Six Degrees of Separation – From Yates to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

revolutionary-road

This month’s starting book is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.

kate winslet in RR

It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…

enigma 2

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

enigma 1

The WW2 setting reminded me of…

vertigo

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…

the birds

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

That story is called The Apple Tree, which made me think of…

the color master

The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskinOne of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…

the shapeshifters

Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

 

Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…

the voices beyond

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Stalin poster

* * * * *

So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock,  apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
FEBRUARY

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite February reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

newton and the counterfeiterI only reviewed one book in February 2011, but fortunately it was a good one, though not fiction. In fact, it was reading this book that started me reading the occasional popular science book – a thing I hadn’t done in years. The book tells the story of Newton’s time in charge of the Royal Mint, when he became obsessed with trying to trap the most famous counterfeiter of his time, William Chaloner. But the bits that interested me more were the sections relating to Newton’s scientific career, and particularly how he developed the methods of research that became the foundation of how science is still carried out today.

 

2012

 

the secret diary of adrian moleA special 30th Anniversary edition of Adrian Mole was issued in February 2012, and for a while everyone on Amazon Vine seemed to be discussing it and sharing quotes. This fictional diary of an angst-ridden teenager in love was a sensation when it was first issued, and I was delighted to find it had stood up well to the test of time. Written as a satirical look at suburban life in contemporary ’80s Britain under Thatcher, it now reads almost like a historical novel, and whisked me back to those days of flares, pimples and Lady Di. Still one of the funniest books out there!

 

 

2013

 

The Earthquake BirdSet in Japan, this excellent debut novel tells the story of Lucy, who becomes a suspect when her friend Lily is murdered. Damaged by events in her early life, Lucy has moved from her Yorkshire home to Japan to try to put the past and her family behind her.We meet her while she is being questioned by the police and refusing to answer them. Instead she tells us, the readers, her story.  Susanna Jones’ writing style is spare and well crafted, shot through with shafts of humour and irony, but gradually creating tension that builds throughout the book. But her greatest strength is in creating compelling, enigmatic central characters and Lucy is a fine example of this.

 

 

2014

 

revolutionary-roadSince I gave this book the FF Award for Literary Fiction in 2014, it could hardly not be my top pick for February. The story of failed people in a failed marriage living in a failed American Dream, this is one of the finest books I have ever read. The writing is superb, and the brilliant spotlight Yates shines on his characters leaves them no room to hide. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. I described it as masterpiece in my review – not a term I use lightly – and I still hold to that opinion.

 

2015

 

the way things wereSet in contemporary India, this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. When Skanda returns to India to attend the funeral rites for his father, it sets him off on a process of remembering and reassessing the recent history of his family, and through them India itself, from the 1970s to the present day. Beautifully written, this is a deeply political and thought-provoking book that manages the difficult feat of also being enjoyable.  An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

 

* * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for February, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

* * * * * * * * *

Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

* * * * * * * * *

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

* * * * * * * * *

Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

GAN Quest: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“No-one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

revolutionary roadFrank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

Although Yates takes us into the minds of most of the characters at points, we mainly see the world through the eyes of Frank Wheeler. The book begins as April takes part in an amateur performance of The Petrified Forest – a play with the central theme of artistic and intellectual worth trapped in a loveless and humdrum existence, but where tragedy leads to escape. No coincidence that this should be the play that Yates chose, and no coincidence either that the performance should fail badly, leaving April publicly humiliated. Already in these early pages, Yates has signalled his major themes of intellectual elitism, entrapment and failure.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

Frank once aspired to lead the life of an intellectual, perhaps to be a Hemingway, defying convention and rejecting the lifestyle of his parents. He was feted in his student days as one of the coming generation, a brilliant conversationalist who would (in some way that he never quite got around to pinning down) have an intellectual impact on the world. April – beautiful, cool, aloof – aspired to be a serious actress. Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person, they seemed an ideal glittering match, until the reality of pregnancy forced them down the path of conventionality towards earning a living and making a home.

kate winslet in RR

Now they are trapped – by their children, by society, but mostly by each other. As they fail to be what they anticipated they see their failure reflected back to them from the other’s eyes. It is only when April comes up with a radical plan to allow them to regain their lost glamour as free-wheeling intellectuals that Frank begins to realise he may no longer have the courage to pursue this dream – to risk discovering that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal, the belief in which has been the foundation of his sense of snobbish superiority over his neighbours and colleagues. When April reveals that she is once again pregnant, for Frank it is an excuse to retreat back to the safety of his conventional life. But to April it’s another trap – to keep her in a lifestyle she never wanted and to prevent Frank from becoming the man she thought she was marrying. For April, the coming child is her prison – for Frank, it is his escape.

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

Yates is brutal to his characters, shining a light so bright there’s nowhere for them to hide. And through them, shining a light on this ’50s society, perhaps the last generation where women were still so irrevocably defined by motherhood and the men they married; and perhaps the first generation where men were beginning to question the role of masculinity in an increasingly white-collar world. Frank’s ambivalence towards his father is based on a mixture of intellectual condescension together with an unacknowledged jealousy of his physical skills, embodied in the recurring image of his father’s powerful hands.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

Post-war, we see a generation of ordinary men who had access to higher education, often as the first in their family to do so. Where for Gatsby the American Dream was about money, birth and beauty, Yates shows the ’50s as a time of two dreams in conflict – the security of middle-class suburbia and the excitement of intellectual escape – with his characters caught between them. And yet Yates also seems to suggest that neither dream is worthy of pursuit – that somewhere along the way the lofty aspirations of previous generations have narrowed and shrunk down to this.

The place [Paris] had filled him with a sense of wisdom hovering just out of reach, of unspeakable grace prepared and waiting just around the corner, but he’d walked himself weak down its endless blue streets and all the people who knew how to live had kept their tantalizing secret to themselves, and time after time he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the army.

The ’50s were a time of huge change – the beginning of the decade still reflecting pre-war values and conventions, and the end looking forward to the surge of youth culture, sexual freedom and social upheaval that typified the ’60s. Yates brings the period brilliantly to life in this shortish novel that nevertheless has space to look not just at the characters as individuals but also at the society and culture they inhabit. His depiction of Frank’s workplace as a soulless maze of pointless paper-shuffling is superb, reflecting the growing struggle, for men in particular, to find some sense of fulfilment and worth when there is no physical input and no visible end result.

leo di caprio in rr

“Whaddya do then? Advertising man, or what?”
“ No, I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”

Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere. A masterpiece.

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagA brilliant depiction of the hiatus between the war and the 60s and of the middle-class trying to work out a new identity in the post-war world – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagSubjective, but yes, I think so – the theme has been revisited since (and to some degree before – as Yates himself makes clear by referencing The Petrified Forest), but the setting, the climax and most of all the language within the dialogue make it innovative and original, so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOh dear…I’m going to change this criterion when I do a GAN Quest update, since I really think it’s unachievable and unreasonable. But meantime, no…this is about a specific group within America – young, white, educated, middle-class, so can’t be said to capture the entire American Experience. I also feel that, dialogue aside, the themes in this novel are not completely specific to the US – Britain and most of Western Europe were struggling with very similar issues of identity and aspiration at much the same period.

* * * * * * * * *

So with great regret, not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare Revolutionary Road to be A Great American Novel. And another truly great novel – if all the ones on my list are as good as this, the quest will be a rare treat.

* * * * * * * * *

Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

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Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)