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Friday, January 23, 2009

"The Towers of Trebizond" and Other Treasures

When Peter Keat asked me to offer up to the internet gods a list of my favorite books I thought immediately of the category of "novels of ideas" and its top-feeders, Dostoyevsky's Brother's Karamazov, Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and (a rung down) William Gaddis' The Recognitions.

But I would rather spend my time in wholesale, because there is a way for readers to choose from dozens of titles. Even now, a decade after the imprint began, many simply do not know abou thte titles published by New York Review of Books. Their backlist has now passed two hundred, a massive literarary resurrection mostly of mid-20th Century fiction. I count myself well-read but have, through the NYRB asupices, "discovered" many authors known largely to English Dept. specialists. Many appeared with critical heraldry but won few readers. There is, for instance, J.G. Farrell's trilogy on the collapse of the British Empire, most memorably his The Troubles about Ireland; a pair of Ivy Compton-Burnett's acidic portrayals of English domestic patriarchs (start with A House and its Head); John (not John A.) Williams' Stoner introduces a now-forgotten National Book Awardee; Mavis Gallant, Barbara Comyns and Caroline Blackwood are others. If most are unknown to you now, that is exactly the point of this wholesale menu.

Often, as with Christiana Stead (Letty Fox) and Patrick Hamilton the selection may not be the author's most important, but each serves as an entry worth reading. There are as well lesser- known works by authors we all have read: Balzac, Henry James, Turgenev, Maupassant, Moravia, Svevo, Colette; nine titles by Georges Simenon that are not mysteries and the collected "Adventures" of Arthur Conan Doyle's other hero. If you treasure memorable opening sentences, two of the best ever to appear can be found in NYRB editions: "'TaKe my camel,' dear said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." (from The Towers of Trebizond) and "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.C. Hartley's The Go-Between.)

The best news of all is that the back pages of the periodical, The New York Review of Books, announce two additions a month to the NYRB list. I buy and read most as soon as they appear. None has proved to match the Dostoyevsky/Mann/Gaddis brace mentioned above, but most are introductions to writers you might find boty fun to discover and congenial for those moments when The Greatest Though are not welcome.

~John McFarland

John McFarland taught history for many years at Sierra College and is the recipient of the California Community College Hayward Award. He is also a long time customer of Time Tested Books (and one of our favorites!).

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