50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Plot

Money: A Suicide Note

Good morning, class.

So . . . I’ll just come right out and say it: Money: A Suicide Note is one of my least favorite books of all time.

To read Martin Amis’ Money is to be met with a tour de force of alcoholism, drugs, addiction, rape, sexism, homophobia, manipulation, and toxic behavior the likes of which no one should have to endure. Money is a kaleidoscopic perspective on humanity’s fast and entertaining decay, due almost entirely to the concept of money and its poisonous fumes.

I will admit, there are parts I liked, or at least appreciated. And in theory, the book is a perfect criticism of celebrity lifestyle and capitalism. Money points out our inherent cultural flaw, our need for, dependence on, addiction to money—better than most books I’ve read on the subject. I have no doubt that that’s why this novel made the list.

But the details—the characters, plot, symbols, words—made me sick. It was crass and disgusting. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had known what I was getting into (before seeing the list, I had never heard of Money before, so I went in cold); after all, I’ve seen movies and read books that aim to be offensive, and the best ones, like Money, have a clear and even moral purpose, like criticizing cultural flaws. Still, I’ve never enjoyed reading a book less, and I won’t get that time back.

But the least I can do is tell you who these unlikable characters are, and a bit about what they do that’s so unlikable. The narrator is a man named John Self, a conceited, sadistic, out-of-control addict attempting to adapt his story into a movie. He is surrounded by celebrities that are as self-absorbed as he is, as money-addicted and as morally bankrupt too. He spends his days in constant cycles of prostitutes, alcohol, smoking, and mindless purchases, and all the while he experiences a ceaseless and vulgar inner monologue that is as carefully crafted as it is offensive.

John Self reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield is similarly problematic, with his intrusive and offensive thoughts filling up most of the novel; but I liked reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I know exactly why it was better. Caulfield was an angsty teenager, dealing with a lot of personal issues in the way a teenager might—lashing out at adults, behaving irrationally, refusing to face his issues head-on, etc. Even so, ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is about a search for happiness, and Holden’s care for younger children (and their untainted innocence) expresses that. Our focus on a an unlikable narrator becomes our focus on a teenager in crisis and on society’s mistreatment of children.

But Money doesn’t do that. John Self is a grown man, and spends a lot of time blaming his equally terrible father for his own mistakes, despite having the ability to change his ways. He has broad generalizations about the world and its mechanisms, and everything he says is questionable or flat-out immoral. He despises people that are different from him and he despises himself. He crosses the line from offensive to unforgivable far too often, in ways I don’t care to repeat. And unfortunately, he is on every page.

Author Martin Amis

Now, there are things that I like. For instance, its clear that Martin Amis knows what he’s doing—John Self’s diatribes are despicable, but well-written. The clever word choice and puns, the perfectly captured voice of John Self, the balance of the whole story from beginning to end . . . Amis is a craftsman.

Amis also happens to write himself into his own novel—a fun meta twist that uses “character-Martin-Amis” to help show what “writer-Martin-Amis” is trying to do. He gets to poke fun at his own pretentiousness and explain his actions for creating a character like John Self—it’s his way of putting all of the poison of fame and fortune into one tragic character, destroyed inside and out by the way we live now. The episodes with “character-Martin-Amis” stood out as Money‘s most creative and intriguing moments.

And yet, for all its technical brilliance, I can’t stand the novel’s content. Money‘s plot is weak, spending more time creatively caving in on itself than telling a story, which I could live with, except that whatever story is left is detestable. The thinness of the plot is paired with disgusting scene after disgusting scene—an endless episodic bombardment of debasement and degradation. I didn’t enjoy it and I’m glad it’s over now.

With that out of the way, I can look forward to the remaining books on the 50-books-list. I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy what stories are left, but it’s a safe bet that Money is going to remain at the top of my I-hated-this-book list for quite some time, if not forever.

Next up, I’m finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—a novel that, so far, I have enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for some books.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hello again, class.

I have mixed feelings about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read it a lot, and I’ve hated it, loved it, misunderstood it, and been indifferent to it. I’ve thought of Mark Twain as a genius, and sometimes I’ve thought of him as a glorified hillbilly whose works we read for unknowable reasons. More often than not, I land on the idea of appreciating Huckleberry Finn from a distance, never quite sure what to make of it while knowing that it’s worth reading—that’s the mood for today.

If only reviewing books was a simple task.

The book opens with a notice, explaining that anyone attempting to find motive, moral, or plot in this story will be subsequently prosecuted, banished, or shot. From the opening page, this book flaunts narrative, which is a hole-in-one from where I’m standing. The story that follows is a series of funny and dramatic events with a few well-developed and desperate characters and a barrage of side-character kooks to keep things light and interesting. It’s meant to be a delightful adventure story, through and through.

Or is it? One of my issues reading Huckleberry Finn is also one of the things that has kept it popular in the century-and-then-some that came after—the story itself is more than it claims to be. No one narrative-identity sticks—it can never be limited to “adventure story.” The series of adventures do have some underlying meaning, even if the notice at the beginning tells the reader not to look for it.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself—the only way this anti-narrative story even remotely works is because it has good characters. Huck is a boy in the American South, and he comes from an impoverished world with an abusive father. He views himself as a wrongdoer, or as trash, so he oscillates between wanting to do what’s right and giving up to do wrong. This puts him directly on the path of running away with an adult slave, Jim, whose relationship with Huck is tumultuous, subtle, carefree, and one of the strongest examples of friendship literature has to offer.

Twain’s portrayal of Jim is remarkable—we see all through Huck’s eyes, and Jim’s actions show him to be far more than Huck can imagine of a slave. Just like the story, Jim is more than he seems, and for all the stereotypes he seems to embody of a submissive and hard-working slave, he subtly flaunts those stereotypes in the story’s stiller, smaller moments. Twain wrote him as both a caricature and an honest deconstruction of slave characters—and Jim is one of the reasons Huckleberry Finn is still read today.

Author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain

Twain’s real writing strength is his humor. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, there are disguises, pranks, puns, hilarious literary references, bumbling idiots and smart people fooled beyond recognition. Two characters known as the king and the duke swindle money from people for a living, and comedy ensues. Huck’s profound misunderstanding of most situations leads to hilarious chaos. One extended joke about two feuding families references Romeo and Juliet constantly, and Twain’s version isn’t half as tragic (that’s what he’d have you believe, in any case). Huck even dresses up like a girl to get information from someone. It’s non-stop, and Twain is a master of hilarity.

I can’t deny, even though I clearly think it’s a good novel, that I can’t stand Huckleberry Finn. Part of it is the overuse of the n-word, but that’s a weak reason—I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the same “fault.” Part of it is that this boy’s adventures are so unlike my life that I have no frame of reference; there’s almost no way his running away with a slave matches any moment in my own narrative. But that’s a weak reason, too—I could say the same about so many books I’ve praised before, including Pride and PrejudiceBrave New WorldThe Color PurpleAs I Lay Dying, and To the Lighthouse.

It probably boils down to taste, and that’s the best answer you’ll get out of me. I’ll praise the genius of Huckleberry Finn while keeping my distance; there are several novels I’ll reread for pleasure, and this isn’t one of them. But I wholeheartedly agree that it’s one of the 50 books everyone should read before they die.

Next up, I’m finishing Moby-Dick—another story that is so unlike my own life that I have little to no frame of reference. But unlike with Huckleberry Finn, I very much enjoyed Moby-Dick even in spite of its flaws . . . but more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Count of Monte Cristo

Welcome back, class.

Reading The Count of Monte Cristo was a journey of several months, like my experience with Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. But length is no indicator of difficulty—while it was never “easy,” it was consistently accessible, unlike Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. There were things that I wasn’t expecting, and even things I didn’t like, but in general The Count of Monte Cristo was a classic that I’m proud to have read. I could read another Alexandre Dumas novel without hesitation (I’m looking at you, The Three Musketeers).

It starts with Edmond Dantès, who is unjustly imprisoned by men jealous of his success. In prison, an older man befriends him, teaches him the full spectrum of human knowledge, and reveals the hiding place of his inherited treasure. Dantès escapes and finds the treasure, buried on the island of Monte Cristo; using the money, he develops the disguise of the Count of Monte Cristo and uses it to exact revenge on those who destroyed his life.

Illustration of Edmond Dantès

That’s only the first couple hundred pages—about one-fifth of the story. The rest, while at times not nearly as exciting, is the painstakingly long course of events allowing the count to destroy his enemies. It’s not enough for him to take their lives or torture them; he concocts the exact punishment necessary for each enemy, without directly attacking them. There are bumps along the way, each one making it that much more exciting to see him successful, and so the novel spans decades to reach an almost perfect ending—but I won’t spoil it.

The strengths of The Count of Monte Cristo are not in great literary merit or symbolism, like most of the other books on the list. This is a plot- and character-driven story that’s meant to be entertaining, plain and simple. I spent most of my time reading it wondering what Dantès would do next, and to whom; I sympathized with him as much as I feared him. Dantès transforms from a kind soul to a vengeful spirit, and he is as intimidating as he is heroic—the terrible things he commits himself to doing are matched only by the commitment with which he does them. He becomes a legend, and that legend makes The Count of Monte Cristo worth reading.

Author Alexandre Dumas

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Alexandre Dumas knows exactly how to delay the reader’s satisfaction. Some chapters begin with characters we’ve never met before, and while we sift through who they are and why we aren’t focusing on Dantès, we’ll suddenly realize that one of these characters is Dantès in disguise, subtly manipulating the scene to his own ends. Other times we focus on interesting subplots dragged out for dozens of chapters, only to see Dantès enact his revenge on these extra characters, years of his work successful in an instant. The novel is so long because Dumas teases it out for, if nothing else, dramatic effect. Even when things are confusing, they’re fresh and exciting too, because Dumas tells a good story in the best way.

Next up, I’ve been reading the similarly long novel Anna Karenina, also for several months. I don’t know how I gained the ability to read multiple novels at once, which I know baffles some people, but I absolutely love it. I couldn’t have enjoyed reading The Count of Monte Cristo for so long if I didn’t diversify things with other novels. Surviving college sometimes meant juggling four different novels from four different literature classes—it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. I just love reading so much.

I’ll leave you with that thought.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Twelfth Night

Good morning, class.

I wrote about Hamlet a while back, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. But even though most of his other plays are just as good, the 50-books list limits itself to just this one Shakespeare play. Let’s balance out the scales here.

I prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies—I’m also partial to Macbeth—but that’s no excuse for dismissing his comedies. Some worth mentioning are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. . .but if I’m picking the one you need to read before you die, it’s Twelfth Night.

Viola and Olivia

The main character, Viola, survives a shipwreck thinking her twin brother has died at sea. She is a woman alone in the strange land of Illyria, without many options. . .so she disguises herself as a man, to serve in the house of Orsino, duke of Illyria. Viola quickly falls in love with Orsino, who is pining after Olivia, who falls in love with the man Viola is pretending to be. Then Viola’s brother turns up, and it’s all a hilarious catastrophe.

Some of the dialogue stands out as Shakespeare’s best: “If music be the food of love, play on,” (Act 1, Scene 1) and “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” (Act 2, Scene 5) are well-known. One of Viola’s monologues, while not as well-known, sums up the chaos and ache of her situation—her disguise has caused more trouble than she’d intended, and she can only wait for Time to sort it out for her.

The plot is certainly dated—love triangle with a sitcom angle, it’s been done to death. And it’s not as “ghastly” and “unnatural” to play with the rules of sexual identity anymore (if it is, you need a different circle of friends). But the real drama here is about disguises and first impressions.

Depiction of Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene IV

Everyone in the play is wearing a kind of disguise. People are pulling pranks, falling in love with the wrong people, and pretending to be what they aren’t. . .but then everyone gets to reveal their true selves as well. Even the play wears a disguise—the excessively cheesy drama is a disguise for the play’s message, which is that first impressions are usually wrong.

As Viola holds her disguise together, she starts to see past the disguises of others, like the hidden wisdom of the fool or the hidden love of a friend. Wearing a disguise is something everyone does—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. We only ever see outer layers, not the soul underneath. In some ways, Viola’s journey is about coming to terms with that.

But as much as I want to sell Twelfth Night, this isn’t the only Shakespeare play to try this. Most of his plays, including Hamlet, deal with the struggle of dual lives, disguises, pretending to be something else, lying. . .it makes for great drama and speaks at real human truths. Twelfth Night just does this in my favorite way, and it’s why I think it should make the list (I know my bias is affecting my decision, but I’m in charge here, so it’s obviously okay).

If you feel that I’m wrong, and some other work of Shakespeare’s belongs in the winner’s circle, post your comment below now or forever hold your peace! It’s been a while since I’ve had a literary debate, anyway.

Look forward to my post next week! I plan to have finished Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by then.

Enjoy your week,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Types of Stories

Hello again, class.

I recently read an article claiming that all stories are the same. Details differ, but the “skeletons” are all based on the same structure. The monsters in a story can take many shapes, like Grendel in Beowulf, the land owners in The Grapes of Wrath, and infidelity in Ulysses, but they’re all monsters. The quest is always about finding something—treasure, peace, home, the damsel in distress, etc. Characters have arcs, plots have acts, and Hollywood has McGuffins.

I see this as a challenge. There isn’t much in this world that’s so subtly threatening as categorizing things. Someone created each of those stories, and if you told them their story was exactly like everyone else’s, you might not get out of there alive. So before we chalk this up as fact, let’s analyze it a bit.

Frankenstein's Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

If all stories are the same, then all plots and characters are based on already-established archetypes. When we talk about a monster or a villain, certain requirements of the archetype come to mind, and an author can adhere to, deny, or parody those requirements with their own creation. The overcoming-the-monster plot is an archetype as well, and certain requirements of that plot are already in place. When we see a hero fighting a monster, we understand the labels of “hero” and “monster” from other stories, and we understand the trajectory of the story from similar stories.

The claim that all stories are the same—like most generalizations—is trapped in labels…and labels are always evolving. The heroes and monsters of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance may not be the same as monsters of today, but we can “translate” the monsters of the past into monsters that we recognize. A character who is imposing, mean-spirited, and violent is a monster, whether it’s a giant one-eyed Cyclops or an angry business-owner. A monster can even be a friendly teenage boy or a devoted parent, as long as the archetype is still upheld—“translated” accurately.

These archetypes are great at doing one of two things: A) helping readers and viewers “figure out” the story by making it familiar, or B) binding the plot and characters unnecessarily, and forcing it to pull its punches rather than tell a good story.

I read another article that clarifies that there are seven types of stories—seven plot archetypes that all stories adhere to. See the article here for a more in-depth look.

  1. bookshelf-illustrationOvercoming the Monster (that’s, like, the millionth time I’ve mentioned this one—take the hint, it will be on the test)
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

Even the stories that refute or deny these basic plots are still reflections of them (each one “translated” from the original blueprint). It seems that all stories spring from somewhere else.

The first article I mentioned argues that reducing stories to a formula is like “unweaving the rainbow.” To limit all stories by these boundaries removes the magic of storytelling. I’m not sure I agree though…there is something remarkable about the fact that all stories are connected, as if it’s all one big story. Writers are building on the stories of the past toward stories of the future, and everyone adds a piece.

To quote Walt Whitman, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” And to quote Robin Williams, “What will your verse be?”

types-of-stories-book-landscapeA professor once told me that there are two ways to start a story—either a stranger comes to town, or someone decides to leave. Whatever happens from there changes everything. Somehow, that simple prompt is both challenging and comforting.

Your homework: I want to see if you have a story that won’t fit in the basic plots listed above. Prove these high brow literature professors wrong (not me, of course—all the other snooty ones). Leave it in the comment section. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find one, though. Yes, those are fighting words.

You can look forward to my post on A Christmas Carol next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to class!

Prof. Jeffrey