2012 Review of Literature, Part 1

2012 was one of the first long periods where nothing I read was required -- no book lists, thesis bibliographies, or courses to answer to. So I decided to go in as many directions as possible, finally reaching for books I said I'd read just not now and digging into new authors I'd never considered (and on more than one occasion, running out the door for the bus and yelling, "I'm running late! Christopher, toss me something to read quick!").

My only real guidelines, though were 1) books I'd never read before, 2) no two books by the same author within the year, and 3) make an effort to try authors/genres/styles I'd never tried. And the results were all over the place but really satisfying. (My only real regret is not writing down my reactions as I went. As such, the reviews get more detailed the further down the list.)

So here, in chronological order, is part 1:

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I actually read most of this in autumn 2011 and finally finished it in early 2012. Crime and Punishment popped up on a required reading list my senior year of high school, and in true senioritis fashion, I got about 100 pages in before SparkNoting as much as I needed to write a decent response. I tried again once in college, and again I ditched it after 100 pages or so. When I decided to return to it last fall, I was determined to push all the way through.
And after finally getting all the way to the end I realized that I really did get the gist through cursory skims, at least until the epilogue (though I'd been told that the ending is polarizing, anyway). It's not that I didn't enjoy reading it -- it's that the plot is secondary to Dostoyevsky's central philosophical conceit, i.e., man v. superman. The very best parts of the book involve Raskolnikov's reflections and inner arguments, and the rest I can't remember very well.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann is very possibly my favorite German author. I read Doctor Faustus for school and was hooked on Mann's creative commentaries on art, music, and German identity in the tumultuous early century.

The plot in brief: Hans Castorp, a young, upper-middle-class German gentleman, who visits his cousin Joachim at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and ends up staying for seven years. During this time he encounters a whole rainbow of personalities and ideas. The longer he stays, the harder it is for him to ever come back down.
While German identity is present in much of Mann's work, The Magic Mountain examines this at the atom level in a way that's almost allegory but not quite. I approached it like I would Animal Farm, having read that the novel's protagonist, Hans Castorp, represents Germany and his many housemates represent other European powers. But while this reading isn't exactly false, the characterizations are much more subtle and nuanced. The Magic Mountain is the story of an impressionable young man who enters a community full of new philosophies and struggles to adopt one of them as his own.
And I've said it before, but falling in love with a foreign-language text makes you really notice and appreciate a good translation. I'm incredibly happy that John E. Woods has translated so much of Mann's canon. I don't know that anyone could present Hans Castorp to English speakers quite as nicely.

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
I set a goal not to reread anything I'd read previously or to read the same author twice. I did this thinking it would force me out of my comfort zones and encourage me to fill in my literary gaps. And I realized I'd never read surrealist fiction. Or literature from Japan. Or almost anything written by living writers. Venturing into Murakami seemed like a good way to start bridging some of those gaps.

I'd heard surrealist literature was like reading your way through a Dali painting -- there's a lot of bizarre things going on, but nothing seems out of place. And that's really what it felt like. Talking cats? Oh, okay. Time distortion? Sure. Raining fish? Stands to reason. It's somehow both unsettling and comfortable. Nothing really makes sense but also it does? (I was reminded a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time for no good reason. (Which is appropriate somehow? (How many asides-within-asides do you think I can fit into one blog post?)))

As hard a time as I'm having putting my thoughts into words, I really liked this book. It is a beautiful and thought-provoking read.

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
I'm going to ruffle some feathers with this one, but I wasn't blown away by Ender's Game. I came to the book with a lot of hype. Multiple friends had been trying to convince me to read it since high school. I see it on a lot of top-10-sci-fi or sci-fi-for-those-who-don't-read-sci-fi lists. A guy who rides my bus interrupted my reading one morning to say that it was his favorite book and was I excited for the movie, too?

So I could blame it on not living up to the excitement, but I think a more likely reason would be attributed to something I like to call the Goonies Complex. Goonies was one of the hallmarks of my childhood. I can't count how many times I watched it as a chubby eight-year-old, pretending the swingset in my backyard was a hidden pirate ship full of stolen treasure. Once in high school a group of us sat down with a mutual friend to introduce her to the film. While we were cutting up and quoting lines, she just looked, well, puzzled. When it was over she couldn't figure out why we all liked it so much. "It's not that it's bad," she said, "I just don't get it."

And I realized that there are some things qualified by age of first exposure. You'll hear "Goonies was my favorite movie when I was young!" far more often than "Goonies is my favorite movie!" Part of why you love it is because you grew up with it, and there's nothing wrong with that. And honestly, the acting is hokey, the special effects are shoddy, and the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but if you overlooked these shortcomings as a child, you're more likely to forgive them as a nostalgic adult.

Ender's Game is a neat idea with a solid story, but the characters are a little flat, the dialogue is a little stilted, and the pace is a little uneven -- all things worth overlooking if I'd come to the text early enough.

So I liked Ender's Game all right. But I didn't love it, which is what I'd been hoping for.


  1. Yay, I'm glad you like Murakami! Christoph got me hooked on him in high school. Our dad doesn't like him though :(

    1. I'm not really sure what took me so long to read him. There's a lot of neat art and music that come out of Japan.

      Oh, no! Papa Holden! Why?


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