Tuesday, September 05, 2006

a meme found at an udge and a wink

1. Name one book that changed your life
I was 13 years old, in my first term at boarding school, and desperately unhappy. I hated the strict school regime, and didn't get on at all with my fellow pupils - 99% of whom came from more privileged backgrounds, spoke with upper-class accents, and had already been at 'Preparatory' school, which meant they were quite accustomed to single-sex boarding school life. This was the type of school where you got up at 7am and started the day with a cold bath, and where you could be caned by prefects for all sorts of minor misdemeanours, so naturally I missed my home, my family, and my friends. One day I found a book lying on a table in the library, sat down and started to read it. It was a cheap paperback thriller about a detective on the trail of the Ned Kelly gang in Australia. I remember the descriptive passages as being very evocative, and the story itself was quite gripping, but the main thing was that it provided me with an escape from the painful realities of my existence at the time. I was sucked into its alternative world, and for a few precious days I found a refuge there. I can actually remember consciously thinking that things couldn't be so bad if I could lose myself in a book in this way, and that realisation was very reassuring. I felt a kind of relief that at least this pleasure hadn't been been wrenched from my grasp.

Until today I had no recollection of what the book was called. All I could remember was that the detective's name was Bonaparte. Now, thanks to the wonders of the interweb, I have tracked it down. It was 'Bony and the Kelly Gang' by Arthur W Upfield. I even found the back-cover blurb - 'Tucked away in the mountains of New South Wales is Cork Valley, inhabited by an odd lot of hard-drinking Irishmen. Here a government officer, looking for illicit 'stills', has been murdered, and it's Napoleon Bonaparte's job to find the killer. Disguised as a horse thief the famous half-aboriginal detective hitchhikes into the valley. But before Bony can spring the trap he develops a strong affection for these lawless, lusty characters'. Oh well, I was 13 after all.

2. One book you've read more than once
'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones' by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. I first read this in my early twenties and often return to it. It's actually a compilation of four ancient texts - 101 Zen Stories, The Gateless Gate, 10 Bulls, and Centering - which are clearly translated and simply presented. No fancy theorising, just the original words. This is a short book, but if I could find the the time I would re-read Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann, especially 'The Idiot' and 'Doctor Faustus' respectively.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island
My first thought was 'Robinson Crusoe', which I read for the first time last year and really enjoyed, but on reflection I'd choose a more modern book that might help me cope with the solitude of island life. Adam Nicolson's 'Sea Room' is about his love affair with the Shiants, a small group of Hebridean islands which he inherited from his father. It's full of wonderful descriptions of the times he spent there, often for months on end, but it's really a celebration of the islands themselves - their character and their history, and the strange magic of small, isolated islands everywhere. One phrase from it sticks in my mind as being typical of his easy, poetic, style: he describes lenticular clouds hanging low in the evening sky as being 'like sucked sweeties'.

4. One book that made you laugh
Irvine Welsh's 'Trainspotting' actually made me laugh out loud. The humour really is blacker than the darkest night, but the book deserves all the accolades that have come its way because it really does 'push the envelope', as they say. Welsh may be the Quentin Tarantino of Scottish literature, but the film of 'Trainspotting' was a cop-out, aimed squarely at the mass market and therefore both a missed opportunity and a disappointment.

5. One book that made you cry
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 'Sunset Song'. The story of a girl, Chris Guthrie, growing up on a small farm in north-east Scotland in the years leading up to the First World War. It's like a sad but beautiful piece of music.

6. One book you wish you'd written

Anything by Samuel Beckett, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, who invariably managed - often in the same breath - to be both drily humorous and brutally honest about the human condition. If I had to choose one book it would probably be 'Molloy'. The royalties from a Beckett book would certainly come in handy for buying my own private stretch of salmon river in the Highlands, not to mention the villa in the south of France.

7. One book you wish had never been written
'The Flounder' by Gunther Grass. 'The Tin Drum' was such an extraordinary tour-de-force that I could scarcely believe how dreadful this one was. I imagine I am the only person, aside from the author, ever to have read it from cover to cover, and I did so purely to prove it could be done. All I can remember is that it's about cookery. Umberto Eco's tedious and vastly overrated 'The Name of the Rose' comes a close second.

8. One book you're currently reading
An account of the life of Lorenzo the Magnificent. I started it last year and have just picked it up again. Lorenzo de Medici was patron to all the great Florentine writers, philosophers and artists who shaped the Renaissance in southern Europe, including da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo. Unfortunately the author of this rather turgid tome, Hugh Ross Williamson, was not equally gifted, and I'm now realising why I didn't finish it first time round.

9. One book you've been meaning to read
'What's Welsh for Zen?' by John Cale. I'm especially interested in what he has to say about his years working with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. I don't have that book yet, but I've had 'All the Pretty Horses' by Cormac McCarthy sitting on my bookshelf for ages, so maybe I'll read that next. I meant to take it on holiday with me this year, but forgot.

10. No tagging.

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