So looks like my two part series, turned into a three part series… sorry for the brevity of some of these (that’s what I get for doing this all at once at the end of the year instead of monthly)…
19. Germinal by Émile Zola.
Germinal has been on my books to read list for a long time. I’m very glad that I sat down and read it this year. It was a really phenomenal narrative exploring matters related to class, industrialization, the rise of the capitalists, and the crushing of the proletariat in France. Characters from various classes (from the owners to the miners) are presented as having depth and complexity and are not caricatured or presented as “bad guys/gals” vs. “good guys/gals”. I highly recommend this book — it was one of my favourites this year.
As I was reading it, I was struck by the absence of this kind of literature in the contemporary scene. Folks like Franzen and Wallace are (or were) writing really good books but this whole struggle with matters related to class, not to mention matters related to justice and inequalities regarding class, labour, wealth, and the distribution of goods, seems to be completely missing from our stories. I wish somebody would write a book like this rooted in the present day. Regardless, this is really highly recommended reading and reminded my as to why I fell in love with 19th century literature in the first place (think I may go reread some Hugo now).
20. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
I joined a book club when I moved to London and this was the book they were reading when I joined. It is the tale of a few small town gangsters in a British resort town back in the 1930s. It was a fun read although I didn’t feel that it had the depth of character and plot that I found in The Power and the Glory (although it has been some years since I read that book, so I might be wrong there). There were a few things I found fairly interesting though.
First, the ways in which the villains are caught up in the social imaginary and moralism of Roman Catholicism, whereas the woman who represents justice (Ida), has shed that moral system. The mobster kill people are are convinced they are going to hell. Ida drinks and fucks her way to justice — even, it should be noted, if that ends up being costly to other people along the way (Lady Justice, standing blindfolded with her sword and scales came to mind more than once).
Secondly, I found it interesting how the most ruthless mobster was always contemplating his damnation and the possibility of redemption or forgiveness (which he seemed to desperately desire, even though he repeatedly stated that this was out of his reach). In this regard, he kept thinking about an old saying that if a person repents in the split second when they are dying (in the time it takes from them to fall “from the stirrup to the ground”) then that person will be saved. Now this is interesting because when another gang tries to kill Pinkie he is so distracted and shocked that he doesn’t even think about repenting. This terrifies him. However at the end [SPOILER about to happen!] when he falls from the cliff something funny happens — those who were there remark that they never hear a splash… as though he were simply lifted out of existence. Keeping in mind the remarks about finding salvation while falling, I like how Greene leaves this open to the possibility of Pinkie being saved.
Thirdly, as another possible interpretation of this last point, I was struck by how some of the characters involved in the gang thought that they were already living in hell (i.e. — we’re not going to hell, we’re already there, baby). What if this is actually true and “Brighton Rock” is Greene’s vision, not so much of hell but (since he was a Catholic) of purgatory? Then, there is no splash when Pinkie falls because, having done is time and repented, he is lifted out of purgatory? This is a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to play with the text in this way.
21. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
I have read various political essays Roy has written (mostly about Maoism and revolution in contemporary India) and so I was happy to finally get around to this Booker Prize winner this year (my wife had been telling me I should read it for years). I enjoyed her voice and the ways in which themes of family, and class, and communism, and caste where woven together with a little magic and a lot of tragedy thrown in. It was pretty and sad… but just seemed to be missing the certain something that would push it from going “good” to being “exceptional.” I don’t know… maybe I was flying high from reading Wallace and Zola and so I was in the wrong head space to get the most I could have from this book.
22. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.
Prior to reading this book (the second one selected by my book club since I joined), I didn’t know anything about Ned Kelly or his time as an outlaw in the Australian outback. Seems like a pretty interesting character and something of a Robin Hood/Jesse James kind of figure in Australia (and if you want to read a letter written by Ned and his gang, see here). It was a fun story to read and Carey did a good job in inhabiting the character of Kelly in order to tell it (even though, it should be noted, that means we may not always want to believe the claims made by the narrator). I enjoyed the ways in which matters of race, poverty, religion, resistance and violence where woven together.
It’s funny — we can look at gangsters or outlaws or criminals or fugitives from different eras of history and we can actually view them sympathetically or even as heroes or, at the very least, recognize that they acted nobly given their circumstances. Yet we are completely blind to this kind of reading of criminals or fugitives or “terrorists” in our context. Shit, I mean we have a First Nations chief who is on her third week of a hunger strike here in Canada because of the Canadian government’s consistent practice of violence, law-breaking, treaty-breaking, and genocide against her people and she is the one settler society is calling an “extremist” and “terrorist.” That doesn’t make much sense to me but, then again, Ned Kelly, Robin Hood, and Jesse James were all white men so maybe that makes a big difference.
23. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe.
I was recently looking over my list of “Books that I have read” I noticed a LOT of gaps in my reading (actually, it’s a bit embarrassing to have that list posted because of the massive gaps in pretty much every area, but I don’t mind a little embarrassment). One of the gaps I noticed in my reading is the absence of literature from outside of North America and Europe. I’m intending to work towards rectifying that so I picked up this book by Achebe late in the year.
I found it to be enjoyable and it was good to read a narrative exploring colonialism, the spread of Christianity in Africa, and traditional ways of structuring life together in parts of Africa, that come from the perspective of an African author. A pleasant and quick read.
24. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.
So, you would think about book filled with technical tax information and terminology, telling the stories of workers at an IRS office would be boring as hell but, hey, you would be wrong! This book was well on it’s way to being one of my favourite books ever before it’s rather abrupt termination (Wallace killed himself before he completed the manuscript… I thought it was further along than it was when I picked it up, so I was really pretty sad that we don’t get to see the story and the threads come together [or not] in a manner comparable to “Infinite Jest”).
I really love Wallace’s voice. It is hypnotic and it was that, sometimes more than the plot or the characters, that pulled in through “Infinite Jest” (in the same way that Proust’s voice pulled me through “In Search of Lost Time”). However, I think Wallace’s writing got better with this story. There were points where I laughed out loud several times in a single chapter and I pretty much never do this when reading (even when reading things I find funny, I usually just smile or laugh in my mind but not out loud). It was really a delight to read and a major disappointment that it ended where it did.
Although, you know, given the way that “Infinite Jest” ended (i.e. by leaving the plot threads pointing towards one another and a certain conclusion but not actually completing the story and leaving it to the reader to work out that conclusion on his or he own), maybe this was part of Wallace’s intention. Instead of an “infinite” story (which one could read in a loop forever) one has a permanent rupture and the literal death of the author. In this situation, what is the role of the reader?
25. I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings by Franz Kafka (edited by Nahum N. Glazer).
I remember a writer once saying that she would always disappoint her fans when they sought her out to discover more, to dig deeper into the the depths out of which she drew her stories, to find further answers to their questions, and all that. She stated something like this: “the best of me, the very best part of me, are those stories. There is nothing deeper behind them or greater beyond them — they are the best I have to give.” I’ve often thought of that quotation when learning about authors and scholars. It’s a good quote to keep in mind when coming to Kafka because, shoot, reading these autobiographical writings made me think, “Man, what a miserable prick” (and then made me note to my self that I should post less autobiographical material!).
26. Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics by Bill Richardson.
This was a fun little book to read on the side when I felt like being distracted from more serious things. Richardson, a CBC radio personality, traveled across Canada and dug into the archives and folk tales in order to dig up stories of various eccentrics from across Canada. It was fun to read but not spectacular (although the bushman who lived in the middle of nowhere and, at one point, cut off his own hand and healed and survived on his own without medication was pretty spectacular). A lot of the “eccentrics” where fellows who like wearing dresses or were gay before such things were what they are today.
I was struck by the ways in which small communities back in the day used to accept these so-called “eccentrics.” Yeah, so Timmy likes to wear dresses and he’ll steal your buttons, and maybe sneak into your kitchen, and steal some of your wife’s clothing off the line if he gets a chance… but that’s just Timmy, he’s a part of our community, he don’t mean no harm, and we look after him, I suppose. That sort of care and understanding seemed pretty common.
The same point was pretty strongly made in a documentary I recently watched called “Brother’s Keeper” about four brothers who are illiterate, may have other developmental or psychosocial barriers, and sleep in a tiny shack together (one brother is accused of murdering another brother and this is the central drama driving the documentary). Along the ways, it turns out that the brothers all share a bed together and there are rumours that they have sexual relations with each other. Based on our perceptions of tiny, rural, poverty-stricken communities in the United States, one would expect the brothers to be ostracized and vilified because of this… but the local people actually are very accepting of the brothers and very non-judgmental — “How’s it my business what goes on in there home?” and that sort of thing.
A third time I came across this point was reading Venturi’s “Roots of Revolution,” about the history of social and populist movements in 19th century Russia. I was reminded of how socialist and anarchist-based groups, back in the 1860s in Russia, where already adamantly proclaiming the equality of women and the equality of people of all races.
This made me rethink the story that contemporary urban, Western, liberal society tells itself about itself — i.e. that we are a recently new and improved phenomenon wherein queer people, people who are differently-abled, women, different races, and “eccentrics” are all accepted as equals. I’m still thinking through what the implications of this might be and have a few ideas… but that’s probably the subject of another post, if I ever get around to writing.
27. Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire.
I really enjoyed Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy — it is amongst my favourite graphic novels — so it was fun to come across this earlier work. It is a poignant and sad story, with a lot of violence, few words, and no redemption. Not as good as Essex County but I really like the way in which Lemire is able to communicate so much in rough broad stroke pictures and little use of language.