Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Best of The Best of The Best, Sir!

I always laugh at Will Smith’s delivery of this line in Men In Black, but of course to have the drive to be the best of the best is not something to laugh at but something to strive for, so just lately I've been searching for the books that are considered to be the best in their genre, or literary style.

What is considered to be the best is of course subjective depending on what it is we are each looking for in what we read.  I look for use of language; characters that I will never forget (such as Owen Meany) as well as a damn good yarn that will make me think or, in the case of horror, will unsettle me.

Best Short Story

The Dead by James Joyce is widely considered to be the best short story written in the English Language.  It is the last story in the Dubliner’s collection but it also works well as a stand alone novella.  It was the title, of course, that brought it to my morbid attention when I stumbled across it on iTunes!

The story centres on an annual dance given by two elderly sisters in Ireland around Christmas time. The main character is an insecure and socially awkward man by the name of Gabriel, who attends the party with his wife. We experience some of Gabriel’s awkwardness as he makes his way through the dances, dinner and speeches.  When the party is over Gabriel and his wife return to their hotel and it is there that she reveals something shocking to him.  I was expecting some really awful revelation, but it isn’t so bad.  What it does do though is make you think about the people that you know from your past and the influence that they have had on your life.  It also highlights that no matter how much you think you know somebody, you never really know them.

This story is beautifully written and you do feel for Gabriel as he deals with his wife’s revelation.  I had never read James Joyce before and I think that this is probably a perfect introduction.

The Funniest Novel

The second book I decided to read was on a list of 100 best books and was noted as being one of the funniest books written in English.  I made one of my monthly themes at book club a humorous read so that I could try Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.  Written in 1889 it tells of three men, and Montmorency the dog, who take a trip on the Thames.  I could imagine this being written by Clive James as the delivery is very droll and pretty funny.  As well as the dramas on the river there are plenty of funny asides.  I’m not sure if I agree that it is the funniest book ever written as I’m currently reading a Gerald Durrell which has made me laugh plenty, but it is hugely enjoyable.

Apparently the trip is easy to re-create and many fans of the book travel the route and stop in at the pubs and inns mentioned along the way.

Greatest (Living) Author

Philip Roth
There are a few authors that are listed as our greatest living writers – Phillip Roth, Don Delillo and Jose Saramago amongst others. I decided to try Phillip Roth and I've nearly finished Sabbath’s Theatre. and I sincerely hope none of my book-clubbers pick this one to read as it is extremely licentious and explicit!  Mickey Sabbath is definitely someone you would not want in your life, but the writing is excellent and despite the subject matter I am (surprisingly) enjoying it. This is because Roth makes us see Mickey Sabbath, a sad old lecher, as a man trying to make sense of death and dying and the fact that he has left nothing of value to show for his sixty odd years on earth.  He is a man baring his miserable soul as his life winds down.

Don Delillo has 10 out of 16 books on the 1001 books you must read before you die listing that I follow, which is equalled only by Charles Dickens.  Surely this would make him THE greatest author?  I have never read him so Ratner’s Star will be going on my reading list very soon.

The Best Book Ever Written

So, popular opinion has it that Don Quixote is probably the best novel ever written.  That’s an amazing achievement for a book that was published in the early 1600s and written at a time when there would not have been many actual fiction novels being produced. 

Don Quixote
I've always been interested in this character ever since I inherited Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as two large Royal Doulton toby jugs from my much loved Grandmother.  I recently watched a made-for-TV movie starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins based on the novel and I also got hold of Lost in La Mancha about the failed filming of The Man who Killed Don Quixote which was to star Johnny Depp (it’s a great movie about the pitfalls of movie making, especially if the director is Terry Gilliam, and well worth watching).

Having an idea about the storyline didn’t really prepare me for the amount of WORDS that there are on each page, it’s very daunting each time I pick it up.  I've gone from audio to Kindle back to audio in order to try and get through this monster-piece.  From what I have read so far (half) it has mainly been very entertaining but there are some awfully long monologues and short stories which detract from the plot. The best of these though was the story of Anselmo and Lothario titled The Impertinent Curiosity which I enjoyed very much, and I have since learned that the term Lotharian was derived from this story.

Sancho Panza
Don Quixote is an aging tall thin man who, after reading many books on chivalry, is lost in his own world of knight errantry.  He believes that everything is under enchantment so that those around him can’t see what is really going on – such as the windmills really being giants, and the wine sack at the end of the bed really being an ogre.  Sancho Panza is a poor short squat farmer who is lured into being Quixote’s long suffering squire with the promise of being given an island at the end of their adventures.  Along with Quixote’s equally thin horse Rocinante and Panza’s beloved donkey, the two make quite a visual pair as they wreak havoc throughout the Spanish countryside.

The humour that worked back in the 1600s still works today amazingly, and Cervantes is quite cheeky in some of his observations, sometimes relating comments back to his own authorship.  I confess for me it has been a bit of a trial to read (almost as painful as Melmoth the Wanderer) but the characters and the humour will help me see it through to the end.

Until next time,


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