The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

The Late George Apley.

I’m on a little run of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/the Novel winners right now, and just finished John Marquand’s extremely subtle satire The Late George Apley, which won the prize in 1938 when it was still only awarded to novels. The book is clearly a satire of the isolated, self-important life of the patrician class of the early 20th century, especially the so-called Boston Brahmins, but Marquand plays it so straight that I found myself vacillating through half the novel on just what parts he might have wanted readers to take seriously.

The book is a sort of fake biography/epistolary novel, where a longtime friend and former classmate of the title character has been asked by Apley’s family to write a private story of the man’s life, leaning heavily on his correspondence. The author (the fictional one, that is) traces Apley’s story back several generations, explaining the grand history of his family line within the United States, the first of many times when he tries to impress upon the reader the importance of the name. He gives us Apley’s birth and upbringing in a life of privilege and strict expectations, his attendance at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts (then all boys, now coed, which would have made for an amusing postscript to the book) and at some liberal arts college in Cambridge, and so forth, with every step already laid out for him by his imperious father and the constraints of polite society of the time. He falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl, is forced to end it when he’s shipped off for a Grand Tour, comes home, marries a woman of proper breeding, bangs out a couple of kids, and so on.

It’s a dull story in its own right, which is part of the point, and how dull becomes apparent in the latter half of the book when Apley’s son and daughter take advantage of the lax attitudes of the 1920s to live a little. Apley’s letters to and about his children seem increasingly ridiculous as the world changes around him – he’s still worried about the shrubbery around the family estate when the stock market is crashing – and only when he realizes he has a terminal heart condition does it dawn on him that life has passed him by. His final letters are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was, full of regret without hope. Unlike the butler of Ishiguro’s novel, however, Apley’s heartbreak is darkly comic: He admits, not quite explicitly, that he should have sowed his wild oats when he was younger, gotten wasted more, gotten laid more, and told his parents to stuff it and married the girl he loved (she makes a brief cameo again at the end of the book).

I can understand why this would have won the Pulitzer in 1938, when I presume the board considering the candidates was all white males and this sort of American aristocracy was more prevalent in the culture. It didn’t resonate so much with me today, however; even though I went to that liberal arts school, the population was quite diverse ethnically and by gender, and they’ve since done quite a bit to improve the diversity of economic backgrounds too, making Apley’s experiences there seem as anachronistic as the semi-arranged marriage and emphasis on decorum and appearances. It’s an entertaining read, but it feels very dated today.

Next up: Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer winner The Killer Angels ($6 in paperback!), a novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that was adapted into the four-hour movie Gettysburg in 199.

Day of the Oprichnik.

I held my weekly Klawchat earlier this afternoon.

I stumbled on Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 satirical novel Day of the Oprichnik (on sale for $7.50 in hardcover right now) while wandering through Tempe’s wonderful bookstore Changing Hands, picking it up because the cover grabbed me, buying it because I enjoy satirical novels, dystopian settings, and Russian literature. The book delivered all of those things, but was sadly light on story, and several passages of the novel were graphic to the edge of offensiveness without any evident point to it all.

Depicting a Russia ruled by an unnamed Putin-like dictator in the year 2028, Day of the Oprichnik shows a day in the life of a government secret-police agent whose responsibilities range from killing noblemen and raping their wives to greasing the wheels of corrupt trade practices to consuming sizable quantities of alcohol and one of the strangest intravenous drugs you’ll ever encounter. The state combines the cult of personality that Putin himself has fostered with an evangelical form of the Russian Orthodox religion, where no one’s life, liberty, or property are ever safe under any circumstances. A small change in favor can mean a nobleman living in an opulent, heavily fortified compound can find himself under siege by the oprichniks, hanging from the gallows, with his children shipped off to an orphanage and his wife gang-raped by the attackers.

That’s just the most stark example of the pointlessly graphic nature of the novel; rape scenes require strong justification in any novel, and here, not only does the violation do nothing for the plot or the satire itself, it’s presented in stomach-churning detail that can only serve to shock. There are other graphic scenes – multiple murders and an orgy – also put in front of the reader for reasons I can’t begin to comprehend. It’s over the top in the way that Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer are, and while those are lauded as great works of postmodern literature, I rather thought both were unreadable shit. Oprichnik is at least easier to get through, because the writing isn’t so deliberately obtuse, but the ratio of shock material to actual heft is too high.

Of course, the book was written in 2006 and inadvertently foreshadowed some of the increasing authoritarianism witnessed in Russia over the past nine years, including the modern blend of jingoism and greed that drives the government apparatus for clamping down on the Russian people. The tyrant atop the machine, who has retaken the imperial title of tsar, is never named, but his resemblance in ego and grip on power are rather clear. Sorokin wished to lampoon the then 54-year-old Russian President’s increasing tendency toward totalitarian policies, only to have Putin himself outdo the expectations. Russia today may not be as overtly violent or as hostile to women as Sorokin imagined, but it’s at least as corrupt, as reliant on external economic powers, and as dangerous to its own citizens as the 2028 version in Day of the Oprichnik appears.

Next up: N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-winning novel House Made of Dawn.


I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.


My draft analyses went up over several days, so here’s a link to the key columns:

* Draft recaps for AL teams
* Draft recaps for NL teams
* Friday’s Klawchat, which came during rounds 3-4
* Day one reactions, covering just rounds 1 and 2

I’ll have one more draft-related post on Thursday and then it’s time to turn the page.

I’m not even sure where I heard about Attila Bartis’ book Tranquility, the only one of Bartis’ books available in English. Born in Transylvania but of Hungarian descent, Bartis has won several major awards for Hungarian literature, including a prize named for the writer Sándor Márai, whose book Embers appeared on the second version of my top 100 novels ranking, although it was pushed off in the most recent update.

Tranquility has nothing in common with the subtle Embers; instead, it beats the reader over the head with obscenity, taking its cue from Portnoy’s Complaint but upping the ante of demented familial relationships while shifting to the setting of post-communist Hungary. The Weers, the family at the center of Bartis’ work, are a new kind of train wreck. Narrated by the son, Andor, who lives with his reclusive mother, Tranquility jumps backward to retrace the Weers’ descent into a sort of controlled depravity while Andor attempts to sever his dysfunctional and possibly incestuous relationship with his mother so he can begin a new relationship with the troubled Eszter. Andor uncovers very uncomfortable truths about his own family history, including his father’s disappearance, followed by his sister’s, and learns that sexual misdeeds are sown deep in his lineage, along with madness, betrayal, and emotional and physical violence.

Reading Tranquility would have been a chore given its callous and graphic depictions of sex, violence, and the intersection between the two, but Bartis infuses the novel with black humor and what I believe was an angry metaphorical depiction of Hungary’s own difficult transition from communism to something like democracy. (I have no idea if this was Bartis’ intent, but the interpretation came to me pretty easily and I doubt it’s a coincidence.) That transition led to economic upheaval that hasn’t ended, along with the paradoxical desire by part of the population to return to the certain misery of authoritarian rule rather than the uncertain freedom of its post-communist government. In this interpretation, Andor’s mother represents the communist past from which the Hungarian population refuses or is unwilling to fully leave behind; Ezster, herself a victim in multiple senses who has several difficulties with conception and pregnancy, is herself a symbol of freedom, volatile and damaged, capable of evoking emotions in Andor with which he is uncomfortable or flat-out unfamiliar. Breaking with his mother involves coming to terms with awful events from the family’s past, known and unknown; forging a real relationship with Eszter, however, requires emotional depth and strength the callous Andor lacks. To make matters worse, Eszter introduces Andor, a writer by trade, to an editor, Eva Jordan, with whom Andor engages in a violent affair. Eva is his mother’s age, and Andor appears to be unable to stop himself from giving in to his hate-filled desires for her – or to revisit the relative certainty of the past. Even if the past was lousy, at least you knew what you were getting. The message seems to be that freedom is scary because it’s unpredictable; the “tranquility” of the title is ironic, clearly, as there’s nothing tranquil about this screwed-up mother-son relationship, but also refers to the safety of a life without upside.

Where Bartis diverges from the tradition of lunatic families and sexual perversion launched by Portnoy’s Complaint and more recently revived by Alessandro Piperno is in its association of sex with violence. Where Roth and Piperno use sex (especially masturbation) for laughs, Bartis’ depictions of sex are rife with violence, whether it’s outright violence as with Eva Jordan or emotionally violent as with Eszter, and Andor’s reactions after sex are shockingly clinical. It’s discomfiting, but I doubt Bartis wanted the reader to ever feel comfortable in a story about life in Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Next up: I finished Atul Gawande’s brief The Checklist Manifesto last week and have moved on to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

The Locusts Have No King.

I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.

“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”

I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.

The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.

Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.

While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?

Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.

Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.

The Magician King et al.

I have a new draft blog post up today, discussing two potential first-rounders I saw as well as former Mets draft pick Teddy Stankiewicz. Also, the Kindle edition of the indispensable cookbook Ruhlman’s Twenty is just $3.03 right now.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel that was also a parody of popular fantasy novels, is one of my favorite books of the last ten years for the way it weaves (largely affectionate) satire of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Tolkien into an original story. In that book, Quentin Coldwater, an ordinary teenager in New York City, goes through a familiar series of events, becomes a wizard, and ends up visiting the land of Fillory, which he always assumed was fictional. Crossing the chasm into the world of magic and into this alternate reality brings with it all sorts of unanticipated problems, with some tragic consequences along with the successes and adventure.

Grossman followed that book up with a sequel, The Magician King, which he intended to be part two of an eventual Magicians trilogy. It does suffer a little from Middle-Book Syndrome, but that didn’t bother me as much as the split narrative that gives a lot of attention to the back story of one of the secondary characters from the first book, Julia. Denied admission to the magic school, Brakebills, that accepted her friend Quentin, Julia went through a difficult period of anger and depression, along with intermittent attempts to learn magic on her own, a path that ultimately brought her great pain even as she succeeded.

That pairing – triumph and tragedy, elation and pain – underpins both of the books in the series so far, something Grossman spells out more explicitly this time around when Quentin, setting off on an inexplicable sailing expedition within Fillory that lands him back on Earth when that’s about the last thing he wants, is told that becoming a hero can include tremendous sacrifice. This quixotic mission, which Quentin can’t even fully explain to himself other than to say that he feels like he has to do it, takes Quentin, Julia, and their crew of Fillorians to the barely-known Outer Island, and eventually beyond it to After Island and eventually to the End of the World, all in search of a set of Golden Keys that will save the known universe from the wrath of the gods, apparently themselves magicians of a higher order (although Grossman leaves their true nature somewhat unclear, likely wishing to avoid delving too much into the metaphysical) who wish to end the use of magic by mortals.

Grossman created and developed a strong set of characters in the first book, much as J.K. Rowling did when setting up the universe of Harry Potter in the first book in that series. In The Magician King, however, the only development we get is Julia’s through her history, as none of the few new characters we encounter is around for long enough to get that kind of development. I think ultimately that’s what made this feel like the second book in the trilogy – the story was still compelling, just a touch less so than the first book’s, but the character development and growth is largely absent. Quentin’s progress is halting until the book’s climax, and the others are just along for the ride.

That climax might not sit well with readers who loved the first book, but I think Grossman made a wise choice in how he wrapped up the story, at least for now. A big part of the first book’s appeal to me was in how Grossman would create a situation that would feel familiar, often directly recalling something from one of those great fantasy series I mentioned above, but would subvert it through an unexpected or unorthodox resolution. The Magician King is no different – very little is expected here, as triumphs can turn into tragedies in the space of a few sentences. There was one specific aspect that I would have preferred to see Grossman omit, an act of sexual violence that was horrific not just as it was described but for the way the act thoroughly debased the character who was victimized. Rape and sexual assault are valid tools for the fiction writer but should only be deployed when absolutely necessary. This time it wasn’t.

I think The Magician King will stand much more strongly when we get the third book in the series, given how many open questions remained at the book’s conclusion. It isn’t as thin as The Two Towers or, crossing genres, The Empire Strikes Back, stories that seemed to exist primarily as bridges from part one to part three. This book could easily stand on its own if we didn’t have quite so much of the Julia sideline in it. If you enjoyed The Magicians, this is a must-read.

* I’ve also read two other books recently in series I’ve enjoyed, Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot and Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. Fforde’s book, the seventh in the Thursday Next series and likely the second-to-last as well, follows the literary detective, still recovering from the assassination attempt from book 5, reentering the workforce in a reduced role, even as Goliath Corporation is as determined as ever to figure out her secrets and probably kill her once they’re done with her. Their plans involve sending out synthetic Thursdays that look and sound like the real thing to try to con her friends and family into revealing confidential information. At the same time, the town of Swindon is grappling with news that the Almighty’s recent series of smitings will reach their town in a matter of days, a problem that Thursday’s polymath daughter, Tuesday, is trying desperately to solve. The story is clever, as always, but I have noticed over the last three books that they’re becoming much less funny. The old jokes are wearing off and Fforde seems to be struggling to replace them. Fforde’s site indicates we won’t get book eight, which I think will be the end of the series, until at least 2016.

* I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce series, has nothing to do with MLB’s postseason, but is another murder mystery involving the world’s most precocious prepubescent amateur chemist and detective. This time around, the murder occurs at Buckshaw, the estate of Flavia’s father, as half the town is snowed in during a charity performance by members of the cast of a film being shot at the house that week. There’s a surprising lack of chemistry in the main story here, as Flavia largely figures it out by deduction and old-fashioned snooping, although we get far more insight into the character of Dogger and hints of thawing from Flavia’s sisters, which I hope will continue in the next book, Speaking from Among the Bones, just recently out in hardcover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bottom line: My list, my call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst Intentions.

I had two pieces go up late last week for Insiders – one on the Yankees’ dimming future and another on Josh Beckett and Lance Lynn.

I’ve been blogging a little out of order (and often late) recently, but before I forget I wanted to throw a quick post up on Alessandro Piperno’s 2005 novel The Worst Intentions (Con le peggiori intenzioni), a huge best-seller in Italy that won several major literary prizes there and appeared in English in 2007. Piperno, an Italian writer and literary critic born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has produced the Italian equivalent to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, equally crude and funny but without Roth’s trademark self-indulgence and with a more satirical eye turned toward the hypocrisy of the protoganist’s family members and friends.

Piperno’s narrator, Daniel Sonnino, is the sexually immature 33-year-old heir to a nonexistent family fortune, squandered by his extravagant and crooked grandfather, Bepy, who, along with Daniel’s father, believes in keeping up appearances over all else. The novel eschews the traditional narrative for a stream-of-consciousness approach to the family history of the Sonninos, chronicling their decline from his grandfather’s bankruptcy and flight from debtors, leaving his family to clean up the mess, to his father, mother (who views the Sonninos as frauds), uncle, and his grandfather’s one-time business partner, cuckolded by Bepy, and whose granddaughter, Gaia, becomes the object of Daniel’s puerile obsessions.

I’m not a fan of Roth’s writing, primarily because I find his central characters so self-absorbed despite their development being so arrested, but Piperno’s Daniel, while still immature both emotionally and sexually, is better able to observe his family from a detached perspective, and can even turn the lens on himself and recognize the impacts of his own failures and his inability to form meaningful relationships. His own worst trait is a sometimes-subtle misogyny that often bubbles over into not-subtle forms, particularly with Gaia, who enjoys having Daniel as a follower but dates the most popular boy in the school – one of the only other Jewish students and Daniel’s best friend. The entire final chapter is devoted to this triangle and its devolution, including Daniel’s own destructive action that follows him for years afterwards, which, given Gaia’s name, is fraught with metaphorical implications as well.

Piperno also separates himself from Roth by populating his book with enjoyably quirky side characters, similar to the way the TV series Arrested Development acquired such a devoted cult following – its narcissistic characters helped create a new genre of television comedy. Piperno’s characters aren’t all so awful; some are merely amusing, such as the Arab waiter who only reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace, over and over, reading nothing else over the last thirty years:

But every time, as he returned those old familly volumes [of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust], the Arab’s face displayed a slightly fastidious expression, as if to say: “Thank you for the suggestion, my friend, but, you see, once you’ve read War and Peace you are condemned to read nothing else all your life!” And who’s to say that he wasn’t right?

Piperno’s previous book was a work of nonfiction looking at anti-Semitic elements in Marcel Proust’s work, and the Proust influence is strong here both in word choice and in the meandering flow of the story, although Piperno’s sentences and paragraphs aren’t quite so endless as Proust’s. Here he’s taken Proust’s narrative style, merged it with the neurotic realism of Roth, and produced a slightly difficult but clever and incisive work that was worth the effort required to get through it. His subsequent novel, Persecution, was just released in English in July, and its sequel, Inseparabili, won this year’s Premia Strega, the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it appears that this book may just be a taste of his capabilities as a writer and satirist.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I’ve been busy over at, including pieces on Chris Carpenter going to Boston and the A.J. Burnett trade, plus draft blog posts on Mark Appel, Kenny Diekroger, and Stephen Piscotty; and Luc Giolito and Max Fried.

I’d never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before last week primarily because I was always under the mistaken impression that it was a work of non-fiction, a magazine article or series of them expanded to book length. I’m sure most of you know that that impression was wrong, as it’s a novel, inspired by actual events and probably by actual drugs, but largely the product of Thompson’s expansive imagination and, in his own words, a “fantasy.”

The novel is often categorized as one of the earliest examples of “Gonzo journalism,” where the writer involves himself in the event or feature he’s covering. (In a related story, I’ll be throwing the sixth inning for the Rangers on Friday.) Thompson (as “Raoul Duke”) and his lawyer (“Dr. Gonzo”) scam their way through two dubious assignments in Las Vegas, one covering the Mint 400 off-road race, the other covering a conference of district attorneys to discuss the scourge of recreational drugs. They never even see the race beyond the starting pistol, spending more time running around Vegas getting into trouble, while their involvement in the Drug Conference is largely limited to scaring the crap out of a rural DA whose district hasn’t yet seen much action. Most of the novel is about these guys ingesting various substances and acting under their influence with often hilarious results.

I’m of two minds about the book. As a comic novel, a satire, or merely a piece of entertainment, it’s brilliant. The book reads like an unending con job, an Ocean’s 11 for people who are OK with having their fictional con men look like actual crooks. These two knuckleheads trash rental cars and hotel rooms, charge everything to their hotel accounts, and consume absurd quantities of drugs, taking one drug to ease the effect of coming down off another, and drinking heavily all the while. (Which makes me wonder how anyone could think this was all true. If Thompson survived ingesting all of these chemicals, would he actually remember anything that what happened afterwards?) A maid sees something she probably shouldn’t, so Thompson/Duke cooks up a scam on the spot threatening her with arrest, then turning her into an informant, which the gullible woman buys wholesale because she’s as greedy as the next American.

Where it lost me slightly was in its social commentary aspect, which probably just went past me as someone who was born two years after the book was published. The novel’s subtitle, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” sets out up front that said journey isn’t going to be pretty, and it seems like Thompson’s intent was to put the lie to the common notion of the American Dream. In probably the funniest passage in the book, these two drug-addled idiots seek out “the American Dream” and are directing to a bar by that name, only to find that it burned down a few years earlier, the sort of symbolism that threatens to jump off the page and slap you in the face. (Your symbolism meter might break with all of the novel’s references to sharks and, eventually, to a car the characters nickname the “great white whale.”) They infiltrate the Drug Conference, already high, while privately mocking how far behind the times the attorneys and cops are, yet also realizing that the halcyon days of recreational drug use are over, losing its proponents to Vietnam, capitalism, and the effects of excessive consumption. But since the book’s publication, we’ve seen two economic booms (and busts), a growing wealth gap, massive changes in societal attitudes towards drugs, and a pretty big image overhaul for Vegas itself. The book’s humor remains, but I think the immediacy of its message has faded with time. Or perhaps I’m just sufficiently jaded that the book couldn’t have the same impact on me that it might have fifteen or twenty years ago.

Next up: I’m about two-thirds of the way through Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone, regarded as the first detective novel, praised by writers from T.S. Eliot to G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Sayers.