What is a meme?
This post is going to be a little bit different from the norm. And although it does include a photograph, it was taken specifically for use on this particular blog and is not being held up as an example of my finest work. This blog is answer to a meme that has been infecting the blogosphere. The meme dictates that the blog has the above title and the blog must include entries using the titles outlined below. But was is a meme? Well according to the web dictionary a meme is
a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behaviour) that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means
The idea therefore being that this particular meme will pass from blog to blog, not only highlighting the particular literary loves of each particular blogger but also perhaps enthusing anybody who drops in on the blog unannounced. I usually ignore this sort of viral thing but since the subject was one I could get my teeth into – that of books – I thought I’d give it a go. And since the blog has been offline for so long due to technical problems it seems only fair that I make this a weighty posting. So, here goes…
One Book That Changed Your Life
To me this question should really be ‘What book started you reading?’ as it amounts to the same thing. It’s a very difficult question to answer. In truth, it would probably be the Target Doctor Who novelizations but these have already been bagged and tagged by my good friend Adam on his blog on this very subject and on this very same meme here (incidentally my favourite was ‘The Seeds of Doom’ – it is here that I first encountered the word ‘grotesque’). So discounting Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke, et al what is the other book that formed my reading habits?
Primary schools in the 1970s were grim affairs. We had teachers who regularly hit the children (or who at the very least threw board rubbers at them); we had cheese pie and plum tomatoes and semolina and jam EVERY Monday; we had very short shorts and PE in the pissing rain. BUT, and it’s a very big but as you can see, we also had the Chip Book Club! Once a term, a printed sheet was handed out with a list of books on it that you could order for sums as large as 75 pence. Luckily, my parents would always allow me to choose one book and it is via Chip that I read such classics as ‘The Owl That Was Afraid of the Dark’ by Jill Tomlinson, ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl and ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier. However, there is one book that I got from the Chip book club that stands head and shoulders above these classics and it’s a book that not many people have heard of, let alone read. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you ‘Bottersnikes and Gumbles’ by Australian writer S.A. Wakefield and illustrated by Desmond Digby. It is very important that the illustrator is credited here as Digby’s pictures are one of the keys to the novel’s success. This is simply a superb book and tells the story of the happy, fun-loving, slightly thick Gumbles and their lazy, evil, warty, ugly, even thicker enemies the Bottersnikes. Gumbles are naïve yet cute, small (yet powerful in numbers) and, most importantly, squishy. This is important as all the Bottersnikes want to do is enslave the Gumbles by squishing them into tin cans. See, you’re hooked already I can tell. This book has a powerful message about looking after the planet (the Bottersnikes live in a rubbish tip full of human detritus and eat discarded mattresses) and the importance of friendship and working together. Basically it was years ahead of its time and is now criminally out of print for some obscure reason that I cannot quite fathom. It’s ripe for rediscovery and is frighteningly relevant to today’s kids. My battered Puffin paperback is a prized possession and I have read it to my kids more times that I care to mention. It’s a book that first alerted me to the sheer untrammelled joy of reading.
One Book You Have To Read More Than Once
The book that I have read more than any other is ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles. It’s the sort of book that you read as a young adult and identify immediately with its young hero. However, as you get older and re-read it you gradually realise that the ‘hero’ is in fact a bit of an arse who deserves everything he gets. With age comes wisdom, hence the book’s title. ‘The Magus’ defies description. A young male English teacher flees commitment for a position on a Greek Island; here he comes under the spell of the wealthy recluse Maurice Conchis who is viewed with suspicion by the islanders for his alleged sympathy with the Nazi cause during the war. Conchis then proceeds to fuck with our hero’s head as boxes within boxes are opened and slammed shut, no-one can be trusted, nothing is as it seems and a young man learns some very important lessons about himself and the way he treats other people. It’s elaborately plotted, beautifully written and really does defy categorisation other than, for me, its one of the best books ever written and a book I return to.
One Book You’d Want On A Desert Island
Hard choice this one and I’m afraid I am going to have to buck the question and choose two books on an equal footing. I suppose a desert island read ought to be thick and weighty but the books I would be marooned with are both quite slim volumes. However, both contain so many layers that reading them always reveals new treasures. My books are predominantly or wholly set on islands and they are Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’. What can I say about both these books that hasn’t been said already. Highsmith’s Ripley books (of which there are five) introduced me to the concept of the anti-hero. Tom Ripley is sociopath and a fantasist who inveigles his way into people’s lives, destroying them and getting away scott-free. The scary thing is that you, as the reader, actually WANT him to get away with it and this highlights Highsmith’s brilliance. When I read ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ for the first time I was genuinely shocked but exhilarated by what Highsmith pulled off – taken in small increments Ripley’s decisions make sense until it reaches the point at which murdering a friend and stealing his identity seems eminently reasonable. Filmed twice, Anthony Minghella’s ‘Talented Mr Ripley’ is the most faithful to the book but I would urge you to seek out René Clément’s looser adaptation ‘Plein Soleil’. Mostly because Alain Delon IS Tom Ripley in a way that Matt Damon clearly isn’t.
As for ‘Lord of the Flies’ I would go so far as to say that I would not trust anyone that hasn’t read it :-). Often cited as borderline science fiction, although I’m not sure why – in my head its firmly rooted in the 1950s, it tells the story of an aeroplane plane full of school boys fleeing a (nuclear?) war. After crash landing on a desert island the boys are left to fend for themselves, splitting into factions and finally reduced to savagery as their public school safety net is stripped away and laid bare. ‘The Lord of the Flies’ is rightly seen as classic of English literature and Golding never bettered it. The imagery he uses is stunning be it the ‘The Beast’ on the hill (actually the parachute of the dead pilot billowing and unfurling and dragging the attached corpse into a sitting position) or the lord of the flies itself, a wild boar’s head on a pole. It is savage, terrifying and all too believable with the death of a major character being one of the most pointless and heartbreaking in modern literature. At the heart of its subversiveness is the chilling fact that the first group of boys to descend into savagery is the school choir.
Two Books That Made You Laugh
I must admit to not reading many ‘funny’ books or books that are perceived to be funny, certainly in novel form. I am not sure why that is. I really liked Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, which my wife still insists is about me but more for its dissection of the muso than for its laugh-out-loud humour. My first book that makes me laugh is by a man I have mentioned previously in this very blog. Kurt Vonnegut is primarily thought of as a science fiction writer yet he is far more than that. Not that science fiction writing is a bad thing. Far from it. In fact its one of my favourite genres along with Scandinavian noir (although there’s not many laughs to be found here apart from the desperate howling in the wilderness ironic kind). Yet the first book that makes me laugh IS science fiction by most definitions. Vonnegut’s ‘The Sirens of Titan’ is a supremely funny book and, in my opinion, the direct precursor to Douglas Adams’s ‘Hitchiker’ books. ‘Sirens’ is laugh out loud funny and its two main protagonists (can you have two protagonists?) Malachi Constant and Winston Niles Rumfoord are fine comic creations. This is the novel that first planted the seeds of atheism in my head as it views religion as a drug (like Karl Marx’s opium of the people) that drives its followers to insane acts of faith. ‘Sirens’ is a book best gone into unprepared but it will make you laugh, it will make you think about ‘why are we here’ and it will turn all your preconceptions on their heads as to what to expect from a ‘science fiction novel’. Hell, when the happy ending isn’t remotely happy and one of the main characters forms “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent” – probably the only church that I think I could ever belong in – you know you are in for a good ride.
My second book is non fiction and ties in with the book below. In fact it could quite easily fit into the next category as well. Come to think of it, it’s by the same author as well so perhaps I should make this short. All I can say is that Harry Thompson’s biography ‘Peter Cook’ is one of the funniest and saddest books I have ever read. Its key theme being that Cook, arguably the funniest man that the UK has ever produced, achieved everything he had ever wanted to achieve at such a young age that the rest of his life was a downward spiral into intense boredom, alcoholism and a master class in how to alienate everybody that has ever loved you. Sounds a laugh a minute doesn’t it? But it is. Cook was such a funny man that even in the depths of depression he was still able to produce moments of sheer brilliance. Just think about Mr Spiggot, the ‘unidexter’ auditioning for the role of Tarzan (“You’re right leg I like. I have nothing against your right leg. Unfortunately, neither have you”) or E.L. Wisty’s ‘interesting’ ruminations on bees, tadpoles and world domination. At the end of his life Cook took to phoning a late-night LBC radio phone-in show pretending to be a lovelorn depressive Norwegian fisherman called Sven. This is both devastatingly sad as a sign of how far he had fallen yet hilariously funny at the same time (as tapes of the phone calls bear out). As is Thompson’s book.
One Book That Made You Cry
So, another book by Harry Thompson. His first novel ‘This Thing of Darkness’ which tells the story of Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy (Captain of the Beagle). Where to start with this book… it might well be my favourite on this list. Certainly, like ‘The Sirens of Titan’, it’s another book that has fed into my distrust of organised religion. Darwin and Fitzroy were friends but the voyages of The Beagle saw their friendship split asunder as, on the one hand, Darwin – who had at one point almost became a member of the clergy himself – became convinced that there was no overseeing, almighty God. Fitzroy, on the other hand, was a man of faith and the voyages of The Beagle only served to re-enforce his belief that a world as wonderful as the one he was exploring could only have come about via the hand of God. Thompson’s skill is to create a historical novel that is incredibly exciting, extremely moving and sympathetic to the firmly held beliefs of both Darwin and Fitzroy. In fact, Fitzroy emerges from the book as one of the great unheralded characters in British history (as an aside he also invented the concept of weather forecasting and was roundly ridiculed) and is certainly more the book’s hero than Darwin, even if it is Darwin’s view that I personally have the most sympathy with. Following the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ their friendship lay in tatters but Thompson’s meticulously researched novel brings the good in both men to the fore with marvellous use of light, shade and pathos. It made me cry on several occasions such is its truth and beauty, be it Fitzroy’s ill-fated decision to bring some native ‘savages’ from Tierra del Fuego back to London to become ‘civilized’ or Darwin’s agony following the death of his daughter (a death which many, including Fitzroy, perceived to be God punishing Darwin for his beliefs). And the title? Looking back from the 21st century it seems obvious that Fitzroy suffered from manic depression and it was probably this that cut short his distinguished naval career. His periods of depression form the dark heart of the novel. Its author, Harry Thompson died of cancer aged 45 in 2005 and never finished his second novel. He left behind two of the best books I have ever read.
One Book You’d Wish You’d Written
I am not a writer. Or rather I am but I do not have the skill, patience or intelligence to write a novel. Sometimes when reading I marvel at how the author manages to spin so many plates and I also have the greatest admiration for anyone that has written a novel published or unpublished. Great books stay with you forever and have pride of place on the bookshelf like a badge of honour. Our bookshelves at home are very eclectic. My wife’s favourites (Kureishi, Marukami, Irving) are more high-brow stuff than mine (Ellroy, King, Vonnegut). But then I have an ace up my sleeve. I have Christopher Priest, the greatest British writer that no-one has ever heard of.
Like Vonnegut (and is there a pattern emerging here) he is often referred to as a science fiction writer and his early work is indeed in this particular genre, such as his homage to H.G. Wells ‘The Space Machine’. However, even his science fiction is not like other science fiction – the best example of this perhaps being ‘The Inverted World’. However, as he has got older his novels have moved away from hard science fiction and into greyer, more interesting areas. His later novels are focused on the unreliable nature of memory and the shifting boundaries between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fantasy’. His most famous book is probably ‘The Prestige’ which was filmed by Chris Nolan, a film maker who seems to share Priest’s world view; indeed his new film ‘Inception’ is a very Priestian concept, and which was touched on in his novel ‘The Extremes’. Priest has also influenced David Cronenberg, so much so that he wrote the tie-in novelization of eXistenz under a pseudonym.
I could champion ‘The Prestige’ here with its tale of duelling magicians and the unholy lengths they go to in a deadly game of one-upmanship involving showmanship, the development of new illusions and the Tesla coil but all I will say is that the book is an entirely different beast from the film. Nolan’s film is an excellent adaptation but the book has a terrifying coda that stays with you long after.
I could also champion ‘The Glamour’ a book with a killer concept whose key plot twist blind sides you and yet at the same time is a loving doff of the cap to HG Wells (again).
But, at the end of the day the one book I would champion above all of Christopher Priest’s others is ‘The Affirmation’. This is a novel within a novel within a novel. It’s an intricately constructed masterpiece in which a traumatized author retreats to a country house and begins to write a memoir that starts out as reliable but slowly morphs into the story of an alternative version of himself who is undertaking a voyage to a ‘dream archipelago’ of exotic islands in order to undergo a process that will make him immortal. As he writes, the distinction between what is real (the solitary writer hunched in front of his typewriter in our recognisable world) and what is fiction (the narrator in the dream archipelago) blurs to the point at which it is no longer clear which is the greater reality. It’s a stunning book that touches on the nature of mental illness, the fear of aging and the effects of enforced solitude on the human psyche. See, I told you he was more than a science fiction writer.
Anyone who knows me will know that the fact that I have chosen ‘The Affirmation’ in this particular category over Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, his finest hour and arguably the greatest American novel of my generation, shows how highly I rate it. Make no mistake Priest is a writer that either clicks with you or doesn’t, but if he does there is none better and you are in for one hell of a treat. Honourable mention too must go to Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ – badly treated by cinema. Read the novel and despair at how Hollywood could cock up this amazing story not once, not twice but three times by not actually filming the book as written. Best vampire novel ever, closely followed by King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘Låt den rätte komma in’ (‘Let the Right One In’) by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose title comes from a Morrissey song, so what’s not to like.
One Book You Wish Was NEVER Written
Easy one. ‘The Return of the Native’ by Thomas Hardy. A book I was forced to read for my English literature A-level and a book that I hate from the bottom of my very soul. Admittedly, a lot of this hatred comes from the fact that my English teacher chose this over ‘Catch 22’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’ but also because I have no interest in descriptions of heathland that go on for 20 pages or characters that act the way they do because of ‘fate’ and not out of any control they might have of their own lives. It’s a book in which a tract of land is the main character, the ‘comedy’ rustic characters are about as funny as a long, slow root canal and which the ‘hero’ Clym Yeobright needs a good slap.
Two Books You Are Currently Reading
Can you read two books at the same time? I know my children have this ability but I don’t seem to be able to. I have just finished James Ellroy’s ‘Bloods a Rover’ the third and final book in his America underworld trilogy (the other two being ‘American Tabloid’ and ‘The Cold Six Thousand). I love Ellroy, although I understand completely that he is an acquired taste, especially his. short. staccato. sentences. This trilogy weaves a complex alternative history of America in the 60s and 70s focusing on the Kennedys, Nixon, Howard Hughes and a huge cast of despicable human beings and very flawed heroes. It’s a worthy follow up to his ‘LA Quartet’ of which ‘LA Confidential’ is the most famous. So what’s next? I am eagerly awaiting the third in Johan Theorin’s Oland trilogy (seek out ‘Echoes from the Dead’ and ‘The Darkest Room’, especially the latter for a dark Swedish ghost story/crime novel crossover that juggles both genres with ease) but on the bedside table and up next are Jonathan Carroll’s ‘Voice of Our Shadow’ a ghost story recommended to me wholeheartedly via a complete stranger on Twitter and Cherie Priest’s ‘Boneshaker’ an alternative history featuring the American Civil War and zombies (again, what’s not to like) which has been praised to the hilt by my friend Adam whose meme choices are linked to above.
One Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read
So many books so little time. Life’s too short and there are too many books. I think this question is supposed to bring to mind all those undisputed classics that you’ve never got round to reading. Thanks to my English teacher I have never read ‘Catch 22’ and now its reputation hangs heavy against it – it can only disappoint me. Last year I read Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ and thoroughly enjoyed it; this means that one day I hope to attempt ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ but at the moment that task is too daunting. I should probably ready more Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy, etc but probably won’t (blame Thomas Hardy). I have read ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ which probably says more about me and my tastes than it probably should and explains why Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy, etc should not get unduly worked up about my lack of patronage. So, the one book I’ve been meaning to read? Well, its been out of print for many years but is getting a much-needed reprint in October (I have it on pre-order on Amazon). It’s Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel ‘The Body Snatchers’. Since I have never read it I can’t comment on its brilliance or otherwise but I am really looking forward to finding out.