Friday 7th February 2020
Q1) The first book you ever loved
Some of my earliest memories are being read to by my Dad. There was a much-loved book of children’s fairy tales which I remember as being rather dark in places, as all good fairy tales should be. But my most vivid, and fond, recollection is being read a rather tatty copy of The Hobbit which I adored, and which I then started to read myself once I could. Having said that, my most treasured book from childhood is a signed Kenny Dalglish annual that I have to this day.
Q2) The book you've read more than any other
Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. I became obsessed with American writers in my teens and early ‘20s, Hemingway, the Beats, Bukowski, Carson McCullers, Hunter S. Thompson, Kathy Acker, Dom De Lillo, etc – but Heller’s Catch 22 had the perfect blend of humour and madness that I was looking for. A fabulous book that offers something new each time.
Q3) A book that you despise
In the same way that people often say, “I’m not angry, just disappointed” I don’t think I can say I ‘despise’ any book I’ve read, and I avoid those that I suspect I will. I’ve certainly been disappointed, many times. An example that has stayed with me is Doctor Sax by Jack Kerouac. I had read On The Road and loved it, but this was just tosh. Almost unreadable. I persevered, as that’s what I did then. Now I would just stop and read something else. Life is too short.
Q4) A book full of beautiful writing
Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things is a sumptuous assault on the senses. I read it in one sitting on a flight to Australia in the late ‘90s and the sights, sounds, textures and flavours were almost overwhelming. I think the woman sitting beside me worried for my health as I was moved to tears on many occasions. They do say you feel more keenly at altitude so there may have been a bit of that, but I can clearly remember passages even now.
Q5) The book you've been meaning to read for years, but haven't
There are loads of these, but I suppose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sticks out as one that I feel I should have read by now. I’d also like to fill the gaps in my Robert Louis Stevenson reading.
Q6) The book you're reading currently
Most of the books I read these days are for reviewing purposes and at the moment they include Olga Wojtas’ Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Vampire Menace (which is fantastically funny and wry) and Ajay Close’s forthcoming novel What We Did in the Dark. However, I’m also reading Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy which is a really accessible and entertaining overview of the enlightenment philosophers, including David Hume who you could argue, and I would argue, is Scotland’s most influential writer.
Q7) Your favourite short-story
What a tough question. I was going to say Muriel Spark’s The Seraph and the Zambesi as that was my introduction to her writing, and there was an instant infatuation. However, it has to be a James Kelman short story as I think he is a master of the form. It suits his style and often his content as well. There are so many to choose from, the half-page Acid from Not Not While The Giro is a masterclass in brevity and drama, but I’m going to say the same is here again from Lean Tales. Dealing with the terrible reality of the narrator’s homelessness it captures everything that is great about Kelman’s writing – the drama of the everday, internal monologue, the physicality, unflinching honesty, a black-as-night sense of humour - “I cannot eat a Johnny Cash cassette” is a line not to be forgotten. If you haven’t yet read James Kelman then I suggest you start with his short fiction, and Lean Tales, which also contains stories from Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens (her story Arabella would have been another strong contender), is the perfect introduction.
Q8) Your all-time favourite novel
After my obsession with Americans I moved on to those Russians and I fell in love all over again, but deeper this time. There is only one choice for me and it’s Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a book I didn’t want to end, but can remember clearly where I was when it did. I was on a train heading to Aberdeen when I closed the final page and I felt such a mix of emotions. Then a fellow passenger across the aisle from me reached over and said, “It’s fantastic, isn’t it?”. I just nodded and smiled. When writing grabs you in such a way it’s magic. ●
Alistair Braidwood runs the Scottish cultural website Scots Whay Hae! and hosts the accompanying SWH! podcast. He also writes and reviews for the more discerning publications on books, film, music and more.