This was going around Facebook a while ago — what are your ten favorite books?
I’m going to restrict myself to fiction, and I’m going with the ones that affected me the most at the time I read them, rather than necessarily the best.
1) Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie. Mindboggling to me at the time. Still wonderful. Bonus: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by the same author, one of the best kid’s books around, both for kids and grownups.
2) The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. I’ll just leave the opening paragraphs of the book here:
My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me.
Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.
3) Dubliners, especially “The Dead” and “In Araby”, by James Joyce. I can’t read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (too much, too much), but these are some of the greatest short stories ever written.
4) The Bear, William Faulkner. Breathtaking, and I don’t mean this figuratively. Bonus: The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Both great stylists who care deeply about every word they carve onto the page.
5) Tales from Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry. I hereby confess that his more gloomy books are too much for me to deal with. But this collection of related short stories is perfect. Bonus: collected works of Chekhov. You *should* love Chekhov, because you’re a grubby little sinner, but he still manages to love *you*.
6) The Shadowlines, Amitav Ghosh. This was a book that had me reeling. For some reason, the conversation that sticks with me the most is a bit of a throwaway discussion between the protagonist and his uncle about houses with slanted roofs.
7) The Pocket Book of Modern Verse, Oscar Williams. A great anthology. I lied when I said I was restricting myself to fiction.
8) Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis. Is this book misogynistic? I can’t tell with books: each books creates its own universe, and looks at it from the slanted point of view of it’s protagonist, so it’s difficult to extend how it treats a couple of characters to how it treats a group as a whole. I don’t really have an answer to that question. It definitely spoke to the angry young man I was at the time I read it, and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Bonus: Straight Man by Richard Russo, also a cynical literary novel, just as funny, also very male point of view, not quite as bitter.
9) Polar Star, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith. I read Polar Star first, but Gorky Park is the first in the series. These were the books that showed me that detective novels could be written by authors who cared how they wrote instead of just what they wrote. And that a good detective novel is a great vehicle to explore people, how they interact with each other, and how they fit into society as a whole. Which, incidentally, are exactly what I love to read about!
10) Case Histories, Kate Atkinson. Plus Ian Rankin, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Denise Mina, and many many others. I love my well-crafted detective novels. Not nearly enough space to discuss all of them. And a special shoutout to Carl Hiaasen’s works.
11) Riotous Assembly (and Indecent Exposure), both by Tom Sharpe. These books were set in apartheid South Africa. They’re the funniest books I ever read, with the darkest sense of humor. They made me feel guilty for laughing as hard as I did. They make sense of a senseless system: where else are you going to find a herd of ostriches force-fed condoms filled with explosives running around the city exploding at random?
12) The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. His sentences are perfect: they’re living creatures, with their own respiration and metabolism.
The rest of the team:
P. G. Wodehouse, of course
English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale. Loved this one, about a Cornish sailor and the last of the native Tasmanians. As with many on this list, its topics are serious, but it also has its own slant of humor.
Red earth and pouring rain, Vikram Chandra. But it’s problematic that it romanticizes the practice of sati.
Driftglass by Samuel Delany. The first book that showed me that there’s more to life than plot, that stylistic innovation matters too. Samuel Delany, incidentally, is invariably referred to as the best black gay science fiction writer ever.