#20: Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright

Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come from long hours of hot toil in the white folks’ kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one’s self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

native son

I had committed to Richard Wright’s Native Son being the 20th selection from this list more than a year ago, long before the summer of Michael Brown and Eric Garner descended upon us. Had I arrived at this point more expediently, say in April or May as I’d preferred, this entry likely would have followed the m.o. of the first 19: some fairly innocuous observations on the book and a little context for how the author came to write it, with some personal color thrown in.

But Native Son isn’t a book you can read quickly and throw back on the shelf. Specially designed to provoke reaction, it’s a piece of advocacy fiction squarely in that Grapes of Wrath tradition of foregoing subtlety to impart its social message. It opens with one sound effect (a ringing alarm clock), ends with another (the clanging of a jail cell), and in between tells a powerfully brutal story that moves with the propulsiveness of a thriller and the self-righteous fury of a sermon.

As Time list co-creator Richard Lacayo points out, Wright could have written a novel about an unjustly accused black man and rested on the laurels of having brought important issues of racial inequality to mainstream consciousness, but he chose the harder route: a book about a guilty man, thoroughly loathsome and without remorse, who would still command your understanding and, to some extent, your sympathy.

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The Best Books Read in 2014

Another year, another barrage of best-of lists for us all to wade through; here’s one more, just in time for Christmas.

You know, if you pay enough attention to these lists, you can zero in on a handful of titles that have coalesced into establishment favorites. Such titles this year might include Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I am sure these are all excellent books, and I look forward to getting to each of them in time. (I tend to reflexively hold off on reading books at their hypiest so as to avoid getting drowned by it.)

So you won’t find any of those consensus favorites here. This year I read somewhere around 70 books — not bad considering I lost nearly six full weeks to a move — and this list of the 12 best reflects I think a librarian’s curiosity, zig-zagging from new to old, fiction to non, one genre to another, whatever seems appealing on a given day.

I have chosen the first 11 books in random order, saving my favorite read of the year for last.

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#19: The Berlin Stories (1945), by Christopher Isherwood

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought, of Natalia: She has escaped — none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.

berlin-stories-last-mr-norris-christopher-isherwood

Christopher Isherwood, born in 1904 to a prosperous English family, dropped out of medical school, renounced his middle-class upbringing, and followed his friend and mentor W.H. Auden to Berlin in 1929, a place synonymous with decadence, where the public attitude toward homosexuality was far less restrictive.

His four-year sojourn produced a pair of “documentary novels” that Otto Friedrich in his history of pre-Nazi Berlin Before the Deluge called “a matchless portrait of the city.” Eight decades later, those novels have retained their potency and historical value.

Even after Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, he seemed to know his window for capturing his experiences was closing and began writing with no little urgency, as Brian Finney notes in his biography of the author:

Prompted by…alarming predictions, Isherwood lived throughout most of the 1930s quite sure that war would break out at any moment. He begged [Virginia’s husband] Leonard Woolf to publish Mr. Norris Changes Trains earlier, convinced that by 1935 it would ‘no longer have any meaning whatever’ because, as he wrote to [his friend, poet Stephen] Spender in November, ‘what with Yugo-Slavia and the Saar, I have the gravest doubts whether my novel will ever see the light at all.’

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#18: Under the Net (1954), by Iris Murdoch

After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.

 

under the net

Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a perfectly charming, shambolic escapade filled with colorful characters, whimsical romantic entanglements, and all-around good cheer.

It is also a novel of serious ideas, written by an author who produced many volumes of hardcore philosophy, and a novel of influences, unabashedly putting its literary ancestry on display. Murdoch herself called Under the Net a blatant imitation of the works of French author Raymond Queneau, to whom she dedicated it, and Samuel Beckett.

It’s interesting, then, that Murdoch’s most famous novel — not only does the Time 100 include Under the Net on its official list, but the Modern Library also includes it (Murdoch is one of eight women to make the cut), as does the coffee table book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — might well be the least representative novel she ever wrote.

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A New Project: The Stories of John Cheever

I have finished reading the next book in the Time Magazine project, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, and will post some thoughts about it very shortly as the series chugs along at its deliberate pace. It is always my intention to speed things up, lest I devote another 10 years to completing what seemed at the beginning like a perfectly modest challenge, but other commitments always rear their heads.

One of those commitments is what should prove to be a stimulating, enriching new series of posts over at Trevor Berrett’s wonderful lit-blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor was once a patron at my public library, and I have continued to keep his website bookmarked in the years since. It is therefore a real pleasure that I’ll be writing about John Cheever’s collected stories over the next few months on his blog. Please check them out and join the discussion!

I don’t plan on writing about all 61 stories, so I will periodically add the titles I’ve chosen to discuss here.