To celebrate World Book Night (when over a million books are being given away), we asked some AntiRoomers what book their favourite book to give someone else is…What would you give away?
Jude Leavy: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
There are a host of reasons for buying this book for anyone. Its charms have been written about for over a hundred years; adventurous, sensual, funny and personable, every reader has a favourite character, a favourite chapter.
For me it is the ideal gift to give to someone leaving home with travel in mind. While bursting with audacious stories of bizarre barge thefts and the open road escapades, there’s just enough domesticity in it to cure any homesickness. But it is the descriptive passages really cause me to swoon, including one the most perfect accounts of Venice I’ve ever read, possibly only rivalled by Jan Morris’ book on the same city.
Like many people I’m a huge fan of good travel writing and the Sea Rat’s shanty-filled speech to the Water Rat actually gives me goosebumps.
So sit back and just let the words wash over you, prepare for the call of the South and beware the Sea Rat’s refrain: ‘Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’
‘And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on–or was it speech entirely, or did it pass at times into song–chanty of the sailors weighing the dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing North-Easter, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandolin from gondola or caique? Did it change into the cry of the wind, plaintive at first, angrily shrill as it freshened, rising to a tearing whistle, sinking to a musical trickle of air from the leech of the bellying sail? All these sounds the spell-bound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of the breaking wave, the cry of the protesting shingle. Back into speech again it passed, and with beating heart he was following the adventures of a dozen seaports, the fights, the escapes, the rallies, the comradeships, the gallant undertakings; or he searched islands for treasure, fished in still lagoons and dozed day-long on warm white sand. Of deep-sea fishings he heard tell, and mighty silver gatherings of the mile-long net; of sudden perils, noise of breakers on a moonless night, or the tall bows of the great liner taking shape overhead through the fog; of the merry home-coming, the headland rounded, the harbour lights opened out; the groups seen dimly on the quay, the cheery hail, the splash of the hawser; the trudge up the steep little street towards the comforting glow of red-curtained windows.’ The Wind in the Willows. Chapter 9; ‘Wayfarers All’
Lauren Murphy: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
There are three or four books that I’ve regularly bought as gifts over the years – mostly tailored to the individual’s taste – but there’s one in particular that I’ve thrust into the hands of friends more than any other. From the very first time I closed the final page of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I knew I’d be describing it to people as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It chronicles the adventure that prodigious nine-year-old Oskar Schell undertakes when he finds a key that belonged to his late father, who died in the Twin Towers collapse of 9/11. Oskar (one of most loveable literary characters of the last decade, by the way – he’s a vegan pacifist inventor/tambourine player) is determined to find out what lock the key belongs to, and his curiosity takes him on an escapade across New York’s five boroughs without the knowledge of his unsuspecting mum.
The story also intermittently flashes back to the life story of his Jewish immigrant grandparents and is replete with illustrations, maps and various other pictures that act as scaffolding for the narrative . The whole book is charming, laugh-out-loud funny, horribly sad in parts, and simply un-put-down-able. If you’ve read this book and didn’t like it, we probably couldn’t be friends. Read it before they inevitably ruin its sentiment with a film version starring the awful Sandra Bullock. I wish I was joking.
In terms of difficulty to answer, this question is similar to the ‘what-kind-of-music-do-you-like? Pick one? Just one? It simply can’t be done. So after trawling my brain, I’ll settle on three. First up is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I can still remember the gobsmacked feeling at its brilliance when I read the last page and closed this book. Rushdie, at the time was more famous for the fatwa than fiction, so I was little put off by the idea of reading him. I don’t think I’ve finished a book since, that made me sit quietly afterwards and pick my awestruck jaw off the ground. Its epic, funny, descriptive, oozing characters and colour. And that’s without the magic realism and post-colonialism. I also adore Zora Kneale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Apart from loving the world-weary story of the thrice-married Janie, it’s a landmark book for women and for African-American literature. It also contains my favourite opening line and first paragraphs:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
Hurston was much maligned for the book, particularly for her representation of African-American dialect. Her work fell out of favour, but was later revived and cited as an influence by writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Finally, a charming read by the ascerbic, funny Lorrie Moore. Better known for her short story collections, my introduction to Moore was through the novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? It’s one of the most intriguing and spot-on representations of teen female friendships and I’ve bought it for several friends.
Claire Hennessy: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
I get cranky about Donoghue post-Room the way teenagers get about bands once they’ve had a chart single and suddenly all their friends are claiming to be really big fans. Yeah, but where were you for those early albums, huh? Or in this case an early book…
Kissing the Witch, published in 1997, does what most of Donoghue’s books do – takes reasonably familiar things and invites you to look at them in a completely different way. In this case it’s fairytales, which are re-imagined and reshaped into stories which prioritise female experience – which sometimes means Cinderella running off with her fairy godmother, and sometimes simply a reconciliation of sorts between the heroine and traditionally villainous old hag. Published for teens in the US and adults on this side of the Atlantic, they are in part coming-of-age stories and in part transformation tales. Most of them are retellings of familiar stories, until the narrative baton is handed to the witch – a figure who tends to turn up in many folktales but is never given a voice of her own, and whose tale closes the book. The stories are feminist but not preachy – most of all, they’re stories that keep you reading and guessing. It’s a gift I’ve given several times as well as a book I’ve recommended frequently – and it always seems a slightly less obvious set of fairytale retellings than Angela Carter’s, which is a bonus when you’re thinking of books for people who are already well read!
Lisa McInerney: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Like jogging more than 50 yards, or alternating alcoholic drinks with mineral water, I have lofty but unrealised ambitions regarding gifting books to loved ones. I do it. I put loads of thought into it. It just never quite works out.
I was so taken with Life of Pi that I immediately bought it for my most bookish friend. “It’s deep and thoughtful, like you!” I told her. “It’s the maybe-allegorical tale of a boy who is stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan.” She screwed up her face and said, “Do the animals talk?” “No!” I stressed, worried she’d think I was forcing fairytales on her. “Oh. Well, I have no interest if they don’t talk,” she said, and back into my box I went.
I always try to give books to the younger members of the family, even though I suspect they use them as bulky dominos, or kindling. I recently bought my 11-year-old nephew the kids’ version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything, an irresistible book that makes you feel both small AND significant. I hoped he wouldn’t find it too wordy – he didn’t seem the hipster-nerd type. “Don’t worry, he loves science!” his grandmother told me. A few days later, his mam thanked me for the book. “Thank God he reads,” I breathed. “Who told you that?” replied his mother. “He doesn’t read at all.” Bummer.
The biggest disaster I’ve had with gifting books was when I got my very glam, very girlie friend one of those pretty hardbacks full of tips for modern ladies. How To Be The Best At Everything, or something along those lines. As well as ticklish guides to throwing charming dinner parties and making Earl Grey over campfires, it featured how-tos for striptease, intimate waxing and erotic whip play. “How’d you get on with the book?” I joked, over coffee. “Yes. Well, it wasn’t really for my age-group,” she said. “All those bits about darning and such. I gave it to my 12-year-old daughter.” Major fail. Not only had I inadvertently made a mini-Jordan out of an innocent lass, but I’d completely misread (forgive the pun) my friend’s taste in books. I had presumed her able to get past the back-cover blurb. I was wrong.
Hazel Katherine Larkin: Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney
This year, I am privileged to have been chosen as a book giver on the inaugural World Book Night. I have 48 copies of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems to give away.
I’m very excited about the opportunity to share Heaney’s amazing word wizardry with people who mightn’t otherwise read his work. I am planning on giving some of the books to the local psychiatric hospital for their lounge; people suffering with depression, anxiety and/or other mental disorders often have difficulty concentrating. So, I thought a book of fabulous poetry might just hit the spot – a poem doesn’t require much time-investment, but can still stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Poetry books are ideal for dipping in to and out of.
I’m also going to give some books to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland . My reasoning is that often people who require the services of the MRCI have been wounded, in some way or another, by Irish people or the Irish system(s). I think that this book of poetry can go some way to creating a bridge; showing new members of our society that we are all connected and that we are more alike than we are un-alike.
My final bundle of books will go to one of the homeless shelters in Dublin city. Again, I think that poetry can reach parts of us – offering comfort, succor and insight – that nothing else can. Heaney’s poetry does this spectacularly well.
John Carey put it best when he said of Heaney ‘More than any other poet since Wordsworth he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of.’
I always worry about giving other people books as presents. If they don’t love it as much as I did, I feel some sort of personal rejection. Ridiculous but true. I once gave a boyfriend a collection of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, Where I’m Calling From, and when he declared he was bored by “the minutiae”, the gorgeous stark stripped-bare heartbreak of Chandler’s prose, I knew we were doomed.
I know. If someone gave ME a self-help book, I would be deeply insulted.
But give me one spinster-tootin’ second to explain. This book, written by a very sensible woman by the name of Marjorie Hillis, is less a self-help tome than a guide to get you get past the Self and into the Real World. It was written in 1936 by Vogue writer Marjorie and aimed at the floods of young women working their way out of the Depression, landing in Manhattan with all the structures of family and community and hand-me-down morality left behind them in Palookaville.
Marjorie, clearly a lady about town and a woman of her own substance, lays out guidelines on how to survive the concrete jungle and the exotic animals that roam it. There is a section on keeping busy, on taking lovers (although she is never so crass as to describe it so), on keeping up appearances on a limited budget, on making friends, on pretty much every scenario a young woman might find herself puzzling through.
It is archly written, but never patronising; helpful, but never condescending; sympathetic, but never self-pitying. In short, it’s the finest damn instruction manual I have ever read.
It also makes me desire to own two bed jackets, one for casual lounging and one delicate lace one for when Company comes round. One can’t go wrong with the right bed jacket.
Aoife McLysaght: Ask the Dust by John Fante
I don’t remember why I picked Ask the Dust off the shelf the first time. I had never heard of this novel nor of John Fante. Perhaps it was the beautifully plain cover which refused to tell me what to expect within, or the satisfying, heavy quality of the paper. I just don’t remember. However it started, this unassuming book became a small obsession of mine and from there so did the author himself.
Ask the Dust is the story of Arturo Bandini and his somewhat bleak life as a struggling writer in L.A.. But the story isn’t so much the story as the feeling of his life. It was this, or something like it, that gripped Charles Bukowski when he picked this book up in his local library and couldn’t put it back down – he credits this book with inspiring his own writing career.
It’s surprising then that so few people seem to have heard of John Fante. You can’t even find him in bookshops in Ireland. The New York Times wrote “Either the work of John Fante is unknown to you, or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between”.
I’m doing my little bit, one friend at a time, to ensure that fewer people haven’t heard of him, and more can’t forget him.
Eleanor Fitzsimons on David Mitchell
Imagine tasting the most wonderful meal you’d ever had, food so exquisite that it transported you to some higher plane with every mouthful. You’d want to savour the experience and make it last as long as possible, licking your plate and burping with satisfaction at the very end if this were at all acceptable. I feel just like that when I stumble across an author whose work I love. I try to eke out their books over as long a period as possible, rationing them and denying myself the pleasure of diving in for as long as I can. I managed to walk past David Mitchell’s number9dream for two whole years even though I longed to grab it from the shelf and get stuck in. It was the last of his that I had left and although rumours of a new one exploring the Dutch trading relationship with Japan in the late 18th century was rumoured to be underway (The meticulously well researched The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took four years to write) I could not bear the thought of leaving too long a gap without a Mitchell to read.
It all started when my sister gave me a copy of Cloud Atlas, saying “I think you might enjoy this”. Yep, I certainly did! Mitchell’s third novel, a matchless blending of six nested stories narrated in distinct voices and spanning a time period that encompasses the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to some imagined dystopian, post-apocalyptic future is like nothing I ever encountered before. Each tale links seamlessly to the next until the reader reaches the middle page and retraces their steps right back to Adam Ewing in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1850 as he narrates his voyage home from the remote Chatham Islands.
It is mind expanding and soaringly experimental yet never contrived or ostentatious in any way. It is compelling and never disjointed and at times prompted me to pause and gasp at the sheer audacity of a young author with the self-possession to conceive of and carry off something so playful and original and simply brilliant without making it inaccessible or pretentious at all. I raved about it to all who would listen, becoming evangelical in my praise for it, proselytising at every opportunity. I bought a copy for everyone I could.
I rushed out and bought Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s stunning debut, and Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel set in 1980s Britain. I devoured them both and, as mentioned, hung on to number9dream, a stark and at times sadistic cyberdetective jaunt through the bleak world of Japanese gangland turf wars, until I could bear it no longer and was sure that the new one was imminent.
Last year, I and dozens of nerdy groupies like me sat in the Project Arts centre clutching freshly read copies of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and waited for an audience with the master. It was something akin to an Elvis convention in the 1970s and we were all suffering from the literary equivalent of Bieber Fever. David Mitchell, a very contented honorary Corkonian and an utterly charming and unassuming man read brilliantly from his latest book, spoke of his hope of one day writing something that would do justice to the uniquely and torturously complex relationship between Britain and Ireland and was endearingly self-deprecating and generous with his advice.
I’ve read the lot now and am fervently hoping that it won’t be another four years before I get my hands on more of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful work. Incidentally he is also someone with a stammer and recently wrote this fascinating piece on the accuracy of the film, The Kings Speech.
Silk by Alessandro Baricco is a novella I really love; I’ve read it about four times and always recommended it to customers when I was a bookseller; I’ve also bought it for several people. It is ostensibly the story of a silk merchant who travels to the Far East and falls in love, but really it is a comment on the strength, resourcefulness and patience of women. The last time I read it was a few months ago and I found even more things to enjoy in it. It is told like a fairytale or parable and, because of that, there is repetition of certain passages and phrases and motifs which is very effective. It is beautifully written and translated (I read the Guido Waldman translation last time and I thought he did an excellent job.) I do sometimes want to shake the main character, Hervé Joncour, for trying to find elsewhere what he has at home, but at least the book gets me feeling something, right? I love the way the story travels from France to Japan and all the rich and interesting detail that that throws up. There are a lot of things left unsaid in the narrative, the reader has to make the connections, and that works very well, I think. All in all, a poignant and beautiful read.
Please don’t give me a book. Yes, even your favourite book ever, the book that you just KNOW I’m going to adore.
I can tell you right now I’ll throw it against a wall.
Give me a book and you give me a burden of expectation, you give me a sick feeling in my stomach, the sense of “what if I loathe this?”, the knowledge that your gloss might be my dross and then what will remain of the friendship?
Every time we meet from the moment I receive your gift until I finally tell you that, yes, I finished the damned thing, yes, I devoted my precious, hoarded, jealously-guarded leisure hours to reading something YOU chose for me, something that wasn’t even on my reading list, every one of those days we’ll have that book you want me to read hanging between us.
And what if I don’t understand it? Supposing your choice of book for me proves I’m dull-witted, preferring to cosy up with some fluffy chick-lit tart than go one-to-one with Donna Tartt, to spend half an hour with Bunny Suicides over The Virgin Suicides, all the while highlighting the suspicion that I’m not smart enough to be your friend.
Please don’t give me a book. Recommend a book by all means. Give me a voucher, a book token, a wad of cash, and I’ll spend a happy hour browsing before I buy what I fancy.
And then I’ll even lend it to you when I’m done, because it’s my favourite book ever, the book that I just KNOW you’re going to adore.