Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.

Americanah.

My annual list of the top 25 big leaguers under 25 is up for Insiders, as is a draft blog post on Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer, both of Vanderbilt.

Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is one of my favorite living novelists, and I say that having read only two-thirds of her total output (she’s written three). Her ability to craft realistic characters, especially black female characters, and to have all of her characters engage in thoughtful, intelligent, unpandering dramas built around race and ethnic identities is second to none right now; she’s even passed Toni Morrison, whose recent output hasn’t matched her Beloved/Song of Solomon peak. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2007, made my last top 100 novels update at #92.

Her most recent novel, 2013’s Americanah, once again begins and ends in Nigeria, but this time follows two people as they emigrate to the west, one legally and one illegally, to escape a limited economic future in their native country, one that deprives them of hope. Ifemelu and Odinze are high school sweethearts, bonded by their intelligence and refusal to submit to a grey future, but the expectation that they’ll marry is lost when Ifemelu is allowed to enter the United States legally but Odinze, a single foreign male from Africa, is rejected due (we assume) to U.S. immigration crackdowns post-9/11. While Ifemelu encounters financial difficulties and humiliations as a student in the U.S. who lacks money or worldliness, even finding that her brand of English isn’t much use in understanding the American idiom, Odinze enters England without papers and aims for a sham marriage with a citizen to allow himself to stay and work. Ifemelu, ashamed by her situation and depressed by her isolation, ceases contact with Odinze and only resumes it when she returns to Nigeria over a decade later, finding the love of her life now married with a daughter.

“Americanah” is a derogatory term in Nigerian slang referring to someone who has moved to America and come back a changed person, especially one affecting an American accent or an excessive affection for American customs and culture. Ifemelu tries to assimilate early in her time in the U.S. because she’s told repeatedly that she won’t receive job offers if she’s too “ethnic,” but eventually sheds her American façade in favor of her own accent, her own hair, and her identity as an African woman. She adapts rather than assimilating, eventually advancing in her education and career thanks to a blog she writes under a pen name, called Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes), that documents her thoughts on the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of someone who was not conscious of race before she arrived in this country. (Adichie has since brought Ifemelu’s second blog, written after the character’s return to Nigeria, to life online as The Small Redemptions of Lagos.) Odinze’s story is shorter, as was his stint abroad, working dicey jobs under someone else’s National Insurance number, before he’s discovered and shipped back to Lagos.

Ifemelu is the star of the book, as Odinze, while a well-defined character, is rarely in the spotlight, while his story in England seems like a plot contrivance to contrast with Ifemelu’s experiences as a legal emigrant from Nigeria. Her story has global aspirations which largely succeed, coming through her series of jobs (including nanny to a definite White Privilege family) and relationships, including one with Progressive White Guy and one with Earnest Black Intellectual. We get some pretentious dialogue along the way, especially when Ifemelu starts to travel in increasingly academic circles, but Adichie avoids turning the book into a sermon by keeping Ifemelu’s emotions at the center of the book rather than driving us toward some Big Conclusion via plot tricks. The book describes the emigrant/immigrant experience, the desire to return home for its own sake (rather than to change the world), the emotional pull of a romance that one can’t fully separate from its environment, instead of trying to tell us one country or culture or path is better. This is Ifemelu’s story, just one tale that has its metaphorical implications but doesn’t feel in any way like Adichie is trying to tell every immigrant’s story at once.

Adichie’s strengths in characterization and avoiding predictable plot lines cover some of her weaknesses in portions of the dialogue and nearly all of the sample blog posts included in the book. The posts she includes are far too short and superficial to garner the kind of audience Ifemelu is supposed to have collected through her writing, not enough in a real world that has Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tanzina Vega and Jamil Smith and too many others to name who produce statement pieces that bring examples and evidence to the table. Ifemelu’s blog posts from the book wouldn’t find an audience because they’re not saying much of anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Adichie says more about race when she’s not talking directly about it, putting characters into situations that force them to confront questions of racism and identity, than she does when she tries to blog through Ifemelu’s lens.

Told through frequent moves back and forth in time and across an ocean, Americanah marks another hugely compelling and intelligent novel from Adichie and her biggest seller to date, even though it lacks the gravity of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict and resulting genocide. Her eye for detail is sharper in the sections of Americanah where her characters are still in Lagos, growing up among ambitious economic strivers, religious zealots, and co-opted concubines whose fortunes are only secure as long as the current regime stays in power. When she transitions to America and England, Adichie’s writing becomes less nuanced and the stakes are largely lower (especially since we know from the first chapter that Odinze gets back to Nigeria safely). The strongest scenes of Ifemelu’s time in America come in an African hair salon she visits, somewhat resentfully, in Trenton, because she can’t find a place that knows how to braid hair properly in Princeton. The reactions she receives there from women who might share some of her background but clearly want very different things from life – and are largely appalled that she would return to Africa of her own volition – drive not just Ifemelu’s own memories but the overall narrative of the book, as well as its strongest symbol (hair) of race and identity.

Next up: I knocked off The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s brief history of the telegraph, over the weekend, and have since started Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Aké: The Years of Childhood.

In case you missed it, my second go at projecting this year’s first round went up for Insiders on Tuesday. My next mock will go up on Tuesday, June 3rd, and I’ll have an updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors this Friday. I’ll also be on Baseball Tonight tomorrow night, May 29th, at 10 pm ET.

At the turn of the century, the rush to compile “best of the last 100 years” lists of books tended to leave a lot of postcolonial writers behind, something that the Zimbabwe International Book Fair attempted to address by assembling a list of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century. I saw the list not long after it was released in February of 2002, and had heard of exactly two books on the list: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which I’d already read once and subsequently re-read; and Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, the first book of his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy.

Within that broader list, the jury identified a dozen titles as the best of the best, without trying to rank any of the books, probably a thankless task given the effort required just to compile the nominations for the final hundred. The Nigerian-born author Wole Soyinka, the first native African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, made the top 100 twice, with his play Death and the King’s Horsemen appearing on the main list and his first memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood, earning special mention in the top twelve.

Aké is the name of the town where Soyinka grew up, on the grounds of a parsonage with his mother, whom he calls “Wild Christian,” and his father the teacher, whom he calls “Essay,” as well as a nearby collection of relatives, friends/workers, and spirits. The book takes magical realism and transplants it into the realm of the autobiography – Soyinka never pauses to consider whether these memories of ghosts, spectres, or other otherworldy entities are real; they simply are. Yet the stories he remembers revolve around more mundane matters, not least of which is what on earth a family was to do with a precocious, argumentative child in a country still ruled autocratically by the local puppets of a distant white government.

The memoir, however, is a joyous one, even around the crises and tragedies and the eventual buildup to the book’s concluding chapters, where the women of Ak&ecaute; agitate for more local rights, less corruption, and lower taxation. Soyinka renders even those scenes, which always threatened to devolve into violence, humorously, through the eyes of a mischievous child watching when he shouldn’t be watching or playing rebel by delivering message between various outposts of protesters. His memories of his time in school, where the lawyering he used to stymie his parents runs up against the wall of a headmaster who’s already seen that act before, and of the town’s market, with extensive descriptions of fresh fruits and African foods of which I’d never heard, show off Soyinka’s ability to evoke colorful scenes with precise descriptions and light prose that puts the reader right on the dirt road in the middle of all the market’s vendors.

Soyinka devotes another section to his childhood addiction … to powdered baby formula, which he sneaks from the family’s pantry now that their youngest child no longer needs it, only to end up playing cat-and-mouse with his parents to avoid detection. He also offers several anecdotes on the local blend of Christianity and native traditions, such as the fellow student who tries to counter “bad juju” by repeating “S.M.O.G.” – which stands for “Save Me Oh God” but he claims is faster to say in acronym form while running from your enemies.

The one weakness of Aké is its lack of structure; it’s a collection of stories and recollections, but there’s no single narrative because the book ends while Soyinka is still a child, so we haven’t driven towards a specific goal or endpoint. That doesn’t make the book less enjoyable or less vivid, although it means it more resembles a set of interconnected short stories than a non-fiction novel. It compares favorably to my favorite memoir, Gabriel García Marquez’ Living to Tell the Tale, although GGM’s prose flowed more easily, as Soyinka’s syntax and even punctuation often threw me off (e.g., he omits a lot of commas we’d consider essential in American English). For me, Aké ranks somewhere in the middle of the seven titles I’ve read from the top twelve on that African literature list, below Things Fall Apart, A Grain of Wheat, and Nervous Conditions but above Sleepwalking Land, Chaka, and L’amour, la fantasia.

The Klaw 102: the top novels of all time, version 3.

A few months late, again, but I have updated my own personal ranking of the 100 greatest novels I’ve read, extending the list once again by another title to bring us to 102. The top 20 remain unchanged from the last version, but I’ve very slightly altered their order. I’ve deleted six titles and added new ones at 102, 93, 86, 82, 53, 40, and 21. Most of the book descriptions are the same as they were on the last rankings.

The guidelines, from the original post with one small edit:

My criteria are wholly subjective. The primary criterion is how much I enjoyed the book, accounting for more than half of the “score” I might give each book if I was inclined to go to that degree. I also considered the book’s literary value, and its significance in the annals of literature, whether by its influence, critical reception, or the modern perspective on the book. There is nothing on here I don’t like.

There are only four items on this list that run beyond 1000 pages, one of which is a series, and another is two books that I combined into a single entry. The third is the longest single book I’ve ever read, although that was originally published as two volumes itself. By and large, the one hundred books listed here are highly readable, accessible even to the casual reader.

I did omit popular fiction series, even ones I enjoyed, so there is no Harry Potter and no Jasper Fforde. I slipped P.G. Wodehouse in there, since his works have influenced at least two generations of writers and performers, and there are four or five works on there that might straddle the line between popular fiction and literature. You’ll also notice the absence of some works of undeniable literary importance that I either haven’t read or just flat-out didn’t like. I make no apologies for these omissions.

The bottom line: My list, my call.

One last point. I’m not an English professor or a professional book critic or any other kind of literary analyst. I read for pleasure, mostly, and the fact that I like to write about books I’ve read is a function of my obsession for breaking everything down, whether it’s a player’s swing or a meal or a book. My main qualification for doing this list is that I’ve read a lot. If that’s not good enough for you, door’s on your left.

102. Lush Life, by Richard Price. Full review. The newest novel on this list, published in 2008, is a thoroughly engrossing read by a former Wire writer who brings that same layered feel to this book, with one crime at the story’s center spiraling out into a series of subplots involving multi-dimensional characters, one of which, as it turns out, is New York City itself.

101. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson. Full review. A bit of a sentimental pick – a young boy sets off across Cleveland with his sister in a toy wagon and ends up becoming a hero in the face of a horrible industrial disaster.
100 The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy. Full review. A comedy about an American girl in Paris whose cluelessness lands her in one mess after another. Brilliant and, for the moment, back in print.

99. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Full review. The history of Afghanistan, told as the tragic story of two childhood friends separated not by war, but by a child’s severe error of judgment. Whether he finds redemption as an adult is left to the reader, but unlike, say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Hosseini’s work at least opens the door.

98. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. The debut novel by a Zimbabwean playwright, Nervous Conditions might be the best work ever written about the plight of women in even the “developed” parts of Africa, as they have to deal simultaneously with traditional and modern pressures in their lives.

97. Lonesome Dove , by Larry McMurtry. Full review. Just an incredible read, a long, meandering epic of the old West, a meditation on existence and our need to move. A highly American novel. Oh, and it’s an early example of the art form now known as the “bromance.”

96. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Full review. Ishiguro’s romantic tragedy within a dystopian alternate reality is imperfect, but the societal aspect is powerful and incredibly disturbing.

95. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The grand-daddy of all mysteries, and the only full-length novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hound is as good a mystery as you’ll find, with Holmes at his brilliant and smarmy best.

94. Native Son, by Richard Wright. Perhaps the American equivalent to Germinal for its sheer anger and social commentary, Native Son is the story of a black man who is hemmed in by white society and whose culpability for his crimes may not entirely be his own.

93. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Full review. An Orange Prize-winning novel by a Nigerian-born Englishwoman who tells a harrowing story of families caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in the 1960s, in which the majority Nigerian government used starvation to defeat the Biafrans and commit one of history’s least-remembered genocides. Adichie’s true achievement in the novel is telling this horrid, important history through several smart, compelling characters who are caught up in something they can’t control.

92. Monarch of the Glen, by Compton Mackenzie. Full review. Brilliantly funny take on a Scottish lord who doesn’t take kindly to a bunch of hippies trespassing on his land, leading to a generational clash as well as a commentary on the changing structure of Scottish (and British) society at the time. Currently out of print in the U.S., although it remains in print in England.

91. The Reivers, by William Faulkner. Criminally overlooked today by most Faulkner readers, The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963 and is Faulkner’s most accessible and light-hearted work. It’s a comedy set, as always, in Yoknapatawpha County, focusing on three ne’er-do-wells who steal a car, consort with prostitutes, race a horse, and try to get ahead by any means.

90. Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse. I’m not sure how to choose any single Wodehouse novel, or where to rank them on this list. I’ve read nearly all of the Jeeves novels and am hard-pressed to pick a favorite, so I’ve chosen this one, which also made the Bloomsbury 100. Describing the plot is pointless; the joy is in the telling.

89. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Not really my favorite Twain book – that would be The Prince and the Pauper, a late cut from this list – but Huckleberry Finn is one of the few legitimate contenders for the appellation of The Great American Novel, a comedy, a drama, and a stinging social commentary all rolled up into an adventure story to appeal to the kid in every reader.

88. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carré. A seminal spy novel, but also a character-driven drama, one in which loyalties are uncertain, and so are fates. Impossible to put down, and not laden with all kinds of technobabble to try to distract the reader from a thin or implausible plot.

87. The City and the Mountains, by José Maria de Eça de Queirós. Full review. A beautiful fable by one of Portugal’s greatest novelists.

86. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. Full review. I would say it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, but once you do that, it’s fiction, if we’re thinking logically about it. I expected the book to be manic, gonzo even, but I didn’t expect it to be this funny, or this memorable.

85. Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. An extremely easy read, despite the references to some characters by roles (“Mother’s Younger Brother”) rather than names, with rolling, twisting plot lines and text that takes you into another era.

84. Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. Full review. A classic gothic mystery, which also led to Alfred Hitchcock’s only non-honorary Oscar.

83. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. Overlooked now, probably because of the rather unflattering depiction of a Jewish character, it’s a fast-paced and tense adventure story that deserves to be read by readers who understand its historical context. (And it’s hardly the only book on this list to take its shots at Jews.)

82. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré. Full review. A more involved work than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, involving a sub rosa investigation within MI-5 (Britain’s equivalent to the CIA) to determine which one of a quartet of agents is, in fact, a Soviet mole. George Smiley, a retired MI-5 agent, comes back for what he believes will be one more job, to root out the double agent, except that the candidates are all men he knows, and he finds he can’t trust anyone he thought he knew. It also provided the basis for the fantastic, fast-moving 2011 film of the same name, starring Gary Oldman.

81. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Full review. A cynical work, surprising for Greene, that offers a severe criticism of the Vietnam War from a worm’s-eye view.

80. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. A novella in the ruined-woman genre, The Awakening takes the story of Anna Karenina, transfers it to New Orleans, and condenses it to focus strictly on the woman, her choices, and the society that boxes her into a corner.

79. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. Full review. Beautifully written tale of good and evil with an uncomfortably high level of violence.

78. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. An under-read Russian novel, like Goncharov’s Oblomov, Fathers and Sons captures a generational clash that threatens the traditional way of life in Russia, while introducing the then-chic philosophy of nihilism to the broader public.

77. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe. A straight narrative without breaks, Moll is a picaresque novel and a twisted morality tale that follows a woman of uncertain scruples through her entire life, from her birth in a prison to her life as a prostitute to her eventual rise to wealth.

76. Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I struggled a little bit with this one; it’s a children’s novel, but it’s not. It’s more of a modern epic, a fable about a warren of rabbits who find their home threatened by human development, with one rabbit emerging as a hero through his own wiles and personal growth. The book is so good that it violates two of my core rules, that a book with a map or with a glossary should be avoided.

75. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Criminally overlooked for decades, Eyes has become a classic in the growing canon of African-American literature. Its use of dialect cleared the path for Alice Walker and the grandmaster of the genre, Toni Morrison.

74. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. One of the leading dystopian novels, along with Orwell’s 1984, which is coming up on this list. Huxley’s depiction of a world overrun by technology was both prescient and paranoid, and perhaps rings more true than Orwell’s work given subsequent developments.

73. A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi wa’Thiongo. One of the best and most important novels written by an African author, Grain depicts a Kenyan village divided by the white colonial authorities, who use their power to split and oppress the people whose land they rule.

72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. Full review. Morrison’s second-best novel, the story of a black family divided through two generations and of one of the sons, Milkman Dead, who is searching for his own identity in the world.

71. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is half of the pair of leading lights of the hard-boiled detective genre, and The Big Sleep was his most influential work, with sleuth Philip Marlowe as the pensive star, with dry wit and filled glass and a very clear moral compass.

70. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren.Full review. The fictionalized story of the rise and fall of Huey “Kingfish” Long, told almost as the backdrop for the story of the narrator, political crony Jack Burden.

69. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark. Full review. A novel of feminism, of religious ideologies (and fascism!), told with an unusual and effective back-and-forth narrative style and a dose of humor.

68. The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. A scathing indictment of early Hollywood culture and its pernicious effects on those who chase its rainbows.

67. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow. Far more enjoyable than the self-loathing of Herzog, Henderson employs humor and a touch of the absurd to explore the meaning of life and one über-successful yet spiritually unfulfilled man’s search for it in the hinterlands of Africa.

66. The Secret Agent, by Josef Conrad. Conrad is highly esteemed within the literary world for both Nostromo and Lord Jim, but I prefer The Secret Agent for its readability and the presence of some real, bona fide narrative greed. It was adapted, loosely, by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1936 film, Sabotage. (Conrad’s best-known work, Heart of Darkness, is too short for this list.)

65. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. The first third of an unfinished trilogy, usually sold with the surviving fragments of book two (destroyed by the author about ten days before his suicide), Dead Souls is a dark comedy about serfdom in czarist Russia and the buying and selling of the rights to recently deceased serfs. Its publication and success mark the beginning of the Russian novel and one of the most fertile periods of great literature in any culture.

64. The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Like so many novels on this list, The Leopard is the only novel written by its author. In fact, it was published posthumously by the author’s widow, and eventually became the first best-seller in Italian literature. It tells the story of the decline of a noble family during the unification of Italy, based loosely on the own author’s family history.

63. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Full review. A career butler looks back on his thirty years of service and discovers a host of opportunities lost to a singular pursuit of “dignity.” A sad yet witty novel that draws great emotion from words despite a near-total lack of action.

62. The Small Bachelor, by P.G. Wodehouse. Not part of any series, this one-off book encapsulates the Wodehouse novel’s form perfectly, with two couples kept apart by circumstances, an incompetent artist, an efficiency expert, a policeman bent on becoming a poet, a female pickpocket, and the usual dose of misunderstandings and chases.

61. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, pieces of eight, fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho!

60. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The book is a must-read; the movie is a must-see. It’s probably considered the best hard-boiled detective novel ever written … but there’s one I rate higher.

59. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Full review. Haunting yet beautiful, desolate yet hopeful, Housekeeping shows how much a skilled author can do with just a scarce supply of characters and limited dialogue.

58. 1984, by George Orwell. The ultimate dystopian novel as well as the most scathing attack on totalitarianism in literature, 1984 wins out over Brave New World for me because the polemic is built around a deep study of the main character, Winston Smith. Irrelevant note: The best paper I wrote as a student was a comparison of the way colors and light are described in 1984 and Brave New World. Where Orwell saw “yellow,” Huxley saw “gold,” and so both authors created vastly differing pictures of their dystopian futures.

57. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. The Great American Novel? Not for me, but certainly a great American novel, featuring thinly-veiled versions of Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Kerouac himself, criss-crossing the country, with inventive phrasing and a dialect that defined the Beat Generation and two generations that came after it.

56. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Full review. A great comic novel about a mostly-normal professor at a small English college who is surrounded by wackos and manages to get himself into increasing quantities of trouble.

55. I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. A tour de force of historical fiction, told from the perspective of Claudius, the slightly lame and (as we learn) totally insecure man who survived decades of political intrigues and murders to become first Caligula’s consul and later an exalted Emperor of Rome.

54. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. A protest novel and an affectionate portrait of the title character, whose name has sadly been misused as an intra-racial insult by people who do not appear to have read the book.

53. The House of the Spirits. Full review. I’m a sucker for a good magical realism story, and this is probably the next-best example of that style of work from the post-colonial Latin American canon, after a book I have in the top 10. Telling the story of the rise and fall of a great family against the backdrop of the changing political fortunes of Chile – and yes, that was her second cousin once removed whom the CIA arranged to have assassinated – leading into the dark years under Augustus Pinochet.

52. At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien. A silly novel that was meta before meta existed, with a novel within a novel that sees its characters revolt against their fictional author. It also spawned the greatest endorsement in the history of the novel, from Dylan Thomas: “This is just the book to give your sister … if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

51. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I often vacillate on the question of my favorite Vonnegut novel, so I’ve punted and gone with the experts’ pick. Although I can almost certainly say that this wasn’t my favorite, it is one of his most coherent, and at the same time has enough wackiness and weirdness and Kilgore Trout to be undeniably Vonnegut.

50. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas père. Filled with a chewy nougat center … um, and lots of adventure, with a pair of villains, plenty of treachery, a young man seeking to become the fourth musketeer … and a smooth milk chocolate exterior.

49. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. So simple in style that it reads like a fable meant to be told through the generations, with an unflinching message about the effects of colonialism on Africa’s culture and its people. Its sequel, No Longer at Ease, is also worth your time, even though it runs over similar ground.

48. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. A comic novel in a serious setting, Cuckoo’s Nest always struck me as the dissection of a power struggle between two people and a statement on how leaders, and perhaps governments, attempt to sway the hearts of men. The pickup basketball game remains a personal favorite scene of mine.

47. My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Never mentioned in discussions of the Great American Novel, but isn’t a tale about immigrant families working to create better lives for themselves and their children an integral part of the American story?

46. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A novel of serious moral questions, of Dostoevsky’s own philosophy blending Christianity with existentialism, of redemption, and most of all of the power of rationalization.

45. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien. One ring to rule them all.

44. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. One of the strangest books on this list, as it starts out as a story of drunken revelry at an English prep school and ends up as a story of a romance torn asunder by theological disagreements (also explored in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair). Think of it as a fictional memoir that intertwines nostalgia for a bygone era of English culture with a re-examination of the narrator’s spiritual emptiness.

43. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Major Major, Nately’s whore, Milo’s cotton schemes … and the flying missions that never end in a serious war with some very un-serious behavior. A sharp satire full of madcap laughs.

42. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The first novel in the Western canon, and the first comic novel, Don Quixote is actually two novels now published as one; Cervantes wrote a sequel in response to the flood of knockoffs and unauthorized sequels that followed the enormous success of the first volume of his work. If you’ve read it, check out Julian Branston’s The Eternal Quest, a funny homage that includes Cervantes and an unnamed “errant knight” as major characters.

41. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. The consummate Gothic romance, with a little magical realism (although it was written a century before the term existed) and a couple of absurd coincidences, still captivates readers and, of course, gave us Thursday Next and The Eyre Affair.

40. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Full review. I didn’t love this book when I first read it; I’m not even sure if I liked it, but in hindsight, I think I was reacting to its unfamiliarity, as Smith’s debut novel ushered in a genre that has since been called “hysterical realism” for its too-real-for-reality perspective. White Teeth tackles multiculturalism, fundamentalism, and bad dentistry, with extensive humor and a nonlinear narrative structure I originally found disjointed but now appreciate more for its ambition and cleverness.

39. The Trial, by Franz Kafka. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

38. The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal. Sort of a French picaresque novel, but with a heavy dose of the realism that characterizes most great French 19th-century literature. The protagonist, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a slightly dim young nobleman who sets off on a Quixotic quest to fight with Napoleon’s army (even though Fabrizio is Italian) and become a hero.

37. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure I buy into Vanity Fair‘s oft-quoted review (“The only convincing love story of our century”), but as a study of obsession, arrested development, and rationalization, it’s powerful and cheerfully unapologetic.

36. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. The toughest read on the list, because Faulkner – never an easy read – wrote the first fourth of the book from the perspective of the severely developmentally disabled Benji, who senses all time as now and drifts in his rambling narrative from the past to the present without warning. The four parts describe the decline of a Southern family – and of an entire stratum of Southern society – from four different perspectives. And by the way, the book’s title comes from Macbeth: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”

35. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Full review. Another contender for the Great American Novel, driven by unbelievable prose that brought Cormac McCarthy to my mind. The social criticism aspect of the novel has been dulled by time and history, but the story of a family driven to the edge of ruin still resonates.

34. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Full review. A bit rich for such a recent book? I won’t deny it, but despite being set in contemporary America, Empire Falls harkens back to the storytelling of American literature from the first half of the last century, following a cast of ne’er-do-wells around a failing Maine mill town as they wait for something good to happen.

33. A Dance to the Music of Time (series), by Anthony Powell. Full review. Powell’s twelve-part sequence follows Nick Jenkins as he moves from boarding school to college to the army to the publishing world, with him serving as our wry tour guide through the follies and life events of a wide-ranging cast of characters.

32. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Full review. A dystopian novel about the simple things in life, like free will.

31. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A great romance and a commentary on first impressions and, of course, how our pride can get in the way. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the unctuous William Collins rank among Austen’s best comic creations.

30. Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara. Full review. A Fitzgerald-esque novel about one man’s self-destruction through alcohol as he rebels against the confines of the small town where he and his status-conscious wife live.

29. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is better known for his science fiction – the dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 just missed the cut for this list – but this old-fashioned gothic horror story uses fear to drive the narrative forward as a sinister circus comes to a small Southern town and two kids find that their curiosity may do more than kill a cat.

28. Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene. Although it doesn’t have the gravitas of Greene’s serious novels (like The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair), Our Man in Havana is the most serious of his “entertainments” that I’ve read. It’s a rich satire about a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited as a British spy and fulfills his duties by sending in blueprints of vacuums and passing them off as new Cuban weapons systems.

27. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens. Full review. Dickens’ first novel and perhaps the first true best-seller in English literature, Pickwick is a classic picaresque novel that showcases the sense of humor Dickens apparently lost somewhere on the way to two of the banes of my high school years, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities.

26. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Full review. My view on this book has changed dramatically since I read it. I was shocked by the bleak setting and gruesome details of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, but the raw power of the Man’s love for the Boy and willingness to do anything, brave anything, believe anything to give his son a chance, however slim, at a future … well, if you have a child, you will understand. But I still don’t want to see the cellar scene on film, because I won’t be able to un-see it.

25. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. Full review. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, two years after The Magnificent Ambersons (which I’ve since deleted from the top 100) won, Age combines a love triangle, biting but hilarious commentary, and the stifling social norms of the Gilded Age for one of the greatest American novels ever written.

24. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Anne Elliott was persuaded by her father and Lady Russell to decline an “unfavorable” match with a poor sailor when she was nineteen. Now twenty-seven and apparently headed for spinsterhood, she learns that her suitor has returned to England a wealthy captain. Austen’s last novel is the tightest and brings the most tension without skimping on the wit provided by, among others, Anne’s complete fathead of a father.

23. Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Dark and violent and completely gripping, Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and established the format of the hard-boiled detective novel with its sparse style and unblinking descriptions of bloodshed. It may have been the basis for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as well.

22. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Perhaps the archetype of the brooding male hero, although I kind of felt Heathcliff was just an asshole. It’s a tremendous story of anger, vengeance, and cruelty, unfolding in layers as one might peel back an onion. Also available in a much-beloved semaphore version.

21. A Time to Be Born, by Dawn Powell. I love this book; in fact, I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Dawn Powell, an underrated American writer and novelist whose works were all out of print when she died a pauper in 1965. Even now, her name isn’t known enough and her works remain insufficiently read. Powell’s pen was incisive and her ear for dialogue pitch-perfect, never better than in this un-subtle depiction of TIME magazine founder Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce, who is depicted here as the scheming, ruthless Amanda Keeler, whose plans are thrown off course by her naïve childhood friend Vicky Haven.

20. If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. If you love inventive or just plain weird books, this is for you. The subject of the novel is the reading of a novel. Alternating chapters show a dialogue between the Author and the Reader, interlaced with opening chapters from various fictional novels. Calvino, one of the great fabulists of the twentieth century, takes his inspired silliness to a new level.

19. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all about the green light. Jay Gatsby’s ill-fated chase of the American Dream, set in the Jazz Age as the automobile begins to make its presence felt on our culture. It ranked first on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, and second on the Modern Library’s own list.

18. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. A classic English novel of betrayal, The Good Soldier describes a web of infidelities that destroys the lives of five people, with incredible dialogue and the powerful, recurring symbol of the human heart. I’m pretty sure that at $2.50 it’s the cheapest book on this list.

17. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, by Susanna Clarke. Full review.The fastest thousand pages you’ll ever read – a slow-building story that burns the fantasy genre down and builds it back up into a story of power, corruption, greed, jealousy, and mania.

16. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Like stepping into a lucid dream, and indeed, the protagonist finds the line between reality and dreams blurring while searching for his wife, who has either left him or is being held against her will. You’ll have a hard time putting it down, although there is one scene of graphic torture that was tough to get through.

15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , by Carson McCullers. Full review. An amazing achievement of prose and of literary introspection. McCullers looks into the human soul and finds a lot of dusk, if not dark night.

14. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Ignatius J. Reilly with his dyspeptic valve is one of the great hero-antiheroes in American literature as he’s forced to get his lazy ass a job. The book was published posthumously after Toole’s suicide through the persistence of his mother, who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the book, and novelist Walker Percy; twelve years after Toole’s death, Confederacy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

13. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hated it in high school … okay, that’s not fair, I hated the first twenty pages and rented the movie. I went back for a re-read 16 years later and saw what I’d missed: One of the greatest ironic novels I’ve ever read. It’s bleak in its portraits of English society and its strictures, of human emotions, and of fate, but Hardy (who also was a noted poet) writes beautifully and slips numerous bits of wordplay into the text.

12. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Collins, a protégé of Charles Dickens, believed that nothing in the novel was more important than the plot, and he wrote perhaps the first suspense novel in this story of mistaken identities, ghost sightings, and the unctuous, nefarious villain Count Fosco. Its use of multiple narrators was revolutionary for the time, and while it has the potential to be confusing, it’s critical for the way Collins wants to unfold the plot before the reader.

11. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. Full review. A short satire with layers and layers of humor, from wordplay to stereotypes turned inside out. The story is thin but readable, although the story is hardly the point. It’s just a joyous, hilarious read, especially if you’ve read any of the classic British novels Gibbons is parodying.

10. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Full review. A hilarious and absurd satire of the news media that was written in the 1930s but is just as relevant today, as a man who wants no part of the job becomes a foreign correspondent to an African state on the brink of civil war.

9. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. Fielding made his bones as a novelist by parodying Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with his own work, Shamela, and then moved to a broader satire with Joseph Andrews before stepping out with an entirely original work, the comic picaresque Tom Jones. The story is built around Jones’ romantic pursuit of the daughter of Squire Western, who is constantly trying to pair his daughter up with the villainous son of Jones’ foster parents. Along the way Jones is arrested, accosted, consorts with prostitutes, and runs into no end of conniving, selfish secondary characters.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. The history of Colombia told as the history of one family, with a heavy dose of magical realism and the sweeping feel of an epic despite the focus on individual characters. The Buendía family plays a role in the rise of the fictional town of Macondo until a banana plantation, owned by foreigners, arrives and triggers a lengthy and ultimately complete collapse.

7. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. The history of the American South told as the history of one family, mostly limited to the decline of the region after the Civil War. Patriarch Thomas Sutpen builds his fortune, but sets the seeds for his family’s downfall through his greed and racism. Told in Faulkner’s usual style of multiple perspectives and winding prose.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The best book ever written about Africa was written by a white South African, decrying the country’s apartheid system while offering threads of hope for its future once the system is dismantled. Preacher Stephen Kumalo leaves his rural village to go to the city to help his dissolute sister, Gertrude, and find his son, named Absalom, who went to help Gertrude earlier but never returned and ends up in jail.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The greatest one-hit wonder in literature and perhaps in the arts. The story alone makes it a classic, but Lee’s use of language, combining a Southern dialect with the unmistakable voice of a child, elevates it to its legendary status.

4. Emma, by Jane Austen. Austen herself wrote that she didn’t expect anyone to like her meddling, imperious protagonist, but nearly two hundred years after publication the book remains extremely popular, and the title character is a major reason. Character development was never Austen’s strength, but Emma grows up across the book’s 400-odd pages, with the usual cast of comic-relief supporting characters, including her worrywart father and the garrulous Miss Bates.

3. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. And here we have African-American history, dating back to their emancipation from slavery. Sethe and her daughter Denver are trying to establish a live for themselves as free women when a young woman, known simply as “Beloved,” arrives at the house. Is she the reincarnation of the child Sethe killed to keep her out of slavery? Sethe’s obsession with Beloved opens the door to a host of questions – are African-Americans held down by the weight of their past, or are they complicit in allowing their past to weigh them down? No one writing today does so with prose like Morrison’s or with as much literary depth.

2. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the reviewer who called Lolita “the only convincing love story of our century,” I submit Tender is the Night, the story of the gradual, inexorable breakdown of the seemingly perfect marriage between two beautiful people by way of infidelity, drink, and mental illness. If Fitzgerald had to go out early, he could not have gone out on a higher note.

1. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Full review. An absolute masterpiece, banned by the Soviets for decades for its subtle yet severe indictment of communism’s many, many failures. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes its society for all its vapidity, running into the frustrated author The Master and his faithful girlfriend Margarita, a story intertwined with a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, all stacked with allusions to the Bible and major works of 19th century Russian literature. It is a work of unbridled genius, of acrimonious dissent, and most of all, of hope and faith in humanity.

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible is a mixed bag of extremes: It’s one of the most authentic works of historical fiction I’ve come across, evoking a time, place, and culture with precise details while also serving to educate the reader without ever feeling didactic. It also draws its plot from diverse works of classical literature, notably King Lear, yet doesn’t feel the least bit derivative. However, the novel rests on the backs of four female characters who are so thinly drawn that you’d have to put them all together to get a complete, well-rounded woman.

The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher who, in 1959, drags his family on a dangerous mission to spend a year preaching the Gospel in a remote village in what was then known as the Belgian Congo but was also on the brink of an implosion that still echoes today, two names and four national leaders later. Nathan never speaks directly to the reader, however, as the book is narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and his four daughters – superficial Rachel; daddy’s girl Leah; Leah’s twin sister Adah, mute and slightly disabled by hemiplagia yet highly intelligent; and the innocent and much-younger Ruth May. Nathan is an ordeal in and of himself, one increased exponentially by their move to the heart of Africa, to conditions for which they are wholly unprepared. Nathan is as one-dimensional as the women in his family, stubborn, misogynistic, driven by the shame of a wartime injury that has left him shell-shocked yet with the veneer of functional behavior. Like Lear, Nathan loses his daughters one by one through his increasingly erratic and foolhardy behavior, eventually losing his wife, the last one to truly abandon him emotionally, when his choices provoke tragedy with no recourse.

Kingsolver spent a year in the Republic of Congo around 1962, after independence and the bulk of the events depicted in this book, but her knowledge of the country, its terrain, and its culture suffuses The Poisonwood Bible as thoroughly as if it were a country spawned entirely by her own imagination. The natives of the small village to which the Prices move are given respectful treatment, neither denigrated as noble savages nor elevated as wise shamen, just shown as regular people surviving in a difficult environment and demonstrating a degree of empathy that is somewhat foreign to our get-off-my-lawn culture today. The Prices’ inability to adjust to local agriculture, and Nathan’s refusal to accept or even solicit help from local women who farm with more success, is a harbinger for the ultimate failure of their entire mission, and a metaphor for the failure of Western attempts to graft our culture, religion, and even our economic philosophies on to a country that is, itself, a Western-created fiction.

Those one-dimensional characters ended up detracting greatly from the book for me, especially through the last third or so as the daughters’ ability to narrate long stretches of the story increases with their age. The kindest interpretation I can conceive is that Kingsolver intended for each of the female characters to represent a specific aspect of womanhood – maternity, beauty, intellect, fidelity, innocence – yet even if this is true, the format limits the potential for any of these women to grow over the course of the novel, especially the children as they become adults. Leah and Adah mature the most, with Leah shifting her deep allegiance from her father to her eventual husband while Adah, forced by a cataclysmic emotional trauma, must overcome both that and her physical handicap. Yet none of the women spoke with a compelling voice, not even the rhyming, backwards-talking, poetry-quoting Adah, who was interesting but whose extreme rationality came with a coldness that kept me at arm’s length. Rachel never quite grows up all the way, still displaying the same peculiar combination of a lack of self-awarness and an obsession with appearances that makes her earlier narration so hard to read.

If you read primarily for plot and enjoy historical fiction, however, Poisonwood sings in both departments. Kingsolver offers tiny bits of foreshadowing without making the book’s handful of plot twists too obvious, and as the book nears its conclusion its pace quickens to avoid reader fatigue. While Kingsolver’s prose is undeniably American, her ability to paint a picture of life in central/sub-Saharan Africa fits in with writers like Achebe, wa Thiong’o, and Adichie who spent much of their lives in the region. It isn’t a pleasant feeling for those of us who grew up and live in comfort and blissful ignorance here, but there’s merit in a reminder that these conditions existed just 50 years ago – and still exist in many parts of the world today.

Next up: Back in August of 2011, I spent much of a game in Lake Elsinore chatting with two readers, one of whom recommended King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I finally picked up the book the other day at Tempe’s Changing Hands bookstore, figuring this was the ideal time to read it, and through 100 pages it’s quite compelling.

Half of a Yellow Sun.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s haunting second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007, tells the story of five people, two couples and the young houseboy who works for one of the men, in Nigeria during the 1960s, a time period when the country’s ethnic divisions led them into civil war, famine, and genocide, a cycle of events that keeps repeating itself on that continent right up to the present-day threat of famine in Somalia. The novel’s tragedies are both large and small, but Adichie weaves her narrative threads cleanly and creates tension and uncertainty even though the disastrous results of the war are a matter of record.

Adichie, born seven years after the war ended, lost both of her grandfathers in that conflict, known as the Nigerian-Biafran war after the Igbo state that tried to secede from Nigeria, but her grandmothers survived it and were primary resources for Adichie, who seems to have put an enormous amount of research into the novel. (She even provides a page-long list of nonfiction books about Nigeria’s history up to and through the Biafran conflict.) The British, who created and even named Nigeria by uniting disparate ethnic groups under a single colonial authority, come in for quite a bit of blame for creating the powder keg that made ethnic conflict inevitable between the minority Igbo, who held positions of political and commercial authority before the war, and the majority Hausa, who resented the Igbo’s status and come off in the book as the African equivalent of the Germans under Hitler.

The brilliance of Half of a Yellow Sun lies in its constant focus on the individual characters; Adichie never steps back to give long-winded explanations of the political situation in Nigeria, instead informing the reader through the characters’ experiences. Each of the five central characters, all of whom are Igbo, gets his or her own plot line, although all five are interconnected, including two fraternal twin sisters, their lovers (one a revolutionary professor, the other an English expat), and the houseboy, Ugwu. All five begin the novel in comfort and relative wealth in the western part o Nigeria, then flee to the new Igbo state of Biafra, where the war and blockade drive the people into increasing levels of poverty and degradation, culminating in the food shortage that led the Biafran government to surrender and accept reabsorption into Nigeria. During the crisis, there are romantic betrayals, losses of friends, a schism between the sisters, forced conscriptions, corruption, and worse, enough to fill an 800-page Russian novel, and similarly rich with metaphors for the larger conflict.

Of those five characters, two share starring roles: Olanna, the beautiful sister who falls for the revolutionary professor Odeniwgo; and Ugwu, Odenigwo’s houseboy. Ugwu goes from poverty to luxury and back to poverty over the course of the book and gives us a perspective on the war largely untainted by historical ethnic hatreds while also providing an outlet for Adichie to demonstrate the war’s effect on the youngest generation (and to provide us with some sliver of hope for Nigeria’s future). Olanna’s reluctance to marry and her role in the betrayals within both relationships test her patience and force her to examine the depth of her love for Odenigwo and for her fraternal twin sister, the “ugly” Kainene. Olanna is victimized, then victimizes another character, but is she fully responsible for her actions or merely paying the pain forward?

Adichie’s choice to structure the novel in four parts, alternating between the prewar period and the period of the war itself, also creates some artificial tension by withholding key plot points until the jump back to the earlier time in section three. But there’s also value in the structure because of the way she reveals some causes of the ethnic conflict, then shows some of the conflict, and returns to the causes before completing the story. Everything that happens within Half of a Yellow Sun has a cause, and often someone to blame along with it, with the British and the Hausa earning their fair shares. The author has even commented on how she believes many of the fundamental causes of the war still exist today; despite Nigeria’s massive natural resources, nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, and ethnic divisions continue to foment conflict in the southeastern part of the country. One of the five characters is no longer present as the book concludes, a metaphor for the unhealing wound left on the country by the war and by the pernicious effects of British arrogance and racism.

I’m a big fan of postcolonial literature in general, and particularly liked Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and its sequel No Longer at Ease, both of which explore the effects of British colonial rule on Nigerians but do so in slimmer works with less intricate plots. Adichie’s great achievement here is exploring that same theme while giving us multiple compelling characters across rich plot lines while presenting the stark realities of the darkest moment in this artificial country’s brief history. From a literary/critical perspective, it’s the best novel I’ve read this year.

Next up: I’m a bit behind on my writeups, but I have already finished the phenomenal nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (currently half off at amazon) and have moved on to Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.

Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.

I’m only doing a brief writeup of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, in part because I’m a little pressed for time, but also because there’s so little to say about a book with no plot. The best description I can offer is that it’s an Algerian feminist Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and while I didn’t quite hate it as I hated the Joyce book, I was never remotely invested in Djebar’s words or characters.

The core theme is the difficulty of being a woman in an Islamic society, particularly one born into a somewhat liberal home environment within a generally conservative society. A woman could write a pretty good book about this, but Djebar tries to intertwine that thread with one about the French invasion and occupation of Algeria, and another about the narrator’s experiences as a supporter of the Algerian rebels during the war of independence; in fact that main thread about women in Islamic cultures is dropped for a good chunk of the book, so that when it’s reintroduced, you’ve lost the plot, literally.

I also have to question the quality of the translation. Djebar makes a point of saying that she’s writing in French (her second language) and abhors metaphor and florid language, but the translation is full of bizarre and at times fabricated vocabulary – perhaps she’s the Algerian Chabon, but more likely we have a literal translation rather than one that considers the usage patterns of the two languages.

Next up: I’m about 40% through Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and I’m headed out on vacation on Wednesday, with five books in the suitcase, including Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

The Klaw 100, part five.

Part one (#100-81)
Part two (#80-61)
Part three (#60-41)
Part four (#40-21)

I doubt there will be too many surprises here, as I’ve discussed most of these last twenty books somewhere before. The complete list of 100 is available as a spreadsheet at Google Spreadsheets. But don’t click now or you’ll spoil the top 20…

20. Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Dark and violent and completely gripping, Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and established the format of the hard-boiled detective novel with its sparse style and unblinking descriptions of bloodshed. It may have been the basis for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as well.

19. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Perhaps the archetype of the brooding male hero, although I kind of felt Heathcliff was just an asshole. It’s a tremendous story of anger, vengeance, and cruelty, unfolding in layers as one might peel back an onion. Also available in a much-beloved semaphore version.

18. If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. If you love inventive or just plain weird books, this is for you. The subject of the novel is the reading of a novel. Alternating chapters show a dialogue between the Author and the Reader, interlaced with opening chapters from various fictional novels. Calvino, one of the great fabulists of the twentieth century, takes his inspired silliness to a new level.

17. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all about the green light. Jay Gatsby’s ill-fated chase of the American Dream, set in the Jazz Age as the automobile begins to make its presence felt on our culture. It ranked first on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, and second on the Modern Library’s own list.

16. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. A classic English novel of betrayal, The Good Soldier describes a web of infidelities that destroys the lives of five people, with incredible dialogue and the powerful, recurring symbol of the human heart. I’m pretty sure that at $2.50 it’s the cheapest book on this list.

15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , by Carson McCullers. Full review. An amazing achievement of prose and of literary introspection. McCullers looks into the human soul and finds a lot of dusk, if not dark night.

14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Like stepping into a lucid dream, and indeed, the protagonist finds the line between reality and dreams blurring while searching for his wife, who has either left him or is being held against her will. You’ll have a hard time putting it down, although there is one scene of graphic torture that was tough to get through.

13. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Ignatius J. Reilly with his dyspeptic valve is one of the great hero-antiheroes in American literature as he’s forced to get his lazy ass a job. The book was published posthumously after Toole’s suicide through the persistence of his mother, who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the book, and novelist Walker Percy; twelve years after Toole’s death, Confederacy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

12. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hated it in high school … okay, that’s not fair, I hated the first twenty pages and rented the movie. I went back for a re-read 16 years later and saw what I’d missed: One of the greatest ironic novels I’ve ever read. It’s bleak in its portraits of English society and its strictures, of human emotions, and of fate, but Hardy (who also was a noted poet) writes beautifully and slips numerous bits of wordplay into the text.

11. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Collins, a protégé of Charles Dickens, believed that nothing in the novel was more important than the plot, and he wrote perhaps the first suspense novel in this story of mistaken identities, ghost sightings, and the unctuous, nefarious villain Count Fosco. Its use of multiple narrators was revolutionary for the time, and while it has the potential to be confusing, it’s critical for the way Collins wants to unfold the plot before the reader

10. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Full review. A hilarious and absurd satire of the news media that was written in the 1930s but is just as relevant today, as a man who wants no part of the job becomes a foreign correspondent to an African state on the brink of civil war.

9. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. Fielding made his bones as a novelist by parodying Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with his own work, Shamela, and then moved to a broader satire with Joseph Andrews before stepping out with an entirely original work, the comic picaresque Tom Jones. The story is built around Jones’ romantic pursuit of the daughter of Squire Western, who is constantly trying to pair his daughter up with the villainous son of Jones’ foster parents. Along the way Jones is arrested, accosted, consorts with prostitutes, and runs into no end of conniving, selfish secondary characters.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. The history of Colombia told as the history of one family, with a heavy dose of magical realism and the sweeping feel of an epic despite the focus on individual characters. The Buendía family plays a role in the rise of the fictional town of Macondo until a banana plantation, owned by foreigners, arrives and triggers a lengthy and ultimately complete collapse.

7. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. The history of the American South told as the history of one family, mostly limited to the decline of the region after the Civil War. Patriarch Thomas Sutpen builds his fortune, but sets the seeds for his family’s downfall through his greed and racism. Told in Faulkner’s usual style of multiple perspectives and winding prose.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The best book ever written about Africa was written by a white South African, decrying the country’s apartheid system while offering threads of hope for its future once the system is dismantled. Preacher Stephen Kumalo leaves his rural village to go to the city to help his dissolute sister, Gertrude, and find his son, named Absalom, who went to help Gertrude earlier but never returned and ends up in jail.

5. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. And here we have African-American history, dating back to their emancipation from slavery. Sethe and her daughter Denver are trying to establish a live for themselves as free women when a young woman, known simply as “Beloved,” arrives at the house. Is she the reincarnation of the child Sethe killed to keep her out of slavery? Sethe’s obsession with Beloved opens the door to a host of questions – are African-Americans held down by the weight of their past, or are they complicit in allowing their past to weigh them down? No one writing today does so with prose like Morrison’s or with as much literary depth.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The greatest one-hit wonder in literature and perhaps in the arts. The story alone makes it a classic, but Lee’s use of language, combining a Southern dialect with the unmistakable voice of a child, elevates it to its legendary status.

3. Emma, by Jane Austen. Austen herself wrote that she didn’t expect anyone to like her meddling, imperious protagonist, but nearly two hundred years after publication the book remains extremely popular, and the title character is a major reason. Character development was never Austen’s strength, but Emma grows up across the book’s 400-odd pages, with the usual cast of comic-relief supporting characters, including her worrywart father and the garrulous Miss Bates.

2. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the reviewer who called Lolita “the only convincing love story of our century,” I submit Tender is the Night, the story of the gradual, inexorable breakdown of the seemingly perfect marriage between two beautiful people by way of infidelity, drink, and mental illness. If Fitzgerald had to go out early, he could not have gone out on a higher note.

1. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. An absolute masterpiece, banned by the Soviets for decades for its subtle yet severe indictment of communism’s many, many failures. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes its society for all its vapidity, running into the frustrated author The Master and his faithful girlfriend Margarita, a story intertwined with a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, all stacked with allusions to the Bible and major works of 19th century Russian literature. It is a work of unbridled genius, of acrimonious dissent, and most of all, of hope and faith in humanity.

The Klaw 100, part three.

Part one (#100-81)
Part two (#80-61)
Part four (#40-21)
Part five (#20-1)

60. The Secret Agent, by Josef Conrad. Conrad is highly esteemed within the literary world for both Nostromo and Lord Jim, but I prefer The Secret Agent for its readability and the presence of some real, bona fide narrative greed. It was adapted, loosely, by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1936 film, Sabotage. (Conrad’s best-known work, Heart of Darkness, is too short for this list.)

59. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. The first third of an unfinished trilogy, usually sold with the surviving fragments of book two (destroyed by the author about ten days before his suicide), Dead Souls is a dark comedy about serfdom in czarist Russia and the buying and selling of the rights to recently deceased serfs. Its publication and success mark the beginning of the Russian novel and one of the most fertile periods of great literature in any culture.

58. The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Like so many novels on this list, The Leopard is the only novel written by its author. In fact, it was published posthumously by the author’s widow, and eventually became the first best-seller in Italian literature. It tells the story of the decline of a noble family during the unification of Italy, based loosely on the own author’s family history.

57. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, pieces of eight, fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho!

56. The Small Bachelor, by P.G. Wodehouse. Not part of any series, this one-off book encapsulates the Wodehouse novel’s form perfectly, with two couples kept apart by circumstances, an incompetent artist, an efficiency expert, a policeman bent on becoming a poet, a female pickpocket, and the usual dose of misunderstandings and chases.

55. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The book is a must-read; the movie is a must-see. It’s probably considered the best hard-boiled detective novel ever written … but there’s one I rate higher.

54. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Full review. Haunting yet beautiful, desolate yet hopeful, Housekeeping shows how much a skilled author can do with just a scarce supply of characters and limited dialogue.

53. 1984, by George Orwell. The ultimate dystopian novel as well as the most scathing attack on totalitarianism in literature, 1984 wins out over Brave New World for me because the polemic is built around a deep study of the main character, Winston Smith. Irrelevant note: The best paper I wrote as a student was a comparison of the way colors and light are described in 1984 and Brave New World. Where Orwell saw “yellow,” Huxley saw “gold,” and so both authors created vastly differing pictures of their dystopian futures.

52. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. The Great American Novel? Not for me, but certainly a great American novel, featuring thinly-veiled versions of Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Kerouac himself, criss-crossing the country, with inventive phrasing and a dialect that defined the Beat Generation and two generations that came after it.

51. The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington. Winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, Tarkington’s best-known novel tells of the rise of the United States – both the growth of its economy and the democratization of its society – by depicting the gradual decline and ossification of an aristocratic family. It also became perhaps Orson Welles’ least favorite of his own films, as the studio forced him to change the ending and cut significant chunks of the finished film; the original footage is lost.

50. At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien. A silly novel that was meta before meta existed, with a novel within a novel that sees its characters revolt against their fictional author. It also spawned the greatest endorsement in the history of the novel, from Dylan Thomas: “This is just the book to give your sister … if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

49. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Full review. A great comic novel about a mostly-normal professor at a small English college who is surrounded by wackos and manages to get himself into increasing quantities of trouble.

48. I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. A tour de force of historical fiction, told from the perspective of Claudius, the slightly lame and (as we learn) totally insecure man who survived decades of political intrigues and murders to become first Caligula’s consul and later an exalted Emperor of Rome.

47. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. A protest novel and an affectionate portrait of the title character, whose name has sadly been misused as an intra-racial insult by people who do not appear to have read the book.

46. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I often vacillate on the question of my favorite Vonnegut novel, so I’ve punted and gone with the experts’ pick. Although I can almost certainly say that this wasn’t my favorite, it is one of his most coherent, and at the same time has enough wackiness and weirdness and Kilgore Trout to be undeniably Vonnegut.

45. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas père. Filled with a chewy nougat center … um, and lots of adventure, with a pair of villains, plenty of treachery, a young man seeking to become the fourth musketeer … and a smooth milk chocolate exterior.

44. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. So simple in style that it reads like a fable meant to be told through the generations, with an unflinching message about the effects of colonialism on Africa’s culture and its people. Its sequel, No Longer at Ease, is also worth your time, even though it runs over similar ground.

43. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. A comic novel in a serious setting, Cuckoo’s Nest always struck me as the dissection of a power struggle between two people and a statement on how leaders, and perhaps governments, attempt to sway the hearts of men. The pickup basketball game remains a personal favorite scene of mine.

42. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A novel of serious moral questions, of Dostoevsky’s own philosophy blending Christianity with existentialism, of redemption, and most of all of the power of rationalization.

41. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien. One ring to rule them all.

The Klaw 100, part two.

Part one (#100-81)
Part three (#60-41)
Part four (#40-21)
Part five (#20-1)

80. Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. An extremely easy read, despite the references to some characters by roles (“Mother’s Younger Brother”) rather than names, with rolling, twisting plot lines and text that takes you into another era.

79. Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. Full review. A classic gothic mystery, which also led to Alfred Hitchcock’s only non-honorary Oscar.

78. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. Overlooked now, probably because of the rather unflattering depiction of a Jewish character, it’s a fast-paced and tense adventure story that deserves to be read by readers who understand its historical context. (And it’s hardly the only book on this list to take its shots at Jews.)

77. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. Full review. Morrison’s second-best novel, the story of a black family divided through two generations and of one of the sons, Milkman Dead, who is searching for his own identity in the world.

76. A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi wa’Thiongo. One of the best and most important novels written by an African author, Grain depicts a Kenyan village divided by the white colonial authorities, who use their power to split and oppress the people whose land they rule.

75. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. Full review. Beautifully written tale of good and evil with an uncomfortably high level of violence.

74. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. A novella in the ruined-woman genre, The Awakening takes the story of Anna Karenina, transfers it to New Orleans, and condenses it to focus strictly on the woman, her choices, and the society that boxes her into a corner.

73. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. An under-read Russian novel, like Goncharov’s Oblomov, Fathers and Sons captures a generational clash that threatens the traditional way of life in Russia, while introducing the then-chic philosophy of nihilism to the broader public.

72. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Full review. Hosseini’s second book wasn’t quite the tear-jerker that his first was, but still had power in its subtlety, with the occasional burst of drama to keep you alert.

71. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe. Another straight narrative without breaks, Moll is a picaresque novel and a twisted morality tale that follows a woman of uncertain scruples through her entire life, from her birth in a prison to her life as a prostitute to her eventual rise to wealth.

70. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett. An early and now somewhat-overlooked picaresque novel by one of the first great novelists and translators in the English language.

69. Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I struggled a little bit with this one; it’s a children’s novel, but it’s not. It’s more of a modern epic, a fable about a warren of rabbits who find their home threatened by human development, with one rabbit emerging as a hero through his own wiles and personal growth. The book is so good that it violates two of my core rules, that a book with a map or with a glossary should be avoided.

68. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Criminally overlooked for decades, Eyes has become a classic in the growing canon of African-American literature. Its use of dialect cleared the path for Alice Walker and the grandmaster of the genre, Toni Morrison.

67. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. One of the leading dystopian novels with Orwell’s 1984, which is coming up on this list. Huxley’s depiction of a world overrun by technology was both prescient and paranoid, and perhaps rings more true than Orwell’s work given subsequent developments.

66. Monarch of the Glen, by Compton Mackenzie. Full review. Brilliantly funny. Currently out of print in the U.S., although it remains in print in England.

65. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is half of the pair of leading lights of the hard-boiled detective genre, and The Big Sleep was his best work, with sleuth Philip Marlowe as the pensive star, with dry wit and filled glass and a very clear moral compass.

64. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren.Full review. The fictionalized story of the rise and fall of Huey “Kingfish” Long, told almost as the backdrop for the story of the narrator, political crony Jack Burden.

63. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark. Full review. A novel of feminism, of religious ideologies (and fascism!), told with an unusual and effective back-and-forth narrative style and a dose of humor.

62. The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. A scathing indictment of early Hollywood culture and its pernicious effects on those who chase its rainbows.

61. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow. Far more enjoyable than the self-loathing of Herzog, Henderson employs humor and a touch of the absurd to explore the meaning of life and one über-successful yet spiritually unfulfilled man’s search for it in the hinterlands of Africa.