For a café in Salzburg, and an old friend

I think this exchange might hold some interest for more people than just the original person it was intended for. Ever wondered what books I consider favorites? The letter:Amy,

I've a question for you. While in Europe I plan to read dense classics that I never would read while doing school work at the same time since that stuff is dense enough.

What would you recommend to me to read this summer? What great novels would you love to be able to sit in a cafe in Salzburg with, just absorbing the words and having time to sift through meanings and dwell over passages?


* * * * *

Now THAT is a yummy question!

What you take may depend as much on what you're interested in reading. These seven books vary widely in tone and subject matter, and I think there's probably at least one in here for almost every mood.

Age Of Innocence
A portrait of a time period and the marriages and social relationships it contained. One of the best parts, for me, was the subtle analysis of women and marriages in this period. May Welland is an excellent character study.
Pavilion of Women
Strangely enough, the one-sentence summary of this book sounds similar to the previous book. On her 40th birthday, Madame Wu decides that it is time for her husband to take a second wife. Her decision proves to have greater, and unintended, effects on every person in her family. This book, however, is not an analysis on marriage by any means; it is an incredibly nuanced character study of Madame Wu. On the list of my favorite books, this one is consistently in my top five.
Portrait of the Artist
I suspect there is nothing I could say about James Joyce that has not already been said. He has an ease of mastery of composition that is just as easy to overlook. Read this one slowly, and remember that his words were placed on the paper one at a time, with a pen. Read at this speed, instead of sentence-by-sentence gulps, it's even more impressive. If you've not read it, it's got a couple of classic themes: the divisive forces of Catholicism and sexuality in a young man.
To The Lighthouse
More family portraits. Also particularly delicately written. I hesitated adding this one because I think you've already read it.
A Prayer for Owen Meany
Beware of this one, it's sneaky! I suspect this book's esteem in the literary community will grow as time continues to pass. It is by far the longest of any of the books I'm recommending you, but it will also read faster than the rest of them. Don't let this fool you. :) It inspired a turbulence of emotion in me; everything from laughter to deep sadness. You will spend the entire five hundred pages of this novel knowing how it ends, and you will continue to read it to find out why it ends as it does.
Fifth Business
Far more well-known in Canada than he is in the States, Robertson Davies is one of the many authors on my to-read-more list. A 'fifth business,' if you're unfamiliar with the term, is someone who never plays a principal part, never gets the full billing, but whose presence is critical for the advancement of a plot (or, in this case, life).
The Left Hand of Darkness
I include this one as a bit of a break for you, even though it stands as literary in its own right. A reviewer said it was "science fiction for the thinking reader," and I'm inclined to agree. A story of a human observer sent to a frozen, completely alien world; he studies. What he studies I'll leave to you to discover, because I think you should read it as blind as I did when I read it.

Now. Those are the literature. Let me suggest another that I've mentioned to you before. Last Christmas when you asked me for sci-fi recommendations for Stephen, I suggested Iain Banks. I followed that up with a caveat that his books are difficult to find in the States.

You won't be in the States, and as far as I can tell, in Britain he's just another sci-fi author, and his books are infinitely easier to find.

I cannot vouch for his standard fiction novels; I understand that he is highly inventive and somewhat experimental, but I have not read any of them. What you want are his Culture novels.

You can differentiate them easily, because his publishers had the incredible sense to design covers that immediately tell you if they're standard fiction or science fiction. His standard fiction books are stark black-and-white covers, and his sci-fi books are set in the same typeface but are colorful. (The difference is immediately obvious, I promise.) The paperbacks are worth it: they are trade paperbacks, meaning they're just a bit larger and easier to handle and read.

Now. Let me tell you this. I will give you a list of the books. They really should be read in order (though there are a couple that can be read in slightly different places). But let me make you this promise. Go to a good bookstore, and get these books. Get them in paperback so it's cheaper. If you read the first one and you find that you have no interest in continuing, drop me an email. I will buy the books from you at the price you paid for them.

I am actually not kidding. :)
(These links point to, but they can be obtained more cheaply in Canada. Ask me; I know a good bookstore out in Victoria, British Columbia.)

  1. Consider Phlebas—the story of the Idiran War. Thoughtful, not quite so dark, a good introduction to the Culture. A view of the Culture as it fights another civilization that is its equal and opposite.
  2. The Player Of Games—a much more lighthearted story. Can be read at any point in the series, but a lighthearted break here is a good idea. More of a humorous character study, but gets you more grounded in what the Culture is.
  3. Use of Weapons—dark, dark, dark, dark. Email me before you read this one; you'll be helped immensely if you know a couple of things before you start it. Definitely the seamy, violent side of the Culture. A good read and a thoughtful one, but not one I go back to often.
  4. Inversions—whew, a breather! This one isn't a "standard" Culture novel; it allows you to see a single, undercover, Culture spy as s/he (don't want to give that away) examines the civilization on a planet. This one can also be read at any time. If you want to keep going in order, skip ahead to Excession and save this one for later.
  5. Excession—my favorite. A view of the Culture from above—from the point of view of the massive, incomprehensibly intelligent mega-ships (Minds) that enable the Culture to be what it is.
  6. Look to Windward—a character study on a few particular beings during a time when some parts of the Culture are pausing to remember some of the ancient mistakes made during the Idiran War (having read the first book, you'll understand). As of 6/2001 was only available in hardback in Britain, but I saw it in trade paper in Canada.

There is also The State of the Art, which is a collection of shorter stories. Some are Culture-based, but I haven't purchased this book yet and can't vouch for it.

It will be another year and a half before the next Culture installment comes. I eagerly await. :)

Anyway. That's enough for now. I think I'm going to post this on; it turned out to be much more in-depth of an answer than I expected I'd give. I hope it helps you. I'm NOT kidding about the Culture books. If they're not to your taste, I can give them as presents to some friends who I've gotten started on this series. Since the books are difficult to get stateside, I'm not terribly keen on loaning them out.


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