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A Love of Literature; My Big Ten Books
Top Ten Fiction - General
Member Name: Puggers
Top Ten Fiction - General
Advantages: Some rather good books, both old and new.
Disadvantages: Not very multi-national, somewhat male-heavy.
I get on pretty well with books, it must be said. Probably a little too well, as they threaten to somewhat overwhelm my little flat - and there's a fair chance that they're breeding, rubbing cover-to-cover when I'm not looking. Still, it's a fairly healthy addiction, one that doesn't make me fat or bankrupt or prompt me to come down in sweaty shivers - there are certainly worse things to have an excess of.
However, this does mean that the following top ten is a bit provisional; I haven't read half the books in my bedroom, let alone the bookshop, so my count-down is well-aware that it's probably missing a lot of entries that should be there, and probably will be when I get round to reading them. I'm part way through Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood at present, and it's shaping up very nicely for a top-ten berth. Nonetheless, these are the most memorable, wonderful, enduring books I've had the good fortune to read; one or two literary heavyweights, others simply those reads that I've returned to time and again, and could happily sit down with at any given moment, regardless of knowing everything that lies inside. In any case, without further ado, may I present the current ten ...
10. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut: 1969)
For my money the most powerful, cutting depiction of the futility and hopelessness of war, Kurt Vonnegut's time-travelling, vaguely-autobiographical fusion of genres recounts the trials of World War II soldier Billy Pilgrim. A man "unstuck in time", Pilgrim slips between different points in his life, moving back and forth uncontrollably. Something of an unconventional hero, our protagonist heads a story that wanders between poignancy, tragedy and downright weirdness, yet maintains a curiously touching quality. It's certainly not your average war novel - whatever that may be - but is all the more striking and memorable for it.
9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (Haruki Murakami: 1997)
Murakami's three-part tale examines the difficulties people find in really knowing someone, not least themselves - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles looks at how these fragilities arise and how they can be healed. Toru Okada is missing his cat and soon finds that his wife has disappeared as well - in the process of searching for these lost parts of his life, he begins to discover that those things he thought he knew may not have been so. Murakami contrasts regular, everyday life with the surreal landscape that emerges when one starts to probe at long-concealed wounds and secrets, and this provides the impetus for the novel. However, it is not a black-and-white contrast; the book abounds with multiple, increasing shades of grey, providing a far-reaching, often rather confusing narrative which ensures the reader joins Toru in trying to make sense of his existence.
8. Northern Lights (Phillip Pullman: 1995)
Arguably this entry should be His Dark Materials; that is, the whole trilogy, as it is the story in its entirety which is so absorbing and powerful. However, for the purposes of choosing one book, it is the first of the three which makes the greatest impact, introducing us to the characters and premises which will go on to populate one of the most impressive pieces of children/young adults' literature - an epic that bears comparison with anything else that has gone before or since.
Northern Lights tells the story of Lyra Belacqua, a young girl living in a world similar to, but essentially different from ours, with people wearing their souls on the outside, taking animal form. Living amongst the scholars of Oxford, Lyra stumbles across hints of worlds beyond her own when her Uncle, a celebrated explorer comes to visit. When her best friend goes missing, she is quickly caught up in a quest to save him and begin to fulfil her own destiny, one which will take her to the Northern Lights and beyond.
Pullman's novels truly do have epic scope; elements and themes hinted at here are expanded into fierce semi-Biblical undercurrents in the later novels, making His Dark Materials a work that excels in telling both small stories - that of Lyra and the companion she meets in the second book - and far larger ones, with far-reaching consequences. It is this mixture of great ambition, multi-layered narratives and stunning storytelling that makes the trilogy such essential reading - and Northern Lights is the place to start.
7. The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson: 1989)
Bill Bryson's first book, this is in many ways a very simple travelogue - but it's also his best work, and arguably one of the best travel books full-stop. Bryson has a classic gift for turning a fresh, deprecating eye to his destinations, able to see equally the good and bad of a place and its people, and to bring this alive on the page - and he has done it nowhere better than in his own country. This account is a story of a person rediscovering their own country, balancing recollections of what it was with what it has become and might yet be. The Lost Continent isn't as heavy with facts and back-stories as some of Bryson's later books; he just writes about what he sees and remembers, and it's probably this laid-back, honest style that makes this a quintessential, wonderful travelogue.
6. 1984 (George Orwell: 1949)
Terrifying and absorbing in equal measures, 1984 both holds up a mirror to our own times and paints a picture of a chilling, semi-alien dystopia. The tale of Winston Smith, a largely unremarkable man and his place in the strictly regimented society which monitors everything one does and says. Under the omnipresent gaze of Big Brother, everyone is told what to do and what to think; although the mind is the only place the ruling Party cannot reach. Thoughtcrime, then, is the way in which one rebels, and 1984 explores Winston's fate as he begins to head down this path. Orwell paints a haunting picture of the highs Winston discovers, then uses these to devastating effect when threatening to take them away. 1984 has been much-copied, and its influence is everywhere today - however, the endless chill of knowing the state is everywhere has never been replicated.
5. Lord of the Flies (William Golding: 1954)
Another classic, endlessly influential novel, Lord of the Flies relates the adventures of a group of boys who crash-land upon a tropical island. A vivid depiction of the contrasting sides of the island - a paradise and a prison, the book demonstrates how tenuous our hold on ordered society is, and how close we are to reverting to primitive, animalistic behaviour when the boundaries of our world desert us. Golding's portrayal of this slide is constructed with great skill, and presents a damning indictment of the true nature of humanity and society.
4. The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger: 2003)
At its heart a simple love story, Niffenegger's great achievement with this book is to pair the basic tale with an often confusing but intricate and ultimately ingenious time-travelling premise - in doing so, making each part more striking and meaningful. Claire first meets Henry when she is a child - but Henry comes across Claire for the first time when they are both in their twenties. This curious paradox is explained by Henry's unusual condition; he is a man out of time, with an errant gene that causes him to uncontrollably time-travel.
3. A Box of Matches (Nicholson Baker: 2003)
Baker's brand of microscopic analysis, going through the minutiae of everyday life with a fine-toothed literary comb, has been employed in a variety of his novels, to varying effect. For me, this is its most successful outing, combining all the cleverness of The Mezzanine with a bit of heart and some family values. The narrator rises around four in the morning each day and spends some time sitting in the dark contemplating, or performing a few mundane tasks while the rest of the world sleeps. A Box of Matches is a warm, deeply evocative look at the many facets of human relationships - those with oneself, with life, with inanimate objects and other people. Both intelligently written and charming in nature, this is for me Baker's best novel; certainly a good thing in a small package.
2. Boy (Roald Dahl: 1984)
Although hugely (and deservedly) celebrated for his children's fiction, I feel this is the best thing Dahl wrote. The story of the author's life from birth until leaving education, Boy is filled with memories of childhood related only as Roald Dahl could. The memoirs abound with the same wondrous imagination and witty storytelling as his fiction, and are full of a host of dark, hideous adults - characters with more than a hint of Dahl's fictional villains. Though it's only a short, simple book, Boy is compelling writing you'll come back to time and again - and, as an entertaining, personal account, is one of the best autobiographies you'll read.
1. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck: 1937)
Simply a near-perfect book. A novel about the power of dreams to make and break people, Steinbeck's slim volume relates the story of George and Lennie, a pair of wandering farmhands as they arrive upon a new ranch to work. With dreams of leaving the drudgery of their lot behind, the two represent the ideals of many who want to better themselves, faced with both practical problems and personal doubts. Steinbeck's concise, cutting narrative spins a story of immense power and potency, never missing a trick or wasting a word, and makes for a truly great classic novel.
My list isn't perfect; it's rather overloaded with male English language authors, although there's a fair balance of newer novels and more "classic" ones, even if there's nothing pre-twentieth century. I've also slipped a couple of non-fiction books into what's supposed to be a fiction countdown, but hey ... it's my list! I'd like to add both more female authors and a greater range of non-English books to my favourites though, certainly ... any suggestions?
Summary: The current countdown - my most delectable bits of literature.