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 the ever-prolific Rob from RobAroundBooks, whose professional-looking website is one of my favourite ports of call when I scoot around the internet.
Rob, who is based in Scotland, describes himself as a “book-sniffing weirdo that loves to be surrounded by dead trees”. He says he’s always had a penchant for reading copious amounts of non-fiction, but in the summer of 2008 he decided to expand his reading horizons and got stuck into a “50 novels in one year” reading challenge. He’s never looked back. More recently he’s decided to concentrate specifically on translated fiction.
Without further ado, here’s Rob’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
To those who know me it probably comes as no surprise that I would pick a John Steinbeck novel as my favourite book. But what may come as a shock is the rather less obvious choice I’ve gone for. Such is my love for the writer that I could have chosen almost any of Steinbeck’s creations as my favourite, but in the end I went for his 1945 novel, Cannery Row, because it’s the one Steinbeck novel that has made my heart glow warmer than any other.
I know what you’re thinking now. How can a writer renowned for bleak and depressing possibly bring to the reader a novel which warms the heart? Well, with Cannery Row I think John Steinbeck does just that by using the simple exploration of friendship. Based in a dilapidated cannery area on the seafront in Monterey during the Depression, the setting for Cannery Row is about as bleak as it gets. But it is the incredible array of characters with which Steinbeck fills this setting that really makes this novel so incredibly warming. Once you meet characters such as Doc, Mac and the boys and Lee Chong they enter your heart quickly, and there they seem to dwell forever.
I’m not saying that Cannery Row isn’t without its moments of bleakness and desolation. But one comes away from this novel in a more upbeat mood, knowing that what matters most in life isn’t material gain, but rather friendship, love and an appreciation for the more simple pleasures.
Picking one book in particular as being ‘life changing’ is a heck of a difficult thing to do (thanks Kim), and not surprisingly I’ve had to think long and hard about it. I mean, do I go back to my childhood and pick one of the books which first set me off on my lifelong passion for books? (If I did then that would undoubtedly be one of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books). Do I pick Herodotus and his sprawling The Histories, the book solely responsible for sending me back to university to study Ancient History (I ended up switching to Medieval History but that’s another story)? Or do I perhaps focus on more recent times and select a book which is in many ways ‘life changing’ to me right now?
In the end I decided to go with the latter option, choosing a novel which has definitely changed my life (in relation to my reading life at least) — The Plague by French novelist Albert Camus. Published in 1947, The Plague follows the story of the inhabitants of Oran — a small coastal town in Algeria — who fall victim to the sudden and unexpected arrival of the plague. The town quickly comes under quarantine, its residents become isolated, and the reader bears witness to the abhorrent events which unfold in Oran as the plague tightens its grip.
Read on one level as a straightforward fight for survival against pestilence, and on another as an allegory for German Occupation in World World Two (Camus’ real motivation behind the novel), The Plague brings with it such an overbearing sense of isolation and hopelessness that I’ve never been able to shake off my memory of reading it. The characters are incredible, their plight is sorrowful, and such is the power of this novel that it showed me just how much potency and wonder can lie in the world of translated fiction.
Today foreign fiction is my primary reading preference. And the credit for that goes solely to this wonderfully powerful novel and its equally wonderful author.
And so I come to the book which I think deserves a much wider audience. And had Teresa not chosen to include Shusaku Endo’s Silence in her Triple Choice selection last week then I definitely would have chosen that one. However, there are plenty more books out there that deserve a wider audience and none more so in my opinion than Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.
Put together by Joseph Mitchell himself in 1992 (four years before his death), Up in the Old Hotel contains those pieces of reportage which Mitchell considered to be among the finest that he ever penned during his career with The New Yorker magazine. And after the sublime reading experience I got from this book (and continue to do so whenever I reread it), I’m not going to argue with such a claim.
A reporter by trade, Mitchell could never have been considered a straightforward hack. He possessed an incredible talent for being able to bring people alive on the page — ordinary people with exceptional character — and he did so not only with humility and unpretentiousness, but with remarkable clarity and colour. Quite simply Mitchell was a master of character profile, and if John Steinbeck could considered the master painter of characters in the fictional world, then Mitchell could easily stand as his non-fictional counterpart.
I’m sure many of you have heard of the term ‘literary nonfiction’ (a form which as its name suggests presents nonfiction in a more literary and creative way), and it is Joseph Mitchell with his character-driven narrative who, in my mind, is the person most responsible for bringing the form to fruition during the Twentieth Century. What better way to sample literary nonfiction in its finest form then, than to read through a collection which Mitchell himself proclaimed, in his usual unassuming and humble way, to be his finest?
If you care anything for characters in your reading then you really cannot afford to overlook Up in the Old Hotel. If you think that real-life characters can’t be as fascinating and as engaging as wholly invented ones, then you’ve obviously not read anything from Joseph Mitchell yet. I urge you with every cell in my body to go and do so.
Thanks, Rob, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’ve read several Steinbeck, but not Cannery Row, so I’ll be adding that one to the wishlist. The Plague is already on there, thanks to Whispering Gum’s nomination last month. And I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of Mitchell despite studying literary nonfiction during my Master of Journalism course. I must order myself a copy pronto!
What do you think of Rob’s choices? Have you read any of these books?