Books I Read and Liked and You Will Probably Like Too

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS!

A quick guide to some great fiction you should probably read. If you want to. I’m not forcing you or anything, do what you want. But you probably should.

You know when you’re overseas and the times that you would usually fill up with coffee dates and studying and meals with your family and walking to the train station are strangely empty? Or you’re not overseas, but you’re at a loss for what to do? Or you’re feeling lonely? Or happy? Or ecstatic?

Regardless of the situation, reading a good book is the best solution. Even if there isn’t a problem. Because if they’re clever, the authors will have edited out all the boring bits, or turned them into beautiful prose that makes you think about peeling carrots in a whole new way. Reading a good book completely changes your outlook on… everything. It transports you to a world where you can get inside the head of anyone. Books are the great equaliser. No matter how empathetic you are or how many films you watch, no other medium can make you feel so connected to someone else. While I’m reading a story, I feel like I can truly understand the person who wrote it. Or I can understand the version of themselves that they are writing in all their characters. And I don’t mind that my schedule is as free as a house elf with a sock. In fact, I’m rather pleased by the prospect.

So without further ado, here are my top five favourite books that I’ve read while on exchange, accompanied by little blurbs and faux-artsy pictures that I took on my phone:

 

Dept. Of Speculation – Jenny Offill

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A Few Lines That Exemplify the Book as a Whole:

“Are you still emailing or calling her?”

“No,” he says.

“Are you still sending her music?”

“No,” he says slowly. “I’m not sending her music.”

“What? What are you sending her?”

“Just one video,” he says.

“Of what?”

“Of guinea pigs eating a watermelon.”

 What Kant said: What causes laughter is the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.

 What the Girl said: Hey, I really like you.

 

What is it and why is it good?

This is a book about a woman who is also a mother and a wife, and her marriage is falling apart. It’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read. As the author wrote, it’s meant to be devoured in one sitting. It’s about as thick as the radius of my thumb. It’s put together in chapters, I suppose. But each chapter is comprised of paragraphs, many of which are only one or two lines long. The author gets into the brain of this character that thought she was going to be an ‘art monster’: a serious career person in a fancy cultural world in the pages of Vanity Fair. As it turns out, she’s now a wife in a bedbug-ridden suburban house with a colic baby that she loves more than anything. She teaches English at university and tells her students to use less description: show, don’t tell! Her husband begins to dislike her. And in the midst of all this, Offill manages to squeeze in sentences that make you astounded that anyone can live life being that damn perceptive, that can turn the psyche of another human being into words on a page that you and I can read.

 

Side Effects – Woody Allen

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A Few Lines That Exemplify the Book as a Whole:

Needleman was not an easily understood man. His reticence was mistaken for coldness, but he was capable of great compassion, and after witnessing a particularly horrible mine disaster once, he could not finish a second helping of waffles.

 

What is it and why is it good?

Yes, I know he’s getting a lot of bad press recently because he maybe did something terrible. If he did do it, I am in no way condoning it. That is fucking awful. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mr. Allen is a comic genius – at least when it comes to things that aren’t his own life. This book is a collection of short comic stories, and they are just hilarious. They’re all pretty short and contain a plethora of eccentric and idiosyncratic characters with which Mr. Allen has a lot of fun commentating. Think people who wear their dead father’s shoes, but only on one foot and while in the bath, and then you’ve got the vibe of this great compilation. Read it on the bus and people will stare at you as you sporadically guffaw.

 

The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

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A Few Lines That Exemplify the Book as a Whole:

The poorer girls who work part-time in fast-food and clothing chain stores are able to effect something of a moral victory over the girls who receive an allowance from their parents and don’t have to work for cash. When the less wealthy girls visit the white and shining houses of the rich they always come armed with a strong sense of entitlement, opening the fridge and changing the channel and taking long delicious showers in the morning, always with a guiltless and even pious sense of righting some dreadful inequality in the world.

 

What is it and why is it good?

I know Eleanor Catton is now being touted as the literary world’s newest darling because of her 2013 Man Booker winner, The Luminaries. I’ve read that, and I agree that it is very good. But you know what I think is better? Her first novel, The Rehearsal. From the first page, I was hooked. The reviews all describe this book as clever, and it definitely is. Catton utilizes the good old non-linear time structure, and she keeps switching up the perspectives that the book is written from. So we’re constantly on our toes trying to work out when this chapter is written in relation to that bit we just read. But this book is a lot more than smart literary devices. It is about a saxophone teacher and the schoolgirls that come in and divulge their lives to her every week. It is about a drama student and his first year student-devised play. It’s about sex and desire and growing up. And most of all, it’s about truth and reality, and how there is definitely a difference. Catton completely gets all the different types of teenage girls, and she places them accordingly – the awkward ones, the golden ones, the unremarkable ones. With an honesty that cuts through all pretension, Catton reveals all the thoughts that no one wants anyone else to know.

 

How We Are Hungry – Dave Eggers

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A Few Lines That Exemplify the Book as a Whole:

Notes For A Story Of A Man Who Will Not Die Alone

 

Around 8,000 words.

Quick-moving. Simple language. No descriptions of rooms or funishings.

The man is in his seventies. He’s spry, lucid.

Possible names: Anson. Or Basil. Or Greg,

He doesn’t want to die alone.

 

More than that, he wants to die surrounded by as many people as possible. The story is about if and how he might achieve this.

 

Derek: Do you want to limit the receiving line to people you know?

Basil: No, no. Anyone.

Derek: So complete strangers should be able to come up and say hello, goodbye?

Basil: Yes.

Derek: But people are strange. Many people are strange. Aren’t you afraid that there’d be some strange person out there?

Basil: At a thing like this? It’ll be self-selecting, don’t you think? People are strange, but more than that, they’re good. They’re good first, then strange.

Derek: I guess. But there’ll be Goth types, I bet. And evangelicals.

 

What is it and why is it good?

This is another compilation of short stories. And although they couldn’t be defined as ‘comic’, there are certainly moments of intense humour. The author is Dave Eggers, who some of you might know of in his role as the founder of McSweeney’s Publishing (you know, the legends that bring you McSweeney’s Internet Tendency?) Eggers puts his characters together as a builder erects a house. With each abstracted, descriptive sentence, he adds another layer to the random name that he has written down. Eggers slowly evolves the idea of a character into a fully-fledged person with each tacked-on bit of information that he sees fit to provide us with. No word is wasted. No flowery descriptions or unnecessary anecdotes. We are introduced to strained relationships, sad realizations and pithy, limp affairs in coastal hotel rooms. We finish the book with a man who finally understands – God is the sun. And this makes perfect sense to us.

 

Ancient Light – John Banville

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A Few Lines That Exemplify the Book as a Whole:

It occurs to me that of all the women I have known in my life I know Lydia the least. Can it be the case? Can I have lived all these years with an enigma?—an enigma of my own making? Cass’s death conferred, I think, a false weight, a false seriousness upon us and our life together. The task I suppose was no more and no less than that of continuing to mourn her, without stint or complaint, as fiercely as we had in the first days after she was gone. To do otherwise, to weaken, to lay down the burden for the merest moment, would be to lose her with a finality that would have seemed more final than death itself.

 

What is it and why is it good?

First of all, John Banville in general is the best. For some reason in my head I always classify him as the younger, Irish counterpart to Julian Barnes, even though I have no idea if Barnes actually influenced Banville at all. It’s just that both their stories all seem to avoid closure so that they can make some comment about the trickiness of history and truth in narrative. Anyway, that’s a bit of a side note; sorry. Ancient Light is a brilliant novel. It’s about an aging man who is looking back on his life, particularly to his affair as a young boy with his best friend’s mother. There’s more to the plot than that, but that’s the gist. As with all Banville’s work, the plot is not really what is most important. Instead, it is his ability to manipulate language into a thing of beauty, and compress into a few paragraphs a revelation that would take most of us several decades to even begin to formulate. He ruminates on the difficulties faced by the storyteller – how what we might imagine has happened is rarely the truth – and how this re-imagined truth is generally what informs our present character. More than this, Banville elegantly and poignantly shows us how relationships define us in ways that we mostly cannot know.

 

All of these books are highly recommended, guys. They are legitimately excellent, and not just in a “Oh it was a hellavaread!” kind of way. I’ve even been so discerning as to eliminate my beloved ­Hush, Hush­­ fallen angel, teen-fiction series from this list, that’s how much I care about it’s literary integrity. But if you can’t be bothered reading stuff with words of more than three syllables, definitely go for anything by Becca Fitzpatrick. She captures the angsty world of fallen angels with aplomb, and all her books come with muscly dudes and hot chicks pictured on the cover. Thumbs up!