Coffee Table Reads: Bang on Trend

This blog post comes from Rachel Benn, a Communities Librarian in the South of the City. A lover of coffee and books.

Forget not judging a book by its cover, with coffee table reads it’s all about that!
Coffee Table books provide perfect décor and in the era of Pinterest, Instagram and multiple magazines and blogs it’s time to jump on the trend. Coffee Tables have recently become built-in bookcases, choosing the right books can transform any surface and add a little extra chic to your home.
Here are my top ten Coffee Table reads that are bang on trend and good to read too! Monday – Saturday a decorating staple, Sunday morning perfect for reading over a cuppa. All are available on the Leeds Libraries catalogue to borrow for free.

Rachel How not toHow not to kill your Plants by Nik Southern

So I recently chose this book as a survival guide, another trend which I’ve joined the hype on is house plants! I can’t get enough of them, but my major concern was how do I look after them?! I chose them based on Instagramable quality not practicability! So this book was a necessity. Not only is it’s cover chic with its gold and navy simplistic tones, it has great tips, solutions and advice for taking care of those sassy plants. There’s even a guide for giving your plants a funeral – but I’m hoping I don’t get to that stage, I’m taking the tips seriously and monitoring the watering, humidity and room positioning carefully! The quirky illustrations are amazing and there’s plenty of photos to give you #PlantEnvy, the book is a work of art. “Don’t let the pricks get you down” – the Cactus chapter is a go to – treat them like a best friend and they will remain a feature in your room for a very long time.

Rachel hyggeThe Little book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

It’s that time of year again…we’re entering the cosy season, so this book not only looks great on your Coffee Table but makes you feel warm and fuzzy just by reading it. I joined the Hygge hype last winter and absolutely loved reading this book, packed with tips for creating Hygge in the home and yummy recipes. Hygge pronounced (Hoo-gah) is the Danish art of living well, enjoying life’s simple pleasures and embracing the warm and gentle things in life. This book is cute in design, small and compact but has perfect chapters for picking up and reading on a cold winter night by the fire with a hot chocolate, it’s such a feel good book! There are lots more Hygge books on the Library catalogue to choose from too.

Rachel TidyingThe Life Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever by Marie Kondo

I was recommended this read by a friend who is obsessed with tidying, and instantly questioned whether she was trying to tell me something! This choice is a Coffee Table read that also adds a bit of sass to the room – yes the room is tidy and yes I’ve got a book on it! I’d go as far as saying this book is life changing, it gives ideas and solutions for de-cluttering that you wouldn’t even think of. It’s changed me for the better! You begin to look forward to ironing your jumpers to get them back in their assigned place in the draw. One tip that has transformed my wardrobes and drawers is positioning your clothes so you can see every item. It’s elegant and simplistic. Also try Marie Kondo’s second book ‘Spark Joy’ which gives you even more life hacks.

Rachel Creative HomeThe Creative Home: Inspiring Ideas for Beautiful Living by Geraldine James

As a decorative staple, it seemed right to have a home interior book on the list. I chose this one as it went with my room colour scheme (which is absolutely fine to do!) but it’s also a fantastic book to read and use for inspiration and ideas for the home. Every page will give you #HomeEnvy as you read about creative dining, upcycling furniture, and my favourite section – creating your own home library! Packed with styling tips, decorative displays, creating artistic flair and making the right choices. With meticulous attention to detail it inspires you to come out of your comfort zone and dare to try a new style to reinvent your home to make it uniquely yours.

Rachel HappyHappy: Finding joy in every day and letting go of perfect by Fearne Cotton

As a style icon Fearne Cotton didn’t disappoint in the look of this great read, its bright quirky cover lights up the room. Fearne draws on her own experiences and shares ways to bring happiness back into your life, embracing the times when you’re happy and it gives practical ways to release your inner joy. The hand drawn illustrations give it a real personal feel, it’s an easy read and is brilliant to pick up at times when you need to relax, I found it a perfect weekend read to reboost your inner happiness ready to start the following week. You may find you don’t want it to ever leave your Coffee Table! I’ve just borrowed Fearne’s new cookbook ‘Cook, Eat, Love’ which has great recipes in it to try too.

Rachel LagomLagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living by Linnea Dunne

So instantly when I saw this on the Library catalogue I thought ‘I need this now!’ After thoroughly enjoying The Little Book of Hygge I wanted to try this, I’d seen the word ‘Lagom’ appear on several blogs and in magazine articles over the last few months so naturally I wanted to be in on the hype! It looks great on the Coffee Table, it’s pretty detailed cover with images of coffee, house plants and biscuits naturally drew me in. So I firstly thought what is Lagom? Well Linnea Dunne describes the concept as “Not too little, not too much, but just enough”. The lovely photographs and short chapters provide a great introduction to Lagom and it’s perfect to read when you have the holiday blues, it gives you a health and wellbeing boost. As a fellow foodie I also tried some of the great recipes inside!

Rachel FaceFace: makeup, skin care, beauty by Pixiwoo (Sam and Nic Chapman)

After vaguely hearing of Pixiwoo (I’m showing my age now) I thought I’ll give this book a try, it’s a beautiful book and oozes style. I jumped to chapters of interest around skincare and top tips for creating the perfect brows. It’s perfect for beginners, aspiring make-up artists and anyone that wants to try something new. After reading some reviews I was keen to have a read, the book is full of needed information for any make up lover! You can also download the app and use it as you go along which brings interactive aspects out of the book and links to Pixiwoo’s online tutorials on You Tube.

Rachel HemsleyHemsley Hemsley – good + simple by Jasmine Hemsley & Melissa Hemsley

At least one cookbook has to make its way to the Coffee Table, and there are so many to choose that look both stylish and chic but also have fantastic recipes in too. I felt the need to go out and buy a spiralizer immediately after reading the first few recipes and I have never looked back! Great clean eating meals and some unusual ingredients to take you out of your comfort zones using the kitchen staples. I am guilty of cooking the same meals on a regular basis so trying a new cookery book is a must, this book will ensure your Instagram feed has enough content for a month of foodie posts, give your friends and families #FoodEnvy and try some!

Rachel MacAnna Mae’s mac n cheese: recipes from London’s legendary street food truck by Anna Clark

Anyone I know will tell you my favourite food is Mac n Cheese, if it’s on the menu I’m choosing it! I’ve tried it with different toppings, different cheeses and every time it doesn’t disappoint. So I came across this book and I was buzzing to read it, show it off on my Coffee Table and try some new ways of experimenting with the classic recipe. The writing is very witty, the photos make you very hungry and you’re going to want to recommend it to everyone you know. Not for the calorie counters but a favourite has to be the Mac n Cheese fries recipe. It’s cheesy good.

Rachel bloomBloom: Navigating Life and Style by Estee Lalonde

I came across Estee Lalonde’s Instagram account and realised I’d been following her lifestyle/travel blog for a few months, this is her first book and is full of life hacks, travel tips and lifestyle inspiration. Its cover is a gorgeous pale blue which is perfect for the Coffee Table, it’s stylish in look and content. Imagine having dinner with a really cool friend, that’s how you feel when reading the home interior tips, recipes and life hacks. An empowering woman read and a real feel good book.

So that’s my top 10 Coffee Table reads: You can use these for styling a room, adding chic to a Coffee Table but most importantly you can have fun reading them too! #CoffeeTableReads #BookEnvy

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Librarian’s choice: Dog Books

As the owner of one of those troublesome, mischievous, beautiful, loyal creatures known as dogs, I thought I would write about some of the interesting books I’ve recently come across on the subject of our canine companions. When you look through the library catalogue, there are so many great books covering everything you might want to know.

Here is just a small selection:-

Lisa Clever dogClever Dog by Sarah Whitehead

Clever Dog is an easy to read, fun book focusing on behaviour and communication, with plenty of handy tips, examples and case studies bringing her theories to life. Plus it’s also the first book that made me think about my dog’s learning style! I think we’re both mainly visual.

Lisa Dog TalesDog Talk by Bruce Fogle

Dog Talk has some lovely photos of the author’s own dog at various stages throughout his life, smiling the whole time! This one provides bite size segments of information but goes deeper into the relationship between humans and dogs, looking at subconscious needs. There are some quick ways of teaching basic commands and also of dealing with aggression and other unwanted behaviours, although I think some of his advice is a little old fashioned.

Lisa Being a dogBeing a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

This book is like nothing else I have ever read, and that’s saying a lot! Its main focus is on the dog’s nose and how they experience the world through smell, although the author has done some smell research herself, so it does also go into the human sense of smell. The writing style is really accessible and quite humorous but there’s some seriously scientific research in here, and some myth-busting.

Lisa Rescue MeRescue Me – Dogs Trust

Thought I ought to include this one as our dog came from Dogs Trust! The adoption process was straightforward but fairly rigorous and they’re always available for advice afterwards. The book is very clear and step by step with case studies and lots of useful information for anyone thinking of adopting a dog. Believe me, it’s worth it!

Lisa Test your dogTest your dog’s IQ: how clever is your canine? by David Taylor

I was given this for a Christmas present one year and of course I’ve tried out some of these tests on my own dog and my sister –in-law’s two dogs. There are lots of fun activities in here for all ages – one we tried was covering the dog with a blanket and timing how long it takes for them to free themselves. Not long with ours it turns out, which apparently means she’s intelligent!

Lisa Dog ShamingDog Shaming by Pascale Lemire

This is a great book for cheering you up – dog photos never fail to make me smile, especially when they’re posing with a sign blaming them for having done something ridiculous or naughty. It’s basically a book of photos so won’t take you long to read, but I can guarantee at least some of them will raise a chuckle. I particularly liked the dog who chewed the face off an antique stuffed panda bear, and was pretty surprised by the dog who ate a starfish!

Blue Monday

This blog post comes from Charlotte, our Digital Engagement Librarian.

The third Monday in January is now commonly known as Blue Monday – supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The concept was actually created by a travel company in 2005, using a calculation that took into account things like debt, weather and the amount of time since Christmas. However, this calculation has no basis in science and has been debunked many times!

charlotte-the-rest-of-usDespite this, Blue Monday seems to have caught the imagination of the media and looks to be a regular feature for Januarys to come. Even though today isn’t really the most depressing day of the year, it seems as good a day as any to highlight some books that will perk you up this winter!

charlotte-fragile-thingsThe Reading Agency’s Reading Well site is a great place to start. There are two categories of books, Books on Prescription and Mood-Boosting Books.

charlotte-the-worry-cureBooks on Prescription is a collection of books to help you manage and understand health and wellbeing using self-help reading. If you visit a GP or health professional, they may recommend one or more titles from the Books on Prescription list.

If you’re looking for an uplifting read, then head to the Mood-Boosting Books collection. There’s a range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry all recommended by readers and reading groups for their uplifting abilities.

charlotte-the-readers-of-broken-wheelAs well as making you feel a bit more cheerful, there’s also evidence that books can make you live longer! The report concludes that, “the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them … The robustness of our findings suggests that reading books may not only introduce some interesting ideas and characters, it may also give more years of reading.”

 

Zines, zines, zines

This blog comes from Claire, a librarian based at Studio 12 in Leeds Central library.

zineblog-leedsreadsI’m here to tell you about a new obsession. Zines!

Zines are the ultimate expression of the do-it-yourself ethic. It can look handmade. A zine is a functional vehicle for self-expression. It is generally a short run periodical produced for passion rather than an intention to make money. Zines are an immediate and disposable popular literary form and are typically less formal. A zine can take on topics that the mainstream usually ignores.

I was first introduced to zines through a workshop with Wur Bradford for International Women’s Day last year. The workshop took place over 3 weeks and by the end of the workshop we had learnt about letterpress, photocopying techniques and distribution. But what struck me the most was the pure range of subject, techniques and people the activity brought together. Here were maybe 8 women from diverse backgrounds who hadn’t met before talking openly about what it was to be a woman, looking at their cultures, experiences and backgrounds. The craft created an inclusive and relaxed atmosphere for learning and listening.

My colleague Sapphia suggested we take zines to libraries. We facilitated our first zine workshop at Moor Allerton Library, again for International Women’s Day. We haven’t looked back since partnering with Leeds Arts and Minds to produce zines with varying groups across Leeds for their This Is Me Exhibition hosted in Room700 Leeds Central Library.

We have since secured funding and will be putting on our on Exhibition in March next year. The exhibition will feature zines on a variety of topics including Local History, Poetry, Art, Culture and Books(obviously)

We recently created a zine with fellow Librarians looking at their favourite books. We were looking for book reviews, quotes and images to depict their passion for books and the librarians delivered!

zineblog-leedsreads2Our first zine page was created by Senior Communities Librarian Greg Stringer and looks at the book Brighton Rock. Greg said “It’s one of my favourite books (and films) – the central piece of pink and white paper jumped out at me right at the beginning, suggesting a stick of rock and I tried to find images to build around that that reflected either the era the book was set in (the cars, fashion) and the building suspense and terror developed in the plot or related to particular characters (Pinkie/violin music). There had to be some degree of inventiveness throughout if ideas for images weren’t readily available.”

zineblog-leedsreads4The Secret Garden was a bit of a favourite amongst our librarians.
Assistant Communities Librarian Chloe Derrick said “To maximise time I spent creating the Zine I gathered materials to work with directly. I avoided technology (photocopying, printing, etc.), started with the background and ended with the text. I only used part of a quote from the book so the meaning of the words could be ambiguous. When making the Zine I thought about how much I love the creativity within my role and considered events such Family Art Sessions at Headingley, as Zines really appeal to both adults and children.”

zineblog-leedsreads10This zine page was inspired by The Great Gatsby and created by Assistant Communities Librarian Mark Kirby. “The first thing that sprung to mind from the book was the valley of ashes, where a huge billboard looms over everything. That’s why I chose the block text from the adverts on a murky wallpaper background. To show NYC and the Roaring Twenties, I attempted a Manhattan skyscraper out of filmstrips, and some music manuscript for the Jazz Age. Plus some added party glamour via the dancing girls, courtesy of the Metro newspaper.”

zineblog-leedsreads7Assistant Communities Librarian Angie Palmer created this beautiful page in honour of The Book Thief.

 

 

 

You can view a full copy of the zine
https://issuu.com/studio12leeds/docs/librarian_zine
Zines can help us to celebrate our love of reading, research and culture by giving us a method to share our passions in groups, by distribution and by doing!

Storytime Advent

This lovely idea for enjoying reading with your little ones comes from Rachel, our children’s librarian based at Central library.

storytime-advent-calenderCreate your own storytime advent calendar this year, it’s easy and can be as cheap as you want to make it. All you need is 24 picture or board books individually wrapped and labelled with the date. Then each day of advent you and your child/children can open one and share the book throughout the day. It could be for their bedtime story or just a good excuse to have a cuddle on the sofa with it. It’s a great way to encourage reading because the unwrapping of the book will make it feel extra special. The best bit is that you can wrap up books you already have on their book shelf, go to the library and borrow a pile of books and if you want to add in a few that you have bought that’s fine too. Some old, some new and some borrowed, it’s up to you!

During this busy time of year getting that special 5-10 minutes together reading, laughing, relaxing, pointing out things in the pictures and asking questions about what going on is a lovely way to enjoy this festive season with your children. There are so many books to choose from at your local library and you can take 20 out on each library card but remember to renew them as the loan period is 3 weeks initially. They don’t have to be Christmassy, it completely up to you what you choose, here’s a few books we have enjoyed recently in our home to get you started.

rachel-togetherTogether… by Emma Dodd

This little sea otter loves spending time with his mummy – learning new things, playing together, or even just holding each other. In fact, every day this little sea otter spends with his mummy is special, just because they are together.

rachel-we-found-a-hatWe Found a Hat by Jon Klassen

Two turtles have found a hat. The hat looks good on both of them. But there are two turtles. And there is only one hat!

rachel-grinch-stole-christmasHow the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Suess

When he spies the citizens of Who-ville enjoying their Christmas preparations, the Grinch comes down from his cave and makes a dastardly attempt to take all the joy out of the occasion by actually stealing Christmas.

rachel-ten-little-piratesTen Little Pirates by Mike Brownlow

Ten little pirates set out to sea in search of adventure. But what will the ten little pirates do when they meet a hurricane – and a giant squid – and a hungry shark? This fun-filled rhyming story, which incorporates counting backwards from ten to one, is great to share with young children who are learning about numbers. The colourful, humourous illustrations feature objects to spot and count on every page.

rachel-detective-dogThe Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson

There once was a dog with a keen sense of smell. She was known far and wide as Detective Dog Nell. Peter’s dog Nell has an amazing sense of smell. Whether it’s finding a lost shoe or discovering who did a poo on the new gravel path, her ever-sniffing nose is always hard at work. But Nell has other talents too. Every Monday she goes to school with Peter and listens to children read. So who better to have on hand when they arrive one morning to discover that the school’s books have all disappeared! Who could have taken them? And why? There’s only one dog for the job and Detective Dog Nell is ready to sniff out the culprit!

rachel-jolly-postmanThe Jolly Postman by Janet Ahlberg

A delightful postbag of real letters for you to open and read.

rachel-alans-teethAlans Big Scary Teeth by Jarvis

Meet Alan, an alligator with a secret. Famed for his big, scary teeth, he sneaks into the jungle every day to scare the jungle animals. But after a long day of scaring, Alan likes nothing better than to run a warm mud bath and take out his false teeth, which nobody knows about! That is, until his teeth go missing. What will Alan do now? Scaring is the only thing he knows how to do! Can he still be scary without them?

rachel-fredFred by Mick and Chloe Inkpen

‘Fetch!’ and ‘Sit!’ and ‘Stay!’ I understand them all. Those are the words I know. But what is ‘Fred’? Fred the dog may not know his name yet or how to stay out of trouble, but one little boy will love him no matter what. A follow-up to ‘I Will Love You Anyway’, this touching rhyming story is full of friendship and tail wagging, and will touch a chord with all children who love pets.

rachel-snowmanThe Snowman by Raymond Briggs

One winter’s night, a snowman comes to life and an unforgettable adventure begins. Raymond Briggs’ favourite classic is a true piece of Christmas magic – narrated entirely through pictures, it captures the wonder and innocence of childhood and is now recognised throughout the world.

rachel-night-before-christmasThe Night before Christmas by Clement C. Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse’. Clement Moore’s popular festive poem about a visit from Santa Claus is a delight to share with children.

rachel-swanSwan: the life and dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder

Librarians Choice – Book Club Favourites

This blog post is from Maddie, a community librarian based in the North east of the city.

I thought I would share my Readers Groups’ favourite books. I joined a Community Choir over 10 years ago and a few of us shared a passion for reading and decided to start up a Readers Group. These are a few of the titles that have prompted the best discussion.

maddie-we-are-called-to-riseWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

This is debut novel, powerfully written and we felt it was a page-turner despite it being sad.
This novel is written from the different viewpoints of each of the four main characters. Middle aged Avis, struggling with an imminent divorce and a war torn son while Bashkim is an eight year old Albanian boy with immigrant parents and a strong sense of responsibility. Alongside them is Luis, a troubled soldier suffering from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder and a world of other issues and Roberta, a volunteer social worker. These four lives all collide in one alarming incident.

maddie-saturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

This was one of the first books that we read as a group. One of us wanted to read an Ian McEwan book and Saturday was one that none of us had read. ‘Saturday’ is a novel set within a single day in February 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man, but what troubles him is the state of the world. Following a minor car accident, Perowne is brought into contact with a small-time thug called Miller. This meeting has savage consequences.

maddie-dissolutionDissolution –by C J Sansom

This is a murder mystery set at the time of Henry VIII. It introduces Matthew Shardlake, a monk, sent to investigate the horrific murder of Commissioner Robin Singleton. This is the first in a series. One of us had already read the book and was so impressed with it that she wanted to see what the rest of us thought of tit and it was a hit.

maddie-secret-life-of-beesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Set in South Carolina in the 1960s at the time of desegregation. It’s a story about Lily Owens a teenager who has grown up believing that she killed her mother. Her father is cruel and harsh and she runs away with their servant Rasaleen and they end up finding sanctuary at the home of three sisters who keep bees.

maddie-skelligSkellig by David Almond

When a move to a new house coincides with his baby sister’s illness, Michael’s world seems suddenly lonely and uncertain. Then, one Sunday afternoon, he stumbles into the old garage of his new home, and finds something magical. A strange creature – part owl, part angel, a being who needs Michael’s help if he is to survive. With his new friend Mina, Michael nourishes Skellig back to health, while his baby sister languishes in the hospital. But Skellig is far more than he at first appears, and as he helps Michael breathe life into his tiny sister, Michael’s world changes for ever.

Librarian’s choice – Top 10 Favourites

This blog is from Stu, a community librarian based in the East of the city:-

Here’s a list of ten of my favourite fiction books, in no particular order.

stu-catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller was once confronted by an interviewer with the statement, ‘Since Catch-22, you haven’t written anywhere near as good.’ To which Heller replied, ‘No. But neither has anyone else.’ I think this is the greatest book written by anyone anywhere ever and is worthy of every bit of praise that’s been lavished on it over the years. It’s the sorry tale of Yossarian, a bomber in the US Airforce during World War II and his quest to “live forever or die trying”. It’s gloriously, riotously funny, contradictions piling up on top of one another so fast you need wings to stay above them, and the dialogue is absolutely hilarious too. At its heart it’s a razor-sharp satire on the utter ridiculousness of war and what it does to those who are made to fight it, and there are so many classic scenes it would be impossible to even begin to describe them. If you’ve never had a look at this one, you really should do so immediately. Read read read.

stu-salughterhouse-5Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut was described for the vast majority of his career as a sci-fi novelist, but it was a tag which he absolutely hated. So it goes. There are sci-fi aspects to this book to be sure – time travel, aliens from the planet Tralfalmadore – but really it’s a wickedly clever, achingly sad autobiographical novel about the fire-bombing of Dreseden at the end of World War II, which Vonnegut himself actually survived. It’s a startlingly original work with a mellifluous blend of fact, fiction and meta-fiction (years before it became de rigeur), and parts of it – such as the American soldier shot for stealing a teapot – are completely unforgettable. I must have read this book ten times and I’ll read it ten more before I’m finished. Amazing stuff.

stu-cannery-rowCannery Row by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing…..” If that opening paragraph doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will. This novella about Doc, Mack, Hazel and the boys panhandling down on Cannery Row is a thing of absolute beauty, and is the perfect introduction for anyone new to Steinbeck’s world. If you’re already familiar with this, the sequel Sweet Thursday is a great read too, as is Tortilla Flat, which is almost like a prototype for this little gem.

stu-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Emily is my favourite Bronte by a considerable distance, and this is my favourite Bronte novel by a country mile. Most people will have a vague idea of the story – Cathy, Heathcliff, love, passion, death etc. – but the real star of this novel is the wild Yorkshire landscape, described perfectly in Bronte’s turbulent, almost Gothic prose.

stu-notes-from-undergroundNotes From Underground by Dostoyevsky.

This book provides us with the first great anti-hero in literature, the progenitor of a whole motley crew of misanthropic weirdoes from the starving, unnamed wretch in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger to Arturo Bandini and Henry Chinaski and everyone in between. You could also look at it as the first proper Existential novel, if you really wanted to. The great Russian writers come with a lot of baggage and formidable reputations to boot, and the sheer size of their works can often put people off, but for the dedicated reader there are great delights to be found therein. This is reasonably short by the standards of many of his other works, so if you’ve ever fancied checking him out but feel over-faced by The Idiot, maybe this is the place to start.

stu-frankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Yeah, I know, people will tell you that there were Gothic novels before this one – The Castle Of Otranto, The Monk, Ann Radcliffe and all that – but for me this is really where it all started. It’s a canny mix of early Gothic atmospherics shot through with Romantic sensibilities, and it’s treatment of the dichotomy between science and religion captured the Zeitgeist perfectly when it was first published in the early 19th century. It’s a surprisingly easy read for something that’s as old as it is, and it’s a compulsive, page-turning story to boot; it’s also a hugely influential work that has spawned thousands of imitators both in printed and cinematic forms. If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie with a mad scientist protagonist who ends up being destroyed by his single-minded pursuit of his vision, whether the writer even knows it or not, you can trace a direct line back to poor, misguided Victor. Incidentally, Shelley’s treatment of the creature he creates is deeply sympathetic, extremely humane and quite forward-thinking in many ways, so it’s kind of odd that over the years it has come to be known as Frankenstein’s Monster. It may be monstrous, but that’s not quite the same thing. With all the recent debates about GM foods, cloning and stem cells, it’s still as relevant as ever and seems destined to remain so for quite some time yet.

stu-johnny-got-his-gunJohnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

It’s worth noting that this book is unique on this list as it’s the only one that I haven’t read more than once – yet. I read it two or three years ago, having had it on my list since my university days a long time ago in a universe far, far away. It’s an absolutely breathtaking piece of creative writing and trying to describe it effectively is virtually impossible. In a nutshell though, the whole novel is an internal monologue from inside the head of a soldier who has been blown up by a shell in World War I. The thing is, he doesn’t realise initially that he has been blown up, and over the course of the opening few chapters he makes – via some astonishingly inventive psychological insights from the writer -several chilling discoveries about the extent of his injuries; he has no arms, no legs, and most of his face has been blown off so he’s deaf and blind as well. What follows is his attempts to deal with the situation he’s in, and his amazing efforts to communicate with the outside world. Absolutely extraordinary, this one.

stu-ulyssesUlysses by James Joyce.

Ulysses is really more of an artistic statement and an intellectual puzzle than a novel, but it’s no less enjoyable for it. On the face of it’s the tale of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and their meeting one day in Dublin on 16th June, 1904. What lies beneath is a virtuoso display of technical skill, linguistic pastiche (check out the Oxen Of the Sun section for a stellar example of this) and stream-of-consciousness monologues, all addressing serious contemporary issues such as the power of the Catholic church, Home Rule and Irish Nationalism. It fulfils Joyce’s promise from A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ and it does so brilliantly.

stu-the-fightThe Fight by Norman Mailer.

A bit of a cheat putting this on a fiction list, but it’s an cracking example of what came to be known as the non-fiction novel so I think I’ll just about get away with it. This is Mailer’s account of the famous Ali-Frasier Rumble In the Jungle in 1974. Mailer was one of the great men of American letters, and many of his novels are undisputed classics. What people don’t often realise is that he was a very good journalist too, and that one of his main passions was writing about boxing, something he did for most of his life. This works as a great insider scoop of the fight, but it’s also an intimate portrait of the two fighters (there’s a lovely bit where Ali takes Mailer for a run on the eve of the fight, for example) and he captures the madness of 70s Zaire beautifully as well.

stu-fupFup by Jim Dodge.

I can never resist an opportunity to plug this one. So small you can read it in half an hour, this novella is a lovely little zen-like fable about a ninety nine year old man who keeps himself alive with home-made Death Whisper whiskey, his grandson and their pet duck Fup, who they rescue from the clutches of the crazy wild boar that’s terrorizing their ranch. Jim Dodge is an absolute magician with words and it’s a shame that his whole printed output only amounts to three novels – Stone Junction and Not Fade Away are both pretty mind-blowing too – and a single book of poetry/shorter prose. There’s a bit of magic realism going on here which adds to the mystique, but really it’s just a great story, beautifully told, and with a real heartbreaker as an ending. It’s one of those books that you’ll read once, go back to the beginning, read again, then start buying copies for all your friends. Wonderful.