Monday 22 September 2014

Five Favourite Books For A Desert Island

A challenge: describe five favourite books to be marooned with on a desert island. Should be easy - books in every room, on every surface, on most of the floors ...

Three hours later, about 200 books have been through my mind and been rejected. Too short, too easy, too un-desert-islandish. Eventually settle on five and start writing. Finish number four and the doubts creep in. Delete number four and rethink. Got it!

Everything has to be well written, no dodgy prose or grammatical errors to start me ranting at the coconuts. Books I've read already and know I'll enjoy re-reading. Nothing like Lord Of The Flies or Coral Island (horrible book). Something funny to see me through the days when Fred The Lobster won't speak to me. Something long and interesting to keep me away from counting coconuts. Something, well wait and see the final something.

Intro image: By Original uploaded by Pais (Transfered by Frysch) (Original uploaded on en.wikipedia) [GPL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fred The Lobster

Faithful companion, Scrabble opponent, our conversations enriched my time on the island.

By Fernando Herranz Martín [CC-BY-SA-2.5-es (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Of The Rings

In case I'm on my desert island for a long while I want an epic work of fiction and they don't come much better than Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien's classic work.

In truth I took a long time getting round to reading this - I'd read The Hobbit which was an okay way to spend a few hours but not good enough to get me to fork out for the three volumes of Lord Of The Rings. Eventually I came across a cheap secondhand copy and bought it - I soon found out what I'd been missing. A crusty old don had produced a work of sweeping greatness and had done it in a style that would appeal to 99% of the reading population.

The main plot of the book is simple enough: the Dark Lord of Mordor is plotting conquest of Middle Earth: he seeks the magical artefact that will give him control of the few and scattered opposing powers left in the world -The Ring - the ring that Bilbo Baggins blithely riddled from the possession of Gollum in The Hobbit, Now resident again in The Shire, Bilbo only uses the ring to turn invisible and dodge unwanted visitors.

Gandalf The Gray, wizard and hobbit-friend has detected the stirrings on the borders of The Shire as mercenaries of the Dark Lord move through the world of men in search of the ring. Gandalf, alone amongst the Wizards' Council, has assessed the danger and puts together an unlikely group to embark on a dread quest to destroy the ring before the power of the Dark Lord becomes irresistible.

The group, comprising wizard, hobbits, men, an elf and a dwarf, sets off on the quest. Events and perils soon split the comrades as the rigours of Mordor's foul Nazgul and their fell Captain, let alone the vicissitudes of man, take their toll, Gandalf falls to the monstrous Balrog, a Prince of men is killed, So the quest splits, allowing the development of several major storylines, linking up eventually in a beautifully skilful denouement.

Apart from the vision and imagination of the whole, one of Tolkien's major strengths is his ability to throw in the major groups of mythology, Wizards, Elves, Orcs, Trolls, Dwarves, and to invent his own, from Eliphaunts to Ents. He interposes warmth and humour with warfare and death, he plots crescendo upon crescendo, testing his characters to near breaking point, yet he does it in a manner that keeps the reader believing and hooked to the tales. If you haven't read the book yet, if, you don't read fantasy, if you've perhaps only seen the films, go and buy it - it's not often that a work like this lives up to all the hype - Lord Of The Rings does with ease.

Two links below: paperback box set on the left, movie trilogy on the right. (Yes, there's no electricity on the desert island but you will be rescued eventually.)

The General Danced At Dawn

George MacDonald Fraser may be a new name to some of you - if so, any admirers of good writing will be thanking me - he's a wonderful writer who combines a great knowledge of his subjects with a warmth and an eye for detail that make reading his works a pleasure.

He's best known for his series of Flashman novels. Flash, the villainous drunken bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays, gets expelled and joins the army. Through a series of glorious mishaps he gains fame and credit as a hero, whilst few know that he's a womanising coward and a pig of the highest order. So, having whetted your appetite, I'm going to recommend something completely different!

GMF has also written several volumes of short stories based on his time as a young lieutenant in a Scottish regiment, just after the Second World War and based in Palestine. Fraser applies his keen eye and his writing skills to produce story after story that will surprise you with their warmth and their humour. The closeted and formal world of a regimental mess, the sub-section of an army that is the common soldiers, their interaction with the real world - all come into play in tales of small happenings in small lives and of small happenings in major events. Stories range from an inter-regimental quiz (ostensibly for a box of chocolates, really for regimental pride for years to come) to a tale of quiet heroics as a train is attacked by terrorists in the Middle East.

You'll meet our unassuming hero, wet behind the ears and newly in charge of a group of young men who act like scallywags and live for football (but who fought their way through the jungles of Malaysia). There's the majestic RSM, and then there's the shambling mound that is Private McAuslan - the dirtiest and most stupid Keelie ever to be given a gun (and a bayonet, but that's rusty and in a vile kitbag hidden by items of underwear that are probably toxic). Poor old McAuslan gets court-martialled after a complaint by a priggish young corporal - the court scene is a thing of beauty (and giggles) as defence, judge and prosecutor explore the niceties of Glaswegian invective.

There are serious themes underlying the stories - the vagaries of Army customs, the breaking up of the British Empire, the casual disregard of the world for the ex-soldier, but Fraser lets his words speak for themselves - there's no preaching or proselytising - just a master storyteller at work.

The Amazon link below takes you to a three-volume set: the books can be bought individually and all are available on Kindle.

Oliver Twist: Charles Dickens

Time for one of the classics, and time for an author who's more honoured in the breach in these DVD days.

Dickens was the great chronicler of the London of his time: from high society to the brutality and squalor endured by the lower classes. The modern realists, the Irvine Welshes and co, have their merits but fail to realise that Charles Dickens was way ahead of them.

So, Oliver Twist. Cute, rosy-cheeked little lad from the Sixties musical. Do you remember that jolly song "Prime Boy For Sale" as Bill Sike's girlfriend touts little Oliver through the posh streets? Did you think then what fate awaited such a child - servitude no better than slavery if he was lucky, hopeless violence and abuse if he wasn't. That's the London Dickens portrayed, but as a matter of course in his writing. Much like George MacDonald Fraser he didn't preach - he let his descriptive powers and his narrative do that for him.

Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse to an unknown young woman who dies shortly after giving birth. Raised in vile home for orphans, sent at age nine to the adult workhouse, Oliver is famously pushed into the famous "Please Sir, I want some more", much to the wrath of Mr Bumble, the workhouse overseer. Soon the young boy runs away to London where he falls in with Jack Dawkins who takes him to the lair of Fagin, villainous crook who trains young boys to pick pockets. His first excursion is amateurish but he has the good fortune to be caught by the rich Mr. Brownlow - others would have had him in gaol and then transported to the colonies.

Nursed back to health in the Brownlow household, gaining some hope, Oliver is horrified when the brutal Bill Sikes, accompanied by Nancy, tracks him down and kidnaps him., returning him to Fagin and to the teaching of crime. Lacking ability and enthusiasm, Oliver is caught again in his first attempt at burglary and shot. The householder, Mrs. Maylie, takes him in (okay, plot weakness) and begins to raise him with her adopted niece Rose. However, Fagin and a stranger (Monks) are plotting to find the boy - we don't at this point know why. Nancy overhears their plans and contacts Mrs Maylie - unfortunately she herself is overheard by a henchman of Sikes and is coldbloodedly murdered for her informing.

And at this point I'm going to stop describing the plot, else I'd have to add a large spoiler alert. We're a couple of hundred pages into the book and, if you've been reading, you'll have been delighted with the elegance of the prose, with the style and readability not often seen in writing from this era. You won't have known you're reading a blast against the Poor Law Amendment Act but you'll understand why Dickens wrote it,

It's a crime novel, a commentary on society, a historical novel now - it's one of the major works of English fiction and it's a treat to read.

The Jeeves Omnibus

You can't be a successful dictator *and* design women's underclothing.

Is there anyone in the English-speaking world who hasn't heard of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster? How on earth did a stuffy valet and a posh twit become so famous and so well-loved?

Simple, actually - their creator was a master of the English language. He eschewed contrivance and long words (he'd have hated "eschewed") unless the plot demanded them, and then he'd slip them in like an otter sliding off a riverbank. To read Wodehouse is to rejoice in the written word and to return to a simpler life where all could be fixed by a stroke of cleverness and cunning from Jeeves.

Well-meaning Bertie staggers along in his wake, getting engaged and separated, running foul of massive fascists who make ladies' underwear, having food fights at his club, (the famous Drones). Bullied by aunts, bossed by that other-worldly species known as "girls", Bertie constantly steps in deep waters, to be rescued by Jeeves. It's not easy to write a male-male relationship and to make it endure for dozens of tales but Wodehouse carries it off with aplomb (feeble pun there for those in the know).

The settings are limited, the variations small and subtle, yet the humour never fails. It doesn't matter that the two are arguing over cravats or moustaches, or even, god help us, scarlet socks. Where the essential maleness of the relationship would limit other writers to a male audience, Wodehouse appeals to both genders. Where the endless fripperies of a privileged class would normally raise the hackles of a left-leaning reader (ie me), in this case there's no problem. To read Wodehouse is to share his affection for his characters.

Okay then, an amiable and not too taxing read? Yes and no. Taken as a comedy of manners they're light but refreshing. Add a touch of venom - especially when an American hoves into view (Wodehouse didn't enjoy his time in Hollywood) and they grow a little darker. But still very, very polite.

Start with Jeeves and Wooster. Move on to Psmith (the P is silent) and then the Empress Of Blandings - a pig, in case you're wondering. Then there's the Ancient Golfer and the tales from the clubhouse - if you like one Wodehouse you'll like them all. And I hate golf as much as I hate moneyed aristocracy!

The selected volume has three sets of short stories and two complete novels: plenty to occupy those desert moments.

PG Wodehouse Quotes

"I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don't know what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose."

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'" "The mood will pass, sir."

""Some time ago,' he said, 'how long it seems! I remember saying to a young friend of mine of the name of Spiller, 'Comrade Spiller, never confuse the unusual with the impossible.' It is my guiding rule in life.'"

"A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of someone who had searched for the leak in life's gas pipe with a lighted candle."

"Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, "So, you're back from Moscow, eh?"

"Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty."

"He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom."

"A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy."

"It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof. "

"Chumps always make the best husbands. When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his head first, and if it rings solid, don't hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him."

"The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel an orphan out of tuppence."


Alas, Poor Fred

Fred The Lobster cheated once too often at Scrabble.

By Claude Covo-Farchi from Paris, France [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Collins English Dictionary

"What?" you may say, or "bless my soul" if you've been reading Wodehouse, "has the chap gone mad?".

Nope, for book number five on my desert island I'm taking a dictionary. Not only do I love reading, I love words - the sound of them, the meaning, the derivation, the variations. Synonyms, homonyms, denyms, (okay, that's a neologism) - individual words can be jewels by themselves, before you set them in a sentence, a web page, a story, a novel. Without the right words the greatest ideas can't be expressed, the finest sentiments die a-borning.

Dorothy Parker was challenged to produce a sentence using the word "horticulture". She came up with "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.". Try an experiment - flip a dictionary open at a random page. Stab a finger on that page - if you know the word it's pointing at, look at the derivation - there's a potted history of thousands of years in those few phrases.

Move down to the first word you don't know - enjoy the description. Think of a sentence for the word. Find a second new word and combine the two in a sentence. Realise other people are giving you funny looks. Realise you're alone on a desert island and they're still giving you funny looks. Wander off to find Fred The Lobster and see if he wants to play Scrabble...

Intro Image Credit

Cartoon courtesy of Alexei Talimonov Cartoons

And that's the five books for my desert island sojourn

What do you reckon? What would be your selections?


Helene Malmsio said...

aaaahhhh... do you ever wonder what life was like before PJ Wodehouse and Jeeves??

AnnMackieMiller said...

I always know when my friend has been reading Wodehouse - you brick and sorry old thing feature regularly in the conversation.

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