Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Boxen by C. S. Lewis

Boxen: Childhood Chronicles Before Narnia is a collection of C. S. Lewis's juvenile writings related to the fantasy world he created with his brother W. H. Lewis, all that remains of what was originally a huge quantity of stories, plays, maps, invented histories, and illustrations; very unfortunately, only a small number of these works have survived. Walter Hooper, one of the most prominent of Lewis scholars and a frequent editor of his work, particularly what has been published posthumously, estimates that all of the Boxen work (or certainly what is extant) was written between 1906, when Lewis was eight, and 1913, at which point Lewis started school at Malvern College, with the exception of "Encyclopedia Boxoniana," written on a visit home when Lewis was 29. The extraordinarily rich world of Boxen, politically, economically, historically, and socially defined, was an amazing achievement for the little boy who would as an adult write The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity.

Jack, as Lewis was called familiarly, and Warnie, his brother, created Boxen as an amalgamation of their respective fantasy worlds; Jack had created Animal-land, where animals in dress became knights and had medieval adventures, while Warnie imagined a fictionalized India, in which his fascinations with railways and steamships were predominant. The two countries were united, though they retained separate monarchs, and became Boxen. Careful chronologies were devised, maps were drawn, and, best of all, "novels," or stories divided into chapters were written. Most, if not all, of this writing can be attributed to Jack, though the book is kindly credited to both Jack and Warnie. The book is illustrated, sadly with only black and white copies, of the boys' illustrations, maps, and diagrams, many of them incredibly detailed and quite charming.

The first section is made up of the earliest stories, those concerned with Animal-land centuries before its unification with India (the chronology is entirely separate from our own real-world chronology). Misspellings and mistakes are retained, giving a real sense of Jack's youth but also making the stories at times tiresome to decipher. For instance, this is the introduction to the earliest piece (1906?), a play: "Interesting carictars. Famous ones. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it." There is then a footnote in which Jack indicated an exemplary "comic tint." Despite this, these early stories have real charm and show a burgeoning intellect at work. The hero of these stories, Sir Peter Mouse, is alternately a valiant knight and an amateur detective, but more fascinating than these brief sketches are Jack's histories of his invented country, in which he describes the establishment of the Animal-land monarchy, various wars, and the creation of the "Damerfesk," the equivalent of parliament, as well as the geography of the country, which would change drastically after Warnie's India became a part of the world.

The second section has much longer works, called by the boys "novels" and treasured by Warnie after his brother's death. These are extraordinarily sophisticated, both in subject matter and structure. They primarily concern the political doings of prominent Boxonians, most conspicuously Sir John Big, Little-Master of Boxen (the most powerful political position in the government, combining the duties of a prime minister with those somewhat equivalent to the speaker of the house in American politics), during the Boxonian nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most remarkably, Jack was able to portray his characters with moral and political complexity, not favoring any political party, and allowing each and every character both likable qualities and unappealing foibles. Thus Sir John Big, a frog and a Walterian or conservative, is as well-rounded a character as James Bar, a bear, a lazy rascal, and a firm opponent willing to stoop to the lowest pranks, or Viscount Puddiphat, a fashionably dressed owl of leisure who supports himself with the proceeds of a chain of music halls called "Alhambras." This struck me as even more remarkable, given that, according to Warnie, "what we heard [of political conversation] was not discussion and the lively clash of minds, but rather an endless and one-sided torrent of grumble and vituperation." Jack, by the age of ten or so, had completely mastered mature political writing - invented the politics may have been, but this is a rare skill. In fact, had I not known that these longer stories were written by a child, I would have imagined they had been written by some eccentric adult, not unlike Lewis Carroll or perhaps J. M. Barrie, though a sub par speller.

A particularly fascinating aspect of Boxen is the status of the Chess, or Chessmen, who also inhabit this world alongside the animals and men. "The Chess, as everyone knows, are a homeless nation, whose hoards have settled on the shores of every civilized country, where they reside without paying taxes, lodged in their common homes or 'Chessaries'. This body had been originally regarded as aliens by the Boxonians, and justly so, but in course of time they had grown to be a part of the community, till at length, in 1760, they had been granted entrance to the Double House by a Diripian [liberal] government. To repeal this measure was one of the frog's [that is, Big's] most treasured ambitions... and he began elaborate preparations for the introduction of his Exclusion Act." It is possible, though this is entirely a theory of my own and thus unsubstantiated by any real research, that the Chess could be regarded as the Boxonian equivalent of the Jewish, or perhaps the Romany, people. The saga of the exclusion, oppression, and struggles for basic social and political rights of the Chess makes for one of the most compelling Boxonian political dramas. Different points of view are considered on this issue - Big fights long and hard for their exclusion, while Polonius Green, a parrot, wants to monopolize their trade, and a Chess character, Macgoullah, is one of the noblest and least pretentious political actors. All of these characters, as I said above, are affectionately rendered, warts and all.

There are almost no female characters and none that engage in either political action or warfare, the main preoccupations of the stories. Female characters are present only on social occasions, in which case they fall under two categories: music hall actresses and, more rarely, aristocratic guests. Both varieties tend to wear "impossible hats." The adult reader may feel a bit queasy by the innocently described and yet decidedly creepy question of Big's possible illegitimate daughter - whether she's an animal or a woman isn't explicitly stated, but it's puzzling to comprehend how she could be the product of a frog and a woman, and then marry a bear. I admit, I'd rather not think about how precisely reproduction works in an inter-species world, but Jack was aware enough of adult social mores to copy a strong disapproval of pre- and extra-marital sex. I doubt he was conscious of the even racier suggestions he was actually making about inter-species relationships.

There is also much discussion of fine wines, a luxury of which all Boxonians seem very fond. I found these frequent oenological conversations exceedingly droll, given that they were written by a child and yet don't sound ignorant.

If Jack and Warnie have fictional counterparts in Boxen, they are the two monarchs, King Bunny of Animal-land and Rajah Hawki of India. These two are good-natured and always ready to have a good time, though they invariably require "a superhuman exertion of their protean skill" to dress for formal occasions. They find the mundane duties of government tedious, displaying the most disinterested political apathy, and almost always defer to Big the Little-Master, but they have a great love of fun sorts of work, like navigating a steamship on the way to a victorious battle.

Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepson, provides a short introduction to the book. It offers no new information for anyone familiar with Lewis's life, but it's rather touching and a pleasant way to open the book, summarizing the childhood conditions that both provoked and allowed the boys to create their fantasy world with empathy and warmth. Walter Hooper contributes, as a sort of epilogue, a history of the creation of Boxen, which would be more useful as an introduction. It's rather hidden away and not expected unless one carefully reads over the table of contents and might have proved far more useful as a reference had it been placed before the stories. To my great surprise and delight, Boxen is one of the finest collections of juvenile works I've ever come across, and I highly recommend it to any enthusiast of C. S. Lewis's works.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

9 Great Books Behind Celebrated Movies

I'm always surprised by how few films are based on original screenplays. Though I haven't been able to find any reliable statistics on the relative percentages of adapted and original screenplays produced, many, many wildly famous films are actually adaptations of obscure books. Psycho, for example, is adapted from a novel by Robert Bloch and Vertigo is adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, while Dr. Strangelove is loosely based on a novel by Peter George. The following books have been the basis for films that have then surpassed them in popular prominence. This doesn't always happen: Lord of the Rings in book form hasn't lost any prestige or popularity since Peter Jackson's adaptations were released, for example, and Dracula has never lost any ground, no matter how iconic Bela Lugosi may be, and it isn't rare for famous books to continue to eclipse their adaptations. One thinks of James Joyce's The Dead, which John Huston brilliantly adapted as his final film, or Lolita, its notoriety in literary form still surpassing Kubrick's film version. Here are nine books that have been overshadowed by their cinematic adaptations:

The Garden of the Finzi-Contini - Giorgio Bassani
Though hardly obscure for native Italians, today this novel has next to no readership in English; English-speakers are more likely to be familiar with Vittorio De Sica's 1970 adaptation starring Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger. Set in Ferrara in northern Italy, the novel is about a group of young Jewish Italians living under the rise of fascism, their carefree lives playing tennis, reading books, and swimming on the grounds of the Finzi-Contini mansion interrupted by increasingly stringent racial laws and the inevitable tidal waves of adolescent emotions. It's a truly great novel, far surpassing the more famous film.

The African Queen - C. S. Forester
John Huston's adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, but the source novel by Forester is well worth a read. Forester, best known for his novels about Captain Horatio Hornblower, sets his scene in Central Africa where a prudish missionary, Rose Sayer, stranded by World War I, joins Charlie Allnut, the Cockney skipper of the African Queen, on what starts as a ramshackle escape and becomes an epic quest to destroy the most powerful German gunboat in Africa. A classic adventure novel.

The Princess Bride - William Goldman
Goldman's delightfully unpretentious postmodern fairy tale, the basis for Rob Reiner's obsessively adored cult film, is both a glorious send-up of romantic chivalric legends and a marvelous new legend in and of itself. Presented as the "good parts version" of an old classic by S. Morgenstern with commentary by Goldman's fictional counterpart, the book tells the story of lovers Westley and Buttercup, the corrupt Prince Humperdinck and his sadistic crony Count Rugen, and a trio of outlaws, a genius, a swordsman, and a giant, hired to start a war. Deliciously witty, unabashedly romantic, fantastically action-packed, this marvelous novel is an equal to the marvelous film.

How Green Was My Valley - Richard Llewllyn 
John Ford's saccharine movie adaptation of Llewellyn's anti-nostalgic novel earned a great deal of critical acclaim, but utterly failed as an adaptation of its source material. Part of this failure can be ascribed to the production code, which required the excision of a substantial part of the material, including a graphic childbirth scene, but in larger part, Ford's vision is an essentially romantic one, showing the coal mines of Wales through the rosiest of glasses, always accompanied by Welsh choruses, while Llewellyn's bitter, astringent novel damningly criticizes the miseries of the coal mines that condemned so many to early death and the ignorance of a strictly religious, insulated culture. In this case, the novel trumps the movie.

Now, Voyager - Olive Higgins Prouty
Olive Higgins Prouty is probably best known today for her role supporting Sylvia Plath in the wake of her 1953 suicide attempt, but two of her novels were the basis for major, award-winning Hollywood films: Now, Voyager and Stella Dallas. Now, Voyager was for its time a ground-breaking positive portrayal of psychotherapy as a beneficial treatment for emotional pain. Its heroine, Charlotte Vale, suffers a nervous breakdown after decades of being psychologically crushed by her tyrannical mother. The novel follows her treatment with Dr. Jaquith and her slow empowerment. This is not a great novel, but it forms an interesting counterpoint to the greater film and is a fascinating read for those interested in the development of psychotherapy.

Quo Vadis - Henryk Sienkiewicz
Though it's gone out of fashion, Nobel Prize-winner Sienkiewicz's unabashedly pro-Christian novel is a stirring, if less than historically accurate, depiction of Nero's Rome. His hero is an arrogant patrician, Marcus Vinicius, whose love for a beautiful Christian maiden, Lygia, topples his unquestioning loyalty to Rome and to paganism. If its history is taken with a generous grain of salt, Quo Vadis proves an absorbing read. Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the basis for two Hollywood blockbusters (and perhaps a third - a remake is being released next year), offers similar pleasures, though it's less to my taste.

The Postman - Antonio Skarmeta
Originally titled Ardiente paciencia, this novella, the basis for the lovely Italian film starring Phillipe Noiret and Massimo Troisi, is an erotic dream, the story of a naive teenager, Mario, in love with the beautiful Beatriz, and postman to exiled poet Pablo Neruda. The novella's torrid eroticism disguises to a certain extent its complex political content (it does help to know something about Chilean history). I'm not sure whether I like the book or the film, reset in Italy instead of the remote Chilean island of Isla Negra, better; the differences in tone are subtle, and while the book offers a plethora of lovely passages on poetry and politics, the film offers stunningly gorgeous landscapes and a beguiling score by Luis Enrique Bacalov.

Father of the Bride - Edward Streeter, ill. by Gluyas Williams
This likable comic novella, accompanied by witty cartoons by Gluyas Williams, is a dated, but pleasant bit of humorous fluff, which has new relevance in the wake of the bridezilla culture and the boom in wedding-centered reality tv. The basis for the 1950 film starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor and the less charming Steve Martin remakes, the book tells the story of a flamboyantly extravagant wedding from the point of view of the bride's overwhelmed, nebbishy father, and, though it won't win any accolades for being forward-thinking, it's likely to appeal to contemporary parents of brides and bridegrooms.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The 14 Best Period Dramas of the 1930s

One of the absolute best decades in Hollywood cinema was the 1930s. An incredibly diverse range of genres, bevies of glamorous stars, and experimentation with sound and color photography made this a particularly rich era. The studio system ensured that lavish costume productions could be funded with the proceeds of B movies, cheap westerns and crime films, and popular serials. As regular readers of this blog know, I love period dramas; here are the best of the 1930s, all of them set before the twentieth century.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) 
One of the greatest swashbucklers of all time and the best adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, this film stars Errol Flynn as the gallant outlaw, Olivia de Havilland as his noble lover Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as a vengeful Norman aristocrat, and Claude Rains as the scheming Prince John. The gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito is stunning and vibrant and the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is one of the best ever composed for a Hollywood movie. This film captures all the pageantry, suspense, and romance of the legend.

Anna Karenina (1935) 
Though Tolstoy's novel has been adapted well over a dozen times, my personal favorite is this version, starring Greta Garbo, who gives one of her finest performances as the doomed adulteress, opposite Fredric March as the dashing, reckless Count Vronsky. The film cuts more than half of the plot, reducing Levin, one of the main protagonists of the novel, to a mere bit part, but in doing so renders the story far more cinematic. Lushly romantic with an astringently bitter edge, Anna Karenina is a masterpiece of Hollywood melodrama.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
Norma Shearer stars as the invalid poetess Elizabeth Barrett opposite Fredric March as the impetuous poet Robert Browning and Charles Laughton as the Barrett patriarch, who refuses to let any of his large brood of children marry for reasons that remain ominously obscured. Though this film unfortunately is in rather desperate need of a restoration - there are significant imperfections both visually and aurally - it's a beautiful film that tells one of the most gratifyingly romantic stories of history. The costumes by Adrian are particularly sumptuous.

Camille (1936)
In this impressive adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, also the source material for Verdi's ever-popular opera La Traviata, Greta Garbo - one of the greatest actresses to ever appear on screen - gives perhaps her best performance as the tubercular courtesan who sacrifices everything for her lover. A very young Robert Taylor plays her lover Armand Duval with impetuosity and passion and Lionel Barrymore, at his curmudgeonly best, is his scrupulous father. The final scene of Camille is devastating and remains so after repeated viewings.  

Captain Blood (1935)
Another strong contender for the best swashbuckler of all time, Captain Blood stars Errol Flynn as an English doctor, declared guilty of treason after aiding a wounded rebel and sentenced to transportation and slavery. Once in the colonies, Blood is bought by the beautiful, proud Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), but he escapes to turn pirate on the high seas. Also worthy of mention is Basil Rathbone, playing a treacherous French pirate, with whom Flynn fights one of the most impressive fencing battles in film history, one that equals the famous fencing scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Though long considered a strong contender for the best film of all time, Gone with the Wind is definitely starting to show its age; its idyllic portrayal of the Old South and downright sunny depiction of slavery and the relationships between slaves and their masters become less acceptable every year. That being said, it's a film that cannot help stirring up strong emotions, from the burning of Atlanta and the devastating scenes of a desecrated Tara, and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara is extraordinary in the thorny role of a woman with few scruples. A flawed, but nevertheless great film.

Little Women (1933)
Katharine Hepburn, in an iconic performance, plays Jo March, Louisa May Alcott's rebellious teenage heroine with literary ambitions, heading a marvelous cast that includes Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Paul Lukas, and Frances Dee. Edna May Oliver as Aunt March is a particular treat. Max Steiner's nostalgic score, which integrated songs from the Civil War era, evokes the sentimentality and the sweetness of Alcott's novel. The films wears its heart on its sleeve, but it takes a very aggressive cynicism to resist its considerable charms. 

Marie Antoinette (1938) 
One of the biggest successes of its time, this film stars Norma Shearer as the famously capricious queen, Robert Morley - a criminally underrated actor - as King Louis XVI, Tyrone Power as a disillusioned but infinitely romantic Swedish count, and John Barrymore as King Louis XV. The film is a surprisingly accurate and un-romanticized depiction of history, though no expense was spared for the sumptuous costumes, sets, furniture, and props, designed by Adrian. 

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Clark Gable (without his moustache, which is rather distressing), Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone head the cast in this, the best version of the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty. In 1787, the HMS Bounty sets sail captained by the brutally severe Captain Bligh (Laughton), but his ruthlessness costs him the loyalty of his crew and, led by Fletcher Christian (Gable), the men stage a mutiny and escape to Tahiti. An unflinchingly suspenseful drama that successfully interrogates the complexities of loyalty, patriotism, liberty, and human rights.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Directed by the legendary British producer-director Alexander Korda, Charles Laughton gives another brilliant performance as Henry VIII, while his wives are portrayed by Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's wife in real life and a wonderfully witty actress), Binnie Barnes, and Everley Gregg, and Robert Donat has a role as a handsome young man either too foolhardy or stupid enough to pursue his monarch's wife. Hugely entertaining (in multiple senses), Laughton easily routs all the competition, giving what is surely the definitive performance of Henry VIII.

Queen Christina (1933)
Rouben Mamoulian's highly fictionalized biography of the seventeenth century queen was tailor-made for its star Greta Garbo, whose androgynous beauty, sexual intensity, and effortless glamor were perfect for playing a cross-dressing monarch. The film's weak spot is John Gilbert, Garbo's frequent costar and lover; he proves unable to project any character into his voice and it's clear why he wasn't able to make the transition to talking pictures. Otherwise, this transgressive romantic and political drama is a wonderfully fine film.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) 
Womanish fop Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard, who utterly outdoes himself) drives his stunningly gorgeous French wife Marguerite (Merle Oberon) half out of her mind with his idiotic antics, while she frantically follows the events of the French Revolution and places her hopes for her loved ones in the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing hero who risks his life to save French aristocrats. This film, now in the public domain, would benefit from a restoration, particularly of the sound elements. 

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
Ronald Colman, once one of the biggest Hollywood stars and now, sadly, remembered only by classic film buffs, gives a knockout performance in the role of Sydney Carton, a seedy, debauched London lawyer infatuated with the virtuous and happily married Lucie (Elizabeth Allan) while the Terror rages in France, in this moving adaptation of the beloved Dickens novel. The final scene is a definitive response to accusations that understated acting is a "modern" development.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
This film really adapts only the first half of Emily Bronte's novel and this decision, as in the case of Anna Karenina, gives the material a decidedly more cinematic structure. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon star as Heathcliff and Cathy, childhood playmates whose semi-incestuous and cross-class relationship, not to mention their distinctly prickly personalities, doom them to misery. Olivier's performance as Heathcliff is definitive and unparalleled, while few films can match this one for Gothic atmosphere.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

11 Books for the Willa Cather Fan

Willa Cather is another of those authors whose entire oeuvre is easily devoured. Cather published twelve novels, a volume of poetry, several volumes of short stories (Vintage has published a collected edition that combines all the stories into one book), and three works of non fiction. Though hardly a small number, it is an exhaustible one. Thus, here are 11 books that the devoted reader of Willa Cather will enjoy:

Jo's Boys - Louisa May Alcott
Jo's Boys is the final book in the loose trilogy that follows Jo March from adolescence to late middle age, but it's an unusual departure from Alcott's typical themes. The novel is quite broad in scope, exploring the burgeoning economy of the United States after the Civil War, including development in the West, a subject she otherwise never wrote about it in her fiction. Jo follows the fates of her students through correspondence - Nan devotes herself to a medical career (she's one of the most boldly feminist characters in Alcott's young adult fiction), Nat goes to Europe to pursue music and falls prey to its temptations, Dan goes West to seek his fortune and commits a grave sin, and Emil goes to sea and is shipwrecked.

The Bent Twig - Dorothy Canfield
What Cather did for Nebraska and Arizona, Canfield did for Vermont - both writers preserved in their work the natural beauty and distinctive culture of their native states. The Bent Twig follows Sylvia Marshall, the daughter of a university professor, being raised with the Montessori model of education. The conflict between provincial America and the cosmopolitan luxuries of Europe is central to the novel, but Canfield, always deeply socially engaged, also reflects upon gender and sexism, racial tension and prejudice, early environmentalism, and child welfare.

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda
Pulitzer-prize winner Deledda is one of the greatest Italian novelists of all time and, sadly, she remains quite obscure in English-speaking countries. Reeds in the Wind, her most famous novel, is about the aging Pintor sisters, living in their increasingly decrepit house and served by their guilt-ridden servant, Efix. Their world is thrown into chaos when their handsome nephew Giacinto comes to visit, hoping to sniff out a fortune. Like Cather, Deledda was very much a regional author; her work is generally set in her native Sardinia.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
One of the superlatively great novels of world literature, Flaubert's masterpiece about a discontented bourgeois adulteress laid the foundation for all realist literature to come and is so universally influential that it seems almost silly to bother speaking about influences. Cather's A Lost Lady can be thought of as an American reimagining of Madame Bovary; the underlying themes - the fascination of the female, sexual double standards both in the context of gender and class, the tensions between love and sex in a bourgeois marriage, infatuation - are profoundly examined in both works.

The Bostonians - Henry James
Though The Bostonians has been generally disliked by both critics and the reading public, I have a soft spot for this acerbically comic story of a feminist spinster, a Southern misogynist, and the pretty young woman they both fall for. One of the earliest American novels to, at least obliquely, describe a lesbian relationship, the book can be quite thorny, and, like any novel by James, is fiendishly complex both in terms of characterization and ideology. It's also rare for its depiction of feminism in the nineteenth century and feminists of today would do well to familiarize themselves with the history of the movement.

The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Mansfield's prose fairly dazzles and unlike so many of her polarizing modernist contemporaries she inspires nearly every reader with adoration for her work. Her life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis and thus it is sadly possible for all of her writing, including a frustrating number of unfinished stories, to be collected in one volume. Usually brief and firmly set in a domestic reality, whether in her native New Zealand or in Europe, the stories are crystallized moments of revelatory time wrapped in the seemingly mundane details of daily life.

A Tangled Web - L. M. Montgomery
Regular readers of this blog know that Montgomery is one of my very favorite writers. A Tangled Web is one of only two novels that she wrote for adults and it's about the conflicts that arise when the will of the matriarch of the Penhallow and Dark families reveals that the fate of a precious family heirloom, an antique jug, will only be announced after a year has elapsed. Believing that the jug can be earned by whoever lives up to the old lady's expectations, the family attempts to arrange their lives as the crotchety matriarch wanted. A Tangled Web is often uproariously funny and always a delight. 

Anna Karenina - Lev Tolstoy
Another superlatively great and extremely influential novel, Anna Karenina, perhaps because of its title, is usually described as the story of an unhappily married woman who loses everything when she throws herself into a passionate affair, but that's only half of the novel. The other half follows Levin, a man who, like Anna, feels trapped within himself and struggles to devote himself to something greater than his own self-interest. While Anna flings herself into a self-destructive love, Levin idealistically attempts to enact his philosophies through his estate management. This is one of the few perfect novels.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
My favorite of Wharton's many great novels, The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, a mercenary social climber intent on catching the wealthiest and most influential husband possible. Her inevitable decline is rendered in heart-stopping if sometimes downright sordid detail, as her dreams slowly collapse and her ambitions become meaner. Lily is nevertheless a tragic heroine, one constrained to a pathetic end less by her own moral choices than by the straitjacket-like restrictions on women in both the marriage and the labor market. The book makes an interesting counterpoint to Cather's Lucy Gayheart.

Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf 
I simply couldn't choose between these two masterpieces of modernism and so included them both. Kaleidoscopic in scope, these novels' glittering prose travels effortlessly through the psyches of the characters, painting a stunningly beautiful and intellectually acute portrait of the English middle class before and in the wake of World War I. In Mrs. Dalloway, the preparations for a party are darkly mirrored by repressed memories of youth and idealistic dreams, while in To the Lighthouse, a holiday on the Isle of Skye becomes a hothouse of remembrance and longing, interrupted by the war that will render all attempts to return to the past futile.