Note: This blog post originally was published on the now defunct Beemo blog in 2019.
So I read a lot. I'm usually about 50-50 fiction vs non-fiction but this year for a few reasons I tilted heavily towards novels. I thought I'd share some of the highlights from 2019. I'm a bit of an omnivore, so hopefully there will be something in here you might find interesting. If you end up picking any of these up, please please come see me after a show. It would be nice to talk about them with people rather than at people.
Side note, connected via a most tenuous literary connection:
"You Only Live Twice," the fifth and most bat-shit Sean Connery James Bond movie- Well, maybe not the most bat-shit. There's plenty of guano in basically all of the Connery ones other than maybe "From Russia With Love." (The most racist, maybe? Oh, crap, except in "Diamonds are Forever" they have black woman turn into a gorilla at the circus. I have no idea why, for any of that previous sentence. What the f***, "Diamonds are Forever"?)
Ok, starting over: "You Only Live Twice" the fifth and arguably the most bat-shit Sean Connery James Bond movie had a screenplay written by children's author Roald Dahl. As in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Matilda," and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." Which.... what? I guess Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond book series the movies are based on, also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Maybe there was like a spy novelist / children's novelist exchange program?
Anyway, on to the books:
"What would you say if you were to hear that the man whose living double you are, the man you were named after, the man in whose shadow you have lived and whose memory you have carried - what would you say if this man turns out to be the hero of an Arab soap opera?"
"Arabesques," a novel by Anton Shammas was probably the most interesting novel I read all year. Shammas is a Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen from a village named Fassouta in what is now northern Israel near the Lebanese border. The book was originally written in Hebrew, a first for an Arab author. The story defies an easy summary, but it's semi-autobiographical, split between an exploration of his family history and myth across the generations from Beirut to Fassouta and his present day experiences as a writer traveling in France and the United States.
It can be hard to say whether a novel that is a translation was beautifully written or beautifully translated, but an old NYT book review reports that Shammas worked closely with the translator, Vivian Eden, so I suspect it is both. It is a lovely read from a syntactic perspective, but, as it is so tied in with memory, it can be a little tricky to follow the plot. The narrator slips between past and present in the same way we do when we are reminded of something.
Shammas is in search of his family's past, particularly the story of his Uncle and namesake Anton who died in Beirut before the author was born (maybe). Some of this past is projected as possible, but not necessarily true. He'll gain some information about his family's history in a really weird and coincidental way, which strikes you as a little unrealistic, only for you to find out that though the information is probably true; the real way it was revealed was much less dramatic and / or didn't involve the narrator directly anyway. It takes a little bit to lock into this style but I think the book is stronger for it.
It's family history as idealized and romantic myth and towards the end there's some ambiguity over which character the narrator even is. Given the complicated politics and history in his family's story, it's no wonder the book is the intersections of multiple layers of identity: he's a Christian Arab among Muslims, an Arab and an Israeli, a first generation intellectual, a Middle Easterner among Americans. He's not just one thing or another; he's all of them, with all the messiness that implies.
She isn't stupid. She's intelligent enough in a purely feminine way. Eighteenth-century France would have been a marvelous setting for her, or the old South if she hadn't made the mistake of being born a Negro.
"Passing" is another book about the confluence of multiple layers of identity, though this time set in 1920s Harlem. (I read this back to back with "Arabesques," though the identity theme was an accident; I didn't know what "Passing" was about when I started.) The author, Nella Larsen, was a novelist known as part of the Harlem Renaissance movement of the '20s.
The story follows two women of African American heritage, childhood friends who can both pass as white. One, Clare, chooses to live her life as a white woman and hides her heritage from her white husband and his family, while the other openly identifies as African American in Harlem. The lines of identity, both racial and class identity, are again messy and complicated culminating in a fairly shocking and ambiguous ending.
The plot is pretty straightforward. A chance encounter between Clare and Irene in Chicago leads them to re-connect after many years apart. Their differing self-definitions and attitudes come into conflict as their lives intertwine in Harlem.
The story is very strongly from Irene's perspective, while Clare's motivations are intentionally opaque and filtered through Irene's lens. It's left up to the reader to decide how much danger Clare is actually in, how fair Irene's view of her is, and who is responsible for the ultimate tragedy of the novel.
Despite our tiffs, despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made, and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all, I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise - a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames - but still a paradise.
I have to caveat this one: it's a fantastic book that I absolutely would hesitate to recommend for everyone. It's a first person (from prison) account of the pseudonymous Humbert Humbert and his abduction and molestation of 12 year old Dolores Haze in the 1950s. Nabokov manages to make Humbert both monstrous and explicable, toeing a line in examining his pathetic damage without tipping the reader into sympathy for him as he inflicts so much of that damage on Dolores. Humbert sees himself as a romantic and his level of self-delusion is really hard to describe. Being a story in the first person, Humbert always presents his obsessions and acts as rational, except for a brief journey toward self awareness towards the end.
It's an icky examination of a decidedly unreliable narrator. It's on most lists of "greatest novels" or whatever and it's not hard to see why. (Admittedly I'm biased as Nabokov is one of my favorite authors).
Nabokov, though born in the Russia in 1899, emigrated to the United States in the 1940s and wrote "Lolita" in English in in 1955. It's brilliantly written, both structurally and syntactically, but non-content warning: Humbert Humbert is an intellectual snob and the story is peppered with untranslated French and Latin phrases. Many are fairly obvious in context and none are crucial to understanding what's going on but I found the "Guide to French and Latin" section of this wiki helpful.
(Side note: There is also something going on with names in the book which I haven't quite figured out. Though the narrator refers to himself as Humbert Humbert, several times other characters speaking to him use multiple slight variants, sometimes in the same conversation. He also occasionally addresses characters by the subtly wrong names. It could just be the ultimate in obsessive unreliability, in that he can't even be bothered to get his or other people's names correct in his own story, but I need to think a bit if there's potentially something deeper that Nabokov is doing with this).
Superman for All Seasons (1998)
Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
"He flies. He can see through walls. He can lift up cars or bounce bullets of his chest or do just about anything he wants to. And that's the part that gets me. He can do anything he wants to and he decides to do what? Be a hero? Why? We live in a world where nobody sticks their neck out for anybody. I write about it all day long. We lie to each other. We brutalize each other. We kill each other. And here's this...this...man."
Superman for All Seasons follows the title character early in his career through four loosely connected sections, each representing one season. The thing I think is interesting about this story, and one of the things that I think makes it work so well, is that Superman is NOT the point of view character. He's constantly framed through how the 4 successive narrators see and react to him. Pa Kent (Spring) worries about his son's immense and still growing power and hopes he raised him well. Lois Lane's (Summer) cynicism conflicts with the hope she sees in him. Lex Luthor (Fall), self-righteous and self-appointed guardian of Metropolis, is angry at this rival outsider. Lana Lang (Winter) struggles to reconcile bittersweet memories of the boy she knew with the near-God he has become.
There's definitely an air of loneliness and sorrow about Superman here. There are striking panels of him alone in his apartment, or his room in Smallville, repeated in all sections except Luthor's. (Appropriate as Luthor is the only one blind to Superman's humanity; only seeing him as an alien interloper.) He's alone on his bed, looking wistful but not sullen in front of an open window. Despite the link to the outside world and the fact that he can no doubt hear everything around him, his solitude is palpable. The distance that is imposed by him being seen through the eyes of others amplifies it. What's he thinking about? We don't know.
To me the book balanced the sort of lonely god aspect of him with his fundamental humanity very well. Even when he seems distant, he's not off putting, and there is an obvious kindness and empathy in him around others. We see a glimmer of self-doubt when faced with failure, but it does not overwhelm him. He's a god, but also recognizably human. We see him mourn; we see him reassure; we even see him irritated.
I'm hardly a comic book connoisseur so I can't speak too intelligently about the subtleties of the art or style but nothing felt off to me. The characters' artwork was all individualized and recognizable. I appreciated the details in the Smallville general store, or in Clark's apartment in Metropolis. (Superman likes peanut butter apparently). Peoples' desks at the daily planet had crap on them. The panels look like a place people live in, not just empty-ish backdrops for the characters to pose in front of.
I think Superman is a hard character to do well. He's incorruptibly good and unfathomably powerful, so contriving a situation to give him a physical threat doesn't really work. This book goes in the opposite direction. He is never in personal danger. He punches nothing. The drama comes at the intersection of power and humanity, connection and isolation, inspiration, and failure.
And I think it really works.
Ballad of Black Tom (2016)
"I did something big, bigger than anyone will understand for a long time. I was just so angry."
Set in 1920s New York, "The Ballad of Black Tom" is Victor LaValle's take on H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook." It retains "Red Hook's" two primary characters, Detective Malone and the occultist Sudyam and adds a point of view character from Harlem named Tommy Tester.
The novel brings the story definitively into Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, which "Red Hook" originally kind of wasn't. The original cult involved is demonic but not devoted to a cosmic Elder God like in the stories of the Mythos.
The plot is fairly similar to most Lovecraft works. It hits the highlights of the Cthulhu Mythos (i.e. Character discovers the existence of some terrifyingly incomprehensible cosmic being) but with has an added social and structural frame that does what most of the Lovecraft stories I've read have not done, which is examine why a cult dedicated to waking up an immense cosmic horror might be appealing. Tommy's experiences walking around Harlem and Queens are definitely not something you'd find in a Lovecraft story.
Admittedly I haven't read the Horror at Red Hook, but my understanding is that even as racially "problematic" as a lot of Lovecraft is, with usually pretty ugly racial assumptions and implications occasionally rising up from subtext to text, "Horror at Red Hook" is one of the most overt. This is unsurprisingly a sticking point with a lot of modern readers and Victor LaValle leans into those aspects, not handwaving them away but instead contextualizing them in the society of the setting. I think his dedication sums it up the best: "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all of my conflicted feelings"
One legacy of the re-imagining is an odd turning point in the middle where the point of view character changes from Tommy to Malone. I didn't realize it at the the time but doubtless that's an inheritance from "Red Hook" where Malone is the POV character.
I'm torn on whether I'd recommend this to someone who had no previous experience with Lovecraftian horror. I think it is a good, well-written book, but I wonder if some of the re-contextualizing, which is the main conceit, would evade someone with no H.P. experience. I think it works best as sort of a dialogue or mirror to existing Lovecraft stories. I should probably have read "The Horror at Red Hook" before i said that, but whatever.
Gertrude and Claudius (2000)
She said, "I saw you talking to Hamlet."
"Yes. He was amiable enough. My rusty phrases of German amused him. I don't understand why you are afraid of him."
"I do not think you can charm him."
This is probably my favorite book that I read this year. It's John Updike's prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet and is the rare prequel that makes the characters you know more interesting, rather than less.
Shakespeare's plays leave a lot of wiggle room for characterization. Line delivery, framing, and staging choices can lead to vastly different interpretations of characters. Some productions of Henry V really like King Henry, showing him as a noble king heroically fighting in the trenches with his men on the side of the righteous; others paint him as a cynical purveyor of realpolitik, manipulating his men into throwing away their lives for his ego. Same text, same rousing speeches, different framing.
In the play, Gertrude and Claudius can be hard to sympathize with as, other than in Claudius's prayer in Act III scene 3, they don't have a lot of stage time where they express what they're thinking or feeling. In this novel their burgeoning relationship / adultery progresses slowly and naturally, and honestly makes a lot of sense. Gertrude has been "bartered away," as she puts it, into a purely political marriage with a fundamentally decent but neglectful brute of a husband. She's in a society that doesn't value her gender; she's isolated, and she's wary of her aloof, strange, and judgmental son. Her mutual fascination with a brother-in-law who is much more her intellectual match than her husband almost seems inevitable and, unlike his brother, Claudius obviously respects her as more than just a means to an heir. He is overall a decent guy, who is subtle and interesting in all the ways his brother is not.
Claudius' penultimate confrontation with his older brother is one of my favorite scenes in the book, with a lot of ambiguity, nuance, and no easy lines in the sand.
Another thing I like is Updike's secondhand characterization of Hamlet himself, who is barely present in the novel (I don't think he even has any "on-screen" lines). Claudius thinks well of him, impressed by his intellect and perceptions, but Gertrude sees him as cold, self-centered, disdainful, and uninterested in humanity. I am hesitant to project but it seems that this ambivalence towards Hamlet is shared by Updike himself, who writes in an afterward: "Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counselor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death."
The novel, not surprisingly, ends ominously. This is a prequel done right.
The Forever War (1974)
Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there... Reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted.
Surprisingly for how much I like the genre, I don't read much Science Fiction. Though I thoroughly enjoy soft sci-fi like Star Wars/Trek where the technology is given more of a "it can do whatever, it's magic" vibe, I think I prefer more scientifically thorough hard sci-fi like "The Forever War." It's all "plausibly" rooted in relativity and cosmology, with time dilation, g-forces, etc. "Our ship made it to 70% the speed of light? Great, we're going to take 5 months to decelerate so we don't kill everyone onboard. Cool?"
The set up is slightly under-explained, in a good way. An elite soldier named Mandella is sent off to an intergalactic war against mysterious aliens. His three or four engagements with the enemy span about four years for him, but hundreds of years of absolute time due to time dilation. He returns from missions to worlds, technology, and eventually even language he does not recognize. Mandella is both immersed in his own world and an audience surrogate when he drops into a society which has developed for decades or centuries while he's been traveling.
Haldeman's novel is informed by his own experience of being wounded in the Vietnam War, and not surprisingly with that frame the war itself is not glorified. The strategic situation is opaque to the on-the-ground soldiers who, though not explicitly treated as expendable, are pretty close to it. The opening line "Tonight, we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man" is an indication of the confusion and uselessness to come, as they aren't even going to fight men. Mandella's increasing dislocation in time from a society that he understands less after every mission only aggravates his alienation amidst a thousand year and ultimately pointless war.
This book can be read as a fun (if a little bleak at times) military sci-fi, but there's also a lot of sub- or semi-subtextual ideas about humanity, society, futility to chew on. Like most good sci-fi.
Quick Hit Honorable Mentions:
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) - Jose Saramago
An odd magical realist novel where Ricardo Reis, an imaginary pen name of real life author Fernando Pessoa, shows up in Lisbon after finding out that Pessoa has just died.
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) - Ahmed Saadawi
Another magical realist novel set in mid-2000s Baghdad where a corpse stitched together from suicide bomb victims goes missing and an escalating series of murders begins. The timeline jumps around a bit and the Arabic names are a little tricky but it was interesting and powerful.
The Disaster Artist (2013) - Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
Source for the 2017 movie about both the creation of The Room, one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and the strange friendship between the director and the lead actor. Funny, cringey, and surprisingly touching at times.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) - Robert Louis Stevenson
This was not quite what I expected; it's a detective story with a lawyer named Utterson trying to figure out what is happening with his increasingly isolated friend Dr, Jeckyll. I'm a little sad that with all the cultural osmosis of this story that I won't get to experience the Fight Club level twist at the end that the original readers would absolutely not be prepared for. (Spoiler for a 20 year old movie, btw)
So there it is. Happy reading.