The Vorrh & the Erstwhile.

The British author-painter B. Catling’s dark, surrealist novels The Vorrh and its sequel, The Erstwhile, reflect his background as an artist while also drawing on the traditions of magical realism from postcolonial literary lights like Gabriel García Márquez. Set in in a fictional German colony in central Africa between the two world wars, where the forest known as the Vorrh functions as a Gaia-like sentient entity, the novels explore an expansive tapestry of characters and settings that Catling manages to weave together in totally unexpected ways.

I read The Vorrh, the first book in the trilogy (with book three, The Cloven, due out next May), back in January of 2016, while I was out with a respiratory infection that nearly put me in the hospital, with fevers of 102-103 every day for almost a full week, so I never reviewed the book here and probably don’t remember it as well as I think I do … although if ever there was a novel to be read while feverish and slightly delusional, The Vorrh is it. Catling spends a lot of that book building his world, including the mythology of the forest, which can cause people to lose their memories after just a few hours inside its boundaries, and the real/unreal city of Essenwald located at its edge, where German authorities and businessmen live and attempt to exploit the area’s natural resources, a city relocated brick-by-brick from the homeland. The novel introduces many major characters who’ll appear again in The Erstwhile, including Ishmael, the cyclops-man of uncertain origin; Ghertrude and Cyrena, two sheltered women of Essenwald; and the Mutter family, who maintain a house with mysterious denizens in its basement. The first novel also introduces Williams, the explorer who seeks to traverse the Vorrh but loses much in the process, and Tsungali, the native who seeks to kill Williams for his own murky reasons. Little is clear, by design, including the ways in which these characters’ stories will meet, recombine, and separate over the course of the trilogy.

The Erstwhile starts to elucidate some of what’s happening in the Vorrh and what the Vorrh itself seems to be doing outside of the city, including the beings of the book’s title, fallen angels in semi-human form who have been forgotten by God and live bizarre, parallel existences around the forest, with several of them now residing in European hospitals where they’re studied by researchers. Sidrus, a secondary character in book one where he tries to protect Williams from Tsungali, takes on a larger role here as he seeks to avenge himself against his enemies, including Ishmael. William Blake, himself a painter and poet, appears briefly on its pages, as his painting Nebuchadnezzar adorns the book’s cover and, it turns out, is a painting of one of the Erstwhile. Ghertrude gives birth, only to find that the basement-dwelling Kin have other plans for the child. Ishmael finds himself called upon by the city’s business leaders to try to find the Limboia, native timber workers whose minds have been erased by years of working in the Vorrh, but who disappeared without a trace some years earlier, because Ishmael is the only man known to have spent significant time in the forest without losing his mind. We also meet the aged German theology professor Hector Schumann, who becomes a central character as he meets the various Erstwhile living in facilities in Germany and England, and whose connection to these beings and the Vorrh itself remains a mystery even at the end of book two.

Catling has woven himself quite a story through two-thirds of the series, one that I’m still not entirely convinced he can complete in satisfying fashion in the third book given how involved and strange the various threads have been so far. The first book could stand on its own because he’d created a new world that was credible and yet impossible, with richly drawn characters and evocative prose that gave depth and color to his otherworldly setting. Crafting a coherent story with this many characters across multiple locales is another matter, however, and The Erstwhile moves everything forward without much resolution – which may come in The Cloven, although the ending of The Erstwhile was a particularly unsatisfying given how the characters got to that point (including a needlessly graphic torture-murder). That specific event at the book’s conclusion needs further elucidation in book three, as does Schumann’s role in all of this, and where the child Rowena fits in, and what exactly the Vorrh is trying to achieve for itself. Catling has certainly set up a difficult task for the third book, but so much of these first two books compelled me to keep reading that I’m going to continue to see just how he manages to resolve all of these plots.

Next up: I just finished Barry Estabrook’s expose of the modern pork industry, Pig Tales, and have begun my friend Jay Jaffe’s upcoming The Cooperstown Casebook, due out July 25th.

The Buried Giant.

I held a Klawchat on Thursday, and I reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nomianted family boardgame Broom Service for Paste.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.

The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.

Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?

Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?

Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.

Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

A Tale for the Time Being.

I get book recommendations from lots of places, many from all of you and many from friends who are bookworms like I am, but Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being came to me via a new route – call it Strangers on a Plane. I was on a flight at some point last year, I think heading to the AFL in October, and the guy sitting next to me was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. I mentioned that it was among my favorite novels, and asked if he’d read any Murakami, which he had, spurring a brief and very rapid-fire chat about modern Japanese (including Japanese expats) literature. He mentioned Ozeki’s novel, which I’d never heard of, recommending it very highly given what else I said I liked. It’s not quite like Murakami or Ishiguro – both of whom are idiosyncratic enough to make it hard for anyone to be “like” either of them – but Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest who lives in British Columbia, has a similar knack with magical realism as Murakami does: A little bit goes a very long way.

A Tale for the Time Being is two stories woven into one, a duality even reflected in the book’s title, as a “time being” is a Buddhist concept (uji) developed by the writer D?gen Zenji, who believed that all time is being and all beings are therefore time. (Whether time is a flat circle he did not say.) Time is a flow, comparable to a river, and all beings exist within time, even though our lives here are momentary. The protagonist of the first story, named Nao (pronounced “now,” another allusion to time and temporality), narrates her own story through entries in a diary she intends to leave for someone else to find at random, a story she refers to as “for the time-being.” Her diary does indeed make its way to someone, a woman on a remote island in British Columbia named Ruth, who lives with her husband Oliver and their idiot cat Pesto. The diary washes up after the 2012 earthquake and tsunami, spurring speculation among the 50 or so residents of the island, but discusses events from over a decade earlier, including Nao’s father’s repeated attempts at suicide and her own intention to do the same when she finishes the diary.

And then it gets really weird: Although the two stories are separated by time and geography, they begin to bleed into each other in ways that don’t quite add up, eventually culminating in the disappearance of text from the last few pages of the diary – a lack of resolution in Nao’s story that Ruth herself has to fix. Saying more would spoil the book’s denuouement, but Ozeki employs this one instance of magical realism (everything else is hyperrealistic, but not actually impossible) to tie her main story and the quasi-metafictional diary story together.

That connection itself lends itself to many interpretations. There’s a crow who keeps appearing on Ruth’s island who may be spiritually connected to Nao or her family. Ozeki alludes to several quantum concepts, including Schrodinger’s cat paradox and the many-worlds interpretation of the effect observation has on quantum phenomena, and may even be teasing the concept of the ‘quantum soul,’ itself an odd marriage of hard physics and the metaphysical. While there’s nothing as cataclysmic as Ray Bradbury’s “The Butterfly Effect,” I found the similarity between the classical statement of this effect – a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa leads to a hurricane in the Americas – and Nao’s struggles to find her own wings eventually affecting Ruth across another vast ocean to be improbably coincidental.

Magical realism and the specific ribbon Ozeki uses to interlace her two narratives aren’t the source of the book’s narrative greed, however, nor is it her fictional version of herself, especially since Ruth’s conversations with Oliver veer into pretentiousness too often. It’s Nao herself, precocious rather than pretentious, a bright teenager who is at-risk due to a disastrous home life, a suicidal father who’s lost his career and self-respect, a mother largely turning a blind eye to her husband’s abdication of his duties, and schoolmates who scorn, taunt, bully, and physically abuse her. She’s a fragile teenager who doesn’t want to show a fragile side, and who’s asked to be stronger and more mature than any teenager should have to be. Her story is the compelling one, and Ruth’s story is more about her own connection to what she reads in Nao’s diary and her attempts to unlock some of the riddles Nao herself couldn’t solve than it is about Ruth herself.

The resolution relies on the collapsing of space and time into a temporary singularity, a metaphorical bridge Ruth can cross to get to Nao’s story and provide her with the resolution she can’t give herself. It’s sweet without becoming maudlin, although it abandons the largely realistic tone of the preceding 300-odd pages. Along the way, Ozeki gives brief introductions to basic concepts of Zen Buddhism, notably zazen, the type of seated meditation that is at the heart of the practice (and may have real physical health benefits as well), but to her credit it never overwhelms either of the core stories. She even has the brief stomach-churning passage of the violence of Japanese soldiers during World War II that marked Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you like that novel or Murakami’s work in general, take my seatmate’s advice and pick this book up too.

Next up: I’m bouncing around in my reviews, but I’m currently reading Wizard of the Crow, the 766-page opus from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, one of the greatest post-colonial writers to come out of Africa, less well-known than Chinua Achebe but writing with greater depth and a biting satirical slant. It’s set in a corrupt African dictatorship, where allegiances change with the wind and a new power emerges in the form of an inadvertent charlatan calling himself the Wizard of the Crow.

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on ESPN.com on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was one of three finalists for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the year that the board decided not to give the honor to any title – in essence saying that there was no novel published that year that met their threshold for the award. It was an embarrassing decision, one that may have hurt independent booksellers, a dereliction of duty reminiscent of the BBWAA puking all over itself in the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting – there had to be a “best” book, even if the overall quality of the titles in that year was lower than previous classes. Swamplandia! fits that description well – it’s a very good book, not a home run like Empire Falls or The Orphan Master’s Son, but more than good enough to win the award and a whole lot better than the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the novel, Swamplandia! is an alligator theme park run by the Bigtree family on one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, most of which are uninhabited and which are connected to the mainland (in the book) only by a daily ferry service. (In reality, the largest island, Chokoloskee, is connected by a causeway, but that appears to be the only one with such a link.) When Hilola Bigtree, a mother of three and fierce alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, the business and the famiy begin to come apart at the seams. Her husband, the Chief, seems to get lost in a delusion of expansion amidst rising debt and new competition from a mainland park, the World of Darkness; Kiwi, their oldest child, defects to the mainland to work for that very competitor; Osceola, the middle child, falls in love with the spectre of a long-dead shipworker; and Ava, the youngest child and primary character, finds herself alone at the family homestead, faced with the daunting task of trying to save something out of everything collapsing around her.

Swamplandia! itself is a profound tale of death, loss, and disillusionment, as Ava, wise for her years but still fundamentally a child, feels her mother’s absence most acutely, with all three children setting out on different searches for something to fill the void left after Hilola’s death and their father’s abdication as a parent. While incorporating elements of magical realism, Russell never lets the story devolve into pure dreamscape or fantasy, and the two primary plotlines – Ava’s search for Osceola in the “underworld” and Kiwi’s sputtering coming-of-age at the hell-themed World of Darkness – resolve in ambiguous ways, especially Ava’s, as the denouement of her story left me very conflicted on whether that particular device was necessary to wrap up her story.

Ava herself is a fascinating character, a Flavia de Luce transplanted into a darker setup, where the father isn’t just absent emotionally but physically, and her precocity isn’t always such an asset. She’s intelligent and independent, retaining some of the emotional immaturity of a typical 13-year-old, responding with an admixture of fear and determination to the impossible situation in which her father and siblings place her. She and Kiwi are the only fully-formed characters in the book, with Kiwi providing more comic relief as the fish-out-of-water on the mainland, a home-schooled (self-taught, really) teenager with the diction of a character from 19th-century literature but almost no self-awareness or ability to function in the social environment of modern teenaged life. The symbolism of some of the rides at World of Darkness is bombastically silly, but these interludes also provide a needed break from the darker sections involving Ava’s journey into the swamps.

Russell has, as far as I can see, never spoken about the theme of disillusionment, but Ava’s storyline with Osceola functions as a strong metaphor for a break with religion, or at least the “old-time” religion of Biblical literalists. Osceola finds a book on spiritualism and follows it, blindly, into the book’s underworld – a place of uncertain location or even existence. Ava connects with a prophet of sorts, the “Bird Man,” and follows him, also blindly, in search of Osceola, and perhaps her mother, deeper into the swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the entrance to the underworld, a trek that leads to what I’ll only identify as a stark disillusionment for Ava and near-madness for Osceola, as well as a sacrifice that parallels the red heifer of the Hebrew Bible (notably Numbers:19). It might be a stretch to say that the book is itself anti-religious, as Russell hasn’t publicly voiced any such views, but it struck me as at least a strong allegory in opposition to blind acceptance of religious dogma and scripture.

Next up: I’m behind on my reviews, but I’m just about finished with Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, which even has a whole section devoted to Delaware’s own Dogfish Head brewery.

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.

Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild was one of two surprises among the nine Best Picture nominees – Amour was the other, since foreign-language films rarely show up outside of their Best Foreign-Language Film ghetto – and the only one that was already gone from theaters and available for home viewing when the nominees were announced. It’s a low-budget film set in the Louisiana Bayou and relied on locals in both the crew and the cast, giving the performances an authenticity that carries a ho-hum storyline to the level where it might be mentioned among the year’s best films.

Beasts follows the adorable five-year-old Hushpuppy (played by nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, now the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, and the actress whose dress I am most interested in seeing), resident of an impoverished Bayou settlement called the Bathtub, along with her ailing, ill-tempered father Wink (Dwight Henry, a baker with no prior acting experience) and a handful of local eccentrics. The town is cut off from the rest of the region by a levee, although the residents seem to share the laissez les bon temps rouler philosophy of greater New Orleans. Climate change threatens the Bathtub’s very existence, which the local and unconventional schoolteacher Bathsheba (Gina Montana, also an amateur) explains to the children in terms of Aurochs, giant boar-like creatures who have been trapped in the Earth’s icecaps for centuries but who will be freed as the ice melts. When Wink’s situation and that of the Bathtub both take turns for the worse, Hushpuppy and her friends take off on a raft to try to find her long-absent mother.

The casting decisions, including giving three of the biggest roles to amateurs, absolutely made this film, as the plot, which relies on some magical realism but probably could have gone farther in that regard, is actually pretty slight. Wallis’ performance is pretty mind-blowing given her age, although her tiny stature also gives you the impression that you’re watching an actual five-year-old deliver these lines and scream and burp on command. I was even more shocked by Henry’s performance once I read that he wasn’t a professional actor – his role demands a broad range of emotions and the ability to switch between them with very little transition, and his determination to keep Hushpuppy away from the obvious consequences of his illness for as long as possible conveys such a deep affection that it seems hard to believe it’s not real. (Then again, I’m imagining the whole cast and crew fell in love with Wallis after a few days.) Even Montana shines as the one discordant note in the community, talking in apocalyptic (and prescient) terms while she shares a giant beer-and-shellfish feast with her neighbors.

Unfortunately, the story seemed a little half-baked, or maybe three-quarters-baked, and while some people (like my wife) like their chocolate chip cookies pulled from the oven when the center is still a little on the gooey side, I prefer mine fully cooked. We don’t get a lot of character development beyond Hushpuppy, and the main internal conflicts aren’t resolved. The (mostly white) authorities who forcibly evacuate the Bathtub at one point are stock villains, more than a little unfair to people who were probably largely volunteers or just underpaid in reality. Beasts‘ plot doesn’t make enough use of the Aurochs or any of the magical realism potential unlocked by Bathsheba’s preaching, but it doesn’t dwell quite enough on the serious aspects of anything that goes on in the film, even Wink’s illness. If this was intended to make a broad statement about the impact of climate change, I don’t think it went far enough. The kids’ quest for Hushpuppy’s mama is a beautiful sequence, a short story that could almost stand on its own, but the rest of the plot tended to drift rather than find itself propelled by its own energy.

The film’s nomination for Best Picture seems like a stretch to me, although the only films I’ve seen other than this one that might have been worthy, Looper and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, weren’t obviously better, and either one could have dropped into the unused tenth nomination slot. (Looper absolutely deserved a Best Original Screenplay nod, though.) The absurd nomination among the four that Beasts earned was the Best Director nod for Benh Zeitlin over, among others, Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, which I can only assume was politically motivated. Zero Dark Thirty was far more ambitious and more difficult to craft, including the intense final scene in the Abbottabad house, thus far the single best segment of any 2012 movie I’ve seen. For Bigelow to end up on the outside while Zeitlin got a nod is … peculiar, to say the least.

The Tiger’s Wife,

Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011, making her the youngest author to win the award, given to the best English-language novel written by a female author in the preceding year. It’s an unusually thoughtful book for an author of 25, reflecting Obreht’s upbringing in the former Yugoslavia until age 7, when her family moved to Cyprus to flee the war, eventually settling in the United States. The book employs magical realism and obvious yet strong symbolism to cover the tragedy of her native country’s brutal sectarian civil war, although the story was surprisingly antiseptic for such an awful, emotionally-charged subject.

Obreht’s protagonist/narrator is Natalia, a young doctor who has recently lost her grandfather, to whom she was extremely close as a child and who often told her stories of his encounters with “the deathless man,” a man who could not die and claimed to be an agent or acolyte of Death itself; and of the tiger’s “wife,” a deaf-mute woman who befriends a tiger that escaped from a local zoo and lives in the woods outside of the town where the woman lives with her abusive husband. The deathless man draws from just about every major work of magical realism you can think of, as well as more overtly spiritual works like The Alchemist, and as a result is the less interesting of the two major subplots. I understand his relevance in a country repeatedly torn apart by wars, both civil and continental, where death becomes an ordinary part of life, and could see his value as a symbol of something that cannot die or be killed (national pride, family, love) even when death is everywhere.

The fable, presented as fact, of the tiger and the woman known in her village as the tiger’s wife is more complex and more compelling, even though it starts with one of the worst cliches and ends in hatred and intolerance. The tiger is the outsider, escaped from a zoo elsewhere in the country, scraping out an existence on the periphery of this village, apparently aided by the deaf-mute wife of the abusive butcher (the cliche, right down to his back story). Her unknown relationship with the tiger, especially after her husband’s disappearance, becomes the subject of gossip in the town, fueled by fear, ignorance, superstition, and hate. Here lies the book’s greatest strength – where Obreht could have beaten the reader over the head with “bigotry is … bad!” commentary, she allows the story itself to make those points subtly, further softened by the use of a non-human character who appears more often in conversation than in the flesh.

Natalia herself, however, is surprisingly bland, more of an outside observer in the mold of Nick Jenkins without the latter’s wry observational humor. Her relationship with her grandparents is sweet, but draws little sentiment from the reader because so much focus is on the two secondary stories. Her own relationship with her friend Zora, another doctor with whom Natalia visits an orphanage to deliver vaccinations, is an afterthought, as is the story of the band of gypsies tearing up a local field to find the remains of a cousin buried there during the country’s civil war twelve years earlier. It’s rare that I write that a book could have been longer, but Obreht cut herself off too soon and could have tried to tie the four main plot strands together more fully.

Ultimately Obreht’s book reminds me of the two novels by Khaled Hosseini, both strongly symbolic novels that attempt to tell a specific country’s tragic history through smaller narratives, yet both books I enjoyed reading more than I enjoyed pondering after reading them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading for pleasure, but for whatever reason, I prefer novels that stick with me more after I’m done.

Next up: I finally went back and finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was borderline unreadable, and am about to begin Lush Life, by The Wire writer Richard Price.

The Master and Margarita.

I don’t often re-read books, primarily for the reason that there are too many books out there I have never read and would like to, but also because a second read never quite stimulates the mind the way the first read does. The narrative greed isn’t the same when you remember every major plot twist, no matter how skilled the writer. The fun in encountering some clever turn of phrase, or pun, or imaginative element is lost the second time around as well. For those reasons, I’d avoided a re-read of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for years, fearing I remembered too much to enjoy reading it again, even though it sits atop my personal ranking of the top 101 novels I’ve read. It’s almost exactly twenty years since I first read Bulgakov’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved to report it held up well against the expectations of my memories of the book, perhaps aided by the fact that I read a different translation this time around.

Bulgakov was a state playwright under the Soviets, but was himself an anti-communist who suffered under the repressive regime that refused to publish many of his works and denied his request to emigrate to a country where he could practice his craft freely. This novel, completed over the last decade of his life and published more than 20 years after his death during a brief thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, destroys the communist regime while also mocking the oligarchs who flourished through their obeisance and outright cowardice. It’s wickedly subversive, and yet often so subtle that I’m surprised the Soviets saw it for what it was – or were willing to publish it after they understood its true intent.

Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a sly satire of communism and Russian life under that political and economic system in Russia between the world wars, told via multiple narratives that all collide across time as the book concludes, with the one common thread among them coming in the person of Satan himself. The devil, calling himself Dr. Woland, appears in Moscow with his retinue – comprising Behemoth, an anthropomorphic cat; Azazello, an ugly stout man with flaming red hair; and Koroviev, also known as Fagot, a sort of chief-of-staff character who always wears a checked jacket and pince-nez (apparently an allusion to The Brothers Karamazov) – to reveal the baseness of the privileged classes under communism. Bulgakov’s Satan is not quite the Satan of the Bible – in some ways, he’s a forerunner of Tyler Durden, causing mayhem to provide meaning to a deadened life in a repressive society – just as Bulgakov’s Yeshua ha-Nozri, betrayed by Judas and crucified under Pontius Pilate, is not quite the Biblical Jesus.

The titular characters, while central to the novel’s themes of freedom, cowardice, and redemption, don’t appear until roughly a quarter of the novel has passed. Bulgakov opens the scene with a discussion between the poet Ivan Homeless and the avowed atheist Berlioz, only to have their talk interrupted by the appearance of a strange foreigner, Woland, who endeavors to show Berlioz that the devil does, in fact, exist, with a gruesome demonstration. This begins a chain of events where Woland and his retinue take over Berlioz’ apartment and hold a “seance” at a local theater where they dazzle the people with magic tricks that have hilarious consequences for the greedy audience members. The master, meanwhile, first appears in a sanitarium in conversation with Ivan Homeless, telling the story of his arrest by the secret police for his authorship of an anti-communist novel about Pontius Pilate, and how that arrest separated him from the love of his life, Margarita, for whom Woland has a special plan in the greatest scene among many in this complex novel.

Cowardice is the most explicit theme of The Master and Margarita, even though I think Bulgakov’s ultimate intent was to expose the emptiness of the Soviet state. Pontius Pilate, in a story that Woland begins telling but that the master completes in his novel-within-the-novel*, knows that the decision to pardon a common criminal over the peaceful philosopher Yeshua ha-Nozri is the wrong one, but given more than one opportunity to try to change that decision, he does nothing more than make a perfunctory request that his superior reconsider it. The master, while implicitly condemning Pilate’s own cowardice, exhibits some of his own, giving up on his life and his art when confronted by a seemingly invincible State that threatens to “disappear” any who threaten its sovereignty or integrity.

*That bit of meta-fiction gives rise to the most famous line from the novel, Woland’s response to the master’s lament that he burned the manuscript for the work that landed him in an asylum for its seditious nature: “Manuscripts never burn.”

Those disappearances are the subject of frequent allusions in the novel, in oblique references to the secret police and in Woland’s habit of moving people around the country or in transmogrifying them into other forms, such as the vaguely porcine man who becomes a flying pig. These fantastical elements were a major part of why I fell in love with the novel when I first read it at age nineteen – I hadn’t seen a classical novel deviate so far from the typical constraints of realistic literature; the most fantastical elements I’d come across were the coincidences that populated great works written before the last half of the 19th century. I didn’t know it as magical realism at the time, or even understand it as a literary technique – I think I just associated it with science fiction or fantasy novels – but Bulgakov’s use of it has to be one of the earliest such examples in literature, along with the works of Franz Kafka, much of whose work was published during the time Bulgakov spent writing The Master and Margarita. What better way to satirize a totalitarian state than through Satan exercising a similar disregard for human life, property, and individuality, alluding to a religion that the state sought to extinguish?

This is a remarkably rich, inventive novel, decades ahead of its time, socially important, funny, outrageous, and a tremendous pleasure to read.

Some stray thoughts:

* I first encountered the book in a class taught by Professor Donald Fanger (now emeritus) at Harvard called “Comedy and the Novel.” How good was that class? Six of the eight novels we read are on the Klaw 101, as is the book he told me a few years later was the unofficial ninth title he couldn’t squeeze into the semester, At Swim-Two-Birds. It was, by far, the best class I took in college, and the one that has had the greatest influence on me after the fact.

* I just discovered that there’s a graphic novel version of The Master and Margarita available, as well as one for Kafka’s The Trial. I’m curious how the illustrator handled Woland’s retinue – Bulgakov’s descriptions are quite vivid, but while Woland and his crew are somewhat anthropomorphic, they could easily turn into monsters without straying far from the original text, which I don’t think was Bulgakov’s intent.

* I’ve become slightly obsessed with spotting possible influences on J.K. Rowling, including A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I might add The Master and Margarita to the list for the magical realism elements involved in Apartment #50, especially those elements that appear in the chapter “The Great Ball at Satan’s,” which seemed to show up all over Hogwart’s.

Next up: I’m way behind on writeups, having already finished Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica and moved on to Haruki Murakami’s After Dark.