One of my favourite people on earth – my dear friend Sarah Redington – was the first people to recommend I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, well over a decade ago. And yet, embarrassingly, despite laying claim to numerous copies over the years – indeed, despite having met Markus and being the proud owner of a signed copy of The Book Thief – it was only last year, during Sydney’s never-ending lockdown that I finally got around to reading his best-loved book.
First published almost eighteen years ago, I think it’s a fair statement to say I must have been one of the last voracious readers on earth to have read it, but suffice it to say that it was well worth the wait. The Book Thief spent more than a decade on the New York Times bestseller list, and is translated into more than forty languages – establishing Zusak as one of the most successful authors to come out of Australia.
And in addition to being an incredible publishing success story, he too is one of the nicest and most sincere authors I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Thus, when Markus agreed to take part in my Desert Island Books series, I was absolutely overjoyed. From a book he’s not yet read, to the classic he has a love-hate relationship with, here are the eight books that Markus would take with him to the sandy shores of a desert island.
Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders is S.E.Hinton’s most loved and famous book, but Rumble Fish is the true masterpiece, I think. I revisit it all the time, not to remember what it was like to read it for the first time (I was still too young and immature to really get it), but to remember that some books get better with age. And also to read that great line after Biff Wilcox slits the protagonist’s side, from under his shoulder to his waist: ‘You’re one dead cat, Rusty-James!” OR, less immature, possibly – the line Rusty-James’s father says about the boy’s brother – the Motorcycle Boy: ‘He was born with the ability to do anything he wants, but can’t find a single thing he wants to do.’
The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving
More known for epics like The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meaney, it’s this very short memoir of John Irving’s I come back to most. It’s about wrestling and writing – and I love the correlation of both – and their almost mirroring struggles. One of the lines I remember Irving saying is, “I’m not really a good writer, but I am a good rewriter.” That tells us everything we need to know about what it takes.
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Sometimes you love an author’s most maligned book – as I feel like so many people love Zadie Smith for White Teeth or On Beauty, but let The Autograph Man pass them by. What I love most is the very long prologue. I read this book while struggling with the direction of The Book Thief. I look back so happily on that time, because it almost dared me to do every single thing my own way. What more can you ask from a novel?
Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook
The two-up chapter alone is one of the most tragically gripping pieces of spare, simple and effective writing you could hope to read. The copy I have of this book (like Rumble Fish) is so old and slim – back when they didn’t turn a 120-page book into a 180-page book with line spacing… but it punches you so hard, like an uppercut. A nightmare of a book for certain – as if being stuck on a desert island wasn’t nightmarish enough!
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Talk about a love/hate relationship with a book! I remember not being sure if I could ever get through the first few chapters, but sometimes perseverance pays off. It helps when the woman you end up marrying gives you a book as the first ever gift between you – and maybe I’ve been trying to live up to Heathcliff and Catherine ever since. I think it taught me that you don’t always have to have nice characters – they just have to be compelling.
Night Train by Thom Jones
My current obsession – Thom Jones. What a writer! Night Train is a sort of greatest hits of his first three collections, with a few stories from a fourth book he was working on before he died. My favourite story is Mouses – which needs to be read to be believed! – but his more famous ones are The Pugilist at Rest, I Want to Live! and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine – all of them masterpieces as well.
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Because what I really want to do is build a log cabin on the desert island and not let any phonies in.
City of God by Paulo Lins
Any desert island collection MUST have a book you haven’t read yet, and I’ve been wanting to read this book for at least fifteen years. The film, of course, is a masterpiece, in structure and style and character. I mean there’s a character called ‘Steak and Fries’! But more so, it’s visceral, tragic and so truthful. Ridiculously great storytelling. And sometimes you have to read the book that forewarned the greatness.
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