Sunday 29 June 2014

501 Must Read Books - Emma Beare [editor] (2007)

When you love books there is perhaps nothing better than a book about books, which is just about as meta as you can get. I’ve been reading a number of different books lately that are taking some time to get through because they are either massive tomes, or are time consuming non-fiction. 501 Must Read Books is one I’ve been dipping in and out of lately and not only is it a beautiful book to hold and behold, it is also a superb guide to all things bibliographic.

Most book enthusiasts would have at least seen 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006). Well 501 Must Read Books is far superior; for a start it has a better title. I’ve always found the 1001 title concept to be very off putting, cliched and slightly condescending. The former book comprises almost entirely of fiction arranged chronologically both in sections according to era and then by the year the books were published. There are some impressive novels amongst them, but the selections are mostly predictable with a smattering of obscurities to pique the interest of bibliophiles. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is by no means a worthless guide to fiction, but 501 Must Read Books has so much more going for it in terms of layout and book selection.

501 Must Read Books arranges the books by genre, including children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers and travel writing. Throughout these sections there are well written reviews that contain biographical information about the author, the book’s cultural context and impact and detail about the book’s literary significance. There are brilliant photographs throughout and plentiful reproductions of original cover art. Each book featured also has an extra list of the author’s other significant works, which is very handy.

Whilst 501 Must Read Books contains acknowledged greats such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), there are many obscure treasures (to me at least), which is what you really want and expect from a book like this. On the same page as Herzog there is the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker, all published in 1991. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road explore homosexuality in WWI Britain and involves Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. A few pages before that there is Russian author Isaak Babel’s Tales of Odessa, published in 1916. Tales of Odessa is a series of joined novellas exploring life in Jewish ghettos. The review mentions that Babel is one of the greatest short story writers of all time, which is news to me. One of the great things about 501 Must Read Books is that it features many non English novels, such as Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1966) and West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).

A good test of this book for me is the science fiction section, which is a genre I know a great deal about. There are some notable absences, such as any of Iain M. Banks novels, in fact there are no Iain Banks novels in the modern literature section either - what were they thinking? Despite this the selection of science fiction novels is a fine one, with well known works such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) making an appearance.  However it is the less well known I’m impressed with, such as Curt Siodmak’s Donvan’s Brain (1942) and Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), both of which are new to me and sound excellent. This section is also a great reminder of novels I’ve been meaning to read, such as the great Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962). 

Overall there’s much to recommend about 501 Must Read Books. It is in many ways a quality alternative to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Its series of genre sections is its great strength, providing a great guide for those who would like to move away from just reading novels. The memoir and travel writing sections are enticing for me for these very reasons. When there is a guide book about which are the best book guide books, 501 Must Read Books will definitely feature, in fact maybe that’s a section it could add for its own future editions, how meta would that be!

Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Rachel Papers - Martin Amis (1973)

It was about time, I decided, that I paid some attention to the work of Martin Amis. After all he’s a significant figure in literature; named one the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, son of the late Kingsley Amis, friend of the late Christopher Hitchens and writer of lauded novels and non-fiction. Just as well I’d bought The Rachel Papers a few years ago when I was spending money on novels in an irresponsible fashion. In any case, it’s always good to be prepared, and fortunately Amis did not let me down.

The Rachel Papers
happens to be Martin Amis’s first novel and features the first person musings of nineteen year old protagonist Charles Highway. Charles is a perfect summation of what it is like to to nineteen: gross, arrogant and horny, very horny. Charles is on the verge of possibly entering Oxford to study literature. He’s also the writer of copious narcissistic tracts about his life, which includes the Rachel papers. This never ending document details just how Charles will win Rachel over and therefore have his way with an older woman (although Rachel is barely older than Charles) before he turns twenty and leaves behind his teenage years forever. Charles is an easy character to warm to due to his witty and engaging observations of, amongst other subjects, the British class system. Also The Rachel Papers has a narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend, which is very entertaining indeed.

The Rachel Papers reveals a late teenage mind that is obsessed with not only girls, but also gross bodily functions. There is a great deal of detail about various bodily fluids, including descriptions of of what he hacks out of his bronchial lungs and his battles with massive pimples. Although there is plenty of juvenile humour to be had throughout the novel, The Rachel Papers is much more than it initially seems. The novel presents three significant relationship stages: the youthful and lustful first flush of love in the the form of Charles and Rachel, the problematic middle stages in the form of Highway’s sister - Jennifer and her husband - the proudly lower class Norman, and finally there is the passionless endgame of Highway’s parents. The nature of these relationships provides a clever subtext beneath the grotesque that results in a life lesson for Charles Highway which, in the end, cuts through his adolescent anger at his father and his own indulgent narcissistic tendencies.

There are also some literary themes at play, with Highway constantly referencing literary greats such as William Blake and innumerable British poets. It is no coincidence that Highway is attempting to gain entry into Oxford, as it provides Amis with an opportunity to satirize the British education system. Highway is also endlessly taking notes and working on his epically bitter ‘Letter to my Father’ which ironically, it seems to me, is a letter to his future self. It’s tempting to see Amis and his father within this strained relationship. Amis has admitted that Charles is partly based on his youthful self. There’s certainly a cutting self awareness to the narrative, as well as being absolutely hilarious and unashamedly male. Amis also manages to pull off the best sex scene I’ve ever read, which is unflinching in its realism without being cringe-worthy. The novel ends with some of the coldest closing lines I’ve ever read, the kind that only a very brave writer could produce.

Upon finishing The Rachel Papers I began to miss it like an old friend who I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. As a result I’m now a total fan of Martin Amis and I intend to read the rest of his bibliography in order of publication. Amis has been a controversial writer over the years, one who’s raised the ire of many conservative commentators in Great Britain. Over the years his friend Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Amis, something I’m willing to take on now that Hitchens is dead. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek of course, however it is apparent that The Rachel Papers is an easy target for accusations of misogyny. In its defense I have to say that the novel is not necessarily misogynistic in nature; it is much more accurate to view it in anthropological terms. Amis shows that there is a certain confidence in a young man’s stride, but unfortunately there is also an unresolvable duality at the heart of the male psyche that perhaps few woman (and men) will ever come to terms with.