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Of 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
The 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
The 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
An engagement that enduresPride 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
Falling for the charm of the predatorLolita
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 girl—
still 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
This 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
Taking 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
Pity 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
A 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
Recovering 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
The 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
Curious and less curiouserFlatland
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
This 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 which made him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven". At least some of his detestation of Austen may have been an act, but I see his point. Really, how much.... Jane Austen
The 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
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
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
Last 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
Containing 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... John Irving
The 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
Why 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 the
title page to confirm that, yes, this really was written in the middle.... Villette
Sister 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
far 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....
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
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....
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
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....
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....
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
The in-between romantic
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....
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
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
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
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
but with fewer jokes. You've got to see actors taking full advantage of the satiric nuance in the lines.... Molière
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
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
At the middle of the world
What's incredible about Middlemarch,
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
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
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
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....
Butterfly 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
Writing 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
But 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
Strangers in their own landDeath 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
The 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
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
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
The 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
Interim 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
Odd 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
The 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
Small 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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