Simon Smyth answers 13 questions in a Booker's Dozen.
Simon: I am on my last ten pages of the conclusion of Unfinished Business by Marisa McGlinchey. I started a few months ago but read two or three books since I started it so it really is unfinished business. Very informative and enjoyable but unfinished.
TPQ: Best book you have ever read?
Simon: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Different translations of the classics can be better than others and a bad translation can be very off-putting. I really go in for a book that has a nice feel as well. I was lucky to have a Folio edition of this book which had a nice feel and to the untrained eye, an excellent translation.
TPQ: First book to truly own you?
Simon: Our family library, although not massive with its two small bookcases, had a number of gems like Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, a number of books containing Irish short-stories, many books specifically for children and others like A Book of Ireland by Frank O'Connor. My granda gave me a copy of The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan when I was in my early to mid teens which was written in 1969 so didn't include any content on the imminent split except to say in the preface that abstentionism had ended. All these books were extremely welcome and I was extremely lucky to have the chance to delve into them until I had exhausted my options. We were also regular library goers and I used to be fanatical about the colourful book club pamphlet that arrived regularly to our desks at primary school. However, the first book to own me as a grown child of 13 was Papillion by Henri Charrière. It was a believable yet outlandish boys-own style adventure story and it was the first book I truly escaped in. I couldn't believe it when my brother told me there was a film.
TPQ: Book most cherished as a child?
Simon: I used to have a collection of Enid Blyton, Mr Men books, and Dr Seuss, dinosaur books etc. and when I was older I used to love more challenging dinosaur books, Roald Dahl and The Three Investigators which I preferred over the Hardy Boys books. I guess the book that stands out the most is Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World However, I was given a beautifully illustrated Children's Bible on the day of my First Communion by a relative who was a priest and although I have lost the faith I once had, I still have the book and also the money somewhere if I went to look for it.
TPQ: Favourite childhood author?
Simon: As a very young child I adored Blyton's Big Ears and Noddy books. Then came Roald Dahl who would have written my favourite childhood stories or Spike Milligan who wrote my favourite childhood poems. His Silly Verse for Kids still has me in ruptures. I once asked my mum to find more poems by Anonymous who I had held in such esteem as my favourite poet. Ah, the innocence of youth. Milligan's many-volumed war memoirs were special to me too as I was finding my place in this world.
TPQ: A "must read" you intend chalking up before you die?
Simon: I had originally thought of saying The Dubliners because it has been in my library for 25 odd years but after thinking about it, have decided that a response like that would be a cop-out. I have read the first volume of Tony Benn's diaries and thoroughly enjoyed it so would place the other volumes on my "must read" list. I found the personal detail about his family fascinating, even more than the politics, and of course with any life story you can learn important wisdom, without the trouble of taking the associated knocks.
A Berlin Book Tower in memory of the Nazi book burning.
TPQ: A preference for fact or fiction?
Simon: It depends on what mood I am in but other than that I don't have a preference.
TPQ: Favourite male and female author?
Simon: To my dishonour and regret I find it harder to choose between the male authors which perhaps says more about me than I would like to admit. I'd say Walter Macken as although he doesn't write the best books, there are a plethora of them and they are magical and consistent. If I really like an author I will read everything they have written so have entire collections of series on my shelves. Mari Sandoz is my favourite female author. After I read Dee Browns books on the American West I voraciously read any others I could get my hands on. Sandoz wrote the best of these. I feel the story of the Native Americans is analogous and prophetic to the story of the planet.
TPQ: Any book you point blank refuse to read?
Simon: I wouldn't rule out anything but will tend to stay close to those I am really drawn to. All those I am not really keen on will not make the reading list. I have so many books in my collection I will never read them all so although it's good being open minded, those billions of books which don't make my 'must read' list are all going to be refused. The worst book I ever read was The Heroes who Fell from Grace. It's a book on the Vietnam War, a true story about high ranking buffoons in the US Army who went back to Vietnam, after the war had ended, to rescue any P.O.W.s that remained. They had prayer meetings before every mission and gave a television interview prior to leaving on their 'secret mission'. The Mekong River was so wide they lost each other crossing it: some swam back to the bank they had left thinking they had made it. They paid ransom money for some of their captured party. The writing was as unsuccessful as their manoeuvres. I'd refuse point blank to read that again.
TPQ: Any author you point blank refuse to read?
Simon: I will point to my last answer and mention that I once had an aversion to chick-lit until I looked up an author whose excellent short story appeared in a collection I was reading. The internet described her as "the Queen of Chick-lit". Well, it was my first foray into chick-lit and I didn't even know it! Better than The Heroes who Fell from Grace at any rate.
TPQ: A book to share with somebody so that they would more fully understand you?
Small is Beautiful by Dr. E.F. Schumacher which is about intermediate or appropriate technology, about sustainability rather than constant growth.
TPQ: Last book you gave as a present?
Simon: Mr Nice by Howard Marks.
TPQ: Book you would most like to see turned into a movie?
Simon: We have had the Mr Men, Mr Benn and Mr Nice so why not Mr Blue by Edward Bunker. The character John Voight played in Heat was based on Edward Bunker, in mannerisms and appearance and he practically played himself in Reservoir Dogs. Both these times he was used to add a touch of gritty realism to the criminals. He was the youngest inmate in San Quentin and as well as his biography wrote many top quality American crime novels. Quentin Tarantino states No Beast so Fierce is the best crime novel he has read but I didn't rate it as highly as Dog Eat Dog or Little Boy Blue. His book The Animal Factory has already been made into a movie. His memoirs would make a great film.
⏩Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books.