William Boyd

Top Ten Land welcomes William Boyd while the Scottish writer is firing on all cylinders. His 16th novel, Trio, is receiving glowing reviews for its tale of three people leading secret lives – a movie producer, a novelist and an actress – who are making a disaster-plagued British film in 1968, a year when Britain was still swingin' as the world was coming apart.

In his Guardian review, author Edward Doxc called it a “superbly wry and wise work” “laced with an understated but refreshingly sophisticated wit” that is "the most accomplished novel I have read in a long while.” Critic Max Liu observered that “Boyd’s prose is as fluent as ever, but it’s the ideas pulsing beneath the surface of the story that distinguish Trio . . . [which] is affecting as a subtle exploration of the relationship between individuals and history and as a depiction of characters who are searching for the things that make life worth living.”

Boyd – who spent his youth in Ghana and Nigeria (his father was a medical doctor expert in tropical diseases) – is no stranger to acclaim. His debut novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), which centers on an ambitious, dissolute British diplomat in a small African republic, won the Whitbread Award and the Somerset Maugham Prize. His next novel, An Ice Cream War (1982), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Brazzaville Beach (1990) won the McVitie Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Blue Afternoon (1993) won the 1993 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, 1995, and Any Human Heart (2002) was awarded the Prix Jean Monnet. The wondrously prolific Boyd has also published several collections of short stories, nonfiction, and a memoir, School Ties (1985).

Turning to his Top Ten List allows us to mention that he also writes plays and screenplays. He adapted his first pick – the Chekhov story “My Life” (along with the Chekhov story “A Visit to Friends”) – to create the play Longing (2013). Boyd wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his sixth selection, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938).

Scoop is one five new books Boyd adds to Top Ten Land. Thanks to him we can also welcome, The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Couples by John Updike (1968), The Life of Henri Brulard by Stendhal (1890), and The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974).

Top Ten fun facts: Boyd joins David Leavitt in his special admiration for A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988). And while the complete stories of many writers were named to lists, Chekhov is the only author to have a single story selected, and in both cases it was in the top slot. Before Boyd, David Mitchell put “The Duel” atop his list.

William Boyd’s Top Ten List (descriptions by editors)

1. My Life and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1906). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”

2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962). “It is the commentator who has the last word,” claims Charles Kinbote in this novel masquerading as literary criticism. The text of the book includes a 999-line poem by the murdered American poet John Shade and a line-by-line commentary by Kinbote, a scholar from the country of Zembla. Nabokov even provides an index to this playful, provocative story of poetry, interpretation, identity, and madness, which is full to bursting with allusions, tricks, and the author’s inimitable wordplay.

3. A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988). Like all of Spark’s work, this novel is hard to define. Metaphysical farce? Literary mystery? At bottom it is a dark, elegant, hilarious tale centered on the zaftig widow Mrs. Hawkins. She spends her days and evenings giving advice to her eccentric rooming house mates and her coworkers in book publishing. Blackmail, suicide, and a crash diet power this story, but it is Spark’s all-too evident disgust with the business end of literature that gives the story its special kick.

4. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864–65). A miserly father dies and leaves his fortune to his estranged son —so long as he marries a woman he’s never met. While returning home, John Harmon appears to be murdered. He survives and goes undercover. As John Rokesmith, he becomes secretary to the man next in line for his father’s estate, Mr. Boffin. Clever coincidences and revelations follow in this novel notable for its wickedly funny treatment of middle-class society.

5. Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79). Bishop's poems combine humor and sadness, pain and acceptance, and observe nature and lives in perfect miniaturist close-up. The themes central to her poetry are geography and landscape―from New England, where she grew up, to Brazil and Florida, where she later lived―human connection with the natural world, questions of knowledge and perception, and the ability or inability of form to control chaos. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 (Poems: North & South – A Cold Spring) and the National Book Award in 1970 for her body of work to that point.

6. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938). This gloriously savage satire of the predatory, pack-like nature of London journalism drew on Waugh’s experience covering Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia for the Daily Mail during the 1930s. It chronicles the unlikely journalistic success of William Boot, a young man of genteel poverty who is mistakenly hired as a foreign correspondent for a London paper, the Daily Beast. Dispatched to the fictional African nation of Ishmaelia, where “a very promising little war” has commenced, Boot manages to scoop the competition despite his good-natured incompetence.

7. Couples by John Updike (1968). One of the signature novels of the American 1960s, this novel scandalized the public with prose pictures of the way people pushed the limits of their newfound freedom in the “post-Pill paradise” by chronicling the interactions of ten young married couples in a seaside New England community who make a cult of sex and of themselves. This group of acquaintances create a magical circle, complete with ritualistic games, religious substitutions, a priest (Freddy Thorne), and a scapegoat (Piet Hanema). As with most American utopias, this one’s existence is brief and unsustainable, but the “imaginative quest” that inspires its creation is eternal.

8. The Life of Henri Brulard by Stendhal (1890). Writing at white heat and with such ferocious honesty and indignation that his book was to remain unpublishable for more than a century after its composition, this autobiography of the Frenchman who wrote as Stendhal revisits his unhappy childhood in a stuffy provincial town and bares his rebellious heart. His adored mother, who died when he was only seven; a father devoted only to his own social ambitions; the aunt whose daily cruelties passed for care: these are among the indelible portraits in a work that captures the sights, sounds, places, and characters of Stendhal's youth, its pleasures and sorrows, with preternatural clarity and immediacy.

9. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974). Inspired by the author’s experiences working as a cellar girl, this dark comedy follows two unlikely friends in 1970s London. Brenda and Freda share a rundown room in London and toil away at an Italian factory pasting labels onto wine bottles. Brenda, a shy and passive thirty-three-year-old brunette, recently ran away to the city to escape an abusive husband. Freda, meanwhile, is a rebellious twenty-six-year-old blonde with big dreams and a penchant for bossing people around. The two women are the only English workers at the bottling facility, and their presence stirs up trouble – as Freda tries to attract the attention of one manager while Brenda tries to fend off the advances of another. When Freda organizes a company outing, what’s supposed to be a day of freedom and fun turns into a dark and chaotic tragedy in a novel that explores loneliness and friendship, sexual frustration and personal power, passion and murder. 

10. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948). The story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.