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 Kerry, from Hungry Like the Woolf.
Kerry, who is an attorney, grew up in rural North Carolina but now resides in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with his partner and their daughter.
His favourite writers include Virginia Woolf, Milan Kundera, Mark Twain, Jon Dos Passos, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Camus, Jeannette Winterson, J.M. Coetzee and, as we will see below, Gina Berriault and Vladamir Nabokov.
Without further ado, here’s Kerry’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
Part of this book’s appeal to me is that I feel like I discovered it, as if her works are more my own than Nabokov’s or Woolf’s or Coetzee’s.
Gina Berriault gained some late-life fame as a short story writer, winning the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Women in Their Beds, but few people had read Gina Berriault’s novels (novellas, technically). With her books going out of print, even fewer likely read them now. I imagine myself as one of the select, a keeper of the secret of her exceptional novelistic talents. The obscurity of Berriault’s novels raises their esteem in my eyes.
This book could not have become a favorite on obscurity alone, of course. Plenty of authors deserve to be forgotten or never to have been known in the first place. Gina Berriault is not one of those.
She writes with a melancholic truth, the sting of sorrow salved by her exquisitely artful prose. While ostensibly about the death of an affair, this novel is as much about the suffering of the artist.
Berriault did not achieve much recognition until quite late in her life. Women in Their Beds was published in 1996 and she died in 1999. The fear of being forgotten permeates this book and dominates the thoughts of the main character, Ilona Lewis, whose married lover is ending their relationship. The book is more than that, too, though. It is an examination of what it means to live and die. Berriault captures the struggle for meaning and some sense of permanence in a brutally dismissive world.
“If some persons were in the light, like the ones up there on the small screen, like Martin, like the woman he loved, like all those who were embraced wherever they went, it didn’t follow that all the rest were lost to the dark.”
While this might not be the best place to start with Nabokov, it is where I started. My view of literature has never been the same. Each time I first read one of the unquestioned geniuses of literature, the standouts of their generation, it changes my world. That’s why we call them geniuses, I suppose.
I have chosen Pale Fire because it is so uniquely brilliant and because it so thoroughly reordered my literary conceptions. Nabokov wrote a 999-word poem and then, in the footnotes to that poem, presents a novel. It works so much more smoothly than it sounds like it could. The poem itself has such lightly sparkling beauty that scholars still argue over whether it was written tongue-in-cheek or in earnest.
It begins: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure of the window pane”
The footnote novel is packed with mysteries to ponder, prose to admire, and humor to thrill. Altogether, Pale Fire has created impossible standards by which I now judge other literary works. I want my books intriguing. I want them funny. I want them dark. And I want them beautiful. Pale Fire is one of the greatest literary achievements I have ever had the fortune to experience. Words have never been the same for me.
I have no idea where things went wrong for this novel, but it never seems to have built the sustaining audience it deserves.
The novel begins with an intriguing idea. Dr. Robert Jay Duckworth, a zoologist traveling in Brazil and researching amphibians, finds an abandoned infant from a forgotten tribe, the Xique Xique. None of the locals wants anything to do with baby and Dr. Duckworth, without intending it, is named the child’s legal guardian. He returns to England and raises the boy as his son, Charlie.
Charlie narrates the book, telling the story of his life as he has learned of it and experienced it, not to a general reader, but to a specific “you.”
The technique is interesting and happily engaging. But the joy comes from the fact that Charlie is fundamentally different from the English who surround him. He has no guile. He is honest, caring, sensitive, and earnest. He embodies every admirable quality we try to instill in our children.
Chris Wilson brilliantly examines the consequences for Charlie and, in doing so, provides delightful insight into human nature and the reality of social relations.
I am surprised the book never gained traction because, while it does have a lurking darkness, it is cleverly funny. I do not want to dissuade by comparisons to “popular” fiction, but I would have thought that, if nothing else, Mischief would have gained some of that affection the public lavishes on works like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with its sweetly entrancing, first person narrator. It is a joy to spend time with Charlie. He is a character you will not forget. He is too original, too likable, and too much of a challenge to our conception of ourselves to fade from memory.
Thanks, Kerry, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I have to say I’m intrigued by all three, particular the Nabokov which I have picked up in bookstores countless times but never actually bought nor read. Perhaps it’s time to rectify that…
What do you think of Kerry’s choices? Have you read any of these books?