You know the Facebook meme that goes around: pick ten books, off the top of your head, that have stayed with you in some way. I was tagged by Heather, and I thought I’d expand/expound upon my choices in a blog post. Because I have a blog. About books.
The Secret History Donna Tartt
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Elite clique of wealthy classics students seduce less wealthy narrator into the life of nice suits, heavy drinking, and declensions. Spoiler warning: these kids are messed up.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? Okay, I read this for the first time this year, but I’ve been raving about it since February. Tartt creates a darkly appealing aesthetic with the tight clan of central characters. By turns arch, cerebral, and gripping, this book reminded me how much I love books. I was clock-watching every day, desperate for my coffee break so I could carry on reading about these terrible young people.
Hedda Gabler Henrik Ibsen
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Ibsen’s play is about the titular Hedda chafing against a patriarchal society, as she moulders in a marriage to a boring man. Her hopes and ambitions thwarted, she commits suicide offstage in the final scene.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? On reading it for A level, I thought it was a very dark farcical comedy. Everyone else in the class was horrified by this interpretation, but I’ve stuck by it. It’s a play so ripe for queer and feminist readings, and Hedda is an iconic character. The dark humour is what draws me back though, humour as a weapon against injustice.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? An alternative history set in a version of 19th century England where magic exists. Written in a pastiche of contemporary style, and complemented with hundreds of cod-academic footnotes, it tells the story of Mr Norrell, the last magician in England, and Jonathan Strange, the other one.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? Just the scale and ambition of it is staggering. It’s one of those books that swallows up your whole life. It’s one of those books that you can’t help but read sections from to half-interested friends. Clarke’s magical alternate world is so thoroughly convincing you don’t really want to leave. This book is also so big that more than one member of my family were surprised to find out it was actually a book. Jonathan Strange is also 100% my officially certified fictional boyfriend, but that’s neither here nor there.
Animorphs series K.A. Applegate
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Five teens stumble across a dying alien. The alien gives them the power to turn into animals, so that they can fight the stealth invasion of the Yeerks. The rest of the series: guerilla warfare, gore, horror, wacky sci-fi adventures, gratuitous nineties references, environmentalism, and the nature of freedom.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? The most important books of my childhood, hands down, but the series also stood up remarkably well when I reread it at 21. A nuanced and diverse cast go through some of the biggest ethical quandaries there could be. Everyone is morally grey, war is hell, and cinnamon buns are delicious. Animorphs is so important, and so goofy. I am so glad I reread it as an adult, because as an adult it made me cry and laugh and cry. There is really nothing else like it.
The Dark is Rising sequence Susan Cooper
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Classic five-book fantasy series about some very British magical escapades. Set in the most Celtic corners of the country and steeped in local mythology and folklore, it tells the tale of objects of power, King Arthur, and an epic battle between Light and Dark forces.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? It’s the definitive book series of my childhood, more than Harry Potter, more than His Dark Materials. Cooper’s evocation of the Matter of Britain stuck with me so much I wrote my dissertation on it. These books really sparked my fascination with how national identity is tied up with nostalgia and the stories we tell about the landscape. They’re one of the few books I’ve read that inspired me to make a pilgrimage to their real-life setting. It’s also just a beautiful and exciting adventure, magical in many senses of the word.
Fingersmith Sarah Waters
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Two words: Victorian lesbians. Orphan thief Sue is sent to help conman Gentleman seduce a rich heiress. Serving as the heiress Maud’s maid, Sue falls in love with her… and that’s not the only thing that goes wrong. Twists and turns ensue, as Waters really puts her heroines through the wringer.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? It’s one of the first LGBT books I ever read that wasn’t about Being Gay. It’s also one of the only books I’ve ever read that made me physically drop the book in shock. It’s a tremendously satisfying, big, plotty novel, and one that I recommend to people whenever I can because it’s honestly just so enjoyable and absorbing. Even the TV adaptation is good!
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? To be honest, I don’t remember all that well. Kafka is a runaway teenage boy who takes refuge in a library. The other story in the novel is about an old man who can communicate with cats. Everything is dreamlike and surreal, and also Oedipal.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? I’ve read a lot of Murakami, and this one isn’t even my favourite, but it’s the one I tend to recommend to people. It’s quite short and quite weird, so I think it makes for an accessible introduction to his work in ways that perhaps The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle doesn’t. The quote that has stayed with me despite my hazy memory of this book is the bit about Schubert’s sonata in D major. “A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.” Me too.
IT Stephen King
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Seven children (the Losers’ Club) team up to fight the supernatural being terrorising their the New England town of Derry in the fifties. They swear a blood oath to return should It resurface, and then more than twenty years later, It does…
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? Stephen King is one of my favourite authors and I will read anything he writes. IT gets a place on the list ahead of his other outstanding works (The Stand and The Dark Tower series being particularly strong contenders) because it’s one of the keystones of his oeuvre as well as working well as a standalone novel. Also, it’s scary as hell. Pennywise is by now firmly ensconced in the collective conscious as something deeply sinister. But in the end, it’s King’s understanding of people and how to write them that makes IT an enduring classic. The love between the losers, and all their little victories, tragedies, and fears are as finely written as anything he’s done in his long, prolific career.
Green Grass, Running Water Thomas King
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? A delirious and hilarious exploration of creation myths, with plenty of cameos from mischievous Coyote as well as Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye. The conventional narrative of the book follows the lives of a group of Native American characters living in contemporary Canada.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? It’s one of the most purely enjoyable books I’ve ever read – I laughed out loud and found something new to delight in on every page. The structural experiments going on in the novel seem to frustrate some readers, and I did find it difficult to follow early on, but it was such a fun read I carried on and got to enjoy the satisfaction of the puzzle pieces clicking into place. Funny, angry, anarchic, smart, unique.
The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Esther Greenwood, girl from the suburbs, does a summer internship at a magazine in NYC. She is frightened and disoriented by her experiences there. Her mental health deteriorates into serious depression and on returning home she makes several suicide attempts, hoping to escape her almost certainly stifling fate.
WHY’S IT ON THE LIST? I feel like an incredible cliché – what young female poet doesn’t cite Plath as an influence? (Okay, probably lots.) But I read The Bell Jar at exactly the right time in my life and it is just devastatingly sad and honest and relatable. Plath was a genius and this is funny and awful in all the right ways and it really spoke to me in ways people need books to speak to them.
Those are my books! Fairly representative of my overall reading habits, for picks made more or less at random. I’m sure there’s plenty to glean about my psyche from this selection.
Love my choices? Hate them? Got your own list you desperately need to share with someone, anyone, and it might as well be me? Leave a comment below, and we’ll talk books.