Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Favorite 10 - Books (Fiction)

This one wasn’t easy either. It began with 54, came down to 17, and finally, it got stuck at 11. Similarity of the subject in two titles made things easy for me. ‘Brave New World’ lost to ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (my apologies to Mr. Huxley).

*The parameters remain the same as mentioned in the previous list. a) Its impact on me & b) Longevity
**The list is in no particular order and it.
*** It can change in 10 years time.

1. The Old Man and the Sea: Ernest Hemmingway, 1952
This eternal tale of human being’s undying spirit is short and hard-hitting. The plot is simple. An old fisherman wants to catch the largest marlin ever, one last time.

I have visited the old man Santiago’s life on three occasions and while writing this, I feel like making the fourth visit.

2. The Roads To Freedom Trilogy: Jean Paul Sartre, 1945 – 49
The plot revolves around Mathieu, a Socialist teacher of Philosophy and his set of friends. The time-span is between the Bohemian Paris of 30s to the end of World War II in Europe.

The first part of the trilogy, ‘The Age of Reason’ which talks about Sartre’s idea of freedom as the ultimate aim of human existence, remains a personal favorite. It’s one of those books which have affected me deeply and shaped my thinking in many ways.

3. The Outsider (The Stranger): Albert Camus, 1942
Yet another one from ‘Existentialism’ stable though Mr Camus himself always denied it. Yet another short and hard-hitting one.

And it begins with one of the best possible beginnings. A beginning that sums up the character and the book in just a few sentences, but still makes you want to read more. Consider this:

"Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: `Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy.' Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday."

This debut from Camus is worth many visits. He was just 29 when he wrote it.

4. Nineteen Eighty -Four: George Orwell, 1949
Set in the futuristic (1984) London, this classic dystopian novel depicts a totalitarian regime, which the central character, Winston Smith wants to rebel against. It gave the world many terms and concepts which are commonly used in English. Big Brother, Doublethink, Thoughtcrime and Newspeak have all come from here.

Closer to my profession, it inspired the famous 1984 commercial for Apple Macintosh.

5. Crime & Punishment: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1866
I picked up this one from a book-fair at the age of 14 because I had heard about it from the General Knowledge book. The title intrigued my teenage mind and the Russian book fair helped. It kept lying with me unread for years as I could never go beyond a couple of pages.

I got into it again at the age of 24 and this time the pages just kept flipping. It stunned my system with its depiction of mental anguish and moral dilemmas of the central character, Raskolnikov. He murders a hated and unscrupulous pawn-broker for money and also argues that by doing this, he is getting rid of an evil and useless person from this world.

I felt that Dosteyevsky analyzed human mind and heart like no other!

6. The Heart of the Matter: Graham Greene, 1948
This was the first Graham Greene book I read. It encouraged me to read other titles by him only to find out that this one is very different from his other works. Decoding differences between complex human emotions like pity, love, pity misunderstood as love, and pride, it’s a far cry from his usual political espionage novels.

The story revolves around a police officer, Scobie, his relationship with his wife and with a young widow. This Scobie has a feeling of pity for everyone and everything. In Greene’s own words, ' The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride."

*I had a tough time selecting this over another Greene gem, ‘A Burnt Out Case’.

7. Tropic Of Capricorn: Henry Miller, 1938
It’s a raw, seamless, unbridled, flow of emotions and experiences. This semi-autobiographical sequel to the 1934, Tropic Of Cancer was banned in US until 1961. The absolutely no holds barred passages of sexual experiences were too obscene for those times.

However, there are some lovely general (read non-sexual) passages which turn the book into a masterpiece. For example, this memory from his childhood:

"What amazes me, when I look back on it, is how well we penetrated to the essential character of each and every one, young or old...The learning we received only tended to obscure our vision. From the day we went to school we learned nothing; on the contrary, we were made obtuse, we were wrapped in a fog of words and abstractions...What I am thinking of, with a certain amount of regret and longing, is that this thoroughly restricted life of early boyhood seems like a limitless universe and the life which followed upon it, the life of an adult, a constantly diminishing realm...The taste goes out of the bread as it goes out of life. Getting the bread becomes more important than the eating of it. Everything is calculated and everything has a price upon it."

Absolute free flow!

8. Mrs. Dalloway: Virginia Woolf, 1925
It’s about a single day but flows forward and back in time, in and out of character’s minds and the result is an extraordinary novel. At the core is an existentialist description of a bored and rich housewife’s attempt to throw a party, in a post World War I London. On the fringes are other subjects, one of which is the scariest description of mental illness and depression. Having experienced such a disorder at close quarters, I can completely identify with it.

Much later, Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (also turned into a brilliant movie by the same name) paid a great tribute to the genius of Ms Woolf.

9. Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck, 1937
Once again, this was my first exposure to the genius of John Steinbeck and I turned into an immediate fan, reading almost all the other works by him. Perhaps because it’s the first that I read by the author, or because it’s so simple, short and profound, it remains a great favorite.

It’s a tale of two roaming ranch boys and friends, one smart and one not so smart, during the Great Depression in California. The tragic tale narrated in the brilliant Steinbeck style makes it an all time great for me.

*I also enjoyed the Gary Sinise directed movie with the same name.

10. Disgrace: J M Coetzee, 1999
An ageing Professor is broken to pieces before he finds some redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. Set in post apartheid South Africa, it has its share of political conflict and situation of the country in the backdrop. But, it’s basically about this guy who has fallen to disgrace, and in the process learns to be a human.

One of the best usages of the language, English I’ve come across. Not a word extra yet conveys a universe!

One spends a lifetime with a book and I relived ten of those while making this list. I hope you like going through it and perhaps share your list.