A Resource For The Trickier Part of the 20th Century

It’s no secret that the second half of the twentieth century is more likely to prove a headache for me, during A Century of Book, than the first half.  I’m rather dreading getting to October and finding only post-1950 years left to read.  But then I was reading dovegreyreader (not to be confused with dovegreybooks, the lovely online book group I’m in) the other day, and spotted that Lynne had posted about a book called The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950, edited by Carmen Callil (of Virago fame) and Colm Toibin (of, y’know, some books.  That I haven’t read.)

Normally I’d have dismissed the book as a bit of a gimmick, or perhaps something that wouldn’t be especially useful to someone like me, who normally avoids post-1950 fiction unless he has a very good reason for reading it.  But under A Century of Books I thought it might be a very useful resource… and, after all, I do love a list.

There is a contents, where the books are listed by year.  This points one off to the main body of the book, which is organised alphabetically by author.  And then each book is given a page, which amounts to a mini blog review, really (although it doesn’t say which editor, if either, wrote each one.)  As a nice touch, in the small author biography underneath each recommendation, it gives their age at the time of their book’s publication.

Some years have quite a few books suggested (1991 has ten) whereas some get no entries at all (1974, for instance.)  But it should come together to an interesting list.

Let’s look, for instance, at the year of my birth: 1985.  What do Callil and Toibin recommend?

Family and Friends  Anita Brookner
Blood Meridian  Cormac McCarthy
Lonesome Dove  Larry McMurtry
Black Robe  Brian Moore
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit  Jeanette Winterson

Well, I’ve not read any of them.  I’ve not even heard of McMurty or Moore.  The only book I’ve read by Brookner was (as you might remember) rather a failure with me.  But I quite like the mix of lastingly famous and slightly obscure.  Oh, and the back of the book has useful lists of prizewinners, for everything from the Booker to the Miles Franklin Prize to Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year.

Flicking through The Modern Library, there are quite a few books which often appear on lists and make me sigh.  I would expect more from Callil and Toibin than to see them join the The Catcher in the Rye/The Bell Jar school of lists (both hugely overrated, in my eyes.)  And Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, really?  But at the same time they pick out some lesser known authors whom I love – Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett…

So, it’s not a resource I shall follow unquestioningly.  It doesn’t provide the unknown gems that I find everyday across the blogosphere, nor would I have needed this book to tell me that To Kill a Mockingbird is worth reading.  But I think it’ll still come in handy, should I start to panic about finding anything to read in, say, 1975, or 1988.

If there is a year for which you’d like to know the list, just let me know… but my overriding thought is – wouldn’t it be wonderful to compile a book like this from blogs?  I suppose A Century of Books will eventually provide a similar overview – one for each of the blogs participating, indeed – but I suppose there’s no guarantee that these will be good books…

43 thoughts on “A Resource For The Trickier Part of the 20th Century

  • February 7, 2012 at 1:48 am
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    You've not heard of McMurtry!? Lonesome DOve did win the Pulitzer. I'm reading it right now and loving it. A literary Western.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 8:26 am
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      Ah, that explains it – my knowledge of American literature is pretty shoddy.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 2:29 am
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    Now you've done it! I'm curious about the year of my birth, all the way back to 1962 if you don't mind, Simon. Please and thank you.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 8:28 am
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      Of course! Here are your options:
      That's How It Was – Maureen Duffy
      The Reivers – William Faulkner
      The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
      The Lonely Girl – Edna O'Brien
      Ship of Fools – Katherine Anne Porter

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  • February 7, 2012 at 2:36 am
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    Never heard of Brian Moore! Simon … I prescribe the Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne right now. And the movie with Maggie Smith.
    Never much cared for McMurtry, though.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 11:33 am
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      It's going on the Amazon wishlist as we speak! Especially if Dame M has been in a film of it.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 4:18 am
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    Ditto on the Lonely Passion. Its right up your alley, Simon. McMurtry is not a personal favorite, but he is one hell of a writer, a huge book collector and very popular in the US of A.

    I look forward to learning which titles you choose for this interesting challange.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 11:33 am
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      Thanks for the recommendation, Ellen, I'm definitely intrigued by Lonely Passion.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 8:28 am
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    I have really enjoyed the couple of McMurtys I have read. Lonesome Dove was also made into a tv series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 9:30 am
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    Ah I came here to recommend The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne but see I am not alone. Its themes and even elements of the plot are very similar to Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude. Although having written that in its favour, I suppose you may be inclined to think a similar book would never match up to the Hamilton. Still, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a fun book, too.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 11:47 am
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      Right, that's three recommendations this morning, from three people whose opinions I revere, so it's gone on my Amazon wishlist… You make a good point about a book being similar to another, and whether it would be great or a disappointment by comparison. Hmm. I suppose I'll just have to try it and see!

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  • February 7, 2012 at 9:40 am
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    I bought a 1p copy of this too after DGR's post. It only arrived yesterday so I haven't had time to delve yet … Like you I think it'll offer mixed fortunes to me though.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 11:47 am
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      Yes, thank goodness for the 1p copies! It is a nice addition to the books-about-books shelf, if only for the lists of prizewinners.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 10:09 am
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    Lonesome
    dove is fabulous but the genre may put you off. However, the relationships between characters I think might appeal to you.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 11:48 am
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      I must confess, it's not top on my list of must-reads – you're right, the genre is a disincentive for me – but I will bear in mind your recommendation if I ever stumble across it in a bookshop.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm
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    Lonesome Dove is excellent and Im not a big fan of westerns but I loved the male friendships and at times it is very funny in it although to be fair it was only via other American blogs that I actually got to hear about it. Blood Meridian is amazing but you need a strong stomach to read it so its not one I tend to recommend.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm
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      I definitely do NOT have a strong stomach, so I'll be avoiding that one! But I will bear Lonesome Dove in mind…

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  • February 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm
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    oh I ll have to look for my birth year see what was about 1972 all the best stu

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  • February 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm
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    I second the …Judith Hearne recommendation but Black Robe's good too, about a Jesuit (I think) priest going to preach to the Hurons. It's a Canlit staple, and I seem to recall that there's a film version of it too.

    I'm not finding the second half of the century as hard as I thought, though I have the advantage of not restricting myself to literary fiction. Is there a lower middle-brow, I wonder?

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    • February 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm
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      I'm not deliberately restricting myself to literary fiction.. actually, thinking about it, I seem to be reading quite a lot of non-fiction so far this year. Perhaps because I'm reading books *about* the first half of 20th century, published in the second half…(!)

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  • February 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm
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    Black Robe was a depressing thing about Jesuits in Quebec. I don't remember it being huge in the UK @ the time. Lonesome Dove I haven't read but it was a mega successful TV mini series. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a must read – ask Cardigan Girl Verity.I am very fond of Cormack McCarthy but he requires determined reading.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm
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      I've always been suspicious of Jeanette Winterson, because she seems so bitter in interviews, but I'm told her books don't read that way… one day, one day.

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  • February 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm
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    GeraniumCat, there is a lower middle-brow category. See this hilarious chart at http://www.joeydevilla.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/highbrowlowbrowchart.jpg

    The chart was created by Russell Lynes for Life Magazine in 1949. His original article appeared in Harper's in response to Virginia Woolf's posthumously published letter that called middlebrows "petty purveyors of high brow cultures for their own shallow benefit." — ouch!

    We had an interesting discussion about it on the Angela Thirkell Appreciation Group on FB in October 2011.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm
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      Margaret, that's wonderful! I knew of Lynes' article but had never got around to reading it – despite writing a lot about the middlebrow in my thesis, and enjoying (and disagreeing with!) every corruscating word of Woolf's.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm
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      Absolutely! Hateful woman!

      You can read the Life article (with chart) through Google Books. It is in the April 11th, 1949 issue — it is short but funny. I'm not sure about the original Harper's article but it might be available through JStor if you have access. I think the Wilson Quarterly reprinted it at some point.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm
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      "IF you have access"…sorry, I forgot where you worked.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm
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      Haha, yes, I do have access! I should do, anyway, and will have a hunt later…

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    • February 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm
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      I shall look too! The chart is wonderful, thank you, Margaret, but I'd have to say that I don't identify at all – with the one exception of "book club selections", since they are probably what I'm reading now (think I probably have a few of those editions from the 40s and 50s on my shelves).

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    • February 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm
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      I meant to say, I didn't identify with the "lower middle-brow" category at all…

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  • February 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm
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    Larry McMutry is a big name over here, Simon. He writes about life in small Texas towns using his own hometown Archer City (as small a place as you can get in a state that like everything BIG) as his inspiration. He wrote THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT both turned into movies as well as a slew of novels set in the old west of which LONESOME DOVE is one. Also – and here is some great trivia you will appreciate – Larry McMurtry is a huge book collector. He took some of his surplus books and opened the only bookstore in his little hometown and it has expanded into a chain of sorts spreading over three separate buildings. It slowly became a happy hunting ground for bibliophiles of all types and has attracted visitors in the book trade from all over North America. When I visited the stores several years ago I was astounded by what I found. Many very scarce books at unbelievably cheap prices. I remember when I went to pay the employees were shaking their heads at how inadequately the books were priced. I kept grinning through the entire process.

    In addition to his mainstream fiction Brian Moore also wrote a few private eye novels under the pseudonym Bernard Mara.

    BTW – I suggest you read Colm Toibin's book THE MASTER about Henry James and pronto, Simon. I think you'd greatly enjoy it.

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    • February 7, 2012 at 5:34 pm
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      Thanks for the info on McMurtry – I have heard of Terms of Endearment, but hadn't realised it was a novel too. But I like him a lot, based on your biographical sketch! What fun to open up a bookshop with his own books – although I'd want to vet anyone who was going to take them away…

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  • February 7, 2012 at 6:31 pm
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    As a writer, I'm always delighted to see To Kill a Mockingbird mentioned.

    Peerless book.

    Luminous film.

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  • February 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm
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    I kind of avoid McMurtry like the plague, although I did like his memoir on being a bookseller. From your birth year I would say go for the Winterson. (You thought I was going to stump for Brookner, didn't you?)

    Plus, I can think of some (probably) Simon-friendly ways of getting through the second half of the century: Spark, Murdoch, Drabble, Carol Shields, James Baldwin, Doctorow (only Ragtime), Michael Frayn, David Lodge, Naipaul, Patchett, Pym, May Sarton, Nevil Shute, Wallace Stegner…

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm
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      I admit, I was clinging onto Spark and Compton-Burnett as my hopes for many years! Your list has helped me no end, even though there are a few others there I've not heard of, and plenty I've not read yet.

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  • February 9, 2012 at 6:48 pm
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    A Century of Books I thought it might be a very useful resource… and, after all, I do love a list.

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  • February 11, 2012 at 1:38 am
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    Lonesome Dove is a huge sprawling wonder of a book and lots of fun as well. If you've never been big on American westerns, it's a good one to start with.

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    • February 11, 2012 at 9:14 am
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      Gotta say, I've never read an American western – so perhaps this could be where I start… hmm?

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