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  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2017/02/10 Permalink
    Tags: 4 3 2 1mmarcel proust, a life, , in search of lost time, paul auster   

    5 Novels that Tell a Complete Life Story 

    Every novel is ambitious, but some are more ambitious than others, especially when it comes to scope and timeline. Where the majority of novels focus onsmall slices of time in the lives of their characters, these five novels tell a complete life story, from birth to death (or almost).

    4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster
    Auster’s newest is his grandest experiment yet; clocking in at 900 pages, it really does almost feel like you’re hefting an entire life when you pick it up—but it does more than that. It tells the story of four alternate versions of Archie Ferguson’s life. Always starting in the same place, each Archie makes slightly different decisions, or has slightly different luck, resulting in timelines that slowly diverge in huge and interesting ways, while Archie himself and the people around him remain grounded and familiar. Each timeline is numbered (1.1, 1.2, for the first Archie, 2.1, 2.2 for the second, and so on); a chilling touch is the way the numbering continues with blank pages when the Archie in that timeline dies.

    The World According to Garp, by John Irving
    Irving’s classic 1978 novel goes one step further than simply depicting T.S. Garp’s life from (bizarre) conception to death; it also includes many of the fictional writer’s written works, adding to the sense that Irving’s creation is a real person whose life we are experiencing in a slightly sped-up, edited fashion. With all of Irving’s usual obsessions on display—death, New England, sex and perversion—the novel ends on a powerfully empathetic note, with Garp finding a sense of peace in death after a life marked by paranoia, fear, and compromising weaknesses. It’s a story—and a life—that makes you feel that everything will be fine, even if your own existence is messy and problematic.

    A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
    A bit of a cheat; we don’t meet Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov at his birth, but rather when he’s a young man in the 1920s in Moscow. We don’t follow him to his death, leaving him at an uncertain juncture when he’s in his 60s. In-between, however, we are privy to his existence to the exclusion of almost everything else, following him as he deals with house arrest as an enemy of the state, confined to a luxurious hotel he cannot really enjoy. Outside the hotel, Russia falls under the boot of Stalin, survives World War II, and enters into the uncertain post-Stalin world. Inside the hotel, the former aristocrat becomes a waiter, a conspirator of secret dinners, and eventually a hero to a young girl who becomes his charge. It’s not a complete life, no, but by the end of this magnificent story, you come to realize Rostov’s youth was wasted, and his old age may be more peaceful than intriguing. It’s the decades of exuberant confinement between that matter.

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Fitzgerald’s classic short story turns the concept on its head and tells the life story of Benjamin Button backwards; Button is born with the appearance of a very old man, and has the mental capacity of one as well. As he ages, he grows physically younger; initially a blessing, it slowly becomes a curse as Button begins to lose his purchase on his capabilities and, later, his memories in perverse mimicry of the normal aging process. The struggles that Button experiences as he moves against the current throw the human condition into stark relief, especially as we see him literally becoming a sullen teenager as his own children grow into a hardened adulthood. Fitzgerald, who never lacked for literary ambition, makes this odd life well worth revisiting.

    In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
    Proust’s nigh-infinite work, in which an unnamed narrator (who briefly hints, once, that he shares Proust’s name) is inspired to recount his life after the taste of a madeleine cake forcibly reminds him of his childhood. What follows is an intricate and mesmerizingly detailed of an entire existence, offered up in a beautiful flow of words that never seems to lack for energy; while many are only familiar with the first volume, Swann’s Way, even the later installments—some of which are clearly first drafts the ailing Proust never managed to revise—crackle with humor, energy, and affection. We’ve all had the experience of sensing something we’ve been without for a while that “takes us back” to our past, and that is but one reason this remarkable novel continues to be studied and celebrated.


    The post 5 Novels that Tell a Complete Life Story appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2015/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , gravity's rainbow, , in search of lost time, , , , , reading resolutions, , , the gulag archipelago, the name of the rose, , , , , ,   

    10 Books You Should Finally Read in 2015 

    Umberto Eco's The Name of the RoseLife’s not getting any easier—and neither are these books. While there’s nothing wrong with reading a brisk spy novel or a weepy romance or a horror novel you have to put in your freezer at night in order to be able to sleep, you know you’ve been avoiding certain novels your whole life. Time to put on your grownup pants and tackle these tomes—and here’s how to do it.

    Ulysses, by James Joyce

    Relax. Ulysses is challenging, but it’s not nearly as challenging as some of Joyce’s other works (did I hear someone scream “Finnegan’s Wake!” in the distance before bursting into tears?). The trick here is to stop trying to comprehend every specific reference to Dublin in 1904 and just get into the rhythm of it. In other words, don’t study Ulyssesread it.

    The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

    The opening chapter of this novel is one of the hardest to crack in fiction, but the secret to The Sound and the Fury is in the fact that all the information you need to figure it out is right there in the story. The trick? Remember that if you take away the technical virtuosity and literary technique, what you have left is a rip-roaring soap opera about a family destroying itself.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

    The real challenge of Infinite Jest may be its gonzo science-fiction universe. With wheelchair-bound Québécois assassins, years named after consumer products, and women too beautiful to view safely in full daylight, Infinite Jest takes a while to acclimate to. The secret here is to view the book not as a heavy work of literary genius, but as a roiling comedy that uses its ridiculous setting and details to craft a series of darkly hilarious set pieces.

    Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

    Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.

    In Search of Lost Time (aka, Remembrance of Things Past), by Marcel Proust

    Yes, In Search of Lost Time is easily the longest thing you’ve ever declined to read. What’s remarkable about it is the depth of the personal—you do get the sense of accompanying someone on a sense-memory exploration. The key here is simple: This book is about many things, but chief among them is sex. Start looking for the dirty bits, and before you know it you’ll be in the middle of volume three.

    The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Rambling, complex, and filled with lengthy philosophical detours, this novel is pretty daunting. But rather than being a dour, endless novel, The Brothers Karamazov is a raucous tale of drunkenness, murder, and lust. The trick here is to stop trying to catch every detail and just enjoy the main stories: Mitya’s and Lyosha’s. If you understand what happens to them, everything else falls into place.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

    It’s time. You’ve been avoiding Gravity’s Rainbow since you were a kid. You’ve been avoiding the endless symbolism, the encyclopedic puns, and the faint sense that Pynchon is pulling our legs. But this is a book you can’t dismiss unless you’ve read it, and it’s time. The trick—as with all of Pynchon’s work—is to stop thinking of the book as an awesome piece of serious literature and just enjoy it as a silly farce. This is, after all, a book that includes a bit about a man whose erections may predict rocket attacks on wartime London.

    The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    The language of this book even in translation isn’t complex, and the story it tells isn’t symbolic. The difficulty lies in the subject matter; it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could experience—and survive—what Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners did. The trick here? Every time you finish a page, wiggle your toes inside your slippers and sip something nice and simply be happy it’s a book.

    The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

    When approaching this book nervously, from an angle, you’ll hear some fairly alarming terms, like semiotics or deliberate mistranslation. Fear not! The trick with this admittedly dense and fascinating novel is simple: It’s a murder mystery. Let everything else hit you subliminally, and just concentrate on enjoying the story at its most primal level.

    Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

    Cloud Atlas has the difficult novel trifecta: A shattered timeline, an invented patois, and a story involving several sets of characters in completely different time periods. The trick with Cloud Atlas is that it’s like reading seven novels all at once. There is a theme, and a point, but ultimately what this means is that if you’re confused or bored or mildly alarmed by what you’re reading, just muddle through—a new story will begin shortly.

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