Saturday, 20 July 2013

On My All Time Favourite Books (Part 1)

I've been running this blog since 2011 now and the books I review are all the books I read that month. I've never done a blogpost about my favourite novels. So, I thought I'd do one now! Though some of the books I've read over the course of the blog have earned a special place with me, like Genus, A Song Of Ice And Fire, The Crane Wife and Fingersmith, this post is just for the ones that have been with me some time.

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

This novel has been my favourite novel since I was 14 years old. Written in 1948, during Apartheid in South Africa, I have read it easily more than 10 times. In this novel humble Stephen Kumalo is a pastor in a declining village which has struggled to cope with the coming of modern more Westernised society and the erosion of tribal culture. His sister, his brother and his son have all left the village for Johannesburg in hopes of a better life. Their contact with Stephen initially frequent, became sporadic and then vanished entirely. One day another priest from the city writes to Stephen and tells him his sister is ill and he must come to Johannesburg, and so begins a beautiful tale of forgiveness and redemption, beautiful not only in what it says but how it says it. In 18 yrs, I have not read a book that I deem better than it. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I wrote my university dissertation on these two novels, which was rather apt as I was living in Yorkshire at the time. Though Emily never married and rarely left her home, she managed to write a tale of incredible, though often dark, passion, between foster siblings Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff that both Charlotte and Anne were said to be horrified by. It is Anne's reaction that makes it all the more interesting. Anne and Emily were very close and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall can be seen as both a companion and a response to Wuthering Heights as evidenced by 'The Key Of H' used in both novels. Anne's reaction was to write a novel removing all romance from the nature of a man like Heathcliff and accurately portray what a marriage to a man like that would be like in real life via the marriage of Helen Graham to Arthur Huntingdon. The lasting impression given by The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is sheer astonishment that something as realistic as this was written in 1848. It caused a scandal at the time with writer Charles Kingsley saying "Every man should read this and every man should prevent his wife from reading this"- if Charlotte felt deep unease at Wuthering Heights she hated The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, sought to suppress it both before and after Anne's death, and admitted if she had her way it would be destroyed. The contemporary distaste for it has led to a situation whereby Tenant is almost a "forgotten classic" - whilst Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights often get celebratory editions, Tenant gets ignored. And it's the best of the three, a truly feminist novel, a long, long time before the concept of feminism even existed.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 In the world today, many people worship a god, be it the Christian deity, Allah or the many gods Hinduism offers. Once upon a time people worshipped the Greek Gods, the Egyptian Gods, the Norse Gods and other mythical beings. The question Neil Gaiman poses is : What happened to the gods that people stopped worshipping? And what a brilliant answer he offers, as protagonist Shadow leaves prison and goes on a journey of mythical discovery.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In 1959, Nathan Price travels to the Congo with a single minded determination to convert as many people to Christianity as he can, but he is a petty, cruel, zealot ill suited to the nature of his mission. He drags his wife and their four daughters along in his wake and the novel is their story. There's Rachel : shallow, vain and spoilt; Leah, wise, honest and eager, her disabled twin Adah, deeply cynical and deeply intelligent, and sunny child Ruth May, the baby of the family. This novel follows the fates of the four girls through to adulthood and is engrossing and heartbreaking and wonderful.

Gilead  and Home by Marilynne Robinson

I was introduced to Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson in 2009. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and is a novel in which dying preacher John Ames writes a letter about his life to his 7 year old son, often theological in tone, those who are not religious should not be put off, as it has so much to say about the human condition in general. What elevates Gilead to greatness is the inclusion of Home which followed, a novel set at exactly the same time, from the perspective of Glory Boughton the daughter of John Ames best friend. Home is the story of her childhood and reflects upon prodigal son of the family Jack who has recently returned. Home made me cry at least 3 times, Gilead needs to be read first as once you have that in your head, the ending of Home packs a devastating punch.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Marukami

"I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me" - Toru Watanabe is on a plane when he hears the famous Beatles song and is taken straight back to his youth, a time when he loved Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. A modern day classic, Norwegian Wood is a story of teenage angst and depression set in Japan.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Richard is from California and comes from a very ordinary background, when he goes to a college in New England he finds himself an alien in an privileged world. He manages to force his way into an elitist group within an elitist place, becoming one of six students of Greek Language tutor Julian, and is drawn into a dark cerebral world.  It is hard to explain to those who haven't read it the sheer greatness of this novel, perhaps the best novel published during the 90s, the best novel about the transition between childhood to adulthood provided by university and the best novel about the struggles of intellectualism versus social opportunity. It remains a travesty that her second novel 'The Little Friend' was such a damn let down. Her third novel is due this year, I do wish she'd stop writing one novel per decade!


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