There is a thing going around social media at the moment about ten books that have stayed with you. I’ve been asked for mine now by a couple of different people (and it’s a much nicer thing to be hit up for than, f’rexample, throwing a bucket of ice water over one’s head).
I picked them quickly, as I was instructed to do so, and then I rambled a lot about them. Really, hands up anyone who’s surprised that I talk too much to keep this on Facebook? Nobody? Okay, then.
1. The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coehlo
Paulo Coehlo is better known for The Alchemist, but this slightly lesser known book is a novel with a worthwhile story and an interesting structure, meandering as it does among the point of view of its protagonist and the various characters who pass through her life, none of whom, including Anthea, have the whole story.
But actually it stays with me for one section, told in the voice of her Catholic priest shortly after Anthea has divorced her husband:
One day, all that will matter is love and Christ’s words: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I’ve devoted my entire life to the priesthood and I don’t regret my decision for one second. However, there are times, like that Sunday, when, although I didn’t doubt my faith, I did doubt men.
I like to imagine that, when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded just because of a piece of paper she’d signed, something of no importance on the spiritual plane, and which was of interest only to registry offices and the tax man. And, looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied: “My child, I’ve been excluded too. It’s a very long time since they’ve allowed me in there.”
2. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
I think that the Harry Potter phenomenon sometimes makes it easy to forget what these books were all about: about courage and friendship and loyalty; about that there are some things you can’t accomplish without ending up liking each other and that one of them is knocking out a twelve foot mountain troll; about all the people, Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody and George Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks and Cedric Diggory, all of them, who were honest and brave and true right to the very end; about unlikely heroes and people who can change; and about good and evil, and the victory of light over darkness and the shades of grey in the middle.
3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Saffran Foer
The story of a boy whose father was killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
I don’t know objectively how good of a book Extremely Loud is. My memory is that it’s a bit heavy-handed and mawkish in its sentimentality, and I’ve never been moved to re-read it to find out if I was right. But I read this in New York in the same week I saw for the first time the still-smoking crater of the World Trade Center and that’s the sort of thing that stays with you.
4. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
I have a friend who claims that my mother is Mrs Durrell, and the thing is that she’s probably right.
I am not allowed to read this in public. We read it in English lessons when I was in Year 8, and on many occasions the reading had to be paused while the class gazed, bewildered, as I screamed with laughter and wept tears of pure hilarity.
“Why keep in touch with them; that’s what I want to know,” asked Larry despairingly. “What satisfaction does it give you? They’re all either fossilized or mental.”
“Indeed, they’re not mental,” said Mother indignantly.
“Nonsense, Mother… Look at Aunt Bertha, keeping flocks of imaginary cats… and there’s Great Uncle Patrick, who wanders about in the nude and tells complete strangers how he killed whales with a pen-knife… They’re all bats.
“Well, they’re queer; but they’re all very old, and so they’re bound to be. But they’re not mental,” explained Mother, adding candidly, “Anyway, not enough to be put away.”
5. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind by Roy Porter
I have an A-level in British and European History, which, when you take the content of it as a whole, probably says a frightening amount about the person I am.
The syllabus was framed in such a way that it mostly means I have an A-level in the history of the Protestant churches of Europe and the Church of England, but there was a divergent part to it which allowed students to choose their own subject for their upper sixth coursework. The question I set for myself was: “The years 1901 to 1948 were a golden age for public health medicine in the United Kingdom. Discuss.” I covered the development of sanitation and the Public Health Act, the influence of triage medicine and war medicine during the First and Second World Wars, and the advent of the NHS. (I would find plenty of holes in it to poke now, I’m sure, but it is the thing I most regret losing when that laptop went blue-screen-of-death.) Roy Porter’s book covers, in broad strokes, the whole history of medicine starting, I recollect, from the ancient people of Greek and Egypt, and I hope one day to get hold of a copy of my own, but the chapters on the early twentieth century informed the bulk of my background reading when I started answering that question.
6. The Wrong Messiah by Nick Page
This is my go-to book in Holy Week, and I associate it with reading the last chapter while sitting on the freezing cold tiles at the back of church during the Vigil. It’s a historical examination of the life of the son of a carpenter, about why he would have been the very last person anyone would have chosen to make Messianic claims to front a new religion/cult/political movement and why that means that we know he was for real. It’s also a beautifully painted and intricate portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, of the life he led and the mission he had and, ultimately, the death he died.
7. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
I would read a shopping list if it was written by Sebastian Faulks. When I was at Durham, I had a long-standing friendly disagreement with my College principal about our respective preferences for Birdsong and for Charlotte Grey. This was the first time I’d read Faulks. I think it was the first time as an adult that I’d read any war literature at all — coming at it with a teenager’s memory of being struck, deeply and immuteably, even now, by a school visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium. I finished it at 4am, sprawled out on the bed of my first year room in halls, snotty and weeping, the sun rising over the Tees out the window as my mind struggled to climb out of the trenches. My experience of reading Birdsong was not unlike my experience of seeing War Horse, one night that hit me so deeply in the gut I’ve been reluctant to go back to it for fear that it couldn’t possibly be so perfect the second time around.
Stephen looked down at the floor of the German trench. He could not grasp what had happened. Four years that had lasted so long it seemed that time had stopped. All the men he had seen killed, their bodies, their wounds. Michael. His pale face emerging from his burrow underground. Byrne. The tens of thousands who had gone down with him that summer morning. He did not know what to do. He did not know how to reclaim his life.
8. Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg
This is a coming-of-age story. It is about growing up and falling in love and poetry and making mistakes and New York in the fall. It’s like Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, except that (1) the protagonist is a woman, (2) the protagonist is a lesbian, and (3) the story is, fabulously, not actually about either of those things. It is wonderfully well written. It wasn’t marketed as LGBT fiction and at that time of my life I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it had been.
If you want to believe in serendipidity: I picked it almost entirely at random in the WHSmiths in Newcastle Central at 5am, when I realised that I had no book and an eight hour round trip ahead of me to a medical school interview. And for a seventeen-year-old who didn’t know what to think about her own sexuality and wasn’t used to seeing people like me in the books I read or the television I watched or the films I saw, it was an incredibly important book.
I plan to learn enough to read you like a book.
I plan to give this book to you and know you’ll read it,
so our minds may meet across these pages,
in the colourful country of another writer’s language,
where we can flourish in the knowledge
that we are learning how to speak to one another.
9. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
This is simply a proper good read, for people who like to curl up on wet Saturdays with a decent pot of coffee and a couple of cats and a massive story.
It has Victorian London and intrigue and a prostitute called Sugar and the Church (and Charles Darwin setting it all of a flap, and you do know how I like to set the Church all of a flap). I read it years before the BBC series was even thought of and I find that I don’t want to see it, ever, none of it, no matter how good everyone tells me it is, because there are some books so fantastic that I refuse to allow someone else’s imagination in.
10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
You’ve heard of magic realism (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for reference, and The Green Mile, a bit). I think that this is what science fiction realism would look like if that were a genre, but don’t let that put you off.
I’m going to torture a metaphor for a little bit, via being an enormous nerd: the Doctor once told Amy and Rory Pond about a thing that has been there for as long as there’s been something in the corner of your eye or creaking in your house or breathing under your bed or voices under a wall. That’s how I remember the secret in Never Let Me Go. You will know from the beginning of Chapter 1 that there is something going on that you don’t know about, something that isn’t quite right, something simmering under the surface, something right there in the corner of your eye. And then you will find out what it is. And it will break your heart.