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My most unforgettable books, to date!

July 12, 2012

I was going to title this post “Life-changing reads” but decided that that wasn’t quite right. I’m not sure that any book has quite changed my life though many have opened my eyes to other ways of seeing and being in the world.

May marked my third year of blogging and I started this post then, thinking to mark the moment by reflecting on the books that have most impacted me (in some way or another). Somehow life got in the way, and I am only getting back to it now. I think it’s still worth doing – for my benefit, if not for anyone else’s. It’s going to be hard to keep my list short – as you litbloggers and litblog readers will surely understand. So here goes, in alphabetical order by author – it’s hard enough limiting the number (to a self-imposed arbitrary number of ten) without ranking them too!

Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale: Such an astonishing evocation of what might happen should extremist fundamentalist views be taken to their, hmm, logical conclusion. The book functions as both a wake-up call – we can never rest on our laurels while injustice and inequality remain in our world – and a great read.

Jane Austen‘s Pride and prejudice: A great read on multiple levels that introduced me to Austen. I love all Austen’s novels and really can’t pick a favourite, but this is the one that started it all. I can read (and have read) her books multiple times – and every time I find something new. Can’t ask more than that from a writer I reckon.

Albert CamusThe plague: Oh, this one fed my youthful idealism, except I don’t think I’ve ever grown out of the belief that Camus’ Rieux is right when he says “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. I have read this three times, and will read it again. (My review)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Chronicle of a death foretold: It’s all about the tone. I love the way this story is told. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Garcia Marquez but this is the one that stays in my brain.

Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The remains of the day: This one’s all about the tone too – and the unreliable narrator. There’s a wry humour to the butler’s narrow-minded focus on things that don’t matter while being completely oblivious to the things that do.  I have gone on to read all (but one, so far) of Ishiguro’s oeuvre.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s The newspaper of Claremont Street: I loved the black humour here. It reminded me of a (very) modern Jane Austen. I’m sure Austen would have loved Jolley. After all, I love them both.

Rohinton Mistry‘s A fine balance: This book showed me how a grim book can still offer hope (though not all readers agree with me). What else can I say? If you haven’t read it, I say do!

Toni Morrison‘s Beloved: This post was inspired by the “Getting started with Toni Morrison” post at Book Riot. It’s impossible to forget Sethe and the decision she makes.

Junichiro Tanizaki‘s The Makioka sisters: I didn’t know much about Japan when I read this in the early 1990s, but what I knew was that it was a pretty homogenous society. And, it is, but The Makioka sisters showed me a more diverse society than I had imagined. This is not the main subject of the book, but it was eye-opening for me. I also enjoyed it as a thoughtful analysis of Japan on the cusp of change from a traditional to a modern society , particularly in relation to the lives of women. Oh, and it is an engrossing story.

Patrick White‘s Voss: What can I say? Voss introduced me to Patrick White. It spoke to my teenage sense of the romance of grand ideas and of doomed love in language that was intense but accessible. I went on to read more Patrick White – and am still reading him. I’ve some still to read, and some I’ve read more than once. Such is the life of a reader…

Three of these books – Pride and prejudice, The plague and Voss – I read in my teens. I shall be forever grateful to them for the introduction they provided to the world of literature and what it can mean to one’s life.

I’d love to hear about the books that resonate most with you. (And I’m sure that, for some of your choices at least, I’ll say, “Oh yes, that too!”)

46 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012 8:54 pm

    I love to read about the books that influence but I am often wary of nominating my own, for various reasons: I fear that my taste is far too eclectic; that I will change my mind the minute I post; that I may be judged harshly on my choices; that I will forget (momentarily) a writer who has played a significant role in shaping my writing and reading life.
    Your list contains some surprises (Jane Austen is, of course, no surprise). I have not read ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ or ‘A Fine Balance’ so there’s another two to go on my ever-increasing list.

    • July 12, 2012 10:04 pm

      Love your reasons for not doing it Karen Lee but be brave! The main ones for me are that I’ll change my mind or forget one BUT I can do this again one day and see what is sticking in my mind then A fine balance is a great read …

  2. July 12, 2012 9:03 pm

    I’ve read all of these, Sue, except for Chronicle of a Death foretold and I think they’re all great books but my list would have some of the Big Russians on it!

    • July 12, 2012 10:07 pm

      Thanks Lisa … Chronicle is probably not his most significant book (I’ve read 3 or 4 others) but it was the telling, the style, that really grabbed me (and to some degree the way that telling adds to the meaning). As for the Russians, I haven’t read enough of them … for some reason … but what I’ve read I’ve certainly liked. I reckon others would have them on their lists too.

  3. July 12, 2012 9:44 pm

    Sue, a great post, and a great list. I’ve read and loved many of Garcia-Marquez’s but haven’t got to ‘Chronicle’ yet, so I’ll have to get to it sooner rather than later with your recommendation! I’d have a Rushdie and a Carey, as well as ‘The Leopard’. Cheers, John.

    • July 12, 2012 10:20 pm

      Thanks for playing too John …I’ve read a few Rushdies and liked them. I particularly loved Haroun and the sea of stories but of course Midnight’s children is a good read. I am a bit of a Carey fan so he’d certainly be pushing around the edges of my top ten! The leopard is one that’s been on my TBR for the longest time.

  4. July 12, 2012 9:49 pm

    I so Loved ‘A Fine Balance’ – was a hefty read but oh, so worth it!

    The Handmaid’s Tale was just… freaky.

    • July 12, 2012 10:21 pm

      Oh welcome Tien and thanks for joining in. Glad you agree about A fine balance. It was hefty but wonderful. Handmaid’s tale was certainly freaky but, for me, good (if horrible) freaky!

  5. Carol Mannchen permalink
    July 12, 2012 10:58 pm

    I’ve read most of them, and in fact, I believe you gave me the Elizabeth Jolley book, which I enjoyed, thank you very much. I wish you would nominate The Makioka Sisters for a 20th Cent. read, if you are on that list. My list would have to include Alice in Wonderland and Through the Lookingglass, David Copperfield, and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.

    • July 12, 2012 11:01 pm

      Thanks Carol for joining in … love your suggestions. I was hoping someone would suggest a Dickens! I should read To kill a mockingbird again.

      I’m sorry but I’m not on the 20th century list and am doing a terrible job of keeping up with the lists I am on … but I’d happily read The Makioka sisters again so perhaps I should give the list a go.

  6. Kate in Canv permalink
    July 12, 2012 11:27 pm

    Great selection, and worthwile looking back on the books that stay with us. the Makioka sisters sound worth reading. I would have to include Great Expectations: I love Dickens too, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as I am a sucker for Hardy’s grand scale tragedy and fabulous evocationof place. probably Jane Eyre, again I read as a young woman. oh where do I stop. A Fine Balance gets my thumbs up, also loved Mr Pip and anything by Alice Munro. Thanks for the inspiration

    • July 13, 2012 12:08 am

      Thanks Kate for joining in … as well as waiting for someone to mention Dickens, I also thought Jane Eyre would come up. I love the nineteenth century writers, including Hardy too. And, if you like them, you’d probably like The Makioka sisters.

  7. July 13, 2012 12:43 am

    First, a happy belated bloggiversary! Second, loved your list. I agree that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a marvelous book. Best book I have ever read that started off by telling you the ending. In spite of knowing what was going to happen I still found myself thinking something could change it. Some of the fiction books that would be on my list include Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations by Dickens, Mrs. Dalloway by Woolf, The Lord of the Rings by Tolkein, and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.

    • July 13, 2012 7:58 am

      Ah, Stefanie, I was waiting for The lord of the rings! Woolf, yes she’s another big contender for me. You are right about Chronicle … It’s so beautifully conceived and told.

      Oh, and thanks for the congrats!

  8. Susan Helgeson permalink
    July 13, 2012 2:26 am

    Intriguing post. Like everyone else I immediately started jotting down a list but almost instantly I had 15…. I think I see them clustering a different times: Teen years: Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. JE had the greater impact at the time; P&P the more enduring impact though I have reread JE as an adult. P&P I’m sure I’ve read more times than any other novel. College years introduced me to “modern lit”. Biggest impact: The Sound and the Fury, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–and the poetry of Yeats. I was also affected by The Magic Mountain (Mann) in those years. And I read all of Faulkner and Henry James in paperback copies my father sent me while I was in the Peace Corps. I didn’t “discover” 19th century fiction (British not American– I read Melville and Hawthorn in my early 20ies and was initially affected by the short stories rather than the novels) till grad school in my 30ies: biggest impact then: Middlemarch and Our Mutual Friend, and probably Bleak House as well. Since then: One Hundred Years of Solitude (delighted with magical realism), Letters (Barth–I read all his work up to and including Letters which revives all of his characters and themes), The Virgin in the Garden (Byatt–loved her “history” of an intellectual woman but the first was the eye opener. Others: Things Fall Apart (Achebe), Surfacing (Atwood), The First Circle (Solzhenitsyn), The Possessed (Dostoyevsky).
    The minute I send this I’ll think of more.

    • July 13, 2012 4:09 pm

      Great survey of your reading highlights Susan. I considered listing them in the order read as an alternative to alphabetical … It’s interesting to see our reading patterns overtime … A thesis there perhaps? Would it show a development? Or just the serendipity of reading … Beyond of course the set texts from our youth that grabbed us?

  9. July 13, 2012 7:19 am

    Kafka’s novel ,sebalds book have both stuck with me a for a number of years I suppose each of them explains the bmy blog in its own way ,also Borges showed me that literature can be about more than what is on the page and lead to calvino ,queeneau and others ,all the best stu

    • July 13, 2012 8:01 am

      Thanks Stu, I was hoping you’d join in. I hope you noticed that I had some translated works there! Sebald is a great choice too. And of course Kafka is a classic isn’t he? I don’t know Queeneau … One for my list.

  10. July 13, 2012 12:43 pm

    I would certainly add ‘Voss’ on my list, and also ‘Wuthering Heights’. ‘The Makioka Sisters’ would come close, and some Thomas Hardy novels. But after ‘Wuthering Heights’, and ‘Voss’ there are a number of books – the order changes. Jennifer

    • July 13, 2012 4:10 pm

      Ah, the order Jennifer! Glad Voss is up there for you too. I felt I was “over” Wuthering Heights, but I think I should give it a go again.

      • July 13, 2012 8:49 pm

        I can never be ‘over’ ‘Wuthering Heights, and I like Emily’s poetry as well. I’m looking forward to rereading some more Patrick White this year, and reading ‘Happy Valley’ for the first time.

        • July 13, 2012 10:03 pm

          Oh great Jennifer … I plan to read Happy Valley for the first time this year too. As for Wuthering Heights, I’ll have to read it again to decide if I’m really over it!

  11. July 13, 2012 3:29 pm

    Thanks for this list, I’ll save it for my TBR. I’ve read a few, and others I do have from the many booksale boxes from the past years. Glad P & P is on there. For me, I’d include To Kill A Mockingbird… it had inspired me re. parenting and character bldg. of my child.

    • July 13, 2012 4:22 pm

      Thanks Arti … I can see why that book would inspire re parenting. I guess we’d all like to be Atticus Finch, wouldn’t we?

  12. July 13, 2012 5:56 pm

    Read your list, and share your passion for Jane Austen. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ stands alone as the book I’ve read time and time again, always with renewed interest.

    • July 13, 2012 8:30 pm

      Welcome Margaret. Glad to find another P&P lover. Are there other Jane Austens you enjoy.

  13. July 14, 2012 9:02 am

    Wonderful list. By coincidence, the Elizabeth Jolley book is sitting on my nightstand, and I hope to get around to it soon.

    • July 14, 2012 3:02 pm

      Oh Great Fay, I look forward to your response to it … I hope you like it but will survive if you don’t!!

  14. July 14, 2012 3:30 pm

    Ack, I think I’ve only read half of these!

  15. July 15, 2012 12:38 pm

    My list would have to include the ‘Jerusalem Quartet ‘ by Edward Whittemore, ‘Little, Big’ by John Crowley, ‘Mockingbird’ by Walter Tevis, ‘On The Black Hill’ by Bruce Chatwin, ‘Waterland’ by Graeme Swift, ‘Gormenghast Trilogy’ by Mervyn Peake, ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann’ by Angela Carter, ‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain and ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell. These all blew me away the first time I read them, and continue to do so. Also agree on the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’ and I’m sure there are more I could think of.

    • July 15, 2012 8:20 pm

      Oh thanks Anne, you’ve mentioned Whittemore before as I recollect. Love your choices — just shows us how many great books there are out there and how we readers are all individual in our preferences despite the crossovers. Love the discussion.

  16. Matthew Todd permalink
    July 15, 2012 11:35 pm

    So many of these are on my list, too! The Makioka Sisters is brilliant; The Remains of the Day is heart-achingly beautiful; The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent sci-fi, and Voss is, well, Voss.

    Have you ever read David Mitchell? I reread his Cloud Atlas every year – I never cease to be surprised and enthralled by the sheer genius of that novel.

    • August 14, 2012 4:36 pm

      So sorry I didn’t reply to this at the time, Matthew … I was heading too embroiled in other things at the time obviously.

      So, you are another David Mitchell fan. There are a few of you around. Yes, I read and enjoyed Cloud Atlas but it hasn’t left a lasting impression. I also read his Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I enjoyed and will probably remember for longer (just because of its Dejima setting I suspect).

  17. July 16, 2012 7:08 am

    Oh I agree with you about Jane Austen. The finest writer. Intrigued by Elizabeth Jolley, must check out her work.

    • August 14, 2012 4:37 pm

      I have no idea how I didn’t reply to this at the time as I recollect reading it. Sorry Nicola. Do check Jolley out if you can. She was English born, btw, but wasn’t published until she was in Australia. Some of her works are set in English, like My father’s moon.

  18. July 16, 2012 10:50 pm

    No one has yet mentioned ‘Independent People’ by Halldor Laxness of Iceland, so I will mention it. Great book.

    • July 16, 2012 11:23 pm

      Oh, yes, yes, yes Tony. That’s a good’un too. Fascinating book, and another one about tone, isn’t it. Thanks for joining in.

  19. meg permalink
    July 17, 2012 12:10 pm

    I haven’t read the Makioka Sisters or Chronicles of a Death Foretold, but do like your list. I would add The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulakov, Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov, The Collector by John Fowles and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

    Meg

    • July 17, 2012 2:36 pm

      Thanks Meg for joining in … I’ve read Lolita (and liked it a lot) and have the others on my TBR. Must get to them

  20. July 17, 2012 12:17 pm

    Wonderful list, post, and comment string. ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Ishiguro is certainly in my top-reads list, too. As is JM Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’, and Randolph Stow’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’. What these three novels have in common: perfect voice, sustained focus, and extraordinary prose.

    By the way, I don’t enjoy Jane Austen, nor do I enjoy Shakespeare. I know, I know, stone me now, but I can’t lie to you and say these writers spin my nipples when they just don’t.

    • July 17, 2012 2:39 pm

      Oh, I will stone you on Jane Austen’s behalf next time we cross paths Nigel. Then again, I’d rather you were honest and I totally agree re Disgrace. He’s certainly another one in my pantheon. As for The merry-go-round in the sea, I’ve been wanting to get to that for a while. I’m sure I’ll like it.

      Oh, and I do like Shakespeare too .. so many “quotes” of his pop into my head out of the blue that I can’t not like him.

  21. July 22, 2012 3:04 am

    This is such an interesting post and/or Question.
    My answer may be a bit strange. Because, honestly, I have read so many books that “mean” so much to me, are so significant in so many ways [Anna Karenina comes to mind] or were just so damn GOOD [Alias Grace by Atwood, Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn, Blindness by Jose Saramago] — but when it comes to the novel that most “impacted” me, I will always answer thus:
    Tess of The D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.
    The main reason, besides being a terrific story and so well-written [I’ve read it twice now] — it’s just that this book sort of kicked off my intense love of literature. I read it in college — and before that, I was a reader — I was always a reader, but Tess came along at a time when reading was about to take an exponential leap forward in my round of daily activities. I DEVOURED the book between my final exam and a plane flight back home, for Christmas. And — reading-wise, I have never been the same since.
    Prior to this Hardy novel [I’ve gone on to read almost all of his novels] I would say I “liked” reading books, but after Tess, my passion for reading can only be described in words like “lust” and “love”.

    • July 22, 2012 11:18 am

      Oh I love this answer Cipriano. Tess certainly impacted me. Gut wrenching. I read it around the same time that I read Voss. It’s interesting how it is often the classics/a classic read in our youth that have kickstarted our love of literature (versus earlier books, not always classics, that might have started our love of reading. For example, Enid Blyton fed my early love of reading, but Jane Austen turned me into a lover of literature).

      BTW I love Alias Grace too – and The blind assassin.

  22. Ian permalink
    August 14, 2012 10:57 am

    A while since I’ve had a chance to look here! I like your list (and should try The Makioka Sisters which I hadn’t heard of). I think Voss and Chronicle of a Death Foretold are great choices. Others for me are 1984 (which I am re-reading at the moment after nearly 40 years), Gulliver’s Travels, The Bone People, Bleak House and at one time a favourite of mine, Hesse’s Siddartha, and many many more! How do you stop at ten?

    • August 14, 2012 4:43 pm

      Thanks for commenting Ian … I like it when you do! Happy to lend you The Makioka Sisters if you’d like (and you don’t get it from your library).

      It is too hard to stop at 10, really. If I’d gone on, The bone people would have had to have been there. And Bleak House is my favourite Dickens to date. I often think I should reread 1984 which I last read in – hmmm – 1984. I need to read more Hesse. Have only read Steppenwolf.

      It’s all so subjective, but fun every now and then to contemplate…

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