Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Books you love, have reviewed, and recommend (but don't see anyone else reading)

It made me happy to see Richard's post on Andrei Bely's Petersburg because it was a book I loved and I don't see a lot of comments on it (my apologies to those of you have posted on it). It's weird. It's sprawling. And it's wonderful. As Amateur Reader expressed in the comments, "It has a ticking time bomb plot!" What's not to love about that?

Which got me to thinking (always a dangerous act), there have been many books I've recommended that I see very few others writing about. Some of that happens because of my book choices—many are out of print or difficult for some people to obtain. But many are available and I feel I have failed them somehow in not getting readers more excited about them.

To some extent I jest. If someone isn't interested in Thucydides or Fortunata and Jacinta, it doesn't matter how many posts I make. They aren't going to read it. And the last thing a book lover usually wants is someone grabbing them by the arm, shoving a book in their face, and saying "You HAVE to read this." That's when I start looking for the nearest exit and ineptly making an excuse to slip away.

I'm going to put aside that hesitancy and talk about three books I loved, reviewed, and recommend, but I don't see anyone else posting on them. Again, apologies to those who have. Sometimes I overstretch. I also want to hear from others on books they've read that they just KNOW readers would enjoy IF only they would give them a chance. Comment here or on your blog, but let me know and I'll be happy to append this post with your recommendations.

I'm not including works like José Maria Eça de Queirós' The Maias and Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate since I have seen a few posts by others (by Amateur Reader and Richard, respectively, now that I think about it). I wish would read them, though. And I won't include books such as Vladislav Vančura's The End of the Old Times, Zsigmond Móricz's Relations, or Pío Baroja's The Struggle for Life trilogy, even though I think they are remarkable, because they might be difficult for the average reader to obtain a copy. And there are some books, like Andrei Platonov's Chevengur, that I can't recommend enough but want to wait until new translations are available to trumpet them again. So given those constraints, here are three books I would really love to see book lovers read.

1. La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas
Too often compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (inaccurately, too). I'll lift the description from the back of my copy once again since it's a good summary:
Its subject is a shabby provincial Spanish town and, in particular, an intelligent and sensitive woman’s unsuccessful—and eventually disastrous—quest for fulfilment through marriage, adultery and religion. By dint of a remarkably complete and skilful use of realism, Alas combines a lively and satirical portrait of the society as a whole with an incisive exploration of the inner life of its principal characters.
Alas’ most famous role was probably that of literary critic “Clarín” (bugle), but the two novels he finished and his short stories stand up as great writing. La Regenta provides wonderful observations of what Alas believed to be major reasons for Spain's decline, presented with plenty of rich irony and ambiguity. When you address (and skewer) mediocrity, pretense, and hypocrisy, you're book is going to remain timely. You HAVE to read this book.

2. Bolesław Prus' The Doll
Everything I've read from the Central European University Press has been a winner, and I was happy to see this picked up by NYRB for publication. From the NYRB site:
Prus’s work centers around the stories of three men from three different generations: Wokulski, the fatally flawed and hopelessly love-struck hero; Rzecki, the methodical and romantic old clerk; and Ochocki, a bright young scientist who hopes for universal progress in the midst of a darkening political climate. As the stories of the three men intertwine, Prus’s novel spins a web of encounters with an embattled aristocracy, the new men of finance, and the urban poor. Written with a quasi-prophetic sensibility, The Doll looks ahead to the social forces of imperialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism that would soon hound the entire continent.
Prus intended this book "to present our Polish idealists against the background of society’s decay." Czesław Miłosz called Prus the most important novelist of his day and that The Doll demonstrated "nineteenth-century realism at its best." I found it a little heavy-handed at times with Prus reiterating his points, but the serialization of the novel may have been one reason he did so. The central female character may be the weakest part, and some of the scientific discussion isn't believable. Regardless, it's a rich introduction into some of Poland's history, showing there are no easy answers to the problems encountered. You HAVE to read this book.

3. I was going to mention Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford here (oops, I guess I just did), but instead I'll go with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle. Be sure to get the uncensored version, recently translated by Harry T. Willetts. Solzhenitsyn looks at what it takes to defy the evil of the Soviet regime and what is the cost of such defiance. He doesn't let the West off the hook either, highlighting the willful blindness of many who didn't wish to see the evil. Striving to live in Limbo, Dante's first circle of hell, means you're still in hell, and the book's prisoners echo those in Dante's Limbo: “We have no hope and yet we live in longing.” What struck me most about the book was the compassion Solzhenitsyn had with his characters, as well as the humor and irony he included. Plus it has a variation on the "ticking time bomb" plot! You HAVE to read this book.

Your turn, either in the comments or on your blogs—what books would you love to see more readers read?

Other readers' recommendations. Be sure to check out the comments to see why they chose what they did.

From seraillon:
Count Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian trilogy
Bomarzo by Manuel Mujica Láinez
Vincent McHugh's I Am Thinking of My Darling
Terry Andrews' The Story of Harold
More by Isak Dinesen, especially Seven Gothic Tales

From Amateur Reader:
The Entail by John Galt

From Fred:
Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time
Three novels by Walter van Tilburg Clark
       The Ox-Bow Incident
       The Track of the Cat
       The City of Trembling Leaves

From Richard:
Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo/I the Supreme
Three short works:
        Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval
       Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont
       Los siete locos/The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

From Umbagollah:
Christina Stead's House of All Nations
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young

From Anthony:
Atiq Rahimi's Curse on Dostoevsky
Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt

From obooki:
The later work of William Faulkner
Ermanno Cavazzoni's The Voice of the Moon
Emmanuel Bove's My Friends
Another recommendation for Isak Dinesen


seraillon said...

What fun - a post almost tailor-made for one to indulge. First, a hearty second for La Regenta, which I read this past year - easily one of the highlights of my reading for many past years. I'll also second The First Circle, the title of the first translated version, which I wolfed down in a single day while recovering from wisdom tooth extraction at age 17.

Like probably every other reader, I have a whole list of works and writers I’d like to see given more attention. It’s difficult to pick just three, so I’ll go with four (or five even):

First, Count Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian trilogy. To be fair, it's getting some more attention now that it's finally available again in the newish Everyman's Library edition.

Second, Bomarzo, by Manuel Mujica Láinez, long a favorite for its splendid recreation of the darker side of the Italian Renaissance.

A book about which I have not yet written but that I always feel compelled to recommend is a curious little New York novel from the 1940's, Vincent McHugh's I Am Thinking of My Darling. This is hardly high-brow literature. The unusual plot, however - an epidemic that hits the city causing everyone to become deliriously happy - is too appealing to resist, and there are a lot of wonderful asides about illness, viruses, jazz, art, social conditions, and the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers that make it a book I treasure. (I’ll sneak in a plug for Terry Andrews' The Story of Harold too, speaking of terrific New York novels.).

Finally, though Isak Dinesen is a household name, I’m surprised to see so little discussion of her work on literary blogs. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, and to be fair I’ve read two posts about her fairly recently. But I’d certainly like to see more, especially of her masterpiece Seven Gothic Tales.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I recently bought a copy of La Regenta, which is a good first step.

Seven Gothic Tales was son complex and insane that I did not know how to write about it. That's my excuse. Maybe next time.

The one book I always push is The Entail by John Galt (1822). To my horror, I googled the book to double-check the date and discovered that my site comes up second, after Wikipedia. Man, that ain't right.

The novel is a ruthless and funny century-long Scottish family saga. It features three of the greatest characters in 19th century British literature, which is a lot.

Jean said...

Hey! I read two of those, and one of them was on your recommendation. So there. (I'm obsessed with Solzhenitsyn anyway. Uh, come to think of it, my avatar features that book.) It's true, though, that I don't do the long writing and analysis that you like to do.

I'll have to give some thought to this question and come back later.

Dwight said...

No problem Jean. Glad to see you've read two of them.

AR, I have been wanting to read The Entail (and other books by Galt) since you posted on it. Unfortunately my county library doesn't have any of his books, so it looks like I'm going the used book route.

Richard, I'll have to check out those books. Several have been on my wish list for a while. Oh, and we're headed your way on Saturday to see The Balcony at The Old Mint. Looking forward to it!

Fred said...

I read both No. 3s--Parade's End and The first Circle--and I agree.

If I were to recommend anything, I would mention Anthony Powell's massive set: A Dance to the Music of Time, which I am now half way through. I have found someone else who has read it, but only after I mentioned it. It's an extraordinary picture of growing up after WWI in England.

Since I'm mentioning multiple works by an author, I will bring up one other name, who gets little if any mention today: Walter van Tilburg Clark. I would recommend all three of his novels:

The Ox-Bow Incident--two men trapped into joining a lynch mob for fear that that may be interpreted as sympathy for the killers, adapted for film starring Henry Fonda;

The Track of the Cat--one of the great novels of a man hunting for a cattle-killing cat who somehow becomes the prey. adapted for film starring Robert Mitchem:

The City of Trembling Leaves--a young boy growing up in early 20th century Reno to become his own person.

I reread all three regularly and have a few entries about them on my blog.

Fred said...

Bad case of pronoun reference in my previous message. It is the man who is hunting the cat and he becomes somehow the prey instead.

Dwight said...

I understood what you meant Fred, but I can see the possibility for confusion. Thanks for clearing that up. I've seen those movies and have enjoyed them, but never thought of reading the books for some reason.

And Powell has long been on my wish list. I've seen a few post on it, but not often...a great inclusion.

Richard said...

Dwight, I'm surprised more people don't give Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities" a try despite its size. It's not like it's that much longer than Mann's "The Magic Mountain," which gets a ton more play on the blogs I frequent, and it's so exhilarating and thought-provoking.

Augusto Roa Bastos' "Yo el Supremo/I the Supreme," often branded as "a Lat Am dictator novel" but so much more than that, is more demanding than the norm whatever that is, but it's another one of a kind, absolutely unhinged attack on language that I think you and many of the other commenters would really enjoy.

Gérard de Nerval's "Aurélia," Lautréamont's "Maldoror" and Roberto Arlt's "Los siete locos/The Seven Madmen" are three short works I wish more people would try; Tom/Amateur Reader has written about all three of them, of course, but he's probably the only other blogger I'm aware of who has. All are startling, startlingly original or both, although the Lautréamont and the Arlt might push too many buttons for more, ahem, sensitive readers.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The Nerval would likely have been the next on my list.

Dwight said...

Many thanks to everyone who has responded so far. Except for the fact that I'm ordering used books like crazy...several of these are going in my TBR stack now and I'm sure many will be added later. I'll probably avoid the big ones for now, like Banffy, Powell and Musil, simply because I have several big books already (like The Thibaults) and a few more "projects" I want to tackle this year.

Please...anyone stumbling across this keep adding to it. I appreciate everyone's response.

Richard, I had added some of those works mentally, but I'll do so physically. I'm glad everyone got the gist of where I was going with this!

Umbagollah said...

Fred, if you like Dance have you tried Levi Stahl's blog, Ivebeenreadinglately? I enjoyed those books while I was reading them but they haven't lasted in my head. Lautréamont I like very much. Nerval, I don't know: I've only read him through once and it wasn't enough. But I wish people would read Christina Stead's House of All Nations, because everybody tells you to read The Man Who Loved Children, and nobody mentions House, which is less shapely and graspable, and probably much harder to teach, or to write about, or to clutch to your heart, but it's a cold and gleeful, happy book – about banking. There's also Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, by Marguerite Young. Everybody should try to read that one, even if they hate the author afterwards.

Fred said...


Thanks for the tip. I will check out the blog.

AB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AB said...

Atiq Rahimi's Curse on Dostoevsky got fair coverage in the national papers, but I'd love to see some of the blogs I read share their thoughts.

Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination deserves to be widely read, an intimate study of life, myth and fiction but utterly charming.

Nick Hunt's Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, a homage to Paddy Leigh Fermor's epic walk with all the charm of its inspiration.

obooki said...

I've been meaning to comment on this. I'd like to recommend:

The later work of Faulkner - even though I'm currently pledged to reading his early work - which I never hear anyone talking about (it's always The Sound and The Fury or As I Lay Dying). I think I might go on to read the Snopes trilogy next.

Ermanno Cavazzoni's The Voice of the Moon - a writer I've never heard anyone else ever mention, and who seems largely ignored in English (he has 2 books translated, I think), but who is quite mad and wonderful and amusing. I find myself laughing now again at the man whose garden is in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo.

And Emmanuel Bove's My Friends, which I must read again and review. I only bought it because on the cover it said he'd been championed by Colette and Beckett. He wrote a lot of stuff which isn't as good, but this and Armand are meant to be his best works.

Also, I agree about Isak Dinesen: I find her one of the finest writers of the c20th, but one who suffers no doubt for being a pure storyteller in an age which liked to feign disinterest in storytelling.

I shall read some of these others. In fact, I've recently started on Banffy, though I'm not sure how actively committed I am on this front.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

A Fable, though, that book stinks. Faulkner's worst.

obooki said...

Ah good, I've got that. Now I'm really looking forward to it.