The Shadow King

Ettore, bear witness to what its happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly, with that stubbornness and precision that is so very much like your father. This is why I gave you your first camera. Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections—

Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses that he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.

Haile Selassie at the League of Nations, image credit.

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, delivered a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on June 30, 1936. An Italian army had invaded his country the year before, attempting to for the second time to conquer the last uncolonized region of Africa. The people of Ethiopia had resisted, but the Italians unleashed the horrors of modern warfare, including chemical weapons, on soldiers and civilians alike. The world had imposed minor sanctions on the Italians and proposing resolutions to the conflict that Benito Mussolini simply ignored, claiming that this war of conquest was, in fact, an act of self-defense because of a frontier clash on the frontier with Italian Somaliland. He simply denied the accusations of chemical warfare. Now Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations general assembly, speaking in Amharic, begging the member nations to stop this fascist aggression. Haile Selassie might have been a head of state, but whether the league was toothless or the members ambivalent about expending resources to help an African state, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

In The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s difficult and beautiful novel, the horrors of this campaign are given life.

The core of The Shadow King weaves together two stories.

The first follows Hirut, an orphaned Ethiopian girl in the household of the local nobleman, Kidane. The lady of the house, Aster, makes Hirut’s life miserable. She takes her frustrations out on Hirut, viewing as a sexual rival and accusing her of theft—first falsely, then accurately. After the Italians invade, Kidane even confiscates Hirut’s prized memento from her father, an antique rifle called Wujigra to use in the war.

The second story is that of Ettore Navarra, a Italian photographer of Jewish descent charged with documenting the invasion. His is a complicated relationship with the invasion: he harbors the Ethiopians no particular ill-will and is deeply disconcerted by the atrocities, but he is also Italian and this is his job. However, even in Ethiopia, Navarra cannot escape the radicalization taking place back home where Benito Mussolini’s fascist state is beginning to draw sharp lines between Jews and “real” Italians.

Inexorably these two plots come together. The women of Ethiopia refuse to stay home while Kidane’s forces wage a guerrilla war against the Italian forces, a war that continues even after Haile Selassie fled the country. First Aster and Hirut follow Kidane’s men to care for and supply the men, but gradually become more involved. Eventually, they hatch a plan to choose a “Shadow King”—a lookalike stand-in to inspire the people to resist the invasion—for whom they serve as the guard.

On the other side, the Italians and their African ascari begin to dig in, and Navarra documents it all. His commander, the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli, puts his men to work building a prison where they can hold captured Ethiopians, to say nothing of debasing them. Naturally, this prison will serve as the focal point for a final showdown.

These two stories would make for a compelling book on their own, particularly given Mengiste’s gift for characterization. For instance, even the brutal and vicious Colonel Fucelli, who earned the nickname “The Butcher of Benghazi” for his cruelty in Libya, is not a straightforward fascist caricature. He is undeniably cruel, yes, and racist, both traits on display in his sexual relationship with the African courtesan Fifi, which itself violates the ban on such couplings. Fucelli is also willing to ignore orders forcing him to out Navarra as a Jew, at least for a while. Mengiste leaves his motivations for both decisions masked: perhaps Fucelli simply believes that the rules don’t apply to him, but perhaps his prejudices are not quite as deeply held as one might think—not that that changes how much one might root for him to be punished.

However, what elevates The Shadow King to my list of favorite novels is how Mengiste layers other voices onto these two stories. She imagines interludes where Haile Selassie reflects on the plight of Ethiopia, often invoking Verdi’s opera Aida, whose eponymous character is an Ethiopian princess. Elsewhere, choruses of Ethiopian women raise their voices up in an echo of Greek tragedy:

Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.

Photographs captured in text punctuate the narrative:

A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a world lost forever.

A boy in a stained shirt rests his cheek against a tall boulder as if it were a father’s chest. He stares at the camera, doe-eyed and curious, his lips folded around a mouthful of food, a stream of words, a cry for help, a burst of laughter. One palm balances against the hard surface of stone, his finger raised and pointed ahead, the gesture an accusation and a plea for patience.

These layers harmonize with the two core stories, reinforcing them, expanding them, and humanizing them, before building to a climax years later during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign when Hirut meets Ettore Navarra once more to return his pictures.

I found the combined effect of this novel stunning. Mengiste is a beautiful writer, to be sure, but it is also a brilliantly structured novel. It would have to be. Mengiste tackles themes of race, identity, gender, and memory, all of which are easy to do poorly, either because they come across as caricature or moralizing. This goes double with fascism. There are no easy answers in The Shadow King, but each element adds to the texture that earns every moment.

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I’m still working through the recent list of things I’ve read with these posts, and particularly want to write one about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Kim Un-su’s The Plotters.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2021 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists; hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 16
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2020 (Piranesi)

Tier 5

75. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
74. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
73. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
72. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
71. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
70. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
69. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
68. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
67. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
66. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
65. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
64. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
63. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
62. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
61. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
60. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
59. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4

58. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
57. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
56. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
49. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

48. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
47. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
46. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
45. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
44. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
43. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
42. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
41. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
40. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
39. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
38. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

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I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!

ΔΔΔ

How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.

ΔΔΔ

I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.

The Savage Detectives

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out in the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh and about all the books he hadn’t read.

I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.

Sometimes I worry I am not a particularly discerning reader. My concern manifests in two instances: when I learn that my takeaway from a book is radically different from other people, which is usually a product of how I relate or don’t to individual characters, or when I don’t understand a book that I read. The second problem rarely happens, at least on a structural level, and I adore a number of fiendishly complicated novels, including Infinite Jest, but occurs instead when a book embeds itself a world of characters and concepts that are beyond familiarity and it becomes homework to understand the depth of the story, as was the case with Never Any End To Paris.

The Savage Detectives is another such novel.

At its heart, The Savage Detectives is a send-up of avant-garde poetry in mid-1970s Mexico City. Part One, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” consists of the diary of Juan García Madero who, in his first year of law school, gets entangled in a movement called “visceral realism,” although he admits that he isn’t “really sure what visceral realism is.” Nevertheless, the leading figures in the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who had put out two issues a poetry magazine called Lee Harvey Oswald, take a liking to the young man. García Madero effectively quits school in favor of poetry and all of the sex that comes with joining the movement, including with the María Font, the bohemian daughter of one of their biggest supporters and, in their opinion, the best young poet in Mexico. The plot takes a turn for the dark when the visceral realists decide to save a friend of María’s named Lupe from her brutal and violent pimp, Alberto, which culminates in a García Madero, Lima, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima tearing out of Mexico City in a Chevy Impala.

The longest part of the book, “The Savage Detectives,” tracks Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano around the world through interviews with dozens of characters (some familiar, some new) from Mexico City to Venezuela to San Diego to France to Spain to Rome to Israel. Linking these stories are Ulises Lima, Arturo Belano, or the object of their obsession, the foremother of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, though we only ever see one of her poems, which is primarily identifiable as a poem because Cesárea said it was and one character declares “if that woman told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it.”

This is the section I had the hardest time making sense of, with its kaleidoscope of voices and lack of identified narrator, though my personal theory is that it is actually the novel we see Arturo Belano writing at several points in this section. Running through this section are meditations on art, memory and the transitory nature of human connection.

Finally, The Savage Detectives snaps back to the plot that opens the novel with “The Sonora Desert,” in which the Impala roars away, drawn in search of Cesárea and fleeing Alberto’s wrath.

Parts of The Savage Detectives are grippingly readable and at times laugh out loud funny, particularly with its wild swings between discussion of literature on the one hand and the graphic scenes of their sexual pursuits on the other. The “movement” at the heart of the story is imbued with a youthful pretension, such that its most die-hard followers only grudgingly admit that they also read popular fiction, while many of its practitioners (e.g. Maria Font) are poets themselves, they are as much caught up in the whirlwind for the exhilaration of youth and its orgiastic celebration as for being devotees of poetry.

I rarely read published reviews of the books I write about here, but found myself at a loss when trying to make sense of The Savage Detectives. The universal conclusion is that it is at its heart a sendup of the poetic culture that Bolaño himself participated in in 1970s Mexico City, a fact I was somewhat aware of coming into the book. However, this hyper-specific context and the absence of a clear plot for the longest part of the book left me with the sensation that there was a barrier between me as a reader and the novel. The most ardent fans of this book could abuse me for just not getting it, mimicking the attitudes of its characters, as I saw happen on one discussion board post, but that does the Savage Detectives a disservice. This is a book I am glad to have read, but one with enough meat to warrant discussion that, at least for me, is the only way to penetrate that barrier.

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The semester finally came to a close and I have a lot of writing projects that have kept me from posting here with any regularity, but I have been consciously carving out more time to read, plowing through Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Day of the Oprichnik, Naguib Mahfouz’ Sugar Street, and Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, all in the last week and a half.

I have thoughts on all of these that I’m hoping to write up posts on most or all of them, as well as returning to using this space for a wider range of topics as they strike me. The last post I started working on here turned into something substantial enough that I wanted to find a more productive venue to publish in, so that one is embargoed, at least for now. Stay tuned!

Beware of Pity

The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it. Then followed an attempt to put things right; but if you try to repair a watch in too much of a hurry, you’re likely as not to put the whole works out of order.

It is 1913 and 1914 and Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller of the Imperial Uhlans is stationed at a sleepy provincial garrison. Hofmiller is well-mannered and supported by an aunt who insisted he join the cavalry, but, unlike his fellow officers, he is not from a family of money. It comes as a shock, therefore, when a local lord, von Kekesfalva, requests his presence at a dinner party. Hofmiller goes as though in a dream, meeting important people and dancing the night away. Realizing at some point that he has not yet danced with Edith, his host’s daughter, he seeks her out and in his most cultured manner extends an invitation. Only then does he realize his gaffe: Edith cannot walk.

Embarrassed, Hofmiller compounds his shame by fleeting the party. In the clear light of day he decides that he must make amends, sending flowers and a note that entangles him further in the Kekesfalva drama and unwittingly initiates a courtship with the daughter.

Rarely does a novel’s title double as its thesis statement. Hofmiller’s tragic flaw is his sense of honor and propriety that leads him to want to dance with the host’s daughter, which leads to his simple attempt to make amends, which leads to his taking pity on Edith, which initiates his cascading series of social crises. Thus, according to Zweig, his pity proves his undoing as he has neither the callousness to extricate himself from the situation nor the calculated instinct to take full advantage of it.

“Our decisions are to a much great extend dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.”

This simple conceit of Beware of Pity makes much of the plot eminently predictable. It was abundantly clear from the jump that the climax would involve an ill-fated marriage proposal, with the only question being whether they would follow through on it. But, like with Zweig’s other novels, its strength lies in the psychological depth that he builds into the characters, such that the conflict emerges from the life breathed into their emotional relationships and competing agendas.

Beware of Pity read like an allegory about the decay in Austria in the year immediately before World War One. There was peace, stability, and people like the doctor treating Edith trying to do what they can, but also runaway inequality and a wealthy class represented a crippled young woman and her sad, sick father who is revealed to be a fraud. All of this makes for an compellingly ornate novel––Zweig cannot be accused of being spare in his description––but also one rife with problems that cannot simply be excused as a product of its time (the late 1930s).

Take Kekesfalva’s background. Lajos von Kekesfalva, we learn, was in fact born Leopold Kanitz in a poor Jewish village along the the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, only to work his way up in society, “magyarizing” his name and pinching every penny until a chance inheritance gave him an opening to marry the naive and unsuspecting heiress, gaining title and fortune in one stroke. The genuine affection Kekesfalva has for his daughter seems to speak well for his relationship for his wife, but that doesn’t excuse that our generous and gregarious aristocrat is revealed to be an unscrupulous Jew painted using the antisemitic colors of the day.

I had a similar reaction to the disability plot, even beyond a possible interpretation of it as punishment for Kekesfalva, even though that actual condition sounded to my minimally-informed ear like polio. It was hard not to empathize with Edith’s resolve to be independent, but that only goes so far toward ameliorating that the novel is built around the idea that her disability was something to be pitied. This spilled over into believable aspects of the relationship––e.g. Hofmiller infantilizing Edith while considering her mobile cousin as a potential sexual partner––that introduced further complications.

The problem with Beware of Pity, as well as other Zweig novels, is that the same features that make it so compellingly readable––especially the way it luxuriates in the emotional lives of its main characters––magnify, and sometimes even introduce, its problems. I liked Beware of Pity, all told, and it is in a lot of ways a more complete novel than The Post Office Girl, which I actually liked better, but there were too many issues baked into its structure for me to consider it a masterpiece.

ΔΔΔ

I have developed quite a backlog of books recently, having finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I plan to write about some of these, but am starting to doubt that I will get to them all. Next up, I just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

In the Land of Green Plums

“At the time I still believed that in a world without guards people would walk differently from the way we do in our country. Where people are allowed to think and write differently, I thought, they will also walk differently.”

I pick the books I read somewhat haphazardly by what sounds interesting at a given moment, but sometimes relax by researching new books to read. Sometimes this is easy––checking to see what favorite authors have published recently––other searches take more creativity, particularly in order to widen the range of voices I read books by. In one search late last year for non-English-language fiction about totalitarian regimes written by women I found The Queue, which I wrote about earlier, and this one, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums.

Set at the height of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign of terror in Romania, The Land of Green Plums is a gripping, ethereal tale centered on the story of an unnamed young woman trying to survive in a land dominated by criminals and thieves. The story opens in a girls’ dormitory where the residents improvise mascara out of spit and soot, dream of nylons, and trade sexual favors for organ meat of slaughtered animals. And then Lola, a young girl who dreamed of studying Russian at university, hangs herself in the closet.

Life continues. At school the narrator makes friends with three men, Edgar, Kurt, and Georg, all German-speaking Romanians with whom she dreams about a better life, writing poetry and talking about freedom. All the while they expect to be arrested. The end of school scatters across the country, but they agree to write and institute a code––a hair in the seal of the envelope and particular phrases meant to reassure that they are alright and detect the Securitate reading their missives. Of course, having three male friends complicates the narrator’s life since it leads to gossip that she sleeps with all of them.

In this period after school, Müller puts a name and face to the society tormenting the narrator (Captain Pjele) and builds out a cast of the oppressed, particularly in the form of her friend Tereza. Pjele repeatedly torments the narrator, and subjects her to all manner of abuses and degradations, and she wants nothing more than to vandalize his home. He continues to terrorize her even after her departure, sending death threats to her new residence in Germany. Tereza, by contrast, is a victim of society who befriends the narrator on Pjele’s order and doesn’t feel capable of escaping even as a tumor grows unchecked on her underarm.

I found the plot of The Land of Green Plums like trying to follow a half-remembered dream, but the its greatest strength is its beauty. Müller’s prose is hauntingly beautiful whether depicting the frustrations of oppression or, especially, when capturing a fleeting moment of tranquility despite it all:

“Here no one was a guest, they were all just refugees from a meaningless afternoon.”

Although not explicitly autobiographical, the narrator’s life loosely follows Müller’s experience living in and escaping from Ceaușescu’s Romania, which imbues The Land of Green Plums with the gross indignities and the tiny joys that continue to exist within under such a regime. Trauma is laced throughout the novel, but so too are hope, fear, petty jealousies, and even guilt.

And yet, my response to the book was in the end mixed. I liked The Land of Green Plums, but reading it was like falling into a fugue state almost as though it was magical realism. Elements of this disassociation contributed to why individual scenes will stay with me even while the book as a whole may not.

ΔΔΔ

Through a month of online teaching, my state of mind is more “existential dread” than “bored.” My employment transitioned online, creating a load of new work, but it is set to end in about a month. Meanwhile, fallout from COVID-19 has canceled multiple jobs that I had either interviewed or applied for and dried up the prospects of continuing in the positions I have been teaching, even as a short-term bridge.

Despite all this, I have still been reading, recently finishing Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I hope to review some or all of these in the near future.

A list of my favorite Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels (2020 edition)

Individual Novels

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series of books. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

Tier 3
27. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
26. The Armored Saint, Myke Cole (2018)
25. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
24. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
23. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
22. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
21. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
20. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
19. Neuromancer, William Gibson
18. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
17. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
16. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
15. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
14. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
12. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
11. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
10. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
9. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
7. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)

Tier 1
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

This category is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. The only caveat to this list is that I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list.

Tier 3
14. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
13. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
11. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu

Tier 2
10. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
9. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
8. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
7. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
6. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
5. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tier 1
4. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

The Queue

Yehya would never admit that he was just a single, powerless man in a society where rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.

A new political authority has begun to assert authority in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The Gate, named for its public-facing building, appeared in the city a few years ago and has gradually begun to assert authority in the name of two things: order and virtue. At first the Gate’s announcements and orders made little impact, but in the aftermath of the recent Disgraceful Events, they are beginning to encroach upon the daily lives of the citizens living in its shadow.

Just one problem: The Gate denies that the events of that day ever took place.

The Gate asserts authority through bureaucracy. Official petitions and even employment requires a certificate of True Citizenship, which one can acquire at the Booth, an adjunct of the Gate at the side of the building. Failure to acquire a certificate is the same as failing to provide adequate evidence of loyalty. Petitions can be brought to The Gate itself with certificate in hand, lining up in the eponymous queue until The Gate opens to hear petitions. Those waiting in the queue assure newcomers that The Gate should open at any time, they just need to be patient––and to wait their turn.

Basma Abdel Aziz drops a madcap story at the center of this Orwellian and Kafkaesque hybrid setting.

The plot of the novel follows the six necessary documents for the patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed’s file in his petition to receive treatment. On the day of the Disgraceful Events, Yehya acquired a bullet that is now working its way into his internal organs, but the X-ray evidence of the bullet has disappeared and the doctor in charge of his recovery has been directed to forward Yehya to The Gate’s hospital, which will only see him if The Gate approves his petition.

All Yehya needs to do is acquire a certificate of True Citizenship, formally declare that he did not receive the bullet from The Gate’s soldiers––perhaps the agitators shot him?––and wait for The Gate to open to approve the petition. Easy.

Yehya’s stubborn refusal to deny the truth he knows prompts his friends to go into overdrive in an attempt to save him, including trying to persuade Tarek, the original doctor, to perform the operation anyway.

As someone with an aversion to standing in line, I had an a visceral reaction to the description of this interminable line. Abdel Aziz builds an entire eco-system around the queue, presenting its metastatic growth as something that people simple accept as a new normal and presenting it as a niche market for tea vendors who cater to the line and preachers with a captive flock. Beyond its borders the line is not questioned, it simply is.

Novels about authoritarianism each find their own way to inject humanity into the center of the story. In 1984, for instance, Winston undergoes a crisis of conscience about the government and reaches out for natural and human connection before being stripped down to the bone and reprogrammed. In setting The Queue resembles 1984, but in plot it is closer to a Kafka novel where the protagonists struggle against the faceless bureaucracy. I didn’t find every character in The Queue compelling, but Abdel Aziz elevates the stakes in a powerful way by documenting Yehya’s deterioration at the same time as she shows people railing at, negotiating with, and trying to fight The Gate by turns, all with equal effect.

There are individual moments of dark humor, but The Queue is not an easy read. Rather, it is a grim tale that concludes with a powerful gut punch and a message: accepting the queue and its related imposition as the new normal means that The Gate wins.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished Hippie Food, a story of how the food of the counter culture shaped the modern American diet and have since begun Z, Vassilis Vassilkos’ formerly banned novel based on a Greek political conspiracy in the 1960s.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)