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An early satirical "Big House" novel about 18th century Ireland.


Castle Rackrent

Originally published in 1800, approximately 45,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.


An Hibernian tale taken from facts, and from the manners of the Irish Squires, before the year 1782. )

Verdict: An early historical novel with touches of wry humor, and significant for its view of Anglo-Irish relations, Castle Rackrent is not particularly interesting outside this context; for plotting and characters one would do better with one of Edgeworth's contemporaries. Another one of those books that has earned its place on the 1001 Books list more for its historical place than its literary qualities. 5/10.

I read this book for the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 challenge.




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Maxim Gorky's pioneering (boring) novel of (boring) "Socialist Realism" about a (boring) mother of the Russian revolution.


Mother

Originally published in 1906, 324 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Maxim Gorky, pseudonym of Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov, Soviet novelist, playwright and essayist, was a founder of social realism. Although known principally as a writer, he was closely associated with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. The Mother, one of his best-known works, is the story of the radicalization of an uneducated woman that was later taken as a model for the Socialist Realist novel, and his autobiographical masterpiece.


The road to hell is paved with well-intentioned revolutions. )

Verdict: Is this a book you must read before you die? I'd say as a sample of a particular period of history and the literature it produced, it has its value. This isn't a post-revolutionary Soviet novel, so it's a vivid if biased view into the time in which it was written. But as a work of literature, I would not inflict this on anyone who isn't perversely fascinated with the Bolshevik revolution. 3/10.

I read this book as part of the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 challenge.




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Mars attacks! The granddaddy of all alien invasion stories.


The War of the Worlds

Originally published in 1898. Approximately 60,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




First published by H. G. Wells in 1898, The War of the Worlds is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator intones, "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's."

Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first, the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity, even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100 feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat.

With horror, the narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much as corralled.


The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, he said... )

Verdict: Truly the granddaddy of alien invasion stories; The War of the Worlds is still a frightening and entertaining classic. The plot is slow in places, and the characters don't really do much, but Wells describes a near-end-of-the-world in words that could be applied to any civilization that's been crushed, bombed, or genocided. 8/10.




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The sailor she rejected when he was poor is now rich, and she's unmarried at 27.


Persuasion

Originally published in 1817, 236 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Anne Elliot has grieved for seven years over the loss of her first love, Captain Frederick Wentworth. But events conspire to unravel the knots of deceit and misunderstanding in this beguiling and gently comic story of love and fidelity.


Perhaps the most outright romantic of Austen's novels, with torches carried for seven years, and an Austenian heroine married off more happily than the author. )

Verdict: Not my favorite Austen, but not my least favorite either. Austen's prose is as flawless as usual, and Persuasion is finely plotted. It loses points for missing the humor and poignancy I found more abundantly in Austen's other novels. 7/10.

Also by Jane Austen: My reviews of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma.




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Examining America's racial troubles in 1940, many of the author's words and Bigger Thomas's thoughts seem disturbingly contemporary.


Native Son

Harper Perennial, 1940, 544 pages




Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.


Cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] bookish and [livejournal.com profile] books1001.

Bigger Thomas is a black archetype that only a black author could write. )

Verdict: Native Son is, as a novel, interesting if a bit heavy-handed, but worth reading in its own right for a compelling description of an unsympathetic character and how he got to be that way. There is also a moderate amount of tension in Bigger's crime, his scheming and his flight afterwards, and then his trial. But mostly it's a race-relations novel with a powerful message still relevant in "post-racial" America. It certainly deserves to be on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.




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Flowers in the cement garden: a grimy little anti-YA book.


The Cement Garden

Anchor, 1978, 153 pages




One of the world's most acclaimed novelists, New York Times best-selling author Ian McEwan has earned the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. After their parents die, four children are left alone in the family house. They are free to live however they choose, but they must preserve their terrible secret.


Literary incest and decay: Ian McEwan brings the Ick. )

Verdict: The Cement Garden is intense, disturbing, and yucky. It's written by an author acknowledged as one of the greatest living authors, and fuck me if I want to read another book by him. Is this a book you must read before you die? There are people who I'm sure like the kind of book that exists to unsettle you, and it's a terse, literary alternative to Flowers in the Attic. But I could have lived happily without reading it.

This was my 20th book read in the 1001 Books challenge.




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The most famous work of satire ever written.


A Modest Proposal

1729, 5 pages




A Modest Proposal
For Preventing the Children of Poor People
in Ireland, from Being a Burden on Their Parents
or Country, and for Making Them
Beneficial to the Publick



I hate to spoil the plot, but this proposal might not have been ENTIRELY serious... )

Verdict: A short piece that is now synonymous with satire, A Modest Proposal is still a perfect example of the form. Everyone should read it.

Also by Jonathan Swift: My review of Gulliver's Travels.




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This French novel is the difficult but imaginative grandfather of modern surrealist fantasy.


Locus Solus

1913, 218 pages




Based on uniquely eccentric principles of composition, this book invites the reader to enter a world which, in its innocence and extravagance, is unlike anything in the literature of the twentieth century

Canterel, a scholarly scientist, whose enormous wealth imposes no limits upon his prolific ingenuity, is taking a group of visitors on a tour of "Locus Solus," his secluded estate near Paris. One by one he introduces, demonstrates, and expounds the discoveries and inventions of his fertile, encyclopedic mind. An African mud-sculpture representing a naked child; a road-mender's tool which, when activated by the weather, creates a mosaic of human teeth; a vast aquarium in which humans can breathe and in which a hairless cat is seen stimulating the partially decomposed head of Georges Danton to fresh flights of oratory. By each item in Canterel's exhibition there hangs a tale—a tale only Roussel could tell. As the inventions become more elaborate, the richness and brilliance of the author's stories grow to match them; the flow of his imagination becomes a flood and the reader is swept along in a torrent of wonder and hilarity.


Cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] books1001.

Evokes Roald Dahl, Rube Goldberg, Dr. Seuss, and Mark Z. Danielewski. )

Verdict: Does Locus Solus belong on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list? It is certainly memorable and strange. I think it's unique and a work of genius, so any serious reader probably should tackle it at some point. That said, the linguistic density and plotless surrealism were more of an experience than a pleasure, and I can see why Roussel isn't widely read today outside of literature classes. There is one other book by Raymond Roussel on the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 list, and I think I would approach it with a bottle of booze and/or aspirin.




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Victor Hugo's epic saga of plot puppets acting out philosophical and moral arguments. (No, it's not about the French Revolution!)


Les Misérables

Originally published in 1862, approximately 565,500 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.


Look down, look down. You'll always be a slave. Look down, look down. You're standing in your grave. )

Verdict: Big, bloated, epic, brilliant, did I mention big and bloated? The characters are memorable, the story is grand, it's definitely a book that belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. But it is not enthralling or a page-turner, and call me a heathen, but I'm glad that modern editors don't let authors, even best-selling ones, ramble on at novella length before getting back to the story. Les Miserables is a book you won't regret reading, and it's worth some serious bragging rights to get through it, but I can't honestly say it's my favorite classic work.

Also by Victor Hugo: My review of Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).




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Mighty Whitey goes to Africa, discovers the meaning of life by frolicking with the colorful and exotic natives... What?


Henderson the Rain King

Penguin Books, 1959, 352 pages




Bellow evokes all the rich colour and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa in this comic novel about a middle-aged American millionaire who, seeking a new, more rewarding life, descends upon an African tribe. Henderson's awesome feats of strength and his unbridled passion for life earns him the admiration of the tribe - but it is his gift for making rain that turns him from mere hero into messiah. A hilarious, often ribald story, Henderson the Rain King is also a profound look at the forces that drive a man through life.


Crossposted to [livejournal.com profile] books1001.

Henderson is waiting for the sun )

Verdict: I did not love it, but I liked it, enough that I would try Saul Bellow again. Henderson the Rain King is a thoughtful but comic adventure as a man who's already seen the world and been there, done that tries to figure out what he's missing and goes dancing with lions in Africa. Largely on the strength of Bellow's prose, I thought this was a book worth reading. So, does it belong on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Well, I'm convinced you should read at least one of Bellow's books. Not having read any others, I don't know if this is his best work, but he's included on the list seven times. (And has now been reviewed four times!)




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A biography of a remarkable (and fictitious) man and a chronicle of Brazil's racial struggle.


Tent of Miracles

University of Wisconsin Press, 1969, 396 pages




A very rich and exotic novel . . . tells the story of Pedro Archanjo, mestizo, self-taught ethnologist, apostle of miscegenation, laborer, cult priest, and bon vivant. . . . Amado's joyous, exuberant, almost magical descriptions of festivals, puppet shows, African rituals, local legends, fascinating customs, strange and wonderful characters . . . result in a richness and warmth that are impossible to resist.


Crossposted to [livejournal.com profile] books1001.

Dickensian, Marquezian, Brazilian. )

Verdict: While Tent of Miracles was not my favorite [livejournal.com profile] books1001 selection, it was a good read and I'm glad I read it and got a chance to sample Brazil's most famous author. Brazilian readers are probably much more familiar with Jorge Amado and his works, but including him on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is certainly merited, as he was more prolific than many authors who have several works on the list.




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The stream-of-consciousness natterings of discontented rich people.


Mrs. Dalloway

1925, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 216 pages




It is a June day in London in 1923, and the lovely Clarissa Dalloway is having a party. Whom will she see? Her friend Peter, back from India, who has never really stopped loving her? What about Sally, with whom Clarissa had her life’s happiest moment?

Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith is struggling with his life on the same London day.

Luminously beautiful, Mrs. Dalloway uses the internal monologues of the characters to tell a story of inter-war England. With this, Virginia Woolf changed the novel forever.


Who's impressed by Virginia Woolf? )

Verdict: Virginia Woolf writes pretty. She's deft and elegant and nuanced. And this book was boring and the prose was annoying. It may have been a landmark of 20th century literature, but I don't care about Mrs. Dalloway's dinner party, her old flame, or the fact that she once kissed a girl and liked it. Sorry, Virginia Woolf fans, but she struck out with me.




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Northern manufacturers and southern agrarians in industrialized England.


North and South

Originally published in 1855. Approximately 183,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




When Margaret Hale moves with her father from the comfort of the south of England to the industrial north, she is at first repulsed by what she sees; and then when she discovers the conditions under which the workers are forced to live, she is outraged. But this throws her into direct conflict with the powerful young mill-owner, John Thornton. Using personal passions to explore deep social divisions, North and South is a great romance and one of Elizabeth Gaskell's finest works.


Mix Pride and Prejudice, Hard Times, Jane Eyre, and a wee bit of George Eliot. )

Verdict: Elizabeth Gaskell's writing did not knock me over, but her characters were more three-dimensional than most of her contemporaries and the plot wove together a multitude of themes. I find myself thinking of North and South mostly in terms of how it compares to other novels: not quite as grand as Middlemarch or Bleak House, but more human, while also being more down-to-earth than the romances of Austen or Bronte. A fine book and worth reading if you like British social novels, but if that sort of book isn't your cup of tea, this one won't change your mind.




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A wild mad nightmarish and frantic dark indescribable between the wars lesbian acid trip of a free verse poem disguised as a novel.


Nightwood

Faber and Faber, 1936, 208 pages




Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes' depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own") has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes' unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.


If James Joyce were a lesbian he might have written this, except longer. )

Verdict: Nightwood is amazingly written, extremely stylized, and captures a very particular time and place with a vivid portrayal of its small cast of sad, wrecked characters. But I'm not surprised that Djuna Barnes isn't well known today. This book has to be read and reread to apprehend everything, and reading it once was enough of a trial for me. It's the sort of book probably found in graduate courses in queer studies or early feminist literature, and not much anywhere else. But if you like difficult books that stretch the limits of language (James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, that sort of writing), then you should probably try the experience of Nightwood.

I read Nightwood for the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 challenge.




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Once upon a time, a country went wrong.


The Handmaid's Tale

McClelland & Stewart, 1985, 324 pages.




After a staged terrorist attack kills the President and most of Congress, the government is deposed and taken over by the oppressive and all controlling Republic of Gilead. Offred, now a Handmaid serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife, can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Despite the danger, Offred learns to navigate the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules in hopes of ending this oppression.


Less feminist polemic than an intimate examination of the mechanics of dehumanization and oppression. )

Verdict: I take back all jokes about Margaret Atwood "slumming" in the sci-fi genre. The reason this book is a classic is that the methods of dehumanization ring so true. The Handmaid's Tale is most famous for adding political catch-phrases to the abortion wars, but it does the book an injustice to say it's only about a religious dictatorship that forces women to have babies. It's a portrayal of just how insidious a tyrannical regime can be, and what it's like to be dehumanized on a personal level.




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An intergenerational soap opera on the surface, it's really about the stages of grief, memory as an unreliable narrator, and coping.


Small Remedies

Penguin Books, 2000, 324 pages




Shashi Deshpande's latest novel explores the lives of two women, one obsessed with music and the other a passionate believer in Communism, who break away from their families to seek fulfilment in public life. Savitribai Indorekar, born into an orthodox Hindu family, elopes with her Muslim lover and accompanist, Ghulaam Saab, to pursue a career in music. Gentle, strong-willed Leela, on the other hand, gives her life to the Party, and to working with the factory workers of Bombay.

Fifty years after these events have been set in motion, Madhu, Leela's niece, travels to Bhavanipur, Savitribai's home in her last years, to write a biography of Bai. Caught in her own despair over the loss of her only son, Aditya, Madhu tries to make sense of the lives of Bai and those around her, and in doing so, seeks to find a way out of her own grief.


Cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] 1001books.

Exquisitely-crafted Indian fiction about three very different women. )

Verdict: I haven't read much Indian fiction, but I enjoyed the language and execution of Small Remedies with a writer's appreciation for craft, even though the story itself isn't something that would normally interest me much. Almost a perfect book in terms of accomplishing what the author intended, I would say it deserves a place on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die at least as much as many of the more famous entries do.




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Continued from Part I.

Because I couldn't fit this review within LJ's character limit for one post. )

Verdict: Holy shmoly. It took me all year to work through this ponderous British doorstopper. To summarize this series in a few words is easy, to convince you that you might actually want to read three thousand pages about a Limey swell spectating his way through the middle of the 20th century, not so much. Powell has been called the English Proust, and this was his magnum opus. Maybe that's more likely to make you run screaming. Okay, if you can read a gazillion Wheel of Time or Harry Dresden novels, you can read twelve books that are actually literary art. These books are not airport reads or bathroom reads or snatch a chapter here and there reads — they are books to immerse yourself in and luxuriate in and forget about worrying where the plot is going. There isn't much driving excitement between the pages, no suspense and few surprise twists, but I have never seen an author create and maintain characters with such mastery, or use prose with such delicacy, and Powell's ability to orchestrate over a hundred characters moving in and out of focus over the course of half a century is not something many other authors would even attempt.

Plus, these books totally inspired J.K. Rowling. Read them and tell me I'm wrong.

3000 pages of high-falutin' Lit'ra-chure that is way more impressive than reading War and Peace.

If anyone else has read this whopper, please, please comment, 'cause I don't think I've ever met anyone who has!

A Dance to the Music of Time is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and was my 2012 assignment for [livejournal.com profile] books1001




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A one-liner cannot do justice to this long work of a lifetime, but it's damned fine reading and the most nuanced, character-focused epic you've ever read.


A Dance to the Music of Time
Published from 1951 to 1975, approximately 3000 pages in total



This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life's poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time's slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques."


[Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study]

Epic post is epic because THREE. THOUSAND. PAGES. o..O Read this review or I will be a sad. )

Review continued in Part II.
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A Russian trickster sets out to pull off a uniquely Russian scam, but unfortunately the novel never went anywhere.


Dead Souls

Originally published in 1842; approx. 142,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Regarded as the first great masterpiece of Russian literature, Dead Souls mixes realism and symbolism for a vivid and highly original portrait of Russian life.

Chichikov, a mysterious stranger, arrives in a provincial town with a bizarre but seductive proposition for local landowners. He proposes to buy the names of their serfs who have died but who are still registered on the census, saving their owners from paying tax on them. But what collateral will Chichikov receive for these "souls"?

Full of larger-than-life Dickensian characters - rogues and scoundrels, landowners and serfs, conniving petty officials, and the wily antihero Chichikov - Dead Souls is a devastating comic satire on social hypocrisy.


It's long and rambly and unfinished, but unlike most Russians, Gogol had a sense of humor. )

Verdict: An unfinished classic of Russian literature, Dead Souls is one of those novels whose influence can be found everywhere, from Gogol's fellow Russian writers to contemporary science fiction. (Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief refers to uploaded minds as "gogols.") That said, while it starts out as a story to appeal to fans of Dickensian farce mixed with social commentary, with a distinctly Russian flavor, Dead Souls is a book that never achieved what Gogol meant it to, and its unfinished state can make it both frustrating and tedious. I might recommend it for fans of Serious Literature. but a page-turner or a satisfying epic it is not.




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