Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Top Ten Books

C was telling me yesterday about a feature that appears in her work newsletter in which senior management figures list their top ten books and describe why they like them. Avid reader that she is, she's already got a top ten and was thinking about whether to submit her books to the newsletter for universal acclaim/derision.

Not to be outdone, I had a think about what I would pick. It was quite a bit of a think since I tend to forget even great books (at least from my working memory). Anyway, in purely chronological order (ranking is dangerous), and strictly for today (might be different tomorrow), my top ten would be ...

  • The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
    A bad sign: starting with science fiction. Still, this is definitely a classic of the so-called "golden age" of the genre. It sports robots, aliens, a disembodied and benevolent AI, a deep mystery, a journey between the stars and tantalising glimpses of Grander Things. Marvellous.

  • Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, 1973
    A very difficult book to describe, and not one that would sound that appealing from a plot summary. A salesman gradually becomes insane, believes the writings of a hack science fiction writer are factual, and runs amok at a literary convention. But Vonnegut's writing (and drawings!) is melancholically brilliant and surprisingly humane. And he carries off introducing himself as a character fantastically.

  • Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks, 1990
    One word here: structure. While set within the science fiction utopia of the Culture, this novel uses an impressive jumbled narrative to both take its central character on a journey to seek redemption, while delving into the reasons why this is required. The handling of its revelations is brilliant, being melded perfectly into the narrative. Not the most "world-building" of the Culture novels, but that's beside the point.

  • Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd, 1990
    A biologically inspired choice here (there's another one later). This follows the life of Hope Clearwater, a biologist, through several strands of her life. Much of the novel takes place in a well-realised Africa, with civil war and Hope's research on primates providing its focus. The novel blends in science wonderfully, and contains some dark truths about the nature of human and animal conflict.

  • The Tortilla Curtain, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1995
    A great study in contrasts on either side of the wealth divide in southern California. One half of the novel follows a middle class writer, his love of the Californian wilderness and the threats he feels it's under. The other half follows a pair of illegal Mexican immigrants, pressed up against the hard realities of poverty and struggling to make ends meet. They occupy the same living space, but their worlds couldn't be more different, a theme that the novel explores as the narrative gradually weaves the two strands together. Without giving anything away, it ends with a brilliant moral cliffhanger.

  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, 1995
    I simply love this novel. It may be that it embodied a time in my life that was particularly significant, but I think it's more than this. It basically tells the story of the lives of a group of Microsoft friends (the Microserfs) who quit that monolith to begin their own start-up company. That sounds rubbish, I know, but it handles the interpersonal relationships between the characters brilliantly (and lovingly), and speaks volumes about our lives today (at least to me). Anyway, it's a novel I've blogged about before (at length).

  • Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver, 2000
    Another novel influenced heavily by biology. It's spread across three distinct strands: a young hunter drifts into the life of a lone biologist tracking wolves in the forest; a former biologist suddenly has to come to terms with the death of her husband; a pair of antagonistic old timers grudgingly come to terms with one another and their lives. Beautiful writing, with a real sense of nature, but written with a biologist's appreciation of the savageness that underlies its apparent beauty.

  • Unless, Carol Shields, 2003
    While set around the quietly domestic life of a female translator and novelist, the novel is driven by her growing anguish at the apparent breakdown in her relationship with her daughter, and her anger at the casual sexism she encounters in her working life (expressed through a series of letters that she writes during the novel). These themes are not as isolated as they appear, and they are articulated in beautifully written prose. It's a real shame that Shields died shortly after completing this novel.

  • The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford, 2006
    The "conclusion" of a trilogy of novels about the novelist / sportswriter / realtor Frank Bascombe. It probably isn't the best of the trilogy (the second novel, Independence Day, is more solid), but it's the longest, and immersion is the key here. Ford creates an internal life for Frank that's just amazingly well-realised, and the writing describing it is simply sublime. As with the "prequels", the events of the novel take place over only a few days, but the depth and texture of the writing makes it feel like you're with Frank for years (in a good way).

  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon, 2007
    Ah, the perils of adding a recently read novel ... I loved this trans-genre work (see here), but it's quite possible that I'll look back in bewilderment at a later date. It tries to take on the crime, noir and (possibly) science fiction genres, weave in some Jewish themes, while using literary flourishes throughout.
  • No comments: