Favourite Writers: Fiction

15 August, 2009

Everytime I am confronted with articles or questionnaires about favourite books and writers, I decide to make my own list and give up after a few minutes. It’s not that I don’t have enough to fill a list, I have too many favourites and I fear that I have forgotten some of the ones I particularly loved. I want to do justice to that list. In author interviews, this is one of the most frequently asked questions and I can almost visualise their quavering when they have to announce to the world their favourite books and authors. They always start or end by saying that this is by no means absolute and it could change tomorrow. That is how I feel too. But there are a number of titles I will always love because of their impact on my thinking at a particular point in my life, and I thought it would be a good exercise to give it a try. Put it down on paper, so to speak.

I generally read a lot of mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction and fantasy and general/literary fiction and of course, some classics, once in a while. When I was a student I went through a French phase where everything had to originate from the Latin Quarter: Sartre, Beauvouir and Camus. I grew up with the refrain ‘maman est morte’ as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in English) is my father’s all time favourite book, a remnant of his student days at the Sorbonne in the late ’60s.

letranger theoutsider

I will be putting up lists divided by genre in the coming weeks but will start with the most general. It’s not a reflection of which is the most important genre for me. I’m open to and have favourites in all. I tend to mix my reading and have several books on the go, but sometimes I find that I need to concentrate on one book just to see it through and do it some justice.

So, let’s start with the following:

General/literary fiction

Donna Tartt (A Secret History)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age)
Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars)
Michelle de Kretser (The Hamilton Case)
Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger)
Romesh Gunasekara (The Match)
Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens)
Douglas Coupland (Generation X)
Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Kaori Ekuni (Twinkle Twinkle, Calmi Cuori Appassionata – Red (in Japanese only))
Agota Kristof (The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie – Three Novels)
Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost)

You will notice that I have quite a few Sri Lankan writers in the mix: Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Everytime I go back to Sri Lanka, I always feel a need to read about the country, to immerse myself in the culture and history of the place. And I also stock up on a lot of books there that aren’t available abroad. Perera Hussein Publishing House publishes Sri Lankan authors writing in English and their blog can be found here.

My favourite book of all time is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I first read it as I was revising for my first year undergrad exams. Even though my mind was busy trying to grasp the intricacies of maths and physics, Tartt’s novel gripped me from the start and I spent every moment I could away from my studies burrowed in her book. I haven’t read it in a while so I might give it a go when the mood takes me. Her second book The Little Friend was much anticipated but didn’t have as big an impact and took me a while to get into. There is something about her writing that invokes a feeling within me that I cannot find anywhere else. I finished it still believing she is a great writer even though I didn’t love it as much as The Secret History, and I can’t wait for her next book.

thesecrethistory

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gallefort

I’m so excited about this. The 4th annual Galle Literary Festival 2010 is scheduled for January 27-31, 2010 and I will be there! I’m lucky in that I can combine my annual trip home to visit my parents in Sri Lanka with a four day literary extravaganza in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Last year we saw Germaine Greer, Romesh Gunasekara, Pico Iyer, Moses Isegawa, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Tahmima Anam and Asitha Ameresekara amongst other great writers such as Thomas Keneally and Michael Morpugo. I love Romesh Gunasekara’s writing, in particular his novel The Match, and would have gone just to see him. I was lucky enough to get a place at his writing workshop which was truly inspirational. I was also reading V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage , at the time, so that was a bonus too. And who could resist hearing Germaine Greer’s rant on post-feminism?

It was my first literary festival, and I dragged my parents there as 1) I needed a driver to take me from Colombo to Galle (a three hour journey along the south west coast of Sri Lanka), 2) I have only one friend there and she was working and 3) I thought it would be a nice change in our holiday routine (try something new!) and that they’d enjoy it. We stayed at Aditiya, a boutique hotel which cost a small fortune but was totally worth it because the hotel staff actually left you alone, you could have your meals at anytime, anywhere on the grounds including on the beach, and they did the most divine massages. The Sri Lankan breakfasts which you had to order the night before was also incredibly delicious.

I spent as much time as I could at the literary festival while my parents checked out places for us to have lunch and dinner. I did manage to get my dad, who spent a large part of his career as a UN expert on Asia and Africa, to attend a couple of talks by Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul’s biographer, in conversation with the intrepid traveller Pico Iyer and a very entertaining and political talk by Moses Isegawa, the Nigerian writer.

What I didn’t expect was how interesting it was to listen to writers I had never come across or read before, and how that opened up new avenues in my reading life. My best discovery at this year’s Galle Literary Festival was the debut novelist Tahmima Anam who wrote A Golden Age, a novel about the birth of Bangladesh. She awed us with her poise and erudition and after her session I rushed out to join the queue to buy her book. I didn’t get a chance to read it until I got back to London as I was busy reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind on that holiday (I was going through my periodic scifi and fantasy phase), but when I did, I loved it.

Anam’s language and story-telling skill is so strong and vivid, I felt envious that someone could produce such a perfect first novel. The first line of A Golden Age just grabs you by the hair and sucks you in. It was emotional, yet restrained, punchy, bittersweet and utterly beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happened to her country and people, but she tells her story with such dignity that the novel steers clear of sentimentality and nostalgia. You care about the characters and you want them to survive. Her protagonist Rehana Haque, wife, mother and lover is one of the quietest and strongest fictional women I have ever encountered. A synopsis of her novel can be found here. Buy it, borrow it, swipe it, just go and read it!

agoldenage