I take my hat off to all the brave metal bands that I have tortured with the task of writing a guest post for 10 Books That Made Me. It’s only now I have tried to write my own list that I realise what a difficult task it is. Not only was it agonising to narrow down to ten, but the whole process brought up a lot of emotions, as I revisited memories associated with books I have read. If I did this again in a month, or a year, I wonder if I would have a very different list? It was also sad to realise that I have forgotten the details of so many books that I know I loved; and that there are so many books I should have read but haven’t yet..
Anyway, here it is. Not necessarily my favourite books of all time, but ten books which (I think) have had a profound effect on my life. Which ones have you read?
The Remains Of The Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
This exquisite novel is a perfect example of the unreliable narrator technique. In 1956 Stevens, an ageing butler at Darlington Hall, takes a motoring trip through the English countryside during which memories of his past come flooding back. He reflects on the mistakes he made with his father, the squandered opportunities for happiness with the woman he loved, and the possibility that his esteemed employer, Lord Darlington, may have been responsible for the disastrous pre-war policy of appeasement. But all of this has to be inferred – the understatement is breathtaking. Kazuo Ishiguro slowly breaks our hearts with the gradual realisation of a wasted life, and the final moments of the book are almost unbearable. Regret and guilt are my go-to emotions, and Ishiguro’s books are packed with them. I think The Remains Of The Day might be my favourite book of all time.
Pet Sematary, by Stephen King
I read this when I was 11 or 12 – far too young and it was probably responsible for years of nightmares. As well as being a supernatural horror story, Pet Sematary is also a profound exploration of parental grief. I don’t think I could read it now as a parent myself. I can’t remember if I had a fascination with horror before Stephen King, or if he was the trigger, but after Pet Sematary I went on to read all his books, and to devour as much horror as I could get my teenage hands on. I love his high concepts, his variety of tone, and his cultural predictions. Impossible to overstate Stephen King’s influence.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Like most English people, I managed to reach adulthood without speaking any foreign languages. GCSE French doesn’t get you much further than a bag of croissants chucked at you by a grumpy boulanger. But as a trailing spouse, in my adult life I have had to learn three foreign languages. I shouldn’t say ‘had to’, because languages have enriched my life enormously. But it has been hard. It takes balls for us Brits and Americans to speak foreign languages, because we are so shit at it.
American humorist David Sedaris went to live in France for a while, to accompany his partner, and the essays in this book recount his humiliating adventures trying to learn French. Sedaris has a gift for finding the ridiculous in the mundane, extracting humour from minor calamities. This book was a great comfort to me when I was battling away with French, and it’s one of the few books I have read twice. Both times I cried with laughter throughout.
Possession: A Romance, by AS Byatt
A literary mystery and a dual timeline romantic adventure, what astounded me about this Booker-prize winning novel was the sheer audacity of its scope. Experimenting with nineteenth-century pastiche while weaving together two love stories, with Possession AS Byatt created novels within novels, poems within poems.. there’s so much intertextuality going on it makes your head spin. But it all comes together seamlessly and is pure pleasure to read. I love this book and its structure has had a big influence on my writing.
Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
In 1998 journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover in low-income America, taking minimum wage jobs to investigate the impact of the 1996 welfare reform act on the working poor. Constantly questioning her journalistic ethics along the way, she gained insights into the stress and exhaustion of low-wage work, and was frequently moved by the resourcefulness, and kindness, of people on the poverty line. This book may be a little out of date now since Western economies have changed a lot, and a new edition would be timely. But with the gap between rich and poor only widening, the ethos of the study is as important as ever. Most of us will never understand what it really means to struggle, but if we try, we can at least hope to be better voters and better people.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I read this on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Beijing. There’s no better place to read War and Peace than whilst stuck on a Russian train for a month, and there was probably no other moment in my life when I would have had the time. We stopped on our journey for amazing adventures in Siberia, Mongolia and China, but often I couldn’t wait to get back on the train to read my book! War and Peace is a commitment, but so worth it.
Reveries of the Solitary Walker, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
During my final year at university, I became ill with anorexia. Under immense pressure, and filled with remorse after two years of hard partying, I discovered that managing food and exercise was a great way to take charge of a life spinning out of control. It was a bizarre and unrepeated episode of depression that began with cutting out desserts, and descended into a determined course of starvation. I hid myself away, sometimes going for days without speaking to a soul, so that when people finally saw my skeletal frame they were visibly upset. I sort of knew I had a mental illness but took a perverse pleasure in the misery of it all.
One of the set texts for my exams was Reveries Of The Solitary Walker, an unfinished 1782 book by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The title is pretty self-explanatory – the philosopher extols the virtues of wandering about on your own, while musing on nature, education and philosophy. It’s beautiful – almost musical – and full of quotations you want to underline. Unfortunately I took Rousseau’s advice a bit too far. Instead of spending that year revising, I spent it wandering the streets, sometimes for six or seven hours at a time; always alone, always thinking about food, never eating. At night I was too hungry to sleep, too bony to get comfortable in bed, so I would get up and walk again through the dark city until dawn. The irony was that by the time I reached my finals, I was so weak I could barely walk to the Exam Schools. Thankfully my aggressive campaign of self-sabotage failed, because I passed my exams and recovered.
Twenty years later, I live in Rousseau’s birthplace of Geneva, and I am revisiting his work in happier circumstances. I still love walking for hours – in fact walking is central to my writing process – but now I listen to heavy metal and think about my children or the plot of my next novel, instead of calculating how many kernels of sweetcorn I’m allowed to eat that day. I can’t blame Rousseau for my anorexia, but philosopher dude you bring back some dark memories.
Death Of A Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
On the first day of our English GCSE course we were given this book by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I read it at home that evening, and thought ‘Well this is literally about frogs and bogs, I have zero interest.’ But then our excellent teacher showed us what these poems were really about – history and love and grief and geography and memory. This was the first time I had studied poetry, and my mind was opened to the magical, heart-breaking possibilities of just a few words. In 1995 Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas
I read this book under torchlight in the darkness of the Gynaecology Emergency Ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital. I was in horrific pain, awaiting an operation for the most absurd of my many lady-part disasters (one day I’ll write a death metal album about the travails of my uterus and people will think I’m depraved but it will all be true), and so, it appeared, were the five other women on the ward. Behind our curtains, all six of us moaned through the night, wired up to drips and machines so we couldn’t even waddle around to comfort each other.
I had two toddlers and a baby at the time so in fact, being struck with a life-threatening medical condition provided a nice opportunity to catch up on some reading, and for some reason I decided this would be the perfect time to read The Count Of Monte Cristo.
This adventure novel is so exciting, so romantic, so indulgent, it’s like discovering the best Netflix series ever and binge-watching. I was pumped full of morphine which probably gave it an extra trippy vibe too. Edmund Dantes is my ultimate literary crush. He takes revenge on his enemies by complex yet subtle means, watching them destroy themselves with their own flaws.
I love literary pilgrimages, and last year I finally made the journey to Chateau d’If outside Marseilles, the location of Dantes’ imprisonment and daring escape.
Many authors have attempted re-tellings of this story, me included. My first attempt at a novel – entitled The Veilmaker – is a modern version of The Count Of Monte Cristo which is password-protected on my laptop and shall never see the light of day.
A Way Of Being, by Carl Rogers
I studied the work of psychotherapist Carl Rogers when I was training as a breastfeeding counsellor. I am naturally a rubbish counsellor because I’m super-awkward, with a terrible habit of not listening to people because I’m too busy panicking about what I’m going to say next. But I have always been drawn inexorably to do things I am bad at, hence my latest vocation as a death metal vocalist.
Anyway, Carl Rogers – he teaches you how to listen. Really listen – to make the people around you feel valued. With each page of this book, his person-centred approach makes you realise what a crap person you have been all this time, and how you can be a better person. It’s like being hugged and told everything is going to be ok.
I’m not a counsellor anymore – so the postnatal women of the UK can breathe a sigh of relief. But I try and remind myself of Carl Rogers’ techniques as much as I can.
Skallagrigg, by William Horwood
I found a copy of the out-of-print Skallagrigg in my mother-in-law’s house, and I was drawn to it because as a child I had been obsessed with William Horwood’s epic Duncton Wood series. Duncton was like Lord of the Rings for moles, and it was well over 1000 pages. I read it twice in a row. 2000 pages about mole warriors – that’s the type of child I was. Anyway Skallagrigg is completely different – it tells the story of a girl with cerebral palsy who becomes a genius computer programmer, building a game which conceals a secret world linking disabled people in a mythical support society. The gaming technology aspects of this book are long out of date, although Horwood had a lot of foresight into how technology would help to empower disabled people. And it is this empowerment of the disabled characters – living, loving, achieving – which is the most important aspect of the book. The dual timeline mystery is also brilliantly done. After I read this book I discovered that William Horwood wrote the book in honour of his own daughter with cerebral palsy. I also discovered, just after leaving Oxford, that he had been living a few doors down from me. I could have been bothering him about moles this whole time.
So that’s it… sorry to the many beloved books that didn’t make the final cut. I could easily have written another 5 or 6 of these lists.
Wait – I’m a crime fiction author and there are no crime novels here – what does that mean??!
SOUND is released for Kindle on 3rd October, and the paperback is available now.