Saturday, 2 February 2019

My Recommendations

A commenter challenged me, entirely fairly, to make some of my own book recommendations to my readers. I often struggle when asked to do this, but fortunately for the last five years or so I have been carefully recording and reviewing every book I read on Goodreads. So, here are all the books I have read during that time which I have deemed worth of being 5 stars, in the completely random order Goodreads put them in when I ranked my reviews by rating:

The Game by Neil Strauss. I don't care what you think of PUAs as a cultural phenomenon; it is without doubt a subject worthy of anthropological study and this book is just a phenomenal piece of gonzo journalism on it - maybe the best piece of gonzo journalism ever written by anybody not Hunter S. Thompson.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings. I love Hastings' books and this doesn't disappoint. It takes a while to get going, but when it does it rollicks along. Just brilliant popular history about an important subject, which also does a decent job of looking at the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese (and doesn't shy away from indicting the Viet Cong as much as the Americans, which I feel is important).

Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge by Mark Yarm. It probably helps if you like the music, but even if you don't I'd say that the story of grunge - underground movement to pop sensation to debauchery and decline - is well worth reading about as a kind of paradigm case reflecting the life story of essentially every cultural movement that there has been since the renaissance. Also Eddie Vedder comes out of the book smelling like the worst of all possible turds.

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge. I re-read this as a sort of guilty pleasure remembered from my youth. If you like children's books set in impossibly-hyper-idealised boarding schools for upper-middle-class nitwits in mid-20th century England, you will love it. Think Harry Potter with no magic (or female characters whatsoever).

American Tabloid by James Ellroy. Love Ellroy, had not got round to reading this one. This is what I said in my Goodreads review: "I found this book almost absurdly entertaining. The pages brim with manic violence, sex, and foul language. The characters are all etched larger than life. The writing is hard, fast, dirty but strangely poetic. The plot is like a labyrinth but you are whisked around it in a blur. Simply a great read."

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. An account of the exploration of Antarctica by a member of Scott's expedition. The journey of the title is not the one which led to Scott's death (although that is in the book), but rather an absurdly demanding trip through the Antarctic winter to try to capture an emperor penguin's egg to bring back to England. Cherry-Garrard basically never recovered from what happened to him in Antarctica and after reading the book you can see why. This is probably in the top three books on this list, one which I would give 6 stars to if I could.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Oh God, The Neverending Story. If you've never read it, do it now. Stop reading this blog entry and go and get it out of your nearest library and read it, and report back once you've finished. This one I would give 7 stars to if I could.

The Soldier of the Mist and The Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe. Somebody recommended this series to me on the blog, and I'm very glad they did. What can you say about it, except that it's a story about a mercenary from the Italian peninsular who cannot make new memories and is somehow in contact with the world of the gods, journeying around Ancient Greece in the aftermath of the failed Persian invasion? And Gene Wolfe wrote it. There is a third volume about his adventures in Egypt which I also read and like, but gave 4 stars to.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. On the face of it a book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the long shadow of war crimes would not usually be my cup of tea, but after my Dad died I took it upon myself to try to read through his library (a work in progress) and this is one of the standouts. Lyrical and powerful and lingered long in the memory.

The Goshawk by TH White. TH White is one of the greatest of all English prose writers and this book is about him trying to tame and train a goshawk. It made me cry, and books never do that. This is another one of my top three on the list, I think.

My Dark Places by James Ellroy. James Ellroy gives a non-fictional account of his early life and tries to track down his mother's killer (she was murdered when he was a youngish boy) while also discussing crime and, in particular, crimes men perpetrate against women. Calling it "James Ellroy does feminism" would be pushing it, but it's an absolutely shocking book for a man to read. (I say that as a man who is resolutely not "woke" and will do my damnedest never to be wakened.)

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. I read others in the series and also ranked them highly, but the first one, the one I gave 5 stars to, is the best. Like all really great fantasy books it is also about something deeper than just a fancy setting and magic; this one is about the relationship between father and son and it manages to say very important things about that kind of relationship in the context of an entertaining fairy-tale sort of plot. Like Narnia for grownups.

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan 1944-45 by Matt Hastings. Another Hastings tome, another wonderful example of popular history. The chapter on the firebombing of Japanese cities should be read by everybody.

Chin Ping Mei, Or, The Adventurous History of the Mandarin and His Six Wives. And now for something completely different - how about a 500-year old Chinese novel about, well, a minor bureaucrat and his six wives? I didn't give this 5 stars just because it's a classic and felt like I ought to. It is an absolute page-turner, very funny, and gives startling insights into a way of life completely different to our own.

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance. I love me a bit of Jack Vance, and this is very much a bit of Jack Vance - not much more than 100 pages. Somebody recommended this one to me on the blog, too; some day I will get around to reading the rest of the series.

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy. A history of modern Japan, from a refreshingly opinionated and critical author. A great way to understand the actual country, not the one you see on TV, films, or in anime.

Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel. Just great nature writing - a beautiful series of meditations written over the course of a year by a farmer about his land and the creatures (domesticated and wild) living in it.

The Path to Power by Robert Caro. The first of five (four of them published) volumes of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson - each of which is, not incidentally, about 1000 pages long. I have not read the others yet, but plan to as soon as possible. To say it puts other biographies to shame is to engage in gross understatement. It is a titanic work. It is also one of the greatest books I think I have ever read - a political biography which reveals not just the subject but also the nature of politics and is in its own right a stunning literary achievement and beautiful, poetic history of the period and milieu in which Johnson lived. I can't recommend it highly enough (even for somebody who knows little or nothing about LBJ; before picking up this book my knowledge of him extended to, "Er, was he the one who became President after JFK got shot?").

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I am not a great one for "funny" books - I tend not to find them terribly funny. (My own personal readership hell is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) This one actually is funny, and made me laugh on almost every page despite myself. The bus-ride scene towards the end may be one of my favourites in English literature. It is fabulous.

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten 20th Century by Tony Judt. It is always worth reading anything by Judt, even though he represents the kind of elitist liberal normativism I intensely dislike, and this is a superlative collection of essays on very recent history - the history that textbooks have not yet been written about. His skewering of Tony Blair is delicious.

The Iliad (prose translation by Martin Hammond). What is there to say about The Iliad? Probably nothing that hasn't already been said. If you've not read it, nor had I until I got this, and I loved it. I can't speak for other translations.

The Fifth Head of Cerburus by Gene Wolfe. Foreshadows the entire "new weird" movement, I think - you'll never be able to read any of those authors again without thinking them a pale imitation of Wolfe. There is a fan theory out there that these stories are the future of the same planet that The Book of the New Sun is set in, which then makes you wonder if it is perhaps our very, very distant future, since some people think New Sun is far-future Earth. Whatever. It's a classic.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the History of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist. I can't summarise this book in a way that would remotely do it justice - look it up, and then get a copy and read it. This is the third of my top 3 books on this list. I was spellbound from start to finish, and more than any other book I think I've read, it actually changed how I look at the world. Don't read it unless you're prepared for the same thing to happen to you.

The Histories (Herodotus, translated by Robin Waterfield). I loved this up-to-date, readable translation of Herodotus, which turns them into the wonderfully eccentric shaggy-dog story they really are.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. Another one from my Dad's library that I never would have ordinarily read. A trio of deadbeats try to solve a murder which may not actually have happened. That's the plot. It doesn't begin to describe how well it's written and how brilliantly it keeps you guessing until the very end. If you love a good mystery, get this.

The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb. None of you will read this. Don't pretend you will. It deserves 5 stars, though.

Dark Companions by Ramsay Campbell. I think I must have read this 7 years ago, which makes me wonder whether my statement of having joined Goodreads 5 years ago was accurate. Anyway, a really chilling and warped selection of Campbell's non-Lovecraftian horror fiction. These are mostly "plain" ghost stories, but of the bleakest, harshest and scariest kind.

An odd selection, looking at them all listed. Not much SF/Fantasy fiction at all in there, which says a lot about both me and the genre, I suspect.

[PS: I should add that I didn't include re-reads of The Lord of the Rings on the basis that...well...why are you reading this blog if you need me to recommend you try The Lord of the Rings?]

19 comments:

  1. Have you read any other Ramsay Campbell collections? I've only read one of his stories, "The Brood", and I've been looking for a collection to pick up as part of a recent reading project to read more pre-90s horror.

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    1. Get Dark Companions - you won't be disappointed.

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  2. New Sun isn't set on Future Earth?

    I can never summon the courage to recommend books as I fear my tastes -- despite being one of those weird kids that started reading almost straight out of the womb -- are dreadfully trashy. I don't have the same problem with films, for some reason.

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  3. Uh. Isn't this being published tomorrow? Why can I see it? Am I in the time vortex?!?

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    1. I made this blog when I was living a Japan so posts are timestamped accordingly. Or, alternativel, I live in the future.

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    2. You live in the future, for sure.

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  4. Have you tried Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy? Literary novelist does vampire plague, with interesting results.

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    1. I started reading the first book but never finished. It seemed much too verbose. Similar to modern fantasy in that respect.

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    2. I am not a massive vampire fan, really.

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  5. Oh, man the Neverending Story. I had the luck to grow up with Michael Ende, with Jim Button, Momo and of course Atreju and Falkor (or Fuchur, as he was named in the original). And yes, if you've never read any of those books, go and get them, Ende is one of those rare authors that can write fantasy that can actually be called literature. Fun story: I had a beautiful edition where all the chapters started with a beautiful illustration that contained the first letter of said chapter and around it scenes that were to come in it. One day, I came home from school, entered house and passed by my little sister's chamber. Nearly got a stroke when I discovered that she had obviously liked those illustrations so much that she had scissored them out of the book and spread around her room. This was probably the first time someone succeeded to break my heart and as much as I love her, I still hold a grudge when it comes to it.

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  6. You might be interested in Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer by Heather Rossiter. It is the biography of Herbert Dyce Murphy. He works on a wool clipper, then goes whaling in the arctic. He then goes to Oxford, then becomes a female spy before WW1. Then he went to the Antarctic with Mawson. It makes almost anyone's life seem boring by comparison.

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    1. Sounds like Conrad. People were different in those days.

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    2. I beg your pardon, I don't get the reference. Conrad who?

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    3. Joseph Conrad. His life story is something else, and he also wrote great novels. Enough to put any modern-day person to shame!

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  7. Grabbed neverending story on your recc. This is a great selection; I've read many of the same with the same responses.

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  8. Have you read J.A. Baker's 'The Peregrine'? It's basically the third leg of the triangle alongside Meadowlands and The Goshawk. Highly recommended.

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    1. One of those books I've never quite got round to reading but will some day.

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  9. For more Jack Vance pick up Blue Planet, I don't think I've ever seen anyone mention it online. I picked it up at a used bookstore and read it in an evening. Feels more like LeGuin than other Vance stories with its emphasis on world building (lost colony sci-fi with a good combination of founding population and environment) and is the fastest Vance read I've come across yet.

    Not a great classic but some memorable scenes that are great RPG fodder.

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