Books! Books are the earphones of the eyes. They stop people from bugging you, unless that person is unaware of the universal “leave me alone” signals. Which some people are, as they were raised in a dark, dank, bone strewn cave, by wolves. However, most people understand that a book is a barrier to the outside forces of: the daily commute, that weird hobo on the corner about to ask you for the rest of your sandwich, and the annoying needy people who rotate to you when you sit still for too long. Also I love to smell old books. Dog-eared, spine broken, bits of paper shoved in between pages, I’m guilty of all of those, but I LOVE books.
The best explanation for books I ever read (and I’m paraphrasing here) was that, choosing a book, is opening a world. As soon as you have opened that world you can’t close it up, because it’s in your head somewhere, whether you have it at the back of your mind or not. This puts a lot of pressure on you, as you will choose to open up some worlds, and not others- I don’t think it’s physically possible to read every book ever written, so somewhere you make a choice. By the way that was all paraphrasing, and you are now aware of your breathing, and the fact that when you buy a book you are investing in a one world over another. Thanks Carl Ruis Zafon for burning that thought into my brain for ever.
Anyway let’s get this list of recommenditos rolling:
3) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarré
LeCarré has recently been, let’s be honest, godawfully appalling in comparison to his former self, with possibly the exception of the Constant Gardner. I don’t know what happened, maybe he peaked too soon, maybe the Cold War was just a better backdrop to write in, maybe it was just a better time to write in. Whatever the case may be the words “shadow of his former self” occur to me now. Putting that behind us, the Smiley series of books is in a word, by-far-the-most-character-driven-well-rounded-spy-book-ever (ok, you got me, it’s not a word as I’m not loquacious enough for that – but see how I bounced back with that super complex word, cool isn’t it?).
I’m going with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” mainly because it was the first one I read, and secondly, because the way in which the characters are portrayed is so understated and “real”.
A side note before I tell you why LeCarré punches out others (or did)- EFF YOU TOM CLANCY. Seriously, he needs to be high-fived, in the face, with a bazooka. His idea of a spy is someone who speak a bajillion and one languages, is capable of every martial art that ever existed, and can hack a computer mainframe in less time than it takes me to eat a freaking fro-yo…. FOR PETE’S SAKE THAT IS RIDICULOUS. Also reading a Tom Clancy is like reading a shitty film script, only you need to imagine the special effects. And yet, Tom Clancy films- every-freaking-where (and as films they work- god I love Jack Ryan!) and the games….37 video games, 37, 37!!!! LeCarré has had a couple of books done as a miniseries and a couple of films about 30 years ago, and had 2 recent Hollywood films (the Constant Gardner, and the upcoming Gary Oldman-starring “Tinker, Tailor”).
Ok, I’m calming myself down. Characters, that is what makes “Tinker, Tailor”, the bad guys and the good guys are not black and white, in fact their all a kind of beige-y brown mix, until you can’t tell one from the other, like real people. Not to mention George Smiley happens to be a normal middle-aged guy, not some James Bond wannabee in a cherry red Jag. He’s ordinary. What makes the characters so vivid is LeCarré was a spy himself, at the height of the Cold War. It’s real for him, so when he tells us these stories, they’re real for us. Unlike his recent work (bear in mind he’s hitting 80) where he is superimposing his old school thinking on new school intrigue, the classic LeCarré is human. That is what makes it a must read.
2) Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut
If you haven’t read this ,don’t worry, it’s not about a butchers road to self-realisation through interpretive dance, I promise. Explaining Vonnegut to the uninitiated is a task I don’t think I’m up to, so instead, here’s the alternative title Vonnegut gave the novel, which sums up the plot nicely I feel: “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.”
That is in fact what he called it. If you are a sci-fi uber-nerdling you will love the time-travel, space aspects. Pseudo-intellectuals and hipsters will love the fate vs. free-will debate. History buffs will enjoy the autobiographical elements. If you are a literary person, you will love the irreverent style of writing and time misalignment. And if you happen to be a hipster literature loving, nerdling, sci-fi history buff who likes mocha-lattes, laughing at the main-streamers and long walks in neighbourhoods that haven’t been gentrified then call me… so that I can shoot you in your smug, retro/vintage-wearing face.
Basically Vonnegut is so spread over topics and styles, that it’s hard to pin down the clear story line, and you don’t really want to. He makes you want to read it more, and more, and more, and then its over so fast…. and you feel like you lost a really cool oddball friend. If you haven’t read Vonnegut, then try it, you might like it, then again you may dislike its nonlinear story, and constant skipping around. I didn’t, I thought it was masterful.
1) The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (père)
Let’s just say it now, it’s LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG. If you hit someone with the non abridged version you will probably wrench your back, because you didn’t lift with your knees, and end up in jail for assault with a weapon. Seriously, it is quite long, and it has footnotes, lots of them. Despite that, it’s on of the most interesting books about revenge, redemption, jail, and hatred that you’ll ever read.
In case you didn’t get the cliff notes, or watch one of the movie of it, let me recap for you. Edmond Dantes, young groovy, sailor, dude. In love with Mercedes (younger sister is called Pinto, don’t judge). BOOM! jealous-guy ruins cool-guys life with help of shady-guy, so that jealous-guy can get with car-girl. “Simple”, I hear you cry, “oh no” says I.
Cool-guy end up in the dreaded château d’If. After a considerable amount of time, in which you are whisked away to a random bit of Italian scenery and thieves (which will later come in pretty handy), Edmond encounters a crazy-but-awesome-priest, who teaches him a whole lot of stuff. Cut the long story short you say? Ok, watevs.
Edmond escapes, screws with the lives of those responsible for his incarceration and depressing life situation, UNLESS (and this happens to very few of the characters) you turn out to be a nice person. Not only does Edmond come up with evil tricks and schemes to torment and hurt those who destroyed him, he does it with panache, and ninja skills, oh and capes. The guy is damaged and hateful and fuelled by revenge, but he’s on a slow burner and that is what makes it great.
You ever been cut off in traffic, or queue-jumped, or just so full of bile and animosity that you didn’t just want to hurt someone, you wanted to watch them suffer as you had, to feel the weight of every action and crime they have committed against you and ensure that they feel every ounce of retribution. No? Just me…. oh. Anyway, it’s beautifully written, well-crafted, and a classic of 19th Century literature and French literature too, if you like that kind of garlicky book.
(part 3 of the List is Classic films…. it’ll be up….soooooooon)