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Recent critiques of great books and authors

Storm Island {Eye of the Needle) first editionWhat might have happened

A superior espionage novel can engage your sympathy with opposing characters. Although at the fantasy end of the thriller spectrum one can dreamily identify with a super-heroic agent, like James Bond, while cheering for the demise of a villainous mastermind out to destroy the world, the more sophisticated thriller portrays relatable figures on both sides.... Eye of the Needle

War and Peace first editionFrom Russia with love and death

After spending a good part of a summer living in and out of War and Peace, I was astounded to read that in his latter years Leo Tolstoy disdained it. The novel, whose title has become shorthand for monumentally great literature, was elitist, the author is supposed to have said. It presented a romantic entertainment for the aristocracy.... War and Peace

Collection including The Rocking-Horse Winner, 1932Rockin' the coming of age story

D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is one of those stories frequently found in school anthologies and taught to English literature students. Or at least it used to be. For educators, part of the story's classroom appeal may be that it features a child in a quasi-supernatural tale—unlike Lawrence's mainstream novels notorious for.... The Rocking-Horse Winner

Journey to the Centre of the Earth first US editionDisbelief happily suspended

The great thing about Jules Verne's stories of fantastic voyages is that they don't come across as fantastic. At least while we're reading, we believe we could—if we dared—fly across the world in a balloon, fire a rocket at the moon, travel under the seas...or plumb the depths of volcanoes toward the centre of the earth. Some of these trips we know.... A Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Sense and Sensibility 1899 editionFull-blown birth of the Austen novel

In the dichotomy suggested in the title, Jane Austen in her first published work comes down conclusively on the side of sense over sensibility. It's supposed to be a study of two marriageable sisters with the eldest, Elinor, presenting her case for calm common sense in relationships, while the other, Marianne, flaunts her flamboyantly romantic nature.... Sense and Sensibility

Castle Rackrent 1895 editionTales from the big Anglo-Irish house

It's to the credit of Castle Rackrent that it's usually taken to be a novel. By its meagre word count, the text constitutes a novella and—shorn of its introduction, footnotes and glossary—it is barely that. It verges on being a long story. But Maria Edgeworth's work reads like an old-style historical novel, perhaps the first such work.  It's often cited as the prime example of.... Castle Rackrent

New Testament title page, 1611What's so great about the world's best seller?

It's sometimes called "the greatest story ever told". But is it really? Is the New Testament—or more precisely the gospel story within the New Testament—even one of our best stories? Of course, when they make that "greatest" claim, Christians are usually judging their founding story for its religious messages. And why not? Taking the scriptures at face value.... The New Testament

Morley Callaghan photoThe quiet questioner

Late in life Morley Callaghan was apparently concerned people would remember him for one minor achievement: the little Canadian had knocked down the macho Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Callaghan preferred to be known for his novels. His lasting legacy however is his short stories. Along with the fact he knocked.... Morley Callaghan

Alias Grace coverDid she or didn't she—and does it matter?

Alias Grace may be Margaret Atwood's best novel. It may not be her most popular (guessing that's The Handmaid's Tale). Nor her most complex or elaborate (probably The Blind Assassin). Nor her most impressive in sheer literary terms (several to choose from). Nor even her most socially significant (ditto). But the 1996 work has got some of all these qualities.... Alias Grace

Ender's Game coverThe endgame that spawned an endless series

When I first finished Ender's Game, before starting the second book in the series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Oh, I enjoyed Ender's Game all right. It was a real scifi page-turner. But I did not feel good about my enjoyment. Most of the novel concerns the training of a child, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, to become leader of an expedition against.... Ender's Game

Old Testament coverThe jealous, vengeful, violent and occasionally loving word of God

What wrecks the Bible as literature is too much God. On the surface this may sound like an ignorant comment, prompting the response, "Well, what did you expect? It's a religious text and isn't religion all about gods?" But if we are indeed looking at The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament as a purported literary classic—the font from which all Western literature.... The Hebrew Bible / The Old Testament

Old Testament coverThe man who survived the deep

The story of Jonah surviving in the belly of a whale—or a big fish, to be exact—is one of those tales that everyone in the Judeo-Christian or Islamic world has heard, whether or not they are religious. It's one of those stories that come to mind when people refer to great old stories of the Old Testament.... But the tale of "Jonah and the Whale" is different.... The Book of Jonah

Tome Wolfe photoThe new novelism and the ever-passing now

"Deep down he's really shallow" might have been invented for Tom Wolfe's detractors to throw at him. His work is crammed with references to surface appearances, clothing styles, cultural bric-a-brac and even commercial brand names. The minutiae of modern life not only fill his descriptive paragraphs but dominate the inner lives of his characters. Deep down, people are.... Tom Wolfe

1931 collectionMurder ahead of time

In 1949 "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" was selected by critics as the best mystery story of all time and thirty-five years later The Mystery Writers of America voted Thomas Burke's effort one of the top four mystery and suspense tales for its Mystery Hall of Fame. The story continues to appear in anthologies as one of the classics of the field. This may perplex.... The Hands of Mr. Ottermole

1931 collectionEntry-level Faulkner

Critics find in William Faulkner's story, "A Rose for Emily", an allegory about the American South living in the past, decades after the Civil War, still holding on to the dreams of a supposed former glory, morbidly embracing its decadence. Something like that. And there is some of this in the story. There's some of it in nearly everything Faulkner wrote.... A Rose for Emily

1960 collectionLookin' out our front door

The Big Front Yard is a story Mark Twain might have produced if he were writing in the science fiction era. It's a far-fetched tale in a smalltown setting, featuring a fast-talking entrepreneur who faces with slyly cynical humour the bizarre situation he's been thrown into. In Clifford D. Simak's short novella, Hiram Taine finds his property being turned into an interplanetary.... The Big Front Yard

1965 paperback editionAs fate would have it

For a modern reader or playgoer, the ancient drama of Oedipus Rex can be startlingly accessible. There is little of the struggle through the language that one experiences with even more recent plays, such as Shakespeare's. At least part of that ease may be due to the work of translators, aiming to make ancient Greek dramatics more appealing to today's readers.... Oedipus Rex

Les Miserables first edition hardcoverThe hero without qualities

Nicholas Nickleby is Charles Dickens still trying to work out how to sustain a novel. It's usually classified as his third novel, coming hard on the heels of the sketchy Pickwick Papers and the diversely stitched together Oliver Twist. As in Oliver Twist, the narrative of Nicholas Nickleby presents a panoply of tragic, satiric, suspenseful and melodramatic elements. But.... Nicholas Nickleby

First serial publicationThe miserable truth

Les Misérables is one of the few books in translation English speakers know by its original title, in part because they are familiar with the name (or its ghastly abbreviation Les Miz) from its popular film and stage productions. But that familiarity doesn't mean they know the book itself well, for those adaptations cover only a small fraction.... Les Misérables

I Am Legend first edition hardcoverA legendary story

Critics may not have known what to make of it when it came out in 1954, but what has been made of I Am Legend since then has been several fields of popular fiction, multiple movie adaptations, lots of knockoffs, and works inspired in all media. It's probably safe to say many more people are familiar with parts of Richard Matheson's story through its impact on writing.... I Am Legend

Our Town first editionTheatre that metas

On the early covers of Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, the illustration shows a small community perched on the side of a lofty hill or mountain, giving a kind of aspirational feeling to the artwork. What isn't made clear though is that the bare hill above the community is where the graveyard is located—the cemetery that in the last part of the play is depicted as the.... Our Town

All for Love 1678 publicationThe dark passions of early America

Everyone knows the general story of The Scarlet Letter as referenced in the title. A young, married woman in an early American colony, Hester Prynne, becomes pregnant from an affair with a man whose name she refuses to name and is forced to wear the letter "A"—for adultery—the rest of her life. Described like this, the novel seems to be an early feminist tale.... The Scarlet Letter

All for Love 1678 publicationImproving on Shakespeare

John Dryden's tragedy, All for Love, is basically a retooling of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. You won't find Shakespeare's Cleopatra drama on the list of greatest-ever plays, as it's not one of the Bard's very best. It's more in the middle of the pack, partly due to its wide-flung characters and its complicated subplots of battles, intrigues and.... All for Love

Catch-22 first editionWar as you've never seen it before

Whenever he was told he's never written anything else as good as Catch-22, Joseph Heller was tempted to reply, "Who has?" A bit of hyperbole. There are plenty of modern novels as good as, or better than, Catch-22. But really nothing quite like it. In 1961 when it was published, Catch-22 was unprecedented for its theme, its style, its brand of humour.... Catch-22

Isaac AsimovBest of the bad old golden greats

Isaac Asimov may be the worst great writer I can think of. His prose is workmanlike at best, his characters are emotional ciphers, his dialogue is functional, his plots are more like giant puzzles than any credible unfolding of events involving real people, and stylewise he blithely breaks every rule of Fine Writing. He doesn't care. And know what? Neither do I.... Isaac Asimov

The Castle of Otranto title pageThe horrible influence

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is one of those "classic" works that is better known for its impact in its time that for its subsequent readability. It's more influential than admired. In fact, any reader today is likely to find it laughable. And it's not supposed to be a comedy. Its supernatural and bloody story is meant to be delectably horrifying.... The Castle of Otranto

The Day of the Locust first editionAnother end of days

The Day of the Locust was so underrated in 1939 when it came out and in the years immediately following author Nathanael West's death in 1940. So when critics eventually rediscovered the man's work's they overcompensated for their earlier neglect by praising it to the skies. In some quarters The Day of the Locust has been lauded it as one of the most.... The Day of the Locust

Dune first editionRising and sinking in the sand

Dune's timing was perfect. Launched in the mid-sixties around the beginning of the modern environmental movement, Frank Herbert's ecology-conscious science fiction novel and its many sequels and adaptations have ridden the public zeitgeist well into the twenty-first century. It also helps that the mystically tinged works have coincided with.... Dune

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion first editionLove story emerges from satire

Northanger Abbey is the satire on previous popular literature Jane Austen had to write before she could get down to creating her own classics. It often happens that in a first novel an author is driven to imitate and have fun with the work of one or more predecessors who have been big influences during the formative years. A sort of ritual.... Northanger Abbey

The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Stories first editionThe sun setting on empire

An unfair charge against Rudyard Kipling's story, "The Man Who Would Be King", is it's not very credible. Full of British Empire arrogance that can imagine a couple of white, soldierly ne'er-do-wells could manage incredible feats of perseverance to venture from northern India over frigid, mountainous terrain into foreboding, supposedly uncivilized.... The Man Who Would Be King

Richard B. WrightThe mild-unmannered author

Richard B. Wright is a Canadian writer of ordinariness. Not that his novels are banal or he's a dull writer—they aren't and he isn't. But he takes as his subjects the lives of ordinary people—middle or lower-class folks trying to do the right thing while seeking some measure of comfort. Their travails are related in an unpretentious, unadorned style.... Richard B. Wright

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court first editionMark Twain's dark ages

If your first exposure to Mark Twain's time travel tale was the Disney or other screen adaptations, you may be shocked by your reading of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Shocked by how rough it is. Not just satirical in the genial way Twain is usual thought of but downright angry, bitter and often vicious. And this isn't even.... A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, first editionThe never-ending battle

Let's deal with the religious aspect of the Narnia works right off the top. The idea that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and its successive novels present a Christian allegory is raised by both detractors and adherents. It's offered as a reason to either dismiss or embrace C.S. Lewis's fantasy series. One opposing author has even created a.... The Chronicles of Narnia

Who Do You Think YOu Are?, first editionThe long and short of a woman's story

"The Beggar Maid" is one of Alice Munro's novelistic stories. Not that it is overly long—a little longer than the average modern story perhaps, though well short of longer literary forms. But after reading it, you might feel you've taken in at least a novella's worth of narrative—like a novel without all the padding. If you've often found yourself bogging down.... The Beggar Maid

First editionMurder in a Grey World

Gorky Park was quite the sensation when it came out in 1981, as it presented an American-style detective story in the previously unexplored setting of the Soviet Union. And it still seems to entrance readers for whom the concept of a murder investigation in a supposedly socialist country is a novelty. To others for whom this is no longer a startling idea.... Gorky Park

Heart of the Matter first editionSorry about how life has gone

By rights, there should be little interest remaining in the 1948 story of a white colonialist policeman, wracked with Catholic guilt over his lapsed religion, corruption, career failures and duplicitous relationships. The Heart of the Matter was a massive hit when it came out and has remained high on lists of the great novels of the twentieth century. But.... The Heart of the Matter

Rogue Queen first editionThe taming of the rogue

Rogue Queen is a novel that was ahead of its time in the waning years of science fiction's Golden Age but is practically archaic since the field's several resurgences. It's still more than readable though and has a corny kind of old-fashioned charm today. Did we really think this was provocative stuff not so long ago? We may still find it so.... Rogue Queen

The Prince and the Pauper, first editionThe bite in an ageless tale

It's easy to overlook Mark Twain's bite in The Prince and the Pauper. The social criticism is not as sharp as in some of his later novels, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. There's little of the outright sarcasm or open attack on institutions and other writers found in his later commentaries.... The Prince and the Pauper

The Country Wife, 1934 editionWhat's love got to do with it?

Your first go at The Country Wife may leave you mystified and mixed up. Especially over all the criss-crossing plots involving characters who can scarcely be told apart. They're all randy, witticism-spouting, wealthy layabouts conspiring to get into each others' pants. This may be part of William Wycherley's aim.... The Country Wife

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, frontispiece, first editionThe Claras in our lives

What is it with Canadian writers and their fixation on solitary women? Off the top of my head I can list nearly a dozen novels that explore the private lives of unmarried, widowed, or divorced females struggling through what appear from the outside as mundane existences, usually recalled in later years. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining.... Clara Callan

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, frontispiece, first editionA deformed masterwork

Thanks in part to movies based on it, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame calls up images of Gothic horror in the public imagination. The novel is associated with other dark nineteenth-century classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is wrong-headed in so many ways. It makes a preternatural monster out of a character.... The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The French Lieutanant's Woman 1969, first editionThe changing past

Sometimes it seems we in the English-speaking world have spent the entire twentieth century trying to shake off the repressions of the Victorian era. The rebellious 1960s, for example, may have prided themselves on rejecting the lifestyles and mores of the supposedly placid preceding decade, but the cultural upheaval of that time could as easily.... The French Lieutenant's Woman

And Then There Were None, first US editionTen little problems with world's most popular mystery

Despite issues with its objectionable titling over the years, And Then There were None has been not only the most popular novel by Agatha Christie during her long, prolific career, but one of the best-selling books of all time—ranked only a few spots behind the Bible. It's also one of the Christie books that you have to read quickly, so as not to.... And Then There Were None

Huckleberry Finn, first editionThe changing world of Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those modern classics you should re-read every ten years or so. Partly because, like most classics, it keeps giving, offering up more and different aspects each time. Read in youth, it may come across as the adventure story promised in the title. Unlike The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to which.... The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tom Sawyer, first editionThe good bad boy

In our world the escapades of young Tom Sawyer are recounted in the shadow cast by his more famous friend, Huckleberry Finn. Yet, during author Mark Twain's life, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was his most popular work. Which should not surprise us. Today Twain is known and revered for his abrasive wit, his deft parody, his.... The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Republic, Cornford transltion, 1969 editionThe philosopher who would be king

It is hard to know how to classify the philosophical classic Republic, or any writing by Plato, as literature. Or even to know whether it is a literary work. It's published writing, so it is literature in the broadest sense. But does it deserve a place among the novels, stories, plays and poetry we consider creative literature? Like most of Plato's works.... Republic

Kim first Canadian editionThe burden of reading Kipling's masterwork

If Rudyard Kipling were to publish his most acclaimed novel today, he would likely face more than the usual charges of colonialism and imperialism that have been levelled at him through much of the twentieth century. No doubt he would also be attacked for cultural appropriation in Kim, maybe even racism. For in this era it is hard to read some parts of Kim.... Kim

Blindness first U.S. editionWhat we see in the light

Blindness may be the most popular of José Saramago's novels, possibly because it is one of his easiest to get into. From the beginning the plot reads like a mysterious science fiction story—one of those tales in which a virus or unseen enemy gradually takes over. But rather than focus on humanity's resistance to this mysterious phenomenon.... Blindness

Murder on the Orient Express first editionRe-riding the mystery train

A lot of mystery novels don't stand up to repeated readings. Makes sense. Once you know the ending—once the mystery has been solved—the tension in the slow buildup to the conclusion is dissipated. Plot holes and thin characterizations, overlooked in the first rush to resolution, become glaringly obvious the second time through. Best to close.... Murder on the Orient Express

missing graphicAt ease in the off-centre

José Saramago may be the most interesting writer of the late-twentieth century and early years of the next. And possibly the most bewildering. He was a hardline communist whose work was hailed by such establishment critics as the late Harold Bloom who once ranked him among the world's few living geniuses. Trained as a mechanic and metalworker.... José Saramago

Make Room! Make Room! first editionToo many stupid people

The novel Make Room! Make Room! was published right in the middle of the boom in warnings about overpopulation and depletion of resources in the 1960s and early 1970s. It actually preceded a number of nonfictional works, like The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits to Growth (1972), that raised the alarm. In fact, Harry Harrison says.... Make Room! Make Room!

Atonement first editionEmotional and intellectual roller coaster

It's hard not to think "classic" as you're reading Atonement. Especially in the first half with its scenes of country estate life, reminiscent of Jane Austen or the Brontë novels, as experienced through the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl, Briony Tallis. The epigraph to Ian McEwan's novel is actually a passage from Northanger Abbey, introducing.... Atonement

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 preadolescent girlstill shocking more than half a century after its publication. Still shocking in how non-shocking 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 the title 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 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.... 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 Love's labours punished

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 graphicThe 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 graphicThe 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

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 diverse interests. 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 become recognized as the great work it is: it doesn't include any of those audience-pleasing elements.... 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 more apparent..... Of Mice and Men

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