Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935) by John O’Hara. The man Brendan Gill credited with inventing The New Yorker short story also wrote nicely observed novels of cynical slumming and sexual frankness. Appointment in Samarra relates the long weekend in which a Cadillac dealer gleefully destroys his life; BUtterfield 8 follows a cheap-date actress through the ferocious demimonde of speakeasy New York.
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.
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1874–76). Daniel Deronda first sees Gwendolyn Harleth gambling at a fashionable resort and asks himself whether “the good or evil genius is dominant” in her. He is a man of ideas; she is an egotistical, spoiled girl. Can Daniel redeem her? Another character who needs saving is Mirah Cohen, yet through her, Daniel finds a form of salvation by discovering his hidden Jewish heritage in this novel that exposes the deeply rooted anti-Semitism of Victorian England.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985). Márquez takes the love triangle to the limit in this story of an ever hopeful romantic who waits more than fifty years for his first love. When his beloved’s husband dies after a long, happy marriage, Florentino Ariza immediately redeclares his passion. After the enraged widow rejects him, he redoubles his efforts. Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, this wise, steamy, and playful novel jumps between past and present, encompassing decades of unrest and war, recurring cholera epidemics, and the environmental ravages of development.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Years before The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had already won the Booker Prize for this reverential and blasphemous novel. Two babies born at the precise moment modern India came into existence—one Muslim, one Hindu—are then switched at birth and grow up in the other’s faith. Midnight’s Children sets a plot of comic-book proportions—people with superpowers too lazy to band together—against the backdrop of the subcontinent’s conflict-ridden history, the language and idioms of Rushdie’s youth careening against each other with madcap imagination and jolting fury.
Nothing (1926), Doting (1950), and Blindness (1952) by Henry Green. Green was the pen name for British industrialist Henry Vincent Yorke, whose kaleidoscopic, impressionistic novels (including cryptic plots and sentences without articles or verbs) have drawn comparisons to fellow high-modernists Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Monet. Blindness details the terror of a blind young man confined to a room by his wife. Doting (a comedy of adulterous near-misses) and Nothing (about two ex-lovers whose children are getting married) consist almost entirely of pitch-perfect dialogue.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951). The son of a Russian aristocrat who was assassinated for his belief in democracy, Nabokov had a preposterously privileged childhood, including teams of governesses and servants and sojourns along the Riviera. When the Bolsheviks arrived, the family was forced to flee amid a hail of bullets. Later, as a student at Cambridge, Nabokov confronted those who romanticized the politics that exiled him. Ricocheting through time, space, and subject matter as it delves whimsically into the author’s literary influences and the minutiae of family history, this is a masterpiece of literary memoir.
The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904).Great chess players used to test their skills by playing several matches at once. A similar sense of multiple levels and strategies animates James’s final completed novel. An impoverished Italian prince marries the daughter of a fabulously wealthy American art collector, who in turn marries the daughter’s best friend, who was once (unbeknownst to father and daughter) the prince’s lover. James examines one of his signature themes—the terrible vulnerability of love to betrayal—in this vertiginous, psychologically acute work.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984). This Prix Goncourt–winning work might now be considered an early “fictional memoir.” Drawn from Duras’s life in prewar Indochina, it tells the story of the ill-fated love between a young girl and her Chinese lover. Lyrical, imagistic, and structured in cumulative short passages, Duras combines the beautiful and the terrible in this slim, compelling novel.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.
Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997). A finalist for the National Book Award, this literary page-turner is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, it has been called a “dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”
Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952). In this, the third book of The Chronicles of Narnia, King Caspian sets sail to the end of the world to rescue the seven lost lords of Narnia. Along with three English children—who have come to Narnia this time by stepping into a painting—and other companions such as the brave, sword-wielding mouse Reepicheep, Caspian has numerous adventures that resonate with Christian and classical mythology.
A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988). Like all of Spark’s work, this novel is hard to define. Metaphysical farce? Literary mystery? At bottom it is a dark, elegant, hilarious tale centered on the zaftig widow Mrs. Hawkins. She spends her days and evenings giving advice to her eccentric rooming house mates and her coworkers in book publishing. Blackmail, suicide, and a crash diet power this story, but it is Spark’s all-too evident disgust with the business end of literature that gives the story its special kick.
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.
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973). Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
Native Son by Richard Wright (1945). Set in Chicago in the 1930s, this novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African American twisted and trapped by penury and racism. Bigger is on his way out of poverty when he accidently murders his employer’s daughter, a white woman. In this highly charged, deeply influential novel, Wright portrays a black man squeezed by crushing circumstances who comes to understand his own identity.
Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (1953). Salinger gave his story collection the title Nine Stories, and that simple, enumerative title is just right, for the stories can be counted off like beads on a string: “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” whose last line, “I was a good girl, wasnI?” never fails to break the reader’s heart. The pitch-perfect voices Salinger provides his characters make their dead-serious search for meaning taste like candy.
The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903). Middle-aged Lambert Strethers is sent to Paris to retrieve a young American whose wealthy parents fear he has taken up with an inappropriate woman, but Strethers sees that the young man is truly happy. Gradually, Strethers finds his flinty provincialism chipped away by Europe’s ease and freedom in this novel whose signature line reads, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). “It is Jane Austen crossed with Chekhov and Turgenev,” observed A. S. Byatt of this witty domestic novel set in Moscow on the eve of war and revolution. In the spring of 1913, Frank Reid’s wife leaves him and their three children to return to England. Frank, who was born in Russia and runs the print shop his British father founded there, deplores change. Character, not plot, rules Fitzgerald’s fictions; with subtlety and insight she reveals him navigating his new circumstances (and hoping for his wife’s return) while dealing with a host of vividly drawn, often idiosyncratic characters.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961). An Indian man living in Trinidad, Mr. Biswas is a tenant in some houses and an unfavored relative in others. All he wants is a home of his own. His adult son narrates this story of his monumental search for a home and all that implies. The quest becomes a metaphor for the displacements of postcolonial life in this novel that, while filled with poverty and loneliness, is also a teeming, comic epic of Hindu life in Naipaul’s native West Indies.
Airships by Barry Hannah (1978). Barry Hannah can make readers laugh about the grimmest subject while never for a second losing sight of the essential horror. In this story collection, the Mississippi writer creates a cast of scarred, hyperkinetic characters—including a Confederate soldier recalling the tragedy and glory of war to a contemporary man obsessed with his estranged wife—who are stumbling toward illumination.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925).Clyde Griffiths wants to be more than just the son of a Midwestern preacher. Leaving home, he follows a path toward the American Dream that is littered with greed, adultery, and hypocrisy. The brass ring seems close when he wins a wealthy girl’s love, but then very far away when a factory girl he impregnated demands that he marry her. In this disquieting social novel, Clyde faces a moral dilemma that reveals the corruption of his soul and the materialistic culture that seduces him.
Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him—the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.
Total Points: 10 (DC 10)
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome. The play has a kind of baroque richness to both plot and language as Antony and Cleopatra delight in seclusion while the Roman forces opposing them, led by the sober and ambitious Octavius Caesar, close in on the lovers. Cornered, the emperor and queen bring the play to a suicidal climax that exquisitely fuses sexual pleasure and death.
Total Points: 10 (MD 10)
Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering. As a cornerstone of Hindu faith and yogic philosophy, the Bhagavadgita has had a profound impact on philosophical and religious traditions in both the East and West.
Total Points: 10 (CD 10)
Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1851). The first part of this two-thousand-line poem, composed in 1847, reveals Browning’s excitement at the independence she and husband Robert found in Florence. The second part, written after Austria’s reoccupation of Tuscany, is a more reflective, yet still hopeful, meditation on the streets outside the Browning home, Casa Guidi: “This world has no perdition, if some loss.” Casa Guidi and its companion poems argue strongly for the right of women to speak on matters of politics and state, not just the moral affairs of the home.
Total Points: 10 (AT 10)