The Novels That Shaped Our World

When the Sunday New York Times “By the Book” section asks someone, usually a writer, to identify books they are reading or one with a powerful impact on their lives, I feel so connected to the person when a book I know is named. If it’s a book new to me, I usually look for it in the library.  Like many of you, I love finding book lists and recommendations.

So, when the BBC decided to ask a panel of leading writers, curators and critics to choose “100 genre-busting novels that have had an impact on their lives,” I could not wait to review the list. “These English language novels, written over the last 300 years, range from children’s classics to popular page turners. Organized into themes, they reflect the ways books help shape and influence our thinking.”

I was equally surprised by the books on the list I had read, the books I had not read, and those I had never heard of. Some were predictable, like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Some seemed fun to read but below the mark, like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary. Others were tempting to find, just by the title and author’s reputation, like Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

I’ve read only about a third on the list, some as required reading in my past life, but I was pleased to see a newer book – Homegoing.

My top ten from the list include these I’ve read – and still remember:

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  5. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  6. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
  7. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
  8. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  9. The Witches by Roald Dahl 
  10. Rebecca by Dapne du Maurier

If you are interested in checking out the complete list, you can find it at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/494P41NCbVYHlY319VwGbxp/explore-the-list-of-100-novels-that-shaped-our-world 

My next read should be fun – discovered from the list:

Psmith, Journalist – P. G. Wodehouse  

Free from Gutenberg Press but I want the pictures, so I’ve ordered it from my library.

 

 

The Most Fun We Ever Had

Claire Lombardo’s family saga – The Most Fun We Ever Had –  has all the drama of a television series (“This Is Us” comes to mind), as she follows the Sorensons through their lives.  Although Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson anchor the family with their seemingly perfect married life, and their unlikely unending passion, their dysfunctional daughters command most of the action. Lombardo uses the catalyst of a long lost teenager’s sudden appearance after having been secretly given up at birth for adoption, to explain the family dynamics.

The title is misleading; the story is not the most fun you will ever have, as you follow each character in turmoil, yet it is compelling – and long – over five hundred pages. Marilyn is the stereotypical matriarch who married young and supported her husband through medical school, while having babies and burying her own ambitions, which reappear later. Wendy, the eldest daughter, never quite recovers from having competition in her bright younger sister Violet, born in the same calendar year, followed soon after by Liza.  The youngest, Grace, born later and referred to as the “epilogue” feels left out, despite her parents hovering.  As adults, they morph into a widow; a stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing parenting alone; and a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie

Lombardo follows the family through major events but not in order.  She begins the story with the wedding of the eldest, Wendy, and proceeds to explain the cryptic clues she initially drops through flashbacks involving births and deaths, sibling rivalries and secrets, and lots of lies. Sometimes it’s not clear at first who is speaking.

A few surprises kept me reading, wondering if another would appear – it did – and the rivalry between the older daughters could probably have been a book by itself.  The story is absorbing but also exhausting – and maybe just a little too long.

The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

The Booker Prize This Year

And the Booker Prize, formerly known as Man Booker, goes this year to the one and only – oops. The Prize has two winners this year.  Although I anxiously wait for the annual announcement, when this year’s diluted prize was announced a week ago, I was disappointed – not in the authors who won or the books selected – but in the judges.  

The Prize this year was awarded to two authors for books about women: Margaret Atwood for her much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. 

Erica Wagner, author, literary critic and most importantly a recent former judge for the Booker Prize, noted the rules clearly state “the prize may not be divided or withheld,” and must be given to a single author. The judges for this year’s prize said “we cannot abide by these rules.”  Wagner decided this year’s judges’ decision to blatantly disregard these rules fits well with the current state of affairs.  Politicians on both sides of the pond have refused to follow Supreme Court and Constitutional rules – so far without consequence.

  Although the Booker Prize is for one book, some reviewers supposed Atwood was really receiving well deserved credit for her body of work.  Her first book, The Edible Woman, was published in 1970, and I first connected to her with Blind Assassin in 2000 when she won the Booker Prize, and then backtracked to read her famous Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985. Atwood has also written short stories, children’s books, and several nonfiction books; Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in 2008 may be the best known.  Now in her early 70s, she maintains a lively presence in social media while she continues to write books. She recently said that a person of her age “can afford to be undignified… and to stretch the boundaries.”

Evaristo, 60, the first Black woman to win the Booker, has her own body of work across poetry, short fiction, drama, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio but she was a new author for me. Reviewer Claire Alifree calls her book “a polyphonic sequence of largely unpunctuated, interconnected stories about 12 black women… but despite the lack of conventional punctuation Girl, Woman, Other makes for fast, easy reading.”

 I have not read either book yet, but this year’s thirteen Booker Dozen longlist included My Sister, the Serial Killer – a title I could not resist. This short book was available in my library, and I did read it.

Here is the Prize summary of both winners. Could you have decided on one?

The Winners

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

A collection of stories about twelve very different British characters, mostly women, mostly black. Chapter one starts with Amma, a middle-aged, politically engaged lesbian theatre-maker whose latest play is about to be staged at the National Theatre. Next is her daughter Yazz, a precocious undergraduate who hangs with a group of similarly assertive female pals. The story follows the characters across Britain from twelve different perspectives:

Ten-year-old Grace is an orphan dreaming of the mysterious African father she will never meet. Winsome is a young bride, recently arrived from Barbados, realising the man she married might be a fool. Carole is rejecting her cultural background to blend in at her posh university. Morgan, who used to be Megan, is visiting Hattie who’s in her nineties, who used to be young and strong, who fights to remain independent, and who still misses Slim every day. Some stories are interconnected, some not.

This Tender Land

William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land channels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey in an endearing coming of age saga with Dickensian characters who are just as memorable as the heroes from David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.  Although the author adds an epilogue explaining how the four main characters finished their lives in old age, I was sorry to see them grow up, and will probably always remember them as the four young “Vagabonds” who escaped the clutches of evil and followed the river on a life-changing adventure during the Depression.

Ten year old Odie, short for Odysseus, a natural storyteller who also plays the harmonica, is the narrator.  He bands together with three other orphaned escapees from the Lincoln Indian Training School: Albert, his older brother; Mose, a mute Indian boy who had his tongue cut out; and Emmy, the beautiful curly headed six year old with a talent for changing the future, as they paddle in a canoe from Minnesota’s Gilead River to St. Louis on the Mississippi in search of a home.  They meet an array of well meaning characters, including a band of traveling faith healers, a few ornery swindlers and displaced families,  but the villain they are  constantly trying to escape is the headmistress of the school, a cruel and abusive personification of her nickname, the Black Witch.

Krueger follows these heroic children as they travel through Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and flooded river flats.They meet hobos and scammers, are imprisoned by a farmer, and befriended by Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade and Mother Beal, who shares what little food she has.

Like Odysseus, Odie finally makes it to Ithaca, but Kreuger offers a few surprises and a better ending than Homer’s tale.  Our hero finds hope and renewed faith in a compelling story of family and friendship.   I was sorry to come to the end of the book, and the characters, especially Odie, will stay with me for a while.

If you are looking for a book to discuss in a book club, William Kent Kruger’s This Tender Land offers a wealth of characters and plot lines in an easy to follow narrative.