Feel free to add your own favourites. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with the letter ‘M’.
As long ago as 1909, E. M. Forster published an incredibly prescient novella, ‘The Machine Stops’. This looks ahead to a world where humans live in isolation underground, communicating by video messaging, and with every need supplied by an all-powerful global machine. A few still exist on the surface, getting by as best as they can with no help from the mysterious machine. Then as the title suggests, one day the machine just stops. Unable to cope without it, society disintegrates, and the surface-dwellers offer mankind’s only hope for any future. This book is well over 100 years old, yet suggests a future reliant on technology, a communication system similar to the Internet, and issues surrounding environmental catastrophe. Forster must have been something of a genius, or perhaps a time-traveller?
Few books I have read have had the ability to break my heart as I read them. One powerful novel that did just that was ‘Angela’s Ashes’, by Frank McCourt. This is a 1996 memoir of the author’s own childhood in the city of Limerick, in Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s. Abject poverty, alcoholism, and the controlling power of the Catholic Church, all come to life on these pages. Travelling from the USA back to the homeland of Ireland, then struggling to get enough money to make the return trip, the early part of Frank’s life is described in all of its heart-rending detail. This is not only a personal account, as it also tells us much about the social history of the country during that period. It is an amazing book, and was also made into a terrific film in 1999, starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson.
Another from E. M. Forster, his 1913 novel, ‘Maurice’. Because of its subject matter of homosexuality, this book was not published until 1971, after the death of the author. Starting with life in a public school before the outbreak of WW1, with Maurice failing to understand the need for a conventional marriage, or life with a woman, it moves on to the university years, where Maurice meets Clive, and begins a sexual relationship with him. When Clive decides to marry a woman, Maurice is devastated, and seeks treatment to try to ‘cure’ his homosexual desires. But he eventually finds love with another man, Alec, and is prepared to forego his social status to be with him. In our modern world, it may seem hard to fully understand the social stigma of homosexuality in the early 20th century. Forster’s novel portrays a claustrophobic world of the well-educated and privileged, but offers an insight into the difficulties encountered. It was later made into a film, starring James Wilby, and Hugh Grant.
I left out Stephen King from ‘K’, as I knew I would be featuring one of his novels in this letter. One of his best, as far as I am concerned, and also benefiting from a near-perfect film adaptation, ‘Misery’ was published in 1987, and is a great book about obsession, and the lengths people will go to to satisfy it. The story of a novelist, and his ‘superfan’ is probably known to almost everyone by now, whether from the book, or the film. But it is worth revisiting. After wrecking his car in the mountains, writer Paul Sheldon is rescued by a woman, Annie Wilkes. Delighted to discover his identity, she tells him that she is his number one fan, and that she will nurse him back to health. What follows is a series of events that include holding Sheldon captive, drugging him, and revealing the true nature of Annie. A real page-turner, and I couldn’t put it down.
Leaving you with lots of choices for ‘M’, my pick for today is the seafaring tale from Herman Melville, ‘Moby Dick’. (Double- M!) Published in 1851, this story of harsh conditions on whaling ships has been filmed several times, most notably by John Huston in 1956, starring Gregory Peck and Orson Welles. The story tells of the obsession of Captain Ahab to hunt down and kill a great white whale that he has named Moby Dick. I read this book as a child, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of the crew, and life aboard the ship. It also has incredibly accurate details about the process of whaling, the extraction of the valuable whale oil, and just how hard life was for the crews who depended on hunting whales for a living. In these enlightened days, most of us feel sympathy for these majestic creatures, and would like to see an end to whaling. This book has to be read in its historical context, at a time when whale oil provided the means for most people to light their homes, and offered a living to the sailors on hundreds of whaling ships in the USA.