Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
No, I mean your favourite book of the past fifty years.
Ouch. It's tough to be told many of the books one has read as "modern" literature are now considered old stuff.
In choosing from the last five decades, I'd have to say something by John Irving—maybe The World According to Garp, maybe A Prayer for Owen Meany. There isn't one book by Irving that I adore all the way through, but I do like most of his writing and about ninety percent of Garp and Owen Meany. For a long time, even after reading Garp the first time, I didn't think much of Irving. But a friend explained why she liked his novels and I went back to him to find so much more that I had missed earlier. The key for me was to read him not in the spirit of Hemingway and other finely honed American stylists, but rather as a modern version of Dickens or Thackeray or other rambling explorers of character in the midst of often irrational societies.
I also used to enjoy Norman Mailer. His works have ranged from dreadful to great, but I've enjoyed taking him on each time. Probably his first, The Naked and the Dead, outside your fifty-year limit, is his greatest. But I also really enjoyed Tough Guys Don't Dance and most of Harlot's Ghost, though I'm lukewarm about his acclaimed The Executioner's Song.
I've also been big on Philip Roth, reading and rereading through his works since the late 1950s right into the current century.
Portuguese writer José Saramago is an amazing artist of the past half century I caught on to just before he died in 2010.
If you want only the recent decade or two, I very much like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Most anything (literary or science fiction) by Iain Banks, who also died just as I was latching on to his work. Also The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry and Quincunx by Charles Palliser, although the latter is really a throwback to the previous century.
And Stephen King's recently concluded Dark Tower series has been a crazy, thrilling, frustrating and ultimately brilliant trip.
Canadian Yann Martel's Life of Pi enthralled me (as did the movie adaptation).
And every time I read a work by Dave Eggers, I think this (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun, What is the What...) is my new favourite.
The same goes for the work of Ian McEwan (Enduring Love, Amsterdam and especially Atonement), which I've just really caught on to in the last few years.
On a different tack, as everyone probably knows by now I'm nuts for anything by the late scifi great Philip K. Dick. He's technically not the best writer and his reality-distorting works are erratic, to say the least. But they thrill me to bits.
And still in genre fiction, I look forward to reading and rereading anything by John Le Carré and Elmore Leonard, who may have been the best popular writers around—up to their recent death. And the great, late Swedish writer of detective fiction, Henning Mankell, also recently deceased.
It's hardest to pick a favourite from among very recent writing. One has had a chance to read them each only once. And so much other new writing is appearing, which one has not yet had a chance to read at all. Many more all-time favourites to come.