The thing about memes is that they draw you in. Here’s me being drawn in…
- One book that changed your life
- One book you have to read more than once
- One book you’d want on a desert island
- Two books that made you laugh
- One book that made you cry
- One book you wish you’d written
- One book you wish was never written
- Two books you are currently reading
- One book you’ve been meaning to read
- One book you sat down and read without a break
Like most memes, the ideas simple, but it get’s you thinking…
One book that changed your life
Books that change your life aren’t always the best written or the most challenging. They are sometimes just the books that open your eyes, just at the point when your eyes are ready to open. If I have to choose only one book that changed my life it would be Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein.
Why this book? I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read this, but I must have been about 15. It was an age when I was suddenly developing in unexpected ways, at least unexpected by me, and it showed me that there were other ways of being than the one I grew up with. It illustrated that morality could be relative, and that right and wrong depended on where you stood as well as what you did. More than anything else, it introduced me to complexity – of motive, of intent and of outcome.
It also introduced me to geekiness, and I still use the verb, to grok, even now. You grok?
One book you have to read more than once
I went to listen to Robert McKee, author of Story, for three days in London. It was an experience I paid for and he is not an easy person to listen to – an irascible man, bad tempered, impatient and autocratic. He is, however, one of the people to whom Hollywood turns when they have a screenplay they like, but can’t work with.
He performs his lectures (and it is a performance) around the world and if you attend you will hear him speak continuously for three days. If you listen, you will learn a great deal about plot, characterisation, themes, pacing and a host of other story-related techniques. It’s something I will do again, if I have time and money.
The book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, forms the lecture notes as he unashamedly explains on the first day. It was written so you don’t have to write notes – you can just listen. I know it says the book is about screenwriting, but it’s more fundamental than that – it’s about the elements that create a story, and for that, you don’t need to be a film-maker.
It’s a book I return to again and again.
One book you’d want on a desert island
The Master and Margarita is my desert island book. Written by Mikhail Bulgakov, it was his final work, edited from his death-bed in 1940. It is Urban Fantasy before UF existed, with demons on the streets of Moscow at the height of the soviet era.
It is a carefully layered story with threads that resonate with each other. It concerns the interview between Yeshua of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate, but is also the tale of what happens when the devil comes to Moscow and no-one believes in him. It is a critique of the soviet system and a faustian fiction, both literary and fantastical.
From the moment when the strange foreign gentleman tells Berlioz that he will have his head cut off, I was hooked.
Two books that made you laugh
One For the Money by Janet Evanovich is about Stephanie Plum. Fired from her job as a lingerie sales-person in a department store, she blackmails her cousin Vinnie into letting her do bond enforcement – pursuing people who fail to appear in court so that her cousin doesn’t lose the bail money. She is the most unlikely bounty hunter. Surrounded by a cast of characters that are bizarre and utterly believable, her adventures are probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
I was reading it on a train whereupon the lady opposite reached across and grasped my hand to distract me. She asked me for the title of the book because I’d been laughing out loud for the last half hour.
A Bit of a Do, by David Nobbs is a wry ironical book, but still laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a very British book, full of well-observed nuances of northern life. As I recall, it begins with the main character’s birth, accompanied by his father pacing up and down in a downstairs room while his mother’s screams of pain fill the house. Eventually he is born, the midwife leaves and the house eventually returns to peace and quiet.
Then, at 4am, the screams start again. His Dad, thinking initially that there might have been twins, finds his wife exhausted but fast asleep. Going downstairs, he discovers their pet parrot is perfectly mimicking the cries of birth. He strangles the parrot, and is thereafter known as the Parrot Strangler. That sets up the story nicely.
One book that made you cry
I read A Kestrel for a Knave for my English O level and it was the first book I can recall that made me cry. It is the book of the film, Kes, and the film is well-worth seeing even though it is in black and white.
The story is of a young boy and his discovery of a wounded kestrel, how he nurses the kestrel back to life amid a hopeless and bleak existence, set in my home county of Yorkshire. The way the fate of the boy and the kestrel are intertwined is magical – it is a masterpiece of hope against the odds.
The ending is utterly tragic and you will need tissues.
One book you wish you’d written
The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman is hard to classify. Rickman had written mainly Horror up until this book and some of that seeps in to the story of Merrily Watkins (awesome character name), single Mum to Jane, female vicar to the cosy little parish of Ledwardine in the Welsh Borders. It’s a mystery, or a ghost story, or a story of a woman’s struggle with life. There is so much going on in this book. Ledwardine has strange traditions and odd rituals. Jane finds a home for her new-age aspirations in her relationship with Lucy – owner of the quirky gift-shop. There’s the lost-looking musician and his failing relationship, and Gomer Parry, the drainage contractor who knows the ins and outs of everything and everyone.
I can’t say why I love this book so much. The atmosphere? The characters? The way the mysterious happenings are never pulled out into the open where they will shrivel in the harsh light of reality? I just wish I’d written something this good.
One book you wish was never written
I love books. I love the smell of books. There is no book that I wish had never been written, and the reason is the same as the reason I chose Stranger in a Strange Land. At the right moment, with the right person, any book can be that book – the one that changes you, or opens your eyes, or makes you think.
There is a book that I wish had been better, though, and that is Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Aikido Locks and Holds. Why? Bruce Tegner is a self-proclaimed martial arts expert. He studied the martial art of Aikido for about six weeks before pronouncing that Aikido wasn’t a very effective martial art but that it did have some useful locks and holds. This is his opinion and he is entitled to it. I studied Aikido for twenty years and may have come close to beginning to understand it as a martial art, and as a way of life. I am not an expert, though I do hold a black belt, and I would not claim in any way that my study was complete.
If you want to know whether Aikido can be an effective martial art, watch Nico – Above the Law, an unlikely plotted movie starring the young Steven Seagal, in which he demonstrates that text-book Aikido techniques can be highly effective. Yes, I know, it’s Hollywood, but you’ll get a better feel for the art than from Bruce Tegner.
Does that mean that Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Aikido Locks and Holds should never have been written? No. Why not? Because someone somewhere might pick up that book at just the right time for them and decide to explore Aikido for themselves, setting out on a life-times journey of rewarding study and spiritual endeavour.
Two books you are currently reading
Snake Agent by Liz Williams is the book I’ve just finished. It’s an engaging and entertaining urban fantasy set in the Oriental City of Singapore Three, populated with gods and demons, technology and traffic. Inspector Chen is our stoical and pragmatic detective, and his erstwhile partner, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, is a demon from Hell’s Vice Squad – the Squad with responsibilities for promoting Vice. That gives you a starting point. Original, well-paced and entirely different to anything else I’ve read.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is a book I’ve just started. It opens with, “Last night I dreamed of Manderlay again.” I am so looking forward to reading it.
One book you’ve been meaning to read
The idea of a fantasy Anti-Hero who steals from the rich to give to himself and his equally disreputable colleagues really appealed to me. It reminded me of a lyric from an early Genesis song: ~
To save my steeple, I visited people
For this I had gone when I met Little John
His name came, I understood
When the judge said, “You are a robbing hood”
It’s a great set-up for a book, but my reading pile is already overflowing and I have no justification for buying more. With writing taking precedence over reading at the moment, all I need is more books on the waiting list.
Then again, perhaps one more wouldn’t do any harm?