Local identity Phill Stamatellis has always been a keen reader. He is currently enrolled in a Writing degree at the University of Canberra and publishes the blog Beyond the Blue Divide. He shares with us the Top 10 Books that made an impact on him.
Compiling any top 10 list of novels is an exercise in futility because it will be met with howls of indignation from the author's readership, who will feel slighted, because their favourite didn't get a mention. This is not limited to artistic pursuits; try and put together a top 10 of League or Rugby greats over a few schooners at the local and see how that goes. So to clarify this this is my top ten and the titles present made the list not because they were enjoyable—a couple were actually ordeals to get through—but because they left an impression that has stayed with me, and for various reasons have given me cause to pick them up again.
Those of you sensitive to gender issues will immediately notice the preponderance of male writers. This should be viewed as criticism of me, and not of the fairer sex's ability to put pen to paper. So here it is, try to keep your pitchforks holstered until the end.
10 - The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an autobiographical work; Plath like her protagonist Esther excelled in school developing a strong interest in English—especially poetry. In 1950 she would later win a college scholarship where she would major in English. The Bell Jar recounts the summer and autumn period after her junior year (in a fictionalised form) where Plath, like her heroine Esther, would be invited to serve as guest editor to a New York women’s magazine. After she finishes, what we would now call an internship, she returned home, suffered a nervous break down and attempted suicide. Being prone to melancholy myself The Bell Jar resonated with my own struggles with the black dog; this is one of the best insights into the depressed mind one will ever read.
9 - Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
This is probably one that many haven’t heard of: it is the novel that launched the cyberpunk genre of science fiction writing. It was published in the eighties when the Internet and cyberspace was the domain of an elite few. Gibson predicted many of the uses of computer technology we take for granted. The story is about a washed up computer hacker employed by shadowy forces to pull of the ultimate hack. The novel had major linguistic influences with the terms cyberspace and matrix now in common use: Gibson made these terms cool before Keanu Reeves.
8 - Dirt Music by Tim Winton (2001)
An Australian writer on the list! Tim Winton's novel is set in a small West Australian fishing town and is about family relationships and love. Georgie Jutland becomes fascinated with a poacher whom she eventually falls in love with and whom her husband Jim, a fisherman, wants to take revenge against. All the characters are emotionally fragile and harbour their own secrets, however the real star of this novel is Wintons' wonderful rendering of the West Australian landscape. Tim Winton shows us that place can be a character too.
7 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (1980)
This is a beautiful book, full of the rich cultural imagery of India. Its protagonist Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence from Britain and is inextricably linked to the fate of the nation. He and the other children born during that midnight hour in 1947 are gifted with extraordinary powers, and their lives mirror the triumphs and disasters of the new nation. Part historical fiction, part fantasy and part biography it is a glorious and important work of 20th century fiction.
6 - In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
In Cold Blood is a landmark novel in the true crime genre; up until Capote crime reporting and books on crime had been rendered in a straight up journalistic style and read much like a newspaper report. In Cold Blood turned this all on its head by dramatising the events of the brutal murder of the Clutter Family in their home, the investigation and eventual capture of their murderers. In Cold Blood reads like a novel and the true crime genre, as it stands, owes much to this innovative book.
5 - American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
American Psycho is categorised as R18+, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding the release of this novel; critics attacked it as sexist, dehumanising to women and immoral. Most of the attention and criticism revolves around the seven or so graphically depicted murders; as a result many critics and readers missed the important message contained in its pages. American Psycho is a profoundly moral book: Ellis portrays American society as disconnected with its own Christian moral code; a society that virtually ignores its homeless, and celebrates a neoliberal free market where being poor is considered a choice. Ellis highlights the danger excess consumption and materialism pose to our society, and is still a relevant critique of Western culture—but it isn't for everyone—a strong stomach is required.
4 - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Anybody who hasn't heard of The Hobbit, even if it's just the movie adaptation, must be living in a cave. The reason this novel comes so readily to mind is that it was the first full-length novel I had ever read. Handed to me by my year seven teacher, I was immediately plunged into a beautifully crafted world of fantastical creatures and landscapes that were both alien and familiar. It had a major impact on me: from Tolkien I discovered words held power and had the ability to transport the reader away from his (or her) mundane life.
3 - Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
is another controversial literary offering that I have come to love even though the subject matter is distasteful. The name Lolita is now synonymous with child abuse, a crime that in recent years has become a subject of much discussion in the community. Although Lolita also deals with a depraved mind, it isn't American Psycho; you won't find graphic and sickening depictions of sexual violence in its pages. What you will find is disturbingly beautiful prose that is poetic in its perfection. Lolita is an example of how great literature can make the most unpalatable subjects palatable and as a consequence shatters the silence that has traditionally surrounded them.
2 - 1984 by George Orwell (1948)
Another famous title, one that secondary school English may have destroyed for many people. I first read Orwell when I was about eighteen, and without the pressure of having to write an essay about it became an instant Orwell fan. 1984 isn't an attack on communism, as most people think (Orwell was a socialist), but on the evil of Stalinism and was the first overtly political novel I had read. It is a very human story—a love story even—where two people strive to make a difference against the inevitable iron fist they know will crush them. It also highlighted the fact that all good speculative fiction isn’t about the future, but about the here and now. Dystopian narratives have reached fever pitch in the last few years with The Hunger Games and Divergent best sellers, however Orwell will always be the king of the dystopian narrative.
1 - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
Infinite Jest is set in a heavily polluted United States of the near future and could be described as a speculative or satirical work of fiction. The novel revolves around a junior tennis academy, a nearby drug and alcohol recovery centre and the search by authorities of a movie (Infinite Jest) that even the briefest look at will enthrall the viewer to the point they will cease all activity, eventually dying (happily by all accounts) from watching this most compelling production of cinematic entertainment. The novel is massive, around a thousand pages, with another 300 odd footnotes. The novel covers such themes as drug addictions, relationships, advertising, film theory, Quebec separatism and tennis. If you pick up this book you will require commitment to finish it, and if you do, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and have earned bragging rights at your next book club meeting—a work of pure genius.