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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Booked up

Self-indulgent Plog alert.

It was a rainy bank holiday. I had fifteen minutes whilst the toddler slept. Someone on Facebook (well, not just anyone - the impressive Kraken) nominated me to list ten novels that have made an impact on me. I duly did this.

Somebody else asked me what impact they had. And I think that's a great question.

So here are my ten novels (in no particular order) and the impact they had on me:

1. Lolita (Nabakov)

This is the only text I came across at university to make it to the list. A mandatory requirement of Modern Literature (which at Bristol Uni, stopped at 1950. Don't ask.), I read this on holiday with a friend in the Dominican Republic during Easter break. I loved the cleverness of the language, how it seemed to me that someone who was a linguistic outsider to the English language could see words and patterns that native English speakers were blind to. Purple pills became "purpills" and the therapist became "the rapist". Dissecting the novel in tutorial also made me conscious of the power play of language, and how Lolita never has her own voice. Her words are always narrated for her, by her rapist.

2. The God of Small Things (Roy)

I tried to read this for preparation for a university interview but found it impenetrable. A few months later, a co-worker recommended it to me, lent me a copy and I made a renewed effort. Once I got past the unfamiliar names and large cast(e) (see what I did there?), I found it a stunning work of poetry and impressionism. To this day, I love to think of bluebottles in hot weather as being "fatly baffled". It is also the first book I read where I had to look away from the page because of the violence. I then continued reading between my fingers. I do this quite a lot. TheBloke (TM) thinks it's hilarious.

3. Rebecca (Du Maurier)

I came across this through Book Club in my mid-twenties. I had always swerved it, thinking it would be romantic crap. I read it whilst a hurricane raged and bad stuff happened in the world. Perhaps it's the novel's genius that many people feel the same, but very rarely have I identified so closely with a protagonist - that slightly gauche, awkwardly polite person, trying to fake it in an adult world. The book took me away from the cold January; I found Rebecca and Rebecca fascinating. And to this day, I like to speculate on the heroine's unknown name.

4. Saturday (McEwan)

It was tough choosing just one McEwan novel (of course, I didn't have to - but it would seem harsh to put in several McEwans and only one Austen). It was a toss-up between Saturday and Atonement. The novel came out in 2005, and I counted the days down until it would be released in paperback (I didn't have much spare cash at the time). A lot of my favourite novels feel like love letters to London - this one was even more special to me because the Saturday on which it was set was actually one where I was living in London - and remembered what I had done that day. (I wasn't on the anti-war march, but Erica and I ate lasagne in my flat in Dalston - way before it was trendy - and went to a comedy club in the evening.) Saturday made me feel like I was a tiny (lasagne-eating) part of history.

5. The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)

I had studied Of Mice and Men at GCSE, and y'know, it was OK, but honestly I didn't see what all the fuss was about. I thought I'd give this one a go, as people said it was good, and Oh My God. Beautifully written, desperately tragic - and very educational for me, as I hadn't realised the full extent of the Great Depression. Though why anyone would name their child "Rose of Sharon" is completely beyond me.

6. Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

The only "school-studied" text to make it to the list. Again, I found it hard to choose just one Austen. Most of them, with the exception of Mansfield Park (which I did study at A-level and still resent on a profound level) could have made the list. When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I hated it. But we were studying it for GCSE coursework, so I took it with me as one of the six or seven books I could carry on a French exchange trip for a fortnight. I had finished five of the books by the end of the coach trip to get to France. I had another two weeks, and an 18-hour coach journey home to survive, sans-reading materials. Out of sheer desperation for something, I re-read Pride and Prejudice; and then I re-re-read it. And then I bought Sense and Sensibility from South Mimms service station on the way home.

Other people got drunk and had a good time. Welcome to my teenage years.

7. The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)

Dystopian, feminist sci-fi, what's not to like? Seriously, I had never really come across female-authored sci-fi before - and from a feminist viewpoint too. Rarely for me - I can't remember exactly where or when I read this one; I think I borrowed it from the library; I certainly remember raiding that part of the bookshelf and reading pretty much everything she'd ever written for a few weeks afterwards.

8. Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Atkinson)

This is an odd one. I can't remember if someone gave it to me at Book Club because they said they thought I'd enjoy it, or if I bought it for someone else because I knew they'd like it. Perhaps that's not important. It's clever without being snobbish. It has touches of magical realism without going all Angela Carter on us (though, to be fair, from memory, this novel uses less of the magic than other Atkinsons). A twist, a denouement, and characters that stay with you.

9. Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)

A bit like Rebecca, I had given this one a miss, thinking it was going to be corset-heaving nonsense. With a sense of duty ("I can't believe I haven't read...") I picked this one up. What I didn't expect to find was the feistiest heroine I've ever come across (say what you will about Scarlett but she gets her shit together) and a backdrop of war and slavery. A page-turner from start to finish; despite it being a massively long novel, I felt bereft as I noticed there were hardly any pages left to go.

10. The Diary of Anne Frank (Frank)

I lied earlier - this was also a school text, though well before GCSEs. We studied it in English (rather than history) class. The same year (entirely coincidentally) I played Anne Frank in a school play (whilst wearing a lot of dental braces. I was basically Anne Frank, had she been the patient of an over-zealous orthodontist) - so I spent rather more time than I might otherwise have done learning passages from the diary verbatim and really thinking a bit more about what it would actually be like to be Anne Frank, than if I had just read the book, written a couple of homework essays and then moved on. Personally, this was the first time I had been interested enough in something outside of school to do independent study for no reason other than wanting to know - using my pocket money to buy other reference books, and really reading around the subject. Reading my own diaries from the time and comparing quality, I am struck repeatedly at what talent this young girl really had. She was a great writer; she should have had the chance to keep writing.

Self-indulgent Plog over. Normal service will now resume.

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