This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish wants us to list ten books that inspired strong emotions when we first read them. Now, being a boarding school educated Englishman of “a certain age”, strong emotion is something that I normally shy away from or, at least, pretend doesn’t happen to me. I was one of the few who despaired at the weird collective hysteria that seemed to grip swathes of the country at the time of the Princess of Wales’ funeral and the propensity of reality TV people to claim that someone whom they met two hours ago is their best friend makes me want to stick knitting needles in my eyes.
Nevertheless, I have to confess that there are things that have caused the stiff upper lip to tremble or, more often, the red mist to descend over my eyes. I was pretty happy when I got married and, if I’m being honest, I was an emotional wreck when mini-Falaise came into the world. On a far less important level, a particularly poor performance by Chelsea or England can enrage me for a few minutes and some of the more egregious behaviour of politicians makes me pine for bygone days when honour seemed to mean at least a little more than it apparently does now. And, of course, the epic tragedies of our times – the Holocaust, the Middle East crises, the seemingly never-ending violence in Central Africa – bring me to despair at our infinite capacity for inhumanity to our fellow men and women.
When it comes to books, however, there are relatively few that cause such strong feelings. I tend to pre-select, which filters out most of those that are likely to cause real rage, and I’m not generally a fan of “misery porn” or books that are obviously going to sadden me. I like my reading to gladden my heart or to educate me and this probably limits the number of books that will disturb my senses to any great degree. Never fear, though, this post is not going to end abruptly as I do have a list of some that slipped through the net and, figuratively, Tangoed me.
1. The Diary of Anne Frank. I’d defy almost anyone to read this and not shed a tear. For all of the magisterial works that have been written to bear witness to and to tell the story of the Holocaust, it is still the individual experiences like those of Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and others that really bring home to us its true horror.
2. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Grrrrrr. I’m not sure with whom I am more angry: James Joyce for writing this nonsense or the O-level examiners who made it a set text when I was at school. Hated it with a passion.
3. Diana by R.F. Delderfield. By the author of To Serve Them All My Days (another tear jerker), Diana tells the love story of John, a poor orphan, and Diana, daughter of a wealthy businessman. It is basically a story of unfulfilled love between the wars, told from John’s perspective. I read it as a teenager because I’d enjoyed To Serve Them All My Days and was into it before I realised it was a love story. Well, Reader, I blubbed like a baby - Please don’t tell anyone. I want to tell more of the plot to explain why it affected me but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All I can say is that if you are in the market for a well-written, historical love story that will make you cry, you could do a lot worse than to get hold of a copy of this and a big box of tissues. After all, if it made me cry, goodness only knows what it would do to someone with feelings.
4. Carve Her Name With Pride by R.J. Minney. Violette Szabo was an Anglo-French woman who volunteered to join SOE during the Second World War after her husband was killed at El Alamein (and before he ever saw Tania, their new-born daughter). Leaving her daughter behind in England, she parachuted into France but was captured by the Germans. Tortured by the Gestapo, she did not give up any information and was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. In January 1945, she was executed. This is a fantastic book and it was also made into a great film. The killer moment comes at the end of both book and film when Tania, by now a little girl who has lost both her parents, collects her mother’s George Cross from the king. I reckon this moment could squeeze a tear from a stone and yes, I did shed a few. I can even feel a little prickle in my eyes now as I write this.
5. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I know it’s not really a book and I can almost hear you go “huh?” but, when I was at school, we were told to read a fairly long passage from it as homework. Well, that evening, I came down with what is, to this day, the only migraine I have ever had. So, my mother packed me off to bed and then came and read the passage to me. For whatever reason, this has always stuck with me and even now, whenever it comes back into my mind, it gives me a warm feeling of being loved and cared for. I think that counts as strong emotion.
6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve included this in my list because of the way it transported me, when I first read it, to a completely new world. It was so epic and vivid that I was carried away with it. I was twelve when I first read it and it was mind-blowing. I even got in a fight with another kid over the characteristics of orcs.
7. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I’m (still) supposed to be reading this for my 1,001 Books challenge but haven’t picked it up in six months. I hate it and it frustrates me. I feel beaten by it. I think it’s a pile of rubbish but I still feel the need to get through it. It drives me mad.
8. Humanity: the Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover. This is a moral history focusing on, and trying to analyse, how the 2oth Century gave rise to so many atrocities. From Hitler’s Germany to Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China to Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Yugoslavia to Rwanda, it is a profoundly depressing catalogue of what we are capable of doing to ourselves and highly thought-provoking.
9. Madoff: the Man Who Stole $65 billion by Erin Arvedlund. Astonishment at how he got away with it for so long. Anger at the callous way he and his henchmen cheated people out of their life savings. Arvedlund's book is a wonderfully clear explanation of how it happened.
10. Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs by Lewis Page. You can’t help being totally enraged by Page’s dissection of the financial mismanagement and waste at the heart of Britain’s defence spending. Billions of pounds of waste on unnecessary kit and obsolescent equipment, whilst the troops on the ground can’t get what they actually do need. This made my blood boil.