One of the perennial questions posed to authors at literary festivals what their your favourite book is. In What Writers Read, British writer and broadcaster Pandora Sykes has asked that question of 35 authors, who have responded with short essays on the book they hold most dearly and the influence it had on their lives and writing.
Sykes notes that seeking out an author's favourite book is "like peeking behind their brain curtains to see the cogs turning within". Authors, whose "brain curtains" are drawn include Nick Hornby, Ann Patchett, Marian Keyes, Elizabeth Strout, Elif Shafak, Ali Smith, Derek Owusu, Sebastian Faulks, Lisa Taddeo, Monica Ali, Damon Galgut, William Boyd and Fatima Bhutto.
Nick Hornby reveals the trauma that he experienced as a child after it was revealed, in April 1968, that his father "had managed to start a second family without the first one knowing anything about it", and said father leaving. Hornby took refuge in Emil and the Detectives, by German poet and satirist Eric Kastner, which provided "comfort, distraction and companionship".
Marian Keyes chooses Cold Comfort Farm, whose humour lifted her spirits when she was feeling suicidal in 1990, while Elif Shafak, growing up as a young bisexual woman in a conservative Turkey, found "solace and freedom" in Virginia Woolf's Orlando.
William Boyd reveals Joseph Heller's Catch 22 helped him make sense of his own childhood background of war in Biafra. For Monica Ali, Pride and Prejudice ignited her "lifelong love affair" with Jane Austen, drawing strength from Elizabeth Bennett on "the path to self-knowledge".
Sykes herself has admitted she doesn't have a favourite author, but enjoys anything by David Sedaris, who "mines his personal life keenly and intimately".
John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Oxford University, has reviewed well over 1000 books for The Sunday Times. Sunday Best brings together 80 of his lengthy reviews, published between 1986 and 2021, covering fiction, biography, science, anthropology and cultural history.
In 1976, in his inaugural lecture, "The Critic as Vandal", Carey argued that much "academic literary criticism, as currently practised, was largely engaged in turning works of literary art into barely readable prose". Carey could not be accused of that in his extremely readable books on Thackeray, Donne, Dickens, and William Golding.
Carey's believes it is the duty of the writer "to make the reader want to turn the next page" and he certainly displays that ability in Sunday Best. Who would forget his description of Rosamond Vincy in George Eliot's Middlemarch as "a woman with the face of a china doll and the soul of a tapeworm"?
An interesting theme throughout is how Carey deals with talented writers and artists who act terribly towards others. Carey deplores the actions, inter alia, of V.S. Naipaul, Tintin's creator Hergé, and Eric Gill, as depicted in biographies, but argues that we must never cancel their artistic achievements.
Carey writes in his introduction that you "must never review a book you don't think worth reviewing". He must have come close to not reviewing the memoir of Tom Maschler, the innovative CEO of publishing house Jonathan Cape.
When Julian Barnes gives a dinner party for Maschler, Barnes disappears and Maschler finds him asleep on the bed. Carey comments, "it is a reaction to Maschler's company the readers of this book will readily understand".
In reviewing Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife, Carey questions "Greer's reputation as a revolutionary thinker and disturber of the piece". The first sentence of his review of Paul Strohm's The Poet's Tail on Chaucer begins, " Paul Strohm has written a brilliant book and admirers of Geoffrey Chaucer may wish that he hadn't", which makes one immediately want to read on.
Grayson Perry's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl is termed "one of the most gripping and intelligent accounts of an artist's growth I have ever read". And that childhood growth was traumatic: "Perry's mother became pregnant by the local milkman - a busy roundsman, who had already two other customers pregnant - and his father left for good".
Carey reflects on a possible fate stemming from a review by his younger self. Carey visits the dying Clive James in Cambridge, aware that he had once written a critical review of James' first book, The Metropolitan Critic.
It soon becomes very clear that James had not forgotten. Carey writes, "later his widow told me that he could have quoted the offending review word for word".
Sunday Best is a wonderful collection of the cream of Carey's reviews and, as with the best of reviews, inspires the reader to seek out the books themselves.
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