The veteran New Yorker film critic recommends Tolstoy, Sontag, and Roth
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Bantam, $7). What is there to say except that it's the greatest of all realist novels? Tolstoy, like Virgil, is completely adequate (by which I mean amazingly capable) for any situation that he chooses to look at — love, sexual disgust, family, social life high and low, physical labor, despairing death.
Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Dover, $4). Tolstoy's opposite — the partial view, the embittered view. The narrator is a retired civil servant, still young but full of disgust. This is among the greatest of meta-novels — a book about creating a voice in which the voice keeps undermining itself.
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 by Susan Sontag (Picador, $15). A fascinating, often funny look inside the gradual self-creation of a formidable literary intellectual. Sontag's journals take us from her ambitious but naïve school years to mid-career in New York and Paris. You can laugh at the solemnity of her self-demands and also be awed by how literally she took issues of integrity and sexual defiance.
The Immoralist by André Gide (Vintage, $13). Even in translation, Gide's 1902 novel is so ripely sensual that the awakening to sunshine, to sex, to bodily pleasure — with all its attendant selfishness and even cruelties candidly admitted — is startling. It hasn't lost its shocking power: Remaking yourself in this way is as dangerous and as disruptive as it was a hundred years ago.
The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2012 (Gramophone, $35). This yearly guide to recorded classical music, put together by England's best music magazine, is the most useful and reliable work of its kind. It's a selected listing, with eloquent descriptive notes, of thousands of recordings, but so shrewdly updated that it never loses relevance.
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (Vintage, $15). Here is the ultimate comic narrative of a soul whose inventive libido does battle with his guilt, and who has to re-enact for himself, again and again, the outrages that will make him feel like a human being.
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