My Five Favorite Novels
This list is in no particular order and is subject to change depending on the weather, what I had for breakfast and the day of the week…
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin is easily my favorite living novelist. It is a close choice between this one and Winter’s Tale but I am sticking with it. I also adore his trilogy for children that makes great reading for adults, A Kingdom Far and Clear. Like most Helprin novels, A Soldier of the Great War will make you laugh and cry. Brilliant storytelling and poetic prose that sweeps the reader along. And an EconTalk guest…
The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton
A small Italian town looks to keep its glorious wine from the Nazis. You may have seen the movie. Read the book. Incredibly fun. Incredibly sad. Magnificent.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
When I was a teenager, I tried to read The Sound and the Fury. Unreadable. Hated it. I was young and ignorant. In college, I took a course on Conrad and Faulkner because I loved Conrad and figured I’d put up with the Faulkner. By the end of the class, I came to love Faulkner and was less excited about Conrad. My favorite Faulkner at the time was actually Go Down, Moses but I haven’t read it in 40 years and it’s pretty tough going. But I’ve read As I Lay Dying maybe three times and it’s the most accessible Faulkner that is still pretty Faulknerian. Try it. Worth it just for the line “How often I have lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
I love Dickens. The plots are ridiculously entertaining, the characters are unforgettable, and he’s still funny, even in the 21st century. Our Mutual Friend is way too long and has absurdly entertaining plot twists. But it sure is entertaining. If it’s too long for you, try Great Expectations but for me, GE is marred by the ending.
In the First Circle/The Brothers Karamazov by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
I know, you saw what I did there. These are my two favorite Russian novels and I read them in close succession last year. As EconTalk listeners know, In the First Circle is the full version of Solzhenitsyn’s earlier novel The First Circle. Solzhenitsyn censored it to make sure it could be published under the Soviet regime. In the First Circle is the full book. Make sure you read the right one, the one with the full title. Like a number of the books on this list, In the First Circle is hilarious in parts, heart-breaking in others all behind a backdrop of oppression and moral challenges the characters face in their daily lives. It is very Dostoyevskian. Here is what EconTalk guest Kevin McKenna had to say about the two great authors and their greatest books:
…this is where Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn are so similar. Dostoevsky is famous for what is called the polyphonic structure of his novels. That is: Rather than having, as we are used to in the West, one central, main character who kind of stands as the centerpiece as everything that happens in the novel, the polyphonic structure of a Dostoevsky or a Solzhenitsyn is that there is not a main, central character. There is a cast…and by cast, I would say perhaps 5 to 8 central characters, as well as perhaps 3 to 4 central major themes. And so, everything–it’s kind of a fugue of characters. A fugue of plot action.
Both books are hard to read. While most editions have a list of the characters at the front of the book that helps you keep them straight, the best thing to do as Kevin McKenna suggested is to write down the page number when you first meet a character next to the description of the character in that list at the front. That lets you easily find the author’s description. The Brothers Karamazov is a sprawling combination of love story, family drama, meditation on God and morality and a pot-boiler of a police procedural. Immortal characters and passages on life, morality, love, God, you name it. I read the classic Constance Garnett translation but will try a modern one when I read it again.