As of Saturday, January 22, 2010, 11:50AM, I have finished my 2010-January 2011 reading list.. which is really just a euphemism for “Michelle read a crapload of books.” Some I could not find at the library despite being listed as available (A Brief History of Time, The Maltese Falcon). However, all in all, I cracked open 12 books. That’s one book every two days of winter vacation while my mother yelled at me to exercise.
All of the books I read fell into three categories:
- American Pastoral by Phillip Roth
If you are American, you must read this. Seymour “The Swede” Levov is the embodiment of the American ideal, and his plummet, his fall, his disgrace, all so stupefying, and so tragic. The alternate title of this piece would be: “American Tragedy.” Though it was relatively a short book (400 pages), the things that it discusses are so dense, and you get lost in this American world, that you can spend hours reading this and not notice. This book heavily reminded me of Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, in which you can’t tell where the storyteller and the story begins and ends, and what the time is—it’s all mixed together, and it’s bloody brilliant. When you read the end at first, you feel it’s such a departure from the actual story, but then you begin to realize what exactly the point is, and you begin to go crazy.
- The Magus by John Fowles
This lengthy novel (600 pages in my revised edition) concerns a man, Nicholas, who agrees to take a teaching post at a remote island in Greece. While there, he meets a mysterious millionaire, named Conchis. They begin to meet on a regular basis: at first, Nicholas is aware that Conchis is playing mind tricks on him. However, very soon, the web of lies grows so deep that Nicholas, and even the readers, cannot differentiate what is true and what is not. Honestly, to some extent, I still have no idea what happened; even Mr. Fowles has said that the ending is for readers to interpret as they like. So 12 hours after I have finished this novel, I am still saying to myself, “WTF just happened?” However, Mr. Fowles raises so many ponderous points about the truth, lies, and magic of life that it is altogether impossible to hate spending the eight hours reading this dense work. He makes us question how we see our relationships, and how we act in them. Though there are many sex scenes in The Magus, the resolution clears up any gripes you might have about this surfeit; every sexual experience was subtly layered on to contribute to the final denouement. Nevertheless, I have one point of contention: the usage of psychoanalysis and Freudian psychology. Because Freud is a sexist, and his theories are no longer widely accepted. Freud is a fraud! There, I said it!!! Freud is a pig. PIG.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
According to most, the quintessential unfaithful-female novel. I admit, the beginning was absurdly dull, and I really hated Emma Bovary (or “Madame” Bovary), which is no surprise, because for some reason, I murderously hate cheating wives (the main reason I couldn’t finish The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). However, Flaubert somehow pulls it all together with lucid prose and pretty maxims, and despite Doctor Bovary as a rather gullible, oafish man, you feel rather sorry for him. I tried reading this three times before, and I’m glad I finished it now.
UH, IT WAS OKAY
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
This was on the “Very very very good” end of the spectrum. The inherent symbolism is ridiculous: the protagonist is John Singer, a deaf-mute, and because he can’t say or speak anything, he gets to hear everybody’s problems. Very juicy things, and very heartbreaking, because though all these people confide in him, they do not understand John Singer himself, and nor do they look past their selfishness and at Mr. Singer as a person. Truly, the ending comes as a shock, but in the bottom of your heart, you know that it was the way things are, and the way things will be. Extremely powerful message.
- The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
This was in between the Meh and Good, because Mr. Lee is a skilled crafter; he is quite good at shuffling around perspectives and times so that it makes sense and does not disrupt the whole reading experience. In particular, the beginning and the ending of the novel were masterfully executed, wrapping up the piece full circle. The novel is about a woman, June, and her struggle during the Korean War as a young orphan and later as an adult, trying to find her criminal son in Italy. It’s good for a lighter reading. The biggest problem I had with this novel was the gratuitous sex. It’s one thing to use sex as a focal point for a meaningful theme (like The Magus), but another thing just to include sex in an unnecessary, mish-mash manner.
- The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Like Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is on the “Very very very good” end of the spectrum. This novel is a collection of short stories detailing the Indian immigrant life in America; many stories were set in Boston and Cambridge, and it was so gratifying to see places like “Commonwealth Ave.” and “Filene’s” mentioned (I know where they are! I’m such a tourist!). Let’s face it. Everything Ms. Lahiri writes is brilliant. So read it.
- Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Dead Souls is about a man, Chichikov, who goes about buying “dead souls” or dead peasants that have not been registered in the Russian tax system yet. He plans to use these dead souls in a mortgage to buy a huge estate and be “wealthy.” The whole book details Chichikov’s meetings with landowners and persuading them to part with these unfortunate souls. After a while, this endless parade of landowners got to be very annoying. Gogol is always a good author, but this was rather long winded—you’d probably be off reading The Overcoat, his famed short story!
* I don’t believe in reading 600 page books that do not grab you by the collar by page 300 at least (cough, Henry James)
- The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
This book is written with shifting time and points of view—something that can go wrong under less skilled authors, and it does under Ms. Lee. Also, I felt that all the characterizations, seemed so pretentious and fake. Though I loved the shout-out to Wellesley. “You speak English well for a foreigner.” “Well, that tends to happen when you spend four years at Wellesley.”
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for Mr. Rushdie, I love his short stories. But once you read a Rushdie novel, and the depth of characterization and engrossing description he goes into, you realize that you need at least a week reading an hour a day to thoroughly digest and enjoy his novel as you should. I only had 2 days. So, Midnight’s Children will sit on my shelf until I have a free week.
- The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
Apparently, the best-selling self-help book of all time. Skimmed through it, looked at the pictures. Conclusion: not helpful at all.
- Epic of Gilgamesh
I think I was born with a natural disinclination towards epic poetry.
- The American by Henry James
When you’ve read one Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady), you’ve pretty much read them all. Mr. James is akin to Mr. Rushdie, he has beautiful prose, but you really need a complete and sustained concentration, which I did not have.
I can’t believe that I put myself through this. I’m on the bus back to Boston right now, I think it’s time for a nap.