books

Six Books for a Desert Island #5

I’ve let this slide, haven’t I? I set up a series for six books and left it at four. It does get more difficult choosing the last two. Don’t wait up for the final choice, it may be a while coming.

Three Men In A Boat, (to say nothing of the dog) (Jerome K. Jerome)

I don’t go in for funny books much. They always disappoint. I didn’t like Catch-22, for instance (currently enjoying the light again thanks to George Clooney); the only bit I found worthwhile in it is the sad bit towards the end. I don’t think books are the right vehicle for a good laugh.

But I did laugh at this. The belly-aching, tears streaming kind which robs me of all chances of sleep (yes, I mostly read in bed, always). Jerome’s account of their collective failure to get inside a pineapple tin for dessert is likely the funniest thing I’ve read.

It’s quaint as well; over a hundred years old when I picked it up first; I was about 20ish. In short, it’s a river trip up the Thames by the author and two of his close friends, Harris and George, and a dog named Montmorency. They hire a camping skiff, basically a long rowing boat which doubles as a tent. They are inept but competitive in nature; they right the world with their opinions and regale us with anecdotes. It’s a seminal work.

It’s a pity how comedy diminishes with repetition but it can’t be helped, unless perhaps in sharing the feeling with others. They would have had to have enjoyed it too, of course.

Other good choices,

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is sometimes considered to be “a trilogy in five parts”, this title being the first of five books on the galactic adventures of hapless human, Arthur Dent, after he escapes Earth shortly before its demolition to make way for an intergalactic bypass. It’s a brilliant concept but, for me, the humour wanes with each novel in turn. A trilogy would’ve been better. Still, the best comic sci-fi ever written.

The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans (and Ronald Searle)

Nigel Molesworth, of the prep school St. Custard’s. An English schoolboy’s survival guide, basically. Bad speling and brill cartoon illustrations by Ronald Searle. I first read these as individual books beginning with Down With Skool, and then How To Be Topp, Whizz For Atomms, and Back In The Jug Agane. I was probably ten or eleven but the complete works is available for adults!

A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I’ve blogged about this one before.

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Six Books for a Desert Island #4

My previous choice, A Kestrel for a Knave, could also fall into the “kitchen sink” genre, and probably also the “modern classic”. Then it would satisfy three of my favourite choices with regards to a novel.

“Kitchen sink” is a term which, to me, indicates a social commentary of the least privileged and those who are held back, for various reasons, in western society. Protagonists are often depicted as outsiders. It’s quite a broad scope, from profound seriousness or comedy, and so makes it difficult to choose a best example.

The L-shaped Room (Lynne Reid Banks)

I’ll pick this to avoid risking an all male six (though an all male set would be unintentional). I remembered the story from the film adaptation – a lot of this genre have made it into film or drama. I was surprised how good it was as a novel. In short, it tells the story of a single woman, Jane, who gets pregnant and is turned out of home by her father. She finds the eponymous room to rent in the small ads and befriends two other tenants, a young, wannabe, though idling, author, Toby, living upstairs, and a young, black musician, John, in the room next door.

We are introduced to other characters though the story focuses on the desperate and friable relationships between these three, expressed through the voice of Jane, and their cynical landlady, Doris, living downstairs.

I think the period and setting is important to its context. Post war London shortly before the beginning of the optimistic and more liberal “swinging sixties”. Abortion is not yet legal and the contraception pill is not available. Sex outside of marriage is still considered indecent, never mind the consequences of it producing a child. Prejudice and intolerance are norms and quite acceptable.

I’m not sure whether all “Kitchen sink” novels are confined to this period and whether they are quintessentially British and of the lower classes. It could explain its attraction for me: there but the for the grace of God go I, sort of thing.

alternative excellent reads;

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

“I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.” Young and dissenting factory machinist, Arthur Seaton’s individualistic battle with the world around him. Does he win it in the end? “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Vic and Ingrid work for the same firm. When Ingrid gets pregnant after their first tryst, Vic does “the honourable thing”, but the consequences of life thereafter are not what either would have hoped for.

This Sporting Life by David Storey

The story of Arthur Machin, a working class man’s rise through the professional sport of rugby league. Ruthless for success, but insecure in love.

And a special consideration for,

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

As I say, I don’t know if “kitchen sink” extends beyond these shores but this American novel would come close to the spirit of it.

The Joy of a Random Segue and of Reading at Odd Moments at Work

On Music

I’ve said I’m back working. Just for a bit, hopefully, as I realise I am genetically unsuited to it. However, as into each life a little rain must fall, so too does every cloud have its silver lining.

In the hour long drive at each end of the day, I’m enjoying listening to my playlist again. Ever since I owned a car and had audio fitted – a twenty-five quid diy job for my first car, I remember – I’ve always loved listening to music while driving. At the start, it was tape cassettes; a fiddly process at the best of times and always a risk of the machine chewing up your favourite recording. Thank Apollo! for digital and the invention of the USB memory stick, a thing half the size of a thumb which holds 750+ songs and that’s only half its capacity. I plug it in the car’s audio and request “Shuffle” and it plays my favourite songs in a random order.

I could make my own playlists, as I did with cassettes. The problem with this, for a perfectionist like me, is getting the segues right so that the mood of the music flows. This is not as simple as it sounds and it’s a good reason to leave it up to the mindless machine. However, even the uncultured gadget occasionally delivers beautiful segues and makes me think, I must make a note of that. But I never do. I haven’t worked out how to make notes while driving along.


On Reading

I’ve also started to grab an odd moment at work to read. This might mean the last ten or fifteen minutes at the end of lunch. It’s easy to think, ah, ’tisn’t worth getting out the book, or tablet, for such a short time, but I’ve found it is.

Reading at different times of the day and in different environments is surprisingly a different experience to normal, I find. Habitually, I tend to read last thing at night. Contrary to what experts say about reading off an illuminated tablet, I don’t find it induces insomnia. I actually find I’m nodding off and though I’m following the text, there’s a point when I’m not taking anything in. This isn’t really a good way to read at all but, in a busy day, it’s the only time regularly available.

At work, I find these moments where there isn’t much else to do. It’s not time to get back to the grindstone but lunch is eaten and I’ve done all my personal chores like checking my finances, answering personal emails, and shopping. It may be just ten minutes but out comes the iPad and I kick back and read a few paragraphs, and I realise it’s a different kind of joy. And whatever it is I’ve read stays firm in my mind, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?


image of person reading by Blaz Photo via Unsplash.com

Six Books for a Desert Island #3

I’m a bit of a nature boy at heart even though my knowledge might not be as deep as I’d like. As a little kid living in the boring suburbs, I treasured knowing the whereabouts of ponds. These were mainly artificial: created as obstacles on a golf course, or for coarse fishing clubs, or a rare dew pond made by a farmer long ago on the few remaining fields not yet swallowed up by the advance of metro-land. We would go pond dipping and bring home our zoological bounty in jam jars. One Christmas, I asked and got an optical microscope to see the tiniest of the pond’s inhabitants in a droplet of water: amoeba, daphnia, hydra, and the cyclops.

Later, I could have become a botanist. Exploring woods as a teen, I found a fascination in their prehistoric flora. The strange sights of various ferns, and mosses which, up close, looked like swathes of forests on a reduced scale.

Insects, birds and wild animals, all found their way into my heart too, a joy to see and study.

A Kestrel for a Knave (Barry Hines).

This was a set book on the English Literature syllabus at school. It was a rare good choice, I think: modern, accessible and appealing. The way literature was studied at school was to sample passages rather than begin at the beginning and read it through as the author intended. So, once I left school and chose to read for pleasure, this was one of the novels I picked out to read properly.

It’s also a “kitchen sink” story, a contemporary social commentary of working class life. The protagonist, Billy Casper, is poor, practically friendless, and in an unsupportive family. He has acquired a disdain for formal education, an unnecessarily harsh and systemically failing system. He takes solace in acquiring a fledgling kestrel which he sets out to train. He succeeds, with the help of a book on falconry he steals, and this comes to the attention of a kindly teacher who is the only person to take an interest in Billy’s life. It’s a great story and, like all good fiction, carries much truth.

Excellent alternative reads, all non-fiction;

The Peregrine by JA Baker.

Beautifully written accounts of bird observations in an estuary in the east of England, on an author’s search to discover falcons in the wild.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

More hawk training. A goshawk this time, a bird notoriously difficult to master.

A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson.

Not birds but bumblebees. A fascinating and entertaining read nevertheless. For a scientist, Goulson is a very accessible writer without too much dumbing down. Bumblebees, probably the most essential creature of the lot.

Oh, no!

Sheesh! I hope I don’t live to regret it but I’ve accepted a bit of work, succumbing to a little flattery from those responsible. I find, when sat at a desk, working, I have more moments of inspiration for blogging but less time to write anything up. Still, with an hour’s commute at each end of the day, I’m listening to more music.

I can’t say too much about the job but It’s the usual “fools rush ahead” fiasco and something about it put me in mind of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke – that’s a levee thing for holding back the sea.

Googling it, I’m surprised to find it isn’t a Dutch story at all but an American myth. It’s a story within a story and features in the 1865 novel, Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, by American writer, Mary Mapes Dodge.

The poor boy isn’t named but the story goes that when walking past a section of dyke, he discovers a hole and bungs a finger in thus saving the whole of Holland from a tragic flood. He remains there all night, freezing cold, until the grown-ups come looking for him, rescue him and fix the hole.

So, that was me this week, feeling like an unnamed boy with a finger in the hole. But nobody came to rescue me.


In my first week at work, I was invited to go “plogging” at lunchtime. This is, apparently, where you go jogging and pick up any litter and rubbish you see on the way.

What will they come up with next? “Blogging”, where you run along, thinking up daft things to post?

Six Books for a Desert Island #2

I don’t know if I’m going to make a series of these but a second book was already in my mind.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Daniel Defoe)

It may seem odd to chose this title for a desert island, or it might be seen as practical. Having read it a few times, I don’t think it would be of much practical resource other than to kindle a distress-call bonfire in the event of a passing ship. This is not to say it isn’t a great read; I find it very entertaining in a “ripping yarn” sort of way.

Some have it as the original novel, where novels all began; I can’t quite see that but it might explain the enormous title. Of course, being fiction, though possibly based on the real life castaway, Alexander Selkirk, it’s all made up but two things about the account are more implausible then the rest; after 28 years, mostly alone – the native he names “Friday” only turns up towards the end – he doesn’t go completely insane, and some time after his eventual rescue, the fool decides to go back!

I picked my old copy up many moons ago, together with Gulliver’s Travels – which also has a ridiculously long title (see below) – in nice, mock antique cover, pocket-sized editions, though the font size is so small it would probably give me a headache now. But you can pick it up on ebook for nothing as it’s so old there’s no copyright. Not much good for a desert island, perhaps.

excellent related reads;

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, In Four Parts, By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, by Jonathan Swift

This quite timeless satirical look at mankind and its peculiarities needs no more elaboration from me. I haven’t read it for a while but I expect there’s a relevant piece comparable to our dear “Brexit” and “Will-of-the-people” referendums in there somewhere. If not, we can revisit the controversy surrounding the little-endians and the big-endians instead.

An Island To Oneself by Tom Neale

Growing up in our house, we weren’t a bookish family. There was a shelf of books which mainly held a Pears Encyclopaedia, The Guinness Book of Records, The AA Book of the Road, a few recipe books, and several of my Beano and Dandy annuals. I did have regular subscriptions to several children’s encyclopaedic magazines, paid for by my grandfather, and very occasionally “found” books made their way into our home.

My mum was given this one at work and passed it straight on to me. It is a fascinating account of a man volunteering to spend six years on a desert island, living by his wits. Now, this would be of immense practical use if this exercise wasn’t actually hypothetical. Having said that, I remember he once repaired a leaky boat by pouring paint into the cracks. Hmm, it sounded convincing at the time…

I don’t know what happened to my copy but I don’t have it, and as if to rub salt in the wound, it is out-of-print and I’ve seen copies on sale at prices as high as £160. This kind of thing just makes me want to read it more.

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

How I forgot this one, I don’t know but it came to me several weeks after I published this post. It doesn’t matter but I have decided to include it in an edit as Golding is one of my favourite authors.

I was introduced to this, his debut novel, as part of our Eng. Lit. syllabus at school. Of course, you’re never required to read any Eng. Lit. book as it was created to be read, rather we’d pick over passages like roadside crows at carrion. I chose to read it properly after I’d finished with school; it’s much better that way.

A group of schoolboys become stranded on an island and go tribal under the leadership of the dominant and ruthless Jack, despite the reasonable challenges from rival, Ralph, supported only by his friend, Piggy. We mustn’t forget Simon, solo and on the fringes. I think I always related to Simon.

Six Books for a Desert Island Library

Coming out of Waitrose supermarket, I pick up an edition of their paper, Weekend: it’s free, usually contains one or two interesting meal ideas and, if nothing else, makes a good liner for the food scraps recycling caddy.

The paper has Mariella Frostrup writing a regular column. In this edition, she suggests we consider six books which may give insights into our character. I think this is an easier task than choosing eight songs for a desert island. What would those six books be?

The Autobiography of a Supertramp (WH Davies)

My copy of this book bears the ink stamp of my old school library. There was a time when it was thought the pupils weren’t making enough use of the room, other than to use it as an impromptu common room. It had a long south facing façade and it a great place to chill out and chat in the Autumn or Spring sunshine. A decree was set that each pupil had to borrow three books from the library. So, when it was my turn, I picked this one, a John Wyndham omnibus, and a Twentieth Century Book of Verse. By the time I left school for good, I still hadn’t read either, nor had I remembered to take them back.

Some years after, being by then more interested in books, I decided to read them. It surprised me how good this book is, an account of Davies’ preference for life on the road. A Welshman, he begins tramping around Britain but is soon working his passage to the States where bumming about is a whole new ball game, one in which jumping freight trains without being caught is an essential life skill. In time, he makes it to Canada where he is hospitalised after a serious accident, then returns to England and throws himself at the mercy of the establishment charities.

But Davies was also a poet. Probably the most famous of his works is Leisure, the one with the opening lines,

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?”

It’s a good sentiment if not a great poem; even if we’re not brave enough to be a tramp, a “king, or queen, of the road”, we should, at least, spare time just to stand and stare.

As a poet, Davies was taken under the wing of fellow poet, Edward Thomas, and I was interested to discover that he helped settle him in a cottage in Nailsworth, not a million miles from where I live now. It’s a small world.

excellent related reads:

A Poet’s Pilgrimage also by WH Davies – a brief return to tramping through England

The Road, by Jack London – alternative tramping experiences and freight train jumping in the USA

In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas – a bicycle ride from London, westwards.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I’ll begin…

Apps on my iPad update in the background. It’s something I accept without being too interested in what or why it happens; as long as it remains usable, I’m okay with it.

With some app updates, it’s obvious as there’s an altered appearance. The more considerate ones will open with a new welcome page, presenting the changes. Others just change subtly without fuss.

I don’t know how long it’s been there but I’ve just noticed the Kindle app this morning has a small headphones icon in the bottom corner, when reducing the pages for the menu. Curiously, I clicked it and, as expected, a voice started an audio reading of the book. I closed it down quickly.

While there’s nothing wrong with the idea of audiobooks, to me it’s nothing to do with reading, anymore than the sound of sizzling bacon is anything like biting into a bacon sandwich. What’s really wrong with it is the inflections in the actor’s voice. Reading is essentially a relationship between an author and a reader and I don’t welcome this third party influence.

Mind you, it took a while for me to come over to the idea of the ebook in preference to the paperback. Maybe in the next life…


Are you sitting comfortably? (Julia Lang)

image: voice actor, penguin random house.

Is it okay to be in love with your protagonist?

The idea occurred to me while walking the dogs this morning. Actually, no sooner was this idea given oxygen when it latched itself onto an old idea that all our protagonists are, in essence, autobiographical, just different versions of us. Combined, this asks, how much writing a central character is an act of narcissism?

I’ve just begun reading Montalbano’s First Case, a book of short stories by Andreas Camilleri, a kind of prequel to the Montalbano novels of which he has written many. It’s apparent that Camilleri emphasises Montalbano’s good character: his virtues, his compassion, his good judgement, his wisdom – even when his man goes against the grain, bends the rules and breaks the law, there is an apology and virtuous reasoning. I’d say he is in love with him. But whether Montalbano is secretly Camilleri, I have no way of telling.

Of course, there’s the other idea that our characters are our fictional children, or even that they are our Adams and Eves to which we play God. We simply love our children, whatever they may do.

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.