The challenge? To choose your top ten books that you would want, leather bound, and placed on your mantle. I decided to limit it to fiction. Here are the first five in no particular order:
The titular character and his squire, Sancho Panza, travel throughout Spain on hilarious adventures. It’s worth reading because you’ll laugh out loud (especially if you choose the John Rutherford translation, which focuses on making things accessible to the 21st century reader, rather than a literal interpretation). But it isn’t just the first modern novel—a hundred years before anyone writing in English would gain acclaim by following suit. It’s the first postmodern novel, with its direct references to the writer, to the reader, to other texts. Part Two of the book refers liberally to Part One, and Cervantes references another author who tried to write Part Two (this was real) and throws him under the 17th century bus. When I read it, I was astounded that it was written 500 years ago.
Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies
From the oldest book on my list to the most recent (and I’m awaiting the final book to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light). Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies follow the story of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. More than bring a sympathetic look at Cromwell, they are a master class in writing fiction. Mantel gets in and out of scenes with incredible pace, each scene buzzes with conflict, and yet themes such as power, fear, and faith. If you just read one, I’d actually recommend the second: Mantel has less propensity to use “he” without proper referent as she writes of Cromwell (in the first novel, “he” almost universally refers to Cromwell, despite who has been referenced last). Also, in tracing the fall of Anne Boleyn, it has a stronger plot structure. But both are rewarding—especially to the writer trying to pick up some tips along the way.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway burst onto the scene in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises and followed it three years later with A Farewell to Arms. After his career hit a lull in the 1930s, For Whom the Bell Tolls revived it, as both a critical and commercial success. It follows Robert Jordan as he fights in the Spanish Civil War and is assigned to blow up a bridge. Hemingway uses archaic language to translate the Spanish “vos” and “vosotros,” which lends an air of credence to the novel—it sounds, at times, like a translation. This is the most gripping of his novels, with a pitched battle scene at the end, and it deals unsentimentally with the atrocities of war. A beautifully written book with memorable characters. For me, it is Hemingway’s novel that most provides what good fiction is meant to be: a lucid dream.
The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, with some of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It had me laughing at points, from the first pages when Fyodor decides to confront his wife, congratulates himself with a bout of drinking, and promptly is too drunk to go through with his original design. But that’s simply the underestimated side of the novel. From Alyosha leaving the monastery, to Ivan meeting with the devil, it’s a powerful novel of ideas (in fact, it embodies what it means to be a novel of ideas). While Tolstoy admired him, he thought Dostoevsky wasn’t artistic enough. True, the novel pounds ideas into your head (like a good Russian?) rather than exploring them simply through story, but the ideas are some of the most profound in all literature, and the story itself ends with a fascinating trial.
Love in the Time of Cholera
When I first thought about which Marquez book I’d include, One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed the natural answer. But upon a second thought, I moved toward Love in the Time of Cholera: the story is stronger, I think. In keeping it more dense and focused on a love triangle (though, over a very long period of time), it holds conflict better. The theme of love, and the various types of love and how it affects us, is intriguing, and Marquez deals with a deft touch. Of course, his prose is wonderful. What does it say about the writer that I also thought about Chronicle of a Death Foretold? On another day, I could probably be persuaded to any of the three, but today I’m going with Love in the Time of Cholera.