This is a bit out of place but Phil on Twitter was asking people about their favourite books so I wrote all this. There are thousands of very good books in the world and these are just some that sprang to mind. I’m terrible at describing why I like the books I like but I’ll do my best.
Disclosure: the links are affiliate links. On the off chance anyone clicks and buys I get a tiny percentage in commission.
King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick
Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker and has written a biography of Barack Obama which I’m reading now. His Ali book, which focuses a good deal on Sonny Liston and the boxing world in which they worked, is a masterpiece. This is about as good as sports books get, I think.
Game Time: A Baseball Companion Roger Angell, funnily enough also affiliated with the New Yorker on several levels, is one of the great sports writers. His descriptions of the game are so vivid and original, without overdoing it. (“Bernie Carbo, pinch hitting, looked wholly overmatched against Eastwick, flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet.”) He has a leisurely approach, an eye for the interesting, and his prose style is what you’d expect from a man whose mother was the driving force behind the aforementioned New Yorker, whose stepfather (E.B. White) wrote the style bible (the Elements of Style – writing style, that is) as well as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and lots of non-fiction for grown-ups besides. Angell himself edited fiction for the New Yorker for years. He also wrote baseball essays for the magazine, many of which have been collected into books. I’d never get anywhere near him but Angell’s style is what I was going for when I started this website.
The Story of the World Cup: 2014: The Essential Companion to Brazil 2014 – the latest in Brian Glanville’s World Cup series. It’s a simple approach: every four years there’s a new version with a long essay about every World Cup held to date. FIFA can do all they want to spoil things, but ultimately it’s a rich competition with a vivid history. Glanville’s been there and seen it all (not quite it all but not far off) and this is pretty definitive. Put it this way: the World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth, and this is the book about it I like most.
Stone Junction – this is Jim Dodge’s…. third?… book. It’s imperfect, but so many of the best things in life are. (I’d rather listen to a bad Juliana Hatfield album than anything anyone else has done.)
Like many of the best fiction writers, Dodge is primarily a poet, and it shows in his language, which is exact, deliberate, but exciting. This is subtitled “an alchemical potboiler” and it’s a big old canvas he’s working on here, but it covers some importantish ground. I don’t know if anyone else will like this – I don’t always like it myself – but Dodge’s world view and writing pull the right strings for me. Here’s a really good interview he did once. (e.g. ” Because my initial practice was poetry, in which there’s no money, I learned early on that there’s two ways to affluence: work to make enough money to buy everything you want, or to not want much.”)
Overall, I love it.
The Savage Detectives Roberto Bolano is more or less god in my world. His books are so far beyond what anyone else has done it’s pretty ridiculous. The Savage Detectives is probably the most enjoyable but the trick here is to read everything he’s done, as it all fits together. 2666 is a more impressive accomplishment in some ways (it’s a monster, unsurpassable really, but not the best entry to Bolano) but you can’t beat this one for entertainment. It starts with a group of young poets in Mexico City who end up on the run from some murderous drug dealers. We spend the majority of the book hearing brief accounts by people who met two of these poets in the years they were missing, which gives a very uneven (talk about unreliable narrators…) but fascinating portrait of the individuals in question. Ah, I can’t describe this. It’s just brilliant.
Jujitsu for Christ (Banner Books) by Jack Butler. One you won’t have heard of probably. I got this on the recommendation (not a personal recommendation though) of the great singer-songwriter Jim White. Here’s a blurb:
Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, originally published in 1986, follows the adventures of Roger Wing, a white born-again Christian and karate instructor who opens a martial arts studio in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, during the tensest years of the civil rights era.
I found it to be a really well written, funny, moving book, but not in a soft Metro-reader way. Dunno. Some books really affect you. I could very easily have put Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” here, incidentally. Perhaps I should have. That’s an incredible book.
Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan. If Bolano is the god of fiction then Sullivan is the god of essays. This is just amazing.
But crying…My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them-too many shows and too many people on the shows-for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights
That weeping and lifting weights line cracks me up every time. There are also essays on Axl Rose and early American music, a serious piece that preceded this masterpiece of journalism. Sullivan’s the Lionel Messi of writing at the moment.
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver – this is just a really good read about the way the world is today. Silver, whose name you might know, is a very bright man, and talks about predictions and projections of all kinds, the weather, political polling, expert analysis, and so on. Fascinating.
Sew Your Own: Man finds happiness and meaning of life – making clothes by John-Paul Flintoff. “The true story of one man’s attempt to survive economic meltdown, tackle climate change and find the meaning of life – by making his clothes” An enjoyable read. John-Paul’s all about doing things yourself. Finding how things work, then taking them on. There’s a terrific story in here about him trying to apply this thinking to rat catching. I’m listing it here as I think it’s a book more people should read.
Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household
Here’s Robert MacFarlane’s description:
I must be careful about spoilers. But I betray no vital loyalty if I say that the opening pages are a tumult: fast and disorienting in their incidents. Armed with a “Bond Street rifle” our narrator enters a European country (resembling Germany), and over several days stalks a dictator (resembling Hitler) to his country residence. He gets within sniping distance of his quarry, but at the vital moment is overpowered by a sentry. He is interrogated, tortured, then thrown over a cliff. But he falls into a marsh whose softness saves his life. He takes refuge in a larch tree, and then begins, desperately wounded, to make his way towards the coast. His torturers follow: the hunter is the hunted.
It’s very good. Old school thriller. Well worth a read.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre B Traven. You might have seen the film of this which stars Humphrey Bogart. Treasure, trust, greed, gold, guns, bandits, Mexico, all the ingredients you might need.
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. I could have put anything by him really. The master. I really do want to be Philip Marlowe.
“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.”
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract completely changed how I looked at baseball, and at other sports. James is a brilliant writer, a terrific historian and an able statistician. He’s curious, looks at things in ways others don’t, and his ideas took hold about 20 years after they ought to have done. Without James there would be no Moneyball. Everything he wrote prior to about 1988 is gold. His work probably lead to me doing what I do for a living now, and his early self-published abstract books were absolutely the inspiration for the Fulham Reviews.
Rabbit, Run (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Updike, which, in my late 20s, taught me that I wasn’t the only selfish idiot in the world. There are four books in the series and I almost daren’t go back to them now, but they absolutely changed my world in ways I’m not going to go into.
The Monkey Wrench Gang (Penguin Modern Classics) by Edward Abbey.
MacFarlane again, funnily enough:
‘My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.” Thus the career plan of George Washington Hayduke, hard-nut hero of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Pro-conservation, pro-guns and extremely pro-booze, anti-mining, anti-tourism and extremely anti-dams, Hayduke appoints himself protector of the remaining desert regions of the American southwest, and becomes a pioneer in the art of “eco-tage”, also known as “monkey wrenching” – using the tools of industry to demolish the infrastructure of industry in the name of the biosphere.
Hayduke is joined by three other activists – an anarchist doctor, a revolutionary feminist and a polygamist river guide – and this quartet of Quixotes heads out into red-rock country to wage war on techno-industry. They pour sand into the fuel tanks of bulldozers. They drive quarry lorries over canyon rims. They blast power lines and disrupt strip mines. Their weapons are audacity, wit and gelignite. Their grail is the destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam that blocks the Colorado river (and, it should be noted, still does).
Crunch! Kapow! Crash! Bang! The Monkey Wrench Gang is the wish-fulfilment dream of eco-Luddites everywhere. Civilisation violates the land, so Hayduke (“a good, healthy psychopath”) and his pals violate civilisation. Crucially, people go unharmed in Abbey’s novel. Machinery is smashed and split, exploded and eviscerated; but drivers and technicians escape. The only vital fluids that get spilt are oil, coolant and petrol. In this way, activism remains ethically distinct from terrorism. The beef of the Monkey Wrench Gang is not with the personnel of the “megalomaniacal megamachine”, but with its material and ideological manifestations. The battle they fight is against developments and double-lane highways, and against the economic principle of maximised shareholder profit and the economic delusion of unlimited growth.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is a magnificent snarl of genres: spaghetti westerns tangled up with the Keystone Cops, the Cervantean romance tradition and Acme cartoon capers (in an ending that comes straight from the Wile E Coyote school of resurrection, Hayduke plummets over a canyon edge and falls thousands of feet – only to reappear a few pages later, wounded but well).