Friday, 19 September 2014

Ten books which have stayed with me.

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My friend Adam nominated me for this 'ten books which stayed with me' thing that is doing the rounds. It seems a noble game, but I did find this incredibly hard to work through and whittle down the list, To hep I made up some arbitrary rules to cut things out for example I would have liked to include Shakespeare's 'The Winters Tale' (excluded as a play), Animal Alphabet by Edward Carter (essentially a colouring book) and Hardy's 'I look into my glass' (excluded as a poem). I also excluded anything to which I have a connection, so there is nothing by:
but I gave it a shot anyway, so here we go:
1. Ordinarily known simply as 'The Ship's cat', 'The Adventures & Brave Deeds Of The Ship's Cat On The Spanish Maine: Together With The Most Lamentable Losse Of The Alcestis & Triumphant Firing Of The Port Of Chagres' is a narrative poem by Richard Adams, but it is hugely improved by the fabulous illustrations contributed by the great Alan Aldridge. I can think of no greater possession available to man than a copy of this book. I have had mine since it was published when I was a toddler. I love rhyme and Edward Lear's 'More Nonsense. Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc.' and Hilaire Belloc's 'Cautionary Tales' could easily be substituted in here.
But they weren't.
2. 'OTHERLAND' by Evelyne E. Rynd. If you can read this and not be moved then you need a new childhood. What more is there to say. As this was not re-released you also get the joy of handling a beautiful piece of publishing at the same time. Remarkable.
3. Tad Williams, 'The Dragonbone Chair' from the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. This is the book which introduced me to fantasy outside of Tolkien and made it fun. I have included it as an example of the terrible trash I enjoy reading on the side, which includes David Gemmel, Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden Not a great book, but a good yarn, well told. Worth a punt on a long-haul flight.
4. The doubtful guest by Edward Gorey. Typical Gorey wonderfulness, but with an added dollop of riddle and joy. To be fair, the riddle is not a tough one to solve, but I am quoting Gorey's verse in my head as I write this and I cannot help but love it. Most of Gorey's work would fit in this list, which is why this made it in ahead of 'The Specialist' by Charles Sale I recommend that you purchase both of these books immediately, even if you already have copies.
5. H2G2 - a bit of a cop out here, I am not able to narrow this down further, but anyone who has not included Douglas Adams on their list clearly does not know where their towel is. I think that the Dirk Gently books are actually a little better, but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most important works of the 20th century. Everything which comes after it owes something to the work, especially the fantastic Discworld novels which sadly have not made this list, despite being sublime.
6. Hunger is not my favourite of Knut Hamsun's works, that would undoubtedly be Growth of the soil, but it is his book which had the most profound effect on me. I love all his work, but this one really hooked me during my university years and I revisit it from time to time still. I presume that I always shall.
7. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is an obvious choice. As with the Norwegian example above, I do sometimes wonder whether I do not simply enjoy the way that translators write in English. There are many Russian Novels which I love, the short list would include Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls and The Idiot, but Crime & Punishment wins by a head. I read this when very young and this have been able to revisit it many times, always finding something new. A delight.
8. The Trial by Franz Kafka appears here as an example of an unfinished novel. 'The final unfinished voyage of Jack Aubrey' (simply titled '21') in the USA) a another example, as are Charles Dickens' 'The mystery of Edwin Drood', Robert Luis Stevenson's 'St Ives' or Nikolai Gogol's 'Dead Souls',(which features in this list twice as an also-ran, but does not quite make the cut). I delight in the idea that we never actually know what was intended. This is particularly true of 'Dead Souls', but Kafka's work is by far the best example which comes to mind. The fact that he expressly wished the manuscript be destroyed adds something more to the appeal.
9. I do love a good nautical tale. The stuff upper lip of the man who, whether an alcoholic, seasick or just a buffoon, carries on in the appropriate manner befitting a British officer, with a stuff upper lip and an integrity and decency really strikes home. I want to model myself on these men, to do my duty however it may cost me personally, and I have no time for the modern fighting heroes such as Sharpe, who show pride and avarice and lack a sense of what is right. There are a number of names who fit this list. Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey and Richard Maturin are sublime (they make another appearance on this list, but are not in the final ten) as is Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho, but young Horatio Hornblower should be the hero for every young person. Forrester wrote better novels, 'The Gun' amongst them, but Midshipman Hornblower is as good a starter for ten that anyone might hope for.
10. And that leaves just enough room for Biggles, Bertie, Algy, Ginger, The professor, Smithy and the rest of the crew. W. E. Johns created a character out of truth, the early books are just serialised actual events, merely attributed to a fictitious pilot, and grew him into a legend. Cub, Gimlet and the inexorable Worrals never quite matched Biggles for pure damned Britishness and I keep a few copies by my bed. I have no desire to select a specific title; I think that 'Biggles of 266 Squadron' has a nice feel to it, but 'The Camels Are Coming' wins it by a nose. Chocks away!
Okay, there are my ten. I wrote this quickly on the tube and I no doubt will come to regret my decisions, but for the moment it shall have to do.