My Top 15 Books, with Bonus Commentary

If the Facebook Note was the standard-issue DVD, consider this the Special Edition with Running Commentary and Rich Text Formatting. For any readers who don’t have me as a Facebook friend, the list below was my response to a chain thing asking recipients to jot down their favourite 15 books. So here they are again, expanded with explanations on why I loved them and you should too!

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Back when I actually was a kid, I usually cited this book as my favourite. Surprisingly believable, considering it centres around a bunch of talking rodents, the back story of how they came to be being my favourite part of the tale.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (+ Through The Looking Glass) by Lewis Carroll

On a page-by-page basis I never found Alice’s adventures that compelling – although I loved the Jabberwocky and committed every line & made-up word to memory. Being a product of Victorian England, the charming, opium-induced nonsense of Alice’s adventures is served a little dry at times, thanks to Alice’s excessively prim nature and proper English (relative to today, anyway). Even so, there’s no way I could ignore this classic because the sheer, mad brilliance of its characters has burrowed like a slithy tove deep into my consciousness, and even inspired me to get back into drawing of late.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

This book completely shits all over Harry Potter or even Lord of the Rings, being a similarly epic fantasy novel full of magic, monsters and mythical creatures, but generating landscapes, villains and heroes of far greater beauty, originality and complexity into the mind’s eye. Most significantly, the grand saga of Atreyu’s and Bastian’s quests has quite a profound moral and philosophical core – so much so in fact that The Neverending Story has actually helped me to shape and define my spiritual beliefs, as I explain somewhere in my pre-Wordpress blog here.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

As a kid I thought this book was pure genius. Filled with witty wordplay and memorable characters, the book is entertaining above all because it is clever, but in precisely the sort of fun, light-hearted way that children – like me, once upon a time – find endearing.

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

One word: Kaa. Kipling’s hypnotic, enigmatic python rivals the Chesire Cat as my favourite animal character of all time. That aside, The Jungle Books is a highly evocative and unusually ‘mature’ depiction of jungle life – almost documentary-like, at times – compared with the sugar-sweet, “one big happy animal family” version young audiences are usually fed.

Tomorrow, When The War Began (+ sequels) by John Marsden

I already wrote about the importance of this book to me here. If John Marsden had never written TWTWB, The Journey would probably be here instead – a strange but beautiful book by the same author on the journey from boyhood to manhood.

Making History by Stephen Fry

Discovered this book during my teenage obsession with Hitler, and it was probably the first ‘adult’ book I really enjoyed. Thought-provoking read interpersed with painstakingly-researched events from Hitler’s life, based on what might’ve happened had the Toothbrush-Moustachioed One never got into power.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My two other obsessions as a teenager were Salvador Dali’s paintings and Oscar Wilde’s stories. I actually enjoyed many of his short stories more than Dorian Gray – the Happy Prince literally made me cry – but seeing as we’re talking “books” this will serve nicely.

The Outsider by Albert Camus

This was one of my “texts” for Year 12 English, and apart from maybe Lord of the Flies, the only one I’d actually read in my own time – as I have many times over. Meursault’s carefree, existentialist narration had a spell-like effect on me from the very first page, so much so that reading the book became a summer tradition for years to come. If reading Fear and Loathing is like taking a hit of speed, The Outsider is like a big, fat joint enjoyed at dusk on the balcony of an Algiers apartment.

The Polish House by Radek Sikorski

For its sheer readability and charming personal touch, I rate this as the best history book I’ve ever read. The author uses his restoration of a derelict chateu as a springboard for a very human and engaging account of various periods in Polish history, from the religious geopolitics of the Middle Ages through to the tragedy and heroism of World War 2 and its Communist aftermath, skilfully blending the microcosm of his project and his relatives’ experiences with the broad panorama of Poland’s past.

Dune (+ Dune Messiah) by Frank Herbert

This book is pretty much the closest thing I have to a Bible. Absolutely amazing work of the imagination that has etched such incredible visuals upon my mind that I refuse to watch the movie adaptation or mini-series for fear of spoiling them. More than just a science fiction epic that has entered the public consciousness – so much so that I actually thought giant sandworms were real as a kid – Dune is also an extraordinarily insightful spiritual, ecological and geopolitical tract, a masterful combination of study and story spoiled only by a long line of inferior sequels that, in my opinion, muddy and water down the visionary power and wisdom of the original. (Its immediate successor, Dune Messiah, was decent though.)

Chopper: From The Inside by Mark Brandon Read

What can I say. Everyone likes a bit of smut now & then, and this book serves up plenty of it with all of the black humour and colourful language Chopper Read’s reknowned for. I’ve accumulated about half a dozen of the Chopper diaries but the first one remains the best – just don’t read it before bed, unless you want seriously fucked-up dreams.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Probably my all-time favourite book when all is said & done. On the surface it’s just one long, demented account of ridiculously antisocial, illegal and drug-fuelled behaviour in America’s tackiest city, but beneath the madcap veneer is also a very serious critique of America’s worsening political and social degeneracy – ‘the Death of the American Dream’, as Hunter S. Thompson called it. It’s the manic, anything-goes energy of the book that I relish though – reading Fear and Loathing literally energizes me, like a good drug. There’s something addictive about seeing the modern world caricatured in all of its vice, glitz and stupidity through the perpetually drug-hazed lens of Raoul Duke, lending it a warped, comic-book quality where anything can happen but you can also get away with anything.

“We were somewhere on the edge of the desert, near Barstow, when the drugs began to take hold…” …no matter how many times I return to the book and read that first line, I know I’m gonna enjoy the ride as much as I did the first time.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Everyone goes on about Fight Club and Invisible Monsters but in my opinion, Haunted is Palahniuk’s best book. It’s a series of dark short stories within an equally dark broader narrative, the skilfully woven whole being a damning indictment of modern society generously strewn, in Palahniuk’s unique style, with bizarre factoids and dry, incisive one-liners. Haunted felt distinctly deeper to me than any of his other novels though, exploring the most base layers of the human condition – and Mr Whittier’s rock-grinder theory, like The Neverending Story’s symbiosis of Fantastica and Reality, remains a key illustrative element in my spiritual beliefs. Again, see MindFields for more details.

Masters of Doom by David Kushner

The only other non-fiction work apart from The Polish House, and written much like a story in a very immediate, magazine-article style full of striking metaphors, vivid characterization and titbits of contextual history. The book is really an intimate study of the two conflicting personalities that brought the world Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D – gory and ground-breaking games that me & my friends all grew up with – set against the backdrop of the burgeoning computer and video game industry. If The Polish House is the most interesting history book I’ve read, this is hands down the most interesting biography.

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How To Write A Bestseller

One way to make money from home these days is to write one of those substanceless novels that Oprah plugs on her show, shooting it into bestseller lists and the living rooms of bored housewives the world over. Start by coming up with a meaningless but artsy-sounding title. ‘Sighs of Autumn’, ‘As The Clouds Drift By’, something like that. Make sure it’ll look good against a semi-abstract cover, of either a silhouette against an ambiguous scenic-yet-ominous backdrop, or a still life of rustic/exotic objects.

Once you’ve got your title, put on a jumper and take a photo of yourself sitting on a verandah with your cat. Use someone else’s cat/verandah if necessary. This’ll be used for the inside cover, where there’ll be a brief description of where you grew up and how you now live on a lavendar farm 80km outside of Melbourne.

First chapter, start with a simple scene where you can show off all the pointless adjectives you know. Make some poignant allegory about how spring is like a symphony of colour and movement, with birds and bees and flowers all performing in harmony. Hone in on a woman called Kathy or Elle (mid-30s, plain but naturally attractive), sipping a cup of tea she’s just made in her kitchen. Describe the tea. Compare it to the sweet nectar the bees are supping from the flowers. Look up words like ‘comforting’ and ‘nourishing’ in the thesaurus. Pop them in along with some biscuits.

The flavour of the tea and biscuits takes Kath/Elle back to Paris in a spell of deja vu. Make this bit more impressionistic and hurried – we want an air of mystery and destiny-in-rapid-motion here, as well as the vague, fragmentary nature of flashback. A secluded Parisian cafe along the River Seine. A man named Pierre. He’s charming, good-looking, 5-10 years older than Kath/Elle – a grown woman’s wet dream, modelled on Pierce Brosnan or George Clooney but with a French accent to boot. Pierre’s an artist specializing in nudes. Kath/Elle – a young, vain American girl with a growing crush on this suave French gentleman – becomes his new model. Cut to park benches. Stylish scarves and cigarettes. Red wine and moonlit balconies. Steamy nights in a downtown apartment during a bitter European winter.

At this point, turn the book into an Idiot’s Guide to Realist Painting. Throw in some factoids about the history of nude portraits. Google Francois Boucher’s ‘Mademoiselle O’Murphy’. Maybe get Pierre to tell K/E with a wry but irresistable smile how nude models used to be considered little better than prostitutes. Stuff like this makes the reader feel urbane and sophisticated. As Pierre and K/E meet up and fling, always take the opportunity to throw in French words and locations. Get them to buy some pains au chocolat at the patisserie, before strolling down the Champ d’Elysees for a picnic at the Parc du Champs del Mars.

All this will help your petit-bourgeois readers pretend this soap opera novelization is actually high brow stuff. But then – gasp! – it turns out Pierre’s actually a dodgy art dealer. The nudes he paints, he passes them off as artworks of 19th-century Dutch masters. Her face clearly identifiable in the paintings, Kath/Elle becomes embroiled in the scandal. Policemen rapping on doors. The cold winter becomes oppressive. Paris’ winding side-streets become a labyrinth K/E feels trapped in. Steamy encounters turn to fiery arguments. More police boots stomping up stairwells. K/E flees Paris for her native Chicago.

Now, back in her kitchen drinking tea, eating shortbread and making poetic comparisons between spring and symphonies, Kath/Elle feels a pang in her heart for that devious rogue she left behind. She wonders what happened to him. What happened to those paintings. She remembers their brief but movie-like love affair; the sex they’d after she’d pose for him in his apartment. Spend a few pages describing the sex, but don’t make it sleazy or graphic. DO NOT CALL IT ‘SEX’. It is ‘making love’ at all times. Use words like ‘passionate’, ‘sensual’ and ‘intensely’. Describe the alluring bedroom eyes and hot, quivering skin. Do not describe swollen organs or unconventional positions. (Erect nipples, though, are OK.)

Suddenly, a knock on the door. Kath/Elle’s jarred out of her daydream. She wasn’t expecting anyone. Who could it be? And if you’ve got any brains, STOP AT THIS POINT. Your housewife reader hooked, you can now make shitloads more money from a sequel in which she potentially meets your George Clooney clone again and reignites their relationship. Don’t worry about how that happens – you can steal the end from a Woman’s Day article or something later. For now, mail the first part to a publisher and see your book headline the ‘Ideas for Mother’s Day’ page in Kmart’s catalogue next year.

Dan Brown, eat your fucking heart out.