Long-time readers of this blog will remember about a year ago I published a list of my favourite authors. You can find the article here so I’m not going to spent too much time explaining my choices now, but as a quick reminder the authors were:
- C. S. Lewis
- Ursula Le Guin
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Douglas Adams
- George R. R. Martin
- Octavia E. Butler
- John Wyndham
Over the years it’s safe to say I have read a lot of books by these guys and many of them rank among my absolute favourites.
However, I haven’t read all of them and therein lies the theme for this new series of posts. Starting this month, I will be reading one book from one of the seven authors above every few weeks. These books will be entirely new to me. Perhaps they will be lesser known works by these authors. Perhaps they will be famous books that for some reason or other I never got around to reading. All of them will be new to me.
I can already tell you these reviews are going to be very interesting to write. Unlike the reviews I did when I was reviewing the slush pile at a publishing company, I won’t be reading these books completely in the dark. And unlike when I was reviewing the best-selling books of all time I won’t have any word of mouth or film adaptations to give me some idea of what to expect.
Instead, I will be reading these books from an entirely new position: armed with full knowledge of who these authors are and knowing all too well the high standards to which they are capable of reaching, and yet approaching each book as a fresh artifact to which I have little association beyond perhaps a vague sense of its plot.
As a fan of these writers, it’s going to be hard to stay objective and not fall into bouts of fanboyism. But never let it be said I’m one to shy away from a challenge…
So without any further ado, these are the first three books I will be reading in this series:
Book one: The Screwtape letters by C S Lewis
If anyone ever asks me who my favourite writer is, I will tell them C S Lewis. His book Til We Have Faces is easily my favourite of all time and I can’t name a single book of his I haven’t enjoyed (although That Hideous Strength came very close).
I love how the guy writes about his faith. I love the way he couples together such pedestrian everyday characters and situations with such deep and challenging theological themes. As a religious man growing up during these spiritually lukewarm times, I find it extremely heartening to read a man like Lewis and feel the pure conviction shining through from his work. Of all the writers I have ever encountered, he is the one whose world view seems most to mirror my own. There are many times during his more discursive books that I literally feel as though I’m reading my own thoughts presented on a page.
C S Lewis was a university professor by trade so his writing style is often very literate and occasionally falls into bouts of self-indulgent argumentation. Sometimes it feels like he’s lecturing you more than telling a story, which I know puts a lot of people off him, especially considering the inflammatory subject matter.
For both of these reasons, however, I think The Screwtape Letters will be an excellent book to choose for this series. The Screwtape letters are a series of fictional letters from a demon to another who is trying to tempt a man to damnation. Straight off the bat we can see that this is classic Lewis: Christian themes; literature and argumentative writing style; lecture first and plot second.
It’s widely considered one of his best books.
Book 2: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
I have read precisely two of Vonnegut’s books: Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. You might be surprised that I consider the guy one of my favourite writers of all times considering I’ve only read two of his books but if you think that way that’s only because you’ve never read them.
Vonnegut writes with none of the reverence or spirituality that characterizes Lewis’s work. His work is anarchic, cynical, darkly funny in an almost depressing way. He writes like a man who has truly seen the depths to which humanity can sink and is now desperately trying to make sense of it all. It’s like the literary equivalent of punk rock and I love it.
When it comes to choosing which of his books I should read next, I actually have Vonnegut himself to fall back on. In Chapter 18 of his book Palm Sunday he grades his own novels. Not in accordance with some external standard of what is ‘good’, he says, but rather in reference to his own abilities and what he feels he is capable of.
This was how he graded himself:
- Player Piano: B
- The Sirens of Titan: A
- Mother Night: A
- Cat’s Cradle: A+
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
- Slaughterhouse-Five: A+
- Welcome to the Monkey House: B-
- Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
- Breakfast of Champions: C
- Slapstick: D
- Jailbird: A
- Palm Sunday: C
Obviously I’m going to choose one of his A-rank books for this series and The Sirens of Titan seems like the perfect choice.
Written early in his career, this book famously ranks among one of his most chaotic of all. From what little I’ve heard about the book, it has almost defies description. Vonnegut seems to tumble between ideas, somehow forging an almost Macgyver-like plot out of little more than wit and cynicism alone. Reading the book’s blurb tells me almost nothing about what to expect inside. All I know is that Vonnegut thought it was good and that’s good enough for me.
Book 3: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Sometimes you read a story and you feel entertained. Sometimes you read a story and feel moved. Some books challenge you. Some books stay with you forever. Only Le Guin manages to do all of these things at the same time.
Have you ever met someone before whom you feel insignificant? You know that this person is more intelligent, more insightful and more talented than you will ever be, so much so that all you can do is stand in awe of them. That’s how I feel when reading Le Guin.
Despite being a devout feminist, atheist, environmentalist and socialist her books never seem to brow beat you with these principles. Unlike Lewis, she never seems to be lecturing you. Instead she lays out a situation and lets you come to your own conclusions.
Likewise, unlike Vonnegut she never seems to let her ideas overwhelm her or get her down but instead remains in control of her plot throughout. From a technical standpoint, she is probably the best writer on this list. Certainly, I’ve never known a female writer create such realistic male characters before.
When it came to choosing which of her books to read, it was actually really easy. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes. The idea of taking one thing, changing it and then running with the implications of that change is science fiction in its purest, most undiluted form.
As a kid I loved shows like Sliders or the mirror universe episodes in Star Trek. As an adult, I adore reading through alternate histories. I am always running what-if scenarios through my mind with my own life history and that of the world around me. I find it fascinating.
So you can imagine how delighted I was to stumble upon this book. Here we have a novel which isn’t just about one alternate universe but about the implications of creating such universes in the first place. The book is surprisingly short considering the amount of ground I’ve heard it covers so I’m expecting a dense read. I’m expecting some tough themes here on the nature of choice, reality, fate and free will. I’m expecting some crazy, unpredictable turns of events and, most importantly, a bloody good read.
Of all the books on this list, this is the one I am most looking forward to reading. It was the one that made me decide to start this series in the first place.
So that’s the first three books for you. I’m going to get cracking on reading them now and I’ll post back here in a couple of weeks with the first of my reviews.