5 Literary Classics That Could Have Used an Editor

I’ve got nothing against long novels. Some of my best friends are long novels. Sometimes a book either needs to be long, or — at least — manages to be a joy to read despite being long. However, I’m arguing here that there are some novels that could afford to have a little taken off the top.

5.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: This is a funny and clever novel, but the gag goes on a bit too far. We don’t need to see every man, woman, and child in Spain kick the man of La Mancha’s butt because he hallucinates that each is a brigand or neer-do-well while he imagines himself a knight.

4.) Tale of the Genji by Lady Murasaki: To be fair, some consider this to be the first novel, and so it’s a little unreasonable to expect perfection of style and readability. (Not to mention that its target audience of 11th century Japanese courtiers are all long dead.)

3.) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: Irrespective of how one feels about Rand’s work as a political statement, we should all be able to agree that it doesn’t take 1,100+ pages to show us a world where entrepreneurs and capitalists go on strike.

2.) Moby Dick by Herman Melville: I realize that many consider this to be the great American novel, but I knew far too much about ambergris and whale bile ducts when I finished reading it… just sayin’.

1.) Ulysses by James Joyce: I’m aware of the stunningly beautiful language, but almost 800 pages to cover a single day in the life of one guy?

5 Novels in Translation That You Should Read

Reading translated novels is a good way to gain insight into the culture and history of a country in a way that is both entertaining and that exposes the deep nuances of national character. I’ve selected works that both highlight aspects of culture and / or history and that are pleasant reading–some are humorous and others are adventures, but none are drudgery.  (Includes two Nobel Prize winners and one guy who gets nominated every year only to have the prize handed to folk-rock musicians or the like.)

[The hyperlinks go to my review of said book in GoodReads.]


1.) The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (Czech): The lead character in this farcical comedy is a bumbling, but likable, idiot who is drawn into military service. The book highlights the fact that in times of war the greatest acts of idiocy are not perpetrated by greatest idiots.




2.) After Dark  by Haruki Murakami (Japan): One can’t go wrong with Murakami. I almost picked Norwegian Wood, which is more a work of realist literary fiction, but this novel about what happens when the trains stop running in Tokyo may shed a little more light on Japan. (anti-pun not intended.)




3.) Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (Hungary): The story of how a small Hungarian castle village held out against a siege by the Ottoman juggernaut.




4.) Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): When three men disappear from a small mining village in the Andes, the Army sends a Corporal and his deputy to investigate.




5.) Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (China): A wealthy land owner is executed during the Communist revolution and must live out several lives as various animals in the service of the family of his [former] beloved hired-hand. The books shows the generational change between when China first became Communist through the reform period that led to a more market-friendly approach.


BOOK REVIEW: The Beach by Alex Garland

The BeachThe Beach by Alex Garland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I imagine the elevator speech for this book being, “Lord of the Flies done Paul Theroux style.” While that may or may not sound appealing, this is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read recently.

The Beach will have its greatest appeal with travelers because understanding the mindset of a traveler versus that of a tourist (vagabonds versus regular folk, if you prefer) is essential to being able to feel the realism in the behavior of the book’s characters. (If you don’t know the difference between a traveler and a tourist, it’s safe to say that you are a regular person who travels as a tourist.) Like Moby Dick, this is a book about all-consuming obsession, but the obsession is in finding and protecting the traveler’s paradise. (Such a paradise is partially defined by a complete lack of tourists.) Unlike Moby Dick, The Beach isn’t rambling, and it maintains tension throughout.

The story beings on Khao San Road in Bangkok, a familiar haunt for backpackers and other low-budget world travelers. The protagonist, Richard, has just gotten in to Bangkok and checks into a hostel. Rooming next to Richard is a Scottish man named “Daffy” who seems to be a complete lunatic and who keeps talking aloud to himself about a “beach.” Owing to the accent, Richard first thinks Daffy is talking about a “bitch,” but soon realizes the man’s obsession is with a patch of sand. Richard has a brief and unusual interaction with Daffy, who throws a lit joint onto Richard’s bed. In the morning, Richard finds a meticulously hand drawn map on his door with “the Beach” prominently labeled. When he goes to see why the crazy stranger left it for him; he knocks on Daffy’s ajar door to find the man has committed suicide.

The beach is on one of the small islands that are kept off-limits as part of the Thai National Parks system. Richard teams up with a French couple who was also staying next to him. While Richard had heard their amorous sounds through the thin walls on the night he met Daffy, he didn’t meet the couple until they were all called in to talk to the police about Daffy’s suicide. For some reason Richard is unwilling to tell the police about the map, but he does tell the Frenchman. The map leads them to the island. It isn’t easy to get to. Once on the island, they discover they must get through a grove of marijuana guarded by heavily armed locals to get to the fabled beach.

It turns out a small community of travelers has already set up on the idyllic beach. As with any group, some people get along well and others rub each other the wrong way. We get the best insight into those individuals who become the friends and enemies of Richard, and many of the others are the novel equivalent of movie extras. At first, all is well on the island. Richard and the French couple have to do work a few hours a day on the fishing detail, but otherwise they are living in their Eden. However, as things begin to go wrong—and they do go frightfully wrong—Richard and others begin to be confronted by the question of what they are willing to do to protect the Beach, and how will their personal moralities be twisted in the process.

Garland uses a couple of interesting techniques in the book. First, Richard is plagued by dreams featuring Daffy, and later–as the burden of secrets to which he is party piles up—he begins to have hallucinations of Daffy during the day. In both cases, it seems that the dreams and hallucinations are an attempt to help him work out the mysteries of the Beach. No one on the island will tell him about Daffy, and he is desperate to know what drove the man mad—or whether he was always like that. There’s one character, Jed, who goes off every day and no one seems to know where he goes or what he does. Eventually, Richard comes to be in on some of these secrets (e.g. becoming Jed’s partner), and the burden of knowledge doesn’t improve his state of mind. In the end, Richard seems to realize that he is the new Daffy, and what drove Daffy into madness will surely do the same for him if he doesn’t get off the island.

Second, Garland uses what—for lack of a better term—might be called foreshadowing. However, it’s not so much a matter of subtle hints as a bold statements such as [paraphrasing], “It’s too bad _________ would die, especially in the way he did.” This should have seemed ham-handed, but there’s always enough mystery about what will come next that the these tips were like lighter fluid to intensify one’s reading so one could find out what would happen next and how.

I whole-heartedly recommend this novel, and think it’s one of the best pieces of travel-oriented writing that I’ve read. It’s a page-turn from beginning to end.

View all my reviews

30 Thin Books Every American Should Read

Amazon recently put out a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. I appreciate the mega-bookseller taking a less doctrinaire approach than, say, The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Also, props to Amazon for including a number of contemporary works—though I guess that is self-serving of them (i.e. $10 versus $0 sales price)—so never mind.

Whenever I see one of these lists—and there are so many of them—I always feel a bit inadequate. I suspect I’m not alone, given a recent generic list posted by The Millions, entitled 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To. That author’s approach is laudable. She doesn’t hand out exact titles as if we all need the same books, but rather suggests the kind of books one should consider reading (but only if you want to.)

I read like a fiend. While I usually don’t read rapidly (I can; I learned how in grad school, but I prefer savoring to injecting words), I’m constantly reading. So it’s a little disappointing to see how I stack up in the grand scheme of list-makers.

At present I have read:

– 15 of Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime (15%)

– 12 of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read (15%)

– 12 of The Telegraph‘s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read (12%)

– 3 of the Huffington Post’s 30 Books to Read Before You’re 30 (10%, and—sadly—yes, I’m over 30.)

– 45 of The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (4.5%)

So this brings me to the point of this post, which is to boost my self-esteem by building a list of books, all of which, I’ve read. As I considered the books I’ve read that I would be so bold as to recommend “everyone” read, I saw trends. First, I read a lot of thin books, or, perhaps, they stick with me more. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some monsters Moby Dick (on everybody’s list—I don’t know why), Atlas Shrugged (on the Libertarian Book-of-the-Month Club list, and not much else), and 1Q84 (given a few years, it’ll be on all the lists.) However, it’s the thin books that have stuck with me, and they often get kicked aside by the [other] pretentious list makers. Also, shorter forms (e.g. essays, short stories, poems, and novellas) often don’t get properly recognized because everyone wants to talk about novels and tomes.

Second, while I like to consider myself an international reader (e.g. I’ve read a fair number of translated Japanese and Chinese classics), the fact of the matter is that I’ve had a skewed reading history. I’m an American, and have disproportionately read books that are either by Americans or that speak to the American worldview / mindset (my list will be both.) This isn’t so much an issue for most of the list makers as they simply propose that every Nigerian, Thai, and Peruvian should read a canon devoid of any Nigerian, Thai, and Peruvian authors (but instead that is 50% British, 30% American, and 20% all others.) While the list may be targeted toward U.S. audience, these books are good for everybody, and everybody should read outside the familiar.

Without further ado, my list, 30 Thin Books That Every [Attention-Challenged] American Should Read:

1.) 101 Great American Poems

Because poetry is good for the soul. Yes, this anthology is skewed toward dead poets, but it’s not only thin, it’s cheap. It’s got Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, and Hughes.

Animal Farm

2.) Animal Farm, Orwell

Because, screw totalitarianism, that’s why. This is like 1984, but without the villainy clubbing one over the skull. Therefore, you can introduce the kids to commie-hating early and without giving them nightmares—well not bad ones. Plus, it’s thinner than 1984.

3.) Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, Plato

Because virtue is good for the soul. This is Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense at his own trial and his subsequent explanation of why he was going to drink the hemlock. Yes, it’s technically three books, but they are often bundled together as one book. Even with all three, it’s pretty thin.

4.) Brave New World, Huxley

Because Orwellian dystopia isn’t the only dystopia. In Huxley’s book, tyranny wasn’t a matter of force, but manipulation. This book shows how dystopia can be disguised as utopia by keeping the population adequately drugged and well-sexed.


5.) Candide, Voltaire

Because satire is good for the soul. No sacred cows escape roasting in this thin volume. A naïve young man travels out into the world to find that evil is ubiquitous.

6.) Catch-22, Heller

Because how often does a book coin a common phrase. (FYI- “A Clockwork Orange” was a phrase Burgess borrowed for the book that was common in some parts, but Heller invented the term “Catch-22.”) The story revolves around the notion that one can’t get out of the war by reason of insanity, because if one is trying to get out of the war one is sane by definition, and if you are insane, you don’t try to get out.

7.) Civil Disobedience, Thoreau

Because if you’re going to break the law, you should know how to do it do it virtuously and not like a dirtbag. (Hint: It’s more painful than you think.) This essay tells of Thoreau’s imprisonment because he refused to pay taxes that would fund the war with Mexico. It’s usually bundled with other essays.

8.) Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury

Because books are good. The title comes from the temperature at which books burn, and it’s set in a dystopian future in which the protagonist, “Fireman” Guy Montag, goes around collecting and burning books.


9.) Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss

Because you should know how to turn someone down (e.g. I would not eat them on a boat, I would not eat them with a goat.) Or, because learning to be playful with words may serve one well. Or, because you should try new things. In the story, an unnamed narrator is subjected endlessly to green eggs and ham, which he steadfastly, refuses until the end.

10.) Hamlet, Shakespeare

Because you think you’ve got a weird family. Hamlet exacts revenge when he finds out that his uncle killed his father to marry his mother and usurp the throne.


11.) Into the Wild, Krakauer

Because you don’t want to underestimate Mother Nature when you strike out to build your indomitable American spirit. This is the true story of a college graduate who gives away his bank account, burns his pocket-money, cuts ties with his upper-middle class family, and sets off to become self-made. Ultimately, he ends up in Alaska, and it does not end well.

12.) It’s Getting Better All the Time, Moore & Simon

Because, stop being such a gloomy-Gus. Admittedly, this is an unconventional choice– both because it’s not particularly skillfully written and a few of its conclusions may not be as true as they once were. However, it does inject a dose of reality for those who view the world through shit-colored glasses. As the title suggests, the authors argue that life in America is getting better year after year. We are getting healthier and richer. Being economists, they present much of their findings as graphic representations of statistical data.

13.) Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl

Because sometimes the world actually looks better through shit-colored glasses, Seriously, because you need to know how to get on with it when life is at its toughest. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who writes about what kept people going at places like Auschwitz.

14.) Meditations, Aurelius

Because, just get on with it. This was actually a kind of “Notes to Self,” written by the Roman Emperor to remind himself to be virtuous, to live, and to not fear death.


15.) On the Road, Kerouac

Because you don’t get enough of the word “rickety” these days. But seriously, you get to “see” a lot of America through Kerouac’s poetic language. It follows the road trips of a beat generation protagonist through America.

16.) Sanctuary, Faulkner

Because Faulkner’s language rocks, and this is a gripping and gritty tale. It’s the story of an upper class co-ed who’s dragged down into the underworld and some desperate times by a couple bad decisions, not the least of which was going for a ride with a stupid drunk.

17.) Self-reliance and Other Essays, Emerson

Because you need a pep talk to think for yourself. Emerson proposed that one stand as an individual and stop letting political parties, religions, or other organizations decide what one believes. Emerson and Twain both saw a sad trend brewing in which people were starting define their beliefs by identifying with a party and then letting that party’s opinion leaders tell them what to think. Sadly, this trend only grew since there day to the point that many people have extremely strong beliefs that they can’t begin explain in a logically and factually consistent way.

18.) Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

Because one day China is going to collect on our debts, and well need some grasp of their culture. Seriously, you should read outside your culture. In the process, you’ll find that the Taoist stream of thought isn’t all that far off our own—“f#@k authority and pretentiousness and all the bureaucratic formalities.”

19.) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain

Because, screw Melville, this is the great American novel. Yes, I realize that it’s not particularly thin, but compared to Moby Dick it is—and it reads more quickly because there aren’t long drawn out sections on the minutiae of whale pineal glands and what not. This book follows the adventures of that rapscallion, Huck, as he flees a drunk father and a lady who wants to make him civilized, and takes to rafting on the Mississippi with an escaped slave. Yes, it has the n-word like a billion times, but if you read all the words (and not just that one) you’ll see there’s a positive message about the development of mutual friendship and respect between Huck and Jim.

20.) The Call of the Wild, London

Because you need to get outside more. It’s the story of a dog who is taken from the good life as a pet in California to the wilds of Alaska, and what said dog must do to survive.

21.) The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Because you need to be concise AND coherent. In the age of Twitter, people are mastering the former while losing the latter. This is a thin books that tells you most of what you need to know to write intelligibly in English.


22.) The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, Poe

Because America has a dark side, and nobody writes it better than Poe. Any of the many collections of Poe’s short stories (some including poems and/or long-form works) will do. One definitely wants “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and, of course, the title poem.

23.) The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Epictetus

Because we need an injection of Stoicism to counteract the prevailing trend toward whining and moaning. Epictetus was a slave who became one of the most famous Greek sages. His sayings are mostly about not crying over spilt milk, but to be careful not to be the one who spills the milk. In other words, don’t whine about what the world gives you, devote your energies to being virtuous and conscientious.


24.) The Lives of a Cell, Thomas

Because you should understand your place in the ecosystem, and Lewis Thomas describes it artfully and concisely. This is a series of essays that covers a lot of ground with respect to the subjects of biology and physiology.

25.) The Prince, Machiavelli

Because you may just want to take over the word someday. This is advice about how to rule. It may not make one popular as a middle manager, but there are bits of wisdom throughout.

26.) The Road, McCarthy

Because someday it’s all going to come to an end, and it will probably end badly. This is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I realize I’ve put a lot of dystopianism on this short list, but I’m going to say that’s part of the American condition. America has had it good for long enough to realize that all things come to an end.

27.) The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Hemingway

Because we should not give the short story short shrift, and Hemingway—like Poe—did them well. Besides the title story, this collection includes “The Killers”, “The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio”, and “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.”

28.) The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway

Because you need to get out of the country and experience some of the rest of the world. This is about the travels from Paris to Pamplona of a group of men who’ve all fallen for the same woman with that woman—of course—along for the ride.

29.) Walking, Thoreau

Because you need to get out of the house, away from your cubicle, and out into nature. This is an essay extolling the virtues of putting one foot in front of the other like you mean it.

30.) Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak

This is the story of a little boy’s dreamtime journey to a world inhabited by “monsters” and his interaction with them. Like Green Eggs and Ham, you should have read this as a kid. If you didn’t, I’m sorry about your defective parents, but get over it. Since you probably don’t want to read this as an adult on the Metro going to work, you can get Christopher Walken to read it for you on YouTube.

So that is it. That is my list of 30 Thin Books that Every [Attention-Challenged] American Should Read.

WRITING DEVICES: The Author Cameo in A Dead Hand

I’ll soon finish reading a novel by Paul Theroux called A Dead Hand. I won’t get into the details of the book in this post because I’ll do a review later, but there’s a writing device in it that really intrigued me. Theroux inserts himself into the novel in a cameo role as a competitor to the protagonist. That is to say, the main character is a traveling writer who writes mostly magazine articles, while Theroux a prolific writer famous for travelogues such as The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,  as well as for many novels which are written with a travel writer’s sensibility for location. (A Dead Hand takes place in and around Calcutta, India.)

I enjoyed the author cameo. It would only work well for a writer like Theroux, one who is both well-known and, because of his nonfiction work, who readers have a feel for as a person. Still, I couldn’t think of another novel I’ve read in which this has been done. I’ve only read Theroux’s nonfiction so far, so maybe this is a running gag with him.

Inserting himself offers some opportunity for adding humor. For example, there’s a part in which the main character’s friend, who is also a go-between who introduces the two writers, says, “He [Theroux] said he wanted to take the train from Battambang to Phnom Penh.”

To which the main character replies, “He would. The bus is quicker!”

This technique also gives one the impression that we are getting some inside insight into the writer. When the main character mistrusts the author, how are we to process that?

Granted it’s a little like an actor looking into the camera and talking straight to the audience.

I’m interested to hear if this is a more widespread technique than I’m aware of? Who else does this?

Your Life is Hard? Try Working with Ninjas,Pirates, and Smugglers!

Ninjas, pirates, and smugglers aren’t exactly chatty. They burn, or shred, their correspondence. They sow seeds of disinformation to confuse the authorities. They lurk in the inkiest of shadow worlds behind doors we don’t even know exist. Still, who wants to do a hatchet job on a pirate? Right?

Did I mention that these are characters in the novel that I’m currently revising (or did I let you believe I was talking about in-the-flesh smugglers so that you’d keep reading.) Sorry, no one ever accused me of NOT being a deceitful bastard. Well, my friend, you’re now more than Tweet deep in this post; that’s quite an investment; it’s the modern-day equivalent of having read The Iliad, so you might as well keep reading.

Kiss the Cobra (my third working title) features a cast of characters of not only the aforementioned occupations but also monks  (both the scholarly and  kick-ass kung fu varieties), an Emperor, a muay Thai master, and a secret society that makes ninjas look like chatty Cathys. Like all good lies, this novel begins with a seed of truth. That seed is the rescue of Emperor Go-Daigo from imprisonment by an evil (ok, quasi-evil) shogun in 1337.  From that seed, it’s my wild imagination run amok… or is it? The Emperor assigns the loyalist ninja who rescued him, Korando, to travel to Southeast Asia to acquire an artifact that legend has it will help him re-consolidate power.

Cut to the present day, a linguistically-talented young man, Matsuo (a.k.a. “Matt”), comes into possession of a scroll. The scroll is Korando’s journal, written and hidden as a confessional. Matt investigates Korando’s journal on an electronic bulletin board only to find himself being chased by nefarious characters. Matt discovers that there are still people willing to kidnap, kill, or commit treason for the secrets that Korando’s journal may possess.

The novel weaves the 14th century journal with this present-day cat and mouse game between the forces of good and evil. There’s murder and mayhem, love and betrayal, victory and defeat, virtue and vice; in short everything you love in a novel is densely crammed into this book.  There’s even one character who may or may not be a Zombie–I’ll let you be the judge.

Now let me just add this screenshot of me to show you ho

Do you ever get a chill on the back of your neck?

Did you ever get an inexplicable chill on the back of your neck?