I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caribou Island by David Vann
To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
The more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent were its foundations.
This is a book that wasn’t even on my radar until fairly late on in the year, when I noticed just how many of my Goodreads friends had read it and rated it – almost without fail – 5 stars. I knew John Boyne’s name only through the movie version of his Holocaust-set novel for younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and didn’t think I’d be interested in his work. But the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was written in homage to John Irving (Boyne’s dedicatee) piqued my interest, and I’m so glad I gave it a try. It distills all the best of Irving’s tendencies while eschewing some of his more off-putting ones. Of the Irving novels I’ve read, this is most like The World According to Garp and In One Person, with which it shares, respectively, a strong mother–son relationship and a fairly explicit sexual theme.
A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery, starting with his indifferent adoptive parents, Charles and Maude. Charles is a wealthy banker and incorrigible philanderer occasionally imprisoned for tax evasion, while Maude is a chain-smoking author whose novels, to her great disgust, are earning her a taste of celebrity. Both are cold and preoccupied, always quick to remind Cyril that since he’s adopted he’s “not a real Avery”. The first bright spot in Cyril’s life comes when, at age seven, he meets Julian Woodbead, the son of his father’s lawyer. They become lifelong friends, though Cyril’s feelings are complicated by an unrequited crush. Julian is as ardent a heterosexual as Cyril is a homosexual, and sex drives them apart in unexpected and ironic ways in the years to come.
For Cyril, born in Dublin in 1945, homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It was illegal in Ireland until 1993, so assignations had to be kept top-secret to avoid police persecution and general prejudice. Only when he leaves for Amsterdam and the USA is Cyril able to live the life he wants. The structure of the novel works very well: Boyne checks in on Cyril every seven years, starting with the year of his birth and ending in the year of his death. In every chapter we quickly adjust to a new time period, deftly and subtly marked out by a few details, and catch up on Cyril’s life. Sometimes we don’t see the most climactic moments; instead, we see what happened just before and then Cyril remembers the aftermath for us years later. It’s an effective tour through much of the twentieth century and beyond, punctuated by the AIDS crisis and focusing on the status of homosexuals in Ireland – in 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized, which would have seemed unimaginable a few short decades before.
Boyne also sustains a dramatic irony that kept me reading eagerly: the book opens with the story Cyril’s birth mother told him of her predicament in 1945, and in later chapters Cyril keeps running into this wonderfully indomitable woman in Dublin – but neither of them realizes how intimately they’re connected. Thanks to the first chapter we know they eventually meet and all will be revealed, but exactly when and how is a delicious mystery.
Along with Irving, Dickens must have been a major influence on Boyne. I spotted traces of David Copperfield and Great Expectations in minor characters’ quirks as well as in Cyril’s orphan status, excessive admiration of a romantic interest, and frequent maddening failures to do the right thing. But there are several other recent novels – all doorstoppers – that are remarkably similar in their central themes and questions. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Nathan Hill’s The Nix we also have absent or estranged mothers; friends, lovers and adoptive family who help cut through a life of sadness and pain; and the struggle against a fate that seems to force one to live a lie. Given a span of 500 pages or more, it’s easy to become thoroughly engrossed in the life of a flawed character.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies – a phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe the way W.H. Auden wore his experiences on his face – is an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy. A very Irish sense of humor runs all through the dialogue and especially Maude’s stubborn objection to fame. I loved Boyne’s little in-jokes about the writer’s life (“It’s a hideous profession. Entered into by narcissists who think their pathetic little imaginations will be of interest to people they’ve never met”) and thanks to my recent travels I was able to picture a lot of the Dublin and Amsterdam settings. Although it’s been well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m baffled that this novel doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. I am especially grateful to Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves for naming this her book of the year: knowing her discriminating tastes, I could tell I’d be in for something special. Look out for it on my Best Fiction of 2017 list tomorrow.
I got just four books for Christmas this year, but they’re all ones I’m very excited to read. I looked back at last year’s Christmas book haul photo and am impressed that I’ve actually read seven out of eight of them now – and the eighth is a cocktail cookbook one wouldn’t read all the way through anyway. All too often I let books sit around for years unread, but I will try to keep up this trend of reading books fairly soon after they enter my collection.
Two very different but equally enjoyable selections for you this month:
American Wolf: ATrue Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee
(Coming from Crown on the 17th)
By the 1920s, wolves had almost been eradicated from the Lower 48 states. In 1995–6, though, two rival packs were brought in from Canada to repopulate Yellowstone National Park. Blakeslee gives a panoramic overview of the reintroduction project and the recurring clashes between hunters and biologists about whether wolves should be a protected species. He keeps his account relatable by focusing on particular family groups of wolves and bringing out the animals’ individual personalities.
One important wolf pack was the Druids, which “were like the Kennedys, American royalty.” O-Six, an alpha female of the third generation so named because she was born in 2006, is one of the main animal characters here, with two central human characters being Rick McIntyre, a long-time National Park Service ranger and wolf expert, and Steven Turnbull (an alias), an elk hunter from Crandall, Wyoming.
The 2011 federal budget snuck in a rider removing wolves from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho. The same followed for Wyoming, heralding an open hunting season on wolves for the first time in 50 years. Though his sympathies are clear, Blakeslee doesn’t demonize those who killed Yellowstone wolves that strayed beyond the park boundaries. He also emphasizes that the battle over this species reflects a wider struggle “over public land—what it should be used for and who should have the right to decide.”
It’s especially interesting to read about the animals’ behavior: a wolf uncle hanging around to help raise the pups, O-Six fighting off grizzlies near her den, showdowns between packs, and pups hunting mice and ravens for fun.
With thanks to the publisher for the free review copy.
Love and Laughter in the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi
(Coming from Second Story Press on the 10th)
It’s a rare book that can wring both laughs and (mostly happy) tears out of a cancer ordeal. I read a lot of books about illness, death and dying – subjects I can appreciate aren’t for anyone. Nevertheless, I can heartily recommend this to you for the Everywoman perspective on the cancer experience and rebuilding life on the other side. Pawagi is a family court judge and mother of twin teenagers in Toronto. She was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, went through two intensive rounds of chemotherapy, and then had a stem cell transplant from a donor from the South Asian immigrant community six months later.
This is a warts-and-all account of the treatment process – if it hurt like hell, if she wept into her pillow at night, if she felt like crap, she says so. Though not entirely without self-pity, the book transforms such feelings through a wry, atheist’s “why not me?” approach. In the lovely last chapter, the author meets her donor, a young man in New York City, and his relatives two years after her transplant and realizes that she’s unwittingly acquired not just a blood brother but a whole new extended family.
They may be clichés but they’re completely true in this case: this is a heart-warming and life-affirming read, and with any luck will encourage more people to become blood and organ donors. (See also this interview with Pawagi from Foreword Reviews.)
Some favorite lines:
“I want to wake up and be a judge again, not an overgrown diapered baby.”
“Hell is other people…in the hospital bed next to yours.”
I read an e-ARC via NetGalley.
I also won an advanced Goodreads giveaway copy of a novel that came out in the States in June and will be released in the UK by Borough Press on the 5th, but I’m not sure it’s one I’d wholeheartedly recommend…
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
You might think of Stephen Florida as an heir to Alexander Portnoy and Holden Caulfield (“I guess I should describe myself. No, I don’t want to do that”). A senior at North Dakota’s Oregsburg College, he’s obsessed with becoming a champion wrestler for the 133 weight class. He’s a loner, and his every attempt at connection with others falters. Stephen acts and speaks like a crazed preacher, and the more he goes off the rails the harder it is to figure out exactly what’s going on and how much you can trust this narrator. This struck me as a very male story that doesn’t have the same crossover appeal as works by John Irving or Chad Harbach. I would have enjoyed a short story or novella about this character and his self-destructive single-mindedness, but spending a whole novel with him creeped me out.
Other October releases I’m planning to read:
In Shock by Rana Awdish (St. Martin’s, 17th)
A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon (Chronicle Books, 3rd)
Eco-Dementia [poetry] by Janet Kauffman (Wayne State University Press, 2nd)
Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer by Antoinette Truglio Martin (She Writes Press, 3rd)
What October books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
I was wary of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, as I always am of big ol’ books. Six hundred and twenty pages of small print: was it going to be worth it? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes. If you’ve loved The World According to Garp, City on Fire, The Goldfinch, and/or Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you should pick this one up right away. From the first few pages onwards, I was impressed by Hill’s carefully honed sentences. He mixes up the paragraph arrangement in a particularly effective way, such that long thoughts are punctuated by a killer one-liner given a paragraph of its own. Here’s one: “How easily a simple façade can become your life, can become the truth of your life.”
In 2011 Samuel Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye, find themselves in strange situations. Samuel is an assistant English professor at a small suburban Chicago college. Once the Next Big Thing, feted by Granta for a brilliant short story, he has never delivered his contracted novel and spends more time in the World of Elfscape online game than he does engaging in real life. Now Laura Pottsdam, a student he caught plagiarizing a Hamlet essay, is on a mission to take Samuel down. Meanwhile Faye is awaiting trial for throwing rocks at Governor Packer, a conservative presidential hopeful from Wyoming. It’s been 23 years since Faye walked out on Samuel and his father, but her lawyer still hopes Samuel will be willing to write a character reference to be used in her defense, prompting their awkward reunion.
This is a rich, multi-layered story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Along with 2011, the two main time periods are 1968, when Faye was a would-be radical caught up in student violence; and 1988, the summer before Faye left, when Samuel met twins Bishop and Bethany Fall, two friends who would still be having an impact on his life decades later even though they moved away after a few months. Although most of the action takes place in Iowa and Chicago, there’s also a brief interlude set in Norway when Faye tries to track down the ghosts of her father’s homeland. He’d told her stories of the nisse and the Nix, a house spirit and a water spirit in the form of a giant horse: both lead greedy children to their doom, a terrifying prospect for an anxious girl like Faye.
Political protest is a thread running all through the novel, though it never drowns out the centrality of the mother–son relationship: the 1968 Grant Park protest Faye attends in Chicago, the anti-Iraq War march Samuel and Bethany go on in 2004, the Occupy demonstrations taking place in 2011, and Faye’s odd transformation into the Packer Attacker. Hill makes cogent comments on contemporary America, where the “pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Young people parcel emotions into easy categories for social media, which also markets ready-made heroes (pop singer Molly Miller) and villains (Faye).
Hill is a funny and inventive writer; a few of his more virtuosic moments include an argument with headings indicating its logical fallacies, a relationship presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and a nearly-eleven-page sentence in which a character has a health crisis. These sections are almost too long – Come now, you’re just showing off, I thought. But changing up the structure like that does mean that the novel is never boring, and its reflections on self-knowledge and how we get lost, stuck in patterns of our own creating, made me think deeply. This is one debut that really does live up to the hype; look out for it, and for the upcoming television adaptation directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Meryl Streep.
First published in August 2016, The Nix was released in the UK in paperback on September 21st. My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])
Call this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])
An odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.
Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.
(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”
“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
My Darling Detective by Howard Norman
(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)
When Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.
This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)
Have you read any March releases you would recommend?
I’ve set just a few modest goals for the coming year’s reading:
As always, I’d like to focus on reading more of the books I actually own. I went around and did an inventory of unread books in the house and came up with 221. That could easily fill two-thirds or more of next year, yet I know I’m unlikely to cut down on my library borrowing or NetGalley and Edelweiss requests. I think the strategy will be to always have two of my own books on the go at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction, no matter how many other public library or Kindle books I’m reading.
Some of the books I most want to tackle have 500+ pages. I wonder if I have enough really long books to sustain a Doorstopper of the Month feature? To get a head start on this goal, this past week I started City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Also on the shelf are A Suitable Boy, This Thing of Darkness, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Until I Find You, and a few chunky biographies; I’m also sure to get some long books from the library and NetGalley.
I read very few classics in 2016, just a couple short books by Jerome K. Jerome, a Stefan Zweig novella, Tender Is the Night, and two rediscovered 1930s works from the Apollo Classics series. So that’s something to rectify in 2017. Three classics from the list of “Books to Read in Your 30s” in The Novel Cure are calling to me, and it’s also high time I read some more Dickens (maybe I’ll finally return to Dombey and Son?), Trollope (at least The Warden, if not more of the Barsetshire series), Brontë (Anne, in this case) and Woolf (The Voyage Out). Maybe I’ll also start a Classic of the Month feature?
Regarding my career…
I’d like to replace some of my individual book reviewing with longer articles. For instance, this past year Foreword magazine invited me to write three articles surveying new and upcoming books in various genres: young adult, climate change and middle grade. It’s more rewarding (and remunerative) to prioritize full-length articles.
Regarding the blog…
I’d love to get involved in more blog tours and collaborative challenges. I also hope to continue maintaining a balance between straightforward reviews/lists and different stuff, whether that’s travel reports or more introspective pieces. My dream is still to judge a literary prize, even if that’s just as part of a shadow panel.
What are some of your goals for 2017 – reading-related or otherwise?
Tomorrow: Some final statistics on my reading for the year.
It’s a risky business, adapting a well-loved book into a film. I’m always curious to see how a screenwriter and director will pull it off. The BBC generally does an admirable job with the classics, but contemporary book adaptations can be hit or miss. I’ve racked my brain to think of cases where the movie was much better than the book or vice versa, but to my surprise I’ve found that I can only think of a handful of examples. Most of the time I think the film and book are of about equal merit, whether that’s pretty good or excellent.
Watch the Movie Instead:
Birdsong [Sebastian Faulks] – Eddie Redmayne, anyone? The book is a slog, but the television miniseries is lovely.
One Day [David Nicholls] – Excellent casting (though Rafe Spall nearly steals the show). Feels less formulaic and mawkish than the novel.
Father of the Bride and its sequel [Edward Streeter] – The late 1940s/early 1950s books that served as very loose source material are hopelessly dated.
Possession [A.S. Byatt] – This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It has a richness of prose and style (letters, poems, etc.) that simply cannot be captured on film. Plus Aaron Eckhart couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
Everything Is Illuminated [Jonathan Safran Foer] – The movie’s not bad, but if you want to get a hint of Foer’s virtuosic talent you need to read the novel he wrote at 25.
A Prayer for Owen Meany [John Irving] – The film version, Simon Birch, was so mediocre that Irving wouldn’t let his character’s name be associated with it.
It’s Pretty Much Even:
Decent book and movie:Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Help, The Hours, Memoirs of a Geisha, Never Let Me Go, TheRemains of the Day
Terrific book and movie:The Fault in Our Stars, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (Swedish language), The Orchid Thief / Adaptation (both great but in very different ways!), Tamara Drewe (based on a graphic novel, which itself is based on Far From the Madding Crowd)
If I’m interested in a story, my preference is always to watch the movie before I read the book. If you do it the other way round, you’re likely to be disappointed with the adaptation. Alas, this means that the actors’ and actresses’ faces will be ineradicably linked with the characters in your head when you try to read the book. I consider this a small disadvantage. Reading the book after you’ve already enjoyed the storyline on screen means you get to go deeper with the characters and the plot, since subplots are often eliminated in movie versions.
So although I’ve seen the films, I’m still keen to read Half of a Yellow Sun and The Kite Runner. I’m eager to both see and read The English Patient and The Shipping News (which would be my first by Proulx). All four of these I own in paperback. I’m also curious about two war novels being adapted this year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds. There’s every chance I’d like these better as movies than I did as books.
As to books I’m interested in seeing on the big screen, the first one that comes to mind is Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. It might also be interesting to see how the larger-than-life feminist heroines of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon would translate for cinema. Can you think of any others?
What film adaptations have impressed or disappointed you recently? Do you watch the movie first, or read the book first?