As a child, after you stopped being entertained by a bunny wishing inanimate objects “goodnight” one by one, most of the stories you started to read revolved around evil, monstrous villains who took special joy in committing unthinkable sins. How full of wrath was Miss Trunchbull to grab sweet, little Amanda’s blonde pigtails and “human hammerthrow” her across the yard in front of Matilda and friends? How envious must the queen in Snow White have been to forcefully demand her young predecessor’s innards in a bejeweled box?
Childhood fables almost always use the opportunity to prepare us for the cruelty of the world, warning of the monsters whom we will inevitably encounter and mistake for human beings. To be fair, though, one exception to this general theme in fables that has always bothered me is “The Princess and the Pea” since its main argument seems to be that peas should be buried, not eaten (true) and that princesses bruise easily (undetermined). Yet without any real mention of sin, this fable lags behind the others, and remains in my memory solely because my Kindergarten teacher joked about the title after I peed my pants in the reading circle. (And cried).
Reaching adulthood generally negates the need for any of these literary warnings about inhumanity or bladder control, but we still like our antagonists to sin ruthlessly and often. This way the plot slinks and coils into our consciousness like a serpent in the Garden of Eden, where we are free to compare and contrast these villains to our real life foes.
Such wickedness in literature both delights and disturbs us, as we loathe — or more interestingly — sympathize, with the sinner more with every page turned. So what better time than Spring to read seven books on sinners, as we prepare for the fiery summer heat waves that make up our very own portals to hell? To start your sinful Spring, why not read:
Unless you were required to read this book in high school, Oscar Wilde’s only novel might have flown under your radar. Most of us know the story- of a posh egomaniac who’s obsession with youth leads to his ultimate destruction, but the way Wilde paints a picture (!) of this vanity is well worth reading. In a crazy world where shows like “Bridalplasty” exist, this cautionary tale about a man trading wrinkles for bouts of insanity warns us against our societal obsession with beauty. Why are we taught to feel the most prideful about the way we look, for instance, like it’s all there is to count? This novel doesn’t really provide an answer, but think of it as Oscar Wilde’s biting commentary on “selfies” and the Facebook generation about 120 years too early. Then when you’re finished, forget everything you just read and watch “Bridalplasty” to feel better about yourself and worse about America.
Sloth is, in my opinion, the lamest of the seven sins. Does spending a lazy day in bed watching Netflix really make you feel like a sinner? It shouldn’t, especially if you’re using it to watch the 1975 movie of the same name. But even if you’ve already seen Jack Nicholson play the ballsy protagonist R.P. McMurphy who crashes the psychiatric party, do yourself a favor and spend a few hours reading this Ken Kesey classic, too. With lobotomies, psych ward warfare, and attempted breakouts, this book puts the METAL in “mental institution.” The “Cuckoo” plot was pieced together from Kesey’s own hallucinations as he tripped on peyote during his night shift at a hospital and began to craft a story around what he saw. His imagined character McMurphy is equally bold and adventurous, the exact opposite of the pre-existing group of invalids who have confined themselves to the ward. Sloth has consumed their confidence and ambitions, leading them to imprison themselves in the hospital simply because they are too frightened of life to try to live it. Can these sloths ever learn to unfasten themselves from trees of apprehension and finally leave the white-walled jungle?
If you’ve read or seen the movie Fight Club, you’ll be familiar with Chuck Palahniuk’s tales of self-help groups and rebellious soul searching. In “Choke”, the protagonist Victor Mancini’s sex addiction and hope of recovery keeps him occupied by both, prompting him to attend groups for sex addicts and try to make peace with his childhood of abandonment. Victor also lusts after a sense of normalcy, despite supporting his ailing mother by tricking fellow restaurant patrons into “saving his life” via the Heimlich maneuver as he pretends to choke on his meal. Victor believes that he gives these people a sense of purpose that they each secretly desire, as they establish a life-long connection with him and often keep this relationship alive by sending him pity money for his troubles. This fast-paced read has enough mama drama and psychological issues for you to (…yeah I’m going to say it…) choke on.
Because the expression “Bonfire of the Vanities” directly translates to “the burning of objects that are deemed to be occasions of sins,” I thought this dramatic story deserved a place on this list. In Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, the sinful nature of protagonist and Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy is quickly revealed through his decadence, overindulgence, and self-obsession. Sherman’s main concerns in life are to keep his reign at the top of the Park Avenue social hierarchy, and his illicit affair a secret from his wife. But when his BMW runs over a black boy in a poor part of town, he suddenly finds himself at the front of a national scandal that he cannot buy or sweet talk his way out of. As justice is demanded for the injured boy, all sorts of random and slimy people find their way into the courtroom with their hands out, proving that McCoy is far from the greediest person in New York City. “Bonfire of the Vanities” started as a series of installments for Rolling Stone, as Wolfe was partially inspired by the techniques of Charles Dickens, yet not quite as heavy handed. What resulted is a fascinating take on 1980’s New York, political corruption, racism, social class and justice. Oh, and sin.
I’ll admit that, like most 20-somethings, I obsess over Kurt Vonnegut for his inspired and animated style of writing. But all fangirling aside, “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” can stand on its own as a fantastic work of social commentary, satirically exploring a type of obsessive envy that the perpetrator almost seems entitled to, and that we almost forgive him for. In this 1965 novel, Norman Mushari is a money hungry lawyer who develops an infatuation for a rich family headed by an incompetent, alcoholic heir to the fortune. Mushari watches bitterly as Eliot Rosewater, trustee of the family’s philanthropic foundation, pisses each day away and has the nerve to give away his money to people in need. Extreme jealousy provokes Norman to attempt an overhaul of Eliot’s life, including contacting a distant Rosewater to help build an insanity case against the “undeserving” trustee. Norman spends the entirety of the book fantasizing about money, truly growing greener and greener with envy.
When I hear the word “gluttony” I envision something like Paula Deen in a castle of Twinkies with a butter moat. But in the bizarrely funny non-fiction book “Party Monster,” the only thing author James St. James teaches you how to cook is ketamine. This first hand account of the rise and fall of the club kids, specifically murderer Michael Alig, is more relevant than ever due to Alig’s recent release from prison after serving a 17 year sentence. As he and St. James’ professional partying lifestyles lead to highs like club kid fandom, they were swiftly followed by lows like drug addiction, overdoses and murder. After seeing the awesomely crazy “Party Monster” movie featuring everyone from Macaulay Culkin to Marilyn Manson, I actually wrote to Michael while he was incarcerated at Elmira Correctional Facility. I asked him random questions like “what should I avoid in New York?” since I told him I was moving there. And although my parents strongly disapproved of my prison pen pal, I was excited when he wrote me a friendly letter in response, answering my question by suggesting I avoid “potholes and drug dealers.”
Truman Capote was known for a lot of things: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, having the best review of Jack Kerouac (“That’s not writing, that’s just typing.”), but I consider this book to be his most brilliant work of all. “In Cold Blood” is Capote’s in-depth exploration of a 1959 quadruple homicide that shocked a tiny Kansas town. After spending six weeks interviewing town residents, as well as murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith from their respective jail cells, he compiled a fascinating story detailing the motives and plans behind the slitting of Herbert Clutter’s throat, and the shooting deaths of the farmer’s wife and two of their four children. What compels two men to graduate from a lifetime of petty crimes like theft and cheating to the brutality of slaying four family members in the middle of the night? Panic from a botched robbery? Wrath searing out from abusive childhoods? Capote fills the pages with such complexity that the reader is often confused by their own sympathies and stance on capital punishment. Now considered one of the best true-crime books of all time, the biggest sin of all is that Truman Capote never won the Pulitzer Prize for his masterpiece.
What are you reading this Spring? Do you think Kerouac is over-rated or are you wrong? (Just kidding)