Monday, May 18, 2009

Ten contemporary novels that'll rock your world.

Might as well start this blog off with a bang. I've put together a list of ten books, spanning several decades and genres, that I have found myself thinking about long after they'd been shelved. Some are fond childhood friend and some I've only recently discovered, but all are definitely worth reading. Something for everyone, I promise.

1. The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow (1971)
I'm a big fan of Doctorow but this is by far my favourite of all his works. It's meant to be very loosely based on the Rosenberg trials (the famous couple executed at the height of communist fear in America for supposedly selling national secrets to the Soviets) though the differences are distinct enough that the book doesn't quite qualify as direct historical fiction. The story, though not chronological or particularly coherent, focuses on the son of the so-called spies as he begins to examine his parent's trial and the impact that it had on the lives of himself and his sister, Susan, who has attempted suicide and resides in a mental facility. Honestly, this is a very difficult book to summarize because it skips around in time and topic with Daniel's own thoughts and memories and much of it is a sort of philosophical consideration of America as a nation. The book is about one family and one man but its also the most insightful novel about the upheaval of the 50s and 60s that I've ever read. I especially encourage people to read in now - in the light of more recent political upheaval, the book takes on a new significance.

2. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
And of course we come to Atwood, that reliable rock star of Canadian literature. I've read most of her work from The Edible Woman to Oryx and Crake but I inevitably return to this beautifully written dystopia. The protagonist is Offred, a woman living in a religious dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead, once called the United States of America. The book alternates between her memories of the world that was (the world we are familiar with) and the world that is - a world in which women's minds and bodies are strictly controlled and rigid hierarchy enforced. There is something about the way that this novel is written, dreamy and sometimes apathetic, that unsettles you as you're reading it. I once went through one of my copies and tried to underline all the really great lines - made my book pretty messy - there is at least one amazing, unforgettable line in every chapter of this book.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
3. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
A few years ago I saw a friend reading this book and was completely shocked at how big it was. I mean I love big books (and I cannot lie), but this was easily one of the heftiest books I'd ever laid eyes on. My friend swore up and down that it was the most absorbing thing she'd read all year so I went out and bought it the next day... and didn't come up for air for 24 hours. This novel is a serious contender for the greatest vampire novel ever written, Bram Stoker included. It's a mammoth-sized tome that takes you through most of Western and Eastern Europe on the hunt for the real deal: Dracula himself. This is definitely a mystery/horror/adventure novel for history buffs as the title implies - the protagonists spend a great deal of time pouring over dusty books in even dustier libraries. The most amazing part of it is that this is Kostova's first book, though it's more like five books in one. She must have had to do YEARS of research to write this thing: customs, language, myths, superstitions - everything is written with such detail that the supernatural aspect of the book seems almost plausible. Very scary.

4. Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson (1981)
A book that falls under my "childhood friends" category. I think I must have read this for the first time when I was around ten or eleven years old - a battered old copy from my school library. It's the story of a young girl growing up in an isolated island community who is sort of perpetually overshadowed by her twin sister. It's not too long and a fairly straightforward story but the prose is beautiful and the ending always makes me cry. I have such a fondness for the books that kept me company when I was small - it's like a hug from an old friend whenever you read them again.
We slept in the same room, ate at the same table, sat for nine months out of each year in the same classroom, but none of these had made us close. How could they, when being conceived at the same time in the same womb had done nothing to bind us together? And yet, if we were not close, why did only Caroline have the power, with a single glance, to slice my flesh clear to the bone?
5. Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson (2002)
This book was assigned reading in Literature For Our Time, the fist year English course at the University of Toronto, taught by the brilliant Professor Nick Mount. In fact much of the books that almost made it only this list were also recommended by him but this book is one that I still think about all these year later. The novel falls into the category of literature I love most: magical realism. Lisamarie, a young girl growing up in the isolated Haisla village of Kittamaat, leads a relatively normal, if troubled life, aside from the fact that she receives the occasional visit from a sort of trickster spirit who acts as a portent of tragedy to come. She finds herself in the unfortunate position of vaguely knowing the future without the power to change it, and inevitably feels responsible when harm comes to her family. We were lucky in my class to actually receive a visit from the author herself, and let me tell you, she was the not the kind of person you picture sitting down to write a novel as dark in tone as this one - she was so bubbly and affable and loved answering our questions - in fact, several of her answers about the hidden nuances in the text surprised me so its a book that needs to be read a few times to understand some of the subtle details she weaves in.

6. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon (1998)
Every time I try to summarize this novel (the first in a series) when I'm recommending it I draw a blank because nothing I can say does it justice without making it sound rather cheesy, and it's anything but. Suffice it to say that this book spans several genres: romance, adventure, and historical fiction with a teaspoon of fantasy thrown into the mix in the form of time-travel. The first couple of novels take place during the Scottish Uprisings of the 1700s (during which most of the Highland clans were wiped out) but in later books the protagonists travel to the New World and eventually become embroiled in the American Revolution - so lots of fun for history buffs but also very acessible for someone who knows nothing about those events. This would also make a great summer vacation read since it grabs you from the get go and makes for great escapism. It's easily the novel that I have re-read the most times (somewhere around 30 or so times, I would say) and I cannot praise it more. Read this book!

7. The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy (2003)
Another Canadian author! And a book set in dear old Toronto... Woot!
Anything by Gowdy is worth reading honestly but I feel this is one of her best. As the title implies, the story revolves around love and a young girl named Louise who is desperate for love from any source. Louise's mother, a former beauty queen, disappears one day when her daughter is nine, leaving only a note that reads, "Louise knows how to work the washing machine" - a perfect example of Gowdy's biting and ironic humour. A warning to readers: this is not a happy tale by any stretch of the imagination and I frequently go through a box of Kleenex while reading it. For these characters love turns out not to be enough.
I'm sure that my mother, at least, would say I'd got it all wrong. Abel might think I'd got it all wrong, too, except he wouldn't care. Looking back over his life never came easily to him, and for the sake of avoiding that ordeal--but also because, ultimately, he attached himself to nothing--he'd surrender to anyone's memories of him. Even mine, these pawed-over resurrections. Even though he knew I loved him too desperately to ever be a reliable witness.
8. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
Soon to be a movie, starring Rachel McAdams, that I am eagerly anticipating. I have no idea when it comes out - every time I check it still says "in production" and I first heard about it two years ago! I'm very curious to see how on earth they turn this book into a movie because even summarizing it is going to give me a headache. The first time I finished reading it I had to immediately start it over so I could begin to unravel who was where and when and at what point. Still, for all the confusing chronological jumping around in time, this story is absolutely mesmerizing. The plot centres around Henry, a young librarian who has a genetic disorder that causes him to be periodically displaced in time, and his wife Claire, whom he meets on these travels. There is so much more to it than that, including random instances of vast age differences between the characters, but there is no way to explain it here without confusing everyone. Suffice it to say that theirs is not a typical marriage and this is not a typical romance. Read it!

9. A Town Like Alice, Neville Shute (1976)
I actually saw the TV mini-series made of this before I read the book. They are both excellent and the movie really cuts out nothing of the plot - it's about nine hours of watching, though. Since then I've read a lot of Neville Shute (On the Beach is another great) but this remains my favourite. Its also much easier to summarize than most of the other books on this list: The story is sort of two stories, really, narrated by a lawyer who happens to meet the protagonist in the course of carrying out her uncle's will. The first half of the story is recounted to the narrator by the protagonist, Jean, as she describes her experience during the war. She was part of a group of British women and children who are captured by the Japanese in Malaysia during World War II. They were forced to march from town to town, walking all day, because the Japanese had no womens' camp set up in the country - so they just march this group around for three years. Along the way, Jean meets a young Australian prisoner, who steals some chickens to help feed the women and is, she thinks, executed for it. At least half of the original number die, including all of the Japanese guards assigned to them. When the last guard dies, the group decides to stay at their last stop, an isolated Malaysian village, and work in the rice patties until the war is over. Which they do. End story one. The second-half of the book begins with Jean discovering, on a trip back to Malaysia, that the Australian prisoner has actually survived the war. So she heads off to the Australian outback to track him down. I won't tell you any more - suffice it to say, it's quite the epic novel. Shute's stories always have the feeling of a really good story told round a campfire, complete with lovely, faintly nostalgic endings:
"I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stock riders, or Cairns and of Green Island. Of a girl I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again, that hold so much of my affection."
10. Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis (2004)
This is a bittersweet pick for me so I'm glad it ended up coming last alphabetically (which is how I organized them, for fairness sake). I discovered her first work, Circling the Drain (Short Stories), in a random bin at some random bookstore in some random city in California - true story. I was hooked from the get go. Her stories were completely different from anything I'd read before, and in fact they were completely different from each other. It was a very surprising first work for such a young woman. So when I stumbled across her novel three years ago I was ecstatic, until I noticed the Afterward by Michael Chabon which lamented her death in a plane crash with her entire family two months before the book's publication. I can't tell you how saddened I was - this was an author who would have gone on to write some amazing stuff and to lose someone so talented so young is a big loss for the literary world. This novel is a sort of continuation of one of the stories in her collection: A young girl, Faith, struggles to return to normalcy after a breakdown but is haunted by bitter, sarcastic hallucinations of her formerly fat self. She eventually snaps and commits some disturbing violence before running of and joining a circus -- definitely not your typical coming of age story. The afterward by Michael Chabon is also not to be skipped as its possibly one of the most touching, heartbreaking tributes to a lost friend, and lost talent, that I've ever read.

So there's the big first list. After this I will most likely stick to reviewing one at a time but I thought this would be a good way to get the blog started and demonstrate the sort of books I read. My hope is that someone will pick up one of these books and make a new discovery.

No comments:

Post a Comment