Memorable Fiction: Books I Haven’t Forgotten

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fiction books

I’ve been trying to work more fiction into my reading mix recently. I only finished 1 fiction book in 2015 and I’m on pace to read about 8 or 9 fiction titles this year, still less than one a month. I remember a time when fiction made up 90-100% of my reading. But I’m not so sure I’ve retained much from many of the books I’ve read. I think part of it is that I’m not a very close and critical reader. When Melanie and I compare thoughts on the same books we’ve read, I often feel like I’ve missed important chunks or failed to pick up on certain, illuminating points. A big part of it may be due to an intellectually lazy mind–I am a sucker for plot and physical descriptions of characters and things but easily miss out on nuances of dialogue and underlying themes. I feel like I have much to improve when it comes to knowing how to read.

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking back to fiction titles that have stuck with me. For all the fiction I consumed in my twenties, I realized that many were forgettable and that I could hardly recall the plot or main characters much less any themes or symbolism. I started jotting down the names of books that I haven’t easily forgotten. These are books that pop up in my mind from time to time, sometimes randomly and sometimes because a passage vaguely reminds me of a similar real-life situation. I pulled these titles off of my bookshelf and took another look. They’re all very excellent books, so I highly recommend them.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I’ve enjoyed many Ian McEwan books over the years (Sweet Tooth and The Children Act are also very good), but Saturday stands out for me. Aside from the intensity of its 24-hour timeframe, the precise and technical descriptions (a McEwan hallmark), and the movie-like build-up of the plot, I think the very relatable bourgeois life of main character Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon with a loving family, and the preoccupations and ruminations running through his mind as he encounters normal and extraordinary circumstances on an eventful day, were most memorable for me.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

A renowned pianist has come to a Central European city for an important performance, but it’s as if he’s trapped in a maze as he struggles with a hazy memory and has very frustrating encounters with numerous characters. There was something really difficult about this book, but when I finished it, I thought it was brilliant. I read this about ten years ago, and I still think about it every now and then, especially when I have maddeningly illogical dreams where I feel stuck, either unable to remember why I’m there or frustrated that the people I meet are only confusing me.

The Adventures of Auggie March by Saul Bellow

A classic, and the sweeping nature of this bildungsroman is hard to forget.

Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

It took me several tries to finish this book, but the effort was well worth it. The structure is unconventional–over the span of decades, a narrator meets a handful of times with architectural historian Jacque Austerlitz, who recounts his efforts to discover his lost personal history. The sad and melancholy feel of Austerlitz’s lost past, the haunting black and white imagery scattered throughout the book that recall the ghostly aftermath of the Holocaust, and the free-flowing dreamlike cadence of the prose and dialogue gives the book a very distinct feeling that I can recall whenever I see its spine on our bookshelf.

Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul

I love this collection of vignettes from life in Trinidad and Tobago. The stories are sad, comical, and endearing. The characters–Bogart, Hat, Bhakcu, Popo, Big Foot, etc.–are unforgettable. After all these years, the writing style in here is still my favorite. A small sampling:

Big Foot was really big and really black, and everybody in Miguel Street was afraid of him. It wasn’t his bigness or his blackness that people feared, for there were blacker and bigger people about. People were afraid of him because he was so silent and sulky; he looked dangerous, like those terrible dogs that never bark but just look at you from the corner of their eyes.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This passage from Robert Penn Warren’s epic novel on American politics always comes back to me:

There’s nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t any other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.

You ought to invite those two you’s to the same party, some time. Or you might have a family reunion for all the you’s with barbecue under the trees. It would be amusing to know what they would say to each other.

But meanwhile, there isn’t either one of them, and I am in the car in the rain at night.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

I still think of John Kwang, the Korean-American councilman from Queens with mayoral aspirations. His charisma, his flaws, and his Koreanness and Americanness–Lee does a great job in crafting a memorable character. This is a story with many parallels to All the King’s Men in characters, structure, and themes, but for me, Native Speaker has an intimately familiar feel that reminds me of my own immigrant and Korean upbringing as well as the uncertain feeling I’ve always had about my identity and place in America.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

I remember distinctly thinking to myself when I read this book: I wish it never ends. My favorite part is the thick middle volume The Savage Detectives (1976-1996) which is a sprawling collection of interviews with forty or so characters that recall the two main characters of the book, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. The different perspectives that come together to paint a picture of these two poets is quite rich and done in a way that was completely new and fresh to me.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

I’ve thought about this book at least once a week since I read it earlier this year. It’s about a 43-year-old man with a dead-end job and a failing marriage who suddenly “dies” and wakes up as his 18-year-old self back in time. This is ultimately a story about taking control of your life, being deliberate with your decisions, and living in a way that leaves no room for regrets.

Update: I asked Melanie about her selection of memorable books. Here were six that she mentioned: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Home, and Lila (counting as one although they are three related books); Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee as well; Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

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