A Dozen Great Novels
All-Time Favorites from RALPH
Over the almost eighteen years of our existence,
we've reviewed 400 or more works of fiction.
There are a dozen or so that still
stick in our minds as being works of art:
truly original, lively, and
built for the ages.

Timothy; Or, Notes of
An Abject Reptile
"I have seen these humans in their disarray. Far more common than any finery. Hair wrung into knots. Stockings fallen. Skirts clotted with mud and manure. Eyes, noses red from fist-rubbings, coarsening wind."

    Eruptions on rough hands from hop-picking. Itching tumors from harvest-bugs. Jaws tied up with the tooth-ache, the head-ache. Faces choked with drink, sweat, sleep, stupidity, confusions of the rut. Such a bulk of being to regulate. Disorder stalks them day and night. They stalk it back.

"Great soft tottering beasts," he concludes.

Books, as one of my friends says, are there to be eaten --- but it is rare that I gorge on one before breakfast. I certainly did with Timothy. My advantage was having it read to me by Josephine Bailey. She's the consummate commute companion, the best one could ask for. She speaks an elegant, impeccable English, reading to us as if she were a bit tired by life (as Timothy certainly was), a bittersweet elegance in her voice. I was puzzled to find Timothy being voiced by an older woman until Timothy reveals to us that he is really an older woman ... an older woman-with-shell, that is. And Mr. Gilbert White never figured out that his Timothy is a she.

He also can't figure out why she would want to run away from her comfortable garden. He can't comprehend that she just wants to get away from humans. And Timothy's half-amused scorn for Mr. Gilbert White comes from her scorn for the rationalist's "system:"

    The naturalist begins to understand after years of study. He records the when, and where, and which, of the birds of passage and beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never be solved by system. No number of small corpses dissected, tagged, and preserved will ever begin to answer why. How the nightingale sings, pitch of the notes, melody of the song, structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale's why.

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Of Kids & Parents
Of all the unlikely venues for a story, this has got to be it: a tantalizing, suck-you-in, lay-you-out, haunt-your-soul moment-by-moment of a father and son walking the streets of the city, talking of the grandfather who made toys and mannequins; ladies they knew ... wanted to know ... never got to know; favorite airplanes --- not model airplanes, the real McCoy --- including the Corsair F4, one WWII favorite that I hadn't heard of --- or certainly not thought of --- for sixty-five years.

Walking the streets of Prague, long after the fall of Soviet Russia, memories of friends who became members of the SS, KGB, or (worst of all, for those living in that part of the world) the much-dreaded Ustashi. A day spent on the streets, going in and out of taverns, the 71-year-old Ivan, the 44-year-old Honzo, and their thoughts, fears, delights, delusions, loves ... and their strange Czech drinks: "Magic Eye," "V-2 Rocket," "Pond Scum," "Chumbawamba," "Bamboo Shoot with a Motor" which is, gag, "Red wine and cola, half-and-half, with a large shot of Fernet, an atrocious drink..."

Then the quick switchback. Old Ivan going into detail about a love affair from forty or fifty years ago, perhaps before Honzo was born, "a woman of Ljubljana, she was a real woman that one, thin, but what a figure, just a glance at her was enough to give me a belly-slapping erection.

"I know father and son shouldn't be talking to each other like this, but who's left in the world for me to tell it to."

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An Episode in the Life
Of a Landscape Painter
It may be the screwiness in the setting --- setting being a key element in the paintings and drawings that Rugendas and Krause are doing --- coupled with a pliancy of words that turns the reader (and the characters) upside-down (one even being dragged through the plains upside-down).

Is it the symbols? There are symbols, good ones too: "the enormous grilles shut behind them with a clang to which the birds replied;" salmon "as big as sheep;" gusts of wind rearranging the "stars and mountains."

Is it the rare flash of the comic? Rugendas, face hidden in a mantilla, (since he can't see his face he isn't worried about hiding it; but light, the bright light of the Argentine highlands, hurts his eyes). Thus half-blind, mounting his horse backwards, "when he came to look for the reins of course he could not find them. The horse was headless!"

The faceless man on the headless horse, charging off (backwards) to find an Indian raid, so he can get it down on paper, always at the edge of the action, finally stumbling, late at night, into the encampment of the rebels, where Rugendas continues to draw faces as peculiar as his own,

    ...big mouths with lips like squashed sausages, Chinese eyes, figure-eight noses, locks matted with grease, bull necks ... His face expressed things he did not mean to express, but no one realized, not even Rugendas, because he could not see himself. He could only see the faces of the Indians, which to him were horrible too, but all in the same way.

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Getting Mother's Body
Mother lies in her grave behind the Pink Flamingo Motel in LaJunta and daughter Billy (spelled "Billy") Beede has just gotten knocked up by a hustler named Snipes. He has promised to marry Billy and so she takes the bus up to where he lives and the first things she runs into are his wife and children. Without hesitation, she burns the wedding dress she's just bought. Right in front of the Mrs.

What to do about the babe in the oven? Rumor is that mother Willa Mae was buried with a diamond ring on her finger and a pearl necklace around her neck, so Billy steals Dill's car to go to LaJunta and dig up mum or rather the jewelry so she could have the money for an abortion.

Now Dill Smiles raises pigs, was Willa Mae's lover ... only it turns out that Dill is what people in Lincoln, Texas call a "bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what-have-yous." She also scarcely ever smiles even though that's her name. Dill spends time in the men's barbershop and talks man-talk about her pigs and the weather and everyone knows the truth about her but they don't bring it up because she's taller than anyone there and is a dead shot with her pistol.

When Billy was a child, she used to be dragged all over the country with Willa Mae looking for a man and also looking for what she calls a "Hole."

    Everybody's got a Hole. Ain't nobody ever lived who don't got a Hole in them somewheres. When I say Hole you know what I'm talking about, dontcha? Soft spot, sweet spot, opening, blind spot, Itch, Gap, call it what you want but I call it a Hole.

When things get tough, Billy finds herself looking for peoples' Holes, especially when she and June Flowers Beede and Roosevelt Beede and one of her cousins take off for the Pink Flamingo Auto Court in LaJunta, New Mexico, Pop. 30, to dig up Willa Mae's body and retrieve the diamonds and pearls. What they don't know is that when lover Dill Sweet buried her, she also relieved the body of the jewelry, figuring Willa Mae wouldn't need it where she was going.

§   §   §

What a pleasure it is to put oneself into the hands of a writer who, for a change, knows how to spin tales and hook words together. Ms. Parks weaves it all so fine, stories of the five or so major characters and the thirty or so minor characters, all brought together so deftly that there's never a moment where one isn't either goggle-eyed at the details and the dialogue, or agog with anticipation over what's to come next. These people --- most of them supremely poor Blacks living in segregated Texas, 1963 --- are droll and dry and so very feisty.

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Egon Schiele is --- at least, as Joanna Scott paints the painter --- a scoundrel. He has always been in love with his sister Gertie, thinks nothing of blackmail, makes drawings of scantily-clad girls, is generally insulting and offensive to everyone he meets, becomes a flagrant seducer of women, lives with his mistress Valli (who is also a scoundrel), tries (but fails) to trick his way out of the Austrian army, and is, above all, a startling original, brilliant and revolutionary painter.

He grew up on Tulln, lived, mostly, in Vienna where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts, ended up in the prison at St. Pêlten charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors, passed on to Prague where he was inducted into the army, and ended up in Mêhling prisoner-of-war camp where, "despite the cold and the filthy conditions, he was happiest, with nothing to do but fill his portfolio with drawings of dying Russians." He himself died of the 'flu in late 1918 in Vienna, tended by his loved and beloved sister Gertie...

It is a warm surprise to find someone who knows how to plot a novel, who knows the language (that is, how to write winningly and well) and finally --- but most difficult of all --- knows how to show humans and human nature --- the good, the bad, the awful; one who knows how to make the characters come to life so powerfully that you find that for the time, for instance, that you are immersed in Arrogance you are living in 1915 Austria, following this deranged (but perfectly believable) character as he seduces and intrigues and schemes --- all the while declaiming his loathing for critics, art collectors, the middle and upper class in general; interested only in what could give him satisfaction: visual beauty, natural beauty, sexual beauty (or grotesquery --- for him, the two are interchangeable) on the canvas.

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Buddha Da
I don't think I've read a book with dialect since twenty years ago when I got hooked on Gerald Durrell on animal collecting in Africa (A Zoo in My Suitcase is a good example). I could never much cotton to Uncle Remus when I was growing up, even had trouble with Huck Finn and Nigger Jim. The same with Ring Lardner. The biggest dialect job of them all --- Finnegan's Wake --- continues to baffle me, will always so do, I suppose.

So I was put off by the first few pages of Buddha Da, thought to myself that I could never make it past page twenty. By page fifteen, however, I was figuring out most of the dialogue. By page twenty-five I was saying to hell with the dialect, this lady can write. By page fifty you'd have to use a jackhammmer to get Buddha Da out of my hands.

This strange lovely language adds another level to what is already an interesting piece of writing. All this stuff is going on: Jimmy getting enmeshed in Buddhism, driving everyone mad; Anne Marie filling her days as kids will with school and music and a tape competition for the BBC; Mum taking this Buddha stuff for as long as she can, then going out to glom onto young David who brings her body, hungry from too many months of enforced celibacy, back to life:

    All the time we were daein it ah felt as if as was split in two, as if part of me was inside ma body, feelin, and another part of me was somewhere up on the ceilin, watchin ... And it was like ridin; the rhythm was perfect, like these guys that ride waves on surfboards, hittin just the right spot.

Those speaking the language are the main characters in the Buddha Da. Others --- teachers, doctors, lawyers --- communicate with King's English, and soon, for the reader, the King's English is not enough. Anne Donovan is probably a poet pretending to be a novelist. Leastwise, she got me caught in her poetry, so that when those teachers and doctors and lawyers start in talking English, I worry that they don't have the poetry. You try writing a story about a mother and her daughter buying blouses at the Gap and make it sound like pure verse out of Bobby Burns.

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I wondered "Why is this all so interesting?" We are dealing with a massive procrastinator preparing to write a long and supremely stupid study of some dinky event from 1550. We get to follow him through the streets of Berlin, meeting with other people who are pothering around with their own minuscule projects. "Why is it I can't put this one down?" I ask myself. This is no Alan Furst novel, not even a page turner like Geisha or Buddha-Da or even an Alan King blockbuster.

Maybe it's the ridiculous details: a computer mouse, he finds, when seeking something to do with his project --- "From among the dozen or so vaguely bluish folders that appeared before me in the electronic window I'd opened, I selected the file titled The Paintbrush and opened it with two more quick strokes of my finger over the mouse's clitoris, expertly teasing its little ductile zone."

It is possibly the gratuitous (but maybe not too gratuitous) introduction of tv and computer and security screens everywhere. Or working the computers at the Pompidou Library, he finds that Titian was also known as "Tiziano Vecellio" --- (that is, T.V.) Then he discovers that to access Titian, one has to type in "TIT" into the computer. Then there is the day his friend's psychoanalyst goes on vacation, so he goes into the doctor's office and sits and listens to the clients and no one knows the difference.

Our author (or his talented translator) has seeded the tale with so many quirks and puzzlements that we just don't want to leave it alone. Our neo-existential hero is not all that far from The Stranger --- but his world is less violent, thus, perhaps, even more nonsensical.

The closest I've come to this style of writing is Javier Marías' Heart So White. It is a tale, often a very funny tale, of yet another passive, somewhat dislocated man who has a slightly looney take on the world. He --- or the author --- essentially has one thing to say. That is: We've lost the passion and we've lost the innocence. What we have left, all this machinery of the 21st Century, may mean something, but then again, maybe it doesn't. So bob's your uncle.

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History is almost 750 pages long, and I am hard put to compare it to any novel I have ever come across. Perhaps we could say that it's not far from the USA Trilogy --- largely because Morante is intent on tying history, and the history of WWII, and the history of the world, to her characters. This means that we get to see, first hand, the effect of those desperate years on body and soul. History, and circumstance become meshed with Ida's fears and struggle: the effect of war on psyches --- bombings, deportations, deprivation, daily patrols of police and the military and later, the SS and, specifically, Ida's daily terror (she's half-Jewish).

USA, possibly --- but there is a touch of War and Peace. We are in the middle of great historical happenings: Rome under siege, there's a back and forth of the military --- the Americans to the south, the Germans to the north. There's the Italian resistance, governmental terrorism. There are the loss of homes and jobs and lives to bombers, the isolation of Jews, the effect of hunger on the very young. It is as if Tolstoi's great novel were focused on the effect of towering historical events on the poor and the powerless and the dispossessed --- people enmeshed in an historical progression over which they have no control.

Even in the briefest of sketches, one can visualize the characters, see them, hear them:

    The girl's name was Maddalena, but she was called Lena-Lena by Useppe. Not infrequently, early in the morning, she could be encountered on the stairs, intent on giving the steps a hasty washing with a wet rag; or else she was seen sitting in the lodge, momentarily substituting for her grandmother. Keeping still was a sacrifice for her, however, since she preferred movement; and she didn't in the least mind running up to Useppe's in the morning. She was a little girl of about fourteen, who was as a rule quite cloistered in the family; and she lived not far away, at San Saba, having arrived from the interior of Sardinia. She had a plump little figure, with short legs, also plump; and black hair, kinky and excessively long, which grew upward, compensating for her very short stature, and making her look like a country hedgehog (or porcupine). She spoke an incomprehensible language, all full of u's. which sounded foreign; still, with Useppe, she managed somehow to make herself understood. He would let her listen to his record, and in return she would sing to him, in a harsh, high voice, some Sardinian dirges, all with u. of which he understood not a word; but the moment she finished, he would say to her "again!" as he did after Ida's Calabrian songs.
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The Long Song
What we have here is a powerful (and, often, mischievous) study of blacks and black slavery, with whites lording it over the slaves; and, too, there is here a meditation on how blacks come to mirror the values imposed on them by their owners. July is no dummy, but she recites impeccably the order of acceptability according to skin color with Biblical precision: "Only with a white man," she says, "can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino ...

"Oh the mustiphino's child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person."

It's a tricky world Levy is offering so artfully. It's a world of miscegenation, whippings, and hidden passion ... littered with dialogue that, I suspect, would not have been permitted two decades ago. In one scene, Goodwin seeks to have his field hands punished for not working hard enough to suit him --- mostly, because, after they've been freed, they are no longer willing to work as slaves. The Falmouth townspeople whom he hires to terrorize the blacks think of him, as the author suggests, as "Not long out from England ... still a bit green ... his dad's a parson back home ... believes we should be nice to niggers."

Ms. Levy knows how to polish the words and knows (well) the history of Jamaica of two centuries past. It was a place of musical speech and sugar cane and heat and absurd poverty of the blacks and absurd freedom for their Church of England masters. Ms. Levy writes all this with such a delicate irony that one might, like me, be unwilling to part with the book for even a moment before getting to the end.

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A Novel in Nine Episodes
Maria Rubinstein goes somewhere to the east, for a conference. And it is one of those travel stories they publish in the Chronicle or the Times, about your worst nightmare travel ghastly never-ending experience: you get put in the wrong hotel; the country is hot, barren, bug-ridden; all they serve, everywhere, are "platters of fatty roast pork mayonnaise."

And the language: no one speaks your language, no one at all, anywhere. The driver from the airport says, "You business ... Kill why?"

    She smiled to show she didn't understand.

    "Everything," said the man. "Foam. Lorry?"

    She shrugged.

    "Hobble," said the man. "Hobble grease. Why?"

It is only when we get to the end that we and poor Maria learn that she will never escape from this awful, fly-specked land. She is now stuck, perhaps for the rest of her life, in the blighted countryside, cleaning dirty floorboards for a slovenly old woman, even as she thinks that somehow "she'd come out of this" ... that she would not be "stuck here for eternity."

These stories are a lurid mix of Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka. On top of that, there are people who roam about from one chapter to the next, like Joyce's man in the mackintosh. Here, it's a man in the red hat. And everywhere, there are "self-help books" by one Miguel Auristos Blanco.

Then there's the matter of Kehlmann himself popping up in Rosalie's story, in "Rosalie Goes Off to Die." Her doctor has just told her that she has pancreatic cancer, and that it's "incurable." So she books a flight to Switzerland, to seek assisted suicide, where people can "hasten things along." The author assumes that we might want to know more about this, but,

    If you haven't heard of it until now, pay attention; you can learn things even from a short story.

But not completely. "I'm not going to name it because my lawyer said not to."

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Abbott Awaits
This is one of those books that has me thinking that I shouldn't be writing a review, I should just be culling long passages. Or, better, send me your name and address, and I'll send the book out to you [kidding!] and then you will know what a small, unpretentious masterpiece it is, reminding me, somehow, of Winnie the Pooh...

...which I remember when I read it at age ten years or so I wished I had been Christopher Robin because, obviously, he had someone who doted on him, appreciated him just as he was, got such a blast out of being father to such an original, with such a way about him, what with the bears and the honey and going up and down the steps, dragging this bear behind him. A real character.

It's like Abbott's daughter who knows better than anyone in the world what you do with animal stickers that the kind librarian has given to her:

    The girl sits on a bench and begins to put the stickers on her neck and throat. She peels off one after another and presses them onto her skin. "Shouldn't she at least save some of them?" he says, but nobody answers. When the girl's neck and throat are covered, she begins putting stickers on her chin and cheeks. She uses every single animal sticker, probably two dozen. She is delighted. She smiles as she touches her face lightly with the tips of her fingers.
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She is a Creole, from Guyana, has eyes like emeralds, and, according to those few lucky enough to see her in the buff, sports breasts of gold, not unlike the couleur they pull from the rotten, pestiferous, base, disease-ridden land. In the brothel in Cayenne, where she worked, she comes up for auction; she, only sixteen, decides it is time to make her exit from whoredom.

Cleto Bonfim owns the major stakes in the gold-fields of Caléoene. He is one of the drunken gathering. She knows instantly, knows that he is the one. "I am not part of the auction," she announces. "I belong to Cleto Bonfim. I am going with him and I want to belong to him. I know where he is and as far as I'm concerned, the auction is over."

Bonfim, who has never seen her before, protests: "If you're after my gold, woman, I'll give you some, but don't try to put one over on me."

    I don't want your gold Bonfim. Gold is what I am. I've never owned anything and don't know what it's like to own something. But something tells me I should belong to you. That was the mission my destiny gave me. Come."

And he does.

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There's Chicago and points west on a train, a Seattle whorehouse with a lady named Gumdrop: "She watches Gumdrop rapping her smart little orange shoes against the linoleum and sees what Gumdrop sees: a lumpy-headed white woman with very few skills, no money, and not much promise."

It is this seeing (and being seen) that endears us to the author; that and her ability to take Lillian to the brink of death, lets her survive a dozen times, in Russia, across America, in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women in British Columbia, culminating in a ridiculous trek across Alaska on her way to the Bering Straits.

Lillian, marching through the snow, alone, cold, with blisters, "and these blisters take as much of her attention as the wild animals, the staggering physical beauty,"

    For the rest of her life when she closes her eyes, she finds only three images of all the thousand she intended to keep: a line of low purple flowers, sparse and underfed, sprinkled among the fallen trees; green light rippling noisily across the night sky; a pink coral-streaked dawn near Tagish.

"The purple flowers of the Alaskan wild, sparse and underfed."

We first found Away in a HighBridge audio edition narrated by Barbara Rosenblatt. I can't tell you how much fun it was, day after day --- I only get to hear it on the commute --- listening to Lillian's exuberant high adventure in a nearly perfect rendering. The men sound like men, the women like women, and, meanwhile, there are the perfect intonations of 1920s Brooklyn Yiddish life, including Yaakov Shimmelman ("Tailor, Actor, Playwright ... Pants pressed and altered").

When she laughs at his calling-card, he admonishes her, then says, "I was just teasing you, ketzele. Of course it's funny. It's true, it's absolutely tragic --- and, he adds, in English, 'abso-tive-ly, pos-a-lootly' --- but that does not make it any less funny. For people, like us,"

    and he looks at her closely, to see if she is people like him, and he seems satisfied, "that makes it even a little bit funnier."
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She may be the "Mother of Mexican Poetry." Or it might be that she was there at the Birth of History. Perhaps she's just a roving street lady in Mexico City, sleeping on floors here or there, living with borrowing clothes in borrowed digs, scribbling poems (or notes) on toilet paper.

She's missing four front teeth, thinks of herself as "the Emily Dickinson of Bulimia." She hangs out with Mexican poets and rent-boys, is named Auxilio Lacouture, has pink ears and, she claims, a face like Don Quixote's.

During the 1968 uprising of students at the University of Mexico City, she spent thirteen days hiding in the bathroom of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature building where she wrote her poetry, which she then ate. Once she saw death coming for her, on the streets of the city,

    I put my hand into my handbag, I mean my satchel from Oaxaca, and felt for my knife, which I always carried with me, as a precaution against urban emergencies, but the burning skin of my fingertips could feel only papers and books and magazines and even clean underwear (washed by hand, without soap) ... but the knife, ah, my friends, now there's another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it's not there.
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