Librarian’s choice – Top 10 Favourites

This blog is from Stu, a community librarian based in the East of the city:-

Here’s a list of ten of my favourite fiction books, in no particular order.

stu-catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller was once confronted by an interviewer with the statement, ‘Since Catch-22, you haven’t written anywhere near as good.’ To which Heller replied, ‘No. But neither has anyone else.’ I think this is the greatest book written by anyone anywhere ever and is worthy of every bit of praise that’s been lavished on it over the years. It’s the sorry tale of Yossarian, a bomber in the US Airforce during World War II and his quest to “live forever or die trying”. It’s gloriously, riotously funny, contradictions piling up on top of one another so fast you need wings to stay above them, and the dialogue is absolutely hilarious too. At its heart it’s a razor-sharp satire on the utter ridiculousness of war and what it does to those who are made to fight it, and there are so many classic scenes it would be impossible to even begin to describe them. If you’ve never had a look at this one, you really should do so immediately. Read read read.

stu-salughterhouse-5Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut was described for the vast majority of his career as a sci-fi novelist, but it was a tag which he absolutely hated. So it goes. There are sci-fi aspects to this book to be sure – time travel, aliens from the planet Tralfalmadore – but really it’s a wickedly clever, achingly sad autobiographical novel about the fire-bombing of Dreseden at the end of World War II, which Vonnegut himself actually survived. It’s a startlingly original work with a mellifluous blend of fact, fiction and meta-fiction (years before it became de rigeur), and parts of it – such as the American soldier shot for stealing a teapot – are completely unforgettable. I must have read this book ten times and I’ll read it ten more before I’m finished. Amazing stuff.

stu-cannery-rowCannery Row by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing…..” If that opening paragraph doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will. This novella about Doc, Mack, Hazel and the boys panhandling down on Cannery Row is a thing of absolute beauty, and is the perfect introduction for anyone new to Steinbeck’s world. If you’re already familiar with this, the sequel Sweet Thursday is a great read too, as is Tortilla Flat, which is almost like a prototype for this little gem.

stu-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Emily is my favourite Bronte by a considerable distance, and this is my favourite Bronte novel by a country mile. Most people will have a vague idea of the story – Cathy, Heathcliff, love, passion, death etc. – but the real star of this novel is the wild Yorkshire landscape, described perfectly in Bronte’s turbulent, almost Gothic prose.

stu-notes-from-undergroundNotes From Underground by Dostoyevsky.

This book provides us with the first great anti-hero in literature, the progenitor of a whole motley crew of misanthropic weirdoes from the starving, unnamed wretch in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger to Arturo Bandini and Henry Chinaski and everyone in between. You could also look at it as the first proper Existential novel, if you really wanted to. The great Russian writers come with a lot of baggage and formidable reputations to boot, and the sheer size of their works can often put people off, but for the dedicated reader there are great delights to be found therein. This is reasonably short by the standards of many of his other works, so if you’ve ever fancied checking him out but feel over-faced by The Idiot, maybe this is the place to start.

stu-frankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Yeah, I know, people will tell you that there were Gothic novels before this one – The Castle Of Otranto, The Monk, Ann Radcliffe and all that – but for me this is really where it all started. It’s a canny mix of early Gothic atmospherics shot through with Romantic sensibilities, and it’s treatment of the dichotomy between science and religion captured the Zeitgeist perfectly when it was first published in the early 19th century. It’s a surprisingly easy read for something that’s as old as it is, and it’s a compulsive, page-turning story to boot; it’s also a hugely influential work that has spawned thousands of imitators both in printed and cinematic forms. If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie with a mad scientist protagonist who ends up being destroyed by his single-minded pursuit of his vision, whether the writer even knows it or not, you can trace a direct line back to poor, misguided Victor. Incidentally, Shelley’s treatment of the creature he creates is deeply sympathetic, extremely humane and quite forward-thinking in many ways, so it’s kind of odd that over the years it has come to be known as Frankenstein’s Monster. It may be monstrous, but that’s not quite the same thing. With all the recent debates about GM foods, cloning and stem cells, it’s still as relevant as ever and seems destined to remain so for quite some time yet.

stu-johnny-got-his-gunJohnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

It’s worth noting that this book is unique on this list as it’s the only one that I haven’t read more than once – yet. I read it two or three years ago, having had it on my list since my university days a long time ago in a universe far, far away. It’s an absolutely breathtaking piece of creative writing and trying to describe it effectively is virtually impossible. In a nutshell though, the whole novel is an internal monologue from inside the head of a soldier who has been blown up by a shell in World War I. The thing is, he doesn’t realise initially that he has been blown up, and over the course of the opening few chapters he makes – via some astonishingly inventive psychological insights from the writer -several chilling discoveries about the extent of his injuries; he has no arms, no legs, and most of his face has been blown off so he’s deaf and blind as well. What follows is his attempts to deal with the situation he’s in, and his amazing efforts to communicate with the outside world. Absolutely extraordinary, this one.

stu-ulyssesUlysses by James Joyce.

Ulysses is really more of an artistic statement and an intellectual puzzle than a novel, but it’s no less enjoyable for it. On the face of it’s the tale of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and their meeting one day in Dublin on 16th June, 1904. What lies beneath is a virtuoso display of technical skill, linguistic pastiche (check out the Oxen Of the Sun section for a stellar example of this) and stream-of-consciousness monologues, all addressing serious contemporary issues such as the power of the Catholic church, Home Rule and Irish Nationalism. It fulfils Joyce’s promise from A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ and it does so brilliantly.

stu-the-fightThe Fight by Norman Mailer.

A bit of a cheat putting this on a fiction list, but it’s an cracking example of what came to be known as the non-fiction novel so I think I’ll just about get away with it. This is Mailer’s account of the famous Ali-Frasier Rumble In the Jungle in 1974. Mailer was one of the great men of American letters, and many of his novels are undisputed classics. What people don’t often realise is that he was a very good journalist too, and that one of his main passions was writing about boxing, something he did for most of his life. This works as a great insider scoop of the fight, but it’s also an intimate portrait of the two fighters (there’s a lovely bit where Ali takes Mailer for a run on the eve of the fight, for example) and he captures the madness of 70s Zaire beautifully as well.

stu-fupFup by Jim Dodge.

I can never resist an opportunity to plug this one. So small you can read it in half an hour, this novella is a lovely little zen-like fable about a ninety nine year old man who keeps himself alive with home-made Death Whisper whiskey, his grandson and their pet duck Fup, who they rescue from the clutches of the crazy wild boar that’s terrorizing their ranch. Jim Dodge is an absolute magician with words and it’s a shame that his whole printed output only amounts to three novels – Stone Junction and Not Fade Away are both pretty mind-blowing too – and a single book of poetry/shorter prose. There’s a bit of magic realism going on here which adds to the mystique, but really it’s just a great story, beautifully told, and with a real heartbreaker as an ending. It’s one of those books that you’ll read once, go back to the beginning, read again, then start buying copies for all your friends. Wonderful.

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