Monday, July 21, 2014

Let's Talk About Books

Once, when she was younger, a friend of my mom's stole her diary. He gave it back to her in disgust saying that there was nothing personal in it, that it was not a diary -- it was a book-list. But I think a book-list can make quite a good diary.

These are the most wonderful books of all time (in no particular order, and I've left my favorite book off this list).

Confederacy of Dunces (1963, published 1980) -- John Kennedy Toole       
Very, very funny book. Astonishingly light-hearted for an author whose personal history is so sad.

Never Let Me Go (2005) -- Kazuo Ishiguro          
Ishiguro's novels always concern moral dilemmas that cause the reader to further refine his or her own philosophy. I don't know of another novelist so adept at this.

The Remains of the Day (1989) -- Kazuo Ishiguro           
I first read this when working an unsatisfying but well-paying job. It makes you reflect on your life's purpose -- a great achievement, because very few things really cause you to do this.

The Sirens of Titan (1959) -- Kurt Vonnegut               
Beautiful imagery, sci-fi (but not very science-y).

Stoner (1965) -- John Williams                                   
Amazing book, about an academic. The pursuit of Truth and all of that.

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003)-- Audrey Niffenegger
Great imagery, really well-thought-out science fiction (opposite of Vonnegut).

A Wrinkle in Time (1962) -- Madeleine L'Engle            
Great children's book - exciting adventures, questions about ethics, standing up for what you believe.

The Last Vampire Series (1994-1996) -- Christopher Pike                  
This had a profound effect on my life. I re-read it recently, and it was almost as good as I remembered (which is saying a lot). My favorite parts involve Ancient India and Renaissance Italy (probably my first introduction to these epochs).
Rebecca (1938) -- Daphne du Maurier                                        
The language in this book is fantastic: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

The Great Gatsby (1925) -- F. Scott Fitzgerald                          
A perfect book.

Singularity (1985) -- William Sleator                                          
Coming of age novel about sibling rivalry,  solitude, and determination (also time travel, a mysterious uncle, and alien species).

The Night Watch (2006) -- Sarah Waters                                     
This woman can create scenes so realistic you will believe you are there.

Seymour: An Introduction (1959) -- J. D. Salinger                    
It's hard to pick one. I like all the stories about the Glass family. I do not like Catcher in the Rye.

The Last Tycoon (1941) -- F. Scott Fitzgerald                          
Airplane travel in the 1920's is the image that most stuck with me. This is a raw, unfinished novel (maybe The Great Gatsby is too finished?).

Dead Souls (1842) -- Nikolai Gogol                                          
I read one translation that I very much enjoyed -  I look forward to reading the one Nabokov recommended (although I really need to just learn Russian). Gogol is such a strange man. He goes off on strange tangents of extended metaphors that are just delightful -- no one else could learn from him and do it the way he does. He's completely idiosyncratic. Sui generis is a great term for Gogol.

Ablutions (2009) -- Patrick deWitt                                                  
It had a gimmick that I fell for-- it really worked on me, maybe it will on you, too. Instead of feeling guilty when reading it (an astonishing feeling) my husband thought it was hilarious.

This Is How -- M. J. Hyland                                              
When I read this book I read it constantly for two days (I was off work), and when I returned to work I was being very rude. I asked myself why, and realized it was because I thought the world owed me something -- I had completely gotten into the mind set of the first person narrator of this book. Not many authors can do that to you.

Lolita (1955) -- Vladimir Nabokov                                                 
 The language is very beautiful. The moral conundrum Nabokov creates in the mind of the reader is so dense and important that this book is still misunderstood by most. Read Reading Lolita in Tehran to help see how I would interpret it. I have a lot of opinions about this book, but I will withhold them here. Well, I'll give you one: the only person in the whole novel who ever calls the girl "Lolita" is the narrator -- Nabokov does a great job of making you only gradually realize this, even though he draws attention to it in the opening paragraphs of the novel - and, as you might expect, these opening paragraphs are essential to understanding the novel.

In Search of Lost Time (1913-1922) -- Marcel Proust                                 
 I don't have any suggestions for how you could go about finishing all seven volumes, but I encourage you to do it. The last volume is the key to the whole novel, which is about a philosophical idea that could not have been expressed in any other way. You have to read the whole thing to see what I mean.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) -- Leo Tolstoy                                    
Perfect novella about a man's struggle with his impending death and the meaning of his life.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) -- Azar Nafisi                                                 I only recommend the parts about Nabokov. I read and enjoyed the other sections, but the section on Nabokov is what I'm specifically recommending here.

The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) -- William Styron                             
I don't know how William Styron, a white southerner, got into the head of the leader of a slave rebellion one hundred years previous, but he did. A masterpiece.

Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) -- Rivka Galchen                            
The book is about a man who is going insane in a particular way (Galchen is an MD in psychiatry). It makes you question your sanity, so, a difficult read.

Indignation -- Philip Roth                                                       
 The most amazing twist ending I have ever read. Do NOT read ahead, do NOT read a summary (do not read the wikipedia entry).

Sophie's World
(1991) -- Jostein Gaarder (translated from the Norwegian by Paulette Møller)
Very strange pulp fiction introduction to philosophy for young adults, which was sold in the grocery store (that's where my mom bought it for me). I don't know why this would be sold in a grocery store, but I'm glad it was.

The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story (1989)  -- Mary Downing Hahn                         
Time travel ghost story, ghost cat, friendships of little girls, single motherhood.

Behind the Attic Wall (1983) -- Sylvia Cassedy                                                    
 I think I liked this book because it was very well written, or so I remember. You wouldn't like the plot if I were to put it here.

We Others (2011) -- Steven Millhauser                                          
About magic - it made me want to fly, or I felt like I was flying when I read it.

One Thousand and One Nights (c. 800 C. E.) -- Anonymous                                                  
 Very sexual in nature, these are also of course about magic. There's nothing else in the world like them. Adaptations do not come close, if you have not read the original (at least in translation) you do not know these stories.

Steppenwolf (1927) -- Herman Hesse                                               
 I re-read this recently, and found it to be just as amazing as I thought it was when I was a teenager (it's the reason I took German in college). But I understand it more now.

Don Quixote (1615) -- Miguel de Cervantes                                    
I've read this book many times. I don't know how to explain how wonderful it is. Cervantes creates a world so realistic and so similar to ours, and puts a demented man in it whose fantasy world (in his head) is just as realistic to him. More on this later.

Iliad (900 B.C.E.), translated (1990) by Robert Fagles -- Homer          
 I don't know Greek, so I don't know if this is a good translation of the original. Here is a review of the translation: Whether it is true to the original or not, I deeply enjoyed this book.

The Nose (1835-1836)  -- Nikolai Gogol                                               
Very good story, like his others, something only Gogol could have written.
Women in Love (1920) -- D. H. Lawrence                                
I loved this book when I read it as a teenager, but haven't been able to re-read it.  These lines stuck with me: "To know is human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity. In death we shall not be human, and we shall not know. The promise of this is our heritage, we look forward like heirs to their majority." I was very interested in contemplating mortality when I was younger.

Age of Innocence (1920) -- Edith Wharton                                
The most brilliant part of this book is the soaring feeling you get when you speed forward in time.

Caribou Island (2011) -- David Vann                                        
What seems to be an extremely realistic depiction of a very unhappy marriage. The ending is an ecstasy of sadness (if you can imagine that).

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) -- Thomas Hardy                 
 This was supposed to be "realism" -- it's very interesting to note that what was considered realistic then would not be considered realistic now; so what is "real"? But I really just liked the novel because of the dramatic story and the great imagery.

Wuthering Heights (1846) --  Emily Brontë                            
I already wrote an entry on this.

Herzog (1964) -- Saul Bellow                                                 
I love this book.

Decameron (1353) -- Giovanni Boccaccio                             
It's very easy to fall into this collection of stories, as funny and as interesting now as they were when they were written 700 years ago.

Canterbury Tales (1400) -- Geoffrey Chaucer                       
Chaucer was inspired by the Decameron (and copied many of the Italian stories), so it's not surprising that I have the same review. But try to read them in Middle English, if you can- it's very rewarding to read them out loud in the original.

Gulliver's Travels (1726) -- Jonathan Swift                                  
The mark of a great writer, it occurred to me as I re-read this, is that every aspect is intensely imagined. Who would have thought to write about what an enormous blemish on a wet-nurse's breast would look like? This isn't just an "illustration of ideas," as George Orwell's, Ayn Rand's, and Aldous Huxley's novels are-- it's a new world.

King Jesus (1946) -- Robert Graves

English, August: An Indian Story (1988) -- Upamanyu Chatterjee

The Castle (1926) -- Franz Kafka                                                  
It was one of the first things I ever talked about with the man who became my husband. It inspired me to make this work on tulle.

The Trial (1915) -- Franz Kafka

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) -- Gabriel García Márquez                
For me, the parts about developing photographs were the best (I was taking a photography class at the time). I wonder if future generations will have any way to visualize these scenes.

All the Pretty Horses (1992) -- Cormac McCarthy                               
There is one part where a character is afraid of lightning. I don't know why I found that so funny.

Beloved (1987) -- Toni Morrison                 
Reading this novel feels like being brutally beaten. That may not be your idea of nice reading material (but you'd be wrong).

Song of Solomon (1977) -- Toni Morrison             
Reading this was the first time I stayed up all night reading a novel (high school).

Satyricon (68) -- Petronius                                    
 I read this after watching the Fellini film of the same name.

The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) -- Arthur Phillips        
Amazing novel. Similar to Pale Fire.

I, Claudius (1934) -- Robert Graves

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles  (2005) -- Will Clarke                           
 I bought at least two copies of this book and lent them to people.

Poems (1542) -- Sir Thomas Wyatt                                            
 Mine Own John Poynz, for instance.

Poems (1529) -- John Skelton                                                    
Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale (and others).

Norwegian Wood (1987) -- Haruki Murakami

Childhood's End (1953) -- Arthur C. Clarke

Songs of Distant Earth (1986) -- Arthur C. Clarke                                       

Love Poems (1615) -- John Donne                                       
 "Go and catch a falling star" is a miniature masterpiece.

Insomniac (2009) -- Gayle Greene                                         
I just realized that my memories of this work of non-fiction have fused with memories of my life at the time that I read it. It's very well-written, but could (I'm told) induce insomnia if you are prone to it.

Insomnia (1994) -- Stephen King                                        
Speaking of insomnia.

The Shining (1977) -- Stephen King

Wind, Sand and Stars (1939) -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) -- Haruki Murakami

Heart of Darkness (1899) -- Joseph Conrad

An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World (2004) -- Pankaj Mishra

Bachelors (2000) -- Rosalind Krauss                                   
The chapters on Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin are particularly great.

Invisible Man (1952) -- Ralph Ellison

Family Ties (1960) -- Clarice Lispector                             
The concept of "preciousness."

The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) -- Oscar Wilde          

Andrew Lang's Fairy Books (1889-1910) -- Various sources              

I'm trying to find a similarity between all of these books, and most of them create a texture that is very captivating, so that the world of the book seems real.

Data: Of these 72 books, 54 were written after 1900; 18 before 1900.
54 were written by men; only 18 by women.
United States Writers: 29
British Writers: 15
Other Countries: 28

Any books you want to add? Want to discuss some of these?


  1. NO!!!! I typed out the longest comment and it totally disappeared :-( UGHHHHHHHHH.
    I added a couple of these to my To Read list! My favorite definitely-must-read books from the past couple of years: "After the First Death" by Robert Cormier; "Building Stories" by Chris Ware; "Witch Week" by Dianna Wynne Jones; "The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson; "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides. Have you... read any of those yet? All are just knockout amazing works.

  2. I hate it when that happens! I will add those to my list. Although, I did read a book about psychopaths called Without Conscience. It's by Hare (who I think your author criticizes) and it seemed pretty accurate to me. Have you known a psychopath?

    1. It's hard to say. I don't *think* I have personally, but supposedly the percentage is fairly high - chances are I have. Rebecca's mom group has a member whose child was diagnosed as a sociopath, which is sort of a less-organized psychopath :-(

    2. They (although I've only known one) are very creepy to be around - they make my skin crawl. He meets all of the signs on the checklist (Hare's checklist for psychopathy)-- or most of them at least. Also, alchoholics and addicts, when actively using, behave very much like psychopaths. Doris Lessing wrote a book about having a child who was a psychopath - good book, The Fifth Child. That would be very sad.

    3. To most people they appear extremely charming, and you only notice what they really are like if they identify you as a target -- which is one thing that is so infuriating about psychopathy, when you tell others about it, they don't believe you!

  3. My comment disappeared too! I typed it, then it made me sign in, and when I did, the comment vanished.

    1. Sorry to hear that. I hope you'll try again? Be sure and copy your comment before you try to post it!

  4. Argh, mine too. Poopy!

    Anyway, I was just trying to say, I haven't known a lot of people who read Behind the Attic Wall. I really connected with that author just because of her perspective on childhood depression and its correlation with imagination. Really beautiful work. Haven't read it in forever even though I still own it.

    1. Wasn't it just wonderful? I had the best elementary school librarian ever, Ms. Jenkins -- that's where I got it.

  5. Enjoyed reading the post.......Thanks for sharing :)