Welcome to part two of my personal list of exceptional books. If you missed part one, you can check it out here. I’m having so much fun, I might even include a third part. Happy reading.
John Banville, an Irish writer sometimes compared to Nabokov, won the Man Booker for The Sea in 2005. The book is written like a long memory meditated on by a dying man, which may seem a bit cliché, because it is. But the memory is just a vessel for Banville’s talent for subtle metaphor, piercing imagery, and a portrait of the clarity and importance that mortality lends to the mundane details of our past. It set me to wondering about all the small things that will loom so large as I lay dying myself.
“Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling through the front teeth that I have begun to do recently. Deedle deedle deedle, it goes, like a dentist’s drill. My father used to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the corridor Colonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the afternoon talk programmes, the ones in which irate members of the public call up to complain about villainous politicians and the price of drink and other perennial irritants. “Company,” he says shortly, and clears his throat, looking a little abashed, his protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though I have issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard to picture him there in his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape and hands clasped behind that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man itself, from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to the tip of his conical skull. He has his hair cut every Saturday morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quarter given, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed leathery ears stick out, they look as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge. I can hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what they say. I may go mad here. Deedle deedle.”
The Sea, John Banville
The most disturbing entry to my list by far. I wouldn’t describe Cormac McCarthy’s dark exposition of the violence and destruction at the heart of mankind as “horror”, but that is precisely the feeling that it evokes. The pages are a holocaust of death, destruction, and amazing prose. While he is one of my favorite authors, it is often best to approach McCarthy with the belief that he is writing magical realism – every old drunk has something intense and proufound to say about the world, each happening is flooded with meaning and pregnant with philosophical ramifications – nothing like life in the slightest.
“They cut the throats of the packanimals and jerked and divided the meat and they traveled under the cape of the wild mountains upon a broad soda plain with dry thunder to the south and rumors of light. Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on.”
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
The Orphan Master’s Son
I lived in South Korea for many years as an expatriate, so my adoration for Adam Johnson’s novel set in North Korea is a personal one. Many were the winter nights I sat drinking beer and browsing reddit, occasionally thinking to myself of the hunger and fear happening a hundred miles from my toasty modern condo, turning over in my mind the many lines which divide us and allowing myself the liberty of filling in those blanks with horror. Just what is going on up there? That’s the question that Johnson’s novel imagines an answer to. It is deftly written and, unlike a lot of works on this list, is very story driven and narrative. His understanding of propaganda and totalitarianism is palpable in passages like the following.
“Where we are from… [s]tories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
― The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
The Remains of the Day
Ishiguro is an amazing writer, but what is really special about him are the words he leaves off of the page. Fond of unreliable narrators, stories that we must glean our own small details from and piece together from what is unsaid, his books are just accessible enough to not be hard work, but just enigmatic enough that they create a huge investment on the part of the reader. In this particular work about a man who has dedicated his life to restrained service for upper-class English aristocrats, there is enough subtlety of craft for we readers to understand that the main character has led a miserable empty life serving an awful man. But the narrator never mentions this. In such a way Ishiguro can nod towards something, painting it purposely without any visible brush strokes.
“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
― The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Brief and wondrous life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz taught me a lot of new words. A sure sign that I’m not going to enjoy a novel on a gut level. And yet…what is so insanely charming about this book? I couldn’t put my finger on it in all the time I spent enraptured. And really, such is the sign of an amazing experience. It’s the sci fi movie where you don’t notice the CGI. I don’t know how much of it lies with style and how much with content (if only I could, perhaps I could replicate it), but the book was an experience not easily forgotten. A history of the Dominican Republic laced within the memories of a family, interspersed with the life story of one Latino Ignatius Riley—the book was a jarring in its rewards and hot one-liners like:
“She was the kind of girlfriend God gives you young, so you’ll know loss the rest of your life.”
—The Breif and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
The Sun Also Rises
Although this opinion has somewhat waned in popularity in recent years, I am one of those readers who thinks that Hemingway was one of the most brilliant literary minds to ever live. I grew up learning from him, and the Sun Also Rises is a book chocked full of lessons subtly couched in masculine prose. While it is open to interpretation, this novel has always spoken to me about tests. Nearly everything in life is a test— of character, strength, stoicism. Being able to pass these tests will usually mean success, and failing them can often lead to a very difficult life. Of course, this was 50-60 years ago, and the tests of manhood have changed dramatically. But the book remains intact in its message and power after all these years.
“Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
Canada – Richard Ford
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
Disgrace – J.M Coetzee