The Five Books We Always Recommend
These are the five books that we recommend people read most often.
We have eclectic (and excellent) taste you'll surely agree.
Care of Wooden Floors - Will Wiles
This is always the first recommendation that jumps to mind when asked "read anything good lately?" even though it was read back in 2012, it's just that good!
Never before has so much been done with so little. Care of Wooden Floors is a short novel with a minimalist plot about house-sitting a minimalist apartment in an unnamed former Soviet Bloc country. The protagonist goes unnamed also and the fastidious home owner, Oskar makes his presence known via a serious of notes left throughout the apartment that draw such a vivid picture of his character that you end up wondering why other writers spend so many pages doing the same job. Oskar is an old University friend of the central character and an internationally renowned composer who has two pampered cats and a pristine hardwood floor that require care while he is away.
What follows is primarily a farce and you know from the offset (well, from the title really) that something is going to go horribly wrong and it's ludicrous that such a simple premise ends up being so compelling but it really does. Anyone who has made a small mistake that they've then compounded by a poor decision leading to a bigger mistake will love this book. Not only are there some genuinely laugh out loud moments you'll also be surprised to find yourself gripped with tension over yes, the care of wooden floors.
Wiles is an architecture and design journalist so he clearly knows about floors and incisively describes the apartment, which is almost the sole setting, in such a way that the reader ends up feeling as if they were there themselves, claustrophobic and awaiting the next excruciating catastrophe.
Care of Wooden Floors is an intelligently written, perfectly paced novel and the hardback edition has a beautifully designed dust jacket to boot!
One on One - Craig Brown
Another read from years ago that never tires of being touted, and another with a beautifully designed dust jacket.
One on One is a wonderfully gossipy book describing 101 chance encounters between various notable figures each described in 1001 words. Each random meeting leads of the last, so the book begins in 1931 with John Scott-Ellis knocking over an Austrian man with his car (the Austrian turns out to be Hitler!) This leads to John Scott-Ellis meeting Rudyard Kipling and Rudyard Kipling meeting Mart Twain and so on and so on.
Almost anyone who's anyone is in this book so there's something to suit all tastes and there's bound to be more than one story that you'll definitely be interested in, it's essentially a book of anecdotes and they range in tone from hilarious, to odd, all the way through to genuinely touching. Highlights include an embarrassed Madonna falling into a Martha Graham dance class, a blazing row between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (that takes place at a dinner party being held by the Duchess of Windsor), and Andy Warhol's imagined feud with Jackie Kennedy.
It's a breezy and witty read that makes an excellent gift, the author has also recently published a new book entirely about Princess Margaret, it's on the to read pile but if The Crown has taught us anything it promises to be just as delightful.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple
This was a gift from a former colleague and turned out to be the best read of that year.
It's what you'd call a classic page turner, though perhaps not quite as cliche as books of that ilk can often be. Bernadette is a funny, smart and brilliant architect, a pioneer of eco-friendly building, though she's also reclusive and a little volatile (OK, perhaps tortured creative is a little cliche), however it's brilliantly done.
Since moving to Seattle to support her husband's career advancement at Microsoft Bernadette has been in somewhat of a personal crisis, not that you can blame her, the Tech model village setup for Microsoft employees sounds like a nightmare, Titus Salt had nothing on Bill Gates it seems. Being 'brilliant' Bernadette struggles with suburbia and becomes more and more isolated from all the un-brilliant people surrounding her until one day she ups and leaves them all behind.
Primarily told from the point of view of Bernadette's 14 year old daughter, Bee the story is given layers through 'real' documents interspersed within the narrative; police reports, journal entries and emails that force you to read between the lines as you try to solve the mystery of just where Bernadette has gone. This book is often more about what's not written down than what is, the emails between the narrow-minded and resentful mums at Bee's school are particularly delightful, we've all dropped eaves into conversations like that before, hell we've all had conversations like that!
It's great to read a book that's undoubtably about a 'strong' and complex woman but that isn't consumed by that, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is primarily about how the minor setbacks of everyday life can turn into major disasters. It's also being adapted for film starring Cate Blanchett which has to be worthy of a gay gasp.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark
More of novella really but arguably one of the best pieces of writing the 20th century has to offer from one of it's best writers. Don't be fooled by the length it's a deep and complex story that warrants more than one visit.
Set in the 1930s the titular character is a Scottish school teacher who believes that she is in the business of 'putting old heads on young shoulders' and has a favoured set of six girls who she spends extra time educating in the way of are art, religion and philosophy, no algebra or grammar for the 'Brodie Set' just poetry, Renaissance paintings and exposure to some questionable political beliefs.
This approach to education singles Miss Brodie out among the faculty at school and causes somewhat of culture war between herself and the embattled headteacher, this comes to a crescendo when Miss Brodie encourages a couple of the girls to be her proxy in a married colleague's bed and pushes another to run away to fight for Franco! Poor Mary McGregor.
It's a fascinating character study, particularly of Miss Brodie but also of Sandy, the girl who Miss Brodie makes her 'special confident'. It is however a sparse book and it would be remiss to talk about it without mentioning the film adaptation, which is perhaps among the rare instances of a film being better than the book. Maggie Smith (in an Oscar winning performance) is perfect as Miss Brodie and though it may read as a little camp to modern audiences the climactic confrontation between Sandy and her one time mentor is electrifying.
You may just find yourself sympathising with a (albeit naive) facist.
The Hours - Michael Cunningham
Three women, three time periods, three emotional stories all in one stunning book.
Virginia Woolf beginning to write Mrs Dalloway in 1923, Laura Brown picking up the book to read in 1949 and Clarissa Vaughan embodying the novel in the present day. It's such a perfect concept and such a perfect book, inspired by Mrs Dalloway it is at least every bit as brilliant as Woolf herself, perhaps even an improvement if you dare think it, though that's perhaps because a modern writer writing a modern novel is for more accessible to a modern reader.
You spend a single day with each of the women and in that single day their entire lives, Cunningham just like Woolf is adept at capturing the epiphanies to be found in fleeting moments, the hours (geddit?) in which life seems to become so clear to you, if only for a moment.
It's difficult to write about a book that you can't even do justice to one sentence of, you should just read it, read it already! Or at least watch the film which is also stupendously good. Yes both are 'difficult' pieces of work to appreciate but if you find yourself not enjoying or understanding either rest assured ...that you're an idiot.
If you enjoy contemplating the human condition then this a great work of art for you and that's what it is, a great work of art. One that comes as close as is probably possible to encapsulating what it is like to be alive.
Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.