#31 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

(1974, Sceptre)

“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton Races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”

In the fabulously titled Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, intelligence expert George Smiley – a recurrent le Carré hero – is forced out of forced retirement in order to hunt down a Soviet mole in the “Circus”, the top layer of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Since we’re discussing spies and secrets, I better make a confession. I have been very naughty. Disgraceful, in fact. I did something I’ve never done before, possibly the worst thing a bookworm/film fan can do. I watched the film adaptation in the middle of reading the book!

I didn’t mean to. Time just sort of snuck up on me – I simply wasn’t able to finish the book before watching the film. (OK, I was able, but I didn’t.)

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#30 The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

(1945, Penguin)

“There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh.”

The Pursuit of Love follows the romantic travails of the beautiful and impulsive Linda Radlett, as viewed through the eyes of her more staid cousin Fanny Logan.

As I expected and hoped, The Pursuit of Love was the perfect thing to read after the exhausting Infinite Jest. Mitford’s signature wit and gift for comedy meant it read like a dream, without flinching from difficult themes.

The novel works on at least three levels – as a character study of a woman more complicated than she might first appear; as a portrait of a dysfunctional upper-class family; and as a a snapshot of life in Europe between the World Wars.

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The gift that keeps on giving

I’m an easy person to buy presents for. I like receiving the things other people seem to deem dull and predictable: toiletries, junk jewellery, DVDS, chocolate – even socks! Most of all, I love being given – and giving – books.

A book, especially as a gift, is far more than the sum of its parts. It is the promise of an adventure, a form of recommendation and a sign of love.

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#29 Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

(1996, Abacus)

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.”

How important is “readability” in contemporary fiction? Do you think that readability can be in conflict with literary quality and worth?

The above questions are at the heart of one of the most frequently recurring literary “dust-ups” of recent years, as highlighted by Dave Eggers in his 2006 foreword to Infinite Jest, and exemplified by the vitriol surrounding this year’s Bookers.

Personally, I like my books readable, all the way along the literary scale. I think  readability is one of the primary functions of a book. I hate giving up on books, but I will get frustrated with a book that doesn’t flow or is incomprehensible. Different books do different things – sometimes I want trash and pleasure, sometimes I fancy a challenge. Best of all is treasure, when a book offers a great reading experience but also feels life-changing. I tend to think people that exhort difficult books are snobs, much like people who endure horrible-sounding music because the masses won’t “get it”.

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#28 The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

(1974, Abacus)

“The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady.”

It’s been said that you must not judge a book by its cover – but I can’t help it. I am highly susceptible to aesthetic appeal (aren’t we all?) and presentation acts as a shorthand to what I can expect inside. I’ve longed for many books simply because they look sumptuous or unusual.

Based on previous covers I had seen, I had been uninterested in Beryl Bainbridge. I had assumed her to be rather oldfashioned and stuffy. Beryl didn’t seem like a very cool name – I associated it with an unattractive, unpleasant and irritating character in The Beano. Then, during my work experience at Little, Brown, relatively soon after her death, I learned more about her and her books, and became taken with the striking style of her recently reissued repertoire. The author herself looked downright sassy in her photo. So I revised my earlier, shallow opinion and especially looked forward to tackling her Apocalypse Book.

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Books that count

The odd thing about being a lover of words is that you often get hung up on numbers. As in, how many words do I need to write or how many pages will I read?

As both a writer and a reader, I’m always setting myself goals. By the end of the week I will have written a 1000-word piece on the body in popular culture. Today I will read at least 200 pages of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth literary tour de force, which seems to become a different kind of book every 20 pages or so. Phew.

At least I’ve got the luxury of reading more than usual, as I’m on holiday, at least for a little longer. Tomorrow marks the end of my week-long sunny Spanish sojourn and I optimistically brought a half dozen books, hoping to gorge on Daphne Du Maurier, Angela Carter and conquer A Game of Thrones so I can watch the miniseries. A word to the wise: if you’re only going somewhere for a week, the 1100-page Infinite Jest is more than plenty! Other books will just end up stealing space from holiday tat and duty free booze.

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#27 Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

(1927, Virago)

“One summer evening in the year 1848, three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, overlooking Rome.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop was not the novel I expected. Admittedly I wasn’t going on much, apart from the resonant title and alluring, contemplative cover, which conjured a Thornbirds-like romance infused with spiritual conflict. (Which I haven’t read, but have absorbed by way of cinematic reference over the years. Oh Meggie!)

Not that I was disappointed. I’m not sure that Willa Cather could disappoint me. I am now confident that she will always surprise.

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