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the orphan master’s son

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Adam Johnson tells this story of love and identity inside an amazingly real-feeling North Korea, neither glossing over nor glorifying atrocities and human rights violations. Instead, he immerses the reader in a culture that feels upside down – where children clean chemical vats and adults disappear for days, conscripted off city streets to work in rice paddies; where parents teach their children that, even though sometimes you have to denounce each other publicly, you’re still holding hands inside; where a father and husband can be killed and replaced by a stranger overnight, and the family will barely acknowledge the change. Always, on every street and in every home, loudspeakers tell the “Dear Leader”-approved news and warn of imminent invasion by the decadent Americans. Disconnecting your loudspeaker is a serious offense; citizens are encouraged to rat out their neighbors. After all, something may be wrong with the speaker, and you wouldn’t want them to miss an emergency announcement.

This is a powerful, sad, and deeply affecting novel with moments of transcendent beauty. It reminds me of why I loved books in the first place.

top novels

New addition: The Orphan Master’s Son (#11), by Adam Johnson

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
12 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
13 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
14 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
15 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
16 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
17 The Plague – Albert Camus
18 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
19 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
20 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

21 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
22 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
23 Native Son – Richard Wright
24 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
25 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
26 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
27 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
28 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
29 Wolf – Jim Harrison
30 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse

31 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov
32 Blindness – Jose Saramago
33 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
34 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
35 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
36 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
37 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
38 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
39 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
40 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

41 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
42 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
43 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
44 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
45 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
46 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
47 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
48 1984 – George Orwell
49 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
50 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

51 Old School – Tobias Wolff
52 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
53 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
54 Mao II – Don DeLillo
55 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
56 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
57 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
58 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
59 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
60 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

61 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
62 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
63 Neuromancer – William Gibson
64 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
65 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
66 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
67 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
68 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
69 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
70 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald

71 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
72 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
73 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
74 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
75 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
76 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
77 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
78 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
79 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
80 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling

81 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
82 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
83 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
84 The Fall – Albert Camus
85 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
86 Straight Man – Richard Russo
87 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
88 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
89 Kindred – Octavia Butler
90 The Road – Cormac McCarthy

91 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
92 The Street – Ann Petry
93 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
94 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
95 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
96 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
97 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
98 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
99 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
100 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx

101 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

Okay, I admit I didn’t want to drop The Parable of the Sower all the way off my list, so this list becomes “top novels,” instead of “100 top novels.”

This begs the question, why not add more than 101? Why not make it 200? or 500? So far, the answer is that I don’t want to spend the time on that. Maybe in the future.

old school

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Stories are important to me. I think stories are important to most people. We use them to share our days, our lives, and our histories. Stories entertain us and help us know who we are and where we came from. And the stories we tell about ourselves, together with the stories that are told about us, can become who we are in the minds of others. If those stories are not true, they can get us into trouble. But not always.

Uncertainty about the power and effect of stories, the way stories define or don’t define our identities, is a major theme in Old School (Tobias Wolff, 2003), a novel told in a series of short stories that seem like chapters until the last chapter/story, which is only just connected to the rest of the book. It feels like Wolff calling attention to the structure of the book by taking us out of the narrative flow. Only then do you go back and realize that each chapter could stand alone, that, in addition to being about stories, the larger book is made up of a series of smaller stories.

In addition, large portions of the novel are dedicated to talking about writers and the stories they write. So on many levels this is a story about stories. It is like poems about poetry, a cliché that, in this case, does not lessen the power of the product.

The power comes from the sharp, clear prose. To call the prose sparse would be too strong. Efficient is too utilitarian. Elegant and beautiful miss the mark as well. It’s one of those moments when you just want to say it is good writing; you know it when you see it. The writing is good enough to make a story about privileged white boys in a small private boarding school on the east coast in 1960 compelling – and for me, that’s saying something. Themes that include social class, passing for white privileged, the relationship between sons and fathers, community, and integrity also help.

But even as Wolff marshals the power of stories to define ourselves, he also questions it to the point of asserting that we become who we are without realizing it. For himself, that means “the life that produces writing can’t be written about.” Not because language is incapable of capturing it, but because “it is a life carried on without knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise.” Therefore, “no true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there a moment of which you can say: This is when I became a writer.”

For Wolff, it seems, we tell stories about this or that moment in our lives, pretending they are turning points. But in fact these are fictions and the truth of our selves is “in deep shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention the are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.”

Old School shows how stories help us feel alive and wise and full of energy to rise above that blandness, while simultaneously recognizing their limitations. They are crystals of knowledge we can hold and dissect and talk about. They help us remember and think about ourselves. Wolff’s ranks among the best at all these.

100 top novels — 15

New addition: Old School (#50), by Tobias Wolff

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov

31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
46 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
47 1984 – George Orwell
48 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
49 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
50 Old School – Tobias Wolff

51 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
52 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
53 Mao II – Don DeLillo
54 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
55 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
56 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
57 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
58 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
59 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
60 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane

61 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
62 Neuromancer – William Gibson
63 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
64 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
65 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
66 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
67 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
68 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
69 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
70 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

71 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
72 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
73 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
74 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
75 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
76 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
77 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
78 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
79 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
80 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin

81 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
82 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
83 The Fall – Albert Camus
84 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
85 Straight Man – Richard Russo
86 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
87 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
88 Kindred – Octavia Butler
89 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
90 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare

91 The Street – Ann Petry
92 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
93 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
94 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
95 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
96 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
97 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
98 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
99 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
100 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

americanah

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It’s been almost four years since I added a new novel to my top 100 list. That is partly because I haven’t had time to read novels much during that span and partly because the few I have read didn’t make the list. It is wonderful to read a really good novel, again.

In her fourth book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie masterfully uses a mostly non-linear narrative and occasional shifts in narrative perspective to tell a story about a Nigerian woman in the US as she struggles to find her self and her voice and her love. Americanah is startling smart and witty, romantic and remarkable: for it’s beautiful prose, often with long sentences that somehow avoid feeling dense; for the sharp clarity of it’s observations about the world; and for it’s unflinching perspective on race and culture in the United States. Read it if you want a view of the US from the outside and, more importantly, to understand cultural difference and the dilemma of an immigrant better.

100 top novels — 14

New addition: Americanah (#45), by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov

31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
46 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
47 1984 – George Orwell
48 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
49 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
50 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos

51 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
52 Mao II – Don DeLillo
53 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
54 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
55 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
56 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
57 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
58 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
59 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
60 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

61 Neuromancer – William Gibson
62 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
63 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
64 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
65 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
66 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
67 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
68 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
69 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
70 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis

71 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
72 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
73 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
74 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
75 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
76 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
77 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
78 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
79 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
80 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh

81 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
82 The Fall – Albert Camus
83 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
84 Straight Man – Richard Russo
85 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
86 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
87 Kindred – Octavia Butler
88 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
89 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
90 The Street – Ann Petry

91 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
92 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
93 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
94 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
95 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
96 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
97 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
98 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
99 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

100 top novels — 13

New addition: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (#45), by Junot Díaz

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov

31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
46 1984 – George Orwell
47 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
48 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
49 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
50 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

51 Mao II – Don DeLillo
52 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
53 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
54 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
55 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
56 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
57 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
58 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
59 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
60 Neuromancer – William Gibson

61 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
62 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
63 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
64 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
65 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
66 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
67 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
68 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
69 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
70 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

71 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
72 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
73 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
74 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
75 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
76 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
77 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
78 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
79 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
80 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

81 The Fall – Albert Camus
82 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
83 Straight Man – Richard Russo
84 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
85 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
86 Kindred – Octavia Butler
87 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
88 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
89 The Street – Ann Petry
90 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter

91 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
92 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
93 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
94 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
95 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
96 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
97 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
98 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

the brief wondrous life of oscar wao

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When I taught English composition, one of the things I disliked most was trying to describe why a perfectly good paper got a B grade and what separated it from an A grade. It’s a tired cliché that is true about many arts: it’s hard to define good writing, but you know it when you see it. There’s an ineffable something that makes some writing feel elegant, smooth, clever, and pleasing, while other writing seems clunky, silly, boring, and torturous. And even when I’m reading good writing, I’m often hard put to say how the author pulled off an audacious, but fantastic passage that would have fallen flat in other hands.

Junot Díaz, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), is that kind of writer in spades. He mixes graduate-level English prose and vocabulary, with street slang English and Spanish and a heavy dose of literary and cinematic references from genres as broad as classical English poets to science fiction and fantasy to comic books and Japanese anime—somehow managing to make it all sound effortless and natural. His thoroughly post-modern, non-linear narrative turns category inside-out and hierarchy upside-down. Sometimes it’s hard just keeping track of the narrator, who shifts without warning through different first-person voices, into a blend of second- and third-person, and back.

Lest you think Díaz is some kind of savant, unaware of his craft, his introductory first chapter—not called an introduction, but clearly serving to frame the rest of the novel—explicitly tells you he’s about to take you down the rabbit hole, into a Dominican wonderland (the titular “wondrous” is a direct link to Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and then he takes you there. That place is full of oppressive heat, superstition, violence, corruption, plantains, and sugar cane. Reading the many footnotes (yes, footnotes!) provides a crash course in the history of the Dominican Republic, with special emphasis on the Trujillo Era (named for the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, aka, El Jefe), which lasted for over 30 years (1930-1961). Díaz quite consciously uses the novel to educate his audience, creating an entire new world (for the Dominican-ignorant) in the high tradition of the fantasy literature in which he is obviously steeped.

Oh, and there’s a story, too. It’s a family story. A story about sons and daughters. About growing up with parents that love their children, but show it in ways that are not always helpful for anyone. It’s a sad story, with the possibility for life and love between the tragedies. It’s a story about racism, sexism, bad luck, and a few things we can do to fight them, whether successfully or not. If the ending doesn’t leave you hopeful, at least it doesn’t leave you broken. The novel feels very personal for Díaz, like he was compelled to write it, if for no other reason than to have it stop bothering him. And perhaps this is part of what makes it a great novel—that Díaz knows his craft and his material intimately and could write it no other way than as an expression of himself and his experience.

100 top novels — 12

New addition: The Palace of Dreams (#87), by Ismail Kadare

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov

31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 1984 – George Orwell
46 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
47 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
48 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
49 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
50 Mao II – Don DeLillo

51 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
52 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
53 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
54 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
55 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
56 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
57 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
58 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
59 Neuromancer – William Gibson
60 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway

61 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
62 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
63 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
64 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
65 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
66 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
67 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
68 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
69 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
70 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

71 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
72 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
73 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
74 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
75 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
76 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
77 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
78 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
79 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
80 The Fall – Albert Camus

81 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
82 Straight Man – Richard Russo
83 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
84 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
85 Kindred – Octavia Butler
86 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
87 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
88 The Street – Ann Petry
89 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
90 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong

91 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
92 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
93 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
94 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
95 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
96 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
97 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

the palace of dreams

Ismail Kadare, an Albanian writer living in French exile since 1990, says that “the writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.” His self-proclaimed attempt to invent a hell on earth resulted in The Palace of Dreams, a novel of shadows, cold, uncertainty, and suspicion in which the state watches everything, including our dreams. Set in what feels like the 19th-century in the Ottoman Empire, it is the story of Mark-Alem, a young and not-entirely-competent son of an venerable family with a long tradition of government service and association with power. When his family gets him a job in the titular palace, Mark-Alem finds himself wandering down long corridors of identical doors, with no one and no end in sight. Though he struggles to understand what is expected of him and to do it when he does understand, his family connections ensure his quick rise through the bureaucracy. In the end, he has become one of the people he once despised.

That’s not a spoiler, because the book’s suspense comes not from what will happen, but from the aura of secrecy and distrust that emanates from the very streets and buildings, not to mention the people that populate this world. It feels like a Terry Gilliam movie (think especially, Brazil). Written in Albanian, I read a version translated from French into English. And still the prose worked—either a testament to the translators, or, more likely, to the power of Kadare’s story-telling ability. The Palace of Dreams is an excellent addition to the list of literature criticizing totalitarian government and to the way such societies dehumanize us all.

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