Why is it so hard to pick a favourite?

I was recently asked about my favourite book. I don’t know why but this question always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Part of me really believes that it is unfair to pick a favourite – as if the books were going to be offended when they weren’t picked. But it isn’t only that. It depends on the questioner. For example, if a pupil asks should I say something they are likely to have heard of or stick with what has become my stock answer, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. If I say that, do people think that I’m just trying to one-up them by picking something not particularly well-known and Russian.

When I say this has become my stock answer, I do not mean that I do not love this book. I do. And I would recommend it to anyone. I have read it a number of times but the last time was at least ten years ago. Has there really been nothing in the last ten years of reading to knock it off the top spot?

In fact, I haven’t really thought about this at all. Most of the things I would say are my favourite things are from a long time ago, when I suppose we were more likely to be sitting in the pub and debating the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Life (my favourite film) and Casablanca (My husband’s favourite). More likely that someone would say top ten albums from Manchester or whatever. (Obviously The Stone Roses debut would come top of that list and there would be no Oasis.)

As a result I have a top ten novels list which is as follows:

  1. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulkagov.
  2. Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood.
  3. The History of the World in 10 and a half Chapters – Julian Barnes.
  4. Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh.
  5. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter.
  6. Dancer from the Dance – Andrew Holleran.
  7. A Disaffection – James Kelman.
  8. Strange Meeting – Susan Hill.
  9. The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger.
  10. The Life of Pi – Yann Martell.

All of these novels I have read more than once and some I have studied or taught. I can think of a number of books that I could place on this list that I have read more recently (The City and the Pillar – Gore Vidal, The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides, The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, for example). Putting aside the issue of what would come off the list, if these books were added could I be sure they would stand the test of time? I must admit I don’t tend to re-read books as often as I used to but there is little more annoying then returning to a book or film that you really enjoyed at the time to discover it isn’t how you remember it. (Recently, Pretty in Pink played at our local cinema – one of my favourite films when I was a teenager. I think I made the right decision in not going to see it although I was tempted. I would hate to be disappointed in it. It would be like losing an old friend.) Of course, I am over thinking it and perhaps having a favourite book really isn’t that important. Still, I know I make judgements based on these things. And if it does come up in the pub or the classroom, I want to have the answer ready.

The other thing that I notice now, is the lack of genre fiction. No detective fiction. No science fiction. No fantasy. Although plenty of magic realism. Part of this is due to reading series of books. Which Discworld novel would you pick out of what is a thoroughly excellent series? Which Rebus novel? Which from Douglas Adams? Or George R. R. Martin. But it is also true that I read detective fiction and fantasy particularly as a break from literary fiction. It wasn’t intentional to not include them and perhaps it was unconscious snobbery that caused me to not include any.

So has this got me any nearer to answering the question? Not really. I tend to hedge my bets. Maybe give the top three books. Ponder briefly what impression I’ve just given of myself. Hope it is vaguely similar to the impression that I hoped to give.

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Eclectic Reading Challenge – The Virgin Suicides – Book that was made into a film.

Read as part of the Eclectic Reading Challenge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had an idea of what it was about and I was certainly curious. I haven’t seen the film although I would now like to see how it was done. I expected to find a narrative that was punctuated by the girls’photo-2 suicides, at regular intervals, keeping the reader involved. However, this book is much cleverer than that.

The narrative voice is one of the most interesting I have come across. It is ostensibly first person although ‘I’ is never used. It is written from the perspective of a ‘we’, the group of adolescent boys who are so fascinated by the Lisbon girls. This gives the voice a strange anonymity. Although lots of boys are named, give opinions and interact with the Lisbon girls, the narrator is not named. The voice is collective. This gives the story an universal feel. As if the boys represent all boys who are understandably fascinated by the teenage girls in their social circle. While the suicides are extreme, the lack of understanding between the boys and the Lisbon girls comes to represent the difficulties of communication between the sexes at this awkward time of life.

The first suicide occurs early in the novel and to my mind is the most devastating. The suspense that follows is even greater than if there had been a suicide every few chapters. I will not give away the ending but I could not have predicted how it would go. All the narrative is directed towards understanding the suicides of the Lisbon girls. However, the reader does not yet have the details of the rest of the suicides and so they are trying to understand something ephemeral, not quite real.

To my mind, the novel is about the painful transition from adolescence into adulthood. In this way, the deaths of the girls represent the death of childhood. Many of the boys who are visited twenty years on are past their prime, having had their best moments early in life. The girls have avoided the disappointment of life by taking control early on and killing themselves. They do not have to see the inevitable decay that begins to destroy the archive of their stuff that the boys keep. They escape the ageing process and instead remain forever beautiful and mysterious.

The reader is placed in the voyeuristic position of the boys who watch and note and obsess. The Lisbon girls are the unreadable difficult novel that they cannot understand. The girls are unknowable and the ordinariness of their deaths is baffling. Even with all the clues at their fingertips, understanding is not possible. This is perhaps the real tragedy. Not simply the girls suicides but the fact that whatever message they intended to send was lost in translation.

Day 5 – Comfort book – Pratchett and Rankin

When I am feeling a bit low, I tend to look for reading that is either going to make me laugh or that is going to be nicely tied up at the end. There are two things that I periodically turn when I am in this mood – one of the many Discworld books, guaranteed  to lift your spirits or detective fiction of some description which would give me a puzzle to solve and hopefully leave me with the correct answer.

 

The next task for me was to decide which Discworld book to talk about. This was stupidly difficult. As far as I am concerned, they are all good so it wasn’t even a question of eliminating the ones that were bad. Eventually, it came down to favourite characters – and that came down to Death. Of the

reaper-man-1books which feature Death as a main character, Reaper Man is my favourite. In this, Death goes miss and lives as a human called Bill Door. Appropriately, he becomes a reaper of corn. There is a wonderful scene where he becomes aware of the nature of time, something he has never had to worry about before. He cannot imagine how humans manage to live with clocks in their houses, quietly ticking off the seconds of their all too brief (from the point of view of an immortal) lives. As Death is no longer doing his job, life force starts to build up and Ankh-Morpork becomes home to a number of undead – vampires, zombies and old wizards who fail to die when they are supposed to – all of which add to the humour.

This is a novel that manages to be both comic and profound. It tackles big ideas without them seeming big or pretentious. It makes you think about life and death without being the least bit depressing.

 

The other type of novel I like when I feel a bit under the weather is detective fiction. Although I have read Rendell, Kellerman, Patterson and others, I find that Ian Rankin’s Rebus just resonates the most with me. My favourite

question of blood

Rebus Novel is A Question of Blood. The murder takes place in a school; a shooting by a loner who then kills himself. I like this because it appears an open and shut case but, of course, it isn’t. As ever, Rebus’ personal life gets him into trouble and is as much a concern as the case he is working on when it seems he may have committed a crime in order to help DS Siobhan Clarke.

I try not to read books that I have read before especially when there are so many books waiting patiently on my to-read list but there are times when it is comforting to know exactly what you are going to get. And both Pratchett and Rankin never let you down.

The Eureka Moment

Is it possible to say exactly where your ideas come from and what inspires you to put pen to paper. It is a question that people seem compelled to put now that they know that I have written a novel. I find it hard to answer, to even know exactly what they want me to say.

It may be that it is a long time since I first started to write Shattered Reflections. It was on the back of finishing my MPhil which was on masculinity and violence in Contemporary Fiction and I have no doubt that my reading for that – American Psycho, Frisk, Resentment, Exquisite Corpse, Maribou Stork Nightmares, for example – inspired the themes. But I am not sure that this is what they mean when they ask the question. They seem to want an eureka moment. An incident maybe, a person or a story on the news that sent me running to my laptop. But I am so far removed from the origins of that book now that any such moment is lost in the mists of time.

I am mostly inspired by what annoys me. Which to be honest is quite a lot. This is why I am toying with the idea of Science fiction for my next work. Although I feel more comfortable with the term speculative fiction. Mostly because what I write is unlikely to be very sciency but also because I like what is suggested by the word specualtive – speculate, if you will, on what would happen if… For this I do have an Eureka moment although I am not sure yet where it is going to take me.

I was in the supermarket. (And it goes without saying that this is a task that I hate.) When I got home, I wrote a paragraph about the horror of it, the lighting, the expressions of desperation on the faces of my fellow shoppers. I was a little hungover which made everything seem to be going slower than it actually was. It was a depressing Sunday morning moment.

I’m not sure where this will go yet. I have to think of the characters, the story, really before I can go any further. A lot of planning and reading will need to be done. Still it is the first step on the road to something new. It is exciting, the new ideas flying around like startled butterflies. A new reading list is needed and I’m looking forward to re-visiting old favourites such as Brave New World, as well as discovering a whole new world of science fiction.

A nostalgic longing for the past.

Earlier in the week, I watched a preview screening of Josh Radnor’s new film Liberal Arts. It a film about growing up and is filled with a nostalgic longing for the past, for all those things that everybody claims are lost or dying – reading, letter writing, burning a CD and it left me with a longing for my university days when there was such pleasure in receiving a long letter, hand written and heartfelt, from a friend in a different part of the country. None of us – that is me and my school friends  – communicates like that any more even though we are still scattered all over the place. We don’t even e-mail any more, just message on Facebook or texts. Of course, it is a sign of how busy we all are. There are easier options now then having to find the time to write a letter but part of me still wishes that we had to do it, that there was no other option but to sit down and ponder what news we had to tell. Of course, I could still do it but it would be a bit pointless. Everyone knows my news anyway – facebook has seen to that – and I know their response to it as well. All in far less time then it would take for a letter to arrive and be read. This is progress, apparently.

Early in the film, Radnor’s character, Jesse, is walking along the street reading a book and I was struck   immediately by how this scene would never work with someone walking along with a Kindle.For a start, you would not be able to see what was being read. At least part of the point of reading in public has to do with showing off what you are reading. Not only could you not bear to put this book down but you are showcasing your taste and, possibly, your intellectualism. I know that it irks me that when I read my kindle on the train, no one can tell what I am reading. I always try to see what other people are reading as well. But also, it wouldn’t suggest the same sort of romantic idealism if Jesse was carrying a grey plastic oblong rather than a book with a beautiful cover.

There is a sense of nostalgia at the moment for the loss of something that hasn’t disappeared yet but it seems inevitable that it will. I have seen several articles in the last few weeks about the death of books once everyone has a kindle or the equivalent. And it does seem inevitable. I was never going to have an I-Pod, a kindle or join Facebook and Twitter. Now I have both those things, have joined both those things. I always succumb. Eventually, I guess, books will be like the rows and rows of LP records in my spare bedroom – only present in the houses of people over a certain age.

In some ways, it is strange that so much fuss is being made about the way in which something is read or listened to. Does it matter whether you’re reading from a electronic screen or from a paper page as long as you are reading? Obviously not. I know that some of the sixth formers I taught found it much easier to read from a kindle than from a book. And obviously that pleased me. But this is not a cold logical argument. It is emotional, nostalgic and romantic. It is obviously romantic to take the time to talk about books, to search in second hand book stores for hard to come by editions. It is more romantic to write long handwritten letters rather than a one sentence update on Facebook which someone will then like. And it is far more romantic to hand over a CD you have burned with a handwritten card than to send someone a playlist on Spotify. (Although arguably not as romantic as making a mix tape.) Similarly, when it is my birthday I will still be asking for physical books and CDs. The thought of some sort of electrical exchange seems cold and somehow not real.

Liberal Arts is like a love letter to all these things. All the things that are more time consuming, more difficult but ultimately more meaningful. Reading brings people together in this film and it teaches them how to live their lives. You have to hope that this will still be the case when everyone is reading books from a oblong of grey plastic