A Christmas Book Guide

No clever title here – this is your basic guide to various books you can buy various people. Nice and simple.

Feature by Keir Hind | 29 Nov 2012
  • Winter by Adam Gopnik

Napoleon Symphony by Anthony Burgess

After he filmed A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s next film was to have been a massive biopic about Napoleon Bonaparte. Years of planning went into this, but it eventually collapsed under the sheer weight of material, and budgetary realism. However, around the same time the original author of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, wrote this novel, Napoleon Symphony, which is cheekily dedicated, amongst others, to Kubrick. This rerelease shows a fascinating work that uses musical form as the basis of its structure, as the title might suggest. The specific symphony Burgess uses as a basis is Beethoven’s Eroica, which was originally written for Napoleon, until the composer grew disillusioned with him. Burgess himself was a composer, which seems to have helped, but also wrote poems, plays, criticism, translations, and virtually any written form available. This also helps – this book is interspersed with song lyrics, plays being performed, and regular poems, amongst other forms. As a biographical work about Napoleon, it’s never going to be a standard, but only because it’s too much fun. It’s being called a ‘lost’ work, which often suggests a lesser one, but readers will enjoy this as much as Burgess clearly enjoyed writing it.

Published by Serpent's Tail. Cover price £12.99

How Music Works by David Byrne

Like Anthony Burgess, David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, has always been interested in testing the limits of musical form, and here he writes about his craft in a very engaging way. “Music isn’t fragile,” he says, stressing that examining it doesn’t take away any of its magic. Byrne doesn’t just examine the more magical aspects of music though – he covers virtually all aspects of music making, from its healing properties, to the business side. That may seem absurdly comprehensive, but it’s all based on what differing elements did to change music – for example, the invention or improvement of different instruments led to a change in sounds, but so did different recording forms, and so, in a less direct way, do certain management structures. Byrne writes about all of this in a balanced, intelligent way, interjecting with personal comments on occasion – he refers to the book as a series of ‘Think Pieces.’ Byrne seems very engaged with music itself too, throwing in a wide range of references from Oasis to John Adams, all entirely in context and well understood by the author. This is definitely a useful book for musicians, but the surprising thing is it’s a cracking good read too.

Published by Canongate. Cover price £22

Peace, Love and Potatoes by John Hegley

This is musician and poet John Hegley’s latest collection of his poems, which are mostly comical, sometimes moving, and often both. This one will win anyone over, if not quite by the title then definitely when he or she sees that even the blurb in the book jacket is written as a poem. After that icebreaker, this is just a joy to read. Hegley’s casually humorous writing style is there throughout, but he also writes himself into his poems now and again, and even more personally, his direct concerns come through on various occasions. This is often a concern with the wellbeing of libraries, or art galleries, or even blood banks, though more often these will simply feature affectionately in verse about something else.  Hegley occasionally illustrates his poems with nice little line drawings too, which can add immensely to the charm of a poem, for example when the one about making Daleks friendlier shows one walking a dog. Yes, much of this is very British, English or even more specifically based, like the poem about Luton Town FC ending a losing streak by using a poem (this actually happened. Sort of). It’s all very charming and enjoyable. 

Published by Serpent's Tail. Cover price £9.99 

Where Rockets Burn Through, edited by Russell Jones

Again with the poetry, this collection, subtitled ‘Contemporary Science Fiction Poems From The UK,’ is exactly that. It’s a more common genre than you might think, and this collection is specifically inspired by Edwin Morgan, who provides the epigraph “the last refuge of the sublime is in the stars” and the opening and closing poems. 40 other poets are represented here, over 200 pages or so, from novelists like James Robertson and Ken MacLeod to, occasionally, people with scientific backgrounds. Of course, not every poem is rigorously scientific, but that comes under poetic licence. Poetry and Science Fiction are, on this evidence, very complementary forms, in that both require the writer, and reader, to make great leaps of the imagination. It’s possibly for this reason that much of the poetry is free verse, but that’s about the only broad distinction that can be made here, since the poems can describe space, or time, or technology, use those subjects to make points about our society or general feelings or the characters therein. Some are even in Scots – James Robertson’s Dr Wha being a nice example. This collection could possibly fall between two stools, but it shouldn’t; the poetry here should be enough to attract science fiction and poetry fans alike.

Published by Penned In The Margins. Cover price £9.99

A Curious Invitation by Suzette Field

Partying being an important part, nay, the entire reason for, Christmas, it might be worth taking a look at this curious, and nicely compiled, selection of The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature. To be clear, these aren’t literary bashes for writers to get drunk at, which I’ve heard has happened on rare occasions. These are the best fictional parties in literature itself – all made up, like, for example, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Author Suzette Field suggests that the book could act as a crib, allowing people to talk about literature at parties by summarising the party scenes from some books. Maybe it will, but the book is more useful as an entertaining diversion for bookworms, as well as an inspiration for holding your own (usually swanky) party. Field arranges each section into an itemised list of party elements, ‘The Invitation’, ‘The Host’, ‘The Food and Drink’, etc until ‘The Legacy’ rounds it all off. The selection is very nicely eclectic too, with Tolkien and Douglas Adams rubbing shoulders with more mainstream literary stars like Proust and Waugh, but also with real left-field picks, like Jackie Collins. Read it for yourself and decide what’s the best party. 

Published by Picador. Cover price £14.99

NeverSeconds by David Payne and Martha Payne

Roughly continuing a food theme, NeverSeconds is a blog that you may have heard of on the news, because it’s the one that was started by 9-year-old Martha Payne at the end of April 2012 about her school dinners. For some reason the council banned Martha (on 14 June) from photographing her meals, which only led to more publicity, more hits for her blog, and of course the overturning of the ban. The blog eventually received 8 million hits (and counting) and Martha used it to raise over £120,000 for her favourite charity, Mary’s Meals, which feeds children in Africa. This book continues that work, as each purchase feeds 25 children in Malawi. It’s worth reading too, as it details her story, with the biographical bits written by Martha’s Dad, David, and the blog excerpts written, or course, by Martha herself. It’s a brilliant story of someone doing good for others, and what the book brings home is the sheer pace of it all – the blog started at the end of April, it had raised over £100,000 by the end of June, and Martha visited Malawi by the end of September to see how the kitchens she’d helped sponsor were coming along.

Published by Cargo. Cover price £9.99

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Continuing the food theme, Canadian-American Francophile and essayist Adam Gopnik has written about life in Paris before, in Paris to the Moon, and here he turns his focus to the French culture of dining and eating, which can’t have been a hardship to research. Let him away with it though, because Gopnik is an excellent writer on, it would seem, whatever subject he chooses. Not an over-analytical one though, because, as he says “We shouldn’t intellectualise food, because that makes it to remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as sensibly as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds.” That, in a nutshell, is what he aims to do, and does, here.  He starts by considering why, in 1942, a French resistance member about to be executed wrote largely of food in his final letters, he ends by tasting a dessert created in Lionel Messi’s honour, and in between there are musings on great chefs (especially Escoffier), secret ingredients, philosophers on food, and his own cookery skills, which seem pretty considerable. Not a lot on Christmas though – if only Gopnik would write a book on winter itself…

Published by Quercus. Cover price £12.99

Winter by Adam Gopnik 

Well, look at this! A convenient Christmas wish come true! So Gopnik here considers winter, and as mentioned, he is an excellent writer on whatever he chooses. He chooses winter? There must be good reason. In this book, Gopnik traces the development of humanity’s attitude to winter, over the last 250 years or so. In older times, winter was something to suffer through, which Gopnik illustrates by printing a poem by Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame), referencing ‘frowning skies,’ but then printing a later poem by William Cowper (the poet of couches and castaways) that says ‘I crown thee king of infinite delights.” The increased protection from the cold allowed people to start enjoying their winters, and the author then traces the development of that enjoyment. The development of Christmas, and especially Santa Claus, is followed, as is the ongoing expansion of winter sports, from ice skating to, eventually, ice hockey. Further developments in living in the cold are also traced – specifically the insulated architecture of Montreal – and Gopnik looks at how these things have all influenced our increasingly positive perception of winter as a whole. A book to read by a warm fire on a cold winter’s day.

Published by Quercus. Cover price £18.99

New Writing Scotland 30: A Little Touch of Cliff In The Evening

The 30th edition of New Writing Scotland proudly announces that it printed various famous authors before their big breakthroughs – Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, and so on. This edition is a bumper, anniversary one, containing work from 81 contributors, some well known already, some less so. Alasdair Gray contributes a story, for example, but it’s one that’s in Every Short Story, don’t worry. This is a mix of short stories and poems, and even one graphic short from metaphrog, and it’s a poignant one too. The trick whilst flipping through is to guess who’ll be the next big name… but tempting though it is, I’m not going to play the predictions game here. I’d recommend this to budding writers though, because, apart from being a good read (and the standard of this collection is very high indeed) this does set a benchmark to aim at, and it also includes submission instructions for the next volume. This, then, is your chance to get an idea of how well you need your writing to be in order to get it published, at least in journal form. And don’t worry, the subtitle isn’t that relevant.

Published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Cover price £9.99

Octavius, by Various

And speaking of literary journals… Octavius is a journal set up specifically for students in Scotland, featuring fiction and poetry, and this is the debut edition. Student magazines can be incredibly self important, but this avoids that – it’s a cracking wee collection that doesn’t fall into printing any overwritten angst-ridden confessionals, self-indulgent rants or any of the other pitfalls of student magazines. Exactly where it fits in (what I’ll call) journal-space isn’t certain; certainly the quality is high, but I doubt even the editors would disagree that New Writing Scotland’s is higher. So maybe budding student writers might like to focus on this journal first, with an eye on NWS later – I‘m saying this speculatively; it’s obviously entirely up to you. It’s a nice feeling that there are an increasing number of literary journals appearing to help authors get their work out there. There are numerous highlights in this collection itself, and some personal favourites are the poets that start and end the collection, specifically Richie McCaffrey, whose John Logie Baird I enjoyed, and Jad Baaklini, whose poem Thank You, Disillusionment is quite amusing. Well worth a look, if only to note down the names for future reference…

Available at www.octaviusmagazine.com Cover price £5

Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

Moving on from literary journals, Scarlett Thomas, the author of The End of Mr Y and Popco, has been a creative writing teacher at the University of Kent for 8 years. During this time, as she explains in her introduction, she began evolving the way she taught so that her expectations met reality, and came up with a definitive series of instructions for her creative writing students. It’s these notes that have been used to create this book. The need for the book came from Thomas’s realisation that she had to recommend various different texts to writers to educate them on the form of the novel. She cites Stephen King’s On Writing, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves as examples, all worthy works, but covering various different areas. This book summarises the various areas that Thomas, at least, thinks are important for new writers to familiarise themselves with. Some prospective writers will, obviously, know a good deal of this, and consider it dull or worthy, but that’s the price of being comprehensive about writing. This is a thorough guide for anyone starting to write. And when they’ve written that novel, there’s one more step…

Published by Canongate. Cover price £14.99

The Writers & Artists Yearbook 2013

And our final word for budding writers… well, this is the bible of how to get published, really. And with all of these literary journals showcasing the talent that’s around, it would seem ridiculous for them not to get into publication. That’s where this book comes in. It’s first and foremost a list of people who might be able to get or give you work, such as agents, publishers, newspapers, theatre companies and so on and on. But it also contains incredibly valuable essays by various professional writers on their chosen fields – this year’s edition has William Boyd on becoming a novelist, Terry Pratchett on becoming a fantasy novelist, J.K. Rowling on becoming a successful children’s author, etcetera. On the other side, agents give their stories of how to attract their attention, and there’s even things like financial advice on income tax, copyright advice, advice on blogging and available resources…. It covers it all, really. If you’re feeling ultra super confident, there are even listings for literary awards, but really, this is for the budding novelist who’s just starting out and is keen to get a foothold in the business. If that’s you, this is the first book you should get.

Published by Bloomsbury. Cover price £18.99

The People Speak, edited by Anthony Arnove and Colin Firth

Bear with this overly elaborate introduction, it does go somewhere: in the (increasingly dated-looking) film Good Will Hunting, the ‘genius’ character played by Matt Damon castigates Robin Williams’ therapist character by disparaging his books. One he takes issue with is a history of America, suggesting Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States instead. Well, that is a real book, and it is a good one. Zinn’s people’s history approach, teaching history from the point of view of the many, not just kings or rulers, has become increasingly influential. And so we come to this book (at last, I know) which has been complied by Anthony Arnove, a frequent Zinn collaborator, and, another movie connection, the Oscar winning actor Colin Firth. Firth, whose father was a historian, famously appeared in The King’s Speech, so this is some way of evening that up a little. The book comprises speeches by ‘ordinary’ people, meaning non-rulers, on issues from 1066 to the present, chosen largely because the authors thought they sounded good when spoken. Appropriately for Christmas, the proof is in the pudding, because this is a very entertaining collection, making a good gift for any budding speech- or law-makers out there.

Published by Canongate. Cover price £17.99

Every Short Story 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray

Mr Gray is increasingly anthologised these days, with A Gray Playbook collecting his plays, and A Life in Pictures his artwork as well as containing the closest thing to an autobiography we’re likely to get. A completist’s dream, and completists will further enjoy the plainly titled Every Short Story 1951-2012. A Life In Pictures showed a fascinating consistency of style in Gray’s artwork across the decades, and this book does much the same for his writing. This is not to say that there aren’t changes in the work over time – there are, but every story is somehow distinctively Alasdair Gray. For fans, that’s extremely good news, and they’ll also be happy that there are 16 new, hitherto uncollected, stories here under the title Tales Droll and Plausible. All of the stories can run from the sublime to the ridiculous or vice versa, in the best possible sense. There are also copious endnotes here, explaining how the various books came to be (some of which are new, but some aren’t). It’s debatable whether this is a purchase for people new to Gray, but that’s about the only qualm I can muster here – there are few better places to find 900 pages of fantastic stories.

Published by Canongate. Cover price £30

Gifted by Anonymous

A fantastic real life story here. A lovely story, in fact, of an anonymous someone using her creativity to inspire and intrigue others. That sounds like overly gushing praise, but in this case it is true. In March 2011, the first of 10 gift sculptures sent or deposited anonymously to various Edinburgh locations appeared in the Scottish Poetry Library. This one was called the ‘Poetree’, it looked like a tree growing out of a book, and the tree was made using the pages of a book too. Another poem appeared subsequently in the National Library of Scotland, then one in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and so on, all gifted anonymously until 10 had been found, with one bonus one delivered for Ian Rankin. The sculptor remains anonymous, and will hopefully continue to be so, in that it just adds to the fun in this story, but she has said she’s female. This book includes the story of all the sculptures, and of course extensive photographs of them all, but it also has the nice bonus of a word from the sculptor, as well as, nicely, a description of how to make your own ‘Poetree.’  A wonderful way to pay tribute to libraries and museums.

Published by Polygon. Cover price £9.99 

You Are a Shark by Edward Packard

More in the fantastic stories line, this is pretty hard to top for young readers. But wait, this is an old book, right? Yes, but I’m recommending something slightly different here. Spineless Classics are a company who specialise in making posters comprised of the text of entire books – Pride and Prejudice and Finnegans Wake have both featured. How? Small print, and big posters, generally. It’s a nice gift for a fan of any particular book, but You Are A Shark is especially good, since it’s a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Series.’ This goes like this: you wander into an ancient temple, and the mystical monk (okay, cliché, but just go with it) offers you a choice – will you be lord of the air, lord of the sea, or lord of the land? In the book, you would then flip to a specific page to continue reading the story of your choice. In this version, you follow arrows to the next relevant piece of text, as it’s all laid out on the poster, and you can end up as an eagle, a shark or an elephant. All good fun, but don’t make the wrong choices, or you’ll speedly end up at an ominous... THE END.

From Spineless Classics. Cover price £39.99