100 great novels by dead authors


The following is a list of 100 books by dead authors that I have read and highly recommend. It’s a companion list to 100 great novels by living authors and 100 great graphic novels. This list is a very personal one. I have lots of large gaps in my reading, so if an obvious book is missing from this list it is possible that I just didn’t like it, but probably more likely that I’ve never got around to reading it. The list is chronological, based on the date of the author’s death, so older works come first.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1616), Don Quixote

Thomas Mann: “What a monument is this book! How its creative genius, critical, free, and human, soars above its age!” Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “A more profound and powerful work than this is not to be met with… The final and greatest utterance of the human mind.” The story of the Spanish knight whose devotion to tales of chivalry leads him and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, into a series of bizarre adventures blends fantasy, comedy, and drama in a way that has gripped the world’s imagination for centuries. (Publisher’s description)

Daniel Defoe (1731), Robinson Crusoe

Widely regarded as the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the most popular and influential adventure stories of all time. This classic tale of shipwreck and survival on an uninhabited island was an instant success when first published in 1719 and has inspired countless imitations. In his own words, Robinson Crusoe tells of the terrible storm that drowned all his shipmates and left him marooned on a deserted island. Forced to overcome despair, doubt, and self-pity, he struggles to create a life for himself in the wilderness. From practically nothing, Crusoe painstakingly learns how to make pottery, grow crops, domesticate livestock, and build a house. His many adventures are recounted in vivid detail, including a fierce battle with cannibals and his rescue of Friday, the man who becomes his trusted companion. Full of enchanting detail and daring heroics, Robinson Crusoe is a celebration of courage, patience, ingenuity, and hard work. (LJ Swingle introduction)

Jonathan Swift (1745), Gulliver’s Travels

Considered the greatest satire ever written in English, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels chronicles the fantastic voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, principally to four marvelous realms: Lilliput, where the people are six inches tall; Brobdingnag, a land inhabited by giants; Laputa, a wondrous flying island; and a country where the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses, are served by savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos. Beneath the surface of this enchanting fantasy lurks a devastating critique of human malevolence, stupidity, greed, vanity, and short-sightedness. A brilliant combination of adventure, humor, and philosophy, Gulliver’s Travels is one of literature’s most durable masterpieces. (Michael Seidel introduction)

Laurence Sterne (1768), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Rich in playful double entendres, digressions, formal oddities, and typographical experiments, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman provoked a literary sensation when it first appeared in England in a series of volumes from 1759 to 1767. An ingeniously structured novel (about writing a novel) that fascinates like a verbal game of chess, Tristram Shandy is the most protean and playful English novel of the eighteenth century and a celebration of the art of fiction; its inventiveness anticipates the work of Joyce, Rushdie, and Fuentes in our own century. (Publisher’s description)

Voltaire (1778), Candide

Witty and caustic, Candide has ranked as one of the world’s great satires since its first publication in 1759. In the story of the trials and travails of the youthful Candide, his mentor Dr. Pangloss, and a host of other characters, Voltaire mercilessly satirises and exposes romance, science, philosophy, religion and government — the ideas and institutions men live by. (Publisher’s description)

Samuel Johnson (1784), The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

The distinguished English writer’s only novel provides a compelling glimpse of his moral views as he assails 18th-century optimism and man’s unrealistic estimates of what life has to offer. Rasselas ponders such subjects as romantic love, flights of imagination, the great discoveries of science, and speculations about the meaning of happiness. (Publisher’s description)

Jane Austen (1817), Persuasion

In her final novel, as in her earlier ones, Jane Austen uses a love story to explore and gently satirize social pretensions and emotional confusion. Persuasion follows the romance of Anne Elliot and naval officer Frederick Wentworth. They were happily engaged until Anne’s friend, Lady Russell, persuaded her that Frederick was “unworthy.” Now, eight years later, Frederick returns, a wealthy captain in the navy, while Anne’s family teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. They still love each other, but their past mistakes threaten to keep them apart. Austen may seem to paint on a small canvas, but her characters contain the full range of human passion and moral complexity, and the author’s generous spirit renders them all with understanding, compassion, and humor. (Susan Ostrov Weisser introduction)

William Beckford (1844), Vathek

The descriptions of Vathek’s palaces and diversions, of his scheming sorceress-mother Carathis and her witch-tower with the fifty one-eyed negresses, of his pilgrimage to the haunted ruins of Istakhar (Persepolis) and of the impish bride Nouronihar whom he treacherously acquired on the way, of Istakhar’s primordial towers and terraces in the burning moonlight of the waste, and of the terrible Cyclopean halls of Eblis, where, lured by glittering promises, each victim is compelled to wander in anguish for ever, his right hand upon his blazingly ignited and eternally burning heart, are triumphs of weird coloring which raise the book to a permanent place in English letters. (HP Lovecraft review)

James Hogg (1835), The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

First published in 1824, this novel was “considered in turn a Gothic novel, a psychological case study of an unreliable narrator, and an examination of totalitarian thought.” It is “the ultimately unclassifiable novel, set in a pseudo-Christian world of angels, devils, and demonic possession. … It has received wide acclaim for its probing quest into the nature of religious fanaticism and Calvinist predestination. It is written in a mixture of Scots and English, with Scots mainly appearing in dialogue. On the surface, this novel is a simple tale of a young man who encounters a shape-shifting devil, an early manifestation of a doppelganger, and the various misadventures that follow.” (Amazon.com review)

Emily Brontë (1848), Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights remains one of literature’s most disturbing explorations into the dark side of romantic passion. Heathcliff and Cathy believe they’re destined to love each other forever, but when cruelty and snobbery separate them, their untamed emotions literally consume them. Set amid the wild and stormy Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights, an unpolished and devastating epic of childhood playmates who grow into soul mates, is widely regarded as the most original tale of thwarted desire and heartbreak in the English language. (Daphne Merkin introduction)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1851), Frankenstein

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering “the cause of generation and life” and “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature?s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein. Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises rofound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever. (Karen Karbiener introduction)

Charlotte Brontë (1855), Jane Eyre

Immediately recognized as a masterpiece when it was first published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is an extraordinary coming-of-age story featuring one of the most independent and strong-willed female protagonists in all of literature. Poor and plain, Jane Eyre begins life as a lonely orphan in the household of her hateful aunt. Despite the oppression she endures at home, and the later torture of boarding school, Jane manages to emerge with her spirit and integrity unbroken. She becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she finds herself falling in love with her employer — the dark, impassioned Mr. Rochester. But an explosive secret tears apart their relationship, forcing Jane to face poverty and isolation once again. One of the world’s most beloved novels, Jane Eyre is a startlingly modern blend of passion, romance, mystery, and suspense. (Susan Ostrov Weisser introduction)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1864), The Scarlet Letter

America’s first psychological novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a dark tale of love, crime, and revenge set in colonial New England. It revolves around a single, forbidden act of passion that forever alters the lives of three members of a small Puritan community: Hester Prynne, an ardent and fierce woman who bears the punishment of her sin in humble silence; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected public figure who is inwardly tormented by long-hidden guilt; and the malevolent Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband — a man who seethes with an Ahab-like lust for vengeance. The landscape of this classic novel is uniquely American, but the themes it explores are universal — the nature of sin, guilt, and penitence, the clash between our private and public selves, and the spiritual and psychological cost of living outside society. Constructed with the elegance of a Greek tragedy, The Scarlet Letter brilliantly illuminates the truth that lies deep within the human heart. (Nancy Stade introduction)

Charles Dickens (1870), Bleak House

Often considered Charles Dickens’s masterpiece, Bleak House blends together several literary genres — detective fiction, romance, melodrama, and satire — to create an unforgettable portrait of the decay and corruption at the heart of English law and society in the Victorian era. Opening in the swirling mists of London, the novel revolves around a court case that has dragged on for decades — the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs. As Dickens takes us through the case’s history, he presents a cast of characters as idiosyncratic and memorable as any he ever created, including the beautiful Lady Dedlock, who hides a shocking secret about an illegitimate child and a long-lost love; Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction; and the hilarious Mrs. Jellyby, whose endless philanthropy has left her utterly unconcerned about her own family. As a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder, the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, struggles to discover the truth about her birth and her unknown mother’s tragic life. Can the resilience of her love transform a bleak house? And — more devastatingly — will justice prevail? (Tatiana M Holway introduction)

Gustave Flaubert (1880), Madame Bovary

The publication in 1857 of Madame Bovary, with its vivid depictions of sex and adultery, incited a backlash of immorality charges. The novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife bored and unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. She embarks upon a series of affairs in search of passion and excitement, but is unable to achieve the splendid life for which she yearns. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a downward spiral that inexorably leads to ruin and self-destruction. Along with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s tragic novel stands as a brilliant portrayal of infidelity, an incisive psychological portrait of a woman torn between duty and desire. Written with acute attention to telling detail, Madame Bovary not only exposes the emptiness of one woman’s bourgeois existence and failure to fill that void with fantasies, sex, and material objects. Emma’s thirst for life mirrors the universal human impulse for idealized fulfillment. (Chris Kraus introduction)

George Eliot (1880), Silas Marner

George Eliot’s third novel, Silas Marner (1861) is a powerful and moving tale about one man’s journey from exile and loneliness to the warmth and joy of the family. The story opens as Silas Marner, falsely accused of theft, loses everything, including his faith in God. Embittered and alienated from his fellow man, he moves to the village of Raveloe, where he becomes a weaver. Taking refuge in his work, Silas slowly begins to accumulate gold — his only joy in life — until one day that too is stolen from him. Then one dark evening, a beautiful, golden-haired child, lost and seeing the light from Silas’s cottage, toddles in through his doorway. As Silas grows to love the girl as if she were his own daughter, his life changes into something precious. But his happiness is threatened when the orphan’s real father comes to claim the girl as his own, and Silas must face losing a treasure greater than all the gold in the world. (George Levine introduction)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1881), Crime and Punishment

Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky, and none have been so adept at describing it. Crime and Punishment — the novel that heralded the author’s period of masterworks — tells the story of the poor and talented student Raskolnikov, a character of unparalleled psychological depth and complexity. Raskolnikov reasons that men like himself, by virtue of their intellectual superiority, can and must transcend societal law. To test his theory, he devises the perfect crime — the murder of a spiteful pawnbroker living in St. Petersburg. In one of the most gripping crime stories of all time, Raskolnikov soon realizes the folly of his abstractions. Haunted by vivid hallucinations and the torments of his conscience, he seeks relief from his terror and moral isolation — first from Sonia, the pious streetwalker who urges him to confess, then in a tense game of cat and mouse with Porfiry, the brilliant magistrate assigned to the murder investigation. A tour de force of suspense, Crime and Punishment delineates the theories and motivations that underlie a bankrupt morality. (Priscilla Meyer introduction)

Ivan Turgenev (1883), Fathers and Sons

Youth rebels. It’s true today and it was true in Russia, in 1862, when Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons first appeared. At the novel’s center stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova. Turgenev’s earlier A Sportsman’s Sketches had helped hasten the liberation of the serfs in 1861. But the complex portrait of Bazarov, whose goals he admired but whose rejection of art and embrace of violence he could not accept, enraged both right and left. The right saw Fathers and Sons as a glorification of radical extremists; the left saw it as a denunciation of progress. Even today, readers argue over Turgenev’s attitude towards Bazarov. But they can’t resist the novel’s power to grip the heart while engaging the mind. (David Goldfarb introduction)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1894), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Idealistic young scientist Henry Jekyll struggles to unlock the secrets of the soul. Testing chemicals in his lab, he drinks a mixture he hopes will isolate — and eliminate — human evil. Instead it unleashes the dark forces within him, transforming him into the hideous and murderous Mr. Hyde. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatically brings to life a science-fiction case study of the nature of good and evil and the duality that can exist within one person. Resonant with psychological perception and ethical insight, the book has literary roots in Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Crime and Punishment. Today Stevenson’s novella is recognized as an incisive study of Victorian morality and sexual repression, as well as a great thriller. (Jenny Davidson introduction)

Lewis Carroll (1898), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

First published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an immediate success, as was its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll’s sense of the absurd and his amazing gift for games of logic and language have secured for the Alice books an enduring spot in the hearts of both adults and children. Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts — who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet. Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky.” Throughout her fantastic journeys, Alice retains her reason, humor, and sense of justice. She has become one of the great characters of imaginative literature, as immortal as Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Gale of Kansas. (Tan Lin introduction)

Samuel Butler (1902), Erewhon

After a series of near-mishaps, a traveler stumbles into a place utterly unknown to him — only to be jailed: for in this odd place being penniless is tantamount to criminality. Slowly learning the language and gaining the confidence of his hosts, he comes to know their strange ways and their stranger ideas and institutions — including the Hospital for Incurable Bores, the College of Unreason — and the Museum of Old Machines! Erewhon, the famous utopian novel by Samuel Butler, took the English-speaking world by storm in 1872, and remains effective and entertaining satire to this day. (Publisher’s description)

Jules Verne (1905), Journey to the Centre of the Earth

This classic of nineteenth century French literature has been consistently praised for its style and its vision of the world. Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel travel across Iceland, and then down through an extinct crater toward a sunless sea where they enter a living past and are confronted with the origins of man. Exploring the prehistory of the globe, this novel can also be read as a psychological quest, for the journey itself is as important as arrival or discovery. Verne’s distinctive combination of realism and Romanticism has marked figures as diverse as Sartre and Tournier, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle. (Publisher’s description)

Mark Twain (1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn, rebel against school and church, casual inheritor of gold treasure, rafter of the Mississippi, and savior of Jim the runaway slave, is the archetypical American maverick. Fleeing the respectable society that wants to “sivilize” him, Huck Finn shoves off with Jim on a rhapsodic raft journey down the Mississippi River. The two bind themselves to one another, becoming intimate friends and agreeing “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” As Huck learns about love, responsibility, and morality, the trip becomes a metaphoric voyage through his own soul, culminating in the glorious moment when he decides to “go to hell” rather than return Jim to slavery. Mark Twain defined classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read”; Huckleberry Finn is a happy exception to his own rule. Twain’s mastery of dialect, coupled with his famous wit, has made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one of the most loved and distinctly American classics ever written. (Robert O’Meally introduction)

Leo Tolstoy (1910), War and Peace

The most famous — and perhaps greatest — novel of all time, Tolstoy’s War and Peace tells the story of five families struggling for survival during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Among its many unforgettable characters is Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a proud, dashing man who, despising the artifice of high society, joins the army to achieve glory. Badly wounded at Austerlitz, he begins to discover the emptiness of everything to which he has devoted himself. His death scene is considered one of the greatest passages in Russian literature. The novel’s other hero, the bumbling Pierre Bezukhov, tries to find meaning in life through a series of philosophical systems that promise to resolve all questions. He at last discovers the Tolstoyan truth that wisdom is to be found not in systems but in the ordinary processes of daily life, especially in his marriage to the novel’s most memorable heroine, Natasha. Both an intimate study of individual passions and an epic history of Russia and its people, War and Peace is nothing more or less than a complete portrait of human existence. (Joseph Frank introduction)

Henry James (1916), The Wings of the Dove

One of three masterpieces from Henry James’s final, “major” phase, The Wings of the Dove dramatizes the conflict between nineteenth-century values and twentieth-century passions. Born to wealth and privilege, Kate Croy’s mother threw it all away to marry a penniless opium addict. After her mother’s death, Kate is offered an opportunity to return to the opulent lifestyle her mother gave up — on one condition. Kate must renounce the man she loves: the witty, good-looking, but poor, Merton Densher. Reluctantly agreeing, Kate finds herself becoming friends with “the world’s richest orphan,” Millie Theale. When Kate learns that Millie is dying, she devises a plan of dizzying possibility for herself and Merton that should solve all their problems, but instead leads them down a path strewn with tragic, unexpected consequences. First published in 1902, this rich and intriguing novel has lost none of its fascination and relevance a century later. (Bruce Smith introduction)

Joseph Conrad (1924), Heart of Darkness

One of the most haunting stories ever written, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness follows Marlow, a riverboat captain, on a voyage into the African Congo at the height of European colonialism. Astounded by the brutal depravity he witnesses, Marlow becomes obsessed with meeting Kurtz, a famously idealistic and able man stationed farther along the river. What he finally discovers, however, is a horror beyond imagining. Heart of Darkness is widely regarded as a masterpiece for its vivid study of human nature and the greed and ruthlessness of imperialism. (A Michael Matin introduction)

Franz Kafka (1924), The Trial

A terrifying psychological trip into the life of one Joseph K., an ordinary man who wakes up one day to find himself accused of a crime he did not commit, a crime whose nature is never revealed to him. Once arrested, he is released, but must report to court on a regular basis–an event that proves maddening, as nothing is ever resolved. As he grows more uncertain of his fate, his personal life–including work at a bank and his relations with his landlady and a young woman who lives next door–becomes increasingly unpredictable. As K. tries to gain control, he succeeds only in accelerating his own excruciating downward spiral. (Amazon.com review)

Jerome K Jerome (1927), Three Men in a Boat

Jerome’s comic masterpiece — and one of the best-known classics of English humor — follows the misadventures of 3 bungling, Victorian-era bachelors who take off on a rowing excursion up the Thames. Their disastrous struggles with camping equipment, meal preparation, and rampant hypochondria trumpet simple truths that still resonate today. (Publisher’s description)

Thomas Hardy (1928), Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Young Tess Durbeyfield attempts to restore her family’s fortunes by claiming their connection with the aristocratic d’Urbervilles. But Alec d’Urberville is a rich wastrel who seduces her and makes her life miserable. When Tess meets Angel Clare, she is offered true love and happiness, but her past catches up with her and she faces an agonizing moral choice. Hardy’s indictment of society’s double standards, and his depiction of Tess as “a pure woman,” caused controversy in his day and has held the imagination of readers ever since. Hardy thought it his finest novel, and Tess the most deeply felt character he ever created. (Publisher’s description)

DH Lawrence (1930), Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Perhaps the most famous of Lawrence’s novels, the 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover is no longer distinguished for the once-shockingly explicit treatment of its subject matter–the adulterous affair between a sexually unfulfilled upper-class married woman and the game keeper who works for the estate owned by her wheelchaired husband. Now that we’re used to reading about sex, and seeing it in the movies, it’s apparent that the novel is memorable for better reasons: namely, that Lawrence was a masterful and lyrical writer, whose story takes us bodily into the world of its characters. (Amazon.com review)

TE Lawrence (1935), Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s command of the language, an adventurer’s heart, a soldier’s great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight. (Amazon.com review)

HP Lovecraft (1937), At the Mountains of Madness

Long acknowledged as a master of nightmarish visions, H. P. Lovecraft established the genuineness and dignity of his own pioneering fiction in 1931 with his quintessential work of supernatural horror, At the Mountains of Madness. The deliberately told and increasingly chilling recollection of an Antarctic expedition’s uncanny discoveries–and their encounter with untold menace in the ruins of a lost civilization–is a milestone of macabre literature. (Publisher’s description)

Ford Madox Ford (1939), The Good Soldier

First published in 1915, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier begins, famously and ominously, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The book then proceeds to confute this pronouncement at every turn, exposing a world less sad than pathetic, and more shot through with hypocrisy and deceit than its incredulous narrator, John Dowell, cares to imagine. Somewhat forgotten as a classic, The Good Soldier has been called everything from the consummate novelist’s novel to one of the greatest English works of the century. And although its narrative hook–the philandering of an otherwise noble man–no longer shocks, its unerring cadences and doleful inevitabilities proclaim an enduring appeal. Dowell’s resigned narration is flawlessly conversational–haphazard, sprawling, lusting for sympathy. He exudes self-preservation even as he alternately condemns and lionizes Edward: “If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did.” Stunningly, Edward’s adultery comes to seem not merely excusable, but almost sublime. “Perhaps he could not bear to see a woman and not give her the comfort of his physical attractions,” John surmises. Ford’s novel deserves its reputation if for no other reason than the elegance with which it divulges hidden lives.(Amazon.com review)

Mikhail Bulgakov (1940), The Master and Margarita

Surely no stranger work exists in the annals of protest literature than The Master and Margarita. Written during the Soviet crackdown of the 1930s, when Mikhail Bulgakov’s works were effectively banned, it wraps its anti-Stalinist message in a complex allegory of good and evil. Or would that be the other way around? The book’s chief character is Satan, who appears in the guise of a foreigner and self-proclaimed black magician named Woland. Accompanied by a talking black tomcat and a “translator” wearing a jockey’s cap and cracked pince-nez, Woland wreaks havoc throughout literary Moscow. Meanwhile, a few doors down in the hospital lives the true object of Woland’s visit: the author of an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate. This Master–as he calls himself–has been driven mad by rejection, broken not only by editors’ harsh criticism of his novel but, Bulgakov suggests, by political persecution as well. Yet Pilate’s story becomes a kind of parallel narrative, appearing in different forms throughout Bulgakov’s novel: as a manuscript read by the Master’s indefatigable love, Margarita, as a scene dreamed by the poet–and fellow lunatic–Ivan Homeless, and even as a story told by Woland himself. Unsurprisingly–in view of its frequent, scarcely disguised references to interrogation and terror–Bulgakov’s masterwork was not published until 1967, almost three decades after his death. Yet one wonders if the world was really ready for this book in the late 1930s, if, indeed, we are ready for it now. Shocking, touching, and scathingly funny, it is a novel like no other. Woland may reattach heads or produce 10-ruble notes from the air, but Bulgakov proves the true magician here. The Master and Margarita is a different book each time it is opened. (Amazon.com review)

F Scott Fitzgerald (1940), The Great Gatsby

In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write “something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. It’s also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means–and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem. (Amazon.com review)

James Joyce (1941), Ulysses

Ulysses has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book–although he found it sufficiently unobscene to allow its importation into the United States–and Virginia Woolf was moved to decry James Joyce’s “cloacal obsession.” None of these adjectives, however, do the slightest justice to the novel. To this day it remains the modernist masterpiece, in which the author takes both Celtic lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. It is funny, sorrowful, and even (in a close-focus sort of way) suspenseful. And despite the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years, Ulysses is also a compulsively readable book. Even the verbal vaudeville of the final chapters can be navigated with relative ease, as long as you’re willing to be buffeted, tickled, challenged, and (occasionally) vexed by Joyce’s sheer command of the English language. Among other things, a novel is simply a long story, and the first question about any story is: What happens? In the case of Ulysses, the answer might be Everything. William Blake, one of literature’s sublime myopics, saw the universe in a grain of sand. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904, a day distinguished by its utter normality. Two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners. We watch them teach, eat, stroll the streets, argue, and (in Bloom’s case) masturbate. And thanks to the book’s stream-of-consciousness technique–which suggests no mere stream but an impossibly deep, swift-running river–we’re privy to their thoughts, emotions, and memories. The result? Almost every variety of human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism. (Amazon.com review)

Virginia Woolf (1941), Mrs Dalloway

As Clarissa Dalloway walks through London on a fine June morning, a sky-writing plane captures her attention. Crowds stare upwards to decipher the message while the plane turns and loops, leaving off one letter, picking up another. Like the airplane’s swooping path, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa and those whose lives brush hers–from Peter Walsh, whom she spurned years ago, to her daughter Elizabeth, the girl’s angry teacher, Doris Kilman, and war-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, who is sinking into madness. As Mrs. Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening, a series of events intrudes on her composure. Her husband is invited, without her, to lunch with Lady Bruton (who, Clarissa notes anxiously, gives the most amusing luncheons). Meanwhile, Peter Walsh appears, recently from India, to criticize and confide in her. His sudden arrival evokes memories of a distant past, the choices she made then, and her wistful friendship with Sally Seton. Woolf then explores the relationships between women and men, and between women, as Clarissa muses, “It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together…. Her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?” While Clarissa is transported to past afternoons with Sally, and as she sits mending her green dress, Warren Smith catapults desperately into his delusions. Although his troubles form a tangent to Clarissa’s web, they undeniably touch it, and the strands connecting all these characters draw tighter as evening deepens. As she immerses us in each inner life, Virginia Woolf offers exquisite, painful images of the past bleeding into the present, of desire overwhelmed by society’s demands. (Amazon.com review)

Robert Musil (1942), The Man Without Qualities

Dazzlingly written, ferocious in its intelligence, The Man Without Qualities is one of the outstanding novels of the century, which presages our Age of Anxiety. Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880. With the rise of Hitler in 1938 he emigrated to Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1942. (Publisher’s description)

George Orwell (1950), 1984

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, the Thought Police–George Orwell’s world-famous novel coined new and potent words of warning for us all. Alive with Swiftian wit and passion, it is one of the most brilliant satires on totalitarianism and the power-hungry ever written. (Publisher’s description)

Miles Franklin (1954), My Brilliant Career

First published in 1901, this Australian classic recounts the live of 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn. Trapped on her parents’ outback farm, she simultaneously loves bush life and hates the physical burdens it imposes. For Sybylla longs for a more refined, aesthetic lifestyle — to read, to think, to sing — but most of all to do great things. Suddenly her life is transformed. Whisked away to live on her grandmother’s gracious property, she falls under the eye of the rich and handsome Harry Beecham. And soon she finds herself choosing between everything a conventional life offers and her own plans for a ‘brilliant career’. (Publisher’s description)

Michael Arlen (1956), The Green Hat

First published in 1924 and a massive best-seller, this is ostensibly the story of a wild young widow with a shady past and a taste for fast cars and adultery, set mostly in Mayfair just as the Twenties began to roar. As well, Arlen muses on the English upper classes, still dazed by the First World War, and regales the reader with philosophical asides and reflections on the nature of women, drunkenness, doctors who specialize in diseases of the rich, the management of nightclubs, and much more: finally delivering a shattering ending to this quest for the true nature of his heroine. (Publisher’s description)

Robert Walser (1956), The Assistant

Dressed in his cheap, battered suit, Joseph Marti arrives at the impressive villa of Karl Tobler, an enthusiastic but ill-starred inventor, to begin employment as his clerk. Tobler is determined to finance his family’s lavish lifestyle with the proceeds from his latest idea — a clock adorned with advertisements. But Tobler’s grand plans are destined for failure and the household, including Marti, refuse to acknowledge their approaching ruin. Robert Walser claimed to have written The Assistant, a semi-autobiographical work, in just six weeks as an entry for a literary competition. The second of his few surviving novels, it is now regarded as major work of modernist literature. (Publisher’s description)

Raymond Chandler (1959), The Big Sleep

When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in. “Chandler [writes] like a slumming angel and invest[s] the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”–Ross MacDonald (Publisher’s description)

Albert Camus (1960), The Outsider

Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits a random act of violence. His lack of emotion and failure to show remorse only serve to increase his guilt in the eyes of the law, and challenges the fundamental values of society a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an outsider. For Meursault, this is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it encapsulates the absurdity of life. In The Outsider (1942), his classic existentialist novel, Camus explores the predicament of the individual who refuses to pretend and is prepared to face the indifference of the universe, courageously and alone. (Publisher’s description)

Willem Elsschot (1960), Cheese

Cheese is a gentle, satirical fable of capitalism and wealth. A clerk in Antwerp suddenly becomes the chief agent in Belgium and Luxembourg for this red-rinded Dutch delight and is saddled with 370 cases containing ten thousand full-cream cheeses. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods, and he doesn’t even like cheese. Steeped in the atmosphere of the 1930s, in a world full of smart operators and and failed businessmen, Cheese gracefully incorporates the rigid class divisions of the time and a man’s obsession with status. It is as relevant in our age of Internet investors and dot.com failures as it was when it was written. (Publisher’s description)

Ernest Hemingway (1961), A Farewell to Arms

In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went to war, to the ‘war to end all wars’. He volunteered for ambulance service in Italy, was wounded and twice decorated. Out of his experiences came A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s description of war is unforgettable. He recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteer and the men and women he meets in Italy with total conviction. But A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel of war. In it Hemingway has also created a love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion. (Publisher’s description)

Dashiell Hammett (1961), The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles, accompanied by their schnauzer, Asta, are lounging in their suite at the Normandie in New York City for the Christmas holiday, enjoying the prerogatives of wealth: meals delivered at any hour, theatre openings, taxi rides at dawn, rubbing elbows with the gangster element in speakeasies. They should be annoyingly affected, but they charm. Mad about each other, sardonic, observant, kind to those in need, and cool in a fight, Nick and Nora are graceful together, and their home life provides a sanctuary from the rough world of gangsters, hoodlums, and police investigations into which Nick is immediately plunged. A lawyer-friend asks Nick to help find a killer and reintroduces him to the family of Richard Wynant, a more-than-eccentric inventor who disappeared from society 10 years before. The dialogue is spare, the locales lively, and Nick, the narrator, shows us the players as they are, while giving away little of his own thoughts. No one is telling the whole truth, but Nick remains mostly patient as he doggedly tries to backtrack the lies. Hammett’s New York is a cross between Damon Runyon and Scott Fitzgerald–more glamorous than real, but compelling when visited in the company of these two charmers. The lives of the rich and famous don’t get any better than this! (Amazon.com review)

William Faulkner (1962), The Sound and the Fury

The ostensible subject of The Sound and the Fury is the dissolution of the Compsons, one of those august old Mississippi families that fell on hard times and wild eccentricity after the Civil War. But in fact what William Faulkner is really after in his legendary novel is the kaleidoscope of consciousness–the overwrought mind caught in the act of thought. His rich, dark, scandal-ridden story of squandered fortune, incest (in thought if not in deed), madness, congenital brain damage, theft, illegitimacy, and stoic endurance is told in the interior voices of three Compson brothers: first Benjy, the “idiot” man-child who blurs together three decades of inchoate sensations as he stalks the fringes of the family’s former pasture; next Quentin, torturing himself brilliantly, obsessively over Caddy’s lost virginity and his own failure to recover the family’s honor as he wanders around the seedy fringes of Boston; and finally Jason, heartless, shrewd, sneaking, nursing a perpetual sense of injury and outrage against his outrageous family. (Amazon.com review)

Sylvia Plath (1963), The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things — grades, boyfriend, looks, career — and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been. (Publisher’s description)

Aldous Huxley (1963), Brave New World

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress… (Publisher’s description)

TH White (1964), The Once and Future King

A quartet of novels by T.H. White, published in a single volume in 1958. The quartet comprises The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness–first published as The Witch in the Wood (1939)–The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (published in the composite volume, 1958). The series is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur’s birth to the end of his reign, and is based largely on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. After White’s death, a conclusion to The Once and Future King was found among his papers; it was published in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn. (Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature)

Evelyn Waugh (1966), A Handful of Dust

Few writers have walked the line between farce and tragedy as nimbly as Evelyn Waugh, who employed the conventions of the comic novel to chip away at the already crumbling English class system. His 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, is a sublime example of his bleak satirical style: a mordantly funny exposé of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars. Tony Last is an aristocrat whose attachment to an ideal feudal past is so profound that he is blind to his wife Brenda’s boredom with the stately rhythms of country life. While he earnestly plays the lord of the manor in his ghastly Victorian Gothic pile, she sets herself up in a London flat and pursues an affair with the social-climbing idler John Beaver. In the first half of the novel Waugh fearlessly anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Everyone moves through an endless cycle of parties and country-house weekends, being scrupulously polite in public and utterly horrid in private. Tony’s indifference and Brenda’s selfishness give their relationship a sort of equilibrium until tragedy forces them to face facts. The collapse of their relationship accelerates, and in the famous final section of the book Tony seeks solace in a foolhardy search for El Dorado, throwing himself on the mercy of a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England. For all its biting wit, A Handful of Dust paints a bleak picture of the English upper classes, reaching beyond satire toward a very modern sense of despair. In Waugh’s world, culture, breeding, and the trappings of civilization only provide more subtle means of destruction. (Amazon.com review)

Flann O’Brien (1966), At Swim-Two-Birds

In a 1938 letter to a literary agent, Flann O’Brien described his first novel as “a very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps.” The book in question was At Swim-Two-Birds–and if we take queer to mean diabolically eccentric, then truer words were never spoken. The author, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, had successfully stirred Gaelic legend, pulp fiction, and grimy Dublin realism into a hilarious cocktail. His mastery of modernist collage would have been an ample accomplishment itself. But O’Brien was also blessed with the writer’s equivalent of perfect pitch, and in At Swim-Two-Birds he squeezes the maximum beauty and banality out of the English language. All he lacks is a tragic register, but he makes up for this deficit with a sense of comedy so acute that even James Joyce couldn’t resist blurbing his fellow Dubliner’s creation: “A really funny book.” Graham Greene, an early fan, compared its comic charge to “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” A half century after its initial appearance, O’Brien’s masterpiece remains a gleeful read–a marvelous, inventive, and (last but not least) really funny book. (Amazon.com review)

John Steinbeck (1968), Of Mice and Men

Streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie are drifters, searching for work in the fields and valleys of California. They have nothing except the clothes on their back, and a hope that one day they’ll find a place of their own and live the American dream. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss’s daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him. (Publisher’s description)

John Wyndham (1969), The Day of the Triffids

When Bill Masen wakes up in his hospital bed, he has reason to be grateful for the bandages that covered his eyes the night before. For he finds a population rendered helpless by the blindness that followed the spectacular display of bright green lights that filled the night sky; a population at the mercy of the Triffids. Once, with their ability to move and their carnivorous habits, the Triffids were just botanical curiosities. But now, with humans so vulnerable, they are a potent threat to humanity’s survival. It is up to people like Bill, the few who can still see, to carve out a future… (Amazon.co.uk review)

John Dos Passos (1970), The USA Trilogy

With his U.S.A. trilogy, comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, John Dos Passos is said by many to have written the great American novel. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were cultivating what Edmund Wilson once called their “own little corners,” John Dos Passos was taking on the world. Counted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century by the Modern Library and by some of the finest writers working today, U.S.A. is a grand, kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation, buzzing with history and life on every page. The trilogy opens with The 42nd Parallel, where we find a young country at the dawn of the twentieth century. Slowly, in stories artfully spliced together, the lives and fortunes of five characters unfold. Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley are caught on the storm track of this parallel and blown New Yorkward. As their lives cross and double back again, the likes of Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie make cameo appearances. With 1919, the second volume of his U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos continues his “vigorous and sweeping panorama of twentieth-century America” (Forum), lauded on publication of the first volume not only for its scope, but also for its groundbreaking style. Again, employing a host of experimental devices that would inspire a whole new generation of writers to follow, Dos Passos captures the many textures, flavors, and background noises of modern life with a cinematic touch and unparalleled nerve. 1919 opens to find America and the world at war, and Dos Passos’s characters, many of whom we met in the first volume, are thrown into the snarl. We follow the daughter of a Chicago minister, a wide-eyed Texas girl, a young poet, a radical Jew, and we glimpse Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Unknown Soldier. The Big Money completes John Dos Passos’s three-volume “fable of America’s materialistic success and moral decline” (American Heritage) and marks the end of “one of the most ambitious projects that an American novelist has ever undertaken” (Time). Here we come back to America after the war and find a nation on the upswing. Industrialism booms. The stock market surges. Lindbergh takes his solo flight. Henry Ford makes automobiles. From New York to Hollywood, love affairs to business deals, it is a country taking the turns too fast, speeding toward the crash of 1929. Ultimately, whether the novels are read together or separately, they paint a sweeping portrait of collective America and showcase the brilliance and bravery of one of its most enduring and admired writers. (Amazon.com review)

EM Forster (1970), A Passage to India

What really happened in the Marabar caves? This is the mystery at the heart of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel, A Passage to India, the puzzle that sets in motion events highlighting an even larger question: Can an Englishman and an Indian be friends? Written while England was still firmly in control of India, Forster’s novel follows the fortunes of three English newcomers to India–Miss Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Cyril Fielding–and the Indian, Dr. Aziz, with whom they cross destinies. The idea of true friendship between the races was a radical one in Forster’s time, and he makes it abundantly clear that it was not one that either side welcomed. If Aziz’s friend, Hamidullah, believed it impossible, the British representatives of the Raj were equally discouraging. Despite their countrymen’s disapproval, Miss Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Mr. Fielding are all eager to meet Indians, and in Dr. Aziz they find a perfect companion: educated, westernized, and open-minded. Slowly, the friendships ripen, especially between Aziz and Fielding. Having created the possibility of esteem based on trust and mutual affection, Forster then subjects it to the crucible of racial hatred: during a visit to the famed Marabar caves, Miss Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of sexually assaulting her, then later recants during the frenzied trial that follows. Under such circumstances, affection proves to be a very fragile commodity indeed. Arguably Forster’s greatest novel, A Passage to India limns a troubling portrait of colonialism at its worst, and is remarkable for the complexity of its characters. Here the personal becomes the political and in the breach between Aziz and his English “friends,” Forster foreshadows the eventual end of the Raj. (Amazon.com review)

JRR Tolkien (1973), The Lord of the Rings

A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, the Lord of the Rings (encompassing The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King), and its charming precursor, The Hobbit. That many (if not most) fantasy works are in some way derivative of Tolkien is understood, but the influence of the Lord of the Rings is so universal that everybody from George Lucas to Led Zeppelin has appropriated it for one purpose or another. Not just revolutionary because it was groundbreaking, the Lord of the Rings is timeless because it’s the product of a truly top-shelf mind. Tolkien was a distinguished linguist and Oxford scholar of dead languages, with strong ideas about the importance of myth and story and a deep appreciation of nature. His epic, 10 years in the making, recounts the Great War of the Ring and the closing of Middle-Earth’s Third Age, a time when magic begins to fade from the world and men rise to dominance. Tolkien carefully details this transition with tremendous skill and love, creating in the Lord of the Rings a universal and all-embracing tale, a justly celebrated classic. (Amazon.com review)

BS Johnson (1973), Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

BS Johnson is one of those experimental writers, controversial during their lives that subsequently vanishes from print. Johnson was a journalist, a socialist, and a fine novelist. Best known for The Unfortunates (his book in a box where every chapter is separately bound and the reader is invited to read them in any order he or she wishes), Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is perhaps his most accessible novel. However, this “accessibility” is in the midst of a studiedly experimental text. This is a coruscating satire in which Johnson targets one of the symbols of capitalism, the double entry system. The very basis of accountancy, and the manipulation of finance, Johnson turns this building block on its head as his central character, Christie Malry, a young man with a future, decides that he will live his life according to the principles of double entry. Johnson’s novel has acute observations on a variety of issues in British life that still merit comment. How working class people come to vote conservative, the manner in which people’s worth is measured financially; and all of this is in the midst of an angry satire where Malry wreaks vengeance on the system. It is a bitter cynical novel, with a dark wit. There is love, sex, and death; and an unusual use for shaving foam. And all of this is presented in a slightly distant way, where Johnson continually turns to the reader and winks, letting you know this is a novel. Characters are aware of their place in fiction, and Johnson deconstructs the novel to let you see how it works. (Amazon.com review)

Vladimir Nabokov (1977), Pale Fire

Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here’s the plot–listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet’s crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland–the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote’s colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla’s King Charles–whom he believes himself to be–and the monarch’s eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus. In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it’s Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet’s manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn’t, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov’s best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote’s mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he’d intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. (Amazon.com review)

Jean Rhys (1979), Wide Sargasso Sea

In 1966 Jean Rhys reemerged after a long silence with a novel called Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys had enjoyed minor literary success in the 1920s and ’30s with a series of evocative novels featuring women protagonists adrift in Europe, verging on poverty, hoping to be saved by men. By the ’40s, however, her work was out of fashion, too sad for a world at war. And Rhys herself was often too sad for the world–she was suicidal, alcoholic, troubled by a vast loneliness. She was also a great writer, despite her powerful self-destructive impulses. Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who grew up in the West Indies on a decaying plantation. When she comes of age she is married off to an Englishman, and he takes her away from the only place she has known–a house with a garden where “the paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.” The novel is Rhys’s answer to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s book had long haunted her, mostly for the story it did not tell–that of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s terrible secret. Antoinette is Rhys’s imagining of that locked-up woman, who in the end burns up the house and herself. Wide Sargasso Sea follows her voyage into the dark, both from her point of view and Rochester’s. It is a voyage charged with soul-destroying lust. “I watched her die many times,” observes the new husband. “In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty.” Rhys struggled over the book, enduring rejections and revisions, wrestling to bring this ruined woman out of the ashes. The slim volume was finally published when she was 70 years old. The critical adulation that followed, she said, “has come too late.” Jean Rhys died a few years later, but with Wide Sargasso Sea she left behind a great legacy, a work of strange, scary loveliness. There has not been a book like it before or since. Believe me, I’ve been searching. (Amazon.com review)

Philip K Dick (1982), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968. Grim and foreboding, even today it is a masterpiece ahead of its time. By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans. Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results. (Publisher’s description)

Georges Perec (1982), A Void

The year is 1968, and as France is torn apart by social and political anarchy, the noted eccentric and insomniac Anton Vowl goes missing. Ransacking his Paris flat, his best friends scour his diary for clues to his whereabouts. At first glance these pages reveal nothing but Vowl’s penchant for word games, especially for “lipograms,” compositions in which the use of a particular letter is suppressed. But as the friends work out Vowl’s verbal puzzles, and as they investigate various leads discovered among the entries, they too disappear, one by one by one, and under the most mysterious circumstances … A Void is a metaphysical whodunit, a story chock-full of plots and subplots, of trails in pursuit of trails, all of which afford Perec occasion to display his virtuosity as a verbal magician, acrobat, and sad-eyed clown. It is also an outrageous verbal stunt: a 300-page novel that never once employs the letter E. Adair’s translation, too, is astounding; Time called it “a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana of humor, pathos, and loss.” (Publisher’s description)

Arthur Koestler (1983), Darkness at Noon

Originally published in 1941, Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness At Noon, is a powerful and haunting portrait of a Communist revolutionary caught in the vicious fray of the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. During Stalin’s purges, Nicholas Rubashov, an aging revolutionary, is imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the party he has devoted his life to. Under mounting pressure to confess to crimes he did not commit, Rubashov relives a career that embodies the ironies and betrayals of a revolutionary dictatorship that believes it is an instrument of liberation. A seminal work of twentieth-century literature, Darkness At Noon is a penetrating exploration of the moral danger inherent in a system that is willing to enforce its beliefs by any means necessary. (Publisher’s description)

Christina Stead (1983), The Man Who Loved Children

Were the critics and the public right in 1940 when they rejected this strange book? Or were later critics right when, in 1968, they “rediscovered” The Man Who Loved Children and dubbed it a modern classic? Given the book’s excesses and strengths, it is difficult to make a reasonable literary judgment either way. But simply as a portrait of an extraordinary family, the book probably has no equal. And what a family! A charismatic, egotistical father (Sam) spouts nonstop high-minded rubbish while using playful camaraderie to dominate his seven children. His bitter wife (Henny), overworked and desperate, communicates mostly through screaming tirades. Louie, the sensitive older daughter, agonizes as she witnesses the events that eventually lead to tragedy. Although the larger-than-life domestic scenes may not always be pleasant to read, they are nevertheless unforgettable. (Library Journal review)

Richard Brautigan (1984), Trout Fishing in America

The publication of a deluxe edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America enshrines a novel written forty years ago that was immediately recognized as an important invention by discerning readers and became a cult classic. Trout Fishing in America is a landmark in American prose fiction. “Trout Fishing in America” is the title of the book; but it is also persons, places, things, and a state of mind. This is a humorous book; it is also very poignant, and it is surreal. (Publisher’s description)

Julio Cortázar (1984), Hopscotch

Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian writer who lives in Paris with his mistress, La Maga, surrounded by a loose-knit circle of bohemian friends who call themselves “the Club.” A child’s death and La Maga’s disappearance put an end to his life of empty pleasures and intellectual acrobatics, and prompt Oliveira to return to Buenos Aires, where he works by turns as a salesman, a keeper of a circus cat which can truly count, and an attendant in an insane asylum. Hopscotch is the dazzling, free-wheeling account of Oliveira’s astonishing adventures. (Publisher’s description)

Italo Calvino (1985), If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a marvel of ingenuity, an experimental text that looks longingly back to the great age of narration–”when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded.” Italo Calvino’s novel is in one sense a comedy in which the two protagonists, the Reader and the Other Reader, ultimately end up married, having almost finished If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. In another, it is a tragedy, a reflection on the difficulties of writing and the solitary nature of reading. The Reader buys a fashionable new book, which opens with an exhortation: “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” Alas, after 30 or so pages, he discovers that his copy is corrupted, and consists of nothing but the first section, over and over. Returning to the bookshop, he discovers the volume, which he thought was by Calvino, is actually by the Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two, he goes for the Pole, as does the Other Reader, Ludmilla. But this copy turns out to be by yet another writer, as does the next, and the next. The real Calvino intersperses 10 different pastiches–stories of menace, spies, mystery, premonition–with explorations of how and why we read, make meanings, and get our bearings or fail to. Meanwhile the Reader and Ludmilla try to reach, and read, each other. If on a Winter’s Night is dazzling, vertiginous, and deeply romantic. “What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” (Amazon.com review)

Juan Rulfo (1986), Pedro Páramo

A masterpiece of the surreal, this stunning novel from Mexico depicts a man’s strange quest for his heritage. Beseeched by his dying mother to locate his father, Pedro Páramo, whom they fled from years ago, Juan Preciado sets out for Comala. Comala is a town alive with whispers and shadows–a place seemingly populated only by memory and hallucinations. Built on the tyranny of the Páramo family, its barren and broken-down streets echo the voices of tormented spirits sharing the secrets of the past. First published to both critical and popular acclaim in 1955, Pedro Páramo represented a distinct break with earlier, largely “realist” novels from Latin America. Rulfo’s entrancing mixture of vivid sensory images, violent passions, and inexplicable sorcery–a style that has come to be known as “magical realism”–has exerted a profound influence on subsequent Latin American writers, from Jose Donoso and Carlos Fuentes to Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Amazon.com review)

Christopher Isherwood (1986), Goodbye to Berlin

First published in 1939, this novel obliquely evokes the gathering storm of Berlin before and during the rise to power of the Nazis. Events are seen through the eyes of a series of individuals, whose lives are all about to be ruined. (Publisher’s description)

Bruce Chatwin (1989), Utz

Bruce Chatwin’s bestselling novel traces the fortunes of the enigmatic and unconventional hero, Kaspar Utz. Despite the restrictions of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Utz asserts his individuality through his devotion to his precious collection of Meissen porcelain. Although Utz is permitted to leave the country each year, and considers defecting each time, he is not allowed to take his porcelain with him and so he always returns to his Czech home, a prisoner both of the Communist state and of his collection. (Publisher’s description)

Patrick White (1990), Voss

Voss is a story of a difficult relationship between a man’s dreams and reality, in which they cannot be fulfilled. Detailed descriptions of colonial life in Sydney and lirycal depictions of the outback serve merely as a background to an investigation into human nature. White analyses the feelings and motivations of his characters with wisdom and psychological insight, but beneath the veneer of great style lies a fundamental question of belonging. The characters’ lives revolve around the theme of inadequacy — being an outcast, a foreigner,a troubled spirit. The author indicates the difficulty of a human condition, where not only do we have to face the socially created system of restraints, but also to accept our weakness to the forces of nature. White’s novel is a rewarding piece of literature, depicting the power of nature and human instincts over reason and strict moral rules with great wit and compassion towards our imperfections. A must. (Amazon.com review)

Graham Greene (1991), The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor — a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie’s world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic. Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith. (Publisher’s description)

Richard Yates (1992), Revolutionary Road

The rediscovery and rejuvenation of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is due in large part to its continuing emotional and moral resonance for an early 21st-century readership. April and Frank Wheeler are a young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. However, the self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfilment are thrown into jeopardy. Yates’s incisive, moving, and often very funny prose weaves a tale that is at once a fascinating period piece and a prescient anticipation of the way we live now. Many of the cultural motifs seem quaintly dated–the early-evening cocktails, Frank’s illicit lunch breaks with his secretary, the way Frank isn’t averse to knocking April around when she speaks out of turn–and yet the quiet desperation at thwarted dreams reverberates as much now as it did years ago. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the exacting cost of chasing the American dream. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Angela Carter (1992), The Magic Toyshop

‘This crazy world whirled around her, men and women dwarfed by toys and puppets, where even the birds are mechanical and the few human figures went masked…She was in the night once again, and the doll was herself.’ Melanie walks in the midnight garden, wearing her mother’s wedding dress; naked she climbs the apple tree in the black of the moon. Omens of disaster, swiftly following, transport Melanie from rural comfort to London, to the Magic Toyshop. To the red-haired, dancing Finn, the gentle Francie, dumb Aunt Margaret and Uncle Phillip. Francie plays curious night music, Finn kisses fifteen-year-old Melanie in the mysterious ruins of the pleasure gardens. Brooding over all is Uncle Philip: Uncle Philip, with blank eyes the colour of wet newspaper, making puppets the size of men, and clockwork roses. He loves his magic puppets, but hates the love of man for woman, boy for girl, brother for sister…In this, her second novel, (awarded the 1967 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) Angela Carter’s brilliant imagination and starting intensity of style explore and extend the nature and boundaries of love. (Amazon.com review)

William Golding (1993), Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954. At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, “the boy with fair hair,” and Piggy, Ralph’s chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires. Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island’s wild pig population. Soon Ralph’s rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: “He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet.” Golding’s gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition. (Amazon.com review)

Anthony Burgess (1993), A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange is set in a future London and is told in nadsat, a mixture of Russian, English and American slang, gypsy talk and, odd bits of Jacobean prose. Alex, the main character, is a juvenile delinquent, who rapes and kills people with his “droogs” (friends). He is captured, and brainwashed by the Ludovico technique to change his murderous aggressions. As an unexpected side effect of the Pavlovian treatment he starts to hate Beethoven’s music, his unspoiled self. The central question of the story is a philosophical one: is an “evil” human being with free will preferable to a “good” citizen without it? (kirjasto.sci.fi article)

John Williams(1994), Stoner

William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude. John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world. (Publisher’s description)

Patricia Highsmith (1995), The Talented Mr Ripley

One of the great crime novels of the 20th century, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a blend of the narrative subtlety of Henry James and the self-reflexive irony of Vladimir Nabokov. Like the best modernist fiction, Ripley works on two levels. First, it is the story of a young man, Tom Ripley, whose nihilistic tendencies lead him on a deadly passage across Europe. On another level, the novel is a commentary on fictionmaking and techniques of narrative persuasion. Like Humbert Humbert, Tom Ripley seduces readers into empathizing with him even as his actions defy all moral standards. The novel begins with a play on James’s The Ambassadors. Tom Ripley is chosen by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf to retrieve Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, from his overlong sojourn in Italy. Dickie, it seems, is held captive both by the Mediterranean climate and the attractions of his female companion, but Mr. Greenleaf needs him back in New York to help with the family business. With an allowance and a new purpose, Tom leaves behind his dismal city apartment to begin his career as a return escort. But Tom, too, is captivated by Italy. He is also taken with the life and looks of Dickie Greenleaf. He insinuates himself into Dickie’s world and soon finds that his passion for a lifestyle of wealth and sophistication transcends moral compunction. Tom will become Dickie Greenleaf–at all costs. Unlike many modernist experiments, The Talented Mr. Ripley is eminently readable and is driven by a gripping chase narrative that chronicles each of Tom’s calculated maneuvers of self-preservation. Highsmith was in peak form with this novel, and her ability to enter the mind of a sociopath and view the world through his disturbingly amoral eyes is a model that has spawned such latter-day serial killers as Hannibal Lecter. (Amazon.com)

Kingsley Amis (1995), Lucky Jim

Although Kingsley Amis’s acid satire of postwar British academic life has lost some of its bite in the four decades since it was published, it’s still a rewarding read. And there’s no denying how big an impact it had back then–Lucky Jim could be considered the first shot in the Oxbridge salvo that brought us Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was, and so much more. In Lucky Jim, Amis introduces us to Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a British college who spends his days fending off the legions of malevolent twits that populate the school. His job is in constant danger, often for good reason. Lucky Jim hits the heights whenever Dixon tries to keep a preposterous situation from spinning out of control, which is every three pages or so. The final example of this–a lecture spewed by a hideously pickled Dixon–is a chapter’s worth of comic nirvana. The book is not politically correct (Amis wasn’t either), but take it for what it is, and you won’t be disappointed. (Amazon.com review)

Roger Zelazny (1995), The Chronicles of Amber

Corwin is a prince of Amber, the “immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape.” All other worlds, including Earth, are shadows of that reality. Corwin has spent centuries on Earth as an amnesiac. But when someone in the family tries to kill him there, Corwin begins a search for his past. He quickly learns that his family has some very unusual powers. They can travel between Amber, its shadows, and Chaos by manipulating reality; use magical playing cards to communicate and travel instantaneously; and are able to walk the Pattern that created Amber. Corwin regains his memory, solves the mystery of his father Oberon’s disappearance, and fulfills his destiny–only to disappear into Chaos. Merlin searches for Corwin and his destiny as a son of both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. His story parallels Corwin’s, answering many questions about Amber, Chaos, and the next generation in the family. Many readers have complained that the series goes on too long and the ending is disappointing. None, however, would deny that it’s filled with fascinating ideas, complex characters, and action-adventure. Don’t miss a chance to make up your own mind. (Amazon.com review)

William Burroughs (1997), Naked Lunch

“He was,” as Salon’s Gary Kamyia notes, “20th-century drug culture’s Poe, its Artaud, its Baudelaire. He was the prophet of the literature of pure experience, a phenomenologist of dread…. Burroughs had the scary genius to turn the junk wasteland into a parallel universe, one as thoroughly and obsessively rendered as Blake’s.” Why has this homosexual ex-junkie, whose claim to fame rests entirely on one book–the hallucinogenic ravings of a heroin addict–so seized the collective imagination? Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in a Tangier, Morocco, hotel room between 1954 and 1957. Allen Ginsberg and his beatnik cronies burst onto the scene, rescued the manuscript from the food-encrusted floor, and introduced some order to the pages. It was published in Paris in 1959 by the notorious Olympia Press and in the U.S. in 1962; the landmark obscenity trial that ensued served to end literary censorship in America. Burroughs’s literary experiment–the much-touted “cut-up” technique–mirrored the workings of a junkie’s brain. But it was junk coupled with vision: Burroughs makes teeming amalgam of allegory, sci-fi, and non-linear narration, all wrapped in a blend of humor–slapstick, Swiftian, slang-infested humor. What is Naked Lunch about? People turn into blobs amidst the sort of evil that R. Crumb, in the decades to come, would inimitably flesh out with his dark and creepy cartoon images. Perhaps the most easily grasped part of Naked Lunch is its America-bashing, replete with slang and vitriol. Read it and see for yourself. (Amazon.com review)

Janet Lewis (1998), The Wife of Martin Guerre

This compelling story of Bertrande de Rols is a rich novella with the timeless power of a fable. It was based on a famous story of a court case in mid-16th century France. Janet Lewis depicts a distant time and a traditional, rural culture based on a highly ordered patriarchal structure. When “Martin Guerre” returns from a quest after eight years, the family embraces him, and Bertrande is swept up in the relief at the apparent return to the security of the old order. But Martin has changed, and Bertrande threatens the established order with her defiant quest for the truth. Once the accusation of false identity is laid formally and the trial process begins. Many witnesses are called. Bertrande is pressured to withdraw, and she herself is reluctant to see “Martin” executed. Finally, the real, battle-weary Martin stumbles into the courtroom and is instantly recognized. He shows no mercy to Bertrande for allowing herself to be deceived. The real facts emerge, but the fate of Bertrande and Martin remains open-ended. (Publisher’s description)

Paul Bowles (1999), The Sheltering Sky

American novelist and short-story writer, poet, translator, classical music composer, and filmscorer Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in The Sheltering Sky, the most famous of Bowles’ books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa’s own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author’s psychological inquiry. (Publisher’s description)

Joseph Heller (1999), Catch-22

There was a time when reading Joseph Heller’s classic satire on the murderous insanity of war was nothing less than a rite of passage. Echoes of Yossarian, the wise-ass bombardier who was too smart to die but not smart enough to find a way out of his predicament, could be heard throughout the counterculture. As a result, it’s impossible not to consider Catch-22 to be something of a period piece. But 40 years on, the novel’s undiminished strength is its looking-glass logic. Again and again, Heller’s characters demonstrate that what is commonly held to be good, is bad; what is sensible, is nonsense. Mirabile dictu, the book holds up post-Reagan, post-Gulf War. It’s a good thing, too. As long as there’s a military, that engine of lethal authority, Catch-22 will shine as a handbook for smart-alecky pacifists. It’s an utterly serious and sad, but damn funny book. (Amazon.com review)

Malcolm Bradbury (2000), To the Hermitage

To The Hermitage is Sir Malcolm Bradbury’s first novel in nearly a decade, and its length and ambition provide some clue as to why it has been so long in the making. The novel begins with the arrival of the great Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot at the Russian court of Catherine the Great, who is “drawn to grand ideas and learning; she looks to Paris” and to Denis Diderot, busily completing his Encyclopaedia, the great work of the European “Age of Reason”. Bradbury’s world of “Then” suddenly cuts to “Now”, and the arrival in Stockholm in 1993 of the narrator, a thinly veiled self-portrait of a weather-beaten novelist and literary critic who has been invited on a “Baltic junket”, an academic gathering to discuss the Diderot Project, a Swedish-funded enterprise to investigate the life and works of the great philosopher. Bradbury extracts maximum hilarity from the ensuing academic pondering of the assembled scholars, including the wonderful deconstructionist professor “Jack-Paul Verso, in Calvin Klein jeans, Armani jacket, and a designer baseball cap saying I LOVE DECONSTRUCTION”. The group’s academic sparring takes on added poignancy as footage of the hard-line coup to overthrow Gorbachev and silence Yeltsin flashes onto their TV screens. Bradbury’s novel proceeds to deftly seesaw between the Age of Reason championed by Diderot and the present so-called end of history and “triumph” of global capitalism. It ruefully, but also very humorously, reflects on the perils of intellectual idealism then and now, and explores the ways in which “history is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past”. Sprawling, messy, hugely ambitious and at times very funny, To The Hermitage is up there with Eating People is Wrong and Rates of Exchange as one of Bradbury’s better pieces of fiction. (Amazon.com review)

Douglas Adams (2001), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Join Douglas Adams’s hapless hero Arthur Dent as he travels the galaxy with his intrepid pal Ford Prefect, getting into horrible messes and generally wreaking hilarious havoc. Dent is grabbed from Earth moments before a cosmic construction team obliterates the planet to build a freeway. You’ll never read funnier science fiction; Adams is a master of intelligent satire, barbed wit, and comedic dialogue. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is rich in comedic detail and thought-provoking situations and stands up to multiple reads. Required reading for science fiction fans, this book (and its follow-ups) is also sure to please fans of Monty Python, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and British sitcoms. (Amazon.com review)

RK Narayan (2001), The Bachelor of Arts

“There are writers — Tolstoy and Henry James to name two — whom we hold in awe, writers — Turgenev and Chekhov — for whom we feel a personal affection, other writers whom we respect — Conrad for example — but who hold us at a long arm’s length with their ‘courtly foreign grace.’ Narayan (whom I don’t hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.” — Graham Greene. Offering rare insight into the complexities of Indian middle-class society, R. K. Narayan traces life in the fictional town of Malgudi. Narayan writes of youth and young adulthood in the semiautobiographical Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts. Although the ordinary tensions of maturing are heightened by the particular circumstances of pre-partition India, Narayan provides a universal vision of childhood, early love and grief. (Publisher’s description)

GV Desani (2001), All About H Hatterr

Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth. The book is a comic extravaganza, but as Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction, “it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.” (Publisher’s description)

Amy Witting (2001), I for Isobel

The classic novel about a young girl growing up in Sydney in the fifties. Each chapter paints a picture of Isobel at a new stage of her growth to self-awareness, as she gradually and painfully emerges from the false self-image imposed upon her by her mother. (Publisher’s description)

Roberto Bolaño (2003), By Night in Chile

A deathbed confession revolving around Opus Dei and Pinochet, By Night in Chile pours out the self-justifying dark memories of the Jesuit priest Father Urrutia. As through a crack in the wall, By Night in Chile’s single night-long rant provides a terrifying, clandestine view of the strange bedfellows of Church and State in Chile. This wild, eerily compact novel — Roberto Bolano’s first work available in English — recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest and a conservative literary critic, a sort of lap dog to the rich and powerful cultural elite, in whose villas he encounters Pablo Neruda and Ernst Junger. Father Urrutia is offered a tour of Europe by agents of Opus Dei (to study “the disintegration of the churches,” a journey into realms of the surreal); and ensnared by this plum, he is next assigned — after the destruction of Allende — the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching Pinochet, at night, all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy. Soon, searingly, his memories go from bad to worse. Heart-stopping and hypnotic, By Night in Chile marks the American debut of an astonishing writer. (Publisher’s description)

Saul Bellow (2005), Dangling Man

Expecting to be inducted into the army, Joseph has given up his job and carefully prepared for his departure to the battlefront. When a series of mix-ups delays his induction, he finds himself facing a year of idleness. Dangling Man is his journal, a wonderful account of his restless wanderings through Chicago’s streets, his musings on the past, his psychological reaction to his inactivity while war rages around him, and his uneasy insights into the nature of freedom and choice. (Publisher’s description)

Gilbert Sorrentino (2006), Mulligan Stew

A very funny, still timely look at the mind of a writer who is nowhere nearly as good as he hopes. He’s a terrible writer, and is struggling desperately to avoid having to face it, but he’s no better than the hacks and idiots he spews venom at. (The parody of erotic poetry alone is gaspingly funny and well worth the price of admission all by itself.) The book also touches on the old adage that a writer’s only as good as his last book, and adds a sensible new dimension to it: that a book is only as good as its last writer. Not an easy read, and sometimes redundant, but still a scream. (Amazon.com review)

Muriel Spark (2006), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The story of an eccentric Edinburgh teacher who inspires cultlike reverence in her young students, the novel was Spark’s best-known work. The novel explores themes of innocence, betrayal, and cold rationality opposed to unchecked emotionalism. The story of Miss Brodie’s ultimate downfall is told from the unsympathetic perspective of one of her students. (The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature)

Elizabeth Jolley (2007), An Innocent Gentleman

Henry and Muriel’s life on the new estate is relatively harmonious, despite the vulgar neighbours, The Tonkettes, the Second World War and the regular Sunday visits from Muriel’s mother, who believes her daughter has married far below her station. The accidental (?) appearance of Mr. Hawthorne, Muriel’s student, at their house one Sunday afternoon brings unexpected upheavals. Here is a man of respectable breeding, of munificent means and someone capable of refined, intelligent conversation. Mr. Hawthorne has something to offer everyone in the family, but his posting to London disturbs the delicate balance of personal affairs…. (Publisher’s description)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (2007), Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Don’t let the ease of reading fool you–Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…” Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy–and humor. (Amazon.com review)

Milorad Pavić (2009), Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel

A national bestseller, Dictionary of the Khazars was cited by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Written in two versions, male and female, which are identical save for seventeen crucial lines, Dictionary is the imaginary book of knowledge of the Khazars, a people who flourished somewhere beyond Transylvania between the seventh and ninth centuries. Eschewing conventional narrative and plot, this lexicon novel combines the dictionaries of the world’s three major religions with entries that leap between past and future, featuring three unruly wise men, a book printed in poison ink, suicide by mirrors, a chimerical princess, a sect of priests who can infiltrate one’s dreams, romances between the living and the dead, and much more. (Publisher’s description)

Gore Vidal(2012), Creation: A Novel

A sweeping novel of politics, war, philosophy, and adventure, Creation offers a captivating grand tour of the ancient world. Cyrus Spitama, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and lifelong friend of Xerxes, spent most of his life as Persian ambassador for the great king Darius. He traveled to India, where he discussed nirvana with Buddha, and to the warring states of Cathay, where he learned of Tao from Master Li and fished on the riverbank with Confucius. Now blind and aged in Athens–the Athens of Pericles, Sophocles, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Socrates–Cyrus recounts his days as he strives to resolve the fundamental questions that have guided his life’s journeys: how the universe was created, and why evil was created with good. In revisiting the fifth century b.c.–one of the most spectacular periods in history–Gore Vidal illuminates the ideas that have shaped civilizations for millennia. (Publisher’s description)

Chinua Achebe (2013), Things Fall Apart

One of Chinua Achebe’s many achievements in his acclaimed first novel, Things Fall Apart, is his relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism. First published in 1958, just two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain, the book eschews the obvious temptation of depicting pre-colonial life as a kind of Eden. Instead, Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. (Amazon.com review)

Márquez, Gabriel García (2014), One Hundred Years of Solitude

One of the 20th century’s enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize–winning career. The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America. Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility — the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth — these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel García Márquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master. Alternately reverential and comical, One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves the political, personal, and spiritual to bring a new consciousness to storytelling. Translated into dozens of languages, this stunning work is no less than an accounting of the history of the human race. (Publisher’s description)

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Blair Mahoney’s story.