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Short Shelf Leans Towards Perfection

  • Jul 27, 2010
Recent reads reward re-reading. Not all perfect, but humane. They make me think; a few make me laugh.
1
Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual
Nothing since "A Confederacy of Dunces" made me laugh at loud so much, and that was 30 years ago. Full of typos, gets even stranger as it goes on for 800 pages, but full of spleen, satire, screeds.
See the full review, ""When doesn't more mean worse?"".
2
The Elementary Particles
Dares to anger you as well as inspire you: ennui, despair, yet rouses you to consider the possibility of utopia as well as the futility of that aspiration. A novel of ideas in contrary French fashion: subversive.
See the full review, "Better read for its hopeful ideas, not its naughty bits".
3
The Crimson Petal and the White
It ended too soon even after hundreds of pages, but the masterful editorial intrusion slowly takes you back to Victorian London. Full of research, integrated into a modern version of a "triple decker" novel.
4
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For a book about the Holocaust, the scenes that counter the camps, those in the Italian mountains, broaden the scope of this memoir. Chemistry, philosophy, and a coming-of-age enrich its telling.
5
Thirst
How Moses, the exodus, and the coming into Canaan might have been if everyday people wrote about what they saw as part of the twelve tribes. This turns chapter and verse into recognizable reality.
6
Everything Must Change
Astonishingly sustained high-wire novel of ideas and their clash with making a living. WWII French philosopher Simone Weil's labor activism juxtaposed with quixotic 1980s Welsh-language campaign.
See the full review, ""Capitalism's sulky runaway children"? Idealism: cost vs. benefit".
7
Grits
Raves, drugs, squalor as Welsh youths in the 80s face their nation's impotence. Powerfully rendered scenes of chemical excess and mental lassitude among a crowd of layabouts squatting and drinking.
8
City, Sister, Silver
Czech epic, roaming from Celtic tribes to Vietnamese migrants roaming across Prague and forests and trash heaps. Hallucinogenic, surreal, as if imagined from an altered state. Yet, it moves you.
See the full review, "More inferno than paradiso--inside the post-mod dreamworld".
9
Lola Montez: A Life
My favorite biography: an Irish gir's reinvention. She sleeps and dances her way to the top of mid-19c Europe, to the Gold Rush, and then down-- as perhaps the first global celebrity? The pace never lags.
See the full review, "Does justice to its subject: a perfect biography".
10
Yemen: The Unknown Arabia
Erudite, as if told a century ago: British polymath poses as an Arab to live in this half-storied, half-lawless realm. Mixes class elevation with cultural empathy, as if written by one not quite like us.
11
Journey to the End of the Night
Scabrous, with his trademark elliptical style. Will provoke, in that Gallic tradition, any sensitive type. He will energize you, force you to feel the early 20c in its WWI horrors and exhilarations mingled.
See the full review, "Life-affirming as well as ferociously humanistic".
12
The Stories of J.F. Powers
This married Midwestern layman wrote best about priests in mid-20c, pre-Vatican II prairie parishes: subtle, deadpan, steady, yet satirical, about their struggles between Mammon, capitalism & Christ.
See the full review, "Thirty stories gathered from three volumes: mid 1940s-70s".
13
At Swim-Two-Birds
Intertextuality's pioneer: a writer writes a novel about characters who turn on their creator. Full of sly parodies of ancient Irish tales, interspersed with pitch-perfect sendups of dismal censored Ireland.
14
Passing the Time in Ballymenone
The liveliest ethnographic study I've ever found. Not damned by faint praise. Folklorist's fieldwork from this Northern Irish townland. He eloquently records the tales and songs told--as if poetry on paper.
15
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Instead of inspirational claptrap, this Israeli journalist listens to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as neighbors. He lets us in on honest conversations we'd never be able to hear as visitors, if on our own.
16
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
It's hard to read more than a few of these performances at one sitting. The pressure of symbolism, the nagging of characters so accurately rendered yet distorted, moral messages: a formidable talent.
17
On Another Man's Wound
A medical student in early 20c Ireland joins the rebels. As a guerrilla, he reads Shakespeare while he fights the British; he tends for the wounded while he aims his gun. The tensions of idealism add up.
See the full review, "Best memoir from the Irish War for Independence".
18
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His mother's a refugee from the Nazis; his father's a far-right-wing Irish language republican activist. Their son tells how he grew up forbidden to speak English at home in a Gaelic-German household.
19
In Persuasion Nation
Not many can pull off absurdity balanced with delicacy. This third collection shows the author's skill at exaggerating pop-psychology, corporate human potential babble we increasingly adopt as vernacular.
See the full review, ""America, to me, should be shouting all the time"".
20
Vanity Fair
Get this with Thackeray's illustrations. They enhance the sad, funny, annoying, intrusive sprawl of this author getting in the way of his story, from Waterloo back to London, in the early 19c rush to affluence.

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About the list creator
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #49
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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