Here’s my Tuesday Top Ten from The Book Depository blog. I also have to add Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which has had such a tremendous influence on me, and Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country, which has an amazing voice. He’s truly talented, a gifted story teller. I’m envious of his use of language. I’ve always been a big fan of Tobias Wolff, also. And for new hardcovers this year, I loved Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Penelope Lively’s Family Album, and William Trevor’s Love and Summer. So many great books.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Proulx is a master stylist. Using Anglo-Saxon diction and meter (in the second paragraph, for instance, "hive-spangled, gut roaring" and "ham knuckle, buttered spuds"), she heaps up content. Sentence fragments and lists cut away everything grammatical, everything unnecessary. And this is appropriate for a protagonist learning to be a reporter, learning to write newspaper headlines. Quoyle is a fabulous creation, unwanted and unloved in a novel that finally is a love story.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
In my opinion, our greatest American novel of the last fifty years (despite Beloved's great scope and considerable claim), an heir to Melville and Faulkner. Takes a garbage genre, the western, and raises it to high literature. Offers no access to thoughts or feelings but tells character entirely through landscape and violence written as landscape. Borrowing from Faulkner, extends literal landscapes into figurative landscapes. As with Proulx's The Shipping News, I reread this book simply for the sentences, for their unlikely existence.
The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop is a great poet accessible to all. In her poem At The Fishhouses, she often chooses one fine detail to evoke a larger space. The sparse bright sprinkle of grass, for instance, creates a hillside. She was a painter as well as a poet, and she unifies her opening scene with silver moonlight, then emerald. We watch brush strokes and don't become distracted. Our attention is held by the shift in the quality of light, from opacity to translucence. This is theme developing, leading toward the moment we'll reach into "absolutely clear" water and taste it on our tongues, encountering a kind of knowledge.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
Every sentence in O'Connor is about character. In Everything That Rises Must Converge, for instance, Julian is a model for what a divided protagonist can be: he can never speak of the old family mansion without contempt nor think of it without longing. As in Faulkner, O'Connor's characters are driven by race and class, many of them longing for a return to the Old South, but in O'Connor, the battle is more desperate and vicious. She's the writer that every American short story writer has to contend with.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
This is the novel declared the greatest American novel of the last 25 years. Not only does she extend literal landscapes into figurative landscapes, she also uses ghosts and other doubling as a way to reveal the stories behind her characters. Truly epic in scope, and gorgeous in every sentence.
The Riverside Chaucer
All of Chaucer's works in Middle English, with extensive notes. Everyone should memorize the opening 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales, because this is the beginning of literature in English after the collision of Old English and French. These lines show our language at the most beautiful it ever was or will be. The Germanic sounds not yet gone silent, the French vowels not yet shifted and made smaller. A remarkable event, two languages collided together, not just one borrowing from the other. A double lexicon, double metrical heritages, two ways of speaking and imagining, two class structures. All that was possible lives in Chaucer, and since then we have steadily turned the language into a doormat.
Beowulf: A Student Edition edited by George Jack
This edition in Old English is the most accessible, I think, because there are vocabulary notes beside every line. This is the easiest way to read our oldest English epic in the original. And why read Beowulf? Not only because of the uneasy relationship to Christianity and the look into an earlier culture, but also because the poetic line shows a different way of conceiving of experience and story. Hronrade is a whale-road, for instance, a name for the sea, and the syntax is different: Often Scyld Scefing, enemy bands, many peoples, took away mead benches, terrified earls. Beowulf offers a link to how we imagine story and self, people and place.
The Aeneid by Virgil
Maybe it's because I'm American, and our empire is corrupt and dying, but this epic which calls into question the founding of Rome seems particularly relevant. Most beautiful in the original, because a Latin sentence is far more flexible than an English sentence (mostly because of declensions but also because of poetic conventions and sound), but there are many great translations. The abandonment of Dido, Turnus in the end: there are many dramatic moments here that still feel current.
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
Can there be a better subject for a novel than the fall of aristocracy and the rise of the middle class? Ornate but not burdened, lovely and elegant, this one can make you want to hand all your money back to the aristocracy. Like rare birds. Maybe we should keep them.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins played in the movie based on this novel, and they are truly great, but the movie fails anyway, because this novel does something a movie can't. The final crisis is a slip in narrative voice, a dissolution of syntax and diction as the butler admits his heart is breaking. This elegant and subtle voice, in its great formality and distance, allows the exploration of all that is most private in us, and its look back on a life wasted really is heartbreaking.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
In the title essay, Baldwin combines three portraits -- of his father, of himself, and of Harlem in the 1940s -- to devastating effect. A great short story writer, also, he builds to a scene in a diner in which he realizes he could have been murdered and also that he was willing to commit murder. His analysis of race and rage takes as its target, finally, his own heart -- and because of this I've always thought of the personal essay as having this aim -- but it is no less an indictment for that. Perhaps because he was the ultimate outsider, black and gay and an ex-pat, his portrait of America is still true in nearly every respect.