For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940). Hemingway’s ambivalence toward war—its nobility and its pointlessness—are delineated in this account of Robert Jordan, an idealistic American professor who enlists with the antifascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan’s idealism is quickly tested by the bloody reality of combat and the cynical pragmatism of his comrades.
The List of Books
We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855–91). Whitman spent half his life writing, revising, and republishing this collection, which is, at heart, a love song to the idea of America. Uneven and exuberant, Whitman acknowledges that “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” yet he celebrates all of America in his long-lined free verse. Naming himself “one of the roughs,” Whitman places the natural over the artificial, native wisdom over scholarship, and praises the working man and foot soldier as fulsomely as he does President Lincoln.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924). Hans Castorp visits his cousin at a sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Soon he too becomes ill (maybe) and checks into the hospital—for seven years. In this sanctuary, Hans and the sanatorium’s denizens endlessly debate questions of morality, politics, and culture, as the “real world” moves inexorably toward the horror of World War I. A meditation on time, an inquiry into how life ought to be lived, and an unflinching look at evil, Mann considered the ideas in his monumental novel so challenging that he said it must be read at least twice.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919). A collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a town whose physical isolation mirrors their psychological distance. With compassion and sadness, Anderson evokes small-town life and thought through a wide range of characters who are not visited by any tragedies save their own inability to forge a bit of happiness in their lives of quiet desperation.
Stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001).
Appreciation of the Stories of Eudora Welty by Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
At first glance, the people Eudora Welty usually writes about seem unremarkable, as are the mostly Mississippi towns, cities, and countryside they live in.
To read her stories, however, such as “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “Petrified Man,” “Powerhouse,” “Moon Lake,” and “Kin,” is to learn otherwise. Through them you enter the realm of the extraordinary, as revealed in the commonplace. Each of Welty’s seemingly mundane people exhibits the depth, complexity, private surmise, and ultimate riddle of human identity. “Every-body to their own visioning,” as one of her characters remarks.
There is plenty of high comedy. Few authors can match her eye for the incongruous, the hilarious response, the bemused quality of the way her people go about their lives. There is also pathos, veering sometimes into tragedy, and beyond that, awareness of what is unknowable and inscrutable.
Her most stunning fiction is the group of interconnected stories published in 1949 as The Golden Apples. These center on the citizenry of Morgana, Mississippi, over the course of some four decades. In “June Recital” German-born Miss Lottie Elisabeth Eckhart teaches piano to the young. These include Cassie Morrison, who carries on her teacher’s mission, and Virgie Rainey, most talented of all, who in spite of herself absorbs “the Beethoven, as with the dragon’s blood.” In the closing story, “The Wanderers,” Virgie sits under a tree not far from Miss Eckhart’s grave and gazes into the falling rain, hearing “the magical percussion” drumming into her ears: “That was the gift she had touched with her fingers that had drifted and left her.”
Welty’s richly allusive style, alive to nuance, is not really like anyone else’s. The dialogue (her characters talk at rather than to one another), the shading of Greek mythology and W. B. Yeats’s poetry into the rhythms of everyday life in Morgana, the depth perception of a major literary artist, all make her stories superb.
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956).
Appreciation of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows by Margot Livesey
I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fountain Overflows. There was a copy in the library of my Scottish school; after all, the novel sold 40,000 copies in 1956, the year it was published. Perhaps it was even in my father’s library, squeezed between, say, Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, two novels I adored. The book was around but the truth is I didn’t want to read it, in part because I associated it with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s massive tome about pre–World War II Yugo slavia, which I didn’t want to read even more. I finally succumbed only a few years ago at the urging of a dear friend.
Some books, much lauded on publication, rapidly gather dust, but luckily for me The Fountain Overflows remains as lustrous and passionate as when West penned the last page. The novel tells the story of the Aubrey family living in Edwardian London. Mr. Aubrey is a charismatic and unreliable journalist; Mrs. Aubrey, a former pianist, is an awkward woman of immense moral intelligence. Around these two orbit the Aubrey children: the musical Mary and Rose, the awful Cordelia who wants to be musical, and the beloved Richard Quinn. The story is told by Rose.
One scene captures for me West’s genius. A man comes to complain to Mrs. Aubrey about her husband having an affair with his wife. After she has done her best to cheer him up, Mrs. Aubrey takes refuge in Madame Bovary and, by the time her husband arrives home, is absorbed in the novel. Together they praise and criticize Flaubert. Only then does she recall what brought herto pick up the novel in the first place. “I am really very heartless,” she cried, rising to her feet. “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”
And this is exactly how I feel about The Fountain Overflows; it is more real, and more pleasurable, than most life.
The Hamlet by William Faulkner (1940). The first novel in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy—which was followed by The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959)—The Hamlet is a series of linked stories centering on the family’s rise after the Civil War. Clever, ambitious, coarse, and unscrupulous, they embody Faulkner’s ambivalence for the New South, which he saw as a land of greater opportunity and diminished culture. Mixing humor, tragedy, violence, and pathos, The Hamlet is considered Faulkner’s last great novel.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966). Bulgakov reshaped his experience of Stalinist censorship into a surreal fable featuring three characters: an unnamed author (the Master) whose accusatory fiction is denied publication, his self-sacrificing married lover (Margarita), and the incarnation of Satan (Woland), who simultaneously orchestrates and interprets their destinies. The ambiguity of good and evil is hotly debated and amusingly dramatized in this complex satirical novel about the threats to art in an inimical material world and its paradoxical survival (symbolized by the climactic assertion that “manuscripts don’t burn”).
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). During a car trip, Stevens—a career butler who has existed at once on the fringes and within the bird’s nest of the British ruling class—reflects on his lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington. Blinded by his devotion to “duty,” he cannot admit that his late master was a fascist sympathizer and cannot see that he has forfeited the possibility of leading his own life. Now in old age, Stevens faces a sense of loss without the emotional acuity to comprehend it.
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980). Like planets moving across the sky—always the same yet always changing—this sumptuously written novel follows the lives of two orphaned sisters who leave Australia in the 1950s to begin new lives in England. While Grace turns to marriage for a safe transit through life, Caro charts a riskier course, one that brings her love and betrayal over the decades.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1979). An old man recalls a story of murder and adultery in his childhood Illinois town, and how he came to betray the friend who witnessed them. This novel by the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker is an American Remembrance of Things Past—heart breaking in its portrayal of a boy’s loss of innocence, and savvy about memory’s self-serving nature.
Stories of Alice Munro (1931– ). A master of the small epiphany, the moment of clarity, Alice Munro writes of men and women who struggle to reconcile the lives they have made with their sometimes confused longings. Largely set in urban and rural Canada, Munro’s stories feature characters whose inner lives gradually peel away to reveal themselves in all their richness and complexity. Munro’s plots do not forge ahead in a linear fashion, but loop and meander and take their time getting where they need to go, slowly revealing their characters and revealing what lies behind the choices they have made.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839).
Appreciation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by Francine Prose
Opening The Charterhouse of Parma is like stepping into the path of a benevolent cyclone that will pick you up and set you down, gently but firmly, somewhere else. You can still feel the tailwind of inspiration, the high speed at which Stendhal wrote it, and you can’t help admiring its assurance and audacity.
Stendhal marks the boundaries of the more traditional nineteenth-century novel, and then proceeds to explode them. Just as Fabrizio keeps discovering that his life is taking a different direction from what he’d imagined, so the reader keeps thinking that Stendhal has written one kind of book, then finding that it is something else entirely. Stendhal writes as if he can’t see why everything—politics, history, intrigue, the battle of Waterloo, a love story, several love stories—can’t be compressed into a single novel. The result is a huge canvas on which every detail is painted with astonishing realism and psychological verisimilitude.
First you are totally swept up in Fabrizio’s peculiar experience of the Napoleonic wars, then moved by the Krazy Kat love triangle involving Fabrizio, Mosca, and Gina, and throughout, astonished by the accuracy of Stendhal’s observations on love, jealousy, ambition, and of how the perception of biological age influences our behavior.
I love the way Stendhal uses “Italian” to mean passionate, and how he falls in love with his characters, for all the right reasons. One can only imagine how Tolstoy would have punished Gina, who is not only among the most memorable women in literature, but who is also scheming, casually adulterous, and madly in love with her own nephew. Each time I finish the book, I feel as if the world has been washed clean and polished while I was reading, and as if everything around me is shining a little more brightly.
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940). Stead said that writing this novel “was like escaping jail,” and one feels that great cathartic sweep as the dark side of family life unreels through astonishing scenes pitting Sam Pollit, the egotistical father “who loves children,” against his wife Henny, a household hetaera subject to rages, or his fourteen-year-old daughter Louisa, a precocious, hulking girl whose break for freedom crowns the book. Though this novel is semiautobiographical, Stead transforms personal revenge against her own outsized father into revelation.
The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872). Dostoevsky’s signature theme—the future of morality and the human soul in a Godless world—takes flight in this harrowing portrait of revolutionary terrorists who have surrendered their humanity to their ideals. The political satire throbs with urgency, but Dostoevsky raises this work to the level of art through rich characterizations of his combative principals: the well-meaning, ineffectual philosophical theorist Stepan Verkhovensky; his true-believing, monomaniacal son Peter; the conflicted, ” serf Shatov; and two vivid embodiments of good and evil—saintly Bishop Tikhon and urbane, satanic Nicolas Stavrogin.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980). A magistrate for an unspecified empire finds himself thrust into a growing conflict on the frontier. Fearing an invasion, the empire sends an army to eliminate the threat of neighboring “barbarians,” and the magistrate, accused of plotting with the enemy, is beaten and jailed. As he suffers these trials, the magistrate reflects on civilization and nature, suffering and oppression, and man’s barbarous tendency toward violence.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735). Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s doctor, embarks on four wondrous voyages from England to remote nations. Gulliver towers over six-inch Lilliputians and cowers under the giants in Brobdingnag. He witnesses a flying island and a country where horses are civilized and people are brutes. Fanciful and humorous, Swift’s fictional travelogue is a colorfully veiled but bitter indictment of eighteenth-century politics and culture.
Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934). The Icelandic Nobel laureate’s best novel is a chronicle of endurance and survival, whose stubborn protagonist Bjartür “of Summerhouses” is a sheepherder at odds with inclement weather, poverty, society in particular and authority in general, and his own estranged family. Laxness unflinchingly dramatizes Bjartür’s unloving, combative relationships with his step-daughter Asta and frail son Nonni (a possible authorial surrogate)—yet finds the perverse heroism in this bad shepherd’s compulsive pursuit of freedom (from even the Irish sorcerer who had cursed his land). This is an antihero for whom readers will find themselves cheering.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918). Featuring a beleaguered central heroine who endures her father’s suicide, is driven to work in the fields, and is seduced, abandoned, and left pregnant, this ought to be a tale of tragic inevitability. Instead, this beautifully elegiac novel offers an unsentimental paean to the prairie, to domesticity, and to memory itself. As remembered by her friend Jim, Ántonia is as mythic and down-to-earth as the Nebraska she inhabits.
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (1928). Christopher Tietjens, “the last English Tory,” is an exemplar of the old order; his faithless wife Sylvia represents the new. Grounded in their relationship, this rueful modernist epic dissects the intricacies of Edwardian England and the forces unleashed by World War I that would, inevitably and necessarily, slay that genteel world.
Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). Love and war, childhood and adolescence, and initiation and experience are recurring themes in these journalistically spare, often autobiographical stories. Some, including “A Very Short Story,” are merely snapshots, barely a page long. Others, such as Snows of Kilimanjaro” are multi-layered stories within a story. Among the best are those featuring Hemingway’s doppelganger Nick Adams, whose youthful innocence in an Edenic Michigan becomes an almost jaded stoicism through combat and failed romance.
Stories of Raymond Carver (1938–88). Culled from his own hard-drinking, working-class upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, Carver’s stories depict relationships in various states of decay, the unsung losses of unsung people, and the prolonged misery of ordinary people delivered in a sly understated tone sometimes called dirty realism. A master of the short story, Carver’s name was only beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and O’Connor when lung cancer brought him down at the age of fifty.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891). When Tess’s mother learns that her humble family has lofty bloodlines, she sends her daughter out to cadge funds and land a rich husband. Instead Tess suffers cruel mistreatment and becomes pregnant. The baby’s death unleashes torrents of grief, guilt, and religious doubt. However, Hardy’s grim tale is lightened by his loving descriptions of the English landscape and his humorous rendering of local talk.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48). The subtitle is “A Novel Without a Hero,” and never was a hero more unnecessary. In Becky Sharp, we find one of the most delicious heroines of all time. Sexy, resourceful, and duplicitous, Becky schemes her way through society, always with an eye toward catching a richer man. Cynical Thackeray, whose cutting portraits of society are hilarious, resists the usual punishments doled out to bad Victorian women and allows that the vain may find as much happiness in their success as the good do in their virtue.
Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1847). Lisbeth (Bette) Fischer, a seamstress for the demimonde of actresses and courtesans and the poor relation of Baron Hulot, has a secret: she is helping to support a poor but noble Polish sculptor. Baron Hulot’s daughter Hortense discovers the secret and helps herself to the handsome sculptor. Bette then unleashes an underhanded stratagem dictated by her implacably vengeful heart: using Baron Hulot’s insatiable lust as a lever, Bette organizes her courtesan connections to ruin him, both morally and financially. Scary and psychologically acute.