Friday, 29 August 2008

Reading list for life - part 2

Here we go again.

Let's still keep off poetry for now (though start saving them for next post) but I'd be very interested to have your 'must-read' recommendations for books written (or published) after 1920. Remember you're recommending to that wide-eyed seventeen year old (not necessarily our never know with the internet after all - she could really be a sixty year old transvestite from Middlesbrough pretending to be a wide-eyed seventeen year old girl...).

Whoever we're doing it for...mention as many books as you like, give a reason or two if you can, any tales related to it and so on. I know there are a lot of list features in magazines these days but I'm not doing this to fill a space or to sell anything...I really am interested in what you all rate as really and truly the best books and prose writers of all.

And my recommendations for this era? Oh heck, I'm not sure. It's quite a pressure isn't it? Maybe that's why I'm interested in what you all think. Maybe I don't know my own mind (all that elimination of the self you see...there's nothing left now!). I can say that I think all the following authors have written prose fiction I'm glad I took the time to read somewhere along the line:

Monica Ali, Heinrich Böll, Julio Cortázar, Margaret Drabble, Gabriel García Márquez, Mark Haddon, Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Lee, Andrea Levy, Armistad Maupin, Arthur Miller, David Mitchell, Alice Munro, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, Rebbecca Ray, Arundhati Roy, Carol Shields, Lionel Shriver, Dodie Smith, Zadie Smith, Alice Walker, Helen Zahavi

It's kind of an odd list (some I'm sure will make you think I'm quite mad and/or tasteless) but I have never pretended to be anything than kind of an odd reader/person. I'm sure I will think of others I should have listed as the days go by...and I look forward to finding more to add as my reading life continues.


Colin Will said...

Here goes:
James Joyce: Ulysses. Garrulous, provocative, moving, and with the odd dull patch, but it’s a major work by a major author.

Samuel Beckett: Molloy. Joyce’s amanuensis, he took literature in a new direction, mainly with his plays, but also his novels, which are under-rated. This is one of the most readable.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. One of the first novels to examine a dystopian future. He got it wrong quite often, of course, but he had the imagination to try to forecast the distant future, based on the society he saw in the 1930s.

George Orwell: Brave New World, and the novella Animal Farm. Both of these serve as beacons to warn what might happen if we don’t have social justice in the world we create.

Joseph Heller: Catch 22. A very barbed and funny reminder of the absurdities and cruelties of war.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five. One of the few novels based on real anger to have been successful.

Gunter Grass: The tin drum. The rise of Nazism in Germany in the 30s, seen through the eyes of a grotesque protagonist, who may or may not be insane. I love this book, because it’s so multi-layered.

Philip Pullman: His dark materials - trilogy. Few recent works of fiction have made me think as much as this one.

The 20th century was such a different one from the 19th , but it’s my century – I identify with the events, the thought patterns and the writings of the time. 19th century novels, music, art, and much poetry, belong to an age where I don’t belong, and which I wouldn’t want to inhabit.

Rachel Fox said...

That's more like it!

I am a bit of a waverer as far as Joyce and Beckett are concerned. I refuse to like them...just because I I'm not going to lie and say I'm a huge fan. But then I'm not NOT interested in them either if you know what I mean. I think maybe our time together has not yet arrived (or something)! I did read some 'Ulysses' (way back) and liked some of it...I just couldn't find a reason to keep reading it after about 70 I stopped. Maybe it's my attention span that's at fault...that is a possibility (which doesn't bode well for the even younger generation...). Although saying that I've kept going with much longer works too ('Don Quijote', 'War & Peace' and lots of others...I'm not a complete lightweight!).

The only one you mention, Colin, that I have not got to grips with at all is 'Catch 22'. I've tried to read it twice and never got past a certain point. Doesn't mean I won't try again another time...

P.S. I'm assuming you meant 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' as the other Orwell.

Dominic Rivron said...

Here's a few:
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, (a) for the recipes and (b) for it's theme: the way it demonstrates how you can't "make people happy" by forcing people to change their lives in ways you think best for them.

Sorry, but this is poetry: From Glasgow to Saturn by Edwin Morgan.

I thought of directing her to the heavy tomes of modernism, but in my experience young people don't finish them. Having said which, dibbing into Finnegans Wake as a teenager got me going back to it later. To my mind, the most readable I've come across is Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I'd like to give a young eager reader To the Lighthouse first, which I love, but in my experience it's one of those people don't finish first time.

Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara. I read it as a teenager and thought it was fantastic. It's available online at
Funnily enough, it popped up in my blog the other day.

(It's funny what teenagers like: my daughter read A Clockwork Orange not so long ago, and John Peel's Autobiography).

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Dominic. 'The Sea, the Sea' is a favourite we most definitely share. I read it at about 17 and loved it and then read it again a couple of years ago and still did...which doesn't happen that often!

I thought about Woolf then decided that I prefer some of her sentences to her whole books...but I think you're right about the choice of Mrs D. Personally I read the Hermione Lee biography of VW and then found I enjoyed her writing a lot more.

And I'm interested...did you not have a pre 1920 contribution or did you miss that last one?


Fiendish said...

Here are some of my must-reads, which I recommend with religious zeal and just stop short of pushing into people's hands.

"Brighton Rock," by Graham Greene. The epic nature of the descriptive passages, action sequences and central moral conflict is offset by the incredibly intimate, ambiguous character portraits. Total total classic.

"Farewell My Lovely," by Raymond Chandler. For me, the quintessential Chandler novel: the wise-cracking, tough Marlowe alongside Chandler's most interesting female character.

"Everything is Illuminated," by Jonathan Safran Foer. A finely-wrought, complex novel; partly a journey in magical realism through the lives of the author's fictional ancestors, and partly letters from the author's translator on his fictional trip to the Ukraine to locate the village of said ancestors. Beautiful and indeed illuminating.

"High Fidelity," by Nick Hornby. Read it if you love music. Read it if you don't. It's funny and brilliant and I don't care if it's low-brow or not.

"How I Live Now," by Meg Rossoff. I think it's the first book I properly loved: an achingly perfect first-person account of a New York fifteen-year-old transplanted to rural England for a summer to live with her cousins. Her voice in the novel is incredibly honest - by turns colloquial and clever, funny and bitter and naive.

Great post. And I do find it interesting seeing what this post has unwittingly revealed about how people look at teenagers...

Rachel Fox said...

Great selection Fiendish...and I'm glad I'm not the only who is out and proud about being mixed-brow. I can do (fairly) high and I can do (very) low. I don't see why we have to choose!

I haven't read 'Everything is...' but on your recommendation I will give it a go soon.


Colin Will said...

Oops. I did mean 1984.

Dominic Rivron said...

Fiendish's suggestion, Brighton Rock, is probably an excellent one - I know of someone just out of their teens who can't put it down.
What fascinates me about this post and teenagers is that those of us who are older than that are full of suggestions - but if older people want to find some refreshing new reads, perhaps they should be asking teenagers!
I forgot to mention Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh - unputdownable, and a right laugh, I think, though it's probably 30 years since I read it. I'd put it near the top of my list.

Sorlil said...

I don't generally read a lot of fiction but here goes:

Iris Murdoch - all of them but especially The Black Prince - a rather bizarre, dark book but full of humour.

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse - beautifully written, very thoughtful and evocative.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon - set in Barcelona, a mysterious story involving a young boy and a Cemetery of Forgotten Books, funny enough in places to make me laugh out loud which doesn't happen often when reading fiction.

This is where I get kicked off the blog for mentioning Dan Brown - what can I say, I really like all of his books, Deception Point is probably my favorite.

Chaim Potok's The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev and the sequel The Gift of Asher Lev - fantastic stories about childhood, growing up in a strict religious Jewish community and the tensions between Judaism and the values of modern society told through the lives of different characters.

I love all of Jostein Gaarder's books but she is most famous for Sophie's World.

Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie - an extremely visual book, just dripping with imagery.

hope said...

sorlil, I'll stand by you on the Dan Brown stuff. :) His books are interesting and once I start reading them, I don't want to put them down. Sames goes for Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. Crichton's "Timeline" was great...the movie was a stinker because they left so much out, it was confusing.

For sagas which are often multi-generational with a little history, I liked James Michener...think I read most of them but I remember "Shogun" best.

Okay, now for my "odd" confession. One of the most spine tingling books I ever read was Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Unlike the hokey movies which came later, the story was downright creepy on one hand, yet I was unable to put it down. Read it when I was 16.


Poetikat said...

Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited (I read it after seeing the BBC drama, but the book was unbelievably good).
Michael Ondaatje - The English Patient
Although I studied and love the 19th Century writers, I am most often held captive by British mystery authors. My favourites are:
Peter Robinson, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James

I also enjoy anything by John Dunning (an American who writes about the world of rare books and radio).

I don't read as often as I like, or used to do. I usually have a stack of partially read books on my night-table, the dining room table, the bathroom magazine rack, or the living room trunk-cum-coffee table.

More on this topic later.


Rachel Fox said... gets kicked off here for honesty! So here's mine...I haven't read any DB but all the other adults in this house have and they all enjoyed the famous one at least. I tend to read bestsellers when I'm ill in bed or something like that (I read practically every John Grisham when I was pregnant...I tried other books and fell asleep...I think I slept through all of 'Middlemarch' a deckchair) so next time I'm struck down maybe I'll reach for Dan B! I know 'bestsellers' is an odd term but you know what I mean...any book that's sold in stacks in airports (not that I ever go in airports anymore!).

I've never heard of 'The Shadow of the Wind' for the list too.

Hope - I make 'Dracula' pre 1920 so you can add it to the previous blog if you like. Not that I'm a list-tidiness freak or anything.

John Dunning sounds interesting Kat (never heard of him either). As for Brideshead...I'm probably one of the only people alive who has never seen the TV (my Mum loves it and you know how that works...) and I haven't read it either (though I did read other Waugh some time back). Maybe I will read the BR book after all...


Rachel Fox said...

And again on bestsellers...because I always think of everything in terms of's weird how different we can be about different artforms. With music I like some bestselling and some obscure and I never feel any shame about that...and yet with books it is different (hence Sorlil's comment and fear of eviction!). It's a shame really that literature and writing is so tied up in odd attitudes (snobberies, fears etc.) as it doesn't do the books any favours! All my favourite people try to see beyond what our North American friends call the BS and see and hear what is really worth paying some attention to! And without giving an Oscar speech about it...that does, of course, include all of you, most gentle of readers.

Jim Murdoch said...

I still own most of the books I read when I was about seventeen so I opened up the cupboard and had a wee look. Most of the authors that follow I read several books by but I've picked favourites:

Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
I first read this when I was sixteen and I've read it every decade or so since.

Camus: The Plague, The Outsider
Couldn't decide. I know The Outsider will be on most people's lists but I really enjoyed The Plague especially the character of Grand

Sartre: Nausea
Lots for a young mind to think about here. I loved the guy trying to read a library starting at the first shelf and working his way through.

Koestler: Arrival and Departure
I guess I was in a dark place about then. Not must light reading for our Jim. This was the first thing I read about the effects of The Holocaust that got through. It was just facts and figures before that.

Waterhouse: Billy Liar
Salinger: Catcher in the Rye
I've never been able to separate these books in my mind. They just screamed to me how different – and yet in many ways the same – the UK and USA are.

Asimov: I Robot
Bradbury: The Machineries of Joy
Bester: The Demolished Man
Dick: A Scanner Darkly
The four gentlemen above have one thing in common: they all know how to tell a good story. Subject matter aside and writer should read them. I particularly liked Asimov's attitude to being a great writer: he pooh-poohed it; he was a storyteller and nothing more.

Two books I wish I read when I was seventeen:

Brautigan: In Watermelon Sugar
No one uses language like this bloke. I'm finally getting around to Dreaming of Babylon at the moment, not his best work but he has such a unique take on writing that I don't care. There's nothing of his I haven't enjoyed.

Winterson: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit
I don't love all her work but I appreciate all her work. She has a poet's sensibility and a wonderful grasp of the English language. I saw the TV dramatisation first and they do a decent job but the book is better.

Rachel Fox said...

I've been thinking about reading some more Sartre for a while. Being a linguist (well...a former linguist) I always feel I should read in the first language...but my French is pretty rusty by now! It might have to be in English (which always seems like a cop out so that makes me feel less enthusiastic...bit of a awkward corner...).

hope said...

Yes ma'am, this is your bookshelf, therefore I went and placed "Dracula" on the proper shelf. :)

As for Dan Brown, I actually enjoyed "Angels and Demons" better than the DaVinci Code. Actually, I think it was written first. I'm glad I read the DaVinci Code before seeing the movie. Now they're about to release another Ron Howard film on "Angels and Demons"..again with Tom Hanks.

[Sorry, maybe that info should go on Ken's page] ;)

Poetikat said...

Had a think about it overnight and came up with a few more:

Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
Switching from private to public school I missed reading and studying this book. After university I read it for myself and I loved it!

I'm also a big fan of Cornell Woolrich, who was highly influenced by Fitzgerald.
Woolrich also wrote under the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley. A number of his stories became films directed by Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, the most famous being Rear Window.

Still thinking about this topic...


Rachel Fox said...

Sorry to be a pedant, Hope (did you know Small Girl's first word was 'pedant'..?).

My Beloved agrees with you on the DB book, by the way. He liked that one best too.

Dick said...

Many, many of the above plus 'The Catcher In the Rye' and 'On The Road'.

BarbaraS said...

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; we did this in 2nd year and I loved the tomboy Scout in it, as well as the way it was written.
Watership Down, my twelve year old is reading this now, she loves it. Don't know if a boy would read this as avidly.
I agree with His Dark Materials, my older ones and I have read it; I got far more out of it, but they will too, in their time.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien: well, someone had to mention it...
The Fionnavar Tapestry trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay. Also A Song for Arbonne and Tigana, by the same author: spellbinding narrative and lots of applicability to the modern world.
There are plenty more... but I'm too lazy to look :)

Rachel Fox said...

I only read the 'Catcher' once over 20 years ago...does it have a Scout as well as 'To kill a mockingbird'? I don't remember that and I don't think I have a copy nearby any more (unlike Jim I've done lots of clearings out of books over the years).

BarbaraS said...

Oh feic - I always get them mixed up! To Kill a Mockingbird, and I really should know that, because Eldest feicer did it for the Junior Cert... to the dunce's corner, Barbara!

Rachel Fox said...

I adore 'To kill a mockingbird' - I loved it when we read it at school and then about 10 years ago I did some tutoring and read it again and loved it even more. There's just so much in it - it's packed with comment and detail and observation and ideas.

I never felt the same about 'Catcher' but then I haven't read it again since reading it way back (at school I think). Maybe I'll try it again some time.

steviewren said...

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton would be on my list for a 17 year old. The setting is South Africa in the 1950s and is the story of love and redemption in beautifully written prose. I just finished A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines and would recommend it also. I thought Never Change by Elizabeth Berg was a beautifully written book. I love her descriptive way of pulling you into the thoughts and feelings of her characters.

Rachel Fox said...

I don't know any of those 3! So many if I could just get away from this damned machine...