Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Lit List to Like

I normally don't like massive lists, the kind that purport to be the definitive list of things you should hear/read/watch/scale before you die (and in fact, a friend and I have been planning a response to such lists for some time), but the Guardian's "1,000 novels everyone must read" is pretty great. It's burdensome to navigate through the extended, annotated list on the paper's site (click on any of the genre headings, like Comedy, to get started, and then best of luck to you), but it's worth it.

The list doesn't include any nonfiction (or even collections of short stories; just novels). I've read 66, which seems weak.

Maybe it's just the way Brits have of describing things, but the non-obvious choices (both historically non-obvious and in terms of my normal tastes) are what make this project addictive for me. Here are three samples that I'd never heard of, but that I'll add to my wish list. (With summaries from the Guardian):
Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice (1987)

Is there a better novel about alcoholism than this? A perfectly ordinary man, executive at a biscuit firm, takes us through his days in the second-person singular: "You are 34 years old and already two-thirds destroyed." He gets by on nips of brandy and gin - a sharpener at breakfast, a reward at lunchtime, a necessity at dinner. His wife and children look on, bewildered and pitying, but he can hardly see them through the haze of pain. Irvine Welsh called this "one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s"; it deserves rediscovery.

Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." The famous opening sentence sets the tone for the entertaining romp that follows, as Aunt Dot, her niece Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg journey from Istanbul to Trebizond on Turkey's Black Sea coast. A madcap first half gives way to a more serious second, which examines the meaning of faith. The potentially jarring combination of comedy, romance, history and theology shouldn't work, but miraculously does. This was Macaulay's final novel — she died two years after it was published — and is highly autobiographical.

Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)

In one of the first split-screen narratives, Burgess juxtaposes three key 20th-century themes: communism, psychoanalysis and the millennial fear of Armageddon. Trotsky's 1917 visit to New York is presented as a Broadway musical; a mournful Freud looks back on his life as he prepares to flee the Nazis; and in the year 2000, as a rogue asteroid barrels towards the Earth, humanity argues over who will survive and what kind of society they will take to the stars.


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