Thursday, November 29, 2012

Top Ten Lists: Books

I wouldn't describe myself as a nostalgic person but I do like my little keepsakes because they remind me of certain times in my life and I think this is important for creating a sense of personal identity.  So without further ado, I present in chronological order my ten favorite books drawn from different times during my life.

Enid Blyton - The Faraway Tree

As a kid I devoured Enid Blyton books and the Magic Faraway Tree was by far my favorite closely followed by Noddy and the Famous Five. The magic Faraway Tree is home to eccentric characters like Moonface, Silky the Fairy, Saucepan Man, Angry Pixie,  Mister Watsizname and Dame Washalot. But best of all, the characters could climb to the top of the tree and pop out of a hole in the clouds into a completely different land that changed every day.  I still remember the Land of Rhythm where you had to "speak in rhyme all the time" and some gobliny sort of land where the nasty goblins took over the tree. Loved it !  I still have all three books from this series on my bookshelf.

I was amused to read that modern editions altered the character names.  Dick became Richard,  Fanny changed to Frannie and even Dame Slap become Dame Snap (sensitive modern children cannot be subjected to fantasy violence). Indeed all of Bltyons books featured very English upper class plot devices and are therefore considered unorthodox by todays social engineers.

Time of the Twins  - Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman

My introduction to the fantasy genre. I read the entire book in a day then ran to the bookshop the following morning to buy the sequel. I was hooked to say the least.

The story revolved around two twins - Caramon Majere, the stereotypical warrior who wasn't the sharpest sword on the battlefield, and his sickly brother mage Raistlin Majere.  As an awkward teenager, I could really relate to Raistlin who was constantly portrayed as the outsider in the group. I have an entry in my diary written just before my first plane trip when I was apparently convinced I was about to die saying "Goodbye Raistlin - you were good to me".

 Eventually I read every book Dragonlance published, even those silly short stories and epic poetry.

 The Elfstones Of Shannara -  Terry Brooks

Having exhausted the Dragonlance archives, I decided to take a risk and branch out a little. So I picked up the Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks and became addicted again to the point of reading under the covers with a torch. I can still recall taking great care to blackout the light by using my quilt as a little tent and the smell of stale air after a marathon five hour late night reading session. My mother was never fooled though - I always got a lecture the next day because she somehow heard the pages turning.

The plot was Tolkien-like and broadly followed the now familiar formula: Huge battles between good and evil, a wise druid and a separate quest to save the day before the forces of good were crushed. At the time, this was all new to men and so different to the D&D style of the Dragonlance books. I blubbered like a little girl watching Twilight when my  favorite character was turned into a tree. (don't ask).

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole - Sue Townsend

I was 14 when I read this and it made me start my own diary which I've continued to update very periodically over the years. Most of my recently entries start with "I can't believe its been 15 months since I last wrote anything".

Adrian Mole is a 13.5 year old teenager from a working class English background whose family still uses HP sauce. His mother is having an affair, discovers feminism, divorces his father. Adrian is bullied in school, has a crush on Pandora and wants to be an intellectual when he grows up.  It's set in the mid-1980s when Thatcher was prime minister. Like most of the books on this list, I still own my original copy and occasionally flick through it. The Adrian Mole series has continued over nine books set over the 80's to the present day, a popular version of John Updikes' Rabbit series.

The Scramble For Africa - Thomas Pakenham

I stumbled across this book while studying history in school, a subject I loved and it eventually become the first history book I ever voluntarily bought.

Looking back, I think it strangely ties it with my early love of fantasy books like The Elfstones Of Shannara.  Both books are vast in scope, feature political manipulation, copious collection of characters and vast battles between empires.   Who needs Game of Thrones when we have Leopold II of Belgium ?

LA Confidential - James Ellroy

Another book which left me almost physically exhausted by the time I finished.  The first few pages were quite difficult because Ellroy uses a  very terse stream of consciousness writing style, but I soon adapted and devoured the book in a few sittings. James (I get to call him that after reading his entire back catalog) can capture in a single page what would take a lessor talented author an entire chapter to describe.

The plot is pure noir. The wrong man and the wrong women in the wrong situation and both morally corrupted by the life they lead.  Ellroy is proudly politically incorrect and once stated his favorite hobby as attending liberal dinner parties just to offend the guests.

Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
I completely understand why people consider Hemingway overrated - his short little sentences appear bland and childish, but they are also subtle with the meaning conveyed by what is not stated ( I know I know).

The book features the 'lost generation' of American and British expatriates who have settled in Paris to live the high life of drunkenness and promiscuity during the flapper era of the 1920s.  I was most attached to the loneliness of the main character, Jake Barnes, as he pottered almost aimlessly around France and Spain, drifting from one party and bottle of booze to the next, following the promiscuous and self-destructive Lady Brett Ashley -  a representative of the new sexual freedom that was occurring during the 1920's (at least for the upper classes).  Barnes suffered a war wound during the first world war that made him permanently impotent and putting him in the ultimate friend zone.

Flappers and Philosophers: The Collected Short Stories - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fiesta aroused my interest in the 1920s, a decade with very similar values as our own at least among the moneyed upper classes.  Fitzgeralds' short stories, largely written for commercial papers which he refereed to as 'whoring himself', usually concern the America upper classes, the wealthy Harvard graduates and business men. But he was a writer obsessed failure and self-destructive characters and what comes through in his stories is the sympathy he has for the once beautiful and glamorous as life takes it's toll on their ambitions.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying - George Orwell

The Aspidistra for Gordon Comstock is a symbol of middle class English living and of everything he despises.  Gordon quit his job in an advertising firm, declaring  war against the middle classes worship of money and all important but soulless "good job".  Instead he took a job in a book shop and a squalid room in a boarding house with an intrusive landlady. Here, freed from middle class drudgery, he plans to dedicate himself to his writing and poetry.

Orwell is very good at describing the effects of borderline poverty. Comstock is paid enough  to rent a room and to feed himself, but he is left with very little disposable income.  What comes through in the novel is the constant awareness of money; of never quite having enough to buy more than a two drinks in a week; of having to save for weeks to buy new shoes; the constant grubbiness and bitterness and counting of pennies; the humiliation and conviction that all his problems, especially with women, would be solved if only he earned more money.  Worse, his writing never progresses because of his depression and relationship problems.

Orwell later said the book should never have been published, that he wrote it when he was desperate for money.  I think it has quite an important message.

The Innocent - Ian mcEwan
Part love story,  part murder story,  part espionage set in the divided city of Berlin during the peek of the cold war. Not too much more I can say. It's just a good read.

Reviewing my list, and my bookshelves, it's clear that most of my books are from Anglo-American writers. I have read very little by continental, let alone Asian or African writers or even Irish writers.  Perhaps this is a consequence of living in Ireland - we are influenced by both sides of the Atlantic. 

If anyone cares to create a similar list, leave a comment and I'll link up here.


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