The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

I’m happy to announce I’ve just passed a small milestone. This post marks my 200th post! About time, eh? 🙂 While I know it’s not that many posts, considering I wasn’t sure if I would continue blogging that long ago reaching 200 posts is something I’m quite pleased with.

I’ve known the 200 was coming for some time and it seemed like a good time to change my blog as well. I’m now self-hosted. After several experiences on WordPress, I felt it was time for a change; I have less time for blogging and this way I can enjoy writing at my own pace. I’m looking at it as a chance to explore some new ideas, so I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

I wanted to do a special post for my 200th and decided to save the second part of my books project for the occasion. I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out so far. It’s been fun revisiting these books again.

This second part is more about the books that have shaped my philosophy. There’ll be one last part to end the series next week, a profile of the three books that have had the biggest impact on my life. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. I wonder which books have changed your life?  😉

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral is one of those novels that leaves you reeling. On the surface it’s about two parents whose idyllic life is destroyed when their daughter sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War. But beneath that Roth examines the morality of objectivism (Merry becomes a Jain, concerned about murdering germs while oblivious to the deaths she caused) and the bond between fathers and daughters. Swede’s world falls apart and Pastoral left me wondering how far we’ve really come in 40 years. Which is Roth’s point.

The Speaking Land by Ronald and Catherine Berndt
I’ve been interested in Aboriginal mythology since I was young, particularly the stories of The Dreaming and the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginal culture dates back over 50,000 years and The Speaking Land is the best collection I’ve read; it gives a real sense of the beliefs behind the myths, the reverence Aboriginal people have for the land and the spirit. It showed me an Australia I didn’t know, one I wish more people could see.

God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
God Said, Ha! is remarkable in that it deals with big issues like cancer and death in an honest way and never feels depressing. In the mid 90s Julia Sweeney had just begun to look forward to a new life, but then her brother was diagnosed with cancer. As she started to care for him her parents moved in – and then Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s a sad memoir and yet incredibly funny and insightful. It shows how laughter can get us through even the most difficult of times.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I first read Nietzsche in high school but didn’t try again until a few years ago. As a critique of society Beyond Good and Evil is still relevant but it’s Nietzsche’s development of the “will to power” I find interesting. It’s often interpreted as violent (or fascistic) but that wasn’t what Nietzsche meant; rather it’s about overcoming individual weakness, explaining the motivations of individuals and societies and their actions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read and has influenced my writing many times.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I first read Kafka at about the same time as Nietzsche and I loved the absurdity of Metamorphosis. The idea of waking up one day as a giant insect makes the story so surreal but also very human. Kafka is less interested in the science of the transformation than in how Gregor tries to adjust to his new life. In the end it’s a very sad, tragic story, and yet darkly funny. Which makes its critique of society and our loss of humanity all the more poignant.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was one of the first SF books I read. It’s about an alien race that suddenly appears on Earth, promising to help humans reach their full potential; and yet reaching that potential means losing everything that makes us who we are. Clarke uses the story to explore the idea of utopia and what the loss of inspiration means for society. The depth of ideas in the novel is staggering and it leaves you both a little wiser and sadder for having read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it; I was too young but I was stunned when I reread it. It’s a moral fable, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, and it has a feel of history to it that makes it all the more troubling. Set in an America where women are property and the Handmaids’ only role is to have children, Handmaid is eerie when you think about the role of women in some countries. Atwood’s other novel Oryx & Crake is almost as powerful.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
It’s hard to decide which is the better novel between Animal Farm and1984 but Animal Farm, with its complete disdain of power and those who abuse it, has always left more of an impact on me. As a novel critiquing social and political power it’s unparalleled, but also in the way it continues to raise concerns about the way we exploit animals and their conditions. In the end it’s a pessimistic novel but it’s ironic as well that by turning Stalin and Trotsky into animals, Orwell actually succeeds in making them more human.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Of all of Hemingway’s works it’s The Old Man and the Sea that I’ve always related to the most. It’s exquisitely written and such a simple idea, a battle of wills between an old man and a marlin… yet it’s so much more than that. It represents the maturity of Hemingway and his writing; how rather than have Sargasso return victorious as a young Hemingway might have written, instead he returns with no more than a skeleton. It’s a lesson about life and courage and I’ve learned more about writing from Hemingway than any writer.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Like Childhood, The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first SF books I read. The story revolves around Genly as he tries to convince the inhabitants of Winter to join the Ekumen, but it’s really about gender and friendship. The Gethenians are hermaphroditic and the friendship between Genly and Estraven forms the heart of the novel. Darkness was one of the first SF novels to create a world convincingly, with believable characters. It influenced much of my early writing and still does today.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger had a huge impact in the 1960s, introducing “grok” to the English language. It follows Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after a failed mission to Mars. When he returns to Earth and learns about humans, Mike begins to spread his Martian philosophy, forming his own church, causing others to begin to see him as dangerous. Stranger is a brilliant idea-driven novel and one of the few SF novels that’s genuinely literate; reading it is like getting a high of ideas and the scope of the novel is breathtaking. It’s the kind of novel I’d love to write one day.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’ve always enjoyed old myths and my favourite myth is the legend of King Arthur. When I first read White’s version what struck me about it was the tone; it starts playfully but by the end it’s mirthless. Yet that’s what makes it so strong. White uses the legend as an allegory for World War II, filling it with the realities of war and an examination of communism and socialism. It’s as much about human nature as chivalry, Arthur struggling to find a philosophy that fits his (and our) world. It’s a sad, beautiful novel, one I reread regularly.

The Books That Changed My Life (part one)

I have some news. No, unfortunately I haven’t found an agent yet (although hopefully soon!); I’ve decided to start a second blog. I’ve spent the last few weeks setting it up, so feel free to have a look and let me know what you think.

It’s called Modern Classics and came about when I decided to move the book reviews from my blog; they don’t really go with the rest of my content, so the new blog collects them all in one place. I still plan to talk about books on this blog as well; I just haven’t had much to post about recently and I think separating the content will help both blogs in the end.

So to celebrate I thought I’d do a couple of posts about some of the books that have changed my life. This first part looks at the books that changed me as I grew up; the second part will be the books that have shaped my ideas about philosophy and life. I’ll post the second part in a couple of days so it won’t be too long to wait. I wonder how many you’ve read? 😉

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
I first read Anne Frank’s diary in high school and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s one of the most haunting accounts of the Holocaust I’ve experienced and what still strikes me about it is how mature a writer Anne was; she made you feel like you were in the warehouse with her, and her family felt like your family… that’s why her loss feels so devastating to anyone who’s read it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
I had all of the Narnia books as a child but Wardrobe was my favourite; I must have read it at least 50 times. It was one of the first books that brought my imagination to life, of Narnia and other worlds… in many ways it was the first book that made me want to write. It made me dream and that’s something I’d love to do for someone else one day.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit was my favourite book as a child; one of my teachers recommended it to me and I still remember the feelings of sadness and loss that ran throughout the story… it was beautiful and unlike anything I had read, the perfect fairy tale. I still have my original copy; I plan to pass it on one day.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I read Shelley’s novel as a teenager and admire it even more now. As a work of science fiction it’s virtually flawless and still one of the most unsettling novels I’ve read. Its examination of the ethics of creating life has influenced me many times in my own writing. I always found the monster rather pitiful… with the developments in genetic engineering, it’s still very important today.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Holmes series has been a favourite since high school; I enjoy the novels but it’s the stories I like best. They’re so well crafted (particularly The Adventure of the Speckled Band) and rarely feature superfluous details; I learnt a lot about structuring short fiction from Doyle. The character of London from the 1890s has always stayed with me as well; like looking through a window at another world.

The Children of Men by PD James
I’ve read a few of PD James’s books but The Children of Men is unlike anything James has written; a dystopian novel centring on mass infertility… yet it has the depth and characterisation of any of her works. The detail in James’s world is unsettling, but in Julian there’s a sense of hope as well… it’s easily one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read, and the kind of novel I’d love to write.

Blood Music by Greg Bear
I read Blood Music when I was fourteen and since then have read all of Bear’s novels. It’s one of those few novels that deals with science in a realistic and accessible way, using human development as a vehicle to examine the nature of consciousness and life. It was one of the first SF novels I read and had a big impact on me; the final scenes as the last humans transcend is breathtaking.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Stewart’s novel was published in 1949 and is one of the most haunting novels I’ve read. It follows what happens after the fall of society, what knowledge survives as life tries to go on; it’s really a lament for humanity, a warning against excess. It’s just as relevant today as when it was first published.

On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing is Stephen King’s memoir and guide to the craft. King covers everything about the process; from brainstorming and developing ideas, to plotting and characterisation, to finding an agent and accepting rejection. For writers it’s a priceless resource; I’ve learnt more about writing (and editing) from this one book than from any other I’ve read.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is one of the most difficult novels I have read but it’s also one of the most important novels of the last 30 years. McCarthy’s prose is so stark, so beautiful, it touches your heart; the characterisations so poignant that they come to life even though you don’t know their names. I challenge anyone to read The Road and be the same; it’s devastating… one of the few works of fiction that makes you look at the world in a different way.

Now this is how to accept an award

Here’s a question for you. You’ve just been told that you’ve won one of the most prestigious awards in the world. How do you react? Are you overwhelmed? Are you gracious? Is it one of the most amazing moments in your life? Or is your first thought, “Oh Christ…”?

That was Doris Lessing’s reaction when she was told she’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s one of those classic moments. The media are waiting for her and can’t even let the poor woman get out of the taxi before they start asking her questions. As it turns out, the Nobel committee hadn’t told Lessing she’d won; in this day and age you’d expect an email or a text to get through first – hell, even FedEx or a pigeon – but no, Doris Lessing is left to hear about it from the media.

And I love her reaction. It’s not just that she doesn’t want a fuss, or her obvious contempt for literary prizes; it’s the audacity of the media to show up uninvited on her doorstep. She’s been out with her son and all she wants is to get back home and they can’t even wait to let her get out of the taxi properly? And just when you think it couldn’t get any stranger, what on Earth is going on with her son? Is he wearing a vegetable as a sling?

But isn’t this the way we all wish we could act sometimes? To have that old-fashioned arrogance and contempt for what your peers think of you? Sure, there’s a lot to be said for accepting an award with grace… but it’s not as much fun. I remember when I was 1st in English and was given a few other awards in school, my first thought was “Oh wow”; my second was “Fuck, I’ve got to climb all those stairs”. I didn’t say it and I smiled and said my thank yous… but believe me, there were a lot of stairs. 😉

What’s really interesting is how the media have used her comments and made them sound completely different. This from news.com.au: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one,” she said as she stepped out of a taxi carrying groceries. “I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot. It’s a royal flush.” Wait – is this the same Doris Lessing? Is this even the same interview? At least the beginning of it is, but you wouldn’t know it.

I like Doris Lessing’s works but I must admit I was a little surprised she won. She was awarded it for her life’s work; as the Nobel committee put it, Lessing is “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. My problem isn’t that she doesn’t deserve the prize, she does; it’s that strictly speaking the prize isn’t meant to be awarded for a life’s work. It’s stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prizes are meant to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. The preceding year. Nothing there about a life’s work.

To me the best novel of the last year is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nothing else comes close to it; it’s one of the most harrowing, painful and beautiful novels I’ve ever read. It would get my vote for the best novel of the last thirty years, not just the last year. And McCarthy’s life work is impressive as well; his work always speaks to the depths of humanity and darkness, life and death, and The Orchard Keeper, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses and The Road make a very powerful reading list.

But Lessing has achieved so much in her career that she definitely deserves the recognition; it would be a shame to think she’d be another to never win the prize like Graham Greene. But there’s one thing that isn’t being talked about much regarding Doris Lessing. It’s the risks she’s always taken with her work, none more so than with Shikasta. For one of the most notable literary talents to go from writing classics like The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook to a space opera like Shikasta and the whole Canopus in Argus series was incredibly gutsy; in the 1970s mainstream fiction deplored science fiction (still does) and SF itself was a heavily male-dominated field. But Lessing didn’t care; she told the story she wanted to tell and along with Octavia Butler, Alice B. Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) and Ursula K. le Guin, transformed science fiction.

Now thirty years later Shikasta is considered every bit the classic it is. And Lessing still doesn’t seem to care. And that’s how she accepted her prize; on the street, with every bit the contempt she’s always exhibited. I can’t help but laugh. Isn’t it fabulous? 🙂