Some Nearly Forgotten Novels Written in the First Decade of the 1900s which are Exceptionally Good

In England it was known as the Edwardian Era.  In France it was the La Belle Époque (“Beautiful Era”).  In the United States it was the Progressive Era.  It was a time of optimism and peace and prosperity before the terrible Great War spoiled everything.  Here are some wonderful novels written during that time.

Claudine_ecole_colette‘Claudine at School’ by Colette (1900) –This was the first novel by French writer Colette, and as with so much of her work it caused a huge scandal with 15 year-old Claudine taking on affairs with her female instructors.   It was not published in English until 1957.

10725_poster‘The Confusions of Young Torless’ by Robert Musil (1906) – Another scandalous novel, this is the first novel by German writer Robert Musil based on his own experiences at a military boarding school.  Boys left to themselves get into all kinds of troubles.

9780195108118‘Esau and Jacob’ by Joachim Maria Machado de Assis (1904) – This is one of many excellent novels by the great Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis.  I’ve read most of them, because I consider Machado de Assis with his sense of humor one of the all-time great novelists.  This one is the story of Brazil itself disguised as a story of twin brothers falling in love with the same woman, Flora.

9780679406679_p0_v1_s118x184‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton (1905) – This early novel about New York society beauty Lily Bart put Edith Wharton on the literary map and could well be her best.

“She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.”

9781590171158‘The Late Mattia Pascal’ by Luigi Pirandello (1904) – Here is a comic novel of black humor by Italian writer Luigi Pirandello in which a man goes on a successful gambling outing only to return home to discover that his wife and family have declared him dead.  Thus the man is free to assume another identity, which he does with unexpected consequences.

sister-carrie‘Sister Carrie’ by Theodore Dreiser’ (1900) – Here is the realistic and unsentimental fictional account of the rise of actress Caroline Meeber, Sister Carrie, by United States writer Theodore Dreiser.  As a novelist Dreiser was crude and powerful, and I consider him one of the greats.

“How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.”

1649385._UY200_‘A Room with a View’ by E. M. Forster (1908) – This English novel has been described as an Edwardian rom-com, a ‘Love Actually’ for its time.   Perhaps that is why it was made into a successful movie.

“When I think of what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.”

34712190‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann (1901) – Although I thought ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘Death in Venice’ were wonderful, I still consider ‘Buddenbrooks’ as Thomas Mann’s masterpiece.  It is the story of a successful German family’s decline over the generations.


‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen – Free Estonia!

‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen   (2010) – 390 pages    Translated by Lola Rogers


After reading ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ earlier this summer, I had no choice.  That novel was so dramatic and intense, I absolutely had to read Sofi Oksanen’s earlier novel ‘Purge’.  ‘Purge’ is perhaps an even stronger novel than ‘When the Doves Disappeared’, but it is a close call between the two books.

Here is the setup of the story in ‘Purge’.  In 1992, An old woman, Aliide Truu, living in the Estonian countryside finds a young woman, Zara, lying in her yard and brings her into her house.  Oksanen sets the situation up nicely as the two women develop a relationship so that Zara acts more like a daughter to Aliide than her own daughter.

Two ruthless men are pursuing Zara who was forced to work for them at sex trafficking and has now escaped.

The young woman Zara is hardly more than a girl.  Zara wanted to get money for college, but instead she was taken up by two violent young Russian male pimps, Pasha and Lavrenti, who drove her to Berlin, Germany and peddled her for sex.

The old woman Aliide had to face her own brutal interrogation in the 1940s after the Russians took over Estonia from the Germans.

Oksanen pursues her usual technique of presenting short scenes out of order.  The present time of the novel is 1992, but we are presented flashbacks for both Zara and Aliide.

Let’s talk a bit about this method of Sofi Oksanen, the method she has used effectively in both ‘Purge’ and ‘When the Doves Disappeared’.  ‘Purge’ started out as a play. And I believe that fact was crucial to Oksanen in arriving at her technique.

Instead of presenting her scenes in chronological order, she skips around from time to time, from place to place.  Thus one scene might be from 1992 in Estonia, and the next scene might be from 1991 in Vladivostok, and the next scene might be from 1945 in Estonia.  This allows each scene to be presented in real time rather than as a memory.  Real-times scenes in the here and now are much more vivid than memories.  I find this technique increases the impact of the story.  We are given the separate pieces of the puzzle as they are needed until they all fit together into a complete picture.  The method also allows Oksanen to tell complex stories using simple dramatic single scene building blocks.

Gradually the full stories of both women are revealed, and all the pieces of the mosaic fit together into a compelling story.

Oksanen deals with the totality of these two women’s situations, the bad as well as the good.  The author never veers away from any subject because it is just too awful or disgusting whether it be political torture or sex trafficking.  Evil as these subjects are, they are a part of the lives of these people and must be dealt with.  That is why ‘Purge’ gets to deeper truths than other novels do.  In the presence of overwhelming evil, one must make allowances for ordinary people in order for them to survive.


Grade:   A

‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh – Dirty Realism at its Best

‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh   (2015)  – 260 pages


I want to explain to you what Dirty Realism is, because ‘Eileen’ is the best novel of Dirty Realism I have read in a long, long time.  ‘Eileen’ is a must-read.  I came across the following definition of ‘Dirty Realism’ in an article about Tobias Wolff by Claire Allfree in Metro magazine:

“Depictions of ordinary people, using transparent prose that gets uncomfortably close to the fabric of the characters’ lives.”

Usually the term ‘Dirty Realism’ was applied to short stories, but ‘Eileen’ is a novel, a sustained performance.  It is so honest it is uncomfortable.

The 24-year-old woman Eileen in ‘Eileen’ doesn’t get out much.  She stays at her New England home taking care of her drunk abusive father who is an ex-cop and thus well-respected in the community.  Eileen’s cruel mother died a painful death a couple of years ago.  Occasionally Eileen goes to a movie by herself telling her father she is going out with friends, but her father won’t believe her.  She has no friends.  Eileen works at a boys’ detention center where teenage boys are imprisoned for committing some horrific crime like burning down the family home or murdering a parent or sibling.

“There was a reason I worked at the prison; after all, I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person.”    

Eileen’s thoughts reverberate with negativity toward herself. What makes ‘Eileen’ special is the provocative and disturbing voice of Eileen.  There is nothing girlish or perky about Eileen.  We’ve had enough of those.  Eileen’s voice is real.

“I was unattractive in temperament most of all, but many men don’t seem to care about things like that.”  

 Here is Eileen describing her body:

“So just for laughs, here I am again, my little virginal body at age twenty-four.  My shoulders were small and sloped and knobbly.  My chest was rigid, a taut drum of bones I thudded with my fist like an ape.  My breasts were lemon-size and hard and my nipples were sharp like thorns.  But I was really just all ribs, and so thin that my hips jutted out awkwardly and were often bruised from bumping in to things.  My guts were still cramped from the ice cream and eggs from the day before.  The sluggishness of my bowels was a constant preoccupation.”

The novel takes place in 1964 with Eileen many years later telling her story from back then.  Things change for Eileen when Rebecca Saint-John starts working as the first ever prison director of education.  Rebecca immediately befriends Eileen.

“I prefer being sort of flat-chested, don’t you?  Women with big bosoms are always so bashful.  That, or else they think that their figures are all that matters.  Pathetic.”  

Moshfegh-200x200As I said before, the novel ‘Eileen’ is Dirty Realism with a vengeance.   The writer Raymond Carver, a writer also well worth reading, is considered the King of Dirty Realism.  According to Stuart Evers in the Guardian, Carver wrote “pared-down tales of urban dismay, of losers and liars, of drunks who never know when to stop.”  Despite this being her first novel and despite there being other fine female dirty realists like Jayne Ann Phillips and Joy Williams, I am compelled to call Ottessa Moshfegh the new Queen of Dirty Realism.



Grade:   A


Charles Bukowski On Writing

‘On Writing’ by Charles Bukowski   (2015) – 214 pages – Edited by Abel DeBritto


There is still a lot of controversy about Charles Bukowski so before you read this article I want you to read Bukowski’s famous poem of writing advice called ‘So You Want to be a Writer’.   This poem might change your mind about him.  Then again, maybe not.

Charles Bukowski, the King of the Underground, would never be mistaken for a respectable person.  Lewd, crude, and rude are three words often used to describe him.

“I don’t write so much now.  I’m getting on to 33, pot-belly and creeping dementia.  Sold my typewriter to go on a drunk 6 or 7 years ago and haven’t got enough non-alcoholic dollars to buy another.”

‘On Writing’ is a collection of the letters that Bukowski wrote to editors and to other writers from early in his career until the end.  After some early success getting stories and poems published, he went on “a ten-year drunk” during which he sold his typewriter for alcohol and horse race money but still submitted a few poems to editors in longhand.  He was persistent.  Around 1960 he took a job at the post office, got another typewriter, and wrote some more poetry.  Beginning in  1967 he wrote a column called “Notes From a Dirty Old Man” for an underground newspaper.  In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press to become a full-time writer.  He was 49 years old.

“I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”    

The following year he published his first novel, ‘Post Office’.

What kind of writing advice does Charles Bukowski give in ‘On Writing’?  Above all, “Don’t try”.  This is the actual epitaph that is written on his gravestone.

“We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told. Classes? Classes are for asses. Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer.”

Here are some more good lines of advice from ‘On Writing’.

“It’s best to stay loose, work wild and easy and fail any way you want to.”   

“My writing is jagged and harsh; I want it to remain that way, I don’t want it smoothed out.”  

“That’s crude.  I like it.”

 “I’m not interested in poetry.  I don’t know what interests me.  Non-dullness, I suppose.  Proper poetry is dead poetry even if it looks good.”

Bukowski also expresses some literary criticism of other writers in ‘On Writing’.  Here is his take on the poet Conrad Aiken:

“His main fault was that he wrote too well; the silk-cotton sounds almost hid the meaning, and, of course, this is the game of most shit-poets: to appear more profound than they really are, to sneak in little delicious darts and then retire to their safe comforts.”  

589088505Charles Bukowski’s literary heroes were  Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Fante, and Henry Miller.  Those first two were Nazi sympathizers who also wrote fiction.  Lately there has been a lot of talk about whether Bukowski himself was a Nazi sympathizer.  After all he was born in Germany.  He may have been, but he wasn’t much interested in politics at all.  His interests were elsewhere.

“Right now I’m into a great many things: screenplay, correcting somebody else’s screenplay, a short story and playing the horses and fighting with my girlfriend, and visiting my daughter, and then feeling bad and then feeling good, and all the rest of it.” 

He was given to saying outrageous things just to set people off.  I’ll end with one of his better lines.

“Most drunks I’ve known aren’t very interesting people.  Of course, most sober people aren’t either.”   


‘The Dog’ by Jack Livings – Stories from China Today

‘The Dog’ stories by Jack Livings   (2014) – 226 pages


This year is shaping up for me to be the Year of the Short Story Collection.  Some years are like that.  I’ve read four of the novels on the Booker-Man longlist, and none of them has soared.  There have been a couple of other novels this year that I’ve read which have been excellent, but the main action has been in short story collections.  So far this year I’ve read fine story collections by Edith Pearlman, Rose Tremain, Kelly Link, and now Jack Livings.

All of the stories in ‘The Dog’ take place in China, and all the main characters of the stories are people who are citizens of China.  Some of the reviewers have called Jack Livings ‘courageous’ for writing these stories; I would call him audacious.

Forget all your stereotypes about the Chinese people.  In these stories Livings captures individual people with empathy and sensitivity.

We here in the West tend to think that all Chinese people are similar, yet there is much diversity among its people.  Take the employees of the Horizon Trading Company.

“There were a couple of Mongols, a guy who was half Xibe, a Uyghur, a couple of Yaos, some Koreans.  For a while we even had an American, but he was lazy and got fired.”

China has a significant twelve million minority population of Uyghurs – Turkic Muslims from the western provinces.  They are treated poorly, forced to live in their own Uyghurville ghettoes, and are blamed for everything that goes wrong in China.

In these stories, a reader gets the impression that earthquakes occur quite frequently in China and are a significant problem.

“He found himself in a wild notion: he should bus the entire workforce to Sichuan to aid in the recovery effort.  But by the time they got there, the men would have been drunk for two days.  They would have beaten each other to a pulp and would get off the bus in worse shape than the quake survivors.” 

From this it appears that alcohol use is also rampant in China today.

From a productivity and economic standpoint, China has been a success story of the twenty-first century despite the recent stock market problems, and several of these stories take place in factory situations.  China has been Communist for seventy years, but today just about everything is at least partly privatized.  Perhaps the best description of China’s current government is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.  General Motors now sells more cars in China than in the United States.

 Beijing, China

Beijing, China

In one of Living’s stories, “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”, some of the employees start to dress up in traditional Hanfu feudal garb, but some of the other employees are real skeptical.  These other employees point out that it is the Japanese, China’s bitter enemies, who worship their feudal past.

“Look at it this way.  If there’s going to be a battle over who’s got more Chinese pride, I want to be on the side that destroyed feudalism and liberated the peasants, not the side that oppressed the masses.  I’m just saying, if it weren’t for the Red Guard, we wouldn’t be here today, Slick Lips said.”

Perhaps I will find a Chinese writer who will give me accurate insights into China and the Chinese people today.  In the meantime I trust Jack Livings to provide the lively inside story.


Grade:   A       


Beryl Markham – Brave Heroine or Scandalous Woman or Both?

‘Circling the Sun’ by Paula McLain   (2015)  – 355 pages


beryl‘Circling the Sun’ is an historical fiction memoir of British-born Kenyan aviator, race horse trainer, and author Beryl Markham.  In the novel Beryl Markham tells her story herself from when she was a little girl.  When Beryl was four her father decided to move the family from England to a horse farm in Kenya, Africa.  However her mother couldn’t stand being isolated on the farm and soon returned to England.  Thus Beryl grew up independent and wild in Africa without her mother.

As a young woman she became the first female race horse trainer in Kenya and was successful and renowned among the racing community in Kenya. Later she took up flying and became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936 and also flew from Kenya to England.  She also became friends with the Danish writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) who also spent years in Kenya.

Since ‘Circling the Sun’ is written as a memoir, Beryl Markham presents herself in a positive light as a spunky trailblazing young woman.  The website Scandalous Women has a quite different take on Beryl.  The life story is pretty much the same, but her romantic life is presented in a much different light.

‘Circling the Sun’ presents the first 28 years of Beryl’s life up to the year 1931 when her lover Denys Finch Hatton is killed in a plane crash.  Up to 1931 the novel depicts her as having two marriages, both of which end in divorce, and three other lovers.  According to Scandalous Women, her marriages “foundered under the weight of Beryl’s infidelities. Beryl didn’t know the first thing about the responsibilities of being a wife, nor did she grow up with many examples of a good marriage.”

b2Her first marriage at seventeen to a man twenty years older than her was a total disaster.  However she was definitely at fault in her second marriage as she had an indiscreet affair with Prince Harry, a previous Prince Harry, while married.  Her husband at the time, Mansfield Markham, found out and threatened to sue for divorce, and Prince Harry to avoid a scandal agreed to put 15,000 pounds in a trust for Beryl.  According to Scandalous Women,

“Beryl treated sex more like a man, as a necessary function like brushing one’s teeth, or eating. Very few of her lovers touched her heart.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ has Denys Finch Hatton as the love of Beryl’s life, the only problem here being that he was Karen Blixen’s lover at the time that Beryl moved in on him.

Scandalous Women places Beryl Markham as one of the notoriously decadent Happy Valley set in Kenya.  According to Scandalous Women,

“She could be ruthless and amoral, using people and then discarding them. She often took advantage of friends, running up huge bills on their accounts, without guilt.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ is fairly accurate in relating the significant events of Beryl Markham’s life, but it is a prettified high school girl’s version of her life.  This often happens when one is allowed to tell one’s own story.  To get a more realistic, objective view of Beryl Markham’s life, you need to dig deeper.


Grade: B+ 

‘Get in Trouble’ by Kelly Link – Far Beyond the Typical

‘Get in Trouble’ stories by Kelly Link   (2015)   – 333 pages


7485bc71999564284c24dbe3a916719cThe stories in ‘Get in Trouble’ are exceedingly strange with ghost animatron boyfriends, demon lovers, super-heroes and sidekicks, pocket universes, and mermaids.  What saves the stories from drowning in strangeness is Kelly Link’s brilliant use of dialogue.  No matter how far-fetched the story is, the down-to-earth conversations between her characters give the readers something real, substantial, and emotional to hold on to.  The people relate to each other human-to-human no matter how strange the story is, and we readers follow the story line due to these interactions.

Here are Fran and Ophelia discussing those mysterious creatures, ‘the summer people’:

“Have you seen them?” Ophelia said.

“Now and then,” Fran said.  “Not so often. Not since I was much younger.  They’re shy.”

Ophelia was practically bouncing on her chair.  “You get to look after them?  That’s the best thing ever!  Have they always been here?”

Fran hesitated.  “I don’t know where they come from.  Sometimes they’re…somewhere else.  Ma said she felt sorry for them.  She thought maybe they couldn’t go home, that they’d been sent off, like the Cherokee, I guess.   They live a lot longer, maybe, forever.  I don’t know.  I expect time works different where they come from.  Sometimes they’re gone for years.  But they always come back.  They’re summer people.  That’s just the way it is with summer people.” 

“Like how we used to come and go,” Ophelia said.  “That’s how you used to think of me.  Like that. Now I live here.” 

The talk between Fran and Ophelia sets up this spooky story “The Summer People”. All the stories contain plenty of dialogue which is a good thing.

Each of the stories is a mixture of the eerie and the everyday.  “Secret Identity” is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who has run away from Iowa, to a hotel in Manhattan, where she is to hook up with a man she met online. At the hotel there are two conventions, one of dentists and one of super-heroes.  How to tell the dentists from the super-heroes is a running joke.

All of the stories in ‘Get in Trouble’ worked for me except one, “Valley of the Girls’.  I read that story twice and it still made no sense to me beyond that it related somehow to ancient Egypt.

The collection contains a great variety of locales from Hollywood to an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park to deep space.  The emotional situations of the stories are just as varied.

The strong attraction of ‘Get in Trouble’ is that it overwhelms the predictable sameness of so much current realistic fiction by offering a diverse multitude of supernatural settings, extreme weird situations, and offbeat people.


Grade:   B+



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