Thursday, 1 May 2014

Talking Of Books. Again. Well, Do I Ever Talk Of Anything Else?

English: Tuulikki Pietilä, Tove Jansson and Si...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following from the delights of co-hosting Dubai Eye Radio's 'Talking of Books' show a couple of weeks ago, they've been potty enough to ask me back for the coming Saturday's literary extravaganza , in which I'll be their 'book champion'. Basically, I get to spend an hour talking about a book I'm particularly passionate about. Previous book champions have talked enthusiastically about brilliant novels such as Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy, for instance.

We have two problems with this. One is there's no way I'm going to limit myself to just one book. The other is I'm of the humble opinion that an hour's too long to spend talking about a single book, anyway. Especially when there are so many wonderful things out there to talk about. It's sort of like 'desert island books' and I'm not coming along with just one of the things in my satchel. I mean, I've got a Kindle. I can carry thousands of books with me!

So I'm going to try and talk about four. And you, dear reader, as a fully paid-up subscriber to this blog, get a sneak preview. Are you not the lucky one?

Tove Jansson - The True Deceiver
I discovered Tove Jansson when we were in Helsinki last year. I had met her Moomins as a kid and loved 'em, but I hadn't known about her adult fiction. The first thing I read was her Summer Book, a collection of vignettes of an old lady and her granddaughter summering on an island (Finland has a great many islands). Lying on a mossy knoll on Suomenlinna reading her timeless prose is a lovely way to spend a sunny Helsinki afternoon, I can assure you. The book's magical, redolent of the sea and season, effortlessly imagined and gloriously rich. The True Deceiver is another kettle of herring altogether - dark, relentless and burdened down with the perma-dark pressure of the winter snow deadening everything and making men go mad. It's a horrible book, all the more oppressive for its humanity.

Lawrence Durrell - The Alexandria Quartet
This is one of my favourite books of all time. It's so very lush, filled with colours and scents, characters and the sweeping brilliance of a writer gorging on life. He was a twat as a human being, but God could Durrell write. It's actually four books, written as an interlinear: each book tells the same story from a different perspective (of them all, only the fourth nods to the concept of the passage of time) and it's only when you've read all four you get the full picture. That's a remarkable scope to set yourself as a writer and yet Durrell pulls it off without ever seeming to get out of breath. It's set in Alexandria between the wars and plays with love, gnosticism, betrayal, adultery, poetry and death in equal measures.

John Le Carré - The Honourable Schoolboy
I thunk a lot about this one. It was always going to be a Le Carré, but which one? I happen to think this is his cleverest and also so typical of his work. I think he's massively underrated as a literary figure because he writes 'spy thrillers' rather than literary fiction. I would never hesitate to sit down and re-read any of his books as a reader and I do try (and fail) not to get too distracted by my admiration of him as a writer. But gosh, he's good. He's also dark, devastatingly observed and wilfully cruel and bleak.

Now we're in trouble. I've glibly plumped for the first three and I had William Gibson's Neuromancer down as the fourth but hang on a second is that really what I want? It's pretty important, this fourth book. I mean, what about Mervyn Peake's brilliant Gormenghast trilogy? Well, mostly brilliant. Sort of 2/3 brilliant and 1/3 insane. But I love it and it's stayed with me through re-read after re-read.

What about non-fiction? Fisk's furious polemic, The Great War For Civilisation, the grim necronomicon written by a man who's met the skinny fellow from the village with a scythe too often? Or Dawkin's astonishing The Selfish Gene? Samir Kassir's Beirut, a book I have spent so long with - a sort of old companion. Oh cripes, I'm in trouble. Dalrymple's From The Holy Mountain should be in there, but maybe the solution lies in sticking to fiction?

Michael Moorcock's bawdy The Brothel In Rosenstrasse is one of my favourite lifelong books and Moorcock has been massively influential for me, but let's face it - this one's out because this is Dubai radio and the book's a tad, well, ripe. Oh noes! Iain Banks! I've got all of his books (including two as proofs, thanks LitFest team!), I positively lionised the man. The Crow Road, or maybe The Player of Games.

Oh, lawks.

What about Hunter Thompson? Forget Fear And Loathing, It's The Curse of Lono (I have the Taschen - lavish!) - or The Rum Diaries for me. Argh! Louis De Bernières! The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, just to be awkward, but to be honest Birds Without Wings is the one that knocked me cold. Umberto Eco! The Name of the Rose, easily his finest (and least insanely complex - everything else is pretty much unreadable piffle) novel.

And I enjoy Alan Furst, have always loved Somerset Maugham since I was a kid - let alone Evelyn Waugh - and recently have been lapping up novel after novel by Martin Cruz Smith starting, of course, with Gorky Park, which pal Phillipa Fioretti made me read by taking a guinea pig hostage and threatening to put out its eyes with a knitting needle. These RomCom authors are tougher than they look, I can tell you.

I'm in trouble, aren't I?

But - thank God, I finally get hit by the revelation - we're in Dubai, so there can only be one outcome. It's JG Ballard. And for the show - although any one of Ballard's does it for me (Vermillion Sands or The Crystal World are money well spent, but so is Crash and pretty much anything he's written) - it's Super Cannes. Hyper-planned wealthy expat community in sparkling enclave conceals dark, murderous sex and drugs underbelly should go down very nicely in a studio next to the Dubai Beige cul-de-sacs of Arabian Ranches...

So we're talking of books on Dubai Eye Radio (103.8FM anywhere in the United Arab Emirates or for streaming) on Saturday from 10am. I'm on from 11 (8am UK time) and if I'm speaking with unusually defined pace and gravitas it's because I was at the Ardal O'Hanlon gig the night before.

If you know what I mean.

PS. I know. I posted. Life's busy and I'm taking things one at a time. 

PPS: Do feel free to leave your book suggestions in the comments. I'm constantly on the lookout for a good read. If you nominate your own book, the guinea pig gets it. Kapisch?

PPPS: Friday - Had a major wobble today and I'm going with Fisk instead of JG Ballard.

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