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100 Novels – personally recommended

100 Books (mostly FICTION)

The non-fiction choice, Book 101, is ‘The magnificent Mrs Tennant by David Waller’.

Having kept a diary since my early teens in which I recorded what I was reading (including school text books), I have an extraordinary insight into what was being put in front of my mind. What I find remarkable is how, if courtesty of the Internet and Ebay I dig out these books how quickly my mind can pick up where it left off 30+ years ago. This ‘window’ is a short one, at this level. In a few years I abandoned the set format of the ‘Five Year Diary’ with its specific pages to complete. On the other hand, are there not blog and social media platforms that go out of their way to encourage you to reveal something of yourself through what you read, watch and do?

This list is fluid and understandably incomplete. I have not put in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci’ for example, as I feel it would have to come with a caveat – I read it to find out what the fuss was about. I felt as if I’d been made to play a game of snakes and ladders through an alternative and ridiculous world. It may also have put me off ever believing I could compete as a commercial author if this is what it requires. My excuse might be quaified by the French Movie Director Francois Truffaut who argued that you had to read everything, especially the ‘trash mags’ – indeed, the trashier the book the easier it is to turn into a film?

What attracts us to lists?

I should create a list of the books I’ve tried to read but could not: Ulysseys, War and Peace, Enid Blyton … any other Dan Brown! (Actually, Michael Crichton, even Stephen King, can be as daft and crass).

I see too there are still a few non-fiction works in here; I’ll filter these out in due course as I build my 100 Non-Fiction list.

I am also electing to leave out books that had to be read at school, so I ought not to have Thomas Hardy, T S Elliot or Shakespeare. Nor do I include a book if all I’ve done is see the film, which is how I suspect the ‘popular’ lists compiled by the likes of the BBC are created.

As an exercise, you make a list and immediately start to change it, indeed, I’ve just thought of a very important piece of ficton I read based on recommendation; these often turn out to be the best reads, from people who know you. All my reading of Haruki Murakimi is the product of being part of a writer’s group for a while.

As I edit I will be seeking to keep books in that matter to me, that I could discuss and defend and that I’d like others to read.

Some choices are informed by a friend who read English at Oxford; others from the Guardian’s ‘Thousands Books’ you must read before you die, which, where the library could supply them I would follow, though often having to read something else by the same author (or getting distracted by something else on the shelf).

I will also extract children’s books, those I recall reading as a child, but also those I have read to my children.

Now I’m starting to sound like a bookstore 😦

1  Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

4 Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov

5 Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel  Proust

6 Tides of War  – Steven Pressfield

7 Gates of War – Steven Pressfield

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 Return to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

10 Fatherland – Robert Harris

11 The  Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer

12 Harlot’s Ghost – Norman Mailer

13 The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer

14 Engelby – Sebastian Faulk

15 The Birds and other stories – Daphne Du  Maurrier

16 Sunset Song – Lewis Grassick Gibbon

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk

18 Regeneration Series – Pat Barker

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Life Drawing – Pat Barker

21 One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 The Gulgag Archipelago- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

29 Vox – Nicholas Baker

30 The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

31 How the  Dead Live – Will Self

32 Time Enough for Love – Robert Heinlein

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 The Foundation of Paradise – Arthur.C.Clarke

35 Enigma – Robert Harris

36 The Ghost – Robert Harris

37 Pompeii – Robert Harris

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Orlando – Virginia Woolf

40 Girl in a Coma – Douglas Coupland

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Space Trilogy series – C .S.Lewis

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

45 A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

46 The Wind-up Bird Chronicles – Haruki Murakami

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 The Time Machine – H.G.Wells

52The War of the Worlds – H.G.Wells

53 The Invisible Man – H.G.Wells

54 Tono-Bungay – H.G.Wells

55 The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell

56 The Lords of the North – Bernard Cornwell

57 The Island – Victoria Hislop

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 The Lost Continent. Travels in small town America – Bill Bryson

61 Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

65 Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

66 Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller

67 Sexus, Plexus & Nexus – Henry Miller

68 Quiet Days in Clichy – Henry Miller

69 The Crimson Petal and The White – Michel Faber

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Under a Glass Bell – Anais Nin

72 House of Incest – Anais Nin

73 The Diary of Anais Nin (7 volumes) – Anais Nin

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson.

75 Boy – Roald Dahl

76 The Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

77 State of Fear – Michael Crichton

78  The Last Juror – John Grisham

79 A Painted House – John Grisham

80 The Testament – John Grisham

81 A Time to Kill – John Grisham

82 Duma Key – Stephen King

83 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

84 Stranger in Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

85 Going Solo – Roald Dahl

86 Crash – J.G.Ballard

87 Timeline – Stephen King

88 Super-Cannes – J.G.Ballard

89 Atomised – Michel Houellbecq

90 Platform – Michel Houellbecq

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 Steve Jobs: The Authorised Biography – Walter Isaacson

93 The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95  Macbeth – William Shakespeare

96 I, Claudius – Robert Graves

97 Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl.

100 Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sandak

When taking pictures of everyone you meet and writing up conversations was so novel it featured in the Washington Post. The year? 1999.

ELLEN LEVY SUCKS LIFE INTO HER LAPTOP.

That’s how I’d put it. This is how the Washington Post put it on the 24th September 1999.

‘Could you spend all day writing up conversations and taking pictures of everyone you meet? Some one can and is!’

‘Ellen Levy has got the right project for the Internet Age.’

She’s a director of Linked In so she got something right.

Umm, I think, suspiciously, and read on. This is a front-page story. Is it worth such an accolade?

In retrospect, I guess so.

‘The main points of every conversation she’s had and taken pictures of, almost every one of the more than 1000 people she’s encountered since New Year’s Eve 1998. In all, to date,’ we are informed, ‘800 single pages of text, and 1,100 photographs.’

If you’re busy could someone do this for you? Trial around after you with a camera recording what you do, photographing who you see, taking notes and at night transcribing what you say and hear? Would this assistance not in time become the person they are tracking?

Is this a job for the Internet Age?

But will Ellen share these pages with us? What insights has she gained? Has she anything to say to the world? No! Ellen Levy is not Anais Nin; this is not Allan Clarke.

This sounds like it could be a bad case of diarist’s diarrhoea – an inability to use 200 words where 20,000 will do. (Actually this reads like me).

Which is why, where the platform or context dictates, I write in word, put the text into a table, then slash may way through it to reduce the word count.

‘It’s like you’re always in a race and you’re never going to catch up with yourself.’ Says Ellen Levy, Head of Corporate Development, Softbooks.

Is Ellen going to reveal anything interesting as a result of all of this navel gazing? I asked myself in 1999.

Or is it navel gazing? Is it more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary in which her laptop is the camera, and her words the videotape?

We’ll never know.

It’s like someone telling us how they are writing a novel, but it isn’t the process we are interested in; it is the end result.

Bill Bryson can make the most mundane sound interesting; for the rest of us even the most interesting events can sound flat.

We learn more.

‘By recording everything that comes her way Ellen thinks it is possible to track how chance meetings develop into critical business or personal relationships.’

Now we’re getting somewhere.

If this is a yearlong audit of her business activity, what has she learnt that will allow her, or her colleagues to become more efficient? Networking might be the answer. But there’s a social aspect to networking so she’d better ditch the laptop, look people in the eye, listen and respond. In this respect a tape-recorder might be more useful.

So I wrote in 1999.

Linked In has 90 million members?

There’s a lesson to be learnt from this – extraordinary research produces insights that can deliver a novel way to do things.

The article continues:

‘It offers a catalogue of many otherwise forgettable moments.’

If indeed it is nothing more than a log, then indeed, it should be forgotten. A log sounds like one of those Five-Year Diaries one gets as a child with a lock on the cover. There’s a saying that goes, ‘old news keeps like fish.’ If this is the case, then it applies even more so to old diary entries. These days news is archived and regurgitated in many forms and has a valid shelf life once salted, or spiced, or combined with other ingredients. What life will Ellen’s entries get? None, it would appear. They are still born.

The Washington Post continues:

‘There’s a compulsive component to what she does.’

I’ll say! Diary writing does not need to be the same as constructing a motorway. You are allowed to leave out sections. Indeed, a few days of nothing can mean more than a log-like entry or an apology. There’s nothing worse than writing an entry when you have nothing to say.

Silence is often golden.

What is more Ellen would observe more and record less. It’s reading things like this that I imagine how dull travel writers like Bill Bryson or Pete Mayle would be if they sat with laptops recording the world, a prisoner to their keyboards and the need to keep typing of cease to exist.

Ellen is quoted once more:

“It’s the things that you don’t think matter that are also interesting about people. Even now to go back and read some parts of January is fascinating to me. “

This is true.

What next? Record all conversations to disc and have them transcribed? Video all that you see and do? I’ve visited Jennicam and found the experience self-indulgent and unrevealing.

I’m writing this in 1999. In 2010 the New Scientist features a programmer for Microsoft who is doing exactly this.

We are told that Ellen, Sleeps for just four hours a night.’

I can relate to this. Though as I’m currently down with a cold my sleeping has increased to 10 hours a day.

Didn’t Margaret Thatcher claimed the same?

She never said it but I’m sure she thought sleeping was for wimps.

Indeed anyone who suffers from information overload will find they have less need for sleep, or rather they are unable to sleep for long. However, look at Margaret Thatcher today. It would appear that many years of little sleep are as damaging as a pack of cigarettes a day.

Check this out at RealAge.com.

Sleep is a vital part of living. I’d prefer Ellen to write less and sleep more. I’d then like her to write up some of her dreams too. Ellen says that she,

‘Missed a few days and nearly gave up during a bout of flu.’

The fact that she pressed on against the odds suggests that her goal is quantity not quality. This diary writing habit can be like that of a twitcher who travels the world looking for birds he has never seen before so that he can tick them off from a list. It’s like train spotting. There is no insight, just a numbers game. There cannot be an empty day; yet treated in this fashion every day is empty.

‘a twitcher who travels the world looking for birds’

Like Twitter?

Finally, while not doubting the PR value inherent in this kind of front-page coverage for Softpage, I doubt that Ellen is the first. Indeed in the marathon rush to write diaries, what is more to write such diaries and post them on the web, entries, pictures, video clips and all, I doubt she’s even in the top one hundred.

She isn’t the first to do this. She’s just one of the first brazen enough to shout about it. There are over 2000 diaries in diary.net alone, and twenty times this figure scattered about the web.

Of course, I now want someone to pay me to do something similar for YEAR 2000.

A decade later where do we stand? Hundreds of millions of blogs. Entries like paper-tissues are used then stuck online rather than binned. The Internet has become the bin. The cloud is a virtual bin. We want to keep everything, and every version of everything.

Like Ellen Levy I would use modern tools to help me with the task, but the tools would be precisely this, technical assistants. I would not become their slave. I’d use a solid state recorder in place of a notebook, and a hand held computer rather than a laptop. Content would be loaded onto a PC every night. Voice recognition software would turn my audio notes into text files and the two sources combined, then edited, and then posted on the Web.

I’d undertake to post the first draft of all entries within 24 hours of writing them. Entries would be edited or left, at my discretion over the next week during which time I’d also decide whether or not to add pictures, audio-files and even video-clips.

I’d also undertake to live a life worth writing about.

Reflections on keeping a Journal, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and other writers

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten...

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1940 Jan. 22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This entry was written up in a hardback, A4 exercise book of some 100 pages on 16/10/1992. In ink, using a Sheafer fountain pen. Most days between March 1975 and December 1993 were covered – then we got married and this evening past time ended – until the birth of our daughter in June 1996 when for good reason there was something to write about – daughter in 1996, son in 1998 – then a shift to a blog and quite soon keeping a journal died in favour of a) reflection on life based on what I’d written and b) keeping a writer’s journal and c) from 2010 almost exclusively in e–learning. There are other blogs on family life, swim teaching and coaching and the memoir of a First World War Machine Gunner.

 

Friday 16th October 1992

 

Gosforth

 

The date in the diary used to have some relevance, without them the day couldn’t exist, couldn’t begin, had nothing to contain it. Now I write when I want, about whatever moves me, when something moves me. I wait in ambush, capture a thought then run with it.

 

I’m reading like I’ve never read before. At last I’ve found a rich vein of literature which I enjoy:

 

  • Anais Nin,
  • Henry Miller,
  • Bill Bryson,
  • Evelyn Waugh,
  • Clive James,
  • Bruce Chatwin,
  • Ken Russell
  • and Brian Keenan.

 

I want to write like Henry Miller, to describe sexual encounters with verve and honesty, to describe my humdrum life as though it had a purpose.

 

Writing in hindsight H.M. knows that he becomes a reputable writer – this is the narrative thread, the goal he is aiming for. But to copy his style will be like learning to stand upright on a log as it spins, to control it and guide it through calm waters and torrents, even over waterfalls and through the sawmill ‘til the pulp has been turned into paper, the words written in the book and the novel on display in the High Street window.

 

I somehow manage to have four books on the go at any one time.

 

Only this can satisfy my boredom freshold: Sexus (Henry Miller), ‘Volume Five: Journals (Anais Nin), ‘Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson) and ‘The Letters of Henry Miller and Anais Nin’ Is that all ? In between I have to dip into old (and find new) enthusiasms: ‘Enthusiasms’ (Bernard Levin) and ‘Biographies’ (Clive James).

 

For the first time I want to quote from them, mark their books as I read them, read what they read, pursue my passions, stir harder the feelings they unsettle … then have a go myself, turn my own hand to these pages.

 

Bursts of enthusiasm get me through the first 2,500 words – then I rethink it, rework it, but then like running into a tall fence of chicken wire I suddenly can get no further, like a deer reaching a fence in front of a motorway. I must learn a way to get from start to finish in one breadth, not to need to go back over and plod about in the Passchendale of last week’s cloud burst.

 

I’m finding that no amount of rejigging will save a piece, but rather like a completed painting reworked, the image becomes increasingly muddy as further efforts to repaint it fail. Instead I must relish the write, from start to finish, like the instant prose of an examination taken in lumps of three hours. That’s it ! Set the themes in my head, then run with it for three hours.

 

I want to get the story of ‘Arts Foundation Girl’ posing four me nude right; I want to get my peaks and troughs of love and Suzy Bean right; I want to get stories of pure invention, be it ‘Little Green Hannah’ or ‘Rewind’ right !

 

Reading Henry Miller and Ana’s Nin is fascinating as a record of how a writer goes through the pain and ecstasy of the creative process. It’s heartening (and disquieting) to know that I could get nowhere for years; I could still be writing in this manner in a decades time. Fine ! Just so long as I have lead an interesting life to boot.

 

‘By now I was so feverishly inspired that I took a trolley and rose into the country. Ideas were pouring into my head. AS fast as I jotted them down others came crowing in. At last I reached that point where you abandon all hope of remembering your brilliant ideas and you simply surrender to the luxury of writing a book in your head. You know that you’ll never be able to recapture these ideas, not a single line of all the tumultuous and marvelously dovetailed sentences which sift through your mind like sawdust spilling through a hole. On such days you have for company the best companion you will ever have – the modest, defeated, plodding workaday self which has a name and which can be identified in public registers in case of accident or death. But the real self, the one who has taken over the reins, is almost a stranger. He is the one who is filled with ideas; he is the one who is writing in the air; he is the one who, if you become too fascinated with his exploits will finally expropriate the old, worn-out self, taking over your name, your address, your wife, your past, your future. Naturally, when you walk in on an old friend in this euphoric state he doesn’t wish top concede immediately that you have another life, a life apart in which he has no share. He says quite naively – ‘feeling rather high today, eh ?Ó and you nod your head almost shamefacedly. ‘ (Henry Miller, SEXUS)

 

And so I can (and will continue) to quote.

 

Again, on writing, on experience, satisfaction and method of writing, Henry Miller says, ‘It was revealed to me that I could say what I wanted to say – if I thought of nothing else, If I concentrated upon that exclusively – and if I were willing to bear the consequences which a pure act always involves.’

 

His search for ‘Truth,’ for his ‘Voice.’ Satisfying this ‘must’ called writing. If only I had my Anais (!) …

 

When I drew ‘Arts Foundation Girl’ I drew the sex and warmth of a horny 19 year old, I drew the revealed lust and smell of sex, I drew with my penis. I held it in my write hand and stroked it across a series of pages capturing what I saw and the way in which I saw it. I wouldn’t sleep with her because that would extinguish the passion I was playing with – I let my excitement add fluidity and texture to each mark on the page. I drew with my entire body, with my hole being. Each time I tore off a page to start again it was like squeezing my balls to stop me coming, each time I got Lucinda to pose differently, to close her sex and turn her back on me, I was reducing the volume, turning down the heat, keeping my dick at heel. If I’d slept with her I wouldn’t have wet dreams still about the moment, that heated game of ‘look and see.’ She is a story I must write and rewrite, draw and redraw.

 

On France Henry Miller says his friend Ulric had gone to Europe and how this man’s experiences so different from how own approach (and my own).

 

‘I had more in common with Ulric than with any other friends. For me he represented Europe, its softening, civilising influence. We would talk by the hour of this other world where art had some relation to life, where you could sit quietly in public watching the passing show and think your own thoughts. Would I ever get there ? Would it be too late ? How would I speak ? When I thought about it realistically it seemed hopeless. Only hardy, adventurous spirits could realise such dreams. Ulric had done it – for a year – by dint of hard sacrifice. For ten years he had done the things he hated to do in order, to make this dream come true. Now the dream was over and he was back where he had started. Farther back then ever, really, because he would never again be able to adapt himself to the treadmill. For Ulric it had been a Sabbatical leave: a dream which turns to gall as the years roll by. I could never do as Ulric has done. I could never make a sacrifice of that sort, nor could I be content with a mere vacation however long or short it might be. My policy has always been to burn my bridges behind me. My face is always set toward the future. If I make a mistake it is fatal. When I am flung back I fall all the way back – to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency. So far I have always bounced back. Sometimes the rebound has resembled a slow-motion performance, but in the eyes of God speed has no particular significance.’ (Henry Miller, SEXUS)

 

How often have I fallen and bounced back? Have I been an adventurer seeking experiences to write about ?

 

Quitting J.W.T. and tumbling from a flat in Whitehall Court to a back bedroom in a shared accommodation in Lewisham ? My trip to Gottingen, my run to Grenoble and the Alps ? Have I failed to be either one thing or the other ? Neither reckless idiot on the street of Paris, nor diehard executive in the U.K. Go don’t let me become an Ulric – nor let me stumble far into misery that I will be a pain to myself and my family.

 

I have enough experiences to write up a lifetime.

 

Like Henry Miller I make the idle boast about the number of words I have written. To an outsider it is lie a revelation of a serious malady. How could I do this to myself ? I could see it at one of my mum’s coffee mornings, happy to join in as the scrounger of lives I suddenly announce to her genteel gathering ‘I’ve been masturbating since he age of eleven. For the first fifteen years I keep it up once, twice, sometimes four times a day – nearly 5,500 times.’ They look at me in dismay, they look at mum and sympathise, you hear them remarking how much better it is to have me at home than in an asylum. And so I feel when I tell Dad I have diaries which contain a million and a half words, and stories of various half-finished kinds making up another million. It’s not that tears fill his eyes, it’s not that his lip begins to quiver, but you know he is feeling despair – not that I’ve ailed to climb the ranks of some international, not that I’m so impoverished (and inclined) that I’m temporarily living at home, but because I have expended so much time and effort getting nowhere: flagellation in a corner for my own self-satisfaction. Must I prove anything to him or anyone else ? I’ve shown that I’m incapable of boxing up my words in neat little, affordable and predictable packages, incapable of deriving any satisfaction except from my own way of doing and saying things.

 

I move my life from place to place in boxes: from mother-packed trunks and Tuck boxes to boarding school, to Post office cardboard boxes filled with my books and stationery in London, to the yellow post office boxes I filled with scraps of Paris. ‘My Life in a box.’ Now I keep it in pieces of furniture – cubes which stack one on top of the other. Ready for the next get away. So where next ? To Paris first, then Prague or Milan ? Anywhere to enliven my reflections.

 

Anais Nin wrote in 1946 about the awfulness of television. Fifty years later I feel we are going through a new phase.

 

So much of experience is television that fiction must go beyond the first reflection of reality and reflect the reflection. Instead of holding a mirror up to reality, we must hold a mirror to the reality already reflected from our T.V screens. Our fictions must be that much more extreme, more violent, more cookie, bigger, bolder, brasher, faster. Audience are used to gulping it all down in an over-spiced smorgasbord of channels. Can I deliver given this context ?

 

‘The secret of full life,’ wrote Anais Nin, ‘is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates he vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a great amount of people, more people, more countries, This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch with a great amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision. ‘ (Anais Nin. Journals. Vol 4)

 

For the second night in a row Darlingest has been typing a marketing essay into my word processor.

 

This morning I came down at 5.00 a.m. and joined her – two hours later I am still writing. We were joined by Mum; she too wished she was up and at it. I agree. She should be painting – not worrying about the time of day, or night, what the neighbours think or would-be purchasers of her house might think. We joke in the family that Mum like to keep the house tidy and bare, as if it is continually up for sale. I must get her to read Anais Nin’s Journals – about a woman’s struggle to find her creative outlet.

 

Between them Henry Miller and Anais Nin have written a ‘how to …’ book on writing.

 

Ray Bradbury, in one slim volume, ‘Zen in the Art of Creative Writing,’ with an abundance of gusto, does what they wrote across a string of books.

 

 

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