It seems to me that writing, or indeed the making of any art, might be helpful for understanding the human condition, but only after you’ve already understood it. It’s no good at all while you’re trying to do the understanding. When we’re struggling to understand things , we have to look to other people who might already have created what we need.
So I started thinking about books which have helped me to get through things, if not to understand them. There are books which have let me escape briefly from sickness, or sad stuff, like bereavement, or the suffering of people I care about. There are books which have failed, too, but that could have been nobody’s fault but my own, for selecting the wrong book at the wrong time.
There are books which have made me think seriously about who I am, or who I’d like to be; books which have been enjoyed and yet immediately forgotten after the last page was turned, and books which have taken me over so completely that I forgot who I was until the last page was turned.
So for want of something better to say today – and until the idea of making my own stuff up makes sense once more – here are a few of those mind-altering books which I wished last week I could have read again, but for the first time.
You could have stuck pins in me while I was reading this book and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Even though several times during this book I believe I paused to think “why has nobody else ever thought of that?!), I was still immersed. I love books which seem like they avoid every cliché ever written, even though they might be framed in a very familiar way.
I can’t get enough of offbeat but believable characters who do things which, if you stop to think about it, probably happened in your town, and you thought nothing of accepting it because it was literally stranger than fiction (not unlike The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared).
I loved the idea of a town which became a tourist attraction for being the worst town in Australia, not to mention houses in mazes, mad parents, and rags to riches to rags to manic success. I can’t describe it. It’s like trying to explain trance music. I’ll just have to read it again instead.
My Mum gave me this when it first came out. I think it was the first book I ever read in that god-awful “trade-paperback” format – those huge paperbacks they bring out as non-hardback new releases, which are impossible to either read in bed or carry in a handbag – but despite this I couldn’t put it down.
I hadn’t read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca until I read this (I know. For shame), but those two books together made an old world new, and transported me into the minds of some very fascinating women – authors and characters alike. It’s like what Jean Rhys said of writing the gorgeous Wide Sargasso Sea, about the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre: “She seemed like such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life”. The idea of new stories for some of literature’s most captivating peripheral characters is ingenius.
I also loved this because my Mum gave it to me. She was always on the lookout for great women’s fiction for me.
I started this book whilst standing in a 3-hour security queue for a US flight at Heathrow Airport, less than 1 week after the mental security liquid restrictions came in following that alleged transatlantic aircraft terror plot in 2006. I remember a guy behind me smiling wryly and asking me did I think I’d have the book finished by the time I got onto the plane. I did rather think I might.
But it says a lot that I didn’t actually mind. Standing there in the queue, security staff screaming orders at us, children crying, hand baggage getting heavier by the hour – I didn’t care. The book was perfect. I love books with doodles in them but the sheer feeling crammed into the font selection alone in this book made me sigh.
I’m still refusing to watch the film. I won’t have a perfect story ruined by a ridiculous adaptation. Such as The Bonfire of the Vanities. An ascerbic, spectacularly witty, super book reduced to cheap gags and accents. Oh, Tom Hanks. Read your scripts better, for God’s sake.
What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? Everybody loved it. Everybody cried buckets. There is something so bizarrely comforting about tragic people who know what’s coming and do it anyway because it’s still better than not doing it.
As a love story it’s unbeatable. Again, the film was dreadful, and not just because Eric Bana didn’t age a day. But the book is a thing of beauty. Just humanity, trussed up in paper and glue.
I will probably spend the rest of the week seeking out other books which can make things better, however briefly. If you have any recommendations for me… you would be a very kind commenter indeed.