annamorphic's reads, with even more commentary

É uma continuação do tópico annamorphic's reads, with commentary.

Discussão1001 Books to read before you die

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annamorphic's reads, with even more commentary

Ago 20, 2018, 2:01pm

This thread continues my reading journey. My goal is to read 1001 books from the combined lists, including lists from foreign versions of the 1001. I started with about 160 books already done in my life as a reader, and now I'm at 532. I have a ways to go before I die, which is good!

532. Nadine Gordimer, July’s People *** (trauma & disorientation at overthrow of racist social order)

Disturbing though interesting book about what could happen if apartheid system were violently overthrown. We follow one "nice, liberal" couple, with their children, who are rescued from the city by their African "boy" and taken to live with his family. They gradually lose all sense of social and even personal identity. It's all told in a very sparse, non-committal, rather confusing way, challenging the reader to figure out what's happening even as the couple themselves are challenged (& fail) to reestablish a sense of self. Although South Africa's immediate future was not as dire as Gordimer imagines, the book gives a good hard look at the emotional realities of apartheid and those whose lives were constructed within that system, as well as a sense of what it can be to become a refugee.

Editado: Ago 20, 2018, 3:58pm

Esta mensagem foi removida pelo seu autor.

Set 6, 2018, 1:58pm

533. Leon de Winter, Hoffman’s Hunger ** (confusing tale of extreme gluttony & sorrow)

I didn't totally hate this book, but it was close. A tale both grotesque and confusing, in a kind of Bruegelian manner, about really extreme gluttony that tries to fill a void created by the horrors of human history and personal fate. There is a kind of spy-thriller plot, but it is (as it were) consumed by the stories of bodily excess, sometimes told in really awful detail. I think that I was confused in part because I kept skimming through scenes in the lives of the two main characters because they were so vile, and then I couldn't figure out what was going on. At the same time, the level of true tragedy (in Hoffman's life, at least) was extremely disturbing. I really could hardly sleep after reading about his daughters.

This book was from the Dutch version of the 1001 and like the last one I read from that list, the much better Beyond Sleep, it lingered a lot over heightened bodily discomfort (vomiting, shitting, itching) and forced you to focus on bodily functions. It gave me a sense of righteousness in my arguments with my British editor, to whom I've been trying to explain that you MUST use piss and shit, not urinate and defecate, when describing Flemish art.

Set 23, 2018, 5:13am

534. Arthur Japin, In Lucia’s Eyes **** (18th-century female outsider’s story of love, loss, & reason)

A definite winner from the Dutch version of the 1001 list, this extremely engaging, touching, and often thought-provoking historical novel tells the story of Casanova's first love from her perspective. A real character from the margins of a famous history narrates her own life, and it is absolutely gripping from beginning to end. There are many extraordinary (yet very plausible) twists and turns to this plot. The story is masterfully constructed so that often quite unexpected backstories emerge long after you know some detail that needed explanation. But in general, this is a tale about selfhood and self-discovery in a combat between trusting to reason and understanding the nature of love. The narrator is a fascinating character who earns your respect and understanding.

A book that ought to make it onto the English edition of the 1001 as well, perhaps replacing Connie Palmen's The Laws, a really awful Dutch book. For me it was probably a 4.5 star read but I might have been prejudiced by its Amsterdam setting and the scene set in the Spinhuis.

Editado: Out 7, 2018, 1:54am

535. Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs **1/2 (simple tragedy of Dutch Jews in wartime)

From the Dutch version of the 1001 list, a brief and extremely simple story told by the youngest child in a Jewish family in The Netherlands during World War II. The chapters are short and straightforward, recounting little episodes of daily life. It's the very lack of drama that makes this an effective book: everything about the narration feels so utterly ordinary as it tells of things that should not be ordinary at all. I can see why this is a Dutch classic. On the other hand, I also see why it's not on the English version of the list. Part of the book's power lies in the way it evokes places, neighborhoods, streets, just by naming them. If you weren't pretty familiar with The Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam, this wouldn't work.

Out 18, 2018, 10:11am

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend ***** (complex anatomy of friendship and community)

Not giving this one a number because only the last of the four books in this series is moving onto the 1001 list. But I want to remember each one, especially if the others are this good!

This first book is a long, slow, subtle look at a friendship between two young girls, through their childhoods and adolescence. It is a character study of one girl (the friend) and a kind of awakening of selfhood in another girl (the narrator). Part of what is at issue is the struggle to detach from the norms and expectations and dramas of the poor Neapolitan neighborhood in which they are growing up, and the way that "brilliance" is or is not realized within that context. For me this book was unexpectedly compelling and convincing and actually relevant. It's also quite confusing -- the characters list at the beginning was utterly necessary and I was still sometimes confused! But I cannot wait to read the next book in the series, and am really glad this made it onto the new list.

Out 28, 2018, 4:05am

536. Ian MacPherson, Wild Harbour *1/2 (you can’t really escape humankind’s depravity)

Good to check one off the main list for a change, but I found this book dreary and in no way compelling. The basic plot should have been really interesting, but the two main characters were so intensely annoying, each in their own ways. And while I know (from things like July's People reviewed above) that you can make a good story out of how exile from familiar civilization in time of conflict changes people, MacPherson's people didn't really change.

Not a terrible book, and I can see why some people like it, but definitely not for me.

Editado: Nov 17, 2018, 4:46am

537. Émile Zola, Nana *** (spiral of social decadence around destructive mindless sexual woman)

Nana, the heroine of Zola's novel, is the complete embodiment of feminine sex appeal, a Marilyn Monroe of the 19th century but with less brains and more total self-satisfaction, as such a figure would be if she were invented by a man. Nana means well (so she claims) and has a good heart (she says), but if this was ever true, she is entirely corrupted by her easy success as a high-class whore. Men will do anything for her. At a truly implausible level, they bankrupt and abase and even kill themselves, while she considers herself the true victim. Her egotism is complete. Every act of kindness or generosity, even to her own child, is like a performance put on to demonstrate her goodness to an adoring (male) public. Anything less than complete sensory gratification bores her. Eventually she just destroys for the pleasure of destroying. She is the machine consuming and spitting out both the masculine and material worlds of Second Empire France.

In many ways I disliked this book a lot. However, it is also a significant achievement. The descriptive prose is amazing, and many specific set pieces truly capture a sense of Parisian social life at this time -- the theater, the races, the parties. Long ago I took some seminars in Impressionist painting, and right from the first chapter this book catapulted me back to the scenes of Manet and Degas, and even Cassatt. That's what really kept me going through all the awfulness of Nana's world.

Editado: Nov 17, 2018, 11:17pm

I just finished Zola's The Drunkard and it's about the childhood of Nana (and Etienne of Germinal). I was going to read Nana next.

Nov 22, 2018, 3:35am

538. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust ** (somewhat schizophrenic tragicomedy of manners)

A truly bizarre narrative trajectory, as if the author started out wanting to write one kind of comedy and ended up with another. It was amusing in a 1930s kind of way, but also just weirdly dark and uncomfortable. The blurb on the back of my edition has the Guardian calling it "one of the 20th-century's most chilling and bitter novels, and one of its best," which I don't see at all. It's come off the list now which seems right to me; surely Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited, which I read long ago, were better books.

Nov 25, 2018, 10:41am

539. Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession * (relentlessly downbeat & self-pitying)

Short but chapterless first-person confessional, which at first I thought was going to be one of those old-geezer-rants in the manner of Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. But this book has no charm, or wit, or sly humor. It's just the relentlessly self-pitying tale of a man who has murdered his wife (you find this out on the first page) and somehow thinks he's not totally to blame because he's such a loser and everybody has always despised him. Really just unbearable. From the Dutch version of the 1001, and not recommended!

Dez 8, 2018, 9:31am

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name **** (struggle for identity in a violent, claustrophobic world)

The second of the Neapolitan novels, of which the fourth is newly added to the list, but you clearly have to read all four so that's what I am doing. This one is not quite as good as the first because, I think, the first was so surprising in how it was written, how it presented this friendship, and how compelling it was; and the second can't surprise like that. It is also perhaps too long. The narrator plays a more self-consciously large role in this book as she tries to separate herself from her "brilliant" friend whose life is lurching from one disaster to the next, and somehow she is less vivid than her friend, which is kind of their joint problem. The book is also about escaping from poverty and violence, and what it means to your identity to have those as your roots.
Looking forward to book 3!

Dez 17, 2018, 7:39am

540. Manuel Puig, The Kiss of the Spider Woman *** (unusual tale of prison imagination, love, betrayal)

An interesting book, very cleverly structured and unlike any other book I've ever read. There is truly no narrator, no description, just (unattributed) dialogue and documents; i cannot understand how they made a film of it.

The two characters are cellmates in an Argentine prison, one a transsexual who "corrupted a minor," the other a political rebel. The former helps to pass the time by recounting, in great detail, his favorite films. This conceit, and his voice, are delightful. A real plot suddenly emerges halfway through the novel and the ending is not happy. But the book is an easy and, as I said, an interesting read for its literary experimentation.

Dez 17, 2018, 4:32pm

Lots of great reads! I will be following your list as I love to get new book ideas and am keen to see what you are reading from the foreign lists.
Happy reading!

Jan 1, 2019, 9:25pm

541. André Brink, A Dry White Season *** (ordinary man caught up in evil of apartheid system)

A very ordinary white man is caught up in the cruel injustice of the apartheid system quite by chance when a black man who he knows rather incidentally is murdered in his prison cell -- an event that is, of course, covered up by the police state system. I recognize that this was an important book about serious issues, but as a novel it was less impressive. The reader knows, more or less, where the plot will end up from the very beginning. There is never any real hope or suspense, just an endless downward spiral. Occasionally you do think "why doesn't he just give up? He can do nothing." Which is true. But you just move along, with the main character, to his doom. The semi-romantic subplot is also somehow superficial and not believable. So for me, a 2-star read with an extra star for its political/historical importance.

Editado: Jan 4, 2019, 7:41pm

542. John Buchan, The 39 Steps **1/2 (jolly but improbable spy thriller)

This book was a good read and I gather that it's important in setting up parameters of its genre, but as a spy thriller, it's just so madly improbable. The hero has luck on his side at every turn, the coincidences are not plausible, and his intuition is always right. On the other hand, his flight over the Scottish moors is excellent and the plot is genuinely suspenseful. I see this book as related to the somewhat earlier The Riddle of the Sands, another thriller that I read last year. They share many weaknesses but this one has a lot less minutia about ships and tides, and was therefore much more enjoyable!

Editado: Maio 3, 2019, 10:46am

543. David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress ***** (how does the past remain alive?)

This book is brilliant. But at first it seemed so odd that I thought I’d never finish it. No plot! Not even paragraphs! Then there occurred a reference to Lititz, PA and I thought, this book is speaking to me! (which it was, see below). So I went to Amazon and read the reviews, because how could anybody to whom this book did not speak actually enjoy it? And it turned out that people love it, but for utterly different reasons. So here are my reasons.

I think of this as a book about how, or why, civilization and culture actually matter. Why do they endure? Are artifacts of the past as/more important than people of the present and future? This was one of the questions also posed by Michael Frayne’s Headlong, a much more conventional novel. It’s also only one of many questions in Markson’s book. This book makes you think about the nature of language and reality, about writing as an act of world-making, about memory and solitude and depression and madness.

All of this and more is brought out in the disjointed musings of a woman (Kate, or sometimes Helen) who is the last living being on earth. For two years she searched for any other person, or even a cat. Now she lives by the sea with a typewriter, recording her thoughts. They are most often about culture, and if you do not know quite a lot about art, music, or classics, you will miss the subtleties here. I know nothing about music and only a bit about classics but tons about art, so I at least understood one thread, which helped me to see how history, myth, and personal fiction-making play together in her mind. But why does it matter that in her head are stored all these detailed memories of culture? There are no more people! Her own past life seems less vivid to her than Homer or Rembrandt, although as the book goes on she misremembers both life and art more and more, and creates her own stories from past characters. She might just be writing a novel. She might be mad.

This book kept me both entertained and thinking. It also was quite personal, as it not only deliberately referenced my mother’s hometown, but also my uncle’s book Baseball When the Grass Was Real – both come up often, in fact. Markson was a good friend of my uncle’s and I visited his Manhatten apartment once when I was little; I remember the overhead bookshelves lining the hallway! So that connection added the extra half-star to my reading experience of this very smart book.

Jan 13, 2019, 6:43am

>17 annamorphic: Wow! Got to get to that one sooner than later!

Fev 2, 2019, 11:21am

544. Chester Himes, Blind Man With a Pistol ** (racism and violence and nothing makes sense)

An incredibly weird and disorienting book. It's hilarious, mind you, but it's more a series of vignettes than a traditional detective story. Because the motives for criminality are more generic racism, anger, and common misunderstanding. It was not clear to me if any crime was ever actually solved. Sometimes you, the reader, know how things happened. Sometimes you don't. The final vignette, the blind man with a pistol, is typically comical, gruesome, awful, and mad.

Really worth a read for the sense it gives of racism in mid-20th-century New York.

Fev 13, 2019, 10:15pm

545. James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room **** (grappling with sexuality, love, and otherness in Paris)

This was a much better, more complex book than I had somehow expected. I mean, it's such a ground-breaking novel in gay literature that I expected it to be just that. But it's more. The characters are very vivid and their situation felt real. Even the melodramatic side of the book, which mostly swirls around Giovanni himself, felt right because it just seemed like who Giovanni was and how his suffering would express itself. I particularly appreciated how both main characters, Giovanni and the narrator, are young men out of place: neither really belongs to Paris, they are just passing through, trying to establish a self there. In some way, they understand neither one another nor their situation, and this is about more than sexuality. The degree to which all of this is disastrous is wrenching.

The third main character, our narrator's girlfriend Hella, was much less good. I felt for her, but her dialogue just seemed implausible to me. But maybe that's 50s womanhood, at least from Baldwin's point of view.

Mar 7, 2019, 12:14am

546. Primo Levi, If This Is a Man **** (The destruction of humanity is horribly easy)

Levi explores what it takes to destroy the humanness of a human being, and what we become once that destruction has taken place. The answer is, it doesn't take much. The first few short chapters here describe the abrupt transformation of people into animals, and once this has been accomplished there really isn't much left. In Levi's telling, the beings at Auschwitz have been consigned to some other species. I kept thinking that they were basically like battery chickens, who are kept alive for as long as they produce something, and then killed to make room for the next batch. This is the story from inside the factory. There are no moments of life and hope. The last days are the most horrifying in part because the men are returning to human consciousness.

Mar 30, 2019, 4:39pm

547. Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child ***** (identity shifts, neighborhood is forever)
548. Julia Franck, The Blindness of the Heart * (warped people are more warped by war, drugs)

Catching up on my reading here. First, I finally finished the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante, which is a masterpiece in its own weird way. While is is extremely long and rather rambling, it is also claustrophobic to its own world, its own neighborhood, its own two characters whose identities are so very intertwined. The books explore a friendship but from the very beginning the relationship between these two girls is more than that. The narrator writes these books about, for, and to her friend; they constitute a lost friend; they are autobiographical at the same time that they are biographical. The girls are one another's alter-egos. In some ways, the narrator of these books may BE the friend. The plot twist in the final book makes this explicit, yet the resolution is also utterly indeterminate.

These books were completely fascinating to read. There is no normal plot structure. You just ramble along through the lives of the two main characters within the complex of friends and enemies in the neighborhood. The rest of the world is there, and quite intense politics intrude, but all of that fails to matter enough. Life and its living is all that matters. Very highly recommended.

On the other hand, The Blindness of the Heart. What a terrible book. I just hated it! Every single person is incredibly warped and creepy. And the fact that the first third or so of the book is told from a child's point of view (or actually two children) just makes it worse. I thought this was going to be a nice, depressing, tragic German World War II book, but it's really about the brutality that mental illness (and drugs) inflict on all those around. The strange cluelessness of the characters, the way they seem to go through life utterly unable to process what is happening to them, is unbearable. Don't read this one!

Editado: Abr 28, 2019, 12:34am

549. Jose Saramago, Cain ***** (delightful, critical journey through the Old Testament)

This was precisely the wonderful book I had hoped and expected it to be. It is an exploration of the God of the Old Testament, not entirely tongue in cheek, told from the point of view of Cain. Who knows that he should not have killed his brother Abel, but really wonders if God didn't set it all up by refusing his sacrifice for no good reason. Cain journeys through the lands of the Old Testament, frequently slipping through time to experience various key episodes, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (which upsets him greatly -- the crying of the innocent children!) to Job, to the sacrifice of Isaac, to Noah's Ark. Cain is full of skepticism about God's actions and intentions, and how well thought-through his plans for humanity have really been. You would think that there could be no final plot twist in such a book, but there is one, and it is hilarious.

Highly recommended for an enjoyable yet provocative read.

Abr 28, 2019, 10:00am

>23 annamorphic: I like retellings, it's a weakness, so that's going on the list. And the library has a copy.

Maio 3, 2019, 10:33am

550. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love **1/2 (tortuous relational lives of two couples)

This book was kind of painful to experience and also really annoying in many ways, yet I can sense it as an achievement and would actually be curious to read it again. For a great deal of the book, the main characters all confused me and I couldn't get a good sense of them as individuals. They certainly eventually emerged strongly but then I kept thinking "should I have known this about him/her?" Like how did Gudrun become so dreadful at the end? Was this always going to happen? It's typical of Lawrence to unfold characters gradually -- The Rainbow was like that too -- but this was too much and it was confusing. And what should have been big character issues, like that one main character had killed his own brother by accident, got mentioned in passing and never, ever came into play again. Moreover, one main character keeps spouting off Lawrence's own philosophy which is obnoxious as heck. It reminds me of the superior self-satisfaction of Wyndham Lewis in Self Condemned.

There is a grand ambition here that is reached, on its own terms. The characters are incredibly complex and multi-faceted. This novel is less good than The Rainbow but definitely better than Lady Chatterley. And the reader on my audiobook, Maureen O'Brien, was absolutely superb!

Maio 24, 2019, 3:19pm

551. M.G. Lewis, The Monk **** (lust, bloody ghosts, sorcery, rape drugs, you name it, this book delivers)

By far the best Gothic novel I've read, I think because it revels in its own wild imaginativeness and never tries to pull punches. The author clearly spent not an instant worrying about plausibility. Everything is just marvelously extreme -- the terror, the suffering, the evil, the vice, the adoration, the passion. Every character has some complex and dramatic back-story that needs telling, sometimes at great length. Even the ghost of the Bloody Nun has a story (of course she does!). Innocent people suffer and die horribly, but the bad people even more so. And it's all set in this strange English fantasy of Madrid, a locale infested by Catholic superstition. Even our Spanish heroes feel that Madrid is a place of Papist excess.

I also need to give one more cheer for the evil Matilda who had her portrait painted as the Virgin Mary to seduce the pious priest into worshiping her. Like any conniving Catholic woman would do!

So -- huge fun.

Maio 29, 2019, 10:22am

552. Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero ** (depressing fable of Arab women’s oppression)

Well, that was a real downer. A short book but almost unbearably painful, even though you aren't really supposed to take it as a personal story but as a generic fable. It's told as a personal story, by a woman about to be executed for murder and welcoming that death. Her story is about her relentless degradation by men, being made to be without value. Only in killing and dying does she finally have value. And then she is awesome.

Jun 8, 2019, 7:18pm

553. Francoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse *** (world-weary teen wrecks various lives)

A short, simple, sad story in which a teen, who thinks of herself as very knowing and worldly, plots successfully to intervene in the lives of the adults around her and ends up ruining them. And she knows it. And there's nothing to be done. Written when the author was only 18 herself, it's actually a great insight into a certain kind of adolescent mind.

Jun 17, 2019, 10:06am

554. Ian McEwan, Black Dogs *1/2 (narrator ponders his in-laws’ long-ago French revelations)

A really meh book. I'm not a McEwan fan at the best of times, but at the end of this one I was just left thinking "Why?" Why have you told this story? Why have I read it? OK, it's supposed to be about the state of post-war Europe, and about different forms of revelation -- it's mostly about June's spiritual one, but Bernard actually has a rival revelation about personal pain and society that's oddly marginalized. But honestly, these things are not that interesting. A book that deserved to fall off the list.

One exciting moment, though, was the use of the word "divagation." An excellent word that I'd never heard before! I appreciated that.

Jun 19, 2019, 8:48pm

555. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River **** (very ordinary people grapple with belonging in Africa)

A fascinating, thoughtful novel. The narrator is so ordinary, even in some ways mediocre -- he doesn't do good things (and sometimes does bad ones), he does not think deeply, and he doesn't have a larger vision to help him make sense of the world around him. But he's also not the worst, not stupid, not at the bottom. He's capable. What he isn't, is African. He is an outsider at a moment when actually nearly everybody is an outsider in some way or at some moment. Change is constant, unpredictable. There are those with power, or with money, but they could lose everything in an instant. Within this instability, the various foreigners have an impossible status. The narrator's family are of Indian origin but their home is Africa. Or is it? Where is their home? They go away, they come back, they spend time in England (is it home?), they return. And then, finally, there is nothing left. The tenuous rules have given way. The last scene is beautifully awful and understated, like the rest of the book.

Editado: Ago 31, 2019, 11:59am

556. Graham Swift, Waterland *** (whose tragedy is history?)

This is probably really a four-star book, and the writing and whole conceit are brilliant, but the tragedy is both so banal and so extreme that I had trouble reading it and toward the end I was definitely skimming to avoid the pain. In an overarching sense, this is a great book about the Fens (which is why I was reading it) and about why individuals may be fascinated by history while pondering their own little bits of it. The narrative voice is wonderful, perfect for what the book is trying to do. But the pain of the narrator, his complex and deep history and his shallow, fenny one -- it's fascinating, but tragic. A pretty wonderful book but don't read it unless you are steeled for sorrow.

Editado: Jul 20, 2019, 7:26pm

557. J.M. Coetzee, Foe **1/2 (who tells whose story and how?)

This wasn't a terrible book but in the end it just became excessively cleverly circular and self-referential. It begins with a woman shipwrecked on the desert island with Crusoe and Friday. While Crusoe, Defoe's hero, soon disappears from the narrative, the woman arrives back in England with Friday to find somebody to tell her, their, story. Friday himself cannot speak. What is in fact his story? This question, and the nature and truth of her own story, and finally the very nature of reality, obsess the woman and the writer of this book.

Clever, short, but not really as smart as it wants to be. I never quite get the esteem in which the 1001 editors hold Coetzee. At least this one has been removed in later editions.

Ago 5, 2019, 8:18am

558. Paul Auster, Moon Palace ***1/2 (becoming by losing people, finding them, and losing again)

This book was smart, entertaining, poignant. The narrator, an orphan, tells us the story of his youth, the losses of every person to whom he was related and, almost, all of his friends. Then both friends (new and old) and family (sort of) reenter his life, and tell him their stories. At the end he has lost them all again, every shred of them, but he still has their stories, and that is the book he writes.

The stories Auster tells are wonderful, hilarious, frustrating, zany; his characters are memorable and, at least in the case of Effing, really remarkable. On the other hand, the book doesn't have that much to say. I didn't feel like I learned anything important from reading it. Very good but not great.

Editado: Set 24, 2019, 8:27pm

559. Yann Martel, The Life of Pi **** (moving survival memoir that asks what makes us human)

A moving story with a lot of texture, shifting between slow and philosophical, and extremely brutal and horrific. The voice of Pi is lovely, beautifully carried out by Martel, and his story is fascinating. The twist at the end first left me quite unsatisfied, and then made me want to read the whole book again with the questions it raised in my mind. I have not seen the film and cannot quite imagine how it conveys the layers of reality and imagination of this story.

Ago 31, 2019, 12:27pm

560. James Kelman, Kieron Smith, boy **** (spend 400 pages inside a boy's head and it's great)

I never expected to love this book. The first page or two seemed so unpromising. But once you've settled down inside the mind of Kieron Smith, it's a fascinating and lovely place and you come to feel at home with his thoughts. The whole book is just a stream-of-consciousness, non-narrative series of reflections on things, events, tiny trivial aspects of life that Kieron notices and has thoughts about.

Kelman creates an amazingly consistent, believable character. Kieron has his own opinions and makes his own judgement of things. He is angry about anything that seems unfair, either to himself or to other people; he suffers many beatings stoically, but only because he takes them as fair. We understand his love for his grandfather, his dislike of his brother; how his loyalties are formed and strengthened. He climbs a lot and his descriptions of those physical experiences are oddly compelling. As Kieron grows up, we watch how his experiences form him and how his inner self remains strong. Really a marvelous, unique reading experience.

Set 16, 2019, 9:44am

>34 annamorphic: I was reluctant to see the movie but finally did this summer. I had the same reservations as I have with the book - I don't think either is particularly good at convincing me of the existence of God - but it really captures Pi's voice and the images are ridiculously beautiful. It was much better than I expected and much, much better than I feared.

Set 18, 2019, 5:06pm

561. Juan Ramón Jiménez, Platero and I **** (poetic ode to Aldalusia via friendship with a donkey)

A really lovely evocation of a place and a time and a friendship between a poet and his donkey Platero. It's a sentimental book but not an idealizing one. In early 20th-century Andalusia there is a lot of poverty, brutality, and death, but if you look with a poet's eye (or a donkey's) there is also immense beauty. The author's genius lies in registering both, with regret and with love. The book is told as a series of short observations made to Platero, the donkey, who is always addressed as "you" and who the narrator loves as his dearest friend, with whose companionship he can be happily solitary.

A feel-good book that also makes you cry; it makes a distant time and place come alive, but with a sense of nostalgia for something that is gone. Recommended for a short, satisfying read.

Set 22, 2019, 4:38pm

562. Javier Marías, A Heart so White ****1/2 (what happens to truth if you don’t speak it?)

This book is a serious philosophical query that is not infrequently laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes extremely suspenseful, and often very thought-provoking. The writing is complex, but it is urgent and pulls you along. The plot is simple, yet really nothing is simple in a book about the nature of truth, language, and knowledge.

The narrator and his new wife are both interpreters, that is, they are in the business of constantly changing words from one language to another without actually digesting and thinking about those words: they perform language, in an arena of power where they have nothing at stake. They have to speak what has been said. But what is the relationship between what has been said, and the truth?
This is the heart of the matter: the narrator's father's previous wife, before the narrator's mother, killed herself in a strangely sudden and dramatic fashion shortly after their honeymoon. This is the book's riveting opening scene, and the silencing of this woman, the absence of a voice to tell her truth, is the question around which the rest of the book revolves.

A wonderful novel; I cannot imagine how it fell off the 1001 list. I would really like to read it again, or even better to hear it as an audio book. I did not, however, really understand the function of the subplot about Berta, or it seemed like an odd thread, which is why I took off half a star.

Set 24, 2019, 7:49pm

>38 annamorphic: I really loved that one too.

Out 12, 2019, 12:03pm

563. Luís Vaz de Camões, The Lusiads *** (Portugal has epic heroes too!)

I enjoyed this book and am quite glad that it was somebody else's least favorite, inspiring me to read it for the September challenge. However! Not only is it really not a book with much appeal at all to the modern era, it clearly does not belong on the List. It's an epic poem! If this is here, why not the Aenead and the Odyssey?

Because this is an epic poem that jumps around saying "hey, look at me, I'm an epic poem!" Self-consciously, Camoes is trying to do for Portugal what Virgil did for Rome -- to set up foundational myths, and in particular to map out an empire traversed in glory by his hero, here Vasco da Gama. To accomplish all of this in one wild ride, he both tells the whole history of Portugal (many Kings, all heroes) with lots and lots of battle and bloodshed, plus the voyage of Vasco (fearlessly pressing forward despite a series of betrayals by perfidious Muslims) AND he lets Vasco dream the next 50 years of Portuguese conquests as well. It's amazing! But nowhere without precedent in ancient epic poetry. At one juncture the history Camoes wants to narrate has been painted as a picture inside Vasco's ship, somehow, which is incredibly unlikely but extremely interesting and also Epic.

Since Camoes is so determined to be like an ancient epic, he sets up a lot of his material in terms of mythological Gods and Goddesses. Portuguese history is all about arguments between Venus and Bacchus, occurring in Olympus and then carried down to earth. Storms at sea are arranged by appropriate deities. The reason this feels so odd is because the story is also, intensely, one about the triumph of Christianity and the awfulness of the Muslims. There does come a point where the writer sort of steps back and says "of course all these mythological beings are just my device for telling this epic" which again is really interesting. But odd.

So super interesting if, like me, you kind of study this period. But a nutty choice for the 1001 editors, and I cannot recommend this to anybody who's not a fan of Virgil, Homer, and the age of Exploration/Conquest.

Out 12, 2019, 4:56pm

>40 annamorphic: I disliked it for all the reasons you mention above! Happy to have brought it to your attention and glad you found it an interesting read.

Out 20, 2019, 1:49pm

564. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner *** (the devil is smart and Calvinists are stupid)

An entertaining book although slightly overdone in the way a Scottish gothic/religious polemic would be. Hogg presents us with the narrative of a man who has been told to believe himself one of God's elect, completely "justified" through his faith. On the very day he is told by his preacher-stepfather that he has been chosen by God, who should appear to him but the Devil, disguised as a strange mirror of himself. Things thenceforth go from bad to worse. Hogg knew not just his Scots theological controversies but his demonic folklore and he draws on it all. Good fun, despite the dialect.

Editado: Out 25, 2019, 11:32am

565. Michael Faber, Under the Skin *1/2 (vile allegory of inter-species callous cruelty)

This book was so vile that I admit I could not finish it. I understand that the conception is clever and the suspense is well done. Even the central character is interestingly developed. But honestly, I could have died without reading this. I will attempt to forget the two thirds or so that I did manage to get through.

Out 24, 2019, 12:59am

>43 annamorphic: ouch, that's not exactly a glowing endorsement!

Editado: Nov 3, 2019, 11:35am

566. Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk **** (unsettlingly gorgeous tale of flight, death, mourning & redemption)

Another book that should not be on the 1001 list (it's a memoir, not fiction!) but this time I can see why the editors could not resist including it. The writing is gorgeous, incredibly evocative of a landscape and the creatures within it. It is also a very multi-layered memoir: it deals with grief and mourning; with animals and the nature of our relationships with them; with the ways fictions get made; with sight and representation and memory. A smart book by an impressive writer.

If you're not at least faintly interested in or curious about falconry, this might be a difficult read. My entire knowledge of the subject came from a children's book, Falconer's Lure, but I did have at least a curiosity. And it would help to know a little bit about T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and also of a book about falconry. Macdonald's book is deeply about falconry, but also about White's writing about that subject. You learn a lot about both.

This book is about love, too. H is for heart. It's about losing what you love (a father) and projecting a different kind of love onto a being that does not love you (a hawk); about losing yourself in loss and then in an animal absorption. And it's about loving nature, the landscape, places where you run and search and watch. Macdonald's descriptions are gorgeously poetic. In nature there is also cruelty and death, and again this is unflinchingly described (and enacted) in ways that are really disturbing. The balance between beauty and brutality is part of what gives the book both a human and an animal feel. Sometimes Macdonald is in fact right on the border between species.

I liked and even admired this book. It is rather too long and too self-absorbed, though, so four stars.

Editado: Nov 24, 2019, 3:41pm

567. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall *** (bad marriage is really bad. Don’t do it.)

A very uneven book. The narrative structure, a diary embedded in a series of somebody else's letters, is really confusing, as is the fact that most of the male characters have names that begin with H. In a shorter book one could have kept track of all this, but this was not a short book.

On the other hand, it's quite a jolly plot and conveys very well its various Dire Warnings -- against foolish marriages, for women, and against the demon drink, for men. Show sense and self-restraint! Others complain of Anne Bronte's excessive religiosity as expressed by her heroine, but I didn't find that so disturbing. Helen takes seriously the moral precepts of her time, and that's OK. More annoying was the crazy and irrational passion of the male lead, making me kind of wonder what Helen sees in him. OK, he doesn't drink! But he's not up to her level of calm, ethics-driven rationality.

It was interesting to get a sense of how very few options (like, none) were open to women of this time, and how a bad marital choice spelled doom. The claustrophobia of their lives is inadvertently made very vivid. More deliberate, and quite annoying, is the way that Bronte's male narrator tells us the future life of every character, assuring us that all the Bad people end up very, very badly, and alone. Meanwhile everybody Good ends up joyously joined to another Good.

Basically, though, an enjoyable read.

Dez 23, 2019, 9:02am

568. J.G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip **1/2 (What’s messed up about colonialism & rubber.)

As I began this book, I expected to enjoy it a lot more than I did. It was just too long, and Farrell had done just too much research. The first two books in the trilogy, especially the Seige of Krishnapur, never felt so obviously Researched; but this one included a 2-page bibliography and the infinitely charming characters were constantly delivering soliloquies, or having deep thoughts, about the rubber industry or the very poor performance of the British forces vs. the canny Japanese.

There was still much to love here -- a great depiction of Singapore as a weird, many-cultured colony, the place of the British there, the attitudes of various groups. The scene set in the "death house" was at once genius and kind of forced. The plot lines about individual people, at first so promising, got swallowed up by information about events. And the book was just too long, did I mention that? So, a disappointment.

Jan 1, 2020, 11:18am

569. Anne Enright, The Gathering ** (taking stock of a complicated, dysfunctional family)

A confusing, boring, odd book. I can't understand how it won a Booker prize. The narrator is never sure about what is true in her perceptions of her family and the questions aren't really resolved. She fantasizes a lot about what could have, might have, must have happened in previous generations. Her own behavior is annoyingly irrational. She is trying to come to terms with the death of the family member to whom she had been closest, and in some ways this is well done, but the twist at the end is absurdly sudden. I really just found this book entirely unsatisfying, but at least it was short.

Jan 2, 2020, 2:04am

>48 annamorphic: 'but at least it was short is definitely not a glowing recommendation!

Editado: Fev 5, 2020, 8:15pm

570. John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy **** (weirdly slow and thoughtful spy suspense)

An unexpectedly wonderful, almost philosophical book, slow-moving, incredibly complicated, and at the same time nail-bitingly suspenseful. I don't know quite how Le Carre did it, but it's brilliant. Even though nothing exactly happens, the plot is completely thrilling. How did I miss reading these books before?

Jan 27, 2020, 7:03am

>570 I've never picked these up, after that review I think I will look at them more positively.

Editado: Fev 24, 2020, 8:08am

571. Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin **** (robbers gloriously steal and murder in medieval China)

A marvelous, delightful book. It just rambles on and on and on, seguing from one heroic fellow to another. They're all outlaws. They all somehow know (of) one another so that after one has committed some terrible crime (or even a minor, justifiable one) and is running from the law, the others take him in because he's famously grand although they have never met him before. And then they form bands, hide out in fine lairs, rob (but gently, and only from those who deserve it), and drink vast amounts. OK, sometimes they do kill an enemy, or some annoying woman, or even one another if somebody becomes spiteful and jealous. But then they drink some more, and have duels to show their strength, and are in general successful and Good Fun.

I could not finish this in the month of February because the version I was reading was so incredibly large and heavy that I just need to stop lugging it around. After I retire, I will return to this wonderful book in perhaps the 3-volume version? I loved the Pearl Buck translation but I could adjust to another if it were a bit lighter!

Editado: Abr 18, 2020, 7:47am

572. Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion ***1/2 (dense and damp epic of mothers & brothers)

This was a very odd book, brilliant and frustrating and unique. It demands an intensity of reading but rewards you with amazing writing, an excellent plot, some great characters (Hank!), and a really wonderful ending. On the other hand, some of the characters are profoundly annoying (looking at you, Lee Stamper!) and the female characters are all kind of pathetic and not very deep. There is a lot of grappling with the issue of what it takes to make a man a man -- this is definitely a man's book. That is, and isn't, the basis of the conflict between brothers Hank and Lee Stamper, which is further based on long-ago actions, understood and misunderstood.

The Oregon setting, the small damp town, the precarious Stamper home, the acts and industry of logging, and the river also play large and vibrant roles in Kesey's tale, and he evokes them wonderfully. Many minor characters are both compelling and, at the same time, somewhat caricatural.

To use Amaryann's food analogies, this book is a very large portion of a thick, rich, dense plum pudding. It's quite delicious and you really want to gobble it down but you'll regret eating it too fast. And then you're stuck in the middle of it and it's kind of consuming you. Hmmm.

Mar 28, 2020, 2:23pm

>53 annamorphic: Good summary - I felt pretty much the same about it.

Editado: Abr 14, 2020, 8:07am

573. Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains *** (quirky tale of friendship, politics, spies)

This book seemed so ordinary at the beginning, and that sense of the ordinary turns out to be part of what finally makes it so intriguing. It chronicles a few years of friendship between the rather clueless young narrator, and this Mr. Norris whom he meets on the train to Berlin. You think it's going to be a very mannered comedy, almost like P.G. Wodehouse, but there are odd undercurrents all along and you suspect that Mr. Norris is not all that he seems.

Another thing that makes this novel so intriguing is that it is written and set in 1930s Berlin. Neither the author nor the narrator have any idea of what the political tensions they describe/experience are really going to mean. It's a quite sobering thought that what seemed almost absurd to an ordinary, mildly political person could quickly evolve into something horrendous.

Abr 18, 2020, 7:45am

574. Elmore Leonard, City Primeval **1/2 (good guy & bad guy match wits to the death)

I never quite know how to rate genre literature like this. It's an entirely enjoyable read and a smart thriller. The opening scene and the final scene are both outstanding. The characters are interesting and their moral value is (as you want in this genre) extremely clear -- there is the good guy, and there is the bad guy. The lawyer plays a more interesting and ambiguous role between them. So, definitely a good book, worth its place on the list.

Abr 26, 2020, 12:57pm

575. Karel Capek, War With the Newts *** (wonderfully strange sci-fi and social satire)

Incredibly weird and clever. A sea captain discovers a colony of newts, the size of small humans, living in a remote tropical bay. He befriends them! But soon, humanity being humanity, people are coming along and basically enslaving the newts. And, newts being newts, they breed. A lot. Problems arise! The aquatic population of the world vs. those on land. Only one can win.... An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Abr 28, 2020, 11:43am

>55 annamorphic:
>56 annamorphic:

I'll take these for a BB!

Maio 4, 2020, 8:45am

576. Wyndham Lewis, Tarr *1/2 (seriously unlikeable characters behave destructively. Plus racism.)

I really disliked the last book I read by this author so I had low expectations which were pretty much met. This is not a difficult book to read, but the characters are so incredibly annoying. You just don't want to spend time with them!

The eponymus hero, who (we gather) represents the author, is the most utterly self-absorbed and just loathsome individual -- a feeling I had about the equivalent character in Self Condemned. The anti-hero, Kreisler, who Lewis identifies in his own introduction as a dreadful being, is oddly more sympathetic. At least I kind of feel like he is a real, if slightly nutty, person, until the nuttiness goes out of control toward the end.

But of course he is a German! They do such things! Especially to Poles, or Russians. The casual racial stereotyping throughout every page of this book was just appalling. Not unusual in its time, of course, but somehow more bearable in books where it is not being articulated by otherwise horrible characters.

Maio 21, 2020, 7:41am

577. Alexandre Dumas, La Reine Margot ***1/2 (passion & palace intrigue in the Renaissance)

Although leading with a massacre and containing very little by way of the promised romance, this is a jolly good read. Loaded with palace intrigue -- no conversation occurs in which there is not some listener hidden behind a curtain or in a closet -- this is the story of Catherine de Medici's efforts to assure the continuity of her bloodline on the French throne. She will do any nefarious thing, although her preferred method is poison, plus there are various episodes of animal cruelty as she and her tame alchemist try to read the future in entrails and on the surfaces of brains.

Ostensibly this is the story of Queen Margot, passionate daughter of Catherine, but Dumas's favorite character (after the evil Queen Mother) is clearly Margot's much-cuckolded husband Henry of Navarre. As the reader knows, and as the stars and entrails keep portending, he will some day rule the kingdom in spite of all Catherine's efforts to the contrary. We all have our eye on him. He ends this book frustrated and exiled, but Destiny is on his side!

The book is hilariously overdone and melodramatic, and plays fast and loose with history at every turn. It gives you a sense of how incredibly bloodthirsty the French were, post-Revolution and looking back at the renaissance. Also loads and loads of casual adultery. Altogether good fun!

Jun 22, 2020, 8:17am

578. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey *** (the original YA romance, plus gothic send-up)

A very enjoyable, not very serious book that truly foreshadows Young Adult romance as a genre while more deliberately looking back (slightly) at the genre of Gothic novels. Our heroine is a naive teen-ager who takes an exciting journey to Bath with some family friends and there makes her first bosom friend (a snake!), is courted by said friend's brother (a dreadful, superficial show-off), but is always most interested in an older & wiser but elusive fellow. Invited to stay with his family at their Abbey, she imagines she has entered the world of Gothic horror. Embarrassment ensues. The happy ending happens excessively suddenly, as if Austen had just run out of things to say.
This was Austen's first attempt at writing a novel, although not published until the end of her life, and it shows.

Jul 3, 2020, 8:56pm

579. Henry James, The Ambassadors **1/2 (Americans in Paris talk about each other & fail to see)

I recognize why this is a great book, yet reading it was agony. The writing is incredibly difficult. Every sentence, every paragraph, challenges you to comprehend it, just as the characters are challenged to comprehend one another and the world they inhabit. The last 50 or so pages (out of 470) were quite fascinating, in a painful way, but the rest of the book? The thoughts of "our friend," and then endless talking by and to and around him. All that people do is talk, in highly implausible and very allusive ways, about one another and themselves. But not in an introspective, honest way, oh no! Person A tells person B about person B -- "you are like this" and "you think that" and "but, you are wonderful!" Then person B tells person A about person C -- "she is this" etc. But you never actually know if person A has any real insight into person B, or C, or D, and you rather suspect that they might not.

Now I feel ready to move on to the group read of The Master which I hope will be more rewarding than its inspiration.

Jul 3, 2020, 10:12pm

>62 annamorphic: This is the only James on the list which I haven’t read and it sounds like it has all the features about James’s writing that can make him tedious to read. One for (much) later.

Editado: Jul 23, 2020, 8:23am

580. Colm Toibin, The Master ***** (delicate exploration of a writer’s heart & mind)

This book took me by surprise. I expected it to be OK and interesting. I did not expect it to be wonderful. I mean, it felt dependent (on Henry James) and somehow I didn't see how that could make for a great book. Which was absurd! Wolf Hall is dependent on Thomas Cromwell and is Great. This book is very different but equally Great.

It's a hard book to describe. The structure is so odd; I'm amazed that Toibin makes it coherent in spite of its oddity. Although each chapter is titled with a date, and the first few actually occur at consecutive times and the last chapter does occur at the end, most of the book is filled with memories, some recent and some very old. They often focus on an individual person, a person who has died, and the undercurrent of regret around James's relationship with that person. He doesn't think of it that way, though; the concept of love doesn't enter his picture either. He is withdrawn from all of those people, and especially if he is too much needed, he simply removes himself. We are not asked to pity or, on the whole, to blame him. It's just who he is.

The people he knows, the ones who matter the most and the ones who barely matter at all, are transformed by him into characters, whole plotlines, in his writing. He himself lives as characters in his books. This is both less and more interesting than it sounds. He writes the isolated melancholy that he lives. He writes the people he has abandoned and thereby keeps hold of them. I am really glad that I had read The Ambassadors just before this, because this book helped me to understand why that one had to be the way it was. I'd probably appreciate it more now, but I needed James's book to appreciate Toibin's.

This book is peppered with famous characters -- the James's knew everybody interesting in New England, and many in Old England too. He watches many people, is curious about some of them. But the circle of who actually matters is small and tight. A few friends, mostly sort-of friends and a single real one, abandoned. Family ties and tensions are at the heart of things, and are explored with great subtlety. Death is always present, as are the dead themselves. They are ghosts in a haunting book.

Jul 26, 2020, 11:55am

581. Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds ** (small, sad tale of mentally handicapped Mattis)

A rather sweet yet ultimately very sad book about a mentally handicapped man whose struggles to live a meaningful life in a remote Norwegian village are undone by pedestrian reality. Nice in its simplicity, its evocation of this man's imaginative world, and its balance between what is meaningful to him vs. the judgements of the rest of humanity. Worthwhile.

Ago 4, 2020, 7:13am

582. James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain **** (harrowing tale of hatred and redemption)

A tough book, not because of its writing (which is often amazingly gorgeous) but because of what it says, what is told on the mountain. This is a story of people who are variously filled with hatred, resentment, regret, despair overlaying all the betrayed hope. It's about being Black in America, and ultimately about carrying the burden of all the hideousness of generations of Black experience.

It's also about Pentecostal religion. This part I struggled with, which is why it was a 4-star read for me. In particular the sermons of Gabriel were difficult to appreciate, although John's revelatory experience at the end was simply amazing.

Ago 4, 2020, 7:56am

>66 annamorphic: Agreed. I almost abandoned this book because of the religious rhetoric, but I'm glad I pushed through.

Ago 12, 2020, 8:07am

583. Nella Larsen, Passing ****1/2 (the divided self of a mix-raced person in racialized society)

This book had many flaws but it was also kind of a great book, important and thought-provoking. It asks you to consider the meaning of race, of belonging to a race, of choice, of freedom. The main characters, Irene and Clare, have made different life-choices in terms of leveraging their light skin, their ability to "pass." Irene passes casually but retains loyalty to her racial community, even while it traps her in its false sense of security. Clare made a racial leap to leave black poverty and enter great wealth as a white woman, but is trapped in her lie. Clare, who seems to me deeply unhappy as she lightly mocks herself and her success, envies the racially rooted stability of Irene's life. Irene can't deal with the superficial fraudulence of Clare's life, and finds her threatening. But she also is seduced by Clare's beauty and glamour.

The dynamics between these two are fascinating. Irene, the focalizer of the narrative, is not a sympathetic character. She is judgmental and insecure. But we feel her predicament even as we feel Clare's. The book is intense; its end, shocking.

Oh, and I loved the painting on the jacket of my edition. Perfect choice by somebody at Penguin Books!

Editado: Abr 13, 9:14am

584. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine ***** (Native families on the rez. Rough, tough, gorgeous)

To my complete surprise, I just loved this book. I kept going back and revisiting earlier sections as I read along, and I am so sorry to be done with it. The writing is amazing. More than once, the ending lines of a section gave me that warm shiver you have when a piece of prose (or poetry) puts a true thing in a new and beautiful way.

This isn't a novel in the traditional, linear sense. It is a series of vignettes that describe a moment or an episode in the life of some member of the very extended and interwoven Native clans of Lazarus, Kashpaw, and Nanapush. It begins with a sad, shocking recent event, then cycles back to 50 years earlier, and gradually brings us to the present again. Every section is told from a different character's point of view. Sometimes the same event occurs, or is referenced, from multiple viewpoints. But mostly we get to know characters, both the strong and resilient, and the weak and failing. Men especially seem unable to help themselves, while women have incredible toughness. The two central women, Marie and Lulu, are wonderful figures from their girlhood rivalry to shared life at the Senior Center and the factory. The encounters between Marie and Sister Leopolda, decades apart, are incredible.

Humor intermingles with utter tragedy. There is a killing level of despair, but in the end there is hope. Just a wonderful book, and how can it be the only one by Erdrich on the List?

Set 19, 2020, 6:52am

585. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Magician of Lublin ***1/2 (charming liar’s lies catch up with him)

This book did not end where I thought it would as I began it. Our main character, Yasha, is a magician -- a professional trickster. Although married, he also has a string of women in other towns. He is endlessly charming. Inside, he is skeptical of larger ethical frameworks, particularly of religion, while believing himself to be basically good. His life is complicated but he manages, magician-like, to juggle everything.

Then, when his lies very suddenly catch up with him, he can do nothing but collapse inside his house of cards. He rapidly realizes how bereft of truth his life is. So what to do? The book moves from the light into darkness.

I liked this book for its flavor, its very Polish-Jewish sensibility, its wry wisdom. I read a children's book by Singer long ago, and it was nice to return to his world.

Set 29, 2020, 10:07am

586. William Beckford, Vathek ** (extreme orientalist decadence to reprimand curiosity)

A very weird romp through the strange orientalist imagination of a young man (Beckford) with more money than sense in the late 18th century. Apparently his book, inspired by the author's very glam 21st birthday party (!), gained its place in the literary canon because Byron liked it, which I found fascinating. It's worth reading because it gives a very full view of what "Orientalism" at its most extreme could be like, and also it's kind of hilarious in its depiction of depraved decadence. But what I most liked was the fact that the evil inclination that drives Vathek to destroy himself while committing endless dreadful acts is, basically, curiosity. He just wants to know what's behind that door! And so he never hesitates to commit whatever foul deeds are necessary to descend into the alluring depths.

I also loved the fact (slight spoiler here, but it doesn't matter) that the fifty young children Vathek sacrifices in his first horrific act, are revealed toward the end of the book to have been saved by some mysterious saver-of-children. Apparently Beckford couldn't quite stomach the death of 50 children, so he hastily repaired this.

Nov 6, 2020, 3:02pm

587. Frances Burney, Cecilia **** (romantic passion amid poor if altruistic financial decisions)

This book was a hoot. Incredibly, ridiculously long, but full of good humor and amusing insights into social life and colloquial language of the 1780s. Plus in the last chapter we learn that the whole thing has been a story of PRIDE and PREJUDICE (capitals in the original), setting up a more famous book by that name in the next generation.

The overall arc of the tale is fascinating because it's as much about wealth, its management and loss, as it is about romance. Cecilia is horrendously unprepared to be left an heiress at age 20. She hasn't a clue how to deal with money. The three men appointed her guardians have conflicting and variously self-interested ideas on this score. Her two childhood best friends both turn out to be disastrous in their own needs, schemes, and demands.

Moreover, she is so exceedingly kindly and naive in social terms that she runs herself into massive misunderstandings at every turn, particularly with anything even remotely connected to her Romantic Interest. At parties (there are many parties) she acquires a buddy -- the 1782 equivalent of a gay best friend -- who explains to her the affectations and pretensions of the other guests. This is very entertaining, but he cannot protect her all the time.

There are many (very) dramatic high points and a lot of hilarious vignettes. The secondary characters are all stereotypes but enjoyable ones. Bankruptcies occur for the bad and the good, but Love triumphs. The book is much, much too long (940 pages plus 40 pages of intro and lots of notes) but I couldn't help giving it 4 stars for the times it made me laugh out loud during a period when I needed that!

Nov 16, 2020, 11:53am

588. Vaino Linna, Unknown Soldiers **1/2 (Finland’s war story)

Every nation involved in the two World Wars has a great war novel, and this is Finland's. It's a good book, easy to read, episodic, entertaining even while recounting endless horrors. Somehow I just couldn't get into it, though. It's really long and, like in war, the cast of characters is massive and hard to distinguish because they keep dying and being replaced.

There are quite a lot of war novels on the 1001 list. My favorite is still Under Fire. This one -- I think I just came to it too late. I skimmed a lot.

Nov 29, 2020, 1:26pm

589. W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants **** (gorgeous, melancholy evocation of displacement)

I loved this book. I'm also not totally sure what to make of it. It's a bit scattered and incoherent. Life stories branch out into further lives, with stories. Motifs repeat across the separate tales of four individuals, but the only thing that really binds these men together is loss and displacement, having been uprooted, losing community even if on some superficial level they return. All were outsiders, and outsiderness remains with them even through changing places and circumstances. This is not a Holocaust book, and yet it's about losing Germany. Sort of. For each person loss and displacement are very different experiences, sometimes a family history, sometimes utterly personal. The impossibility of explaining the gist of this book is what makes it brilliant although also frustrating.

The writing is deceptively simple yet absolutely stunning. The description of the painter Ferber's studio in the last story made me stop breathing.

Editado: Jan 7, 12:06pm

590. Paul Gallico, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris ** (charming but very dated & condescending)

The plotline of this short novel is very charming, but the attitudes throughout are just so condescending (on the basis of class) and sexist. Of course, the 1950s were like that. But this book is practically based on sexism and condescension. The happy resolution of one plotline involves a supermodel finding joy in being able to cook and clean for a nice ordinary man. And Mrs. ‘Arris herself is such a lower-class stereotype, ignorant but with a heart of gold. The desire that drives her to Paris is also based on her female instinct for wanting beautiful clothing. It’s just too much!

Read back at the beginning of December but forgot to post my review.... It's been that kind of winter.

Editado: Abr 13, 9:13am

591. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum ***** (the mid-20th century as a tale told by an idiot, signifying everything)

This book was everything a Nobel Prize-winning 1001-er should be. On the back jacket, John Irving and Salman Rushdie talk about how it inspired them, and you can absolutely see how it must have. It’s a big, weird, mad life saga that takes all the risks, plays all the strange jokes with history and with life, and also has serious moments of insight about the hell that was mid-20th-century Germany and Poland.

This is the memoir of small Oskar, told from his hospital bed in a mental institution. Completely sensate and alert from the moment of his birth in 1927 (he claims), at age 3 he received his first tin drum and decided to stop growing. Oskar goes through the ensuing years, in Poland and Germany and briefly in France, sized like a small child and playing his tin drum with which he develops certain interesting powers. He can also shatter glass with his voice. He experiences momentous moments in the 1930s and 40s, and most of the people around him die, but he and his drum just move along. He causes trouble from under the bleachers at Nazi rallies; for a while he declares himself to be Jesus and heads a gang of boys in Danzig; he just happens to be on the beach at Normandy for the invasion.

The book is done as a series of vignettes, each one as mad as the others. But my favorite one is near the end, after the war, where he is drumming in a jazz band and they are invited to play at a venue called “The Onion Cellar.” People pay to come to this cellar, and they are given a board, a knife, and an onion to cut. And then they cry. They cry for everything about the war that they can’t cry about in real life. Arnold Schwarznegger’s recent speech about his childhood in Austria made me think of this scene.

A brilliant reading experience.

Jan 18, 8:13am

>76 annamorphic: Well that just got a good shove up the TBR list :)

Editado: Jan 27, 11:27am

592. Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Cleves *** (passion and restraint battle at court)

A charming book, partly because it is translated by 1001 author Nancy Mitford who so clearly just adores this story and the world it depicts. You can also see that it is important to the history of romantic novels (lots of intense feeling!), and historical novels as well (it’s set a century before it was written). The book tells the tale of the virtuous Princess of Cleves who, in spite of her mutual passion for a handsome galante, remains steadfastly virtuous to a degree that is simply not believed at a court where nobody else, apparently, bothers with virtue.

It was very helpful that I’d read Dumas’ La Reine Margot not all that long ago, because this book is set not long before that one and features many of the same characters. It introduces tons of people who go on to play no or almost no role for the rest of the book, and people also tell long stories about their own romantic woes that are only very tangentially related to the main plot. So it can be extremely confusing. Mitford loves the characters so dearly that she doesn’t think we need much in the way of scholarly apparatus. Her note on Diane de Poitiers is classic: “Everything that Madame de Lafayette says about her extraordinary career is perfectly true.”

Fev 1, 1:24pm

593. Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved ** (art history & tragedy in NYC)

Read for the February challenge but I started early and could not bear to actually finish the book. I know that it’s not objectively a terrible book, but I could not bear it. There was much too much art criticism and renaissance art history, which made it excessively like my own life. I rarely like academic novels much, and this was no exception. If I wanted to hear about highly personal contemporary art, I’d attend a conference session; to know about the problems of a Columbia art history professor, I’d talk to my friends! This is not why I read novels. When the narrator's wife leaves for the English department at Berkeley, where I used to teach, and then the narrator breaks down in the middle of a graduate seminar on still life, which I’ve taught, I knew it was a sign that I should just give up. Also, the level of tragedy (starting in Book 2) was so terrible that it literally kept me awake at night. Graham Swift's Waterland had that effect on me too, but that book had more going for it (like that nobody was a professor).

Plus I never much cared about, or liked, the main artist-character, although he was extremely plausible as a NY smart artist – that may have been why he was so annoying.

Other people will admire and appreciate this novel. Just not me.

Fev 15, 2:36pm

594. Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth **1/2 (entertainingly impossible scifi adventure)

I see that this is pretty much exactly what I said about the last Jules Verne I read! A good romp. Lots of thrilling suspense as our heroes take an impossibly difficult journey. Now joined with lots of very wild science fiction about geology, the origins of species, and batteries (how does their “electric light” last for months??). The two main characters, the stern savant uncle and the whiny nephew, are both very annoying and implausible. As is their nearly mute yet infallible Icelandic guide. But you can certainly see why this was a big hit in its time.

Editado: Mar 23, 5:04pm

595. Willa Cather, The Professor’s House ****1/2 (what we love & how it changes us)

A strange and wonderful book, and extremely moving. Its main character is a man who is approaching old age and trying to come to grips with a life, outwardly so successful, that should not have satisfied him. His story is interlaced with that of a former student, Tom Outland, whose brief life inadvertently changed the lives of all those he left behind. The book is simply interrupted at one point with the long first-person narrative of a life-changing event for Outland, a tale which is also breathtakingly moving and unexpected.

The writing is beautiful, the narrative structure odd. The book was apparently stitched together from bits of writing Cather was working on, and that’s what it feels like, yet the bits are meaningful as they are united here. This novel asks you to think about what things we choose to pursue in life (is it even a choice?) and why we leave others behind; it points to the value of being awake to beauty and responsible to history; it asks also about the value of material things and of human connections, and how either matters in relation to the self that we were born with.

Mar 5, 1:03pm

596. Geza Gardonyi, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon ** (nationalist boys’ adventure yarn)

An enjoyable book if you love boys’ adventure tales from ca. 1900, because that’s what it is. Apparently every youth in Hungary reads this and it is a touchstone of national pride. It tells the story of Gergely, hero of the siege of Eger in which a small force of fierce Hungarians held off the massive Turkish army. As an historian I found this quite interesting: I know about Charles V’s war against the Turks, but not about the struggles of Hungary. And I liked the cultural interactions between different ethnicities. Everyone is so multi-lingual! Also I was interested in how they actually prepared a fortress for a siege. But honestly, this is a very long book, ¾ of which is our hero’s fictional childhood and youth, full of Very Brave Adventures. Once you get to the siege, our hero does inventive things with gunpowder and many, many Turks die in agony. Fun!

Bonus points for the moment near the end when an old man’s wooden hand catches fire and his resourceful daughter unhooks it and throws the flaming hand into the group of attacking Turks. Inventive siege defense!

Mar 15, 7:15am

597. John Banville, The Book of Evidence **1/2 (unpleasant world of a careless killer)

A creepy and uncomfortable visit into the mind of a narcissistic, amoral murderer to whom other people are nothing but what he chooses to imagine of them. Towards the end he notes that the woman who he murders was never real because he hadn’t made her be real. And I was reminded of how, just before the murder, he looks at a 17th-century portrait and imagines the whole life and attitudes and thoughts of the woman who sat for it. He makes that woman real. But he then he kills her too, without a second thought. This was clever and thought-provoking, and the book was beautifully written, but I just couldn’t fully get past the unpleasantness of the narrator’s mind.

Mar 23, 12:57pm

598. Alice Munro, The Beggar Maid **1/2 (scenes from a sad aimless life that didn’t need to be)

This book had a promising beginning and it's beautifully written, but the second half is just so sadly frustrating. The main character, Rose, having got out of her small-town poverty, just wanders through life having pointless and loveless affairs with married men. Even her brief marriage feels pointless. In the background she seems to have a career of sorts, but it's hard to keep track of that because the book is not a linear narrative and you are hard-pressed to know how much time has passed between one chapter/story and the next. The first half is more coherent and more interesting, because it deals a lot with the dynamic between Rose and one other strong character, her stepmother Flo. But really, the last half just got worse and worse.

Mar 23, 4:58pm

>84 annamorphic: That sounds disappointing. Have you read any of her short stories? I think they are great, but maybe there is a reason they became her favorite genre!

Editado: Abr 3, 8:23am

599. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca **** (highly fraught drama of the Second Wife vs. the First)

A great story of suspense that holds up even if you already know the entire plot, which of course you do because you are a Hitchcock fan! It is quite brilliant how Rebecca herself remains the main character, the main influence, the dominant force throughout the book even while being dead. All the other characters pale in comparison. In fact they are mostly just pretty weak people, especially the narrator, which is a flaw to the modern reader. We expect a young woman to have at least a tad more initiative and courage than this one does. She’s very snarky and judgmental about a lot of people but fails to actually stand up against the malignant ones. And yet she’s a credible character, and tells her story well. An excellent read.

Abr 13, 9:12am

600. Virginia Woolf, The Waves ***** (prose poem about the nature of individuality in the world)

What a way to reach 600. A challenging, demanding text that was both exquisitely beautiful and not easy or even always enjoyable to read; yet at the end, I wanted to go back and read the whole thing again. It's an experiment more than a novel and there is nothing else like it. Most of the book takes us into somewhere between the unconscious and preconscious thinking of six friends, three male and three female, from their childhood together through their entire lives. They “talk” but they don’t; they barely exactly think (although sometimes they do); mostly they register one another and the world around them, and grapple with the oddities and difficulties of having a life in that world, and of defining what and who they are as selves. In the last section one of the friends reviews, from a more conscious and deliberate perspective, his own life and those of his friends, bringing them into focus through his understanding of them.

It sounds weird and indeed it is, but it’s also marvelous in its strangeness. I am glad to have read this. Some day I will read it again.

Abr 13, 12:03pm

Congrats! Sounds like a fantastic book to choose for your milestone.

Abr 13, 3:11pm

Congratulations on 600, and with a 5 star read!

Abr 13, 4:29pm

Great review - makes me want to drop everything and start reading it. However, I have three weeks left to my semester, so I think I'll wait till May.

Congratulations on 600!

Abr 13, 8:37pm


Abr 13, 10:49pm

Congratulations on 600

Abr 21, 4:53am

Congratulations on 600! What an achievement!

Abr 27, 2:04pm

601. Manuel Puig, Heartbreak Tango ***1/2 (love blinds girls to the deep flaws of men)

Juan Carlos! What a handsome fellow! And what a player. All the girls fall for him but only Néne absolutely cannot fall back out of love. We meet her at the beginning, married with two children, still pining for her teen idol after his early death. Her letters are delightful and set up a situation that unfolds in some very unexpected ways as the “episodes” progress, starting back with their enchanting (for her) youthful romance and continuing up to his death again and finally beyond. The structure of the book, the variety of styles and voices, are just marvelous. Somehow, as with The Kiss of the Spider Woman, I think it won’t really stay with me – it just doesn’t have that much to say – but it’s a lovely book, with lots of sorrows but also happy endings.

Editado: Maio 20, 4:59pm

602. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto ***1/2 (breathlessly extravagant Gothic horror)

This book was an unexpected delight. I laughed aloud many times, although I was not sure that this was the author’s intent, and evidently his own friends were not sure about that reaction either. Horror and pity were the emotions he said he was aiming at. But really, any book in which, in the first two pages, a giant helmet materializes out of nowhere and falls upon the young prince (on the eve of his marriage), crushing him to death – it’s going to be a riot. This one just went on and on in that vein. Every word of dialogue is to be imagined in breathless tones, whether of terror or fury or anguish. The women are beautiful, innocent, and self-sacrificing; the men bold, terrible, and either villainous or beatific. No gesture is less than grandiose. There’s also lots of stabbing (often of the wrong person) and death. All very satisfying.

Maio 15, 2:33am

Congratulations on reaching 600! I’m so impressed with the progress people in the group make and I always enjoy reading your reviews.

Good luck with next hundred😃

Editado: Maio 20, 4:59pm

603. Lazarillo de Tormes *** (starving rascal serves various masters, keeps starving)

The first “picaresque” novel and a slight but entertaining one. Our young hero, in search of an easy life as a servant, is endlessly starved by his masters. There’s not much other ill treatment, really – they just fail to feed a growing boy. Sometimes they sadly fail to feed themselves, too, even while pretending to be suave and sophisticated gents. Members of the clergy are particularly crafty and greedy. In one very short but interesting chapter our hero goes to work grinding colors for an artist who paints tambourines, but this is too much work so he leaves for something easier.

Anyway, as 16th-century prose literature goes, this is pretty enjoyable. And it's very short!

Maio 31, 4:13pm

604. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest **** (painful, awful, brilliant, effective)

I listened to this book on audio because, from Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, I figured it would be brilliant and worth hearing every word. Which it was. It was also agonizing, both on purpose and not. The book is, famously, an indictment of mental health “care” in mid-century America, the emotional cruelty inflicted on inmates who are, in Kesey’s depiction, weak and damaged and maybe a little crazy but who deserve better. It was, and still is, a painfully compelling picture of a system where authority preys on the weak, until it is disrupted by the arrival of one strong man who challenges the evil head nurse.

But here’s the problem. One strong man. A manly man. One evil nurse. A frustrated female. She has emasculated the other men! They have been weakened by her until they aren’t real men any more. This isn’t just incidental – the whole plot is built upon grotesque sexism, which is given an extra edge by the book’s total racism. Well, Kesey has lots of sympathy for the Natives, but the “black boys” are a steaming heap of embarrassment.

A great book marred by attitudes I am glad we have moved beyond.

Jun 14, 10:55am

605. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart *** (strong man’s determination isn’t enough)

A very depressing story in which the coming of Christian missionaries just puts the seal on a life that has been falling apart already. Tradition isn’t glorified here; it has capricious and brutal rules, although it does keep things together for the group as a whole. But Okonkwo’s strength and success, so carefully cultivated within the old rules, is already cut down by those rules and then collapses under the impossible pressures and threats of Western dominance. Nothing about this book rings false, which is why it’s so powerful.

Jun 21, 7:01pm

606. Edith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon *** (seeking self-respect in a corrupt world)

Nick and Suzy spend their lives mooching off of their rich friends so that they needn’t actually do any work and can live the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. They are both charming and lovely, attributes they have cultivated to make them attractive to the ultra-rich. They get married as a stop-gap until each of them can find a truly rich spouse, since divorce is a staple of the life of rich expats wandering about Europe. But so is adultery. And there should be limits to amorality!
Most of the book is about Suzy grappling with her moral compass after Nick dumps her because she’s willing to do anything for him. She’s been clever and resourceful in ways he cannot approve. On the one hand, she eventually comes to a better self-understanding and is a less superficial person; on the other, she’s still willing to do anything for Nick and her redemption happens as she works as a nanny to five impossibly wise children who want her to read Shakespeare to them.
There is a lot to like about this book as a critique of a culture of wealth and what it does to people, and the narrative is well-structured, but it’s also kind of annoying. Plus I felt sorry for Streff and Coral, the rich people whom Nick and Suzy spurn. They’re both pretty interesting characters and deserved better!