Monday, November 19, 2007

Desert Island Books - Part 3

Now we come to fiction ... and the hardest choices for me. I do read quite a lot of fiction; I must have read several thousand books by now. But so few ever end up being read again. In fact, the only fiction books I've kept over the years have been ones that I can read time and time again or ones that have some special significance for me. In the latter category I would place Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. I first read Burroughs' books as a young lad and was thrilled and captivated by John Carter's adventures on the war-torn Mars, Carson's exploits on Venus and the amazing worlds of Pellucidar and Tarzan's Africa. It was Boys-Own Paper stuff with burly heroes, swooning princesses, evil bad guys; all the elements that Lucas and Spielberg would later draw together to create the Indiana Jones franchise. The 1930s and 40s was a golden age for adventure science fiction and I still have a huge soft spot for it even now. Slightly more serious but also of that era are the books of John Wyndham. Despite being best known for Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), I've selected The Kraken Wakes as my favourite. It tells the story of a subtle, hidden alien invasion. Unidentified beings in armoured vehicles get underneath the ice caps and begin to melt them, slowly causing the seas to rise and flooding dry land. The book tells the story of how the several main characters learn to cope with this threat. The book is left open-ended because, like most of Wyndham's output, the story is about how humans cope with adversity; how the human spirit refuses to be broken. The events they are having to cope with are almost unimportant. Whether it's telepathic clone children or walking carnivorous plants, Wyndham tells very human stories and makes us wonder how we would deal with the same situations.

I still occasionally read through the Uncle books of J P Martin. Written by an eccentric English vicar and illustrated with gusto by a young Quentin Blake, these long out-of-print books (bring them back!) are a lost gem of British children's nonsense literature that ranks equally, in my opinion, alongside anything produced by Lear or Carroll. Martin had a particular Monty Pythonesque genius with names. Where else will you meet characters called Butterskin Mute, Isadore Hitmouse, Firlon Hootman, Beaver Hateman and Abdullah the Clothes-Peg Merchant?

My taste in comedic writing is very broad and takes in the clever and witty as well as the scatalogical and slapstick. These two polarities are best expressed by, on the one hand, Jerome K Jerome's Three men in a Boat and P G Wodehouse's Right ho Jeeves, and on the other by Tom Sharpe's The Throwback. Jerome's tale of some chaps and their dog arsing about on the Thames is timeless; indeed, read it now and you find yourself laughing at what seem to be very modern descriptions of everyday situations. Jerome was way ahead of his time, as was Wodehouse who, for me, single-handedly redefined the art of the comic novel. I've chosen a Jeeves book here but any of Wodehouse's prodigious output is worth reading. Eerily, he doesn't seem to have ever written a duffer. All are extremely funny. He must have sold his soul to the comedy devil. As indeed must Tom Sharpe because he's also never written an unfunny book either. From his outrageous debut with the two South African novels, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, he's cut an unparalleled furrow through British comedy. The Throwback tells the story of Lockhart Flawse, a well-educated but insular young man who is set the task of finding his own father who abandoned him. Having been brought up by a mad grandfather on the wild moors of Northumberland, Lockhart is free of such considerations as tact, diplomacy and abiding by the law as he single-mindedly pursues his progenitor. In typical Sharpe fashion this includes bombings, flooding houses with sewage, sexual deviancy, human taxidermy and feeding dogs LSD to make them go on a drug-fuelled rampage. The only person who comes close to Sharpe in this category of humour is George McDonald Fraser. He's most famous for his Flashman books; the further adventures of the foppish bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays. However, I've chosen The Pyrates as my favourite because it is laugh-out-loud funny. An adoring pastiche of Errol Flynn era swashbucklers, it features pirates in Gucci boots, square jawed heroes, a pirates' union and even Tortuga FM - your 24 hour sea shanty station.

Fraser, Wodehouse and Jerome were also personal heroes for the late great Douglas Adams. And included here is his most famous book, the original Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas has caused me more agony of indecision than any other writer in drawing up these lists because I love every single one of his books. But, in the end, I chose Hitchhikers simply because it is such an original. I only ever met Mr Adams once and that was all too briefly at a event at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI). Although his talk was about the future of computer games (a passion of his that I have never shared), I got to chat to him afterwards and he signed my battered old copy of Hitchhikers. Consequently, it's a most treasured item. I wish I'd known him better.

Last of all we come to the 'serious' stuff ... but even here there are crossovers with science and comedy. Iain Banks' blackly funny masterpiece The Wasp Factory is a fantastic study of psychopathy in a remote Scottish settlement and one that I have read time and time again. And Harry Harrison's trilogy of Eden books, represented here by the first, West of Eden, demonstrate everything that I aspire to - good storytelling, excellent research, believeable science, sincerity and humour. It supposes that the Chicxulub (pronounced chicks-a-lube if you didn't know) meteor missed the Earth and the dinosaurs carried on evolving, becoming a society with their own language and technology. The Eden books tell the story of what happens when the advanced Yilane meet with their mammalian competitors - early Man. What makes Harrison's book stand out among so much rubbish speculative sci-fi is that he's really, really made the effort to design an utterly plausible alternative evolution. He even went to the extent of bringing in renowned alien 'expert' Professor Jack Cohen to advise him.

Just one more category to go now ... art. I have so many art books that to leave them out would be a crime. I'll include graphic novels among them too.

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