A Literary A-Z: J

Please feel free to add your own choices. Any book, fiction or non-fiction, or the surname of an author. As long as it begins with a ‘J’. I discovered that ‘J’ is quite a tricky letter, so I will be interested to see what you come up with.

I haven’t read that much of the work of American-born writer Henry James. But his powerful books have been the subject of much praise, as well as being made into films. Best known for his novel ‘The Portrait of A Lady’, I was first introduced to his writing by the novella ‘The Turn of The Screw’. This is a great tale of sinister goings on in a wealthy household in rural England. Told from the point of view of a newly-arrived governess, responsible for the care of brother and sister Miles and Flora. This is superb melodrama, with the governess overwhelmed by the strong personalities of the children, and the appearance of a ghostly character too. It has been filmed or dramatised on many occasions, and lends itself perfectly to such adaptations.

In 1997, Australian writer Peter Carey published a novel set in Victorian London. ‘Jack Maggs’ was based around the Dickens novel ‘Great Expectations’, and given the excellence of that book, Carey set himself a hard task indeed. ‘Stealing’ the theme from Dickens, Carey developed the idea into a really interesting novel, with fascinating detail, and compelling characters too. He did a great job, and I suspect Charles would have been both flattered and impressed.

No ‘J’ would be complete without ‘Jane Eyre’. This well-known novel by Charlotte Bronte has been a staple of school literature, and attracted the eye of many film-makers and dramatists too. Bronte’s talent for description brings both the settings and characters to life, with an intense prose bordering on the poetic at times. And this is a long novel, with lots of scope. From the childhood of young Jane, through to the events when she becomes the governess at the house of the forbidding Mr Rochester, the reader is taken along on her journey, as it builds to the exciting climax. This is Victorian writing of the highest order, and deserves the attention it has enjoyed since it was first published, in 1847.

I have to give credit to a famous English writer who shares my surname. Samuel Johnson, also known as Dr. Johnson, was an 18th century writer famous for his essays, translations, and travelogues. But his greatest work established the foundation of the English language that we know today. In 1755, he published ‘A Dictionary of The English Language’. This had taken him nine years to compile, and was the first complete dictionary, becoming the standard reference work for almost two centuries, until it was surpassed by the later ‘Oxford English Dictionary’.

My top pick today is a book written for children, but also enjoyed by adults. In 1894, the English author Rudyard Kipling published an illustrated collection of short stories under the title ‘The Jungle Book’. The tales of young Mowgli, the animals he encounters, and the excitement of life in the Indian jungles captured my imagination completely, when I received a lovely hardback copy of this book as a child. It could not have been more different to my life in Central London, and I was lost in the exotic world described. Of course, many people these days know the story from the film adaptations by Zoltan Korda, Disney Studios, and Jon Favreau. They may have some merit, but do not come close to the fascination of allowing your own imagination to bring Kipling’s characters to life in your mind.

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45 thoughts on “A Literary A-Z: J

  1. I’ve read Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” in both English and French translation (“Les dents de la mer”). It’s a pretty good book, but I think the film is actually better.

    I’m going to go with two J books well known to anyone who studies French literature.
    (1) Jacques le fataliste, by Denis Diderot (published posthumously in 1796). I usually cite this as my favorite French language book. I’ve read it multiple times, but not again since 1991. Basically, the book is a series of stories tied together by philosophical dialogue between Jacques and his master as they travel along. The stories are very entertaining, but it’s the unusual structure, and the way Diderot often speaks directly to the reader, that I find so endearing.
    (2) La jalousie, by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1957). Here, I’m more interested in the structure than the love triangle that is the subject of this famous nouveau roman. The structure is a temporal maze. Moreover, the complicated layout of the story’s physical setting is a game of clue. I wrote a major paper on this book during my post-graduate studies, and was told that I had brilliantly solved the various puzzles it presents. To be sure, this is not an easy read. Intellectually, however, it’s immensely rewarding.

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  2. Yes, the alphabet is not so easy! 😉

    You made a good choice, I love Jane Eyre and the Jungle Book.

    I will add: Joyce Johnson and John Jakes – Twice double J! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Henry James is densely written but excellent, I liked “The Ambassadors”. I’m sorry I didn’t tackle James Joyce in college, I’ve been told most of us need an expert guide to survive and appreciate “Ulysses”. “Jungle Book” is a terrific book, and I like Kipling’s poetry, too. I love “Great Expectations” and didn’t know about “Jack Maggs” so thanks very much! Here’s a couple more suggestions — Shirley Jackson – really good short stories, including “The Lottery,” some good novels, like “The Haunting of Hill House,” and a very funny reminiscence “Life Among the Savages”. I’m surprised not to see P.D. James

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    1. Thanks for those, Robert. I am not so fond of Police Commander Adam Dalgleish as a character in the P.D. James novels. However, her Pride and Prejudice ‘sequel’, ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, was entertaining, though not wonderful. I think you might enjoy ‘Jack Maggs’. Carey is a good writer.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Beatrix Potter stories are delightful. I suspected she might get a mention when I got to ‘P’. I think Jane Eyre just keeps getting better, as you get older. Somehow, life experience makes you appreciate the story even more.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeffrey Deaver, starting with The Bone Collector, a series of novels whose hero is a quadriplegic ex forensic investigator Lincoln Rhyme who solves crimes from his bedroom. It was a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, but the book is far superior.

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  5. Had to think about this for a minute, but have come up with Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three men in a boat’ which I read for the first time fairly recently. A somewhat humorous account of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames.

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  6. Thanks, Pete. I love the Turn of the Screw (it is beautifully atmospheric and gothic), although my favourite story by James has to be The Beast in the Jungle. Jane Eyre, absolutely. Must check your recommended Peter Carey book.
    I was thinking of Tony Morrison’s ‘Jazz’, although she is another one of those authors that I find very difficult to pick just one.
    We just read Dubliners by James Joice, and although he can be ‘difficult’ The Dead or the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are highly recommended.
    (I can’t think of the Jungle Book and not sing the Bare Necessities…)
    Thanks, Pete!

    Liked by 2 people

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