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Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part two)

Invisible ManMy very short nonfiction list was published earlier in Books Read 2014 – Nonfiction and part one of my fiction list can be found at Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part one).

Again, I have indicated the books that show up on my self-compiled “Great Books of the 20th Century” lists. Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists, lovingly color-coded, are given where applicable.


  • 11   Ralph EllisonInvisible Man
    No novel made more of an impression on me last year than this one. The unnamed narrator, the Invisible Man, moves from disillusionment to disillusionment and away from the advice of his grandfather:
    I never told you, but life is a war, and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country [...] Live with you head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

  • Ellison is offering the philosophy of Booker T Washington here in Granddad’s words, and the story skewers it and the Communist Party as the Invisible Man learns the hard reality of how far education, hard work and peaceful protest will get him in the white man’s world. This is the only novel Ralph Ellison ever wrote. It describes the world he knew and one that is, sadly, still not quite in our rearview mirror.
  • Philip K DickA Scanner Darkly
    A semi-autobiographical novel by the odd and oddly compelling Philip K Dick. This one is set in dystopian 1994 Southern California. It was published in 1977, so Dick was anticipating a quick decline even by his pessimistic standards. A pessimism born from Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech or maybe his own psychoactive drug use. Everybody in this novel’s California is on “substance D” or will be, it seems. Who is behind its production?
  • Gene Wilder as Willy WonkaRoald DahlCharlie and the Chocolate Factory
    The original story of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka. Must have been a frightening read for children in the 1960s. Frightening until the Gene Wilder movie came out in 1971. The book is certainly darker. The children seem to die in the book, while in the movie they and their parents learn lessons, but survive. And who could really be afraid of Gene Wilder? The Slugworth-as-spy subplot in the movie is absent from the book.
  • 7   E.M. ForsterA Passage to India
    This may have been my favorite read in 2014. It is a beautifully-written novel with something important to say about racism and xenophobia, even when unconscious and accompanied by good intentions. Of course, it also indicts the British Raj: not all of the racism and xenophobia is unconscious by any means. But the characters at the center of this novel–two British women, a British headmaster of a government-run Indian college, and a Muslim Indian doctor–are, despite good intentions, swept along by forces of cultural misunderstanding and colonialism at times quite out of their control.
  • Jim ThompsonThe Getaway
    Pulp fiction at its finest. Thompson is a master. I started with his best-known novels, The Killer Inside Me (ranked too low at #45 on 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels) and The Grifters, and now I look forward to the rest of his crime noir catalog.
  • Amy TanThe Joy Luck Club
    An episodic novel featuring stories of four Chinese-American women and their four American-born daughters. It is a loving portrait of mother-daughter relationships challenged by the differing generational experiences of the cultural divide between East and West. Beautifully expressed.
  • A House for Mr Biswas first edition cover 73   V.S. NaipaulA House for Mr Biswas
    Funny and poignant. Dickensian. The title character–an economically-challenged Indian ex-patriot living in Trinidad–is as unforgettable as Dickens’ Mr Micawber. One of the best of the several postcolonial novels I have enjoyed in the past few years. Certainly among the most entertaining and humorous.
  • 8   Walter M. Miller Jr.A Canticle for Leibowitz This novel made its debut the year of my birth in 1960, and was the only novel published by the author in his lifetime (he did write and publish scores of science fiction short stories). It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and is among the most acclaimed science fiction novels ever. Part one opens in a post-nuclear-apocalypse America 600 years in our future. It is set in a Catholic monastery where monks preserve scattered writings from the pre-apocalypse world. The story jumps forward 1100 years (part two) and then another 600 (part three), chronicling mankind’s slow recovery of lost knowledge and technology. In the end, around the year 3800, the (again) modern world careens (again) toward nuclear war. A small contingent of colonists, led by a monk from the monastery, flees the planet in a spaceship.
  • Patricia HighsmithThe Price of Salt
    Originally published as Carol under the pseudonym Claire Morgan because of its sympathetic portrayal of its lesbian characters at a time when she had to jealously guard the secret of her own sexuality. Its happy ending (not all that happy, actually) defied the “lesbian pulp fiction” morality of the time. The book has long been well-regarded by critics and I read somewhere that Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita may have been influenced by its “illicit lovers on a forced road trip” theme. I’m not sure I buy that, but it is possible. The story will soon be the basis of a major motion picture.
  • 10   Virginia WoolfTo the Lighthouse
    See Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where I admit that I am.
  • 19   Toni MorrisonBeloved
    So many great 20th-century novels explore the important themes of post-colonialism, the equality of women and the experience of being black in America. This is one of the most powerful. It is set just before, during and just after the emancipation of slaves in the 1860s and its brutal depiction of the effects of slavery and hatred on black families is heart rending. We are still paying a price for this history. The title character may or may not be a ghost and may or may not be the daughter of Sethe, whose sad story is an unforgettable one.
    Toni Morrison quote
  • 31   Robert A. HeinleinThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    As a contrast to Starship Troopers (see Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part one)) which has been criticized as fascist by some, this novel celebrates libertarianism. In it we learned that Luna (our moon) has been forcibly colonized by Earth’s criminal class–something like Australia was by the British in the 1800s. These Loonies farm and export wheat to an overpopulated, underfed Earth. They chafe under their maltreatment and virtual slavery at the hands of their Earthly masters. Revolt! They adopt the ingenious tactic of lobbing huge rocks (and collections of rocks) off of the surface of Luna to fall down the “gravity well” that leads to Earth. These rocks are very powerful weapons (think of a bus-sized meteorite landing near New York City) and the Loonies win freedom and self-determination. A fun read. I was surprised to learn that the term TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch) was popularized by this novel. I first heard it in a macroeconomics class at the University of Alaska extension on Adak Island in 1983.
  • 22   Dashiell HammettRed Harvest
    See Hard-boiled Hammett.
  • Theodore DreiserSister Carrie
    Published in 1900 and fairly progressive for its time. The story was widely criticized because its heroine prospered despite her moral failings–she was the unmarried mistress of two different men (though not simultaneously). As far as I can find, critics and the public did not condemn the men involved. Dreiser’s writing in this novel is anything but elegant.
  • 13   Dorothy L SayersNine Tailors
    Graham Greene, for one, considered this to be possibly the best mystery novel ever written (this according to a blurb on my paperback copy of it). Fans and at least some critics of the genre do not seem to agree, often on the grounds that all of the campanological detail is boring. I don’t find it so. Sayers always strived to transcend the genre and, I believe, she frequently succeeded. I’m a big fan of her Lord Peter novels and this is certainly one of her best.
  • Dashiell HammettThe Thin Man
    See Hard-boiled Hammett.
  • Graham GreeneOur Man in Havana
    A light, humor-filled farce and a poke-in-the-eye of late colonial British “intelligence” operations. One discordant note is its use of the “N-word.” This occurs twice: once in the first paragraph of the book. This is not a novel about race in any way and the use of this word doesn’t seem to be important to our understanding of anything or anyone in the story. While I’m sure Europeans living in Cuba at the time used the word in the way depicted–with no evident malice–it is nevertheless unsettling to a modern ear to hear two of the most sympathetic characters in the novel speak casually in this way. Otherwise, a very entertaining read.
  • 45   Graham GreeneBrighton Rock
    One of Greene’s self-categorized entertainments. (He sometimes divided his works into “serious novels” and “entertainments.”) Others have fit it uncomfortably into the mystery genre and it makes my list of great 20th-century crime novels. I enjoyed it. A small part of my enjoyment consisted of comparing his descriptions of the resort town of Brighton and its beach with my impressions of the city during my 2006 visit. It was easy as I read it to imagine that not all that much has changed–at least in respect to its beach and pier. As always, Roman Catholicism plays a big role in the motivations of several of Greene’s characters while, interestingly, the one adamantly irreligious character is the moral hero of the story.
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