Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
by Agatha Christie
As a teenage bookworm I read all 66 Agatha Christies – so my teenage years were full of the safest kind of bloodshed. My mum started me off on them – when I was 11 she gave me Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I seem to remember there was a fairly violent murder in that one, as well as a fairly unusual Christmas. But no matter how many Christies I read, I hardly ever guessed the killer. Agatha did the opposite of her husband, an archaeologist: she buried truths brilliantly.
Collected Shorter Poems
by W.H. Auden
When Auden was a student he wrote a poem called ‘The Secret Agent’. His tutors reportedly looked at those few short lines on a page and realised they were in the presence of a major poet. Think of that moment; the almost unimaginable drama of their realisation. The poem would help me on my desert island: “Woken by water/ Running away in the dark, he often had/Reproached the night for a companion/Dreamed of already.” It’s spine-tingling. Auden’s sense of foreboding was so well telegraphed in the 1930s (that “cigarette end smouldering on a border”) that he even ended up scaring himself and, disastrously, he left Europe for the US before war broke out. I say disastrously because had Auden stayed on this continent, I think he would have gone on to become the great Second World War poet that we sadly seem to lack.
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
This book – if memory serves – opens with an astonishing scene. Soldiers back from battle are delighted to find there are double rations waiting in the mess; subtly, as they plough into the food, we discover that there is twice the usual amount of food because half the unit has been killed. Like The Red Badge of Courage, this is one of those war novels that should be a set text in peacetime. Something about war brings out the best in writers: at university I was gripped by Catch-22 and The Naked and the Dead. But for me All Quiet on the Western Front is the one. Remarque was a German veteran of the First World War. The Nazis banned the book because it was so unsparing in its description of the horrors of war. The most painful scene is probably the soldier’s return home on leave – he finds he doesn’t fit in, the silence is killing him, and at the bedside of his dying mother he tells her: “Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you?”
by Bernard Malamud
Imagine Coronation Street written by a serious literary figure, and you have The Assistant. A man holds up a convenience store in a mask; his conscience twinges, so he goes back to work at the store to help the traumatised owner. Of course his identity as the thief will be exposed – what makes it all the more painful is that, as we wait for the exposure, the man falls in love with the storekeeper’s beautiful daughter. I did my university dissertation on Malamud. To me he seemed to be almost the perfect writer. He had the power to animate even the most ordinary. I mailed him a personal copy of the dissertation when it was completed in 1986. He read it, posted me a charming letter to thank me (which was bashed out on his manual typewriter), and died the following week.
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
by Francis Wheen
This is the zeitgeist book of the post-Diana generation, and I love it. Wheen examines the way in which we all gradually became more learned and more civilised – thanks to the Enlightenment and everything that followed – and then, sometime around the death of Princess Diana, threw knowledge away and opted for emotion instead. There are so many brilliant stories in this book I hardly know where to start. Wheen tells how movie star Ali McGraw claimed in her autobiography to have had a lifelong struggle with alcohol; when her ex-husbands said they couldn’t remember her drinking at all, she admitted she might not have done, but said she had certainly “behaved alcoholically”. Suffering has taken the place of science as the path to knowledge, says Wheen. I disagree with him a bit on religion, which he trashes as remorselessly as everything else, but what a book.
Tintin in Tibet
Sorry – a kids’ book? I don’t think so. I have been reading Tintin in Tibet to my eight-year-old this week, and have been completely bowled over by the quality drawings and the narrative. You can almost smell Captain Haddock’s whisky breath, and if I put my face any closer to the page I swear my nose is in danger from a Thomson Twin elbow. When George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency in 2000, he went on the Letterman show and jokingly said that one of the things he would do if elected was to “make sure the White House library has books with really big print and pictures”. On my desert island I want at least one example of perfect illustration, and this is it.
They Marched Into Sunlight
by David Maraniss
I am tempted to say this book changed my life. I read it in 2010, all 600 pages, after seeing a documentary about a particular unit in Vietnam which was encouraged, for essentially PR reasons, to go into a jungle and kill some Viet Cong – as if it was easy. Walking into the bush, they heard tapping in the trees and clicks and whistles in the greenery all around them. By the time they had worked out that they were surrounded there was no escape. The battle wiped out the unit, including the rather flawed commander Terry Allen, who died clutching a radio in one hand and photos of his daughters in the other. The book also tells the story of protests against Dow Chemical at a university in Wisconsin: Dow made napalm, and students wanted them banned from the campus. The two narratives of war and peace are brilliantly interwoven. If you were going to spend time with just one of the books on my list, I would respectfully say choose the Maraniss! I became so absorbed in the story that breaking off was like waking up from a dream.
by David Nicholls
I know this is The Book That Everyone Has Read, but it’s especially a book for my life because the characters graduate just a year after I did, and so their on-off love affair – and ageing – is mirrored in my own life. The device is simple: we see Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Then we meet the pair on 15 July in each of the years that follow. They are clearly meant to be together – whether they ever get there… I think I will leave that for you to find out in case you haven’t read it! There is something devastatingly sad about it. The writing reminds you how, when you were young, despite everything you thought you knew, you never fully grasped the transience and precious power of youth itself.
by Stephen King
Stephen King is a genius. He wrote Carrie, The Shining, Misery, It, Salem’s Lot, Christine and a load of others, and I’ve read them all. In this book he tells us what made him a horror writer: first, having a babysitter who used to sit on his face and break wind; and second, being taken for an ear-syringing that resulted in his eardrum being accidentally burst by a needle. There were other influences of course, but those two certainly helped. I find King fascinating because he writes in the least florid way possible, yet his very direct approach to getting his awesome imagination onto a blank page works. It’s a bit autobiographical, too. King writes about the accident where he almost died. He was walking by the road and got hit by a van. When the author came to, the driver was sitting beside him, laughing toothlessly and drinking beer alongside two mangy dogs. “I thought I had been killed by one of my own characters,” King says.
by J.M. Coetzee
I read this when I was based in South Africa for the BBC. The fact that it contains a burning as well as a rape made it as graphic as that country’s own troubles. The idea is profoundly effective: should a white woman forgive her attacker because the black majority in South Africa are expected to forgive their own oppressors? It is a gritty, troubling read. It made me think a lot about a country I had come to love, and wonder whether I had understood it at all.
It's All News to Me by Jeremy Vine is published by Simon & Schuster. He will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August at 6.30pm
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?