Please play along with your choices for ‘K’. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with that letter. I am going to avoid the obvious, with Stephen King, as he has had many mentions already in book titles.
When I was in Primary School, I got a book as a Christmas present. I was fascinated by the illustrated historical fantasy of Tom, a young Victorian chimney sweep who falls into a river, and is transformed into a ‘water baby’. Tom then embarks on a series of adventures in the novel ‘The Water babies’, by Charles Kingsley. Now I am older, I can of course see that this was a story about morals, religious redemption, and the evils of child labour in 19th century England. At the time though, I just lost myself in the wonder of the idea.
Published in 1936, George Orwell’s novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’ is a book about a social rebel that preceded the British ‘New Wave’ by more than twenty years. The protagonist, Comstock, decides to abandon the routine of daily life, and his regular job, and pursue a love of writing poetry. This leads him down a trail of poverty, drunkenness, and difficult relationships, all set in run-down areas of London that have since become fashionable and expensive. Ultimately, he has to conform to survive, signified by his purchase of the previously despised aspidistra plant, displayed in the window of his flat.
James Clavell’s 1962 novel ‘King Rat’ is a prisoner of war story with a difference. I was used to reading about heroic prisoners, men planning escapes, and defying their guards. But in this book, we see an uncomfortable side of incarceration by the Japanese, with an American prisoner known as ‘The King’ literally running the camp at Changi, and operating a flourishing black market, with the full knowledge and cooperation of the captors. When he decides to breed rats to sell for food, King chooses who to sell them to, getting his own back on some of the corrupt officers in the camp. This is a sobering tale of survival, and an insight into how poor and brutal treatment can bring out the worst and the best in mankind. A powerful read that later became a very good film, starring George Segal.
Rudyard Kipling again, and a double ‘K’, with his novel ‘Kim’. Published in 1901, this is a fascinating look at India at the time, set in the late 19th century. Kipling brings the crowded streets and diverse cultures to life on the page, with the adventures of the young Kim, the orphaned child of an Irish soldier, forced to live by his wits, on the streets of Lahore. He is so much a part of the city, that few ever realise that he is actually white, and take him for a local. This has great scope, with spying against the Russians, a possible new war in Afghanistan, his friendship with a Tibetan Lama, and his eventual education and appointment into a government job. I was very young when I read this book, and have never forgotten it. It was also made into a film in 1950, starring Dean Stockwell, and Errol Flynn.
My top choice today had a brief mention earlier, when discussing the prequel and sequel that followed. I have long been interested in the US Civil War, and read a great deal about it. So, when I heard about a new book that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, I bought it immediately. ‘The Killer Angels’ by Michael Shaara is a novel in the style that is best described as ‘Faction’. It takes real people, in real historical events, then adds fictional characters to develop the plots, and to provide imagined conversations. In this case, the four-day battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the point when that war turned against the Confederacy for the first time. This book is meticulously researched, and fascinating in its authenticity. By using the format of a novel, the reader is drawn into the actions of those historical characters in a completely different way. Aware of their doubts and fears, the indecision, and the differences of opinion that led to failure. One of the most important books ever written about that war, and later made into the film ‘Gettysburg’, in 1993.