Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chapers In My Life- Week 4

It's already week 4 of 'Chapters In my Life' can you believe it!? This week, Mike from 'The Blue Cabin' is going to talk about the 5 books which have influenced his life:

Many thanks, Spangle, for inviting me to post. Selecting five life-changing books has been hugely enjoyable, albeit a lesson in discipline, even ruthlessness! Five books… where on earth do you start? I decided to follow the brief literally; that’s to say, if I loved a book for its narrative, its use of language, rhythm or whatever, it was a contender – but unless in some way it also changed my life, or at least my thinking, it was consigned, with great regret, to the Rejects pile.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in the Russian penal system made this story of oppression, suffering and survival so brutally real that I remember feeling sick when I first read it as a teenager. It had the same shock value within Russia, because until its publication in 1962 no-one had dared to describe the gulags or even to admit their existence. Largely because of Ivan Denisovich, my favourite charity has always been Amnesty International. That the Soviet literary journal New World was allowed to publish the book at all is down to Nikita Khrushchev (I’m not sure he gets enough credit), and it is arguable that Ivan Denisovich opened another chink in the Iron Curtain which led, eventually, to the collapse of communism itself. When you add to its historical importance the novel’s beautifully spare and uncontrived prose, it easily qualifies for my top five.

Reporting America – Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America, 1946-2004

I may be cheating a little, as this is a collection; also, it was the actual broadcasts that changed my life, not the book. Still. I began listening to Letter from America on a Sunday morning – you could say religiously – in the 1970s, and I rarely missed a broadcast from then until Cooke’s death in 2004. I have a fascination with America anyway, but it was the use of language that kept me glued to the radio. I don’t know if anyone wrote with greater elegance or economy, and if I ever find myself staring at a blank sheet of paper, I reach for my thoroughly dog-eared copy of the collection. Cooke himself said that of the many great speeches written by statesmen and others, the best were written to be spoken and heard – not read. On a personal note, aside from the pleasure of Cooke’s inimitably silken delivery, I always knew that wherever I was at 8.45 on a Sunday morning, in some sense my mother was there too, because she was addicted like me.

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992)

This epic novel of adventure, revenge, loyalty, love, tenderness and violence, set in Texas and New Mexico and following the exploits of cowhand John Grady Cole, sixteen going on thirty-five, was a complete revelation for me. Until All The Pretty Horses, I thought that outside the realms of blank verse, punctuation was an indispensable tool in any writer’s search for rhythm and flow – but McCarthy eschews it almost entirely and the result is mesmerizing. To be honest, it’s hard to see how he does it, he is so artful and his use of language so individual, but All The pretty Horses is another book (any McCarthy will do, if you can handle the unrelenting bleakness of most of his other stories) that I reach for when I’m stuck.

The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (University of New Mexico Press, 1973)

I’ve blogged about this classic of Southwestern literature before (here) and so has Spangle (here), so I know we both enjoyed the read! It is the beautifully-told true story of Edith Warner, a wise, compassionate and thoroughly likeable woman from Pennsylvania who settled at the Otowi switch on the Rio Grande, in Northern New Mexico, in 1925. She opened a tearoom in her front parlour, and for a few fascinating years shared her otherwise quiet life with the Pueblo Indians of San Ildefonso on the one side, and the nuclear scientists of Los Alamos (the Manhattan Project) on the other. The juxtaposition of such wildly different cultures and the potential for their mutual accommodation as personified by Edith Warner, makes for an inspirational and life-affirming read. For me, coming from Northern Ireland, it epitomises the need to transcend tribalism and to live and let live.

Jock Of The Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick

Again, I’ve blogged about this book before (here). Jock is the story, set in the goldfields of the Transvaal in the 1880s, of a plucky and intensely loyal little dog, and owes its existence to a suggestion made to the author by his friend Rudyard Kipling. It’s exciting, funny and poignant by turns, and you’re looking for a copy I would make sure it has Edmund Calwell’s illustrations. A beautifully rebound edition of this, my favourite of favourites, was given to me by my mother as an engagement present in 1990, and it’s open in front of me at the Dedication page: ‘The Story of Jock (is dedicated) to Those Keenest and Kindest of Critics, Best of Friends, and Most Delightful of Comrades: The Likkle People’.

Perhaps a year ago, rather bizarrely, I was asked in an interview to name three books I loved and three I hated. I had no trouble with the first part, but as an author I’m uncomfortable with the idea of criticising anyone’s honest writing endeavours – so in the end I fudged it. I need a thicker skin. As an unnamed philosopher wisely said:

‘Before you criticise someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticise them, you are a mile away and you have their shoes.’

Like everyone else, I thought this was Jack Handey. It’s not, but it gives me the opportunity to slip a sixth book in by the back door: Deepest Thoughts by Jack Handey, because it always lightens the moment.

Michael Faulkner is the author of two books about island life: The Blue cabin – Living by the Tides on Islandmore (Blackstaff Press, 2006) and Still On The Sound – A Seasonal Look at Island Life (Blackstaff Press, 2009). He lives with his artist wife Lynn McGregor on the otherwise uninhabited island of Islandmore, Strangford Lough. For background on the books go to 'The Blue Cabin' website , and if you’re interested in a daily snapshot of island life, 'The Blue Cabin' blog.


  1. Wonderful chapters! Three of those chosen, I have read and love; 'One Day ...', Alstair Cooke, and 'The House at Otowi Bridge'.

    I must look at the other two.

    Spangle, I really love this series that you are doing.

  2. Thanks for the comment Aguja. I'm glad that you are enjoying the guest posts.

  3. Thank-you Aguja, great minds! I hope you enjoy the McCarthy if you get to it - it's a good one to start with if you haven't read him before. Mike