Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers 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, new authors and new bloggers.
Today's guest is Tara Olmsted, who blogs under the name tolmsted at BookSexy Review.
Tara is American. She describes her reading habits as "fairly democratic, with a bit of everything represented at one time or another". But after reading the Iranian author Shahriar Mandipour’s novel Censoring of an Iranian Love Story in 2011 she shifted towards books in translation and international authors.
"I suddenly realised that our national/cultural identities are most clearly represented and accessible through literature," she says. "The world is a diverse place. If we want to understand each other's motivations and values, the easiest way to do so is by reading each other's stories."
Without further ado, here are Tara's Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
A favorite book: A Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
My secret passion is for disease literature, particularly epidemics with historical significance. My favorite (and, in my opinion, the best) example of the genre is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year. I’m so fond of this wonderful book that I held onto the battered 1963 Signet Classic edition I discovered in a used bookshop.
In 1721 an outbreak of the Black Death sped across Europe. The last outbreak to effect London prior to this happened in 1665. Over a generation has passed and the population has forgotten. It is believed that Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year to inform Londoners of the approaching danger and to influence popular opinion into supporting quarantine measures. He created a fictional account of the events of 1665, telling his tale through the eyes of a common man who remains in the city to bear witness to its devastation.
If you’ve read Defoe you already know how modern his language is and how skilfully he uses the first person narrator. He transforms the piles of rotting corpses, the population succumbing to religious fervor and superstition, not to mention the growing death count tracked through the parishes — all set within the geography of 17th century London — into engrossing (and strangely entertaining) reading. And I’m far from the first to recognise this: that famous Monty Python skit “Bring Out Your Dead” is based on an episode in Defoe's book.
A book that changed my world: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
I elected to read The Sound and the Fury because it was the novel that made William Faulkner famous. I made a good choice. Not only did it lock him in as my all-time favorite author; it opened my eyes to an alternative to the traditional, linear storytelling. This classic of Southern Gothic tells the story of the Compsons — a once affluent but now deteriorating Southern family. Events are primarily told in stream-of-conscious/first person narrative as seen through the eyes of three brothers: Quentin Compson, a Harvard man who will commit suicide before the book's end; Benjy, the eldest brother in his 30s who suffers from severe mental disability; and Jason, the cynical and materialistic youngest son. There is a fourth Compson sibling, a daughter named Caddie. She is at the novel’s heart, though we are never given her version of events. Caddie and her "fall from grace" is the point to which her brothers’ lives are tethered and around which they revolve.
The plot is strong — but it’s the writing and how the author chose to construct the narrative that changed my world. Faulkner wrote a story so expansive that it couldn’t be told by a single character, or even contained between the covers of one book. His Yoknapatawpha County is an entire universe in which events are explored and re-hashed from the perspectives of multiple individuals and time periods. Flannery O’Connor famously compared Faulkner to a freight train and mused that “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down”. Which nicely sums up my reaction to The Sound and the Fury after reading it for the first time.
A book that deserves a wider audience: Ghosts by César Aira
The Argentine author César Aira is far from obscure, but if I had my way his books would be absolutely everywhere! My current favorite (it’s constantly changing) is Ghosts. Aira has written a deceptively simple story of an immigrant family living on the construction site of a luxury high rise in Buenos Aires. It takes place in the hours leading up to and during the family's New Years Eve celebration, held on the building’s roof. The site and structure are inhabited by eccentric ghosts. All male, all naked, hairless and covered with a fine white powder — in my review I compared them to a nudist Blue Man Group. They make for a striking visual. The ghosts are by turns serious and slapstick. And while they are visible to all of the family members, they have a special connection to the eldest daughter. One that eventually ends in tragedy.
When I think about Aira it is as a playwright rather than a novelist. If Faulkner is expansive, than Aira’s novels (really novellas) are amazingly condensed. I visualise his stories as they would appear on a stage. The characters are complex, but also finite. He doesn’t exclude a past or future for his characters (Aira often alludes to both), but these are clearly not something we need to concern ourselves with. It is the defining moment in the main character’s life which interests this author. In our world that might be catching the winning touchdown or discovering a new star — but in Aira’s world it’s a madcap, surreal and seemingly illogical string of events which may be isolated to a single moment in time or a reoccurring theme throughout the character’s life. You’re never really sure… and that is the magic.
Thanks, Tara, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
These all sound like amazing books. I've long been intrigued by Defoe and Faulkner, but have been too scared to try them. This might just be the push I need. I've never heard of Aira before, but Ghosts sounds so intriguing that I've already added it to my wishlist.
What do you think of Tara's choices? Have you read any of these books?