Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899, Blackwood's Magazine; 76 pages)
A dark and symbolistic book, Conrad’s famous tale tells the story of an Englishman traveling to the Belgian Congo at the turn of the century.
From the back cover:
"Although Polish by birth, Joseph Conrad (18571924) is regarded as one of the greatest writers in English, andHeart of Darkness, first published in 1902, is considered by many his "most famous, finest, and most enigmatic story."Encyclopaedia Britannica. The tale concerns the journey of the narrator (Marlow) up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company. Far upriver, he encounters the mysterious Kurtz, an ivory trader who exercises an almost godlike sway over the inhabitants of the region. Both repelled and fascinated by the man, Marlow is brought face to face with the corruption and despair that Conrad saw at the heart of human existence.
In its combination of narrative and symbolic power, masterly character study and acute psychological penetration, Heart of Darkness ranks as a landmark of modern fiction. It is a book no serious student of literature can afford to miss."
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Recommended by: Ariadne
THE THIEF -- an existential crime masterpiece that follows a Japanese pickpocket lost to the machinations of fate
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura (2013, Soho Press; 211 pages)
The unnamed protagonist of Fuminori Nakamura’s brisk, beautiful, dreamlike literary crime masterpiece is a thief, a smooth-as-silk Tokyo pickpocket who glides his way through the flow of humanity in a near trance, lifting wallets from unsuspecting strangers with a masterful ease. He’s so smooth, it’s as if he isn’t there at all. Sometimes, he doesn’t even remember the pockets he’s picked. Most of the people he meets are just a blur to him. He has no friends or family, no connections other than a former partner and a long-dead lover, until the day he sees a young boy and his prostitute mother clumsily shoplifting in a supermarket.
When that former partner reappears in his life with a job offer he can’t refuse, the thief becomes entangled in the clutches of a supreme criminal mastermind, a seemingly all-powerful force that robs and murders and decides men’s fates with an almost cheerful capriciousness.
Nakamura’s Tokyo is not a Lost-In-Translation, glittery, neon-pulsing city filled with karaoke clubs and bleeding-edge technology. In this Japan, the neon bulbs have fizzled, the karaoke bars replaced by writhing sex clubs, and the bubblegum girls have grown up to become haggard single mothers turning tricks in cheap tracksuits.
Infused with a bleak, existential dread, The Thief is part Camus, part Donald Westlake, with heavy doses of Kafka and Dostoyevski. Nakamura’s writing is spare, almost Hemingwayesque, but filled with an elegance all his own. This is a haunting, fast-paced work that will stay with you long after you finish it.
From The Thief:
I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me. Maintaining the fragile contact between my fingers and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings, only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my back. I took out my cell phone and pretended to check my email as I walked away.
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Recommended by: Greg
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911, Scribner's; 195 pages)
A tragic story of a poor New England farmer, Wharton’s short novel is a fast read steeped in excellent imagery and a fascinating plot.
First published in 1911, “Ethan Frome” is Edith Wharton’s tale of thwarted dreams and desires set in a small New England town at the turn of the 20th century. When a young engineer is on assignment in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, he becomes fascinated by the deformed and troubled local, Ethan Frome. Framed through an extended flashback, the young engineer ultimately learns the tragic history of Ethan Frome when he is forced to take refuge at the man’s house during a winter storm. Frome, who is married to Zenobia, a nagging hypochondriac of a woman, finds himself trapped in an unfulfilling life. Zenobia’s young cousin Mattie Silver comes to live with them in order to help out around the farmhouse and Ethan sees an opportunity for happiness. When his wife begins to notice the growing attachment between Ethan and Mattie she plans to send her away, insisting she needs a more competent servant, which sets in motion a tragic set of circumstances for all involved.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
THE SCARLET LETTER -- a masterful exploration of humanity's unending struggle with sin, guilt and pride
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850, Bantam Classics; 256 pages)
This American classic, centered largely around hypocrisy, urges its reader to question their own moral compass, as well as societal norms.
From the publisher:
Hailed by Henry James as "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country," Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation's historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles (2016, Viking; 480 pages)
Some years ago, in another life as a journalist, I spent some time traveling around Europe with a plan to write a book about all the grand hotels of the continent. I stayed in quite a few, and loved every minute I spent in the rooms and lobbies of those majestic, historic hotels. So it’s no surprise that I found Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow to be a complete delight. It’s the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who, in 1922, is arrested for writing a poem deemed subversive. Tried by a Bolshevik tribunal, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest inside the Hotel Metropol, a grand Moscow hotel where movie stars and Russian royalty hobnob, where Bolsheviks plot revolutions, charming spies cast their web, politicians contrive and maneuver, and intellectuals and world travelers hold court while inventing drinks in the hotel’s sumptuous bar. If this is house arrest, sign me up!
The Count, an irrepressible gentleman of erudition and wit, makes the best of everything. Forced to move from his lavish hotel suite to a tiny attic room, he finds a way to expand his quarters into a space large enough to hold his favorite books, pieces of art, and furniture. While Rostov spends his days taking tea and supping in the hotel’s dining rooms and salons, and visiting the hotel’s barber, the tumultuous years in Russian history pass by outside the hotel’s marble walls. But through a luminous cast of characters, and one wonderfully written scene after another, the events and intrigues of the decades make their way to the Metropol. As does Nina, a precocious young genius who holds the keys to all the rooms in the hotel, who wonders what it means to be a princess, and who will inexorably change the course of the Count’s life.
A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel brimming with humor and suspense – all drawn out at an exquisitely leisurely pace -- and the Count is a delightful creation, a gentleman who steadfastly (and hilariously for readers) refuses to sink beneath his station – even when forced to wait tables, play hide-and-seek with children, or confront the brutish minions of the communist regime:
Prosecutor Vyshinsky: State your name.
Rostov: Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt.
Vyshinsky: You may have your titles; they are of no use to anyone else. But for the record, are you not Alexander Rostov, born in St. Petersburg, 24 October 1889?
Rostov: I am he.
Vyshinsky: Before we begin, I must say, I do not think that I have ever seen a jacket festooned with so many buttons.
Rostov: Thank you.
Vyshinsky: It was not meant as a compliment.
Rostov: In that case, I demand satisfaction on the field of honor.
Secretary Ignatov: Silence in the gallery.
Vyshinsky: What is your current address?
Rostov: Suite 317 at the Hotel Metropol, Moscow.
Vyshinsky: How long have you lived there?
Rostov: I have been in residence since the fifth of September 1918. Just under four years.
Vyshinsky: And your occupation?
Rostov: It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.
Vyshinsky: Very well then. How do you spend your time?
Rostov: Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.
Vyshinsky: And you write poetry?
Rostov: I have been known to fence with a quill.
This is a book to savor, preferably while sipping an overpriced beverage in the lush lobby of a grand hotel.
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Recommended by: Greg
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014, G.P. Putnam's Sons; 460 pages)
I first watched the TV series, and it was so good that when I picked up the book I finished it in two days. Big Little Lies is a fantastic read based on this thought-provoking sentence: "Sometimes it's the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal..."
The book is about a murder, or maybe a tragic accident, or perhaps just parents behaving badly at a party. The only indisputable fact is that someone is dead. And the question that holds the book together is "who did what?"
The book is also about the lives of three incredible characters. Three women, each one of them at a crossroads in their lives. Madeline is funny, biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one. She doesn't forgive her ex-husband, who is now married to a new young yogi wife and whose daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline's youngest. Not a good combination for Madeline´s mood.
Then the readers meet Celeste, who is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. She seems perfect. Her husband seems to be perfect, they both look like the king and queen of the school parent body, and the fact that they are very rich doesn't hurt. They have twins who are starting school.
Finally we meet Jane, the single mom new to town, so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane carries sadness inside, and secrets too.
The book is about the friendship of these three women, and about how the arrival and her little boy Ziggy will affect them all. It is a book about ex husbands, and second wives, mothers and daughters, a schoolyard scandal, and about "the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive."
Recommended to those readers looking for a thought-provoking, complex but entertaining page-turner.
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Recommended by: Maite
THE QUIET AMERICAN -- Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955, William Heinemann; 180 pages)
The popularity of Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War reminded me of my favorite novel that takes place during wartime Vietnam, The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It is important, though, to distinguish right away that Greene’s book was published prior to American involvement in the war, which is precisely one of the reasons I love the book so much. The story itself is so surreal & dark that it could have served as the screenplay for Apocalypse Now! or Platoon. This detail is what affected me so deeply when reading the story of the French experience fighting guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. I couldn’t escape the thought of, ‘If only those making the decisions in the USA had read this…’ because the American experience proved to be very similar to the French experience. History buffs should also check out Robert Miller’s excellent Indochina and Vietnam, a non-fiction book that stresses the American involvement in the war as an extension of the French involvement of the thirty-five year war for the Vietnamese, as complimentary reading to Greene’s story. The protagonist in The Quiet American is a cynical British journalist (just as Greene was in real life) who encounters a young American idealist who also happens to be an undercover CIA operative. The story that follows isn’t just surreal and dark but also strikes at what it means to be human and part of a society. Greene has the ability to string some words together in a single sentence that not only fits the narrative of the story but also makes the reader pause and reflect on the deeper meaning and implications of the sentence. And, after all, isn’t that what all books are supposed to do?
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Recommended by: Andrew
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969, Delacorte; 288 pages)
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden during World War 2.
Vonnegut exquisitely tells a war-time tale that is resonant and intriguing, and that focuses on human emotion and incentive, not just on gruesome facts of war.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE -- the influential and widely acclaimed novel details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, confused and disillusioned, searching for the truth and railing against the "phoniness" of the adult world
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951, Little, Brown and Company; 240 pages)
Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, the hero-narrator of this classic novel, has been synonymous with "cynical adolescent." Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists.
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
Salinger's storytelling is truly reminiscent of a teenage mind. His use of anecdotes also aids in the story's development, and allows the apathetic Holden Caulfield to better express his motives.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
CANNERY ROW -- Steinbeck's humorous and poignant Depression-era classic is filled with hope and heart
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945, Viking Press; 208 pages)
John Steinbeck’s lovely and hilarious classic revolves around the people living in the cannery district of Monterey, California, during the Great Depression. Among them: Doc, a marine biologist; Mack, the leader of a group of derelicts who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack; Dora Flood, who runs the Bear Flag Restaurant (and house of ill repute); and Lee Chong, the local grocer.
Mack and his friends are trying to do something nice for their friend, Doc, who has been good to them without asking for anything in return. Mack hits on the idea that they should throw a thank-you party, and the entire community becomes involved. Unfortunately, the party rages out of control, and Doc’s lab and home are ruined. In an effort to return to Doc’s good graces, Mack and the boys decide to throw another party.
The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short, sometimes darkly humorous vignettes that introduce us to the various denizens of the Row. These vignettes often allude to the cruelty of the natural world.
Steinbeck’s writing style is impeccable, and the way he uses anecdotes to introduce the setting of this story works really well. He also tells his story very plainly, making it more pleasurable to read while still preserving a profound reading experience and an influential story.
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Recommended by: Ariadne