Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The 100 Novel Challenge, 2009

Between the time I started the Book Walrus and now I’ve shifted my focus from primarily science fiction to a more eclectic mix of genre and classic literature. Midway through May of this year I got reinvigorated to do some serious reading and I came up with the goal of reading 100 novels by the end of the year. It would take me well into 2010 if I actually tried to review them all, so instead I’m just putting them into chronological order and giving a simple rating.

A hundred books in eight months is quite a lot for me, especially given that I’m a slow reader. It helps that I have a lot of time. I’m out of college (where I found it nigh impossible to read much beyond required coursework), working only one job and not raising children. I cut back on my primary hobby, film, and also on sleep. I rented audiobooks for my long commute and downloaded public domain (pre-1923) literature to read on lunch breaks.

And depending on your definition of “novel,” I also flagrantly cheated. About a fifth of the books are short enough to be considered novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words). A couple are short story collections (Cyberiad, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) and three are graphic novels (Maus, Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth and Epileptic). Only about a tenth are long (my definition being ~500 pages and up): Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Jude the Obscure, The Ambassadors, Nostromo, The Grapes of Wrath, The Master and Margarita, The Glass Bead Game, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Deepness in the Sky and Spin.

I liked almost everything I read, which isn’t surprising considering that I was drawing my reading list from a combination of quality sources like The Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, the Nobel Prize in Literature and top 100 lists compiled by Time magazine, The Observer, The Modern Library, The Great Books Guide and Daniel Burt (if you know me you’ve probably already guessed that I’ve compiled these into a giant spreadsheet). Keeping an open mind also helped; I’d previously shortchanged a lot of writers (often without having even reading them) and must now admit that I owe an apology to Charles Dickens, Henry James and Toni Morrison.

My rating system is very simple and subjective. I’ve put two asterisks next to my favorite books and one next to those that were very, very good. Everything else falls into the wide span from quite good down to meh. There were only five books in the whole lot that I’d give an emphatic thumb down: The Sorrows of Young Werther, A Princess of Mars, The 39 Steps, On the Road and The Passion According to G H.

I wanted to branch out from my usual interests and particularly to read more international literature. Here’s the breakdown by country: USA 37, UK 32, France 8, Russia 7, Germany 5, Japan 2, Poland 2 and one each from Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Italy, Nigeria, Norway and South Africa. Everything foreign I read was in translation. The decade I read the most from was the 1950’s, with 14. I’ve seen film adaptations of 26 of the 100, of which only “The Third Man” and arguably “Frankenstein” exceeded their originals. I restricted myself to no more than 2 books per author.

Time to get a head start on my next 100 for 2010!

Some special distinctions within this batch:
Overall favorite: The Good Soldier
New favorite authors: Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton
Best genre books: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Espionage) and Startide Rising (Science-Fiction)
Best prose: Street of Crocodiles and Mrs. Dalloway
Best plot: Nostromo – Perhaps the ultimate tale of greed.
Best premise: Penguin Island – An old, nearly-blind missionary lands on an iceberg and baptizes the gentle natives, actually penguins, which leads to them being granted souls and satirically paralleling centuries of French history.
Most difficult: Either Gravity’s Rainbow, The Ambassadors or Riddley Walker (written in degenerated phonetic English saturated with post-apocalyptic slang).
Longest: Gravity’s Rainbow
Funniest: White Noise and the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Most depressing: Miss Lonelyhearts and The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Most disturbing: Jealousy
Best title: “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History” and “Volume 2: And Here My Troubles Began” – The graphic novel memoirs of Art Spiegelman’s father, a holocaust survivor.

The List:

"The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Wolfgang Goethe (1774, Germany)
"Emma" by Jane Austen (1815, UK)
"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley (1818, UK)
"Father Goriot" by Honore de Balzac (1835, France) **
"Moby Dick" by Herman Melville (1851, USA) **
"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert (1857, France) *
"A Tale of Two City" by Charles Dickens (1859, UK) **
"Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev (1862, Russia)
"Notes from Underground" by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864, Russia) *
"Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866, Russia) **
"Therese Raquin" by Emile Zola (1867, France) *
"Carmilla" by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872, UK)
"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886, UK) *
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Leo Tolstoy (1886, Russia) *
"Three Men in a Boat" by Jerome K Jerome (1889, UK) *
"Hunger" by Knut Hamsun (1890, Norway) **
"The Diary of a Nobody" by George Grossmith (1892, UK) *
"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane (1895, USA) *
"Jude the Obscure" by Thomas Hardy (1895, UK)
"The Island of Dr. Moreau" by H.G. Wells (1896, USA)
"Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (1898, UK) **
"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin (1899, USA) *
"Kim" by Rudyard Kipling (1901, UK)
"Call of the Wild" by Jack London (1903, USA)
"The Ambassadors" by Henry James (1903, UK) *
"Nostromo" by Joseph Conrad (1904, UK) **
"The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton (1905, USA) **
"The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad (1907, UK) **
"Penguin Island" by Anatole France (1908, France)
"A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912, USA)
"Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann (1912, Germany) **
"Sons and Lovers" by D.H. Lawrence (1913, UK)
"The 39 Steps" by John Buchan (1915, UK)
"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford (1915, UK) **
"The Return of the Soldier" by Rebecca West (1918, USA) **
"The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton (1920, USA) **
"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf (1925, UK) **
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie (1926, UK) *
"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf (1927, UK) **
"Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather (1927, USA) *
"The Holy Terrors" by Jean Cocteau (1929, France) *
"The Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon (1930, UK)
"The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett (1930, USA) *
"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner (1930, USA) *
"Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West (1933, USA) **
"Street of Crocodiles" by Bruno Schulz (1934, Poland) **
"Thank You, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse (1934, UK) *
"The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain (1934, USA) *
"Tender Is the Night" by F Scott Fitzgerald (1934, USA) **
"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck (1937, USA)
"Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh (1938, UK)
"Day of the Locusts" by Nathanael West (1939, USA) *
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck (1939, USA) *
"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov (1940, Russia) *
"Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler (1941, Germany) **
"The Glass Bead Game" by Herman Hesse (1943, Germany) *
"The Razor’s Edge" by Somerset Maugham (1944, USA) **
"Intruder in the Dust" by William Faulkner (1948, USA)
"The Third Man" by Graham Greene (1950, UK) *
"The Master of Go" by Yasunari Kawabata (1951, Japan) *
"The Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham (1951, UK) *
"Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor (1952, USA) **
"More Than Human" by Theodore Sturgeon (1953, UK) *
"Under the Net" by Iris Murdoch (1954, UK) *
"A Door Into Summer" by Robert Heinlein (1957, USA) *
"Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov (1957, USA) *
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (1957, USA)
"Jealousy" by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1957, France) **
"Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids" by Kenzaburo Oe (1958, Japan) *
"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe (1958, Nigeria)
"The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958, Italy) **
"Billiards at Half-Past Nine" by Heinrich Boll (1959, Germany) **
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark (1961, UK) **
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962, Russia) **
"The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" by John Le Carre (1963, UK) **
"The Passion According to G. H." by Clarice Lispector (1964, Brazil)
"Herzog" by Saul Bellow (1964, USA) *
"Roadside Picnic" by Arcady/Boris Strugatsky (1972, Russia) **
"Gravity’s Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon (1973, USA) **
"Cyberiad" by Stanislaw Lem (1974, Poland) **
"Orbitsville" by Bob Shaw (1975, UK)
"A Bend in the River" by V.S. Naipaul (1979, UK) **
"Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban (1980, UK) *
"Waiting for the Barbarians" by J.M. Coetzee (1980, South Africa) **
"Startide Rising" by David Brin (1984, USA) **
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera (1984, Czech Republic) **
"The Lover" by Maguerite Duras (1984, France) *
"Money" by Martin Amis (1984, UK) **
"White Noise" by Don DiLillo (1985, USA) **
"In the Country of Last Things" by Paul Auster (1987, USA) *
"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987, USA) **
"Maus" by Art Spiegelman (1991, USA) *
"The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson (1996, USA) **
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again" by David Foster Wallace (1997, USA) *
"A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge (2000, USA) **
"Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth" by Chris Ware (2000, USA) *
"Epileptic" by David Beauchard (2003, France) *
"Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson (2006, Canada) *
"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy (2006, USA) **
"The Yiddish Policemen’s Union" by Michael Cambon (2007, USA) *

I also found time for 20 plays, which made a healthy changeup from particularly dense prose. I’m even more uneducated in terms of drama than fiction and I thought I’d try and do some catching up in this area as well. It was absolutely worthwhile.

"Tartuffe" by Jean-Baptiste Moliere (1664, France)
"Faust" by Wolfgang Goethe (1808, Germany)
"The Doll House" by Henrik Ibsen (1879, Norway) *
"Miss Julie" by August Strindberg (1888, Sweden)
"Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen (1891, Norway) *
"Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov (1899, Russia)
"A Dream Play" by August Strindberg (1901, Sweden) *
"The Cherry Orchard" by Anton Chekhov (1904, Russia)
"The Ghost Sonata" by August Strindberg (1907, Sweden) *
"The Dybbuk" by S Ansky (1914, Russia) *
"Six Characters in Search of an Author" by Luigi Pirandello (1921, Italy) **
"Desire Under the Elms" by Eugene O'Neill (1924, USA)
"Our Town" by Thorton Wilder (1938, USA)
"Mother Courage and Her Children" by Bertolt Brecht (1939, Germany) **
"Long Day's Journey Into the Night" by Eugene O'Neill (1940, USA) **
"The Iceman Cometh" by Eugene O'Neill (1940, USA) *
"Endgame" by Samuel Beckett (1957, France) *
"Rhinoceros" by Eugene Ionesco (1959, France) *
"Betrayal" by Harold Pinter (1978, UK)
"Largo Desolato" by Vaclav Havel (1984, Czech Republic)