James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8
This book’s theme is hubris. Though the book’s universe and most of the characters are secular, it has an underlying tone of angering the gods. The totalitarian Laconian regime is continuing to consolidate its rule over the entire 1,300-world ring gate system, and the main characters are continuing a small underground resistance in ways reminiscent of dissenters under Stalin and Hitler. But High Consul Duarte, in his hubris, attempts to wake up the forces that destroyed the civilization that destroyed the protomolecule’s long-gone creators. It goes about as well as one would expect.
There is also a bit of game theory involving the prisoner’s dilemma game. Duarte’s misuse of it results in a spectacular mistake about a third of the way into the book, and at least two facepalms from this reader. The book ends on a rather large cliffhanger, presumably to be resolved in the series-concluding book 9, which will likely come out in 2020.
Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere: A Novel
Heavy on the atmosphere. I imagine this book was written with a film adaptation in mind. The plot is a typical ordinary-guy-goes-on-magical-quest story. Most of the book takes place in London Below, an alternate-reality version of London where the protagonist sees strange sights, meets strange people, and to his surprise, finds himself much happier than in his ordinary life. The imagery is dreamlike, with characters and settings somewhat disjointed and not always wholly making sense. Something about it evoked in this reader’s imagination a poorly lit, musty-smelling place, with recently rained-on worn brick buildings framing dirty, potholed streets, in a perpetual night punctuated here and there with dim blue, red, and yellow neon lights. The characters and story are far less memorable than this sort of imagery and feeling Gaiman evokes. A good cinematographer with the right sensibilities could have a field day recreating London Below.
Wilfred Owen – The War Poems
A short and sad poetry collection with a powerful anti-war message, written by a World War I soldier. Owen was killed in action just days before the armistice, making him one of the war’s very last casualties. He was 25. Had he made it just a little longer, he likely would have died a grandfather.
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
The plot is simple—a young man commits murder basically for thrills, then deals with the anguish of what he has done. None of the characters are sympathetic, and the overall sensibility is constant tension, suffocation, isolation, and despair, with few letups. In other words, perfect beach reading.
Booth Tarkington – The Magnificent Ambersons
This novel is about the multi-generation decline of a once-prominent family in early 20th-century Indianapolis. Despite Tarkington’s aristocratic demeanor and conservative politics, his most famous novel is highly critical of ancien régime old money, or at least its stunted American equivalent. The fictional Ambersons were something of the Kardashians of their day, wealthy and socially conspicuous, but not particularly accomplished.
The protagonist, the third generation of his family, is essentially a twit. He stands in stark contrast to his unrequited love interest, a sharp young woman who lacks his social pedigree, yet is more polished and restrained. She is also wealthy, but her father is a self-made man. Compared to the old money families, he is a little rough around the edges, and has little interest in fineries and showpieces. But he has integrity and a strong work ethic, which are far more important. The older Ambersons shun him and his daughter from their high society, apparently unaware of their opposite trajectories.
The Magnificent Ambersons pairs well with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations not just for its disdain for aristocrats and snobbery, but for its positive portrayal of bourgeois virtues as entrepreneurship and humility. I also get the sense it was a source of inspiration for the movie The Royal Tenenbaums, though that movie, which I enjoyed very much, lacks Tarkington’s subtle positive message.
Times and places change, but much else stays the same. From pp. 241-242 of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“The only difference today between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals go to mass at five o’clock and Conservatives at eight.”
Anton Chekhov – Complete Short Stories
Chekhov’s stories have a quiet domesticity that is both comforting and melancholy. His characters take delight in the littlest things, where something as little as a food’s smell can bring back associations and memories from happier times—or a relief that past unhappy times are gone. His characters also argue about trifles, sometimes aware of the low stakes, and sometimes not. The small scale of his plots lets the reader concentrate on how different personality types and people in different social situations react to different stimuli, as though Chekhov were conducting experiments in human nature. This makes some sense; Chekhov was a medical doctor in his non-literary life.