Friday, November 14, 2008

Scoop: Evelyn Waugh

My ideal of the comic novel. Funny, but not crude or malicious. Improbable but just probable enough to keep your disbelief suspended. Gentle but not soggy or woolly. Satirical but not bitter. Every character is funny, but each in a different way. None is irritating. A pert prose style devoid of any self-indulgence. Endlessly quotable, like a Monty Python sketch. Long may the questing vole, feather footed, pass through the plashy fen.

Vanity Fair: William Makepeace Thackeray

I enjoyed this book through one long summer and courtesy of Librivox and my Ipod.
I suppose Victorian novels were what Victorians did instead of soap operas, so maybe listening to its quarter of a million words read out is appropriate. I loved the relentless satirizing of everything, even love itself. I loved the warmth. I loved the way he kept the central love story of the plot right to the last page. I think Becky Sharp would have wrapped me round her little finger. Worse, I would have enjoyed it.
There are one of two sticky spots when it appears even Thackeray didn't read over his own work, perhaps he was in a hurry, but like all great books, I want to go back and do it all again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Great Gatsby: F Scott Fitzgerald

A short novel like The Moon and Sixpence -- see below -- written at almost the same time, and also about obsessive love and the destruction it causes. More amusing than Somerset Maugham, though, and elegantly assembled, as neat and complete as a theorem.
If books were people this would be '20s flapper, fresh, quirky, flip, light-footed, beautiful. I found this book in a mission school library in the middle of Cote d'ivoire, read it by the light of a generator with the grasshoppers singing all around, finished it, went back to the beginning and read it again. A perfect dance partner of a book.

The moon and sixpence: W Somerset Maugham

A novel based loosely on the life Paul Gauguin: frustrated city type forsakes everything so that he can give expression, through art, to what is burning inside him. Ends up in squalor in Tahiti, finally painting the stuff he wants. A novel about the compulsion to create art and (when this compulsion is allowed to be Lord) how it both creates and destroys. I think the 'moon and sixpence' reference is to someone chasing the moon in the sky and missing the sixpence at his feet.

Friday, July 4, 2008

How to write a damn good novel: James N Frey

Not the least of my many paranoias and hangups is a suspicion of people who make money out of coaching writers rather than writing themselves.

I have to put that aside in this case. This is a simple book that talks about the main elements of a good novel. It is the nearest legal equivalent to gas-and-air that I have found when it comes to soothing the birth-pains. I love its complete lack of pretension. It's sympathetic and funny. I don't have any friends who are successful novelists, but this book more than any other helps fill that gap. I owe this book so much.
PS: This James N Frey is not the James Frey of recent literary scandal.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The general next to God: Richard Collier

I was given this book by a Salvationist prior to interviewing a new Salvation Army General in Singapore, as you do. It's a history of the Salvation Army and its founder, General William Booth, after whom a street in my home-town was named.

Utterly, totally captivating with its stories of this pioneering denomination that sought out the poorest 10% in the UK and around the world.

This was the gospel setting the news agenda. Who popularized safety matches? The Salvation Army. Why is the legal age of consent in the UK and in many countries around the world set at 16? Because the Salvation Army, allied with a leading journalist, campaigned for it. MPs, who used child prostitutes, were in uproar. There were riots, bricks, violence, jail sentences against the campaigners. Still they fought -- laughed at, derided, causing major civil disturbances, criticized by the great and the good as well as the indolent and the bad.

Here's the story of the Salvationist leader who always used to march carrying a dead rat: he reasoned that it was better to carry the rats that were thrown at him rather than cast them aside to be hurled at him again. What a book.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lucky Jim: Kingsley Amis

Unfortunately, I haven't managed to get too far into others of Amis' books before chucking them aside. Nor have I re-read Lucky Jim recently. Perhaps I will have outgrown it. Given the rate at which as I mature as a person, this is perhaps unlikely. Anyhow, at the time I read it, I loved this comic yarn of an unsuccessful lecturer and human being.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mao: Jung Chang

Hard to imagine a better biography of the Chairperson than this, produced by someone bi-lingual in English and Chinese, with the resources and prestige to interview everyone from presidents to peasants. A chilling commentary on the way that political chaos leads to the most ruthless operator rising to the top. This is why there'll always be dictators and why (as C S Lewis observed) they are all the same.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams was a fan of Wodehouse and science fiction: what's not to like? The original radio series burst upon the scene (for me) like one of those things that burst upon the scene. A firework maybe.

The book became that much-devalued thing, a number one bestseller. It is about as far from beiing a work of literary fiction as a book can possibly be, which is delightful. Our moment in the sun. Take that at the Hay-on-Wye Festival and smoke it. The Hitchhiker brand got diluted after the second series and second book, but not after it inspired Terry Pratchett (another physicist) to leave the nuclear industry and write for fun.

Here's the book:

Here's the radio series:

Jeeves Omnibus: P G Wodehouse

Impossible to pick a single Wodehouse book, hence an Omnibus. The Blandings Omnibus would be equally fitting for this list. Another teenage staple for me. Don't know how I started with him. I think it's his perfection of style, the comic timing, that is so irresistable: not so much the plots and obviously not the characters. All the books on writing in the world, all the creative writing courses could never manufacture a Wodehouse. A genius.

The collected short stories: Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke's short stories were the first things I remember reading as a pre-teen. They were published month by month in a boys' magazine called Speed and Power to which I graduated after I finished with The Dandy. Praise God for parents who subscribe to comics and magazines for their children. From this I progressed to his novels, to his science books, to his rivals and peers.

Your brain is still mushy at that age, but solidifying fast. Mine went this way. Physics is beautiful. Technology can make fairy tales true. It's OK to dream of a better world. Writing can be lucid and enlightening. Wouldn't it be fun to study Physics at King's College (Clarke studied Physics and Maths joint honours). Then, be a writer for the rest of your life, simplifying complex things that you study for the fun of learning about them and writing novels. Clarke died a few months ago and I still miss him.

The complete idiots' guide to time management

An unlikely Good Read, it coincided with me discovering mortality. I think I picked it up as a busy and ambitious bloke with wide opportunities* opening up in the world of publishing and in the organization I worked for. And not enough time to fit everything in.

I read it after a near-fatal heart disease that left me, in my mid-thirties, disabled, off work for three months, banned from going out in the evenings, waking up with severe heart pains and every time I looked at my four-year-old son and my six-year-old daughter, thinking I was going to die.

I didn't die. I have lived to see my kids become bigger and wiser than me. But I did learn that 'time management' is not about packing as much into life as possible, but taking out as much out as possible -- everything that, in the final analysis, doesn't really matter. I loved this book.

*in my little world at least

Monday, May 19, 2008

Inconceivable: Ben Elton

A comedy about infertility and IVF. It probes a deep contemporary wound: the question, 'you have so much, why is a baby so important' raises yummy issues about who we are and what happiness is. And it's extremely funny.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

England, their England: A G MacDonell

After the First World War a Scot sets out to discover the English. This thin plot allows the writer to set up some set-piece comedy as innocent Scot explores upper class English life in its last flowering. Simple, gentle, boyish comedy. His description of a cricket match remains one of the funniest pieces of writing I've ever read, a classic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

French women don't get fat: Mireille Guiliano

'Nothing is sinfully delicious. If you really adore something, as I adore chocolate, there is a place for it in your life. But we cannot allow guilt-ridden scarfing. Only with cultivated pleasure can you enjoy chocolate in the clear light of day.'

I've been driving my family mad with references to this book which can summed up as: knowing your enemies, drinking lots of water and champagne, and relishing fresh, in-season food in small portions.

I don't know what 'scarfing' means but plan to use it sometime.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Flood: David Maine

This book is what happens when a novelist gets hold of the Biblical flood account and retells it as literally true. It's subversive, entertaining, thought-provoking. It's about a full-on believer very unlike the dreary and samey European traditions of books about vicars who've lost their faith but carry on anyway.

What is life like living with an extremist who turns out to be right? What do the family think of this God who drowns the world? What does Noah do after the Flood when the words from God stop coming and he has to cope with being an ordinary, lonely old man? What a fabulous, funny read. You might even have to use the phrase 'heart-warming' by the end but don't let that put you off.

The end of poverty: Jeffrey Sachs

Here's the opening quote:

This book is about ending poverty in our time. It is not a forecast ... Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. Our generation can choose to end that extreme poverty by the year 2025.

We live in amazing days: Nigeria, for example, now has no foreign debt, through a combination of political reform and debt forgiveness (and a high oil price). Debt forgiveness would not have happened without the Christian Church's contribution -- a story that perhaps will rank one day with the Christian contribution to the ending of slavery. This marvellous, clear-headed, optimistic and prophetic book is essential reading to shape our responses to poverty, aid, debt and trade.

Father Joe, the man who saved my soul: Tony Hendra

In a kind of joint biography, Tony Hendra tells the story of his life as would-be Catholic monk, then a famous atheistic satirist (inventor of 'Spitting Image'), and finally, recovering Catholic. The constant in his life is Father Joe, a monk who spends all his days on the Isle of Wight and patiently counsels Hendra through good and bad days.

The language is fruitier than you will find in your average 'Christian bookshop' but Hendra's wit and honesty and Father Joe's wisdom and grace, and the un-theologized clarity of the story, make for an inspiring read. You'll never despair for a prodigal again, even if the prodigal is you.

Gilead: Marilynne Robinson

From an unpromising storyline -- old Presbyterian pastor writes letter to son born in his old age, including lengthy recollections of his sermons -- Marilynne Robinson has conjured a book about life, joy, fathers, sons, ordinariness and grace. It occasionally drags (I listened to an audio version) but is exquisite and fine, dissecting (for example) how love for a prodigal can even somehow be more intense than the the love for the one that didn't stray. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A lovely, remarkable book by someone who clearly not only shares my faith but could teach it to me all over again.

Paradise Lost: John Milton

How this classic of world literature, the greatest epic poem in the English language, and a classic of biblical thinking, has vanished from bookshelves is a mystery to me. The text is of course public domain and can be downloaded for free, for example at Project Gutenburg.

The Amazon link is for an audio CD version, which I preferred to reading the text itself.

The Lion Handbook to the Bible: David & Pat Alexander

If you've invested in, or dusted off, a Bible version you may as well get this as well -- the best one-volume reference book on the planet, in my humble opinion. My son got given a copy of the revised edition which is even better than the original that we've had on our shelves for many years. Sumptuous photography and a crowd of biblical critics distilling their scholarship into crisp articles that agree with most of my personal prejudices. If I was allowed a second book on a desert island, along with my Bible, and couldn't take Shipbuilding for Beginners or Vegetable Gardening for Seaside Locations or even 101 Survival Tips Involving Coconuts I think I'd take either this or my Greek-English dictionary, and while away the years musing on all this nourishing truth.

The Bible

It seems slightly odd to include the New and Old Testaments in a list of favourite books, but it would be even odder to leave it out, given it's the only book I read virtually every day.

The version highlighted is a modern, easy-to-read, thought-for-thought translation of the original, with a funky metal cover, a Bible that not only slips into a bag but also sets off airport security alarms and probably stops bullets.

This is a fine version but I think the best idea is to read every version you can get your hands on, including the word-for-word translations like the NIV and paraphrases like The Message. Then buy a Greek-English interlinear version and a book like Vine's Dictionary of New Testament words and make your own translations. The New Testament has sold even more copies than the Da Vinci Code, I'm told, so there must be something in it.

Barchester Towers: Anthony Trollope

It's the wit that makes this book so wonderful: the waspish insights into character, the leisurely collisions of people and plot, and Trollope sitting in the corner of the book somewhere letting off one fizzing firework after another. I was completely hooked by Trollope's world of desperate power struggles over minor spoils, of unholy thoughts circling beneath posed Victorian religious exteriors like tiger sharks in a village pond. I'm glad he wrote so many books. You wouldn't want to run out of them.

Cryptonomicon: Neal Stephenson

One of those books that you think no-one but you will enjoy because it seems to match your interests so much. I suppose it's about code-making and -breaking in the second world war and the present day. Lengthy excursions into pure maths and engineering. Complicated, intricate, with fresh ideas and insights around every corner that tempt Stephenson to explore yet another tangent -- a temptation he usually succumbs to. What a brilliant book. It stayed with me weeks after I finished it. I bought another copy, having given back the original that I myself was lent; then I gave that copy away. Now I want another, because I like to have one near. That kind of book.

War and Peace: Leo Tolstoy

You have to clear your schedule for a couple of months in the evenings, and you have to pace yourself and think of it as a series of about six novels. I read it when I was banned from going out or working for three months after nearly dropping dead. Almost worth getting a moderately serious illness so that you can read it while you recover.