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Top 13 Books – The other 6

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a continuation of my previous post, the first 7 of my Top 13, which you can find here.

Bram Stoker – Dracula

It’s been a long time since I’ve read and enjoyed something in either the vampire or fantasy genre of literature. My vampire reading dates back to late high school when I read a few of Anne Rice’s books and my fantasy reading dates back even further, to early high school when I was a fiend for David Eddings and Terry Pratchett. Since then it’s been all literature, politics and various other similar or interrelated things.

Dracula is of course literature also, a true classic that set an entire genre on fire and has seen movie adaptations, other inspired films, TV shows and many vampire novels in its wake. One could argue that it is the Twilight saga’s great great great grandfather (or something like that).

Call me a wanky purist but I can’t help but think that it’s Dracula FTW, the original and the best. The novel is written in the style of a journal from multiple viewpoints and its dark, gothic style and vivid descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside contribute to a general sense of foreboding as you read the book. Although it’s ending (SPOILER but really everyone knows the story of Dracula by now, surely) is what’s now seen as a typical Hollywood-style band of ‘good’ protagonists triumphs over evil antagonist that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable the book is and how it keeps you on your toes throughout. It was un-put-downable for me and I highly recommend it.

Albert Camus – The Plague

I’ve been a big fan of Camus for some years now, ever since I read The Outsider (The Stranger) and The Plague but my fanboy status of him has since been eclipsed by my newly minted adoration of JP Sartre. Although both are known to be of the French existentialist school of literature, their two writing styles are pretty different. What I like about Sartre is that he exposes the existentialist dilemmas in the hearts of men. His characters (and their development) are key to his fiction and key to exposing his worldview and philosophy as they stumble around key questions in their obviously meaningless lives. Camus is quite different, prone to the semi-heroic protagonist (Meursault, Dr. Rieux), in The Plague he uses a Kafkaesque allegory of a horror-stricken town as a symbol for the German invasion of France and his condemnation of the French people’s slow reaction to the invasion.

“… we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…”

Camus also takes a swipe at religion, as embodied by the character of Paneloux, and weaves into the plot a situation where a child dies of the plague and the child’s innocence is placed in stark opposition to the church’s preaching that the plague is a punishment from God.

Parts of the book also generally lampoon the absurdity of society. Part of why Camus’ town of Oran makes for such a good symbol is because it’s also the average town, much like our towns, all of which could also be struck down by plague and invasion:

“… [in Oran] everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.'”

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Age of Reason

As I mentioned earlier, I was previously a Camus devotee and, although these things are not mutually exclusive, I now give my bromance over to Jean-Paul Sartre. The man is a genius, he somehow has the ability to encapsulate exactly how I think and interact with others in one book, The Age of Reason.

The plot of the book is focused on three days in the life of a philosophy teacher, Mathieu Delarue (I like his surname, ‘of the street’), and his efforts to procure an abortion for his mistress Marcelle. The plot is incidental to the thrust of the book, however, which is involved entirely in the development of its characters, their interactions, thoughts and meanderings in the big, uncaring world that was Bohemian Paris in the late 30s, still living the good life with World War and invasion approaching.

The book is the first part of Sartre’s “The Roads to Freedom” trilogy and the concept of freedom is central to Sartre’s existentialist thrust: that it is the ultimate aim of human existence. Through a variety of decisions and obstacles placed before the characters, Sartre shows what it means to be free in modern society and how difficult it can be.

The idea that Matthieu has to fund an abortion is a good concept to debate freedom around, an abortion is clearly a politically and morally loaded action to undertake, particularly in late 1930s France. It was, of course, possible to procure one, but not without difficulty. One example of an interaction that occurs as a result of it is Matthieu’s conversation with his brother. Matthieu needs 4,000 francs for the abortion and his wealthy brother, an example of a man who has ‘made it’ in a socially approved way, offers him 10,000 francs to achieve ‘the age of reason’, to grow up, accept society and his responsibility as a member of it and marry Marcelle. Matthieu refuses because it (marriage) goes against his concept of freedom.

There is too much in the back for me to quote and analyse so I won’t bother. All I’m saying is, read it. It’s now definitely one of my favourite books of all time and one that had a lot of impact on me, definitely one to take to a deserted island.

Rohinton Mistry – Such A Long Journey

Rohinton Mistry is also one of my favourite authors, and one of the best at recreating the whole post-colonial India vibe that has gotten pretty popular of late (and one several major literary prizes). Such A Long Journey is based in Mistry’s hometown of Bombay, as are many of his novels. Politically important also, set in the year 1971, the book goes into some detail about the problems experienced by Indians living under the Indira Gandhi regime. Mistry has been critical of Indira Gandhi before, in his book A Fine Balance, and I love this kind of political criticism via fiction.

I prefer to read Mistry than some of his contemporaries, such as Salman Rushdie, because I find Mistry’s writing to be honest, emotional and direct. Not overly clever like Rushdie’s, not overly flowery like Arundhati Roy’s, but just good honest character development that really gets you to the heart of his characters and his plots. His ability to paint a picture through the characters is a testament to India’s humanity and Mistry is one of its greatest exponents. In this case, it’s the Parsi colony that Mistry recreates for us through its vividly depicted characters, particularly the long-suffering protagonist Gustad Noble and the trials and tribulations of living a life where the factors that impact us are often chaotic and outside of our control.

Mistry’s novels are for and about people, their real emotions and lives, and the tragedy and joy that go along with them, and Such A Long Journey is a wonderful example and one of his best works.

Hunter S. Thompson – Hell’s Angels

I’ve long thought about making journalism my profession, part of the reason why I maintain my political blog The Zeitgeist Politics and get so involved in Middle Eastern issues. If journalism was a way, one of my heroes would definitely be Hunter S. Thompson. Famous for his ‘gonzo’ style of journalism (the word ‘gonzo’ is apparently derived from South Boston Irish slang referring to the last man standing after an all night drinking marathon). Gonzo journalism is when the writer gets as close as possible to his subjects, not ditching editorial objectivity and distance entirely but at least ditching it for a little while in order to create real emotion and connection. The writing itself is also highly stylised and has often been accused of favouring style over substance. This may be true in some cases, accuracy is put on the backburner a little bit, but if Thompson’s writing is interesting to read, keeps the reader engaged, doesn’t straight up lie but just fails to include some key details then I don’t see anything wrong with that.

To use Hell’s Angels as an example, the book is incredibly engaging, very interesting, gives a first-person account of everything that went on and includes much of Thompson’s own opinions and a few embellishments. In that way it’s similar to a book-length editorial that doesn’t shirk taboo topics, doesn’t have any particular agenda or editorial line, and still allows the reader to make up their own mind. Considering the danger that Thompson went through to write the book, the beating that he did eventually receive, and his commitment to the story, I would say his work is laudable and he deserves his success.

But the style of his writing is what draws me in, here’s one choice excerpt. Guaranteed, it should make you want to read the whole damn book:

Filthy Huns Breeding like rats in California and spreading east. Listen for the roar of the Harleys. You will hear it in the distance like thunder. And then, wafting in on the breeze, will come the scent of dried blood, semen and human grease … the noise will grow louder and they will appear, on the west horizon, eyes bugged and bloodshot, foam on the lips, chewing some rooty essence smuggled in from a foreign jungle … they will ravish your women, loot your liquor stores and humiliate your mayor on a bench on the village square …


Alex Garland – The Beach

You could consider this a departure from the rest of my Top 13 as it barely qualifies as ‘literature’. It isn’t particularly well written and doesn’t necessarily deal with heavy philosphical or political topics but by golly is it a rollicking read. Everybody loves a page-turner and The Beach totally is one. You might remember the film adaptation with Leonardo Dicaprio? Well the book is way better. I’m not going to wax on about it because there isn’t really much to say but the basic gist is: every backpacker’s dream, find a secluded place away from the tourist circuit and just chill away from the world. But what if that dream turns into a Lord of the Flies-style nightmare? Alex Garland will tell you what happens and he will keep you reading to find out until the very last page.

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