If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you’ll have figured out that fantasy is my favorite genre, followed by historical fiction and science fiction. These are huge genres that have a lot to offer, and it’s easy to spend most– or all– of a reading life within a single genre. But I like to branch out now and then and find new things because I never know what I’ll fall in love with next. At the same time, though, I’m a little apprehensive when I start reading a book that’s completely different from my usual fare, because what if I don’t like it? Will I have wasted my time by starting it?
Fortunately, I usually at least like what I read when I branch out, and sometimes I love it.
So here are six books I didn’t expect to love when I turned to chapter one.
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, translated from the German by John E. Wood
I took an English 395H: Faust in Western Literature class in college. The professor was a very formal eastern European man who had us read multiple versions of the legend of Doctor Faust (wherein a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for everlasting life, but he can never fall in love or else he will die. In some versions, this causes the deaths of the people Faust loves), watch selections from operas and plays, and one bizarre Czech film based on the legend. While I learned a lot in this class, I mostly disregarded the final book on the syllabus, written by Thomas Mann. I had so much going on that I only gave it a cursory read– enough to take part in the discussion and write a halfway decent paper about it.
But I kept the book, and several years later, in the midst of a self-imposed ‘Read the Classics’ project, I decided to reread this one. I was hooked from the first chapter, and though I already knew what was going to happen, I had to keep going. Mann’s story is about a piano virtuoso, Adrian Leverkühn, who makes a bargain for the sake of immortality as a musician, and so loses his ability to love. Published in 1947, Mann’s last great novel is also an allegory of Germany in the build-up to World War II. I thought the story was incredibly compelling, and that John E. Wood’s translation was beautifully done.
Njal’s Saga by Anonymous, translated from the Icelandic by Robert Cook
I started reading the Icelandic sagas a few years ago, after my first trip to Iceland in 2017. I had purchased a copy of Njal’s Saga at Mál og menning at Laugavegur 18, but hadn’t delved into it until this year. It’s one of the longest of the sagas and tells a story of revenge and violence between two families, the conversion to Christianity, and how the people of Iceland dealt with the rapid change from their previous, pagan culture to one that had a radically different view of the world. While the number of characters who move in and out of the story can make things a little confusing if you’re not accustomed to how the sagas tell their stories, once you fall into the story’s rhythm, it’s a fascinating story that tells a full set of very human stories. There is dark humor, people who are passionate about their choices, and a love of the land that overrides the desire for safety. Njal’s Saga is the story of a world that is radically different from ours, but its characters’ motivations and desires are recognizable today.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
I don’t know what inspired me to pick up Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, save that I knew it was a famous classic and it was described as magical realism. From the synopsis, I knew that it was the story of the isolated town of Maconda and, more specifically, about six generations of the Buendia family. I did not know that I would be hooked from the first, brilliant sentence:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.“
I’ve seen this described as a world in a sentence, and I think that is completely accurate. It shows you from the first that you’re entering a sort of dream space where time seems to compress and expand, where family is vital, and where apparently minor events can echo through the years. Whenever I picked up the book to read more, I didn’t want to put it down and the experience of reading it still feels a bit like a dream. I’ve read a couple of other books by Márquez, but neither of them gave me the same feeling of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Until I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’d only read two of the Brontës’ other books– Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre but didn’t care for Wuthering Heights. But Anne was a different person from her sisters Emily or Charlotte, and I’d never tried her work. So off we went.
I was unsure of the story at first, as I wasn’t terribly keen on Gilbert’s narrative voice, and what his reaction to Helen was going to be when he started falling in love with her. Would he be the sort of brooding, bad-boy Byronic hero that’s been popular in Western literature and popular culture since the Romantic era? Or would he be a down-to-earth, genuine sort of man who truly cared for Helen’s happiness?
Fortunately for me, who doesn’t really care for the Byronic hero, Gilbert turned out not to be that sort of fellow and even though he made some mistakes (who doesn’t?) he was willing to give Helen the space she needed to sort out the details of her life. That’s the kind of romantic lead I like.
I also loved the arc of Helen’s story, which is mostly told in retrospect. She feels like such a modern heroine but is trapped within a world that doesn’t value her. She is a woman and a mother in a society that claims to value both (as well as children) and yet, when she needs help, all that society will do is castigate and mock her for her decisions, instead of getting her the help she needs. That she clings to her principles in the face of that and goes her own way is remarkable, and I appreciate both her and the book all the more for it.
Reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall made me want to read more of the Brontës’ novels, and while I haven’t done so yet, I am looking forward to doing so.
The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, translated from the Japanese by Meredith Weatherby
The Sound of Waves is the story of Shinji, a poor young fisherman, and Hatsue, the daughter of the wealthiest man in a coastal Japanese town. The two young people fall in love, but because of class and other divides, their society doesn’t want them to be together. They meet secretly when they can, though they cannot escape the eyes and gossip of the townspeople. In response to all this, Shinji strives to prove himself to Hatsue’s father in an effort to show that he is worthy of Hatsue.
This is a quiet, beautiful story that is elegantly translated. It’s relatively short, being around 185 pages depending on the edition, so it packs a lot of meaning into those pages. I’ve read other books by Mishima, but this one is by far my favorite.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
A few years ago, I set myself a challenge to read as much translated fiction as possible. I didn’t read nearly as many translated books as I hoped I would, but I read Bulgakov’s masterpiece of a mid-twentieth century satire of Soviet Russian society in the 1930s. I hadn’t heard much about it, but when I asked a Ukrainian acquaintance what she recommended for books by authors from Ukraine or Russia, this is the one she recommended the most. I had no idea what I was in for when I started it, but it was weird and funny, and I loved it, even though I know I missed a lot of the deeper meaning, given that my knowledge of Soviet Russian politics is lacking.
The story begins when the Devil shows up in Moscow one night, accompanied by a beautiful witch and a large, talking black cat. No one in the city believes in God or the Devil, and so the Devil and his minions wreak havoc in the city. But while they are making life difficult for everyone else, they help to bring peace to two unhappy souls– the Master, a brilliant writer facing heavy criticism for his current work in progress, and Margarita, a woman who loves the Master so much that she’s willing to literally go to Hell for him. The Master and Margarita is surreal at times, and funny, and somethings nostalgic and sad. It’s not the Russian novel that I was expecting, and I’m glad I gave it a try.
There are plenty of other books I was leery of starting and ended up loving, but these were the first that came to mind. They’re great reminders that, even though I love my favorite genres, it’s good to branch out and try new things. There’s a big world out there with a lot of amazing stories, and you never know what you’re going to end up adoring.