The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.

Stand on Zanzibar.

John Brunner’s 1968 dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar – still just $5 for the kindle through that link, or on iBooks – goes much farther than most preceding entries in the dystopian genre, with a rich, multithreaded plot and a vision of a world headed for collapse rather than one already there. It foresaw the rising power of multinational corporations and the widening gap between developed and developing nations, as well as offering a particularly prescient take on the importance and use of big data and machine-learning techniques decades before such things were even feasible.

The core plot of Stand on Zanzibar involves the effort by General Technics, one of the world’s largest companies, to execute a de facto takeover of the economy of the small, neutral (and fictional) west African nation of Beninia, which is caught geographically and politically between two unions of neighboring countries, Dahomalia and RUNG (a union of Nigeria and Ghana). Beninia is poor but in its own way paradisical, a sort of third-world Switzerland that has managed to assimilate various invaders over the preceding millennium. GT’s effort involves help from the U.S. government via their ambassador to Beninia, Elihu, and the GT executive Norman House, an “afram” man who feels he’s abandoned his racial identity to play white so he can move up the corporate ladder.

Meanwhile, Norman’s roommate, Donald Hogan, is a synthesist – a sleeper agent of the U.S. government paid simply to learn: he reads everything he can in selected subject areas and looks for connections and patterns that only he might pick up. Yet he’s “activated” after ten years on the job and “eptified” (retrained) as an assassin so he can go to the southeast Asian power Yatakang to see if the country’s claimed ability to genetically engineer their children to create a generation of supermen has any merit.

These two plots are intertwined on the page but not in fact, as there’s no practical connection between the two stories other than their shared setting in an overpopulated 21st-century Earth where everything’s gone a bit backwards. Most of the world limits reproduction (like China’s now-discarded “one child” rule), and most U.S. states have laws prohibiting reproduction by anyone with harmful or merely undesirable traits in their genotype, from diabetes to colorblindness. Many women (called “shiggies” in the strange lexicon of the book) live without permanent addresses, living with sexual partners and moving from one apartment to the next. Technology is pervasive, although Brunner’s vision of a future fifty years hence was a bit further off in this department. And entire neighborhoods, mostly non-white ones, are unsafe to walk in, with riots breaking out frequently when the mostly-white police officers (in “prowlies”) come through.

The structure of the book follows John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy in feel and structure, with mini-chapters between the narrative chapters that offer us headlines or snippets from news stories, or vignettes of side characters whose lives are unrelated to the main plots but still reflect the declining world of the novel. Some of them are simply unreadable, coming as lists or stream-of-consciousness nonsense, while others provide useful context for the events in the narrative chapters to follow. But the constant interruptions break the flow of the overall narrative and add to the disjointed feel of a novel with two unrelated core plots that are merely set in the same world.

The one exception to everything I just wrote is the introduction of Chad Mulligan, a sociologist and commentator who, in this novel, is a successful author of popular, anti-establishment books that argue in favor of mostly libertarian values, showing very little trust of government or corporations. Mulligan’s Hipcrime Vocab is an updated Devil’s Dictionary for this fictional universe, and like Bierce’s work the entries are often very funny.

Brunner created his own vocabulary for this book, mostly to its detriment, in part because it feels very derivative of the Russian-English hybrid Anthony Burgess used in A Clockwork Orange. Terms like “shiggy,” “biv” (a bisexual person), “mucker” (someone who runs amok – a domestic terrorist, in modern parlance) are distracting enough, but his replacements for a.m. and p.m., “anti-matter” and “poppa-momma,” reek of an attempt to sound contemporary to late 1960s readers. Most sci-fi novels attempt to incorporate some sort of new vernacular, but it’s far more effective when the neologisms represent new things or ideas, rather than simply renaming something for which we already have multiple terms.

Where Brunner succeeds, however, is with the two stories; either one would have stood well on its own as a shorter novel, and together they do at least present a more complete picture of this world toward which Brunner likely saw us descending. The novel would be a sociology student’s dream, as Brunner’s focus was less on characterization (it’s not weak, but hardly a strength) than on painting this world and moving the forces within it to explore the effects. That produced a novel that is certainly readable but is even more one to ponder long after finishing.

Next up: Still working on Hugo winners, so I knocked off Robert Heinlein’s Double Star last week and have now started Dan Simmons’s Hyperion.

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.

The Heart of Midlothian and other recent reads.

I hosted the Baseball Tonight podcast today, and will do so three more times in the next week – Thursday, Friday, and Monday the 18th.

Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian was the last of his Waverly novels, a series of books set in the Scottish highlands that drew on local culture and tradition (distinct from that of England), including use of the local dialect, an aspect of his books that does nothing so much as make them harder to read. Scott also liked to mine true historical events to form the backdrops for his novels, and here chose the Porteus Riot, a major event in Scottish nationalism where a vicious English military commander who was pardoned after receiving a death sentence for firing on protesters was himself kidnapped and lynched by another protest mob. That story opens the novel – of course, it’s the most satisfying passage in the entire book – so that Scott can lay the historical groundwork while also borrowing one of the perpetrators of the lynching, George Staunton, for a central character in his story.

Jeanie and Effie Deans are half-sisters, living as tenant smallholders on a larger estate with their twice-widowed father David. Jeanie is relentlessly good: honest, pious, meek, in love with her neighbor the local minister but afraid to marry him due to her father’s disapproval. Effie is the wild child, and ends up disappearing from home briefly, only to return and be arrested on suspicion of infanticide under a new, cruel English law that allowed for the conviction of a mother even if no proof of the murder (like a body) could be established. Jeanie is given the chance to exonerate her sister with a tiny lie at trial, but refuses to do so after swearing before God to tell the truth, a step that sends her daughter to death row and forces her to make the long journey to London, some of it on foot, to seek the Queen’s pardon.

Scott worked in the era of the gothic novel and the romance, before the rise of realism in the 1800s, so all of his works are blatantly melodramatic. Every character is just so good or just so bad; every conversation, especially those between fathers and daughters or sons, is wrought with emotion. It’s too easy for the modern reader to tune this out because of the unrealistic nature of the dialogue, and Scott’s overreliance on heavy, coincidental plot twists probably doubled the length of the book. It also reads much slower than a typical novel of that era, as he uses muckle Scottish words the modern reader won’t likely ken.

This leaves me with two books remaining on the Bloomsbury 100 – Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I’ll tackle later this month, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which seems like a fitting way to (try to) finish the list.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, which is probably why I picked it up at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe back in March; for the life of me I can’t find a better reason for me to have done so, as the book was absolutely dismal and relied on some now-hackneyed plot twists to get to where we always knew it was going.

The gathering of the book’s title refers to the many siblings of the narrator, Veronica, coming together for the funeral of their brother Liam, a cheerful, promiscuous, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who took his own life by drowning himself off the shore of Brighton. Veronica unpeels the layers of her family’s history, with unsparing candor and graphic language, to determine the cause of Liam’s depression and decision to take his own life, but also to examine her dissatisfaction with her own. She goes back to her grandparents, over her family’s comically fertile history, and eventually to the incident she witnessed as a child – the sexual abuse of Liam by a close family friend – that she blames for his lack of anchoring, his sexual rapacity and carelessness, and the inner void with which he apparently lived his entire life.

The book is absolutely dreadful. Veronica’s grief doesn’t play out as emotion beyond self-pity; she looks back at her family history and forward at her own life with incredible dispassion. Not only is she unsympathetic – she seems unreal. If she’s as broken as Liam, she never explains why. Her only moments of grief that ring true are those where she thinks Liam is there, or expects him to be so; coming to terms with the permanent loss of a family member or friend who’s “always been there” means facing the grief anew every time you think that Liam is going to call or might be standing in the room, only to have you realize he’s gone.

As for the Man Booker Prize … well, I’ve read a handful of them, and there’s a clear affinity for this type of novel, which is why I have never decided to work through that list of books as I have with several others.


Caroline Blackwood’s novella Great Granny Webster is creepy, weird, and compelling for its depiction of one of the strangest villains I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. The great-grandmother of the title is a woman decidedly stuck in the past, refusing any sort of adjustment to modern life or conveniences, waiting out her own demise in a decaying manse, neither spending nor sharing her immense fortune, mostly cut off from her relatives – not least her daughter, in an insane asylum due to what would today be recognized as schizophrenia. Based on episodes from Blackwood’s own childhood, Great Granny Webster has no overtly sinister elements; there’s no murder or intrigue, no suspense, no hammer to eventually drop. The macabre feel comes from the shocking behavior of the main character, who appears not as evil but as the complete absence of empathy, and the environment in which she lives, which is so austere as to make an ascetic hermit worry his life is too opulent. At just 100 pages it’s a quick read, not comparable to anything I’ve read before, although it might not even be as fascinating as Blackwood’s own life, which included a marriage to the American poet Robert Lowell.

My wife bought Christine Trent’s Stolen Remains for me as a birthday gift, knowing my penchant for mysteries with an English twist. The second in a series revolving around a British female undertaker in the 19th century who solves murders thanks to an impossible series of coincidences that put her in position to do so, in this case because Queen Victoria liked her work when burying the Prince Consort and now wants her to handle the burial of a Viscount who died mysteriously after returning from an official trip to Egypt with good ol’ Prince Bertie.

Forcing the lead character here to be female, a historically unlikely situation to be kind, requires a suspension of disbelief that I had a hard time mustering – and that suspension was further challenged by some incredibly silly behavior, too-modern dialogue, and those numerous coincidences that kept the plot going. Trent also goes too far in the direction of historical fiction by weaving in more real people than the novel can support, and she makes what I’d consider a rookie mistake with an obvious variation on Chekhov’s gun: Any time a mystery novelist tells you early in a book that someone disappeared and is presumed dead, you know the character will appear at some point and be involved in some significant fashion in the murder or its denouement.

Next up: I just finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked, which merits its own full review, and am about to start Charles Finch’s mystery novel A Beautiful Blue Death, both also birthday gifts from my wife (as was Great Granny Webster … I tend to read books in the order in which I got them).

Kipps and Dangerous Liaisons.

Last week’s ESPN content included a look at a few top prospects who were called up and a Klawchat. I also contributed to the new Future Power Rankings by naming a “new #GUY” prospect for each system, ignoring players who were just drafted in June or who were previously on my top 50/100.

I’d only read one H.G. Wells novel, his sci-fi/social commentary classic The Time Machine, before encountering Kipps The Story of a Simple Soul on the Bloomsbury 100. Another novel of deep social criticism, Kipps represents Wells’ attack on the gulf between haves and have-nots in late 19th century England while simultaneously rejecting socialism as a solution, wrapped in the envelope of a rags-to-riches-to-rags romance that works effectively on its own and as a delivery mechanism for Wells’ polemics.

Kipps himself is Arthur “Artie” Kipps, who has been shipped off by his mother (with his father unknown) to be raised by his Puritanical and simple-minded aunt and uncle. While attending a useless primary school, he falls in love with Ann, the sister of his best friend Sid, only to lose track of her when he begins his apprenticeship as a draper at age 14. The drudgery and limited outlook for working-class children sent into this sort of indentured servitude comes under Wells’ fire, as does the factory system’s wide latitude for employers to cheat their helpless employees. Kipps ends up the recipient of a windfall inheritance, seeking then to raise himself up above his lower-class upbringing, yet also struggling with questions of moral responsibility associated with his newfound wealth, many raised by the minor character Masterman – an ardent socialist dying of tuberculosis. Kipps’ fortune disappears almost as quickly as he obtained it, and it is in his response to this turn of events that his inner character emerges from the facade of the semi-polished and utterly superficial Kipps of the book’s middle section.

Wells wrote Kipps with a satirist’s pen, mocking people with wealth and power at every turn yet never sparing those poor in all but ideas. Masterman’s polemics on capitalism are somewhat undercut by Wells’ decision to make the novel’s one socialist – or its only real philosopher of any sort – terminally ill with a disease known at the time as “consumption.” Kipps’ sudden acquisition of wealth changes the way nearly everyone in his life treats him, turning many supporting characters into comic relief, while also throwing him into many situations he finds embarrassing that are also send-ups of the circumstances that created them, such as a scene in the fine restaurant of the hotel he’s inhabiting, where walking in with the wrong shoes is just the first of his problems. The reader can only feel badly for Kipps, who is a stranger in the strange land of privilege, while scorning the various aristocrats who’d look down on him for his naivete.

The romance plot is the overarching storyline in the book, covering Kipps from childhood till the point when he loses his fortune (in predictable, but yet somewhat amusing fashion), even though it functions as a subplot under the more academic themes relating to Kipps’ career and time as one of the idle rich. Kipps’ childhood romance with Ann lasts until he turns 14 and leaves for a career in fabric, after which he ends up with a crush on the more sophisticated Helen Walsingham, who views him sympathetically but without much interest until his inheritance turns up. The way in which Kipps acquires that money doesn’t fit neatly into either plot line, but also provides one of the book’s most entertaining passages, particularly because the non-drinker Kipps goes on a lengthy bender that leads to an improbable connection to the lost money, while leading into a lengthy fish-out-of-water passage where Kipps flops and flounders his way through upper-class society.

Wells mimics lower-class speech in Kipps’ dialogue, with liaisons like “a nactor” for “an actor” and elisions like “mis’bel” for “miserable,” which can make reading the text a little slower, but he more than makes up for it with direct, modern prose that avoids the sluggishness that I’ve encountered in some of the other Bloomsbury 100 novels, even contemporaries of Kipps. It’s funny, cutting, sweet, and still quite relevant in a time of rising income inequality in capitalist societies yet in a world where socialist economies have failed.

I also knocked out Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons*, which appears on both the Bloomsbury and Guardian lists, although it took a solid week to get through the tedious prose and absurdly long letters between the main characters. Focusing on a romantic rivalry between the rake the Viscomte de Valmont and his quondam paramour the Marquise de Merteuil, both gleefully free of morals and engaged in multiple intrigues simultaneously. Their rivalry leads Valmont to “seduce” (rape, in modern terms) the 15-year-old ingenue Cécile de Volanges, which in turns sets their mutual downfall in motion.

*Not to be confused with “Dangeresque Liaisons.”

For a work involving sex (most of it of the consensual variety) and betrayal, Dangerous Liaisons is a plodding read, as the entire book comprises letters between the various characters floridly describing what they just did, or what they might do next, or (in Cécile’s case) what they would just like to do. I assume Laclos was moralizing in two ways, over promiscuity/infidelity but also over those who treat others as mere pawns for their own gains or pleasures, as both Valmont and Merteuil treat multiple lovers (or victims) in this way over the course of the novel. Yet Laclos makes the novel so one-sided that it fast becomes boring, in the way that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward wears out its welcome with sermonizing on how the world should be.

I haven’t seen the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (a film adapted from a play adapted from a novel) starring John Malkovich (really?) as the roué Valmont, but I did watch the 1989 adaptation Valmont, with the far more believable Colin Firth in the role of the cad. That version altered the ending far too much to be considered a reasonable adaptation, crafting happy-ish endings for several characters and avoiding the more serious aspects of the novel’s depictions of Valmont and Merteuil (played by Annette Bening, also a solid casting choice).

Next up: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, another selection from the Bloomsbury 100, and a novel that has appeared on at least two lists of the most important novels in the German canon.

The Ministry of Fear.

My quick reactions post to the Futures Game went up last night for Insiders.

I’m a huge fan of Graham Greene’s works, having read more novels by him than any other writer not named Wodehouse or Christie. Greene is probably best remembered today for his “Catholic novels” – a group that includes The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and my favorite of them, The Power and the Glory – and if you look for his works in any bookstore, independent or big-box, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Yet Greene also produced suspense novels he derided as “entertainments,” mostly spy novels, which varied from straight-ahead intrigues (The Confidential Agent) to parodic works with serious themes below the humor (Our Man in Havana, which is on the Klaw 100).

The Ministry of Fear is one of Greene’s entertainments, a serious spy novel that revolves around a bit of mistaken identity to delve into existential questions of identity and memory and the morality of crime and murder in wartime. It is tremendously entertaining, with an everyman protagonist who becomes a hunted man when he inadvertently wins a cake intended for an actual spy at a local fair, and well-paced, while avoiding the sense of empty calories you might find in a more formulaic, pulp-fiction spy story.

Arthur Rowe is a bit of a sad-sack widower who enters a fortune-teller’s tent at that local fair, a brief decision that lands him the cake and a significant amount of trouble, especially when he refuses to give or sell the cake to its intended recipient. This coincidence puts Arthur on the run after an attempt on his life and a frame-up for a crime committed with his own schoolboy’s knife, bringing him into conflict with a past of his own that he’s trying to escape, even as his mind refuses to give him freedom.

A good spy or suspense novel needs its share of twists, and Greene gives us several, most of which I haven’t mentioned here to avoid spoilers. There are at least five major plot points that might count as surprises, although I thought the denouement was rather predictable given what came before – mostly that we run out of culprits, but also because the genre teaches us to look for the most shocking answer to the novel’s main question. Greene sustains The Ministry of Fear in spite of that one foreseeable outcome because of the depth of his characterization of Rowe, a more complex man under the surface than Greene’s initial presentation of him would indicate. Rowe is emotionally exhausted, looking for closure, careening from moments of great inner strength to severe defeatism. He can be clueless, but in crises shows quicker resolve and remarkable deductive reasoning skills. He’s full of pity, but is not as pathetic as he’d seem, even flashing a cold streak when that will get him what he wants or needs. He’s neither hero nor antihero, a protagonist whom the reader wants to ‘win’ but whose terms of victory are not quite what we’d want for him.

The Ministry of Fear can’t succeed as a spy novel unless it gets the “spy” part right, and I believe that it does so with a plot that moves quickly with sufficient narrative greed to pull the reader forward, as well as enough twists and turns to keep the suspense level high (until that one climactic twist). It works as a novel because Greene was almost completely incapable of writing a novel, even an unserious one, without creating at least one strong character, while using the same voice and phrasing that made him a master of English fiction.

In between the last blog post and this one, I read three classics from the Bloomsbury 100 list: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. None seemed worth a full post; Franklin’s book was the most interesting, a very early work of feminist literature where the young protagonist chafes under the societal restrictions that prevent her from receiving the same education or opportunities as men her age. Written when Franklin was just 21, the book describes the efforts of her stand-in main character to develop her independence when her fate is determined by others around her, nearly all of them male. She has but one decision she can make for herself, and makes it even if the world around her would view it as foolish.

Next up: Herman Koch’s 2013 novel The Dinner.

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.

Waverley.

Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. Next post from me will be a projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 Draft, going up Tuesday.

Walter Scott’s Waverley has earned praise from a diverse group of writers from Jane Austen to the Marxist philosopher György Lukács and was 84th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, all based on its status as one of the first historical novels as well as a major social document about the second-class status of Scottish people within the United Kingdom during the 1700s. Perhaps it’s my modern sensibilities or merely my age showing, but I found Waverley‘s dated prose an incredibly slow read, for the language itself, for the bland story, and for Scott’s circuitous route to every point, no matter how minor.

The novel revolves around the title character, a sort of latter-day Tom Jones whose adventures are less bawdy and more political, as he becomes wrapped up in the Jacobite rebellion and ends up fighting for Charles the Pretender in his failed attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne. Edward Waverley is more or less cast aside by his ambitious biological father and reared instead by a Jacobite-leaning uncle who gives his ward a cursory education and encourages him to join the army to find a vocation befitting his birth. On leave from the army, he finds himself introduced first to a band of Highland bandits and then to the chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor, who leads one of the units in the ragtag revolutionary army seeking to install the young Charles as king. It’s all a hell of a lot less interesting than this sounds, though, as the title character has very little personality of his own and is as much witness as participant in the major historical events within the book.

Waverley, fundamentally a work of historical fiction (the subtitle is “’Tis Sixty Years Since”), incorporates elements of the picaresque through side characters, from Miss Nosebag, all up in everybody’s business, to the fatuous Baron Bradwardine, who peppers his speech with bons mots from sundry foreign tongues. That makes the book a little lighter, but it’s never actually funny, and the funny-name characters (according to Roger Ebert, funny names themselves are never funny) delivery some pretty obvious jokes. The book needed some levity amidst all the grandstanding about English oppression in ol’ Caledonia and a rather uninteresting love triangle, but one-joke side characters don’t cut it.

Scott strongly emphasizes Scottish history, culture, and even dialects, sprinkling the book with Scottish-English vernacular and rendering many characters’ speech phonetically, which served as yet another obstacle to working through his sentences. He originally published the novel anonymously despite his established reputation as a poet, likely because he didn’t want to be associated with the work of verbal quicksand he’d produced. (He failed, as writers and critics apparently recognized his voice immediately.) I understand that the subject matter and his even-handed treatment of both peasants and gentry would have seemed novel at the time, but 200 years later it’s unremarkable and didn’t do anything to sustain my interest.

Perhaps I’m the last person to criticize an author for long sentences, but I imagine Scott served as an inspiration for Proust, or perhaps an excuse (“Well, if Wally Scott could go 60 words between periods, why can’t I go 80?”). The length of the sentences, the heavy use of dialect and phonetic spellings, and the fact that long stretches of the book go by with nothing happening made it a tough slog – in fact, I started reading it in the fall of 2010, put it back on the shelf, and started over last week. If it wasn’t on the Novel 100 I probably would have given up a second time, this one for good.

Next up: I just finished Graham Greene’s tragicomic spy novel The Honorary Consul this morning.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

My Dan Haren analysis is up for Insiders, and I’ve got another post up on Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame case with some other notes and links.

Who actually wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare? Is it possible that an uneducated moneylender and son of a Stratford glover could write over thirty plays that display the knowledge of a world traveler and the vocabulary of an alumnus of Oxford or Cambridge? This question has interested critics and scholars for two centuries, a story recounted in Columbia professor James Shapiro’s book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, a thorough and surprisingly balanced look at the controversy and the cases for the two major alternative candidates, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere.

Shapiro explains in the introduction that he believes that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were, in fact, written by the glover’s son, but he presents the cases for Bacon and de Vere thoroughly and fairly – I might even say a little drily – before providing his rebuttals to each. He also lays out the arguments for Shakespeare and explanations why the doubts about his authorship are likely unfounded, based on erroneous assumptions about Shakespeare’s life and the times in which he lived. Even though I’m only somewhat familiar with Shakespeare’s works – I’ve only read three of his plays and have seen stage or film adaptations of three others (including the impeccable Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing) – I didn’t find that a handicap in reading or enjoying the story, which lays out a little like a mystery and a little like a psychological study of the people who so readily embrace conspiracy theories about why Shakespeare’s name appears on 33 plays and dozens of sonnets that he didn’t actually write. Along the way, Shapiro tells the story of the American Delia Bacon, of no apparent relation to Francis, whose support of her namesake became the monomaniacal focus of her life; of Sigmund Freud’s own obsession with the authorship question and belief that the Stratford man didn’t write his plays; and of the fact that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights on at least five of his plays, a point that poses many problems for proponents of alternative candidates.

One of the funniest parts of the case for Edward de Vere is the inconvenient truth that he died in 1604, yet as many of nine of Shakespeare’s plays didn’t appear until after that date, one of many problems with so-called “Oxfordian theory” (de Vere was the Earl of Oxford) that Shapiro says de Vere’s supporters handwave away or spin in a way that supports their man. There’s even a corollary to Oxfordian theory that has de Vere as both the son of Queen Elizabeth and her lover, and the two as the parents of the Earl of Southampton, which brings to my mind the funny image of a bunch of Elizabethan-era Britons running around with tin foil hats over their powdered wigs.

Despite Shapiro’s embrace of the glover’s son as the man behind the quill, he does acknowledge some of the aspects of the case that have led to the rise of alternative theories. There’s a lack of documentation of Shakespeare’s life; his books and manuscripts are gone, and much of what we do have about his life pertains to his work as a moneylender and investor. His plays have a worldly quality that he himself seems to have lacked, although that objection may arise from our own tendency to assume his world was far more like ours than it actually was. Difficulty reconciling what we do know of Shakespeare the man with what we see in his works has led to the search for other candidates, but Shapiro slyly demonstrates that such sentiments arise from conscious or subconscious class prejudices – how could an uneducated man, the son of a working-class father, have written such beautiful, erudite plays and poems?

Shapiro does mention some of the other proposed candidates for authorship of the play, but there are over fifty and the number seems to keep growing, so he focuses on the two with the strongest cases and most devoted followings. The argument for Bacon has lost steam over the last fifty years or so, and I found the lengthy explanation to get a little dry in spots, but the case for de Vere is more complex and unintentionally fun while also allowing Shapiro to delve more into the psychology of his supporters and the way that changes in how information is disseminated have allowed fringe theories to prosper, such as the “fairness” rules in media and the rise of sites like Wikipedia, where expert opinions and amateur opinions sit side by side without extra weight on the former. (For a funny, uneven, but thought-provoking polemic on this very subject, check out Andrew Keen’s 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur.) I entered this book with no knowledge of the authorship question beyond the question’s existence, but Shapiro sets up the cases for Bacon and de Vere and knocks them down in a way that I imagine would make it hard for those candidates’ proponents to recover without adding another layer of foil to their headgear. He does veer a little too deeply into explanations of “textual analysis,” which seems like extremely dangerous ground that leaves the door open for almost any interpretation the interpreter likes, but as someone who enjoys analyzing meaning and metaphor in literature I found the explanation of how attempts to identify Shakespeare’s works as inherently autobiographical led scholars down the slippery slope into thinking that space aliens from Phobos wrote them sobering. It won’t change anyone’s enjoyment of the plays, but Contested Will is an intelligent look at one of literature’s most enduring controversies.

The Death of the Heart.

TV today – ESPNEWS at 2:40 and Outside the Lines in the 3 pm half-hour, both EDT.

Articles: Preview of the signing deadline. First report from the Under Armour Game. Second report should be up this afternoon.

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart appears on both the TIME and Bloomsbury lists and ranked 84th on the Modern Library 100; TIME‘s Richard Lacayo praised the way Bowen used the main character, 16-year-old ingenue/orphan Portia, to reveal the cruelty of the characters around her: “In the mirror of her innocent eyes, experience will catch a glimpse of its own reflection. It’s not a pretty picture.”

This theme was unmistakeable, as Portia is particularly useful to Bowen in laying bare the selfish, jealous, spiteful nature of Anna, wife of Portia’s half-brother Thomas; after Portia’s parents die, she goes to stay with Anna and Thomas in London, only to find herself tied up in the quiet, seething resentment and anger between them, Anna’s paramours (whether consummated or not isn’t quite clear, although I don’t think it needs to be), and that most essential element in any English novel, the servants. Bowen does infuse some comic elements, but the novel’s greatest strength is in her descriptive prose:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long. She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learn shyness from the alarm they precipitate. Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered – they dare come to rest nowhere but on a point in space; their homeless intentness makes them appear fanatical. They may move, they may affront, but they cannot communicate. You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face – what becomes of the child later you do not know.

Bowen also has a little fun with caricatures, not of whole characters but of little traits, some humorous, some shocking:

She walked about with the rather fate expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered, but nothing had so far happened to her…

But ultimately, The Death of the Heart is dull. Very little happens; Portia falls for one of Anna’s beaux, the shiftless, irresponsible Eddie, earning the scorn of just about everyone around her and heading for an inevitable heartbreak at Eddie’s hands. Bowen focuses so heavily on emotions and settings that the plot, while not truly thin, is short, and the novel’s end brought release from the oppressive air of the time period.

Next up: Non-fiction with Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, the story of his year in exile in a tiny mountain village in southern Italy.