As usual, I’ve been reading quite a bit these days. I love all of my classes this semester, and the reading lists for most of them are phenomenal and include some books outside the sphere of what I would typically choose. The books and short stories I’ve listed below are my favorite reads of the past two months, and I highly recommend all of them, particularly Pale Fire and Maus. Enjoy!
- A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. Because of my slight Sherlock obsession, A Study in Scarlet was a reread for me. I’m taking a class on detective fiction, and to begin the course, we read two authors who paved the genre: Poe and Conan Doyle. This novella serves as the introduction to the Holmes adventures, but it differs from all the stories that follow it. It is split up into two sections that don’t seem at all cohesive until the very end. One minute you’re reading about Holmes and the next minute you’re reading about Mormons. It almost seems like two completely separate short stories until you start recognizing the names from the first section. It seems weird, but it works in my opinion.
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Holy. Moly. Everyone, stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Pale Fire is, by far, my favorite thing I read all month. I read Lolita last year, so I knew that Nabokov is brilliant, but Pale Fire blew me away. The time and thought he put into this novel is glaring. I can’t even understand how he managed to pull it off. The novel pretends to be a scholarly edition of a poem written by the narrator’s next-door neighbor. It opens with a forward by Charles Kinbote, the unreliable narrator, and is followed by the poem by John Shade and the commentary by Kinbote. Throughout the novel, Nabokov weaves together several different narratives threads: Kinbote’s, John Shade’s, a king’s, a killer’s. By intertwining these narrative strands, Nabokov challenges the conventions of narrative and leaves the reader uncertain of the reality of the narrative (but in a good way). It’s one of those books you have to read over and over again, because you uncover something new each time. For instance, the nature of the narrative suggests that Kinbote, the editor of the poem, is also the author-narrator of the commentary. But when I finished reading, I wasn’t convinced that he was either. I think it’s safe to say that Pale Fire’s made it on my list of all-time favorites, and I highly, highly recommend it.
- Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In my detective fiction class, I’ve been reading a lot of hard-boiled, noir novels. Red Harvest is your typical 1920s gangster novel. It follows the Continental Op who comes to Poisonville to clean up the corruption. This type of detective fiction differs from the classical detective fiction by Conan Doyle or Poe. Instead of the classical detective such as Holmes or Dupin, the idiosyncratic genius who is largely removed from the crime and solves it by noticing and piecing together what the police overlook, the hardboiled detective like the Op is involved in the action. He is not absurdly smart or unflinchingly moral. Rather, he is portrayed as an ordinary person whose morality and motivations are often called into question. Overall, it is an entertaining and socially aware novel that addresses the anxieties of the late 1920s/early 1930s.
- Maus by Art Spiegelman. Up until about a month ago, I had never read a graphic novel, but by a happy accident I unknowingly signed up for a graphic novel class for my creative writing minor. Previously, I had always associated graphic novels with superheroes or manga, neither of which are my cup of tea, but this class has proven me wrong. I recently read Maus, which is incredibly famous and renowned (it won a Pulitzer). Art Spiegelman is essentially telling the story of his father’s life in Nazi Poland, his experience in a prisoner of war camp, hiding from the police, and eventually being sent to Auschwitz. Spiegelman makes himself a character in the story. We see him having conversations with his father and writing down the stories he hears with the intention of putting them into a novel. What is really interesting about the book is that though all of the characters are drawn as animals, Spiegelman manages to humanize the Holocaust. The Jews are mice; the Poles are pigs; the Nazis are cats; the Americans are dogs. Regardless, we are acutely aware that Vladeck was a real person. The animals remove the reader a degree from fully sympathizing with him, which allows us to individualize the Holocaust rather than seeing it as a blanket experience.
- How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien. How to Tell a True War Story is a chapter from Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. This chapter comments on the line between fiction and nonfiction in prose, specifically prose about war. The short story is framed as a first-person narrative, but despite the fact that O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran, it is unclear whether or not he is the narrator. Throughout the piece, the narrator instructs the reader on how to tell a true war story or how to tell if a war story is true. In doing so he tells stories from his experiences in a war, witnessing death and being in such psychologically straining experiences. It is unclear whether or not these stories actually happened, but it doesn’t matter. Over and over again the narrator says, “This is true,” however, at the end of the short story, O’Brien-as-the-author says, “None of it happened. None of it.” He blurs the lines between truth and fiction, separates us into readers and hearers of stories, and makes an argument on how truth plays into it all.
What did you read this month?