The List’s Biggest Surprises

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In literature, as in life, our expectations don’t always align with reality. We’re all a little wary of books that seem over-hyped and/or universally praised, and we’ve all found ourselves reeling with pleasure from a book we had every intention of loathing.

The 100 Greatest Books of All Time are full of surprises—at least, in my experience—despite their (mostly) familiar names and (often) widespread reputations. And even when so-called “Great” books leave me feeling disappointed, I’m thrilled that after all this time they’re still, in a sense, waiting to be discovered… by me, and by anyone else willing to try them out for ourselves.

98 books later, these are the classics that most took me by surprise.

Books I Thought I’d Love and Didn’t:

Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:

Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:

Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:

Miscellaneous Surprises The Challenge Had in Store for Me: 

  • The animal narrators were animal badasses.

Gone are the days when I presumed animal narrators were synonymous with schmaltzy maudlit. The Wind in the Willows is a hilarious romp, but there’s wisdom and wonder in the Wild Wood, too. The Call of the Wild is starkly gorgeous and startlingly provocative. Animal Farm is, I’m convinced, how all history should be told—briefly, and in allegory. And Charlotte’s Web is a quiet assault on the emotions, profound in its simplicity.

  • The big, bad books used to terrify adolescents aren’t as tough as they’d like to think.

In Search of Lost Time is monstrously long, sure—but it’s more than readable if you’ve got the time. The same goes for Anna Karenina and MiddlemarchThe scariest classics are the ones you’ve never heard of, lurking in the shadows of our literary closets: Tristram Shandy comes to mind, as does Absalom, Absalom! and Malone Dies.

On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick have earned their infamy (and then some).

  • To a certain extent, the classics are more alike than they are different.

Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening all have essentially the same plot: Depressed woman has an affair and then kills herself. The suicide methods differ, at least. But if there’s a formula for “classic” status, I suspect it would look something like Social Criticism + Religious Criticism + Adultery + Suicide, with liberal references to other classics.

Gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Most Unique Classics go to Malone Dies, Things Fall Apart, and The Trial, respectively. Finnegans Wake wins first prize in Most WTF, a separate category in which Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is runner up.

And, finally, the Greatest surprise of all:

I didn’t think he had it in him.

If books this old and this well-known still manage to surprise me, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the lit world is waiting to reveal. Here’s to 98 books and many more surprises, for you and for me. Happy reading!

#27 Native Son, Richard Wright

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The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a part-time job working at a dog kennel in my hometown. On my very first day, a 30-year-old stoner named Daryn gave me a tour of the facilities and showed me how to rotate the dogs between indoor and outdoor kennels. Most of the dogs were lodged individually, but dogs from the same household were allowed to stay together if requested by the owner.

When we reached the “large dog” wing, two mean-as-shit Rottweilers broke out in a fight. Daryn told me later they were brothers, which explained why they were sharing a kennel and why they were sharing it poorly. Daryn jumped into their kennel to wrestle them apart, shouting “Get the hose!” over his shoulder, and I did. I grabbed the hose and blasted the two dogs right in the chest, one after the other, startling them just enough for Daryn to split them up. I spent the next twenty minutes or so bandaging Daryn’s bloody hands, since he insisted “based on experience” that they didn’t need stitches.

As we left the break room, Daryn laughed and said, “Welcome to Best Friends Pet Resort.” And I remember thinking, This is a TERRIBLE first day on the job.

Native Son opens in 1930s Chicago and the dead of winter. Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas assures his mother of his plans to accept a job chauffeuring for the Daltons—a rich white family that, incidentally, owns the building Bigger lives in. That afternoon, he meets Mr. Dalton, who agrees to hire him and requests that he drive Mary, his daughter, to school.

But instead of going to school, Mary directs Bigger to pick up her Communist boyfriend, Jan, for a wild night on the town. On returning home early the next morning, Bigger helps a drunken Mary upstairs to her room and panics when her blind mother walks in the door. Hoping to quiet her so she doesn’t give him away, Bigger smothers Mary with a pillow—accidentally killing her.

In an effort to destroy the evidence of his crime, Bigger feeds Mary’s body into the furnace. But when her head doesn’t fit, he is forced to decapitate her with a knife (and, later, a hatchet) before returning home for a few hours of sleep.

And I remember thinking, No, THAT is a terrible first day on the job.

This is not to say that Bigger is a likable, sympathetic character. In many ways, he is aggressively unlikable: a violent, contentious bully and rapist, Bigger feels little remorse for killing Mary and actually forgets about his subsequent attack on Bessie (the girlfriend he hopes to silence when it’s clear she can’t tag along on his getaway).

But Wright intended, all along, to write a monster—not a hero. Bigger isn’t meant to be likable; he is meant to demonstrate how the cycle of oppression, hatred, and violence so deeply rooted in U.S. race relations is both self-perpetuating and universally destructive. A poor black man with an eighth grade education, Bigger doesn’t bother with hopes and dreams for the future: With only odd jobs available to support his family, a cramped and rat-infested apartment that still manages to be a ripoff, and a sense of self informed only by the mocking, hateful portrayals of black people in the media, why would he? In his own words:

A guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing.

For the reader, as for Bigger, the events of the novel feel like a series of inevitabilities slowly closing in. From its earliest pages, Bigger expresses a generalized apprehension—a feeling “like something awful’s going to happen” to him. When something does—Mary’s death—it’s an accident, but he knows no one will believe him. “I knew that some time or other they was going to get me for something,” he says. “I’m black. I don’t have to do nothing for ’em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I’m a goner.” The discovery of Mary’s body seems inevitable, as the hours tick by, as does Bigger’s imminent flight. Bessie’s slaughter seems inevitable the more she refuses to be his accomplice, and Bigger’s capture seems inevitable the more his manhunt grows in fury. His execution is, of course, a given—and Bigger knows that, too.

Still, murder makes Bigger feel, for the first time ever, powerful. He is both smug and outraged when the Dalton family and a group of reporters underestimate his intelligence in assuming he had nothing to do with Mary’s disappearance or the ransom note he fabricated. His actions following Mary’s death are, absurdly, among the first decisions he ever makes by and for himself. But, ultimately—inevitably—he winds up back where he started:

Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

In Native Son, Wright forces us to confront the gruesome realities of racism and the role we play in it—how fear and hate are both cause and effect when it comes to racial oppression. Just as whites dehumanize(d) blacks, Bigger dehumanizes them, too, leading on both sides to violence. The stereotype of the “barbaric black aggressor,” like most stereotypes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the cycle continues to spin its wheels.

Bigger embodies all of this and more as a black man standing before the “looming mountain of white hate.” He has no choices in life, and therefore no control. And, within this context—our own shared heritage as a nation—Wright asks us: Is Bigger individually responsible for his crimes, or does society share some of the blame? Is it fair to condemn the villains we ourselves created? And is it possible, for one person or many, to turn the tide of the inevitable?

In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright attempts to account for the resentment, anger, anxiety, and despair that define Bigger and his real-world counterparts. He describes the “Biggers” in his own life, and the fates they met with, and what he learned from them. In pulling at the threads of their shared experience, Wright unravels a truth universally acknowledged yet often taken for granted: We are all, in our essence, alike—and it is our environments that differ.

Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears. We live by an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document of government, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties, that every man and woman should have the opportunity to realize himself, to seek his own individual fate and goal, his own peculiar and untranslatable destiny. I don’t say that Bigger knew this in the terms in which I’m speaking of it; I don’t say that any such thought ever entered his head. His emotional and intellectual life was never that articulate. But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time. Bigger had all of this in him, dammed up, buried, implied, and I had to develop it in fictional form.

Wright notes, in closing, that early American authors “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene.” If only they had lived to see the 20th century, he says, they would find enough tragedy in the African American experience to satisfy their creative appetite: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” 

Harsh words, maybe—but ones we need to hear, and keep hearing. Which just so happens to be Wright’s specialty.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Wright insists that he doesn’t know “if Native Son is a good book or a bad book.” My vote? Neither. Native Son is a great book, earning its place on The List and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

“Don’t you love me?”
“About as much as you love me.”
“How much is that?”
“You ought to know.”

Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which.

But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.

Read: 2016

(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word:

GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my moment of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been. Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory-level Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

#100 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

My love for Midnight’s Children was slow-burning. But if a wildfire can begin with a match—and I’m pretty sure they can—then that’s what happened to me.

As it turned out, all my initial struggles to follow the large cast of characters introduced in its early chapters were moot, since Rushdie dumps them all to make way for a new troupe of players right around the time Saleem Sinai is born.

Oh, yeah, that. Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides to the second with the birth of an independent India in 1947. This becomes sort of important later on, when his entire life mirrors, maps, and modifies the course of Indian history. He also has superpowers, as does every child born between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the night India gains its independence.

Don’t expect a kind of mid-century X-Men set in Bombay, though. The Midnight’s Children in general play a relatively (and unexpectedly) minor role in the book, and we hear more about their superpowers than we actually observe. If I had to lodge one complaint about the first half of Midnight’s Children, it would be that Rushdie, politician-style, promises much more than he delivers.

That all changes in the second half.

We accompany Saleem through his childhood misadventures, his move to Pakistan, his time at war, his stay in a magician’s slum, the birth of his son, and the writing of his memoir. We meet his friends and enemies, his entire extended family, doctors and soldiers, state leaders and prophets, an actress, a witch, a nanny, and a snake charmer. And even that doesn’t begin to tell this story.

I wish I knew more about Indian history before picking up Midnight’s Children, but I learned plenty along the way. Indira Gandhi actually sued Rushdie for defamation in 1984—a suit that came down, in the end, to a single sentence. Rushdie and his publishers agreed to remove the sentence from future editions of the book, and the case was dropped. He reflects on the incident in his 2005 introduction to the novel:

It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight’s Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel’s portrait of those Emergency years.

Within a few weeks, adds Rushdie, Indira Gandhi was dead—assassinated by her own bodyguards.

This wouldn’t be the only time Rushdie was threatened by the powers that be: In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers over controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses (a novel inspired, in part, by the life of Muhammad). All assassination attempts on Rushdie have been unsuccessful, but his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991.

But that’s another story for another blog post. If you can manage to read Rushdie’s work without rioting, issuing a fatwā, or assassinating anyone, you’re in for a treat. Midnight’s Children is one of those remarkable books planned so thoroughly and executed so tightly that a thousand and one threads come together not just once, but countless times. The novel’s timeline is vast, and its scope—inevitably—monumental. Thematically, Rushdie bounces back and forth between time, truth, family, politics, religion, sex, and fatalism—and his feat of acrobatics is so stunning that every other writer gymnast today is left feeling a little jealous.

Midnight’s Children is sad but not depressing, beautiful but not pretentious. It’s an iconic work of magical realism, but its merits transcend genre. In other, simpler, better words:

I highly recommend.

And I think I’ll leave it at that.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yup.

Favorite Quotes:

The children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good.

Padma — did you have, when you were little, a world of your own? A tin orb, on which were imprinted the continents and oceans and polar ice? Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand? No, of course not; but I did. It was a world full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North Pole, it bore the legend: MADE AS ENGLAND. By the August of the nodding signboards and the rapaciousness of the Narlikar women, this tin world had lost its stand; I found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then, my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. In the aftermath of the Sabarmati affair, when the air was filled with the repentance of my mother and the private tragedies of Methwold’s heirs, I clanked my tin sphere around the Estate, secure in the knowledge that the world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and also at my feet.

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each ‘I’, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

Read: 2016

#66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

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To my very great surprise, I felt an immediate and intense bond with the fierce but kindhearted Clarissa this book is named for. Granted, no one has ever tried to force me into marriage with a middle-aged prick, or conned me into living in a house above a brothel, or ordered my arrest on false charges just to watch my spirit break. But this book isn’t so much about what happens to Clarissa as how it makes her feel.

And how it makes her feel is pissed.

Published in 1748 on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, Clarissa is tremendously long, tediously slow, and stiflingly intimate. But it’s also meticulously crafted, remarkably thoughtful, and endlessly moving. By far the most extensive character study of The List, Clarissa is an epistolary novel of epic proportions: 1,499 pages, to be exact. Letters between Clarissa and her BFF Anna, as well as Lovelace and his BFF Belford, make up the bulk of the narrative.

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Yep: Clarissa‘s the one on the bottom.

When the story kicks off, Clarissa is already knee-deep in a sea of drama. Her family wants her to marry the un-marriable likes of Roger Solmes and, when she refuses, locks her up in her own bedroom. Clarissa’s crush, Robert Lovelace—a well-known rake hated by her entire family—tricks her into running away with him. In an apartment above a brothel, lost in the unholy streets of London, Lovelace schemes, manipulates, and harasses Clarissa into marrying him or sleeping with him—whichever comes first.

Clarissa, more than a little resentful at all these affronts to her reputation and integrity, plots her escape(s) with occasional success but too little haste. Lovelace, a practiced sociopath, calls most of the shots—and although Clarissa manages one final getaway worthy of Lovelace himself, his London minions call for her arrest on false charges and see her thrown in jail. This last indignity is too much for Clarissa, who, after her release, fades out in a slow death. In easily the most satisfying moment of the novel, Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

One of the quickest ways to make me hate a protagonist is for the writer to tell me how much I should love them (see: Isabel Archer, Rory Gilmore). I Just Can’t with the whole “look-how-special-and-superior-this-protagonist-is” Festival of Praise that, by the way, only ever seems to follow female characters. I’m convinced it’s a symptom of the Madonna/Whore Complex that terrorizes classic fiction, and let’s just say I’ve never had much patience for Madonnas.

But somehow my opinion of Clarissa survived even this. Yes, it was annoying to hear every character gush uninterruptedly about Clarissa’s consummate perfection. Yes, I lost count of the references to Clarissa’s flawless beauty, unsurpassed intellect, and “angelic” purity. Yes, I resented the implication that there is one right way to be a woman, and that way is Clarissa.

But somehow Clarissa remains, for the most part, utterly relatable. It’s hard not to identify with a character who puts her every thought on paper with such careful precision. She lays out her emotions, her motives, and her logic with charismatic warmth, showing down even Lovelace’s seductive (if warped) arguments. Indeed, you root for her all the more for being surrounded by villains and lunatics.

Because, of course, while Clarissa is an interesting read, it’s also an infuriating one. Lovelace pressures Clarissa into corresponding with him, tricks her into running away with him, coerces her into living with him, guilts her into spending time with him, violates her privacy, gropes her without her consent, and then, ultimately, drugs and rapes her—and still sees HIMSELF as a victim. He curses her virtue as the barrier that keeps him from what he wants most, even though her virtue is the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. He is regularly occupied by efforts to “punish” (his word) the people women around him for their every minor betrayal doing anything he doesn’t specifically condone/authorize.

Clarissa, for her part, berates and blames herself for her errors in judgment, views her disobedience as a cautionary tale, and wishes for death. She never gives up hope of making amends with her garbage family, and pities Lovelace almost as much as she loathes him. And then there’s the whole part where she just has to emerge from her final hiding place multiple times a day to go to church, knowing she risks recapture by Lovelace. Just pray at home, Clarissa! Or, better yet, face the fact that God might not be listening anymore.

So, yeah, infuriating. I spent many of Clarissa‘s 1,499 pages with my head in my hands, screaming, What is wrong with you people??? But I know what’s wrong with them. The 18th century is what’s wrong with them. Anna and her mother go from urging Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace in one letter to encouraging her to marry him in the next. Belford excoriates Lovelace for his treatment of Clarissa but doesn’t bother to, like, CALL THE POLICE. All in all, this book is a feminist nightmare: a parade of male entitlement, a showcase of rape culture, and a testament to just how little control women have had, historically, over their own destinies.

Highlights of the novel are the bullshit-intolerant Anna, often referred to as “flighty” or “saucy” (and, on one memorable occasion, “saucebox”), and the darkly hilarious scene in which Clarissa buys her own coffin. Lowlights are everything Lovelace says, does, and thinks, and when Clarissa’s family finally forgives her in a letter that arrives one day too late.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes, but I would never recommend it to a friend. This is a book for masochists, written by a sadist.

You’ve been warned.

Favorite Quotes:

I imagined for a long while that we were born to make each other happy: but, quite the contrary; we really seem to be sent to plague one another.

I may venture to say, that many of those who have escaped censure, have not merited applause.

For what are words but the body and dress of thought?

Poor man! He has had a loss in losing me! I have the pride to think so, because I think I know my own heart. I have had none in losing him! 

But love, me thinks, as short a word as it is, has a broad sound with it.

Read: 2016-2017

#13 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Happy Thursday, everyone! I hope you’re in the mood for a Quote-tacular Quote-a-palooza, because that’s what you’re getting today.

I’m not going to do a long-form review of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) for three reasons: 

  1. The book follows multiple generations of the Buendía family in their fictional hometown of Macondo, and many of them share the same name. Writing a brief and/or coherent plot summary would be impossible (or adjacent to it).
  2. It’s full of strange themes and stranger events, and I wouldn’t want any of these to sound off-putting. One Hundred Years of Solitude is INCREDIBLE, and you owe it a read.
  3. My attempt at a review would probably come out like a garbled chain of superlatives, leaving no room for wit and no time for insight. (In other words, what’s the point?)

So instead of going the traditional route, I’m simply going to copy in all my favorite quotes. This way, you can taste a few delicious morsels or dip one of your wrinkly toes in. This way, you’ll get a sense of Márquez’s style, his timelessness, his surrealism, and his magic. This way, you’ll catch a glimpse of genius undiluted by my rambling.

This way, we all win.

Here we go. Happy reading!

That was the way he always was, alien to the existence of his sons, partly because he considered childhood as a period of mental insufficiency.

Normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war.

In the shattered schoolhouse where for the first time he had felt the security of power, a few feet from the room where he had come to know the uncertainty of love, Arcadio found the formality of death ridiculous.

He started writing again. For many hours, balancing on the edge of the surprises of a war with no future, in rhymed verse he resolved his experience on the shores of death.

“You have taken this horrible game very seriously and you have done well because you are doing your duty,” she told the members of the court. “But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.”

He had reached the end of all hope, beyond glory and the nostalgia of glory.

[Her] actions had been a mortal struggle between a measureless love and an invincible cowardice.

Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt when they gave their decision was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia. 

The locked room, about which the spiritual life of the house revolved in former times, was known from that time on as the “chamberpot room.” 

He could not understand why he had needed so many words to explain what he felt in war because one was enough: fear. 

The spirit of her invincible heart guided her through the shadows.

Once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle. 

Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.

Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I WILL NOT DIGNIFY THIS WITH AN ANSWER.

Read: 2014

Reading Retrospective: 2016

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Howdy, folks. Sorry to be the bearer of old news, but I’m here to remind you of the not-so-distant yesteryear of 2016.

I decided to do a Reading Retrospective for 2016 not because my reading year was in any way exceptional, but because:

(a) I like making book recommendations,
(b) 2016 mostly sucked, except for my literary undertakings, and
(c) I might not get another chance—at least, not anytime soon. I’m on track to finish The List by April or May, at which point The Challenge (and this blog) will come to an end. Far from being sad about this, I am ecstatic to move on to other reading and writing projects and, hopefully, get a refund on my sanity.

So here it is: Your very own tour of My Year in Books, 2016 Edition. There were thrills and slogs and frolics and dawdles and everything in between, so plan your route carefully. God knows I didn’t.

First things first: I read a total of 57 books last year—unless, that is, you count In Search of Lost Time as six books instead of one. (I do.) (The List doesn’t.) Then I read 62.

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Me + books + sepia = ? (Not my bookshelf, BTW, but it might as well be.)

Here’s a breakdown of the 57 books that nudged their way into my 2016. Of those 57:

  • 17 were classics for The List (if ISoLT = 1)
  • 40 were purely for “pleasure” (at least, in theory)
  • 45 were works of fiction
  • 12 were non-fiction (of which 8 were memoirs)
  • 47 were first-time reads
  • 10 were rereads
  • 21 were audiobooks
  • 36 were paper books
  • 46 were “for adults”
  • 7 were “for young adults”
  • 4 were “for children”

Now for a summary of the books that stood out the most, in good ways or bad:

Best First-Time Reads:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (Illuminating.)
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen. (Playful.)
  • America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert. (Clever.)
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Penetrating.)
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (Thought-provoking.)
  • Shrill by Lindy West. (Necessary.)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. (Validating.)

Best Rereads:

  • You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane. (Charming.)
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Spot-on.)
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. (Hilarious.)
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. (Nostalgic.)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. (Witty.)

Worst Reads:

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. (Twisted.)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. (Boring.)
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. (Stupid.)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. (Tedious.)
  • Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Listless.)

Longest Book:

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (At 6 volumes and 4,217 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s one of the longest books anyone has ever read, if Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records have anything to say about it. Proust and I were together, on and off, for all of 2016—and a little sick of each other by the end of it.)

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It’s possible Volume 3 spent too much time in the sun.

The longest single-volume book I read was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, at 1,120 pages.

Shortest Book:

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (It may be short, but it packs a thousand gut-punches.)

Wait. Now that I think about it, We Should All Be Feminists was probably shorter. And while we’re on the subject, it, too, packs a thousand gut-punches—but mostly to the patriarchy.

The moral of this story is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Size. (If you don’t make room for the little guy, he’ll just develop a complex.)

Pleasant-est Surprises:

  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Touching.)
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. (Compelling.)
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. (Arresting.)
  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. (Revelatory.)

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding. (Mournful.)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. (Self-aggrandizing.)
  • Naked by David Sedaris. (Creepy, I guess? Maybe he shouldn’t narrate his own audiobooks?)
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (Disappointing ONLY because nothing can outdo Beloved, which I knew before I started.)

Most Original Reads:

  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. (First novel, anyone?)
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. (Seriously, WTF?)
  • The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams. (Absurd and unpredictable.)
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (Philosophical and eloquent.)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl. (Empowering and literally magical.)

Sad Books I Hope to Repress ASAP:

  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. (Cue tears.)
  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Cue loud cries of “Noooo!”)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (Cue slow torture.)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright. (Cue outraged lectures directed at anyone willing to listen.)

Memorable Characters I Couldn’t Repress Even If I Wanted to:

  • Achilles, from The Iliad. (Crybaby.)
  • Lady Susan Vernon, from Lady Susan. (Devious.)
  • Ringer, from The 5th Wave. (Badass.)
  • Sergeant Dime, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (Commanding.)
  • Tyler Durden, from Fight Club. (Misguided.)
  • Bernadette Fox, from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (Misunderstood.)

Book-to-Film Adaptations I Scrambled to Read Just in Time:

  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I loved all the films, for the record—especially Love and Friendship, based on Lady Susan.

Standard-Ass Classics That Left Little to No Impression:

  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • U.S.A. by John Dos Passos.

Largely Unremarkable Memoirs (a.k.a. Why Do I Keep Reading Memoirs?):

  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
  • Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles.
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer.
  • Naked by David Sedaris.

Miscellaneous Reads I Didn’t Love or Hate Enough to Fit Into Any of the Above Categories:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Who’s That Girl by Mhairi McFarlane.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
  • Paper Towns by John Green.

And now, before I say my final “Thank you and good night”Fuck off forever” to the atrocity that was last year, here’s a quick glimpse at all the high points of my 2016. I hope you join me up here sometime; the view’s fantastic.

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Best Quotes of 2016:

Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want.

-Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age!—just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.

-Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

-Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

Social media is a great tool for all of us introverts and decent people alike as it speeds up the time between thinking someone is great and realizing they’re the worst.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

-François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel

“That’s right,” she told the girls. “You are bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.”

-Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

-Homer, The Iliad

I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.

-Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.

-Lindy West, Shrill

“I once slept with this guy who had an ENORMOUS penis. Like, it was a problem. The condoms wouldn’t even fit. I was so overwhelmed that I accidentally laughed at it. And then it shrunk. He was not pleased.”
“That should be a comic book. Penis giganticus is his superpower, and women laughing at it is his kryptonite.”

-Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.

-Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Bloody fucking dog pig black-livered bastard from hell. I hope his face gets put on a porcupine.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

-Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.

-Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!

-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

If you stare at the center of the universe, there is a coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us.
That’s why we have to care about each other.

-David Levithan, Every Day

A very happy New Year to you all. And, as always, happy reading!