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Washtenaw Flaneurade
1 December 2010
Bookworm Hamsterdam
Now Playing: White Cowbell Oklahoma--"Get On Get Down"

There's been a recent online trend of "top lists," taking our apparent human tendency to compile lists and applying it to favorite movies, TV shows, songs, etc. The book lists have understandably been around longer than most, and a spate of British "100 books you can't live without" compilations (the BBC, the Guardian) were recently cited by one or more friends on Facebook. Noticing that the list included books by disgraced (in a just world) Detroit sports columnist Mitch Albom, icily uninvolved Mississippi-born phenom Donna Tartt (The Secret History was, at times, spellbindingly awful), and Dan Brown (enough said, although I'm surprised the British people didn't initiate a class action suit en masse for defamation in The Da Vinci Code's character of Leigh Teabing), I figured it was probably just as well that people came up with their own lists, and others agreed with me, especially if you check out this superb rundown of one man's essential literature.

In trying to think of mine, I found that I kept revisiting my own history of reading. I started very early (my first prose work Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon) and went through a number of genre manias--if you'd asked me my favorite book at seven, it might have been one of the pocket-sized biographies of explorers written by Adele DeLeeuw and illustrated by Nathan Goldstein; if at twelve, almost certainly something by Jules Verne. I went through the "high classic" phase in high school, throwing myself into what was known in those days as the "Dead White Male" "school" of literature, and only started to branch out in college into the literature of other cultures and other genres (science fiction in particular). Working in a bookstore, however obnoxious, after college only broadened my reading range and grad school not only failed to constrain my outside reading, but also enriched it through a wider understanding of what constituted "literature" (a colleague of mine's grade in his historiography class suffered because he refused to write a two-page paper on the excerpt of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution we studied*--I still find that a profoundly silly move). My growing interest in the "weird fiction" movement of the early 20th century helped to break down the barriers, as did the example of British film historian Darrell Buxton, who seemed to view the great, canonical film classics and, say, anything "starring" Robin Askwith through the same critical lens.

The process and examples cited above essentially destroyed the partitions I'd been encouraged to erect in high school and college between high and low art, but not necessarily in a leveling way. I still don't contest the greatness of many of the works I studied in lit class (although I do consider any time I spent on Spenser's The Faerie Queene to be time wasted, the genocidal old fart); rather my concern is with the "lesser" works, some of which rise to be classics in their own right, seen through my own lens. To take a couple of examples from below (spoilers!), A Wizard of Earthsea or The Black Arrow (or, to a lesser extent, Scaramouche) have character development just as compelling, for me, as anything in Hamlet. I know that I'd rather read any of those three instead of Hamlet, and not simply for escapist reasons (indeed, there's little that's truly escapist about any of the three mentioned). Hamlet's still a marvelous work (though I knew more than one English teacher who didn't care for it), but so are those other three. One of the reasons I look askance at some of the stuff we're asked to take seriously as modern American literature is that there's still a stuffy attitude towards what's known as "genre" literature from the powers that be, even after the crossover success of authors like Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (there were times when, reading Laura Miller's The Magician's Book--her "re-examination" of The Chronicles of Narnia--you could hear her grit her teeth through the pages). That's why I don't really like or trust, say, McSweeney's and their occasional anthological attempts to "revive" genre fiction; it carried the powerful whiff of "adults" revisiting the "playground," when there are many who consider that playground, at times, a more accurate reflection of the world and adulthood than the "adult" world with which we're constantly presented in the media (their "humor" collection was appalling, too). Thoughts such as these influenced my list all the way through.

I stuck with novels. I've never been a big reader of drama or poetry, and can't remember the last book of poetry I read (last play was Harold Pinter's magnificent Betrayal, in preparation for a friend's performance I couldn't attend due to unforeseen work-related causes). I used to write a fair amount of poetry, but haven't done so in probably a decade; prose was and is definitely my medium. I started drawing up a list, but kept getting stuck on fifty. There's no real reason I need to keep with a hundred. My reading habits have suffered in recent years due to my own writing; I made the somewhat trepidatious decision that I'd read enough and needed to start writing my own stuff. This hasn't been a hard and fast rule; I've kept reading, of course, but nowhere near as much as I used to, when I habitually read about a hundred books a year. In recent years, too, I'd started reading more (non-history) non-fiction, to the extent where I could probably think about a non-fiction list (but maybe in a couple of years, not now). As for the novels themselves, the criteria were necessarily elastic. The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, has been my favorite novel for a good two decades, but the precise purpose for the others' inclusion vary wildly. Some were profoundly influential, some call to mind particular times in my life, some simply carried me away, some had unimprovable setpieces at certain points in the book, and some were the best representation under the circumstances of authors I love who wouldn't be included otherwise. It's interesting, too, for me to note how many of these novels have become "primers" of mine in writing my own fiction (and some have mainly been included for that reason). So the list is a bit... methodologically shambolic, but it's mine, and I think it's a good one (although with the exception of #1, there's no particular order to these). Get ready for lots of words like "hypnotic," "engrossing," "indelible," "riveting," "affectionate," etc. Read and enjoy, and go forth and compile.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas pere: My friend Karen loves it too, but called it a "trashy romance novel." It could be described as such, I guess, but I think she did put a lot of stock in those aformentioned partitions that I've discarded. To start, I'm simply going to direct the reader here (along with a review of the 1998 miniseries with Gerard Depardieu--once you read the novel, you'll realize how ridiculous those words should appear). It's long (in the unabridged version), frequently schmaltzy and overripe, many of the "good" female characters are little better than dolls, and heavily reliant on concidence. It's French, though, and the Victorian cliches and mores (then in their relative infancy--the book was serialized in the early 1840s) have that little twist to them that makes it an entertainingly offbeat experience. The dominating theme of revenge, and the near superheroic title character, undeniably imprinted themselves on my literary--and general--subconscious, and probably influenced my own work in ways I can hardly guess. Add to that the tremendous political and social ferment that went on in France at the time (probably more acceptably--from a critical sense--rendered in Hugo's admittedly magnificent Les Miserables)--the book runs from the Hundred Days of 1815 to the height of Louis-Philippe's Orleanist reign (the latter the apex of modernity to Dumas' audience), and you have a literary experience that, to me, is more sensual and intoxicating than any eternal sonnet.

2. Flashman at the Charge, George Macdonald Fraser: G-Mac's bullying Victorian rogue (hilariously lifted from Thomas Hughes' pious Tom Brown's Schooldays) figured in a number of exciting, informative, politically incorrect (occasionally gratuitously and reachingly so, in step with G-Mac's rabidly reactionary tendencies) adventures, but my favorite has to be his account of the Crimean War, exploits as a POW in Czarist Russia and then as a reluctant freedom fighter in Central Asia, the latter empire's "Wild West." The brio, sex, and humor are still there, but so are a chilling account of one of history's most famous military disasters and a surprisingly affecting reflection by our antihero on his own nature. Well worth seeking out.

3. Wise Children, Angela Carter: Carter's glorious late-career triumph is both a fictional history of south London and and an affectionate love letter to the trust and bonds between two heroically daffy sisters, who find their particular odd talents put to the test as never before as they have to save an ungrateful family and unravel a number of long-standing mysteries. I need to read this again; it was a joy to see the plot strands whip here and there with perfect precision, like one went through a really awesome carnival ride. The Bloody Chamber may seem more germane to my own fictional interests, but... really, not much beats Wise Children. Except The Count of Monte Cristo.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jon Le Carre: Many may be more familiar with the superb British TV series with Alec Guinness as spymaster extraordinaire (all the more so for his ordinariness), but Le Carre's original novel is rather deeper and more involved, with the betrayals and intrigues that underpin the plot unfolding in deceptively simple patterns and hints. Definitely one of my all-time favorite spy novels and certainly my favorite of Le Carre's.

5. Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, Jim Munroe: I found Munroe's story of a Toronto college student who becomes an insectoid superhero (by changing into an actual--size-accurate--housefly) by chance in the Akron Public Library in grad school, and learned to my utter shock that not only was there someone out there who wrote a lot like me, but he even looked slightly similar. It was entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and socially progressive without being too strident, and though Munroe's later work hasn't found as much favor with me (excepting his sci-fi novel, Angry Young Spaceman), I still find much artistic inspiration from his ongoing lo-fi efforts, many of which can be found at his website.

6. Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens: I love Dickens and read all his novels almost back-to-back in college (helped by "Phiz" and his illustrations, all included in those particular editions). I've gone back and reread many since (Bleak House is magnificent, as some of you probably know), but none quite evoke the curiosity and thrill that the great man's offbeat fictional account of London's 1780 anti-Catholic "Gordon Riots" does. It's especially interesting as it seems to take place in a kind of "pre-history" of Dickens' traditional literary world (A Tale of Two Cities excepted). Knowing that "dark histories" like Barnaby Rudge lay at the root of so many tangled inheritances and relationships in the following century added immensely to the appeal. There's also a crow in it; they're very, very cool.

7. Therese Raquin, Emile Zola: Zola's a (surprisingly?) huge favorite of mine, and I get the impression he isn't terribly well regarded these days; his philosophy of literary naturalism has fallen long by the wayside, as has his earnestness in the "scientific" dissection of his characters' upbringing and influences. I don't think, though, that I've ever read a Zola novel I didn't like. His first work, though, which caused a scandal in the France of Napoleon III that was about to get steamrollered by Prussia, is probably my favorite. Germinal, L'Assomoir, Le Debacle, Nana, and Au Bonheur des Dames are all great works and favorites (with the possible exception of Germinal, but I just need to reread it again), but they don't have the drive and aren't quite as dripping with evil and greed as Therese Raquin. Drink up for one of the most excruciating dinner scenes you'll ever read!

8. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton: She explored the same truths Henry James did in a much similar milieu, from a subaltern perspective, and with fewer words in a prophetic nod to future readers. Lily Bart is a superb tragic heroine, and the novel's portrait of high-society sharks in late 19th century New York and Italy isn't to be forgotten, especially after Terence Davies' 2000 film adaptation (one of my favorite book-to-cinema translations) with Gillian Anderson as Lily.

9. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest M. Gaines: One of the best books ever written about my home state, and a moving look at the changing role of African-Americans in both Louisiana and the United States through the eyes of a young slave who manages to live (and I mean live) into the dawn of the civil rights era, meeting and surmounting a number of tragedies along the way. The TV movie with Cicely Tyson is well worth watching, too. I had the honor of working at a book-signing with Mr. Gaines in New Roads over a decade ago, and I'll never forget his patience with his well-wishers and the good humor with which he recounted his life and work.

10. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides: A magnificent portrait of southeast Michigan, Detroit, and a marvelous lead in Cal, who crosses all manner of boundaries in the quest for personal fulfilment and identification. Not only is there a rich cast of characters in support, but also a fantastic setpiece (see?) in Eugenides' description of the Detroit "rebellion" (Cal's words) of 1967. The image of young Cal racing through the streets on a kid's bike during the violence isn't easily forgotten.

11. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: The best novel ever written about New Orleans and one of my favorite comic novels of all time. I suppose my background prejudices me in its favor, but Ignatius J. Reilly is a brilliant creation and the characters (even now, Ignatius apart, I couldn't put my finger on a favorite--Jones? The Levys? Patrolman Mancuso? Mr. Gonzalez?), put together, furnish the ammunition for a fully roundabout satire that, for a change, accomplishes the rarely genuine achievement of "equal opportunity offense."

12. The Sundering Flood, William Morris: Morris was essentially the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre, and is better known for his long saga The Well At The World's End. I prefer this tighter work, though, charting the fate of two lovers across a bucolic, deceptively timeless landscape with a bracing finale and a political surprise at the end. More fantasy writers should look behind Tolkien to people like Morris for their inspiration, if you ask me.

13. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Thomas Kenneally: More boundary crossing with Kenneally's tragicomic tale of the title character, an Australian aborigine who, rejected by white society, goes on the lam as a late-period bushranger in a much less socially Manichean tale than one might think. I read Schindler's List (or Ark, written by Kenneally) before I saw the movie, and though I thought Spielberg improved on the book (problematic though the film seemed at times), I'd like to have seen him try with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Stark, moving, and atmospheric.

14. The Devils, Fyodor Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky's rigid conservatism somehow enriches this dark tale of nihilism and revolution in 19th century Russia, loosely inspired, I believe, by the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. Stavrogin is the ultimate progenitor of modern-day right-wing literary bogeymen, but is arguably all the more hypnotic and engrossing for it.

15. Dark Star, Alan Furst: Furst has sadly (in my opinion) only been pleasing himself for a while, but his first few novels were truly exceptional works of historical espionage. Dark Star is probably the best, examining questions of identity and loyalty while providing an exciting, eventful back-and-forth journey across the fateful, darkening landscape of Europe in the late 1930s, with ultimate outcast and spy Andre Szara as the reader's stand-in, a desperately sane man in a rapidly maddening world.

16. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen: Deserved classics Pride and Prejudice and all the rest may be, but I prefer Austen's mildly prophetic jaunt into "meta" territory, as young Catherine Morland lets her Gothic fantasies run wild once she receives an invitation from some new friends to a mysterious country house. The cliches of Gothic novels (and even the kind Austen wrote) are gently and keenly parodied, but the characters never seem less than real, even though they may be less vivid, say, than Lizzie or Darcy.

17. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis: Of all the Chronicles of Narnia, this one is probably my favorite. Aslan pokes his snout in when you least expect it as usual, but the moral lessons seem rather sensible in this one, and it takes place against a rather wide-ranging backdrop, with Shasta and Aravis well-matched as a bickering couple who wouldn't seem entirely out of place in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The vast land of Calormen may have been a conservative English parody of Orientalist fantasies, but the Tisroc could have stepped out of The Arabian Nights (which Lewis unsurprisingly didn't like, the more fool him) as a shrewd sultan or adviser. And, once again, there are talking animals.

18. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The first volume of the Buru Quartet is my favorite work by Indonesia's most famous writer. A heartbreaking love story and a compelling historical account of colonial Java, I wish it had been a little shorter so I could have assigned it in my Southeast Asia class instead of "Pram"'s more didactic debut, The Fugitive. Annelies' travails are truly heartbreaking.

19. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle: I've loved all the Holmes stories since I was a kid, and I still think the most famous Holmes novel is my favorite of the longer works, the change from the great crimefighting pair's usual London haunts and the grim, forbidding Dartmoor setting serving the story wonderfully (not to mention the classic contrast between the great detective's unflinching rationalism and the brooding folklore that inspired his case). 

20. The Feast of All Saints, Anne Rice: I don't care for Anne Rice, and her historical novel chronicling the fortunes of New Orleans' antebellum gens du couleur libre (free blacks) is probably her least obnoxious work. Fortunately, it's also terrific, Rice's cartoonish Gothic morbidity finally meeting its match in the grotesque world the characters are forced to inhabit. The result is riveting and haunting in the extreme. 

21. Claudine at School, Colette: Colette's semi-autobiographical account of her younger years was a revelation, as much of my reading from the fin de siecle had been awfully stodgy in comparison. Bitchy plotting, back-stabbing, surprisingly warm and affectionate friendships, implied lesbianism (that may have been my imagination or misreading)... it offered a picture of nineteenth-century France (one of my favorite historical and literary backdrops) I'd never discovered and thoroughly enlivened a rather grim period in my life.

22. Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini: Perhaps not as well-known as Captain Blood, the story of pathological smartass Andre-Louis Moreau and his adventures before and during the French Revolution is (a) a lot better and (b) gives us one of popular literature's most indelible and appealing (for me, anyway) characters, as well as a first-hand open-air demonstration of the history of the commedia dell'arte. An interesting and superior contrast to stuff like Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel

23. Dwellers In The Mirage, A. Merritt: I discovered Merritt by chance in Akron, and he swiftly become one of my favorite writers, a masterful champion of the pulp form without the morbidity and loquacity of, say, Lovecraft (love the latter though I do). The Moon Pool was my first Merritt love, but his finest work is probably Dwellers, in which northern Alaska is revealed to conceal a hidden civilization (a Merritt specialty) which not only offers high adventure and rugged doings but also a surprisingly melancholy take on fate and inevitability. Merritt at his finest, and for me, that's saying a lot.

24. The Plague, Albert Camus: I haven't read any Camus since college, but The Plague took me aback, as the characters' existential struggles in pestilence-ravaged Oran gave voice to a surprisingly life-affirming message, as a motley band of outcasts have to band together in order to face the remorseless and faceless title enemy (not to mention themselves). Probably well worth rereading one of these days.

25. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin: I read the Earthsea Chronicles at about the same time I read Lord of the Rings, and while the latter's stock with me has steadily declined, the Earthsea books have only grown in stature. I need to reread the whole thing, but Wizard was something of a mold-breaker, refashioning sword-and-sorcery tropes into a mysterious, hypnotic saga of dashed hubris, self-discovery, and redemption that pulls away purely escapist elements like a flag before a bull. Fantastic stuff, and especially interesting when read alongside the (hilariously) lackluster SyFy miniseries.

26. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner: Faulkner was something of a mania with me ever since I was convinced to revisit my As I Lay Dying-induced hatred in high school and try The Sound and the Fury. I enjoyed several of Faulkner's novels, but Absalom, Absalom! and its examination of the weird, wild Sutphen family, was probably the extreme Faulkner experience, as far as I was concerned. I haven't looked back, really, but it's become one of my mind's enduring shadows.

27. Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery: A very pleasant surprise, and a lovely evocation of rural life and the pleasures of... Canada. Occasionally sugary and sappy, but nowhere near as much as I thought it would be. There are good reasons for its popularity, and Anne Shirley is as beguiling a heroine as has ever appeared in print. I was so taken with Anne that I actually read a few of the others (even though I got stuck on the third or fourth).

28. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad: Conrad's another of those figures who captured my imagination while not having written much of anything for which I have great fondness. Two exceptions (arguably three, if one counts Victory): The Secret Agent and Nostromo. While The Secret Agent's the most influential, Nostromo is the most epic and ambitious, with a rich cast of characters and an unforgettable setting in the breakaway rebel province of Sulaco, with a fortune in gold missing and any number of armies or factions vying for its control and the power that would bring. Nostromo himself is a vivid, compelling figure, but it's interesting to note, too, how often he's simply at the mercy of events, a thoughtful philosophical statement from Conrad.

29. A Soldier Erect, Brian W. Aldiss: Aldiss is best known for his science fiction, but his semi-autobiographical account of his soldier days in Burma during the Second World War struck me sideways during college, mainly for how clear-eyed yet plucky young Horatio Stubbs remained, even in the face of military obtuseness and Japanese attack. One of the top subconscious influences in my own work, and all the more cherished because of it.

30. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne: I'm still not sure I can really make head nor tail of it, but Sterne's pre-meta classic (made into a wonderful film--somehow--by Michael Winterbottom) is a continuing inspiration, both in the character of Uncle Toby and the reminder that, in fiction, anything is possible so long as you know how and when to package it. That reminds me, too, I still need to read A Sentimental Journey.

31. The Deluge, Henryk Sienkiewicz: Sienkiewicz is probably best known outside Poland for Quo Vadis? and inside Poland for his mammoth historical fiction trilogy on Poland from 1648 to 1672 (written in the nineteenth century, when Poland was still ruled by Russia, Prussia--then Germany--and the Austrian Empire). Fire on the Steppe is the most highly regarded critically (Basia's a wonderful heroine, too), but I prefer The Deluge myself, mainly for the redemptive story of Andrei Kmita and the staggering setpiece in the novel's midsection recounting the epic 1655 siege of Czestochowa. If it gripped any harder, I'd choke.

32. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury: I'm not a huge fan of Bradbury--his nostalgia addiction turns me off--but he was never better than in subverting his own ideals in one of his most famous novels (more a collection of connected short stories, but I tend to consider it a novel). Some of the stories are quiet pinnacles of sci-fi/horror, some gentle ruminations on the inevitability of decay. Eloquent and brilliant.

33. Old Mortality, Walter Scott: Stark, striking story set against religious and political unrest in 1670s Scotland, and here Scott's at his best, with vivid characters interacting with real-life historical personages ("Bonnie Dundee") and plot lines handled with seemingly effortless brilliance. Old Mortality was so striking that I'm using it as a primer of sorts on how to write (among other works).

34. Mother London, Michael Moorcock: Moorcock's more an inspiration to me for his influence and artistic philosophy than for any large-scale work he's actually written, but Mother London was a fantastic blurring of genre lines that help to underscore how silly the partitions are at times, examining the postwar history of the city through a few interconnected families, some with legs in both Moorcock's "sci-fi/fantasy" and "literary" universes. "Literary" nativists beware!

35. The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger: A cliched choice, to be sure, but Holden's various plights spoke to me at that age as eloquently as they spoke to a great many other (probably male) adolescents, and the impressionistic picture of 50s New York is undeniably captivating. Even in the novel's riotously masculine world, Phoebe stands out as another great female character in the place you'd least expect.

36. Our Man In Havana, Graham Greene: Greene's knowledge of the tangled espionage circles of pre-Castro Cuba and his innate, yet often compromised humanity meet to superb effect in the character of Wormold, who, in the words of my own co-worker, "makes it work for him" and causes panic and uproar in the secret halls on both sides of the Atlantic. A wonderful satire and a great (if only implicit) bucket of Cold War cold water on the lies we're so often told.

37. (There's A Slight Chance) I Might Be Going To Hell, Laurie Notaro: Notaro's another of those writers I found by chance who swiftly went on to become one of my all-time favorites. Mainly a writer of humorous essays, #37 was her first novel and mirrored her own relocation from Arizona to Oregon, as a newly-arrived transplant discovers that her bucolic new home hides many (often hilarious) dark secrets. The alternately witty and merrily vulgar humor that infused her essays hasn't lost any of its sparkle in the transmutation to fiction. Excellent use of canine characters, too, probably some of the best I've ever read.

38. The Space Merchants, C.L. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl: Gloriously cynical, far-seeing advertising sci-fi satire written in the 1950s and set well into the future, as corporations run the U.S. government (to quote someone I can't remember, "a far-fetched and unlikely scenario") and dominate space. An ad exec runs off the rails and finds himself exiled to Central American plantation/gulags as he tries to clear his name and/or destroy the system that's trying to destroy him. Probably the closest book I've ever read to the manic spirit and scabrous joy of a film like Theodore Flicker's The President's Analyst.

39. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: Many may find this a surprising choice, but I've reread it twice since my boyhood and I still think it's great. One of the most literary titanic statements of humans vs. fate is considerably enlivened by the maritime setting and expert knowledge of the whaling world of the mid-1800s. If that doesn't spell "fun," then I don't know what does (or I need to be committed).

40. Isara, Wole Soyinka: Soyinka's follow-up to Ake is a warm, affectionate semi-autobiographical account (got a lot of these in here) of his young adulthood and the continuing ambitions of his traditional, often flummoxed father. Vivacious yet unflinching in its portrayal of the Westernization of Yoruba Nigeria and the identity crisis of its middle-classes, Isara's a marvelous introduction (not that it was for me) to African literature and a classic of semi-autobiography, from one of my most admired favorite writers.

41. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis: I'll never forget how hard I giggled when I first read it; every time I have a twinge of regret at not staying in academia, I just have to reread it. Written for 1950s Britain but still applicable just about anywhere, the twisted saga of Jim Dixon and his struggle to survive at one of the new "red-brick universities" despite the often unwitting opposition to his efforts from a calcified department and administration is at once unquestionably a product of its time and personally eternal. "You sam?"

42. Caleb Williams, William Godwin: Caleb Williams looks like just another classic Gothic tale of sinister, mysterious family doings in another gloomy old pile in the country, but this time it's told from the perspective of one of the servants, whose treatment during the course of the novel offers a riveting subaltern look at both English literature and English society as a whole during the late 18th century. Considering how influential the former was for English-speaking literature as a whole, it's mind-boggling to track the influences as they radiate outward, but the book itself is a gripping read, for all its grim tone.

43. His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke: Clarke was arguably the progenitor of Australian literature, and the first great Australian novel is still one of the best, and an astonishing surprise when I turned it up by chance in the former PTO shop by the Produce Station. Rufus Dawes' unjust conviction and nightmarish journey through the penal system in Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island, and New South Wales, and his gradual escape and redemption were likened by Jan Morris to the post-Stalinist works of someone like Solzhenitsyn, and some of the same themes hold sway, in a world where the verities and shibboleths of the noble and middle-class families of a work like Caleb Williams have been literally upended. A number of fictionalized real-life incidents occurring throughout the book offer almost an alternative Australian history to the sanitized version that held sway in the country for well into the twentieth century. The implications and processes are dizzying to consider when reading His Natural Life, and the book itself is excellent to boot, if occasionally a little sentimental and reliant on coincidence (for which we can probably thank Dickens in any case).

44. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley: One of the all-time classics of any sort. The haunting, perceptive themes are still relevant nearly two centuries after its creation and it's interesting to note how high it rises in several categories. One of the greatest ever science fiction novels? One of the greatest pre-1900 novels written by a woman? One of the greatest examples of the epistolary form in a novel? One of the greatest novels--probably the greatest novel--ever written, essentially, on a bet? Oh, yeah, it's all of those. Almost forgot to answer.

45. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: Especially good after reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, The Forever War was Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman's brilliant attempt to exorcise the madness of the war he'd fought by transposing it to outer space and focusing on the ludicrously long distances troops would have to travel to fight. As the war stretches into thousands of years long, Private William Mandella starts to wonder why he's there, and if he'll ever get a moment alone with a cute comrade. Heartbreaking and hilariously funny, it's one of the towering achievements of American sci-fi.

46. At The Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft: A technical cheat, as I think it's usually classed as a novella, but the latter form really deserves more respect, and it is, after all, Lovecraft's ultimate statement of the best (and most surprising) aspects of his philosophy and a haunting, increasingly terrifying exploration of the unknown reaches of Antarctica. The greatest achievement of the most justly celebrated American cult author.

47. The Star Diaries, Stanislaw Lem: I read a lot of Lem in college, and The Star Diaries was probably the greatest expression of Lem's strange discomfort with humanity. I read somewhere that he regarded the species as a "disease," and while I've agreed with him only in the darkest depths of depression, it's still bracing and continually surprising to remember the existence of such an unusual attitude, and how it could infuse a thoughtful kind of literature. Astronaut Ijon Tichy and his encounters with a number of unusual civilizations and situations merely serve to underscore how strange we must appear to others and how strange we actually are.

48. The Black Arrow, Robert Louis Stevenson: I just read it on the plane, but whatever. I'm not a big Stevenson fan, particularly, but The Black Arrow was a terrific example of how a novel technically serialized for children can provide the moral ambiguity and believable character development of an "adult" literary phenomenon, and this almost a century and a half ago. One of the characters turns out to be a bit of a letdown, but it's a great reminder to familiarize myself better with the young adult fiction of today.

49. Down In The Zero, Andrew Vachss: I went on a huge Vachss kick in my early twenties, and though I would probably find the moral overkill hardly to my taste today, it was hard to resist the adrenalin rush of these things, and Down In The Zero combined Burke's brooding machismo with the rotten backdrop of a New England suburban Potemkin village. Down, dirty, and utterly compelling (I thought then; it would be interesting to gauge my reaction today).

50. Pawn In Frankincense, Dorothy Dunnett: Dunnett was one of the great masters of historical fiction, combining swashbuckling action and (more usually) labyrinthine intrigue with charismatic yet morally ambiguous heroes. Pawn was probably the most striking of her Lymond Chronicles, as our heroes follow the trail of a... charismatic yet loathsome villain from war-torn 16th-century Scotland to the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Dunnett at the height of her powers, and again, that's saying something.

*Describing the relationship between Danton and Robespierre, and the latter's jealousy of the former, in case anyone wondered.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 1 December 2010 12:07 PM EST
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1 December 2010 - 12:27 PM EST

Name: "Margot"
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Great list! I like that yours is more personal than prescriptive and much more wide-ranging in terms of genre than Argumentative Old Git's. Love seeing Angela Carter and Stanislaw Lem.

 Also, I hadn't read any of Aldiss's longer fiction--I stumbled on him in some old "Best SF of 195X" collections I used to buy for a $.25 at library book sales. Consistently took my breath away. And then, stupidly, I let my mom get rid of them. A Soldier Erect moves to the top of my pleasure reading list.

2 December 2010 - 3:08 PM EST

Name: "Himadri"
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How good to see The Count of Monte Cristo at No 1! It's incredible to think Dumas wrote both this novel and the qually breathtaking The Three Musketeers in the same year. (The latter made my list, and perhaps the former should have as well.) Dumas, for me, was the best storyteller. I love the sheer delight in storytelling that is apparent in virtually every chapter of The Count of Monte Cristo - the profusion of plotlines, of stories within stories within stories, etc. Almost on every page, there are new narrative stands springing up. It has been said that War and Peace is the nearest the modern age has come to Homer's Iliad (by "modern", I mean the last few hundred years - i.e. not "medieval" or "ancient); I think it can equally be said that The Count of Monte Cristo is the nearest the modern age has come to A Thousand and One Nights.

I am interested as well in what you say about seeing writings of different types "through the same critical lens". To be honest, I am not entirely sure about this. I certainly feel that popular writing should be taken seriously - as seriously, indeed, as any other kind of writing: it is outrageous snobbery to say that if something is aimed at a popular market, then old rubbish will do. So, of course, popular literature demands to be seen thorugh some sort of critical lens: we need some set of critical criteria that tell us why George Macdonald Fraser is a writer of quality, and why Dan Brown isn't. But can the same critical lens be used for everything? Surely, whether we like it or not, we go to, say, The Brothers Karamazov and to Murder on the Orient Express in different frames of mind, and with different expectations. I don't know that I want to get much further into this, as taxonomy becomes difficult at this stage: we may, I'm sure, determine the characteristics that make The Brothers Karamazov a serious work of art, and Murder on the Orient Express high-quality entertainment, but as we all know, the borderlne is very broad and very fuzzy. But if we were to judge Murder on the Orient Express with the same set of critical criteria as we would use to judge The Brothers Karamazov, we would, most likely, miss the point of the latter. (The converse applies as well, of course!)

Your list certainly covers more genres than mine. For some reason I cannot quite fathom, I have never been attracted by the fantasy genre, and have rarely enjoyed science fiction. I like humour (Wodehouse always makes me laugh); horror and the supernatural (which is often related to science fiction, I know); and crime (Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain made my list, and Dashiel Hammett and James Ellroy would have made it too on another day). But many friends of mine have given up trying to get me to read science fiction: I really am not sure why that is.

Anyway - a fascinating list, and, amongst other things, it has convinced me to give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a go next year. It's another of those books I've been meaning to read a long time, and there really is no excuse now!


3 December 2010 - 12:46 AM EST

Name: "Shelly"

Thanks for this list, and for starting this alternative list trend on Facebook. I love the way you describe House of Mirth, Moby Dick,  Absalom, Absalom (this book gives me nightmares), and Catcher and the Rye (even though I don't like that one, I think that your description of it is spot on!) And any list with Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula Le Guin makes me happy. Do you like Octavia Butler?

 This is my what I could do with my list before the end of semester rush interrupted things. It is incomplete and very first draft, but I won't have time to finish it in the coming weeks, so I'll just post it. I kind of hate the rationale right now because I think it sounds pretentious, but I wrote it so.... 

Criteria:  Nothing formal; a lot of this was gut feeling. I know I veered away from British literature just because the lists going around are so Anglo-heavy. The list really started with Moby-Dick, Beloved, and Invisible Man. I could argue that these are the best books for understanding America on all sorts of levels, and I guess from there, aside from gut, I left on books that I think will really impress themselves upon the mind of the reader in some lasting way. After I made my initial list, I typed a bunch of these into Amazon and saw the “similar books” suggestions and thought…no, I wouldn’t put that on there or that on there because the books I was encountering weren’t as resonant as the ones I already had  down, even though you could call them “important” from another perspective. That is also why the list is fairly short. It is also nineteenth century heavy because that is what I do.



Ok, so this is my favorite book. It is also a scathing, tour-de-force analysis of “democracy and its discontents,” formally and thematically.



Melville is the Dickens of my list (since Dickens, and come to think of it, JK Rowling, get tons of entries on the BBC list).  You can see this novel as inventively parodic or earnestly engaging, but in either case, it is brilliant and incisive. I see Moby-Dick, Pierre, and Confidence Man as a trilogy of sorts, as each responds to the other (and to the reading public’s responses). They build on a formal level too, as each becomes more and more experimental.


Confidence Man

Unreadable and wholly postmodern, even though it was written in the 1800.


Invisible Man 

What good is democracy if you get left out? Or does being left out give you a deconstructive power vis a vis the disciplinary bonds of governance?  How deep into our nation’s consciousness is “race” embedded? How deep into our institutions? What kind of psychology can an abject person have? Ellison challenges us to ask these questions and more.  I recently reread the introduction, and found really startling passages about the relationship between fiction and democracy, about the novel’s ability to enact new realities, “While fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of “as if,” therein lies its true function and its potential for affecting change.”  If a there is one novel that lives up to the ideal Ellison sets forth here, this is it.



What can possibly be gothic in a country with a short history, and no moors or castles?  We will be haunted by the bodies and souls of those we cast out, or worse, use up, in order to build our “freedom.”


A Mercy

A Mercy and Beloved are really a set, and A Mercy shows us that slavery isn’t the only trauma that helped build the nation; that the American landscape has been violent and haunted since the day Europeans moved in.  This novel also cuts to the quick of the reading experience.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Morrison argued that Beloved was a tale of “unspeakable things unspoken,” but Harriet Jacobs speaks plenty. And her “escape” leaves you wondering what kind of freedom is even possible.


Our Nig

In post-racial America, it would be wise to listen to this tale from the “north,” another land that imagined itself free of racism.


The Morgesons

One of the most independent, rebellious, and perverse female voices in all of literature. Jane, Cathy, Elizabeth…eat your hearts out.


House of the Seven Gables

If Morrison is speaking the unspeakable, I think you’ll find more gaps here than in the slave narratives. Plus, Clifford and Hepzibah are two of the most delightful characters ever written.


Last of the Mohicans

Shows racism as a matter of love and hate.



An interesting inversion of Last of the Mohicans, sure its sentimentality can be as pernicious as Cooper’s didacticism, but the possibilities it imagines are striking, especially in context.


Absalom, Absalom

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Wide Wide World

The Coquette

Still Life With Woodpecker

Naked Lunch



The Haunting of Hill House

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Story of O

Wide Sargasso Sea

My Bondage and My Freedom

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven

Giovanni’s Room

Something Wicked this Way Comes



In Cold Blood

Under the Banner of Heaven

The Basketball Diaries

Notes of a Native Son

The Souls of Black Folk


Our Guys

Borderland/La Frontera





The Pillowman


4:48 Pscyhosis

Angels in America

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Death of a Salesman

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

The Glass Menagerie

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


3 December 2010 - 9:40 AM EST

Name: "Wendell"
Home Page:

Margot: "A Soldier Erect" was the middle novel in a trilogy--"The Hand-Reared Boy" and another whose name I can't remember accompanied it--but I remember "A Soldier Erect" as the most compelling and enjoyable of the books. Aldiss' ride was an interesting one--typical mid-twentieth century Brit living into and even anticipating some of the globalizing movements of the ensuing decades. Really nice guy, tooo, from what I hear.

Himadri: To be honest, I'm not sure how sold *I* am on my methodology, but it's proven quite useful in bringing me to books I may never have read. My high school-era literary snobbery was a lot deeper than most, and required a more thorough rooting-out. As a result, I may have actually become prejudiced against the general "literary canon," and my personal struggle in this department over the past few years has been to reconcile the two... classes? of fiction in a way that does justice to both. I *sense* that, say, The Brothers Karamazov deserves a different kind of attention than, for example, Elizabeth Peters' Egyptological mystery He Shall Thunder In The Sky (a prominent also-ran), but I'm not sure how exactly to personally justify that or if it even really applies. I'm planning to tackle a lot of the longer canon stuff this winter--Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities--and it'll be interesting to consciously record how I approach the material, and how the "method," whatever it is, differs from my usual approach in reading.

And another thing I need to do is reread The Count of Monte Cristo. Utter brilliance. I'd still be interested to watch the 1934 adaptation with Robert Donat to see how they handled the material, but I decided after watching the Depardieu miniseries that it's next to impossible to do it justice. Noirtier, my favorite character in the book, gets sidelined practically every time, which means my favorite scene always gets cut. Boo.

I know what you mean about genre blindspots. It's all subjective, of course, but it's hard for me to begrudge anyone an apathy towards or dislike of fantasy, especially given that the genre suffered (in my opinion) for several decades from a "Tolkienesque" straitjacket. From what I hear, it's only now starting to recover. That's why I tend to focus on pre-Tolkien fantasy like William Morris or, even better, the stuff that ignored or blended genre lines like A. Merritt, Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith (who primarily stuck to short stories). My own blindspot is probably the crime/mystery genre, although there are certain exceptions (Alan Furst is often listed in this category, and Elizabeth Peters is a delight). I thought Lehane's Mystic River was pretty good, and my love of The Wire has goten me interested in guys like Richard Price and George Pelecanos. I keep meaning to read Carl Hiaasen, but somehow just never get around to it.

Shelly: Thanks for the list! There's a lot on there that really "piques my interest," as the good people at 107.1 FM used to fraudulently claim. It's especially interesting to get your perspective as someone specializing in the 19th-century US. High school really did for my appreciation for a lot of these (e.g. Hawthorne; never cared much for Cooper in the first place), but I've often felt a bit guilty about largely turning my back on my own "native" literature (I've been shaking an occasionally pathological Anglophilia for years, and--in both literature and music--I think that's resulted in me neglecting a lot of homegrown "product"); I have similar misgivings regarding my "native cuisine." So in the new year, there'll be a lot of American literature--first, Harriet Jacobs--and a fair amount of Louisiana cooking going on at my house. ;) It's good to hear someone so forcefully champion Melville, too--from what I've understood, he's something of the Emile Zola of American lit. I read a bit of Octavia Butler a few years ago--the Xenogenesis trilogy and Patternmaster. Very thought-provoking stuff, especially as it raised the mysterious ire of Thomas Disch in his own thought-provoking but occasionally problematic literary history The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. The latter makes for quite an entertaining read, especially when he starts ripping into Heinlein.

3 December 2010 - 11:45 AM EST

Name: "Himadri"
Home Page:

I don't think The Count of Monte Cristo can be filmed satisfactorily. The effect of the novel depends upon the sheer profusion of narrative strands, and, in a film of about a couple of hours or so, there isn't enough time to dramatise all these narrative strands: many inevitably get cut out. And as a consequence, the texture of the whole thing is lost.

As for The Man Without Qualities - well, best of luck! Of the major modernist novelists, Woolf and Musil have the ones I just couldn't get my head around.  Someone once said to me that reading Musil was a bit like being lectured to at great length by a very intelligent man with hailtosis: you know what he's saying is all good stuff - but you just wish he'd stop!


3 December 2010 - 11:50 PM EST

Name: "Shelly"

Believe me, if you'd asked me the day I graduated college what I thought about nineteenth-century American lit, I would have said it was stodgy.  This may have something to do with Himadri's question of methodology, because at the time I was looking at it as important or classic or good.  It wasn't until I realized that most of it is surprisingly oppositional, and really relevant to the way the U.S. imagines itself today (not to mention a good index of what alternative possibilities can be imagined), that I came to really love the stuff.  Let me know if you do read Jacobs; of the slave narratives I think it is the most interesting and it doesn't get its due. It sounds like you have a delightful winter planned! There is probably no better than reading and cooking!

I haven't read the Thomas Disch, but it sounds interesting, especially if he takes on Butler, who I think is brilliant. I am excited to teach "Bloodchild" in the fall! 

4 December 2010 - 12:00 AM EST

Name: "Shelly "

Oh, and for what it is worth, there is no author that High school does *less* justice to than Hawthorne!  Except maybe Melville.  High school takes a really provocative novel that challenges sexual mores (at a time when it was almost impossible to divorce and motherhood was quite literally sacred) and questions the way society constrains individual freedom (and so so much more) and reduces it to some boring tome about the nature of sin or a critique of Puritanism or some other conservative, sanitized topic. I don't think it is at all a stretch to say the high school ruins Hawthorne. It is a shame! But if you do decide to try him again, I'd try House of the Seven Gables, because at least you have ghosts in that one, or maybe his sci fi-oriented short fiction ("The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "The Artist of the Beautiful" make for interesting companion pieces, and there's a Vincent Price film adaption, which is terrible, but I can never get enough Uncle Vince).

6 December 2010 - 1:56 PM EST

Name: "Dad"

A very interesting list. See if you can locate "The Earl of Louisiana" by A.J. Liebling. It's my favorite book about Lousiana and amazingly was written by Liebling (a New York sportswriter) from a short trip to the state.

9 December 2010 - 12:42 AM EST

Name: "Mom"

I second the Liebling book, for what it's worth.  We used to have a copy on Avondale; I'm sure you must have read it.

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