- Libra / Don DeLillo (1989)
DeLillo uses the contradictions and paradoxes of the assassination and of what we know of Lee Oswald to create a complex situation and a paradoxical character, represented by the scales of Libra – a man weighing contradictory things at the same time, ready to tip one way or the other. The paradoxes make for a postmodern novel, a postmodern character, a postmodern world like DeLillo always evokes.
- Ragtime / E.L. Doctorow (1975)
Perhaps Doctorow achieves what Geoff Nicholson wishes he could achieve – to say much and to say it with brilliant comedy. But more precisely he brings to mind Don DeLillo with his ambitiousness, tackling big American themes through real historical figures. He writes with a lot of wit. His panorama shot captures a millieu, a decade of American life. The family at the centre recur throughout without ever being named – Father, Mother, Son, Grandfather. Harry Houdini makes several appearences; Pierpont Morgan too few as a man obssessed by pyramids and attempting to set up a secret society with the only man made of the same stuff – Henry Ford.
- Gilead / Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Her characters have a wisdom and identity tied to family and place that make me wish I had all these things. A novel which embodies grace.
- The Furies / Janet Hobhouse (1993)
Everyone treats it as autobiography rather than the novel it was published as, and it certainly has the feel of autobiography. The trajectory of the narrative has all the repetitiousness and random intrusions of life itself. Her prose has an unusual quality: confessional, honest without a hint of apology. Her story is compelling, giving the feel of life without even zooming in on many scenes, but capturing the flow of it.
- Possession / A.S. Byatt (1990)
An engrossing story of two contemporary literary scholars – Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey – who discover a secret affair between two (fictional) nineteenth century poets – Randolph Ash and Christobel LaMotte. The scholarly world is captured with all its interesting intrigues.
- Kafka on the Shore / Haruki Murakami (2002)
A strange world and a strange voice, colloquial yet elegant.
- The Line of Beauty / Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
An engrossing and elegant portrait of the top end of town during the Thatcher years, through the eyes of a young gay man attaching himself to a well-to-do family.
- Invisible / Paul Auster (2009)
Familiar themes – the mysterious stranger offering a young man the chance of a lifetime; the allure of his beautiful girlfriend. More complete as a novel than Man In The Dark but less complete than the glory days of Leviathan, Moon Palace, Music of Chance. Notable for being the most sexually explicit of his novels.
- War and Peace / Leo Tolstoy (1868)
It’s common to hear that War and Peace contains all of life, depicting the full range of human experiences. As a reader, it also evoked the full range of reading experiences for me, from the exhiliration of acute insight that resonated with my experience of life, to boring pages I wanted to flick over; from thrilling narrative drive to moments of narrative listlessness.
- The Cement Garden / Ian McEwan (1978)
A transgressive novel set over a hot summer as orphaned children negotiate life and sex together. I couldn’t put it down.
- Bech at Bay / John Updike
A superbly entertaining book, written in Updike’s exquisite prose, about Bech, the Jewish writer.
(What was I going to do, leave Updike out the year he died?)
- Library: An Unquiet History / Matthew Battles (2002)
A highly readable but immensely learned and witty accounts of libraries through history, and their inevitable destruction.
- Nothing To Be Frightened Of / Julian Barnes (2008)
I couldn’t put this memoir down. I didn’t mean to read it all but I couldn’t help it. I could discern no structure at all, but just followed Barnes for two hundred pages of reflections on death and God through the lens of his family. The whole memoir has the sort of wistfulness of the opening line quoted in the title of this post: ‘I don’t believe in God but I miss him.’
- Ex Libris / Anne Fadiman (1998)
A delightful book of ‘reading memoirs’ – Anne Fadiman’s life in books. The kind of essays this blog would aspire to.
- The Genessee Diary / Henri Nouwen (1976)
A profound exploration of one man’s spirituality, as he reflects each day on the world and himself during a season in a monastery.
- American Journeys / Don Watson (2008)
A rambling travelogue, beautifully written, that keeps recurring around the centrality of fundamentalist Christianity to the experience of living in America. I have an endless fascination and horror with fundamentalist Christianity, and so I find this interesting, all the things he hears on the radio and sees on the telly, all the signs he sees about Jesus. There’s a lot more to it, of course, it’s just as much about politics and history and travel.
(That’s it for the lists for a while. )