Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ten Great Books I've Never Seen on a Ten Great Books List

Here are ten books that currently receive neither the applause nor the readership they deserve—at least in the United States:

1) Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy. A perfect novella by the greatest novelist in history. Of particular interest because its central character is an Islamic terrorist. And yet it goes unread, it seems, by everyone. Perhaps its Shakespearean evocation of the life, mind, and humanity of a fundamentalist insurgent is too much for us to bear right now.

2) Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz. A comic masterpiece, finally translated, just years ago, directly from Polish to English. Ferdydurke, c'est moi!

3) Dom Casmurro, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Most sacred to me of all the books on this list, Dom Cassmuro is a heartbreaking look at our impulse to ruin what we love.

4) Light Years, by James Salter. Reviewed here.

5) Hope Against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam. The definitive document of life under a totalitarian regime, written by the wife of Russia's greatest 20th century poet. Only by the total absence of privacy and normalcy in life under Stalin can one infer that privacy and normalcy are what this book most celebrates.

6) The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platanov. Reviewed here.

7) The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald. A book as delicate as its name—and as it's protagonist, the great German romantic philosopher, Novalis. The tenderest evocation of inexplicable love and of the exuberance of 18th century romantic thought that one can imagine from the pen of a contemporary novelist.

8) Straight Life, by Art Pepper. A musician's memoir that's as honest as his inimitable music, Straight Life is a searing portrait of artistic self-destruction and of the explosive collaborative genius of mid-century American jazz.

9) The Unquiet Grave, by Cyril Connelly. Written during World War II, this is a beautifully written meditation on the onset of middle-age, on the end of love, and—conceivably, at the time—on the end of Western Civilization.

10) Giovanni's Room, by James Baldwin. Better—because more honest—than anything by Hemingway, this tragic story captures the mystery and the grief of forbidden love with devastating precision.


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