To kickstart Novel Niche’s year in litblogging, I invited emerging Caribbean author K. Jared Hosein to share the top twenty books that have most influenced his writing: here’s part one of that post, featuring his first ten picks. Today, we round up the list in K.’s company, and find out what he’s most recently been up to in the literary world.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz) chronicles the lives of the titular character, Oscar Wao; his sister, Lola; his mother and grandfather. Oscar must deal with being overweight, a virgin and a Dominican still haunted by the ghost of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. What lands this book here might be a strange one. It’s mainly because of the numerous accolades Díaz has received for it. Normally, I didn’t think people cared for the type of brash and vulgar storytelling employed in Oscar Wao. And honestly, it was right down my alley (writing-wise). When I saw that Díaz’s work could be accepted by the Pulitzer committee, I thought, “Why not mine?” As I said, strange reason. But it’s a damn unique and interesting book, nevertheless.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby) is a memoir ‘written’ by a man who has locked-in syndrome. See, Mr. Bauby had been debilitated by a stroke, which rendered all but his left eye motionless. He blinked to the rhythm of a cautiously rearranged alphabet, and with a very, very patient nurse, this book exists. Just being able to read the book is a miracle, if you ask me. Within it contains the musings and memories of a man that thought he would be stuck in the deep, blue sea for the rest of his life. But now, from behind the steel cage of his diving bell, we can hear his voice. If this doesn’t readily reassure your belief in the power of the written word, I don’t know what will.
Boy (Roald Dahl) is the first part of the autobiographical work by Dahl (the second part being Going Solo). It almost reads as an epistolary novel, as Dahl pastes clippings of letters, photographs and other family documents to relate his past in a whimsical manner. The chapters in Boy relate to a prank gone wrong at a candy shop, a grisly car accident and warming the toilet seats for the older boys at a school in Derbyshire. Despite its bursts of humour, it is the most serious book I’ve read from the author. Boy does not overshadow his fictional works, but it made me think: Life is remembered by how you tell it. If that makes sense.
Miguel Street (V.S. Naipaul) is my second favourite Caribbean book (the first being Oscar Wao). My first encounter with the book, if I remember correctly, was a chapter featured in a primary school “Reading Book”. The chapter was about B. Wordsworth, a mysterious man who “felt like a poet but could never be one”. The story was strange and heartbreaking in its feeling of incompleteness. But there was nothing more to be said of B. Wordsworth, and the story was over. I think this was the first time I had read a truly sad ending to a story. The collection of stories in Miguel Street is well worth it, but I won’t forget that experience with B. Wordsworth.
The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) is the hardest book I’ve ever read, that I’ve ever finished (the hardest book I’ve never finished is The Scarlet Letter… trust me, fucking ridiculous!) Fury was my introduction to the much-beleaguered writing style known as stream-of-consciousness. In prose, anyway. Does Beat generation poetry count? It centers around the Compson family, sections devoted to various family members. The two that stood out the most to me were Benjy and Quentin. The non-linear narratives that rely on Benjy’s diminished mental capacity and Quentin’s disjointed and emotionally affected recollection of his family and his sister, Caddy, require multiple re-readings. I remember being on campus, busily dissecting the book during Biology lectures. It was my first experience with frustration that somehow felt rewarding simultaneously. Once you are willing to decipher it, it’s worth it.
Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) was a novel I received for free at a writing workshop when I was twenty. We were given a week to read the book for an upcoming book-club type discussion of character and theme. The story itself concerns David Lurie, a college professor fired for misconduct, who loses most of his reputation and integrity in the process. Yes, it is as depressing as it sounds. But there was one thing that stood out for me as I read this book: the present tense. I had never given it much thought before that. The present tense is quite effective once used properly. Not necessarily to build suspense or (no pun intended) tension or anything, but just to hold the reader in that moment of disarray and imminent disarray. I’ve been trying to re-create that ever since.
Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), to me, is the paragon of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age tale), especially one that involves identity (most of them do, though, don’t they?) It’s a thick book, but that’s because it goes into so much detail with our protagonist, Cal, and his family’s migration from Asia Minor. The hook? Call is intersexed, afflicted with a genetic condition known as 5-ARD. The males are often mistaken for females all the way up to puberty, and are raised as such. The question isn’t about how this can be fixed, but: should it be fixed? Now, Eugenides’ style is verbose, be warned. But from the two books I’ve by him, it’s fitting and beautiful. When it comes to the dense, thorny theme of identity, I don’t think there could be enough words.
The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is a shorter book than Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s no less loaded with purple prose. The story is told by a group of men as they recall and muse upon the sudden suicides of the reclusive Lisbon girls in their neighbourhood. Their actual interaction with them was minimal, so they resort to filling in the blanks with theories of domestic horror. However, The Virgin Suicides never wanders into any gruesome vision. It is probably the least angsty book about suicide I’ve read. Instead, the story focuses on teenage whimsy and puppy love in light of what has happened, as if the girls themselves were pixies perched on mushrooms, or some other magical beings. The book feels like magical realism, though entirely grounded in drama and disillusioned romance. Why this book is here is because it holds that intangible quality that separates melancholy from melodrama. It remains my key to written emotion.
The Road (Cormac McCarthy) concerns a father and son’s journey across a wasteland, the near-shell of a once-verdant world. The technique employed by McCarthy to show the stark emptiness of this situation? The abandonment of punctuation. While I had experienced the fiddlings of grammatical structure before, like with ee cummings, I never reckoned any operative utilisation of it with a novel. Like The Call of the Wild, The Road is written with a complex simplicity (you’ve probably figured out that I’ve an inclination for this odd oxymoron). It describes desolation in brief whispers. Hopelessness in dying breaths. No need for abundance of any sort here.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) concerns Christopher Boone as he plays detective to discover who stabbed his neighbour’s dog, and ultimately uncovers the dark secrets kept by his family. Christopher, however, lives with an autistic spectrum condition and experiences great difficulty accepting the hard realities of his findings. The book is told from first person and is much easier to read than Benjy’s portion in The Sound and the Fury and is more on par with the emotional journey in Flowers for Algernon, though it does require patience when Christopher’s OCD steps in and prevents the plot from advancing. This is all done for effect, however, and works most of the time. This book lands a place on this list for its ability to integrate Christopher’s medical condition into the narrative, not as a gimmick or technique, but to show how different people process different situations. How I may have reacted to Christopher’s findings might have been much different, but this is his story. And everyone should have a story, shouldn’t they?
Here’s a lagniappe for you: for a limited time, K. Jared’s debut book, Littletown Secrets, is available for free as a Kindle download! The author has also produced a lovely, spooky little trailer to accompany the book’s e-release:
(The download link’s in the description section of that video, so don’t be shy about grabbing your free copy, while you can!) You can also keep up with the author’s updates, via his official Facebook page, Littletown Secrets.