I have been working on this for a week or so, inspired by Justice Paul Thissen’s FB list of his favorite books for the year. (True, he listed his top 10, and I’ve got 30–I believe that is all the books I managed to read all the way through in 2020).
Several are volumes (“Spoon River Anthology,” “Guns of August” and “Freedom From Fear”) that I started reading in years past but only managed to find the back cover to in 2020. Other than “Fear and Trembling,” I’d recommend them all. They’re listed chronologically, not in the order read.
Medea — Euripedes (431 B.C.)
An object lesson in why infidelity is a super-bad idea. When a betrayed Medea gets mad, people shed blood, including her own children. And she kind of gets away with it (!). Very non-Hollywood ending. By the way, Jason is a jerk.
The Nature of Things — Lucretius (circa 60 B.C.)
Lucretius’ philosophical conclusions tend to rub Christians the wrong way and I’m not up for an argument. But even if you ignore his ideas about death and the afterlife, it’s mind-blowing to consider the spectacular accuracy with which this Roman teacher grokked atomic theory, using little more than raw imagination and some speculative clues offered by predecessors like Epicurus. And Lucretius died half a century before Jesus was born. A world-changing achievement. (See Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” for the ripping true story about the staggering impact this book had upon its rediscovery in the 15th Century.)
The Satyricon — Petronius (circa 60 A.D.)
Our best and most detailed view of how the other half—in this case, ancient Rome’s lower classes—lived. If Petronius is right, they apparently had a lot of decadent, erotic, dangerous fun. The adventures of the slumming Encolpius, his ex-gladiator buddy Ascyltus and the 16-year-old slave boy Giton that they compete over sexually, reads like a manic and morally questionable mixture of Cervantes, Bukowski and Kerouac, minus the depressing hangovers. Sadly, we have this one only in fragments. The birth of the picaresque anti-hero.
The Golden Ass — Apelius (circa 150 A.D.)
Can I interest you in a funny, thrilling road epic narrated by a donkey? It doesn’t start out that way. At first Lucius is a well-born young man with an unhealthy fascination in magic spells, who gets himself accidentally transformed into an ass. Oops! The genius of his predicament is that, as a beast of burden who understands human language and changes hands many times, Apelius gives him a fly-on-the-wall view of the dastardly way that people operate when they think no one else is looking. This is the only ancient Roman novel to survive intact.
Utopia — Thomas More (1516)
I started, abandoned and restarted this short book more times than I can count. I finally pushed through in 2020, thinking a Utopia might not be such a bad place to visit during a pandemic. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t know if More is actually down with the oppressively monastic “perfect society” his narrator Raphael describes, or if he is just taking the piss. Maybe he believed in it. More’s piousness, after all, eventually cost him one cranium, courtesy of Henry VIII’s executioner. It’s just my take, but if you happen to win a radio contest vacation to this place, see if they’ll give you the cash instead.
Lazarillo de Tormes — Anonymous (1554)
A Spanish “Young and the Damned” (“Los Olvidados”) more than three centuries before auteur director Luis Buñuel arrived on the scene, but with a comedic edge. The book’s anonymous author has a kind execrable viewpoint—his story aims to demonstrate the futility of trying to rise past one’s station in 16th Century Spain’s rigid class system. But he also makes Lazarillo one of literature’s great anti-heroes. A teen, Lazarillo is given over by his impoverished parents to a traveling blind grifter, who treats him as a slave and nearly starves him to death, leading the youth to engineer a cringeworthy demise for the old bastard. And that’s just the beginning. The book’s anti-clerical satire led the author to carefully avoid identifying himself, so as to ward off torture and execution. But the work was so popular in its time that it gets name-checked in “Don Quixote.” And we still don’t who wrote it.
Julius Caesar —William Shakespeare (1599)
I read this after watching the 1953 Brando film; I found myself not quite comprehending what Brando was on about with his “lend me your ears” speech. So I read the play in an edition that ran side by side with a modern language translation. Then I re-watched the film. Verdict: Shakespeare was a genius (you knew that). Also, Brando was a genius (sure, but I wasn’t convinced until after I saw and understood his Marc Antony performance). The broad moral of this tragedy: Do something rash and irretrievable, even if you think you have the moral high ground—indeed, even if your instincts are essentially right—and everything can go to shit while you end up with a far worse results. (Paging the Minnesota Legislature….)
Coriolanus — William Shakespeare (1608)
How the hell did Shakespeare know Trump was coming? Probably because Trump variants have arrived on the scene time and again through the ages. Setting aside Coriolanus’ glorious success as a warrior, he is a scurrilously elitist, bombastic, vindictively impulsive man-child—the nearest approximation to the Trump persona that I’ve stumbled across in letters. Coriolanus’ character has the added twist of pronounced mommy issues, something rare in Shakespeare, and it’s just the teensiest bit uncomfortable….
Rameau’s Nephew — Denis Diderot (1805)
This is the French philosopher’s imagined dialogue between himself and a real-life acquaintance, Jean-François Rameau, the nephew of a famous French composer. It remained unpublished during Diderot’s lifetime because, had it seen the light of day, Diderot might have gotten a visit from the Inquisition. In it, a rambunctious and utterly amoral Rameau argues infectiously with Diderot, Rameau’s parsimonious foil. Rameau takes the hedonistic low ground in all of these debates, elevating his passion for theft, debauchery and money worship to near-religious zeal. The book’s amazing trick—despite arguing for virtuous decent living as adroitly as Diderot can, Rameau gets the better of him at every turn.
The Marquise of O — Heinrich von Kleist (1808)
Not quite your standard #MeToo tale. A Russian officer, after leading an attack on an Italian citadel, spares a beautiful, unconscious widow from a group of very rapey soldiers. The officer carries her to safety, a fact she is made aware of only later, when she regards him as the height of gallantry. But then, oh! oh! The Marquise is pregnant and has no idea why. She actually advertises in a newspaper asking the father to step forward and marry her (!). The Russian officer responds, sort of admits he is the mystery boinker and requests her hand in marriage, much to the joy (!) and relief (!) of the Marquise’s parents … and to her own shock and revulsion. But the family likes the match (he’s well-born, don’t you know) and the marriage goes forward, even though she refuses to have anything to do with the guy for a year after the baby’s birth. But then he gifts the kid a big stash of money and he signs his estate over to the her upon his eventual death and she relents, accepts him as husband—and even seems to … love him? (Gulp!) This is all problematic, obviously. But there is reason to believe von Kleist, an extraordinary and visionary German writer, feels that discomfort, too. Despite his tale’s “happy ending,” one senses the Marquise’s choices are the only ones available to her if she is to endure the strangling social conventions that, in von Kleist’s day, were a woman’s inescapable bond.
Michael Kohlhaas — Heinrich von Kleist (1810)
The revenge story to top them all. A horse trader, the titular Kohlhaas, is on his way to market when a nobleman along the road detains him, telling him he lacks a highway pass and demanding tribute. Annoyed, Kohlhaas leaves two prize horses behind as collateral with a promise to travel on to the city and get his papers in order. Of course, once there he finds he never needed any such papers. Perturbed, he finishes his business in town and heads back to reclaim his horses, but finds the nobleman has put them to the plow, leaving them unfed, unsheltered and exhausted. Kohlhaas refuses to take them back until they are restored to fitness, but the nobleman ignores him. Obstinacy meets obstinacy, insult compounds insult and an extraordinary eruption of violence ensues. Soon, not only does Kohlhaas’s wife lay dead, so does the nobleman’s family. But his tormentor escapes and Kohlhaas organizes a peasant guerilla army to pursue him, triggering an actual ground war as the mob pillages and burns the countryside in Kohlhaas’ quest to either capture the man or wreak havoc until he is produced. The grand and weirdly believable scale of this avoidable conflict is fascinating. And justice, in the end, is never done.
Boris Gudonov — Alexander Pushkin (1831)
The play is a Russian analog to Shakespeare’s “Richard III”—and written, apparently, with similar intent. Like Shakespeare, the poet Pushkin digs deep into his nation’s history for an allegory meant to convey veiled modern political meaning, but without the author having to go to prison. “Gudonov” withstands the Shakespeare comparisons. In it, the young ninny who replaces the dead Ivan the Terrible gets assassinated by the scheming Boris, who seizes the throne, launches a slight reign of terror, then watches it all go to shite. But unlike Shakespeare’s unfeeling Richard, Boris’ undoing is his own guilt for having bumped off Ivan’s kid. So there’s a little “Hamlet” in there, too. Oh, and by the way, there’s a mendacious monk with designs on power who shares some characteristics with history’s Rasputin, a fellow who arrived on the scene almost a full century after Pushkov’s play was published. So there’s a bit of real-life foreshadowing, too. Good on ya, Pushy.
Fear and Trembling — Søren Kierkegaard (1843)
I had long wanted to tackle this work and never succeeded until this year. I’ll confess that, along with “The Golden Ass,” “Lazarillo de Tormes” and “The Satyricon,” I read Kierkegaard hoping it would help guide me through the grief of my son’s death. The fiction works were a genuine help. This one, not so much. It dwells on the tale of Abraham and his son, but in a confounding and inscrutable way. The warm, consoling Kierkegaard I’ve heard so much about isn’t much in evidence here. But the famously passionate Kierkegaard is all over the place: Apparently, he wrote this after his neglected girlfriend finally ditched him, and as a result it somehow has something to do with the degrees of heroism that are most acceptable in the sight of God. Or something. All righty, then. … Take it on if you must. Wasn’t what I was looking for. Sorry, Søren.
The Scarlet Letter — Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
This is one of those must-reads of American literature that I skipped in high school and figured I’d better get around to, since I ain’t getting any younger. Verdict: I’ve got no time for the weak-willed, vacillating Arthur Dimmesdale, but Hester Prynne … what a woman! Nathaniel Hawthorne apparently borrowed bits of her personality from his neighbor, the proto-feminist and pioneering foreign correspondent Margaret Fuller, America’s first real female public intellectual. He makes Hester a model of steel-eyed, haughty independence. Too bad she buys into all that hellfire and damnation business, though. It only seems to make her pointlessly miserable. Demerits, too, for the super-creepy kid. Come on, man!
Hard Times — Charles Dickens (1854)
Fine stuff, if you’ll make allowances for all the signature Dickens exaggeration. A lot of people are bugged by his depiction of union politics here, but for me the tale’s heart is Dickens’ condemnation of the strict, heartlessly utilitarian education that was in vogue in his day, and of its consequences. Stand-out scene: Cissy Jupe unintentionally frustrates her instructors by answering their scientifically exacting questions incorrectly, but in ways that show she sees things with a humanity and wisdom that they can’t even spy through their hard-facts-only pedagogical lenses.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Whether this was Stevenson’s intent, I don’t know. But I don’t read this as a Mary Shelley-styled science-is-terrible parable. I read it as a powerful metaphor for addiction’s merciless, destructive grip. Jekyll even addresses it that way in his letter to Utterson at book’s end. “I do not suppose that, when a drunkard reasons with himself upon his vice, he is once out of 500 times affected by the dangers that he runs through his brutish, physical insensibility,” the doctor writes as he succumbs to the Hyde persona. “My devil had been long caged; he came out roaring.” Yeah, dad. Been there!
Spoon River Anthology — Edgar Lee Masters (1915)
It’s still a great idea: A book of verse giving ghostly, plainspoken and uninhibited voice to the generations of occupants of a small-town graveyard. I grew up in a town not unlike Spoon River and I’d imagine Minong’s Greenwood cemetery would sound like this, too, if the wind could carry away its voices.
The Deserter — Richard Harding Davis (1917)
Slight novella by the great, American WWI war correspondent. A soldier scheming to escape the front so he can survive the war gets confronted and cajoled by a bunch of uber-patriotic American expats and told to get his ass back to the front. He does, even if he’s not thrilled about it. Odds are he won’t live long there, but the book averts its gaze and ends before that happens.
The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By — Georges Simenon (1938)
Simenon was known for his great crime-novel series featuring French police detective Jules Maigret. But for this one-off, Maigret is absent. It’s the story of Kees Popinga, a middle-aged Belgian with a perfect middle-class family and respectable job who suddenly chucks aside all social convention after learning that his employer has looted the bankrupt company where he works, and plans to flee abroad with the remaining loot. And there Popinga’s breakdown begins. His first transgression is bedding his boss’ favorite hooker, but he accidentally kills her. So he flees to Paris and engages in a modest crime spree that convinces him he is one of the century’s great outlaw masterminds. He isn’t. Simenon deftly guides us on sobering trip through a fugitive’s deteriorating sanity.
A King Alone — Jean Giorno (1947)
It’s not a story I understood well and maybe that’s as Giorno intended. But I won’t soon forget it. The tale of the militaristic, regally taciturn Langlois unfolds like a foggy dream. Set in a remote Alpine village, Langlois is a man apart, misunderstood but worshipped by the local villagers. He’s almost some kind of Homeric warrior-god, plopped down without arms amongst the simple, good-hearted country folk of rural post-WWII France. Only a serial killer and a (literal) big, bad wolf serve him, fleetingly, as worthy adversaries. Giorno’s haunting, abrupt ending will long visit your thoughts.
Cop Hater — Ed McBain (1956)
Everyone needs a little pulp in their literary diet; this was mine for 2020. The first of 55 McBain “87th Precinct” cop procedurals, it’s set in a fictitious, Gotham-like U.S. megalopolis. McBain spit these books out at a frenetic pace, and the hurry shows at the seams—the closing plot twist is not really surprising and his women are mostly sexual props whose characterizations don’t age well. But McBain is capable of outstandingly lyrical passages and his city of Isola is as enigmatic and fascinating a character as any of his hard-boiled cops. David Foster Wallace was a fan.
Star — Yukio Mishima (1961)
Meta! The Japanese novelist wrote this story about a jaded young film star at the same time Mishima himself had a starring role in a Japanese Yakuza gangster flick (“Afraid to Die.”) The book is probably not the most vital entry in the Mishima canon, but as a glimpse from the inside of what hyper-stardom does to the human psyche, it doesn’t have many companions. First published in the early 1960s, it was finally translated to English in 2019.
Mother Night — Kurt Vonnegut (1962)
This is the vaguely Chaplinesque story of an Axis Sally-styled German WWII radio propagandist (and disavowed American double agent) who chooses execution by the Israelis decades after the war, rather than allow himself to be rescued at the eleventh hour, all because he finally can’t live with the harm he has done to either the Germans or the Americans. The theme is as bleak as a Siberian winter, yet the book is hilarious. Here Vonnegut’s humanist magic approaches full flower.
The Guns of August — Barbara W. Tuchman (1962)
Bobby Kennedy said this book saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK had read it just beforehand, and recalled what Bobby referred to as its central message—that generals are always determined to fight the last war. That, according to RFK, made the president question his generals’ aggressive advice about confronting the Soviets. I suppose that is a subtext of the book, but the thought is mentioned directly only in passing. Regardless, Tuchman offers an unbeatable summary of the chaotic weeks leading up to World War I, flowing into the war’s pivotal first few months, when most things went the Germans’ way until suddenly they didn’t.
Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 — David M. Kennedy (1999)
A great way to get an in-depth understanding of the New Deal/WWII era and the personalities that populated it. It treats FDR as a politician of singular skill, but also as an enigmatic and flawed man who unwisely stayed in power beyond his expiration date—with sad consequences at Yalta. Kennedy also treats the era as the inexorable sequel to the international disruption wrought by WWI, making it a good follow up read to the Tuchman book.
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald — Michael Schumacher (2005)
I believe I spied the great rust-colored laker once as a child, while my family was on a Lake Superior harbor cruise in the early 1970s. I bought this nifty little account of its sinking during a vacation stay in Grand Marais in 2019. Schumacher’s a capable writer—I’m a fan of his Phil Ochs bio—and this book doesn’t disappoint. A well-documented yarn about the greatest of Great Lakes nautical tragedies.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead —Olga Tokarczuk (2009)
I have a real weakness for women in their sunset years. Can’t help myself, I adore them. So Olga Takarczuk had me in the palm of her hand when her novel introduced me to Janina Dusze?ko, the cranky, independent, retired engineer/teacher/animal lover/nutball astrologist/William Blake translator who never calls her fellow villagers by their given names. Instead she substitutes her own, using descriptions that she thinks best fit their personas. So Tokarczuk’s characters include “Oddball,” “Good News,” and the ill-fated “Bigfoot.” What the Nobel prize-winning Polish writer didn’t prepare me for was that she was introducing me to a serial killer. What she really didn’t prepare me for was that, even after I learned of the old girl’s shocking crimes, I’d still adore her.
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics — Stephen Greenblatt (2018)
Fascinating summation of Shakespeare’s treatment of tyranny, how it foments, manifests and destroys. The sections on “Henry VI, Pt. I” and “Coriolanus,” were especially instructive. It is clear, however, that Greenblatt is tilting his premise toward parallels with the Trump era. And while it makes for intriguing reading, it occasionally strains. And that doesn’t suggest this 2017 book will age particularly well. (Though after this week, who the hell knows?)
The Nickel Boys — Colson Whitehead (2018)
Indispensable. Whitehead fashions a gripping, fictionalized account of a real-life house of horrors—Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Written from the perspective of an adult former student who survived his time there, the book doesn’t only shine a light on a lost era of Jim Crow violence in Tampa, Florida. It spotlights the American propensity to forget—maybe erase is the right word—its episodes of racial terror.
The Silence of the Girls — Pat Barker (2018)
A compelling recast of Homer’s “Iliad,” from the perspective of Trojan women taken slave by their Greek conquerors. Its focus is on Briseis, wife of the vanquished King Euenus’ son. Achilles sacks her city, Lyrnessus, and his men slaughter nearly the entire male population, including her husband, while taking the women as slaves. Homer gives us almost no information about Briseis other than that she had nice figure, a beautiful smile and apparently, was worth fighting over—Achilles threw a pity party for the ages when Agamemnon stole Briseis away, withdrawing his legions from the war leaving the Greek army in prolonged peril. For Homer, Briseis is a mere object—or at best, an objective. But Barker breathes vivid life into her as a proudly pragmatic, enslaved royal who must serve, bed and endure the physical abuse of the very men who killed her people. It’s all terribly hopeless, but Briseis, as rendered by Barker, is a woman of character, heroism and determination who survives and thrives with dignity and self-possession intact.
That’s all, folks. Remember, reading is good fer what ails ya.