A Literary A-Z: B

Don’t forget that you can play along with your own choices and selections. Any book title beginning with ‘B’, or any author with a surname starting with that same letter.

I have rarely enjoyed a book as much as ‘Notes From A Small Island’, by Bill Bryson. This American writer lived and worked in Britain for twenty years. Before going home to the USA, he travelled all over the UK using public transport, and detailed his experiences in this very amusing and warm-hearted book. It says so much about the differences between life in America and Britain, two countries that might use the same language, but couldn’t be more different. For anyone who has experienced life in a foreign country, it might make familiar reading. For an Englishman like me, it gave an insight into how our life, language, and customs can be so alien to someone from a place we all regard as so similar. It isn’t just quirky, it also has laugh out loud moments; and it is so well-written, you can almost hear it being spoken in your head.

Not just a Double-B but a Double-Double-B, with the book ‘Borstal Boy’, by Irish writer Brendan Behan.
A Borstal was the name of an institution for the imprisonment and punishment of young offenders. Behan was sentenced to one for three years, and wrote this novel based on his experiences. I read it as a teenager, and I was impressed by the way he told of his time in there, his use of dialect, accents, and colloquialisms. It also very much impressed on me that I did not ever want to be detained in such a place. Conditions were harsh, and when the staff weren’t after you, you had to watch out for the other prisoners. Behan’s Republican ideas were softened after meeting his fellow working-class English detainees, and the book draws many conclusions about the similarity of class, rather than background.

British author Anthony Beevor is a renowned military historian, and has published many of the definitive books on certain battles and wars. His best-sellers include ‘Stalingrad’, ‘Berlin’, ‘Crete’, and ‘Paris’. He has also written two books about a war that interests me a great deal, ‘The Spanish Civil War’, and ‘The Battle For Spain’. I really recommend his books to anyone interested in historical conflict. He has a complete grasp of the times, and the books are well-researched, as well as being fascinating to read.

Another Irish writer, Patrick McCabe, and the novel ‘The Butcher Boy’, from 1992. Small-town Ireland during the 1960s; domestic violence, child abuse, religion, and murder. Not an easy read, made harder by the unusual style of writing. But so powerful, it is hard to put down. It was later made into an impressive film, but the book has much more scope. This one really did impress.

Historical fiction, and one of the most impressive novels I have ever read, ‘Birdsong’, by Sebastian Faulks. This 1993 novel is the first in a trilogy set before and during the First World War, then moving on to events during the Second World War. It is the strongest of the three books, and at the time, I could not put it down, reading it over two long sessions. The book moves through time in distinct sections, following Stephen from his life in France before the war, on to his service as an officer in charge of former miners, tasked with tunnelling under enemy positions to lay explosives. The complex love affair from the first part of the book has echoes throughout, and we see the character of Stephen changed by his ordeal in the trenches, and his fears for the men under his command. A second story runs at the same time, set in England, during the late 1970s. His grand-daughter is trying to discover more about his life, at the same time struggling with her own relationship and unhappiness.
Whether you like this type of structure in a book is a personal choice, but I feel that it worked well. The sections set during the war are especially powerful, and the way it is threaded together to lead into the sequels is a sign of a great writer.

My top pick for today is a crime novel, and one that has stayed in my mind ever since reading it, ‘By Reason of Insanity’ by Shane Stevens. In the late 1970s, I picked up this book at the airport, as I thought it would be an easy read on holiday. It was a thick paperback (500+ pages) and seemed to be ideal for this purpose. It was a lot more than that. It tells the story of an abused young man who escapes from incarceration, and embarks on a series of killings. The format of the book, new to me at the time, appealed greatly. One chapter would feature the killer, Bishop. Devoid of conscience, he planned and carried out his murders. The next chapter would focus on those hunting this killer, looking for clues, and trying to get close to him as he moved around the country. This book had a profound effect on me, and though I have never forgotten it, I have not read it again since, as I have done with many others. As a writer who can imagine himself on both sides of this situation so well, and construct what is in effect, two books in one, Stevens deserves high praise.

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74 thoughts on “A Literary A-Z: B

  1. Well, I could go with poetry by Charles Baudelaire (“Les fleurs du mal”), but I’m not sure if, strictly speaking, a collection of poetry is what you have in mind as a “book.” Instead, I’ll select “Banco” (1973), Henri Charrière’s sequel to “Papillon” (1969). I think a lot of people are familiar with the film version of “Papillon” (1973) that starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Although the film didn’t do the novel justice, it is nevertheless an excellent film. I highly recommend reading “Banco,” which furthers the fact-based adventures (on the mainland) of Henri Charrière. But, of course, you must read “Papillon” first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No cut off at all, Elizabeth. The posts are there, and can be added to at any time.
      Thanks for those two suggestions. Both writers are unknown to me, so more to seek out.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. You bad man, Pete, I am now hooked on your literary game and I have had to drop everything I was doing to say Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Truman Capote was (yes, you guessed it) a big favourite when I was younger. I reread it a while ago and was shocked all over again at how different his Holly Golightly is from Audrey Hepburn… Can I cheat and say Truman Capote for C as well? That way I can leave reading A, C and D for another time otherwise I will get nothing done. And as you may have realized, I am sorely behind on my own blog.

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    1. That’s not a cheat at all. I always admired ‘In Cold Blood’ by Capote, and the film was great too. I never liked the Audrey Hepburn film at all, and think it’s a travesty of a good book. This literary challenge is proving to be as popular as the previous film and music ones.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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      1. Cheat as in I was throwing Capote into B when he is a C so I can save C for later. We read In Cold Blood at school, though by then I think I had read just about everything else he had written. Oh, oh, and another B book from yet enough author I loved when I was younger (well, still might, but haven’t reread anything for a while): The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin. He didn’t write many books but I think almost everything he wrote was made into a film, usually very good. By the way, if I repeat other people’s suggestions it’s because I am trying hard to avoid reading other people’s comments until after I make my own.

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  3. I must remember to get to your posts earlier, otherwise I’m left with no ideas. I had also thought about Birdsong, that I remember left me very impressed. Perhaps Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ on the subject of war. With the theme of psychiatry, PTSD and the War poets, it is a wonderful book (the movie wasn’t too bad either). I did watch a recent movie version of a Walk in the Woods with Redford playing Bryson and Nolte his friend. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1178665/?ref_=nv_sr_1 It’s quite entertaining, although I’m not sure I imagine Bryson that way.
    I’ve taken note of your recommendations. Perhaps it’s time to read about the civil war…

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    1. I cannot imagine Redford as Bryson either, a strange casting choice. Pat Barker’s WW1 trilogy is simply amazing. I left it out, hoping others would mention it. I may have to use ‘The Ghost Road’ in ‘G’ though.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. Wow, Bronte, de Beauvoir have already been mentioned.

    Only the German authors remain:
    Wilhelm Bush 1832 – 1908 he was a poet, and he makes drawings to the story he told. I think that was the first Comic in Germany.
    Secondly, I add Bertold Brecht: 1898 – 1956, he was a author and also wrote plays for the theater.
    His works were forbidden in the horrible Nazi period. And his books had to be burned. He then went into exile abroad and came back to Germany in 1948.

    I’m thinking about whether H. Beecher-Stowe has already been mentioned. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t remember Harriet being mentioned, Irene. Thanks for adding Brecht though. I went to see ‘The ‘Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ when I was a teenager, and thought it was a great allegory about the rise of the Nazis.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  5. Bryson and Blyton are / were favourites of mine. Reading through the comments, I have come to the conclusion that I am not a ‘serious’ reader. One author that I thoroughly enjoyed for years is Maeve Binchy. Her stories about Irish familes were among the books I enjoyed whilst bringing up my own family.

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      1. Thought of another one which really stuck in my mind, Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher (a double B). A harrowing tale of travelling through central Africa.

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  6. Brickwork for Beginners 🙂 Luckily I also spotted Britain BC by Francis Pryor on the bookshelf ‘life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans’ a surprisingly good read that explodes a few of the long held beliefs that we hold about our ancestors.
    And BFG (Dhal) has to be on Malinas list.

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  7. I’m late to the ‘B’s but really enjoyed, ‘Boys in the Boat’ by Daniel James Brown.. Summary on the cover reads ‘Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.’ And yes, these boys were from Seattle’s own University of Washington.

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  8. Everyone has made such great choices, so I’m going to do my best not to repeat anyone, although, Brave New World, The Book Thief, Wuthering Heights, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s would all be on my list.
    Breathing Lessons -Tyler
    The Breaking Point -du Maurier
    Brideshead Revisited – Waugh
    Bridge To Terabithia – Paterson
    Brimstone -Preston & Child
    A Brief History Of Time – Hawking
    The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
    The Butter Battle Book – Seuss
    By the Light Of the Moon -Koontz
    Burr -Vidal
    Bud Not Buddy – Curtis
    Bridget Jones’s Diary – Fielding
    Boy In the Striped Pyjamas – Boyne
    The Bourne series – Ludlum
    Born Free -Adamson
    The Books Of Magic -Gaiman
    The Book Of Joby – Ferrari
    The Bad Beginning – Snicket
    Bag Of Bones – Stephen King
    Because Of Winn-Dixie – DiCamillo
    Bedknobs and Broomsticks -Norton
    Bel Canto – Pratchett’s
    Beloved – Morrison
    The Berenstain Bears seres
    The BFG – Dahl
    Big Fish – Wallace
    The Black Arrow -Stevenson
    The Black Cauldron – Alexander
    The Black Pearl – O’Dell
    Bleak House – Dickens
    Blubber -Blume
    The Bonfire Of the Vanities – Wolfe
    The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Tan
    The Book Of Daniel – Doctorow

    Authors: James Baldwin, Blue Balliet,Faith Baldwin, Dan Brown, J. M. Barrie, Dave Barry, L. Frank Baum, John Bellairs, Maeve Binchy, William Peter Blatty, Judy Blume, Enid Blyton, Michael Bond, Marion Zimmerman Bradley, Anne Bronte, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Terry Brooks, Marcia Brown, Jim Butcher, Virginia Lee Burton

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your literary credentials are shining through your comment, Kim. Thanks for adding so many that I left out, as well as introducing me to some new ones too. So happy to see ‘Brideshead Revisited’, quintessentially English.
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great choices, Pete. I love the books by Charlotte and Emily Bronte with my absolute favourite being Jane Eyre. I searched high and low for a copy of Shirley and finally found one in a book shop in New Zealand last year. Fancy that!

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  10. Pete, a great collection of books! Let me add another Bill Bryson book, the terrific “Down Under” about his journey thorough Australia. I you want to know about New York’s rule as the largest producer of oysters in the world, check out “The Big Oyster” by Mark Kurlansky – finally, i you love “nordic noir” – crime novels set in Norway/Finland/Sweden – Jo Nesbo terrific series of Detective Harry Hole books began with “The Bat” – happy reading!

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  11. I’ve read Bill Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods” and “The Mother Tongue,” he’s an amazing writer, and you’ve got a lot of very interesting stuff listed for “B” I’d like to read. Never enough time!! I’d add, under authors: William Blake, one of my favorite poets, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, Byron, Robert Benchley (‘20’s humorist), and Robert Barnard, one of the best mystery writers. Books: Leaving out religion, and just commenting on it as a book, The Bible, King James Version, has wonderful language in it. Brave New World. Bridge On the River Kwai. Battle Cry of Freedom (James McPherson).
    I’ve got to get a copy of “the Book Thief” that just seems to have wow’ed everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have only seen the film of ‘The Book Thief’, and it was better than I expected it to be.
      You list some great stuff, Robert, and I have read Bradbury and Burgess. I never really got gripped by The Bible, though I did actually read it all the way through over the space of some years in my youth. I only really liked ‘Revelation’ though…Maybe that’s why I have never been religious?
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  12. One of the all time great short stories “Bartleby the Scrivener,”by Herman Melville. It gives us the classic line often repeated by my students after they studied the story: “I prefer not to.”

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  13. I’m really beginning to love your post. Here’s my list Pete. Understand they are not all the books I read on letter B. there are plenty more out there:

    -Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – We had this for our book discussion
    -The Bridge Across Forever – Richard Bach. He is also the author of the allegory Jonathan Livingston Seagull
    -The Book Thief – Markus Zusak – read this twice already
    -Breakfast At Tiffany’s -Truman Capote – Remember Holly Golightly from the same movie title?
    -David Baldacci – I like most of his books
    -Sara Ban Breathnack – Simple Abundance (a Day Book of Comfort and Joy)
    -Erma Bombeck – If Life Were A bowl of roses, What Am I doing In The Pits?
    -Barbara Taylor Bradford – I Have a collection of almost all her boosk but a Woman of Substance is the best.
    -Emilie Bronte – Wuthering Heights. Read it three times already.

    There you go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Arlene. I loved ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I studied at school. I also just watched the film of ‘The Book Thief’, and enjoyed it. Great to have you playing among with this theme.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  14. Being as you mentioned yesterday that you were expecting me to mention war titles – “Band of Brothers” of course came to mind, but then there’s also – “Battle of Britain”. For wartime authors, I thought of Tom Brokaw and James Bradley.

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  15. B is for AS Byatt, some marvellous books, the most recent was The Children’s book…. Also for Simone de Beauvoir, whose books I devoured as a young woman. Also, I came across Giorgio Bassani’s Garden of the Finzi Continis….. Love, loss, and the fate of families and communities as a result of war..powerfully emotive

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      1. Oh my goodness, I haven’t read her in French….serious hard work, I should think! I only managed Pilote des Courses by Maurice Trintingant (a motor racing driver in the 50s and 60s, and one by Francoise Sagan….altogether easier reads in French!!

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        1. I struggled as a teenager, with heavy works from Andre Gide, Camus, and others. Since those ‘headaches’, I have never read anything else in French, though I was called upon many times to translate, when I worked for the emergency services.
          Best wishes, Pete.

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  16. Historical fiction may be the only type of fiction I will read so for that reason….”Burr” by Gore Vidal…a fascinating look at an American founder gone wrong….now for the non-friction….”Be Here Now” by Ram Dass….”Beginners Guide To Tibetan Buddhism” by Newman….”the Berbers” by M. Brett…..I give the floor to my fellow commenters….coffee time….chuq

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