Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous HuxleyPublished in 1936, this is a novel very much of its era: it deals with the threat of another war hanging over the continent, and flirts with the hope that an appeal to the better natures of people will overcome their fear and suspicion of one another, and that love can win the day. Love didn’t, as it turns out, win the day. Nor has it been winning much since. But if we put that to one side, this is an exciting novel full of ideas, very interesting ideas, and a tremendously clever novel because of them: ideas which make it worth reading; but also there is a superfluity of ideas, one which spoils the novel, making it quite unengaging: it just doesn’t work. The last several hundred words, a dense patch of philosophizing, will leave the reader cold, just as they might be hoping to leave the book with some warm recollections and a sympathetic evaluation. But to be fair, very much worth reading. Huxley is something of a genius.

Mr A

The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster

The Invention of Solitude by Paul AusterAfter re-reading The New York Trilogy and both enjoying it and considering it an important work of fiction, I thought it only reasonable to read some more of Auster, and I had been quite looking forward to reading this. It turns out that it’s made up of two more or less separate pieces – “The Invisible Man” and “The Book of Memory” – the former being a Philip Roth type meditation on the loss of his father, the latter being a mix of fairly lucid but directionless narrative sections and piles of meaningless sentences masquerading as literature. Roth does his thing better, but Auster does it well. There are stretches that are engaging in the second piece, but the whole is marred by his insistence on philosophical-riffing, which is almost always bordering on nonsense, and far too often falling right in. And though a little bit of sense peeks out periodically, a nugget of insight, a quotation from Proust or Freud, a hint of realisation, a joining together of dots, you’d be as well off reading the newspapers, if it’s sense you’re after.

Mr A

The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster2

The 10 Greatest Books Ever, According to 125 Top Authors

ak cover 2

Earlier this month, we highlighted The 10 Greatest Films of All Time According to 846 Film Critics. Featuring films by Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles and Fellini, this master list came together in 2012 when Sight & Sound (the cinema journal of the British Film Institute) asked contemporary critics and directors to name their 12 favorite movies. Nearly 900 cinephiles responded, and, from those submissions, a meta list of 10 was culled.

So how about something similar for books, you ask? For that, we can look back to 2007, when J. Peder Zane, the book editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, asked 125 top writers to name their favorite books — writers like Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Michael Chabon. The lists were all compiled in an edited collection, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, and then prefaced by one uber list, “The Top Top Ten.”

Zane explained the methodology behind the uber list as follows: “The participants could pick any work, by any writer, by any time period…. After awarding ten points to each first-place pick, nine to second-place picks, and so on, the results were tabulated to create the Top Top Ten List – the very best of the best.”


1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy


2. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert


3. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy


4. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov


5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain


6. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare


7. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald


8. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust

9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov


10. Middlemarch, by George Eliot


Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

In this, the least popular of the Austen novels, the reader may well wonder: is Austen up to something different? Or just not on form? Does Austen fail with this novel if she could be said to have particularly succeeded with Pride and Prejudice, as well as Sense and Sensibility and Emma?

Maybe it’s just a question of modern sensibilities? Maybe it’s a problem with Fanny Price, the least likable, apparently, of all of Austen’s heroines? Maybe it’s the moralising tone, sharpest in this novel, which irks.

The key problem, as I see it, is one of plot: Mary and Henry Crawford could just as easily have been redeemed as not. The story doesn’t have the sense that it must have played out just so when the reader gets to the end. The unravelling of Henry and Mary Crawford, and the vindication of Fanny Price, are just a tad too contingent. It could all have been otherwise. Fanny doesn’t turn out to be essentially good, and just, and right; it simply turns out that she happens to have been right: she could have (and should have, I think), ended up being a rather pathetic and narrow minded character, a bitter old-maid, and a cautionary tale: get off your high-horse, Fanny Price, just who do you think you are?

Or else…

Mansfield Park shows the dark side of Jane Austen

Ignore its uptight reputation – Mansfield Park, published 200 years ago this month, seethes with sex and explores England’s murkiest corners


Move over Lizzie Bennet – let’s hear it for the unsung heroine

Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, has been unfairly dismissed by readers and critics. To mark the novel’s 200th anniversary, writers celebrate literary leading ladies who have been overshadowed by their showier sisters


Mr A

The Fastidious Assassins by Albert Camus

The Fastidious Assassins by Albert CamusA previously undiscovered series of essays by Camus? No, just a heavily abridged version of “The Rebel”, which is barely acknowledged in this volume: just a tiny little “L’homme Revolte” floating around in the publishing history at the front of the book. Better off reading The Rebel”; that said, this is a nice reminder of the effort Camus made to move beyond the “Myth of Sisyphus” and plunge into history and to start telling people how to live their lives: don’t be killing people. Rebellion and revolution are shown to always end up eating themselves, and Camus gets no further than touching on the old problem of absolute freedom clashing with absolute justice.

Apparently: “In the inborn impulse to rebel… we can deduce values that enable us to determine that murder and oppression are illegitimate and conclude with “hope for a new creation.”


So maybe read the longer “The Rebel” to find out how.

Mr A

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: No 64

This account of one man’s rejection of American society has influenced generations of free thinkers
Thoreau’s Walden Pond: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’
Thoreau’s Walden Pond: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’ 

On Independence Day 1845, an idealistic young American (Thoreau was just 28) turned his back on what he saw as his country’s depressing materialism, its commercial and industrial soullessness and took himself off to a life of solitude in a country cabin near Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. In his famous account of this experiment, Thoreau later wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Full Review:


Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck“Cannery Row is a novel by American author John Steinbeck, published in 1945. It is set during the Great Depression in Monterey, California, on a street lined with sardine canneries that is known as Cannery Row. The story revolves around the people living there: Lee Chong, the local grocer; Doc, a marine biologist; and Mack, the leader of a group of derelicts.”


“While I understand the New York Times’ reservations about Steinbeck’s preachy tendencies and his occasional heavy-handedness, he just as often provides light and beautiful prose, prose brimming with warmth and charm. The opening of Cannery Row is a case in point:

 ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.’


Yes – a great novel from Steinbeck. One of his shorter novels. And arguably the better for it.

Like Tortilla Flat, a tad misogynistic and a tad sentimental (Steinbeck regretted the way the earlier work was seen to patronise and sentimentalise the poor characters in the stories – if not simple savages, then simple bums), but it is also a beautiful mediation on life and how it runs away with itself.

Mr A