Book Chat: Ben Van der Velde

Leave a comment

Ben Van der Velde is a hard-working stand-up comedian currently flogging his gags across Europe, but is centred mainly in London, where he runs Good Ship Comedy. As if touring and writing his own hilarious material wasn’t enough, he also serves as a Maze Master at the Crystal Maze Experience in London, a job anyone of a certain age would kill for.

I first encountered him thanks to his excellent podcast, Worst Foot Forward, which he co-hosts with friend and actor Barry Brett-McStay. Each week on the podcast, they and a guest from the world of comedy, politics or academia tackle the worst examples of things in history, and in over sixty episodes so far have discussed the worst cocktails, worst board games, worst gadgets, worst haircuts and worst doctors, among many others.

They’ve yet to tackle much in the way of the world’s worst books, but since I try and maintain some degree of positivity when online, I asked Ben to swap out the bad stuff for the good, and quizzed him about some of the books that have shaped him and left a lasting impression.

What are you reading at the moment?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. [A novel of high adventure … and moral purpose, based on an extraordinary true story of eight years in the Bombay underworld.]

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Ideally that it’s going to introduce me to a way of seeing the world that I haven’t encountered before, either because of the perspective of the characters or the author.  I don’t mind if it’s a big tome, but it better not be lumpen and self-important.  That prose has to zip along.

What genres do you prefer?

Good fantasy that’s rooted in the mythology of this world.  Anything set in and around New Orleans.  Magic, historical, musical and with a bit of philosophy thrown in for good measure too.

What were your favourite books growing up?

Tutankhamen was a Bit of a Mummies Boy – it was a book of comical school reports of famous historical figures which I constantly read and re-read.  Also Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, George’s Marvellous Medicine and all of Robin Jarvis’ stuff – The Deptford Mice trilogy was amazing.

Have you ever seen a film that was better than the book it was based on?

It’s controversial, but I reckon The Princess Bride trumps the book.  Although it was a book written with the intention of becoming a film.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

I think Kurt Vonnegut is probably the wisest author I’ve read.  The opening twenty pages of Breakfast of Champions made me contemplate quite how childish the history of our planet would look to an objective outsider.

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

Frankenstein. It’s so concisely and sharply written, comes from completely unexpected angles, and I love that Mary Shelley saw her husband and his mates telling ghost stories and thought, “I’m gonna scare the sweet bejesus out of you lot!”

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

Cloud Atlas.  There is a transition from one of the concurrent stories to another where you learn something so breathtakingly tragic about a character in a single line that it left me in speechless pieces for about ten minutes.

If you could spend a day inside a book, which would you choose?

Any book set in Ankh Morpork … or the first half of The Great Gatsby.

Can you tell me some of the books currently on your “to-read” list?

It’s T-minus six weeks till my first child turns up, so I’m trying to cram in as many as I can at the moment. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, the final book of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott and, if I can fit it in, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

It’s a toss-up between Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I’m gonna go with the Gaiman as I can’t think of a book that transports me to another place so vividly. He’s from another world.


Ben can be found all over the Internet and beyond. You can learn more about him on his website or Twitter, or have a listen to his brilliantly funny podcast, Worst Foot Forward. You can also visit his London comedy club, Good Ship Comedy.

Advertisements

Book Chat: Sabrina Greenberg

Leave a comment

Sabrina Greenberg manages a London office in her day-to-day life, but has a much more colourful existence once out of the 9-to-5 rat race. She juggles her time between being incredibly sedate – reading, watching Netflix and cuddling her beautiful white cat – and being more active than I could ever imagine. A keen hiker, she also enjoys bouldering, trampolining and weight lifting.

She is also a huge advocate for mental health awareness, and now runs a blog about how she has used exercise to help combat the worst of her anxiety. Sabrina has spoken freely and openly on her blog, on podcasts, and with national newspapers about how she handles her own mental health, and she’s not one to mince words. A staunch feminist, Sabrina has no time for diets, articles that emphasise the importance of weight loss, or people who believe women should look a certain way, believing that all of these things belittle women and create a toxic culture.

I caught up with her to ask a few questions about her favourite books.

What are you reading at the moment?

Brave by Rose McGowan. [It’s the memoirs of a woman who knows what it’s like to live and work in the cult of Hollywood, and how she rebelled against the system instead of keeping quiet and towing the line.]

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

I love holding real books. I have tried e-readers and audiobooks but the experience is just not the same to me. It feels more impersonal somehow. If my budget would allow, it would always be hardback books.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

To say that A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara broke my heart might be an understatement.  There was points when reading it that I had to stop as my reaction was so much stronger than I could have anticipated that it actually shocked me.  It is a beautiful novel, but I wouldn’t advise unless you were feeling particularly robust!

What book do you think you’ve read more than any other?

I think it would be Wild Swans by Jung Chang. This was a book I picked up off my grandpa’s shelf when I was about 17 and just feel madly in love with the true life story of three generations of women battling the institutionalised brutality of China from warlords, through Communism until the opening of their boarders. It is such a powerful book and an excellent historical account.

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Margaret Atwood.  She is one of the most prolific and uncompromising writers.  Alias Grace was perhaps the first book that etched itself onto my subconscious. I come back to it every couple of years as a result. I also read somewhere that she can read two books everyday, which is astounding! 

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

100% Jane Eyre. I always felt an empathy for Bertha Mason. She is described as violently mad, a strange wild animal and at one point, simply ‘it’ – an inhumane thing. I never saw that. I saw a mentally unwell woman who was rejected and punished as severely as one can be. She loses her home, her husband and is vilified for desperately trying to retain some of the brief elements of normality that she understands.

Can you tell me some of the books currently on your “to-read” list? 

I am going through quite a big non-fiction phase at the moment.  I am writing on the blog a lot about how modern fitness and diet culture can negatively impact your mental health, so my book shelf is a reflection of this: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh are next on my list.  I have also just pre-ordered Bryony Gordon’s new book: Eat, Drink, Run: How I got Fit Without Going Too Mad, which I am very, very excited for.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

The Shining! I decided to read it last year whilst going through a severe period of insomnia – definitely not my smartest move! I was a huge fan of the film, but was aware that Kubrick and King had disagreed on the final outcome and was interested to see what was missing from the story. My fiancé eventually only let me read it during the day as it was only exacerbating the situation.

What were your favourite books growing up?

The Nancy Drew Mysteries! I was enthralled by her red hair and general sass. I think I must have read them all at least twice.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

My favourite book is Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It may not be considered to be a work of literary prowess by some, but to me it’s like reading water. It flows so elegantly and continually draws me back to its story of love in the winding cobbled streets of Barcelona.


You can learn more about Sabrina at her amazing blog Anxiously Active, or follow her on Twitter: @anxiouslyactive.

Book Chat: Sarah Dunsworth

5 Comments

Sarah Dunsworth of Walnut Creek, California is something of a polymath away from her administrative day job. A talented storyteller, poet, singer, songwriter and painter, there doesn’t seem to be a creative outlet she can’t turn her attention to. I grabbed a few minutes with her to ask her about the books that mean the most to her.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It poses, quite possibly, the most difficult question in the world for man to answer: “is life worth living when there is no proof of purposeful existence?” I’m still in the early parts of the book, but decided to read it when a friend of a friend said reading it saved his life.

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Harlan Coben, as he was someone who encouraged me in my writing as a teenager. After reading two of his books, I contacted him by e-mail to thank him for his work and also to request he read one of my poems and give a critique. He wrote back, to my shock, and said though poetry wasn’t his forte, he thought it was very good and told me to keep on writing. I’ll always be grateful for his time and kindness in responding so thoughtfully.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up?

At home on a quiet Sunday morning, on the couch with a blanket; a steaming mug of Earl Grey in hand, and two cats curled up at my feet.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

The Shining by Stephen King was terrifying. I was shaking at one point. Being able to create that level of horror with words is mastery. Seriously, the man wrote about topiary coming to life and had my palms sweating…HOW?

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

That’s nearly impossible to say! My initial thought was Nineteen Eighty-Four by by George Orwell, but could very well change tomorrow. Actually, I’d say Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I read it fifteen years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes when I think on it.

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

Is it strange to say hardback at home and paperback everywhere else?

Can you tell me about a book that made you laugh?

I’m just now realising I haven’t read many funny books. Shamefully, I’ll admit I laughed at I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by (the painfully vile) Tucker Max. It’s so gross. Please don’t read it. If you have, I’m so, so sorry.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

When I finished Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, I held the book to my chest and wept.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

Every book I read teaches me something about the world by experiencing it through new eyes. I can’t think of a single book that hasn’t taught me something, even if that something is that some men are horrendous (I’m looking at you, Tucker Max). George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four taught me to never dismiss the possibility of fiction spilling off the page and into the real world. I wrote a report in school where I said Orwell’s dystopian creation could never exist. My bad.

Have you read any books translated from a foreign language and how did you find them?

I have and do often, actually. I don’t find it difficult to understand, but I think the text must lose a bit of its original sparkle in the process of translating.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Don’t do this to me. I refuse to answer.


You can peek into Sarah’s personal life and read her poetry over on Instagram: @tinyquill.

Book Chat: Anwen Kya Hayward

Leave a comment

Cardiff-based PhD student and author Anwen Kya Hayward is my inaugural interviewee in this new blog feature. Her passion for literature and mythology has led to her penning a novella called Here, the World Entire giving an alternate interpretation to the Medusa myth, which I ranked as one of the ten best books I read last year. When not obsessing over mythological heroes or with her nose in a book, she can be found baking or, and I quote, “gently touching cats’ noses until they do the blinking thing and an unbreakable bond of trust is formed”. I quizzed her on some of her favourite and most memorable books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am only on page two of my current read, so there’s not a whole lot I can say about it! It’s Nowhere to be Found, a novella by South Korean author Bae Suah. All I know is that it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, but a very compact one, following the noteworthy events throughout the life of an unnamed narrator. I’m aiming to read ten books by female authors of colour in January – you’d be surprised at how difficult it is to find books that aren’t by white authors until you actually specifically look for them – and this is number eight.

What were your favourite books growing up?

Listen, it was Enid Blyton’s entire back catalogue. I’m not proud of it. I held tea parties in my garden with my dollies and supped lashings of ginger beer with them. I pretended that the oak tree down by the stream was the Faraway Tree. I ate cucumber sandwiches. Then I grew up and learnt about things like ‘why golliwogs are bad’, and reassessed my entire world. Still like ginger beer, though.

Which fictional character would you most like to go for dinner with?

Oh man, can you even imagine going to dinner with Voldemort? I bet the waiters wouldn’t dare bring your food cold or late. You’d get the best service in the entire restaurant. Definitely Voldemort.

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Honestly, I’m kind of a fanatic for books. I’m not what you could describe as ‘choosy’. However, I prefer either smaller books or weighty tomes; go hard or go home. I like a book that I can finish in one sitting or completely live inside for a month. I also tend to go for books written by authors who are underrepresented in the literary community; authors of colour, disabled authors, LGBT+ authors, etc. I think it’s important to read books written by those whose voices have not historically been amplified, and if we show the publishing world that it’s not an insurmountable risk to publish books by marginalised voices, then hopefully the tide will turn.

A book with fewer than ten Goodreads ratings is probably an instant win, too. It’s like discovering a new planet.

What genre(s) do you prefer to read?

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. Give me a book about pirates, or rebels in seventeenth century France, or Roman senators, and I’ll probably lap it up.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl contains one particular scene involving a demonic twin which gave me nightmares and made me shower with the door open for about a week, just in case a monster crept into the bathroom with me and I needed a quick escape. The book itself isn’t a horror – and I’m not easily scared, even when it comes to horror media – but it has some deeply unsettling passages, and that one really got to me.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

I feel personally attacked by this question, because I read a book last week that had me practically bawling in a Caffè Nero: Trail of Broken Wings, by Sejal Hadani. Broadly, it’s a semi-autobiographical account of a family marred by their abusive father, and the novel uses multiple perspectives to show how abuse ripples through the lives of those it touches. Some of the lines were so heart-breaking that I had to highlight them. It’s truly the kind of book that lives in you once you finish it, as corny as that sounds.

It also helped me understand my own family a great deal; my grandfather was raised by an enormously abusive man and we still feel the effects of it today. Seeing something I knew so well rendered so beautifully in fiction really got to me.

If you could spend a day inside a book, which one would you choose?

So, probably not the safest or sanest answer, but it would be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Imagine being surrounded by that level of change! We live in a world that always seems to be changing for the worst, spiralling downwards and downwards towards a ceaseless void of bigotry and doom, and the world of Metamorphoses isn’t like that. It’s a world changing towards progress, towards civilisation and self-awareness, and sure, a lot of people end up getting turned into trees or bears or goats, but the overarching message is one that I can get behind. Avoid the gods, though. At all costs, avoid the gods.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up? Where, when and what?

Honestly, it’s a long train journey in the evening. I have to travel a lot; my university is based in London and my partner lives near Bath, whereas I am located quite happily in Cardiff and don’t drive, so there are a lot of train journeys in my week. There’s nothing else you should be doing on a train. No laundry, no cooking, no cleaning your cat’s sick out of the rugs. It’s guilt-free reading at its best.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Not so impossible for me – it’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell. It’s just an absolute masterclass in narrative voice. Cottrell’s protagonist is deeply flawed but reflective of that part of us that we all like to pretend doesn’t exist; the neuroses, the bodily functions, the complete lack of self-awareness. On top of that, the plot absolutely floored me. The revelation at the end made me put the book down slowly and just sit still for a long while. If I can ever write a book with a voice half as strong as Helen Moran, I’ll die happy.


You can purchase Anwen’s first novella Here, the World Entire via the link, or follow her on Twitter: @kyatic.