Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers and other bookish bods to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles and new bloggers.
Today's guest is (yet another) Canadian, Isabella from Magnificent Octopus.
I've been following Isabella's blog for at least five years. In fact, we once embarked on a group reading project together -- George Eliot's Middlemarch -- although I bailed early due to lack of time. I've always been impressed -- and a little bit intimidated -- by her tastes in books. Who else, for instance, reads Don Quixote for fun? But I've always enjoyed following Isabella's bookish adventures and am really delighted that she's agreed to share her selections with us today.
Isabella has actually been blogging since 2003 -- yes, even longer than me! "Blogging for me at first was mostly an oasis of sanity amid stay-at-home motherhood," she tells me. "But it was always pretty clear that I loved writing about books."
Isabella also deals with words in her working life. After years of copy editing medical journals, she made the switch to the for-profit sector and edits multimedia "educational" promotional programs for pharmaceutical companies. She jokes that this is just another way of saying she's a drug pusher!
A minor classic, but an underrated one. I read this for the first time when I was about 15, and it opened my eyes in a way the books I studied at school never did.
It's about Larry Darrell, who's on a kind of spiritual quest. He passes up a good job opportunity and doesn't put much value in the things society expects of him (in particular the upper-crust Chicago society from which he comes and the Parisian society with which it intersects). Larry's life ambition is to loaf, he tells other people, but it's clear that his definition of "loafing" is much richer than most people understand. Larry's something of an autodidact and he pursues a meaningful experience of the world in his own unconventional way.
I recently read it fairly closely (as part of an annotation project) and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of Maugham's skill as a writer. The novel is brimming with details regarding its characters — the labels they wear, the restaurants they frequent, the art on their walls, the books they read — that speak volumes about the people they are. Plus it's marvellously evocative of 1920s-30s Paris.
This book is a comfort read for me. It covers some pretty basic moral philosophy, the stuff we all know deep down, but sometimes I like to be reminded that it's not what you do, or who you know, or the stuff that you own, or the places you're seen that bring fulfilment — it's a question of character.
Lots of books have changed my world, every book changes my world, but it's hard to pin down any book as having changed me in an earth-shattering kind of way. I don't think any book has ever done that (but then, I'm the kind of person who never "strongly agrees" on a Likert scale).
That said, I'll choose The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf.
Maalouf is a marvellous storyteller, who excels at evoking faraway times and places (check out his Samarkand for a history of Omar Khayyam, or Ports of Call for a cross-cultural love story amid the political upheaval of the Arab world in the mid-20th century).
The First Century is a bit of a dystopia, and, frankly, I think it's one of his weaker novels. But! It had such a profound effect on me when I read it in the mid-90s, because it made me sit up and look at the world around me. Since I tend to look to fiction as an escape from the world, even as it gives me a framework through which to understand it, this is quite a feat. Indeed, every few months a story pops up in the back pages of newspapers about the disparate gender ratio in birth rates in India, and I think about this book, and how this issue is so easily dismissed.
Basically, the book follows this premise, of some cultures preferring male offspring, to a grim conclusion. It covers a lot of gender politics, innate (versus culturally learned) gender roles, and genetic manipulation. So I give this book credit for making me a little bit political.
A couple years ago, I would have said (and did say) anything by Patrick Hamilton. But I think he's been rescued (again) from (relative) obscurity by the timely reissue of a couple of his key books (most recently by NYBR).
Today, I'm reading Life A User's Manual, by Georges Perec, a classic of Oulipo literature, which has tremendous cult standing. Because I'm loving it so much, I'll recommend a recent book written in the same vein: The Dodecahedron, or A Frame for Frames, by Paul Glennon.
This is a collection of 12 interconnected stories, each written in a different genre, in its own voice. Admittedly, some of these work better than others. But they're full of a wonder and magic and adventure and golems and bibliophagia and things.
The Dodecahedron was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Fiction in English in 2006, which puts it in the fine company of Canada's best literature, but I'm afraid that it may have been tarnished by being branded "experimental". The book has a pretty rigid mathematical basis for its structure and the way the stories relate to each other, but that shouldn't intimidate anyone. Books like this are so much more accessible than their reputation would have you believe.
I'll champion this book on the basis that it wasn't written by some dead French guy and because you probably haven't read anything like it before. I posted an excerpt and some initial thoughts about The Dodecahedron here.
Thanks, Isabella, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!