Beautiful Prose

Halfway through my graduate studies, I remember experiencing an intense craving for beautiful prose. I was training as a political scientist, and the texts on politics and economics, written by academics for other academics in a dry style favoring passive construction, began to make me listless. Respite arrived in the form of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which remains one of my favorite pieces of writing–clear, concise, powerful.


Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, or reader. When I think of the books that left the biggest impression on me, they are written in a crystalline clear style, poetic but without unnecessary embellishments. Beautiful prose to me is a harmony between substance and style.

I don’t intend to compile a comprehensive list, merely a snapshot of my favorites today, but if I were to create an anthology of beautiful writing, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) would be one of the star contenders. Set before the Second World War, it is the story of one man’s infatuation with the aristocratic family and their world. There is passion, loss, betrayal and reflections on faith and religion. Waugh’s most introspective novel and also his most masterful, it combines beautiful writing with sharp observations on upper class society and its decline.

The poet Emily Dickinson said of George Eliot that “this mortal has already put on immortality.” She was referring to Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel that captivated its readers since it was first published in 1871. Eliot paints the lives within a provincial community, and the stories of her characters intertwine in a profound and moving drama.

Eliot’s style is the most distinctive aspect of her novels, from the use of original metaphors to her ability to mock her characters’ pretensions.  When the pedantic scholar Casaubon addresses his bride with a “frigid rhetoric . . . as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook,” we not only get a sense of his personality but also the foreboding of a marital wreck.

Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”, an observation that could easily be applied to Woolf’s own works. To The Lighthouse (1927), for instance, the story of a family holiday, has a remarkable intensity and depth. Woolf uses the uncomplicated plot to introduce observations on marriage, relationships, childhood and the complexity of perceptions. Woolf’s writing style has a hypnotic and undulating quality, often described as a stream of consciousness. In the hand of a less able writer, it would be unwieldy, but Woolf makes it soar.

Literature in translation both loses and gains something, but I couldn’t limit my favorites to only English-language literature. A skilled translator might bring a new dimension to a celebrated work, and it’s no coincidence that many great writers were themselves translators–Eliot specialized in works on German philosophy before she started her literary career.

Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones (Fictions, 1944, English translation by Andrew Hurley) is one of the best illustrations that cerebral and entertaining need not be mutually exclusive. Borges draws upon a vast range of knowledge, from ancient Roman historians to medieval Muslim scholars and Chinese poets, but the sense of playfulness keeps it all in balance–or just off kilter enough.

One of my favorite stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is written like a book review in homage to a novelist who decided not merely to compose another Quixote, but to write the Quixote. Reading it you are never sure if this is meant to be the highbrow stuff or a spoof, and the tension gives zest to the story. For instance, after quoting two identical passages, one from Miguel de Cervantes and another from Pierre Menard, the narrator comments, “The contrast in styles is equally striking.” Fictions also includes stories of a man who never forgot anything, the library that contains all books in the world, and the most unusual lottery.

One of the first writers who captivated me with his prose was Nikolai Gogol. Gogol was born in a town close to my family home, and his descriptions of Ukrainian towns and the countryside in Evenings Near Dikanka reminded me of our Poltavan homestead. In different vein is The Overcoat (1842, English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), Gogol’s finest work. It’s the story of a lowly copying clerk who goes through extreme deprivations to save money for a new overcoat only to have it stolen. Nobody responds to his calls for help, and after he dies of fever, his ghost walks the streets of the city stealing overcoats.

A blend of surrealism, humor and grotesque, The Overcoat has been debated ever since it first saw light. What is it about? The story of a little man caught in the system? A condemnation of social injustice? A reflection on the dark side of urbanization? Successive generations of writers and literary critics interpreted it differently, but what remains indisputable is Gogol’s mastery.


Loneliness and desolation find another, and a very different expression, in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, a love story between a wealthy Tokyo loner and a geisha from a remote hot spring (onsen) town. The relationship is doomed from the outset: Shimamura is a dilettante who while writing about ballet has never seen it performed, and this very fact makes the subject more enchanting for him, “an unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise”. Komako is constrained by her circumstances as a geisha in “a cheap hot-spring town like any other”. The backdrop is the shadowy, isolated snow country. The love can’t last, and while Komako knows it, she gives all of herself to it.

Kawabata based the character Komako on Matsuei (photo above), an onsen geisha he met in Yuzawa. Snow Country earned Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature, and its lyrical, haiku-like prose is retained well in the English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker.

Finally, for proof that academic writing need not be as dry as a sailor’s biscuit, I recommend Tony Judt’s Postwar: History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), or any other work by this late professor of history. Postwar is his grand oeuvre spanning the whole continent and six decades, while tying political and economic developments with cultural influences. The book is more than 800 pages long, but I finished it within a couple of weeks, mostly thanks to Judt’s engaging narrative and lucid, clear prose.

I, in turn, look forward to reading about your favorite examples of excellent writing.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Haefennasiel: I strongly suggest you read Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”. It’s a collection of simple but brilliant and profound essays on Japanese aesthetics. February 17, 2016 at 7:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I read it several times, both for the insight into Japanese culture and its beautiful prose. A real gem. February 17, 2016 at 7:31am Reply

  • Karen (A): Just in time as my reading list is in need of some ideas! Will give Middlemarch another try and reread Woolf (it’s been years and years). February 17, 2016 at 7:35am Reply

    • Victoria: The Mill on the Floss is another Eliot’s novel I’m enjoying, but I haven’t finished it, so I figured that it wouldn’t make sense to add it. February 17, 2016 at 11:59am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,

    For me the story and the style are so intertwined. I also like to write prose, hence one of my favourite books is a Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a young novelist. There is a chapter consigned to how the choice of style must be a match to the story.
    I love Jorge Luis Borges’s works, especially the short stories, and magical realism in general. Isabel Allende’s House of the spirits for example.
    I’m currently rereading The Master and Margherita that I did not manage to finish at high school. I’m now mature enough to enjoy the irony of Bulgakov.
    I studied French and Hungarian literature at the uni, I’m fond of French authors, Flaubert and Francoise Sagan are my favourites perhaps. I also love Balzac and the short stories of Maupassant.
    So many good books are there to explore and reread!
    (I bought La vagabonde from Colette last week based on your recommendation in a previous post 😉 ) February 17, 2016 at 7:38am Reply

    • Nora Szekely: Jeez, another favourite is the writing of Alessandro Baricco. So restrained but beautiful, Silk and Novecento are my favourite stories.
      Another great Italian author is Dino Buzzatti and his book The Tartar Steppe. It’s a story of loneliness, living without a goal but also of hope that keeps us alive. February 17, 2016 at 7:45am Reply

      • Victoria: Dino Buzzatti’s book has arrived two days ago, and I can’t wait to start reading it. Now I’m jotting down a note to look up Alessandro Baricco’s novels. February 17, 2016 at 12:07pm Reply

        • maja: if I may suggest, start with Ocean Sea by Baricco, wonderful writing. Buzzati’s short stories are great, too. Another Italian I could recommend is Italo Calvino (pretty much everything). Margaret Mazzantini Don’t move is a good read, too, not a classic but an interesting story. (made into a good movie, too)

          My other recs are anything by Agota Kristoff, Irene Nemirovsky, Jose Saramago. John Wiliam’s Stoner, such an extraordinary tale of an ordinary life. La Chamade by Francoise Sagan is marvellous, too. February 17, 2016 at 12:24pm Reply

          • Neva: Thanks for mentioning Irene Nemirovsky maja. I discovered her Suite Francaise a few years ago and I couldn’t take my eyes off the book. And after that I read her novel The Courilof Affair. Couldn’t find anything else in English here in our bookshops. She was such a good storyteller and her life story is just heartbreaking. So sad she couldn’t finish her Suite Francaise… February 17, 2016 at 2:53pm Reply

            • maja: Her prose is so exemplary, dry and essential and the subtlety of emotions described is just amazing. My favourite Nemirovsky’s novel is Deux (not sure if there is an English translation, it’s a book on love, passion and marriage) and The Fire of Blood. I am really fond of her writing. February 17, 2016 at 3:40pm Reply

              • Neva: Thank you for your recommendation. I will surely look for both titles. February 17, 2016 at 3:52pm Reply

                • maja: Thank *you* for sharing 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 3:58pm Reply

            • Bela: She was an ‘ashamed Jew’, who tried desperately to pretend she wasn’t Jewish. She collaborated to virulent antisemitic newspapers and had herself baptised. Unfortunately, the Nazis and French collaborators from the Vichy regime didn’t care and she ultimately shared the fate of the people she tried to reject. Suite française, etc. should have remained unpublished and unknown. The French edition of SF contains a preface telling the truth about its author. This was omitted in the English edition. February 17, 2016 at 7:01pm Reply

              • maja: I knew her story was controversial but honestly the quality of her writing is undeniable and I think her being uncomfortable with her own roots does not mean she wasn’t talented. Besides, self-hatred is not such a rare phenomenon. February 18, 2016 at 6:34am Reply

          • Victoria: I have a couple of Italo Calvino novels that I have been moving around with me since the days of my university Italian language classes, but I need to revisit them at long last. Re-reading books after a long hiatus is always such a revealing experience, both about the novel and yourself.

            Thank you for your other recommendations. I found Ocean Sea for 1 cent, so I couldn’t resist. February 17, 2016 at 3:18pm Reply

            • maja: You’re in for a treat, Victoria! 🙂 The pages on Elisewin and Adams are just so beautiful.

              Regarding Calvino, his Difficult Loves is an excellent book, a short story collection, and then there’s the wonderful fantasy trilogy, as well as If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller. You can’t go wrong.

              I, on the other hand, am likely to buy The Pillow Book you have mentioned before. 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 3:51pm Reply

              • Victoria: And in turn, I will say that you’re in for something special with The Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon has so much personality! February 18, 2016 at 2:10pm Reply

                • Marsha: One of my friends has The Pillow Book and I borrowed it. I loved it! February 22, 2016 at 8:14am Reply

                  • Victoria: I’m so happy to hear it! February 22, 2016 at 3:02pm Reply

    • Lisa: I couldn’t appreciate The Master and Margarita until I was older. I also read George Eliot at school and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Happily I gave Middlemarch another try two years ago and loved it. February 17, 2016 at 9:38am Reply

      • Victoria: My friend who is a professor of English literature once commented that the biggest mistake of the school programs is to include works like Middlemarch or Wharton’s Ethan Frome. They were not meant for teenagers. On the other hand, if more adults read them, it would be a good thing. February 17, 2016 at 12:23pm Reply

      • Ida: I loved The Master and Margarita at school. Thank you for reminding me of this great book, I’m definitely returning to this one. February 19, 2016 at 7:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, then I hope I can take this moment to ask you, the expert, for the Hungarian authors recommendations? What are some of your favorites?
      Isabel Allende has been on my list for a while, but I haven’t yet read anything by her. Your comment reminded me that I need to do something about it, so I ordered The House of the Spirits. Thank you.

      Hope that you will like La Vagabonde! February 17, 2016 at 12:06pm Reply

      • Karen (A): For me, Isabelle Allende’s earlier books are much better than her more recent ones. But, I read her earlier ones years ago so no telling how I’d find them now. Her later books seem a bit over trying – too many references to current popular culture. I knew things were going downhill in one when she referenced fung shui without it really being at all relevant. February 17, 2016 at 6:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: So far I got only The House of the Spirits, which is her first major novel. February 18, 2016 at 2:22pm Reply

          • Alicia: Victoria, I largely agree with Karen. Isabel Allende’s first novel is her best. Even that one, La Casa de los Espíritus, is derivative of Gabriel García Márquez’s great masterpiece, A Hundred Years of Solitude, which I hope that one day you read. In another blog I also suggested a later novel of his, Love in the Times of Cholera. February 19, 2016 at 2:35am Reply

            • Victoria: I bought A Hundred Years of Solitude after our last conversation about it, and its turn in my reading is coming up. February 19, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

              • Alicia: Very good, Victoria. Once you read it I’ll be happy to know your opinion of it and Magic Realism.It’s a book like no other, at least in Spanish. February 19, 2016 at 3:30pm Reply

                • Jirina: Alicia, I love “A Hundred Years of Solitude”.
                  I think is the best novel in spanish that I´ve read.
                  While I read it I felt like I was in Macondo.
                  I´m sorry for my poor english (I´m from Argentina). I can´t to express all I admire García Marquez. February 19, 2016 at 9:40pm Reply

                  • Alicia: Your English is quite correct, Jirina. I am delighted you loved Cien Años de Soledad. Realmente es una maravilla. Saludos desde New York. February 20, 2016 at 6:26pm Reply

                • Victoria: I definitely will share! I just downloaded a kindle sample of another novel you recommended, Love in the time of Cholera. I often use Kindle this way–as a reminder of books I will want to read in the future, although in some cases, after I read a Kindle sample, I order a paper version. February 20, 2016 at 8:56am Reply

                  • Alicia: Very wise, dear Victoria. I should follow your example.
                    A Hundred Years of Solitude is an absolute masterpiece. It creates a world, while Love in Times of Cholera is simply an extraordinary love story, but wonderfully written (at least in Spanish), and delghtful in any language. February 20, 2016 at 6:31pm Reply

                    • Victoria: I can’t wait to start reading. Counting days till my copy of Love in Times of Cholera arrives. The beauty of secondhand bookshops is that if you wait, you can find a copy for almost nothing. Especially if you don’t mind an ex-library and well-used book. And I don’t. February 22, 2016 at 2:49pm

            • Karen (A): For years, every summer I would read/reread One Hundred Years. It transforms your world. February 23, 2016 at 2:03pm Reply

      • Nora Szekely: Victoria,

        I looked up Hungarian works translated to English.
        From 19th century I recommend Mor Jokai : The Baron’s sons and Kalman Mikszath : St, Peter’s Umbrella. Jokai is romantic in language and plot, Mikszath’s style is dryer and that of anecdotes but equally good writers.
        There’s a play called The Tragedy of Man written by Imre Madach. It is a very complex drama about mankind’s development, passions, dreams and desperation, it’s so universal, I really wish that more theaters played it around the world, but it’s also a pleasure to (re)read.
        From 20th century I love Gyula Krudy’s works, a real hedonist whose description of meals and other earthly pleasures is sensational. I recommend The Adventures of Sindbad, a string of episodes from the life of a man in the first half of the century.
        I also love Dezso Kosztolany, his poetry and prose are equally lyrical, my favourite novel is Nero the bloody poet set in ancient Rome during the turbulent time of emperor Nero.
        I recommend anything from Magda Szabo , (especially The door) Sandor Marai and Antal Szerb.
        For poetry there are so many greta poets, I recommend to look up an anthology however I never read Hungarian poems in English so I cannot dote for the translations unfortunately. February 18, 2016 at 4:58am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much for this great reference list, Nora! Magda Szabo has been on my list for ages, and the last time someone mentioned her works here, I promised to myself to look for them. Well, not to put it off, I found a copy of The Door to start with. February 18, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

  • Patricia: What a welcome subject, Victoria! Although I’ve read and loved all of the British works mentioned, I haven’t read any of the others and look forward to doing so.

    My additions on the Brit side would be Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan, Atonement.

    On the US end, I would recommend anything by John Updike, a master of the written word if ever there was one. The Rabbit series would be a good place to start, though his critical works are also excellent. F. Scott Fitzgerald paints a picture of expatriate Americans in his autobiographical Tender Is the Night. Elizabeth Strout is a contemporary writer, and so far my favorite of her novels is Olive Kitteridge (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize), a collection of episodic start stories set in coastal Maine.

    Currently I’m reading Wolf Hall. So many books, so little time! February 17, 2016 at 9:34am Reply

    • Patricia: Argh! Make that “short stories.” Autocorrect strikes again. February 17, 2016 at 9:36am Reply

      • Victoria: Episodic start stories actually sounds like some post-modern literary genre. 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s funny, I’ve never read F. Scott Fitzgerald in English, only in Russian, and that was many years ago. I was considering including Hemingway, but while objectively I can see that he’s a great writer, I just don’t count his novels among my favorites. I did go through a period when I read all of them.

      A friend who introduced me to Waugh, my book muse as it were and someone with an impeccable taste, gave me her copy of Wolf Hall. I have read the first chapter already. February 17, 2016 at 12:16pm Reply

      • Alicia: Very likely you have already read them, but in case you haven’t, may I suggest the American Faulkner? I enjoyed Waugh very much (including the TV series), and in this Catholic vein I think that Graham Greene is one of the greatest novelist to dwell in the moral laberynth of faith in a secular world. February 19, 2016 at 2:49am Reply

        • Victoria: I have read Faulkner in college, but now I don’t even recall which of his works. Definitely need to consider him again. February 19, 2016 at 9:59am Reply

    • Sheri: Ahhh, Updike! One of my favorites – thanks for mentioning him, Patricia! February 17, 2016 at 11:35pm Reply

    • Tiamaria: I really enjoyed Wolf Hall. My Irish Catholic education left me with the impression that Thomas Moore was a saint and Thomas Cromwell was the devil! ‘A Man For All Seasons’ was shown several times in school to emphasise the point so it was interesting to get a different perspective on the story and characters, though I know it is just a novel! Great read though and I’m looking forward to the next instalment. February 18, 2016 at 10:18am Reply

  • Alexandra Star: I have recently read ‘Ink & Honey’ by Sibyl Dana Reynolds. It is the story of ‘a sacred journey through the medieval French countryside with the sisters of Belle Cœur, a community of radically independent healers, visionaries, mystics and artisans who live by their wits and their prayers.’ Reynolds finds her way to form clusters of intoxicating word bites that just fall off her tongue in bubbling descriptors of what was going on with her characters in the French landscape.

    I love what you do Victoria! You are amazing! February 17, 2016 at 9:36am Reply

    • Victoria: What a tempting description! Thank you so much, Alexandra. 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Maria Brent: Thank you—-I just started Milk and Honey. From the get-go, it is beautiful prose.

      And of course thanks to everyone, especially Victoria, who makes the world more beautiful. October 26, 2020 at 10:36am Reply

  • spe: Isn’t it a luxury to have time to read? I find that my life has less opportunity for this basic pleasure. My reading consists mostly of professional material lately.

    I’m enjoying your responses and living vicariously. February 17, 2016 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve started waking up one hour earlier to make more time for reading, and it makes for a good start to my day (and a good incentive for this night owl to go to bed at reasonable time 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 12:20pm Reply

  • Lisa: Thank you for so many interesting suggestions. I read Waugh but not Brideshead Revisited, an oversight. For my personal list Henry James’s novels especially The Wings of the Dove are essential. February 17, 2016 at 9:44am Reply

    • Nora Szekely: Henry James, I love his works too. Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square are my favourites. I’m yet to read The wings of the dove though. February 17, 2016 at 10:39am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much like James’s Italian Hours! February 17, 2016 at 12:24pm Reply

  • Alicia: Ah, Victoria! I am so happy that you like Jorge Luis Borges. He was my teacher of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Another superb short stories writer is the also Argentine Julio Cortazar. Middlemarch is one of my very favorite English novels. And everything Austen. In French everything Flaubert, and then Stendhal and Balzac. In Portuguese Saramago. In the USA I have always been impressed by Melville. As for history you might enjoy a charming little book by Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor, a series of vignettes of end of 19th century Vienna, ending with the tragedy of Mayerling. I don’t need to suggest to you anything in Russian, save to say that after Don Quixote I consider Anna Karenina the most perfect of novels. February 17, 2016 at 9:47am Reply

    • Michaela: Alicia, how lucky you are!!! You have met Jorge Luis Borges in person and learned English Literature from him! What an unforgettable experience!
      I am also happy Victoria likes him.
      It’s a very very long time since I read some of his books, I completely forgot which ones (except some short stories and ‘The Books and the Night’ – my translation) but I remember clearly that I liked them immensely. Don’t laugh, please. February 17, 2016 at 10:28am Reply

      • Alicia: Why would I laugh, Michaela? Borges in indeed a very great writer, and not merely in prose. His poems are as good as his prose, and sometimes better. February 17, 2016 at 12:59pm Reply

        • Michaela: Thank you for sharing your stories, very touching! February 18, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: What an incredible experience it must have been? What was he like as a professor?

      I’m writing down all authors from the comments whose work I haven’t read, and while look up Julio Cortazar, I realized that his story was the basis of Antonioni’s film. I remember seeing it with my dad when I must have been barely 5!

      A Nervous Splendor sounds intriguing. February 17, 2016 at 12:38pm Reply

      • Alicia: Borges was a very shy man, Victoria. Perhaps not the greatest of teachers, perhaps because he had a very monotone voice. The class was a year long (really 9 months), and his taste in literature extremely personal. He venerated Anglosaxon poetry, gave more time to Milton than to Shakespeare (the brotherhood of the blind…Borges wrote a superb poem to Milton’s blindness, La rosa de Milton, Milton’s rose).Stevenson was one of his favorites, and he had a passion for Chesterton’s Father Brown, the geometric structure of many of those tales Borges imitated in some of his best like “El Norte y la Brújula”.Of the Romantics he favored Keats, and I am forever grateful to him for his gift of Keats. He admired Tennyson. Therefore we read very little of other Romantics and Victorians. By the time I knew him he was completely blind, and it was wondrous to realize the amount of poetry he knew by heart. At the end of each class his elderly mother came into the class to take him home. He was a man of immense politeness, and very sharp wit.Perhaps because of his timidity he seemed somewhat aloof, which he really wasn’t. The death of his mother was catastrophic to him, but soon he married one of his students, wiith whom he read his beloved Anglosaxon poetry. February 17, 2016 at 1:20pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much for sharing this story, Alicia. It’s fascinating to get this glimpse of Borges from you. As I mentioned in my article, what impressed me in his stories is his ability to vast range of knowledge as well as the obvious fun he had writing his stories and crafting little nuggets for his readers–“the grand latrine Qaphqa,” which is of course read as Kafka, in Lottery in Babylon made me snicker. February 17, 2016 at 3:36pm Reply

          • Alicia: An excellent observation, Victoria: he had a lot of fun writing his short stories (poetry though was a serious matter). He had a very close friend, also a very good writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares. They met every afternoon in a coffee house (Café de la Biela), where they plotted stories together, and finally wrote in tandem La Historia universal de la Infamia (The Universal History of Infamy). Today La Biela has the table where they use to sit with lifelike statues of both of them sitting there. Two years ago, I went to Buenos Aires; when going to la Biela with a friend, I nearly fainted at their sight, until my friend realized what was happening to me, and exclaimed: ‘They are statues!’ Both Bioy and Borges might have enjoyed that confusion of appearance with reality, a familiar game in their stories. February 17, 2016 at 7:16pm Reply

            • Victoria: My husband is now reading Ficciones–and enjoying them very much–and he asked me to thank you for your stories. It’s such a special way to get a fuller mental image of a favorite writer. February 18, 2016 at 2:28pm Reply

              • Alicia: Oh, Victoria, I am delighted that your husband enjoys Borges’s stories.When I was a teenager my grandfather gave me one of my favorite love stories, the Sakuntala. Your husband might want to know that I love it to this day. Behold this beautiful and rare intercrossing of Argentine and Indian letters through centuries and continents! How Borges would have loved it! February 19, 2016 at 3:01am Reply

                • Victoria: Have you ever read Rabindranath Tagore? I like his short stories and novels like The Wreck, Binodini, Home and World (forgive me if my translations of the titles are off; I only read his work in Russian.) Powerful portrayals of female characters, social problems and beautiful language.

                  Another aspect of Borges’s work I love is his seeing associations among seemingly unrelated things. One reads his stories and then looks at the world with different eyes. February 19, 2016 at 10:02am Reply

                  • Alicia: Yes, Victoria, I have read Rabindranath Tagore. Years ago I wrote a study showing how an early poem of Neruda depends on Tagore. Borges’ ability of creating worlds is amazing, like Cervantes or García Márquez, only that Borges did it in the restricted form of the short story. Your husband might enjoy one of these stories “Las Ruinas Circulares” (The Circular Ruins). February 19, 2016 at 4:37pm Reply

                    • Victoria: Now that’s fascinating, and I love discovering these kind of connections.

                      My husband grew up in the North America, so he’s not that familiar with Indian literature. On the other hand, Tagore’s admiration of the Soviet Union has ensured that his works were printed and reissued constantly in the countries of the Soviet sphere. My great-grandparents had a whole collection of his works in their library, and that’s I came across them. February 20, 2016 at 8:59am

                  • SilverMoon: Hello,
                    having gone to school in Calcutta (and that is what it was called then), I read much of Tagore’s work. It was also part of the curriculum in school, so sometimes it is only later that one appreciated it (even more). Geetanjili is lovely, and he won the Noble literature prize for it (but did not accept it). He wrote very moving short stories and also poetry and songs. I can see what you mean by Neruda being inspired by him (although I never thought/knew that). Some of his works were also made into excellent films (original in Bengali, but probably available with subtitles). Home and the World is excellent. February 20, 2016 at 6:47am Reply

                    • Victoria: Which films are your favorites? I saw Binodini with Aishwarya Rai, but I don’t remember it well.

                      I also love his poetry. I’m often struck by his unusual metaphors and rich sensory imagery. For instance, in one of his poems he describes a glance of a woman he meets as “the nighttime jasmine garden.” February 20, 2016 at 9:12am

                    • SilverMoon: Victoria, there was no reply button on your comment, so clicked on mine.

                      My favourite Tagore stories made into films are Ghare Baire (Home and the World) and Charulata – both directed by Satyajit Ray. Another story I really like, Kabuliwala, was also made into a film, but I don’t remember much of the film. The story remains very clearly in my mind. We did it in school and I remember it being one of the few stories that I read in school that brought tears to my eyes. February 20, 2016 at 4:21pm

                    • Victoria: Oh, how much I loved Kabuliwala, and I read it many times as a child, crying my eyes out. I will have to check if the other films are available with English subtitles. Thank you very much for letting me know. February 22, 2016 at 2:46pm

        • maja: What a story, Alicia, thank you so much! February 17, 2016 at 4:31pm Reply

          • Kathy, Bloomington, IN: Thank you for sharing your memory of being in Mr. Borges’ class. I think it is wonderful that he just taught what he liked! I only read English, and don’t know much of his work, but I never forget coming upon The Lottery in Babylon and realizing that it was a joy to read, whether or not I was “getting it” at every level.

            RE the books, I am not tuned in to “writer’s writers” as a rule (Mr. Joyce and I do not get along). I also think Brideshead Revisited is beautiful and sad. I think Vanity Fair deserves a mention, because as I race along in the plot, WMT offers me insight into my very own heart, if I am honest enough to look it, in and or through each and every character! Also, I would mention Eudora Welty’s novels and short stories. I have not read them recently, though. Edith Wharton’s words are beautiful but so chilling. February 17, 2016 at 5:38pm Reply

            • Alicia: Thank you very much, Kathy. I was very young when I took his class, and now wish I had been older and more experienced in literary analysis. I ended up as a literature professor in NY, and although my field is Medieval and Renaissance, a few times I taught Borges, mostly his poetry. I tried not to teach him often simply because each time I did it I became extremely moved. I could not approach his texts with the necessary detachment of a scholar. What I didn’t know as a student I came to realize as a teacher:Borges had become my intimate love. February 18, 2016 at 3:52am Reply

            • Victoria: Dickens also deserves–nay, requires–a mention. I was thinking The Great Expectations. February 18, 2016 at 2:19pm Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: Vanity Fair is by Thackeray. Dickens could never write such a nasty book. I tried to read it, but no…to much vinegar.
                But you are right. Dickens is one of the greatest. I think of all his works.

                Alicia’s stories are fascinating, even for me who doesn’t read Spanish literature. She should write her Memoirs! February 18, 2016 at 2:46pm Reply

                • Cornelia Blimber: TOO much of course! February 18, 2016 at 2:49pm Reply

                • Victoria: A knight’s move thinking comment–Kathy mentioned Thackeray, and I thought of Dickens’s novels and the one I particularly enjoyed.

                  But that being said, I did like Vanity Fair too. Dark and bitter though it was. February 18, 2016 at 3:02pm Reply

                  • Victoria: P.S. I have to thank you for turning me onto Dickens. Because while I read some of his novels as a teen, I never got into them. Once you started commenting and sharing your love for his work, I finally read The Great Expectation and Bleak House. February 18, 2016 at 3:16pm Reply

                • Alicia: Cornelia, thank you very much for so kind words! Although I have written a dozen books and over a hundred articles, I am not good at autobiography. Not at all. This last March several universities in California and the Cervantes Institute in New York offered me an Homage in the form of a Symposium and a book (a Festschrift). Thus I had to close the Symposium with a speech on my intellectual life. Everything I had written was of no use whatsoever to help me in this task. It was the most difficult thing I ever wrote, trying to avoid both the ugliness of narcissism and that of false modesty. No memoirs for me, dear. Too difficult for my abilities. I rather write on Petrarch. February 19, 2016 at 3:18am Reply

              • Ida: Yes! I’m planning on re-reading Great Expectations. I’m currently half way through A Tale of Two Cities. February 19, 2016 at 7:04am Reply

                • Victoria: I’m thinking that A Tale of Two Cities will be my next Dickens novel. February 19, 2016 at 10:13am Reply

                  • SilverMoon: Yes, A Tale of Two Cities is excellent. Among the lesser known is Martin Chuzzlewit and it really is a great story. I was also slow to liking Dickens. The stories are always great, but often too long drawn. Of course, I understand it when one is being paid by the word/page.

                    The lazy but enjoyable way to getting the Dickens stories is to watch the BBC series, including Bleak House, Chuzzlewit, and many others. February 20, 2016 at 4:27pm Reply

                    • Victoria: Yes, that’s how I felt at first, but once you’re drawn in, you really are under his spell. February 22, 2016 at 2:47pm

            • Cornelia Blimber: Excuse me for insulting Thackeray, Kathy! I read your comment not careful enough. February 18, 2016 at 4:55pm Reply

          • Alicia: My pleasure, maja.I had the fortune of getting to know many famous writers on my own and through my husband. Some of them even lived in my house for a while. My husband was a Spanish gentleman much older than me, and had been a friend not only of writers such as García Lorca and Neruda, but also was very close to Pablo Casals (a very lovely man), Dalí (less lovely), and the charming Miró. Mario Vargas Llosa and Ernesto Sábato lived for a while in my house. My favorite guest was a wonderful Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti. February 17, 2016 at 7:31pm Reply

            • maja: Alicia, you must be full of wonderful stories and anecdotes. Ernesto Sabato and Llosa, wow. I am going to look for Alberti’s poetry then. Pls share more stories.
              ps. Maybe you should have taught Borges more often, literature needs emotionally involved professors. 🙂 It must be a great contribution to have known him personally. February 18, 2016 at 6:17am Reply

              • Alicia: Michaela, if you don’t read Spanish, Alberti’s poetry is quite well translated, I believe by Ben Belitt. February 19, 2016 at 3:22am Reply

            • Victoria: In one sentence you’ve mention the people I very much admire. One of the CDs I have taken with me whenever I was away from home for more than a couple of weeks is Pablo Casals’s Cello Suites.
              But of course, I’m not surprised you were in such a milieu, since you are a multifaceted person, with many different talents and interests. February 18, 2016 at 2:32pm Reply

              • Alicia: Thank you, Victoria. How you would have enjoyed to talk with my husband, a superb scholar, the Head of the Spanish Department at the University of Berkeley, CA, and a man who faught both at the Spanish Civil War for the defeated Spanish Republic, and in the USA army in the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of concentration camps.He was a fountain of neverending stories, my Scheherazade. February 19, 2016 at 3:33am Reply

                • Victoria: I can just imagine! What an extraordinary person, with such diverse experiences. Thank you again for sharing. I always feel very thankful for the opportunities Bois de Jasmin gives me to make such fascinating encounters and to hear all of these stories. February 19, 2016 at 10:10am Reply

  • Jillie: So glad you like George Orwell, Victoria. Such a brilliant mind. One of my favourite authors has to be Jane Austen. As has often been said of her, she observed all human nature in her writing, even though she never ventured into the wide world, and was pin-sharp and as relevant today as she was then. February 17, 2016 at 9:59am Reply

    • Austenfan: Ditto to all of that! February 17, 2016 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: I liked his Homage to Catalonia very much, and of course, 1984 is brilliant.

      My favorite novel by Jane Austen is Emma, but I still have to read Sense and Sensibility. I can’t agree more with your characterization of her work. February 17, 2016 at 12:39pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Have you read his Animal Farm? It’s maybe not as profound as 1984, but it’s a great story with one of my favourite characters in fiction: the donkey Benjamin, who represents the cynical outsider. Orwell was a wise man! February 18, 2016 at 4:20pm Reply

        • Victoria: No, I haven’t. I need to read it. February 18, 2016 at 4:32pm Reply

          • Annikky: It’s not comfortable reading (although less harrowing than 1984), but it’s a slim book and often comical. I think anyone who has lived under the Soviet regime, would have special appreciation for this text. February 19, 2016 at 7:19am Reply

            • Michaela: Right, Annikky! Soviet or any other communist regime. February 19, 2016 at 8:29am Reply

              • Annikky: Very true, of course. Or any post-revolutionary regime, probably. I said Soviet because this is a heritage me and Victoria have in common, I didn’t mean to be insensitive! February 19, 2016 at 9:15am Reply

                • Michaela: I didn’t take it that way. 🙂 February 19, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

            • Victoria: It’s in my compilation with 1984, so I will take it up soon. February 19, 2016 at 10:15am Reply

            • Austenfan: Donkeys live a long time, none of you has ever seen a dead donkey!

              In it’s little way, it’s at least as profound as 1984, which I also read, but found to disturbing to read again. February 19, 2016 at 11:50am Reply

        • Ida: I remember Animal Farm was a part of my school programme. I loved it so much that I read 1984 straight after, even though it wasn’t on the list of the books I was required to read. A wise man indeed! February 19, 2016 at 7:08am Reply

          • Michaela: Great, part of your school program…
            I read it for the first time before communism collapsed. It was not available in public libraries and we read handwritten copies, passing the notebook from one student to another. It was not exactly forbidden, but you couldn’t find it anywhere. See Annikky’s comment. February 19, 2016 at 8:28am Reply

            • Ida: I guess I should call myself lucky – I was 10 when communisim collapsed, so I had unrestricted access to books like Animal Farm a few years later. February 22, 2016 at 10:16am Reply

    • Kaththee: Jillie, Thank you for mentioning Jane Austen. I put her name into “find” to make sure she was given her due. No other novelist compares. She defined the genre and invented the omniscient free indirect discourse third person point of view which allows the reader to see the story world through the eyes of the protagonist even if she is not always a reliable witness. It is Jane Austen’s brillant prose that takes my breath away though. Each sentence is a work of art. I find myself rereading the same passages savoring her complex but still accessible sentence structures. My very favorite passage happens to be in my favorite novel Emma ( like most Janeites) when the point of view shifts to Knightley (like at the ball) and we see Emma through his eyes one more time. “He had gone to learn to be indifferent.-But he had gone to the wrong place. There was too much domestic happiness in his brother’s house;woman wore too aminable form in it;Isabella was too much like Emma-differing only in those striking inferiorities which always brought the other in brilliancy before him….”
      That passage brought Emma in brilliancy before me too. I have never seen a character drawn with so much clarity, and with Knightley I fall in love with Emma too who is “flawless in spite of all her faults.”

      I always thought that Penholigan or Creed should create a line of perfumes named after Austen’s characters, Anne, Catherine, Elinor, Marianne, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma and maybe even a Jane for Jane Fairfax. They could do a man’s line with Knightley, Darcy, Elliot, etc.. What could be more clever or delightful? October 9, 2019 at 2:05pm Reply

      • Jillie: How lovely to read your comment, Kaththee. As I get older I admire Jane Austen even more; each time I re-read her books I find something new that I had never noticed before, so subtle is her setting of a scene or characterisation. It’s not surprising her armies of fans grow.

        I’m sure those fans would love to buy perfumes inspired by Austen’s characters. In fact I think small houses have produced quite a few, and Laura Ashley created a pretty fragrance in the 80s named Emma – Ashley herself was a great Austen fan (look at her early dresses!), and she named her daughter Jane.

        And it is always a fun game to match characters to perfumes already in existence! October 9, 2019 at 5:57pm Reply

        • Kaththee: Jillie, Thank you so much. I have loved Jane Austen since I was 15 when I first read Pride and Prejudice, but I agree I admire her more as I get older and re-read the novels. In my 30s I was in danger of memorizing her novels so I took a 5 year break that turned into 20 years. So I am just starting to re-read them again and I do see and appreciate more than I did in my youth.

          I have never tried my hand at matching characters to perfumes or even read about such an endevour but I had to give it a try. I came up with this list. Fanny Price was the most difficult.

          Marianne Dashwood – Annick Goutal Songes
          Elinor Dashwood – Estee Lauder White Linen 

          Fanny Price -Guerlain Shalimar
Catherine Morland – Victor Rolf Flowerbomb
Elizabeth Bennett- Chanel Coco Chanel
          Anne Elliot – Guerlain Mitsouko
Emma Woodhouse- Chanel No 5

          Jane Fairfax – Guerlain L’Heure Bleue

          I was having so much fun I added these 3.

          Wuthering Heights Catherine Earnshaw – Opium

          Vanity Fair Becky Sharp- Penholigan Bluebell
The Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne- Carnal Flower

          Thank you for the idea! October 11, 2019 at 1:09pm Reply

  • limegreen: What wonderful reading suggestions from everyone!
    Another one for the “academic does not have to be dry” category: Noted Chinese historian, Jonathan Spence, can spin a really good yarn:
    Treason by the Book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, God’s Chinese Son, just to name a few.
    And for those of us who can’t stop rereading Austen and want more (alas for the small body of her work 🙁 ), it’s a guilty pleasure to read Joan Aiken’s “fan fiction” except she called them sequels and untold stories since the term “fan fiction” is fairly recent. There are several of Aiken’s “Austen fiction” but here’s one:
    Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen’s Emma
    And Aiken “completed” one of Austen’s fragmented manuscripts: Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed February 17, 2016 at 10:08am Reply

    • Victoria: So glad that you mentioned Jonathan Spence. He was my professor of Chinese history, and I selected his course, because I read his books and found them really well-written. Another professor of history who is not only brilliant but writes well is Timothy Snyder, Spence’s colleague in the department of history (although working in a completely different branch). February 17, 2016 at 12:43pm Reply

      • limegreen: How fortunate you were to have the opportunity, Victoria! There are urban legends of Professor Spence writing his books in one of the famous pizza joints in New Haven. 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 8:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: That would be Frank Pepe Pizzeria, and yes, that was the story.

          “The Death of Woman Wang” is another recommended book by Spence. He has the ability to make even the most inconsequential characters interesting, and his command of sources is impressive. Actually, the whole history department at Yale is excellent and has many great writers. Another one of my professors John Merriman has a few books, on European and French history. For anyone who’s interested, his course on the European history is available online. February 18, 2016 at 2:36pm Reply

          • limegreen: Is there one in particular that you enjoyed reading by Merriman? (Sorry if it is a bit of “find the grain of sand” kind of question!) February 18, 2016 at 4:02pm Reply

            • Victoria: Not at all! A very good question. I would recommend A History of Modern Europe. It’s a two volume work, but it’s really well-written and the narrative flows well. February 18, 2016 at 4:23pm Reply

            • Victoria: I found the reading diary I kept as a teen, and it was so much fun to see what I have read back then. I finally started keeping something similar last year. February 18, 2016 at 4:25pm Reply

              • limegreen: Thanks for the recommendation (it’s already in its third edition). 🙂
                I love the idea of reading journals! February 18, 2016 at 5:10pm Reply

                • Victoria: The course online I was talking about earlier is based on this book, so if there is a chapter you’re especially interested in, you can always find the lecture and listen to Merriman explain it (with an occasional aside on his cat). February 18, 2016 at 5:16pm Reply

                  • limegreen: Thanks for the recommendation!
                    Cat Notes! 🙂 February 18, 2016 at 6:04pm Reply

    • Kari: I am skeptical of Jane Austen fan fiction because there is so much smut out there, so I appreciate hearing recommendations that truly are good works on their own merits. Have you read Pamela Aidan’s trilogy? It is quite a good retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s perspective. She does a good job of mirroring Austen’s language while finding her own voice and giving the gentlemen more to do “offstage.” February 18, 2016 at 11:49pm Reply

      • Nora Szekely: You made me curious, I read some not so good fan fic but am always eager to explore more.
        Off -topic a bit: there will be a Jane Austen ball in my hometown, Budapest this summer. I got my ticket this week, I’m so excited!!! February 19, 2016 at 5:57am Reply

        • Victoria: So exciting! What will the ball include? And what will you wear? February 19, 2016 at 10:11am Reply

          • Nora Szekely: It will be held in Palace Festetics. We will dance several dances from late 18th-early 19th century, we will have supper and entertainment (musicans and singers). Dress code is between 1780-1825. I’m part of a reenactment group (dancing, acting and entertaining), those of us who are going will have dresses made for us by a dressmaker.
            I really feel like a heroine from my beloved books, only I cannot decide how to dress. Should I dress like a debutante at the tender age of 35 or go for a fully grown up look. I think I’d prefer something elegant but simple, in white or in pastel, a dress that can be equally worn by the demure or by the accomplished grand dame.

            What would you wear to such a ball? February 19, 2016 at 6:27pm Reply

            • limegreen: More importantly, what PERFUME will you wear?!

              I love the idea of a ball, how wonderful to have a “dressmaker” make one’s ball gown!
              Does one get snubbed for dancing by a petty clergyman, get gossipped about, get “saved” by Knightley for a dance? February 19, 2016 at 9:11pm Reply

              • Nora Szekely: It’s even tougher to answer. I’d like to go for a scent that contains elements used in the 19th century. I’m great fan of musk, rose and violet. I also love incense and patchouli.
                An interesting fact/gossip I read from that era: empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon, wore musk scents as her favourite. When she was “replaced” by empress Marie Louise, who preferred delicate violet, as revenge she scented her rooms heavily with her beloved musk before leaving the palace.

                I will definitely try to go for some more traditional smelling scent, not a modern composition but something I enjoy weraing, to crown the night.

                Any suggestions? February 23, 2016 at 4:17am Reply

                • limegreen: That’s a great historical anecdote about Josephine, Nora, thanks for sharing it. 🙂
                  This will be too strong for your ball but Lutens L’Orpheline is my latest favorite of incense and patchouli. It’s cloudlike unlike other incense perfumes I have.

                  If you’re doing the Austen thing, maybe it has to be more of an English aesthetic, something like Jo Malone or Jo Loves (harder to find), or Penhaligons? These are kind of boring though!
                  I really love the discontinued Jo Malone intense Iris and White Musk. Maybe you should just wear your favorite rose! February 23, 2016 at 10:14am Reply

            • Victoria: Elegant but simple sounds like a great idea. I would wear a long gown, but the one that would allow me to dance comfortably. If you need help to decide among outfits, I’m sure many of us will be happy to assist. 🙂 February 20, 2016 at 9:01am Reply

              • Nora Szekely: I will try to link pictures soon of the ideas I got. It would be great to have some help from the writes/ readers of this blog, I trust your style 🙂 February 23, 2016 at 4:19am Reply

      • limegreen: Hi Kari — Well, Joan Aiken was writing these books before “fan fiction” existed as a real genre. She also continued stories about minor characters from Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, etc. Not all of it is great, and what she did with the Jane Fairfax “secret story” was try to tell Jane Fairfax’s side of the story and explain Emma’s dislike of Jane. Kind of fun.
        I had heard about the Aidan trilogy, thanks for reminding me to look them up! (Austen Fans unite!) February 19, 2016 at 9:06pm Reply

  • mj: I haven’t read that Orwell you were talking about, and as I enjoyed Animal Farm, The Road to Wigan Pier, Hommage to Catalonia and 1984 in the past, I will look for it.
    One of my favourite writers is Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” is such a excellently written book, talking about the Europe he was missing, that we have missed forever, that made me want to have lived those years. February 17, 2016 at 10:31am Reply

    • Victoria: I finished reading The World of Yesterday a couple of weeks ago, and I agree that it’s a poignant memoir, especially so since Zweig committed suicide shortly after writing it. Have you read Joseph Roth? If not, you might find his works likewise compelling. February 17, 2016 at 3:07pm Reply

      • mj: Thanks for the recommendation!. I’m not familiar with this author, but sounds very interesting. I’m going to Vienna in Easter, maybe could be a good introduction to Imperial Austria.
        Speaking of other Roth (I suppose there’s no relation between them) I like very much Philip Roth, in particular the Zuckerman novels. February 17, 2016 at 3:54pm Reply

        • Victoria: He grew up in the part of Ukraine that was under the Hapsburg Empire, so his view of those days in comparison to what he experienced as the war started is similar to Zweig, nostalgic and romantic. Perhaps, too much so, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into another era. February 18, 2016 at 2:12pm Reply

        • Annikky: Joseph Roth is an excellent suggestion, especially if you’re going to Vienna. February 19, 2016 at 7:23am Reply

  • Michaela: The only book I read from your list is ‘The Overcoat’. And I return to this one now and again, I’ll never get tired of reading it.
    I’ll add the others on my list. Thank you and everybody else for the recommendations. February 17, 2016 at 10:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Gogol’s Evenings Near Dikanka are a collection of tales inspired by Ukrainian folklore. I recommend them along with The Overcoat for a different theme but the same original style. February 17, 2016 at 3:10pm Reply

      • Michaela: Thank you! February 18, 2016 at 10:19am Reply

    • Michaela: I’d recommend O. Henry short stories, at least ‘The Gift of the Magi’, simple and very touching.
      Some other authors I always return to have already been mentioned here. February 18, 2016 at 10:24am Reply

      • Victoria: How much do I love that story!

        There is another one I loved as a teen, I think that it might be called “The Last Leaf”. It’s about a woman who thinks that she will die once the last leaf has fallen from a tree outside her window. I won’t say more, because to do so would be to reveal the ending. February 18, 2016 at 2:47pm Reply

        • Michaela: I remember that one, too! So touching!

          Different as it is, a joke in the end, I can’t but remember ‘A Day’s Wait’. It’s a short story about a boy who expects to die any moment because he heard the doctor saying his fever is as high as 100 degrees. The boy thinks in Celsius but the doctor meant Fahrenheit. The story is unforgettable due to Hemingway’s unique style. February 19, 2016 at 3:32am Reply

          • Victoria: I don’t remember “A Day’s Wait”, but it was such a long time that I’ve read O’Henry. His ability to craft ironic endings is incomparable. February 19, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

  • Esme: I am reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar” and I agree: it is a masterful, well-written history of postwar Europe. I re-read his book “A Grand Illusion” published in 1996 in which he expressed grave doubts about the EU and its expansion. His analysis is rigorous and prescient. Sadly, Tony Judt died a few years ago and he did not live to witness the Greek crisis and the migrant crisis. I would have loved to know what he would have said about these two threats to the EU. February 17, 2016 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Judt was incredible. Even when he was completely paralyzed and couldn’t even hold a pen, he continued working, dictating to his assistant. The Memory Chalet was written this way, and it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking memoir.
      Thinking Twentieth Century, written as a conversation between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder (Judt already was paralyzed at the time), is another impressive work that touches upon some of the major themes of the past 10 decades. There were many times over the past couple of years that I have been thinking, “now, what would Judt say about this?” February 17, 2016 at 3:15pm Reply

  • irem: Poetry in prose is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Wind, Sand and Stars” to me. Even the name is poetry: Wind, Sand and Stars (or the original French title: Terre des Hommes). I have read it countless times (22 years, four translations in three languages, sadly never the original, but I would love to learn French if only to read Exupéry). It never fails to move and deliver peace, reading a few pages fills one with the wonder of life: the story of Guillaumet trapped in the snow of the Andes, the story of Exupéry himself trapped in the Sahara, almost dying from thirst and many others. It is not just the subject, the grand adventures, though, but the little observations into the essence of men (or women) delivered so poignantly. The book ends with the single sentence “Only the Spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create Man.” and the whole of it explores bits and pieces of this spirit which makes us a (hu)man. Needless to say, I love it.

    Writing this makes me want to read it again: put on a few drops of Guerlain Vol de Nuit parfum (possibly inspired by association, another Exupéry book, but I find it matches the mood perfectly), find a cup of tea and a cozy place to curl in and get lost in the beauty of the prose.

    I couldn’t agree more with spe: time to read is one of the utmost luxuries. February 17, 2016 at 11:00am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such a moving homage to your favorite novel, Irem! February 17, 2016 at 3:15pm Reply

  • CateHerself: My favorite book read last year was The Provencal Tales by Michael De Larrabeiti. The author worked the transhumance with a group of shepherds in the late 1950’s and begins each chapter with a description of the land and people, which is pretty wonderful, but then goes on to retell a story told to him by his confreres dating back to medieval Provence — ghosts, wizards, kings, princesses, troubadours, Saracens … magic. February 17, 2016 at 11:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Another book I’d love to read. February 17, 2016 at 3:16pm Reply

  • k: i love yukio mishima’s writing, particularly “spring snow”. the imagery he conjures combined with deep psychological insight is fascinating. February 17, 2016 at 12:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this recommendation. I haven’t read Yukio Mishima, but based on the excerpt I found, Spring Snow would be a great discovery. February 17, 2016 at 3:21pm Reply

      • k: his descriptions can be so vivid and sensual, it’s like you’re there, smelling the smells, seeing the visions. i hope you like his work if you read it 🙂 February 22, 2016 at 4:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: It arrived earlier today and I read the first 10 pages and browsed through the book a little bit. I liked the way he described one of the characters as lacking “Satoko’s delicate coordination, a gift that comes only with a sure sense of elegance.” Thank you very much for your recommendation. I look forward to reading the book. February 24, 2016 at 5:13pm Reply

          • k: oh i’m glad you got it! now i want to read it again. i have a feeling i will soon 🙂 February 24, 2016 at 6:04pm Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Another thought-provoking post, Victoria! I echo the sentiments of you and your readers with regard to beautifully-written books.

    I would like to add these to your list because of both the exquisite prose and the story: The Incarnations (Susan Barker); The Small Backs of Children (Lidia Yuknavitch); At Hawthorn Time (Melissa Harrison); The Spiral Staircase (Karen Armstrong); The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera); The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion); both The Emigrants and Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald); any and all Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton; All the Birds, Singing (Evie Wyld); and Speak, Memory (Vladimir Nabokov).

    These are just a handful – there are so many more! February 17, 2016 at 12:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: A fantastic list, with lots of new to me authors. Thank you very much, Karen. February 17, 2016 at 3:21pm Reply

      • Karen 5.0: You’re more than welcome! I would love to know what you think of these books.

        Could I add two more? Silence, by Shusaku Endo (I heard that Martin Scorsese is finally making it into a film, a project he has wanted to do for some time); and Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, by the English novelist Julian Barnes – it is a collection of some of the best art criticism I have ever read. February 18, 2016 at 11:48am Reply

        • Victoria: I added both of these too! Thank you so much, Karen. February 18, 2016 at 2:48pm Reply

  • Nick: Ah, how I wish the journals of Molecular Biology were a tad more filled with beautiful proses. We in the sciences are sorely lacking in that department . I still remember the readings for Introduction to Political Science in my undergraduate study — I didn’t feel like homework, but more like interesting pieces to ponder and a writing style to appreciate. February 17, 2016 at 12:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that if you open any academic journal, no matter the discipline, you’ll find the same lack of interesting prose. But science is also not devoid of good writers. Einstein is a genius all around–as the current discussions of gravitational waves are proving again and again, but his work is also a great read. He uses such original metaphors and interesting examples. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is one of my favorite science books. Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future is terrific.

      And I like Galileo’s witty “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. February 17, 2016 at 3:28pm Reply

      • Nick: Wow. You are such an avid reader. I could never think of interesting science authors in the poetic sense. I should start with The Periodic Table! February 17, 2016 at 3:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: You won’t regret it, Nick. It’s a marvelous book. February 18, 2016 at 2:07pm Reply

      • Alicia: Yes, Galileo was a splendid writer with plenty of wit. The Dialogue is now published in English with an introduction by Einstein.I was delighted to find out that Galileo once taught in Florence the geography of Dante’s Inferno. February 17, 2016 at 7:45pm Reply

        • Victoria: And his personality comes through his writing so clearly. I recommend the Dialogues to anyone, regardless of their interest in science. February 18, 2016 at 2:33pm Reply

      • Jenny Katz: The Periodic Table is one of my top three favorite books, ever. I will never forget where I was when I read the last line. It literally took the breath from my chest. February 17, 2016 at 11:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, very powerful. February 18, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

  • Mel: I love Gogol. Dead Souls is one of my favorite books. Victoria, I think you would love The Glass Room by Simon Mawer – which was nominated for the booker prize and lost to Wolf Hall. It’s exactly the prose you describe – economical and clear-cut but beautiful and expressive. For me, prose-wise, the book that tops the list is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. February 17, 2016 at 1:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. I will be sure to check them out. February 17, 2016 at 3:29pm Reply

      • Mel: I should emphasize that the prose in Blood Meridian is best-described as extravagant as opposed to spare and concise. But it’s darkly ravishing. I found myself “saving” the pages, as I pushed further into the book, so not wanting it to end. Be advised, McCarthy doesn’t stint on violence and nihilism, but it takes place in Indian country of 19th-Century American west. Think The Revenant (movie), but less optimistic… February 17, 2016 at 4:20pm Reply

        • Victoria: I like that too! Adding it to my list. February 18, 2016 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Neva: First of all thank you all for your lovely suggestions. I will write them down and use as a guide for further reading.
    I don’t know why, but the first author who came to my mind was Vladimir Nabokov and his Lolita. He wrote it in English and I was always amazed by his mastery of the language, which wasn’t even his mother language. And I don’t think anybody mentioned so far, but I think a list of great authors would not be complete without Thomas Mann – his novels Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and his stories Death in Venice, Tonio Kroger… February 17, 2016 at 2:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree on Thomas Mann, and I especially liked The Magic Mountain. I need to read Buddenbrooks, though.

      Nabokov’s ability to play with words is brilliant, and one of my favorite books is his Speak, Memory. February 17, 2016 at 3:32pm Reply

      • Mel: Yes, when you mentioned Pierre Menard, I immediately thought of Pale Fire February 17, 2016 at 4:21pm Reply

        • Victoria: Pale Fire is so good! February 18, 2016 at 2:15pm Reply

      • Nora Szekely: I also love Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Tonio Kroger. I so want to read Death in Venice, maybe will do soon. February 18, 2016 at 9:00am Reply

        • Victoria: I also want to read Death in Venice. I realized that I have seen the film several times, but I haven’t read the book. February 18, 2016 at 2:45pm Reply

          • Austenfan: I don’t know how well it has been translated, as I read Death in Venice in German, but it’s stunning, as menacing as the film.

            I found Buddenbrooks much more enjoyable than The Magic Mountain. February 18, 2016 at 4:13pm Reply

            • Victoria: I’ve only read him in Russian, and that was already 15 years ago, so it’s definitely time to revisit. February 18, 2016 at 4:28pm Reply

          • Ida: I actually enjoyed reading Death in Venice more than watching the film. February 19, 2016 at 6:56am Reply

            • Victoria: I’m now looking forward to the book even more. February 19, 2016 at 10:10am Reply

  • Austenfan: Did you watch Brideshead? ( the TV series). It’s one of the best Granada ever made, I happen to prefer it to the book, actually. February 17, 2016 at 3:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: My friend recommended it to me too, but no, I haven’t watched it. Somehow, after reading the book I don’t really want to, because I already have my own mental image of Brideshead and the characters. I browsed through some other Waugh’s novels, but none really impressed me as much as Brideshead Revisited. February 17, 2016 at 3:38pm Reply

      • Austenfan: I think it improves on the book. The only casting I didn’t really enjoy is Julia, apart from that they were spot on.
        I enjoyed Decline and Fall, never read any of the others. February 17, 2016 at 3:57pm Reply

        • Victoria: I browsed through Decline and Fall, so perhaps I didn’t give it a fair chance. February 18, 2016 at 2:13pm Reply

          • Austenfan: I read it over 25 years ago, so I might not enjoy it today.
            I can see why you might not wish to spoil the images you have of Brideshead by the TV series, but having enjoyed it myself so much at the time and every single time that I have watched it again, I tend to be a bit zealous about urging other people to watch it too.
            I think Brideshead is very different to his other work, which is more ironic. February 18, 2016 at 4:11pm Reply

            • Annikky: I completely agree with you on the series, including the caveat about Julia. I read the book first and absolutely adored it, it was one of the formative reading experiences of my (very) early adulthood (and I think the book is suited to being read first when young). I was a bit scared to watch the series, but I loved it – not only the characters, but the atmosphere too. It’s entirely possible, however, that I would not love it as much if I’d watch it for the first time now, long after reading the book. So I understand the reluctance to see it – one has to be careful with precious memories. February 19, 2016 at 7:36am Reply

              • Austenfan: My favourite person was Anthony Blanche, I adored Nicholas Grace in this role. I can still hear him utter those famous words: ‘My dddear sweet ccccclodhoppers, don’t stand there like a ppppppair of very unorderly fffootmen.’ February 19, 2016 at 11:54am Reply

  • Elena: I always find such wonderful suggestions in these threads. Brideshead Revisited was so beautiful, and even now quite a few years later I can remember the way the book looked (i t was from the library) and how transportive it was. I was heavily pregnant at the time, and we named our daughter Evelyn! Now I can’t quite remember if I was reading Waugh because the name Evelyn was on my mind as a contender in the name decision, or if the idea came from the book! I hope you love The House of the Spirits. It is magical in every sense, and one of my all time favorites. February 17, 2016 at 3:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: The best way to find a name, and what a beautiful one it is.

      The House of the Spirits has been shipped out already, so I look forward to receiving it. I also find the comments in these threads inspiring, and they help me discover many new authors and genres. February 18, 2016 at 2:07pm Reply

    • Karen (A): House of Spirits is amazing! February 20, 2016 at 11:59pm Reply

  • maja: ps. I think I love this thread as much as I love Recommend me a perfume one 🙂 February 17, 2016 at 3:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I do too! You guys are amazingly well-read and are very inspiring. February 18, 2016 at 2:10pm Reply

  • rainboweyes: I love your book posts, Victoria! They are always so inspirational. If only I had enough time to read all these beautiful recommendations.
    I’m a great lover of French classics – Balzac, Zola, Stendhal and Flaubert. I think “Madame Bovary” is one of my favourite books. February 17, 2016 at 4:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Flaubert is definitely a master when it comes to language and style. February 18, 2016 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Neva: Oh, Madame Bovary, we had to read it back then at school and it was so emotional to me. I even remember one of the first sentences: “She was beautiful. If she were happy she would have been stunning”. I’m sure I didn’t choose the best words, but okay. Maybe it’s time to read it again now that I’m old and wise 😉 February 18, 2016 at 5:26pm Reply

  • Tati: Wonderful suggestions of many writers I am not familiar with. I reread Anna Karenina every few years, and find new things that move me each time. It is the most marvelous book in that the characters seem to change over time with you. Tolstoy is the master. Another book I consider a touchstone is Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I love Hemingway, and always recommend A Movable Feast for the sheer beauty of his prose. Another of my favorite authors is Marilynne Robinson, and I’m especially fond of her first novel, Housekeeping, which won the Pulitzer. Her prose is magic. February 17, 2016 at 4:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you read Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter? Now, I don’t know how the English translation holds up, but the original is beautiful.

      Adding Marilynne Robinson to my list too. Thank you, Tati. February 18, 2016 at 2:17pm Reply

    • Ida: To be honest, I find English translations of Anna Karenina (I’ve read two different) disappointing. A Polish translation is so much better. I wish I was able to read the original. February 19, 2016 at 7:01am Reply

  • Kelly: Lovely post as always, Victoria! I was an English major for undergrad and I’m finishing my last year of grad school in social policy (US) — let me say it was rather a shock to read such wonderful works by Updike and Wharton and Eliot and then come to the rather dry and academic science writing (writing from a humanities (MLA) perspective is so much better than science (APA) writing! I digress…). Plus I am rather obsessed with the current state of American politics right now and the s***show that it is — I’m sure you have much to offer in that regard, but since we are talking about beauty….

    Wharton and Wharton. Eliot. Updike. I think the Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are two of my favorites. Rabbit, Run. The Mill on the Floss breaks my heart — I prefer Eliot to Austen (although Austen is good, too). And anything Fitzgerald.

    However, for the most stark and sparse beautiful writing, Hemingway’s short stories are so powerful — the “iceberg theory” sort of dictates his writing style, in which the crux and meat of the story lies underneath the ocean and in words unwritten and unsaid. February 17, 2016 at 4:59pm Reply

    • Michaela: Totally agree on Hemingway’s short stories. You say it so well. February 18, 2016 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Kelly. Lots of inspiration here. Which Updike novels would you recommend? February 18, 2016 at 2:18pm Reply

      • Kelly: I think the Rabbit series is the natural choice — his first book Rabbit, Run is a sort of staunchly American tome which deftly weaves themes of suburban existentialism, religion, masculinity, sex….and lots of basketball. Rabbit is the epitome of an anti-hero of a Don Draper mold (and my undergraduate thesis was about American male protagonists in 1950s-60s American lit – Roth, Cheever, Updike…and Don Draper!) anyhow, I realize my summation of the book might do more to discourage you from it, but it is poetically written (he steals much of his writing style from Fitzgerald, imho) — and I can’t think of a novel which encapsulates the American male psyche more. Again, if you appreciate Mad Men, you would very much like this. February 19, 2016 at 1:27am Reply

    • Kari: Yes. I actually think Hemingway shines best in hit short stories. February 18, 2016 at 11:44pm Reply

  • Sariah: Interesting, we read the same Orwell essay at the beginning of English 101. I appreciated it greatly at the time but haven’t thought of it in 20 years, thanks for the reminder. For style I’m on team Middlemarch. I’m writing down to Japanese recommendations – planning a short trip there in the fall and I love to read a few books set in new places before I go. February 17, 2016 at 6:18pm Reply

  • Cheryl: I love these posts of yours on literature 🙂 For beautiful prose, I love The Hours by Michael Cunningham and The Elegance of the Hedghog by Muriel Barbery. February 17, 2016 at 10:17pm Reply

    • Nora Szekely: I love The hours too! February 18, 2016 at 11:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Taking notes, as I’m not familiar with these writers. Thank you, Cheryl. February 18, 2016 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Jenny Katz: There are a few books I keep coming back to, even after years, for the quality of the prose. For several years I was trying to write novels, and I had a “short shelf” of works that I’d turn to if I was trying to do something specific. Nadine Gordimer is unparalleled at the description of gesture (Burger’s Daughter is exquisite); Don DeLillo can be cold but his Underworld is a work of astonishing empathy, and to my mind he is unbeaten at capturing the flow of thought; the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey/Maturin series captures the tender friendship between two men with understated, hilarious, beautiful sentences; Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, mentioned above; Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are written for children but are really for everyone, idiosyncratic and unforgettable; Annie Dillard’s books are so beautifully written it hurts (I don’t love her novels, but the others, on writing and nature and living); Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is unique and perfect; and, finally, I urge everyone who cares about living or reading or writing to buy John Tarrant’s book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, which is a study in Zen koans and changes my life every time I read it. February 18, 2016 at 12:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for all of these ideas, Jenny. February 18, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

  • Bee: I’ve been looking through the recommendations, many great books have been mentioned. There aren’t so many books that make you think how every sentence length is perfect, every word is chosen accurately… I would like to add books by Roberto Bolaño to your list, originals in Spanish February 18, 2016 at 3:45am Reply

    • Victoria: True. Whenever you come across something like that, it’s such a special experience. February 18, 2016 at 2:39pm Reply

  • Karen (A): Will add Willa Cather – any and all of her books – and Louise Erdrich, whose early books I thought should weigh more than just the book itself as each word felt significant. February 18, 2016 at 5:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for more great additions, Karen. February 18, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

  • Bonnie: Watership Down by Richard Adams is a book that I read over and over again, each time finding a new layer to it. One layer is for children and is about rabbits, period. Deeper layers are for adults and concern war, superstition, and ultimately, overcoming hatred. It’s a heartbreaking, uplifting, life-changing novel and I love it. February 18, 2016 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Adding it to my list! Thank you, Bonnie. February 18, 2016 at 2:45pm Reply

    • Kari: It really is a multilayered book. I read it for the first time in 2014.

      I couldn’t help but see similarities with my beloved pet rats; it really made me internalize how scary it is to leave your safe home in search of food when you are a vulnerable prey animal, and rats have the additional challenge of having extremely low vision. February 18, 2016 at 11:42pm Reply

  • rosiemay: Thank you Victoria, for this rich and inspiring article, and everyone for such diverse and intriguing reccomendations, some that i know and love, and a great many i look forward to reading , exploring in the future.
    I’m currently reading Hilary Mantell’s ‘Life After Life’, such an original novel, and she is a wonderful prose writer. I also highly reccomend David Mitchell, for his wonderful combination of beautiful prose and wonderfully weird plots, he has lived in Japan for many years, and often his novels are set in japanese cities, provinces ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De zoet is a good one to start with, if you are interested in Japanese and European history of trade relations etc. I’m reading Sei Shonagan’s ‘The Pillow Book’, after reading about it in one of Victoria’s articles, it’s a wonderful read, thank you! February 18, 2016 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also enjoy how diverse the recommendations are, since all of us have different backgrounds and come from different places. All of you open my horizons so much. Thank you!

      So happy to hear that you’re enjoying The Pillow Book. It’s full of beautiful prose and exquisite imagery. Or shall I say, delightful, to use Sei Shonagon’s favorite word? February 18, 2016 at 2:50pm Reply

  • SilverMoon: Thank you Victoria for your lovely words that inspired so many suggestions and ideas. Wish I had the time to read even a small part of the many books listed here.

    I agree/second many of the writers listed: Gogol, Calvino, Eliot, Orwell, and so on. I thought I would add one that has not been mentioned (and that I really loved reading, especially when I was in my 20s): Thomas Hardy. My favourites were Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the DUbervilles. Beautiful writing, lovely stories.

    And then I really love reading poetry too. And Pablo Neruda is among my favourites. I especially loved visiting his house (a museum now) in Santiago de Chile. Recommend a visit to anybody headed down that way. February 18, 2016 at 5:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, and I appreciate your suggestions. A reminder to read Pablo Neruda is timely.

      We should ask Elisa to share with us some of her favorite poetry. After all, we have a published poet in our midst! February 19, 2016 at 9:40am Reply

  • Kari: Oh Victoria, this thread captures exactly why I fell in love with your blog on first read. Great scents, readers who love reading, and a perfume aficionado who writes beautifully about fragrance, food, and literature. Excuse me as I bliss out on this thread. (I was an English Literature major years ago.)

    Barbara Kingsolver is an author who rarely fails to draw me into her characters’ world with her words. The Poisonwood Bible is probably her most famous, and I love it, but The Bean Trees is my favorite.

    Lately I have been re-reading Anne of Green Gables (I read this for the first time when I was 8; at the time I probably didn’t have an appreciation for how beautifully written it was.)

    I love George Eliot’s way with language. Middlemarch was a difficult read in spite of, or perhaps because of, how well written it was – it made me feel as lost and isolated as many of the characters are until I reached the end.

    For nonfiction, I’ve been enjoying delving into Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall’s writings for the first time. I also read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring years ago and was captivated by how carefully chosen each word was.

    Eudora Welty’s writing also evokes time and place, and makes me think of my grandmother.

    Another writer I grew to love courtesy of my grandmother – a constant source of great reads – is the poet Mary Oliver. Her “Poem of the One World”:

    “This morning
    the beautiful white heron
    was floating along above the water

    and then into the sky of this
    the one world
    we all belong to

    where everything
    sooner or later
    is part of everything else

    which thought made me feel
    for a little while
    quite beautiful myself” February 18, 2016 at 11:37pm Reply

    • Kari: I know Bleak House was mentioned above; I adore this novel, and also Little Dorrit.

      Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is very much worth a read.

      Last year, while on an aerospace memoir/history kick, I read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” about the US pilots who were involved in test experiments for rocket aircraft, leading into the selection and idolization of the first Mercury astronauts. It’s critical, satirical, and sharp – but a really compelling story and incredibly well worded to evoke the point Wolfe is making. Here’s a sample:
      “A career in flying was like climbing one of those old Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even – ultimately, God willing, one day-that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring fears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.” February 19, 2016 at 12:03am Reply

      • Victoria: I want to read the book just on the basis of this excerpt. Jotting down the title. February 19, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

    • Nora Szekely: For non-fiction I also love Stephen Hawking. His books break down physics to a level understandable for a wider audience.
      I alsp enjoyed Richard Feynman’s style, ex. his Six easy lectures. February 19, 2016 at 7:07am Reply

      • Nora Szekely: It’ Six easy pieces in English, sorry February 19, 2016 at 7:10am Reply

        • Kari: Thank you Nora! I’ve not read Feynman before but this sounds intriguing. February 19, 2016 at 11:23am Reply

    • Victoria: So many interesting ideas! I can’t agree more with you on Silent Spring; Carson structured the book really well, and the conclusion is all the more frightening. Plus, the evidence is well used to support her argument.

      Thank you for this beautiful poem. It made my day. February 19, 2016 at 9:53am Reply

  • meg: What a great thread, and such fantastic recommendations! The poetry in prose category is a wonderful one, and I love so many of these, and just picked up new ideas, so thank you. If and when you are in the mood for smart, funny, and often dystopian, I’d like to offer the perfect book: Karel Capek’s 1936 War with The Newts. Brilliant, satirical, and an influence on Orwell, Vonnegut and a slew of others, Capek is a writer I’m always urging on others. And the American George Saunders.

    Oh, and the new Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan, is pretty great, if you love a blending of fairy tale magic and real life’s smaller joys. February 19, 2016 at 1:46am Reply

    • Annikky: When I was little, Capek’s The Gardener’s Year was serialised for the radio and broadcast often. I remember loving it and I think everybody else did, too. February 19, 2016 at 9:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reminding of Capek’s War with the Newts. I know of his work through Judt’s writings, but I have never read anything, apart from short excerpts. February 19, 2016 at 9:57am Reply

  • Eric: I came in to say I have the same copy of “Snow Country.” I love its hopeless, quiet nature, though I will say I vastly prefer the semi-fictional Master of Go, despite having a slight ham-fisted theme. I also love his Palm-of-the-Hand stories, which are little morsels of storytelling.

    I would have studied modern Japanese literature in college if I didn’t have to worry about a career. 🙂 February 19, 2016 at 11:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love the Master of Go, and the part where he writes that “Everything had become science and regulation” is unforgettable. I have a translation by the same author, and it’s very good.

      In college I wanted to do Japanese and Japanese literature as my major, but on reflection, I was advised to keep as my minor. Unfortunately, my language skills have deteriorated without constant practice to being able to read labels and skim magazine articles but most definitely not works of literature. February 20, 2016 at 8:13am Reply

      • Eric: Sadly my brain does not retain languages easily. I can speak very very basic Japanese, despite having taken chadō lessons for years. Even though I would love to devote more time to learning it, I really should be learning French for my further education. Sadly I don’t find French as beautiful as Japanese.

        I read Seidensticker’s translation of Tale of Genji after I struggled for months to wade through Royall Tyler’s translation. I do not have fond memories of Tale of Genji, nor did I particularly care for the actual story. I’d much rather read The Pillowbook of Sei Shōnagon for a glimpse of Heian life.

        I actually just finished A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe which I absolutely loved as well. February 22, 2016 at 5:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ivan Morris’s exploration of Heian life and culture, the World of the Shining Prince, is very good. I liked his translation of the Pillow Book until I came across one by Meredith McKinney. To me, her rendition sounds the most like Sei Shonagon. February 24, 2016 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Kari: I to come back to this thread because I forgot one of the most beautifully and achingly written books on my shelf, Maria Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow.”

    ““There are times…when we are in the midst of life-moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness-times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all it’s unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to it’s higher truth.
    …When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying.”

    “He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.”

    “That is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.” February 20, 2016 at 4:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for these beautiful quotes. February 22, 2016 at 2:48pm Reply

  • Aurora: You made me remember how much I had enjoyed some of Orwell’s essays – in particular one about an execution in Burma where he spent some time.

    Today, I would like to recommend Antonia White’s Frost in May, a coming of age story set in a convent. Do you know her Victoria? Her style is beautiful and in the UK it is considered a classic. February 21, 2016 at 12:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know Antonia White, but I just read a little about her online, and the novel sounds very good. I see that she was admired by many writers in her day, including Waugh. February 22, 2016 at 2:57pm Reply

  • Marsha: I would so love to read books in different languages like the people here talk about. I confess my reading choices have not been as high on the shelf as most of the choices here but a book I have read and remembered for the prose is “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins. It was the first detective novel ever written. It is the usual English country house story but something of great value gets stolen and the author tells the story from the viewpoint of the different characters in the house at the time of the crime. It was really fascinating to me how he could write in different voices. February 22, 2016 at 8:23am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved The Moonstone too. I still remember his description of one of the characters as being unattractive but having such beautiful eyes that you noticed nothing else. By the way, I found a reading list compiled by Jorge Luis Borges, and The Moonstone is on it. Rightly, I think. February 22, 2016 at 3:21pm Reply

  • Carla: Middlemarch is one of my favorite novels. Dorothea is one of my top three literary heroines. I also love listening to it read by Juliet Stevenson. And every summer I read some Waugh and some Mitford. When I was in high school and college I adored Brideshead and the tv series with Jeremy Irons. Thank you! February 22, 2016 at 6:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have tried the audio books a couple of times so far. Do you find yourself tuning out as you listen? Because this is what happens to me, especially if I’m doing something else at the same time. February 24, 2016 at 5:22pm Reply

      • Carla: Hi Victoria, I tune out some narrators, funnily enough, the male ones it seems. However Juliet Stevenson is so compelling! There is a review of her audio reading of Middlemarch somewhere online where the reviewer calls Stevenson a “female god” (not goddess) and I agree! She gives an amazing reading. I am listening to her read Jane Eyre currently. I really don’t tune her out although I don’t listen when I’m tired, it takes too much concentration. I don’t have an e reader so I have to keep track of where I am if I am reading and listening. Sometimes I read one book and listen to another. I also really liked the female narrator who read James’ The Golden Bowl for audible. If she can make you follow James, she is good! Maggie in that novel ranks with Dorothea as my literary heroine February 25, 2016 at 10:11am Reply

        • Victoria: You’ve convinced me to give it a try! I can’t imagine a more compelling recommendation. February 25, 2016 at 11:51am Reply

      • Carla: the narrator who read James so well is named Katherine Kellgren, as I recall February 25, 2016 at 10:18am Reply

  • Kari: I just started reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I had to stop by this older thread when I read this passage-I love the description of “the black satin psalm of her hair.” Marvelous description.

    “But the slums went on, kilometre after kilometre, relieved only by the awful contrast of the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss-covered apartment buildings of the comparatively affluent. The slums went on, and their sheer ubiquity wore down my foreigner’s pieties. A kind of wonder possessed me. I began to look beyond the immensity of the slum societies, and to see the people who lived within them. A woman stooped to brush forward the black satin psalm of her hair. Another bathed her children with water from a copper dish. A man led three goats with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried water in buckets. Men made repairs to one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled and laughed.” March 12, 2016 at 8:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: This is a great quote, and you’ve reminded me how I once tried to explain the very same thing about India to a friend. She wouldn’t believe me that people who live in such conditions can be happy. It used to be hard for me to comprehend it too, because it doesn’t fit with our western consumerist mindset. Religion has much to do with it, of course, as is the strong social and family networks that Indians have. Of course, everyone wants to improve their lot, to send their children to school, to make sure they prosper and have more comfortable lifestyle, but people have the irrepressible joie de vivre, whatever their circumstances. March 13, 2016 at 8:31am Reply

  • Vetiver: Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Like a piece of jewelry with every word placed in its setting for a reason. Beautifully written. November 16, 2017 at 12:40am Reply

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