Monday 25 March 2013

20 Books that Made Me, Part 2

Hey my blueberries! (And a fist bump to you if that phrase rings a bell!) Hope you’re all refreshed and relieved and ready for more. So without further a dally, here’s the rest of the list…

10. Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein
Not only is this novel, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories ever told, it’s certainly one of my favourites. I first read it when I as 17 and have read it every couple of years since. It is an epic, complex, stunning novel with many levels to it. It’s a science fiction story of the highest order, whilst being a powerful love story, or indeed, series of love stories, to boot. It reflects on society, the past, the future and almost every aspect of life experience that you can think of. It’s the story of Lazarus Long, a man who has lived hundreds of lifetimes as a result of science and selective breeding, and has become the oldest living man alive at a time where human life expectancy has risen to hundreds of years rather than a mere few decades.  This novel is embedded with Heinlein’s own theories and ideas on life and people. Lazarus Long is his mouthpiece that much is clear. But I find his views and observations really interesting and quite valid (not all of them, but many) and therefore don’t mind a jot that it’s him speaking through a thin veil. In fact, he has become one of those authors that I enjoy reading because I find his narrative voice and his world-view, interesting. Even more amazing when you think that Heinlein died long before I read any of his stories, truly demonstrating how an author’s body of work is both their legacy and snap shot of them as a person forever preserved and able to connect with generations of future readers. Time Enough for Love is an incredible read and I implore you, no matter your gender, nor your usual taste in books, to read this novel.

9. The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
It used to be the case that a novel or film that is considered a classic and is somewhat overhyped actually put me off experiencing it. Having already become a cliché in popular culture I did not go into reading this book with the expectation that it would be that great. After all, I found Frankenstein to be off-puttingly faffy and Dracula to be overly boring. I just assumed that this was another example of an author hitting on the idea first and therefore forever onwards being the reference point for future incarnations. Boy was I wrong with this one. I only read it because I wanted to compare She-devil to another text and explore the issue of dual personality/ transformation. I was about 18. My English teacher pointed me in this direction, naturally, and thank God she did. Stevenson’s use of point of view narrative to drive the story, and the reader’s sympathies, is excellent. The tension builds beautifully throughout the novel until the reveal, which feels to me as affecting and horrifying as it probably was back in the day. This novel made me think about the compulsions that drive us, not only the darker, more reactive side of our natures, but our search for knowledge and understanding and just how much we are willing to sacrifice to satisfy that desire to know more, to get to the truth of ourselves.

8. The Shining by Stephen King
My 18th year was a good one for discovering books that would stay with me forever. Here King makes a second appearance on the list (and it’s not his last) I know that might seem excessive, but when he was good, he really was good, and his work has influenced me greatly. I feel that this is one of the scariest books ever written. It is psychological horror at its best. For all the supernatural elements, the true darkness comes from the journey inside a man having a nervous breakdown. His wife, Wendy, is one of the strongest heroines I can recall (her character was destroyed by Kubrick in the film, the film being brilliant in its own way, but it’s not the same story) and her journey is just as compelling. This book stayed in my head for a long time after I read it. I really should read it again. I just need to work myself up to it, and maybe make sure I have a Calvin and Hobbes anthology on standby, like last time, as an shot of joyful awesome if the darkness gets too much!  

7. Complicity by Iain Banks
If any of you reading this know me BUT AT ALL you will know that this is my favourite novel. In fact if any of you have even read my blog posts you will know that this is my favourite novel, and it is certainly one of the most affecting books to me on this list, if not the most. How to sum it up in a few brief words? It’s a detective story, with a flawed antihero protagonist and a vigilante killer. It truly made me think about my place in the world and my perception of justice. You could even go so far as to say that this story has helped to form my moral compass. Where would you draw the line? Who decides where the line is? Is there a line?
‘We’re all guilty, Cameron, some more than others, but don’t tell me that we aren’t all guilty’
Just for the love God, read this book! Oh, I nearly forgot, I was 18 the first time I read this, and all that confluence was developing my personality like a mo-fooing tundra of influence, so perhaps it really was the right book at the right time for me.

6. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann
I read this book because it was on the reading list at Uni as an example of Modernist fiction. I did not expect that it would affect me in the manner that it did do. Or even at all. Not a lot even happens in the story; it is snapshot of a woman’s life. The drive of the narrative is that this woman is having an affair with a married man. It’s not salacious, and whilst I’m sure they do have sex at some point, the matter is discreetly ignored. This is no Lady Chatterley climaxing against a tree. I expected this book to be naïve, but what it is, is truthful. The manner in which this woman kids herself, over and over again, that she is not being manipulated and strung along, how her emotions are always riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty. How she convinces herself each time that they could actually be happy together, without realising that she is standing in the way of her own happiness by not letting go. Reading this book was a cathartic process for me. It reminded me of a darker chapter of my youth and helped me to process it at a safe and secure distance, when I was in a much happier place. I was 20. This book broke my heart and it showed me how important it is to connect to your reader. When I’m writing for you, my aim is always to break your heart. I work on the general assumption that if it breaks my heart it has a chance of breaking yours too. Because that is part of the power of writing, connection and empathy, you need to relate to the characters, otherwise it’s all just words on a page.

5. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
This author has written some challenging and powerful novels. You could say that her work is predominantly feminist in nature, which has some validity. But overall Carter’s writing tests you, it forces you to ask questions about your identify and the roles that have been constructed for you by society. It was hard to narrow down which of her novels was the most influential, but ultimately, I think it has to be this one. It is the first of Carter’s work that I read. I was 20. This novel asks you to consider, truly consider, the concepts of male and female, masculine and feminine, by breaking down the walls of perception. This book taught me to aim high. You can ask deep questions, be brave in the stories you want to tell and the ideas that you want to explore. If you’re lucky, the reader will ask those questions in their own life. Scrap that, not if you’re lucky, if you’re good. And Carter was good. Very good.

4. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
This is another example of my finding a classic and well-referenced text to be as good as the hype suggested. I was 21 when I read it. This play explores the concept of faith. In it, the title character, wishing to gain unearthly power and knowledge, sells his soul to the Devil. In 24 years the debt is to be paid, but in the meantime, Faust uses his new powers to show off and create himself as a highly regarded individual. But any important questions he has, about the meaning of life and beyond, are never answered. The implication being that this pact is all show and no substance, that the Devil can only offer trinkets and illusions, and the real solutions to the big questions cannot be found within this life, just as with real life. Throughout the story, Faust has opportunities to repent and return to faith in God, but Faustus does not have faith in God, and therefore does not have faith that by repenting the Devil he will be forgiven. What the ‘good’ characters ask of him throughout the story is to believe, to trust, without evidence of the existence of God. He just needs to trust that he will be forgiven. It is an allegory of the concept of religion itself, to believe and to trust with no evidence to support that faith. A cleverly written, thought provoking tale that deserves its place amongst the classic texts.

3.  IT by Stephen King
This is the greatest children’s adventure story that isn’t. It is the story of childhood, and how isolated kids can feel at points, how dangerous and scary the world can be, and how utterly disbelieved children always are. Part of me would want my kids to read it, but, unfortunately, The Goonies this is not, and the exciting adventure tale is balanced with a level of psychological and violent horror that would probably traumatise children and take them years to get over (like a certain friend of mine who watched Robocop at an age that he really, really shouldn’t have!) I waited until I was 25 to read this novel, and I’m glad that I did. I was always fascinated by the idea of it, the iconic image of Tim Curry as the clown is enough to stay in anyone’s imagination I’m sure you’ll agree. But what this story taps into is the concept of what fear really is. And fear is not necessarily a clown, or a zombie or a werewolf, but all and any of those things and more. Fear is personal to the individual. The big bad in this novel appears to each character as thing they fear most, and there is no escape, because IT is inside your mind, not outside your door. IT is also a part of every dark aspect of humanity, because the acts that men do are as wicked and terrifying as anything our minds can create. I took so much from this novel, as a person and writer, and I could not recommend it more. My only warning is, don’t read it at night, and try not to read it when you’re alone. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. I will just reiterate, I’m glad I waited until I was 25 to read this book…

2. What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson
Getting close to the end now, and I appreciate your patience dear reader. Whilst I read many incredible books during the first half of my twenties, I realise that the number that have made it to this list are few. This is likely to be due to the fact that as we grow into ourselves, and we encounter the same ideas again and again as we travel through life, just in different forms, it is harder for a book to shake you to the core like they used to. Our belief systems are more secure, as is our perception of ourselves, and whilst we are still being challenged and learning, finding a text that creates within you the same passion and fervour that it could when you were younger, is rare. This, however, is one of those novels.  I read it when was 26. The story itself is based on accounts of near death experiences, which gives it relatability and a feeling of truth. The novel is about loss, which makes it powerful, but it also explores the concept of what the after life could be. Even if you are a devout atheist, I feel sure that you will still have thought about the idea, once upon a time at least, and the ideas presented in this novel are interesting and touching. But ultimately this is story is about love, which, because of our mortal nature, will always go hand and hand with separation and grief. This book asks the question, how far would you go to save the person you love? This story made me think and it broke my heart. What more could I ask for?

1. The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
And finally, for your consideration, it’s The End of Mr Y. My partner picked up this book for me second hand because it had black pages, and who doesn’t judge a book by its cover? It’s the story of a woman who collects a book second hand, which contains within it the instructions on how to enter another sphere of reality. Yes really. Almost straight away this book had my attention and also had me thoroughly creeped out at the same time, what if those instructions were the actual instructions on how to do it? Thomas’s novel explains scientific theories and existential ideas in a way that I can understand because she explains them in a literary, metaphorical manner, which in itself was an eye opener for me. But beyond that this book is engaging, exciting and wonderfully fantastic from start to finish. I admire how far reaching and ambitious it is, and whilst it is flawed, it made me think more than any other book in the last few years. I was 26 when I read it. Since then I’ve become something of a Thomas fan. Her novels explore interesting and relatable themes and she is smart as a whip. Thomas teaches creative writing for Undergraduates and recently wrote a book on how to write better (Monkeys with Typewriters) which I gained an awful lot from reading. And I’ll admit, there is more than a little hero worship going on here. Thomas’s narrators are generally always her, or a version of her, which could be viewed as a flaw but for me this is another example of a writer whose voice I’ve invested in, I care what she thinks about things, therefore it doesn’t really matter to me that Scarlett’s heroines are her mouthpieces. To see for yourself what I’m blathering on about, read this book!

And there we reach an end. Thank you for bearing with me on this one. I hope I’ve inspired you to read at least one of these books. Writing this list was a really interesting experiment for me. As part of it I purposefully didn’t go back to these books to refresh my memory of them (I only referenced once to check the spelling of the titles) because the whole point of the exercise was to examine how much these books have affected me. If they didn’t affect me in the manner that I claim, I wouldn’t remember them that well, or at least, I wouldn’t remember how they made me feel. Even if some of my remembrances are a bit distorted, it’s what I’ve taken from these stories that is important to me. I know there are some glaring omissions from the above list, other writers that I love didn’t get much of a look in, like Dahl and Rankin and Gaimen, Easton-Ellis, Palahnuik, and Attwood, I could go and on and on, but I had to make the list definitive and personal, and that 20 are simply the texts that affected me the most when it really came down to the nub.

Now I’ve finished my list, I would very much like to hear yours. It’s a really interesting and revealing exercise, and if you fancy sharing your feelings on the novel or novels that have meant a lot to you, I would be really interested to hear about them (as I’m sure everyone else would be) because if those books changed your life in some way, chances are they would have a similar effect on another reader, and I want to read those books! So please feel free to post them or send them to me and I will post them on here.

Right, that’s enough typing for now. Just for now, mind. Screw you right distal radius fracture, I’m back! ;o)

1 comment:

  1. Well, you know it's taken a LOT of thinking, but I have finally managed to finish my own list. I've followed your own criteria for inclusion in the list, so here it is!

    1. Meg and Mog - Helen Nicoll
    2. Amelia Jane Again - Enid Blyton
    3. The Folk of the Faraway Tree - Enid Blyton
    4. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
    5. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
    6. Dracula - Bram Stoker
    7. The Changling - Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
    8. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
    9. Weaveworld - Clive Barker
    10. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
    11. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
    12. Villette - Charlotte Bronte
    13. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
    14. Ragtime - EL Doctorow
    15. Regeneration - Pat Barker
    16. Dr Haggard's Disease - Patrick McGrath
    17. Black and Blue - Ian Rankin
    18. Zofloya or the Moor - Charlotte Dacre
    19. Diary of a Nobody - George Grossmith
    20. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne