Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society Book Club

It’s a remarkable coincidence. On the day our Book Club finally gets the attention it deserves from the serious press, I also happen to be launching my own one-man reading group. He may be winsome, witty, handsome in a Burt Lancaster kind of way, but he’s definitely only one man. And he's also looking for your book recommendations.

To cut a long preamble short: if you’re interested in giving me your favourite reads, just jump to the end of the post where I explain what I’m interested in reading, along with my pet hates so you can avoid leaving comments suggesting that I 'give Jilly Cooper a go'. For a more detailed explanation of how I come to be asking you for advice, there follow a few hundred words of confused waffle. It’s the reason why I’m rather late posting to the blog this weekend. I was busy indulging myself all of yesterday.

Bookshops are my secret addiction. On the one hand, there’s so much that’s good about them that it’s hard to pull oneself away without spending a fortune, but, on the other, they can make one wistful, chagrined, and all the other emotions that tend to afflict heroes in eighteenth century sentimental novels. I rarely get chance to spend as long as I like browsing for books. Yesterday I did just that. It explains why I’m still feeling such contrasting emotions. It’s probably why I’m feeling a little depressed.

There’s much that terrorises me in a bookshop. There’s the constant irritation of seeing books by the latest celebrity guru promoted as the answer to our problems. This week, Waterstones are pushing Sting’s collected lyrics. Not that there’s anything wrong with pushing Sting collected lyrics. In fact, so long as we're pushing them over a 90 degree edge followed by a drop of few hundred feet terminating in some sharp rocks, I'm happy to help do the pushing. Then there are the books by misfits who hardly deserve to be described as ‘a human being’, let alone deserve book contracts. Drug dealers, ex-mafia hard men, corporate swindlers, porn stars, Delilah Smith: they’re all there, demanding our money with menaces. And then amid all the lurid tat is the unlurid tat. Middle-class, middle-of-the-brain mawkish sentiment usually involving the words ‘moving’, ‘tender’ or ‘relationships’ in the blurb. I steer clear of them. Finally, there’s the great bulk of contemporary fiction that’s quite adequately written, sometimes attaining the quality of good prose, but it all leaves you feeling neither one way nor the other. They are the books you read and abandon before the end.

My current drug of choice is literary criticism. For my sins, I bought James Wood’s ‘The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel’ after I’d finished reading his essay on ‘Hysterical Realism’ for a second time, just sitting there in the Waterstone’s armchair. Engrossing stuff. In fact, I hardly noticed that I’d been sat for nearly an hour among the books on photography. My head was framed by Angelina Jolie’s breasts on one side and, on the other, a collection of Pirelli nudes. The essay troubled me in ways I’m not sure I can explain beyond the fact I was wondering why I was getting so many covert yet admiring looks from the shop's male customers. Wood writes so eloquently about novels that share the common trait of a kind of baroque surrealism; an abundance of florid and overblown characters, lack of traditional narrative, a reliance of comic juxtaposition to overcome the absence of meaningful plot. He picked out DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’, Pynchon’s ‘Mason & Dixon’, Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’, Rushdie’s ‘Ground Beneath Her Feet’, and David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.

He could hardly have picked out a series of books to which I have a less troubled past. As a genuine fan of DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’, I found ‘Underworld’ long, flat, and ultimately unrewarding. It was saved by the final hundred pages. Pynchon remains an author I feel I should ‘get’ until I actually pick up something of his and I am reminded why I find him unreadable. Rushdie’s personality prevents me from reading anything of his, despite friends who recommend his earlier work. As for Zadie Smith, I’d prefer not to go down that path full of bitter resentment and half-acknowledged jealousy. The only book I haven’t had a troubled run in with is ‘Infinite Jest’, though I’ve come close to buying it on many occasions.

They are books which, to Wood, ‘abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.’ Most troubling to me is his criticism that ‘these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion’. I think of my own autobiography, now approaching 30,000 words, and I wonder if the world is ready for another ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’? I worry that the narrative of my life isn’t strong enough; that there’s not enough stillness. Is my prose strong enough? Is it the stuff of contemporary fiction section or the shelves tagged as ‘light entertainment ghost-written pap’?

All of which got me thinking about good writing and my book club idea. Only, rather than telling you what you should be reading this summer, I want suggestions. I want to read some new writers whose novels embody the very meaning of great prose.

Let me make this explicit. I don’t want to read some unpublished manuscript you happen to have lying around unless the name on the cover happens to be Amis with the initial ‘K’ or ‘M’. I don’t want to read your vanity published history of World War 2 submariners, the history of your great aunt’s wedding cake, nor your book about collecting seashells. I don't want any PDFs in my email box. I also don’t want to read ‘chick lit’ or anything written by a celebrity name. So, please, no Katie Jordan or Colleen Rooney. I’d prefer to avoid anything too postmodern or ‘meta’. No James Joyce. I’m not at all interested in reading any book that gives me an insight into another culture unless there is something more to it than it just being about a different culture. No thrillers unless they do more than simply give me the specifications of the latest sniper rifle. Comedy I like but with the restriction that it has to be something that’s going to challenge me. Terry Pratchett can write a good gag but I find that his books bore me quite quickly. I’m looking for something different. I was tempted by ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’ by David Madsen but knew nothing about it and hadn't the money in my pocket to gamble. But that’s the sort of book I’m looking for. Something that will excite and surprise me. Most of all, I want to read prose that will make me shiver or weep with awe.

I intend to keep a running list of books I’ve been recommended and to update it as I get through them. I might even write a review when I have strong enough feelings about any particular book.


lee said...

What about an old book, you fussy old thing. What about reading some old book like The story Of Esther Costello. I just said that off the top of my head. I think I said it just to be annoying.

Richard Madeley said...

Many thanks Lee. Old books are good. In fact, I think they're what I'm really after. Sometime tested by time and a generation of readers.

Do you know I nearly said 'nothing set in Ireland'? However, when I'm up in Manchester on Thursday, I will go to Waterstones and check this one out, despite the blurb on Amazon: 'In a small Irish village, young Esther Costello, victim of a tragic accident that has left her deaf, dumb and blind, is kept barely alive by hardhearted parents.'

The Anonyous Twitch said...

I am happy that you have alowed us to include old books Dick, for I rarely buy new books anymore since I was kindly given box loads of literature by a kindly philosopher friend. Whenever I am in the mood for a good read I open the boxes and take a literary lucky dip. The other day I pulled three books from out of the box..."The Innocents Abroard" by the great American humorist Mark Twain which I have since read and enjoyed.
"Some Tales of Mystery & Imagination" by Poe which I have read before and will read again & again for the thrill of it.
The third book out of the box was "Heaven's My Destination" by Thornton Wilder, a beautiful story about a kind & spiritual American named George Brush .
I highly reccomend all three books as a good read.
I am about to take another lucky dip and will let you know what comes up when I have finished reading them.

Anonymous said...

I nearly forgot to ask you Dick....can we include graphic novels? Last months Playboy was a classic.

Selena Dreamy said...

“There’s much that terrorises me in a bookshop....”

Nor, Richard, do I entertain the least apprehension that literary agents are not playing a major, perhaps the principal, role in the dumbing down of our urban, cosmopolitan society. See the Memorandum...


Anonymous said...

Can we post pictures of our books Dick? Books need their beauty to be seen.

Anonymous said...

i think there'a a reason very little contemporary fiction is interesting - the post WW2 world lacks glamour, class, adventure. Every time a man tries to go off an a Gandalf-like adventure some damn Government man comes along and says, "look here, you can't just bugger off for a year. Who's going to pay your rent? What about your council tax? And it's against the law to wear wizard hats! That's one of the 3000 new laws brought in by Nu Labour."

The great writers of yore were often born to wealthy parents and could bunk off to travel & write - Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Proust, Thomas Mann, etc. Even those who were poor, like Camus, instantly got interesting journalist jobs and were free to have adventures within their work-life, and have energy left over for creative work.

i think we now live in a world where, if you have the self-respect to stay off state benefits, just staying alive and in accommodation costs you 95% of your energy and money. And if you don't have technical skills or an ability to coneal your difference, you're probably going to be stuck with minimum wage jobs.

i find virtually every novel i like is either written before, or set before, the end of WW2. The world thereafter is one in which 99.999% of the citizens of the West have 9 to 5 office jobs which prevent anything interesting happening to them.

The exceptions are genre - because genre work is about situations that lie off the mundane 9 to 5 life, like police thrillers, Fantasy, sci-fi. i wonder if one reason Literary Types despise genre is the same reason my fellow slave at work says i'm "stupid" because i read books and like to write when no one will pay me - it's the revulsion of the determinedly prosaic against the suggestion of any other world. to me, most Literary Fiction (contemporary) says "the world is dull and nothing interesting happens, except for squalid things, that is."

Anyway, recent books i've liked:

Alan Furst: Dark Star; The Polish Officer - both Nazi-era spy thrillers.

Charles McCarry: Old Boys; Tears of Autumn - more spy thrillers.

Robert Littell: The Company; Legends - both spy thrillers.

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash - cyberpunk.

Pascal Quignard - All the World's Mornings (made into a superb French film, Tous les Matins du Monde - it is originally French).

Martin Amis - Experience.

Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy.

Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Donna Tartt - The Secret History

Alistair McLeod - Island

John Connolly - Nocturnes

Douglas Coupland - Microserfs; All Families are Psychotic.

Roberston Davies - The Deptford Trilogy; The Rebel Angels

Umberto Eco - The Name of the Rose

Bret Easton Ellis - American Psycho

Will Ferguson - Happiness

Jasper Fforde - The Eyre Affair.

Penelope Fitzgerald - The Blue Flower

Jonathan Safran Foer - Everything is Illuminated

Catherine Fox - Angels and Men

Michael Frayn - Towards the End of the Morning; Headlong.

David Guterson - Snow Falling on Cedars.

Peter Hoeg - Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow.

Michael Houllebecq - Atomised.

Just about anything by John le Carre - the only bad one of his i've read was Single and Single.

Milan Kundera - Slowness.

Ursula le Guin - Earthsea

Michelle Lovric - The Remedy

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian; All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; The Road.

Flannery O'Connor - Wise Blood

Michael Ondaatje - The English Patient

Mervyn Peake - Gormenghast trilogy

Arturo Perez-Reverte: The Fencing Master; The Dumas Club; The Nautical Chart.

Ian Rankin - Black and Blue

Salman Rushdie - The Moor's Last Sigh

Bernard Schlink - The Reader

W G Sebald - Vertigo; The Rings of Saturn

Martin Cruz Smith - Gorky Park; Wolves Eat Dogs

Patrick Suskind - Perfume

HST - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Kurt Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions

i've not sure of the dates of some of these - some may be too old. Also, i've missed out a lot of good non-fiction!

Anonymous said...

Well the Book Club seems to be going really well. Maybe, however, you are stuck with a good book somewhere, having a quiet read?

okbye said...

Is that Sting? He looks better.

Anonymous said...

Dick, you asked for books that stand the test of time....I hope you enjoy the picture of the pair of beauties I sent you...that you agree to seeing the fact that these literary lucky dips indeed do just that....and better still.

Richard Madeley said...

So sorry for the downtime in the blog. I lost internet for a day, in addition to which I've been busy with other work.

Selena, so nice to see my posts discussed intelligently. We should make a chat show together.

Many thanks Elberry for the list. I've read a few of them but I've not printed it out and will carry it with me.

Okbye, it is Sting. Exactly as I photographed him at a book signing last week.

Anonymous (who I assume is The Twitch), I did get some pictures, forwarded to me by a friend. And quality pictures they are too. I'm now hunting down my copy of Sterne (I seem to have lost it) and I will add it to the pile. I really intend to read it this time...

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