TV box-sets are great, aren’t they? Have you ever spent an evening flicking through Netflix, compiling a watch-list, thinking to yourself “I’ll never get through all these;” only to end up watching nothing at all? No? Just me? Well for every great TV show you’ll never get around to watching, there are a plethora of far more worthwhile books.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good series binge. I’ve racked up my fair share of box-set hours over the past eight months. And long before lockdown, I’d watched The Sopranos at least five times; Breaking Bad at least four times. But a truly great book is something different. Something more.
Recently, my colleague, Katy Thornton, published an article entitled “How To Stay Off Your Phone During Lockdown.” The advice that resonated with me was to read a book instead of watching a series. No matter the quality of what I’m watching, I will, invariably, reach for my phone; mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, one eye on the phone, one eye on the TV. This will never be the case if you’re reading a book.
A book draws you in, in a way no TV show can hope to replicate. A book demands your undivided attention. It forces you to work for your entertainment; you must visualise what the characters look like and how they sound; how the bumpy road on page 76 feels; how the lasagna being cooked on page 93 smells. This commitment is so much more rewarding than whatever Netflix, Amazon or Hulu can hope to offer.
The Testament – John Grisham
This is the book that rekindled my love for reading. I spent three hectic years backpacking across Canada, New Zealand and Japan, where my days were spent working and my nights spent partying; there wasn’t much time for books. Once I was back in Ireland and taking an extended travelling hiatus, I needed something to fill the void. The picture Grisham paints of the Brazilian Amazon was the perfect remedy for my itchy feet and wanderlust.
Nate O’Riley is a corporate attorney who spends more time in rehab than in court. He is sent on a proverbial wild-goose chase, deep into the jungles of South America, in search of the lone heir to a multi-billion dollar fortune. But Rachel Lane, a recluse missionary, does not want to be found; and there is a family full of siblings, half-siblings and ex-wives hoping she never will be.
The Brethren – John Grisham
As soon as I’d finished The Testament, I rushed back to the library to grab a new Grisham novel. Something about The Brethren stood out. I made the right choice. Author, John Grisham, is a former lawyer and his knowledge of the law is on full display in this gripping tale of deceit.
Three former judges find themselves locked up in a minimum-security prison, alongside drug dealers, tax evaders, and Wall Street crooks. Rather than simply biding their time, the three judges form a mini law firm, operating out of the prison library, where they handle cases for other inmates, and occasionally preside over some prisoner disputes.
The story also follows Congressman Aaron Lake and his campaign to be the next President of the United States. It is inevitable that these two paths will eventually intersect, but the road to get there is filled with engrossing twists, turns and pit stops.
Survivor – Chuck Palahnuik
My favourite book. My favourite author. Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club; a wonderful book adapted into one of the greatest movies ever made. Survivor is better. In every conceivable way. The cultish nature of Fight Club, the pitch-black dark humour, the male angst, the twist – they’re all here and absolutely blow their predecessor out of the water.
This is not hyperbole (although it might be bias); Survivor is unequivocally excellent. I hate to use the word, but it is unputdownable. Where Fight Club was the ideal book to be adapted onto the big screen, Survivor is much more suited to a long-form series. There’s just too much story to tell.
The story focuses on Tender Branson, a protagonist it is simply impossible not to love on one page and loath the next. Tender is the sole survivor of his religious cult’s mass suicide. He decides the only way to convey his story to the world is by hijacking a plane which he will crash once he dictates the details into the plane’s black box. Don’t worry, I’m not giving any spoilers; this information is all regaled within the first few pages.
While The Testament made me remember how much I love to read, Survivor made me remember how much I love to write. How much I need to write.
Post Office – Charles Bukowski
A short, easy read; Post Office is the ideal book for those either returning to novels or dipping their toe in for the first time since school. I’ve read the book three times. I once read it on a flight to Japan and read it again on the flight home, enjoying it just as much both times.
Bukowski’s writing is practically autobiographical; his star, Henry Chinaski, is an altar ego he created to portray himself in his books. In Post Office, Chinaski represents everyone who has ever hated their job, hated their boss and hated their colleague to the point that it makes them hate their life. Constantly hungover, constantly unfulfilled and never more than a page away from a foul-mouthed tirade, Chinaski is forever on the brink of a breakdown. It makes for great entertainment, especially for those who can relate.
The finest and most accurate review I’ve seen of Bukowski comes from the Boston Review. It describes his work as “a detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free… an unending chronicle of farts, drunks, shits, fucks, brawls, and visits to the racetrack, punctuated by bouts of creativity for which he indifferently receives the world’s adulation or reproach.” This can also be used to perfectly describe the man behind the books. The writer’s writer.
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
In-flight movies are the only thing I enjoy about flying, especially long-haul flights. I always scroll through the “new movies” section, hoping to find something to pass two hours. One of the best things I’ve ever happened upon was called The End of the Tour; Journalist Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) follows a genius author, Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother), on the last days of his book tour. This is how I discovered David Foster Wallace.
Infinite Jest is long, absurd, difficult and haphazard, but therein lies the charm. The book is a thousand-plus-page gargantuan. The first ten chapters have no crossover or convergence, instead setting up a multitude of stories and stories within stories. Wallace rambles, using near page-long sentences to test the reader’s endurance; sentences which may need to be read and reread to grasp exactly what’s going on. The book is packed with footnotes. Hundreds. Use them; the story makes a lot more sense with these essential editions. And keep a dictionary nearby, just in case.
Wallace draws on his own life experiences to create the epic plots and subplots: high-level tennis ability, crippling addiction, and the kind of once-in-a-generation mind that truly deserves the label “genius.” Alas, there is also the foreboding presence of suicide throughout the novel – Wallace took his own life in 2008.
People assume those who say they like this book are just being pretentious, which can definitely be true. There’s a line in the aforementioned movie where Eisenberg’s girlfriend talks about a certain type of guy who keeps an unread copy of the book on their night stand as a way to show off to the girl about to share their bed. But this is nevertheless a dismissive kind of discrimination. Infinite Jest has so much to offer and was one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read. (And it didn’t impress even one girl.)
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
Read Russian literature. There is a refreshingly brutal honesty that no Western writer can truly capture. Mikhail Bulgakov’s work is a great place to start; he was the first Russian writer I experimented with and provided both the confidence and interest to pursue the works of his more famous countrymen.
One day, the devil arrives in Moscow, accompanied by an entourage that includes a witch, an assassin, and a giant talking cat with a penchant for vodka and chess. What more do you need to know? Writer Alex Gendler wonderfully describes the book as a “surreal blend of political satire, historical fiction, and occult mysticism.”
The novel was written in 1930s Soviet Russia, with the kind of honesty and accuracy that caused the Communist regime to bury the book for over 30 years. It was only partially published in the 1960s, long after Bulgakov’s death.
The Night Manager – John le Carré
John le Carré spent most of the 1950s and 60s working for Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He took everything he learned and transformed himself into the quintessential spy novelist. His work includes The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and The Tailor of Panama.
But The Night Manager is, in my most humble opinion, his masterpiece. Jonathan Pine is a former British soldier tasked with taking down “the worst man in the world”, Richard Roper, a billionaire international arms dealer. The story weaves in tales of love, loneliness, misguided friendship, and collusion between London and Washington that one feels may not stray far from some uncomfortable truths.
Tom Hiddleston (Thor) and Hugh Laurie (House) manage a commendable BBC adaptation which is every bit as good as Gary Oldman’s attempt at a movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Read the book first.
The Rum Diary – Hunter S Thompson
I decided against including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas using the same reasoning I did when I opted to include Choke – the movie is simply better. Fear and Loathing is a fictionalised autobiographical version of what Hunter S Thompson might consider the perfect weekend away (watch the video below if you don’t believe me). But to get a true sense of the writer, watch the movie; Johnny Depp portrays Thompson on screen better than even Thompson himself could hope to through his writing.
In The Rum Diary however, Thompson offers a novel which carries far more weight and substance than the movie (also starring Mr Depp). The book was written early in Thompson’s career, when many writers do their best work, free to create art without needing to feed their ego or live up to some exterior set of expectations.
Published posthumously, the novel follows narrator Paul Kemp, a journalist who has swapped crowded New York City for dangerous Puerto Rico. Kemp finds himself embroiled in a tense relationship of love, lust, jealousy and alcoholism, set against the backdrop of 1950s Caribbean corruption.
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
Yes, I’m including Tolstoy. Yes, it’s more Russian literature. Yes, it was written in the 1870s. Yes, it’s about 900 pages long. But should you read it? Absolutely. Just be thankful I’ve never read War and Peace or I’d probably recommend that as well.
I first read this epic when I was 19 but I never bothered to finish it. It wasn’t until years later that I got the urge to read it again, so I started over. What a book. In the briefest description, the eponymous Anna is unhappily married to a man twice her age. She begins an affair with an army officer which becomes ever-more problematic throughout the book.
Meanwhile, rich landowner, Konstantin Levin, runs the stereotypical empirical-Russian gauntlet of money, marriage and religion. Despite the book being written 150 years ago, the philosophical themes of gender roles, social class, religion, and family are still relevant today.
Women – Charles Bukowski
When I discussed Bukowski previously, I mentioned that his work, and indeed much of his life, is a kind of idyllic male fantasy; Women is no different. There are very few things most men prefer than dissecting the notches on their bedpost; describing to their friends, or indeed anyone who’ll listen, the extent of their “conquests” in the most exaggerated, braggadocious way imaginable. And that is the crux of this novel.
Women is the kind of book that could only come from an author who once published a selection of short stories entitled Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. Bukowski’s altar ego, Henry Chinaski, once again takes centre stage, meandering through paramores, muses, one-night-stands and poetry groupies, all while resting an eternal hangover.
The novel reads as a satirical celebration of the chauvinistic lifestyle Bukowski uses to mask his inner romantic. For a true peek inside the soul of the writer, find his poem, Bluebird, before dismissing him entirely.
Choke – Chuck Palahnuik
The cliché goes that the book is always better than the movie. Nowhere is this more evident than Choke. Even with Oscar winner, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards, Moon), portraying protagonist Victor Mancini, the movie could not do the book justice.
Victor Mancini is a sex addict. This is not the main plot of the story, but the details of his escapades are easily the most laugh-out-loud entertaining. Victor’s job manages to be both menial and demeaning, all while not paying very well. But he has a mother in a care home who needs her rent paid at the end of every month, which leads to the title of the book. Victor runs a little scam – he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in high end restaurants in the hope of profiting off the consequences.
I have read every novel Palahniuk has published; they’re all dark, murky and hilarious. What separates Choke is the occasional glimpse of redeemable joy which adds a sense of hope, even when such moments are tinged with deep, burning sadness.
Kiss Me, Judas – Will Christopher Baer
Will Christopher Bear only came into my life once I had exhausted Chuck Palahniuk’s extended library. I Googled author recommendations similar to Palahniuk and Bear was one of the first to pop up. When it comes to choosing a book, I rarely do more research than reading the accompanying hundred-or-so-word blurb.
“During his first night out of a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, Phineas Poe is picked up by a prostitute. She drugs him, removes his kidney and leaves him in a hotel bathtub full of ice.” That’ll do me! I didn’t need to read one more word of the description. Would you?
The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde is my favourite Irish author, perhaps my favourite all-round Irish artist; not just for his work, delightful as it is, but for the man behind the words. He was incredibly brave in both his writing and his private life – as brave as one could be in the nineteenth century. He was by no means perfect – no one is, least of all prolific writers – but he represents a kind of necessary rebellion which still resonates to this day.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Wilde; hardly surprising considering the endless backlash received from ultra-conservative Victorian Britain. The eponymous Dorian Gray is an exceptionally vain, young man, who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty, when an artist, besotted with Gray, paints his picture. The painting takes on supernatural powers, absorbing the brunt of Gray’s ever-escalating debauchery.
1984 – George Orwell
Last year, when Brexit was the only game in town, I started listening to UK phone-in radio shows to get the local perspective. James O’Brien was my go-to because he seemed to speak the most sense, which invariably got him the most ill-informed, angry, childish respondents, and therefore the most entertaining. It made for a kind of voyeuristic schadenfreude.
Throughout the deluge of delusion, O’Brien constantly plucked quotes and references from George Orwell’s 1984. I’d heard of the book, only in reference to the “Big Brother” dystopian future, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It could not be more apt.
The book presents a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian world, perfectly encapsulating Brexit Britain and perhaps even more so, the Trumpian mess the United States has become. The line O’Brien always reaches for, beautifully highlights how the picture painted by a novel written the 1940s rings achingly true 70 years later. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
My lockdown book. For me, lockdown insisted on some introspective, self-reflective psychology. But that’s always easier to do by learning from others. Dostoevsky is a master.
It’s fair to say that the main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, considers himself a nihilist. He just happens to be a nihilist who commits an unprovoked murder. A self-important, egocentric, murderous nihilist. Beautiful. He believes he is a great man, a beacon of hope for the world. And he is desperate for recognition. Rings a bell.
My star of the book is Porfiry Petrovich – the man leading the murder investigation. Other characters have a bigger part throughout the story, such as Sonya, the archetypal hooker with a heart of gold, but it is Porfiry who helps tease out Raskolnikov’s guilt. This is crucial to the story and made all the more entertaining by the whimsical nature of the magistrate.
The book even features a hauntingly eerie dream of a worldwide plague. “He had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible… unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish. “ Huh.