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Alix Ohlin's Top Ten List
1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961). The Miss Brodie in question is a wildly popular teacher in a 1930s Edinburgh middle school. She cultivates a group of chosen girls —the “crème de la crème,” as she calls them —and in return they must give her their absolute loyalty. Massive privileges accrue to the Brodie set, but Spark is most interested in what the girls sacrifice to be included among the elite in this tense yet charming novel.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.
4. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944). Few twentieth-century literary works were as influential as Borges’s first collection of surreal “fictions.” Showcasing his deeply serious, brilliantly playful fascination with language, literature, and metaphysics, these seventeen stories—about imaginary books and labyrinthine libraries, cosmic detectives and strange lands—ask us to wonder about how we know what we know (or think we know) while helping light the fuse of postmodern pyrotechnics.
5. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994). A cross between Dante’s Inferno, Through the Looking Glass, and Catch-22, this novel depicts the bizarre and often inexplicable journey of Japanese Everyman Toru Okada, whose missing cat prompts the disappearance of his wife, encounters with psychics and call girls, days huddled in meditation at the bottom of a well, and the breathtakingly graphic depiction of a man being skinned alive.
6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Martin Scorsese called his 1993 movie of this novel the most violent film he had made —quite a statement from the director of Raging Bull. The innocence here is not in the setting of 1870s upper-crust New York, whose starch-stiff social code hides a viper’s nest of jealousies and conspiracy, but in hero Newland Archer, a newlywed socialite who fancies himself simply an observer of his class. His infatuation with a European divorcée leads to a most unsentimental education on his true position.
7. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935). Sayers is considered by many to be the premier detective novelist of the Golden Age, and her dashing sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, one of mystery fiction’s most enduring and endearing protagonists. This novel features another of her creations, mystery writer Harriet Vane. In this novel takes Vane and her paramour, Lord Peter, to Oxford University, Harriet’s alma mater, for a reunion, only to find themselves the targets of a nightmare of harassment and mysterious, murderous threats.
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). This masterpiece of concision and interior monologue recounts events in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate, upper-class London wife and mother, as she prepares for a party at her home on a single day in June 1923. In a parallel subsidiary plot, a shell-shocked World War I veteran Clarissa encounters spirals into suicide rather than submit to soul-stealing experimental psycho therapy. The novel explores questions of time, memory, love, class, and life choices through Woolf’s intricate melding of points of view and powerful use of flashback.
9. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967). (see below).
10. Daybook: The Journey of an Artist by Anne Truitt (1982).
Appreciation of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by A. L. Kennedy
"The Third Policeman" is that rare and lovely thing —a truly hallucinatory novel, shot through with fierce logic and intellectual rigor. It is a lyrical, amoral, funny nightmare: the most disciplined and disturbing product of an always interesting writer. Our protagonist is “the poor misfortunate bastard”—a drinker, philosopher, and obsessive bibliophile. His sins grow with him, making a logical progression from book theft to burglary and murder—all this against a heightened version of poor, rural Ireland: a setting layered with absurd but weirdly recognizable detail. He then stumbles into a potentially fatal alternative reality: a haunting, teasing Irish countryside of parlors and winding roads from which it seems impossible to return.
Beneath the music of O’Brien’s prose there is always a savage understanding of our failings, the pressures of poverty, greed, and fear. And there is always the dark humor that both excuses and condemns us. Our hero (who develops an entirely separate soul, called Joe) drifts into a weird landscape of jovially menacing policemen (who may or not may not be bicycles) and of inexplicable objects and mechanisms that operate beneath nature’s skin. His imprisonment and threatened execution seem even more troubling because they are nonsensical, perhaps even kind. Slowly it becomes clear that, among other things, this novel is about hell—a much-deserved, amusing, irrational, and entirely inescapable hell. Because, for O’Brien, hell is not only other people—it is ourselves.
Beyond this, "The Third Policeman" is genuinely indescribable: a book that holds you like a lovely and accusing dream. Read it and you’ll never forget it. Meet anyone else who has read it and you’ll find yourselves repeating sections of its melodious insanity within moments. Meet anyone who hasn’t read it and you’ll tell them they must. Which will be the truth.