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A World Of Books – Celebrating World Book Day 2011

March 3, 2011

In honour of today, World Book Day 2011, I thought I would write a quick top 10 of my favourite all-time books to celebrate.

So, first, in at number 10: The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger.

As you will see, Niffenegger’s novel is the only really “contemporary” novel on my list. Of all the “Fiction A-Z” stuff I’ve stuck my nose into since I graduated from my bachelor’s degree in 2009, which includes Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Celia Ahern’s PS. I Love You, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire (among others), The Time Traveler’s Wife is the one that stuck in my memory the most. Niffenegger weaves together Claire and Henry’s narratives into a beautiful polyphony and a touching, nay, tear-jerking, love story. She combines the magic of Henry’s ability with the raw harshness of reality with such credibility that I struggled to put the book down and found myself having to limit myself to a certain number of pages a day so that I could savour every word and not gallop through and then regret it later. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a book that I could read over and over without getting bored. In fact, I may have to go watch the film. Again.

At 9, we have: The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allen Poe

OK, so not strictly a “novel”, but a compelling narrative nonetheless. Even though I’ve only read The Fall of the House of Usher once, and that a good few years ago now, the storyline has stuck with me quite vividly ever since and I keep meaning to go back and read it over again just for the sheer pleasure of it. Madeline’s catilepsy has always borne academic interest for me because of how it connects with vampire mythology and the conventions of the Gothic genre, bringing in storms, old castles, live burials and all sorts of other things to convey the decline of an ancient, feudal way of life.

Coming in at number 8: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice makes me happy. Everybody knows the story, and the figure of Mr. Darcy is one that will live for eternity in the fantasies of women everywhere. The Bennetts are, essentially, a bourgeouis family who fancy their social standing to be better than it really is and Mr. Darcy, by contrast, is virtually aristocratic with his large estate in Derbyshire and ample fortune, which makes the union between Elizabeth and Darcy a little unlikely and romantic, but I think it is this that lends the novel so much of its charm and timelessness. If a girl from such a humble background as Elizabeth Bennett can land a rough diamond like Darcy, then there is hope for all of us.

7th place on my list goes to: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I was first offered a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale when I was at school: the English department were having a clear out of books no longer on the teaching syllabus and my teacher said we could help ourselves to anything we wanted. I picked it up on a whim among a few other things, and to this day, it is the only one I have read. Of course, I have replaced the old, battered copy the school gave me with a nice shiny new one of my own. One of my tutors at uni described The Handmaid’s Tale as a “postmodern masterpiece” and while I don’t much care for labels like that (or postmodernism, for that matter), I do agree with the claim that Atwood’s novel is a “masterpiece”. Set in a dystopic future consequent of, presumably, some sort of nuclear disaster and political upheaval, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously futuristic and politically primitive, reverting to a society in which the role of women is to be subservient to men and nothing more; the penalty for disobedience is death. The ‘historical notes’ appended to the main narrative are controversial; some people love them, others hate them. Personally I’m indifferent. What grabs me more is the cliffhanger ending – did she escape or did she not? If her account of her life has been discovered outside of her home, then it could be fairly safe to assume that, yes, she did, but we can never be sure. Another one that I could read over and over.

In 6th place: To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Last week (I think) I watched a TV programme celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird that discussed whether or not Lee’s novel is still relevant in today’s society. The resounding conclusion was that yes, of course it is. Especially in parts of the USA, where race is still a big issue for some segments of society. However, for me, the novel isn’t so much about the issues of race and class at this time as it is about morality, the prejudices of the judicial system and, more than anything else, growing up. When you ask people which character stands out most for them in To Kill a Mockingbird, 9 out of 10 of them will say Atticus Finch without even really having to think about it. He is the absolute epitome of a good person. His morality is solid; he appears without prejudice of any sort and doesn’t care about his reputation and his own life as much as he does about preserving the honesty and unbiasedness of justice. He is a good father; despite having a very absorbing job, he always has time for Jem and Scout, to explain things to them, read with them, and be their father. He is an imposing man (to his children at least), a figure of authority who has earned all the respect that people have for him. There should be more people like Atticus Finch in the world to fight for the people without a voice.

And now for the big ones: MY TOP 5!

5th: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

What I love most about The Picture of Dorian Gray is the sheer decadence of the whole story and its monstrous outcomes. I love Henry Wotton’s philosophical musings. His controversial philosophical musings are so clearly Wilde’s own that one cannot help but smile while reading this novel. In a painfully uptight society preoccupied with the degeneration of mankind and the prospect of the end of the world, Wilde is able to live vicariously through Dorian, Basil and Henry, making philosophical claims that would not be able to find voice in the real world and bringing debauchery right to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness. The content of the preface to the second edition (a section of which, you may have noticed, is the “strapline” for this very blog) is incredibly poignant and I find myself quoting from it at random quite frequently. The way it talks about art and the critic while also absolving Wilde of responsibility for any offence the reader may take to the novel is brilliant and completely encapsulates all the Fin-de-Siecle sentiments about “Art pour l’Art”. A literary gem.

At 4th, what I feel is a vastly underrated novel: Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is another novel that despite only having read it once, has stuck with me for my entire life. A little more modern than most of the other novels on my list, Rebecca has to number among my favourite stories of all time, not least because, for book nerds like me, it features one of the most famous openings to a novel ever, outshone only perhaps by Pride and Prejudice with “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”. Daphne du Maurier takes a combination of the supernatural, the fantastic, and the mysterious to form a novel part Gothic and part crime fiction, that finds itself absolutely dripping in literary heritage, most recognisably drawing from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Rebecca is a novel that really is crying out for a decent film adaptation. It hasn’t been done since Hitchcock did it in 1940 and it’s time it was done again, preferably with Colin Firth as Maxim de Winter. Tasty.

So, speak of the devil! At 3rd is Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

No surprises here. I love the story of Jane Eyre. Like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre is a little unrealistic in that Jane, the ill-treated child sent away to boarding school and who becomes a governess, falls in love with Edward Rochester, the wealthy owner of Thornfield Hall. Anyone would think that poor girls married rich blokes all the time back in the 1800s with all this carrying on. But what really draws me into Charlotte Bronte’s novel is not the romance between Jane and Rochester as much as it is the role of Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” who is described as “that foul German spectre, the Vampyre” and, as a Creole, is portrayed with all the hideous and animalistic imagery so typical of Victorian racism. I love the role of Bertha so much that I wrote on her extensively in my undergraduate dissertation. The only problem I have with Jane Eyre is that dreadful conclusion. “Reader, I married him.” It is a complete anathema to me. The actual ending, a beautifully touching moment between Jane and Rochester in which she leads the man, maimed and temporarily blind, back towards his home, was such a perfect way to conclude that I cannot for the life of me comprehend why Bronte felt compelled to append something so superfluous and infuriating. Overall, though, one of the most powerful narratives in English literature.

If it hadn’t been for the dreadful conclusion, Jane Eyre may have made second place, but as it stands, the second best book I have ever read is Dracula – Bram Stoker.

Another typically Fin-de-Siecle novel, Stoker’s Dracula is almost unrivalled. Recently featured on the BBC’s Faulks on Fiction series, Count Dracula really is one of the most abominable villains in the English literary tradition. Abhorrent and irresistible at the same time, the characterisation of the Count seductively propels the narrative forward, using conventions of the Gothic and horror genres to create scenes, such as the ghastly blood ritual that Dracula forces on Mina, that remain permanently embedded in the reader’s mind. A thoroughly enjoyable narrative on the surface, Dracula is one of the most complex novels I have ever come across when you really get into the analytical stuff. I have written on Dracula twice already in my academic career and still don’t feel as though I have exhausted all there is to say on the novel. Through the vampire, Stoker vocalises anxieties of reverse colonisation, ambiguous sexuality, mental illness and all the other things that contributed to the Fin-de-Siecle preoccupation with degeneration. He combines the modern with the antique to drive home messages about the death of the feudal system and the rise of the educated bourgeoise, with lawyers, doctors, a woman and a cowboy playing the key roles (Arthur Holmwood doesn’t really count – he only ever follows orders) to exile and destroy the decaying aristocrat. The subplot concerning Renfield and his fluctuating lucidity and zoophagea is fascinating and often, understandably, pales into insignificance when held alongside the rest of the narrative. I would love to be able to get into the Renfield side of things at some point because I feel that that aspect of the plot is sadly neglected in critical circles.

So onto the “winner”. The best book I have ever read is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Emily Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights is not a love story in the same sense that Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre are considered love stories. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff are “starcrossed lovers” of true Romeo and Juliet proportions. Taken in from the wild by the elderly Mr Earnshaw, Heathcliff forges an absolutely impenetrable bond with Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine that borders on incestuous, although textual evidence of their relationship being carnal is purely speculative at best. However, Catherine is, as she grows older, forced to surrender herself to the expectations of society, giving up her life at the Heights, freely roaming the wilderness of the Yorkshire moors, to be confined indoors at the Grange as the wife of Edgar Linton, a plight which eventually culminates in her demise at the beginning of volume two, and from which Heathcliff, who had long been estranged from her and only recently reconciled, never recovers. Haunted by the ghost of his soul mate, his savage nature grows increasingly cruel and his grasp on reality diminishes as his preoccupation with becoming reunited with Catherine consumes him further and further until it eventually takes his life. Emily Bronte, like her sister, plays with animal imagery in relation to the presumably Irish (and therefore foreign) Heathcliff to highlight his social status as inferior to the Earnshaws and the Lintons, casting him as violent, savage, and demonic. She also relies heavily on the cyclic nature of history, entwining two families into an insular micro-environment such that names are repeated and combined to an almost mind-boggling extent. A world outside Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, aside from the infrequent mentions of the nearby village, does not exist. Bronte divides the novel clearly into two volumes; one that focusses on the elder generation, the generation of Catherine Earnshaw, Edgar and Isabella Linton and Heathcliff, and one that focusses on the younger, on Hareton Earnshaw, Cathy Linton and Linton Heathcliff (you see what I mean?), and promises only the vaguest sense of hope when the narrative concludes (far more favourable than the ending of Jane Eyre).

Wuthering Heights is dark, seductive and indulgent. The power of the emotions shared between Catherine and Heathcliff is not easy to forget and nor should it be. I have read this novel so many times that I can quote from it on request, and can find passages in my favourite Penguin Classics edition (that I’ve owned for 10 years and is much thumbed and battered) from memory because I know it that well. It may be a predictable novel to choose as a favourite and I may appear cliché for loving it so much, but Wuthering Heights is a truly iconic piece of literature and no amount of predictability or cliché should prevent me from espousing its greatness.

So that’s my top 10. I admit that there is a bit of a theme running through them, and it definitely doesn’t take an idiot to notice that I’m a big, big fan of Gothic and vampire fiction. Today is World Book Day, the most important day in my year (apart from my birthday and maybe Christmas) because it celebrates something I actually believe in: the power of the written word.

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One Comment leave one →
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