My 5 Favorite Novels of the Last 5 Years
Reading is my favorite pastime. I have the habit of reading multiple books, preferably of different genres, substantiality, and medium, at the same time, and I finish about one book a week. Most of the books I read are non-fiction, but I still consumed a sizable amount of fiction in the last five years, of which the following five are my favorite.
Circe, Madeline Miller (2019)
Madeline Miller taught Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare to high school students for many years before becoming a novelist. While The Song of Achilles, her critically acclaimed debut novel, was inspired by Homer’s Iliad, Circe is the story of Odyssey told from the perspective of Circe, a nymph and minor character in Homer’s epic poem.
Circe is an utterly unremarkable daughter of the god of the sun, Helios. Often ignored by and feeling lonely among other divinities, she turns to the world of mortals for companionship. In due course, she discovers the power of witchcraft. She was banished by Zeus to a deserted island for using it, but continues to hone her occult skills and grow as a divine being and eventually crosses paths with Odysseus.
Being divine, Circe and many characters in the story can do things not bound by natural laws. But, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed reading all the fantasies. Miller’s portrayal of Circe’s freedom and power on her private island is so vivid that I caught myself dreaming of setting foot on it more than once.
Among the themes explored by the book, the power struggle between transience and permanency is perhaps the most interesting. Who wouldn’t want to be a god with all the time in the world? Yet Circe has a different idea, which is perhaps more than partially responsible for the book’s popularity. The grass is always greener on the other pasture. It is gratifying to know that others think of our lives as the “greener pasture”, especially if the others are divine.
Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami (2017)
Killing Commendatore is another story where events happening to the characters are not bound by physical laws. I was somewhat annoyed by Murakami’s cool indifference towards the distinction between past and present, or dream and reality. Yet, the story of a melancholy painter recuperating in a solitary mountain home in the hope of getting back on track in both career and personal life captivated me from the very beginning and started to get even more interesting when his mysterious and wealthy neighbor showed up at the door.
The caveat, though, is that this was the first time I read a Murakami novel. I later embarked on Kafka on the Shore, on the strength of Commendatore’s performance, and didn’t like it nearly as much. Did Murakami’s distinct style finally prove to be too irritating? Or is a story about a lost teenage boy and a strange cat communicator simply not as interesting as that of an artist going through a midlife crisis? I don’t know. Maybe I should read a third Murakami novel to find out. The question is, which one?
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (2016)
The primary purpose of a novel is to tell a story, and the quality of the prose plays a crucial role in how well the story turns out. While the languages of some novels are clumsy, dull, and stale, that of others are elegant, witty, and fresh. Every word is carefully chosen. Every sentence is well-proportioned, nuanced, and rich with life. Like a piece of ripe fruit plump with juice, or a loaf of freshly baked bread emitting a sweet aroma, it attracts and tempts, leading the readers into the maze painstakingly set up by the author, bite by bite, step by step.
But languages must be moored by plots and characters. If the Russian Count house arrested in his residence in the Hotel Metropol Moscow had not been witnessing, with a first-row seat, the earth-shattering changes brought about by the Soviet communist movement, if he had not become entangled with the ordinary or not-so-ordinary people swept up by the tidal waves of the times, if he had not displayed, unfailingly, charm, dignity, and integrity regardless of circumstances, the reader would not have fallen for him and his story, and A Gentleman in Moscow would not have been such a sensational success.
The Count once gave his daughter two pieces of advice. First, if one doesn’t master one’s circumstances, one is bound to be mastered by them. Second, the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness. The Count perfectly exemplified these qualities himself.
Excellent writing, interesting characters, humor, entertainment, wisdom, what more can you ask from a book?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (1984)
I recently re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I had wondered whether my reaction to it would be vastly different from 20 years ago, and insofar as I could rely on my hazy memory, the answer was no.
I still thought the structure of the book elegant and the prose beautiful. However, since I had forgotten most of the details, the book read almost like new.
The story of a Czech doctor’s love life in the Prague Spring period is sprinkled rather densely with philosophical allusions. It explores so many fascinating topics, inevitability versus contingency, lust versus love, mind versus body, art versus kitsch, that if you are too serious a reader, you are at the risk of pausing after each paragraph to ponder over its meaning, to the detriment of your reading pleasure and your goal of finishing the book.
But you don’t have to. After 20 years, some of the more profound observations by the author or the characters are still somewhat inscrutable. It was just fine. I believe that the epiphany, if it is ever meant to arrive, will dawn on me at its own pace, just as the seeds sowed into the soil will sprout one day.
Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
Like Maugham’s other novels, Of Human Bondage is a light and breezy read. As Maugham’s magnum opus, I expected it to be better than The Moon and Six Pence or The Painted Veil. But I was still surprised to find myself deeply touched by Philip halfway through the book. An orphaned cripple trying to find his way in the world, Philip had the heart of pure gold not corruptible by tribulations. Despite all the adversity and hardship, he was still earnest, idealistic, and good.
The message resonating with me the most, though, appears in the second to last chapter of the book, when Philip reflected on the deformity which had made his life so hard, his club foot:
he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life.
Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind: he thought of all the people he had known (the whole world was like a sick-house, and there was no rhyme or reason in it), he saw a long procession, deformed in body and warped in mind, some with illness of the flesh, weak hearts or weak lungs, and some with illness of the spirit, languor of will, or a craving for liquor. At this moment he could feel a holy compassion for them all. They were the helpless instruments of blind chance.
We all have our “club foot”. Although we may be able to hide it from others’ views, we are acutely aware of its existence in the loneliness and darkness of the night. When self-pity relentlessly gnaws at our hearts, we often think we are alone.
But we are not. Our perceived misfortune may just be the norm. We all have our struggles that others do not necessarily understand. In the end, everyone has to deal with the most fundamental challenges in life: accepting defeats, enduring loneliness, and facing the inevitable death. Those journeys that must be taken alone are frightening. But it’s comforting to know that we are not alone in being frightened. We are not alone in being alone.
It reminds us, as urged by a wise minister: be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.