Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is Edinburgh-based writer and journalist Doug Johnstone.
Doug’s most recent novel, Smokeheads, was published by Faber and Faber in March 2011 (and reviewed on Reading Matters last week). He has previously published two novels with Penguin — Tombstoning (2006) and The Ossians (2008) — which received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre. His fourth novel, Hit and Run, is due out in March 2012.
Doug is currently writer in residence at the University of Strathclyde.
He’s also a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, part of the Fence Collective. Northern Alliance have released four albums to critical acclaim, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians.
He tweets @doug_johnstone
Without further ado, here’s Doug’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
Loads of favourite books to choose from, of course, but I’ve gone for Legend of a Suicide by David Vann. It’s a quite remarkable collection of short stories, set in Alaska, dealing with the author’s father, who committed suicide when Vann was a kid. The stories all deal with this in different ways, and there’s a novella at the centre of this book that is the most heartbreaking thing I think I’ve ever read. There’s a single paragraph I had to read six or seven times to make sure the writer had done what he’d actually done.
Vann is brilliant at description of the Alaskan wilderness, and is also very clever at tying in that stuff with the emotional undertow of his stories. His writing is about what happens when the American dream falls on its arse, and it’s brutal and bloody, but honest and deeply resonant. Amazingly powerful writing.
It’s a bit of a cliché for a Scottish writer of my generation to pick this, but it’s true nonetheless. I was a student in Edinburgh when this came out, and I had a first edition copy, which has now disintegrated from being thumbed so much. It was such a shock, to see the kind of people I knew and saw around me depicted in serious fiction — the voices were so true to life, the environment was real, it was a real kick up the arse of stuffy literary values everywhere. The fact that it was virtually incomprehensible to large swathes of the English-speaking world was all the better; it made it our book. It changed the literary landscape of Scotland forever, and for the better too, I might add.
Not many people seem to know about Gates here in the UK — he had two novels which I think were both longlisted for the Pulitzer and a collection of stories back in the early 1990s.
Preston Falls is the funniest novel about a mid-life nervous breakdown you’ll ever read. It’s another piece of emotionally brutal writing, as Gates does a fantastic job of getting inside the head of his protagonist Doug Willis, a man struggling with the rat race and who thinks himself superior to everyone around him. Riddled with self-loathing, he goes to Preston Falls to do up a house, only to fall into some serious trouble.
This book is a masterclass in narrative voice, and completely blows out the water that stupid idea that a main character has to be likable to be worth reading. Willis is in many respects a vile and hateful man, but he’s also utterly compelling. Gates hasn’t written anything since this, and it’s now out of print, which is a real shame.
Thanks, Doug, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’ve read his first two suggestions (and reviewed Legend of a Suicide) and can only echo Doug’s sentiments — they’re both great books. I love the sound of Preston Falls and note that there are loads of secondhand copies available to purchase on Amazon marketplace. I’ll be doing that pronto!
What do you think of Doug’s choices? Have you read any of these books?