Are you looking for anything to read with your summer vacation time? As usual, I mark the end of the academic year by suggesting a few of the best books I've read during the past twelve months.
The Death of Artemio Cruz
My top pick for the year, this work reminded me that I really need to read more Latin American literature. A central theme is fragility, with the failing of media magnate Artemio Cruz's body serving as a metephor for the failing of his idealism. Choice represents another key element, as we revisit the moment in his past when Cruz decided to save himself rather than follow his ideals. This fundamental choice in turn led to other choices, so that at the moment of death he was essentially fated to be who he had chosen to be. What really puts this over the top, though, is Fuentes's writing style, whipping up currents of language to create eddies of thought in which you can lose yourself without ever realizing you are lost.
Outlaws of the Marsh
(Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong)
This work, which is very similar to England's Robin Hood stories, will not lead you to great insight into the human condition or Chinese society. It is, however, good fun. The heroes are a band of outlaws who in a series of episodic adventures fight for justice (more or less, usually) against the corrupt and tyrannical officials of the Song dynasty. The tone of these adventures is diverse, from tense romantic drama to Arnold Schwarzengger-esque comedy. I admit, though, that I did not finish the last 30 chapters, which tell of the outlaws joing with the emperor to fight China's enemies, and historically were not always included. To be honest, I found them dull, and suspect they were only included for political reasons.
Sense and Sensibility
I started this book several times and quit less than a third of the way through, only to finally discover it really picked up after that. The thing to keep in mind about Jane Austen is that she is poking fun at many of the social situations she portrays. While I didn't like this as much as Pride and Prejudice
, there's still a lot of food for thought in the differing approaches of Elinor and Marianne toward life. I was also unconvinced by the writer's fiat which had Marianne fall completely in love with Colonel Brandon at the end. Still, as I come to appreciate the "novel of manners" genre, I find here interesting commentaries to which everyone can relate.
From Beirut to Jerusalem
If you read only one book on the heritage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, make it this one. The first section, on Lebanon's civil war, is a very sensitive first-person portrayal of a complicated conflict, its effects on those involved, and the issues of American and Israeli intervention. Later, he pokes his head into many nooks and crannies of the situation with Israelis and Palestinians which are not usually seen in the American media. His writing style is engaging throughout, and while I might not agree with all of his analysis, his ability to engage with the human dimension of complex social and economic problems is a valuable asset.
The House of Mirth
Lily Bart is a woman imprisoned by two things - class and gender. These two factors combine to imprison her in a set of conventions and expectations beyond which she cannot see. As this book comes before modern feminism has really taken off, the ending is bleak, as one might expect. The weaves which entrap the heroine - money as necessary for status, woman as ornament and status symbol, social expectations about what is acceptable to different classes - are all the more powerful for their overtness. And having spent some time around old money types and social wannabees seeking status, I can tell you some of this mindset still exists today.
Satan in Goray
(Isaac Bashevis Singer)
What happens when a poor and desparate community encounters a messiah-figure promising eschatological fulfillment? These are issues relevant to almost every age of human history, perhaps seen today in the rise of figures like Osama bin Laden in the Islamic world. In this book, we see a breakdown of all normal social mores and the messianic movement becomes its own set of rules, with only the village rabbi standing against it. The setting for this book is 17th-century Poland after a series of pogroms, though Singer was reflecting mainly on early 20th century Europe. That difference itself speaks to its timelessness. (See the Eagles song "Learn to be Still" for more information =))
For Bread Alone
On the surface, this book is not that unusual, as aboy grows up in poverty with an abusive father and all manner of social corruption. What struck me about this autobiographical novel, however, is how the life was protrayed neither in an idealized manner nor as some great set of symbols, but simply matter-of-factly, much like I might write about going to the grocery store. The setting a characters are also quite vivid. This also might represent something of a counterpoint to The Death of Artemio Cruz
, in that in the end, the narrator chooses a path to better himself through education, in the process leaving behind the petty theft of his youth for what we know will be a career as a successful writer and intellectual. This book, while not life-changing, is still worth a read.
That's it for this year! Note I'm doing this from memory, so I may have made slight errors when I referred to plot points.