#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?


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

Eligible: Abandon All Joy, Ye Who Enter Here

See original image

Matchmaking books and readers would be one of my favorite hobbies if I got to do it more often—that is, if I had more friends. It is nothing short of a thrill when someone comes to me and says, “I loved that book you recommended. What should I read next?” or “What did you think of such-and-such? Is it worth the time?”

But every once in a while, I come across a book so appalling I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every once in a while, I feel like rushing from one acquaintance to the next to un-recommend a book—to remove it from the shelves of, first, my friends, and then my enemies, on a singular mission to make it un-exist. Every once in a while, I dedicate an entire blog post to a book that made me wish I could un-learn to read.

Most recently, I had this experience with Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Hating Eligible was not a foregone conclusion, despite my love for the source material. I’m not an Austen purist; in fact, I love adaptations. I’ve seen countless film versions of her novels, as well as a theatrical rendition of Pride and Prejudice, and enjoyed them all from start to finish. I even loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if only for turning the Bennet sisters into fearless, impeccably coiffed warriors. I’m a fan of the looser adaptations, too, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Jane Austen Book Club, and I laughed at every cringeworthy plot twist in 2013’s Austenland.

But Eligible wasn’t just a listless reimagining of Austen’s original; it was dull, irritating, and offensive. Parallels between the two are abundant and apparent, but usually clumsy and crude. That said, it is, perhaps, the more obvious deviations from Austen’s starting point(s) that precede Eligible‘s weakest stumbling blocks.

“Innocent until proven guilty,” you say? Fair enough.

I haven’t even launched into my opening argument.

Eligible is set (mostly) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which in itself feels wrong. Pride and Prejudice is a quintessentially British story begging for rolling hills and sleepy shires. Of all the things that went wrong with this story, though, I’m willing to overlook the setting—so Cincinnati, Ohio, it is. Liz and Jane Bennet are back home from New York, caring for their father post-heart surgery. Both are nearing 40 and unmarried, though Liz is dating the (married) douchebag who strung her along for a decade and Jane is pursuing motherhood through artificial insemination.

The younger Bennet sisters are aggressively useless. Lydia and Kitty, in their mid-twenties, are CrossFit gym bunnies who text a lot. Mary is working on yet another online Master’s degree. All three live at home and freeload off their parents, who have mismanaged their finances to the point of bankruptcy.

Enter “Chip” Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Chip is best known to the Cincinnati elite as the star of last season’s Bachelor-esque reality show Eligible. Darcy is a neurosurgeon, obvi. Each combines enormous wealth with zero personality to make a perfect catch. Chip and Jane date enthusiastically until Jane finds out she’s pregnant via donor sperm. Chip’s sister Caroline jumps on the opportunity to push them apart, because that’s a thing that happens in the 21st century.

Liz and Darcy engage in Hate Sex until, for Darcy, it turns into Love Sex. His attempt at a grand gesture is to knock on Liz’s door and announce that “she’s neither beautiful nor funny, but he’s in love with her anyway, although that may just be the oxytocin talking.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much.) A few misunderstandings later, Liz proposes. Chip and Jane reconcile in the kind of happy ending only a reality TV wedding can bring about.

A large portion of the plot revolves around Liz’s efforts to save the Bennets from themselves—because God forbid a family of privilege actually live with the consequences of their poor decision-making. Mr. Bennet, at 60+ years of age, doesn’t even have health insurance.

Lucky for them, Super Liz is around to act as cook, maid, chauffeur, accountant, real estate agent, exterminator, and mover to this lazy brood of asshats. She spends all her savings bailing them out of their various financial messes, then proceeds to co-sign Kitty and Mary’s new lease and pay their rent. You could argue, in one sense, that Liz retains the original character’s status as The Only Sensible Daughter… but a sensible person would know when to quit. Instead of rooting for her to set the Bennets straight, you root for her to wash her hands of their superficiality, disrespect, and ingratitude and hightail it back to New York.

Add to this a Glee-like approach to “social issues”—a sort of heavy-handed, transparent, [insert issue here] strategy—and you’ve got an exhausting, insufferable read in your hands. If it’s not Darcy’s anorexic sister, it’s Jane’s lesbian roommates or Kitty’s black boyfriend. I would appreciate the diversity if Sittenfeld’s main characters were any less bigoted—that is, if any of the minority characters were treated like people instead of problems.

Did I mention this book is gratuitously transphobic? The major conflict of the story—intended to mirror the original Lydia’s elopement with ne’er-do-well George Wickham at the cost of her reputation—is when Sittenfeld’s Lydia elopes with her transgender boyfriend. The Bennets are, at best, confused (e.g., Jane and Liz)—and, at worst, horrified (e.g., Mrs. Bennet). Darcy is applauded all around for restoring harmony by explaining gender dysphoria as a birth defect… because that was easier than persuading Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to be tolerant.

Believe it or not, the dialogue is even worse than the plot, which is even worse than the character development. For all her determination to update Pride and Prejudice to the year 2013, Sittenfeld clung steadfastly to 19th-century language. Here’s Liz’s response to Jane’s bewilderment at Chip’s reality TV fame:

“Oh, Jane,” Liz said. “So innocent and unspoiled. You’ve heard of the reality show Eligible, right?”

And here’s Darcy at his first run-in with the Bennets:

I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.

Painfully provincial! I would call this book painfully provincial if it didn’t reflect poorly on my manners. Y’all know I’m delicate AF.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a more overtly feminist Bennet clan in this modernized take, you will be disappointed on that front, too. All of the novel’s most “independent” women—Jane, Liz, and Liz’s BFF Charlotte—uproot their lives to move across the country for men they barely know:

  • Charlotte meets the Bennets’ step-cousin Willie exactly one time at a party. After exchanging a handful of emails with him, she quits her job at Procter & Gamble to move into his house in the Bay Area. She is then horrified to discover that he snores, which should be the least of her worries IMHO.
  • By the time Liz proposes to Darcy, they’ve only spoken a handful of times, including their bouts of (so-called) Hate Sex. Liz, who loves NYC, announces mid-proposal that she knows she’ll “need to move to Cincinnati”—as if it’s out of the question that Darcy might, at any point, leave his job to live with her in New York.
  • Only Jane and Chip actually date before moving in together, if only for a brief period. She follows him to LA when he decides to make an abrupt career change, after zero discussion of her own work prospects. (Let’s hope that baby is super fulfilling, amirite?)

This book goes from bad to worse so often that the feat seems impossible—like one of those auditory illusions that keep descending until your brain implodes. Eligible, as Michiko Kakutani puts it,

reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody.

Ursula Le Guin—channeling Emma‘s Mr. Knightley—declares, more pointedly,

It was badly done.

I wish I hadn’t read it. I hope no one else ever reads it. I physically cringe at the thought that Jane Austen inspired it. Not only are her subtle wit and human insight absent from this grotesque P&P mutation, but they’ve been replaced with corrupt characterizations, infuriating plot points, and belligerently shabby writing.

Has Eligible ruined me forever when it comes to Austen adaptations? Definitely not. But I must have learned nothing from Pride and Prejudice after all, because I won’t be giving Sittenfeld a second chance at a first impression.

#8 In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust


Proust: The writer who would rather die than edit

Guys, I did it. I finished Proust. All six volumes and 4,217 pages of him. I did it.

And it didn’t comprehensively suck.

Some of it sucked, I’ll admit. Proust is a true test of reader stamina, especially when he veers into complex and (occasionally) nonsensical musings on philosophy and social interaction. In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) is dense, and abstract, and low on both action and dialogue.

But it’s also thoughtful, and insightful, and extraordinarily crafted. And when Proust veers into relatable and (thankfully) sensical musings on philosophy and social interaction, it’s mesmerizing in a way I had never encountered before.

In Search of Lost Time is, at its core, a reflection on the nature of time and memory. One of Proust’s central themes is what he calls “involuntary memory,” a phenomenon in which an everyday object or activity evokes a specific memory of the past. (Involuntary memory occurs in contrast with voluntary memory, or the deliberate recollection of past events.) The most famous scene of the novel occurs early on, when the narrator dips a madeleine into his tea and suddenly remembers doing so years earlier, as a child, at his family’s country home in Combray.

But there’s much more, of course, filling up Proust’s 4,000+ pages. Proust ruminates, alternately, on snobbery, jealousy, deceit, grief, art, identity, and homosexuality. His tone is intensely intimate and immersive—a sort of six-volume showcase of introversion and introspection. For all that, though, Proust’s style is largely accessible; it’s the sheer length of the average sentence, and the work as a whole, that poses the greatest challenge.

Because, yes, In Search of Lost Time is mercilessly long. Proust died, apparently, not before he finished writing it, but before he finished revising it—otherwise he might have seen, and fixed, some of those “tl;dr” notes his editor surely left in the margins. ISoLT contains one of the longest sentences in literature, at over 900 words, and Proust doesn’t hesitate to spend the better part of an entire volume on just one or two scenes.

So, yeah—it’s long. It’s slow. It’s the opposite of a Tweet, or a meme, or a soundbite, or really anything we love about 21st-century communication. I spent a year reading it, off and on, charging through two volumes in 2-3 months and then taking a much-needed breather before diving back in to the next two. Take it from me that your ROI will be disappointing unless you’re prepared to sit down with it, in a quiet space short on distractions, where your thoughts and Proust’s can mingle freely, over and over and over again. This is not a book to take on the subway, or squeeze into the odd spare moment. (Believe me; I’ve tried.)

But if you’re patient with it, and persevere, and unplug, and give it the time and energy it’s due, it just might be worth it. (You might still hate it, of course, but at least you made a legit attempt.)

As I mentioned, there’s not much plot in ISoLT, but here are a few highlights of Proust’s masterpiece of anti-plot:

  • The narrator recalls his anxiety when, as a child, his mother couldn’t come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.
  • The narrator eats a madeleine dipped in tea and experiences his first “involuntary memory.”
  • The narrator learns that a family friend, Swann, married the “unsuitable” Odette.
  • The narrator, as a teenager, falls in love with Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte.
  • The narrator, suspecting Gilberte does not love him back, pretends to fall out of love with her, and then actually does.
  • The narrator befriends Robert de Saint-Loup, the nephew of another family friend.
  • The narrator falls in love with Albertine during a summer holiday on the coast of Normandy.
  • The narrator stalks Madame de Guermantes, a member of the aristocracy with whom he is fascinated.
  • Everyone discusses the Dreyfus Affair.
  • The narrator attends various social gatherings characterized by incessant gossip.
  • The narrator’s grandmother dies.
  • Swann dies.
  • The narrator brings Albertine to live in his family’s Paris apartment.
  • The narrator alternates between boredom with Albertine and jealous suspicion over her lesbian love affairs.
  • The narrator pretends to break up with Albertine, then backpedals, only to find her gone in the morning.
  • The narrator contrives ways to persuade Albertine to return of her own accord, fails, and eventually falls out of love with her too.
  • The narrator discovers the truth about Albertine (that is, that she’s a lesbian, which was obvious from the beginning).
  • The narrator visits Venice with his mother.
  • Gilberte, the narrator’s first love, announces her engagement to his friend Robert de Saint-Loup.
  • World War I happens (the narrator spends most of it in a sanatorium for his health).
  • The narrator returns to Paris, attends a party, barely recognizes anyone, and realizes he is old.
  • The narrator finally finds the inspiration and motivation to write his novel/life story.

I felt largely neutral toward the narrator in the early volumes, but came to loathe him in the later ones. He is narcissistic, manipulative, obsessive, and judgmental, not to mention a bit of a whiner. He repeatedly finds himself “unable to write,” despite his ambition to become a writer and the necessity of actually writing something in order to do so. He is also psychotically controlling of Albertine even when he’s bored with her, keeping her prisoner in his apartment and then complaining that she’s there. MAKE UP YOUR MIND, DIPSHIT. MARRY HER OR MOVE ON, AND ALSO STFU.

Heavily influenced by Monet, Proust wanted his work to evoke an impressionist painting. Some critics have likened it to a symphony. And it is, no doubt, an unprecedented depiction of the minutiae of social life and the natural environment.

I disagree, however, with Graham Greene’s veneration of Proust as “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century”—not just because it’s silly to quantify or rank something as subjective and abstract as “greatness,” but also because I don’t think of Proust as a novelist. I think of him more as a literary philosopher, less concerned with character and plot than with theories and their contemplation. (A routine perusal of SparkNotes actually proved me right on this, at least in part: Proust himself, apparently, “had trouble deciding whether Swann’s Way should be a fictional account or an explicit discussion about his philosophical interests.”)

Still. Whether fiction or philosophy, In Search of Lost Time is indisputably the work of a master. A master with way too much time on his hands, mommy issues, and a criminal streak of snobbery, yes—but let’s forgive him where he never forgave us.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?


(See, Proust? It is possible to express an idea in a single word.)

Favorite Quotes:

Swann’s Way

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.

My intelligence might have told me the opposite. But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence.

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

The Guermantes Way

He admitted the possibility that she did not love him. No doubt the general malady called love must have forced him—as it forces all men—to believe at times that she did.

“In fact, it was drolatic,” put in M. de Guermantes, whose odd vocabulary enabled society people to declare that he was no fool and literary people, at the same time, to regard him as a complete imbecile.

But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight.

Sodom and Gomorrah

It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.

That sorrow tried to reconstruct itself in my heart, threw up vast pillars there; but my heart was doubtless too small for it.

The Prisoner and the Fugitive

Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.

It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime.

The truth is the most cunning of enemies.

When I was young, people used to tell me that one had to put up with a bit of boredom, so I made an effort; but now, ah! no, I just can’t help it, I’m old enough to do as I please, life’s too short. Allow myself to be bored stiff, listen to idiots, smile, pretend to think them intelligent—no, I simply can’t do it.

It was as though, reincarnate, the composer lived for all time in his music.

We picture the future as a reflexion of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.

Art is not alone in imparting charm and mystery to the most insignificant things; pain is endowed with the same power.

Let us leave pretty women to men with no imagination.

Even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.

Time Regained

So rarely do we meet either with easy success or with irreversible defeat.

People away from the front imagine that the war is no more than a gigantic boxing match, of which, thanks to the newspapers, they are spectators at a comfortable distance. But it is nothing of the sort. It is an illness which, when it seems to have been defeated at one point, returns at another.

The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity, taking place every day.

Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.

Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece.

Read: 2015–2016

#98 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I like to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a scientific experiment conducted by God during one of Earth’s more tedious centuries. What happens when you surround a man with enemies, watch them lock him up in prison for 14 years, give him an education, give him endless riches, give him back his freedom, and then unleash him on the world at large?

The Count of Monte Cristo happens. And it ain’t pretty.

Edmond Dantès is, at 19, a happy, well-liked, and gifted young sailor with a doting father and a devoted fiancée. Fortune smiles upon him like a favorite pastime. The future looks bright enough for Ray-Bans.

But Edmond is crushed under his own windfall of good luck when three local dickheads let jealousy get the better of them. Danglars, the treasurer of Edmond’s ship; Fernand Mondego, a local fisherman in love with his fiancée; and Caderousse, his resentful neighbor, accuse Edmond of treason on the eve of his wedding to Mercédès. (Edmond does, indeed, carry a letter from Napoleon, exiled to Elba, but only as a favor to his friend and former captain.) The prosecutor, Villefort, sees Edmond’s innocence for what it is and intends to send him home… until Edmond reveals the intended recipient of Napoleon’s letter: Monsieur Noirtier, a.k.a. Villefort’s father. To protect his own interests and cover up his father’s treasonous affairs, Villefort sends Edmond to the notorious island prison known as the Château d’If.

Edmond is educated in secret by another prisoner (a former Italian priest) before finally making his escape over a decade later. Once freed, he follows a tip from the priest to the island of Monte Cristo and discovers unfathomable sums of buried treasure. The next time we meet him, Edmond has become the Count of Monte Cristo, an omniscient and omnipotent god-like figure with mysterious, foreign habits and an appetite for revenge.

At this point, only a quarter of the way into the book, things really start to heat up. Edmond takes his vengeance on Danglars, Fernand, Caderousse, and Villefort slowly, surely, and mercilessly. He lays complicated traps for each of his prey, adopts numerous aliases, spends an enormous fortune, and generally takes “obsession” to new levels of entertainment.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventure tale in the truest sense of the word. Originally written in serial format, it is 117 chapters of rollicking thrills, dark secrets, and moving romance. We read a separate novel’s worth of stories-within-the-story and witness many of the dramatic events that changed the course of French history. We watch Edmond play the role of Karma and take Destiny into his own hands—for the good of some and the detriment of many.

Since its 2002 release, The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite movies. And while many alterations were necessary to squeeze 1200 pages into two hours of film (and gratify a Hollywood audience), it captures the spirit of Dumas’s original reasonably well: Revenge is satisfying, but not as much as you’d think. We can change who we are, but only by a little. Happiness will elude us as long as we compare our lot with others’. It’s all there, even if it takes a different form.

Between The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers alone, Alexandre Dumas has left a considerable legacy. Born in northern France in 1802, his background was both aristocratic and mixed-race. He moved to Paris in his twenties and worked at the Palais Royal for the Duc d’Orléans. By the time he died in 1870, Dumas’s bibliography included much more than his popular adventure novels: His works ranged from travel narratives on Florence and Naples to historical dramas about famous English actors to essays on infamous European criminals.

By way of curious anecdotes, he had at least 40 mistresses throughout his (apparently very busy) lifetime and fathered a handful of illegitimate children. He also built a country house (circa 1846) and named it the Château de Monte-Cristo—along with a writing studio he called the Château d’If.

The best part of The Count of Monte Cristo? It is said to be based on a true story.

I wholeheartedly recommend this lively and rewarding read, even if it leaves you contemplating vengeance on your own bullies of days gone by.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It may not be Lolita or War and Peace, but it’s way better than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

Favorite Quotes:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another.

It is for justice to avenge those she has been unable to protect.

All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: “Wait and hope.”

Read: 2015

Quick Reviews, Part II

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited first book cover photo

#75 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

If I’m being honest (and why wouldn’t I be), Brideshead Revisited (1945) didn’t leave much of an impression. It is a competent novel about the golden age of English aristocracy, following Charles Ryder along a nostalgic path toward his youthful encounters with the Marchmain family. There’s some drama about Catholicism. Everyone eats and drinks a lot, and we hear a lot about what they ate and drank. The point of it all is that being young and carefree is preferable to being old and alcoholic, which we all knew anyway.

I’m sorry I can’t offer more. I wish Brideshead Revisited had.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I like my classics to do, or try to do, something new. Brideshead Revisited failed on both counts. But if you like Brit lit, it’s a satisfactory addition to the canon.

Favorite Quotes:

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

This was the creature, neither child nor woman, that drove me through the dusk that summer evening, untroubled by love, taken aback by the power of her own beauty, hesitating on the cool edge of life.

“What is it?”
“His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word.”

Read: 2015


#33 The Trial, Franz Kafka

Whether it’s Gregor Samsa morphing into a monstrous insect, or Josef K. battling a mysterious legal authority, Kafka is full of grim surprises. The Trial (1925) reads like a prolonged nightmare—a chain of eerie, inexplicable events doused in anxiety and irony. It is unlike anything else I’ve ever read, for The List or otherwise.

For Josef, the justice system is a dark labyrinth with no exit but death. He is arrested and tried in suffocating attic courtrooms with no inkling of his crime or effective legal support. Even the most alienated among us would feel #blessed after a glance at The Trial.

Baffling, infuriating, and haunting in turns, The Trial is memorable in all the most shudder-inducing ways. Save it for a wintry, overcast, couch-confined day, or it will start to feel like one.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Kafka didn’t even finish it, and it still ranks among the best novels ever written. That’s got to count for something.

Favorite Quotes:

It’s in the nature of this judicial system that one is condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.

One lawyer leads his client by a slender thread to the judgment, but the other lifts his client onto his shoulders and carries him to the judgment and beyond, without ever setting him down.

Read: 2014


#54 The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

All I can think of these days when I come across this 1915 title is the hilariously terrible Alexis Bledel movie loosely based on it. Seriously, go watch it right now. It’s on Netflix as of this writing, and it needs to feed on your intellect to survive.

The novel itself is an intriguing—if rambling and jumbled-up—read. Ford opens the first act with this unforgettable line:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

And even if, like me, you never quite find yourself invested enough in The Good Soldier to actually feel sad, we can all agree the events of the novel are sad. Ford, in fact, wanted to call the book The Saddest Story, but his publisher thought the title inappropriate after World War I broke out.

Wise, that one.

This is, after all, no tale of war, but of woe—and the lover’s sort, at that. It’s a post-mortem of two failed marriages conducted by an unreliable narrator, out of order, in a seeming attempt to navigate the dark corridors of morality. Considering Ford’s own extramarital affairs (which informed, if not inspired, the novel), whether the “saddest part” of The Saddest Story is the endless parade of infidelities or the merry-go-round of suicides is anyone’s guess.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I wouldn’t shelve it alongside the best, but I’d give it another read.

Favorite Quotes:

Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.

Read: 2014


#19 Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

Swift’s crowning achievement, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is a study in satire. Nipping sharply at the heels (or, well, tearing at the vital organs) of European society generally, and British society specifically, Swift nevertheless reveals his doubts that any nation or community can negotiate utopia.

The diverse peoples Gulliver encounters in his travels represent various aspects of human nature, human folly, and the human experience. The Lilliputians are both small-bodied and small-minded, symbolizing all that is egotistical and vain in our at-once proud and pathetic species. The Brobdingnagians reflect the more physical and personal facets of life—what we are up close and behind closed doors. The Laputans symbolize wasted knowledge and contemplation, and the Houyhnhnms show us that reason and harmony come only at the sacrifice of individuality.

All in all, it’s a pleasure to follow Gulliver to new worlds, discover new cultures, and learn new languages, even if they’re all made up. Like all forms of travel, Gulliver’s adventures teach us more about our home, our values, and ourselves than any foreign land.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

As one of only a handful of truly inventive works to come out of the 18th century, I’m going to let it keep its place among the Greats.

Favorite Quotes:

Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.

Read: 2014


#38 Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Nigeria. Warrior/farmer. Village elders. Colonialism. Family. Rigid gender roles, women as property. Domestic abuse. Locusts. Oracle. Sacrifice. Strength as weakness, pride as downfall.

Machetes. Guns. Religion. Exile. Ancestral spirits. Jail. Murder. Suicide.

Depressing. Not my thing.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It stands out but isn’t outstanding, IMHO.

Favorite Quotes:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.

Read: 2015


#89 Herzog, Saul Bellow

Oh, misogyny. I never tire of your teeming delights.

Seriously, though, is there any major takeaway from Herzog besides misogyny? Because in my heart of hearts and my tapping fingers, I suspect Bellow’s predominant theme of being “Bitches be crazy!” And while, yes, they be crazy, bitches be no more crazy than the Herzogs of the world (and they be crazy, most often, because of them).

Here’s how it goes down: Moses Herzog is a middle-aged man who has made the mature decision to manage his life’s disappointments and failures by whining about them. There was some potential here, structurally: The novel is largely composed of letters Herzog drafts (but never sends) to the president, to his lawyer, to God, and to Heidegger, among others. But when most of them reflect a “hero” more bitter than thoughtful, we’re left wanting a little more.

I listened to Herzog on audiobook and physically cringed at passages such as:

Please, Ramona, Herzog wanted to say—you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch—everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.


It was true, he couldn’t offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break. Then what?


“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

It is unfair, probably, to conflate a protagonist with his author… So it’s irrelevant, probably, that Bellow was divorced four times.


Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Please no.

Favorite Quotes:

There was no need to be driven away by a little scandal. It would have been painful, grotesque, but a scandal was, after all, a sort of service to the community.

I thought I had entered into a secret understanding with life to spare me the worst.

But what about justice? – Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without – totally without it. People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle.

One thought-murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away.

Read: 2015

If you missed Part I of the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

#3 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov


Lolita is hard to stomach. Let me make that clear right off the bat. A pull-no-punches back cover summary would describe a middle-aged academic (Humbert Humbert) lusting after, and ultimately sleeping with, his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter (the eponymous Lolita). In other words, Lolita is the story of a pedophile and the child he rapes repeatedly over a two-year period. A spade is a spade is a spade.

But plot, as we know, is only one force at play in any story we’re destined to pick up. What makes Lolita fascinating—and it is, no doubt, fascinating—is the way the story is told. Nabokov, in this 1955 fictional memoir, toys to great effect with the idea of style vs. substance. Can the taboo turn to treasure if we polish it hard enough? Can a horrible story unfold beautifully?

The answer, it seems, is yes—and that yes is Lolita. Nabokov’s prose bounces and swings; stirs and sparks; snaps, crackles, and pops. He builds a rich literary world full of artistic allusions, foreign languages, and clever word play. As you twist and turn your way along the contours of each serpentine sentence, the intimate intensity of Humbert Humbert’s voice is so absorbing that you lose the will to resist. You nearly forget, mid-stream in his passionate plea for compassion, that this is a narrator who:

  • Coins the term “nymphet” to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of 9 and 14
  • Solicits adolescent prostitutes
  • Makes repeated attempts to lure twelve-year-old Lolita into his presence
  • Decides to marry Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, to remain close to Lolita
  • Plans to slip Lolita and Charlotte sleeping pills so he can fondle Lolita
  • Plots to kill Charlotte
  • Kidnaps Lolita at camp after Charlotte is hit, and killed, by a car
  • Uses historical anecdotes and magazine articles to justify having sex with Lolita
  • Persuades her to keep quiet about their relationship with reminders that if he goes to jail, she’ll end up in a juvenile detention home
  • Restricts Lolita’s social and leisure activities (especially with boys)
  • Ignores heartbreakingly obvious signs that she is loath to continue their affair
  • Pays Lolita for sexual favors and then steals back the money so she can’t run away
  • Imagines impregnating Lolita (and, ten years later, having sex with the ensuing daughter) as Lolita’s nymphet qualities begin to waste away

Suffice it to say that the writing is exceptional, to make any of the above fit for literary consumption—much less praise. Nabokov himself puts it best in the book’s foreword, written by a fictional academic editor upon publishing Humbert’s manuscript:

I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

All of this, though, makes our modern pop culture references to “Lolitas” not only inaccurate, but disturbing in the extreme. “Lolita” as an archetype should, by rights, have nothing to do with a sexually precocious schoolgirl, and everything to do with a victim of rape and other forms of abuse.

Equally sickening are the methods used to market Lolita, conflating Humbert Humbert’s hysteria of lust with an epic and enduring love. Whether he loves Lolita or not is arguable. But Vanity Fair‘s baffling interpretation of Lolita as “the only convincing love story of our century,” quoted on the back cover of my Vintage International paperback, is inarguably grotesque.


Threats to Lolita‘s existence were, of course, numerous and adamant. Four American publishers refused the manuscript. It was accused, following its publication by the Parisian Olympia Press in 1955, of being “pornographic,” “obscene,” and “anti-American.” It regularly appears on “Banned Books” lists. In spite of this (or because of it), Lolita has remained, for over 50 years, a beast of a bestseller, alternately captivating and horrifying its readers.

In the book’s afterword, written in 1956, Nabokov asserts that his now-classic tragicomedy has no moral. His goal, he insists, in answering the “initial shiver of inspiration” to write Lolita differed considerably:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

To that I say, with no misgivings, to Nabokov beyond the grave: Mission accomplished.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Read as a study in insanity, or a tale told from the villain’s point of view, Lolita is worthy of admiration (be it reluctant or enthusiastic). Read as a lesson in literary technique, Lolita is a masterpiece.

Favorite Quotes:

I have still other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain.

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

It occurred to me that if I were really losing my mind, I might end by murdering somebody. In fact—said high-and-dry Humbert to floundering Humbert—it might be quite clever to prepare things—to transfer the weapon from box to pocket—so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of insanity when it does come.

I am sufficiently proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all. 

Read: 2015

Reading Checklists and Recommendations

Nothing brings joy to my heart quite like book recommendations and lists. Combining both is about as good as a Tuesday gets.

I may not have any specific intentions (yet) to follow PopSugar’s Reading Challenge checklist for 2015, but I CAN examine my bookish efforts from 2014 and make recommendations as appropriate.



I’ll avoid repeating answers as much as possible to broaden the range of recommendations. Happy reading!

A book with more than 500 pages: Anna Karenina. A true masterpiece, and a surprisingly readable one if you get the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation.

A classic romance: Wuthering Heights. Spare me the retelling of this awful book, please.

A book that became a movie: Women in Love. Apparently the 1969 film version was one of the first movies to show male genitalia. I was decidedly not a woman in love with Women in Love, but who could forget the naked wrestling scene?

A book published this year: Here’s Looking at You by the glorious Mhairi McFarlane. It’s my least favorite of her books, but all of them make me laugh out loud.

A book with a number in the title: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can’t say enough good things about this strange and beautiful history of the (fictional) Buendía family in the (fictional) town of Macondo.

A book written by someone under 30: Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, is very young (26). It shows.

A book with nonhuman characters: The Call of the Wild, a.k.a. the dark horse of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. I really didn’t see it coming, but this book is fascinating.

A funny book: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. There’s a scene where she interviews Colin Firth that had me in hysterics. I choked on air.

A book by a female author: The Husband’s Secret. I sprinted through this on vacation, vaguely enjoyed it, and have not thought about it since.

A mystery or thriller: Gone Girl. A surprising read in all the most sinister ways. The first half is slow, but the second half more than makes up for it.

A book with a one-word title: Only Bossypants and Hamlet fulfill this one. And Hamlet is technically The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

A book of short stories: Does Winnie-the-Pooh count? That’s the best I can do for this one. It’s hilarious and adorable and one of the best books I read all year.

A book set in a different country: The Sun Also Rises. All the characters start off in Paris, and then travel to Pamplona for the bullfights. I’m anti-Hemingway but maybe not his target demographic? Shrug.

A nonfiction book: U.S. History for Dummies. My husband immigrated to the States this year, and I thought learning about the Boston Tea Party and William Howard Taft’s enormous bathtub would really help him understand his adoptive country. We read this together.

A popular author’s first book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Would we call James Joyce “popular,” though? Or just famous? Anyway, it was a tedious read.

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet: A Long Way Down. Nick Hornby is just brilliant, and A Long Way Down—along with its four suicidal protagonists—is beautifully, hilariously, insightfully written.

A book a friend recommended: The Book Thief. Very unique—I am a fan of Death as a narrator. I wasn’t completely won over by The Book Thief, but I’d like to read more from Markus Zusak.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: Apparently nothing I read this year has won the Pulitzer. But I’d recommend The Age of InnocenceTo Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, and The Hours.

A book based on a true story: On the Road. The definitive American roadtrip and Beat novel. I was neutral about it at the time but remember it fondly now.

A book at the bottom of your to-read list: Absalom, Absalom! I’ve been putting off Faulkner’s books as much as possible, mainly because I have to read SO MANY of them for the 100 Greatest Books Challenge. It was better than I expected, but my feelings about Faulkner remain complicated.

A book your mom loves: I failed here. Sorry, Mom. I promise I’ll read Unbroken eventually.

A book that scares you: Dangerous Liaisons. It’s an excellent book, but the social dynamics and gender politics of 18th-century France are pretty disturbing.

A book more than 100 years old: Don Quixote. Published in 1605, this is one of the oldest books I read in 2014. It’s longer than it needs to be, but still feels fresh and fun 400+ years later.

A book based entirely on its cover: I had to read The Trial anyway, but I bought it on an impulse one day because I loved this cover. It’s a murky and infuriating story, as well as anticlimactic, but nevertheless an interesting look at the “justice” system.

A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: I am guilty of this with Absalom, Absalom! It scared me off Faulkner for years.

A memoir: Bossypants. I listened to the audiobook (Tina Fey reads it herself) and loved it—particularly the story of her honeymoon.

A book you can finish in a day: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a little underwhelming overall, but short enough to tackle just “because.”

A book with antonyms in the title: It’s Not Me, It’s You—but this is probably a stretch as antonyms go. Mhairi McFarlane does chick lit right, with an emphasis on wit. Best line:

They’re babies. Twins. Ugly ones, actually, they look like haggis.

A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: A Passage to India. Hopefully India itself will not be as boring as this book.

A book that came out the year you were born: Apparently the big names in 1989 were John Grisham, Amy Tan, Lois Lowry, John Irving, and Stephen King. I am ashamed to say that I have no relevant suggestions here.

A book with bad reviews: The God Delusion. Like most books with religious themes, this one had plenty of critics. I liked it.

A trilogy: I skimmed the Divergent trilogy last spring. Thumbs down.

A book from your childhood: The Princess Diaries. I’ve reread it every year since I was twelve, usually when I’m sick. Actually, I think it’s my cure-all.

A book with a love triangle: The Good Soldier. There are multiple love triangles in The Good Soldier, but as a reader I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of them.

A book set in the future: Brave New World. Not a favorite, but worth reading.

A book set in high school: The Mediator series. Old YA from Meg Cabot that saved me from boredom on several long-haul flights this year.

A book with a color in the title: The Golden Notebook. According to Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook is accidentally feminist. It’s also anti-war, intentionally (I think). I was happy with both themes.

A book that made you cry: I probably cried reading The Book Thief. I avoid sad books whenever possible.

A book with magic: I’m going to repeat One Hundred Years of Solitude here because it is an iconic work of magical realism, and because I have no other answers.

A graphic novel: Umm… none that I can recall. I like Pénélope Bagieu’s Joséphine, though. It’s like Bridget Jones’s Diary, but French. And a comic book.

A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton). Intriguing but ultimately forgettable.

A book you own but have never read: I suppose I owned A Long Way Down for a while before picking it up. The book that has been sitting unread on my shelf foreeeeeever is A Tale of Two Cities.

A book that takes place in your hometown: I don’t think there are any books set in Carmel, Indiana. If there were, I’d be sad.

A book that was originally written in a different language: The Divine Comedy. Dante’s chef-d’oeuvre helped to standardize the Italian language. Inferno is the best cantica by far, and well worth a read. If you’re the can’t-leave-a-book-unfinished type, you might as well continue on to Purgatorio and Paradiso.

A book set during Christmas: I want to say there was a Christmas scene in The Book Thief? Maybe? OK, I’ve got nothing. Carry on with your lives.

A book written by an author with your same initials: The Call of the Wild (Jack London). Didn’t think I’d get this one! But yes, my claim to fame is sharing Jack London’s initials. We’re basically best friends AND siblings. I’m the Kourtney to his Kim.

A play: Hamlet. This one should speak for itself, but I won’t let anything speak for me. I like Shakespeare generally, but I have a hard time seeing real, genuine, human motivations in his characters. It’s excellent (if melodramatic) writing, but it never makes me feel anything. That said, if you’re going to write a tragedy, you might as well outdo everyone and write the tragedy to end them all.

A banned book: Invisible Man. This is one of a handful of books that I’ve whipped through in a few days thinking they were nothing special, but that lingered in my mind long afterwards. Read it. It genuinely transports you to another world.

A book based on or turned into a TV show: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line. A fun mystery, but one with a significant lack of LOGAN.

A book you started but never finished: I revisited The Aeneid this year, having only read the “Dido” section for a college assignment. If you’re into legendary figures, the glorification of war and violence, and squabbling Greco-Roman gods, this might be your Thing. If not, you might be me.