You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven’t lived until you’ve read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet… it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?
This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I’ve tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It’s been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I’ll write a Part 2. For now – 

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It’s the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean… and, a tiger. A survival’s tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 
A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war – the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.
The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He’d sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else’s appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Summary (from the cover): In the mid-1840s a thirteen-year-old British cabin boy, Gemmy Fairley, is cast ashore in the far north of Australia and taken in by aborigines. Sixteen years later he moves back into the world of Europeans, among hopeful yet terrified settlers of Queensland who are staking out their small patch of home in an alien place. To them, Gemmy stands as a different kind of challenge: he is a force that at once fascinates and repels. His own identity in this new world is as unsettling to him as the knowledge he brings to others of the savage, the aboriginal.
Excerpt: David Malouf’s writing is not for everybody. Already having read two of his other books, I had a fair idea of what to expect from this one. There is little plot, but this only enhances the reading experience. I can’t think of a better way to recommend Malouf than to give you a taste of his writing. And to embrace the new for this new year, instead of the usual review, I’ll just share my notes on a couple of pages of the book (they may seem unrefined, I warn you, I prefer not to alter notes after I finish the book; keeps them authentic and spoiler-free, right?) First, a few passages from Chapter 3, describing why the settlers are terrified of Gemmy Fairley, the white boy raised by the aborigines –
Of course, it wasn’t him you were scared of. He was harmless, or so they said, and so you preferred to believe it. It was the thought that next time it might not be him. That when you started and looked up, expecting the silly smile, what would hit you would be the edge of an axe. He made real what till now had been no more than the fearful shape of rumour.

Even in broad daylight, to come face to face with one of them, stepping out of nowhere, out of the earth it might be, or a darkness they moved in always like a cloud, was a test of a man’s capacity to stay firm on his own two feet when his heart was racing.

It brought you slap up against a terror you thought you had learned, years back, to treat as childish: the Bogey, the Coal Man, Absolute Night. And now here it is, now two yards away, solid and breathing: a thing beside which all you have ever known of darkness, of visible darkness, seems but the merest shadow, and all you can summon up to the encounter, out of a lifetime lived on the other, the lighter side of things – shillings and pence, the Lord’s Prayer, the half dozen tunes your fingers can pick out on the strings of a fiddle, the names and ages of your children, including the ones in the earth, your wife’s touch on your naked belly, and the shy, soft affection you have for yourself – weakens and falls away before the apparition, out of nowhere, of a figure taller perhaps than you are and of a sooty blackness beyond black, utterly still, very close, yet so far off, even at a distance of five feet, that you cannot conceive how it can be here in the same space, the same moment with you.

What you fix your gaze on is the little hard-backed flies crawling about in the corner of its bloodshot eyes and hopping down at intervals to drink the sweat of its lip. And the horror it carries to you is not just the smell, in your own sweat, of a half-forgotten swamp-world going back deep in both of you, but that for him, as you meet here face to face in the sun, you and all you stand for have not yet appeared over the horizon of the world, so that after a moment all the wealth of it goes dim in you, then is cancelled altogether, and you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you so far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is you may never get back.

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace. 
With David Malouf, I always find myself peeling back the layers of the narrative. Wondering about the way the book was written, its structure and linguistic detail is new to me, last time I did it and not well was for Blindness by Jose Saramago (and I don’t do justice to the process in this post, either, but I try) because I always look at a novel as a separate entity in itself, and tend to question a character’s motives, not the author’s. But David Malouf’s story reads like it has been built specifically to elicit a certain reaction in the reader and it fascinates me to find myself falling prey to the author’s schemes, and reacting the way I imagine was intended.
I love the wise honesty of Malouf’s writing, but what I love even more is his understanding tone. His words are like an embrace, they hold the reader close, pull him into the story and in a group hug that takes everybody in, even a character you’d rather label away as a villain. Like in the excerpt: a white man describing the encounter with a black with as much distaste and plain horror, the likeness drawn between the aborigines and the Bogey man scream racist injustice, and so does the fact that Malouf addresses you directly, making you the perpetrator of this criminal opinion. He reminds you of your routine realities, like your wife and children, and your money and your gods, and then he tells you your impression of the black man and his darkness. A modern reader would promptly disagree, would consider the white man barbaric for his unthinking cruelty and the facade of moral correctness. You would find it most offensive to be put in the villain’s shoes. Because you wouldn’t call an aborigine inconceivable, surely not, or assign him a personal pronoun intended for the inanimate, or name him absolute night. I can relate better to the native than the white settler, anyway, personally. 
But Malouf doesn’t give up. He goes on to tell you just why you would find the black man inconceivable. He describes, almost justifies in your head, the white settler’s reaction of instant recoil gorily detailing the native’s face as covered with flies. The vivid visual makes you wince, and now the white man isn’t so unjust in his reaction, because you, the informed modern reader, still have it too. This is not to say that he isn’t still in the wrong. The white man’s disgust at the native whose world he is invading does make him a bad guy, but now he is one that you can identify with, which makes him it far less easy to label him bad.
And then Malouf tells you how that hatred comes from fear, which once said sounds obvious, but still needs to be said. And far more importantly, needs to be shown, in the manipulative way that he has where you end up imagining it for yourself. He makes you wonder if, in the white man’s place, you would be as scared of encountering the inexplicable unknown, the new, the frankenstein. And if you did meet, would you shoot at it or let it into your house with a blind do-gooder’s faith that it will not mean you harm? I’m guessing you would choose the latter viewpoint, if not the literal course of action, because you’re the modern reader, aware of the world and your place in it, a little selfless and very thoughtful, comfortable enough in your life to be aware of empathy, but the fact remains that Malouf makes you question yourself. He takes you inside the barbarian’s head. And he manages to make the villain (timid, yes, but) less cruel for one real, if fleeting, moment.
When the author mentions Gemmy Fairley again, you see him in a new light (I love the transparent symbolism, Malouf jumps at every chance to use light-dark visuals throughout the book.) He calls the settlers “them” again, as if returning to his fiction after giving you a brief insider’s glimpse of the European settlers’ plight. Now Gemmy Fairley is the encounter, the white man meeting the blacks, in a more literal sense than running into each other. He is a combination of two peoples who are essentially separate, two ideas and worlds that have so far proved immiscible. The person you had so far into the story only pitied with begins to spell a probably danger. This could be the author giving you a warning, making you wary, to coax you into looking at the following events closely and with less of a self-evident bias. Or it might just be a clever writer putting you in your place by tricking you into sympathising with an antagonist.
There is not much more to the story than playing out a historical-fictional scenario that is a principally clichéd plot: a tarzan- or mowgli-like mixing-of-cultures situation in this case, combined with the stranded-and-rescued type backdrop. It is typical, yes, overdone, perhaps, but that’s the beauty of it, because it makes you naturally look for patterns when you read and Malouf strictly organizes the story to help you look at every stereotype with new eyes. He picks surprisingly simple words, some even sound made up, but his prose still rings heavy, laden with meaning, and the long sentences beckon you to reread, dig deeper. An exercise in interpretation, I’d call this book, and I repeat, it’s not for everybody. But if winding introspection interests you, if you like atmospheric imagery, analysing cultures, questioning belief, deep characterization with life histories, and subtle mysteries, Malouf is an author you shouldn’t miss.

“Wonderfully wise and moving… a dazzling fable of human hope and imperfection.” 
– The New York Times

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.

But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.