Sunday 26 September 2010

Desert Island Books

Most people are familiar with Desert Island Discs – the tracks you can’t live without, that you’d take to an island with you. But what about books? Most serious readers have favourites they return to again and again for the sheer pleasure of them…

Knut Hamsun

Arguably the first novel of psychological realism and the book that transformed Hamsun from a 19th century Romantic into a real 20th century man. It’s odd, deliberately ambiguous, and often maddening. But strangely addictive.
I was introduced to Hamsun when I was 20 by a Norwegian I knew in Leeds. We sat and talked about him one Friday night; he was a new name to me when I was hungry to absorb fresh literature. The next day I went to a small independent bookshop by the Poly and found a table full of a new translation of this book. It seemed like synchronicity. I bought it, and the rest is history.

William Boyd
The New Confessions

Boys does the big book, the fake biography (or autobiography) so well, but this is something special, his first venture into the territory, the tale of an ambitious British film director who’s an iconoclast in the days of silent pictures, first during World War 1, then later in Berlin during the Expressionist era. He tells his tale brilliantly and knowledgeably, his character absorbing and egotistical, and very, very human. Although Boyd has been far more feted for his later work, much of which is superb, he’s never done the big book quite as well or enthusiastically as this.

Annie Proulx
Accordion Crimes

It’s hard to single out one of her books, but this is almost a mix of short story and novel, with an old accordion as the main character – a variant of the tale of a penny we had to do in essays at school. She conjures up times and places beautifully, with wit, grace and sympathy. A masterful writer, there’s real music comes out of this novel. It’s a beautiful read, with the passing of time a subtext, and the way the face of America changes – yet in some ways doesn’t change at all. It’s not a city book, but one that clings, as much as it can, to the country. And you don’t even have to like accordions to love it.

Louis de Bernieres
The South American Trilogy

A cheat, I know, three books in one, but they do go together. Remarkable, sustained storytelling and suspension of disbelief. He creates a world in some unnamed South American country peopled with the ribald and magical. It’s Borges and more, that magical realism, and utterly convincing, warm, and with a compassionate heart; it’s hard to believe it’s written by an Englishman. The good guys win in the end, but it’s the journey that counts, and who can resist the big black cats that always smell of chocolate, or the macho man who refuses to dismount from his horse. Maybe there’s a lesson here, maybe not. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, and starting it over again is always a joy.

Peter Høeg

Difficult to known which of this man’s books to pick, but this gets the nod over the better known Smilla, which is a wondrous tome in its own right. There’s an intensity here that’s moving, the sense of the outsider and the children who have this yearning for freedom in a bureaucratic, prescribed state. The translation is very, very good. It’s not an easy read, but that’s part of the joy. He’s certainly one of the greatest contemporary writers (with the possible exception of The Woman and the Ape), and this is a good place to make his acquaintance. The Quiet Girl mines faintly similar territory, but this does it in a less fantastical fashion.

Joanne Harris

A book for the times you need magic in your life. Disregard the movie, this is so much better, a place where the reader never thinks the unlikely couldn’t happen, and where the mundane can become mystical. Vianne Rocher is one of the great fictional creations, a witch, maybe, but also an ideal to fall in love with even thought her feet are very much of clay. The nearest analogue, just for the uplifting feel, is the movie Amelie. Most of Joanne Harris’s books are great (including the more sombre sequel to this), but this is simply carried on a tide of real magic.

Michael Ondaatje

He’s known for The English Patient, and most of his other work has been ignored, which is a shame, as he’s one of the most poetic writers in the English language. Part coming of age novel, part meditation on American in a supposed golden age, This doesn’t carry the sepia romance of The English Patient. It’s a book that glides, and only reveals it many layers through multiple readings. The language flows like a sunlit stream, Anna is remarkable, and the whole thing pulls you into its dream.

Christian Jungersen
The Exception

A book that seemingly made hardly a ripple in its English translation from the Danish original. That’s a pity, because Jungersen creates female characters better than any man I’ve read. Not just one, but four of them. In this sort of whodunit-thriller, he alternates their voices in a way that truly messes with the reader’s head. New revelations from one woman change the way you think of the others, leaving you unbalanced. It’s majestic writing and truly wonderful characterisation, all quite bravura. And it’s certainly a book you need to read several times.

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