Raffael Hirt: My 2014 in Books

Book Tree

This is the first post in a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2014. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to zest.editor@gmail.com.

And now, Raffael Hirt tells us about his best reading experiences of the year.

So far, I have read an even 40 fiction books this year. Yes, I keep count, and yes, I know that’s creepy. When you read as much as I do, it can be difficult to pick out the outstanding ones for purely numerical reasons. In a way, however, it is really easy. The special books are the ones I still think about weeks or months after I finish them, even after having read others in the meantime. Thus, here are my top six from 2014 – in the order I have read them:

White Noise

Don DeLillo – White Noise

The American mystery deepens.

I discovered this gem in one of the FAVA’s book sales. It’s a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (the ones with the frayed pages), which I really like. What I also liked was the classic postmodern plot—a combination of absurdity and satire with Romantic banality. Protagonist Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies (…) at your average Midwestern college. He and his wife Babette are both terribly afraid of dying, which leads to them both taking experimental drugs to drown their fears without the other knowing. This works out fairly well –  even during the evacuation of the whole town due to some “airborne toxic event” – until Jack’s best friend tells him the best way to get rid of his fear of death would be to kill someone… What is Romantic about that, you might ask? Well, the main effects of the airborne toxic event are staggeringly beautiful sunsets that make the Gladneys (almost) forget their fear of death.

Le Misanthrope

Molière – Le Misanthrope

Trop de perversité règne au siècpd où nous sommes, / Et je veux me tirer du commerce des hommes.

This is the tale of aristocrat Alceste that vows to refrain from hypocrisy and always tell the truth. Of course, this cannot go well in the courtly France of the 17th century, and Alceste is soon accused of slander and defamation. When he is then also betrayed by his beloved Célième, Alceste feels that he has no choice left but to go into exile. If you enjoy self-righteous ranting and/or alexandrine verse, this is your go-to play. If your French is as dodgy as mine, the orange bilingual Reclam edition might be of help.

Stoner

John Williams – Stoner

Lust and learning,” Katherine once said. “That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

This Great American Novel (note the caps) was given to me by my mother – which is usually a bad sign. However, this turned out to be an event of the blind-hen/squirrel persuasion, and I really enjoyed this tale of the Missouri farm boy who – after being seduced by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 – decides to drop his agriculture major in favor of literature. Which is something I’m sure every reader of this blog understands. But anyway. Williams manages to present Stoner’s, objectively speaking, boring career into something worth reading about– despite the sex scenes which are rather on the tentative side of things, considering they were written in 1965.

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian

Each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well.

An interesting phenomenon about McCarthy’s novels is that there is an inverse proportionality between how good the book and its movie version are. No Country for Old Men? Bad book, cult-status adaption. The Road? Powerfully dystopic novel, horrendous adaption with Viggo-Aragorn Mortensen and Charlize Theron. Blood Meridian has remained untouched by filmmakers, and I hope it stays that way, because any adaption is bound to be terrible. Following the trail of the historical Glanton gang, McCarthy does not refrain from presenting the bandits’ compulsive scalp-hunting on the US–Mexican border. The result is a powerful anti-Western about the pervasiveness of violence. As for film adaptions: they would either fall short of the book’s brutality or engorge themselves in blood and goo.

Ask the Dust

John Fante – Ask the Dust

Everything was going to pieces.

All fans of Swiss rock band Züri West are bound to go “Aah” when I tell you the name of this book’s protagonist: Arturo Bandini. Like in the Züri West song, Arturo is involved in an ultimately doomed love story with waitress Camilla Lopez. Aspiring writer Bandini is a thinly disguised autobiographical character that Fante used in all his novels – the way Charles Bukowski did with Henry Chinasky. Incidentally, Fante was Bukowski’s main inspiration for quitting his job at the post office and becoming a writer. If the Züri West thing wasn’t enough to tuck in your sleeve, this sure must be. And to all fans of high literature out there: Ask the Dust ends with Arturo throwing a book after Camilla. Way to go self-reflexive, John.

Alas, Babylon

Pat Frank – Alas, Babylon

We won it. We really clobbered ‘em!” Hart’s eyes lowered ad his arms dropped. He said, “Not that it matters.”

This one I actually had to read for school, in “American Science Fiction of the 1950s & 1960s”. Instructor Alexander Markin called it the most important Cold-War novel. Period. And while my sci-fi experience is basically limited to what I had to read for this course, I can safely say that the Cold War has never felt more immediate to a 90s child like me. The plot is simple: the Yankees and the Soviet don’t actually beat the odds the way they have in our parallel universe. The accidental (non-nuclear) bombing of a Syrian city sets off a chain reaction, and while the world is going (or has gone) to pieces, a town in segregationist Florida is trying its best to survive the scares of fallout and highwaymen.

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