One thing I’ve discovered about blogging, when I finally think of an idea and start writing, I rarely have any control over what direction it takes.
So an aside about favourite childhood books can lead to the whole post being hijacked by my tendency to ramble…See? I’m doing it again.
So, as I was saying before I went off on a tangent, I’m going to pick five books (this is a lie) which have in some way stayed with me, and which I have returned to with as much pleasure as when I first discovered them.
Phillip K Dick is one of those authors whose work you’re probably familiar with, even if you’ve never heard of the great man, due to several high profile movie adaptations, Blade Runner and Total Recall being the most well known.
But my introduction to his dystopian world was through one of his even stranger tales.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a unique blend, part sci-fi, part mysticism, and part druggy, hallucinatory trip.
The story revolves around the idea of “layouts”, which are physical accessories – in effect, interactive dollhouses – to be used in conjunction with a virtual experience.
This is brought about by Can-D, an addictive hallucinogen which is chewed by the human colonists of Mars, enabling them to project themselves into the layout.
Palmer Eldritch returns from a distant world with an alternative to Can-D, Chew-Z…
From there onwards, things get very strange indeed.
The images from the book, especially Eldritch’s “three stigmata”, played a big part in my dreams for a long time after I finished the final chapter.
Having read it again since, it’s power has not diminished one bit from when a stoned 17 year old first found it on a friend’s bookshelf all those years ago.
Right, that was one of the five books that I’m choosing..
Trouble is, my next choice is five books.
Although originally adapted from a BBC radio series, there is no way I could make any list of books that did not include Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and, despite the fact that I will almost certainly make this assertion about any number of books later, I think it’s my favourite series of books ever.
There, I’ve said it.
Such is the scope of the story – quite literally, Life, the Universe, and Everything – that the best way to describe it is this:
A man called Arthur Dent, who is almost permanently bewildered, angry, or both, wakes up to find his house, and his planet, are being demolished. Furthermore, he finds that his best friend, Ford Prefect, is an alien.
This turns out to be for the best however, as Ford saves Arthur from certain death by teleporting the pair of them aboard the very ship doing the demolishing.
After that, things tend to happen in rather an unpredictable order.
The subsequent four books that make up “trilogy in five parts” by the late, very great Douglas Adams, sparkle with inventive, dry wit, action, adventure, oh, and towels.
Technical and philosophical topics wind through the deliriously bonkers plot. Characters with names like Slartibartfast, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Vroomfondle, and Majikthyse populate a universe powered by Adams’ distinctive humour, where there’s never a dull moment, and a laugh out loud moment on nearly every page.
A True Original – Douglas Adams.
I must have read the first three books a dozen times or more, and I never get tired of them.
And, unusually, the series has been continued since Adams’ untimely death. Artemis Fowl author, Eoin Colfer was given permission by Douglas’ family to write And another thing…, cleverly echoing the style of the original books, and staying faithful to the story.
Come to think of it, I haven’t read them for a couple of years…
More comedy from another of my heroes now, in the form of seven volumes of memoirs (see, told you the five books thing was a lie) dating back to the second world war.
Any book whose first paragraph contains the line: “…my father and I watched my mother digging the air raid shelter” is always going to be a winner in my opinion.
That book is Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by comedy genius, author, poet, star of radio and TV, and all round legend Spike Milligan, and I first read it when I was about 13.
You know when you laugh so hard, and so uncontrollably, that your face hurts and the back of your head feels like it’s going to fall off?
That’s what Spike’s War (and Peace) memoirs do to me.
The first book begins in England in 1939, and tells of Spike’s time in Bexhill-on-Sea, training in the artillery after his call up. The cast of characters, some of whom will accompany us throughout the series, assembles, both in real time and in flashback.
The book ends with the newly minted gunners leaving for Europe and an uncertain future.
All through the seven books, Milligan provides prolific detail through vivid description, photographs and drawings from the time, and sketches he made later.
A lot of the stories revolve around the regimental band, (Milligan was an accomplished jazz trumpeter) and the shows he and the others put on to entertain the troops, and his love of music, especially jazz, comes through strongly.
There is also a lot of pathos and melancholy in the books. The loss of close friends, the horrors of war, and Spike’s own traumatic time hospitalised with shell-shock are all related with bold honesty, the madcap comedy acting as a jester’s mask.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see a germ of an idea that became The Goons in the horseplay of army life, and after all, he did meet Harry Secombe while serving overseas.
I believe these books, more than anything else he did, reveal the genuine man behind all the insanity, and they are a joy to read. Both brutal and innocent, hilarious and moving, honest and complete fantasy, anyone wishing to know more about a truly influential comedian should start here.
So, that only leaves two of my five choices, (I don’t think there’s any need to kid ourselves it’s only going to be two books do we?) and I’ll cover t