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, 2:01 pm

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, 3:58 pm

Mensagem removida pelo autor.

Set 6, 2018, 1:58 pm

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, 5:13 am

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, 1:54 am

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, 10:11 am

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, 4:05 am

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, 4:46 am

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, 11:17 pm

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, 3:35 am

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, 10:41 am

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, 9:31 am

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, 7:39 am

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, 4:32 pm

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, 9:25 pm

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, 7:41 pm

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, 10:46 am

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, 6:43 am

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

Fev 2, 2019, 11:21 am

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, 10:15 pm

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, 12:14 am

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, 4:39 pm

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, 12:34 am

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, 10:00 am

>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, 10:33 am

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, 3:19 pm

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, 10:22 am

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, 7:18 pm

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, 10:06 am

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, 8:48 pm

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, 11:59 am

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, 7:26 pm

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, 8:18 am

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, 8:27 pm

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, 12:27 pm

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, 9:44 am

>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, 5:06 pm

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, 4:38 pm

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, 7:49 pm

>38 annamorphic: I really loved that one too.

Out 12, 2019, 12:03 pm

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, 4:56 pm

>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, 1:49 pm

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, 11:32 am

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, 12:59 am

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

Editado: Nov 3, 2019, 11:35 am

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, 3:41 pm

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, 9:02 am

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, 11:18 am

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, 2:04 am

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

Editado: Fev 5, 2020, 8:15 pm

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, 7:03 am

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

Editado: Fev 24, 2020, 8:08 am

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, 7:47 am

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, 2:23 pm

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

Editado: Abr 14, 2020, 8:07 am

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, 7:45 am

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, 12:57 pm

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, 11:43 am

>55 annamorphic:
>56 annamorphic:

I'll take these for a BB!

Maio 4, 2020, 8:45 am

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, 7:41 am

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, 8:17 am

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, 8:56 pm

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, 10:12 pm

>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, 8:23 am

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, 11:55 am

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, 7:13 am

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, 7:56 am

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

Ago 12, 2020, 8:07 am

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, 2021, 9:14 am

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, 6:52 am

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.

Editado: Ago 18, 2021, 9:02 am

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.

Addition: I came back and changed my rating because I keep thinking about this book, so it deserves an extra star for impact. Also it turns out that Beckford was influenced by Piranesi's prison images, which I'm studying, so it gets a bonus for that too.

Nov 6, 2020, 3:02 pm

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, 11:53 am

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, 1:26 pm

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, 2021, 12:06 pm

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, 2021, 9:13 am

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, 2021, 8:13 am

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

Editado: Jan 27, 2021, 11:27 am

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, 2021, 1:24 pm

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, 2021, 2:36 pm

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, 2021, 5:04 pm

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, 2021, 1:03 pm

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, 2021, 7:15 am

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, 2021, 12:57 pm

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, 2021, 4:58 pm

>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, 2021, 8:23 am

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, 2021, 9:12 am

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, 2021, 12:03 pm

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

Abr 13, 2021, 3:11 pm

Congratulations on 600, and with a 5 star read!

Abr 13, 2021, 4:29 pm

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, 2021, 8:37 pm


Abr 13, 2021, 10:49 pm

Congratulations on 600

Abr 21, 2021, 4:53 am

Congratulations on 600! What an achievement!

Abr 27, 2021, 2:04 pm

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, 2021, 4:59 pm

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, 2021, 2:33 am

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, 2021, 4:59 pm

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, 2021, 4:13 pm

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, 2021, 10:55 am

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, 2021, 7:01 pm

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!

Jul 9, 2021, 10:18 am

607. Leonid Tsypkin, Summer in Baden-Baden **1/2 (many-layered sadness of flawed great writers)

I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. It’s clearly a book that a Jewish intellectual connoisseur of Russian culture should love, and somewhere in those criteria I failed. Also, it deserves to be liked because the writing of it, the publishing of it, were both so unlikely, its author so thwarted in all ways, and its subject – Dostoevsky – so great yet so incredibly flawed. The profound, almost crippling insecurity, the painful gambling addiction, the bad temper, the anti-Semitism. OK, all of that does come across in the book so I’ll give it another half-star. But it was really difficult to read somehow, and I generally like authors, like Bernhard or Beckett, who do this endless sentence/paragraph kind of writing.

Jul 9, 2021, 11:19 am

>101 annamorphic: This is a book I failed to read. I tried. I was even in Baden-Baden at the time, but I just couldn't make myself read it.

Editado: Jul 19, 2021, 2:02 pm

608. Edith Somerville & Martin Ross, The Real Charlotte **** (dark determination wins over aimless light)

A wonderful novel in the tradition of the great Victorian writers but set apart by the character of Charlotte, a tremendous anti-heroine. Even (maybe especially) those who know her best do not suspect what she is really like, although the reader suspects it from the first. Most of the novel sort of burbles along around Charlotte’s young cousin Francie and the three variously flawed men who orbit her luminous beauty and naïve gaity. Francie is another well-done character, sympathetic and delightful yet weak. She is completely unable to make serious life choices, or even to take life seriously: she lives in a kind of joyous fantasy, like a child, until finally life catches up with her. Meanwhile in the background, Charlotte watches. In the last third of the book she seizes control, from behind the scenes, and finally the real Charlotte is revealed.

The writing is beautiful, the evocation of the Irish countryside and small-town life wonderful, and the plot structure excellent. Not everybody likes the book’s ending but I found it perfect and satisfying. A book that should never have fallen off the 1001 list in later editions!

Jul 17, 2021, 1:15 pm

>103 annamorphic: This one keeps popping up so perhaps I’ll take that as a sign and crack it open.

Jul 26, 2021, 10:14 am

609. Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming **1/2 (thoughtful look at the sadness of small people)

A small, quiet look at the lives of very ordinary people, without grandeur or passion. Practically everything that matters happens suddenly at the end so I cannot discuss without spoilers. But the ending is good, quite thought-provoking, and yet does not make the people themselves less small.

Ago 14, 2021, 2:48 pm

610. Etienne van Heerden, Ancestral Voices ****1/2 (the dead revisit past wrongs & present tragedy)

A really amazing book, complicated and challenging to read. It’s about pioneer pride and determination, hard men who won out over adversity by, in part, shedding anything and anybody who represents weakness. But now, the family for whom all has been accomplished is going to die out, and the land they fought for and won is itself dying.

The story revolves around a death – a murder? – of the only child in the main branch of the family, little “Trickle” (or “Druppeltje” in the original Afrikaans), a magical boy who had a feeling for the water that the land so desperately needs. The question of what really happened to him forms the book’s plot, and there is an investigating magistrate, but this is no normal mystery. We hear about the past, and the present, from every member of the family, living and dead – the “ancestral voices” that play such a role both in the narrative and in the lives of the living. They mourn. They regret. They have nowhere to go because they are bound to the mountain that has consumed them all. The ending is perfect and terrible. A wonderful book.

Ago 14, 2021, 4:38 pm

>106 annamorphic: sounds like a good read - I must bump this up my TBR list.

Editado: Ago 15, 2021, 1:52 am

>106 annamorphic: Sounds like the indigenous Australian culture, in which the ancestors and the connection to country is so important. I recently read Song of the Crocodile, a book in which the ancestors and the recently deceased play as much of a role in the story as the living characters.

Ago 24, 2021, 6:34 pm

611. George Orwell, Burmese Days *** (agonizing indictment of colonial Britishness)

This is George Orwell’s first novel and you can see how he’d end up writing 1984 and Animal Farm. He’s good at making you feel, painfully, the way that within a given society people become warped by the corrosively immoral structure of the social conditions in which they live. In this book he gives us Flory, a fundamentally OK but very weak individual who is completely incapable of standing up for what is right, and who secretly longs for some more meaningful kind of existence that is just impossible to attain in British Burma. He thinks that the one and only woman who comes along will provide this to him because she has lived in Paris; he does not notice that she is an utterly vapid snob who despises his attempts at serious conversation, and who admires only brute strength and killing things. At the same time, he refuses to protect the Indian doctor who is the closest thing he has to a friend, but who is hated by Flory’s fellow Englishmen (and I mean hated, with an almost insane level of racism) and used as a scapegoat by the Burmese villain as well.

I had a lot of problems with this book. The other characters besides Flory were too extreme. Nobody else had a moment’s grace. They were all vile racist, alcoholic, conniving, selfish snobs, some more extreme than others. And yet as Flory is dragged through the plot to an inevitably terrible end, you do find yourself utterly horrified by what England hath wrought.

Set 19, 2021, 6:00 pm

612. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae *** (evil twin brings down good)

Really a good, suspenseful read, a lot like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in some ways, maybe too many. Two brothers, the younger a good, honorable chap, the older charming but kind of worthless. Chance puts them on opposite sides in the Jacobite rebellion and from then on, the older brother (who was on the losing side) makes it his life’s work to take down his brother while also enriching himself and doing in anybody who gets in his way. He emerges as brilliantly ruthless, a skilled operator who knows how to drive his rather dull brother to the brink of insanity and even beyond it. He is truly evil personified.

The tension never lets up throughout a plot with many surprising turns. It’s an excellent psychological adventure. It’s just not as good as Jekyll and Hyde.

Set 24, 2021, 11:56 am

>110 annamorphic: I'm reading this right now, after never having known it existed. I'm only about 50 pages in, so I didn't read your whole review, but I love that I'm in good company!

Editado: Set 27, 2021, 12:56 pm

613. Romain Gary, Promise at Dawn ***** (a mother’s strange, excessive, miraculous passion)

The unique story of a unique relationship, unlike any memoir I’ve ever read because it’s about two people as one person, a mother’s love that is overwhelming, inspiring, smothering, life-saving. By the end of the son's book she is, in his imagination, living fully through him; his accomplishments are hers. She is the fighter, the author, the doer of all his deeds. And he loves her, because of (and in spite of) everything.

The author is the only, and very late, child of a mother who pours every bit of herself into making sure he becomes a Great Man. She sacrifices and works her fingers to the bone without a second of hesitation; at the same time, she tells him (and everybody else) that he’s going to be famous, a star, a French Ambassador! They are Russian Jews, but she imbues him with a love of France as an almost mystical place, and eventually their journey lands them in Nice and he becomes French. He has in fact become a French Ambassador, by the time he is writing this memoir.

His mother’s insane pride and belief in his perfection lands the author in numerous terribly embarrassing situations. But he tells it all with a really marvelous sense of humor, irony, and self-deprecation, so things that ought to be unbearable are simply hilarious. Yet at the end, things do become unbearable – not his mother, but the war. The relatively short account of life as an airforce bomber is breathtaking in its stark awfulness. Nobody survives. Except him. Because of his mother's love, the bond which is truly impossible to break.

I’m not doing justice to what is just a fascinating, wonderful book. Gary is the only author to ever have won France’s Prix Goncourt twice, because he wrote under a pseudonym as well as his own name – and “both” authors won the prize. His mother would have expected no less.

Out 2, 2021, 10:44 am

614. Jeroen Brouwers, Sunken Red ** (Japanese prison camp destroys people and warps survivors)

I picked up this book (from the Dutch version of the List) because it seemed to be about a mother and son during World War II and so I thought it would make a nice pair with Promise at Dawn. Wow. Could not possibly have been more different. This brief memoir is about a Dutch mother and son whose relationship is utterly destroyed by the brutality of a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia. He is writing after her death; he did not attend her funeral and has not spoken to her in years. It’s never clear precisely why this is so, but one gathers that he witnessed her dehumanization and abuse in ways that were so shocking to him that he can’t stop fantasizing about women being tortured, and cannot deal with her failure to understand how damaging the camp was to him. She somehow thought that survival would be enough. But it wasn’t.

The things the author witnessed as a child are vile; I’d like to say unbelievably so but I believe him. This camp, notoriously the worst of the worst, was for women and children, and the Japanese invented endless ways of gross, agonizing humiliation and torment for all those in their charge, individually and collectively. It made me think two things. First, that the German camps were actually more bearable or maybe comprehensible for the very systematic process of their slaughter. The Japanese tortured just for fun, and it’s sickening, almost unreadable. But second, you don’t get memoirs like this (or Empire of the Sun) written by people who were children in German camps, because the Germans killed the children first so none survived. So you see in these books how young minds, not yet formed by “normal” life, are twisted and ruined by such an existence, different from an adult survivor. Brouwers is enraged by the way that people who’d been adults in the camp (even his tortured and abused mother) now laugh at their memories, because his childhood was Not Funny. And he wants you to know that.

Editado: Out 9, 2021, 8:16 pm

615. Simon Carmiggelt, A Dutchman’s Slight Adventures ** (amusing takes on Amsterdam life)

Very slight indeed. Charming, sometimes amusing, sometimes quite sad. Carmiggelt was a very popular writer in the mid-20th century in the Netherlands, and he does capture a certain perspective on an era. These pieces are selected from the many he published in a Dutch newspaper, Het Parool, originally a publication of the Dutch resistance in World War II. You can see how people would have looked forward to his wry take on life.

From the Dutch version of the List, of course.

Editado: Out 31, 2021, 6:44 am

616. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith ** (brilliantly plotted but horribly dark)

Somebody had suggested this on the thread of “uplifting” books and I have a bone to pick with them! Even the ending is not terribly happy, and the rest of the book is relentlessly dark and dismal. Every character is cruel, creepy, and corrupt. They torture one another, mentally and physically, without compunction. There are no redeeming moments, no light, no humor.

However, the book is brilliantly plotted, suspenseful, and hugely atmospheric. It deserves another star for that, no doubt. Reviewers call it “Dickensian.” But Dickens is never so completely bleak, or so cruel. So a two-star read for me.

Editado: Nov 6, 2021, 5:37 pm

617. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal ** (bizarre satirical pamphlet)

Meeting of the 1001 editors:

Ed. 1: …and of course we must include A Modest Proposal.
Ed. 2. But that’s not a novel.
Ed. 1: It’s a brilliant piece of satire.
Ed. 3: It’s a 20-page long pamphlet!
Ed. 1: It’s a classic.
Ed. 4: But we didn’t include Hamlet, or the Iliad, or the Divine Comedy, because They. Weren’t. Novels.
Ed. 1: Look, you all got your trashy, unreadable 20th-century novels. I get A Modest Proposal or I’m taking my marbles and going home.

And so it was.

Nov 12, 2021, 4:03 pm

618. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat *** (charming comedy of youth & dog on the Thames)

As classic comedy goes, this one actually should have been on the anglo 1001 and not just the Danish version or wherever it’s found. Jerome’s work is so clearly the origin of a certain “voice” in British writing, both pure comedy (Wodehouse, most obviously) but also light-hearted banter in other forms of fiction (some passages in Sayers, even). The book itself is LOL funny in many places. It’s both dated in its frame of reference and classic in its establishing a genre: The Heart of Darkness has been compared (with a very different tone!), but so are boys-on-a-roadtrip novels of the mid 20th century.

There is no plot, really – just three friends and their dog deciding to boat along the Thames to Oxford from Kingston, and the many many misadventures they have, and others that they recall and recount, mixed in with random bits of history and with philosophical musings. It’s an odd, charming Victorian countryside ramble. In the Guardian, one writer said he’d choose this for his “Desert Island” book (a Thing on the BBC) – the one book you’d bring with you if stranded on a desert island. And I can see why.

Nov 12, 2021, 4:49 pm

>117 annamorphic: It's such a silly book, but fun to read. It's definitely a deserted island book - love that reference :)

Nov 12, 2021, 6:18 pm

>117 annamorphic: one of my favourite books - good to see it on a 1001 list.

Editado: Nov 13, 2021, 8:23 am

>117 annamorphic: I was unaware that this is on the list.

Nov 22, 2021, 7:41 am

619. Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke ***1/2 (wild satire on schools, families, class & maturity)

This is an amazingly strange book and at first I thought I would not like it at all. I may have been put off by the intro from Susan Sontag that assured me that it was philosophically profound in unique ways. Eventually I was able to put that aside and just move into the swing of the text, and by the end of the book I was enjoying it greatly, although it had not ceased to be bafflingly bizarre. Just the way of writing, the invention of words, the pattern of nonsense, is so unlike the crazy British satires and rants to which I am more accustomed.

Ferdydurke – the name, the word, appears nowhere in the text. Which is just typical! But basically, the book is a celebration of immaturity. Not youth, or childhood, just immaturity. Our narrator, chronologically an adult, is proclaimed a youth again and sent to school, where the author mocks education.¬ Next he is sent to board with a family, where he sends up the notion of a “modern” family. Finally, he and a school buddy go to the countryside in search of a genuine farmhand with which the friend can “fra…ternize”, and this devolves into a hilarious satire on rural Polish social classes.

All great fun once you just accept the book on its own terms.

Nov 23, 2021, 10:26 pm

>121 annamorphic: I haven't read it, but every time I see the title, I hear the Swedish Chef saying it in my head... "ferDYduke"

Nov 30, 2021, 7:39 pm

620. Joyce Carol Oates, Black Water * (unbearably painful prolonged unnecessary death)

I read this to make up for not reading Blonde. But even the part of Blonde that I read was a lot better than this slim novella. An attempt, basically, to imagine the inner life and dreadful death of Mary Jo Kopechne, drowning slowly and needlessly as Ted Kennedy fails to come back to help her. Over and over. Really upsetting to read and I cannot quite figure out why so many people like it. But ah, it was short.

Nov 30, 2021, 9:18 pm

>123 annamorphic:, I felt the same way. Painful.

Dez 1, 2021, 2:58 pm

>123 annamorphic: A horror novel.

Dez 9, 2021, 10:33 am

621. Fernando de Rojas, Celestina *** (bawdy tale of passion and murder)

One of those very early novels that’s the germ of something great but still struggling to get there. Celestina herself is a wonderful character, a schemer and a sorceress and a doctor (of sorts – repairing maidenheads is her specialty). The list of ingredients she has on hand, two pages long, is a fascinating look at the pre-medical apothecary! Along with her team of prostitutes and their lovers, she schemes to make a rich couple fall in love and to enrich herself in the process.

Suffice to say that there is no happy ending. But along the way to it there is a ton of wisdom dispensed in the form of long strings of reiterative proverbs, in typical 16th-century fashion. The real problem, though, is the narrative form. It’s ALL dialogue. People talk on and on, for paragraphs. It’s very hard to tell who is speaking. Occasionally we do get “Calisto said” but I suspect this is the insertion of the translator or editor, recognizing the reader's utter confusion.

Dez 23, 2021, 9:19 am

622. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South **1/2 (labor politics plus dysfunctional family)

The ending of this book was actually kind of good, hence the extra half-star, but getting there was a real chore. All the characters are so unpleasant, although Our Heroine and Our Hero do grow after much suffering. It’s hard to say all the things that annoyed me without spoilers, but let’s just say that every member of both families is intensely unpleasant, pathetic, weak, and/or whiney. Even Our Heroine, beaten down by misfortune, ceases to be strong and stern and starts to just weep a lot. And the whole Higgins plot (and the dialect!) was also a drag, part of the very heavy-handed politics that weighs down a lot of the book.

Editado: Jan 16, 2022, 8:28 am

623. Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll *** (cruelty, suffering, and luck during the 30-years’ war)

This book presents various disparate moments of the 30-years’ War in Germany, linked together by the presence of Tyll Uylenspiegel, acrobat and jester. He’s a legendary figure and Kehlmann makes him into an intriguing real person, an outsider from the beginning, a critic, a survivor. We also encounter real historical figures, including Elizabeth of England/the Palatinate/Bohemia and Athanasius Kircher. The latter made an excellent villain; the former, a kind of odd heroine but also interesting. It was nice to know (from history) that eventually she, or her progeny, had a happy ending.

Kehlmann dwells too much on the awful and gruesome for my taste. The whole beginning with the miller was totally upsetting. The ending, on the other hand, was rather good. So I had mixed feelings about this one, but I do keep thinking about it. Three stars.

Jan 22, 2022, 8:59 am

624. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog ** (arrogant secret geniuses find themselves)

This French novel was from the Dutch list and the editors of the English list were smart not to include it. It’s a self-consciously clever book about self-consciously clever people in a fancy Paris apartment building. The concierge is a brilliant autodidact who pretends to be dull and uneducated while secretly reading Tolstoy and watching Japanese films. She’s relatively plausible and relatable compared to the other main character, a 12-year-old world-weary genius who plans to kill herself and burn down her apartment during the coming summer. Her cynical yet incisive social and philosophical insights are so implausible for an adolescent. I also resented the tear-jerker ending. And all the stuff about What is Art. Two stars are for some of the concierge’s moments, but not all of them!

Jan 22, 2022, 12:54 pm

>129 annamorphic: Actually, this was included in the 2010 English-language edition.

Jan 27, 2022, 5:34 pm

>129 annamorphic: I'm glad I didn't read this physically, but instead listened to it as an audio book. The voice actors were excellent, and I think it allowed me to not get bogged down in the philosophical bits.

Fev 12, 2022, 1:59 pm

625. Jack Kerouac, On the Road * (feckless cross-country ramblings of the Beat generation)

I just hated this book. Perhaps it would have been better had I been reading it on paper but I listened on audio so I had to hear every word, including Dean Moriarty’s “YASSS” and “HOO-WHEE” when anticipating that he might get a girl. Or two. Honestly, the attitude toward women in this book is so unrelentingly awful that it’s painful. And yet it explains something about how men of that generation defined manhood (VERY badly) and why it’s taken so long for the western world to shed the crap that the Beats created.

Fev 12, 2022, 7:32 pm

>625, I read the print book and I hated it, too.

Editado: Mar 2, 2022, 6:19 pm

626. Iain Banks, The Crow Road ****1/2 (Life, love, whisky, truth, and death. Especially death.)

A weirdly and unexpectedly wonderful book. It changes greatly over the course of its protracted length, from a somewhat confusing multi-generational amusing family saga into something more serious and then, finally, into a mystery novel. But in fact, even the way the mystery was resolved fit in with themes of the rest of the book – the search for truth, the importance of story-telling, the endurance of love even if nothing else. I’d quite like to reread this book some time to see if I can pick up other threads that continue or reemerge at the end. Almost gave it 5 stars but then I decided it wouldn’t stay with me like a true 5-star read does.

Editado: Mar 8, 2022, 2:41 am

>132 annamorphic: I loathed it as well!

>134 annamorphic: And loved this too.

Mar 14, 2022, 7:14 pm

627. Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest ****1/2 (another young woman destroyed by herself & society)

If you ever listen to novels on Audible, this is one to listen to. The reader, Lucy Scott, was somehow perfect for this book. Her voice felt like Effi’s voice. That was important, because I’ve read reviews where the reader of Fontane’s book felt that Effi was unsympathetic, a spoilt and annoying woman. Scott’s Effi is a lively, carefree, happy girl. Thoughtless, yes, but not in a bad way – just like a lot of teen-agers.

And that’s the story of this book: a carefree teen-ager thoughtlessly agrees (with the encouragement of her pretty thoughtless parents!) to marry a man over twice her age who was once her mother’s suitor! Even in 1894 this was not an obviously good thing. Effi and her husband do their best, because both are basically well-meaning and decent people. But ultimately their very different weaknesses undo them. And society undoes the rest. Behind the story of two people who should not have married but could actually have made a go of it, is the story of a pitiless social code that forces good people to act against their better feelings.

I really enjoyed Effi Briest. It’s often compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, and while I don’t remember the former I certainly see the parallels to the latter, though EB is perhaps not quite as good as MB. Four stars, and an extra half for Lucy Scott!

Mar 14, 2022, 9:47 pm

>136 annamorphic: I liked this one too. I think I read the book and I liked it and liked it better than Anna K and Madam Bovary.

Mar 21, 2022, 3:37 pm

628. George Gissing, New Grub Street *** (success of calculating cynicism in literary world)

This was a thick and depressing book and I cannot quite figure out why it is liked by so many people. It does leave an impact in the end, admittedly, and it certainly functions as a biting critique of the literary culture of Victorian London. It’s not a bit subtle in that regard.

We are introduced at the beginning to one Jasper Milvain, a completely self-centered and ambitious young man who is clearly willing to push aside every other person, especially his own family, in his determination to succeed. Never in the course of the book does he change or improve; his brief moments of sympathy toward those less driven than himself are rapidly clouded by his own utter cynicism. To be fair, most of the other characters in the book, especially the male ones, are also quite dreadful in their own ways. They are either entirely selfish, or pathetically inept and annoyingly idealistic. Nobody seems to have any genuine literary talent – they just take positions, write, and either fail or succeed according to how they have positioned themselves.

The female characters are slightly more interesting, and several are actually sympathetic, decent human beings. Still, at the end you just feel this overwhelming sense of despair at how the deserving fail and the lousy succeed. Which was Gissing’s point.

Mar 27, 2022, 9:29 am

629. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall-Paper *** (singular solitude of madness)

A very brief but beautifully crafted story of a young woman’s descent into madness. Her obsessive examination of the patterns of the wallpaper was fascinating and felt real.

Abr 3, 2022, 6:25 pm

630. Jose Saramago, The Double **** (if there’s another you, are they you?)

A slightly depressed but basically very ordinary schoolteacher watches a movie and realizes that one of the bit actors is completely, bizarrely identical to him. Against the urgings of his Common Sense (a very distinct character in this tale) he decides to pursue this double, with troubling consequences. It’s not a wildly new premise, but the telling of the story is fabulous and the ending has several totally unexpected and rather dark twists. The omniscient narrator’s voice is completely charming and sometimes hilarious. Despite the lack of paragraph or dialogue breaks, an entirely enjoyable read.

Abr 3, 2022, 6:34 pm

>140 annamorphic: this has been on my shelf for a very long time. Glad to hear you found it enjoyable - the lack of paragraphs has put me off reading it the few times I've picked it up.

Abr 14, 2022, 1:53 pm

631. Timothy Findley, The Wars *** (Canada’s WWI book: humankind is pretty much terrible)

A hapless, sensitive young man is sent off to the war after his beloved handicapped sister dies in an accident. That’s the dreadful beginning, and everything else is of course much worse because it’s World War I. Even the sea voyage to England is completely nightmarish. The trenches are the trenches. Plus, there are animals. Especially horses. But there is also love.

I had very mixed feelings about this book. Some parts were great, particularly the minute-by-minute morning in the trenches. Other parts I didn’t like at all, like the old woman reading aloud her childhood diary to the researcher who is writing this book. The ending seemed somehow abrupt and arbitrary. I did however like the moment when the old woman remembers her brother saying, the world may never forgive us for what we’ve done, but I hope they remember that we were human beings. And right after that the author says “So far, you have read of the deaths of 557,017 people—one of whom was killed by a streetcar, one of whom died of bronchitis and one of whom died in a barn with her rabbits.” It makes clear how impossible it is to understand war deaths as individual.

Editado: Abr 23, 2022, 2:18 pm

632. Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star ***1/2 (experimental novella about poverty)

I read this brief novella because Lispector was born in Ukraine, but she grew up in Brazil and this is definitely a Brazilian book. The narrator catches sight of a poor, drab young woman and decides to tell/create her story. His struggles with himself as an appropriative writer are intense in the first part of the text, but eventually we become engrossed in the girl’s life and especially her perception of it and her meagre self-consciousness.
Although very short, this book is thought-provoking and absorbing. I liked it much more than I expected.

Maio 3, 2022, 2:52 pm

633. Rose Tremain, The Colour ** (a weak man, a strong woman, and gold)

My feelings about this book veered back and forth as I read it, ending on a definite down note. In any event it’s really not a great book and fully deserved to be taken off the list. It tries to do more than its author can handle; there are so many odd plots and subplots, characters with complicated backstories, sex and race and a touch of magic realism thrown in for good measure. The novel does paint an interesting picture of New Zealand as a place where failed people go in hopes of a second chance. The weakness of the main male character, Joseph, and the quiet strength of his wife, Harriet, develop into an interesting contrast as she grows into the place, and he shrinks from it. The non-white characters tended to feel stereotypical. The child Edwin was… creepy. Not much more to say without spoilers, but many other elements did irritate me.

Maio 13, 2022, 5:25 pm

634. William Godwin, The Adventures of Caleb Williams **1/2 (eternally pursued by a monster)

So, if you think your highly respectable but oddly melancholy employer (on whom you are completely dependent) is actually guilty of murder and worse, what do you do? Do you shut up about it? Do you report him to the authorities? Or do you go poking around in his things, and making dark insinuations when alone with him that make him cringe and quiver? Our idiotic narrator chooses the last of these options and then is surprised when his employer takes against him. Or does he? All is creepy and full of dire implications.

This book was kind of fun if you like late 18th-century melodrama. Never is a short and common word used when a long and obscure one will do. People speak eloquently for paragraphs to state something you or I would say in a sentence or two. Villains are super-villainous and good people are angelic. We do have some sympathy for criminals, as long as they have a code of honor. The scenes in prison were most enjoyable.

The whole first section of the book, the backstory of the respectable employer, was actually excellent and action-packed. But things slowed down, a lot, after that.

Editado: Maio 23, 2022, 3:56 pm

635. Juan Carlos Onetti, The Shipyard *1/2 (depressing, confusing, forgettable)
This book is confusing in part because all the characters’ lives seem so utterly pointless. They go through the motions of living, loving, hating, working, but why?

636. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve * (very ‘70s gender-bending dystopia)
A truly ghastly dystopic novel in which men do horrible things to women and women are in turns powerfully dominant and utter victims. The scenes in a New York city that is collapsing and dying, overrun by gigantic black rats, are kind of cool. But all the rest is awful. Maybe worth another half star for its articulations of 70s feminism (and racial issues) but really painful to read.

Jun 1, 2022, 7:56 am

637. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Matigari **1/2 (tragedy of a revolution betrayed)

A short, fable-like story about the betrayal of the Kenyan (or any African) revolution: the colonials are overthrown only to be replaced by equally greedy dictators who, like their white predecessors, rob from the poor black for their own advantage. I’m glad that I read this book and I can see why it made an impact – its political message is forceful and sometimes disturbing. It was not a pleasant book to read.

Read for the May group challenge.

Jun 5, 2022, 4:16 pm

638. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa ***** (gorgeous if dated love story between a woman and a place)

I don’t understand why I have not read this marvel of a book before. All my friends seem to have done so: I say “I am reading Out of Africa” and they say they read it in college and isn’t it amazing?

It is amazing. I want to go back right now and read it again.

The writing is gorgeous and inspired and reflects the deep love that Dinesen (Karen Blixen) held for Africa, its mountains and skies and animals and people. It is breathtaking and feels immediate and honest. Many individual moments will stay with me, moments of life and death, saving and killing. Some of the hunting scenes upset me, yet her understanding and admiration of the animal world and individual creatures is intense. The descriptions of native culture and her attitudes are clearly dated yet at also ahead of their time in their observation, understanding, and respect for many of the cultures and habits of the Africans.

It never ceased to amaze me how alone she was there – a Danish noblewoman surrounded by “her” Kikuyu and the Masai and Somali, but alone in running this beloved coffee farm away from any other Europeans. Just hopping on the tractor, or making decisions about livestock, or nursing injured children, she does it all. She has guests and friends, but the farm is her and she is the farm. The sadness of its eventual failure is enormous.

Editado: Jun 29, 2022, 3:54 pm

639. Cees Nooteboom, Rituals **1/2 (disaffected man has meaningful encounters)

A book in three sections, each about a year/period in a man’s life. I couldn’t stand the first, short one and thought I’d never manage to finish the book. The next day I realized that either my jet-lag had mislead me or the second and third sections were much better. Odd, but better. These are the ones with the meaningful encounters with an eccentric man and, years later, his even more eccentric estranged son (oddly, the narrator's wife was not a meaningful encounter in Section 1). In the final section a rare Japanese bowl and an art dealer also play major roles, and I appreciated the sense that Nooteboom really knew what he was talking about with the dealer. I could sense the feeling of visiting a high-level Amsterdam dealership, somewhere on the Spiegelgracht perhaps.

It was lucky that I had this conversion experience, from antipathy to appreciation, as I read the book. A day after I finished it, I was telling my friend Gary about my reading experience, and he said, “I was at the presentation of that book!” Long story short, he’d been a friend of the real life art dealer on whom the one in the book was based (Houthakker, on the Rokin) and so of course was Nooteboom. So Gary met Nooteboom at this presentation and they are still friends. Amsterdam really is a small world! Don't criticize anybody's books...

Jun 13, 2022, 3:04 pm

>149 annamorphic: Nice friend-of-a-friend story!

Jun 23, 2022, 12:13 pm

640. Nescio, Amsterdam Stories ** (great dreams, indolence, friendship)

A charming book of short stories from the Dutch version of the List. The first four, written before WWI, concern a group of five friends, young men, who have dreams of greatness but little motivation to actually work to accomplish them. In fact the first story is about a sixth man, affectionately referred to as “the Freeloader,” who does nothing but sponge off this group. Some of the friends do eventually succeed in life, which is awkward. The story I liked the most was a very short one called “Out Along the Ij,” which just describes two walks the friends take out of the city on autumn afternoons. It’s quite beautifully evocative of old Amsterdam and its surroundings.
The stories not about this group were far less good.

Jul 1, 2022, 10:17 am

641. Gerard Reve, The Evenings ****1/2 (hilarious tedium of a young man’s life)

It’s hard to explain exactly why I liked this book from the Dutch list so much – something close to a five-star read, really – because it’s a story in which nothing actually happens and that’s the point. We spend ten evenings with the main character, Frits, who still lives with his parents at age 23, works in an office, and has a keen sense of the absurdity of his monotonous life. His thoughts, and often his words, are hilariously critical or questioning of the ordinary things around him. He is obsessed with baldness, and also with death and disease. He insults his friends and acquaintances constantly, and he stage-manages life with his parents in an effort to endure its tedium. He claims expertise on whatever suits him at any given moment, knowing he knows nothing but enjoying the pretence that he does, wondering whether others will believe him or not. He is usually with others, yet he is very much alone with his thoughts. He is a fabulous character who I was glad to laugh (and occasionally gasp) with, and at, in this marvelous book.

Editado: Jul 10, 2022, 10:07 am

642. Anthony Burgess, Inside Mr. Enderby *** (a poet’s hilarious internal & external misadventures)

A really entertaining book that had me smiling like an idiot when I listened to it on Audible as I walked the dog. Mr. Enderby is a wonderful character, a highly misanthropic minor poet who writes his verse when on the toilet, has no friends and no family, and is perfectly fine that way. Until he is taken in hand by a lovely damsel named Vesta, editor of a ladies magazine. Things then go downhill for Mr. E. The ending is strangely unpleasant after so much humor but since there is a sequel or two, one knows that he’ll be fine in the end. Recommended if you like very British humor.

Jul 14, 2022, 3:17 pm

643. Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s *** (damaged girl flits through life)

This novella got more compelling as I listened to it. I mean, really it’s just a young writer charmed and intrigued by a mysterious, rootless, aimless, beautiful girl. But gradually he convinces us to find her intriguing as well. She’s a very memorable character, and a sad one, even a tragic one. She’s uprooted herself from one life, created herself as a new person, and yet she is therefore frighteningly rootless, and under all her bluster she knows it.

I watched the movie afterwards – a lot of the dialogue is straight from the book but it’s less good. It’s prettied up for a Hollywood audience. The narrator, who was definitely not Holly’s love interest in the book, becomes one. The ending is happy in a sappy way. Of course, Audrey Hepburn is lovely, but she isn’t the original Holly.

Jul 19, 2022, 6:12 pm

644. Jack London, The Call of the Wild *1/2 (the law of fang and club)

I cannot believe that my children were assigned this book in middle school! It’s just one long chain of despair and violence and death. Lots of blood. I get that schools are trying to find books that boys will read, because boys at that age hate reading, but honestly! Parents complain about books with LGBTQ characters but not about this?? One of my daughters said she had cried a lot while reading it and another said “don’t let it ruin your week.” The moral reminds me a bit of Lord of the Flies: kill or be killed, we’re all savages underneath, civilization is a thin veneer… And I wonder why that is such an important part of American education.

Anyway, this book was painful. And there’s more Jack London on the list! How did that happen?

Jul 25, 2022, 12:33 pm

645. Henri Barbusse, The Inferno * (excruciating)

I absolutely loved the other Barbusse book that I’ve read, Under Fire, but this book made me question how that had been possible. Especially in the first half, the soliloquies about life that our narrator overhears from the room nextdoor are annoying and highly implausible. And it’s really unsettling that he spies on adolescents as they transition from friendship to love. Why do people like this book? Why? Possibly if you like reading philosophy it would be more enjoyable?

Jul 25, 2022, 3:39 pm

>155 annamorphic: I'm an English teacher, but I never teach Call of the Wild because I myself can't handle the book.

Ago 10, 2022, 4:54 pm

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables (stunningly verbose Gothic) **1/2

Not giving this one a number because I seem to have included it in my original list although I am certain that I hadn’t really read it. Oops.

This book is an amazing feat of wordiness. There is an entire chapter devoted to what could have been stated as “He was dead.” It isn’t even a short chapter. The description of the domestic life of the chickens is also remarkably lengthy. There is a jolly Gothic-type story in here, but I’m inclined to agree with a review I read that said it would have made an excellent short story. And I was listening to it on audio, so I had to hear every word! However, over time its very verbosity grew on me. Hence the extra half star.

Ago 23, 2022, 10:35 am

646. E.E. Cummings, The Enormous Room *** (colorful characters in a French jail)

More of a memoir than a novel but it somehow slipped through the 1001 cracks. This one tells the story of Cummings’ months spent in a French jail (sort of a holding-place for various possible criminals) during World War I. All of it is very funny and quite humane in a 1918 kind of way – plenty of upper-class American racism, but also heaps of individual empathy for all kinds of odd persons from all over Europe. His descriptions of them are hilarious but almost never mean, and often very touching. And his account of a day in the jail, mostly centered around cleaning and disposing of human waste, is fascinating. A warning, though: you CANNOT read this book unless your French is close to fluent. Heaps of dialogue is given only in French. Humor is in French. My French is very good and I know I missed some things.

Ago 24, 2022, 10:07 am

>646 I've used Google translate for some books- it will translate just by pointing the camera at the text, rather than needing to type it all in. Trying to remember the book that I used it for recently... a translation was offered a few pages later, and the translation was pretty accurate!

Editado: Set 4, 2022, 2:22 pm

647. Peter Handke, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick *** (murderer wanders aimlessly)

Definitely less pointless than the last Handke book I read, this one does give me a sense of why he won a Nobel prize. It portrays a strange sense of dissociation as it tracks the breakdown of a person and his relationship to the world around him. The writing is both confusing and effective. The second half is better than the first, so if you’re giving this a try some day, keep trying.

Oh, and this was read for the September group challenge!

Set 19, 2022, 9:01 am

648. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd ***** (passion and drama in the farmland of Wessex)

This was a completely splendid book. The plot was fabulous, the characters strong (if not always 100% plausible), and the writing was just wonderful. I listened on audio and every word was worth hearing. In particular the descriptions of the rick fire and the thunderstorm were thrilling and really brought home the perils of farming, as did the two crazy sheep episodes. The one that began the story was horrifying and heartbreaking. There were, of course, some seriously intense inter-human emotional moments in the book as well.

Bathsheba was a complicated character to judge from a 21st-century perspective. She’s so strong and determined in business and so weak and ditzy in her personal life. I had to keep reminding myself that she must be about 20 when the book begins and has nobody from whom to ask advice, and I could see my daughters making similarly terrible decisions at that age.

I watched the 2015 film immediately after finishing the book, because I was so filled with enthusiasm. It was much, much less good than the book. The characters felt flat and stereotyped, and some really important scenes were either written out, or rewritten to be less intense and more modern. I might watch the Julie Christie version some day.

Out 1, 2022, 11:46 am

649. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses **** (fantastically imagined story of belief & identity)

A very, very ambitious book that was definitely blasphemous among other more positive traits. It is long and complicated, with many wonderful sections culminating in a dreadful and confusing one, and then a good and rather simple ending. The writing is charming, but the reading experience is not for the faint-hearted. Rushdie expects his reader to absorb this text pretty quickly and with great concentration. Important plotlines entirely disappear for hundreds of pages; characters likewise come and go. After the famous hijacking/fall to earth sequence the two main characters, angelic and demonic, move through their complex and separate existences for most of the book before crashing back together.

This is not a book that can be summarized well. It was worth reading. It has many things to say, perhaps too many. My takeaways were about how people create identities in a world of fiercely contradictory & mutually hostile cultures, religions, and races; and why people hang onto religious belief, or what other kinds of belief compete with it.

Out 19, 2022, 3:40 pm

650. Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli ***1/2 (beautifully humane encounter with poverty)

A memoir, not a novel. A lot of those lately! In 1935 Levi, a painter from Turin who has trained as a doctor, is exiled for political reasons to a small village in the impoverished south of Italy. This is strange enough, really – they sent people to lousy, isolated places in their own country as a form of punishment? Even though it’s his own country, Levi recognizes how strange he and the peasants are to one another, and yet he is truly interested in how they think, how they live, what separates them (mentally) from those in the rich north of Italy. He maintains his own standards for himself while basically respecting theirs. Time, distance, life, everything means differently to these hopelessly impoverished people.

I think that this book was intended as a call for social change. Not for help for the South, but for a different system altogether that will allow for their inclusion. But to make that argument he has to make us understand and care about the peasantry, and we do. I am told that this book is assigned reading in Italian schools today, which is kind of amazing. In its sense of the fundamental humanness of people who are very Other, it reminded me of The Enormous Room.

Editado: Out 28, 2022, 5:47 pm

651. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries **** (a year and a lifetime between a German village and NYC)

This is an amazing book. I didn’t love it, but in some way you cannot help living it if you persist in reading it. It is not just long, but terribly complex: I know I am not imagining this, because I read some published reviews where I was pretty sure the reviewer had not understood a detail of the book, or had missed a connection. But when I was in NYC last week I kept thinking “Here I am, in Gesine’s city.” So it worked.

The book details, day by day, a year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter who are immigrants to New York City. In the course of the book, Gesine also tells her daughter all about her life in a small town in Germany, and her parents’ lives, in a mixture of imagining and reminiscence. Under daughter Marie’s questioning, everything is revealed. Until the book’s conclusion, where the biggest things are kept secret from Marie and, in a sense, from Gesine too. Marie does not know what has happened, and Gesine does not know what is about to happen. It’s very unsettling. History continues when the book ends.

The mess that is European history is beautifully revealed in the second large tome here, which describes Gesine’s youth in Germany under Russian occupation. The incessant brainwashing and controlling are creepy, and made me think about people now in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Out 27, 2022, 3:34 pm

>165 annamorphic:, congratulations on finishing, I will probably finish in December sometime. Your review has me intrigued and anxious about the ending.

Out 27, 2022, 3:48 pm

>165 annamorphic: You're making me want to give this another go. I gave up half way through volume 2. I'm glad you enjoyed it and got so much out of it!

Out 27, 2022, 5:50 pm

>166 Kristelh: ditto. I'll finish in December - no hint yet (I'm late June in the book timeline) of the unexpected.

Nov 6, 2022, 1:56 pm

652. D.H. Lawrence, The Fox **1/2 (man interrupts & wrecks lives of two loving women)

If somebody says to you, “I’ve never read DHL – what should I read to understand why people both love him and hate him?” this novella would do the trick. It has all the ingredients. Great yet intensely annoying characterization of women. Man entirely unsympathetic yet manly. Actions & decisions often lacking comprehensible motivation, yet you believe them. Writing wonderful. This wasn’t as good as the big books where he really gets to develop characters, but it was very… typical. Warning: do NOT read the Doris Lessing introduction first. It gives away the entire plot, which was very annoying.

Nov 15, 2022, 3:08 pm

653. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks **** (in which nobody is happy although some could have been)

This book chronicles how a family made rich through business basically kills itself by insisting that increasing family dignity through money is the only important thing. It would be hard to explain this without spoilers, but let’s say that anybody who shows an iota of interest outside Family Business gets squashed and depleted, leaving a single member to attempt to carry everything on their shoulders. There is bad luck, too, but the Buddenbrooks are just so hemmed in and limited by their narrow set of goals that they cannot escape. Three family members – Tonie, Tom, and Hanno – are the main focus, and you just feel terribly sorry for each one of them. Their characters are richly drawn, although Tonie does sometimes become a bit of a caricature. I enjoyed this book a lot.

Nov 27, 2022, 2:33 pm

654. Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault ** (intellectual seduction by a mad writer)

This book was a compelling read that annoyed me intensely. It is arch and pretentious and intense and well-written and manipulative. The narrator never has a name, so the certifiably insane yet disarmingly enchanting male novelist with whom he falls in love (in a mostly intellectual way) always calls him “petit.” Yuck! On the other hand, the narrator always refers to his own rather strange girlfriend as “the Germanist” so maybe he deserves it. There was nothing to exactly like in this book yet I enjoyed it more than it deserved. Hmm.

Editado: Nov 28, 2022, 7:21 am

>171 annamorphic:, well said, exactly how I felt when I read it. Enjoying it more than it deserved.

Dez 10, 2022, 9:20 am

655. Peter Esterhazy, Celestial Harmonies *** (v. experimental, unfolding Hungarian history around a great family that lived it)

At nearly 900 pages, this book was way, way longer than it needed to be, but that was part of its point – to fold all of Hungarian (and other) history into the author’s great family. He first creates an annoyingly random genealogical patchwork in which “my father” is attributed with every great Hungarian deed over centuries and quite a few that are neither Hungarian nor true, including Giotto’s legendary discovery by Cimabue in case you were thinking for even a moment that this was limited to reality. This whole section zooms back and forth through time. For me, the most memorable and poignant “sentence” was the many, many pages of his “father’s” inventory of precious items, interspersed with a few actual objects that his real father possessed after the Communist takeover of Hungary.

The second part of the book gradually calms down into a pretty chronological narrative of the events of the family’s 20th-century existence. Because this was more concrete, I was able to look things up on Wikipedia and make sense of the role his family continued to play during some of Hungary’s worst times, until the period of forced resettlement reduced his father to the role of street-repairer. It’s kind of amazing. I had some idea of how bad things were for the Hungarian aristocracy because my neighbor in Amsterdam was one of them (not at the Esterhazy level) but the full scope of what happened in 20th-century Hungary was new to me.

Esterhazy apparently refused the return of his family’s property from the post-Communist Hungarian government. I wonder how his forefathers would have felt about that.

Dez 21, 2022, 5:40 pm

656. Donald Barthelme, Amateurs *** (wildly surreal, playful stories)

This was the perfect book to read after Celestial Harmonies because it really does make clear where Esterhazy’s writing comes from, especially the first half of that mad book. This one is a fraction of the length AND is comprised of short stories, and the writing style works better this way. Barthelme’s stories are beautifully crafted madness. They make a kind of sense, but only on their own terms. A strange but enjoyable read.

Jan 2, 2023, 8:43 am

657. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News ** (annoying writing about annoyingly sad characters)

I admit that I had to skim much of this book. Everything about it annoyed me. I hated the writing style, the characters, the story. I’m letting it have two stars because, given its Pulitzer and its popularity, I feel like I must have missed something.

Jan 9, 2023, 11:49 am

658. Michel Tournier, The Ogre *** (disjointed, creepy fable of Nazism’s twisted philosophy)

An incredibly strange book. Maybe The Tin Drum prepared me for it a little bit, but this one is more dire and less truly brilliant. In a mixture of first and third person, it gives us the life story of Abel Tiffauges, an awkward and gentle giant who gradually pieces together a very strange life philosophy from bits of reality and his own instincts. Tiffauges is both weirdly innocent and perverted. At school he is protected from bullies by the extremely odd Nestor. Obsessed with photographing children and falsely accused of rape, he welcomes exile into Germany as a French POW, ends up working at Goering’s hunting estate, and finally is employed at a school where German youth are trained to be Nazi warriors. He crafts the ideas he’s exposed to into an admirable although creepy vision, until reality catches up with him. There is a lot about defecation and animal slaughter, and I found much of the first section kind of slow and confusing, but still worth reading.

Editado: Jan 16, 2023, 9:47 pm

659. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby **** (super drama of tremendously good people & equally evil ones)

An early Dickens that is absolutely delightful. It comes between Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol and there are things that feel familiar if you’ve read those, but lots of good things particular to this book as well. Nicholas is your perfect young hero – a bit impetuous, heart of gold, trustworthy. All the young women are gentle and beauteous, while the older ones are gullible and loquacious. The men who are bad are exceedingly terrible, whether rich (Uncle Ralph) or just trying to take advantage of the rich (the awful Mr. Squeers). Innocent young boys are starved and mistreated.

Then, the good people positively radiate virtue. NN instantly recognizes Charles Cheeryble as a good man when he passes him on the street, and is moved to tell this stranger his sad story which of course moves CC to take him under his wing and help him. There are also very satisfying comic side shows, like Mr. & Madam Mantalini, Sir Mulberry Hawke, and the Crummles family with their daughter The Infant Phenomenon. Yes, there are a few sad deaths (it wouldn’t be 19th-century serial fiction without them) but to make up for that there are more and more hilarious names. Mrs. Sliderskew! Frederick Verisopht! All entirely excellent.

Jan 22, 2023, 12:00 pm

660. Stefan Zweig, Chess Story *** (short story about isolation, chess, and forms of mania)

I see why the intro was by Peter Gay, because this is a story about the power of the mind to estrange itself under huge pressure. When the main character is isolated in prison, he devises a way to play games of chess against himself. The consequences are not good, but the process is fascinating. Horrifying. It was not surprising to learn that Zweig killed himself not long after writing this story.

Jan 28, 2023, 2:24 pm

661. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth ***1/2 (most misleading title ever)

This book is in many ways wonderful, and beautifully written, but it’s so incredibly depressing that I had to stop listening to the last few chapters and read it on paper where I could skim past the agonizing parts. Lily Bart is one of those Wharton heroines who has too beautiful a face and too little money in the bank for her own good, and who sponges gracefully off of those at the top of the social ladder in hopes of eventually joining them there. This is what she was trained to do by her dreadful, now deceased mother and she hasn’t devoted a lot of thought to alternatives, or to self-reflection. The only man she cares about at all doesn’t have enough money to support her as she wishes to be supported, while the incredibly rich man who wants to marry her and give her everything she wants is an unappealing Jew (hello, early 20th-century antisemitism!).

Lily’s fall from the heights of society is not exactly her own fault. She’s just a bit too eager to spend money, a bit too snippy to those who don’t “matter”, and a bit too naïve to recognize what some people expect of her. She has nobody to really talk to, to give her the kind of advice she needs. In some ways she’s not sympathetic at all, but as things go wrong you desperately want somebody to rescue her, and you completely feel for her. A book I’d have appreciated more at a more cheerful moment of my own life.

Fev 5, 2023, 12:02 pm

662. Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah *** (brilliant account of Nigerians’ emigration, but…)

An amazing book for the first half that really falls flat in the second half. The first half is a sweet romance and sad parting, followed by the young Nigerian woman’s experience as a college student in America. The American part is full of wit and insight into the African migrant experience, beautifully told. It feels absolutely lived, and I suspect that a lot of it was. And the young man’s experience as a black migrant in England, though it takes less space in the book, is also very interesting, sadder than hers was.

But then the second half of the book, ugh. Our heroine, who has always been a bit too perfect and judgmental, starts a snappy blog about race that becomes famous. Sometimes her insights (provided here) are great, but they become wearying. She next acquires a boyfriend who is a Yale professor with a madly brilliant older sister who writes books, and the whole thing descends into the worst sort of academic novel where you hate every single character no matter how 2-dimensional they are. And when she returns to Nigeria, fifteen years after leaving for America, we get to hear how her perceptions have been changed by her time there. Which is just dull. Nor is the ending romantic, because by then I didn’t care about these people any more.

Fev 13, 2023, 11:55 am

663. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood * (there are people who love this book)

A weird, annoying, self-indulgent, creepy book. It is utterly beyond me why anybody likes this. T.S. Eliot loved it! How is that even possible?

Fev 26, 2023, 1:53 pm

664. Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute ** (hopeless poverty in post-depression Montreal)

There is some horrible, almost aggressive flatness to this book that I just couldn’t bear. The author writes in a kind of sharp, descriptive way about her characters. Their feelings and opinions and mistakes just sort of come out. I realize that this is deliberate, that it’s a way of making poverty visceral, but it was still painful. The only character who had depth and for whom I felt empathy was the mother, whose life was just one endless tragedy. She keeps trying to project hope even when she knows there isn’t any. She keeps trying to keep her family alive.

Part of what annoyed me about this book was that it reminded me so much of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which came out two years earlier and was a huge success and was, in my opinion, a much better book. All the characters had depth, and the hope that endures through poverty had meaning. It is a book written from the heart, and from experience. The Tin Flute doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels written from pity.

Fev 26, 2023, 5:23 pm

>181 annamorphic: Interesting! I've been interested in reading this because I feel like other author's reference it quite a bit. I'm curious . . .

Fev 27, 2023, 3:44 am

>180 annamorphic:

This is the first review I've seen that actually points out negatives in the book. I feel like a lot of people are afraid of reviewing this one honestly for some reason. I'm still interested to read it someday however and look forward to seeing if I end up matching with you or 'others'.

Fev 27, 2023, 12:17 pm

>184 lilisin: To be fair, I frequently dislike academic novels -- like Herzog, On Beauty, Fury, Pnin, and What I Loved, all from the List. Only The Professor's House has transcended this antipathy among my recent 1001 reads.

Mar 14, 2023, 6:22 pm

665. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Cubs ** (boys growing up in Peru)

Collection of short stories, most of which are about boys coming of age in Peru in an era when machismo was supreme. A couple of the stories – the title story, and “On Sunday,” were pretty good. The rest I could have lived with out reading. The author, in his preface, seems to agree with me! A book that’s rightly been removed from the List.

Mar 21, 2023, 3:04 pm

666. Roberto Bolaño, 2666 **** (fascinating, intricate, challenging take on the modern world)

Yes, I hastily read another short book so this could be my #666!

This book was challenging and sometimes painful to read, but less so than I expected. It is enormously ambitious yet oddly focused on a few specific things that feel random and yet are meaningful. Somehow. It’s a book that I wanted to start again when I got to the end because I wanted to understand just how things came together from where they’d begun. It’s a book full of digressions but you often sense that they are meaningful, you’re just not entirely sure how.

The book claims to contain five separate books but they are absolutely one whole. The first is a bunch of contemporary European academics who study a mysterious and missing German writer named Archimboldo. In search of him, their path leads to Mexico. The next three sections are set in Mexico, in a poor city beset by crime and violence. It begins almost immediately to feel uncomfortable, portentous, and indeed the fourth and longest section is about a long series of murders of women in this city that various people are trying to solve. This part was hard to read because while it does have characters and plots, the murders just come out of nowhere when you’re reading about something else and horrify you. Not the best thing to read when you have a daughter who is missing, as I currently do.

The last section takes an unexpected detour to mid-20th-century Germany and World War II. We solve, more or less, the mystery of the writer from part one. There are still many loose ends when the book stops, yet I felt very satisfied.

Oh, and my reading group just did By Night in Chile, a short book by the same author, which was fascinating and excellent.

Editado: Abr 7, 2023, 8:56 am

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day ****1/2 (sorrows of a proud man revisiting his life choices)

I am not giving this a number because I seem to have counted it as read way back when, although I am absolutely certain that I hadn’t. I would remember this.

In the space of a few days, on what must be his first ever road trip through the countryside, an aging man reviews a life that he has always felt very proud of, and discovers the cracks in the ideal for which he has striven. His goal has been to be the perfect servant, head-butler to a great household and a great man. He struggles to define what makes a “great butler” but essentially it means running a perfect household and being impeccably loyal to your employer, to such a degree that always and unquestioningly their needs are first, and yours are nowhere. Dignity is also a key value. But our narrator has suppressed his own priorities, his emotions, until he seems to have none. Indeed, he seems to have almost no persona of his own other than Butler. Once on his roadtrip he actually pretends to be another person, a great lord, and you are not sure whether he’s just lost himself or if he’s realizing that his own great lord was insufficient. For that is the book’s tragedy: that he has given his life to a man who was flawed, and he never questioned that choice.

I watched the film right after reading the book and found it disappointing. Especially the first hour or so just didn’t work for me. I loved Emma Thompson, who gave to a relatively minor character in the book a major presence. But in general the film was weaker than the book.

Abr 6, 2023, 5:31 pm

667. Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas **1/2 (honorable man’s search for justice)

An early 19th-century historical novel about early 16th-century Germany. An honest horse-trader is tricked by a nasty nobleman and in his pursuit of justice he loses everything yet eventually gets justice, of a sort. A very odd book that I cannot say I enjoyed (the writing style was somehow exhausting) but it was at least quite short. Extra half-star for the unusual appearance of Martin Luther in an important if brief role.

Abr 13, 2023, 5:53 pm

668. Arto Paasilinna, The Year of the Hare ***1/2 (mostly light-hearted tale of a man & his hare)

An extremely enjoyable book with real LOL moments as a man allows a chance encounter with a hare to completely change his life. He ditches job, wife, city life, and roams the Finnish countryside carrying this hare with him through many odd adventures and eccentric encounters. It’s not great or profound, but instead very Scandinavian and quirky.

Editado: Abr 23, 2023, 9:15 am

669. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji ***** (endless yet fun Japanese court romance)

A pretty amazing book given that it was written a thousand years ago, before anything we in the West think of as a novel. In many, many discrete episodes, it tells of the romantic adventures of Genji, who is amazingly handsome and basically perfect in every way. In one chapter we even discover his artistic brilliance! His poetry and calligraphy are also excruciatingly perfect. And this matters a lot in medieval Japan. People (especially women) whose calligraphy is uncouth or who cannot write a stylish and appropriate poem are almost as shameful as those who are not beautiful.

In fact, maybe the most wonderful aspect of this book is the insight it gives you into how wealthy people in Japan lived, behaved, and especially judged one another. Everybody is very emotional – even Genji often weeps. Powerful men have lots of “wives” and it is unbecoming for the chief one to show jealousy. What we would call “grooming” is strangely acceptable: Genji starts preparing his chief wife to marry him when she is about 10 and they play dolls together. Directional taboos can change your life – like Genji has to stay at one woman’s house overnight because a directional taboo forbids him heading for home. Also, if you say you have a karmic destiny to marry x (or not to), nobody can really argue against it.

Genji and his best buddy sometimes behave quite badly. The buddy makes terrible fun of his own daughter because she is awkward and speaks too fast, and yes she is kind of absurd but it is not polite to draw attention to that fact. Genji practically forces himself upon best buddy’s daughter who is distraught about it, as was Chief Wife when they first had sex. Genji also has other very inappropriate relationships. Yet he is our hero, and we let all these details slide. Genji is endlessly kind, generous, and loving to all the many women he gets involved with, over the span of their entire lifetimes, which makes for a confusing narrative but it keeps us admiring him.

I listened to this extremely long work on audio. Eventually Genji grew up and our attention shifted to the younger generation, at which point I decided to give it a rest. Son of Genji is not so exciting. And I’d already listened to about 40 hours of the real thing.

Abr 30, 2023, 5:26 pm

670. Javier Marias, All Souls ***1/2 (gorgeously written evocation of Oxonian sadness)

Fascinating in its own way, but not as marvelous as the last book I read by him. The narrator here is a Spanish scholar on a two-year fellowship in Oxford. Oxford is a city of lost souls, and he, uprooted from his home in Madrid, is one of them. He takes up with a married woman for a basically meaningless affair that keeps him somewhat grounded; he becomes somewhat friendly with a few men. None of these relationships has any real meaning, nor (so far as we can see) do theirs with other people. But why is Oxford so soulless? I hope it isn’t because academics are always soulless, because that would make it one of those academic novels that I always hate, and this one was too lovely for that. It was also sometimes extremely funny, especially toward the beginning.

Maio 13, 2023, 2:47 pm

671. Tip Marugg, The Roar of Morning *** (Antillean alcoholic muses poetically on life and death)

A brief book from the Dutch list that totally took me by surprise. It’s really poetry about the Antilles, about a life revisited in the hours just before the roar of morning. It’s kind of beautiful, poignant, a Dutch-ish variant on magical realism.

Maio 22, 2023, 8:28 am

672. Emile Zola, Germinal ***** (capitalism destroys everybody but anarchism destroys everything)

An absolutely amazing book, a political novel that works beautifully as a tragic narrative. The many characters are compelling, fascinating, sympathetic; but it’s the descriptions of the mines, and what happens in them, that really make the book. Evidently Zola did a lot of research, including spending time in the mines of northern France, and he doesn’t hold back. These places are hell on/under earth, monsters that consume the desperate human beings that capitalist owners throw into them. Those who work in them are, in terms of class, the lowest of the low, desperate for bread to feed their starving children. Promised a pension, they can’t really live long enough to collect it. And there is no escape: the next generation, uneducated and undernourished, go to work as soon as the older dies.

Our outsider hero, Etienne, becomes caught up in their desperate struggle to be paid even the barest living wage, and things deteriorate, first slowly, then horribly, as a fruitless thirst for justice takes hold of these people. Senseless death and breathtaking destruction follow. Everybody is ruined. Is this a spoiler? I think you knew, from the beginning, that this would not end well.

It’s amazing that Etienne is, in terms of Zola’s world, the brother of Nana from the novel of that name. I know that Zola’s goal in this series as a whole was to depict French society in all of its facets, but this book is so much more explicit and hard-core about the politics of its subject. Yet even anarchy and socialism –and capitalism -- are embodied in characters whose beliefs and whose pain you understand.
I listened on audio and the narrator, Josh Dylan, was perfect.

Editado: Maio 27, 2023, 12:36 pm

673. Anthony Trollope, Castle Richmond ** (love and blackmail while the Irish poor starve)
Well, that was an annoying book. Our heroine has no character and no spine. Eventually she develops the latter but not the former. It is completely mysterious why the two Fitzgerald cousins love her. They themselves have only slightly more character than she does, but at least they do things. Mr. Fitzgerald senior is weak and pathetic; Mrs. Desmond (heroine’s mother) is nasty and pathetic. There is nobody in this book who I’d like to spend time with.
Plus, Trollope is very, very concerned to inform you about certain aspects of Irish life. The potato famine, how poor relief was managed, his opinions on every decision made. And then, Protestants vs. Catholics. The Irish peasantry and their attitudes toward labor. His own opinions…. You get the picture. I don’t quite understand how I liked the Barchester Chronicles so much, because this book was tough going. It did have some clever plot twists, but not enough to make up for all the rest.

Jun 13, 2023, 10:54 am

674. Joseph Conrad, Shadow Line ** (coming of age as a sailing man) June 23
A young man who intends to quite the sea-faring life instead ends up captaining a ship for the first time. Bad things happen. He crosses the “shadow line” into responsible adulthood. I found this book a rather thin adventure story, now taken off the list for good reasons.

Jun 26, 2023, 3:00 pm

675. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove *** (dense, challenging, tragic)

An incredibly demanding and frustrating book. I frequently had to read a paragraph or a dialogue several times over and was still not always sure I understood what was happening, what a person really wanted or thought. It is rare that anybody ever says anything directly. I’ve read summaries of the plot and I wondered whether the person has read the same book I did. It’s comforting that the people in the book clearly do not understand one another very well either. Indeed, this book starts with lies (Kate’s father’s), continues with deceptions, and ends with the consequence of misunderstandings. Nobody, nobody at all, is happy in the end.

Absolutely beautifully written, which was good because it took me weeks to read.

Jul 8, 2023, 12:17 pm

676. Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart ** (we are all alone in this world)

Began rather well, and had good moments throughout, but I disliked everything to do with Miu – one of the three main characters – so that was a problem.

Editado: Jul 28, 2023, 11:50 am

677. Hugo Claus, The Sorrow of Belgium **** (coming of age in time (and family) of madness)

A hard one to review, because it’s so flawed yet also so wonderful. We start out with Louis, a boy in a Belgian Catholic boarding school before World War II, and end with the same boy dealing with life after the war, in which his large, eccentric family and many of their friends were pretty close to collaborators with the occupying Nazis. Those parts of the book are marvelous. The middle part, where our Louis grows up during the occupation, is confusing and excessively long. It does have its strengths, like the character of the Rock, and his family’s oddities and rivalries, but it could have used a good editor.

This was also a really illuminating book about the Flemish-speaking community of Belgium and their seduction by Nazi ideas. It still makes total sense today. The Flemish are very, very eager to be told that they are the REAL heart of Belgium, that their history is special and matters while the French-speakers should just go off and be part of France. When it came down to a war between Germany/the Germanic and France, one can see how they would have leaned toward Germany.

In Claus's book the war and the politics are absolutely personal and familial. You almost never really get a sort of “view from above” that puts the war into perspective. You have to bring along with you an understanding of the context, because everything that you see is from a child’s perspective and then a teen’s view, and so with that kind of self-centeredness that they have. Friends, family, girls, clubs, life revolves around those things and the war is just noise, something adults argue about. People die – even kids die – but daily existence continues.

So, a difficult but worthwhile book. One thing I must mention, though – they keep translating jenever as geneva and it annoyed me every time.

Ago 3, 2023, 7:47 pm

678. Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony *1/2 (bizarre historical/theological drama)

Very strange and way too close to my work to be at all enjoyable. People seem to like it.

Ago 6, 2023, 9:22 am

679. Leonardo Sciascia, To Each His Own *** (mind your own business re. Sicilian murders)

A good mystery plus subtle uncovering of Sicilian society and its mafia mentality. The main character chances upon a clue the police have missed to a double murder, but he doesn’t understand local society and its members as well as he thinks. I enjoyed reading this but I don’t think it will stay with me.

Ago 6, 2023, 9:38 am

>201 annamorphic:, I read it in 2007 and it did not stay with me. I did give it 3 1/2 stars.

Ago 14, 2023, 12:06 pm

680. Don DeLillo, White Noise ** (academics worry about death)

I do understand why people enjoy this book. But. First, it’s an academic novel, and we know how I feel about those. Second, it’s about academics who are obsessed with death. Third, it’s about academics with children who are implausibly clever or, alternatively, utterly mute. Fourth, our narrator is a professor of “Hitler Studies” (LOL those crazy academics) who doesn’t know German. Fifth, he and his current wife have both been married innumerable times and seem to have children drifting all over the globe (LOL TCA). Wife is an earth mother type. Lots about her breasts. Honestly, I made it through the whole book, but it was hard and sometimes I was skimming. And this won the National Book Award??

Ago 22, 2023, 9:37 am

681. Bessie Head, A Question of Power ** (African woman suffers from apartheid and madness)

A confusing although illuminating book. The lead character, Elizabeth, is a smart and determined woman who is consumed by mental illness, and by the scars left by life under South Africa’s apartheid regime. In her times of lucidity she is a teacher, a gardener, a good mother and friend; but she goes through long, dreadful periods in which she is almost possessed by two dreadful male spirits and their accomplices. I learned a lot about mental illness, and about the possibilities of community in a small Botswanan town, but it was a struggle. Which I suppose is appropriate. The book is based on Head’s own experiences, so we know that she really did overcome her demons and through her own power, having received precious little decent mental health care.

Set 1, 2023, 1:00 pm

682. John dos Passos, The USA Trilogy ***** (brilliant sweep through early 20th c USA)

I’ve been reading (or listening to) this book on and off for months but that’s fine, it’s the kind of book that almost wants that sort of reading. It’s told in snippets and bits, and while a lot of them come together at the end, many don’t. The goal of the book is to give a picture of the whole culture of the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. It traces the existences of a variety of rather ordinary people as they are swept along by events, not big events for the most part, just ordinary things. Especially in the first books there is a sense that nobody has control over their own life, they just bumble through, accepting and dealing with things as they come. They travel and return (sometimes), they rise and they fall, they escape their families and make bad choices. And they can do all of this because it’s America. The book encompasses the whole continent, from New York to California, from Florida to the upper great plains. Americans also go to Europe and eventually fight in the First World War, and get involved in international Socialism.

Dos Passos tells no extended story and he doesn’t play with our feelings, but he makes us sense what it was to be part of this national story. Interspersed with the lives of his various main characters, who appear and disappear and reappear, are collections of headlines and songs, and mini-biographies of important people whose lives were driven by determination. There are also vague bits of the author’s own life which I found less helpful, but OK. This was a great book, odd and insightful. I can see why it’s not more widely read today, because it’s SO long, but it’s not difficult and is completely worth the effort.

Editado: Set 1, 2023, 3:57 pm

>205 annamorphic:, that is a notable high rating. I am reading Manhattan Transfer this month

Set 15, 2023, 11:57 am

683. T.C. Boyle, World’s End ***1/2 (treachery and betrayal are inherited traits)

This wasn’t quite the book I was expecting. I’d read Boyle’s Road to Wellville long ago and really enjoyed it. This isn’t the kind of book you enjoy, although you respect it. Most of the characters are horrible and if they are not, terrible things happen to them pretty rapidly and that warps them. There is physical cruelty and loss of feet (strangely not related to the cruelty).

The book is structured to tell the stories of two families, their arrival in Dutch New York in the 17th century, and the lives of the descendents in the 20th. Our main character in modern times is trying to find out whether his long-disappeared father was really a traitor, or had some redeeming motive; meanwhile (we find out) his father has been researching their 17th-century ancestor with the same question in mind. There are many obvious repetitions of behavior, of dominance and cruelty and treachery, that repeat across time: apparently we are doomed to repeat the wretchedness of our ancestors.
A somewhat annoying aspect of the book is the weakness of the female characters, who just don’t seem to have a lot of goodness or even agency. But actually, the men don’t either.

Set 22, 2023, 5:34 pm

684. George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss **** (men behave badly)

Not really sure if this is worth a full four stars, but the ending was so breathtaking that I had to give extra credit. Maggie Tulliver is a fascinating character. You know that right away when you learn that as a child, when she’s angry, she goes to the attic and pounds nails into her dolls’ heads in imitation of Jael with Sisera. She is intelligent, imaginative, eager to please, and utterly frustrated. Her family not only fail to take her seriously, they endlessly put her down as just a girl, and most unfortunate because of her dark complexion. Her dull brother is sent to school, not her, and she simply accepts this. He is almost as relentlessly denigrating of her as her mother and aunts and yet… she ADORES him. This is one problem in the book – exactly why is she so hell-bent on pleasing this awful Tom? Her father, yes, he’s kind and affectionate although he too behaves badly. But Tom? He just gets worse as the book progresses, and she ruins her life in an effort to please him. When another crappy man is able to behave super-badly to her because her brother has put her into an impossible position… Augh. It’s very, very painful.

On the other hand, to be fair, Philip is a fabulous character. And how many 19th-century novels have a really plausible romantic hero who is disabled?

A book I will remember.

Out 4, 2023, 11:39 am

685. Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek **1/2 (larger-than-life Zorba’s misogyny is too much)

This is both a great book and a flawed one. The character of Zorba is certainly worth at least 4 stars. He gets compared to other expansive, larger-than-life characters like Sancho Panzo and Fallstaf, and that is completely right. He’s wonderful, amazing, world-absorbing. You can’t help loving him. Except when you can, which is whenever the subject of woman comes up, and then the misogyny is relentless. Oh, his big heart absolutely encompasses women – he loves them dearly. Because they are so pathetically helpless, dependent, longing for a man, for a f*ck. They care about nothing except being desired. Sometimes it’s like Lady Chatterley except with superlative characters. So there we are. The narrator doesn’t argue and in fact sometimes talks like this as well. Endless references to women as “brood mares,” their breasts, their haunches.

Once I got past the woman problem I enjoyed this book immensely and am glad to have read it. There is a curiously wonderful undercurrent of male bonding and love that adds a sweetness and poignancy, especially toward the end.

Out 13, 2023, 3:04 pm

686. David Markson, Vanishing Point **1/2 (fun experimental novel that really does nothing)

Not really a novel, but a pastiche of facts and legends about authors, artists, and musicians. They just come one after another, and eventually they start to focus on death, and “Author” (who has always been in there) gets intimations of his mortality. I really like factoids about famous people but I wasn’t at all sure that these were all correct, which kind of annoyed me. A few were just off the mark, like who cares that Vermeer was only mentioned in print three times in his lifetime? It was before the age of fame in print. Does Markson not know this? The places where people died were probably all correct and that as an anchor was kind of strange.

I was, however, delighted on p.80 to find a list of all the famous authors who were fans of the other book I’m reading now, Melmoth the Wanderer. So bonus half point for that, and for the fact that I was reading the copy that the author sent to my father. Who complained to me, “I don’t know what Markson thinks he’s doing, he just has a lot of file cards with facts and he claims he’s writing a novel…”

Out 24, 2023, 2:37 pm

687. Ian Fleming, Casino Royale *** (most exciting card game in literature, but bad 50s sexism)

The first half or even 2/3 of this book was utterly gripping. I think I ran red lights while listening to it on audio. Fleming gives us a remarkable, strangely visceral description of a game of baccarat that lasts for several chapters and is never less than riveting. The book only becomes annoying when Vespa starts falling for Bond, and you know she’s got to be a double agent but the chemistry between them is, apparently, too strong to fight… Also, the torture scene wasn’t too great. But it was really Vespa who wrecked this book for me. The extra star was just for baccarat.

Out 25, 2023, 8:13 am

>211 annamorphic: I read that ages ago, but still remember how weirdly structured it was -- it felt like there was a printer error and the second half of a bad romance accidentally got bound to the first half of a spy-thriller.....

Nov 8, 2023, 8:20 am

688. Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer *** (don’t sell your soul to the devil)

According to David Markson, this book was beloved by Byron, Scott, Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Thackeray, Rossetti, Poe, and R.L. Stevenson. I kind of get why. Melmoth is a tragic and accursed figure, which is what happens when you make a bargain with the devil. The odd thing is that we rarely see much of him, apart from the very bizarre section set on a Pacific island when he falls in love with the impossibly innocent shipwreck survivor Imelee, who is constantly referred to as “the Indian” but is of course a beautiful Spanish noblewoman. Most of the book is taken up with stories of other peoples’ doom and misery into which Melmoth briefly intrudes, attempts to persuade the desperate to sell their souls, and then disappears again. Eventually you become tired of endless tales of utter misery, although some manage a more or less happy ending. The end of the book is great, and the view of Evil Spanish Catholics is always worthwhile.

Editado: Nov 11, 2023, 11:25 am

689. Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies **** (fantastic story-telling with tarot cards)

What a strange and marvelous book. I think that you need to be very, very literate to appreciate it fully, and to know a good bit about Italian renaissance art, and to be quite fascinated by playing/tarot cards. I’ve got the last 2 down but things would have gone more smoothly had I read Orlando Furioso and renewed a very rusty acquaintance with King Lear.

Even so, it was weirdly great. Travelers arrive at a castle where nobody can speak, and they spend the time after dinner laying out Tarot cards to tell their own stories, forcing the other guests (the writer) to interpret these cards in an absolutely literal way. I thought this was so clever! The second part of the book, The Inn of Crossed destinies, is a bit less lively somehow. At the castle the author is more present which binds the reader to the interpretive game. And as he lays out the cards at the end of each section, you understand how destinies cross.

Nov 18, 2023, 11:51 am

690. Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters ****1/2 (wonderful story of family, memory, and honor)

A really lovely book about the different ways you can care for/about the people who are, or should be, part of your family. When the family patriarch, suffering from Parkinson’s, falls and breaks his ankle, the bonds of love and loyalty are truly tested for each member of his family. Money suddenly becomes a huge issue, and so does religion, and these both emerge as tension points to be negotiated. In the end, the religion issue threatens to replicate long-ago family disasters of which the surviving characters are ignorant. This was a little too pat and I took off half a point for that.

Most of the people in this book are good, or they genuinely try to be, and that’s kind of a relief after so many grim and depressing 1001 books. And the characters, even those of the children, are very vivid and believable. There is much poignancy and real pain here, but not the terrible bleakness of Mistry's A Fine Balance.

Nov 25, 2023, 11:41 am

691. Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education **1/2 (youth wastes his life and learns nothing)

Idiotic young man gets huge crush on a married woman he’s never spoken to and spends years hovering about and madly loving her. He gets involved with other women but only loves Her. He inherits lots of money and spends it all trying to impress people in Paris. His last scene with her is just completely depressing, as is the concluding scene with his best friend. Nobody else in the book is terribly nice, consistent, generous or unselfish either. I suppose this is supposed to be a social satire but if so it’s a very long one. There is a lot of fine writing and a great sense of Paris around 1848, so extra half star for that. How did somebody who wrote the splendid Madame Bovary produce this?? Apparently even Henry James found this heavy going.

Dez 6, 2023, 10:54 am

692. Martin Amis, The Information ** (extremely witty yet annoyingly self-indulgent)

There were moments when I thought “this book is really growing on me” but then it fell back into its overly self-conscious and pretentious wittiness. There is only so much I want to know about a failed writer and his obsessive hatred of his highly successful ex-best-friend. There are quite a lot of LOL funny episodes yet they failed to save this book for me.

Dez 20, 2023, 2:14 pm

693. Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience *** (lazy, selfish man amuses us with his memories)

I lost this book and thus have not finished it, but I think I’d read enough to count it. A very entertaining narrative by Zeno, written at the urging of his psychiatrist, in which he tells about key moments in his life. He is utterly lazy, self-absorbed, definitely unreliable as a narrator, but somehow rather charming and amusing. The chapter about cigarettes was hilarious, as was the episode where he proposes to a beautiful woman, is turned down, and immediately proposes to her plainer sister, explaining to her that he’ll be very sad if one of them doesn’t marry him!

Editado: Dez 29, 2023, 8:28 pm

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India ****1/2 (what divides people in colonial India)
I’m sure I never read this before, although I seem to have counted it as read so am not giving it a number. This was a truly fascinating book. At the beginning I was afraid I would hate it (as I did the last Forster I read) but it did grow on me and by the end I cared – about India, about the characters, about life and death and belief, about friendship, racism, communication…. This book had a lot to say, rarely on a very obvious level. Even on the obvious level, the plot, it is ambiguous and complicated.
Mrs. Moore travels to India to bring to her son there a prospective bride, Adela. Adela is curious but awkward. Mrs Moore meets a Muslim Indian doctor, Aziz, and the two form an instant friendship that basically dooms them in a world where friendships between the English and the Natives are deeply problematic. Aziz makes another English friend, Cyril Fielding. A planned expedition of all these characters to a set of mountain caves near Chandrapore goes horribly wrong, Adela wrongly accuses Aziz of a crime, and the delicate racial balance of this corner of the colony is grievously disturbed.
What really happened? Why did Adela do this? She’s not sure, and neither is anybody else. Events escaped rational explanation.
The conversations and actions between English and Indians are wonderful. People on the English side detest one another but will rally round when one of their own is wronged; the same goes for the natives. Fielding struggles to balance his own feelings for members of both sides while Aziz digs into grievance. Really, though, who is right at the end?

Jan 6, 9:48 am

694. Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho ** (The end of language)

This is not a novel or even a short story. It is an experiment with the end of language and of life. It has a hint of the earlier Beckett’s Old-Geezer-Rant but there are barely real sentences much less paragraphs. It is interesting as literary nihilism: “What when words gone? None for what then. But say by way of somehow on somehow with sight to do. With less of sight. Still dim and yet --. No. Nohow so on. Say better worse words gone when nohow on.”

Jan 8, 3:06 pm

695. Michael Arlen, The Green Hat **** (fascinating tangle of love, shame, & honor)

A seriously underrated book today, this was a huge best-seller when it was published in 1924. I cannot quite understand either of those things. You think it’s just about a rich, beautiful, somehow damaged and possibly dangerous girl, Iris, and the people around her (it calls itself “a romance”) but at the same time it’s a book that needs to be read very slowly and carefully, not a simple easy bit of writing. Especially if you don’t think about Iris during the first chapter, she would come to seem poorly motivated and even silly. And her real motivations do not become clear until very near the end of the book. But you know from the first chapter that there is something to her, something you can’t quite grasp that has to do with honor and love and shame.

Then, as for its current under-rating, a lot of the attitudes and actions would strike readers now as dated and entitled today, and maybe the language read better in 1924 as well. The language was indeed very annoying at times. But the characters, especially Iris, were so vivid to me. I think that partly had to do with my love of Dorothy L. Sayers, especially Murder Must Advertise and its portrayal of the Bright Young Things. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much that I ordered a better copy for my shelves and also another book by the author. The way Iris is seen purely through the eyes of the nameless and fascinated narrator reminded me of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but I liked this infinitely more.

I can't figure out why Stalin blamed this "nasty little book" (his words) for his wife’s suicide, but it's a factoid that I shall cherish.

Jan 11, 10:45 pm

>221 annamorphic: That is an interesting factoid - obviously his own behaviour had nothing at all to do with it.

Jan 15, 11:14 am

696. Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome *** (harsh portrayal of German Nazis after the war)

This book pulls no punches, either on the characters or the reader. The writing itself is harsh, sometimes brutal. No real narrative, but it portrays a German family who had been Nazis of varying degrees of enthusiasm, who have gathered in Rome some years after the war to attempt some kind of family reunion. Most of them have in one sense or another fled Germany and repudiated their past – or not, in which case they lead a life of rage and sorrow. It’s all very interesting but difficult to read and absorb on an emotional level. I had trouble finishing it.

The translator points out that Germans and German literature didn’t deal straightforwardly with Nazi sympathizers (which was a LOT of Germans) after the war, and that Koeppen was therefore pretty much ignored in the drive first to Move On, and then to write lots about local anti-Nazis. Interesting point.

Jan 18, 5:33 pm

The green hat is next on my list - hadn't heard about Stalins wife so I'm curious to see whats in the book now.

Death in Rome sounds interesting, such a touchy subject for many but an important one to read about I think.

Jan 21, 10:59 am

697. Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses ** (wise American boy comes of age in Mexico)

I deeply fail to see what makes this book both popular and famous. I suppose it takes a genre not usually associated with literary merit, the Western, and makes it into literature. True, the writing is often extremely evocative. But the story is just meh. It’s a coming-of-age story, but the main character is already strangely serious and savvy for a 16-year-old. He and a not-very-bright friend (his foil) set out for Mexico to work as cowboys. They meet up with a younger and equally not-very-bright boy who has probably stolen a horse. The three of them, especially the boy, do various stupid things but Our Hero always manages to talk his way out of trouble, which is not equally the case with his friends. There is violence and death. There is a not very interesting love story. And that’s about it.

Jan 29, 11:50 am

698. Philip Roth, Operation Shylock **1/2 (still relevant but half as long would have been better)

I enjoyed the first half of this book, but could barely finish the rest. The premise is funny and fascinating: there is a second “Philip Roth” in Israel trying to drum up interest in his plan of “diasporism,” sending all the European Jews back to Europe where they will be welcomed with open arms. The real Philip Roth finds himself taking on the fake PR’s character while trying to get rid of him. In the second half, people just talk a lot, in multi-page-long monologues.
My reading group found this an easy read and completely fascinating, so clearly there was something I was missing.

Fev 4, 4:48 pm

699. Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants ** (weird stories, often grotesque & meaningless)

A seriously odd and often highly unpleasant collection of short stories. I don’t get why it’s on the list. I read over half and decided not to finish it because life is too short.

Editado: Fev 13, 10:12 am

>227 annamorphic: Hope your 700th books is better :)

Fev 13, 4:21 pm

700. Apostolos Doxiadis, Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture **** (the fatal joy of number theory)

I was looking for a book that I’d be sure to like for my #700 (>228 paruline:, as you suggested) and I’m glad I chose this one. A quirky book, definitely not something I’d have found without the 1001 list, but really charming and unique. It’s about mathematics and mathematicians, but it’s also about a passion for knowledge, and about hubris, and about genius and imperfection. The narrator tells the story of his Uncle Petros, who alienated his whole, very practical family by pursuing pure mathematics, failed to achieve his quest, and has become a kind of recluse. The narrator considers a mathematical career as well but is persuaded – by his uncle – not to do so because he does not have true genius. But why does that matter? To whom does it matter? The center of the book is the story Petros tells his nephew about his own time in search of perfect mathematical truth. The whole thing is quite fascinating even if you know nothing about number theory. Add one more to the short list of academic novels that I actually like, because this one kind of transcends academia.

An old friend of mine who is a mathematician assured me that we read about Goldbach's Conjecture in high school, and that the picture of mathematicians obsessed with and secretive about solving a particular problem is completely plausible.

Editado: Fev 13, 6:59 pm

>229 annamorphic: Congratulations on reaching 700 books! I always enjoy reading your reviews and comments.

Fev 13, 9:22 pm

Congratulations on 700 books!

Fev 14, 2:19 am

>229 annamorphic: Wow - congratulations on #700! 8-)

Fev 14, 4:11 pm

>229 annamorphic: Congratulations!

Fev 14, 4:35 pm

Congrats on #700! I enjoyed that title as well, and probably would not have found it without this list.

Fev 20, 8:31 am

701. Victor Pelevin, The Life of Insects *** (intensely weird and imaginative tales of human/insect life)

Another book I’d never have found without the List, and this one is beyond quirky. In a series of only loosely connected short chapters it tells of the lives of beings who shift back and forth between human and different kinds of insects. Their lives are nasty, short, and brutish. Apparently they illustrate life in post-Soviet Russia in ways that a Russian might appreciate more, but was fascinating even to me. I was completely taken with Pelevin’s wild imagination, to make all these insects into compelling, humanish characters who are waver between following instincts and being shocked by their fates. A good read in a completely strange way.