What book would you share?
On Monday, to mark World Book Night, publishers will give away a million books by big-name authors. DECLAN BURKEasks some writers to give us their pick of recent books that slipped under the radar
THE BEST THINGS in life are free . . . books. On Monday – the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death – World Book Night will be celebrated in the US, UK, Germany and Ireland, with publishers giving away a total of a million of them. Half will be donated to hospitals, prisons and charities; the other half go to volunteers who in turn distribute them in their communities.
The 25 titles to be given away include some by household names such as Cormac McCarthy, Maggie O’Farrell, Mark Billingham, Bill Bryson, Sophie Kinsella, Emma Donoghue, Stephen King, Jane Austen, Martina Cole, Paulo Coelho, Roald Dahl, Kazuo Ishiguro and David Peace.
But what of our lesser-known names, and of books that fly below the radar? We asked a selection of writers to nominate their own World Book Night book: a contemporary classic that has been published in the past few years but unfairly neglected by critics and readers. And we invite you to do the same.
George Pelecanos, Author
By Willy Vlautin (Faber and Faber, 2008)
Northline, by Willie Vlautin, quietly published in 2008, was the most profoundly moving experience I’ve had with a novel in many years. It is the story of Allison Johnson, an alcoholic, uneducated waitress who flees an abusive boyfriend, leaves Las Vegas and lands in Reno, where she gives up her baby for adoption and struggles to rebuild her life. Her experiences are harrowing and not for the squeamish, but through the small, kind gestures of strangers she finds humanity and a chance for redemption. Vlautin, also a musician who heads the band Richmond Fontaine, is an extraordinary writer who mines the populist vein of John Steinbeck and shares Steinbeck’s economical and lyrical style. Seek this book out – and check out the soundtrack, which was available at the time of the book’s release.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Poet and short-story writer
The Only Glow of the Day
By Martin Malone (New Island, 2010)
A novel that could vie for contemporary classic status is Martin Malone’s The Only Glow of the Day. Set in 1863, it is about the Curragh Wrens, the women who lived as prostitutes and common-law wives to soldiers at the Curragh Camp, Co Kildare. The story is told from several points of view, but the main character is Rosanna Doyle, who believes that a soldier called Johnny wants to marry her. She arrives to the Curragh, expecting his baby. Johnny can’t be found, and Rosanna ends up in a wren’s nest – that is, a hollowed-out furze bush – with a rough band of prostitutes. Malone skilfully re-creates the reality of the women’s lives; the atmosphere is bleak. This is a sad story accompanied by endless rain and disease. The language is beautiful: Malone is gifted at fashioning imagery, and the prose in this book zings. There are also neat plot twists and surprises that prove satisfying. All in all, a harsh story, beautifully told
David Park, Author
Field of Bones
By Philip Orr (Lilliput Press, 2005)
Field of Bones is a wonderful piece of historical research that tells the largely forgotten but heartbreaking story of almost 3,000 young volunteer Irish soldiers – part of Kitchener’s 10th Irish Division – who died on the killing fields of Gallipoli. This is a powerful regeneration of an intensely human tragedy that was banished from popular memory and left to slumber silently in a far-off field of bones at Suvla Bay, on the Turkish Aegean. Using letters, diaries and original archival sources, this memorable book poignantly gives back a voice to the forgotten.
David Lordan, Poet
Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials
By Reza Negarestani ( re.pre ss, 2008)
I’d like to plump for the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s genre-bending Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. It’s one for active readers and fans of “difficult work”. A continuously inventive and artistically ambitious work that, like many great literary refoundations, is simultaneously a reimagining of reality and a reorientating of literature against currently dominant trends. Negarestani draws on a polyglot engagement with contemporary theory and on a schizophrenic, inhumanist literary heritage including Lovecraft, Stein, Burroughs and Pynchon, to give us an astounding depiction of history as a minor subplot within a struggle of much older, more vast forces. Cyclonopedia refreshed my paranoia and left me more doubtful and contemptuous of things-as-they-are than ever before, something the most sustaining works of art have always done for me.
Gerald Seymour, Author
We Saw Spain Die
By Paul Preston (Constable, 2008)
Last year I walked up the Gran Vía in Madrid and seemed to hear the march of the young British and Irish volunteers of the International Brigade who were thrown into their first combat and the defence of the capital from Franco’s legions. They held the line that evening, 76 years ago, and were slaughtered doing so . . . This is the story of the wonderful gaggle of foreign correspondents who reported a brutal war, and that heroic sacrifice, among them Hemingway, Orwell and the young Martha Gellhorn. They were remarkable free-spirited men and women, and their common theme was a loathing of fascism. This is a superb spotlight on huge characters and momentous times that shaped the future.
Sara Paretsky, Author
By Helen Dunmore (Grove Press, 2002)
Lately I’ve been reading only background work for my current project, so I don’t have a lot of recent books at the front of my mind. I think Helen Dunmore gets more attention in the UK than she does in the US, where no one knows about her, so I don’t know if The Siege and Betrayal count as forgotten classics. These two books set in Leningrad – one during the siege during the second World War in which a third of the population died, the other with the same characters during the years of Stalin’s postwar paranoia – are meticulously researched and beautifully crafted. They are ultimately also highly disturbing.
Mark Billingham, Author
The Book of Lost Things
By John Connolly (Hodder and Stoughton, 2007)
Though Connolly is of course an acclaimed and bestselling writer of dark, supernatural thrillers, this is very different from anything in his Charlie Parker series and may well have slipped below the radar of those who prefer their books to be easily categorised. This extraordinary novel is a funny, terrifying and deeply moving story about a young boy who escapes a traumatic existence by losing himself inside the books he finds on his shelf. It’s a remarkable story about childhood and about the transformative power of storytelling itself. I can think of no better book to recommend on World Book Night, as I give it to people regularly. A unique, unforgettable novel for anyone who has or might have forgotten what it was like to be a child.
China Miéville, Author
By Michael Cisco (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2011)
In 2011, Civil Coping Mechanisms, “a DIY kind of press”, published The Narrator, the sixth book by Michael Cisco. Like all his works, it is astounding. Yes, it’s a story of magic and quests and imaginary lands, but forget what you think you know about genre. This is a refugee from a better plane, where the modernist in form is glued with byssal threads to the visionary in content. This is fantasy filtered through Thomas Bernhard, Robbe-Grillet, expressionism and the avant-garde. We don’t deserve it, but now it has slipped through that literary portal, Cisco can’t have it back.
Aifric Campbell, Author of On the Floor
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’Mahony (2009, Salmon)
Life, love and poetry have stalled for Fiona, who is restless and stifled in contemporary Dublin when she boxes up her life into “car-boot-size chunks” and heads for a job in north Wales. With her is a collection of old letters given by a friend that tell the story of the Butler family, who left Ireland for Australia in 1854. This beautiful and moving verse novel weaves together the tales of three women whose lives are transformed by love and emigration. Inspired by documents held in the National Library of Ireland, it is a gift for all those who are heading off and everyone who decides to stay.