Jess C’s Favourite Book

I won’t pretend I wasn’t the tiniest bit pretentious about reading The Hunger Games.

Before we get to the book itself, let’s just dwell a minute on the choice, which I think is delightfully honest. It’s an odd thing that when someone asks us to name our favourite book we make an immediate attempt to appear as intellectual and well-read as possible. Something obscure and fairly heavy going is usually a good choice, but here we have Jess, whom I happen to know to be rather well-read in all manner of texts, choosing a big, commercial sensation novel. As she has it, it’s popular for a reason, and it’s interesting that what is easy to see after the event as a sweeping craze of publicity, when told through the eyes of one of the discoverers who made it happen, quickly becomes a quite compelling story of whispered internet-age excitement. Were I in touch enough with popular culture at the time, I certainly would have read this emerging novel with eager anticipation, but as someone much more used to dusty Penguin classics, I only heard about it after it was popular (a filthy word) and so preferred to sit in my armchair by the fire sneering at it with my Beagle. What I’m saying is, this is Jess’ favourite book because she’s cool, and I was awful about it because I’m not.

My awfulness was completely unwarranted. The Hunger Games is a novel written for the teen market, certainly, but it does exactly what teen fiction is meant to do and throws open some big themes and thoughts for the reader to investigate as they wish. As Jess and I took a turn around the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, we used the book as a springboard for discussion of capitalist crises, media ugliness, feminist subversion, trauma theory and tropes of American Gothic fiction. I think that’s really rather excellent, don’t you?

Against the backdrop of of a turbo-generator in the Electricity Gallery Jess told me how the book had caught her attention and set her thinking about the more morbid aspects of contemporary society, specifically the idea of concentrated power in the hands of a small percentage of people. Jess is also an avid fan of a good gore-flick and cites Tarantino films as an object of great enthusiasm. Ten minutes previously we’d been in the Experiment Room being big kids (Jess laughing at me as I grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to put together a trapezium from smaller shapes, then me laughing in amazement as Jess effortlessly demonstrated the solution to the Tower of Hanoi puzzle I’d been scratching my head at), and now here we were discussing society’s depressing decay. I hate to go over old ground, but I seem to have found yet another person who can light up a room just by her sheer, natural, positive energy, who secretly revels in reading and watching some pretty dark stuff.

As we moved around to the 1830 Warehouse, discussion got a little more literary. One of the great things about The Hunger Games is that Collins knows her market isn’t one for going in depth with literary theory, but isn’t afraid to throw some serious stuff in nonetheless. The scariest part of the arena is a large, desolate, open space where no one (except Thresh, who spends most of his time lurking there, adding to the terror) dares roam. Katniss is appalled more than once at how everyone outside the Games sees it as personal to them, in a sort of “Where were you when..?” style. These are key points in American Gothic fiction and trauma theory respectively, and both feature very prominently. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book for me was that Katniss spends most of her time rescuing a sniveling, helpless boy – Peeta – whom she struggles to fall in love with even if she tries. She’s a really powerful female character, and that’s incredibly heartening to see in a successful teen novel.

I can see why this is Jess’ favourite book. Her point is that it’s overrated and underrated all at once, or perhaps underestimated is a better word. Yes it’s caught the attention of the media and the general public, but under an analytical mind like hers there’s some really interesting and important stuff to be gotten out of it, along with a good, fast-paced and entertaining plot line (which may or may not owe a lot to Battle Royale, but that’s beyond my remit to go into). Any criticism I tried to level at it was met with such genuine politeness and a kind listening before being gently pushed away with the kind of passionate logic that Jess really is an expert at.

A great day out with a wonderfully engaging person talking about a book that, by the end of it all, I couldn’t help but like in spite of my pretentious snap judgments, this one was a treat from start to finish.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, Jess wanted a picture that didn’t show her face, so I’ve chosen this one in which she was temporarily obscured by a passing cloud


Jess’ Favourite Book

It seems almost a shame to be writing this entry now as, alas, I have missed my opportunity to speak to its’ recommender, as she’s departed for a far-away university. Nevertheless, despite it’s deviation from method and form, this is an important blog for me to write as it was the first Favourite Book I bought, and in many ways launched the project.

The Book Thief was something I’d heard of and when Jess then recommended it without any hesitation before suddenly turning slightly sheepish to mumble a caveat that “it’s a bit of a weird book to be a favourite” I knew I was onto a winner. It’s set in Nazi Germany and it’s narrated by death. It’s emotional, powerful and beautifully written. It now makes my list as one of my favourite books.

I kept it a while, if I’m honest, after I bought it. You’ll notice a theme throughout these pages of books I never would have read by myself but The Book Thief bucks that trend: it’s very much something I would pick off the self and choose to read. For that reason, it sat a while at the bottom of my pile of Favourite Books as a reward for starting those I was less inclined to push on with. When I finally reached it, it did not disappoint.

For a hefty book, it’s a quick read. I think that’s down to a combination of the really outstanding little narrative break-ups in the text (I don’t quite know how to explain these, but find Markus Zusak next time you’re in a book shop and flick through the book yourself, you’ll see what I mean) and the fact that the book is an absolute page-turner. It slows down a little coming into the final quarter but it’s a necessary gear change for the lasting impression of the ending.

I wish I’d had the chance to have a discussion with Jess about this book, because once again it’s a dark, powerful novel about death and suffering recommended by someone with a contagious laugh and a smile that makes you happy, and I’m becoming absolutely facinated by what makes people so attracted to a book that is so far distanced from the impression I have of them. Does The Book Thief show Jess’ rosy, good-natured effervescence to be a facade? Or does it provide an outlet that enables the continued success of her vivacious character? When Megan recommends In Cold Blood or Charlie recommends Birdsong – are we seeing a darker side of them or just an engagment in the darker side of human nature specifically to distance themselves further from it? Or maybe it’s just that all of the greatest books are about really nasty stuff.

Anyway, enough lamentation on missed opportunities – it’s an exquisite book and Jess, if you’re reading, thanks for sending it my way. Just between you and I, it’s been my favourite Favourite Book so far.

Paul’s Favourite Book

It was a rare occasion. My colleague and friend Paul and I had somehow ended up with the same day off. Being as how we see each other every other day of the week, I guess we figured our joint day off shouldn’t be any different. Paul showed me the sights of the city of Manchester, if by sights you mean the insides of dozen pubs and couple of curry houses, and it was a delightful day. And so it was that in the commercial heart of the city, taking in the fine weather outside Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, discussion turned to Gang Leader For A Day.

Paul had given me the book as a birthday gift as he’d heard I “had an interest in reading peoples’ favourite books”, and faithfully I leapt into it. It’s the second time on this project that my recommender has been male and it’s the second work of non-fiction I’ve been given. It’s the story, in the first-person, of Sudhir Venkatesh, who in his pursuit of sociological greatness ended up spending an awful lot of time with a terrifying man named J.T. and his gang, the Black Kings at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. It’s got funny bits and shocking bits and kind-of-sad bits. It’s really surprisingly thorough for such a small volume.

Paul originally read it as a comparison for an essay with another book called Cop In The Hood, which I’m reliably informed isn’t quite so excellent. Since then he’s read in a good few times and dishes copies out on a fairly regular basis in confidence that everyone will find something in it.

Personally, I found it interesting. There was a lot of insight into gang and street-corner culture that was lent an emotional hue by the autobiographical style of writing. Venkatesh references his more academic write-ups of his time in the Robert Taylor Homes and although Paul greatly desires to read his analysis of the gang’s accounting figures (most famously referenced in the ever-popular Freakonomics), I have no such urge. I enjoyed the easy, friendly tone of the text; it enabled me to enjoy a sociological experience without having to academically pick apart a study.

At times, I feel, the book veered into bravado. The foreword claims Sudhir to be a fearless explorer of the frightful, dangerous subcultures in society, and whilst I certainly agree that I couldn’t do what he did, I still feel like there are passages (and only passages, mind) that are included almost exclusively so that Venkatesh can remind us how brave he is and was. Paul and I, on this point, are both torn. The man has a right to brag – he walked into the Robert Taylor Homes and ingratiated himself with the residents in spite of gang culture prevalent there, however we are both agreed that the book’s truly brilliant moments are when Sudhir is just plain naïve. There’s something significantly more charming about walking into a danger zone when the person involved is doing so completely blinkered to the precariousness of his situation.

It wasn’t long before discussion left Gang Leader For A Day and became about Paul’s lasting interest in street corner culture. He’s a fascinating person to speak to on the subject, and I recommend doing so should ever you meet. There’s a simultaneous fear, beguilement and admiration to it. As Paul says, he loves to read about it, and finds it utterly incredible, but is very glad that it takes part a long way outside of his own world. It’s captivating and alluring to read about, seductive almost, but the thought of being part of it shatters any romanticised illusions one may have. I think if we’re honest, we can all relate to that.

The latter 90% of our conversation was about The Wire. I won’t go on, there’s enough blogs about that.

A thoroughly pleasant day and a really intriguing book. Yet another that I never would have picked up without this project, but am very glad that I’ve now read. It’s very journalistic sociology, but it’s very entertaining.

Megan’s Favourite Book

There was Victoria sponge cake, there were chocolate chip cookies, there were mini cupcakes. There was even a roasted chicken. How we found time in between consuming all of this food she’d made to talk about Megan’s favourite book, I’ll never know, but find time is exactly what we did.

I knew I as going to love Megan’s choice as soon as she’d suggested it, as I’d meant to read it myself on several occasions but never quite got round to it. Megan first read In Cold Blood for her A Level English, and although throughout our conversation she insists she only read it twice, her expertise is clear.

The book itself is a weird mix: a nonfiction novel. A real-life murder case presented as a narrative, gleaned (Megan informs me) from extensive interviews with all concerned. It feels exactly as real as it is, in spite of literary touches, and the story of the pursuit and capture of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock following their murder of the Clutter family is page-turning and gut-churning in equal proportions, with a bizarre kind of style that lapses into interview transcripts just often enough to remind you what you’re reading.

A large amount of our discussion centres on the immersibility of the book and, more specifically, Megan encouraging me to look at the various supplementary pictures available online. I resist. The book was quite real enough for me on its own, but she insists the fascination transcends the page in a true fan. Perhaps I’m not a true fan.

Our sympathies are also at odds. Megan was heartbroken when Nancy Clutter was murdered, yet I was more emotional in my reaction to the death sentences of the convicted. Obviously Megan’s reaction is the right way round, but I think mine stems from being so utterly invested in the writing rather than the events. The story of the murders is told through the eyes of the psychopathic Perry Smith, with no sympathy or empathy whatsoever, and I believe I was (worryingly) swept up in that, whereas we’d followed Perry and Dick from the beginning, they were the focus of the novel and I think that this – along with the hints at the unfairness of their trial – was what moved me. It seemed to throw up a more philosophical debate about right and wrong. The copy on the back of the book says that Capote draws the killers as “startlingly human”, and for the reasons above I’m inclined to agree, although Megan’s lost sympathy in this respect seems to stem from her extratextual knowledge of whispers of more than professional interest in Perry Smith on the part of Truman Capote. Facts like this pepper Megan’s review. It’s quite something.

As stated, I loved the book, but something that troubled me were the large chunks of borrowed text, I suppose one could call them evidence in this case, from things such as a letter written by Perry’s father to the prison warden. I found these somewhat dull and irrelevant but Megan, probably from a more informed and analytical standpoint, thinks they add to the reader’s understanding. Given more time to chew it over, I’m sure I’d come to agree with her, but on first reading I just don’t see it.

Something else I enjoyed was not being able to pinpoint precisely where Capote joined proceedings, and on this point even Megan, the factbox herself, is puzzled, though I am reliably informed that in the film Capote (about the writing of the book), Truman joins the investigation just before the culprits are caught. Not knowing, however, gives the book a better sense of flow, of narrative, and of mystery. I liked it all the more for it.

To conclude, an intriguing point:

On the face of it, In Cold Blood was a bleak, dark choice for an ever-smiling girl with a faultlessly sunny disposition, but this engagement with the other side of human nature seems a running theme in the really positive people I talk to. It should be difficult to believe that Megan arrived at my flat that day with several home baked cakes and a secret passion for gory crime scene photos but the further into this project I get, the more unsurprising that is.

The cakes were all delicious by the way. So was the chicken.

Charlotte’s Favourite Book

Charlotte and I have an impressive friendship. We went to school together, went to university together and lived together. I even visited her on her year abroad at the University of Arizona. Nowadays we don’t see nearly enough of each other, based as we are in vastly different counties. It was on an accidental trip home this summer that we got the opportunity to lounge in the sun in Horsham park, a hobby not indulged in since approximately 2008, and discuss life, the universe and everything. And this blog.

“So what’s your favourite book, Charlotte?”
The Great Gatsby

What an easy blog entry for me, no reading required! To put some background on it, I graduated English and American Literature and Charlotte graduated American Studies, so we were both pretty well acquainted with the novel in question.

I don’t need to tell you all of the things we mutually adored about The Great Gatsby, there are plenty of sources from which to draw positive gushing on the subject. Instead, by way of good review, I’ll tell you this – Charlotte read it based on its reputation and then deliberately chose classes that had it on their reading lists for the rest of her university career. I did the same thing but in reverse, reading it originally as course reading, although it became the only extracurricular book I returned to whilst studying. I must admit this may be due to its length. A re-reading of The Great Gatsby set me back by a few hours, most other things I was made to read would have set me back by days or even weeks. But that’s not to play down its wonder.

Charlotte’s love for the book is evident, and even the most weird and obscure questions I throw at her are given confident and considered answers. Our only significant area of uncertainty was on Nick Carraway, the narrator, with neither of us really able to unpick his motivations and whether he is swept along by Gatsby or actively participant in climbing the social ladder. This remained unresolved.

On the subject of character motivations, her adoration for the novel really shone when I asked her for her favourite character.

“Gatsby. Definitely Gatsby”

The complexity and yet simultaneous feeling on an elusive underpinning simplicity to this character seem to be the main things that keep Charlotte returning to West Egg time and time again. Gatsby’s words and actions make so much and yet so little sense whichever way you interpret him. Hopeless romantic, fraud and charlatan, social paragon, any of these offers insight and difficulty. Here Charlotte rather outdid me by informing me that this is the charm to all of Fitzgerald’s writing, of which I confess I have read none other than the story of Gatsby himself.

Any discussion of this book would be incomplete without touching on the recent Baz Luhrmann film, and here we deviated from out mutual delight at the words of Fitzgerald to give decidedly mixed reviews of the pictures of Luhrmann. It all comes down to expectation, I suppose. I expected to hate the movie and found it surprisingly good, impressively true to the book and excellent in its realisation of 1920s excess. In this respect, I think it did a good job of capitalising in the one thing film can offer that the book can’t; crass, flashy visuals, and it suited the story down to the ground. Charlotte, however, went in a fan of the Luhrmann canon and a Fitzgerald obsessive, expecting this pairing to provide her with endless joy. Alas, she found the film to be an adequate-but-nothing-special adaptation. However, in my opinion, to take a diehard fan of the novel and produce a film she judges as “not bad” is still a raving success.

This entry could have been an awful lot longer, but it doesn’t need to be. We both adore Gatsby for the reason everyone else does: it was written in 1925 but still has all of the readability, page-turning intrigue and literary brilliance to make it relevant and exciting no matter when you read it. The Great Gatsby should be compulsory reading for all people.

Alan’s Favourite Book

When we met at Euston train station for a tour of the London Underground on which he was to be my guide, I had a smile on my face, for I had finished friend and colleague Alan’s favourite book at long last. Despite being about a quarter of the length of some of the other books I’ve taken to for this project, Positively Happy took me probably the longest to read. It wasn’t that it was particularly challenging, nor was it that I was so skeptical about a book by Noel Edmonds on the subject cosmic ordering that I had reluctantly crawled through it. The truth is, there was so much simple, relatable wisdom in it that I had felt the need to take notes.

We refrained from discussing the book in London, we had too much to see, but on our return the following day we nestled ourselves in the corner of the world’s tiniest Costa in Bridge House of BBC MediaCity on Salford Quays. Toasties consumed and appetites satisfied, Alan tucked into his teacake while I took diction.

Alan says he can’t remember who recommended the book to him or why, but he ended up reading it all the same and it’s since been one of the most influential books in his life, although he is keen to point out that’s not such a bold statement as it sounds. He’s a man with no interest in fiction (in fact, at first he’d wondered if this impeded his involvement in my project. I thought about it, but concluded I’d asked for his favourite book, not his favourite novel, so his choice was fair game) and little time in which to read, so his favourite book was not as hard to choose as, say, his favourite painting. Either way, I was reading something I never would have thought to read before, and if a book can hold the attention of someone who by confession doesn’t read much in the first place, to the extent of them not being able to put it down, and be important to them, there must be something to it.

Alan reads mostly autobiographies, but even then has specific tastes, focussing on those who have a positive, go-ahead attitude (even figures he adores have been consigned to the bookshelf before Chapter 3 if their life story was at all average or unexciting), and this book has real elements of that in it, with autobiographical excerpts to illustrate the points being made, and throughout these I really got the idea that Noel believes firmly that the principles he’s writing about really are the key to happiness and really have worked for him.

On to the points themselves then, and I’m sure you were as put off as I was by the words “cosmic ordering”. In fact, try as I might, I found little to disagree with in this book, and that was it’s appeal. Concepts that could easily seem quasi-religious nonsense are made into practical, real-world common sense. Instead of trying to claim that if you want something enough the cosmos will provide, Edmonds concentrates on making your own luck and creating opportunities with practical measures – surrounding yourself with positive people, interpreting in the most positive way possible and always moving forward. Although anyone would be hard pushed to disagree with any of this, it’s the first of these that both Alan and I most identify with.

Alan, when you talk to him, has a hundred stories for how this book helped him, and how its principles have affected his day-to-day decision making for the better. Positivity doesn’t come naturally to any of us, and requires, at times, extremely hard work. This book is a good and easy framework to use for that. Our discussion at ten o’clock in the morning in a quiet cafe was intense on the subjects of removing negative or energy-draining people from your life and whether public positivity is the same or closely related to inner happiness. Much of what we touched on is too personal to be thoughtlessly splurged onto an online blog, but the fact that this book brought us to such a strange place is its strength.

Positively Happy is not, nor does it claim to be, a literary, excellently sculpted book, nor a revolutionarily original work, nor a dictation of a rigid or unwavering way of life. What it is, and is excellent at being, is a book of practical methods and examples of everyday positivity from which one can pick and choose what works and be happy. I can see why Alan loves it.

Charlie’s Favourite Book

“Follow the violins”

Shortly after sending this text, I met university chum and comedy cohort Charlie on a sunny day in Covent Garden. More specifically, if you’re wondering, we met in the middle of the stifling covered market on a balcony overlooking the pie shop and a string quartet enthusiastically thrashing out an up-tempo rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It was like being in an overcrowded oven. With lift music. We relocated.

In an only slightly more spacious Café Nero around the corner Charlie and I boxed ourselves in the corner with a chai latte and an unridiculous latte, respectively, to discuss her favourite book – Birdsong.

It’s worth stating here that in all of my reading I’ve generally swerved fiction, non-fiction, poetry or anything based on war. I’ve always felt rather guilty about this. It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for the sacrifices made or the suffering of others, but equally it’s not that I’m too sensitive to handle it depicted in words, and it’s not that I’m disinterested or uncaring either. I don’t know what it is, but when it comes to reading I just find war books such a turn-off. Perhaps because there’s so many of them that I don’t know where to start. Once I’m into it, I’m into it, but I just never would pick one off a shelf. What an excellent first book Charlie accidentally chose, then, for the first in this project of mine.

Charlie read the book for her English A Level and I can see why. It’s got vivid enough imagery to keep a sixteen-year-old enthralled whilst at the same time having a slow moving plot and enough literary leanings to prepare the poor, naive under-undergraduates for the dense mindbogglers that make up most university reading lists. Our discussion was generally an appreciation of this, and a brief reminiscence on how emotionally invested she’d become in it whilst studying, and how much I’d enjoyed reading something I ordinarily wouldn’t have. Then we disagreed, and on something rather significant.

Stephen, the main character, was something I could not make up my mind about. Charlie loved him, thought him heroic and bold, and generally I agreed, but I couldn’t help getting hung up on his bizarre decision making. I don’t wish to reveal any endings, but I found Stephen to be rather an irritating proponent of the “love the one you’re with” philosophy, which I can only assume was a move employed to ensure a happy ending in a book that really didn’t call for one. Charlie’s argument is that it’s a six-hundred-page novel and I’m getting stuck on one plot point and ignoring the rather larger picture painted by the five-hundred-and-ninety-nine-and-a-half other pages. She may have a point, but don’t tell her I said so.

We found agreeable ground, once again, when discussing the present day sections of the book. We were both rather at a loss of the necessity of these, almost to the point of skipping them. In the author’s introduction in my edition, Sebastian Faulks makes the point that he wanted to really convey the experience, fear and atrocity of war and went on a very personal journey to do so and those sections are his explanation of this to the reader. In my opinion his introduction did a significantly better job of this than the story did. In fact, I considered the introduction a vital part of the book and hope it’s printed in all future editions of the book as Faulks has a really contagious enthusiasm for engagement that makes you invested in his novel before it even starts.

We also both agreed that the last ten pages of the book, a graphic description of childbirth, were significantly more cringe-inducing than all of the horrendous descriptions of acts and human mutilations of war, even to the point of a stranger on the train asking me if I was OK when I was reading them. The purpose of this was the subject of some debate and I think in the end we settled on it being an attempt to make a point about rebirth and nasty things making beautiful things in the long run. Or something like that.

I enjoyed Birdsong. It was everything I wanted from this project: a book that I would never have picked up but spent days enjoying from mine and someone else’s perspective. The pictures of war that Faulks invokes in the readers mind are strong and lasting. Even now, I could clearly describe the scene at the Battle of Messines and the tears I had to try to read through. The love story at the beginning is something Charlie warned me against when I started the book but I found even that intriguing and that is testament to the writing. A book that definitely deserves its place on the A Level syllabus.