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Old 16th Aug 2003, 23:56   #1
John Self
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Default John Self's Top Ten Books

The usual top ten disclaimer - could be partly different next week, though the core would remain the same. And many of these books are simply representative of an outstanding writer's greater output... If anyone doubted my claims to be a head-over-heart man, these slivers of ice in the heart should put paid to that.

1. Martin Amis: Money
His out-and-out funniest book, with the permanent undertow of sadness he did so well before he adapted it to that slightly embarrassing nuclear/cosmological paranoia schtick he's been doing ever since. Also self-refential to the hilt: "Oh yeah, and a writer lives round my way too. ... He stops and stares at me. His face is cramped and incredulous ... He gives me the creeps. This writer's name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all...?"

2. Joseph Heller: Something Happened
Even more determined and cruel - and, in the blackest of ways, funny - than Catch-22, and took him even longer to write. It was worth it. Heller makes an extraordinary mesmeric poetry out of the self-loathing of a man who hates everything in his life. "There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once," he says of his sullen teenage daughter, "who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest: she isn't here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere."

3. Evelyn Waugh: A Handful of Dust
Like Heller, a writer who is largely famous for one book but should be famous for more, particularly this masterpiece. And like Heller he combines wit and cruelty - or at least heartbreak - in a book for which the word tragicomic might have been coined. Chekhov (was it?) said that no iron can pierce the heart with the force of a full stop in the right place. This is the book - just in two or three places - which made me realise he was right.

4. Jeanette Winterson: Sexing the Cherry
She used to be my favourite writer until she started going round in ever decreasing circles with her last two novels. But this, her third and shortest book, is enrapturing and breathtaking, one of those rare books that takes flight from page one, and reads as though it sprang from the womb fully formed. Its eclectic mix of lovelessness, tropical fruit, time travel, the English Civil War and jokes about men's members is perfectly suited to Winterson's mercurial and quotable style.

5. Patrick McGrath: Asylum
Firmly in the representative category, although it is also my favourite of his books. The story of the breakdown of the marriage of the glamorously named Max and Stella Raphael, when she runs off with a criminally insane patient from the hospital where he is superintendent, it's meticulous, plausible, tragic and horrible. And terribly clever. Contains one of the finest examples of my favourite literary tricks, the unreliable narrator. Well: what do you make of a man who tells you on page one: "I knew from the moment I saw [Max] that he wasn't the type to satisfy a woman like Stella..."?

6. John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany
My concession to heart-over-headness. Very few can tell a story and create a cast of dozens of what seem to be utterly real people as Irving can. I was going to go for The Cider House Rules, but Owen Meany has a special singularity of purpose that his other books don't, and a strangeness in the tale of a boy who believes he is God's instrument and is determined to die to prove it, that sinks deeper than his previous quirkinesses with bears, dwarves, wrestlers, prostitutes and Vienna.

7. Magnus Mills: All Quiet on the Orient Express
Mills made the news with his first book The Restraint of Beasts because he was a bus driver who found himself shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But the book itself, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, is news that has stayed news, and his second one, All Quiet..., confirmed his brilliance. He has an utterly unique voice, though elements remind one variously of Kafka, Pinter, Ishiguro, Crace and many others. He is funny and sinister at the same time - and this tale of strange villagers was written before The League of Gentlemen graced our screens - which frankly is good enough for me. The blurb for this book accurately read: "In which a man spills a pot of green paint and thereby condemns himself to death." Now read on.

8. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled
This is firmly a representative choice: Ishiguro has never written even a mediocre novel, but I have an affection for The Unconsoled. Perhaps it's a sort of underdog thing, as it was so vilified on publication. Ishiguro himself was astounded that so many people had found it impenetrable, and says that his next book, When We Were Orphans (which I see graces Maxivida's list) was an attempt to rewrite it with more clarity. I see the similarities but The Unconsoled has a (literally) dreamlike quality that I find impossible to resist. It's about a musician of international renown who wants to please everyone all of the time. John Carey, who is never wrong, said it was about stress, and named it one of his 50 most pleasurable reads of the 20th century. But, yes, all of Ishiguro's books are wonderful.

9. Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory
Another firmly representative choice. Part of me prefers the Anglo-Catholic bitterness of Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair, or the universal bleakness of The Heart of the Matter (is there a grimmer book around?), or even the lighter "non-entertainments" like The Honorary Consul, but you can't ignore this book, arguably his most famous - and what an ear for a title the man had! He's the only writer in my list so far, along perhaps with Irving, who's not a stylist, which should gave you some idea of how much I rate his themes and content. Man and God? God and Man? It'll never work...

10. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita
Well number 10 is a reasonable place for a recent addition I think. I've said enough about it in my dedicated thread in the Reviews forum, but I'll simply say that it rounds off my list nicely because it combines head and heart exquisitely: again and again the thrill of a humming zinger of a line is followed by a sigh of loss or pain. That's the way to do it.
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Old 17th Aug 2003, 11:53   #2
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Default Ishiguro

I'm glad we finally seem to agree on something, John.

Kazuo Ishiguro is truly one of the greats.

Although he does find his main inspiration in pitying head-over-heart men.
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Old 17th Aug 2003, 13:39   #3
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Would you recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany to me John?

Everyone I know has recommended it, I've seen it in shops and put it back, I've heard tales of people sobbing unashamedly on trains reading it!
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Old 17th Aug 2003, 13:49   #4
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I don't have my copy beside me, but I love that bit in Money where it says something like 'he was in the book alright, once as Martin and once as M.L. Some people will do anything to see their name in print.'
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Old 17th Aug 2003, 16:36   #5
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I would recommend Owen Meany - it was Number 11 in my Top 10. And yes, I sobbed out loud though I'm sure it wouldn't move everybody (my other half didn't cry but he did enjoy it). Having read that one, it was so good I'm finding it difficult to want to read any more John Irving.
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Old 17th Aug 2003, 21:54   #6
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I am very tempted to go and read it, if I do I will be sure to let you know!
Thanks!
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Old 18th Aug 2003, 19:23   #7
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Our Man in Havana? Greene performing at the top of a different register

The Quiet American vs The Power and The Glory?
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Old 18th Aug 2003, 20:21   #8
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Shamefully, I haven't read The Quiet American. I didn't much like Our Man in Havana, although I know others speak of it as his best "entertainment."

Damn - just realised I left Kurt Vonnegut out of my list entirely...
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Old 19th Aug 2003, 11:02   #9
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to my shame, i haven't read any vonnegut - where to start?

as for Quiet American, rediscovered it recently. Don't know anyone who does despair quite so well.
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Old 19th Aug 2003, 11:41   #10
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Vonnegut: a vaguely chronological order of his best books would be a good idea...

Player Piano (1952): His first novel and an excellent dystopian fantasy in a world where machines have taken over all but the most cerebral work, making the vast majority of mankind purposeless.

The Sirens of Titan (1959): His second novel, very Sci-Fi and a strong influence on Douglas Adams.

Quote:
Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward - pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about.

Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward, ever outward. Eventually it flung them out into space, into the colorless, tasteless, weightless sea of outwardness without end.

It flung them like stones.

These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth - a nightmare of meaninglessness without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.
Mother Night (1962): The memoirs of an American Nazi propagandist. The moral being "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." While awaiting trial in Israel, he meets Eichmann, who tells him that his defence will be that he was only taking orders:

Quote:
This man actually believed that he had invented his own trite defence, though a whole nation of ninety some-odd million had made the same defence before him. Such was his paltry understanding of the God-like human act of invention.
The more I think about Eichmann and me, the more I think that he should be sent to the hospital, and that I am the sort of person for whom punishments by fair, just men were devised.
As a friend of the court that will try Eichmann, I offer my opinion that Eichmann cannot distinguish between right and wrong - that not only right and wrong, but truth and falsehood, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, comedy and tragedy are all processed by Eichmann's mind indiscriminately, like birdshot through a bugle.
This cannot be said of me.
Cat's Cradle (1963): A short novel on a religious/sci-fi theme, with the brilliant invention of Ice-9, a substance which can - and does - lead to the end of the world by freezing everything together.

Breakfast of Champions (1973): The first of his books which adopted the rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative style that he has pretty much stuck with ever since. It's brilliant here, but I think this is his last great book until, well, his last, Timequake (199.
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