Sunday, 27 November 2011

Bibliotherapy: book recommendations

There's an article in The Observer today about "bibliotheraphy" as prescribed by The School of Life in London. It's gimmicky, expensive fun: anything from £20-£70 for a consultation to help you decide what books to read. If you don't want to spend that much money, you could always pop into your local library or check out Whichbook, an online recommendation service compiled and maintained by librarians, with links direct to local libraries if you want to reserve a book you have found on the site.

I get my reading recommendations from friends, newspaper reviews, displays of new titles in book shops, Amazon and book blogs. Lately I have been grabbing deals from Kindle's Daily Deal and I'm interspersing reading these with reading books by people I know or have met in real life or online. In the last couple of weeks I have read two romance novels by Connie Brockway (The Other Guy's Bride and As You Desire), a feminist memoir/polemic by Caitlin Moran (How To Be a Woman), a satirical pop culture/coming of age novel by Paul Burston (Lovers & Losers), a literary novella by Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending), an autobiography by Edith Sitwell (Taken Care Of) and an anthology of witty, sad short stories by Jan Woolf (Fugues on a Funny Bone). I enjoyed all of them and heartily recommend them.

My new discovery is romance novels. I had been wondering what to do with myself in middle age. In my twenties I used to like going out clubbing and dancing all night. In my thirties I used to like going out and getting drunk. Now that I'm in my forties (I know! I'm as astonished as you are. I may look it but I don't feel it) I shall be staying in and reading romance novels.

Connie's are only the third and fourth romance novels I have ever read in my life. The first was a Victoria Holt novel when I was about eleven years old . Then there was a long gap and I read The Merry-Go-Round by Donna Fasano, a best-selling romance author who I "know" online though we have never met. Donna is a warm, funny, sweet, intelligent person and so is her book. Likewise, when I met her, Connie was a feisty, funny, quick-witted, entertaining woman. As soon as I talked to her it made me want to read her books and be a romance novelist. But I'll have to read a lot more romance novels before trying to write one. Maybe in a few years' time, after I have served my apprenticeship...

Here are some of my favourite books, taken from earlier posts on this site:

This list is from my 'Top Ten settings in books':

1) 2) & 3) Casterbridge, Weatherbury and Egdon Heath are all fictional places in 'Wessex', Hardy's name for Dorset. My favourites of Hardy's books are Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Return of the Native. If I eat too much rich food at dinner I think of how Gabriel Oak saved Bathsheba's sheep when they broke into a clover field and got bloat. If misunderstood social signals lead to unfortunate consequences I think of Bathsheba sending the valentine's card to Farmer Boldwood. And when I have to make an effortful journey I think of poor Fanny urging herself rung by rung along the fenced path towards the workhouse after she had been wronged by Sgt Troy. All those characters are in Far From the Madding Crowd. Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy, The Time-Torn Man, is also interesting, if you like biographies and want to read about him.

4) 5) London. Lovely London. I was born here, moved away when I was a child and then moved back to claim it when I was 18 - in part, I'm sure, because I wanted to inhabit the fictional London I had read about in literature: the London of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and Dickens' novels. My favourite Dickens novel is Our Mutual Friend. Driving past the 'Limehouse link' it seems absurd to think of Eugene Wrayburn walking in darkness along a towpath towards the lime kilns of Limehouse. But there are plenty of olde worlde buildings and locations to visit in London - you can even visit 221b Baker Street and read some of the letters Sherlock Holmes still receives. Every other doorway has a blue plaque confirming that a famous writer once lived at that address. Favourite London books... ach, don't make me choose. If it's got London in it, I'll probably like it.

6) San Francisco. I visited with my daughter soon after reading Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books which were also serialised on TV by Channel 4 with Olympia Dukakis as Mrs Madrigal. It's a charming city that fulfils all my 'I could live here' criteria: you don't have to drive, and there are plenty of sushi restaurants and gay men.

7) Savannah. I have yet to visit but I have wanted to see the place ever since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, another of my favourite books.

8) Brixton. OK, it's London again. But this is a specific part of it, where I live. Martin Millar set many of his books here. My favourite is Lux the Poet. It's about a Brixton-based poet on a quest and it's brilliant. Martin Millar is one of those people I'd quite like to meet and wouldn't be able to say anything to if I did because I'd be much too shy to say anything more apposite than 'I love your books' which, coincidentally, is what I said to Margaret Atwood when I met her. It's non-controversially true but unlikely to get me a footnote in anyone's memoirs if I stick to that line every time I meet a favourite author.

9) France. If I'm honest, I started reading French literature because I was in love with the language and the place, rather than falling in love with it after reading about it. Candide is one of my favourite books but much of that doesn't take place in France. So, instead, I'll choose the stories of Guy de Maupassant, my favourite being Boule de Suif which is set during the Franco-Prussian war and concerns a prostitute who shares her picnic with ill-prepared snobbish fellow-travellers as they flee the town of Rouen, and is spurned by them after being pressed into doing something repugnant to her to save their lives. It's a really good story.

10) Japan. Another of my favourite books is The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro by Alison Fell. I met the author once and told her how much I liked it and she said, 'It's a dirty book,' which made me blush. I suppose it is quite rude in parts, but it's beautifully written, and clever, too. Yukio Mishima's life is perhaps more interesting than his books. He committed suicide by seppuku after setting up a private army. My favourite Haruki Murakami novel is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is the first of his that I ever read. If you like his work and you haven't read Underground, I recommend it - it's a non-fiction account of the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, told by people who were involved, written by Murakami and translated by Alfred Birnbaum who is my preferred translator of his work.

Here are my top ten childhood favourites:

The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis. Four children find their way to a magical land through the back of a wardrobe.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton. A family of very small, resourceful people borrow ordinary household items and make use of them.

The Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden. Lonely, rejected Perdita doesn't have any friends until two children take their holiday on the Scottish island where she lives.

Tom's Midnight Garden by A Philippa Pearce. I suppose these days we might call it a time travel book: When the clock strikes thirteen a lonely boy called Tom meets a girl called Hatty.

Charlotte's Webb by E. B. White. A story about a spider who rescues a pig who lives on a farm. I'm always surprised when literate friends casually mention that they have killed a spider that has found its way into their house because I know it means they have never read this book.

Summer at World's End by Monica Dickens. A group of children are left to fend for themselves in a large house and intervene to rescue their pet dog from vivisectionists. There was a series of World's End books but I don't remember reading the others. I progressed to Monica Dickens' very funny autobiographical books for grown-ups: My Turn to Make the Tea was about her time as a trainee journalist and it was my favourite, but I also loved One Pair of Feet about her time as a nurse in the Second World War and One Pair of Hands about her time as a cook in various households.

Alice Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. A girl falls down a rabbit hole...

The Professor Branestawm books by Norman Hunter, illustrated by Heath Robinson. Professor Branestawm was a mad inventor. I thought the books were hilarious when I was about seven years old. Possibly inventors appeal to children because they tackle the world in the same way until someone steps in to show them the 'proper' way to solve the puzzles around them.

The Jennings and Darbishire books by Anthony Buckeridge. Set in a boys' school. Jennings and Darbishire are always getting into scrapes. I thought these books were hiliarious when I was about eight years old. I'd love to read them again and see whether they're still funny now.

The Flower Fairies books by Cecily M Barker. Illustrated books of flowers and weeds, each one assigned a beautifully-drawn girl or boy fairy, accompanied by a very short poem describing the attributes of the flower and how it got its common name. Really wonderful.

Here are my Top Ten books I'd like to see made into films. It includes the second mention for Candide. Since compiling the list, I have read The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufmann. That's wonderful, if you haven't read it, I'd also recommend that.

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken - a gentle, offbeat love story about the friendship between a very tall boy and a librarian. It could be made into one of those subtle, beautiful American films along the lines of The Station Agent.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A sprawling, crazy, satirical novel with a cast of grotesques. It would make a great film. There have been plans to make one but they seem to have come to nothing.

Candide by Voltaire. It has been made into an operetta by Leonard Bernstein (using a libretto based on a script for a play by Lilian Helmann according to my friend Wikipedia, and including lyrics from Dorothy Parker, though later performed with a book by Hugh Wheeler.) But it has never been made into a film. It's a short satirical book but it's episodic so it would also suit TV, though it would be expensive to make because of the multiple locations and period costume. It's free for the Kindle, though I read it in French in paperback years ago and I have no idea if the free digital English translation is any good - it's worth downloading a sample to check.

The Li
ars' Club by Mary Karr. It's one of my all-time favourite books, a memoir of the author's extraordinary childhood. Mary Karr is a brilliant story-teller who writes beautiful prose so the film might need a voice-over, much as screenwriters hate writing them because it feels like cheating; you're supposed to tell the story in pictures and dialogue when you make a film. But a good director could show the poverty, the madness and the beauty of the story, so long as he or she could find the right actor to play Mary as a child.

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. A very sweet novella-length love story. Take a look. Do you like sweet, charming, quirky books? If you do and you haven't read it, I'm sure you'll love it. It's written by a screenwriter. I'm surprised it hasn't yet been made into a film.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. This is an odd, entertaining story of a medium. Can she really see ghosts? It's by Booker Prize-winning Hilary Mantel and it's beautifully-written, as you would expect. It would make an amusing film.

My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. A wonderfully funny time travel book that goes between 19th century Copenhagen and present day London. There would be lots of scope for the costume designers and the set designers to impress, and some great comic roles for the actors. It would make a brilliant play, as well. The people who made Lost in Austen would make a good job of it for TV.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. This would make a fantastic play if adapted as a monologue that stays true to the book, with only one actor, rather like David Hare's production of Joan Didion's adaptation of her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking which was performed by Vanessa Redgrave in 2007/2008. But I'd like to see it as a film, too. This is one of my favourite books: part thriller, part fable, part satire. And it could make a brilliant, compelling film.

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell. A crime story that's really a book about friendship. I'd also like to see Save Me, Joe Louis made into a film. That's also a book about friendship. I was crazy about Madison Smartt Bell when I first discovered him, 20 years ago or whenever Straight Cut was first published in the UK. I used to go and look in the new releases section of the book store and then on the general fiction shelves approximately every year or so (checking under both S and B 'just in case'), hoping that he'd published another one. This was in the days before Amazon/Google. Fortunately he was a prolific author and the bookshops I visited stocked his books in those days, so my patience and loyalty were rewarded. Straight Cut, Save Me, Joe Louis and Dr Sleep are my favourite books of his. I'm counting this as one item on the list but I'd be very happy to see any of them made into a film (and so would MSB, no doubt.) It would be a great first step if his publisher(s) were to make them available for the Kindle.

Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster. I have read almost everything Paul Auster has written (or so I like to claim) and this is one of my favourites of his. It's about a boy who learns to fly. This one is available for the Kindle. It's a charming adventure story and it would make a wonderful film.

If I were to do a spot of amateur bibliotheraphy, I'd be likely to recommend one of the books on one of the lists above and/or Me Cheeta by James Lever. I recommend that to everyone.

What would you recommend?