On the library shelf
Four classic fiction reviews
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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens, grew up in Hannibal, Mo. As a novelist, he drew on his boyhood near the Mississippi River, painting humorous and poignant scenes of 19th-century river life. In this 1884 novel, protagonist Huck Finn escapes from his cruel father on a raft with Jim, a runaway slave. Twain powerfully argues for the full humanity of Jim and other slaves. He also pioneered the use of realistic dialogue in his novels, giving them lasting significance. However, his inclusion of the N-word more than 200 times (common during his day) may offend modern readers. To explore Twain’s moral insights and allusions to The Odyssey, see Hillsdale College’s free online course about Mark Twain.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
After spending 18 months in prison for homosexual acts, Oscar Wilde’s early death made him perhaps the first gay icon. Yet his only novel isn’t a gay diatribe. Rather, the gothic tale opens as English dandy Dorian Gray rashly “prays” to swap places with his portrait. Soon, Gray’s sins (including murder) mar the painting, while Gray himself remains young and uncorrupted. As usual, Wilde sparkles as a master of witty one-liners and seriously wrestles with themes of sin and conscience. Yet he also writes in the preface, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” undermining the novel’s impact. Professor Carl Trueman helpfully connects Wilde’s philosophy to today’s sexual revolution in his free Makers of the Modern Revolution YouTube series.
The Odyssey by Homer
Along with The Iliad, Homer’s The Odyssey forms the fountainhead of much of Western culture, showcasing ancient ideals like courage and cunning. In the epic poem’s opening scenes, Athena prompts Odysseus’ son to begin a journey to find his father, while Odysseus’ wife faithfully rejects suitors at home. All this sets the stage for the main storyline, as Trojan war hero Odysseus escapes the goddess Calypso and sets out for his home in Ithaca. Odysseus’ voyage includes conflict with one-eyed giants, cruel men, and self-indulgent deities, which reveal both Odysseus’ flaws and those of Greek culture (i.e., adultery and idolatry). Yet Christians can find much to admire in Homer’s storytelling, aware that every virtue points to the true warrior-hero, Jesus.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
This 1963 breakout novel by John le Carré draws on his firsthand experience in British intelligence. He invented many of the genre’s most definitive terms, such as “mole” and “the Circus.” However, le Carré stands out most for evocative prose, near-perfect plotting, the moral equivalency of his Soviet and Western spies, and betrayal as a recurring theme. In this book, bureau chief Alec Leamas loses a man at a Berlin checkpoint, which leads him on a dangerous mission of revenge. An illicit romance complicates his position, even as it points—however dimly—toward something higher than the seeming futility of his work. Named in Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best novels, the book remains a morally imperfect but well-told spy tale.
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