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Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s fifteenth novel, West of Sunset, is the latest in a line of works in which great writers essay the life of other great writers – one of my favorites is Frederick Busch’s 1999 novel featuring Herman Melville, The Night Inspector.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald is the subject of O’Nan’s novel. Not the giddy and glowing writer who churned out timeless prose during and about the jazz age. But the troubled, ... read more ...

The Book: The Top Ten

What is a classic book?

By J. Peder Zane

Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”

At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”

Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.

The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities exclusively possessed by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books.  Read more ...

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Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s fifteenth novel, West of Sunset, is the latest in a line of works in which great writers essay the life of other great writers – one of my favorites is Frederick Busch’s 1999 novel featuring Herman Melville, The Night Inspector.

 

Tom LeClair

Top Ten Land may celebrate classic books, but like Bob Dylan, we don’t look back. We look forward to new lists that bring great works to our attention.

Ron Rash

   Ron Rash has received many glowing reviews, but it would be hard to top the mash note he received from Janet Maslin last week for Something Rich and Strange, “a major short-story anthology that can introduce new readers to this author’s haunting talents and reaffirm what his established following already knows.”

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge

Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell. This his and hers pairing, like twinned guest towels, reveals dirty fingerprints on the underside of a tidy looking 1930s Midwestern, middle-class marriage.

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.

How German Is It

How German Is It by Walter Abish (1980). Abish wields not pen, but scalpel, vivisecting Germany’s cult of appearances and culture of denial. His protagonist is Ulrich, whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler.

Housekeeping

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980). This is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt.

1982, Janine

1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984). In a fleabag Scottish motel, divorced and depressed, Jock McLeish once again seeks consolation and strength through massive doses of alcohol and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies (some starring a woman named Janine). Through frank, complex language Gray takes us inside the addled mind of a powerless man seeking to impose some control over his life.

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New List

Tom LeClair

1. Gravity’s Rainbowby Thomas Pynchon (1973).
2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
4. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
5. Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1957).
6. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952).
7. Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997).
8. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000).
9. End Zoneby Don DeLillo (1972).
10. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996).

Classic List

Lydia Millet

1. JR by William Gaddis (1975).
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925).
3. Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952).
4. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971).
5. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984).
6. The War with the Newts by Karel Capek (1936).
7. Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti (1935).
8. Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino (1995).
9. Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956).
10. Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54).

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