NYRB: A Nice Problem To Have

Okay, I admit it, I have a problem. My coworkers saw all of the signs, and they tried to warn me. I didn’t want to listen, but I can’t deny it any longer…I’m addicted to New York Review Book Classics. Each paperback original features an inspired cover choice set against a brilliant monochromatic background, but their striking and immediately recognizable covers are far from the most noteworthy thing about these books. No, it’s the variety and quality of the content that make them so dangerously addictive. The titles range from two hundred-year-old works that have tragically fallen into obscurity, to new translations of works unpublished in English, to more recent classics that have unjustly gone out of print. They are relevant, stylistically adventurous, and the writing is always superb. I have yet to be disappointed. Here is just a small sample of what they have to offer:


The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

A powerful depiction of a remarkable (and believable) sister/brother pair. Molly is hilarious, creative and viciously honest, as she and her older brother Ralph fight the stifling restrictions put upon them by their urbane L.A. family. Given the chance to spend summers on their uncle’s ranch in Colorado, we see them exploring their new environment as they struggle through the tensions and uncertainties of early adolescence. Stafford treats the innocence, humor and trauma of childhood with tremendous skill and ruthless honesty.


Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

Platonov wields language in jarring and beautiful ways: hovering between a nightmarish and hallucinatory allegory and a matter-of-fact indictment of the brutal conditions under Stalin’s agricultural collectivization of the 1930’s. Relying on both horror and humor (there is a super-productive, hammer wielding bear involved), this is a stunning work of fiction by an incomparable writer.


Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

The last piece written by the Austrian master before his suicide in Brazil in 1942, this haunting novella, set on a passenger ship leaving Europe during World War II, tells the story of a series of tense chess games between the world champion of chess and a lawyer who has mysteriously achieved a level of mastery that rivals his opponent. The revelation of how this mastery was acquired explodes the tight focus of the story to encompass the Nazi threat that Zweig himself was trying to escape.


Works of Leonardo Sciascia

Widely regarded as the quintessential novel of the Sicilian mafia, The Day of the Owl opens with a man shot to death as he boards a crowded bus. No one is willing to step forward as a witness, and the ensuing investigation by the upright Captain Bellodi is threatened at every turn by the organization’s influence at all levels of society.

In, To Each His Own, the pharmacist Manno receives an ominous letter predicting his death, and the next day he does indeed end up dead. The amateur sleuth Laurana begins to dig beneath the layers of deception in an attempt to solve the murder, but the truth he finds is, of course, a dangerous one.

All of Sciascia’s work (including also The Moro Affair, a brilliant non-fiction investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Italian politician Aldo Moro in the 1970’s, and Equal Danger, a masterfully disorienting mystery in an imaginary country where the most effective tool of political maneuvering is murder) resists summary and easy answers, and in the spare prose of a police procedural, he shines a light on the ways power is protected through lies and violence.


Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

At first glance, Judith Hearne, a single Belfast woman in her early forties, is far from a sympathetic character as she clings to her petty judgments and insecure Catholic piety. However, she soon emerges as a woman with an earnest desire for friendship and love who finds cruel obstacles both in her environment and within herself. This novel masterfully depicts the superhuman struggles involved in a very ordinary life.

Casey O.


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