Top Ten Fictional Characters I Have Definitely Fancied

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic is courtesy of a text conversation with Glinda: top ten fictional characters I have definitely fancied.

1. Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. This is sort of weird because my little brother just played Benedick (to rave reviews, might I add), but come on. He’s by far the bravest, funniest, most in-touch-with-his-feelings man Shakespeare ever wrote. Also, young Kenneth Branagh. Awwww.

2. Lord Peter Wimsey, of the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. Urbane, witty, and owner of a landed estate. Also married to Harriet Vane, so two for one, really. (Nb: no actor has ever successfully portrayed this character. All have fallen short.)

3. Hotspur (Harry Percy), from Henry IV pt 1. Another Shakespearean! I love Hotspur’s banter with Lady Percy, his general liveliness, the fact that he obviously adores her and yet also has a certain amount of drive and initiative… Shame he dies, in the end.

4. Levin, from Anna Karenina. There’s just something about a guy who knows how to scythe, I’m sorry. (Lookin’ at you, Poldark.) Also, Levin proposes to his wife by way of the nineteenth-century Russian version of Scrabble, which is pretty much the best thing anyone’s ever done.

5. Jason Compson, from The Sound and the Fury. Sure, he’s a mean alcoholic, but I bet he’d be great in bed. Gotta have an emotionally compromised Southern boy on this list.

6. Madame Goesler, from the Palliser series by Anthony Trollope. One of the few women in this series who manages to make her own way in the world. Her first marriage (to a wealthy old European who then dies) sets her up for life, and she refuses to take advantage of the decrepit Duke of Omnium by marrying him before his death, so she’s got a moral compass. She’s also, obviously, incredibly sexy.

7. Byron Bunch, from Light In August. Byron is not incredibly sexy. He’s about as workaday as you get. But he’s a good, sweet, simple man, and he loves sweet, simple Lena, and sometimes that’s all you need to know about someone.

8. Iago, from Othello. Look, I’m sorry about this, but you know it’s true: inexplicable malevolence is hot. End of.

9. Jonathan Strange, from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. For his insouciance, and for his insane natural talent. He’d get along well with Hotspur, I feel.

10. Angel Clare, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The original Nice Guy. Encounter him in your twenties and you won’t be impressed; encounter him for the first time as a fourteen-year-old and you will be smitten. Then, of course, you’ll be disappointed. At least he starts off well.

No Heathcliffs or Rochesters on this list! At least I appear to have a defined fictional type: clever, funny, sincere (despite the ability to wield irony), and (mostly) wealthy. Hmmm…

Top Ten Novels of the American South

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic I have decided on myself: top ten novels of the American South. (In fact, I may continue to do this, because I’d rather make my own lists than follow someone else’s. I’m a maverick, what can I say.)

  1. Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor. One of only two novels Flannery O’Connor wrote, this is a disturbing but brilliant novel about a “Christian malgré lui”, Hazel Motes, and his misadventures in rural Georgia. You would be hard pressed to find a book that better embodies the impersonal violence of the Deep South.
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is, without a doubt, one of the funniest novels ever written. My dad and I read it out loud when I was about twelve, and we frequently had to stop lest we choke on our own giggles. It’s the story of a Quixotic New Orleansean, Ignatius J. Reilly, and his oblique relationship to the real world. Marvelous, eccentric stuff.
  3. Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty. A Mississippian family saga in brief, written in a gorgeous, ethereal style that perfectly conveys hot evenings, red dirt roads, cotton fields, silk dresses, front porches. There’s a great deal packed into this book, and the narrative voice is almost High Modernist in the way it floats over events.
  4. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. Difficult to choose between this and The Sound and the Fury, but Absalom, Absalom! wins out because of its obsessive interest in heredity and legacy. Nothing could be more Southern.
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and her only novel introduces an African-American heroine, Janie, who is sexually liberated and long-suffering in equal measure. True love, heartbreak, and a hurricane: what more can you ask for in a novel?
  6. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith. This is one of the two on this list that I’ve actually never read, but I’m reliably informed (by my mother) of its greatness. An epistolary novel about the experiences of a young bride, wife, and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains from WWI to the 1960s, it is the Appalachian novel par excellence.
  7. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Oh my goodness. Need I say more? “You can shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus! Boo Radley! Scout and Dill! Tom Robbins! Mayella Ewell! Has ever a writer produced more instantly iconic characters in one work? (Answer: no.)
  8. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is based on an utterly true, but little-known, historical fact: there were (not many, but a few) black slaveowners in the antebellum South. How can you know that and not want to read a book about it?
  9. Cane, by Jean Toomer. The second book on this list that I’ve never actually read, but it, too, is a product of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a novel in the same sense that Spoon River Anthology is; it consists of poems and short vignettes about the experience of African-Americans in Georgia, in the North, and then back to the Southern plantations again. Mostly ignored by critics on its release, it is now considered a seminal work.
  10. Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. An autobiographical novel about abuse, alcoholism, and gospel music, this captures the experience of the so-called “white trash” demographic better than any I’ve ever read. Most Southern novels are either about wealthy whites or poor blacks; the poor white experience is generally not deemed literary, and yet Allison does it. It’s beautiful and distressing in equal measure.

Ten Authors I Really Want To Meet

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic: the top ten authors I’d really like to meet. To be honest, I’ve already met Philip Pullman (we talked about The Faerie Queene), AS Byatt (we talked about poetic meter), Sarah Hall (she basically just signed my books but whatever), and JK Rowling (we talked about her shoes), so I’m not sure where else I can go with this… I’m kidding, I totally know where I can go with this.

  1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a truth-telling genius of polished prose.
  2. David Foster Wallace. I know he’s dead, I don’t care. He’s a genius too. He also probably wouldn’t be a jerk (which is what has disqualified a lot of male authors from this list. I love Faulkner but I would rather be hit in the face with a haddock than have to deal with his after-dinner chat.)
  3. Angela Carter. I know she’s also dead. I also don’t care. Can you imagine what a great person Angela Carter must have been to hang out with?
  4. Anne Carson. Sad and sexy and super-clever. We’d hang out in tall-ceilinged rooms without artificial lighting and leave the window open and shiver in the breeze.
  5. Bill Bryson. He would be hella funny and you’d sit in a pub for hours after lunch and he’d tell you all sorts of mental travel stories like an enormous ursine uncle.
  6. Harper Lee. Quite obviously. She’s about ninety years old and still a boss.
  7. Olivia Laing. She’s hilarious on Twitter and her nonfiction is some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
  8. Hilary Mantel. I would have THE biggest tongue-tied hero-worship embarrassment, but it would be worth it.
  9. Terry Pratchett. Another dead ‘un. He’d be like Bill Bryson but a bit dreamier, and a bit angrier, and a bit more off-the-wall.
  10. Flannery O’Connor. A woman who raises peacocks and writes the kind of violent mysticism that O’Connor did has got to be worth drinking a mint julep with, at least.

Top Ten Books to Revisit From Childhood

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten books from my childhood that I’d like to revisit.

1. The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. The same goes for all the Chronicles of Narnia except for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gets enough attention. The Horse and His Boy is the stand-out of the series because it’s set not in Narnia but in a neighbouring country, Calormen. Shasta’s flight from his adoptive father with the talking horse Bree is adventurous and exotic–one might say “exoticizing”, in fact, because Lewis has been frequently accused of anti-Muslim sentiment in this book. Which is why it would be particularly interesting to read again, now, with an adult awareness.

2. The Alanna and Daine books, by Tamora Pierce. I’ve talked about these before, and I’ll talk about them again. They’re the best books I can think of to give to the little girl in your life, whether she be angry, shy, or somewhere in between. The stories of Alanna, who at eleven disguises herself as a boy to learn the skills of knighthood at the palace of the King of Tortall, and of Daine, who is half-mortal and can speak to and through animals, are not only cracking fantasy; they’re also political thrillers, wonder tales, and accounts of friendship and loyalty. They’re beyond great.

3. A Murder For Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner. I barely remember any of this, but what vividly stayed with me was the idea of a girl (disguising herself as a boy, again–there’s some thematic coherence here) becoming a chorister at York Minster in the late sixteenth century. Alice, a witness to her father’s murder and afraid that his killers were agents of the Queen, becomes Pup, one of the minster’s choirboys. This, plus seeing a Charlotte Church concert on PBS at a young age (don’t mock; my tastes matured), was what set me on the path to choral singing.

4. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is the kind of author you give to children who are already hooked on the mid-century Enid Blyton “jolly good” aesthetic. If your kids are very keen on their Xboxes, they won’t like or understand anything she wrote. But if they like the idea of running away from a mean grandmother to find ultimate acceptance with an eccentric uncle, his one-legged gardener, and the unraveling of a very bucolic English mystery, then they’ll love her. I was in the latter camp.

5. The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Another one that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, this is the story of six urban children whose obsession with Ancient Egypt leads them to play a game where they imagine themselves to be Egyptians; eventually the game seems to be bleeding over into reality. We did Ancient Egypt for practically our entire second grade year at school, but I must have thought the book was too spooky because I’m not sure I ever finished it. I’d love to go back and read it again.

6. Feeling Sorry for Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty. This probably qualifies more as a YA book than a children’s book. Set in Australia, it’s about Elizabeth, a high schooler whose only friend, Celia, begins to drift away from her. It deals with some impressive issues–emotional manipulation, mental health, self-hatred and self-doubt–without ever losing its light touch. I particularly love how Elizabeth’s own insecurities about how other people see her appear in the forms of letters from institutions such as the Association of Teenagers.

7. Glinda of Oz, by L Frank Baum. For some utterly bizarre reason, I read and reread this over the course of the fourth grade. I haven’t the slightest idea why, other than that it was weirdly thrilling: there was an underwater city enclosed by a giant bubble, an evil queen whose name sounded like a hunting cry, a super bright pink cover, and some evocative line drawings by way of illustration. It would be illuminating to go back and read it again, if only to try and work out why it obsessed me so.

Absolutely matchless early noughties cover design, too.

8. Fearless, by Francine Pascal. “A girl born without the fear gene”–childhood wish fulfilment, check. There are about seventeen thousand of these books and they constituted my introduction to young adult literature. Kickboxing! Sex! Cigarettes! New York City! The very act of reading them was an orgy of rebelliousness. How I would love to go back and do it all again.

9. The Cuckoo Tree, by Joan Aiken. And all of the other books that feature the incomparable Dido Twite, but this is probably the best. Set in an alternative England where James III is on the throne and the “Hanoverian faction” plots to replace him, all of the books are masterpieces, but I particularly loved The Cuckoo Tree because its opening scene is in a carriage traversing the South Downs, where my grandparents live. It’s sort of like Jamaica Inn for kids. Phenomenal.

10. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. The more I think about our assigned reading at primary level, the more I appreciate the way we were stretched by our nerd-school’s ethos. I would never, off the top of my head, consider recommending this book to a nine-year-old. And yet it was one of our choices for summer reading when I was nine, and I read it, and loved it. It’s heavy. There’s poverty in the New York Irish community, a fading marriage, parents who play favorites, and a really horrifying attempted rape scene. (At nine, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t recognize this for what it was, although it still thoroughly creeped me out.) But Francie, our heroine, and her mother Katie, as well as her father Johnny and brother Neeley, always shine through as real characters, who feel and suffer and work hard to survive. It’s just a wonderful book. I’m sure I still have a copy at home in Virginia…

Top Ten: Books On My Spring TBR Pile

All of these are sitting on my bedside table right now, in a teetering pile. I hope they don’t fall over.

Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison: because I read his poem “Happiness” in the Guardian books review and thought, Any poet whose idea of happiness involves sitting in the garden with a Thomas Hardy novel and some damson jam on toast is worth investigating further.

Congo, by David Van Reybrouck: because my uncle has worked there for the past four?five? years, and it’s a very complex (and dangerous) country, and Van Reybrouck writes almost novelistic journalism, in the best possible way.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse: because apparently its depiction of twenty-something office-worker malaise is second to none, and I am in a life stage where I can appreciate that aesthetic.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: because, as an American citizen, this is stuff I ought to make the effort to know about. Also because they went to all that trouble to write it.

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi: see above. I think this will provide a very interesting counterpoint to the Senate’s official report, and I will hopefully be able to write an article for Quadrapheme on the benefits of reading private and public documents side-by-side.

Grits, by Niall Griffiths: because I bought it ages ago and it’s about hardbitten Welsh people in the ‘90s and why on earth not.

All About Love, by bell hooks: because bell hooks. Srsly. Why haven’t I just read this damn book already. (Answer: I’m sort of afraid of it. Which is a great reason to start.)

Alms for Oblivion, by Simon Raven: because I gather it’s a bit like A Dance To the Music of Time for the mid-to-late twentieth century. Also because the front cover is psychedelic and I like that. (I actually do make book-buying decisions based on things like this, sometimes.)

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth: because Bunter gave it to me for Christmas, and he managed to read all eighteen zillion pages of it while revising for Finals, so I’ll be damned if I can’t read it under normal circumstances.

The Moon and Sixpence, by W Somerset Maugham: because Bunter (again!) lent it to me, and I need to give it back to him, and it’s based on the life of Paul Gaugin, who, in case you didn’t know, ran away from his wife and family in Paris to become a painter in Tahiti. It’ll be my Classics Club read for March, hopefully.

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn’t Get To

  1. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Already released in the States in May 2014, but only just being released in UK hardcover in January, this debut novel by one of the Internet’s most famous fem-columnists explores the tensions between money and poverty in Haiti, when the wealthy daughter of a Haitian construction tycoon is kidnapped. The body of a woman becomes the playing field for the economic struggles between men, and it’s all done in the most breathtaking prose (apparently). Obviously, I’m desperate to read this.
  2. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. “Survival is insufficient”: a line from an old Star Trek episode, a strong candidate for best life advice ever, and the slogan painted on the caravan of a group of traveling Shakespearean actors as they flee the mysterious pandemic sweeping the American continent. One of the most highly feted books of the year, also a debut novel, also speculative fiction, also has Shakespeare in it. CAN IT PLEASE BE IN PAPERBACK SOON PLEASE
  3. How to be both, by Ali Smith. I’ve only ever read one Ali Smith novel, The Accidental. I barely remember any of it because I was fifteen and at that time of my life I read novels the way children pop M&Ms at Easter, but bits of it sometimes return to me in a fugueish sort of way. This meditation on art and gender should, according to most people, have won the Booker Prize, and it comes in two different versions, where different halves of the story are presented first. It’s a clever conceit, and forces you to think about how you perceive the same piece of art when you return to it repeatedly, with different concerns and experiences each time. Love a good thinky-arty book, me.
  4. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. At Quadrapheme, we got to this book early last year, and our reviewer Martin Cornwell loved it. As a big fan of Beowulf, I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it too; it’s told in a kind of faux-Old English (not super-difficult to work out words, though, and there’s a glossary), and describes the experience of the Anglo-Saxon population of Britain just after the Norman invasion. Medieval post-colonialism: yes please!
  5. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. This isn’t a novel but a collection of essays, and the title alone makes me think that Roxane Gay and I are going to get along pretty well. Writing on why her favorite color is pink, as well as on topics within art and politics, she declares, “I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.” YES MATE. Let’s all just write that on our foreheads.
  6. The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. Raised in a legal family, I have a particular interest in novels that address topics of law, ethics and self-determination. McEwan’s novel is the story of a young man–though still, as a seventeen-year-old, legally a child–who, for religious reasons, wishes to refuse a treatment that could save his life. The book is told from the point of view of the High Court judge in charge of his case. The title refers both to an English statute of 1989, designed to protect the rights of children, and to the young defendant’s attempt to exercise his right to self-determination. I’m often dubious about McEwan, particularly his recent outings, but this looks very promising.
  7. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I loved Gilead, and Lila revisits those characters from a different point of view. Combining Robinson’s usual golden, numinous prose with the darker edge provided by a homeless protagonist, wary of trusting anyone and distinctly uncomfortable fitting into the role of “minister’s wife” that she ends up adopting, this book looks like just the sort of thing that will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with hope.
  8. The Rental Heart, by Kirsty Logan. Anything subtitled And Other Fairytales, which Logan’s debut collection is, is bound to appeal to me. I tend to be very wary of short stories, particularly canonical ones, but Logan’s “exploration of substitutions for love” (as Amazon curiously terms it) looks like it has a strong dollop of the surreal and the poignant–always a winning combination.
  9. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber. Partly this looks so wonderful because it has a similar premise to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which blew my mind last year. First contact with an alien civilization, with a particular focus on how Christianity chooses to evangelize other planets: how could it be anything other than fascinating, meaty and moving? Especially since it’s coming from the pen of the ridiculously imaginative Michael Faber, who already gave us both Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White.
  10. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. A Welsh bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg had a childhood she cannot understand: abducted, but then adopted by her abductors, she traveled around Asia and Europe with this unlikely family for years. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of why, featuring (amongst others) a chess-playing, avocado-eating Russian named Humphrey, a pot-bellied pig, and the shadowy Venn, who seems to have all the answers. Just the thing to get lost in.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.