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The Only Ten Books I’ll Ever Need

January 18, 2016
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I got married at age 28 and had my first child at age 34. Every now and then, my mother will wonder aloud, “What the hell were you guys doing for six whole years?”

Yes, well, Mother, what we were doing, in fact, was having fun. Enjoying life and our (then) considerable disposable incomes. Drinking whole cups of coffee without having to reheat them even once. Watching 24 box sets on a loop until we had finished off a whole season in one day. Playing darts in our pajamas. Drinking shitloads of wine. Concocting and then cooking elaborate meals featuring dishes such as tarte tatin and duck confit. Oh my God, having SEX, even.

Those were the days.

Anyway, now that I have two kids and no income at all, I look back upon those halcyon days and what I actually miss the most is the reading. Because I was a reader. Back in those days, I would embark upon a theme – the Great American Novels, the Russian Masters, or German post-war daftpunkt werkit (I may have made the last one up) – put in a massive Amazon order, and then spend days and days on the couch reading them all from front to cover. I slipped under the covers with these books, luxuriated in them, losing whole nights to them, while my lovely husband (then still doting and adoring) ferried fresh coffee, pancakes, or glasses of wine to me for sustenance.

When I had my first child, the reading stopped (as did the ferrying of sweetmeats). At first, I brushed it off as temporary and congratulated myself for getting through a whole issue of Hello without nodding off. Now, though, two kids in, I have to confess that the Swiss cheese-like state of my grey matter might be permanent. I have to come to terms with the fact that I might not even read another new book ever again.

But that doesn’t mean that I am going to settle for “easy” reads, which more often than not translates to trashy or badly-written (Fifty Shades of Grey, I am looking at you). There’s a line below which I cannot go, no matter how gnat-like my current attention span is. I have my standards. Hell, I even left a breastfeeding group on Facebook because I internally combusted with rage every time someone demonstrated their mistaken belief that “your” is the declension of “you are”.

So here’s what I’ve decided. If I never read a new book again in my life, that’s ok. I give myself permission to stop feeling guilty about not reading enough new stuff. I’ve read enough books for me to be fine with reading and re-reading the books I already have and love. For the sake of round numbers, let’s go with 10. Naturally, for such a reductionist task, one must have a strict list of criteria. Here are mine. The books on this list are all:

  • So rich and packed with detail that they allow you to discover new aspects of the characters and situations every time you read them.
  • Easy to read but not intellectually weak or facile.
  • Possessed of the power to evoke strong emotions and feelings.
  • Tilting towards the fat and descriptive, rather than thin and minimalist in style, so that you feel nourished upon their consumption.

In no particular order, therefore, here are the ten books that I’d be happy to read for the rest of my life, even if I couldn’t read any others or any new books.

 

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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I love Alexandre Dumas because he was such a total whore – he’d sit down at his typewriter and bang out 10,000 words a day because a magazine was paying him, he never read back what he wrote, cheerfully stole or “borrowed” the writings of peers and ghostwriters for his own novels, and had 40 different women on the go (true fact). His joie de vivre and appetite for life spilled out into his fat, “twisty” novels, many of which were serialized in magazines and contained cliffhangers to keep subscribers excited for the next installment. Basically, if Dumas were alive today, he’d be writing for Coronation Street, or one of those Columbian telenovelas.

Of the copious Dumas “oeuvre” (although I hesitate to call what are essentially a collection of pot boiler adventure novels by that high-fallutin’ term), the Count of Monte Cristo is by far my favorite. First it plunges you into absolute misery as you live alongside the unlucky Edmond Dantes in the Chateau D’If, wrongfully imprisoned the day of his wedding, but then it slowly unfolds a revenge plot of such devilish cleverness that you can feel your heart filling up with the savage delight of schadenfreude.  It’s basically, “Ooh, boy, are you about to pay for what you did”. It’s 1,200 pages of AWESOME.

Modern-Day Screen Equivalent: The TV series Revenge.

Read while: Wearing the fragrance Monte Cristo by Masque Fragranze, an oily, dusty animalic scent that smells like the despair and unwashed man musk in Chateau d’If, as well as the pieces of celery caught in Edmond Dante’s beard. Eating pizza topped with lard and candle tallow, apparently one of Dumas’ favorite meals. And of course, a large helping of revenge served chilled from the fridge.

 

A Rabbit Omnibus by John Updike

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It always amuses me when I see people fretting over whether Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis are writing the Great American Novel to end all Great American Novels, because guys, sorry, but John Updike already beat you to it.

I first read this when I was 11 or 12 – the first three novels in what would much later become a tetralogy of novels (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest) came bound in one volume that was, oddly, always lodged behind the pipes of our upstairs toilet. Dying for some peace in a household of rowdy Irish brothers, I would lock myself in the toilet and get lost for hours in the world of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, whose mundane life the books followed from his late twenties to his death in his late sixties.

I learned that nothing much happened in American suburbia but that, strangely enough, the internal trials and tribulations of a weak, immoral, and often very irritating man was enough to keep me hooked. Looking back, I can see that Updike, in laying down the minutiae of one man’s unremarkable life, ended up painting a picture of the human condition. Fifty years on, this masterful pinpointing of the modern middle-class malaise is as relevant as ever.

Read while: Gazing at your own navel, gripped by an internalized sense of anxiety that is in no way supported by your comfortable middle-class life. Wearing L’Heure Bleue parfum by Guerlain, a blue-tinted exercise in melancholy. Drinking T’ga za Jug, a Barbera-like red wine from Bulgaria that translates to “Longing for the south”.

 

Winds of War and War & Remembrance by Hermann Wouk

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I worked for a huge Jewish charitable organization (World ORT) in Montenegro for many years, and one summer, a young intern by the name of Rebekkah came out to us to gain a bit of work experience. More valley girl than Jewish princess, her father feared her becoming less and less Jewish in outlook, so halfway through her term, he sent her a care box containing, amongst other things, these two massive novels. She took one look at them, laughed, and promptly dumped them into my lap. I started reading that night, and I don’t think I was able to sleep until I had devoured both volumes.

The two books, taken together, span the entirety of World War 2 as seen through the eyes and experiences of the sprawling Henry clan, which itself revolves around the naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry. Modest and capable, Pug becomes the trusted emissary of President Roosevelt, so he is thrust into the nerve center of the war, and thus we gain a bird’s eye view of the most crucial historical events such as Yalta, the Pearl Harbor bombings, and backroom dealings with Hitler. His children and their spouses get caught up in the war, with some of them ending up in concentration camps or major battles, whose descriptions go on for 1,000 pages at a time but hold you utterly rapt.

I read these books at least once a year, and they never fail to teach me something important about the war, about honor, and duty, and yes, the human condition – but they entertain me at the same time. It’s like the trashiest Jackie Collins multi-generational saga grafted onto a history book. It is purely down to this novel that I understand what went on in WWII – sorry school.

Modern-Day Screen Equivalent: Well, it’s not modern, but they did actually make a TV mini-series out of this in 1983, starring Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw.

Read while: Wearing Joy by Jean Patou – the pure perfume, obviously – to match the gilded, hopeful optimism of soldiers going off to war in the early years. Once you get into the second book and all hope is lost, you should dab on a bit of Guerlain’s Mitsouko, its peach, spices, and moss heralding a new, brisk outlook on the world, when all illusions have been dropped.

 

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Forget everything you think you know about Russian novels – that they’re too long, the names are too long, and they are hard to read, and so on. In fact, once you get into them, you’ll see that the great novels of Russian literature are the juiciest page-turners of all time, rife with intrigue, sadness, fun, betrayal, love, sex, war, and basically, all the good stuff. I toyed with putting Anna Karenina in this spot, for example – it’s just a cracking good read, and far better than War and Peace – but I had a deeper emotional reaction to the Idiot, so here it is.

The novel is based on the story of Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin who is so good and open-hearted that everyone who meets him thinks he is an idiot. Idiot as in the “he’s two cards short of a full deck” kind of way, not the modern-day, “will you look at that gobshite over there?” sense of the word. Dostoevsky sets Myshkin up as a Christ figure but doesn’t give him any divine powers, as a sort of experiment to see how a good, beautiful, Christ-like man would survive in our artificial and mendacious world today.

As you can imagine, we royally fuck it up.

I love this novel because it bitchslaps me in my moral center. Its message is so excoriating that I am surprised the book doesn’t burn through my hands every time I read it. Dostoevsky sets out “to depict a completely beautiful human being” and then allows modern society to tear him apart like a pack of wolves. Something about that is compelling, like rubbernecking at a car accident site.

Read while: Eating caviar and sour cream on blinis. Wearing Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire, a leathery amber perfume so soaked in vodka and champagne, your family will start hiding the booze from you.

 

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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The movie is excellent but the book is miles better. Forget the Scarlett O’Hara you think you know and love from the silver screen – this Scarlett is much tougher and more complex. The terrifying social fall of the O’Hara’s against the backdrop of the war in the south and Sherman’s March to the Sea is depicted with such texture in the book that Scarlett’s grasping at survival at all costs makes more sense. In the movie, at times, she just seems like a pretty girl being given her comeuppance, but in the book, it is easier to admire the true grit that emerges in her because we are able to see exactly how sharp the rock is that’s being pressed down on her white little neck.

The sheer range of the historical and social research that went into the novel doesn’t quite translate to the screen, and so provides only a 2D setting against which the character of Scarlett unfolds, thus compressing her into a series of “moments” that only tell part of the story – those flashing green eyes, the dress made out of curtains, being cruel to Mellie. In the novel, the background and the other characters frame Scarlett like a black velvet cloth cupping a diamond, lovingly revealing her every angle and flaw, so that we may see her clearly. She may still be unlikeable, but by God, we can see every bit of her.  

Margaret Mitchell said that the main theme of Gone with the Wind is survival. “What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t”, she said. The ones that survived had what was called “gumption” back then – and Scarlett had gumption in spades.

Read while: Drinking bathtub gin (whatever that may be). Wearing a swathe of green curtains wrapped around your body. Dripping wet in Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens because it smells like the wet carrots Scarlett wrenched from the cold, red soil of Tara in her most desperate moment (“As God is my witness; I will never go hungry again”).

 

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

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The Golden Bowl is the last novel Henry James ever completed, and as per his later work, it is complex and impressionistic rather than realistic (= “easy to read”), so a part of me quakes at putting this on the list. To read it, I have to relax my mind’s eye like I do when looking at one of those “magic eye” paintings, and if I succeed in letting go, all the detail of the novel rises up to meet me, like running my fingers across a sheet of Braille and eventually finding the pattern that unlocks the message.

It tells the story of two couples – Maggie and her rich American father, Adam, who are married to the impoverished Prince Amerigo and the feckless (as in “All my fecks have been given out – I have not a single one left to give”) Charlotte Stant respectively. Charlotte and Amerigo used to be lovers, and Charlotte is Maggie’s best friend from school, so things are….complicated. The symbol of the story, and the object around which it revolves, is the gift of a golden bowl picked out one day as a gift by Charlotte and given to her husband, Adam. The golden bowl is beautiful on the outside but there is a tiny, almost invisible flaw in it that symbolizes the tiny crack that appears between the happy couples in the form of an affair.

The whole thing takes place in a series of internal monologues and tortured conversations between the protagonists where nothing is said and everything is implied. At first, it’s enough to drive anyone mad, but relax into it, and you will see that the story actually moves forward and takes shape even though you think absolutely nothing is happening, and then, before you know it, you are both caught up and deeply moved. It’s an immersive experience – you see nothing on the surface, and then you dive down, and you are in the subcutaneous layer where the heart and the other organs are writhing.

They tried to make a film out of this, starring Uma Thurman, but this was always going to be an impossible book to translate onto the screen. I saw the trailer and it was basically two people walking around a garden. Yep. That’s what the novel looks like from the outside too.

Read while: Wearing Chanel’s 31 Rue Cambon, a modern chypre fragrance with a dark, almost animalic labdanum dry down that its sparkling bergamot and iris topnotes belie. Like the novel, this scent has hidden depths and flurries, sucking down notes and then spitting them back up again on your skin later, just when you think the show is over. Eating rolos, because like the Golden Bowl they are utterly perfect to the eye (and in the mouth) but contain a fatal flaw – you always have to give your last one away.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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Chilling. The first time I read it, I wasn’t a mother and I didn’t see the ending coming, so it laid me flat. For about a week afterwards, I could barely function, so utterly devastated was I. Everybody knows the story by now – it’s about a boy called Kevin who went on to organize and carry out a school massacre. Narrated by his mother, the story asks whether monsters like Kevin are born or made. Interestingly enough, my opinion on this (and on the reliability of the narrator) changes each time I read it, which is surely the hallmark of a great writer. Rich with psychological detail and irresistible “what-ifs”, it is a novel I come back to again and again.

I also like that Lionel Shriver wrote this as a sort of test to herself on whether she should have children or not – she ultimately decided not – because it shows that women writers can be just as brave, honest, and ruthless with their literary exploration as men.

Read while: Peeing on a stick and waiting for a little blue line to appear, wondering if you are gestating your own little Kevin inside of you right now. Wearing Like This by Etat Libre d’Orange, a perfume made for Tilda Swinton, who played Kevin’s mother in the (atrocious) movie adaptation. The fragrance itself is the opposite of dark and challenging – it’s an ode to the odors of the home kitchen, with ginger, pumpkin pie, and Scotch. But with a book this dark, you need a bit of comfort and things don’t get much more comforting than Like This.

 

Riders by Jilly Cooper

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Rubert Campell-Black, oh my! Riders did more for my sex education than any awkward book my mum ever bought me. A massive romp through the glamorous, bed-hopping world of show jumpers in the Cotswolds, Riders is about the rivalry between the dashing, womanizing Campell-Black and the dark, gypsy-like Jake Lowell (“under whose magic hands even the most difficult horse or woman is charmed”- SCREAMING) as they compete their way to the Olympics. Enormously trashy and brilliantly written, this is still a pleasure to read, although all the references to “dripping wet bushes” may be lost on a whole generation who grew up whipping off every pubic hair as it emerged.

Read while: Wearing Arabian Horse by Parfumerie Generale, which quite literally smells like the sweaty mane of a horse, or Chanel Cuir de Russie, which smells like you just rolled off a horse and into a ballgown without so much as a whore’s bath, as they claim Camilla Parker-Bowles used to do.

 

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Believe it or not but I once was part of a team that organized a countrywide effort to collect illegal weapons and handguns* from citizens in Montenegro. The campaign was called “A Farewell to Arms” because I am nothing if not irritatingly literal-minded. Feeling like I should at least familiarize myself with the book that had lent its name to the campaign, I ordered it on Amazon.

It’s about the life of American Frederic Henry who’s serving in the ambulance corps in North-West Italy during World War I, and is written in the terse style of Hemingway, who obviously believed that there was a tax on adjectives and who probably would have done away with the indefinite article if allowed free reign. Although I’m not a big fan of this type of butch, muscular writing, I admit that this is a story that needs to be told with a stiff upper lip.

The ending is so bleak that I always feel like throwing the book at someone when I’m done. And when I was watching the Silver Linings Playbook (the movie) and a character who’s reading it actually does throw the book out the window, I felt a thrill of recognition – yeah, this book is poison. But I read it over and over again, and it’s like picking at a scab – I have a weird compulsion to do it.

*Originally we thought we’d just be collecting the various handguns that the State had distributed to citizens during the last war for, er, self-defense, but we ended up collecting a fair number of rocket launchers and ground-to-air missile launchers too. Oh, and a worrying amount of unexploded ordinances and hand grenades, some of them stacked five deep under grandma’s bed. Lovely.

Read while: Drinking a metal cup of “rusty wine” (open a bottle of wine and let is slowly oxidize in a hot kitchen for four days before consuming) in sympathy with the rotten-tasting wine our hero Henry and his mates have to drink on the frontlines. Playing Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones on a loop. Wearing Black Aoud by Montale and generally reeking of iodine, bandaids, and bitter despair.

 

Beach Music by Pat Conroy

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Confession time: the more I re-read this novel, the more overblown and ridiculous it appears to me. But despite my misgivings, it still gives me plenty of meat to chow down on every time I turn to it, covering as it does a multi-generational themes such as holocaust survival, suicide, family trauma, the universal problem of mothers, and the in-jokes, petty grievances, and watertight loyalty that binds families together even in their worst moments. Flitting between Rome, Italy, and Charleston, South Carolina, the story follows Jack McCall and his attempts to escape his gothic southern past and his wife’s recent suicide.

When I read this book, my nose runs, I howl with laughter, I curse, I cry great big wracking sobs that make my ribs ache….great literature this might not be, but it sure gets my engine running, every time. Of course, the love with which Pat Conroy paints his beautiful south makes it one of the main characters in the book – and it’s for this reason that I’ve always longed to visit South Carolina and the Low Country. I’ve read everything he’s written, but this is the one that totally gets me.

Read while: Eating shrimp and grits on your lap, to be followed by a pot of crawdaddies, allowing butter to run down your face and arms onto the pages of the book. Drinking a glass of sour mash bourbon or better yet, moonshine your daddy brewed in the backyard last summer. I honestly don’t know what any of this stuff is, but Pat Conroy makes it all sound so good. Wearing Kiste by Slumberhouse, a boozy bourbon and peach perfume with strong undercurrent of southern tobacco leaves and iced tea.