There we were, minding our own reading business, when out of the blue, our couples book club friend announced our next assignment: Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yes, both volumes, I and II. (Insert Munch scream emoticon here)
I always say there’s a reason why classics remain classics. When I got around to re-reading The Scarlet Letter I was astonished at its brilliance. Moby Dick is beyond monumental, as is Les Miserables. Thomas Hardy can do no wrong. And if you don’t love Middlemarch you are dead to me.
But every now and then a clunker comes down the pike. I know this is heresy but I actually did not love, or even like Don Quixote. And Faust, Volumes I and II will, for me, be relegated to that same shelf.
But it’s Faust, you (or some German literature major standing behind you) exclaim! It’s the original bargain with the devil! Except that it’s not the original. That dates back to the 16th century. And Christopher Marlowe published his tragic play on the subject in the 17th century. Goethe’s play, written over a span of thirty-some years in the 19th century, is considered the gold standard and I am glad I read it, but it will not make my top ten, or even twenty, list.
Faust is a world-weary character, filled with longing for glory and stung by thwarted ambition. Enter Mephistopheles, whose business card reads “Devil’s Henchman” and he offers Faust the world – at a price. If you sell your soul to the devil, perhaps you will be relegated to reading this book into eternity. It seems a fair punishment.
Redeeming qualities: The theme of man’s burden of streben or striving, is timeless and universal. The descriptions of Walpurgis Night – a sort of witch’s bacchanal that makes Halloween seem tame by comparison – were memorable. The homunculus, a tiny humanoid creature replicated in literature before and after Faust, is a captivating motif.
It’s worth reading, but it’s a slog and not always an enjoyable one. And it wasn’t the only read that fell flat for me in 2018. Here follow my other reading mishaps of the year – and please note that I’m not saying that any of these are inherently unworthy reads. They just, for various reasons, didn’t work for me:
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (298 pages, Kindle, published 1987)
A sort of classic in its own right, as it seems to have put its author on the literary map. I’m not saying it isn’t brilliant, but it is haunted by themes of alienation and suicide and I was just grateful to be done with it. “Do not read this book if you are depressed”, I scribbled under the title in my notes. It is said to be Murakami’s most autobiographical book, and is couched in the bleak college-era memories of its narrator, Toru. The prose is beautifully crafted, The Great Gatsby is appropriately worshipped and yes, the title is an homage to the Beatles’ song.
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (480 pages, Kindle, published 2014)
This was the debut novel by a daughter of Afghan immigrants who went on to become a pediatrician and a politically-active feminist. The book interweaves the story of sisters growing up under Taliban rule with an almost fable-like tale of their great-great-grandmother’s life a century past. Life for women in Afghanistan has never been easy: we learn about the practice of sangsaar (stoning), bacha posh (a tradition of presenting a daughter as a male by families in want of a son) and the practice of self-immolation, which the author states is “frighteningly common” in Afghanistan. It is an ambitious book and an important feminist history. But for me the prose was cumbersome and the narrative clumsy. It tells an interesting story but it is not literature.
Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle (272 pages, hardcover, published 2016)
This New York Times best-seller is glory-hounding at its worst. Many have been inspired by its themes of self-discovery and personal transformation and Oprah embraced it as one of her book club selections so, okay, I’ll give it a whirl. Early on in the book I gave author Doyle credit for overcoming her addictions and for her way with words. She is clever in a manipulative way. But what she really is, in my humble opinion, is a self-help grifter, swindling the reader’s emotions in her favor to take sides in her complicated and failing marriage where she is to be forgiven for all her transgressions but can’t wait to pound her husband for his. Neither one of them are what I would call a prize and I ached for the emotional welfare of their children. In the book she impresses the reader with her commitment to the struggling marriage, but before the ink was even dry on the pages Doyle announced she had left her husband for soccer legend Abby Wambach. Big oops, but wouldn’t want to miss out on the cash-in. She is an unrepentant self-promoter, the P.T. Barnum of self-help, and the last person on earth from whom anyone should take advice. Avoid.
The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester (691 pages, Kindle, published 2013)
Beware of yard-long titles, I always say. I’m a little on edge about a book if the title has to read like a scientific abstract. Actually, Winchester, a Brit whose affection for the U.S. led him to become an American citizen, is an engaging (and prolifically accomplished) writer. In this book, he takes the back roads and sprinkles the narrative with “I never knew that!” revelations about his adopted country: covered wagon tracks still visible off State Route 28 in Wyoming, the harrowing story of John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expedition, the genus and species of various types of tumbleweed. His study is of the ways in which the U.S.A. was linked from one end to the other. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of individual land ownership and thus a map grid of the entire country, which sparked his sponsorship of Lewis and Clark’s historic journey. Onward to canals and railroads and ultimately Dwight D. Eisenhower’s backing of an Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s. Mostly interesting. I was just a bit irritated by Winchester’s seeming need to insert himself and his globalist vision into the narrative with a slightly smarmy “I know what’s best for all you little people” preachiness. Unabashed political bias spoiled the book for me, but if you’re a left-leaning FDR apologist you’ll be fine with it.
The Shell Collector: Stories by Anthony Doerr (224 pages, Kindle, published 2002)
Oh how I loved Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. So I made a note to go back to his earlier work and I read his amusing memoir Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Worth it if you love Rome and have ever been a parent. Next on the list was this collection of short stories, which brought me up short. These stories struck me as strange, bordering on the bizarre. Doerr’s raw talent is in there, so it’s a chance to see a brilliant writer at the beginning of his trajectory, but I can’t say that I enjoyed these stories, which seem to search out extremes: death by cone shell, animistic visionaries, circus metal-eaters. Memorable, but maybe not so enjoyable.
The Art of Fielding: A Novel by Chad Harbach (516 pages, Kindle, published 2011)
This novel got SO much buzz when it first came out. Then there was a murmur of backlash. Ultimately, it was one of those books people either loved or hated and I leaned toward the latter category. Harbach is a gifted writer, and wow, he sure knows baseball: the plot centers, mostly, on a baseball phenom playing at a small college in Wisconsin. For me, the author overreached in his apparent aim to panegyrize male relationships, sexual and otherwise, to the point of failing to suspend my sense of disbelief. The Atlantic aptly reviewed it as “a swing and a miss”, and at more than 500 pages I felt like the book went needlessly into way too many extra innings.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (379 pages, Audiobook, published 2018)
I choose my audiobooks differently than I do the written word. I’m less interested in studying and learning than in the experience of listening. Basically, I guess, I’m not capable of thinking and listening at the same time so it’s more about enjoying a story. Thus I fell for the hype on this book: another NYT best seller! Reese Witherspoon loves it! And I will say that this book is powerfully evocative in sense of place – I truly enjoyed being immersed in the marshes of South Carolina, where the main character, a girl named Kya, grows up in a ramshackle shanty, abandoned by her family and christened “the marsh girl” by a community that turns its back on her. The story blooms into a murder mystery and I’ll give it credit for unexpected twists and turns, but the prose read like YA fiction, which is a no-go for me. Couldn’t love it.
Varina by Charles Frazier (368 pages, Kindle, published 2018)
I loved, loved, loved Frazier’s Cold Mountain, so I relished the opportunity to read his new book about the wife of Civil War figure Jefferson Davis. It is basically a biography in novel form, probably because the source material for the life of Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis is too thin to stretch into a proper biography. Frazier relies heavily on Mary Chesnut’s Diary and also creates a late in life reunion between Varina and the mulatto orphan Jim Limber who was documented to have spent a brief time in his childhood living with the Davis family. Frazier willingly brings all the skeletons out of the Davis closet and provides a more than balanced view of the war, its causes and its costs. Whether he intended to or not, he voices Varina as an unsympathetic, one-dimensional know-it-all and it just became wearying to encounter her on every page. I wanted to love it but didn’t.
A Hero of France: A Novel by Alan First (257 pages, Kindle, published 2018)
I would love to read a good book about the French Resistance during WWII – but this, regrettably, is not it. It’s racy, but hardly “riveting” as promised by its promoters. I think it’s probably well enough researched and historically accurate, but the characters are one-dimensional and the writing pedestrian. The “hero”, Mathieu, is written as a sort of WWII James Bond type. He, and the other characters, except for a winsome Belgian shepherd named Mariana, are forgettable. Can’t recommend.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (224 pages, Audiobook, published 2018)
Don’t get me wrong. This is an interesting tale. In 1927, Cudjo Lewis was the last living survivor from the Clotilda, the last ship to (illegally) bring slaves from West Africa to the United States in 1859. These unfortunate West Africans were first enslaved by rival tribes, then auctioned off and brought to Alabama, where they were released from slavery after the Civil War and created their own “Africatown” community north of downtown Mobile. The problem with this book is 1) it is a slim, slim volume, really more of a lengthy magazine article than a book and 2) some of its length comes from a very detailed preface which is mostly an apologetic for the fact that Hurston was found to have plagiarized much of the information in her “book”. This was, inexplicably to me, TIME Magazine’s best nonfiction book of 2018. It is the thinnest, gossamer thread of a story padded to be a “book”. Someone is making money off of this but it’s certainly not Hurston, who died in 1960. Your book dollars are better spent by looking up Cudjo Lewis here and spending your money on Hurston’s superb, beauteous, Their Eyes Were Watching God, particularly the audio version brilliantly performed by the late actress Ruby Dee.
Even though these were the “low points” of my reading year, I still maintain that you gain something, if even just a sliver or a dust mote, from every book you read. And reading remains the most economical form of travel – these books took me variously to Japan, Afghanistan, France, West Africa, the American South and West and into a myriad of lives all so different from my own. As writer George R.R. Martin says: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”