Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My life as a novel: The List

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about the week's Favorites, book and author. And then I just kept thinking. And thinking. If there were ever this puzzle on a desert island, I would die of starvation long before I came up with an answer, or in a fit of self-preservation I would lash out and choose the most random thing that came into my head, because this is truly asking the impossible. Books have been at my side since the cradle, through every change and experience through my life, informing my maturation and problem-solving, teaching me life lessons and arcane facts (and words), and comforting me through the disparate pains of long plane rides and heartbreaks. I can't remember all the books that I've read, in my feckless youth I averaged one per day, or two days if it was during the school week. Fact: I would rather keep company with a good book than most of humanity. I have a really lame joke, that books are my only addiction, only it's neither funny nor untrue.  To this day, with all the responsibilities I have on my time I will gladly and sometimes even unwillingly forego them all, and eating, and sleeping, to read. It makes the angels sing inside my brain in a way that I imagine drugs do for other people and if it's a good one it takes all my willpower to put. the book. down.

But surely in that vast sea, there are some waves that rise above the others, that carried me farther or nearly capsized my little barque altogether. So after much moaning and bellyaching, in a process that has taken much longer than the births of my two children, combined, here is a list of twelve of the most influential books in my life. I hasten to add that I don't necessarily mean these are the 'best' by any literary criteria, but for whatever reasons these are ones that I read until their covers fell off or whose characters have become permanent features in the living landscape of my thoughts. Those whose problems and stories I enjoy rolling over again in idle moments, like tonguing a bit of hazelnut from the crags of a molar. In no particular order, then:

East of Eden, John Steinbeck. This reviewer from Powell's says it: I was once told a good novel will set its tenor by the end of its first page, so lately I've been skimming the first page of prospective reads to test this theory. When I did this with Steinbeck's East of Eden, I couldn't stop; the assault of great writing never let up, and I knew I was irretrievably in for the long haul. No one writes exactly like Steinbeck, and this century-spanning book about two families in California's Salinas Valley finds the writer at his culminating genius (Steinbeck said, "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for [East of Eden]."). His prose is vivid, fine, and panoramic in vision; his characters are so richly cast that he's capable of inducing a genuine sense of the glories and tragedies they experience. I read this book so compulsively (I stayed up till 4:00 a.m. one night / cancelled dates with friends / ate soup from a can) that I'm almost mad at myself for not savoring it more slowly, but there's ample consolation in Steinbeck's prolific career for any of his insatiable, expectant readers. Good follow-up read: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.
Recommended by Jae, Powell's City of Books

 Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card. My taste for genres is fairly egalitarian, as you will see. But this was the very first sci-fi book that I ever loved. As a quiet, bookish sort of kid I was quickly seduced by the possibility of such genius in someone so young (not me! I promise, I didn't think this was me!), and sympathetic to the truth that even child prodigies are subject to the whims of the adult world around them.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Someday I hope to use the English language with such playful adeptness as this non-native speaker. Not only is it a truly remarkable and, yes, sensitive telling of a rather sordid tale, but it is also a hilarious and delightful portrait of roadside America during a certain era.

Justine, Lawrence Durrell. When I read this as an adolescent I think its story was a bit over my head (a risk when reading so precociously), but the language infected me and made an indelible mark on my descriptive writing. Insufferable phrases like 'sun-slaked streets' crept their way into my fledgling stories, and for better or worse, this book is to blame.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. I have a soft spot for Faulkner, he loves his characters so much, and tenderly subjects them to such woe. This novel was a masterful introduction to the power of first-person narrative and the shifting narrators in our heads. He gives you the whole story without really telling you any of it, and I love that.

Crusoe's Daughter, Jane Gardam. I love novels that live as much in their environment as in their characters, and this is a feature of many books on my list. Of these, Crusoe's Daughter is an exemplar.  When I think of it I can hear the wind and feel the emptiness of the sky overhead. A lovely, quiet book that manages to follow a girl who doesn't get a chance to do much or go anywhere but who still takes you places.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler. Witty, irreverent, tough, clever, heedless and too smart for his own good, Philip Marlowe is -- as far as I'm concerned -- the echt of what a noir detective should be. This is no news to any readers of the genre, as he remains one of the most imitated and never duplicated lone wolf this-side-of-bad good men in literature. In this story we are introduced to him, as well as to Chandler's seedy and lurid Los Angeles. I wonder if Chandler is really given the credit he is due often enough for his writing skills since most of his hype surrounds his crime-creating, but he is so deft with his epithets and turns of phrase that you hardly know what hit you. Just like a good crime ought to be.

Wizard's First Rule, Terry Goodkind. A bit of a dark horse on this list, I admit, but I am trying to be honest here. Yes, guilty, I have enjoyed many a good fantasy novel in my day, this one especially. Richard Cypher can be annoyingly righteous at times, and has a bit of hubris, and yet you still want him to vanquish evil because, well, evil. There are some particularly inventive and wicked evils in this story. I don't know what more to say, either you're with me so far or you're not.
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood. So good, and funny, and comprehensively imagined. And so frighteningly possible. I think that Margaret Atwood is well aware of the tragic flaws that are most likely to bring us to our knees, and she has laid many of them out for our entertainment here. And do I detect a bit of a warning as well?

 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. I think I read this book over ten times in the Middle School - High School years. The caste system, what a fascinating and difficult concept for this west coast girl to grok fully. How could such invisible things make so much trouble? Like germs, but less believable. Beautiful and full of sorrow and miniscule triumphs, so small they hardly seem like they add up to anything in the end. But I never finished the book feeling sad.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. This last one is something special, it almost won Favorite Book, but for a technicality: I've never actually read it. Some years ago I was trying to figure out how to satiate my hunger for the written word while at the same time going through those daily motions that you do when you reach a certain age -- cooking, cleaning, driving, walking, knitting, sewing. Those things that use your eyes and hands and leave no room for books. So I did the sensible thing and got an Audible account and started taking my books in through my ears. It's a whole different experience, and the narrator becomes as significant as the writer or the story itself, a storytelling trifecta. I have listened to and loved audiobooks that bored me to tears when I tried to read them, and vice-versa. But this book is so marvelous, so full of love and courage and a whopping good tale that I would hedge that it might make a jolly good read, as well. The thing about audiobooks is I rarely re-listen to them, they are more like movies that way. Entertaining and then gone, except for a special few, and this is one of those few. When I really want to treat myself, I turn this one on.

I hope that someone out there gets some kernel of satisfaction or inspiration out of this list, not only is it the most time I have hitherto spent on a blog post, but so near and dear to my heart. I get the feeling you are a reading lot, and I am currently between books -- a desperate situation to be in, as you well know. So I appeal to you now: any recommendations? Thanks, as ever, for stopping in and reading here.


  1. No Howl's Moving Castle? ;-)

    1. Oh, man! I knew I was forgetting something!

  2. Totally just added all of these (that I haven't read) to my Goodreads account. Also, I'm going to need you to get a Goodreads account, so I can steal everything on it.

    1. What, there is yet another online water cooler that I don't know about where I can be stealing all kinds of awesome information? Sheesh.

  3. I can hear your writer's voice in your reviews! And I can tell just how much you love these books.

    One of my favorites? The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. So sweet, so sad, so hopeful.

    1. ooh! I'll have to try that one out. I've seen it around many times, but for some reason I just haven't picked it up yet. Thanks Michele!