Friday, 28 October 2011

Top 5 Non-Fiction Books

For most of my life I have read very little non-fiction. I enjoy the thrill, that fiction provides, of being transported somewhere else, and until recently, had rarely felt the desire to read about "real life". All of the choices in this top five, have affected me in a very similar way to my favourite novels. They tell great stories but ones born from real life experience.

1. "Down and Out In Paris and London" George Orwell - Orwell's first full length work and a captivating depiction of poverty in two great cities. The first half, set in Paris, sees Orwell having to take work as a kitchen hand and is by far the more convincing half of the book. A genuine feeling of the author living on the bread line and having to scratch together whatever money he could. If nothing else it will make you seriously consider the journey your food has taken, at even the poshest of restaurants, before arriving at your table. The second half has Orwell return to London, where he chooses to live as a tramp for a few weeks before the start of a job he'd been promised by a family friend. Whilst this is still a fascinating account of the time, and wonderfully written, I felt less sympathy for the author's predicament knowing that he choose to be there. (NB: To any Orwell fans out there, I have not yet read Homage to Catatonia or The Road To Wigan Pier)

2. "Bound For Glory" Woody Guthrie - One of the things I have discovered since I started writing a blog is how apalling my memory is. Even recent events can be a little vague but anything that stretches back to my pre-teenage years forms little more than random snapshots in my head. Guthrie's autobiography is full of wonderful detail about his early life rural Oklahoma, the impact of the Great Depression and his subsequent travels around America. There are elements of the book that benefit greatly from his songwriting skills. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction seems blurred but it stands as a thoroughly engaging tale about the founder of modern American folk music. 

3. "My Family and Other Animals" Gerald Durrell - Another book that I first read at school. I'm not entirely sure when as I'm sure this wasn't O-Level material but it's a story that has stayed with me ever since. Durrell writes with great humour about his family, an eccentric bunch to say the least, their exploits in Corfu and his burgeoning interest in the natural world.

4. "Kicked Into Touch" Fred Eyre - The story of the original journeyman footballer (in the days when players didn't change clubs every six months). From being top kid in the local kick-about it took several years before he represented Manchester Schoolboys. This led to him being becoming Manchester City's first ever apprentice and attending a close season training camp at Lilleshall alongside; Neil Young, Tommy Smith, George Graham & Eamon Dunphy. Injury cut his Maine Road career short, having never made a first team appearance, and began his downwards spiral from Lincoln City to Crewe Alexandra, from Stalybridge Celtic to Rossendale United. In all he played for some 25 clubs (most of them non-league), briefly managed Wigan Athletic and was assitant manager at Sheffield United. He also found time to set-up his own office supply company and became a popular after dinner speaker. Fred's character shines through and he shows no sense of bitterness at his lack of success. A role model for all of us not just professional footballers.

5. "Hell Bent For Leather - Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict"  Seb Hunter - Hilarious account of the author's personal Heavy Metal odyssey. Flying Vs, Spandex, extended drum solos and desperately needing a wee in the middle of a muddy field in Donnington. It particularly strikes a chord with me as I did so many of the same things myself. To be fair, Seb did at least manage to graduate from playing air guitar in his bedroom to being in a real band. They just weren't particularly good.


Friday, 21 October 2011

Top 5 Novels

I left school with a disappointing number of O-Levels which somewhat limited my A-Level choices. I picked the only three subjects I could (English, Maths & Physics) and failed miserably at all three. It's OK, things worked out for the best in the long run. During my very first A-Level English lesson our teacher asked us to put together a list of our favourite books and explain why we liked them. Excellent I thought, I love lists, I have loads of books that I love, this will be easy. My list included novels by Douglas Adams, Hammond Innes and Alastair Maclean with a Dickens and a Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. When we received this work back I was told that these were the wrong sort of books.

At the time I was annoyed by this response. A disgruntled feeling that was not helped by us spending the next three months reading Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". I now see that in many respects my teacher was right. The breadth of my reading was poor, I really needed to expand the style, quality and subject of literature I read. What I really needed was someone to point me in the right direction. What I got was someone telling me I was wrong and then making me read the worst book I ever read in my life. I didn't finish A-Level English. In the last ten years I have expanded my reading considerably. I have no regrets about not having A-Level English but I do wish I'd spent more of the intervening years reading great fiction.

I still hold readability very high in the attributes required to make a great novel. There has been quite a debate recently surrounding the choice of short-listed novels for the Man Booker Prize. Readability versus literary ability is at it's core and the truth is the greatest novels ought to have both.

1. "To Kill A Mockingbird" Harper Lee - A book I first read at secondary school which opened my mind to the power of literature. It's a captivating and moving story about growing up and learning truths about the adult world. It initially focuses on the lives of Scout & Jem finch, the two young leads, and how they fill in the endless days of summer. Then there's the parallel story of their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, and his defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Narrated by the six year old Scout, it's a wonderfully observed discourse on racial inequality and human nature.

2. "Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy" Douglas Adams - Despite what my old English teacher said this book is still on my list. It's a novel I've read more times than any other. Since first discovering it after enjoying the BBC T.V. adaption, I read it at least once a year for a good 10 years. Initially a radio comedy it's a bit on the short side and really should have been combined with the follow up The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe as they are two halves of the same story arc. It's the humour in Hitch-Hikers that really wins through. Obviously I was a 14 year old boy when I first read it but it still has the power to make me laugh out loud some 30 years later.

3. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" George Orwell - Almost certainly my favourite author, I first read this in, appropriately enough, 1984. Spurred into action by the release of the Michael Radford film adaption I found it a bleak but utterly absorbing read.

4. "The Man In The High Castle" Philip K Dick - Not PKD's most famous book but I think this is his best. Set in an alternative reality where the Axis Powers won the Second World War and the world has been divided between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. The novel follows several initially unconnected characters as they conduct their daily lives against the background of a totalitarian society. I picked it up second hand from my Doctor's surgery having been intrigued by the cover. I generally find that "judging a book by its cover" is actually a pretty effective method of picking a good read.

5. "Pop. 1280" Jim Thompson - Picador's Jim Thompson Omnibus collects four of the best crime novels I have ever read into one handy compendium. Having read them all in one go I now struggle to pick out the highlight but for now let's go with "Pop. 1280" which is told from the point of view of an apparently genial and laconic Sheriff who turns out to be anything but. Thompson writes genuine hard-boiled noir like no other author.


Friday, 14 October 2011

Top 5 Albums of the 1990s

I was recently inspired by @Alex_Berwick on Twitter to re-listen to my favourite albums of the nineties. Alex published his top ten and I thought I'd do the same. Alex also writes a rather brilliant blog called The Kids Are Coming which you should definitely check out.

For continuity purposes this is still a top five, but for completeness sake the rest of my top ten is included as well.

1. Radiohead "O.K. Computer" (1997) - This is the album that rekindled my interest in new music after several years in the wilderness. A huge step forward for the band but the album that, for me, found the perfect balance between tune and experimental. There are the big "name" songs (Karma Police, No Surprises and the epic Paranoid Android) but it's the little bridging songs such as Fitter Happier & Exit Music (For A Film) that help tie it together and give the album contrast.

2. Nirvana "Nevermind" (1991) - Nevermind has so far made both attempts at my all time top 5 albums which I probably need to revist now seeing as O.K Computer didn't. It's an album I love as much for what it meant to me in 1991 as for what I think of it now. Like Radiohead's magnum opus it changed my view of music. Now I struggle to decide if I like it more than In Utero (also a nineties contender) or Bleach but history keeps it high in my list.

3. R.E.M. "Out Of Time" (1991) - As I mentioned a few weeks back, Out Of Time soundtracked my summer that year. Like Nevermind, it is an album rooted in a time and place. This was the same year I started to see Mrs Top 5. A happy year. A turning point. The start of something great.

4. Fugazi "Repeater" (1990) - I have only recently properly got into Fugazi. This was their debut full length release and it's a corker. Joe Lally & Brendan Canty are the rhythm section from heaven. Producer Ted Nicely manages to get a drum sound as crisp as Steve Albini (the highest accolade I can give). The album bludgeons you into submission but never feels overbearing. How I wish I'd discovered them sooner.

5. The Flaming Lips "The Soft Bulletin" (1999) - My first contact with the lips came in 1997 when I read about their previous album Zaireeka. That album consisted of four seperate CDs that needed to be played simultaneously on four different machines. The process meant you'd never quite hear the same music twice. They followed this with a tour in which members of the audience were given boom boxes to play music on different tapes conducted by the band. It's those sort of ideas that make a band appeal to me. Soft Bulletin was a more conventional release but took the style the band had developed during the Zaireeka period and turned it into a more accessible format.

... and the rest ...

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor "F♯ A♯ ∞" (1997) - Post-rock year zero. Godspeed brought the mystery back into rock, though as Efrim recently explained "It's not hard – all you need is four chords and a really long runway".

7. Jeff Buckley "Grace" (1994) - The mid-nineties are poorly represented here but Buckley's only proper full length album was an early sign that great music was still there if you looked hard enough. Achingly beautiful vocals.

8. Cornershop "When I Was Born For The 7th Time" (1997) - An really eclectic mix from Pop - Brimful of Asha, to hip-hop - Butter The Soul, to Country - Good to Be on the Road Back Home all tied together by an Indian influence and rounded off by a cover of Norwegian Wood in Punjabi.

9. Mogwai "Come On Die Young" (1999) - More post-rock but with a Glaswegian flavour and a passionate rant from Iggy Pop about Punk Rock. Genius.

10. Detroit Cobras "Mink, Rat or Rabbit" (1998) - Detroit garage-rock band with album of obscure R&B covers that could soundtrack the wildest of parties. You need to see this band live.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Top 5 Songs by R.E.M.

A happy by-product of doing my top 5 R.E.M. albums was the chance to pick out my favourite songs at the same time. This proved to be harder to thin down with most albums providing at least one song I really love. Despite that my final five have come from only three albums. I thought about restricting myself to one song from each album, but try as I might I didn't feel happy with any alternative selections. Short on words this week, as I've been tied up with other things, so I'll just have to let the music do the talking.

1. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (1987, Document) -

2. So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry) (1984, Reckoning) -

3. Finest Worksong (1987, Document) -

4. Nightswimming (1992, Automatic For The People) -

5. Pretty Persuasion (1984, Reckoning) -