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.

Reading and the Context of Reading

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and it was phenomenal. I will be writing a few posts about this book over the next week or two (two weeks from now is my Thanksgiving Break), including an actual review. For now, though, I am still digesting what I read, in part because I’ve been busy and in part because it is that sort of book. I just briefly want to note something about exigent circumstances.

One of my favorite books, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March was trashed in a recent review by a reader whose taste I respect. His critique was that the book dragged with excessive (“Dickensonian”) description and moralizing that is particularly outdated. I don’t totally disagree with him, either. The book does moralize, and were I to reread it, I may well agree that the story drags. However, I read it at the end of summer as my job wound down and before graduate school began, so I had ample free time in which to read. Now I am teaching, tutoring, working on my dissertation and trying to be more active in my other writing pursuits…time is at more of premium. For me, at least, the time I have to read has an influence on my enjoyment of books.

In The Order of the Book, Roger Chartier talks about the overall structure of a book and refers to the debate about breaking the bible into chapter and verse. Creating these chunks, they said, destroyed the unity of the document and encourages the reader to treat each section individually, rather than as part of a much larger whole. When a reader [1] has to read a book in short spurts over the course of a month or more, the circumstance of reading impedes the ability of the narrative to enthrall the reader. I noticed this because Snow put me into a trance with its beautiful prose and multiple, overlapping and interwoven narrative threads. When I could only read one chapter at a time and, at times, with days passing between sessions, I felt as though there was a level of the book I was missing out on. Yes, I got the same story and read the same words as I would have otherwise, but my inability to dedicate enough time meant that I missed out on some of the magic. Snow was a great book in any situation, but if I had had the time to spare, I could have read it in just a day or two, only to emerge dazed and euphoric.

Not all books are good enough to induce this trance. Most good books don’t even have this effect, though I suspect that it is easier to experience when the reader has more free time. Ironically, it was the powerful of effect of this book and the exigent circumstances that broke the trance that suggested to me the importance of the context of reading.

[1] The anonymous “a reader” from here on out is a shorthand for “me as reader”