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Little Women first editionKind hearts and a mother's wisdom

All fiction—all art or entertainment really—is either disturbing or comforting. Most both disturbs and comforts in varying measures. It's why we read: to experience ups and down of life besides our own. Some works create tensions and dangers to stir us up and then resolve them happily to relieve us. Others keep digging to awaken.... Little Women

Mon Ami Maigret first editionThe mind games of Maigret

My Friend Maigret is often ranked among the best of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret crime works, if not the best. Which is curious because the novel is somewhat of an anomaly—not the usual Maigret. Which, come to think of it, may not be so strange after all. This short novel's differences from all the other short Maigret novels.... My Friend Maigret

missing graphicContaining the crazy

John Irving writes big books. Yes, long novels—longer than most contemporary works you find on the bestseller lists. But big in so many other ways. Big characters, big themes of the day, big and sprawling stories. And, most gloriously, he's got that knack of creating worlds. Give the first fifty pages—sometimes the first five pages of almost any... John Irving

Empire of the Sun first editionA boy's adventures in the furnace

After his post-apocalyptic tales of psychological horror, after his scandalous work on human mangling and perverse sexuality, J.G. Ballard turned to producing his most conventional, biographical and realistic novel in 1984. And it proved to be his most deeply disturbing work yet. Empire of the Sun is not disturbing in the way of superficially shocking.... Empire of the Sun

Quiet American first editionThe romance to end romanticism

Partway through The Sorrows of Young Werther you might wonder if this is actually a parody of romantic stories. Werther's attachment to his beloved Charlotte, Lotte for short, can come across as a ridiculously over-the-top passion. Or so it may appear to a modern reader. What Werther calls a love for all eternity we would.... The Sorrows of Young Werther

Quiet American first editionThe unquiet Brit and the Americans

The biggest obstacle to properly appreciating The Quiet American is getting past Graham Greene's uncanny political prescience. In the 1950s, when Vietnam wasn't yet on the radar for most Western readers, when U.S. foreign policy and military power were still widely seen as forces to make the world safe for democracy.... The Quiet American

Agatha Christie photoThe great puzzle maker

The least suspicious suspect did it. The victim did it. No one did it. Everyone did it. The narrator did it. The detective did it.... In her novels, stories and stage productions, Agatha Christie rang every possible change on the standard whodunit to keep her readers guessing—usually incorrectly. However one-dimensional her characters.... Agatha Christie

Caves of Steel first editionMurder in the middle

You could say Isaac Asimov always was a mystery writer. His early science fiction works were often light on action as his brainy, talkative characters sought answers to practical questions. Why did that robot act contrary to its programming? Where is that foundation hidden in the galaxy? But the young writer.... The Caves of Steel

Oroonoko first editionFirst great story of slavery

Aphra Behn's most famous work might disappoint a reader who has heard it's a staunchly anti-slavery, anti-colonialist or feminist work. One may find Oroonoko is none of those things, at least by modern standards. Behn was a writer in the latter seventeenth-century period known in England as the Restoration, when.... Oroonoko

Coming Race first editionThe vril of it all

It's an irony of sorts that Edward Bulwer-Lytton's most influential book may be his last, one of his shortest, written in a genre different from everything else he had done to that point, and not even published under his own name. Yet it was greatly admired and popular in its time. But don't let any of that make you think.... The Coming Race

Regeneration first editionThe war which is never over

It may seem odd an acclaimed series of novels near the end of the twentieth century should feature characters from the period of the First World War. Or that issues from that war time should continue to so resonate with the reading public. At least part of the popularity of the Regeneration novels can be explained by.... The Regeneration Trilogy

Man of Property first editionThe Forsytes take the stage

It is difficult to separate The Forsyte Saga from the justly acclaimed films and television series that have been based on it. The adaptations have enchanted everyone who followed them, most of whom have likely never read the books. But this is actually a compliment to the books' author. John Galsworthy's best-known work.... The Forsyte Saga

Bradbury graphicPassing greatness

Some writers are said to be so much of their own time they cannot be of all time. This is supposed to be particularly true of writers whose work is a social critique of their times. Once the times being critiqued have long passed, what should we care for the critique? Hence—by this line of thinking—the decline of interest.... John Galsworthy

To Kill a Mockingbrid first editionOf time, place and race

Anyone reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time may be surprised to find it is not entirely about racism. The trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, on a spurious charge of rape, for which the novel is famous, does not become a focus of the plot until about midway. In fact, blacks as a whole are invisible.... To Kill a Mockingbird

Mansfield Park, 1816 editionThe price of being different

If you're a Jane Austen aficionado, particularly loving her headstrong heroines picking their plucky but principled way through the constricting marriage plots of the time, Mansfield Park probably comes as a big disappointment. However, if you're cool on Austen's more popular works—well, you won't much like.... Mansfield Park

Bradbury graphicThe beloved time-tripping, space-jumping, shape-shifting....

Everyone loves Ray Bradbury. I can't think of another writer who is so universally adored across all genres and right across the spectrum of writers, critics and readers. Even on the rare occasion when one of Bradbury's books is panned, it seems to be done reluctantly as though the reviewer were embarrassed to report.... Ray Bradbury

Pride and Prejudice, 1894 editionAn engagement that endures

Pride and Prejudice has one of the most skilful beginnings in literature. It opens of course with that famous "truth universally acknowledged" and its equally delicious corollary (see "First lines"). These could introduce almost any Jane Austen novel—delivered with the slightest hint of snarkiness to show Austen herself is in on.... Pride and Prejudice

Lolita US first editionFalling for the charm of the predator

Lolita is the kind of book that grows thicker every time you read it. The first time you may race through to take in the plot of the adult male who loves and loses a pre-adolescent girlstill shocking more than half a century after its publication. Still shocking in how unshocking it seems, as you first read it in Humbert Humbert's calm.... Lolita

Jane Austen graphicThis lady writer's not for beating

Mark Twain famously defined the ideal library as one with no Jane Austen books. He seemed to enjoy ridiculing Austen's work, reading of which made him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven". At least some of his outlandish detestation of Austen may have been an act, but I see his point. Really, how.... Jane Austen

The Picture of Dorian Gray first editionTaking the pith out of artistic ideals

Everyone knows the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray: a beautiful young man remains unblemished by age, while his painted portrait, hidden from public sight, grows older and corrupted by moral degradation. It's become a common compliment to a friend's continued youthfulness to say "You must have.... The Picture of Dorian Gray

Tis Pity She's a Whore title page, 1633Pity us all

Perhaps the most shocking thing about 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is that it still shocks. John Ford's plays were written in a period of increasingly scandalous theatre. After the days of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, English drama took a more shocking and grisly turn that critics have termed "sensationalist".... 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Leonard Cohen graphicA monk and a poet walk into a bar

For certain sensibilities, the music to play when seduction is on the menu is Leonard Cohen songs—any Leonard Cohen songs. They're seldom romantic in the style of the love songs in the Great American Songbook or modern pop traditions. But they have a quality of intimacy—at once melancholy and celebratory.... Leonard Cohen

Monkey's Paw original coverRecovering from the past

The beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "Babylon Revisited" with an expatriate American visiting Paris, scene of his carousing in the 1920s and now deserted by the old gang, may put a later reader in mind of Hemingway's look back at that era in A Moveable Feast (1964). The American in the short story is obviously a.... Babylon Revisited

missing graphicThe whole story of a modern writer

Philip Roth is a writer I'd been reading a long time, checking out a new novel every couple of years, catching up on older efforts, without ever thinking of him as being one of the "greats". Just Philip Roth, ruminating on what it's like to be a young-then-middle-age-then-older, male, middle-class, Jewish, sexually.... Philip Roth

Flatland original coverCurious and less curiouser

Flatland is a curiosity. This novella, fable, allegory, satire or math lesson—whatever it's supposed to be—is often counted as a classic science fiction work. From a bare description of Flatland, I could see why. A hypothetical world of only two dimensions is described within which all things, including the inhabitants, are.... Flatland

Monkey's Paw original coverThe horror of unintended consequences

"The Monkey's Paw" is a story so well known for its plot that its writing and style are sometimes forgotten. In fact, it seems not to have been written by anyone at all, but has filtered down to us through the ages as folk tale or fable. Which is unfair to accomplished short story author W.W. Jacobs who wrote and published.... The Monkey's Paw

missing graphicAuthor provocateur

A case could be made for Wilkie Collins as one of the most influential writers of his era, his impact still being felt today in every kind of popular fiction. As much as, or more than, the iconic mid-Victorian figures of Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. The argument would go something like this: First, look at his most... Wilkie Collins

missing graphicBurning questions

It may seem that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is becoming less relevant these days, as hard-copy books are at risk of disappearing, pushed aside by digital communications. Without paper media, warnings about book-burning may seem increasingly old-fashioned. For book-burning is what Fahrenheit 451 is.... Fahrenheit 451

missing graphicLast visit to Brideshead

Why do we still read Brideshead Revisited? An account of aimless, upper-class, young men wasting their time at Oxford University in hedonistic pursuits. Until the story is swallowed by the larger theme of an intensely Catholic, intensely self-absorbed, aristocratic family. Presented nostalgically and.... Brideshead-Revisited

missing graphicThe puzzle that is Palliser

The problem with Charles Palliser as a famous novelist is that in every book he tries something radically different. He's the ultimate experimental writer, which makes him a bold and always interesting writer for those who appreciate such experiments but also makes it hard for him.... Charles Palliser

missing graphicWhy don't more people love this novel?

For a few, Villette is Charlotte Brontë's big book—not just the longest of her four novels, but the most realistic,most interesting and most progressive. I fully understand this. There are times reading Villette I have to turn back to thetitle page to confirm that, yes, this really was written in the middle.... Villette

missing graphicSister who blazed longest and hardest

Charlotte was the longest living of the three writing Brontë sisters, almost making it to age forty, and her output was by ar the most extensive and most popular in its day. Yet many know her best as the sister of Emily Brontë, author of the revered Wuthering Heights, which she championed.... Charlotte Brontë

missing graphic Some get caught and some don't

Few novels divide readers as The Catcher in the Rye does. This may sound like a bizarre thing to say, since J.D. Salinger's novel has been wildly popular since it came out in 1951. It's been lauded as changing the course of post-Second World War writing—at least American writing—as much as.... The Catcher in the Rye

missing graphic Lost between the levels

Let's see. Margaret Atwood writes her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin about an elderly woman writing her memoirs about her and her sister's lives, the younger sibling having written an infamous novel called The Blind Assassin, which recounts her trysts with a political.... Blind Assassin

missing graphic Love, the beautiful disease

Love in the Time of Cholera is a favourite novel for lovers who take from it something like "Love is forever" or "Love conquers all" or "Follow your heart and you'll eventually find your one great love." Yet, Gabriel García Márquez's story also appeals to cynics who find the yearning, love-obsessed.... Love in the Time of Cholera

missing graphic Less sex than violence

It can be difficult to read Edward II today as a Christopher Marlow play. One keeps sliding into thinking of it as minor Shakespeare—you know, all those early plays with kings and numerals in their titles. Partly this is a matter of timing. We may appreciate Marlowe's own earlier plays, especially.... Edward II

missing graphic Killing social evil with kindness

You could make a case that every Charles Dickens novel is atypical in some way, but Little Dorrit really is a special case. For one thing, it's been called his most political novel—the book that George Bernard Shaw said converted him to socialism and that other great figures considered an example of.... Little Dorrit

missing graphic The writer to emulate—or to beat

Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways. As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent fiction is to be measured. Or as the epitome of an old-fashioned, wordy, sentimental style that had to be swept away before.... Charles Dickens

missing graphic The in-between romantic

Lord Jim is one of the Joseph Conrad novels that has me thinking at places "This may be the best writing I've ever read" and at other places "Come on, get on with it, would you!" Part of this ambivalence I put down to Conrad's position—along with a few other British and American writers like.... Lord Jim

missing graphic Tess the too pure

When Tess of the D'Urbervilles first came out in book form in late 1891, it was in equal parts hailed as Thomas Hardy's masterpiece and condemned as a moral outrage. The latter opinion was due mainly to the novel's sympathetic treatment of the titular country girl who had sex—and a child.... Tess of the D'Urbervilles

missing graphic The seriously sick artist

It's hard to take Edgar Allan Poe seriously as a literary figure. Not his fault. Poe took writing very seriously as an art form. His critical works show this. And his stories have proven tremendously influential in both the literary world and in popular culture. Ah, yes, but about the culture.... Edgar Allan Poe

missing graphic Star-crossed lovers live on, alas

Possibly Shakespeare's best-known play. Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers who defied their families—the feuding Capulets and Montagues—and ended their lives tragically. Romeo and Juliet is a play with something for everyone: romance, intrigue, sword-fighting, wonderful.... Romeo and Juliet

missing graphic Comedy light and dark

To appreciate Molière's comic genius you should probably see the plays performed. Reading them, you can get the idea they're lightweight, not much above the average episode of Three's Company, but with fewer jokes. You've got to see actors taking full advantage of the satiric nuance in the lines.... Molière

missing graphic Where the dark comes from

You think you know Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness even if you haven't read it in years, or ever. It's been widely taught in school, so its most famous lines ring with musty familiarity. Its plot has been adapted for all manner of media, though usually in wildly divergent stories or in parody. It's part of.... Heart of Darkness

missing graphic The great sea change

After having read so much Joseph Conrad—some forced upon me as a student, some for pleasure—I still find it hard to tell whether I like his writing. I gather other readers have a similar reaction. "Like" doesn't quite describe our appreciation of Conrad. There are certainly Conrad stories and parts of Conrad novels you become.... Joseph Conrad

missing graphic At the middle of the world

What's incredible about Middlemarch, George Eliot's masterwork, is how engrossing it is. I mean, this is a novel that deals with issues of art, education reform, scholarly research, medical science and provincial British politics of the early nineteenth century—hardly the stuff of page-turning popularity. Oh, yes, and also.... Middlemarch

missing graphic The worlds of George and Marian

Calling her a great female writer—even the greatest—may be an insult to George Eliot. Eliot distanced her own work from that of other writers of her sex, deriding "silly novels by lady novelists", purportedly even criticizing the celebrated Jane Austen for dealing with trivialities. It is often suggested Eliot took.... George Eliot

missing graphic After the fall

For a time, I thought of James M. Cain as an also-ran of American writing. On the third or fourth pillar below the greats in the literary pantheon. In the less exalted gallery of crime writers, he would come well after the holy trinity of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald—a commercial writer.... James M. Cain

missing graphic The original crowd pleaser

This one has it all. The Odyssey is not only a great romantic, adventure epic, but it's terribly realistic in its depiction of human nature and a brilliantly crafted narrative. Authors today could learn from how Homer lays out his plot and plays the characters off against each other for maximum.... The Odyssey

missing graphicButterfly who became self-conscious

Before Francis Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44, he thought he was a failure. His obituaries described him as an obscure writer who never fulfilled his early promise. The second printing of The Great Gatsby sat unsold fifteen years after the book's publication. Twenty-odd years later, Fitzgerald was.... F. Scott Fitzgerald

missing graphicWriting may be an even harsher mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has much—maybe too much—to appeal to followers of all Robert Heinlein's diverseinterests. For science fiction fans, with an emphasis on science, Earth's moon may be set up and how communication and transportation may be arranged—not mention the story of a computer.... The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

missing graphicBut you think about it nonetheless

When they made a movie of "The Killers" in 1946 they spent only about fifteen minutes telling Ernest Hemingway's entire story from two decades earlier. The rest of the screen time they devoted to fleshing out the narrative, showing at great length how the situation depicted in the story came about.... The Killers

missing graphicStrangers in their own land

Death Comes for the Archbishop is often considered Willa Cather's masterpiece and is on several lists as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century—which may be surprising if you read it alongside other American literature that came out around the same time. Consider, Fitzgerald's.... Death Comes for the Archbishop

missing graphicThe human mystery

It's the most political of Charles Dickens's novels, it's the least political—even anti-political—of Dickens's novels in some ways. But its position on politics, revolution, mob rule, democracy and reformism has tended to dominate the discussion of A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read the novel, it was a.... A Tale of Two Cities

missing graphicStill 'relevant'

Willa Cather is one of those quietly achieving American writers, whose works are quietly appreciated in the shadow of the era's Great Writers...but, going on a century later, are still being quietly appreciated when many of the once great ones are no longer read. She did have a spell of.... Willa Cather

missing graphicDaughter dearest

If your exposure to James M. Cain was his earlier short novels, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, or if it came via the 1945 Joan Crawford film adaptation of this novel, then you may be pleasantly surprised by Mildred Pierce. For although those other books and that movie are terrific.... Mildred Pierce

missing graphicThe great joke

"Science split the atom and Joyce split the word." This summary of progress in the first half of the twentieth century has often been stated in reference to Finnegans Wake. Joyce chops up words and fuses the syllables together again in new ways that supposedly uncover the links made by the subconscious.... Finnegans Wake

John O'Hara picInterim status report

John O'Hara is the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: he's never got the proper respect and he spent much of his career complaining about it. At best, he's been called a "first-rate second-rate writer" in a clever phrase that seems to nail his literary reputation. I'm here to change that.... John O'Hara

Alfred Bester picOdd man out

Other giants of science fiction who emerged during the genre's Golden Age were notoriously prolific. Isaac Asimov counted over five hundred books in his output, plus hundreds of stories and articles. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein and others produced novels, stories and.... Alfred Bester

missing graphicThe critic of superficiality

The Misanthrope reads at first like one of those overheated old Russian novels in which everyone talks and talks, all very excitedly, while the action happens elsewhere. It's certainly Molière's most reflective play. No wonder it has taken so long to becom recognized as the great work it is: it doesn't include any.... The Misanthrope

missing graphicSmall but punchy

It has always seemed like the perfect little American novella. A poignant and disturbing story told seemingly effortlessly, involving simple folks on the fringe of society who turn out to be quite complex. But read Of Mice and Men a second or third time and its clever structure becomes.... Of Mice and Men

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