My Thirty Greatest Books

Thirty Years, Thirty Books

At the moment of typing this, I realize that I’m spending my last couple of hours as a twenty-something hacking at my book shelves and sorting through my memory for my greatest books. I haven’t read a lot yet, but I already have my small personal canon.

There are the random books of my childhood, the limited choices in high school, the varied selections in college, and the hordes of them all in the last decade. And before I realize it, I’m already thirty. Actually, the realization has not yet hit me hard (should it?). I look at my shelves and wonder at the space that I could have emptied had I not been a reader. But no, I’m happy to be a reader.

I selected my list of greatest books based on my Goodreads ratings and on how important they are to me at multiple points in my life. If you are a keen reader of my blog, I think you will have a pretty good idea on what most of these books are. But there are surprise picks, which I put in my this list because they are an integral part of my reading development.

I wish I could rank them, but this is so hard. This is because my literary taste is continuously evolving and expanding, and everyday is different. I may like Novel A now more than Novel B, but next week could be a different story. So I decided to list the books alphabetically.

Without further ado, here are my thirty greatest books:

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan – Recently reread, I must say that it’s still as stupendous as the first time.
  • Children Around the World by Various Authors – I found this at the book shelf of my aunt. When I grew up, I never found it again.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – When you thought that there’s nothing new that emerging writers could do, my favorite living author comes out with this extraordinary feat.
  • Death at Intervals by José Saramago – My paternal love for my favorite Nobel laureate started with this novel: Death’s love affair with an ordinary cellist.
  • Fatelessness by Imre Kertész – Read this and you’ll thank your provider for the cheap instant food on your plate.
  • Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot – Possibly the best poetry collection on life, time, and everything in between.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – The follow-up novel after twenty years of waiting is graceful with its lilting spirituality.
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – I find the title too endearing to ignore. After reading the book, I realize the truth in the title’s spaces.
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham – Reading this as a bumbling college student amazed me at the writer’s mastery of the novel’s form.
  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun – Still my greatest book, so far.
  • Independent People by Halldór Laxness – Still my second greatest book, so far.
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – At some point, it made me want to buy every copy that I see in book stores.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – Because Jane Eyre is badass. I wish I have read this sooner.
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones – an immensely under-read and important contemporary novel.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
  • Malice by Danielle Steel – I can still remember when me and my friends gushed at the sex scenes while restraining ourselves in a corner of the school library.
  • Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem – Possibly the funniest book in this list.
  • The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek – It’s not the literariness of it but the intensity of reading it.
  • Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion – Short, terse, and devastating. Read only when emotionally stable.
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – The first book that you discuss with a group of bookish friends is certainly unforgettable. And that’s the least of the reasons.
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – This came at a low point in my life. Thus, it felt like a book that was written for me.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – The man and the boy’s journey to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world will grip you, not without shedding a tear.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – A book that I feel I will always reread. I haven’t scheduled a reread yet for this year.
  • The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever – New York stories from the masterful writer. The pieces are varied. There’s something for every reader out there.
  • This Is Water by David Foster Wallace – Something that I read when the jagged teeth of realities are snapping at me.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee –  The first novel that you read is always in the heart.
  • Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda – Possibly the most romantic poetry collection.
  • Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Years ago, I was only following her Twisted series. Now, I’m writing a novel that she would possibly publish.
  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides – Beautifully haunting, those Lisbon girls.
  • Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver – What more could you ask for when pieces from the writer’s three major collections are collected here?

Some of these are not in the photo above either because they are borrowed or they are elsewhere. Now, I am reminded that for the past years, I celebrated my birthday with a bookish giveaway. However, I have to break that tradition now because first, I somehow forgot it (blame it on the lack of activities on this blog) and second, I’m saving money for something more important and more selfless. What could be more important and more selfless than giving away a book?

If you answer this question correctly before April 25, 11:59 PM, you win a prize. Yes, the tradition goes on, although you will have to wait for your prize (a book not more than Php1000) some time in June to be delivered to you. For now, #HappyBirthdayAngus. Thank you. :)

Book Report: March 2014

Book Report: March 2014

WordPress tells me that today is my sixth anniversary as a WordPress blogger. This blog is only three years old. The excess three years were spent on a personal blog that I hid from everyone. It’s inactive, don’t worry, and I haven’t touched it ever since I chose to blog about books.

I don’t really have a point, but I’m thinking that the blogging years don’t matter. What matters in blogging is always now. In the world of blogs, one is only as good as his or her last post. A blog with no fresh content in spite of its age is practically dead. And what do we make of this blog?

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted a book review in nearly a year. I think I may have been jinxed when my bookish friends voted for me as their favorite book reviewer last year (aww, you guys!), which is very humbling. But after that, my book reviews have been scarce.

Don’t worry, I’m forever trying to figure out how to make myself go back to the art of book reviewing. For now, I have a huge book report, mostly on new books. Yes, new books, because I’m a stress shopper. Need I say more?

Books Finished:

  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr – 3 out of 5 stars. The only book that I finished this month. Copy was lent by Maria. Thanks! This is only the fourth book that I finished this year, and yes, it’s also the fourth borrowed book. I have a feeling though that I’m going to finish a book that I own in April.

Currently Reading:

  • The Trial by Franz Kafka – Currently on page 163 of 216. I was going to finish it this month, but alas, I got held up with too many appointments.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Currently on page 211 of 604. I didn’t touch it. I tried to but, oh well. I hope it doesn’t get stuck here for a long time

New Books:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Some of my friends recommend Atwood, particularly this novel. And it’s added to the recent edition of the Novel 100/125. (Php 175.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino – TFG’s book of the month for April. I’m glad to have found a copy because I gave my pre-loved copy to one of my favorite friends. (Php 485.00, March 17, NBS Bestsellers – Podium)
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow – A National Book Award winner. I haven’t read any Bellow book yet, and I have a number of them. (Php 90.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer – I lost my mass market copy to termites. I don’t mind that now because this trade paperback copy is nice. (Php 150.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White – A new writer friend recommended this when I asked him his favorite NYRB Classics book. He has another favorite but I have yet to look for that. (USD 21.03, March 25, The Book Depository)
  • The Stone Raft by José Saramago – Saramago. Hello?! (Php 200.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders – The inaugural winner of The Folio Prize. Now, let me proceed to shameless plugging. I started a book group on Goodreads dedicated to reading this and the future winners of The Folio Prize. In fact, we are reading this book starting today, which means I’ll have to eat my dinner after posting this and start reading the first story. If you want to check out the group and join, click this. (Php 629.00, March 19, Power Books – Shangri-la Plaza)
  • Under the Net by Iris Murdoch – One of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels. I’ve read Murdoch before and she’s not bad. On the contrary, she’s very good. (Php 200.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault – A Book Critics Circle winner. I have no idea on who the writer is. (Php 250.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • World Light by Halldór Laxness – When I read the blurb, I made the decision to buy it upon reading that the protagonist believes that he will one day become a great poet. And that’s the first sentence. (USD 15.37, March 25, The Book Depository)
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

A Quiet Lullabye – The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing is the coming-of-age tale of Alfgrimur Hansson, a boy orphaned since birth and left to the care of grandparents unrelated to him. Although he is the narrator, the novel does not merely revolve around him. The chapters shift between the different events in the town of Brekukkot and the people that are etched in Alfgrimur’s memory particularly Gardar Holm, an Icelandic opera singer with worldwide fame. We witness Alfgrimur’s relationship with the singer grow thanks to his own developing singing talent, but what happens when he finds out the story behind Gardar’s fame?


My first encounter with the Nobel laureate Laxness is through his epic novel Independent People. It’s still unknown to me why I bothered to read it; perhaps it’s the cover art painted by Louisa Matthiasdottir that features a house on a knoll with sheep grazing about. I’m very grateful that I did read this because otherwise I wouldn’t bother to explore his other works.

This second encounter seems, strangely, both a similar and different experience. The Fish Can Sing lacks the grandeur of Independent People but it has a quaint intimacy that slowly builds itself chapter after chapter.

“There is only the one note, which is the whole note,” said Gardar Holm. “And he who has heard it does not need to ask for anything. My own singing doesn’t matter. But remember one thing for me: when the world has given you everything, when the merciless yoke of fame has been laid on your shoulders and its brand has been stamped on your brow as indelibly as on the man who was convicted of the worst crime in the world — remember then that you have no other refuge than this one prayer: ‘God, take it all away from me — except one note’.”

[How did it ever come about, I wonder, that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? Somehow it just occurred to me one day that the word it said when it ticked, a four-syllable word with the emphasis on alternate syllables, was et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. Did I know the word, then?]

Fame versus obscurity: which one will you choose? The former option seems like the easy choice but for Alfgrimur, this is a dilemma that would trouble him for most of his adolescent years. It is easy to note in the remembrance of his youth that he dearly loves his home and that he does want to be a fisherman like his grandfather. Modern people can dismiss this as backward thinking: why give up the chance to become a famous singer side-by-side a national figure just to become an ordinary man who will catch, sell, and dry lumpfish all his life?

[From time immemorial it has been the custom in all sizeable forms in Iceland to have a good reader available to read sagas aloud or recite rimur for the household in the evenings; this was the national pastime. These evening sessions have been called the Icelanders' University.]

And this national figure, Gardar Holm, is as much an enigma as a household name of the whole Iceland. He may be the greatest singer to captivate every royal audience in the world, but ironically, no one from his homeland has ever heard him sing.

[It is not very pleasant to be so deaf that one can no longer argue with people because one cannot hear what they are saying -- not to mention when one cannot even understand the little one does happen to hear.]

Even so, we can still hear the quiet humor and sarcasm of Laxness pervading the pages. He can even make fun of the sacred without turning it into blasphemy. This is something that the readers will delight themselves especially if they are looking for something that reminds him of his other works. I don’t know much about Iceland and her people, but it seems like they can be both funny and contemplative at the same time.

[If people adhere to the doctrine that words are spoken in order to hide one's thoughts, that words mean something entirely different, sometimes even directly opposite to what they are saying, it is possible, occasionally at least, to reconcile oneself to them and to forgive the poet ...]

This book was written when Laxness’s novels were beginning to get huge attention from the rest of the world. His more popular works were already translated into different languages, hence, he turned to be the great voice of Iceland. Fame was inevitable for the writer, but instead of wallowing in it, he longed for the blessed serenity of everyday living.

[For some time, I had felt in my heart a certain uneasiness, as all guilty people do; I felt I had done something against my better conscience, something which was not worthy of my dignity. But what was the value of Better Conscience if it forbade people to bring others better health and a little romance? And what did the Dignity of a stupid slip of a boy matter?]

His self is reflected both in Alfgrimur and Gardar, and he ponders on the levels of existence that the ordinary man and the famous man may achieve. The novel asserts that what may look like an easy life can even be more turbulent than a life of poverty, that profundity and dignity can be attained even by the most ordinary of people, that getting a living is not always about getting money, and that going back to one’s roots can be a most rewarding spiritual experience.

This novel can really sing, not in the manner of pop stars but in the tradition of a mother singing your childhood lullabye. And you might ask why and how the fish can sing. Try to figure it out with these lines, in the traditional Icelandic saga:

The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.


Dates Read: January 12 to 25, 2013

No. of Pages: 246

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Books to Read: January 2013

Books to Read: January 2013

Happy New Year! New Happy Year! Either greeting works fine, don’t you think? When a new year unfolds, people have this habit of changing some things to align with the changing of the years. I usually have that going on, and my blogging is no exception.

The first set of changes that will take place over here is the way I pick my books to read for the month. I will have required categories and I have come up with three. They are the following:

  • A book for my Noble Nobel Project – I feel so ignoble for ignoring this personal project. I must continue.
  • A book for the Classics Club Project – If I keep at my current pace, I won’t be able to finish my 75 books in 5 years. Although I still have 4.25 years left, I don’t want to rush this in the future.
  • Our book club’s book of the month – Yes, I will continue to read them and join the monthly discussions.

This doesn’t mean that I will only read three books a month. Sure, I may have failed a couple of months now to even finish that number of books, but hey, this is a good time to improve my reading, right? So I will pick four books per month that I will challenge myself to finish, and if the month is pretty good for reading, I will pick an extra book which I will be reporting. Note that the fourth book can be any book (a random book, a buddy read), but I’m leaning toward short story collections for this year because I noticed the dearth of short stories in my read shelf. I find that shocking because I remember I was inured to the wonders of literature by the short story, not to mention that I used to write amateur short stories back then.

So yes, here’s this month’s reading plan:


  • The Noble Nobel Project: The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness – this is what I got for our book club’s exchange gift. Yay! I want to read it for three reasons. First, I want to take in the freshness of a new book. Second, it was David Mitchell’s favorite book for a time. And third, I miss Laxness’s storytelling.
  • The Classics Club: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – I know, this was in my last month’s reading plan, but I figured I should start the new year with a gigantic book. This, I think, is a perfect choice for that requirement. We also have a reading support group ongoing at our book club. I’m excited to join the participants to rave about this.
  • GR-TFG’s Book of the Month: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – this book beat Dune by Frank Herbert and Unwind by Neil Shusterman at our offline and online polls. I voted for it, so yes, I’m excited to read it.
  • The Fourth: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz – another book that has been selected in one of the previous months. This time, I will finish it. I will stick to this plan. What use is a plan if I don’t follow it, right?

I’d also like to list down the second set of changes that I’ll be doing over here. First, I’ll be scratching off two categories. Let’s bid goodbye to Diaries and Quarterly Rhapsody. The Diaries is signing off because I don’t think I will be able to find extra time to chronicle my progress with thick books. I think doing a single extra long write-up will suffice for such books, right?

It’s actually such a shame to give this up because I was able to inspire another blogger to do the same. I hope she continues the tradition (she’s a bit inactive as of late). Anyway, all existing posts under this category will be filed under Reading, which I really have no use as of this moment. I will think of something to do with it soon.

As for the Quarterly Rhapsody, it won’t really say goodbye. The nature of posts under this category are similar to my Sunday Salon and Whatnot posts. I’ll file all existing posts under the latter.

What else? Well, if I intend to finish Les Miserables this month, I have to start reading now. Let’s raise our virtual glasses to another bookish year. And thanks for always visiting my blog, for reading my posts, for sharing your thoughts, for liking, for following, for linking, for reblogging, for everything. It means a lot to me. Happy New Year! New Happy Year! :)

Thirteen Translations

Quarterly Rhapsody: Translated Books

Quarterly RhapsodyI almost forgot my quarterly feature, which is a post where I ramble about book-related stuff. Previous topics that I discussed in Quarterly Rhapsody, if you are interested, are:

So for the third quarter of the year, let’s talk about books translated into other languages. This topic has been bothering me for the past couple of weeks, and we have two books to blame: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. For the first book, I have this unquenchable desire to immediately read the translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy. As for the second book, I was going to start reading Ralph Manheim’s translation when by some accident, I found out that he made some omissions from the original text.

I put it back on my shelf and asked the local book stores if they have the Breon Mitchell translation available. I’m luckier with this one; I am currently reading it and I am not making a lot of progress because I often find myself comparing it with the older translation that propelled Grass to worldwide fame and ultimately, to the Nobel.

With my minor comparisons (really, I just picked some notorious paragraphs and winding sentences), I found out that the meaning is not lost. The thought is still there, although one could discern the style of the translator with his diction. Let’s take the opening paragraph of each translation.

From Manheim:

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole  in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed like me.

From Mitchell:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

Not a lot of difference, right? Yes, but for the reader who’s sensitive to style, there’s something to consider. Disclaimer: I am no literary person. I didn’t major in the letters, I don’t work in the publishing industry. I am merely a reader who appreciates some style.

So please check out that second semi-colon in Manheim’s version; it is dropped in Mitchell’s version. The first translation sounds a little terse to me because of the repeated punctuation mark; the other one is more fluid, which is, according to Grass himself, the narrator’s manner of speaking. This is may be something only for the finicky reader, but if we consider the cumulative effect of trying to make the two languages as parallel as possible, it is worth obsessing which translation to read.

The rest of the first page consists mostly of differences in word choice. Everything seems to be present. I wonder what’s omitted from the older translation?

Two Tin Drums

Two Tin Drums

I jumped to the afterword and found out that there weren’t more than five whole sentences omitted. One of them is about a comparison of a smell with that of a condom, and another one is about the splattering of semen somewhere. Others are hard to translate German dialogues that play with sound and style, and these were either dropped or translated into readable English.

To illustrate that, here’s another example, and with this, we will truly appreciate the insurmountable effort that translators put in their craft.

From the original text:

Auch fiel mir auf, das Tätigkeiten wie: Daumendrehen, Stirnrunzeln, Köpfchensenken, Händeschütteln, Kindermachen, Falschgeldprägen, Lichtausknipsen, Zähneputzen, Totschießen und Trockenlegen überall, wenn auch nicht gleichmäßig geschickt, geübt wurden.

From Manheim:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill.

From Mitchell:

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill.

Whoa! I don’t understand German, but looking at those German words mostly ending in -en (an assonance or consonance?), there’s a rhythmic pattern produced. And that took some time to type; I had to be loyal to the diacritical marks.

The same issue of being loyal to stylistic sound effects pervades the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Take this short sentence: Kápli kápali. Obviously an alliteration, but older translations dropped the effect and turned it instead into “The branches dripped,” or “The trees were dripping.” The duo, which are my favorite translators, went with “Drops dripped.”

Also, the duo kept the French dialogues unchanged. That made reading the novel a little tougher since I had to refer to the footnotes for the English translations. Other translations, such as Constance Garnett’s, translated everything into English. Nothing wrong, but it felt that everyone was speaking the some tongue, which I think isn’t the effect intended by Tolstoy.

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

We barely have a clue on how translators work their magic and how they go about their translations. Should they be loyal to the text or should they make the text more readable? Should they preserve the feel and culture of the text or should they make the text fit the feel and culture of the language where it is being translated?

I can’t help pondering these questions because I love world literature. I want to read novels from as many countries as possible. I guess it’s my way of traveling and learning about the world. There’s so little time and we can only do so much. Not all of us can travel everywhere in this lifetime or learn the languages of lofty literature, so we have to thank these translators who do the dirty tasks for us.

In the photo below are shown some books which are not originally written in English and which I rated with either 4 or 5 stars. Below are their original titles and the translators I am indebted to:

  • 2666 – ditto (translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
  • Atomised (UK); The Elementary Particles (US) – Les Particules Élémentaires (translated from French by Frank Wynne)
  • Fatelessness – Sorstalanság (translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)
  • The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero)
  • Hunger – Sult (translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly)
  • Independent People – Sjálfstætt Fólk (translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson)
  • The Land of Green Plums – Herztier (translated from German by Michael Hofmann)
  • My Name Is Red – Benim Adım Kırmızı (translated from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar)
  • Noli Me Tangere – ditto (translated from Spanish by Soledad Lacson-Locsin)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude – Cien Años de Soledad (translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa)
  • The Piano Teacher – Die Klavierspielerin (translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel)
  • The Tin Drum – Die Blechtrommel (translated from German by Breon Mitchell)
  • War and Peace – Война и миръ (translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Thirteen Translations

Thirteen Translations

Some notes on this list: I guess I’d have to hunt for other translations of my favorite book, Hunger. There are two more by George Egerton and Sverre Lyngstad. And look! That’s nine languages of great literature!

And oh, I made it seem here that Breon Mitchell is butchering Ralph Manheim’s work. That is not the case. The former is actually very grateful to the latter. He just had the great opportunity to work with Gunter Grass himself in coming up with a 50th anniversary edition of his first novel. He also mentioned that new translations for great works of literature are necessary for they do not endure as long as the original text. In addition, new translations of any work do not seek to be a better edition. Rather, they present different reading experiences that are totally separate from each other.

So if I get the translation that I don’t dig, I shouldn’t worry too much, right? I guess I should just do some more research when it comes to this matter. And good thing that I learned early on that the Fahnestock-MacAfee translation of Les Miserables is the one that I might enjoy. The book is just too damn long for me to read another translation of it.