Following on from my last post (which you can read here), in which I started listing the books that had made the most impression on me over about the last 10 years, here are a few more.
The Winshaw Legacy: Or, What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (1994)
This novel is the story of the Winshaws, a nasty, disfunctional, aristocratic family, and takes place in the 1980s. It’s a book about Thatcherism and the greed that went along with it. And it’s very funny.
It’s a bit like a cross between Dickens and Wodehouse and centres on a writer, Michael Owen, who is hired to write the history of the Winshaws. In undertaking this he uncovers lots of skeletons in lots of cupboards.
Coe is a terrific writer and I’ve also read some of his other books which I can also recommend: The House of Sleep and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.
Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (1959)
The book is set near the end of the 1950s (as I’ve said before, a decade I love reading about), and is about the birth of teen culture as a distinct thing. It’s set in London and is about a group of teenagers as they discover sex, drugs and music. There’s a sort of innocence about it, probably caused by knowing what came after. But it’s very evocative of the time and place, a few years before youth culture really took off.
It’s the second book in The London Trilogy and follows on from City of Spades, about the emergent black culture in London. It is followed by Mr. Love and Justice, which focuses on prostitution and was published the year after Absolute Beginners.
I haven’t read either of these but intend to eventually.
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (1995)
I have read this book about four times and will no doubt read it again at some point. It’s the story of a group of computer programmers who work at Microsoft and deals with their relationships and their obsessions.
It’s very funny, the obsessions are really interesting (to me), and gives an insight, although exaggerated, into what it is like to be a computer programmer. It deals with the minutiae of their lives – the foods they like (flat foods that can be slipped under a door, their obsession with Bill Gates, their stock options – and is written as a series of Powerbook entries. It’s a very 90s book and gives a real feel of the time with its mentions of computer games like Doom and Myst.
I’ve read other books by Coupland but none have grabbed me like this one.
In Milton Lumky Territory by Philip K. Dick
This was the first of Dick’s books I read that wasn’t science fiction. It’s about a travelling salesman in California in the 1950s (another 50s book), who is driving around trying to get a good deal on some typewriters.
Being Dick there’s an underlying feeling that the world is not as it seems but the book is funny and perceptive. I think that Philip K. Dick is one of those writers who you either love or hate. His realist fiction varies in quality and this is one of the best. The same goes for his SF books but, at his best, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed but missing some of Dick’s stranger episodes as Bladrunner), and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch among others, he is as good as anyone writing in that genre.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Another reread. I hadn’t read Great Expectations in many years and, as I feel the need every now and again, as you do, to read some Dickens, I thought that this would be a good one to have another go at.
What can I say? It’s Dickens so is full of characters and it’s got a real sense of time and place – the graveyard, Miss Havisham’s house – and a great story. Of course if you want to read Dickens (or any other nineteenth century author), you need to readjust your expectations of pace, detail and language but, if you do, Dickens is definitely one of the greats.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
I’ve read this twice and enjoyed it (if that is the word), both times. It’s about the five Lisbon sisters, daughters of a repressed, voluntarily isolated couple and how, over the course of a year, they all commit suicide, obsessively watched by a group of boys.
Like Dickens it has a real feel for time and place, the suburbs in (I think) the late 80s or early 90s and Eugenides has a very individual style. Here’s the opening sentence:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide-it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
It certainly gives a good idea of what to expect from the book. The language is exquisite and draws you deeper and deeper into the strange, sometimes almost normal, lives of these five girls. I have two more of his books but haven’t read either of them yet.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Like Microserfs this is a story about a group of people in a particular environment, an advertising agency, and what happens between them. But it is very different in style. It is written entirely in the first person plural:
WE WERE FRACTIOUS AND overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything.
It is about how abnormal the so-called ‘normal’ working environment is. And, as well as being strange, it is also very funny. Like the Coupland book there’s an obsessive interest in the company they work for and what’s going on there and centres on the coffee machine. If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ll no doubt identify with it – the various cliques, the gossip, the various power levels.
I have another book by him, The Unnamed, but I haven’t read it yet.
Turbulence by Giles Foden
On the surface this is a story about the attempt, in the second world war, to calculate what the weather would be like for the proposed D-Day landings. But really it is about the turbulence which is life, how seemingly smooth periods can suddenly become chaotic. I’m sure you know the feeling, I certainly do, and is a reminder that the aspects of my life over which I have control are very limited.
There’s quite a lot of technical and scientific information in the book but Foden puts it across in a very readable way.
I have still to read his other books, The Last King of Scotland, Ladysmith and Zanzibar.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
I had seen the film before I read the book. It’s a film I love and contains my favourite line, ‘Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die’. This is said by Mandy Patinkin, long before he was Saul Berenson in Homeland.
Anyway, back to the book. Like the film the story is framed by a grandfather reading the story of The Princess Bride to his grandson who is ill in bed. The boy is resistant but, bit by bit, is pulled into the love story of Westley and Buttercup, The Princess Bride. It’s a story of giants and sea monsters, evil princes and pirates (if you’ve been following the story of The Silk Road, this is where the name Dread Pirate Roberts comes from.
Goldman is a screenwriter (Misery, Heat, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men and lots of others), so the dialogue is sharp and funny. The book is a joy from start to finish.
So that’s another bunch of favourites. I’ll post more soon.