Aside from big-bucks internet retailers (boo!) causing independent book shops to close and local council’s decisions to close down libraries (boo hiss!), there is nothing that gets bibliophiles up in arms more than an arbitrary ‘top whatever’ list of ‘must read’ books published in some form of national press. Everyone has an opinion on these lists and the taste and validity of the person who published them, and most of the time it’s widely considered that the majority of the books that are on the list shouldn’t be on the list, and none of the books that are deserving of a place feature at all. A list I found this week is no exception to this rule. It was published in Stylist magazine, which is aimed at professional women and given out free every week to commuters in certain UK cities. I enjoy reading it most of the time, as it does attempt to address important issues, is mildly feminist and has some interesting features. However, at times it’s just a bit obvious – as in trying too hard to be cutting edge and on trend – and the list of 20 ‘must reads’ they published fit this bill precisely. I groaned my way through it and came to the conclusion that the person who wrote it had complied it entirely from a list of review copies, as it’s just so Tesco. No inventiveness at all!
So, I have decided to compile my own list, sticking closely to the themes they have chosen, so it’s not an accurate reflection of my own personal top 20 books but more of an alternative suggestions list along the lines of the themes they have chosen for their books. I hope you enjoy!
The All Time Classics
1. Stylist’s Choice – The Great Gatsby by F.Scott.Fitzgerald – they say: ‘one of the finest American novels’ I say: ‘overrrated’
1. My choice – Tender is the Night by F.Scott.Fitzgerald – I think this is far and away the best of Fitzgerald’s work and an almost unbearably painful, haunting portrait of the crushing emptiness that lay behind many of the gilded lives of America’s ‘Jazz Age’. The Great Gatsby pales in comparison. I really don’t know why everyone loves The Great Gatsby so much.
2. Stylist’s choice – Howard’s End by E M Forster – they say: ‘what seems to be a gentle Edwardian read turns out to be much, much more’ I say: ‘Dull as dishwater’
2. My choice – The Go-Between by L P Hartley – this beautiful novel might not have been written in the Edwardian period, but it captures the loss of innocence of a young boy and the changing world of the pre war period with a tender subtlety that is mesmerising. Famous for its first line ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, it’s one of the finest novels of the 20th century and a must read. E M Forster, I regret to say, is a novelist I do not get along with in the slightest. I know lots of people think Howard’s End is marvellous but frankly I found it long winded, dull and largely pointless. Same with A Room with a View and A Passage to India. You can’t say I haven’t tried.
3. My choice – The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield. I love Nancy Mitford but Love in a Cold Climate is really not her strong point. Plus, her novels might be hilarious, but can us normal folk relate? Of course not. That’s where E M Delafield comes in. Writing in the same period, but about the problems of much more middle class life, her observances of the perils of unwanted visitors and having nothing to wear are hilarious, true and really rather touching. Not to mention consistently funny throughout all four volumes, which is more than can be said for dear Nancy’s Love…trilogy.
4. Stylist’s choice – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – they say: ‘no one is ever the same after reading this’ I say: ‘Yawn’
4. My choice – Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Don’t get me wrong – To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding novel and rightly a classic – but it’s on every school syllabus in the entire world and as such is a far too obvious choice. Jude the Obscure is horrendously bleak but demonstrates the struggle the poor have always faced to achieve their dreams and access opportunities to better their lives. Both novels address a core issue of injustice and for me Jude the Obscure was far more eye opening in showing the pain and desperation of those who are the least advantaged in our society. Skip the bit with the babies, though. It’s horrible.
5. Stylist’s choice – The Group by Mary McCarthy – they say: ‘an exciting feminist read’ I say: ‘It’s not really feminist, though’
5. My choice – The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor – if you want a novel about what it was really like for women a few generations ago, this is it. In exploring the life of a spinster in early 20th century rural England, it is heartbreakingly honest about the smallness of life offered to those women who did not marry. It also demonstrates how infuriatingly powerless these women were, and how condescendingly they were treated by others. The Group is entertaining, and interesting, of course, but it won’t move you to tears or get you fired up in the way The Rector’s Daughter will.
6. My choice – Persuasion by Jane Austen – someone (Philip Larkin maybe?) said that Barbara Pym was like Jane Austen and while I can vaguely see the comparison, I have to raise an eyebrow at such high praise. Frankly why read something like Jane Austen when you can just READ Jane Austen? Most people start and stop at Pride and Prejudice but Persuasion is her richest, most sophisticated and most mature novel, and no list of ‘all time classics’ should be without this marvellous paean to the power of love, patience and fidelity.
7. Stylist’s choice – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – they say: ‘a literary page-turner with class’ – I say: ‘A rip off of Jane Eyre’
7. My choice – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I love Rebecca so don’t hate me Daphne du Maurier fans! – but Jane Eyre is the source for Du Maurier’s novel and remains one of the greatest classics of all time. It’s my favourite book so it’s on the list – no more explanation needed.
The Modern Must-Read
1. Stylist’s choice – Heartburn by Nora Ephron – they say: ‘darkly, endearingly humorous’ – I say: ‘you’re better off watching You’ve Got Mail’
1. My choice – To the North by Elizabeth Bowen – this is one of the most brilliant and breathtaking books I’ve ever read. Bowen is a genius with the written word and perfectly captures the obsession and pain of love in a way Nora Ephron could never hope to.
2. Stylist’s choice – Ghostwritten by David Mitchell – they say: ‘magical for displaying the extraordinary talent of a first time author’ – I say: ‘if he really was that good, he wouldn’t need posters on the tube to tell us he’s so good’
2. My choice – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – a superbly beautiful book weaving the stories of different generations of the same family together, and a powerful, magnificent exploration of faith. It has a profundity that has the ability to change the way you view the world, and that is a rare gift indeed. This is a prizewinning book that fully deserves its accolades and fame – unlike most.
3. Stylist’s choice – Cover Her Face by P.D.James – they say: ‘heralded a new standard for crime fiction’ I say: ‘Really?’
3. My choice – Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – not really ‘modern’ but if we take modern to be 1850 onwards, which I do, then it completely fits this theme and is far more entertaining than any P D James. Lady Audley’s Secret is the original and best potboiler and you can’t get much more page turning than this beauty.
4. Stylist’s choice – The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – they say: ‘Atwood…is at her very best here’ I say: ‘they only picked this one because it’s the only one most people have read’
4. My choice – Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – Margaret Atwood definitely deserves a place on this list, but The Blind Assassin isn’t her best novel by a longshot. I’ve read most of her books and my favourite so far is Alias Grace – a brilliant and thought provoking exploration of a real life woman who was a master of duplicity…or was she?
5. Stylist’s choice: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – they say: ‘genuinely gripping and beautifully written’ I say: ‘It makes no sense!’
5. My choice: Possession by A.S.Byatt – to be fair to Hilary Mantel, I did try a few pages of Wolf Hall, and it just didn’t sit right with me. Tudor people talking like normal people? Stuff happening in the present tense when it happened hundreds of years ago? I can’t handle the idiosyncrasies! Instead I would far rather immerse myself in the only one of A S Byatt’s books I’ve managed to genuinely enjoy every second of reading – the beautiful, mesmerising, rich feast of Victoriana that is Possession. It’s brilliant.
6. Stylist’s choice – Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – they say: ‘it’s brash and trashy but those are its strengths’ I say: ‘let’s call a spade a spade’
6. My choice – Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – if you want to read something that really addresses the modern condition in the 1950s and 1960s, then Richard Yates’ bleak, poignant and uncomfortably confrontational first novel is the best place to look. His deconstruction of the American dream and the delusions we all live under are painfully honest and brilliantly realised in his immensely relatable and human characters. I would say that he is the most underread classic author I know of, and if you haven’t read anything by him then you’re missing out massively.
7. Stylist’s choice – Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland – they say: ‘an intimate, emotional…voice of a generation novel’ I say: ‘never heard of it’
7. My choice – The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – I read this as a teenager and it blew me away. The protagonist Karim lives in a mock tudor semi on a quiet South London suburban street, on the same bus route I used to take to go shopping on a Saturday, and feels desperately frustrated and confined by the narrowness of his teenage life. Suburbia represents his fear of mediocrity and he longs to get out and become someone – but how? This book put into words my own emotions and desires as a teenager growing up in my own mock tudor semi in another unremarkable South London suburb, and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. For a frank and hilarious depiction of the turbulent teenage soul, you can’t get much better than this.
The New Favourites
1. Stylist’s choice – One Day by David Nicholls – they say: ‘one of the reads of the decade’ I say: ‘if I see any more posters advertising this distinctly average book, I will scream’
1. My choice – South Riding by Winifred Holtby – this is one of my absolute favourite recent discoveries, whose exploration of the pains and joys of life and the beauty of love and friendship is second to none. One Day is a quickly forgotten book that wants to be more profound than it is – South Riding taps into something essential at the core of life and should be read for centuries to come.
2. Stylist’s choice – Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – they say: ‘both terrifying and hilarious’ I say: ‘I can’t even pronounce the author’s name’
2. My choice – The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – I rarely read books that have been published in the last ten years. When I do, I do it several years after the hype has gone, so as not to be seen to be jumping on any bandwagons. I was highly sceptical about The Time Traveller’s Wife, as it was a One Day-esque phenomenon when it came out, but surprisingly I loved it. It’s inventive, emotional, well written and a real page turner. I’d say that, as mass market books go, this is one of the best.
3. Stylist’s choice – A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene – they say: ‘perfectly evoking the grime and glamour of the early sixties’ I say: ‘never heard of it’
3. My choice – The Secret History by Donna Tartt – if you want something dark and involving and brilliantly written, with characters who will haunt you and a plot that will obsess your every waking thought, then this is the book for you. It’s absolutely magnificent.
4. Stylist’s choice – The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – they say: ‘it has the kick of a modern read with the setting of a classic one’ I say: ‘classic novels can kick too!’
4. My choice – To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski – written during the 1940s, Laski’s brilliant novel presents a fascinating, dark and highly controversial side to the war. It’s prose is magnificent and hasn’t dated in the slightest.
5. Stylist’s choice – The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe – they say: ‘the hemlines might be different but the banter’s all too familiar’ I say: ‘It only got republished because it was on Mad Men’
5. My choice – The Echoing Grove by Rosamund Lehmann – an absolutely brilliant exploration of the inner working of women’s minds…Dinah and Madeleine are sisters who share a man they both love obsessively…you really cannot put this magnificent, perceptive, unforgettable book down.
6. Stylist’s choice – A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – they say: ‘it’s actually a novel about feelings, about music, and about human beings.’ I say: ‘just another two clever for words blatant prize contender’
6. My choice – So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – if you want something with razor sharp prose, a true insight into the heart of humanity, and a page turning, compelling plot, this is perfect for you. It’s one of the most remarkably beautiful novels I’ve ever read.