World Book Night Top 100

Yes, it’s yet another top 100 list.  This time from World Book Night, who got the country talking books back earlier this year.  WBN has asked all its users of the website to nominate their top ten books and they’re compiling the top 100 to inform them on the choice of the 25 books for World Book Night 2012.

Here’s the list as it stands yesterday – it’s still evolving – but I wouldn’t think there will be much change above the bottom reaches of the chart.  There’s still time to vote if you register.

The number of votes each book has received is in brackets and I’ve lined through all those I’ve read which was a surprising 59:

The World Book Night Top 100 Books (29/7/11)

  1. To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee (349)
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (282)
  3. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (259)
  4. Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkein (244)
  5. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (211)
  6. American Gods – Neil Gaiman (206)
  7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  – Douglas Adams (201)
  8. The Time  Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger (183)
  9. Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett (162)
  10. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (162)
  11. Harry Potter (set) – J K Rowling (154)
  12. 1984 – George Orwell (140)
  13. Rebecca – Daphne DuMaurier (138)
  14. The shadow of the wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (138)
  15. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkein (134)
  16. A thousand splendid suns – Khaled Hosseini (121)
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks (120)
  18. The Help – Kathryn Stockett (119)
  19. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman (115)
  20. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini (112)
  21. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (111)
  22. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (110)
  23. One day – David Nicholls (107)
  24. Atonement – Ian McEwan (100)
  25. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (99)
  26. We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver (96)
  27. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (91)
  28. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden (84)
  29. The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger (84)
  30. Room – Emma Donoghue (82)
  31. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald (81)
  32. The lovely bones – Alice Sebold (79)
  33. Animal Farm – George Orwell (77)
  34. One hundred years of solitude  – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (77)
  35. Never let me go – Kazuo Ishiguro (75)
  36. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres (73)
  37. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver (72)
  38. The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde (70)
  39. The Stand – Stephen King (70)
  40. Dracula – Bram Stoker (69)
  41. The Secret History – Donna Tartt (69)
  42. A prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (68)
  43. Life of Pi – Jann Martel (65)
  44. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (65)
  45. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott (64)
  46. Chocolat – Joanne Harris (64)
  47. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke (63)
  48. I capture the castle – Dodie Smith (62)
  49. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett (61)
  50. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (61)
  51. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (61)
  52. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (60)
  53. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks (59)
  54. The Island – Victoria Hislop (58)
  55. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (57)
  56. Night Watch – Terry Pratchett (57)
  57. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (56)
  58. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (56)
  59. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (55)
  60. The Five People you meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom (55)
  61. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (53)
  62. Persuasion – Jane Austen (53)
  63. Lord of the Flies – William Golding (52)
  64. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (52)
  65. Stardust – Neil Gaiman (52)
  66. The Princess Bride – William Goldman (51)
  67. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (50)
  68. The Color Purple – Alice Walker (49)
  69. Small Island – Andrea Levy (47)
  70. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (46)
  71. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (45)
  72. Notes from a small island – Bill Bryson (45)
  73. My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult (44)
  74. A suitable boy – Vikram Seth (44)
  75. Dune – Frank Herbert (44)
  76. Watership Down – Richard Adams (42)
  77. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (42)
  78. The remains of the day – Kazuo Ishiguro (42)
  79. The picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (40)
  80. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (40)
  81. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood (38)
  82. Middlemarch – George Eliot (37)
  83. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (36)
  84. Perfume – Patrick Suskind (36)
  85. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (36)
  86. Posession – A S Byatt (35)
  87. The Magus – John Fowles (34)
  88. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (34)
  89. Crime and Punishment – Fydor Dostoevsky (33)
  90. Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin (32)
  91. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (32)
  92. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje (32)
  93. Kafka on the shore – Haruki Murakami (32)
  94. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer (30)
  95. The vanishing act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell (30)
  96. Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (28)
  97. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts (27)
  98. On the road – Jack Kerouac (27)
  99. A fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry (26)
  100. Brideshead revisited – Evelyn Waugh (25)

What stands out?   Neil Gaiman has 5 entries!   Apart from that it’s a fairly conventional mix of classics, modern classics, a few children’s classics and lots of more recent bestsellers of varying degrees of literaryness. 

The other surprising thing was that none of my personal top 10 that I entered are there!  They are mostly from my Desert Island Books list (see the tab at the top of the page), but in no particular order they are (today):

  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt – still the best thing I’ve read this year (review here)
  • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (review here)
  • The Shipping News by Annie E Proulx
  • I Claudius by Robert Graves
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Tender is the night by F Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Spy who came in from the cold by John Le Carre (Review here)
  • Double Indemnity by James M Cain (Review here)
Initially I wasn’t bothered by yet another top 100 list, however given the opportunity to help influence the next WBN, it has value if enough people enter their choices.
So over to you.  Are you bovvered about yet another top 100?  How many have you read? Are any of your choices there?  Will you vote/have you voted?

So Many Books …

So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid, trans Natasha Wimmer

After reading Simon’s post on the wonderful book of essay about books by Anne Fadiman called Ex Libris yesterday, I  spotted this little book about books lurking in my TBR.  Zaid is Mexican, (I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a Mexican before). His 2004 collection of articles/short essays mainly concern the business of books – Why are there so many?, How do booksellers choose their stock?, Is the book dead?, What are book’s natural audiences?  All these and many other questions are considered.

Near the front I came across a marvellous quotation from the Spanish philosopher Jose Gaos:

Every private library is a reading plan.

How true.  Zaid also goes on to briefly look at the financial flip side of owning to many books, but we’ll, erm, skate over that!

This was a diverting book to dip into, but unlike Fadiman’s people-centered bookish essays, Zaid’s little volume was rather dry in comparison.  At one point he says, “Books can be skimmed”,  and he’s quite right as that’s what I did.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, trans Natasha Wimmer, Hdbk, pub Sort of Books, 144 pages
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

From Paradise to Hell …

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Conceived, so I’ve read, as a response to the Utopian and rose-tinted worlds of Swallows and Amazons, and in particular, Ballantyne’s Coral Island, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, is one of the most influential debut novels of the 20th Century.

I haven’t read it since my teens. With several decades of life’s experiences between these readings, its power to shock could only deepen second time around. It didn’t take long to realise that Golding’s dystopian vision of what happens when a group of boys end up marooned  in paradise is no anthropological experiment – it happens in the real world too, wherever there is bullying and pressure to join a gang, at whatever age.

Right from the start you can sense that the group of boys is never going to remain one big happy family.  Tall and blond, Ralph is elected leader.  Jack, his rival, and top dog of a bunch of surviving choirboys, is initially placated by being made chief hunter, and the boys all work together happily for a while doing their allotted jobs. Ralph, Simon and his crew build shelters and look after the younger boys, Jack, Roger and the rest of his band keep the signal fire going and hunt.  They maintain a sort of democracy through use of a conch shell – as the call to meetings, and speaker’s symbol.  Now to Piggy – the fat, bespectacled boy; he is habitually lazy due to his asthma, and a natural whiner which sets him up as an outsider from the start.  He is, however, shrewd, but it is only Ralph that listens to his advice.

They rub along together for a while, although the dark nights are full of nightmares and the vision of a Beast that starts to ramp up the tension between the boys.  But it is when Jack’s crew lets the fire go out as they’re having too much fun going native and hunting for pigs, that the rot really sets in.  Soon the boys split into two tribes and Jack sets himself up as a demigod in Conrad’s Kurtz mode (cf Heart of Darkness).  It will all end in tragedy, and the two seconds, Simon and Roger, will come to represent the axes of good and evil on the island in a near religious sense.  After all the violence, the concluding three pages came as even more of a shock, paralleling the boys’ experiences on the tiny island with the war that’s been going on around them.

In writing his antidote to boyish adventures with happy endings, Golding even goes so far as to name his two leaders Ralph and Jack, the same as two of the three marooned boys who have such good fun in Coral Island.  Ballantyne’s book is, however, aimed at younger readers who would not be ready for the gruesome entropy that ensues on Golding’s island.  And it all starts off so innocently …

The fair boy began to pick his way as casually as possible towards the water. He tried to be offhand and not too obviously uninterested, but the fat boy hurried after him.
‘Aren’t there any grown-ups at all?’
‘I don’t think so.’
The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realized ambition came over him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the reversed fat boy.
‘No grown ups!’ 

I read this novel for our book group’s August discussion on dystopias. More on that to follow next month.

If you’ve never read this book I’d urge you to give it a go, and if, like me, you read it years and years ago – why not see how you feel on a re-read. Golding’s writing is amazing in his descriptions of this tropical paradise turned into hell; he also really understands boys and their need for authority figures. (10/10)

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I bought my book.
To explore the books mentioned further on Amazon UK, click below:
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Faber pbk, new edition 2002, 240 pages.
The Coral Island (Puffin Classics)by R B Ballantyne
Swallows And Amazonsby Arthur Ransome
Heart of Darkness and Other Talesby Joseph Conrad

The case of the nasty young man

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

For most of us, Simenon is famous, justly, for his creation of Maigret, the pipe-smoking French detective that appeared in over a hundred novels and short stories from the 1930s to early 70s. The Maigret novels are light and the detective is a delight, but Simenon also wrote many other novels that are very different in tone – La neige était sale – Dirty Snow (1948) being one of them.

Dirty Snow was written in the USA after Simenon had left France in 1945 where he was under some suspicion for being a collaborator, having negotiated German film rights during the occupation.  His observations of living in occupied France obviously influenced the writing of this novel which is set in an unspecified occupied country – it could be France, it could be Germany itself…

Dirty Snow is the story of one young man’s fall.  Frank Friedmaier is nineteen. Fatherless, he lives with his mother Lotte who runs a whorehouse in an apartment block,  tolerated by the other residents as she caters mainly to the town’s oppressors which keeps the attention away from them.  Frank is itching to show that he can play with the big boys at Timo’s – the bar they all frequent. He decides it’s time to make his first kill …

And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of viriginity hardly more disturbing than the first. And, like the first, it wasn’t premeditated. It just happened. As though a moment comes when it’s both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made.
No one had pushed him to do it. No one had laughed at him. Besides, only fools let themselves be influenced by their friends.
For weeks, perhaps months, he had kept saying to himself, because he had felt within himself a sort of inferiority. ‘I’ll have to try …’
Not in a fight. That would have been against his nature. To have it count, it seemed to him, it would have to be done in cold blood.

And so by page four we know where we are with Frank.  He chooses and kills his prey, but tellingly, also allows himself to be seen in the locality by Holst, a neighbour.  However, he intuitively senses that Holst won’t tell.  Blooded and with a gun in his pocket, Frank becomes fearless, but it is one callous and totally despicable act that I won’t say any more about, that will make him feared and lead to his downfall.

The second half of the book follows Frank’s few weeks under interrogation. Yes, he was caught – hoorah!  After an initial beating, the interrogation is carried out by an old gentleman who takes his time with Frank to winkle out every single thing he knows about all of the people in his life, playing mind games with him, never telling him what he was arrested for. The sleep-deprived and starving Frank remains strong, determined to make it last as long as possible until the day he’s ready.

Told entirely from Frank’s perspective, this novel is really bleak. He is an amoral piece of scum; friendless, increasingly cold and emotionless.  In the nurture versus nature debate, undoubtedly, his lack of a father figure in his life, and his over-protective mother have both helped to make him what he becomes.

Simenon takes us down all the way with Frank, but allows him one little glimpse of what could have been, before he meets his end.  Maybe writing the book in the sunshine of Tucson, Arizona, Simenon needed to come up for air before ending it.  I amongst others, (see Lizzies Literary Life review here), would have preferred that he stayed down – Frank didn’t deserve it.

The afterword by William T Vollmann was interesting – after positioning Dirty Snow as ultimate noir more akin to Chekov than Chandler, he compares Frank to characters in Middlemarch by George Eliot – in their failure to meet their potential – which was surprising, yet I could sort of see the sense in it.  Personally, I was reminded throughout by Pinkie in Brighton Rock by Graham Greene – another very nasty young man, (and due for a re-read). The book also brought to mind Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada which I read earlier this year and reviewed here in terms of the sense of living under suspicion.

The Maigret books, yet wonderful, are as a mere bagatelle in comparison with this look into the abyss from Simenon. (10/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) trans Marc Romano and Louise Varèse, pub NYRB, 257 pages including afterword.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) by George Eliot
Alone in Berlinby Hans Fallada

My life in Comics and Magazines

I’ve always loved comics and magazines. I remember looking forward to getting rolls of comics wrapped in brown paper from my Grandma – classic comics for girls of the 60s like Bunty, Mandy and Twinkle.  I particularly loved Bunty, as it had a cut-out doll with wardrobe on the back page which I religiously snipped out each issue. My brother got Whizzer and Chips, Topper and Beezer.

Then in the 70s I graduated to the wonderful Jackie.  We all read it, we all put up the posters, were educated by the Cathy and Claire problem pages, and sniggered over the photo stories.  

It was simply the best teen comic out there.  There were flirtations with Fab 208 (the magazine of Radio Luxembourg – better quality paper for glossy posters), and Smash Hits, but until I was old enough for the young adult mag Honey, Jackie was the must have.

At university, I got overtaken by science fiction and prog rock, and instead of having posters of David Bowie et al, it was more likely to be the alien landscapes and spaceships of Roger Dean that graced my walls, many of them cut out of Omni magazine, a US science and science fiction magazine that was, believe it or not, published by Penthouse! There was no smut involved, just wonderful art, some brilliant SF short stories and speculative technology of the sort that’s in Wired these days.

Once working, I turned to the women’s monthlies, Cosmo, Company and the like in my late 20s into 30s, then graduated to Marie Claire, and later even Good Housekeeping alongside a whole raft of interior design mags – Homes & Gardens House Beautiful and the ilk, my favourite being Living etc.

Alongside those, I was still interested in music and movies, and thank goodness for Q and Empire respectively which debuted in the late 1980s.  I graduated, along with Q’s editors (Mark Ellen and David Hepworth), to Mojo as my musical tastes matured, and Empire I’ve never left.

But what magazines do I read now?  Well, I’ve dropped all my subscriptions to the glossy monthlies and interior design mag having realised that the articles and trends just go round in circles and I’ve now seen and read them all before!  I’ll still buy one or two of them for a journey or holiday, but no longer feel the need to read them every month.  I do however, still read these few:

  • The Word (again I jumped ship with Mark Ellen and David Hepworth) to this fab mag for grown-ups about music, films, tv, and a few books.
  • I still read Empire
  • The Literary Review, plus Waterstones quarterly (although this is on hold with the new ownership).
  • plus an assortment of occasional literary quarterlies like The Reader and Slightly Foxed

What comics did you grow up with?

Which magazines do you read and love now?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Best of Jackie Magazine – The Seventies (Prion Edition)

The mad scientist and his red ray

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Pre-blog, back in 2006, we read The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov in our book group and I loved it. This novel about the devil coming to a town of non-believers in 1930s Russia and spreading mischief paralleled against the a writer in mental hospital who has written a Pilate’s eye view of Jesus is a delicious satire on Stalinism and the repression of religion and art.  It wasn’t an easy book to get into – I’d previously tried to read it and failed, but this time it did click with me and I loved it.

The Master and Margarita, not published in his lifetime, is arguably Bulgakov’s masterpiece, but when I came across a new translation by Roger Cockrell of one of his earlier novellas written in the mid-1920s, I had to give that a go. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the West in a collection of novellas called Diaboliad.

Bulgakov was a fan of HG Wells, and this novella owes much to Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau amongst others, which involved a mad scientist doing experiments on animals.

Set in 1928 – just into the future at the time of writing, Bulgakov’s Professor Persikov is a classic mad scientist. The ageing academic is consumed by his passion for zoology, and amphibians in particular. He is a difficult man, and makes the lives of those around him hell, including his assistant Pankrat, and all the students he teaches in Moscow whom he persistently fails in their exams.

One day he makes an accidental discovery after having left a microscope on; when he returns the combination of light and lenses has created a red ray which focused on the amoeba under the scope has accelerated their growth immensely. He builds a larger apparatus, and tries it out with similar success on his beloved frogs.

At the same time as Persikov’s discovery, and unbeknown to him, a fatal disease is rampaging its way through Russia’s poutry stock, and all chickens have had to be destroyed. Persikov’s invention by this time has come to the attention of journalists and the secret police – who step in to confiscate his large machines, planning to use them to speedgrow new chickens – but there’s a mix-up with the eggs, and as you might guess, things are going to go badly wrong!

Mad professors, bungling secret agents and mob rule make a heady mix for some broad comedy and swipes at all things red and Russian – nothing escapes his satiric pen, although I’m no expert in the October revolution and what came after it. The ending of this novella is somewhat weak, using a conveniently Wellsian construct that I won’t divulge to save spoiling the plot for anyone else that wants to read it – however, getting there is rather fun, and I’m keen to read more of his other works.

The extra material was also very well worth reading. In the introduction we meet Bulgakov, and find out about his influences and some of the references in this novella.  After the story, we get the translators notes which include explanations of the puns in the text, and lastly a thirty page biography and survey of Bulgakov’s work. Bulgakov died young at 48 in 1940, and it was thanks to his third wife’s efforts after his death that we got to read his works in the West, although it took until the early 1970s for the first uncensored translations to appear.

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I bought my copy.
To explore further on Amazon, click below: