Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leila Johnston's 5 favourite Books of all Time (in no particular order)

Continuing our quest to find everyone on earth's favourite five books, it is with immense pleasure that I introduce to you the choices of the wonderfully talented author Leila Johnston. Leila's the author of Enemy of Chaos, a facetious fantasy gamebook for adults described as “Absolutely hilarious” by the Observer and “Wickedly funny” by Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow."

She has a lovely website and an accompanying iPhone app, How marvellous.

I suggest you buy Leila's book because your life will improve if you do.

Roald Dahl’s short story anthology, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, had a profound affect on me. My brother and I were taught at home by our mum for a while in the 80s, and Dahl’s short stories became a staple for English comprehension lessions (Mum was an English teacher and, looking back, I think our lessons had a slight bias towards her subject). The Henry Sugar story is well-known, but I think we forget how beautiful it is in its conceit. As with so much of Dahl’s stuff, it’s all about magic and greed – adult themes through a harsh and childlike imagination. For my brother and I it was a deliciously naughty peak into the troubles of grown-ups. The Hitchhiker is the other stand-out story here – all about an unforgettable encounter with a ‘fingersmith’, a man described in such gloriously grotesque detail you’ll drive straight past poor souls thumbing lifts for the rest of your life after reading it. All of Dahl’s short stories are magical, of course, but this is the compilation that has stayed with me as a strangely grown-up revelation bestowed on me during a strange grown-up-filled time of my life.

The next book that really captured my imagination was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Until that point I’d been contentedly devouring rollocking horsey adventures almost exclusively, but something pubescent happened in my brain when I turned 12, and suddenly I found myself thinking about time and space all the time. I was a stupid clown at that age, a sort of shy, backward idiot always trying to make a rubbish joke out of everything, and I couldn’t believe how cleverly funny this book was allowing itself to be. It was such an intensely colourful adventure; mind-expanding, the possibilities Adams was allowing himself to explore. I haven’t gone back to it much since because I’m happy with the memory of the book (and most of its sequels), but I did of course watch the recent film. It was… fine.

The third book to really affected me was Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman,(by Richard Feynman) the memoirs of the man who, to my 14-year-old self, set the bar for an interesting life. He was far, far cleverer than me, but that was part of the appeal. He had the same sense of humour and seemed drawn to exactly the same types of challenges, grasping and running with all these incredibly exciting things that jusr thrilled me right through. It was that fantasy of courage that I was buying into with Feynman, of course, and I’m sure if I read it now it’d annoy the hell out of me, but at the time I drank in the late physicist’s tales with wide-eyed credulity. Tales of self-taught safe-cracking and encrypting letters in jigsaws to send to his wife in hospital, of bomb testing and bad conscience, of maths and science and the period he spent simply learning to watch himself fall asleep. The stories were as exotic and unlimited as the wind-swept planes of Lost Alamos but also sanctioned living intelligently and pursuing one’s obsessions right to the end – all very distant ideas to a young teenager with no money, sharing a room with her mother in a small rented flat.

The fourth book on my list is Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape by Christopher Wood. My undergraduate degree was in the history of art and for a long time I found it quite difficult. I discovered Christopher Wood during the second year, I think, and it really helped me turn a corner. Also, by showing me the kind of research that was possible, this was one of the books that gave me the basis for my Masters degree a couple of years later. Possibly I just don’t like paintings very much, but I was immediately captivated by the connections between the art and writing that Wood makes in this treatise on the northern Renaissance master Albrecht Altdorfer. One hears a lot about the bold frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, but there’s a case here that the revolution happening in Flemish art of the time was all about detail and writing. Landscape in the northern Renaissance emerged outwards from the calligraphic detail of miniatures and maps; the subject of the painting became gradually subsumed by its supplimentary imagery and landscape painting as we know it was born – at the expense of subjects charting meaning. Wood brings it all to life so persuasively in this beautifully detailed and illustrated book.

I’m not very good at long books, so my next choice is another anthology of short stories. I read Stories of Your Life and Others this year, and was impressed. Ted Chiang is a highly-regarded sci-fi writer, relatively new on the scene, and all about quality rather than quantity. This slim tome is a collection of most of his work to date and the stories explore loads of mad ideas about alternative realities. There’s the world where angels exist, but rupture the fabric of spacetime like great natural disasters, amoral hurricanes whisking souls away to heaven or earth-cracking quakes sucking casualties down into hell. There’s the society who wants to build a tower to the roof of the world, with every detail painstakingly visualised for us by Chiang, and there are the aliens who write notes for Earth in strange splayed symbols but disappear without really telling us anything. And that’s the thing I like about Chiang’s work: it has a certain dignity, a holding-back. There’s a genuine fascination with questions but a modest pause where other fiction writers would supply answers. In a way, I wish he’d write more, but equally the ideas in this book will keep me thinking for a while yet.

If I can get 17 people to request Leila come to the shop, she may be persuaded. Add a comment and let's see what happens.


Joe said...

Immensely fascinating choice- you should do an event at Big Green Bookshop 'tis the perfect arena for you.

longcat said...

Great selection of books, intriguing... the feynman book looks fantastic...

Please come to the big green bookshop.


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