The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa

Sometimes a book doesn’t seem particularly remarkable or memorable when you first finish it, but then it stays with you, festering. That is what happened to me with The Bad Girl. It is a story of old age. A good boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets the eponymous “Bad Girl” and becomes obsessed with her, even though she has a habit of disappearing without a trace only to reappear years later–a pattern that continues his entire life. This story is framed as Ricardo’s memories of his encounters for her and, for the most part, it is a pretty straightforward story of love and loss. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I came to Llosa through the list of Nobel laureates (he won in 2010) and had my interest piqued because his named kept coming up along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of the titans of 20th century Latin American literature. The Bad Girl is the first of his book I have read, but, published in 2006, it is clearly a mature novel. As I said, a novel of old age, both in subject and in mood.

Ricardo Somocurcio is a teenage Peruvian from a family of moderate means. He has a bit of a talent for languages and a dream of living in Paris. One summer he meets a “Chilean” girl who comes to hang out with his friends and begins to date her, but toward the end of the summer she disappears. His life continues, he goes to Paris and becomes a translator and where the bad girl crosses paths with him several more times, each time in a different guise and with a different husband.

She treats the good boy badly. His income is insufficient for her and when she leaves him it is always for a man with more money and more power. But she also always comes back, asking him to tell her sweet, empty things about how much he loves her. And he does, both love her and tell her the words. He sees other women from time to time, but the bad girl is the only woman he actually loves with this much deep devotion. At the same time, the story takes place through the span of decades and there are subtle changes in the world that the non-couple inhabits.

I found myself sympathetic to Ricardo, as I imagine Llosa intended, but there was nothing in particular that jumped out as remarkable or memorable. I put down the book thinking to myself that he was not as powerful a character as the subject of other stories about obsession such as (for example) Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But, ironically, Ricardo’s mundane appearance amps up the pathos of the story, in large part because he manages to live up to the “good boy” moniker that the bad girl gives to him and the contrast between the two characters is extreme.

In a conversation about the new HBO show “Looking” on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Glen Weldon made a point that sex, whether on TV or books, is sometimes perceived as plot development rather than as added dialogue. Sex features prominently in the relationship between the good boy and the bad girl in this book and in a way that I found awkward and difficult. But it is part of the relationship that the two of them have and is in its own way touching, particularly because Llosa contrasts what they have with sexual dynamics that involve people other than just the two of them.

The Bad Girl is not a story of daring adventure or intrigue, but a study of affection, obsession, and, at times, love. It is pretty well paced, but that pacing is deliberate and subdued instead of intense and manic. When I had just finished the book, I thought that it was good, but a week on my appreciation for it has grown. The reason for this is that, on some level, I am still trying to work through the emotions that Llosa works the reader through and the dominant impression I am left with is profound sadness that few other books have elicited.

French foreign policy in Africa

The “related links” tab on this Spiegel article is split down the middle between other pieces detailing French military action in the Central African Republic and articles bemoaning Germany’s unwillingness to risk military intervention on an international stage. This split is fair, since the article on one hand lauds France as “Europe’s sole military force” (subtitled “Giving France respect where it is due”) and bemoans that Germans and other Europeans “prefer navel gazing to action.” [1] Moreover, the article is linked to in another article detailing some of the challenges faced by the German military in Afghanistan and its as-of-yet minimal role in Central Africa as a new Defense Minister takes office.

The first article does a pretty good job of detailing the reasons why the recent history of French foreign policy so fascinates me:

  • France was one of the driving forces behind the NATO intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi
  • Hollande was one of the loudest proponents of intervention of some sort against Assad’s government in Syria.
  • In January 2013, France used an invitation from the Malian Government and a delayed UN mandate to unilaterally conduct military action in Mali and expedite intervention from other African states.
  • In the past months, France has begun military intervention in the Central African Republic with the stated mission of preventing genocide.
  • Just this week it was reported that France is going to increase the size of military deployments in former colonies, saying that they intend to move to a regional counter-terrorism strategy in West Africa.

France is also encouraging other EU countries, Germany in particular, to contribute to these military ventures. So far Hollande has not had much success in this, though Germany is currently training Malian troops and is in the process of moving its main African troop-transport airbase from Senegal to Mali in order to react to potential threats more quickly.

In either case, French foreign policy since Hollande took office is a far cry from the stereotypical French opposition to any military intervention and subsequent creation of freedom fries.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Minister, has given two stated objectives to the most recent strategy developments:

  1. While running the risk of turning into Afghanistan 2.0 (with some of the same problems, but also some different ones), avoid the mistakes of Libya. This requires active and continued involvement of French troops in Africa rather than the distant and temporary military intervention and then letting the nation largely sort out its own problems.
  2. Change the paradigm from counter-terrorism within nations to a regional intervention.

One of the challenges of counter-terrorism is that the opponents are not only non-state entities, but they aspire to be non-state entities, meaning that they do not abide by borders that the counter-terrorist forces are at least supposed to acknowledge. During the French intervention in Mali, the al Qaeda-linked fighters slipped into the desert, often into the surrounding countries. If the French are successful in organizing a regional strategy with the prior cooperation of the nations in the region, they can bypass the issue of national sovereignty–and by having a pre-existing “intervention” in most of the countries, they can establish bases in a larger portion of the Sahel.

It is an ambitious foreign policy agenda in Africa. But in a region that has recently been destabilized by sectarian violence, coups, and multiple different groups of religious extremists, the project has a chance to pay dividends. The German authors suggest that the French people take a immense amount of pride in that their country still plays the role of a global superpower, which causes the collective eye-rolling in other Europeans (especially Germans). This statement may be a bit of a stretch, though Hollande certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered for catapulting France into this position.

The motivations for the main participants are pretty straightforward. France has economic interests throughout its former colonies (including its source of uranium) and so it makes sense to for it to intervene. The United States has little interest in intervention in Africa, but an active interest in curtailing al Qaeda-linked groups in the ongoing war on terror, so it makes sense for the US to support French action however it can. One of the question marks is how the former colonies perceive this strategic shift since it could be seen as a return of European colonialism. However, most of the coverage has indicated that the local populations do not want anything to do with radical Islam and the governments can gain regional stability and thus security from the presence of French troops.

Even though I am skeptical of military intervention as a solution for problems as entrenched as religious extremism and local violence, I am fascinated to watch this French endeavor unfold because it does seem to have been designed with care w/r/t the problems of modern counter-terrorism and be altruistic in as much as it is designed to prevent political instability in the region that threatens to create a situation comparable to Rwanda in 1994.[2] Economic and humanitarian aid will likely be necessary to stabilize the region, while military aid would provide a stop-gap measure since, as has been seen in Mali and elsewhere, the threats to the government and the local population go far beyond religious extremism and include ethnic divisions, multiple religions, corruption, and a-religious separatist groups.[3]

It is absolutely necessary to scrutinize this sort of action and the motivations of the parties involved, but I do believe that “first world” nations have a responsibility to help take care of other parts of the world. The critical question is how those nations help. Military intervention will probably be insufficient and it could well be that this action drags on a decade or more, but this is a much more efficient use of resources than were either of the recent US interventions. As far as this sort of action goes, this new French plan seems to be one of the better ones.

Of course, the really important thing about recent French politics is Hollande visiting his mistress on a scooter.

[1] The article also argues that the French are unwilling to conduct the economic reforms that the Germans have been pushing on the EU countries.
[2] There are economic motivations, too, of course, but this is a situation that there is enough of one that Hollande can try to intervene to prevent the image problem that would come with another African genocide.
[3] Despite a military strategy designed to circumnavigate the national borders, the West is still firmly committed to maintaining the existence of those borders.


I had an opportunity to go to France and Italy on a high school trip nearly a decade ago and, as usually happens on tours of those two countries, we went to a number of monumental cathedrals. The most overwhelming of those, in my opinion, was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where I was appropriately overwhelmed by the majesty of the sculpture, the floors, the mosaics, the size. About six years later I was in the Agia Sophia in Istanbul, another religious building that had been constructed on a similar scale, but a millennium before St. Peter’s. Sure, St. Peter’s was in better repair and was more open, but I the relative date between the two structures meant that the Agia Sophia moved me somewhat more. Similarly, the Blue Mosque and the Pantheon were awesome and it is easy to understand why other massive structures including, but hardly limited to the Artemision at Ephesus, Herod’s temple, the ancient mesopotamian temples succeeded in inspiring religious fervor in their believers and a sense of awe in everyone who witnessed them.

But the fact remains that each of those structures is, ultimately, a human construction.

I am on my fifth year living in the midwest, having come from the mountains and hills of Vermont by way of Boston and there are times that I am still struck by how far you can see (and I am aware that there are places that can much, much further). One such moment was on my drive home tonight where there was first a fiery bar on the horizon where the last bit of the sunset sank down and then, after coming around a corner to see the sea of fluorescent lights that is Columbia spring up and surround me. I like the first of those sights (even though the open space makes me vaguely uneasy); the second image is striking because it is easy to forget how completely one is surrounded by lights when living in or around an urban area.

While these two visions tonight serve as the immediate inspiration for this post, another was a Twitter exchange yesterday where we discussed the power of forests to inspire both idyllic poetry and dark fairy tales. It may be the product of where I grew up, but I have an intense nostalgia for mountains and forests, and I completely understand where societies and cultures look toward mountains for religious inspiration. For this reason, the two most awesome spots I visited on that trip on which I visited the Agia Sophia were the peaks of Meteora and the sanctuary at Delphi. Both sites have buildings, but unlike many of the other religious sites noted above where the primary reason that I was awe-struck was the construction of the buildings, these sites drew the buildings for their locations. It is easy to see why these sites evoke a particular feeling.

One of the other spots where I have seen something similar was in the desert in Israel, where there was no sea of lights to obscure the stars. It was a bigger version of clear nights in Vermont where the stars form a blanket. I think this is one reason why I have a fondness for the dark of night and for the light of candles. It isn’t just the darkness for the absence of light or the candles for the presence, but some slight way to move away from the constructions of human society. The primal power of the natural world can be terrifying, but it can also be comforting.

There is an irony in writing these words at a computer, but that is a common medium of communication in the modern world. Both the natural world and human constructions can be awesome, but I prefer the natural. I have no particular desire to become a hermit, but that shouldn’t be necessary to appreciate the stars.

Looking out from Delphi
Looking out from Delphi
Looking into the rock spires at Meteora
Looking into the rock spires at Meteora

Top novel summaries, 10-1

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here, summaries for 30-21 here and 20-11 here.

10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
A dystopian novel upon which Orwell drew for 1984. The entire society has been turned into a panopticon–the city is surrounded by a glass wall, everyone lives in glass house, there is no personality or identity and society is designed solely for productivity, including sex and reproduction. The story takes off when the protagonist becomes interested in one person who does show individuality and decides to oppose the will of the state himself.

9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
A close second to The Sun Also Rises for me among Hemingway’s novels, To Have and Have Not is on one level a story of rum running between Havana and Key West during the 1930s, but Hemingway manages to broaden the story and weave together the stories of several different male-female relationships that come to dominate the narrative. See a full review here.

8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby is the only novel assigned to me in high school English class that I actually enjoyed and I have reread it twice in recent years (once for the purpose of teaching it to a class). I still feel a connection to Gatsby himself and Nick Carraway is still a creepy little man. Overall the story holds up well.

7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
Objectively, this may be Orwell’s best novel since 1984 may is at times over-blunt and simplistic. Set in 1930s London, his novel tells the story of Gordon Comstock, a young writer whose grandfather was wealthy, but the family has since frittered away the fortune and Gordon has declared war on money and the money society. Despite his best intentions, life has a way of drawing Gordon back to the money society that he detests.

6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Jake Barnes is an American ex-pat living in Paris, impotent from a war wound suffered during World War One and he is in love with the twice divorced and again engaged Lady Brett Ashley. The story takes place between Paris and Spain, where the companions go fishing and watch bullfights and nearly come to blows over Lady Brett. The novel is loaded with themes, but the one that drew me most strongly was the relationship between Jake and Lady Brett and the affection and desire that is impossible to consummate.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story of the town of Macondo and the Buendia family written in parallel to the modernization of Columbia. It follows seven generations of the family, from the founding of Macondo through its expansion into the world and eventual decline caused by the arrival of a foreign fruit corporation that sets up shop in the neighborhood. I should also add that Marquez is one of the most notable authors in the Latin American magical realism genre that I have a great deal of fondness for.

4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil has come to Russia, wreaking havoc with the bureaucrats who don’t have the wherewithal to realize what is happening–only a small number of authors actually know this. The second setting for the story is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and the decision to execute Jesus, which is the topic of the Master’s novel that has been rejected by the literary bureaucracy. It is a brilliant satire of the Soviet system and the conditions of the literati that reflect Bulgakov’s experiences in the Soviet Union and the book was banned for decades.

3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Like most Hesse novels, Magister Ludi is a story about individuals seeking enlightenment, this time through the Glass Bead Game, an exercise and celebration of pure intellectual activity in one of a select number of disciplines. Joseph Knecht, whose biography contains the greater part of the story, is a successful practitioner of the game at its home in the semi-autonomous province of Castalia. Members of the order of the glass bead game are supposed to find their strength and growth from inside the order, but Knecht finds himself questioning the validity of this approach, daring to broach the question whether intellectuals have the right to withdraw from the affairs of the world at large. These questions take on an additional importance since the contemporary backdrop for the novel was the rise of Nazi Germany.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
There are a variety of reasons why this sits so close to the top of the list even though I might recommend some of the books higher up over this one. The main reason is that it was a revelation, not of prophetic genius but of elegant writing and insights about humanity, when I first read it five or six years ago. I also maintain that the best known phrase “big brother is watching,” is a misleading interpretation of the work. Like other dystopian novels, Orwell draws out what happens when individuality and free will are eliminated from society, but the real terror of the book was not being constantly watched, but in the ability of a bureaucratic state to fundamentally rewrite existence as though the past never existed. Sure, the watching is a means of control, but to control the narrative is much more powerful.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis advances the idea that though Christ may be free from sin, he is nonetheless subject to the rest of the temptations and concerns that other humans face, particularly doubt and depression. It presents a more human Jesus who is forced to overcome the same difficulties as everyone else in order to fulfill his role as the redeemer of mankind. One particular scene that has stayed with me since I read this book close to ten years ago (it is on my list to reread this year) is one where a disciple is recording the gospel at the direction of an Archangel when Jesus becomes enraged because the account is disingenuous, but is forced to accept that this is beyond his control.

Top novel summaries, 20-11

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here and summaries for 30-21 here.

20. American Gods, Neil Gaimon
Gods exist because people believe in them, which can also mean that there are multiple versions of each god at any given time, and there is currently a war going on between the old gods and the new gods. Caught in this conflict is Shadow, an ex-con recently released from prison, whereupon he learned that his wife and best friend died in a car accident under less than ideal circumstances. He is set adrift and must eventually choose sides in this conflict between gods.

19. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
This is the story of John Yossarian, a bombardier in Italy during World War Two, whose discharge from the army continues to be kept just out of reach. This novel follows the efforts of Yossarian and the other men in his unit to stay sane and alive so that they can go home.

18. Creation, Gore Vidal
I should admit up front that I am an unabashed fan of Vidal’s, even while I recognize his faults and. Certainly, this novel would not hold up to historical fact-checking. The story picks up in Athens where the grandson of Zoroaster, friend to King Xerxes, and exceptionally old man, and ambassador for the Persian king has just heard a reading by Herodotus, purporting to tell the story of the Persian wars. He is invited to set the story straight and launches into the story of his life where he reveals to the Greeks that they are not the center of the civilized world as his work takes him into India and China.

17. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
There has been a rash of suicides by the “head-scarf” girls in Kars, a town in the far northeastern corner of Turkey. Ka, a poet who had been in exile in Germany for more than a decade, has returned, ostensibly as a journalist to cover the suicides, but also to court Ipek, a former classmate of his and the sister of the leader of the headscarf girls. He arrives just ahead of a snowstorm that cuts off the city and that a group of secular extremists use to stage a coup. Pamuk explores the tensions between the different elements of Turkish identity, particularly between the muslim groups, turks, and secular nationalists.

16. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
George Bowling is heading off to get a new set of false teeth before work and is sent down memory lane. He used to be able to go fishing in peace, but the world has changed. Progress and industry have destroyed the fishing holes and rivers and even the people he knew growing up.

15. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (15)
Hemingway’s story about the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan is an American fighting against the Franco’s fascist forces and, as a demolitions expert, he has gone behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge. He has also fallen for a young Spanish woman named Maria, who he is determined to take care of

14. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Once called “the only convincing love story of the century,” Lolita, is more accurately a story about obsession. Humbert Humbert knows that his attraction to his twelve year old stepdaughter Dolores is wrong, but he persists for at least five years as he keeps them on the move, trying to make a life with her.

13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
While anchored in the Thames, Charles Marlow recalls a story of an earlier venture in the Belgian Congo when he had to steam into the interior of the country in search of Mr. Kurtz who is reported to be ill. Conrad provides vivid descriptions of the horrors of European colonialism and exploitation in Africa.

12. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth
Young Lt. Trotta saved the life of the young Emperor Franz Joseph and the emperor elevates Trotta and protects his family, but Trotta forces his son to join government service instead of the military. By the third generation of the family, the youngest Trotta re-enters the military, just in time to serve in World War I. But the Trotta family is most notable for their mediocrity, protected from themselves by the patronage of the emperor, long since he has forgotten why he protects this family. The fate of the family, particularly that of the youngest generation, parallels the decline of Franz Joseph and of his empire.

11. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann
Mann updated the story of Faust in the twentieth century. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, Leverkühn has made a pact with a devil for twenty-four years of creative and artistic genius (in this case music genius), which the narrator Zeitblom describes as an allegory for the German nation giving in to the Nazi party.

Top novel summaries, 30-21

Here are summaries for 30-21 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here.

30. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The story of Holden Caulfield, a teenager who runs away from prep school and has to confront all the awkwardness that comes along with being a sort of melancholy, angry, loner. This is one of the few holdovers from high school that I have not reread. Unlike the other books on the list that I read in high school, I am unsure if I will return to this story because I think that it is most appropriately a story for that particular time of life.

29. The City and the Mountains, Jose M. Eca de Queiroz
Reviewed here, this is the story of Jacinto, the scion of a wealthy family from Portugal and epitome of a modern man (c. 1900) living with all the amenities of civilization in Paris. Society is strangling him, though, and he returns for the idyllic country life of his estates and begins to encourage the uplifting of the peasantry when he gets there.

28. The Stranger, Albert Camus
Life is pretty good for Mersault. His mother just died and he doesn’t seem to grieve, but he has a job, works hard, is seeing a woman who he may marry, and he gets to swim often. But he also testifies on behalf of his neighbor who has beaten his arab girlfriend. When Mersault kills the brother of that girlfriend in a chance encounter on the beach, he is arrested and put on trial. Camus was a moralist, and the book denies the importance on most expressions of emotion and god. What makes life good for Mersault is the pleasure of working hard, making a good living, and getting to do what he wants in his spare time. The universe he claims, is indifferent to humans.

27. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell
Dorothy Hare is the eponymous clergyman’s daughter. She is diligent and depressed, until one day she suffers a bout of amnesia and wakes up in London. From there, she takes a tour of the underworld of southern England, including scraping a living in London, teaching, and hop picking in the fields, before getting a chance to return home.

26. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis
A young Greek intellectual is encouraged to learn about life and people with the aid of a Zorba, a loud, eccentric Greek born in Romania who he employs as a foreman.

25. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
There is a war going on in Africa and the newspaper the Daily Beast is going to cover it because John Courtney Boot, an author of some note, has called in a favor with important people in an effort to escape a woman. Except, the newspaper only knows that they are supposed to get “Boot,” and accidentally conscript William Boot, a nature contributor to the newspaper, to go cover the war. Boot is no more prepared to cover the war than the newspaper was prepared to send him initially and his ineptitude drives both the comedy and his success in this satirical take on journalism.

24. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
When the unnamed human narrator gets in an argument with his significant other he goes on a walk and gets transported into higher levels of awareness. He becomes increasingly aware of more varieties of civilized life forms and higher levels of consciousness in the universe. See a full review here.

23. Burmese Days, George Orwell
In Orwell’s words, this is a novel about the dark side of the British Raj. In this rural outpost, there is a clear segregation between the native population and the white colonial officials, though the pressure to incorporate a native official into the European club is increasing, the main question is who will be inducted.

22. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett
The anti-Christ has been born and the end of times are upon us. But Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon have come to like living on Earth and are determined to stop the end. My single favorite passage in the story involves a meeting between Crowley and two superior demons where they recount the corruption they caused that day. Each of the superior demons has caused a supreme act of corruption (such corrupting a priest), while Crowley caused a small inconvenience for thousands of people in London; the other two just don’t get how his (Crowley’s) action created more evil in the world than theirs did.

21. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
Another book I liked in high school (I got to pick it from a long list), this is another Hesse story about enlightenment. Siddhartha is an Indian Brahmin during the time of the Buddha who leaves home and passes through a series of stages of life en route to enlightenment.

My list of top novels, January 2014

Perhaps the first thing that becomes clear when compiling a lists longer than ten is how quickly the numbers begin to add up. When one sees a list of, say, one hundred books, there may be an impulse to compile a similar list based on one’s own taste–say, removing the four Jane Austen and seven or eight Dickens novels, plus all the books as of yet unread, rearranging and filling in the gaps with great books of one’s own choice. But what is the purpose of this list? Is it a compilation of books everyone should read (even if one has not yet read them oneself)? If so, then the Austens and the Dickenses are grudgingly returned to the list, but docked a score or more slots because one is petty. Or is the list merely a compilation of one’s favorite books, in which case one gleefully removes Austen and Dickens once more…only to realize that when it comes to standalone books one cannot compile a list of one hundred without reaching a point where one has somewhat ambivalent feelings about the books in question and cannot add them to the list with a clear conscience and thus begins to regret the cavalier attitude with which one thrashed “Literary Classics.”

Or, perhaps the solution is to compile a list that falls short of the vaunted one hundred, at least for the time being.

So my list of top novels is not a list of one hundred, or even a list of fifty. Instead it is just going to be a list of my top novels. No book that is part of a larger series is included because I consider them to be telling a fundamentally different type of story from a standalone novel, though I will consider books that are part of a franchise but not really part of a series. With a few exceptions, I read or re-read each of these book since graduating from college, so the list is relatively contemporary to my current point in life. The list right now has thirty titles, including both novels and novellas (I have no length minimum), and I will update it as I read more books that I would like to add, perhaps every five or ten titles added.

Excluded are any books that I don’t have a clear recollection of or have not read and the primary basis upon which these books are judged is how much I liked the book. Wrapped up in that judgement are the topic and message of the book, the storytelling, and how evocative the writing is. For instance, the last book I excised from this list was Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a book in which I didn’t like the narrator, even though I sympathized with him, and through which I was profoundly disturbed by the message about the type of people who are drawn to pursuing a life in academia. I understand where the message was coming from and understand that there is a degree of truth to it, but I also found much of the humor tainted as a result. Intellectually, I appreciated the book and there were passages that were legitimately funny, but I also felt a deeper dislike of the story and decided that the best thing I could do at this juncture was to leave it off the list entirely.

Without further ado, here is the list. The parenthetical number is where I had the book ranked as of January 1, 2014; summary blurbs will follow in a short series of posts.

30. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (28)
29. The City and the Mountains, Jose M. Eca de Queiroz (-)
28. The Stranger, Albert Camus (-)
27. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (24)
26. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (25)
25. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (-)
24. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (26)
23. Burmese Days, George Orwell (23)
22. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett (22)
21. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (19)
20. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (20)
19. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (17)
18. Creation, Gore Vidal (18)
17. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (-)
16. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell (16)
15. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (15)
14. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (14)
13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (13)
12. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (6)
11. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (12)
10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (11)
9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (10)
8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (9)
7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (8)
6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (7)
5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (5)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (3)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (4)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (2)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1)

Review 2013, Preview 2014, in list form

Five favorite books I read in 2013

  • Magister Ludi, Herman Hesse
  • To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
  • Snow, Orhan Pamuk
  • Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon
  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Three news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Civil war in Syria the devolution of the “rebel” forces
  • Ongoing violence and French foreign policy in Africa
  • Unrest in Turkey about Erdogan’s government

Two things that, in 2013, I discovered I no longer cared about

  • The NFL
  • Fantasy football

Four books I am particularly looking forward to reading in 2014

  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa
  • My Antonia, Willa Cather
  • Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • The Plague, Albert Camus

Seven books I would like to reread in 2014

  • The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre
  • Bridge on the River Drina, Ivo Andric/li>
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Four books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Four “resolutions” for 2014

  • Write more, in a variety of places (including here)
  • Cook more often and more adventurously
  • Spend less time dwelling on things beyond my control
  • Smile more often

I did not like 2013; for everything that went right in the year, it seemed that two things went wrong. Flipping the calendar to 2014 is an arbitrary milestone, but I am optimistic about this next chunk of time all the same. Noted above, one goal I have for this year is to write here more frequently, and I have a few topics on the back burner, though the only post I have planned for the near future is to revisit my list of top novels, which could appear as early as next week.


I have always loved maps. In fact, I had a pocket atlas of the world in middle school and was teased for “reading” it. But in a European tradition, maps are seductive, deceptive. They instill a sense of order and possession in the world that bear not resemblance to reality. Sure, sometimes the line is a simulacrum of a wall or a road or a river or a mountain, but in many instances that is an artificial creation; where the line is not man-made, it is wont to move,such as when a river changes course.[1]

There are other issues with maps, too. One West Wing episode features a petition from a group called Cartographers for social equality–a group dedicated to flipping the usual N-S paradigm because having north on top creates top-bottom attitudes. Likewise, the central panel of a map centralizes that landmass–usually the United States or Europe–in the viewer’s awareness. Then there are claims to ownership that the cartographer inscribes on the map, which gets us back to the issue of lines. The common practice in Ancient Greece was to place boundary markers (horoi) to denote borders of property (particularly rented or mortgaged property) and temple land.[2] Similar stones could denote the boundary of the chora that belonged to the town. There may also have been border watch posts or border forts along or near that border that would have extended a more physical presence along the border. Within the territory there was ownership of property, but on a state level the possession of territory was more about what the state could claim as its own and subsequently protect than any sort of “ownership” in the modern sense.

Lines that appear on maps showing the extent of territory in the ancient world are often problematic, but so too is replacing the lines with nodes. The key here is a multiplicity of forms of territory. Each city in Greece would have possessed its own chora, but the furthest border was rarely a line, even if there was a border of boundary stones. Control and borders of empires are even more problematic. We can drawn an outline of Alexander’s conquests, but in the furthest reaches of Bactria and in central India, those lines would have been meaningless. Territory was only possessed if it could be controlled–lines were only real if they had physical manifestations. This necessity led to an emphasis on urbanization by ancient state buildings (Seleucus and Antigonus among the successors to Alexander’s empire being classic examples). Sedentary peoples were easier to control than nomads and cities, or fortresses in some instances, offered a physical presence in the area. The Seleucid kingdom eventually reached a point where it was consisted of cities along the royal road, with each city having its own chora.

I wrote before that these fissures and cracks in the ancient world and how we think about it are where I see some ancient relevance to the modern world. Recently there have been some reports about the escalation of violence in Syria and Iraq and how the US withdrawal from Iraq has allowed “terrorist” groups to form actual camps without fear of airstrikes. In a radio story (apologies, I forget which NPR program this was on), the host asked the expert to clarify whether the camps were in Syria or Iraq and was told that the people involved did not recognize a border in the region. The United States and Western Europe are committed to a nation-state paradigm and territorial integrity for their own reasons, which is why there has been only a passing discussion of breaking up Iraq and Syria,[3] but it is easy to forget that the borders only exist in as much as there is collective agreement and are enforced. The jigsaw puzzle of the world map offers certainty and completion in the world and in some parts of the world that paradigm works, but in any number of other places the borders are just as illusory as the concept of the state that the borders are supposed to demarcate.

[1]The root of the English word “meander,” for instance, is the Maeandros River in Anatolia, a waterway notorious for wandering around the valley.

[2]The word also denotes other borders or memorials.

[3]If the United States was to support separatist movements without widespread international support (such as from the UN), then there would be precedent for other nations to support Hawaii in its separatist bid. Most nations have groups that would rather be independent, so unless there is a compelling reason (e.g. ethnic cleansing) for the region to be independent, there is a dearth of support for such groups on the international level.

December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.