John Preston’s five book recommendations:
Moon Palace by Paul Auster
I stole up on Paul Auster from the side, finding his hugely-acclaimed debut, The New York Trilogy, rather too tricksy for my liking. However, I was, reluctantly, bowled over by his third novel which imbues that normally most doleful of quests – the search for identity – with a compelling delight in the imaginative possibilities of fiction. Doffing his hat to his great hero, Jules Verne, Auster sets his hero, Marco Fogg, off on a journey across America, from 1970s Manhattan to the timeless wastes of Utah, encountering a bunch of oddballs and grotesques along the way. 30 years on, I still pick it up whenever I want to recharge my creative batteries.
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
Towards the end of her writing career, Beryl Bainbridge wrote several books based on historical events. The best by far – in my opinion – is this extraordinary recreation of Scott’s doomed 1912 expedition to the South Pole. It’s hard to read The Birthday Boys and not imagine yourself sitting in a tent chewing on a piece of whale blubber with the arctic winds whistling outside. I once interviewed Bainbridge and asked her if she’d been to Antarctica as part of her research. She practically fell off her chair. ‘Are you mad?’ she told me. ‘It’s far too cold.’
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
If any one book made me want to become a writer, this was it. The story of the ill-fated friendship between Bellow’s alter-ego narrator, Charlie Citrine and the self-destructive poet Von Humboldt Fischer – based on Delmore Schwarz – has all the hallmarks of vintage Bellow. There’s the fizzing erudition, the exuberant mashing together of high and low culture, as well as the hectic veering between hilarity and melancholy. Reading Bellow on top form is like inhaling pure oxygen at the same time as downing a very large gin and tonic.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt
Dewitt’s second novel – like all his other books – is a true original: a kind-of road movie on horseback. Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters are hired by a man known simply as the Commodore to murder a prospector. Instead they wind up helping their would-be quarry, who has invented a chemical that reveals the whereabouts of gold. The judges of the Man Booker Prize, who normally have the same reaction to enjoyable novels as a rabid dog does to water, got it right for once when they put this on their 2011 shortlist.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I came late to Ann Patchett but have been trying to make up for lost time. In State of Wonder, a pharmacologist journeys to a remote tribe in Brazil where women are reputed to remain fertile until well into their seventies. There are shades of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness here, as well as Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, but this is a book that easily transcends its influences. If you have a taste for buttock-clenchingly vivid action scenes, you’ll find Patchett’s account of a giant anaconda attacking a boatload of people very hard to beat. And by way of a bonus, I doubt if you’ll ever read a better description of a dog’s ears than ‘limp chamois’.