A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), John Kennedy Toole

200px-Confederacy_of_dunces_cover The Story opens with a quote from Jonathon Swift – “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Brilliant quote that whispered in the back of my mind throughout the entirety of the story.

If Ignatius J. Reilly is the genius then his talent is really one of sloth. He is Uriah Heep without the drive or hard work, subverting and transforming everything until it revolves around him, but in a way that consumes the least amount of effort. Ignatius could be the most energy efficient genius ever.

This novel feels like an homage to the novels of the 60’s. The story reads very much like Catch-22, bold stereotypes written onto the canvas with broad strokes of color and exaggerated motion. And Ignatius feels very much like Dean Moriarty from On the Road, a lonely man living on the edge, but in Ignatius’s case, one seeking sameness instead of newness with all the power of his being.

Set in 1960’s New Orleans, it has a story that consistently surprises – I never knew how Ignatius’s self-involved bending of reality would manifest itself next. Definitely one of the novels that stayed with me as my subconscious sought, and continues to seek, the subtle clues to Toole’s true genius.



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David Copperfield (1850), Charles Dickens

200px-Copperfield_cover_serialWell written coming of age story that captures the naivety and gullibility of youth and where everyone gets what they deserve in the end.

Uriah Heep is an ‘umble villain.

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The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker

ColorPurpleTo Kill a Mockingbird was set at the same time and in the same place and also had a female author. Both novels revolve around the hatred and divides of the time, and with a few notable exceptions in Mockingbird, white Southern society is mean and uncaring. The Color Purple is the journey of two sister’s  to rediscover the concept of family, through a landscape filled with lost and angry black men, lost and angry white men, and the indifferent African descendants of those who sold their neighbors in the first place.



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Don Quixote, Volume 1 (1605) – Miguel de Cervantes

200px-El_ingenioso_hidalgo_don_Quijote_de_la_ManchaWell written but repetitive – Don Quixote sees a vision, mouths off, gets thrashed. Repeat.

Don Quixote is a satire. Even though the chivalric ideals have driven Don Quixote mad, the world he moves through, the reality outside the delusion, is seeped in romantic love. Most everyone he meets and knows is living a chivalric reality where love rules and drives their lives –  love at first sight, star crossed lovers, or true love stolen away.

Whether the target of Cervantes’s satire was romantic love itself or the pious anti-love efforts of the church, I still have not determined.

Perhaps the novel’s greatness is in this ambiguity.

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Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad

300px-Blackwood's_Magazine_-_1899_coverAbout halfway through Heart of Darkness there is a jump in the narrative that made me feel as if I had missed something. After placing Marlow in Africa, on a steamer heading up the Congo, and giving him a growing obsession with Kurtz, we finally approach the Far Station – and then suddenly Kurtz is on the steamer and they are all heading back to the coast.

An anti-capitalistic story, what horrors are done in the name of money.

Rather that being too long, this novel feels too short.

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Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo

220px-EbcosetteI wonder if Victor’s work is diminished by the commercialization of Jean Valjean’s story, the goodness of man in an unending battle with the worst of man – want, envy, indifference.

The story is a well written tale of redemption that does suffer a little by the many coincidental events that bring key players together again and again as if it were a story really titled “Trois Degrés de Séparation“. But Jean Valjean’s story is only a portion of Victor’s work. Victor is a philosopher and historian, and at his core, a humanitarian.

It seems that everyone knows the story of Les Misérables if only by societal osmosis. But everything I knew about the story – the stolen loaf, Fantine, the galleys, Cosette – occurs very early in the book. With 20% of the novel behind me and most of the story I knew concluded, I squinted at the remaining work, shades of War and Peace darkening the edges of my vision. Turns out Victor created a very successful hook in Jean Valjean, one that kept me coming back while I patiently listened in on the author’s thoughts on France, French history, and humanity’s stuttering attempts at building a just society. He is relevant even today, his views on the dangers of complacency in the middle class and the dangers in disparity of wealth for example.

He ties his lofty thoughts back into Jean Valjean’s story with only the most tenuous of threads.

We learn that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo because of the sunken road that decimated the French cavalry assault. One of those dying cavalry men filling the ravine is Marius’s father who is saved by the Thénardiers (soon to be Cosette’s evil step parents). We hear why the monastery and convent are bad for society and then watch as Cossette and Jean find refuge in one. And we hear too much about the Paris sewage system before Jean Valjean escapes into one with Marius on his back.

Also during my reading of Les Misérables, I learned that the normal response at a dinner party to the statement, “I am reading Les Misérables” is an eye roll and a comment along the lines, “Oh, I read that when I was thirteen”.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Ernest Hemingway

ErnestHemmingway_ForWhomTheBellTollsCourage and cowardice in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, just prior to the Battle of Segovia.

An almost real-time tale of three days in the life of Montanan Robert Jordan fighting fascists alongside republican guerillas as he makes plans to blow up a key bridge.

Robert is a walking advertisement for the virile American male stereotype. He is calm and collected, smart and heroic, good in the sack, and trying to prove he is not afflicted by his father’s cowardice.

Ernest paints a picture filled with minute detail, from the rope soled shoes to the steaming breath of horses. And even though everyone is speaking Spanish, Ernest gives a sense of another language, different and formal, while writing the novel in English – sanitized, of course, with all the cussing obscenities bleeped out.

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