Paul Burke’s 10 Books and Why I Acquired Them

Article published on October 2, 2017.

Mostly I buy books after reading the blurb and the reviews and employing that gut instinct you develop as a serious reader. For these ten books though, the process of acquisition was different. Here’s what happened:

1. An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd – I was at university when this novel made the Booker Prize shortlist; it lost out to Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. I decided that reading my way through the shortlist every year would be character building. My favourite in 1982 was An Ice Cream War, which is about WWI in colonial East Africa, serious and witty at the same time. This plan lasted a few years, but I came to realise not all garlanded novels are good. I did, however, retain a love of Boyd’s work and have since read all his novels, short story collections and essays. His latest work, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, will be published in November.

2. My Michael by Amos Oz – I came across the great Israeli novelist because a girl I was trying to impress saw him interviewed on TV and couldn’t stop talking about him. I bought the novel to be “in the know” and have since read a lot of Oz. In fact, my relationship with the writer lasted much longer than the romance.

3. The Longest Memory by Fred D’aguliar – I picked this up in Waterstones for 50p from a bargain bin. I don’t think I would have noticed it otherwise, but it was such a powerful read I not only read more of his novels but also his poetry.

4. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson – I was listening to Simon Mayo’s book club on Radio 5 Live and one of the guests was Atkinson. I like to think I’m hard boiled but she came across as pleasant as well as interesting. I have since read all her novels. Nobody else manages to put so many strands in the air and make them come together with perfect logic as well as Atkinson does.

5. Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet by Amara Lakhous – I struck up a friendship with someone on the internet through a book site. We were swapping favourite novelists (McEwan, Murakami, de Lillo etc, etc), and then she mentioned Lakhous. I was caught out, since this was a new author for me. Turns out, Lakhous is a very funny novelist and insightful on issues of race and immigration in Italy.

6. Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas – How many times has someone said “you must read this”? A guy at a booksale once told me “you’ll love this!” of Marley and Me (John Grogan), I’d rather eat nails! However, there was one time it worked when a stranger said, ‘I loved this book’. To be superficially polite, I’m English after all, I picked it up. Thank you anonymous man! Surreal, intelligent and so original, I adore the French thrillers of Vargas. Her latest, The Accordionist, was just published.

7. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky – The BookCrossing craze seems quiet now, but when I worked in London I found this on a train seat. Yes, I sometimes got one! I have since read everything by Nemirovsky in English and this fine novel is far from her best. I am constantly amazed by her piercing insight into people and the modernity of her writing and its relevance today. It’s tragic that Nemirovsky was murdered by the Nazis because she was a Jewish woman.

8. He by John Connolly – Nudge asked me to review this novel by the famous crime writer. The premise was so different and it sounded really interesting so I said yes. He is a reimagining of the life of Stanley Laurel. It turned out to be a fantastic read. A life lived in a way you would never have imagined, a dark tale but ultimately an really uplifting read about the unconquerable human spirit.

9. The Tryst by Monique Roffey – I won this book in a Goodreads competition. I was thinking of passing it on but flicked through the first few pages. A strangely haunting novel, slightly mystical and intensely erotic. A married couple invite the outsider from hell into a menagé. So different from what I usually read, but months later, if you were to ask me about it, I would still say it rumbles around in my head.

10. Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman – The author was a playwright, a screen writer and the partner of Dasheill Hammett. I picked up this autobiography and the shop owner said it was one of a three volume set. We chatted for ages, whereas I normally like to be alone with the books. I bought other books and he offered me the set for the price of one volume – one of my best ever buys. Sadly the shop in Bristol is gone now, I hope I didn’t contribute to its demise. This volume covers the McCarthy era, it’s the story of two very courageous people. With Pentimento and An Unfinished Woman completing the trilogy, these are among my most prized books. You must have treasures on your own shelves?

Obviously these books all stood out enough for me to remember these details. Do you remember where you picked up a particular book? Got any strange tales of acquisition? Have you got your own list of book acquisitions? Maybe even strange tales of how a book came to be yours?

You can submit your own “10 Books and Why I Acquired Them” list here.

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