The rich pleasures and profound lessons of literature come alive in this stimulating collection of essays on great novels.
Inviting us to throw down our airport best-sellers and savor the subtle writing, complex characters and psychological insights of time-tested masterpieces, Faulkner, founder of an informal bibliophilic website, gets us started with these engaging critical appreciations of three dozen classics. Faulkner’s selection includes everything from monuments such as Anna Karenina to forgotten gems such as Sigrid Undset’s medieval domestic novel trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, all chosen with a shrewd eye for popular appeal and readability. There’s little modernist alienation here, no Hemingway, Kafka, Roth or Pynchon; but there is lots of Victorian melodrama, both Brontës included, along with 20th-century works that share a realist aesthetic and humanist ideals, from E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View to the Harry Potter series. Each chapter examines three works in the light of an intriguing reader-involvement theme; Chapter Nine, “Chick-Lit for Grownups,” gleans challenging relationship advice from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigations. (But take heart, lads: “Action Figures” plumbs the tests of manhood in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.) The snappy but thoughtful essays contain plot synopses, author bios and critical assessments, along with fun factoids—Victor Hugo, we learn, became the deity of the Vietnamese Buddhist Cao Dai sect—and provocative book-group discussion questions. (Tom Sawyer prompts the brow-furrower, “Have we lost something in the attempt to eradicate bad behavior in boys?”) Faulkner’s readings of the classics are sympathetic but sharp-eyed and alive to both philosophical content and literary quality; she teases out the gray-shaded moral ambiguities of Vanity Fair while celebrating its vibrant social whirl, laughs at the sentimentality of Dickens’ dying-child scenes while registering their emotional power. Like any good critic, she makes readers want to hit the books.
A fine introduction to a well-chosen canon.