By Javier Marías, 1989
I bought this years ago after The Believer published a long article about the writer, upon which it immediately slipped through the cracks. Picking it up on a lark, I found it difficult to put back down again. It's a short novel about a Spanish professor who takes on a two year gig as a visiting lecturer at Oxford, and while a good bit of the plot focuses on the affair he has with the randy wife of a milquetoast local, Marías seems most interested in just letting you see how funny intellectuals--a group he happily considers himself a member of--appear. Academic takedown books are probably a dime a dozen, only bested in quantity by overly inspirational films where professors help young men find truth, maybe pussy; that being said, there's nothing cliched about the way Javier goes about delivering his acerbic stab at how the overly educated go about their daily lives. The portion where his narrator delineates to a bored woman why she should bail on her marriage for a romantic adventure that he's idealized to the point that it's more reminiscent of the board game Candyland than anything that might occur between two people is a personal favorite, but really, there's nothing in here that isn't a positive delight. Few things are quite as funny as listening to eternally single intellectuals explain how relationships are supposed to work to someone who is in the process of breaking up with them.
By Frans G. Bengtsson, 1941-55
Similar to All Souls only in that it utilizes humor so subtly and efficiently that it starts to feel like the author is in the room while you're reading, making you laugh purely with wry glances and abashed shrugs, Long Ships is a series of Viking stories built around the tumultuous life of one incredibly likeable individual named Red Orm. While there's a lot of action, all of it increasingly more interesting as the book barrels forward--the best being the non-stop fighting that take place in the chapter entitled "How King Harald Bluetooth celebrated Yule"--this is a series of stories heavily tilted towards the adventure side of the equation. Bengtsson doesn't so much gloss over the more brutal aspects of the culture as he does present it in bald celebration, making for a book that leaps, chapter by chapter, from seafaring to skull smashing with nary a whiff of self-analysis. Like most books of this ilk, there's an excellent romance pulsing throughout; like almost none of them, the final 100 odd pages of the book go deep into that relationship's decrepit years, making for such a meaty subplot it threatens to steal the reins entirely. This is an immensely satisfying book.
-Tucker Stone, 2012