I didn’t know writing could be both spare and self-indulgent. Solo Faces showed me how. James Salter’s story of a climber’s quest for the sublime is beautifully written in mostly short, evocative prose, almost poetic in the way he constructs scenes and uses images. Yet, somehow the story drags on, even as it follows a man driven to climb alone on the ice and snow of the Alps. It is just one of several attempts to feel, to live his life more fully, to deal with his profound ennui.
I don’t have much time for the ennui of a person I’ll never know. Perhaps this was Salter’s sentimental farewell to a life he once lived pushing his own limits. If so, it is a beautiful and empty exercise for me.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the first three books of her Earthsea series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Le Guin then turned to other work until writing a fourth and, she thought, final book in 1990. Belying her expectations, she returned to the story in 2001 with a novella and some short stories (collected in Tales from Earthsea), as well as another novel (The Other Wind).
In the thoughtful foreword to Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin writes about how it is to come back to the Earthsea world and some about her writing process. And then she discusses the purpose of fantasy in an age of “massive, rapid moral and mental transformation”:
For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill . . . So people turn to realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
Whether you agree with Le Guin or not about the purpose of fantasy, she’s clearly looking for ancient truths and immutable simplicities in the Earthsea books. Her heroes and heroines struggle for good against evil, striving for balance and harmony. Her plots reward humility and punish the proud and self-serving. One has the sense while reading Le Guin of being more attentive to the weather, the birds, the rocks, the people, and all the physical world. You become more thoughtful and deliberate about what and how much you say, introspective and attuned to the world. And in reaching for wisdom, she sometimes succeeds, though the knowledge is often more an inexpressible sense of rightness than explicit knowledge (which is a strange thing to write about something written in words).
Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind, continue and expand the world, adding rich context for and completing (in unexpected ways) the story begun in the first four books. The tone, while written for a more mature writer than the first novels, is consistent with Le Guin’s earlier work, and includes a more complex and subtle conversation about integrity, responsibility, and destiny. If you enjoyed the first four Earthsea books, you’ll like these two as much or more.
By comparison George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (actually called the A Song of Ice and Fire, but ever since HBO started making the books for TV, everyone knows all the books by HBO’s, and the first book’s, title) appears to be about little more than wars and political intrigue, with a little sex and a dash of magic on the side. Nevertheless, after reading the third in the series, A Storm of Swords, I find them compelling in their exploration of motivation and character and the sometimes-unpredictable plots hold my interest through a 1000-page paperback.
The world Martin paints is often brutal and misogynistic. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a “point” to the books – unless it’s that almost people are driven by their desires for power, wealth, sex, and honor (not necessarily in that order). The few people with integrity and principle are as likely as not to die cruel and obscure deaths as the rest of their less-principled neighbors. And maybe that’s part of the point: to demonstrate that good deeds are often not rewarded and bad deeds punished. Or maybe Martin just wrote them because he enjoys developing a more fully-imagined fantasy world and story than almost any before written.
Which brings me back to Le Guin’s foreword in Tales from Earthsea.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, the actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great storytellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
Considering the differences between the worlds Le Guin and Martin have created, my first impulse was to say that Martin’s was “commodified,” a sort of R-rated version of Tolkien; the use of the same double-R as middle initials seemed to reinforce that impression. But, after further thought, I don’t think Martin’s series deserves Le Guin’s derision. While very different than Le Guin’s, his anti-heroic approach, frequently killing off sympathetic characters, is certainly as risky.
Le Guin’s foreward implicitly puts the Earthsea story in a short list of classic fantasy, along with the Arthurian legend, Tolkien’s Middle Earth story, and Cervante’s iconic novel. Martin has been called the “American Tolkien.” For my money, neither Le Guin’s nor Martin’s tales have the elegiac punch that these three do, with their strong sense of the loss of innocence, passing into a new age of ennui and disillusionment. Nevertheless, Le Guin and Martin are great storytellers and earn a place among my hall of fame of fantasy writers.
It’s been almost four years since I added a new novel to my top 100 list. That is partly because I haven’t had time to read novels much during that span and partly because the few I have read didn’t make the list. It is wonderful to read a really good novel, again.
In her fourth book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie masterfully uses a mostly non-linear narrative and occasional shifts in narrative perspective to tell a story about a Nigerian woman in the US as she struggles to find her self and her voice and her love. Americanah is startling smart and witty, romantic and remarkable: for it’s beautiful prose, often with long sentences that somehow avoid feeling dense; for the sharp clarity of it’s observations about the world; and for it’s unflinching perspective on race and culture in the United States. Read it if you want a view of the US from the outside and, more importantly, to understand cultural difference and the dilemma of an immigrant better.
New addition: Americanah (#45), by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot
11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov
31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
46 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
47 1984 – George Orwell
48 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
49 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
50 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
51 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
52 Mao II – Don DeLillo
53 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
54 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
55 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
56 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
57 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
58 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
59 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
60 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
61 Neuromancer – William Gibson
62 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
63 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
64 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
65 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
66 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
67 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
68 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
69 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
70 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
71 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
72 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
73 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
74 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
75 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
76 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
77 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
78 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
79 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
80 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
81 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
82 The Fall – Albert Camus
83 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
84 Straight Man – Richard Russo
85 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
86 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
87 Kindred – Octavia Butler
88 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
89 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
90 The Street – Ann Petry
91 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
92 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
93 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
94 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
95 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
96 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
97 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
98 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
99 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler
Zone One (2011) is the only zombie novel I’ve read, so I can’t tell you how it stacks up with others in the genre. I can tell you how it compares to other Colson Whitehead books, since I’ve written about a few here. In that category, it is enjoyable, with typically fine prose and smart-ass introspection aplenty. The scenario is as plausible as most of his are and the pacing fast without feeling at all rushed. The lasting image I carry from the reading is that any remaining humans must survive by passing as zombies; they are doomed to be the only thinking and feeling creatures among millions of thoughtless and soulless virus vectors. Either Whitehead is deeply, crushingly lonely or he had a long relationship, which he thought was forever, end badly before he finished the writing.
In the prologue to Beautiful Souls (2012), journalist and author, Eyal Press, asks why some people — faced with a law, a culture, a group of people, a boss, or other significant pressure to do something they believe is wrong — say no. He writes, “It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why women and men sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.” This led me to think that Press would answer this question; and to some extent he does, but I found the answer unsatisfying.
In thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told stories Press describes people who risked their lives and livelihoods for something in which they believe. One is a Swiss policeman breaking the law by allowing Jewish refugees into his country in 1938. Another, a Serb in 1991 identifying Croats as Serbs to save their lives. There’s a member of the Israeli special forces publicly refusing to serve in the occupied West Bank and a securities trader blowing the whistle on her company’s Ponzi scheme. And many more.
All of these can be seen as heroes, but part of Press’s point is that they don’t see themselves as heroes; instead, they are people who did what they thought was right at the time. Most agonized about it for days, weeks, or months. All of them paid steep prices for their acts. They were fired from their jobs, branded traitors, and lost friends. For some in their societies, the retaliation is revenge. But even people who think they did the right thing by refusing or whistleblowing feel uncomfortable around them because they show everyone else to be moral cowards. They are pariahs.
Trying to find a common cause for their courage is difficult, but they do share a seemingly naïve belief in the myths their society tells about itself. They have bitten off the stories of the moral structure of their society so thoroughly that they can’t believe they’re not true. And when they are first presented with evidence that the fantasy taught by their grade schools and governments and corporations is false, they ignore it and act as though the evidence is a strange exception rather than the rule that more cynical parties claim. They believe in and care about their societies so much that they are willing to risk everything to protect them. As Press points out, conformists (despite being framed as caring more about their group than themselves) usually benefit individually by not sticking out. Nonconformists (individualists, the story often goes, who don’t care as much about the group) are the ones who actually give greater benefit to their society as a whole by pointing out problems and ways to fix them. And they pay for it.
Nevertheless, to a person, even though they now have what I would call more realistic pictures of their societies, they say they would do it again. Press’s ultimate answer for why is a relatively old saw: they wanted to look themselves in the mirror every morning without shame. For me, looking for something more powerful in a world that I often find dishearteningly unethical and amoral, that wasn’t enough. I was hoping for something that, as a mentor of young people, I could teach and that would make a difference. I suppose my own naiveté shows in that hope.
Maybe it’s guy thing, but for as long as I’ve been old enough to think about it I’ve wondered how I would react to fighting in a war. The chaos and horror of the thing overwhelms – but is it, like many fears, worse in my mind than in reality? Or, is real combat even worse than I could imagine?
If I’m lucky, I will never know for sure. My sense from reading Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War is that for soldiers war is both less fearsome and more horrible than one imagines. From Marlantes, I learned that there are many moments of mundane ordinariness. There are also moments of abject fear. There are moments of just doing what you have to do for your fellow fighters and yourself. And for some there are moments of enjoying the power of death.
Throughout it all, according to Marlantes, the soldier has no illusion that he or she is safe from death. “Some random projectile can kill you no matter how good a soldier you are. . . . In a combat situation you wake up from sleep instantly aware that this could be the last time you awake, simultaneously grateful you’re alive and scared shitless because you are still in the same situation.”
Writing careful, thoughtful prose, Marlantes tries “come to terms with [his] own experience of combat.” He does not like war, but he admires the “noble warrior” and argues that, “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.” Whether you believe him or not, there is no doubt that when soldiers go to war, they come back changed. If you want to understand a little about that change and how we could help them come back from it, this book is for you.