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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Nicola Davies

    Tue, 30 Mar 2010 06:20

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    Nicola Davies is a zoologist and has produced and presented radio and TV programmes, including The Really Wild Show. Her books for children include Poo, Extreme Animals and Ice Bear. She lives in Devon.

    Nicola says, "When I started writing this book I was pretty gloomy. Climate change was big and scary and I didn't think I or anyone else could make a difference. But I'm not gloomy any more. In fact, I'm quite excited because I've started to hear a sound, sometimes like a distant rumble of thunder, sometimes like a raindrop close to my ear. It's the sound of people changing. It's there in all the conversations I had with the people in this book; it's there in all the practical details about insulating houses or designing electric cars; it's there even in all the wrangling of UN climate negotiations. There's a shift happening in people's hearts and minds, not just towards the need to save our skins, but towards a more deeply respectful relationship with the planet that's given us life. It could be the sound of our species, finally, growing up."

    The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

    I read this book first when I was 17, and I've re read it in bits and whole, every few years ever since. It's about one man's relationship with the natural world -- peregrine falcons to be specific, which he follows and watches obsessively. The descriptions of the landscape, the birds, the other wildlife feel more like painting than writing, but are without any shred of sentimentality: accurate, beautiful, sort of pitiless in a way. Even thinking of this book now, I'm slipping into its atmosphere of dusk, and mist and blackbirds alarm calling on a late winter afternoon. Of all the books I've read, this is the one that makes me want to write most of all.

    English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

    I think this could be my favourite novel of my last decade of reading. I've read it twice and now have it unabridged as an audio book in the car, for long journeys. I think Matthew Kneale is a writing god to have written a book with such extraordinary, believable characters -- even the baddies are kind of deliciously loathsome. I love Peevay almost as much as I love Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's books, and his wonderful catch phrase "piss-poor blunt spears" is now part of our family vocabulary.

    That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

    My editor at Walker books gave me this book and it's not an over statement to say that it blew me away. I felt ravished by it, changed. It's very slow, very gentle in a way. Nothing much happens and yet everything happens. The landscape and the characters in that landscape, the rhythm of the seasons, the beat of life itself come off the page and straight into your soul. It contains the most beautiful and comforting description of death that I've ever read. It's another one I'll need to re-read every so often.

    Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

    Choosing this is really a bit of a cheat because of course what I mean is the whole series, all 20 of them. I've read the first ten in the series but I'm saving the last ten for when I really need them, so that, when the ravens leave the tower I'll have some comfort available. There are many, many reasons that I adore these gorgeously written, wonderfully constructed books, but the main one is the central relationship between Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon and the captain, Jack Aubrey. O'Brian paints the most moving portrait of this life-long friendship, so that you see the intimacy, the respect, the tenderness and the the humour. Of course, there's oodles of natural history too as Maturin is a kind of proto Darwin figure, and lots about the sea, including chillingly accurate descriptions of storms, which make me shudder. I was recently back at sea myself, working on a research vessel in the sea of Cortez with an old friend and O'Brian fan, and we spent at least 50 percent of our time talking about Stephen and Jack.

    Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

    Rose Tremain has a perfect eye for seeing into people, understanding them and showing you the one tiny thing that sums them up and makes you understand them too. Her characters are so real, so totally human, you love them and miss them when the book is done. She is a wonderful story teller, who just takes your hand and leads you into the world she's created. I read The Road Home last year which I loved and recommended to lots of people, but Sacred Country, which I've just finished might be my favourite Rose of all. It's the story of a girl growing up and discovering she wants to be a boy. As usual it's full of totally believable, lovable characters and it's set in Suffolk where I grew up, so I felt like I was going home.

    Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

    I was mad keen on "improving" literature when I was a student and ripped through Hardy, Eliot, Zola, Gide, Tolstoy, Sholokov, Camus, Dostoyevsky, etc... But I could never manage Dickens. Somehow he felt like being on a slow bus that you always wanted to get out and push. And then earlier this year (whilst I was on that boat in Mexico actually) I read Great Expectations and was hooked. I dived into Our Mutual Friend as soon as I got home and loved it. How did I think Dickens was slow? He's as fresh as paint, amazingly original, stylistically brave and innovative and marvelously rude about the english class system. All that, and you get a rollicking good story where all the baddies get their comeuppance, and the nice girl gets her bloke in the end.

    The Yearling by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings

    My dad read me the Reader's Digest abridged version of this in bed on Saturday mornings when I was about six. At that age all I wanted from life was to live with animals, so the idea of a pet wild deer was almost too lovely to cope with. The ending was devastating and I think I probably cried until lunchtime. I found the 50th anniversary edition in a second hand shop and read the unabridged version for the first time last year. I cried almost as much, but this time round I could see the terrible situation of the boy's parents and their enormous courage in the face of unimaginable poverty. The landscape and the feeling of running wild within it still thrilled me just as much as when I was little.

    The Encyclopedia Of Mammals by David Macdonald

    This does just what it says on the packet. It tells you (almost) all you could ever want to know about mammals. It's a wonderful resource for me, that I turn to constantly for clear, accurate information. But that's not why it's in my top ten. It is my comfort blanket. Whenever I'm feeling miserable about life or the state of the world, I curl up with this book (which is a challenge, 'cos it's big as a breeze block), and I read about pangolins or look at pictures of armadillos, or giant anteaters. It renews me, and renews my resolve to fight the good fight, because I don't want to live in a world without pangolins.

    Collected Poems by Charles Causley

    I used to read poetry all the time. I have several shelves of collections and anthologies but somehow I don't pick them up like I used to. But this is the one that I still go back to and that lives, mostly, by my bed. Charles Causley's use of rhyme is effortless and never gets in the way, he weaves the magic and mystery into his lines so they feel as if they connect to something very old and very deep. My favourite poem of all is Tell Me Tell Me Sarah Jane, which a conversation between a worried mother and her estranged daughter, whose heart has been stolen away by the sea. It ends like this:

    I taste the salt upon my tongue,
    As sweet as sweet can be.
    Tell my dear, whose voice do you hear?
    It is the sea, the sea.

    Gives me the shivvers every time.

    The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

    I would sooner write a great picture book than win the Booker Prize, but however close I might get to writing a great picture book, I'll never be a genius like Shaun Tan and be able to create images that haunt you forever. His book The Arrival is a masterpiece, and I've bought it as a present for several people, but this much smaller book is my first Tan-love. It does what only great picture books can do, it speaks directly to your heart and soul. I have to be terribly careful about picking it up in bookshops as it usually makes me cry. It's about depression and it's about hope, its about finding the good in the world and carrying on. Recommended reading for all of us I think.

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