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Making a list like this is an ambitious enterprise.  It will always be a work in progress, so please check back as experience, memory and staff feedback contribute to my entries.

•Index for Fiction Books•
1984    •Broken Prey   •Burmese Days    •Darkness at Noon   •Disgrace    •Far from the Madding Crowd  Heart of Darkness     •Hunger    •Journal of the Plague Year     •Lorna Doone    •The Golden Pot The Idiot   •Therese Raquin  •Vanity Fair    •Ward No. 6   •Reflecting   •We Have Always Lived in a CastleIndex for the Nonfiction Books•
A Mask for Every Face  •Awakenings    •Cocteau   •Contempt of Court   •Irrational Man  •Kagero Nikki  •Maupassant •Mother Courage and Her Children    •Mussolini   Night   •Mussolini    Reflecting    •Tales from the Old Oak TableThe Grotesque in Art and Literature  •The Most Famous Man in America    •There is a Special Place
   

Fiction 

Staff Pick
Burmese Days
By George Orwell

A gripping, fictional tale of English occupied Burma in the 1930’s based on Orwell’s own experiences there as a British Imperial policeman.  Though Orwell’s first novel,  his gritty, expressive writing style is clearly evident.  A well polished work with subtle yet powerful statements about the ugly nature of empire and occupation, and the human cost that is inevitably paid by all parties involved.

Photo: Said to be the House in Which Orwell lived in Burma
Photographer: Poida Smith
Public Domain On Wikimedia Commons


Personal Favorites

We Always Lived in a Castle

By Shirley Jackson
I just finished reading this so it is fresh in my mind. I kept thinking of Faulkner, as I read.  If you find him hard to follow sometimes, you’ll have an easier time with this book, though most of it does take place inside the head of the main character Merricat.  The book is brilliant.  Can’t believe I haven’t read it before; so glad I finally did.


Covered Bridge in Bennington, Vermont, where Shirley Jackson and her husband made their home
Photo on Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Brianhe under Creative Commons attribution license

The Idiot
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I loved books long before junior high school, which is when I discovered Dostoevsky. After I read The Idiot, I realized my love affair with books would be lifelong. And my bar for literary excellence would always be high because of the early exposure to this master.

Dostoevsky was like a balm for me: his insight into, compassion for, and examination of existential issues all satisfied a hunger I had that was not met by anything else around me.  I recognized, as years went by and my understanding matured, that Dostoyevsky was flawed, as every person is–his view of Jews, for example, is startling.  He was a creature of his time and culture.

Characters and scenes from The Idiot have become iconic in modern literature.   People sometimes speak of the “Russians” and by this they generally mean the two great pillars of Russian literature, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  For me, it will always be Dostoevsky first–probably because I began my Russian literary odyssey with The Idiot.

Notes from Dostoevsky’s Book, The Brothers Karamazov
Wikimedia Commons Copyright expired

Disgrace 
J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee is a fine author; I have read several of his books and have never been disappointed.  Disgrace one is my favorite.  The protagonist, David Lurie, lives in tumultuous times.  He’s a middle-aged South African who teaches at a university.  Just as his country is being swept along by social and political upheaval, Luries is unmoored by divorce and his tenuous hold on moral principle.  Coetzee does not offer the reader, or Lurie, pat solutions. Just as South Africa must find a new way of being, Lurie must somehow negotiate the minefield of difficulties that confront him.

The family house, which is now the Mandela Museum
Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons by Moongateclimber under Creative Commons Attribution-Share alike
license

Therese Raquin
 
By Emile Zola
There are many reasons to read this book.  The most persuasive is that Zola tells a good story. He sets the stage early and well for the tragic events that are to follow.  He develops his characters robustly and describes the environment of 19th century Paris vividly. So… if you are looking for entertainment, for a way to pass some hours absorbed in a tale, read this book.  However, there is much more than a good story here.  There’s a dissection of the human psyche, and also an examination of the 19th century French petite bourgeoisie.

At the center of the story is frustration, passion and murder.  Zola’ s treatment of his characters’ compulsions rivals that of Dostoyevsky, though Zola creates a scene that is much less complex.  There are certainly less characters to follow. But, as with  Dostoyevsky, Zola’s awareness of emerging psychological theories and the field of neurology enrich descriptions of character motivation.

Kudos to Emile Zola. His novel reflects much of what we have come to understand about the working of the human mind, and yet his work is firmly rooted in the 19th century. Truly a brilliant exercise.

The picture below is of the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge on the Seine River. In Therese Raquin, the Raquin family sets up shop in a small, dark passageway called, the Passage du Pont Neuf.

Picture by Steve from Washington, DC, USA
uploaded from Wikimedia Commons

Staff Pick
Broken Prey 
By John Sandford
According to my staff member, Broken Prey is a mystery that will hold your attention to the end. I am told that  the book serves up lots of gore and will divert from–whatever.   If that’s what you’re looking for, this author offers a series of books in the same vein.

Personal Favorites
Heart of Darkness 
By Joseph Conrad
This Conrad classic explores human motivation, colonialism, racism, greed.   Published originally as a three-part magazine serial, the book grew out of Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo. It’s hard to over estimate the influence of this small novel on Western literature and culture. In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard’s (Charlie Sheen) journey up the Nung River into Cambodia parallels that of Marlow going into the heart of darkness on the Congo River.

The Congo River Near Matadi
Photo by VBERGER
Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

Hunger 
Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature  in 1920.  Published in 1890, Hunger draws on Hamsun’s own experiences as a starving writer.  The story traces the psychological disintegration of a young man who is likewise starving.  The book is unforgettable.

Gudbrandsdalen Valley, where Knut Hamsun was born
Photo by Orland on Wikimedia Commons on attribution-share alike license

1984
 

George Orwell
How many books change the world?  This one did and continues to do so.  If there is such a thing as a seer, then I guess Orwell was one.  What I am grateful for is that he wrote in a time and place where these ideas were freely expressed.  The impact of his book on world culture is the best argument for protecting free speech.

Vanity Fair 
William Makepeace Thackeray
Originally written in serial form, Vanity Fair traces the machinations of a rapscallion young woman named Becky Sharp.  Thackeray is a cynic with a dim view of human nature and thus he wrote a novel “Without a hero”. This book offers a scathing view of 19th century English society.  As the picture below illustrates–an unwed mother is being turned out of the house by her father–moral strictures were unforgiving. A girl like Becky Sharp had to make her way. Vanity Fair is an entertaining read, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

The Outcast 1851
Richard Redgrave

Wikimedia Commons Copyright Expired

 


Far from the Madding Crowd 
Thomas Hardy
I should warn you: I am a Hardy groupie. This novel was first  published in a magazine and afterwards, with much editing, as a book.  Hardy’s mastery of language and his careful delineation of character are on full display here. While this novel is considered a “classic” today, it was greeted with commercial and critical success by Hardy’s contemporaries.

Original Illustration by Helen Allingham for Far From the Madding Crowd, in Cornhill Magazine (where the book was first published in serial form)
Image uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain because of expired copyright

Darkness at Noon 
Arthur Koestler
This book offers an examination into the motivation of a character most of us would consider unfathomable.  Nicholas Rubashov is arrested in the first chapter.  He is an operative in a Soviet-type government and the process to which he is subjected is exactly like that to which he has subjected others.  As Rubashov goes through various stages of interrogation, he examines his conscience.
In tracking Rubashov’s development, Koestler draws upon his own experience as an inmate in Francisco Franco’s prison. The decisions Rubashov makes about his situation may not be those the reader would anticipate, but they are, in a way, an inevitable consequence of the life he has led. 

Labor Camp Petrosavodsk, 1933-34
By Heinrich Vogeler
Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons not subject to URAA terms

Journal of the Plague Year 
Daniel Defoe
I was an adolescent when I first read this novel.  I thought it was true.  Defoe reconstructs the events of the Great Plague in London with such vivid detail, that I still find it hard to believe this book is a recreation, not fact.


Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
Novelist
Portrait by Michael Van der Gucht
From Wikimedia Commons Copyright Expired
The Golden Pot  
ETA Hoffmann
Most people are familiar with The Nutcracker, a ballet which delights adults and children alike.  Many who enjoy a performance of this classic may not be aware that it is derived from a story by ETA Hoffmann, the Nutcracker and the Mouse King.  Hoffmann was one of the most influential writers of German Romanticism.  He also wrote music and his creative powers seem to have been unlimited.  The Golden Pot (Der Goldene Topf) is considered by most critics to be his masterpiece, though other stories from the author have held up well over the ages.  In the Golden Pot he blends illusion and reality seamlessly as he brings his character Anselmus into a phantasmagoric universe.

Lorna Doone 

Richard Doddridge Blackmore
This book would get five stars from anyone who is into romance novels.  I read it when I was an adolescent and was spellbound.  I’m sure its appeal extends to those out of adolescence–as a matter of fact, in 1906 students at Yale designated it their favorite novel.  Also, generations of English readers have consistently placed the book on their list of favorites. I don’t know how I’d feel about Lorna Doone today, if I read it for the first time, but the book deserves kudos for staying with me all these years.
Original Illustration from Lorna Doone
From Project Gutenberg, Uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Copyright Expired
Ward No. 6 
By Anton Chekhov
Most of the selections on the Fiction Book page will be novels; however, at times short stories may be represented.  This story by Chekhov is one that deserves to stand alone.  I first read Ward No. 6 a couple of years ago and was struck by how “modern” it was.  While many authors of this vintage (story was written in 1892) were still writing novels of manner, Chekhov explored the absurd, the ironic and even the grotesque.

Please do not be misled by my reference to these serious-sounding themes:  Ward No. 6 is a story crafted to entertain–and entertain it does.  Chekhov pulls us into the life and psyche of a doctor who attends patients at an insane asylum. The alert reader knows there’s trouble ahead when the doctor says the following to a patient at the asylum:

Morality and logic don’t come in, it all depends on chance. If anyone is shut up he has to stay, and if anyone is not shut up he can walk about, that’s all. There is neither morality nor logic in my being a doctor and your being a mental patient, there is nothing but idle chance.
Chekhov was a physician by training so his description of the doctor’s perspective and conditions in the asylum take on all the more significance.

I’m not going to give away the end to this story.  What I can say is that I looked at it again just before sitting down to write this blurb.  As I read, I was drawn once again into Chekhov’s mesmerizing web.   This is a true master at work.
Kudos to Anton Chekhov and the art of writing perfect short stories.

Anton Chekhov, 1893

From Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Copyright Expired


Non Fiction

Awakenings 
By Oliver Sachs

The influenza outbreak of 1917/18 killed millions. While historians and scientists still discuss the significance of this pandemic, their attention is also drawn to another medical phenomenon which occurred in approximately the same time frame: encephalitis lethargica. Though less widespread than the flu, the effects of encephalitis lethargica were devastating. Those who did not die from the ailment were afflicted with a kind of paralysis, one from which they could not be roused for years.

Encephalitis lethargica is the subject of Oliver Sacks’ remarkable book: Awakenings. Dr. Sacks tells the story from the perspective of a research scientist, one who tried to–and indeed did help–patients locked into a kind of living death.

Some readers might have seen the movie, Awakenings, which featured Robin Williams as Oliver Sacks. I recommend the book over the movie, though the movie wasn’t bad either.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas
Photo uploaded by Jacopo Werther
Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Kagero Nikki 
Michitsuna’s Mother
Translated from the Japanese by Arthur Waley as The Gossamer Years, this slight volulme is considered a classic.  Written in diary form, the book records the activities of a Heian woman (794-1185) who is the second wife of a nobleman.  The woman writes of frustration and loneliness.  Her husband neglects and eventually abandons her.  She has virtually no options, except to stay at home and raise her son or to become a Buddhist nun.  She pours her feelings into her diary; though it is sometimes tedious to read her complaints,  the tedium reflects the life she led.   We do not know the name of this author; she is identified only as “mother of Michitsuna”.  Just as she was denied an independent destiny in her lifetime, she was granted no independent identity after her death.

Stalin 
Robert Service
Robert Service has written an historically responsible biography of the dictator.  There is much information about Stalin’s youth, personal life and political machinations.  Some might find the biography overly detailed (the book is 736 pages long) but I’d personally rather have more information than less.

Contempt of Court 
Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips


Ed Johnson’s Gravestone
Photo By: Jeromie Huffine
From Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Share Alike License

In 1906 a mob in Chattanooga Tennessee lynched Ed Johnson, a black man, for raping a white woman.  As tragic as this event was, it was not rare in the political and social landscape of the time.  What elevated Mr. Johnson’s death to the historic was a landmark Supreme Court decision, The United States v. Shipp.  In this decision, the precedent was established that Federal law should prevail in state courts.

The authors write an authoritative and gripping account of Ed Johnson’s death.  They trace the subsequent trial of the law officers who were supposed to protect Mr. Johnson.  To this day, United States v. Shipp remains the only criminal trial ever conducted by the U. S. Supreme Court.

The lynching of Ed Johnson is not often discussed in classrooms, and The United States v.Shipp  is not commonly referred to as a landmark Supreme Court Decision. But I think this decision ranks up there with Plessy and Brown, because finally, with Shipp,  state residents could invoke the protection of federal law–something that previously had been denied to them.

A Mask for Every Face 
A. G. Moore
Every book has a starting point, a kernel of motivation. In the case of this memoir, the author is clear about intention: a pursuit of truth. As a consequence, there is absent from her work entertaining flourishes which are the hallmark of creative non-fiction.

A.G. Moore writes that suffocating lies shaped her childhood–lies which shielded her father and protected the reputation of his extended family. With vivid illustrations and understated narration, the author exposes those lies. She leads us on a journey through a landscape of primitive splendor and ruthless brutality. We witness the winnowing of her family, the excesses of her father and the enduring love of her mother. A. G. Moore could have written a book with more drama, but that book likely would have been less historically accurate. And this author wants to be believed; by giving us a straightforward, unembellished account of her childhood she goes a long way to achieving that ambition.

The picture below illustrates the fertile farmland which dominated in the author’s childhood community.


Weed Orchards in Marlboro, New York
By Julian Colton
On Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Night 
Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s account of his experience in Buchenwald, where he watched his father die.  I cannot describe the horrors of Buchenwald here; Wiesel does this with such conscience and eloquence that at first he could not find a publisher for this book because it was so grim.  Wiesel is a witness and his account is one everyone should read.


Mother Courage and Her Children
 
By Bertolt Brecht
Anna Fierling, who is known as Mother Courage in this play, is the ultimate pragmatist–a survivor.  She peddles her goods on the battlefields of the Thirty Years War and is indifferent to the outcome.  She only wants to be alive when its over.  Ultimately, the cost of her survival is quite high.  This is a brilliant, play, in German or English.
 
The Miseries of War; No. 11, “The Hanging” 1632
By Jaques Callot, Depicting Miseries of the Thirty Years War
Art Gallery of New South Wales
In Public Domain Copyright Expired from Wikimedia Commons

Mussolini 
By R. G. B. Bosworth
A well-written biography offers a window into history and insight into human character.  This book accomplishes both of these goals.  Mussolini, Hitler, Pol Pot: the list is long of mesmerizing figures who  seduce a people into a kind of mass hysteria.  I try to understand, what is it people see in these delusional leaders? The  only answer that makes sense to me is, Mussolini–and other despots– appeared at a time when there was hunger for confidence, when those around them were weak and when the promise of greatness assuaged a wounded national identity.

Benito Mussolini might truly be called a monster.  He had his former lover and the mother of his first child interred in an asylum. She died prematurely of a mysterious illness. The child of this union was also institutionalized and eventually died at the age of 26 under equally mysterious circumstances.

The Grotesque in Art and Literature 

Wolfgang Kayser
Some years ago I read this book, which  is a remarkable analysis of  a variety of art forms.  Wolfgang Kayser, the book’s author, draws relationships between social milieu and expressions of the grotesque. Kayser makes a persuasive argument that one can trace parallels between historic moments and the resurgence of the grotesque  across different genres and movements.

I read the original in German–not easy reading, but well worth the effort.  At the time, I was trying to draw some kind of an arch from E.T.A. Hoffman, to Franz Kafka and then to Jorge Luis Borges.  This book helped me to intellectually understand a relationship I had instinctively sensed.

The link I have provided above is to an Australian library source.  You may find Kayser’s book in libraries elsewhere.  The Australian source offers it in English, which makes the book more accessible to the English-speaking audience.  I don’t regret struggling through it in German, however.  Kayser is very precise with language; translations are always interpretations and something of the author’s intention inevitably gets lost.  Attempting to read this book in the original might be a rewarding exercise–it was for me.


There is a Special Place 
Marilyn Goldsmith
This slim volume of poems contains many times its weight in wisdom and beauty.  But this is poetry, not prose, so the reader expects a particular kind of concentrated clarity in the work. Ms. Goldsmith does not disappoint. There is an extraordinary intellect on display here, which has not been overlooked; the poet has won many awards and her work has been published in respected  journals.

This is the kind of poetry one lingers over, in order to appreciate it’s discipline, wit,  and insight. Ms. Goldsmith has the ability to impart significance to the most quotidian event: the “two-point landing” of a Blue Jay, for instance, in Where Have All the Bluejays Gone?  Or the communal function of small-town clotheslines, which,”read much like the tracker in the forest”.


If you are not inclined to pick up a poetry book, make an exception in this case. You’ll be glad you made that decision.



Bluejay
Photo by ForestWander.com

On Wikimedia Commons
Maupassant: A Lion in the Path 
Frances Steegmuller
This is an extraordinarily responsible book and offers insight into the world of Guy de Maupassant.  Even if you were never seduced by his story-telling skills, you may be seduced by the society in which he moved.  His mentor was Flaubert; he rubbed shoulders with the most influential creative people in France.  Unfortunately, his wasn’t a very long life. He died at 43 from tertiary syphilis.  As tragic as this sounds, it has to be said that Maupassant was not a very nice man.  He seems to have been more than willing to share his syphilis with unsuspecting women. Although the disease ruined his life, this experience did not persuade him to hold back from infecting others.  Steegmuller’s book, while excellent, suffers because the author does not have a full understanding of the disease from which Maupassant suffered.  Publication date of this book is 1949.  Subsequent works on Maupassant deal more thoroughly with the issue of syphilis–largely because more information has become available.

An interesting aside to the Maupassant biography is a bit of trivia about Marie Bashkirtseff, a Russian painter with whom Maupassant carried on an epistolary flirtation. Bashkirtseff knew her life would be short–she died at the age of 26–because she was consumptive.  It is evident from his letters that Maupassant carries the vague hope of one day seducing this correspondent, but all the while Marie knows that she will only have a virtual romance because of her illness. I recommend these letters.  They are fascinating. They can be downloaded in English from the following website: http://archive.org/stream/lettersofmarieba00bashuoft#page/xxii/mode/2up

Tales from the Old Oak Table: A Family Memoir 

Susan Beck Korman
Many people think about legacy when they are in a certain season in their lives.  Sometimes this reflection leads to creating a written record.  This seems to have been the motivation which prompted Susan Beck Korman to take up pen and preserve her family’s history. Although legacy may have been Ms. Korman’s primary intent, she achieved a much larger purpose.  She opened a window into a specific time and place for all of us.

Ms. Korman’s childhood in the Bronx (NY) was not perfect–and neither was her family. With gentle honesty and acceptance she describes the foibles of each member; by doing so she enhances the legitimacy of her tale and the value of her memoir. This book will no doubt be treasured by generations of family.  For as long as that, I am confident it will also enrich readers who who come upon it and see in its characterizations reflections of their own imperfect families.

Ms. Korman has a talent for description.  Some of the scenes she paints are hilarious; some are touching. Together, all unite in a book that is enjoyable, informative and memorable.

Below is a picture of the Bronx Speedway, circa 1900.  This thoroughfare for horse traffic later became the Bronx River Drive and accommodated automobiles.  The Drive runs approximately along the Southwest perimeter of the borough.

Harlem River Speedway
From Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, copyright expired

The Most Famous Man in America 
Debby Applegate

Rarely have I read a book which helped to explain so clearly the roots of contemporary U. S. culture.  If this sounds boring, it’s not.  This biography of Henry Ward Beecher has everything: over-sized egos, sexual scandals, political intrigues, religious conflict, human bondage…and it’s all true.  That’s the best part.  Applegate meticulously researched her material and offers non of the credibility-sapping embellishment which diminishes so many historical biographies.

Take your time reading this one.    So much of what divides the U. S today has origins in the religious, political and social conflicts of Henry Ward Beecher’s time.  And so many of the people who shaped U.S. history were connected to Beecher.  He was, for example, brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe and a European emissary during the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln.


Cover for Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Coypright expired; public domain


Irrational Man 

William Barrett
I should be up front about my personal bias towards this author;  many years ago I signed up for a course at NYU without realizing a distinguished philosopher would be leading the class. That philosopher was  William Barrett.  Dr. Barrett, and the course, had a strong influence on my intellectual development.

Irrational Man is sort of a primer in existential thought.   This book isn’t laden with obscure terminology. It instead offers concrete examples, such as the work of Alberto Giacometti, to flesh out ideas.

Even if you’re not interested in existentialism, you might want to have at least a passing acquaintance with some of the more significant figures in this movement.   Irrational Man would be a relatively painless way to make that acquaintance.

Cocteau 
By Frances Steegmuller
I am a fan of the well-written biography and it seems  Frances Steegmuller can write no other kind.  You’ll note another of her books, Maupassant: a Lion in the Path, listed on this page.  Steegmuller won the National Book Award for Cocteau and for another work on Flaubert.

Even if you’ve no interest in the life and work of Jean Cocteau, you might  care to read  about Picasso, or Proust–for these are among the artists who inhabited Cocteau’s universe.  Other names–Gide, Appolinaire, Diaghilev–were associates of this multi-talented artist.  Follow Cocteau and you will meet legendaries figures of the 20th century.

Frances Steegmuller is a responsible biographer who organizes voluminous material in a very readable form.  Kudos to Cocteau and its author, Frances Steegmuller.

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Reflecting
 
By Rhythm Prism Publishing
This listing is unconventional in the sense that the book doesn’t tell a story–it offers the reader an opportunity to create a story.  Reflecting is aimed at a mature audience, those people who have reached a season of life when thoughts of legacy occur with increasing  frequency.  This book is formatted something like a multi-media literary album.  The book invites the reader to become a writer, a recorder, an observer.

To assist with the process of recording, the reader/author is given the opportunity to alternate between  applying photos and supplying descriptions.

This book is attractive.  It is in an 81/2 by 11 format, which makes inserting written material convenient.  One can envision an ambitious reader/author converting this first step at memoir writing into a full length book.  The material and organization will be ready for that next step, should the ambition seize someone newly initiated into the art of creating a book.

Kudos to Rhythm Prism Publishing for opening up possibilities to people who may previously only wistfully imagined themselves in the role of author.

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