Thursday, August 30, 2007

Book lust

I've recently finished a tour of twentieth century literature, inspired by Nancy Pearl's book Book Lust. What follows is a brief—I'm trying to hold myself to three or fewer sentences per —impression of each book. The colored type is my way of rating the books I read. Green means Hated it, red: Just OK Blue: Liked it Purple: Loved it, definitely reread. An author's name in pink type means I want to read more of his or her work.
Edit: As I write this, I'm realizing I've forgotten a lot about what I read. I wish I'd kept a running review as I read.
100 (or so) Good Reads, Decade by Decade
Henry James' The Golden Bowl--Unreadable!
Mark Twain's The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg-- A collection of essays and stories. Not Twain's best.
G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday--Mix of suspense and philosophy. I can't remember it very clearly.
Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks--The ultimate comfort literature. I love the Germans!
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle--You'll never see sausage the same way again.
Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career--Edgier than you'd expect from the picture of the proper Victorian girl on the cover.
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio--Small town boy/man caught between his ambitious father and his mother, whose one fear is that he'll turn into a Striped Shirt Asshole.
D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers--Coal miner's son with demanding mother and ninny girlfriend. I didn't love this as much as most people seem to.
P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith in the City; Leave it to Psmith--P.G. Wodehouse is the bomb. Funny stuff, if you like eccentric British aristocrats.
John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps--Classic suspense novel. Very brief; must see movie in order to refresh my memory.
E.O. Somerville's The Irish R.M.--Tally ho! Endless depictions of riding horses, buying horses, looking at horses, talking about horses and little else.
E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case--Detective story, but apparently not very exciting since it left absolutely no impression on me.
Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front--Sad. A young German soldier on the front in WWI.
E.M. Forster's A Passage to India--The movie wrecked it for me, a bit. Still, I love Forster and I like books about India, so how could I go wrong with this?
Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy--Very long. Based on a real-life murder case in upstate NY.
Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--The original blonde joke. The brunette gets all the good lines.
Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway--Virginia Woolf isn't so scary after all.
Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa--This book is such a classic, I was expecting an engaging portrait of life in Samoa. Instead, it reads like the dullest textbook imaginable. Huge disappointment.
Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years--Apparently, the 1920's was not a good decade for American Literature.
Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain--Excellent, but major time commitment and the last 300 pages leave you dizzy with their intellectual challenge.
Pearl Buck's The Good Earth--China...something something. I think I have alzheimer's.
John Dos Passos's 1919--I know I liked it, but can't remember much about it. Sorry.
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon--Classic detective story. Sexy too.
James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips--Just so-so. Why does everyone get excited about this book?
Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts--Strange and disturbing.
A.J. Cronin's The Citadel--If you're good at doctoring, maybe you should stick with it and not try to write novels.
C.S. Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower--Love Horatio! British navy in the late 1700's, early 1800's. Can't wait to read the other Horatio books.
William Faulkner's Light in August--Demanding, but worth it. I find Faulkner difficult, but I loved the Southern country utterances of main character Lena Grove.
John Hersey's Hiroshima--Account of the bombing of Hiroshima, as experienced by several survivers.
Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited--British boys at Oxford and beyond. Not bad, although I hear the movie sucked.
Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop--Classic British detective story with Oxford Don detective. Fun and undemanding.
Laura Hobson's Gentlemen's Agreement--A reporter "becomes" Jewish in order to experience anti-semitism first hand. I liked it and the movie is pretty good too.
Jack Schaefer's Shane--the cheesiest novel ever written.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek--Memoir of life in the Florida backwoods by the author of The Yearling. Well written and my kids and I enjoyed the movie too.
Albert Camus's The Plague--Bubonic plague strikes a city in Algeria. Lots to think about.
Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories--Loved it loved it loved it. A young gay man lives in Berlin before WWII.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea--Musings on life with charming illustrations.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man--Don't hate me, but I could not get through this.
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451-- Depressing. I always thought this title referred to a planet where the average temperature is really really hot. It's actually about book burning on Earth of the future.
Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit--Why don't married couples send the kids to bed and drink martinis together anymore?
John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold--The Spy genre is not my thing.
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire--Oh-so clever, but I still hated it.
Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown--Laaa! First book in a superb quartet of books about India at the end of the British Raj. You can't just read this, but must read the whole series.
Chaim Potok's The Chosen--Again, the impression I got from the title was wrong. I thought this would be based in biblical times, and instead it's about Hasidic Jews in 1940's Brooklyn.
Thornton Wilder's The Eighth Day--Midwestern family whose father is accused of murder. It's colored blue, so I guess I liked it.
Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy--Highly recommended. An autobiographical series about a young British couple who live in Bucharest at the beginning of WWII. They stay one foot ahead of the Nazis. Made into excellent miniseries called The Fortunes of war starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner--This book left me in an existential funk so deep I thought I'd never climb out.
Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont--Excellent. Excellent. A British lady moves into a residential hotel and passes off a young man she meets in the street as her grandson, for the benefit of nosy neighbors. Also a great movie starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Hottie McHottie Something-or-other.
Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter--You can't go wrong with Eudora Welty.
J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur--Another supberb book about India. This one is set during the 1857 Mutiny. A group of British are besieged in an inadequate shelter while violence threatens. Excellent study of human nature.
Clair Huffaker's The Cowboy and the Cossack--Cowboys drive a herd across Siberia in the 1880's.
Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse: the Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954--Fictional biography of a fictional writer. Quirky. Annoyingly quirky.
Jack Finney's --Time and Again--Time travel is an irrisistable subject for fiction, although Finney indulges in absurdly romantic comparisons of past and present. His method of achieving time travel is so clever, you almost think you can accomplish it yourself.
Ella Leffland's Rumors of Peace--Girl coming of age in California during WWII.
Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children--Spot the symbolism and win a banana.
Don DeLillo's Libra-- Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories cause me to become comatose.
Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day--Complex character portrait. The movie is good, but the book is better.
Muriel Spark's A Far Cry From Kensington--Feeling very sad that I can remember so little about this book. I read it long before I actually started this list.
Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park--Cop novel set in Russia.
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow--Jesuits in outer space! Unfortunately, even in the distant future year of 2019, the baby boomers still have a finger in every pie.
Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys--Novel about the disatrous expedition to the South Pole, led by Captain Robert Scott. Five chapters, each devoted to the point of view of one of the men who made the final trek to the pole. I cried at the end.
Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides--So crappy, I wanted to kill myself.
Leah Hager Cohen's Train Go Sorry--A worthy topic for a book--a hearing person's life among the deaf. Unfortunately, Cohen's pretentious descriptive passages--clearly she's a graduate of the "there's no such thing as a bad metaphor" school of writing--left me irritated.
Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker--another book I read long ago. Korean immigrants...political corruption...
Howard Norman's The Bird Artist--why does everyone make fun of Newfies? Every book I've ever read that's set in Newfoundland has been excellent.
Robinton Mistry's A Fine Balance--Oh geez, an Oprah book. Mistry won all kinds of prestigious awards for this book, and yet he commits the cardinal sin of fiction writers: using dialogue to convey information about the plot, as in,"Gee, things sure have changed since Dad died of colon cancer five years ago." The cruelty inflicted on some of the characters is truly sickening. Is this really modern India? (Or 1970s India, anyway.) Also, one wonders if Indira Gandhi was really the monster Mistry implies she was.
Mark Helprin's Memoir From Antproof Case--The title intriqued me and the book doesn't diappoint. Memoir written by a man living in Brazil, who stores his writings in an antproof case. He describes his character as having "some idiosynchrocies. That's like the pope saying his is "sort of" Catholic.


  1. Hey, Crabby! On The Cville Blog site the colors don't show up so I came here!

  2. Wonderful - wonderful - wonderful.

    I have to agree with your thoughts on Brideshead Revisited. Book was rich and memorable; the movie - meh.

    You have me inspired to delve into Eudora Welty.

    Thanks so much for the list - you should start a book group!