The Hippo Collective’s Recommended Reads, 2014
In the grand, old tradition of online media, this time of year belongs to the classic end-of-year list. Here at The Hippo Collective we’ve decided to shake things up a bit, and instead of picking books published in the last 12 months, we’ve decided to simply write about the best book we’ve read in the last 12 months, regardless of when it was written. Not all students keep up with contemporary publishing, but there are enough interesting and exciting books out there to keep us reading for multiple lifetimes, so why not celebrate what’s already been written?
Without further ado, here is the eclectic and varied mix of books that were chosen:
Giacomo Grechi (Writer)
Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (Translation by Eric Bentley, 1998)
It is difficult to imagine modern Italian literature and perhaps even modern theatre without Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello’s literary contributions. Of particular note is his meta-narrative Six Characters in Search of an Author. Set during a rehearsal for a theatrical production, Pirandello recounts the powerful drama of six abandoned individuals who search for purpose and meaning in their lives through espousing their stories. While the surreal script was originally highly criticized for its anachronistic narrative, it has more recently been praised for its innovative structure, critique of Italian theatre, and perhaps most interestingly, for its heavy existentialist undertones. While at times slightly melodramatic and archaic for a modern audience, Pirandello’s work is a must read in order to understand the origins of such playwrights as Beckett and Ionesco. Six Characters will require the reader to examine and question their personal notions of free will and determinism, the value, or lack thereof, of meaning to human life, and the very definition of humanity.
Ruth Bailey (Lifestyle Editor)
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is the best novel ever written, let alone the best I have read this year: end of story. Yes it may sound dull, as many Victorian novels (wrongly) seem to be thought of as being, but it is one of the most fast-paced and moving novels I have read. Hardy gets down to the nitty-gritty, kind of like Dickens does, which is why I adore both authors – they don’t try to pretend that life is all roses and butterflies. In praising The Mayor of Casterbridge I am by no means suggesting that everyone needs to stop being happy, or enjoy reading happy books! However, the contrast that Hardy creates between extreme joy and extreme despair is what makes this novel most amazing. Hoping the characters have a happy ending is a feeling that never ceases in this novel, but it is the ending that is what makes it memorable, and encourages reflection on the travesties that have occurred within the story. Hardy writes in a way that the story lives on in an active way in the reader’s mind.
The central character of Michael Henchard is one that we feel both love and loath at the same time. ‘Does starting life poorly make you a villain for life, or is there a chance to redeem yourself?’ is a question that the novel raises. As well as ‘is a villain always a villain?’ It is this kind of questioning that makes this novel so spectacular, because there is no clear-cut emotion to be felt at the close of the novel. It is a book that encourages readers to decide what they think for themselves, and reflects bitterly on the realities of life. On top of all this, the idyllic setting of the town of Casterbridge makes for an even more pressing story, the tensions between the characters all build up in the claustrophobic pressure-cooker of the intimate rural community. Hardy makes use of juxtaposition between the pastoral mode and almost Gothic elements such as the burial ground of the amphitheatre, to again tug the reader in different directions and create an underlying sense of darkness and unease.
This is a novel unlike many others; completely consuming in its surprising plot and thoroughly readable style. Chunky Victorian classics often scare people away, but I am telling you that this shouldn’t be the case. The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredible, and I implore you to read it now.
Raphaëlle de Beaumont (Writer)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Christmas is getting closer and hot chocolate is flowing. So it is the perfect moment to start The Thirteenth Tale, a Gothic suspense novel written by the British author Diane Setterfield. Dense, surprising, puzzling, and captivating, this novel plunges you in an intriguing atmosphere which grasps your attention until the last page. I strongly recommend it especially during this cold and enchanting period of the year. Before she dies, the famous writer Vida Winter wants to lift the veil on her extraordinary life. She leads Margaret Lea to discover the most hidden secrets of her existence although her strange stories are hard to believe. Both women will have to confront the ghosts which haunt their life to finally identify their own truth.
Chris Haupt (Writer)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is most famous for her novels based in Earthsea which is part of a vast and rich fantasy universe, but she’s every bit as accomplished a writer of science fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness follows the travels of an envoy sent from a technologically sophisticated planetary federation to the icy and unforgiving planet of Gethen, where all are genderless and slow.
The novel provides a comprehensive exploration of the idea that masculinity and femininity are personality traits rather than biological ones. It also provides an interesting postcolonial perspective through the comparison between the technologically sophisticated alien and the less technological inhabitants of snow-covered Gethen.
Amani Saeed (Writer)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
The best book I’ve read this year would have to be A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The book weaves two narratives together: one is a diary written by a teenage girl in Japan, and the other is the story of the woman who finds the diary washed up on a beach on Vancouver Island. One thing I really enjoyed was how the woman who finds the diary is translating it from Japanese and leaves footnotes expanding on the connotation of certain words, like otaku. The book is at once funny, unflinching, and urgent. I wanted to read it all in one sitting but found myself pausing every few hundred pages just to digest the content. A must read.
Benjamin Bland (Writer)
Dark Back of Time by Javier Marías
A sumptuous blend of fact and fiction, in which the narrator sculpts characters and scenarios from a bizarre intersection between reality and imagination, Dark Back of Time makes for a wonderful introduction to Marias’s talents. Loosely structured but powerfully readable, this has certainly acted as a springboard for my exploration of one of Spain’s most notable writers.
Cristina Florescu (Writer)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
When I thought about the best book I have read, the first title that came to my mind was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I then realized that this might not be the best book I’ve read, but it is certainly the most different. Centered around two tragic events in the history of mankind: 9/11 and World War II, the book tells the story of suffering. I know it may not sound like the most enjoyable book to read, but Jonathan Safran Foer manages to capture this feeling in a new, almost humorous way. He introduces the reader to a variety of characters who have suffered and their peculiar ways of dealing with it. He connects these two events to human relationships, to the father/son relationship, to family and memories. It is a book about universal experiences that are approached in unusual ways. The often melancholic tone of the narrative and the quirkiness of the plot makes the characters both unforgettable and easy to relate to. It is a different perspective on two tragic events that have been used in literature and time and time again. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for that sort of difference.
Mayen Colyer (Writer)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Let’s put aside the fact that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is brilliantly written, the fact it is gripping from the start, and that the story line boasts twists and turns that have you up until 5am (true story) because you can’t stop reading. What I loved most about this book, and consequently the second and third book, is the heroine. How often is the heroine in a story a social outcast? How often is she covered in unconventional tattoos? How often does she have Asperger’s syndrome? How often is she truly a badass and can actually fend for herself? The answer to all of those questions is not often or not at all. Lisbeth Salander is not a conventional heroine, and yet it’s her stubbornness, bravery and complete lack of social awareness that left me besotted and completely fascinated with her from start to end of the Millennium trilogy.
Marcel Haynes (Writer)
Usurper of the Sun by Housuke Nojiri
An immersive story beautifully illustrating the fears and tension that arises from an act of first contact with an alien life form. Spanning several decades, the story closely follows the desperate plea from astronomer, Aki Shiriashi, as she tries to convince the dying world, and herself, that these outsiders are here for a greater purpose. What struck me was how both moral arguments are so well presented that despite Aki’s charm and grace, one still questions whether one person’s optimism is really enough. The author also raises various thought-provoking questions that neither the characters in the book or the reader can answer. What sets this novel apart is its lasting effects, as it was rightly stated in reviews, it is a perfect blend of Arthur C. Clarke and Murakami which commemorates the human ability to empathise and question.
Jamila Gandhi (Writer)
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
The first book in the series by Malorie Blackman, Noughts & Crosses isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Set in a utopian world, the novel revolves around the lives of characters Callum and Sephy, who are typical star-crossed lovers, but are also victimized by racism. Not so typical though is how the Noughts or the white-skinned, belong to the inferior class and are dominated by the ruling Crosses, the dark skinned people. This reversal of reality and discrimination serves as a unique selling point, and pushes the reader to fetch the next two books in the series. The fact that Blackman expresses the characters thoughts through alternating chapters also plays a huge role in gripping the audience. Be it drama, violence, romance, betrayal, propaganda, or mystery – with such great appeal, this piece of fiction is tough not to recommend to any audience aged 13 and above. Noughts and Crosses may cause you to appreciate or challenge the world around you, make you a tad bit wittier or even shed a tear, but if all else fails it’ll surely deprive you of your beauty sleep with its brilliant plot twists and will serve as a wonderful piece of escapism.
Rebecca Parmenter (Literature Editor)
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
We Need to Talk About Kevin was Shriver’s breakout novel in 2003, and it is definitely one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year. The story unfolds through a series of letters, written from a wife to her husband, detailing their lives together up until their son commits a school shooting, and reflecting on the state of her existence afterwards. It bravely portrays a side to motherhood that often doesn’t get spoken about, and Shriver treats the topic with the respect it deserves. This is mostly because the novel gives a lot of freedom to readers to make their mind up about why Kevin commits such a crime, but of course the question will never be truly answered. It was also made into a film starring Tilda Swinton, which is pretty good too. I had a hard time choosing a favourite from the books I read this year, so I’ll use this space to thoroughly recommend Push by Sapphire, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware (oh, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, but everyone’s already read that, right?).