Urchin favourites – all-time, all the time!
Ulysses by James Joyce
I firmly believe that Joyce is to literary fiction as Shakespeare is to theatre. If the episodes of Ulysses had been published and distributed separately as novellas, Joyce would be just as well-known and widely read as Shakespeare is today. High school students would curse his name without ever understanding a word of his text. The few that do would make sure that the international Joycean population be represented at their respective high schools, only to be chastised even worse than the drama geeks (‘I’ll show you who’s stately and plump, you cane-carrying, four-eyed loser!’). Joyce once said that he wrote about simple topics using difficult techniques. Ulysses is just that. Joyce’s favourite topics of familial, religious, and national self-exile are examined here through a progression of numerous writing styles and techniques. The start of the novel carries on the narrative style of his earlier works before blending in other techniques, such as interior monologue, epic drama, and the parodying of writing styles before him. Interested in a course on the history of the English language? Forego the course fee and just read Ulysses.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
This novel contains all the features of the postmodern literary movement: encyclopaedic information, divergent plotlines, time and space fiascos, high- and low-art marriage, and tongue-in-cheek self-reference. But what sets the novel and its writer apart from other postmodern efforts are content and execution that match equally his oftentimes eccentric style. Pynchon deals with opposing ideas: science and art, intellect and humour, time and space. He exploits the resulting tensions to illustrate perhaps his most important pair of opposing forces: chaos and order. These aren’t mere juxtapositions. They are harsh, disagreeable, and sometimes violent. Gravity’s Rainbow is a mosaic of opposing governments, militant factions, war-torn cultures and ideologies, all trying desperately to control the chaos of the war in their own conflicting ways. Oh, and did I mention that this book is really funny?
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
It isn’t often a writer is capable of melding a weighty social commentary with an unrequited love story and pulling it off. Maybe that’s why Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer. In 1870s New York, the only enemy of true love and freedom is the restrictive proprieties of modern society. Newland Archer, of good family, wealth and upbringing is cursed with a secret love for free-thinking, art, literature, and women’s rights. He is engaged to the right woman of the right sort of family but can only find true independence with the disgraced Madame Olenska. Though, technically, Archer struggles against 19th Century social principles, his struggle to decide between his own happiness and what society demands is completely applicable today. I’d like to say that The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels because it is intellectually stimulating, etc… etc… Really, it just makes me cry. A lot.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Let’s just forget about the hobbits, wizards, orcs, and really, really ridiculously good looking elves for just a moment. The genius behind Tolkien’s monumental work is not the creation of a 3’6” hero with hairy feet, but the invention of an entire world, history, and language. I firmly believe that The Lord of the Rings would have disappeared on the dusty shelves of fantasy novel yore if it had relied solely upon plot. Someone once expressed his concern for my mental health when I concluded that The Lord of the Rings was not a fantasy. Rather, it is a fictitious history. I mean, come on, there are other popular books that don’t consider magic a fantasy. Ahem.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
In this essay, Virginia Woolf, the best person to ever live, elaborates on the topic of women and fiction: women writing fiction, women reading fiction, women as characters in fiction. In order to address these topics, she creates a complexly woven narrative covering everything from dining to Oxbridge to Shakespeare’s sister. So, to recap: my favourite author, talking about my favourite things. Though it seems criminal to name drop the linchpin of patriarchal bullpoop in the same paragraph as V. Dubs, this book is my bible.
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
This is one of the only books I return to time and time again. Written as journal entries by C.S. Lewis following his wife’s death, he explores the intricacies of grieving more accurately and eloquently than I have ever encountered. I reread this book two to three times a year, and find that it takes on a whole new meaning each time. Not only has this book changed my philosophical beliefs, but the knowledge that he wrote such beautiful words without even intending for them to be published constantly motivates me to improve as a writer.