Archive | December, 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Five

19 Dec

When I kicked off this series of posts, I listed the eight books that I’d take with me but didn’t justify their inclusion. I didn’t think much about it. That’s the game. I just grabbed them and ran. As I’ve already remarked, there are at least a hundred others I might have chosen, but these were the first that came to mind. And my three guests so far have chosen another five that I might well have taken (Lord of the Flies, The End of the Affair, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The titles that I’ve chosen have all influenced my own writing, in one way or another. And they reflect the global nature of my reading tastes. There are just two by my fellow countrymen and they’re both from the 1940s. There are as many entries by Czech authors, which perhaps says something about the desultory state of the literary scene in my homeland. The list is completed by a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Argentinian. And yes, I do read work by modern writers too but nothing comparatively recent popped into my head at that moment (I might have taken Alva and Irva, say, or The Savage Detectives – damn it, I wish I had now…). Three of my choices are novellas and who now publishes those? Come on, all you British publishers, stop being so hidebound. Anyway, here goes.


A reminder of my eight selections…

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec is my favourite book of all time. I can’t begin to do justice to its splendours. Perec sub-titled it ‘Novels’ and it does indeed feel equivalent to about ten other novels. The characters, the descriptions of the apartment block in which it’s set, the picaresque tales and their interconnectedness, the wordplay and bad jokes… Excuse me for five days while I go off and read it again.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is the literary equivalent of a Tardis. Calvino was blessed with a rich and strange imagination. Reading the descriptions of the imaginary cities in this novella, all of which are also Venice in some sense, is a transporting experience. And the exchanges between Marco Polo (the narrator) and Kublai Khan (the audience) are extremely funny. I introduced it to the last reading group of which I was a member. They hated it. 

I’ve read two other novels by Joseph Heller, but for me, his début, Catch-22 towers above them. I know that this reaction caused annoyance to Heller but who couldn’t be happy with having written one of the most enduring works of the twentieth century? After all, that’s one book more than most of us will ever write. Hilarious and savage, angry and resigned, it’s up there among my favourite American novels along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Confederacy of Dunces

Each of the short stories in Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges could have been a novel in itself, but Borges chose to compose a vast canon in miniature instead. His tales work like those food pills that astronauts used to take with them into space. This collection bears reading again and again. The stories are surreal, funny and unique. Borges was poking fun at the very idea of writing and storytelling, yet wrote magically while doing so. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a modern masterwork – droll, urbane and moving. Reading this complex and fully imagined book proves a totally immersive experience. I got lost in it for days. I bought my mother a copy for Christmas and it had the same effect on her. 

I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell countless times. This little book is very nearly perfect. It’s almost impossible to think of any way in which it could be improved. Every sentence is crafted with beautiful economy. Though the characters are archetypes they’re also unforgettable. The intelligence behind the book is phenomenal. Even the ending is unimprovable. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. 

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner is the least well known of the books on my list. It’s a ripping yarn and at the same time a serious reflection on the nature and exercise of power. As with Orwell, the writing is flawless. Anyone who wishes to learn how to craft a sentence need look no further. And as with all of the books on this list, it’s also seriously funny. Here are my favourite lines, spoken by the Flight Lieutenant to the narrator: “I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man. 

Like Animal Farm, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is pretty much perfect. This is dark, ultra-modern über-comedy, the meaning of which is always just out of reach. Kafka remains the undisputed master of the opening and closing sentence. Consider the beginning of Metamorphosis, at once horrific and killingly funny. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.  


Viinsbørg Smetz has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items…

And let us not forget the choices made by the man responsible for this series, Viinsbørg Smetz. ‘Whom?’ I hear you ask. Ah, well, you haven’t met Smetz yet as you’ve haven’t read my latest novel. Come to that, I haven’t finished writing it yet either.

Viinsbørg Smetz, occupant of Compartment 45D-4, has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items. Like his fellow residents, Smetz left his apartment in great haste. He has copies of the Rail Noorskii national timetable and the nuunoorskiidikktjonaar (the standard reference work on our language, still as yet incomplete). The remaining books – works in translation, for the most part – are an eclectic mix of the literary and the popular. And so Steppenwolf and Anna Karenina by Hermann Hesse and Count Tolstoy respectively sit alongside Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. There are a couple of plays also, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Peetrus Paanis by J M Barrie. Two further works for children, Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales complete the collection.

Place yourself in Smetz’s position. Which books will you save? You must make up your mind swiftly. The train will be leaving soon. Time is of the essence. You’ll be given a copy of nooriisjaanrr, the sagas that relate collectively the history of our country, and a dictionary (Noorskii to English, French, German, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin). The other eight items are yours to choose. You must hurry, though. It’s a difficult if not impossible task. Perhaps you’ll still be there, long after the final call to passengers has been made, running your eye across the shelves in your apartment, running your finger along the spines, stricken by inertia, unable to choose which books to take and which to leave behind…


The only extant photograph of Viinsbørg Smetz

 All text and images © PSR 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Four

13 Dec

It’s my pleasure to welcome the third of my guests, talking to me about the eight books that they’d salvage from their collections if they had to leave home in a hurry. And this time, it’s the turn of Tamar Hela. Tamar very kindly interviewed me over on her blog at so I was  pleased to be able to return the favour and invite her onto my blog.

As with all of my interviewees so far, Tamar has been writing since an early age, ten in her case. That’s nearly twenty years, she tells me and she’s been doing so professionally now for the last four years. So what has she completed thus far? “I have written all kinds of things,” she says. “I’ve written poems and have had one published. I have also written a young adult novel, Feast Island, which came out last year and is about to be re-released this month. I also blog on a personal blog and write health articles at” Tamar gained valuable writing experience while working in education and marketing. And while she enjoys writing in the fantasy and young adult genres, she is currently working on a dystopian novel aimed at adults.

I was interested to know how she goes about her writing. “I am becoming more disciplined with setting aside writing time every day,” she says. “After all, it’s now my means of income since I decided to go freelance. Even if I’m not working on one of my books, I am writing something—a blog post, an article, copy for a client, etc.” And it turns out that she shares one of my writing habits. “I like to write at coffee shops,” she tells me, “because I am less distracted there than at my home office.”

Tamar says that C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series were a “huge influence” when she was growing up. Stephenie Meyer proved influential for different reasons. “When I read the Twilight series years ago, I thought: ‘Okay, this is a decent book, but there are better things out there—why don’t I give writing a go too and see if I can become published?'” 

And what about the future? “I have quite a few novels in the works,” she answers. “Either they have a few pages or synopses written, or exist as a few phrases I jotted down in a notebook so I don’t forget. I would love to be able to earn enough from my fictional works so I can pay the rent and travel whenever I’d like (ah, wouldn’t we all?). I would also love to get into travel writing. Something you learn as you move forward in any career is that overnight success happens as a result of years of planning and preparation. I’m getting closer and closer to that success, I think!”

So let’s move onto Tamar’s choices. A novel by one of my favourite authors features on Tamar’s wide-ranging list (my copy is signed by the Nobel Prize winner himself!) alongside one for whom I have a real blind-spot and others that I’ve never heard of and shall be tracking down…

B and N Poster T

Tamar puts her background in marketing to good use…

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

When I was 10, I started reading Little Women during my Christmas break from school. I continued to do so, every year, into my late teens. I loved the story and was very enthusiastic about the length—it’s very long (in case you’ve never read it). I loved the real life circumstances the book portrayed and fell in love with all of the characters.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

I could read this book over and over until the Apocalypse. Seriously. I love the romance that builds between two very different people, and courtship and romantic drama during the 1800s are quite fascinating. Being rude to someone by using clever language is a lost art form.

The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

I enjoy a good devotional every now and then, and this book is quite exceptional. If you don’t affiliate with Christianity/Catholicism, then it may not be for you, but I expect that deep thinkers and philosophical types would enjoy it as well. The book is very short (I think 120 pages or so?), but it took me about eight months to get through—it’s that deep.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

This is an interesting take on Hell and/or Purgatory and Heaven. I used to teach through this book with my eighth grade students when I taught religion classes. The imagery is very well done, and come on: it’s Lewis for goodness sake. He really makes the reader think, and I love that.

Taliesin (Book 1 of the Pendragon Cycle) by Stephen R. Lawhead

You like Medieval settings? Check. You want battles and gore? Check. Romance and suspense? Check. Amazing mythology with real-life hardship? Double check. This book begins a King Arthur series and marks the beginning of my life-long romance with fantasy fiction. I read this book in junior high, even though it’s an adult book. I am still just as in love with it 20 years later. So, so good. The best King Arthur mythology I’ve ever encountered.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I actually like this book better than The Three Musketeers, and I love The Three Musketeers! I think the revenge factor and crazy plot twists are what made me become obsessed with this book. I first came across it in high school and read it one summer—just for fun. One of the best book discoveries I’ve ever had.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

You know those books where you go back and re-read scenes because you can’t get enough? THIS book was like that for me. A writer friend recommended it to me just this past summer and I fell in love! I am anxiously anticipating the third and final installment of this series, due out in January of next year. I hate waiting.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I admit that my imagination can be twisted at times, which is why this is my final choice. Lord of the Flies is one of the very few “required reading” books I actually read in its entirety in high school. With me being an avid reader, lover of books, and a writer, you’d think I would have read all the assigned books. I shamefully admit that I hated most of the “classics” and read notes on the night before my exams rather than actually read the books. But LOTF was a winner in my mind—and I read it from beginning to end! The corruption, the suspense, the gritty gore—I loved it all! It gave me chills as I neared the end and I enjoyed the thrill of the story.

It only remains for me to thank Tamar for sharing her book choices with me and to wish her good luck with her writing and a cool Yule. Happy reading!

Photo © Tamar Hela 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Three

2 Dec

And so we come to the second guest to take up my challenge of saving just eight books from her collection, Mari Biella. Mari is another of those people who seems always to have been writing. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing in one way or another,” she tells me, “and my mother still has a number of embarrassing childhood poems and stories to prove it! However, I began writing seriously and consistently in my early twenties.” So what has she produced in this time? Mostly ‘honourable failures’ she says. “Projects that never really worked out, and were eventually abandoned. However, I’ve written one novel, The Quickening, and am putting the finishing touches to a collection consisting of a novella (see interviewer’s comment below) and three short stories.”

One quality that my interviewees have in common when it comes to writing is a generosity of spirit. And so Mari has very kindly read and commented on the manuscripts for my war novel and a novella that I wrote a while back. She has also read the final draft of the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag (as has Lauren Sapala). And I’ve had the privilege to read the novella to which she is currently putting the finishing touches. I found it  a compulsive read. The idea is haunting, the characters memorable and the writing beautiful. Mari has a pleasing formality of style. It’s definitely a work that deserves to reach a wide audience. You can catch a flavour of her writing over at

Her approach to writing is practical and non-doctrinaire. “I like to experiment with different styles, subjects and genres,” she says. “I don’t have one distinct voice, but many voices. I write in the quietest corner of the house, whenever I can get away from the demands made by the day job and the dog.” As for the future, Mari says that she wants to “keep writing, keep trying, and become the best writer I can possibly be.” You can’t argue with that.

Mari says that she was initially influenced by the great Victorian novelists in her late teens and early twenties, reading them obsessively. And now? “The writers who have influenced me most profoundly include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys and Joseph Conrad.” What about her choices, then?

My initial premise, based on a passage from my work-in-progress was this – if you had to leave your home in a hurry and could save only eight of those books, which ones would they be? The exercise leaves Mari unnerved. “It’s a question to make a bibliophile quiver. Just eight? How could I possibly choose just eight, and leave all the others behind?” Ah, but that’s the point! “It’s an interesting hypothetical exercise,” she concedes, “forcing you to select the books that have meant most to you: the books that have influenced you, changed your perspective, inspired and perhaps even dismayed you. The books that crept into your mind, took hold of it, and refused to leave. The kind of books, in short, that might help to sustain you in a period of exile.” And as with Lauren’s choice, there are two books on Mari’s list that would have made it onto mine, had I been in a different mood when I compiled it.


Mari takes us on a magic carpet ride through her choices

One of the books that I’d instinctively grasp would, I think, be Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. This slender volume is more than a prequel to Jane Eyre: it’s a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, focusing on the marginal (and marginalised) character of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. Rhys restores Bertha’s humanity and voice, retelling the story of her catastrophic trajectory from the bright but ill-starred Antoinette Cosway to the deranged Mrs Rochester.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for all its efforts to represent outsiders – orphans, women, the dispossessed – also echoes the voice of the dominant Victorian ethos. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, the moral earnestness and clear Victorian story arc of Brontë’s novel are traded for a shifting version of reality, recounted in lush patois. European narrative and rationalism are replaced by Voodoo. This is more than just a tragic love story: it’s also a meditation on the disastrous possibilities latent in personal relationships, on belonging and alienation, and on Europe’s disastrous relations with its colonies.

Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is another story of ill-fated love. A heady brew of passion, loss, jealousy and Catholicism, it is set against the backdrop of war-torn London, and concerns the adulterous love affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, who is married to a dull but dependable Civil Servant. God has no business being involved in this seething love triangle, but one night – following an air raid, and Sarah’s desperate prayer that Bendrix’s life be spared – He is suddenly, unshakably there. And He won’t shift, with the result that much of the story is acted out in the queasy borderlands between sexual and religious passion. Arguably the novel is less about love than Bendrix’s search for his soul, and his journey from denying God to acknowledging Him, albeit grudgingly: ‘I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.’ And yet it really is about love, too: love in all its splendour and squalor. Love that doesn’t shy away from its flipside, hate.

Love, hate and betrayal also figure prominently in my next choice, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is an antidote to every absurd Bond film ever made. George Smiley, le Carré’s fictional spymaster, doesn’t engage in high-speed powerboat chases or similarly unfeasible stunts; instead, he locks himself away in grimy London hotels and thinks. Far from being a Casanova, he’s a cuckold, and a notorious one at that; everyone seems to know about his wife’s infidelities. Instead of having a Bond girl, he has the sharp, brilliant, pitiful Connie Sachs. His nemesis is not a cackling, deranged Bond villain, but the enigmatic, unknowable Karla. And instead of the simplistic, black-and-white moral universe of Bond, there is a treacherous world of shifting loyalties, shaky principles and moral variables.

Another treacherous world is evoked in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. On the surface, the novella resembles a classic haunted house tale: there is a lonely mansion, and a secret from the past that refuses to die. What makes The Turn of the Screw different is that the mystery here exists on two distinct levels. There is the question of what is happening in the house, primarily as it relates to the governess-narrator’s two young charges; there is also the no less urgent question of what is happening in the governess’s own mind. Is she a heroine, fighting to protect her pupils from an evil presence? Or is she an unbalanced, troubled woman, projecting her internal psychosexual drama onto the blank screen of her surroundings? Is it the house that is haunted, or her mind, or both?

Riddles also abound in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. A brief summary of the plot (if a plot so dense and multi-layered can be summarised) might provoke some rolling eyes and weary sighs. Ancient conspiracies involving the occult, secret societies, and the ubiquitous Knights Templar? How very Dan Brown! However, in Foucault’s Pendulum, the conspiracy exists as a plot device rather than a serious proposition; in fact, the novel may be viewed as a satire of outlandish conspiracy theories. Every last scintilla of Eco’s considerable erudition is employed here, making for a plot so tangled that Anthony Burgess famously remarked that it needed an index. It’s not for everyone; indeed, I’ve known a few people who’ve thrown it across the room, figuratively speaking (probably).

From the fantastic to the all-too-ordinary … Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is a tale of a suburban marriage, squandered dreams, and disappointment. Frank and April Wheeler, once bright young things, are trapped in a bland, boring existence in a Connecticut suburb. This is especially painful for a couple who want to believe that they are true revolutionaries, forever questioning the assumptions and attitudes of their more conservative neighbours, but who ultimately have to face the possibility that they’re really just like everyone else. Their bid to escape, based on the common (and commonly mistaken) belief that redemption, greatness and happiness are just around the corner, leads to their ultimate, terrible tragedy.

Several shared themes link Revolutionary Road with another candidate for the title of ‘the Great American Novel’, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s tale is another unnerving exploration of the American Dream, as well as a parable about the capitalist dream-nightmare and the excesses of the Jazz Age. In Jay Gatsby’s glittering world, God and Mammon have become inextricably entwined; his romantic and spiritual yearnings are played out on a starkly materialistic level. The dream is unworthy of the dreamer – a common predicament, and one that makes The Great Gatsby, though set in a certain time and milieu, universal in its relevance and power. The novella is also about the contrast between America’s pioneering past and mercenary present, and an ode to its undying optimism.

With my eighth choice, I feel like I’ve come full circle. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is, like Wide Sargasso Sea, a meditation on colonialism. Yet Marlow’s journey into the ‘dark heart’ of Africa is also something far more frightening: an exploration of the dark heart of humanity. Barbarism and civilisation, racism and Imperialism, all come in for scrutiny in the novella’s pages. The mysterious Kurtz, whose ostensible purpose was to bring civilisation to Africans, turns out to be not just a madman, but a cruel one: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ The common notion of the time – of Europeans bringing light into Africa’s dark heart – is turned on its head: the Europeans have brought the darkness (‘The horror! The horror!’) into Africa with them.

So there you have it, another fascinating set of choices and yet more titles to add to those Christmas lists. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mari for taking the time and trouble to participate in my exercise and for submitting herself to my questioning. Happy reading!

Photo © Mari Biella 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Two

1 Dec

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve invited some of my favourite bloggers to share with us the books that they’d reprieve from their collections if they could save only eight of them. First up is Lauren Sapala. Lauren has an excellent blog crammed with practical advice and inspiring ideas for writing. It can be found at Before choosing her eight books, I asked Lauren to tell us a little about her writing.

I started by asking her how long she’d been writing. “Since I was a child,” she told me, “but I started seriously writing in 2006.” To date she’s written four novels and a short story collection and is working now on a fifth novel. I asked her how she’d describe her writing style and subject matter. “I write dark autobiographical fiction, and dark literary fiction. My writing deals primarily with addiction, alcoholism, and psychological dysfunction.” And where did she see her writing heading in the future? “I see myself writing literary fiction exclusively,” she said. “I may revisit the autobiographical material, but it will be much more ‘fictionalized’ than it ever has been before.”

Lauren cites her major influences as Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Andre Gide. Her fascinating list contains a book that’d be in my top twenty and another by one of my favourite authors. There’s even a Hungarian author on there (I’ve read a few books from that country myself just recently). Below are the eight books that Lauren chose.

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Lauren contemplates the eight books that she’s been keeping under hat…

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. 

Chosen for: Hero Worship.

The protagonist McMurphy is larger than life and almost unsinkable.

Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet

Chosen for: Beauty

Divine is a ragged drag queen hooker who only gives her heart away to pimps and criminals. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

The White Album – Joan Didion

Chosen for: Time and Place

All about California in the 1960s. The Beatles make an appearance, Charles Manson shows up, etc. Riveting and eye-opening.

2666 – Roberto Bolano

Chosen for: Complexity of Interwoven Narrative

I cannot even attempt to explain this extraordinary book. But it’s magic and everyone should read it. If you only read one book this year, this should be it.

The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chosen for: Layered meaning

I’ve read this book a few times and my experience is that it changes according to whatever stage of life the reader is in. Also, Dostoyevsky’s insight into the human spirit in this particular narrative is mind-blowing.

Cane – Jean Toomer

Chosen for: Transport of the Soul

This is another one that I can’t describe. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s the only book Toomer ever wrote, it’s about the American South in the 1930s, and it’s beyond beautiful.

Book of Memories – Peter Nadas

Chosen for: Richness and Texture

Hungarian history, dark and perverse family dynamics, violent desire between lovers—this book is a feast of emotion, pain, and suffering.

Walden – Henry David Thoreau

Chosen for: Spiritual Guidance

A classic that I put off reading until the age of 35, and now I wish I had read it sooner. The outer structure of the narrative carries us through the four seasons, and the deeper levels of the book carry us through the cycle of life.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s an eclectic and intriguing list – and just in time for your Xmas shopping lists too. I’d like to thank Lauren for sharing her choices with us. Happy reading!

Photo © Lauren Sapala 2013