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.
James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3
The best of the series so far. The protomolecule that was the major plot axis of the first two books forms a 1,000 km-wide ring between Uranus and Neptune’s orbits. The space inside the ring seems to be some kind of wormhole leading to a million-kilometer wide space with more than a thousand other rings spread along its edges. Earth, Mars, and the Belt waver between war and peace, both inside and outside the ring space. Protagonist James Holden and his crew, along with a few other characters try to keep the peace, and try to ward off a vengeful character whose father and sister figured prominently in the first two volumes. The drama of a continually worsening situation keeps building and building, with some elaborate physics involved—gravity and inertia turn out to be excellent plot devices. The final battle scene is fantastically done—one of the best I’ve read.
James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice
This short 1934 book helped give birth to the modern detective noir genre. Much popular literature of the period was on the vanilla side; this one was downright scandalous, with murder, adultery, and drunken car crashes looming large in the plot. Think of this book as a predecessor to today’s hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard-style stories. While not entirely to my taste, the sleazy story does have its low-brow appeal, to which I am not immune.
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Complete Sherlock Holmes
The audio version, narrated by Stephen Fry, is a delight. I enjoyed the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series a few years ago, and Fry’s radio programs on Victorian culture sparked an interest in reading some primary source material. Though lengthy—four novels and countless short stories—this collection made driving, exercising, and doing chores go by much more quickly. I also followed along on the Kindle edition, which is free.