A Reader's Guide to Unfamiliar Literature
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about James Joyce 2010-02-20 10:25:28

Dare I say it? I loved "Dubliners," but nothing else in Joyce (not even "Portrait of the Artist") really touched me. I would recommend starting with "Dubliners," but I think the previous commenter, who said this isn't really representative of Joyce, is in many ways correct. And yet Ulysses seemed to me so cerebral, so cleverly involved with itself as a piece of writing, as to defy true engagement--but that's me. It has long been my sense that there are two kinds of readers: Joycean readers and Proustian readers. I am the latter.

about Marcel Proust 2010-02-20 10:14:45

The vision this book presents shaped my way of seeing the world forever.
Certainly one should start at the beginning ("Combray") and go on from there, although "Swann in Love" (like "Combray," one of 4 parts within "Swann's Way," which itself is only the first volume of "Remembrance") can be read independently of anything else. But then you would miss "Place-Names: The Name," and that is not to be missed. I like best (so far) the Kilmartin revision of Moncrieff's original translation.
If Proust seems not to be for you, try James Joyce. I have long felt that contemporary readers divide into Proust people and Joyce people. Myself, I am Proust person, and a grateful one.

about Cynthia Propper Seton 2009-06-22 21:53:10

Cynthia Propper Seton's novels are full of thoughtful, well-educated characters living civilized but not entirely happy lives. She is witty, sometimes outright funny, without ever being less than serious. Her plots are shapely and often (always?) concerned with women whose lives have been only half-explored--till now.

I strongly suggest starting with the delightful "Fine Romance," which tells of a group of tourists being led on a holiday trip through southern Italy. It includes this telling passage, spoken by a novelist who is one of the travelers: "There's an inherent plotlessness one has to contend with in the lives of civilized people, you see. They don't commit murders, or shriek, or have scenes. Their marriages, divorces, are muted, cerebral. It puts a heavy burden on love affairs, do you see? They're the only credible climax left."

about Margery Allingham 2009-05-12 14:22:59

The following wonderful essay on where to start reading Allingham (and why) was CONTRIBUTED TO DebbiesIdea.com BY ALLINGHAM'S BIOGRAPHER, JULIA JONES, in May, 2009:


Where to begin reading Margery Allingham? What a delicious question and how I envy readers this treat in store. To begin at the beginning is usually sound advice and with Margery beginning at the beginning offers the additional interest of seeing how experimental and adventurous she was as a writer. Okay, all her main Campion novels are in the detective ‘box’ (as she called it) but there’s a world of difference between the goofy Wodehousian spree in Mystery Mile (1930) and the intellectual questioning of new communication methods in The Mind Readers (1965). Both are set in deserted stretches of the East Anglian coast line but there’s rather more than half a lifetime of imaginative experience and writerly development in between. (I have excluded The Crime At Black Dudley (1929) and Cargo of Eagles (1968) from my first-to-last recommendation because Black Dudley was written when Margery was still uncertain about the identity of her hero and Cargo of Eagles was completed after her death.)

If a chronological approach doesn’t appeal then readers can select according to taste. For bright foolery in idyllic rural settings pick Mystery Mile or Sweet Danger (1934); for greater depth of characterisation and the flavour of a mid thirties artistic household as well as a plot where relationships really matter, try Dancers in Mourning (1937). The novelist A.S. Byatt chose the wartime thriller Traitor’s Purse as her personal favourite whereas I think I dither between the rich eccentricity of More Work for the Undertaker (1948) and the bleak psychological tension of Hide My Eyes (1958 – Tether’s End in the US). Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is undoubtedly Margery Allingham’s most famous novel, the one most people remember. It’s a bold, almost epic confrontation of good and evil in the choking fog of a postwar, post-Dickensian London. Tiger in the Smoke removes the central element of puzzle from the plot – the reader is never in any doubt whose hand is wielding the knife – but intensifies the suspense in a way that anticipates some of the best crime-writing of today.

Allingham is a detective novelists’ detective novelist. From Agatha Christie to P.D. James and Sara Paretsky her fellow-writers have praised her style and technique. But she was also a big personality, warm and witty, intellectually acute and imaginatively generous. These qualities permeate her fiction and keep her readers loyal. On reflection I don’t envy the readers who are currently poised to discover Allingham. I began when I was a student and now, more then thirty years on, I’m a grandparent and the books have stood re-reading throughout. When I re-visited them recently for the new edition of my biography I discovered two of my least favourite Campions (naming no names) were far better than I’d remembered. I think it’s because this series of novels are themselves the record of a life. I’ve changed in the eighteen years since the biography was first published so it’s unsurprising that there are aspects of the mature Margery that I now read differently.

So don’t spend too long dithering over your initial choice. Jane Stevenson says that the Margery Allinghams on her bookshelf are the novels most likely to be filched when weekend guests return home. To avoid being tempted into such criminous acts buy now or hasten to your local library.

Julia Jones (May 2009)

about Julia Jones 2009-05-10 21:49:05

"The Adventures of Margery Allingham," then titled "Margery Allingham, A Biography" and listed under the author's then name of Julia Thorogood, was originally published in 1991 by Heinemann. This new edition of the well-received biography includes new material. The following review by Boyd Tonkin appeared in the Independent March 27, 2009:

"Queens of crime seldom enjoyed quiet lives. Consider Margery Allingham, the smart and funny creator of Albert Campion. Her wise-fool detective delighted fans (two million Penguin sales by the 1950s) in novels from 1929 to 1965.

"In postwar rural Essex, at work on her finest mysteries, she coped with an erring husband, severe depression and ECT, and vicious harassment by the Inland Revenue.

"First published in 1991, and now updated with new revelations (husband Pip even had a child with the lesbian icon Nancy Spain), Jones's hugely absorbing biography is a treat to match its subject's books.

"It fits its heroine like a glove, rich in tough-minded, never-say-die wit. As a portrait of eccentric British bohemia in slump, war and austerity, this life takes every cake on the teatime plate."

about Charles Dickens 2008-03-09 09:32:15

I'm sorry, I just can't let this stand without putting in another word of my own. I hated "A Christmas Carol" when I read it early on, and it's still far from my favorite Dickens. DON'T assume you don't like Dickens, should you start here and dislike it. Try Great Ex, as dewey decimal suggests. Or Dombey and Son, or Our Mutual Friend.

about T. H. White 2007-07-08 13:53:36

"The Sword in the Stone" is an enchanting novel and a great way to get to know T.H. White.

about Madeleine L'Engle 2007-07-08 13:52:39

"A Wrinkle in Time" is a classic, and deservedly so. It can't hurt to start there.

about Daphne Du Maurier 2007-07-08 13:49:30

Du Maurier's "Rebecca" has become so associated with the (very good) film made from it that perhaps not enough people read the book. It is a wonderful novel, with many depths of meaning and nuance about the nature of relationships, trust, love and need. A great place to start.

about Anton Chekhov 2007-07-08 13:47:18

Chekhov's short stories are unparalleled for pith, meaning, beauty and emotion in compact form (or any form, perhaps). You can hardly go wrong with any collection of them; if the first doesn't grab you, jump to the next. He wrote many superb ones and few that are not worth reading.

The following is copied in from WIKIPEDIA (www.wikipedia.com):

[Raymond Carver wrote:]
"Chekhov's stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. It is not only the immense number of stories he wrote — for few, if any, writers have ever done more — it is the awesome frequency with which he produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish.[99]"

Ernest Hemingway, another of Carver's influences, was more grudging, saying: "Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer".[100] And Vladimir Nabokov once complained of Chekhov's "medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions".[101] But he also declared The Lady with the Dog "one of the greatest stories ever written" and described Chekhov as writing "the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice."[102]

For the writer William Boyd, Chekhov's breakthrough was to abandon what William Gerhardie called the "event plot" for something more "blurred, interrupted, mauled or otherwise tampered with by life".[103]

Virginia Woolf mused on the unique quality of a Chekhov story in The Common Reader:

"But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.[104]"

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about Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham 2006-12-02 15:13:30


“...He began to read… He could think of nothing else. He forgot the life about him. He had to be called two or three times before he would come to his dinner. Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.
From “Of Human Bondage”

about Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad 2006-12-02 15:12:51


It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.
From LORD JIM

about Later the Same Day by Grace Paley 2006-12-02 15:12:17


‘Hindsight, usually looked down upon, is probably as valuable as foresight, since it does include a few facts.”
From “Later the Same Day”

about Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 2006-12-02 15:11:35



“Lor!” cried Mrs. Boffin. “What I say is, the world’s wide enough for all of us!”
“So it is my dear,” said Mr. Boffin, “when not literary. But when so, not so.”
from “Our Mutual Friend”

about Swann's Way by Marcel Proust 2006-12-02 15:10:49

"So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new "good book," because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it."
From "Place-Names: The Place," part of "Swann's Way," Kilmartin translation

about The Story of Layla and Majnun by Nezami 2006-12-02 15:08:40

In the Book of Life every page has two sides. On the upper one, we inscribe our plans, dreams and hopes; the reverse is filled by providence, whose verdicts rarely match our desire. Who can decipher fate's handwriting? However, what at first we are unable to read, we then have to endure later on.
Nezami, "The Story of Layla and Majnun"

about The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne 2006-12-02 15:07:50


"It is very queer, but not the less true, that people are generally quite as vain, or even more so, of their deficiencies than of their available gifts..." Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

about Charmed and Strange by Jeff Clark-Meads 2006-10-10 15:45:05

Charmed and Strange has been published in the UK but not yet (as of 10/2006) in the U.S.