I was trawling through my Calibre book catalogue earlier today (and if you have an ebook reader then you really should check out Calibre – it’s free, it’s fabulous and it’s fun, and that’s enough fs for now), looking through the books read column. This started me thinking about which books, out of the who-knows-how-many-thousand I’ve read, had either given me the most pleasure and/or had made the biggest impression.
That’s a difficult one; there’s something about books you read when you are young, the vividness, the intensity, that no book read today can match (at least that’s how it is for me, but perhaps that’s just because I am a stilted, diminished old man). So, to remove that problem, and to make the list more contemporary, I’ll keep it to books and authors I have encountered in, say, the last ten years. Of course, being the untogether, disorganised person I am, that ten years is a fairly flexible period. Much as I try to keep lists of books I have read, together with the dates I finished them, plus a short review, I never manage to keep it up. I did buy a reading journal a couple of years ago, wrote lots in it for a couple of weeks, and now can’t even find it. Recently I decided to have another go, so looked on Amazon and saw that they were selling an A4 Moleskine© A-Z book for £6 (reduced from £24.38, and who can resist a bargain!) The book came and it’s now sitting on top of a cupboard, unused.
Anyway, here goes. I don’t know how many there are, but if there are too many for one post I’ll do more.
Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss (1958)
I think this was published in the U.S. as Starship, which is a bit of a cheat as it gives away an important element of the book.
It’s Science Fiction, which is probably the genre I’ve read most in. It’s also a book I had read before, more than once. But it’s a great story, atmospheric, claustrophobic and, ultimately, a book about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. And Aldiss is a terrific writer.
I read it again, a couple of years ago, to see if it was as good as I had thought it was in my late teens. It was; I loved it.
At some point I will reread other books by him that I really enjoyed all those years ago; Hothouse, Greybeard, The Saliva Tree.
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)
This is another reread but, unlike the previous book, although I had read it before I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I knew that I had enjoyed it.
It’s about a group of ageing drinkers living in Wales. A former member of their group, a famous poet, and his wife return to live among them. This sets off all sorts of jealousies and emotional reassessments.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s funny and the tensions between the various members of the group are a lot of fun. It’s also very good on what it’s like to get old, something I’m more and more conscious of.
I know that there are problems with Amis, particularly to do with the way he writes about women, and all I can say is that it’s less of a problem in this book than it is in some of his others.
Although I can read Kingsley Amis, I can’t read anything by his son, Martin. I’ve tried, but I always feel that he is writing down to me and that he doesn’t like the people he is writing about – in fact the feeling I get from the pages of his I have read is that he doesn’t like anybody very much, except himself. He strikes me as a writer who likes to show off what an intellectual he is – he seems to try to impress rather than to engage. But perhaps that’s just me. Any thoughts much appreciated.
An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge (1989)
Beryl Bainbridge is a writer I only discovered two or three years ago. Of course I had heard of her but had never read any of her books. One day I was browsing through Calibre, reading the blurbs and reviews of various books, when I came upon this. It’s about the theatre, which I find interesting, it’s set in the fifties, again something that interests me, and Time Out said it is ‘A subtle schizophrenic insight into adult relationships . Bainbridge’s understated prose and obsessive eye for the smallest and most telling of details have never been better employed’.
So I read it. And loved it. And then went on to read most of the rest of her books, The Bottle Factory Outing, The Dressmaker, Every Man for Himself, Injury Time, Another Part of the Wood and Harriet Said (which I wrote something about here. I’ve just realised that in that post I had called the book Harriet Says by mistake). If you like good stories, really well told, with lots of psychological insight, then Bainbridge is well worth a read.
The Women by T.C. Boyle (2009)
Thomas Coraghessan Boyle (and isn’t that a wonderful middle name), is someone I only discovered fairly recently and it was a toss-up whether I chose this book or Drop City, which is about a sort of hippie commune, initially in California and later in Alaska.
The Women is about Frank Lloyd Wright and is told through the eyes of four women with whom he had relationships. It centres around Taliesin, the house he built in the country for his wives and lovers.
I didn’t know much about Frank Lloyd Wright before I read this book, but it gives a fascinating (though fictional) glimpse into the personality of a very unusual man.
I can recommend T.C. Boyle highly. I have read a number of his books including Riven Rock and When the Killing’s Done. He is, to my mind, one of the great American novelists.
Percival’s Planet by Michael Byers (2010)
Another recent discovery. It is a fictionalised account of the discovery of Pluto (once a planet now, sadly, relegated to minor status) by Clyde Tombaugh.
This is particularly interesting if you are into astronomy and the history of the exploration of the universe although the novel does have a number of subplots, including one about hunting for dinosaur bones.
It’s the only book by Byers I have read, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in its world and will, eventually, read more of his books.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Yet again, a recent find. I hadn’t read anything by him before but was attracted by the subject matter, the creation of comic book heroes in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
It begins in 1939 when Kavalier arrives in New York, having escaped from Prague in a coffin. The two meet and begin collaborating on ideas for comics, initially inspired by the success of Superman.
But the book is much more than the story of two men creating comics. It also deals with escapology, magic, Jewish culture and sexual identity.
Entertainment Weekly said, “This 2000 novel blended comic books, Jewish mysticism, and American history into something truly amazing.” A fantastic read and one I will definitely be reading again.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
I don’t remember how I first came to notice this book. I think it may have been at Lancaster library, so that would be before I got my e-reader.
If you can imagine a Dickens novel but with added magic, then that gives you some idea of this book. It’s set in the 19th century, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, and magic has all but disappeared from the world, that is apart from as an academic subject. But in secret Mr. Norrell has been learning the art of magic and soon becomes a celebrity. Jonathan Strange becomes his pupil and together they collaborate to help the fight against Napoleon.
It’s a terrific book, Clarke’s first novel, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century literature. I would add that the magic in the novel isn’t like that in most fantasies, but seems real and grounded and dangerous.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Finally, to round off this selection, another science fiction novel.
This is possibly a bit more of a specialist read. It’s about virtual reality and, in particular, Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). It’s set in the near future and involves a quest, a quest to discover three keys which were hidden in the game OASIS by its now deceased creator, James Halliday.
I found it to be an unputdownable romp from start to finish but I realise that many people will be put off by the subject matter. Like most things it’s horses for courses.
K is still banished so I’m hoping I’ll have the chance to write about a few more of my favourite books before he is let off the leash.