We

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Margaret Atwood’s cover blurb calls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We “the best single work of science fiction yet written,” and who am I to argue? It was one of those books that made me feel inadequate as a reader; though I think I understood most of it on a basic level, much of the time it seemed to be also operating on another level that remained beyond my grasp. And though it can certainly be classified as sci-fi, there was a transcendental quality to it that we don’t normally associate with the genre.

Really, We is a hard book to describe. Probably the most familiar comparison would be to 1984, which was written almost 30 years later and borrowed more than a little from We, as did Brave New World. Its protagonist is a rocket designer who lives in the One State, which is a thinly disguised projection into the future of the Soviet Union. Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik but quickly became disillusioned; in her introduction Atwood says:

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Not the edition I read, but a good rendering of the Count,
who is larger than life but a tad unhinged.

20 years ago I saw the movie version of this starring Jim “Jesus” Cavaziel… in fact I believe I saw it twice, as I really liked it. In what seems to be a pattern, the movie caused the book to be added to a list somewhere, which some years later caused it to be bought, and some more years after that finally read.

I found The Count of Monte Cristo to be perfect summer reading: Suspenseful enough to keep the pages turning, but literary enough that an English major need feel no shame being seen with it. The Count is a compelling if weird protagonist — he seems to enjoy torturing his friends as much as his enemies, and more than once keeps someone he’s theoretically trying to help teetering on the edge of suicide for no very good reason.

It’s hard to tell in translation, of course, but it seemed to me that Dumas’s prose is pretty mediocre. He’s all about the plot, which in a way makes him very American. But then parts of the book are extremely French:

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The World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig

The Neverending Bowie Thread will return with …hours, probably the album I’ve listened to the least (except for the dismal 80s records, whose existence I’ve tried to forget altogether, mostly successfully). In the meantime, I want to write a little about what I’ve been reading, for the simple reason that it’s the only way I remember any of it.

I’ve been on a Stefan Zweig kick for a while now. After learning that The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by Zweig’s work, I ordered a beautiful hardcover edition of his collected short stories, which sat around the house for a few years looking pretty and intimidatingly thick. When I finally dug into it, I was fairly blown away. Zweig’s world is far away in time and space, yet his characters are immediately recognizable and sympathetic. There is something fundamentally — for lack of a better word — human about it that transcends such petty limitations.

Most recently I tackled his memoir The World of Yesterday. To be honest I probably enjoyed it least of anything of his I’ve read, but it is not really meant to be enjoyed; it is a requiem for the lost world of pre-WWII Europe, written shortly before Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Beach reading it isn’t, but the craft is impeccable, the sentiments lofty, and the tragedy palpable.

Looking back I see that I flagged two passages, both of which are in the realm of advice for writers. The first is aimed more at those writing history or biography, and thus perhaps of limited use, but quite pithy:

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All the Books I’m Partway Through

It was not one of my goals, during the current Global Time Out, to set a new personal record for number of books being read at one time. But I seem to have ended up there. Just as it is easier to buy books than to read them, they are generally easier to start than to finish. And it is not unusual for me to have several going at once, but things may have gotten a little out of hand.

By way of motivational self-shaming, here is a brief breakdown of literary works currently In Progress, along with my excuses for not having finished them:

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
No shame in this one, as I am reading in conjunction with the Blind Assassin Meander, which still has three weeks to go. I am liking it but find myself constantly wrongfooted by its peculiar combination of humor, time-and reality-shifting, and an undercurrent of persistent dread.

J.G. Ballard, Hello America
Written in 1981, Ballard’s delirious vision of post-apocalyptic America feels weirdly resonant today — there’s even a 45th president who, despite being obviously crazy and named Manson, seems vastly preferable to the actual one. This is one of those books that would be easy to rip through in a day — Ballard’s stripped-down prose is built for speed — but it’s more fun if you take it slow.

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Best Not to Look in There

My reading for the second half of our Morocco trip was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which seemed like a fairly appropriate pairing. The book is a sort of thinking-man’s Western and parts of Morocco resemble the American Southwest, particularly Arizona and New Mexico. I am less familiar with the even more arid Texas/Mexico region in which Blood Meridian is set, but surely it is not too dissimilar to parts of the Sahara.

McCarthy’s is a much-revered name among modern writers; Harold Bloom, defender of the Western canon, blurbed Blood Meridian as “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer,” while heavy hitter John Banville said that it “reads like a conflation of the Inferno, the Iliad, and Moby-Dick.”

And yes, the man can write. The following passage on page 20 made me sit up straight in my chair: (more…)