At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!
#5: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes , Arthur Conan Doyle – 1892
First up this month is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection of stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes . This is the first collection of short stories featuring Britain’s favorite detective, following the success of Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four .
Twelve stories here feature the rascally genius Holmes, and his trusty assistant Dr. Watson. Though they all follow the standard mystery-story formula pretty closely, Doyle’s puzzles are creative and diverse enough to seem fresh each time. Though I must admit, the stories at times suggest that anyone could get away with a crime, if they just wore generic and in-tact clothing, and maintained reasonable standards of personal hygiene. Who knew the culpability of rips and stains!
What sets these mysteries apart, of course, is the love-hate attraction of Holmes himself, as clear in popular adaptations (think Robert Downey Jr., House , BBC’s Sherlock , and so on). Just goes to show you: genre fiction may have important tropes to manifest, but it’s always characters that make or break a story.
Fun fact: this book was banned in the Soviet Union in 1929, for the supposed occultism it contained. The ban was later lifted, and Sherlock Holmes grew to be wildly popular in the USSR. Today, there’s a statue of Holmes and Watson in Moscow, near the British embassy.
#4: Mansfield Park , Jane Austen – 1814
Mansfield Park , Jane Austen’s third novel, tells the story of Fanny Price – a girl sent by her impoverished parents to be raised in the wealthy family of her aunt. Fanny grows into womanhood alongside her cousins – Tom, the rowdy and profligate elder son; Edmund, the upright and virtuous younger son; and Maria and Julia, two vain and spoiled sisters.
The novel brings to focus the moral degeneration that can run in wealth and decadence. Austen paints the flippant cruelty of wealth and carelessness, as contrasted with her temperate narrator, Fanny.
This wasn’t my favorite of Austen’s novels, but it has one thing going for it that I don’t think I can say of any other of the Austen books: I didn’t know how it was going to end. Usually with Jane Austen, you can pretty well tell by 1/2 or 2/3 in that A will end up marrying B , and C will marry D , and E will be exposed for the jerk s/he is. Or something along those lines. With Mansfield Park though, I really wasn’t sure. Austen novels are great for their rich character studies, not their plots, but still – it was a nice change of pace to feel surprised!
#3: A Room with a View , E.M. Forster – 1908
A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, in which we follow a young woman Lucy as she enters adulthood in the transforming society of early 20th century Britain. The story follows Lucy as she travels abroad in Italy with her cousin, and later as she navigates her entries into romance.
Throughout the book, Lucy finds herself in situations expressing the growing split between an ‘old’ England of conventions, formality, and emotional distance, and the ‘new’ modernizing England of genuine intimacy, novelty, and social equaling.
The first half of the book includes some of the most evocative and pregnant explorations of the ideas of travel and tourism I’ve come across. To what extent do modern tourists enter into a physical location, while insulating themselves emotionally or spiritually? What does it mean to travel? Why does one seek out a change of scenery, of location? Forster blends these questions with his evocations of the social dis-location of the early 20th century, as well as the transformative reorientation of early adulthood.
A fun and thought-provoking read – check it out!
#2: Invitation to a Beheading , Vladimir Nabokov – 1936
Nabokov wrote this Russian novel before the English-speaking literary world fell in love with him through Lolita . In it, we join our narrator Cincinnatus in jail as he awaits his execution, having been convicted of “gnostical turpitude.”
This short novel runs rich with farce, existential absurdity, and black humor. Nabokov paints the laughter and anguish that accompany man’s attempt to understand and reconcile himself to the fundamentally irrational world in which he’s placed. Cincinnatus tries to reconcile himself to his situation and create some sense of ownership and control of his life – and, for the most part, fails.
The innate ‘otherness’ of the narrator – which seems to be his only crime – is reminiscent of a Dostoyevsky protagonist: struggling against a seemingly unbridgeable gap between himself and those around him, he at times bitterly embraces his isolation and at other times desperately seeks to connect with another person.
If you enjoy Kafka or Dostoyevsky (or Nabokov of course!) you’ll definitely love this one. Nabokov once said that, of all his works, he held Lolita with the greatest affection, but Invitation to a Beheading with the greatest esteem – a recommendation that alone makes this one worth reading!
#1: Red Mars , Kim Stanley Robinson – 1993
Red Mars is the first novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi Mars trilogy, in which he depicts the colonization of Mars.
In Red Mars , 100 scientists are selected on Earth to make up mankind’s first colonizing team sent to Mars. The novel follows these best-of-the-best pioneers as they come together on Earth, voyage the long trip between planets, and begin their new life – and society – on the red planet.
The core of science fiction as a genre is philosophical speculation on the future of mankind, and how we grow alongside and through our technology. Robinson manifests this on a phenomenal scale – he explores diverse sides of politics, art, revolution, colonialism, economics, gender relations, religion, ethics, psychology, and more. This is a pretty long novel, but Robinson packs a lot in, even given its size. And yet it all fits seamlessly, never feeling contrived.
Robinson’s wonderful characters are the driving force behind his philosophical speculations. He gives us a diverse cast of highly opinionated characters, who can act as stark foils for one another and near-archetypes for their beliefs, yet still remain completely believable and relatable.
This pitch-perfect combination of good science fiction and good character-driven literature makes for a fantastic reading experience.
Have you read any of these books before?
Will you be picking up any to read this month?
Join the discussion in the comments, and share your thoughts on these picks!
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