Books That Stay With You

When constantly having a book in my hand and at least ten waiting to be read, I am often forced to think about why I read as much as I do. The reasons might be manyfold, but one of the main reasons are that there are books, if very few, that stay with me for a very long time. Maybe even forever, though that’s a bit to early to tell. The subject, the prose, the characters might be the reason they stick in my head. I never know beforehand. And that’s part of the joy. Common for the books below is that they have had stories, narrative arches and thought provoking subjects that have forced me to see things in a new light. They have all forced me to think of our society today in a new way.

On this page I have chosen some of my all time favourite reads. It will be regularly updated, so please pop back now and then. And it would be great to hear your thought on these, or any other favorite books of yours.

Brideshead Revisited : Evelyn Waugh

This is one of the very few books I can read over and over again. Having read a dreadful translation more than ten years ago, swearing to never touch anything by Evelyn Waugh again, I was sat abroad a few years back and this was the only book I could find in a language I could understand. So I read it. And fell completely in love.
To revisit the world between the two Great Wars, the start of the decline of the landed gentry, the world of the English public school and Oxbridge education where homo-curiosity was (already then) part of the personal, or shall I say private?, education is thrilling. The moral dilemma Charles Ryder is faced with seeing Sebastian slowly destroy his life, the affair he, Charles is having later in life, how everything comes together, is incomparable.
The ITV series from 1981 with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews helped make this one of the most important British literary feats of the 20th Century, but nothing can compare with the first time you read this epic, if rather short, personal tale. Every time I return to Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder I don’t want to go back to my own world. I want to stay and cherish every minute of every page, and when I re-read it, already from the start am I looking forward to the next time I will be reading it. This simply is one of the best books I have ever read.

 The Corrections : Jonathan Franzen

The novel which launched Franzen to the wider public is a fascinating family epos (it is Franzen after all) which takes us on a journey through the Lambert family’s Midwestern trials and tribulations. The parents are preparing for a last Christmas at home while the three kids, all living on the East Coast having fled the repressive environment of their little fictional home town of St. Jude, are trying to figure out how to survive the family holidays in the best possible way without hurting their parents, in particular mother Enid’s, feelings too much. To me, The Corrections summarize the end of the phenomenaly prosperous and powerful American 20th century in a sharp, intelligent way. The father, Alfred Lambert, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and the resulting dementia is playing dark tricks with his already irrational, if organized, and austere personality. Though not on purpose, he gives his wife hell for the last years of their life together, and though she tries to soldier on the kids wishes her to give herself some time and not letting their father ruin what she’s got left of her already held back life. Though, her Protestant views won’t alove any such talk. And to be honset, the three kids give her enough headache on their own.
Chip, the middle boy, has just managed to ruin his already complicated life by having an affair with a much too young student of his, and therefore end up in the employment of a Lithuanian crime syndicate, travelling between Europe and the States trying to stay alive as best as he can. The youngest, the daughter Denise, is a very successful chef having just been involved in the opening of an old coal plant in the outskirts of Philadelphia that’s been turned in to a new, hip restaurant. That she happens to have an affair with both her boss and his wife at the same time doesn’t make her already stressful life any easier. And the oldest of the kids, the alcoholic banker Gary who also resides in Philadelphia, is the only one who doesn’t seem to realise that he is in trouble, being ravaged by the idea that his wife and kids controll every single step of his life. What’s cause and effect in his matter is not hard for anyone to see, but Gary.
With this novel Jonathan Franzen manages to sum up the pros and cons of the high price we have payed in the West for the advanced lifestyle we have chosen. Old family values clash with the new found longing for universal success, both professionally and privately. It deals with what seems like an impossible task; having both. The crushing criticism woven into the pages by Franzen gives us reason to ask the bigger questions in life. That is why I have read every little scrap of writing I can find by Franzen, and that is why I think this book should be on reading lists of every book group or university course in the West.
No more said.

 Saturday : Ian McEwan

Even if a man has threatened your own person, including your family, during the day; are you still obliged to save his life if need be? This is the main moral dilemma put to neurosurgeon Henry Perowne in his large house in Fitzrovia, London, on a Saturday night in 2003.

There are very few authors apart from Ian McEwan who, with the same skill, manages to tell enormously complex stories in just over two hundred pages. Often in a short time span too. Saturday is no exception.
It starts on the morning of 15 February 2003 and finishes in the early hours of the following day. Dr. Perowne has an important family dinner planned in the evening with his father-in-law, son Theo, daughter Daisy just arrived from Paris and his own wife Rosalind coming. He is looking forward to it, but first he has a long awaited game of squash to attend to. On his way to the game he is diverted  to a side street by police, all due to the anti-war demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Unfortunately he hits the wing mirror of another car in the narrow London street, and a man and his companion rushes out, aggravated. When being aggressive against Perowne, punching him and pushing him around, the man, Baxter, shows signs of early onset Huntington’s disease which Perowne recognises. While trying to talk to Baxter about it, he manages to distract him long enough to escape back in his car and lock the car door. When driving off he can’t shrug the fact that Baxter seemed so unaffected about  the fact of his disease.
The day goes by, and afternoon turns into evening. Everyone arrives at the Perowne house, but last, is his wife. When she enters Baxter and another man force their way into the house armed with knives and starts playing a nasty game with Henry Perowne and his family, striking the father-in-law, forcing the young daugther to strip naked and recite a poem (she is a budding poet). Daisy chooses Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach instead of one of her own poems, and this has such an impact on Baxter that he wants to hear more about alternative treatments for Huntington’s. After storming around in the house, he is finally knocked to the ground by Henry Perowne and his son, after having fallen down the stairs. All this is what leads up to the final moral dilemma facing Henry. After the police and an ambulance have been to the Perowne residence in Fitzrovia, Henry is called to the hospital for an emergency operation. Baxter is the patient.

No one agrees more than me that reading it like this it sounds rather simplistic, not to say silly, that all these things would happen to one and the same person in less than 24 hours. With McEwan though, everything becomes clear and believable. Henry Perowne’s fate, his responsibility towards his family and his patient, could be a metaphor for any one of us. Situations come up where we must decide what’s best for everyone involved, but also what is expected of us as human beings in a society more and more relying on surface and believing in shallowness. Saturday is one of these rare books that changed me.

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