books in high school. In fact, on a somewhat related note, my two best friends and I dressed up as three musketeers in high school. Not the fashionable Parisian guards…the candy bars.
Anyway, revisiting The Three Musketeers lately inspired me to pick up the much longer (although ultimately much more absorbing) Count of Monte Cristo. I had previously tried to read The Three Musketeers once before, but gave it up as a bad job when I realized the reason I suddenly couldn’t figure out who any of the characters were or what was going on halfway through the book because the version I had was not only abridged, but badly so. Reading that version of The Count of Monte Cristo was almost as bad as having the ending to A Tale of Two Cities ruined by the heavily, HEAVILY abridged learn-to-read version that I read in 2nd grade. WHO MAKES A LEARN-TO-READ VERSION OF A TALE OF TWO CITIES FOR CHILDREN? WHO DOES THAT? (But actually, if anyone else has ever heard of this, please let me know. I am trying to find it again because I am so curious. The book would be about the size of your palm and has a pink spine).
Wow, so many sidetracks. SO. The Count of Monte Cristo – I’d be willing to say that it’s one of the best and most epic tales of revenge EVER. Well worth making it through all 1,200 or so pages.
If you’re looking for even more mini book reviews, check out the first installment of “Books Worth Reading”. Please share any recommendations of your own in the comments!