The Drowned Sister
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The Extraordinary Consequences of Señor Higgins's Holiday in Estragon
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BOOKS WE LOVE
A dozen books we wish we’d discovered first
— by author, strictly in alphabetical order!
We are energetically pursuing the rights to reprint some of these books, so keep an eye on the site if one of your favourites is here. And if one of your favourites is missing, let us know.
Michael Arlen — The Green Hat
Published in 1924 and a massive best-seller, this is ostensibly the story of a wild young widow with a shady past and a taste for fast cars and adultery, set mostly in Mayfair just as the Twenties began to roar. As well, Arlen muses on the English upper classes, still dazed by the First World War, and regales the reader with philosophical asides and reflections on the nature of women, drunkenness, doctors who specialize in diseases of the rich, the management of nightclubs, and much more: finally delivering a shattering ending to this quest for the true nature of his heroine.
Jorge Luis Borges — Fictions
Actually, we wish we could have been around to discover anything by Borges. These are mesmeric dream-fables of alternative worlds, of worlds within the world, and impossible but imaginable universes. Post-modernist if you must, but without the associated bullshit, obscurantism, and smugness: hugely entertaining, sometimes scary, always stimulating.
Peter Carey — Oscar & Lucinda
With this book Carey made himself the worthy successor to Patrick White as Australia’s most serious novelist. Constructed like a dramatic poem, the book reaches the guts, intrigues the intellect, and tells a riveting moral fable of epic proportions.
Joseph Conrad — Nostromo
Conrad wrote other undeniably great novels (Victory, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes) but this astonishing mix of the personal and the political in a mythical (and therefore most real) South American country vies with anything by Henry James or D.H. Lawrence as the greatest novel of the 20th century, and is far more accessible than those writers’ most acclaimed works. Skim the turgid first chapter, and then plunge into one of the most intensely realized fictional worlds ever created.
Lion Feuchtwanger — Jew Süss
Loosely based on fact, this tells of the rise, worldly fall and spiritual rebirth of the Jewish financier, fixer, and epicurean egotist Josef Süss Oppenheimer at the court of the Duke of Württemberg in the 18th century. The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “The slow uprooting and spiritual integration of the man is recorded with unfailing justice and understanding. ... It is difficult to give an adequate idea of [the book’s] range and beauty, [its] colour and depth.... There is an unmistakable quality of greatness in the novel.”
J.P. Donleavy — The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
An apparently tired and uninspired Donleavy replayed chunks of the plot of Balthazar B in several subsequent novels, and never again managed this blend of horror, hilarity, and the intrinsic tragedy of human existence. His one great novel, every page shot through with the ‘glory, jest, and riddle’ – and sadness – of life, written without a trace of sentimentality.
Alan Garner — Strandloper
Garner made his reputation with what were already highly original children’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service, and so on) but with Red Shift moved into increasingly uncharted territory, both emotionally and technically, while never losing his sense of the visionary and spiritual dimensions to existence. Strandloper, we respectfully submit, is his finest novel so far. Short, intense, and condensed, it’s no work for impatient readers. Like a fine old Gewurtztraminer, it sings long on the palate and demands repeated samplings for its art to reveal itself.
Ursula le Guin — Earthsea Trilogy
We could, almost as well, have recommended le Guin’s Rocannon’s World. Long before we discovered that le Guin was the daughter of the authors of that classic Ishi: the Last of his Tribe, we loved her writing for its anthropological logic, as she thought through the cultural implications and consequences of her imagined worlds in all their dimensions. Earthsea’s exact, evocative prose puts most other attempts at mythic writing (Lord of the Rings, for instance, and all its crass magniloquence) and all sword-and-sorcery pulp to shame. Great themes are enacted through the personal life, and the personal life is recognized as mythic, however ostensibly humble.
Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
A man commits a crime and then encounters one of three mysterious policemen – who are more interested in time, eternity, and particularly bicycles, it seems, than mere crime. Meanwhile, in a parallel stream of footnotes, we are treated to many insights into the life and work of the crazed genius de Selby and his scholarly devotees Hatchjaw and Bassett. Gradually, shadowing O’Brien’s rivetingly surreal humour, one recognizes a vision of hell. Rarely if ever has a picture of damnation been so life-affirming.
T.F. Powys — Unclay
John Death arrives in the obscure Dorset village of Little Dodder with instructions to ‘unclay’ two of its inhabitants. Unfortunately for him, Death loses the divine chit bearing the names of the doomed pair, and is obliged to stay in Little Dodder until he finds it. And in the course of that summer he acquires a taste for life... Bleaker, yet in some ways funnier than Powys’s better-known Mr Weston’s Good Wine, this is its equal as a masterpiece of economic, subtly allusive and evocative writing that owes much to the resonant simplicity and plain-speaking of the King James Bible.
André Schwarz-Bart — The Last of the Just
It is almost impossible to write dispassionately of the Holocaust or of the exhausting history of persecution and pogrom that preceded it. Yet it is Schwartz-Bart’s understated tone, following the fate of individuals and obliquely mining and illuminating their emotional lives, that brings home the full, unspeakable horror of what culminated in Germany with the Nazis. Ranging from the Crusades to Auschwitz, this is a truly great novel.
Patrick White — Voss
Reading Voss, or the finest of White’s other novels (Riders in the Chariot, A Fringe of Leaves), is like entering another age – when stories were told to address and illuminate the human condition. Half-god, half-devil, the explorer Voss is thrust face-to-face with his arrogance in the Australian desert, while communicating telepathically with his lover Laura Trevelyan.
With apologies (in no order at all) to:
Stanley Elkin, Shirley Hazzard, James Stephens, Joseph Heller, Primo Levi, Henry Green, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Rhys, Garrison Keillor, Henry James, Jill Paton Walsh, Paul Scott, and others who, if in some cases only occasionally, have attained genius in their writing... we’ll be commenting on them in due course
Now in Print
The Kaleidoscope Man
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No End To Yesterday
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