Top Five Saturday is a meme hosted by Devouring Books to discover and share books that all have a common theme. The list of themes currently runs at
- 1/4/20 — Funny Books
- 1/11/20 — Books Over 5 years old
- 1/18/20 — Unreliable Narrators
- 1/25/10 — Books by Favorite Authors
My top five books that have celebrated their fifth birthday… goodness, so many to choose from! And, being pedantic, how do we define that concept of “best”? The books that were most enjoyable? best written? had most literary merit? were most socially important? As it is my list on my blog, the books on my list are going to be my best books – the books that have stayed vivid and alive in my imagination for year, the books in which the characters and ideas have wheedled and wriggled their way into my consciousness, into my thinking, into my writing. The books against which I weigh my new reads.
And let’s consider the time as well: one of my favourite books is The Bacchae by Euripides which was first performed in 405 BC, significantly in excess of 5 years ago! Yet, I’d also want to include Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life… so I am going to cheat and compile two lists! One classic, one ancient!
The Classics List (in chronological order)
Looking at the list below, I start to see a pattern: all these books explore a space in between other spaces, exploring the boundaries between – primarily – sanity and insanity, the real and the unreal. And that has persisted in pretty much all my reading preferences throughout my life!
The Bacchae, Euripides
There are so many plays by Euripides I could have chosen from: I adore Medea in particular, but the Bacchae is archetypal for me.
The conflict between male and female, rational and irrational, divine and mundane. All wrapped up in beautiful muscular language.
Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, has come to Thebes, and the women are streaming out of the city to worship him on the mountain, drinking and dancing in wild frenzy.
Gawain and the Green Knight
Beautiful and mad and hilarious and tragic. What more could you want? Again, that conflict between the human knight striving to live by a rational code of chilvalry, coming face to face (head to head) with the other – in this case a green giant who strolls away after his head has been struck off!
His quest for the Green Knight involves a winter journey, a seduction scene in a dream-like castle, a dire challenge answered – and a drama of enigmatic reward disguised as psychic undoing.
King Lear, William Shakespeare
Without doubt the most powerful and lyrical and elemental – the most mythic – of Shakespeare’s plays. Ruined kings, impish fools, violence and blasted heaths, madness and horror.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Mythic. Monumental. Iconic. It goes without saying that Frankenstein remains a central figure haunting so much of literature. It was such a tough choice between the gothic texts but the power of Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is testimony to how potent Shelley’s original remains.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
An insane rambling stewing pot of a novel: by turns lyrical, absurd, horrific; at times prose, drama and verse. Extravagant metaphors; philosophical depth. Shakespearean in its language as much as it is in its characterisation: Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck, Pip…
The Modern List (in chronological order)
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter (1979, Penguin Books)
Sensual, erotic, horrific.
As with the list above, the enduring power of this series of short stories lies in its interweaving of the real and unreal, the macabre and the mundane. All the stuff which makes up the fairytales which she so brilliantly twists here.
From familiar fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009, Harper Collins)
Gorgeously written, beautifully constructed, powerfully created characters… Wolf Hall is a masterpiece and to be able to create such a vivid and fresh novel from such a familiar historical period – I’m sure there are statistics but surely the Tudor period has been mined more than any other – is phenomenal.
England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.
Apologies that the link is to Bring Up The Bodies, the second in the trilogy, but I’d read this before the blog began!
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness (2011, Walker Books)
Again, we are returning to similar words, aren’t we? Mythic. Muscular. Lyrical.
This tale of a young boy, Conor O’Malley, coming to terms with his mother’s cancer and increasingly inevitable death is heart breaking at so many levels.
Ignore the Young Adult label and shelving: this is a beautiful book that everyone should read.
Life after Life, Kate Atkinson (2013, Black Swan)
This was my first ever Kate Atkinson and it is wonderful! Ursula Todd, born again and again, learning from each life, is wonderful and the evocations of place and time are perfection.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
How to be Both, Ali Smith (2014, Penguin)
Of all Smith’s books, this is probably my favourite – oh but the Seasonal Quartet! It is delicate, and passionate and beautiful.
A fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.