Sunday, 7 September 2014

Books that have stayed with me

I was nominated by Steve for this one. I listed but did not explain.

I know, it's a click-bait list article thing, and I can't really rank the books that I like easily. However, I think I can give you ten books that have stayed with me for "some reason" and briefly explain why. I can't promise any order to the list, any rhyme or reason to the inclusion of books or any great themes that I shall be exploring. Equally, there will be books that are missing simply by dint of me having read them too recently for them to have stayed with me yet, like How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, which are both brilliant books in their own rights and will no doubt make me think for a long while yet but, having only been read in the last few weeks, can't really qualify for the list.

Then there's the influential books that shaped who I am today: Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, Tom Clancy's books, Colin Dann's Animals of Farthing Wood series or pretty much anything by John Wyndham (his short story Consider Her Ways was very much part of making me who I am, as was The Trouble with Lichen and, of course, Chocky). Obviously not all of those can make a list of ten books that have stayed with me, so the list will be culled and will be pretty random. Without any further ado then, the list continues after the line break.

First on the list, for no particular reason, is Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. I read this when I was still a young teen. My father had not long since left the family and I had a belting headache and cold that was making me leave trails of snot everywhere. Adolescence was still relatively new but I had no idea how or if to experiment with things. In the midst of all this turmoil that I resolutely refused to engage with and tried very hard to ignore, I inhaled this book over the course of about 24 hours. Because I was feeling pretty permanently light-headed at the time - a combination of cold and the time of year - I think my brain was being hallucinogenic. As a consequence, this book made me think more deeply and more at length than I think it set out to do. I didn't find it funny, but I found myself thinking about the implications contained in it a lot. And for long afterwards too. This, obviously, makes the cut therefore.

Also, if you haven't read it, do so. If you haven't read anything by Terry Pratchett then I recommend beginning with Guards! Guards! if only because that's the first one I read.

Next up, The Politics of Breastfeeding: when breasts are bad for business by Gabrielle Palmer. A Christmas present not long after the Boy was born from Anna. This is an explosive book for a whole host of reasons and I'd coveted it for a long time. When our youngest was born we started talking about how long breastfeeding should go on for, prompted by a programme on Channel 4 about children who still breastfed at ages 4, 6 and 7. This book kept coming up in our research and, when I finally got to read it, it was a powerful thing. There's stats, data and good narrative throughout about something that doesn't really hit the headlines the way it should. When I first read the chapter about the romp through history I was skeptical, I'm a historian and easy options automatically arouse my suspicions, but the more I looked into things and the more I learned the more I'm thinking that the overall gist is correct. Part call to arms and part sociology textbook and part political manifesto and all empowering, this is a book that I continue to recommend to friends and students alike. Even if you don't agree with any of the ideas contained it will at least make you think about why you think what you do, and that's always valuable. It was also the book that made me happy wearing the label "feminist".

One of the most powerful factual books I've ever read I stole from my father's bookshelf when I was about ten. I read it in about a week and it simultaneously confirmed my historical obsession with the First World War and the need I have to hear from people who were there rather than relying on prettily written over-arching narratives that have few references. This is They Called it Passchendaele by Lyn MacDonald. My studies have since made me question some of the picture that she paints, but this remains my first foray into proper academic treatments of the First World War (as opposed to comics in the Victor for example) and so has very much stayed with me. The helplessness and futility of the campaign around Ypres in 1917, along with the mud, blood and trenches reality of it, has informed how I go about looking at this period of history. Furthermore, the attention to detail and the fully revealed references, the social history if you will, has informed how I go about trying to understand warfare and teach it now that I am a history teacher. It's a very readable book and another contentious one. You may not agree with her conclusions or views, and I don't as much as I did, but it's still worth reading to get a sense of why you disagree or even why you agree. It has recently been bought and added to my own bookshelves as I doubt I'd ever get my father to part with it.

As you know, I try to write now and again. And one of my projects whilst in University was attempting to write a story that had a non-linear narrative, one that could be read in any order and understood each time, though perhaps in different ways. Needless to say I have not yet succeeded and it is very hard indeed. Knowing this, a friend of mine suggested The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, then having just been released in hardback for the first time and I knew nothing more about it than the title and the fact that it was interesting. I read it, I loved it, and I loved the fact that it was indeed non-linear in construction. The love story was less powerful, and the scenes with the baby were a bit unnecessarily visceral but the overall book was very cleverly done. The fact that you knew how it ended before it did but didn't know you knew was another very clever touch. It did for me for books what Memento did for me for films - the power of clever editing and good writing on a fairly simple plot-line. I still have this on my bookshelf and I did try to read it aloud to a girlfriend once, but that didn't go so well, apparently my voice is boring. I enjoyed the experience of reading aloud, for my part, and maybe one day I can convince Anna to let me. Or else read it to one of the children. When they won't get bad dreams about the baby part. Oh, I don't know, it's a lovely book and deserves inclusion here.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. Obviously a graphic novel and I actually read it quite late. It was after the film came out, I loved the film and wanted to know why Alan Moore had not supported the adaptation, after all, it seemed to be politically apposite and challenging. After reading it, I understood. It's a manifesto, a love letter to anarchism, and it is glorious. The film, though very good and enjoyable, does not match up to those ideals. I lived through Thatcher and so I understand the impulses within it, I get the parallels and I like the allusions to the 1980s that pepper both the narrative and the political posturing. This is fantastic, it stayed with me because it really made me think hard about what anarchy is and how it can be employed and used. Oh, and it has a fantastic plot too and you must read it.

Goodness me, the pain of run-on sentences!

Right, next book. We shall move to The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. I stole this from my mother's library when I was about eight. I loved it. I loved the story of people who had developed telepathy and I loved the fact that, despite being a post-apocalyptic novel, the hints at the nuclear firestorm were subtle enough that I took my time getting them. I loved the female leads and their power - this was around the time that I watched Labyrinth for the first time and really respected what happens to Sarah - and the way that it was a female helicopter pilot that rescues everyone at the end. And the little girl who called to New Zealand with the power of her mind alone was actually quite empowering to a lonely introvert. And something about this story has haunted me ever since. I have failed to find it in second hand shops (where I have found virtually every other John Wyndham book, even Web) and the two occasions I found it in book shops I lacked the £9(!) to buy it. It's short, I read it in an afternoon, and yet it's beautifully written.

Then there is The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. This is the most recently read book on the list. It's a great book to hold, having no spine, and it feels like a book ought. Nestling in my hands, throbbing with the power (that word again) within. I felt like I was visiting real history, not the sanitised versions one gets in bad historical fiction but something visceral and real.

I finished it when I was visiting Auschwitz with a school trip. It was surreal and also strangely fitting to be thinking about identity when reading a book that tackled that and the link to landscape. How much of a product we are of where we live and how we relate to that landscape. Set in Pre-Conquest and post-Conquest angland it was a story about the end of the world. It was a story as much about the language (itself made-up to mimic eald anglisc enough to look like it but remain legible) as it was about the people. Although, as a classic novel, it is a bit simplistic and the ending is a bit of a cop out, it was a book that brought an atmosphere that cannot be denied. An atmosphere of mist and legend. And something one immerses in like a fragrant bath with scents and candles and petals on the water. Somewhere downstairs there's the smell of a wonderful meal and the promise of something excellent for dessert over the dining room table. That's the feeling of this book. Let's face it, anything that can make room for itself during the assault on one's sensibilities that is a visit to Auschwitz is going to stay with you. I'll let Mr Kingsnorth himself take up the task of making you buy this.

Factual books I love, I do, but I view them as a means to an end - a way to acquire more knowledge or to think in a new way. As a consequence I am strictly utilitarian, mostly, when reading them. Some, like one in this installment, make me think so much in a new way that they stay with me. Most, I dip in and out of chasing references or sources. I am an historian and I read like that all the time. I said before that I do not prize a clever narrative over facts, and I don't, so 'great literature' to me can rarely be factual - mostly I chase information through labyrinthine corridors left by dry academics, and I like that. See a clever bit of prose and I get suspicious - what angle are they going for and why would they want me to focus on the prose rather than the facts?

However, I do respect the fact that some factual books are simply mind-blowing. Here I must plead the arrogance of youth and of my profession. I have worked so long and so hard to appear unfazed that I usually convince myself that mind-blowing information isn't. Now, I have already cited The Politics of Breastfeeding as one of my books and tonight I shall cite two more factual tomes that did blow my mind. But, hopefully, this explains why fiction has such a lasting hold on me.

I move onto one of those factual books now, Childbirth Without Fear by Grantly Dick-Read. This was a medical book written in the 1950s and, though quaint in some of its outlook, it was revolutionary then and, sadly, remains revolutionary now. In it Mr Dick-Read shows true compassion, understanding and research. His truly Christian approach (that is, compassionate and standing with suffering) in studying childbirth and the women who went through it - and what he discovered. He has a touching optimism about human beings that made me smile when reading it and made me angry that what he says has never been heeded. It changed the way I think about things, and so it was that when our youngest was born Anna banned the word 'pain' to describe what was going on down there. She's still not certain what to call it, that pressure, but pain was and remains mostly the wrong word. Because pain tells us something is wrong and needs attention, but birth done right (with some preparation and training) is not wrong and needs little attention. I'm not diminishing the act, but... well, Mr Dick-Read does a far better job than I of describing it which is unsurprising given when he was writing and doing his research. Birth was more open than it is perhaps now, more normal. It is a factual book. It blew my mind.

And so did the next book on my list: Hengeworld by Mike Pitts. It was bought me on our honeymoon by Anna whilst walking around in Wiltshire. I wanted to show off my knowledge of Stonehenge and Avebury and the prehistoric monuments that litter the landscape. I was convinced they all worked together because when I had visited as a child we had covered a vast swathe of them in a single day. So I was bought Hengeworld and suddenly I had the factual basis for my hunches. And it was fascinating. It changed, forever, the way I viewed prehistory. I already knew that people in the past were not stupid or thicker than we, but this extended that and spoke of complexity beyond my dreams. I am not suggesting some perfect lifestyle (that must wait until I have studied Doggerland and the mesolithic) but I am beginning to wonder why about a great many things. This is a book that will change the way you think about life today. And it's actually a really good read - accessible to eejits who know nothing like me and Jon Snow. It is packed with references too. I like it. I don't trust the author, but I trust his research.

Finally, another historically themed book, but one that simply defies explanation. I always fail to sell this. So, here's the bad bits: it took me five weeks to get into this, and that was 55 pages. It took three attempts to read it before I managed to get into enough to do so. It's about the Wars of Religion, a period in which I have little to no historical interest. I despise it. No, I despised it, I had no interest. It is Q by Luther Blissett. But it is not by Luther Blissett. It is written by an anarchist collective, four authors in this case, in Bologna. It is a masterpiece and it completely changed the way I think about narrative, unreliable narrators, plotting, world-building, history and the way the world works. Read it. It's worth it.

And all this leaves out wonderful works like the Mars trilogy, the Night's Dawn trilogy, virtually every major history of the First World War or the Somme, Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor, Sahara by Clive Cussler, Invasion by Ian MacKenzie, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostakova, The Undercover EconomistFreakonomics, everything Harry Potter, and a whole host of other books that I can heartily recommend. But there, you have my list.

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