Just a quick note. As you'll see, this list doesn't reflect my favorite books written in the last year, just those that I've read in the last year.
5) THE FIFTH CHILD (Doris Lessing, 1987)
Doris Lessing was one of those writers who I’d long intended to read but, for whatever reason, never did. Well, I know the reason – there’s a lot of shit I want to read, and I’m constantly reminded that I’ll one day go to my grave without having experienced a lot of great books or exposing myself to a lot wonderful writers. Thank god Doris Lessing won’t be on that list.
A lot of people hate THE FIFTH CHILD (see the Goodreads comments). It has its champions too, but a whole gaggle of readers can’t stand David and Harriet. It’s understandable. They are, after all, a perfect example of why so many Baby Boomers turned out to be shitty parents. But guess what? You’re not supposed to like them. You’re not even supposed to believe them. I don’t believe for a second that Ben is literally the subhuman monstrosity Harriet and David make him out to be. I think Lessing’s whole point to this book is to define the damage caused by unbridled selfishness. Harriet and David want everything, even when they know it’s impractical, if not impossible, and everyone suffers as a result.
I’ll be reading a lot more of Doris Lessing in the future, so I’ll find out whether or not THE FIFTH CHILD is indicative of an overall detached and critical point of view of hers. But if it turns out to be its own facet in her literary gem of a career, it will stand as a bright one.
4) FLAPPERS & PHILOSOPHERS (F.Scott Fitzgerald, 1920)
Like almost every American teenager, I did have occasion to read THE GREAT GATSBY when I was in high school. I remember almost nothing about it except not liking it. It’s taken me nearly twenty years to wade back into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s languorously limpid waters, and I’m so glad I did.
FLAPPERS & PHILOSOPHERS is a collection short stories, and like every collection of stories some will resonate with you more than others. But Fitzgerald’s first collection is that rarity where every story is a song. Some are pleasant little madrigals, but most are soaring, fist-pumping anthems. And the classic “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” is a symphony, an elegiac adagio that rips the rage and heartbreak from your tear ducts with both hands. In “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” “Dalrymple Goes Forth,” “The Four Fists,” in every story Fitzgerald calls forth bitterly beautiful and beautifully bitter truths that whisper through your blood and set in your gut, heart, and mind.
I’ve got more Fitzgerald sitting on my shelf. I’ll be digging into it shortly and plan on relishing the mellifluous prose and songbird wisdom of one of the twentieth century’s literary lions. I think I’ll start with THE GREAT GATSBY.
3) KING LEAR (William Shakespeare, 1606)
I once heard or read somewhere that you shouldn’t read KING LEAR before you had turned forty. Well, I’m still in my thirties, and I’ve now read it. Maybe when I’m older I’ll re-read it and gain more from it than I can currently fathom. For now I’ll settle for it being Shakespeare at his most illuminated.
In some ways LEAR employs the Bard’s most diffused story (okay, not as diffused as HAMLET), but what room he doesn’t occupy with plot development and set pieces he fills with poetry underlining some of the most evasive and troubling realities of not just the characters but the human animal at large, how blind we can be to the power of kindness and magnanimity, how we torture ourselves rather than accept our own culpability. Lear is a man railing against his imminent mortality, but Shakespeare shows that what he should be fighting is the destruction he’s left in the wake of his life.
I suppose I could complain that Goneril and Regan are too similar, that I would have preferred some individuality between them, but it didn’t stop me from once again marveling at Shakespeare’s powers of invention and observation. He keeps on proving why he’s The One.
2) EARTHLY POWERS (Anthony Burgess, 1980)
For years I was like most of you. The only Burgess I had read was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I loved it, and said, “I should really read more by this guy.” I had long intended to read more, but you know how it is. Not you diehard Burgess fans. I know you don’t know. To you there is no excuse. Well, EARTHLY POWERS is Number Two on my list, so bite me hard.
Anthony Burgess doesn’t invent another language hewn from the outskirts of Slav and Cockney rhyming slang, but he deploys every weapon in the English language’s vast arsenal. Be aware, a dictionary will come in handy. But don’t be scared. Words are fantastic, especially new ones, and Burgess’ words soar off the page like eagles. He uses every nuance and muscle English has at its disposal to tell the story of Kenneth Toomey, a British writer who abandons the Catholic Church due to its castigation of his homosexuality but can’t abandon his Catholic guilt and doesn’t particularly want to. The guilt spreads like a cancer into every facet of his life. It’s a crushing tragedy, a semantic rollercoaster. It’s why literature fucking rules.
Still on the fence? Here’s the opening sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” If that opening sentence doesn’t grab you, please, for our benefit, subject yourself to electro-shock.
1) BIG TROUBLE (J. Anthony Lukas, 1997)
Okay, this was the Big One. BIG TROUBLE may be the best history book I’ve ever read. I’ll be honest – it’s gargantuan. It’s close to eight-hundred pages, the typeface is small, and each page is stuffed like a turkey. But Lukas needed the room. What he does in this book is prop up one forgotten crime from 1905 as the emblem for every social ill that has stricken America since its inception.
Ostensibly this is the story of a murder investigation, but what it turns out to be is the story of Labor versus Capital writ small. It’s the mining interests trying to crush the nascent unions under their boots. It’s the poor and the immigrant migrating to the open West only to find it already closed by men with hired guns. It’s champions of the underdog falling in love with their own fame and glory. It’s true believers who truly believe that the ends justify the means. It’s a star-studded cast featuring Clarence Darrow, Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eugene Debs, and half the scoundrels on the Pinkerton Agency’s payroll, with guest appearances by Walter Johnson and Ethel Barrymore. There’s murder, robbery, kidnapping, corruption. Halfway through the book I turned a page, and a kitchen sink flew out, followed by a bathroom sink, a toilet bowl, and a bidet.
BIG TROUBLE is a helluva commitment, but it’s one that bestows great rewards. This is a story about America, about the battles it continues to wage on itself to define its own code of virtues. What does America value more, its ambition or its soul?