Thursday, 31 March 2011

My Life in Books: Day Four

Hope you're having a fun week so far - I definitely am. We're on our fourth couple of readers, with three more to come after today - I hope you've been picking up lots of suggestions, as well as revisiting much-loved books from your own life.

lives in Ontario, Canada and blogs at Roses Over A Cottage Door. She's one of those lovely bloggers who started as a blog-reader, and was persuaded to join the blogging masses - we're so glad you did, Darlene!

Peter lives in Somerset, England, and is better known here as Our Vicar, for he is my father. He is the only member of our family not to have a blog... yet!

Qu. 1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Darlene: (Cue the violin music) Books were almost completely absent from my household growing up and I have only one memory of being read to by my mother. What we did have was a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and I loved each and every volume. Being an information junkie from the age of four (I would listen to news stories and run into the kitchen to repeat them to my parents) this collection suited me perfectly. Everything I could have wanted to know from aardvarks to zebras was contained within those pages and was perfect for dipping in and out of.

Peter: We didn't have a lot of books at home - one bookshelf in the main room - maybe a hundred or so books. I don't remember many of them - one was a Bible (which I still have - given to my mother at the age of 12). I'm not sure about children's books, but Brer Rabbit was there somewhere, alongside some books about Golliwoggs, and some Enid Blyton.

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?

Darlene: I remember the first grown-up book I enjoyed, it was called Karen and was about Karen Killilea, a girl with cerebral palsy (told you, information junkie), written by her mother Marie. I had finally convinced the woman who drove the library bookmobile to let me sign out a book from the adult side of the van. When I was in Grade 5, unbeknownst to me, I was labeled a 'gifted reader'. A couple of times a week the principal of the school would collect me from class and I had to sit in another classroom and read with him. For the longest time I thought it was because I was naughty but really it was because the rest of class was reading books way too easy for me. Adults didn't inform children about things in those days, you just went along.

Peter: One of the books on the shelf was Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather - I don't know what happened to that, but I remember writing an essay in secondary school about the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715) and expanding Scott's version and thinking maybe nobody's ever written such a long account of the battle. The first grown up novels I read were probably those by PG Wodehouse and Arthur Conan-Doyle.

Qu. 3) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Darlene: It was all about Jane Austen in my late 20s and early 30s so I would have to say Pride and Prejudice. Her writing just seemed to always feel right. Whenever I would veer towards other genres I would eventually reach a saturation point, be left wanting, and end up returning to Austen where there was usually something new to admire or laugh at depending on your mood. And if you don't have an English accent, you've read at least part of her books out loud just to see if you could pull it off. I can't!

Peter: I spent much of the time in my 20s and 30s reading Maths and Theology books, for my degrees in those subjects. These include The History of Maths by Carl B Boyer - a fascinating account; and The History of Israel by John Bright - covering the Old Testament from an historian's perspective. It was also during this time that I started reading Thomas Hardy's novels - my favourites being Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure. [Simon: to this day, I think Hardy is the only novelist I have heard Dad mention favourably!]

Qu. 4) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?

Darlene: There has been so many favourite books over the past few years but for this venture I am going to choose Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. I love that book and could not believe my luck when Nicola Beauman hosted a book chat on said book at Persephone while I just happened to be visiting London. It took that particular reading experience up a notch and I will never forget it. Reading blogs has enriched my life beyond all measure. Growing up in a household that did not value books or education as much as I did left me feeling isolated and out of place. This community of booklovers has been my classroom and when you write something, be assured that I am paying attention and learning. For as long as I can remember there has always been a book on my nightstand, since discovering blogs there are now stacks!

Peter: In recent years I've read Pride and Prejudice and begun (but, several years down the line, not yet finished) Lord of the Rings, having been persuaded to try these by Simon and Colin respectively. Under my own steam, I've enjoyed reading a couple of Bill Bryson books - particularly A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

: The Daily Telegraph is my guilty pleasure once or twice a month. Because it comes from outside the country it costs a ridiculous amount but I don't care. My husband knows I would rather have that than a bouquet of flowers and I pore over every detail. Can I buy the items advertised on sale at Boots or, but I love looking anyway. And I love choosing which play I would see at the weekend if I could just hop on a train or exhibit to drop by and scrutinize. It's like a mini-holiday in a newspaper and is always accompanied by a pot of tea and some cake.

Peter: I remember buying my first Guinness Book of Records when I was 10 - and have occasionally snuck one onto the house over the years.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Peter, about Darlene's choices: This lady - and why do I presume a lady when the inclusion of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a quality English broadsheet could easily have been on my list? This person obviously followed Stuck-in-a-Book's suggestion from September 2009 to start Dorothy Whipple with Someone at a Distance. My guess - sensitive (somewhere in the caring professions?), conservative (unlikely to be reading Stieg Larrson), aware of the world (and the Telegraph also suggests a conservatism) and interested in learning (still reading history and biography as well as novels) - this strikes me as a very interesting lady.

Darlene, about Peter's choices: In my humble opinion, the person who chose these books is witty, intelligent, supremely curious and has an eye for detail. Going out on a limb I am going to suggest this person has achieved higher education and far from considering it something to get through, they really enjoyed the process. They would love to live in the countryside but have to live close to the city, they're happy with their own company but enjoy a laugh with friends as well. And last but not least...there is a much-loved cosy cardigan somewhere amongst their clothes.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

My Life in Books: Day Three

We're on Day Three, and late tonight I will be coming back from Paris, to see how things are going... but, fear not, we're not even halfway yet. Plenty more to come from your favourite bloggers and blog-readers!

lives in Chicago, and has been blogging as Bluestalking Reader for many years. She's a librarian, and was responsible for introducing me to Shirley Jackson - thanks, Lisa!

Victoria lives in Cambridge, but I'm bridging the Oxford/Cambridge enmity to invite her here today! She is well known for her informed and thorough blog posts at Tales from the Reading Room, and might be better known around the blogosphere as 'lit love'.

Qu. 1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Lisa: My parents did read to me, and enrolled me in a children's book of the month club. That's probably when my bibliomania started. Waiting for each new book taught me to feel a lot of excitement about them. Otherwise, though my oldest brother was moderately fond of reading no, it wasn't a very bookish household. I definitely had the most books of anyone in the family. By far!

My favorite book as a child was a Richard Scarry book of nursery rhymes. I don't recall the exact title. I was fascinated by the illustrations of cartoonish animals and read the book 'til it fell apart!

Victoria: Both my parents were keen readers, and we had a lot of books about the place. My father used to belong to the Reader’s Digest club and one bookcase was full of their books that he had rebound himself in red, blue and green mock leather. I remember a friend calling around for the first time, looking at the books in awe, and finally asking ‘Are those video cassettes?’ Both my parents read to me, although it wasn’t long before I preferred reading to myself because I could go quicker in my head. But my father loved reading the Paddington stories and those were real childhood favourites. I think the magic of Paddington lies in the fact that he can be so endearing whilst getting everything wrong – the table whose legs he ends up sawing off completely because he can’t make them level, the bacon trailing from his suitcase and attracting all the dogs in the neighbourhood. It’s a child’s dream – to make mistakes and still be lovable.

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?

Lisa: It's hard to recall what would have been first, so I'll say The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I remember it taking a long time to get through them, but they were gripping. That started me on a short fantasy spree I didn't indulge again until the Harry Potter books.

It's difficult to remember what was going on at the time, but I must have been around 10 or 11 years old, which leads me to believe these weren't my first adult books. But they were challenging for me at that age. Really I was just a bookish kid most happy when I was solitary, which is still largely true - save the kid part! I hated school, but did well, especially in English literature courses, which were a joy.

Victoria: When I was 11 I tried to read my first Agatha Christie. I have no idea why it was so important to me to read her – some sort of instinctual attraction. But the book gave me such nightmares that my mother forbade them for another year. As soon as I hit 12, I was back on the Christie sugar. That year, my brother (much older than me) had left home to live and work in London, and I was on my own in the school holidays. I’d grown up enough not to lose sleep over crime fiction, but not enough to feel secure alone in the house when reading about murder and mayhem. I spent most mornings quietly terrified and avidly sucking down Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple regardless.

Oddly enough, I can see now that crime fiction is really about creating security for the reader; it assures us that there is a clear line between guilt and innocence, good and bad, and that society is set up to protect the vulnerable. I loved the feeling of resolution and certainty that came with the conclusion, even if I had to go through all kinds of anxiety to get there.

Qu. 3) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Lisa: There were two books I read around this time, introducing me to the "magical realism" and "stream-of-consciousness" styles. But if I must pick one it would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was astounded by it! It taught me all new things about what's possible to create in prose. The journal I write now is somewhat "stream-of-consciousness," though I haven't written anything using "magical realism." I'm intimidated by that. The other book, by the way, was Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

: Across my mid-twenties I was writing a PhD on Colette and Marguerite Duras, two French 20th century authors. They had a huge influence on me, as both wrote about the way we use fictions of one kind or another to create and sustain our identities. But they had such different ways of approaching the problem. For Colette, the body and the mind were infinitely flexible; one could become a chameleon and adapt over and over to changing circumstances, shedding skins with practiced ease. Duras believed that life scars us with certain profoundly significant events and, one way or another, we are always trying to recreate them, or understand them; and whilst narrative is the only means at our disposal, it is never the same as the experience itself.

This is a swizz, I know, picking the entire oeuvres of two authors when the question asks for one book, but I just couldn’t choose; I’ve veered back and forth between their different ways of thinking ever since, uncertain quite what I believe.

Qu. 4) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?

Lisa: There are so many! I'll choose David Toscana's book The Last Reader, about a librarian in a small Central American town who works at a library that essentially no one but himself uses. It's like Don Quixote, in a way, as the librarian relates everything he reads to his real life, and immediately tosses any books that don't fit his experiences. A strange yet wonderful book. Blogging! Ah, it's changed my life in so many ways. Reading the blogs of others has led me to add far too many books to my reading list (!), and writing my own blog has both helped me keep track of my reading and thoughts on what I read, and disciplined me to write regularly about books. Writing a blog has also taught me to be more analytical about books, to look for themes, for instance, and how a book is structured rather than reading less critically.

Victoria: Blogs have had such a huge effect on my reading. I thought I read widely, but I certainly had my eyes opened when I came to blogging and realized quite how narrow and restrained I’d been. I’d never read an American novel before (unless we count the Sweet Valley High series, which I am disinclined to do) [Simon: I was so pleased to hear someone else confessing to reading these!] and now I am a massive fan of American literature. One of my favourite novels of the past few years has been The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald. I have a soft spot in my heart for doomed longing and narrators who are there for the eye witness account, and if you add in Fitzgerald’s glorious prose and his exquisite sense of queasily sated hedonism, well, naturally you have a masterpiece.

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Lisa: I'll go with Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series. I generally like my mysteries to be British in setting, but in a bucolic, small village region rather than a city. So I was suprised how much I enjoy Rankin and consider myself hooked!

Victoria: I have a real taste for the blockbuster novel. Many years ago I attended a very high-powered reading group at the university, and the talk fell to childhood reading.
One of the dons there was expounding on Homer’s Odyssey and how much he had loved this book as a boy and how he had read it over and over, with the others in the group fervently agreeing. I’d never read any Homer, and went home with that dreary feeling of being a dullard and a light-weight. ‘Ah but no one in that room knew as much about Jilly Cooper as you do,’ my husband comforted me. And I took a distinct pride in the fact that that was certainly true. And if I had to choose between rereading Riders, or rereading The Odyssey, there’s no doubt in my mind which one it would be...

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Victoria, about Lisa's choices
: Scarry's nursery rhymes - Scarry is the epitome of charming, wholesome delight, and is probably responsible for this country's obsession with talking meercats. Lord of the Rings - is it wrong of me to see a sort of continuation of the Scarry theme here? A sort of What Do People Do All Day in Middle Earth? But to get through Tolkein's massive volumes at an early age is the sign of a truly dedicated reader, I'm sure. One Hundred Years of Solitude - difficult, demanding, and yet sensuous and playful too. It's highly sophisticated narrative, though, so I would think it appeals most to the very experienced reader, and one not afraid of reading very different and unusual books. David Toscana - I had to look this book up, but it turns out to be magical realism, same as Marquez. It's a niche interest, which again makes me think of a very particular, sophisticated and intellectual sort of reader. Ian Rankin - ah a bit of grit. Magic realism is often violent, so no surprises to find a dark and violent sort of writer on the list. Rankin is good at creating his own world, much like Marquez and Tolkein, too. A reader who loves to be completely immersed in his books, then, who wants to be taken to a different world when he reads. And I think it's a man. [Simon: Oops!] And someone with a university education, possibly with a literary element.

Lisa, about Victoria's choices
: I would venture to guess this reader is someone who values relationships and the romantic ideal. For some reason I also see this person as someone who enjoys independent films, perhaps in translation, and is comfortable with endings left somewhat uncertain. This is harder than it looks at first!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

My Life in Books: Day Two

Hope you're enjoying the week so far (and, importantly, that the formatting and whatnot has all worked out... I'm leaving it all to spring up of its own accord, and crossing my fingers that it works out) - let's introduce the lovely folk for Day Two!

Lyn lives in Melbourne, Australia and was responsible for introducing me to the world of Persephone Books. She blogs at I Prefer Reading.

lives in Somerset, England and was responsible for introducing me to the world (!) since she is my mother, better known here as Our Vicar's Wife, and blogs under that moniker here. [Simon: link fixed now!]

Qu. 1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Lyn: I've always loved books although my parents weren't big readers. Too busy working and they both left school at 13. They must have read to me when I was very young but I could read myself by the time I was 4, so after that, I read to myself. Mum & Dad always bought me books and I always asked for a book if there was a treat on offer. My favourite book as a child was probably The Youngest Lady in Waiting by Mara Kay. It's about a girl who becomes lady-in-waiting to Grand Duchess Alexandra at the court of Alexander I and gets involved in the Decembrist uprising. It led me onto my interest in Russian and royal literature and history, which I still love today.

Anne: My family enjoyed books - although there weren't huge numbers of them in the house. Most Saturday mornings found us at the library borrowing up to six books (I think). From there we went to the sweet shop where I usually bought 4oz of 'chewing nuts' which were a kind of chocolate covered toffee. During the afternoon you would find me lying on my tummy on the bed, hand dipping into the sweets and brain absorbing the first book from the book pile - so my mind was fed and my teeth rotted!

An early book I can remember enjoying was The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Anthony Hope. I had no idea it was published so long before - it was timeless to me. A real adventure story set in the fictional Ruritania - full of derring do! It made an Easter holiday magical - curled up by the fire, breath held against the next twist in the plot! (Of course, I also adored the William books, Anne of Green Gables etc. and even Biggles - but I guess this is cheating!)

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?

Lyn: Probably Jean Plaidy's historical novels. I was 12 or 13 and loved history. We didn't study British or European history at school so I found my way to non-fiction history through Jean Plaidy and a lot of other historical novelists, some better and more accurate than others.

: My first 'grown-up book' has to be Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I read this first as a child - just as far as her leaving Lowood. After that it was 'grown-up' and I lost interest. I returned to it a couple of years later - this time I was infuriated by its missing out the 'teenage' years - I felt that it had nothing to say about me as I was then - it ignored those years and the age of 18 seemed a grown-up goal a thousand miles away! Third time lucky! I tried again when I was nearer the magic age of 18 - suddenly the book was released to me - I could enjoy it in its entirety! I can think of no other book which I read in chunks like this - this one was unique! (I should say too, that this was the time I really looked for books with Annes in them - add Persuasion to the list!)

Qu. 3) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Lyn: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield. I was around 30, working in my first job as a librarian and the branch manager (we still work together in the same library service) recommended the Provincial Lady to me. I laughed at Lady B and the bulbs on page 1 and didn't stop laughing all the way through & that's how I fell in love with the middlebrow novel of the 1920s & 30s.

Anne: My twenties were spent busily learning to be a teacher. At the end of the day I enjoyed nothing better than a Miss Read or an escapist romance to lull me off to sleep - good old Georgette Heyer! However, the book I am choosing is not by either of them - it is Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier. I have no idea how many times I read and re-read that book! I pored over maps of the area, I took a holiday - my first all alone - down on The Lizard and I plodded along the country lanes and footpaths all around the
Creek on a romantic quest. For me the attraction was the book's idea of running away from a life confined by others' expectations and being free to be oneself - the fact that there was a gorgeous French philosopher pirate in the mix made it all the more enjoyable. I loved the romance and the adventure - the understated sex scenes and the violent jealousy and possessiveness of Rockingham. Her treatment of Dona's husband was kind, if pitying and the descriptions of Cornwall lured me there. I cried every time I got to the farewell at Looe Pool - not least because I was reaching the end of the book and it would be a while before I allowed myself to read it again! And at the end, the inevitability of Dona's tame, encumbered life made sense to me - I would never be brave enough, or sufficiently lacking in commitment, to leave everything and run away!

Qu. 4) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?

n: Nella Last's War. An earlier edition of Nella's Diaries sat on the shelf at Ringwood Library all the years I worked there but I never picked it up. Only about three years ago when the book was reprinted and when I'd read other WWII diaries, letters & novels, did I read it. Since then, I've read the two further volumes of Nella's Diaries & I'm really sorry that there will be no more. Blogging and reading blogs has reminded me of books I have on the tbr shelves and prompted me to get them down and read them. It's also introduced me to new authors and imprints that I might not have found on my own. The internet in general and our online reading group in particular, has widened my reading horizons.

Anne: I adored The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer. There are maybe more worthy books and more affecting books that I have read in the last five years, but that stands out as a jewel of a book, which was a pure pleasure to read. Perhaps it was partly because the author was over 70 - it gave me hope that it may not be too late to write 'my' book! As for literary blogs - I am SO proud of yours, Simon, and I love reading it [Simon: thanks, Mum!] - but find myself defeated by the tbr pile it is helping to increase - have I enough years left to read all the books I'd like to read?

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Lyn: I'm very predictable. I know my tastes and I don't stray too far outside them. Life's too short and I have so many books I want to read in my favourite subjects and periods that I can't fit in anything new. As to guilty pleasures, English women's magazines like The Lady and Good Housekeeping, when I can get them. [Simon: the cover I've chosen isn't an English edition of the magazine, but... it is lovely, isn't it?!]

Anne: My guilty pleasure - mmm... there are so many! Maybe it is time with the Misses Bennett as I take one more turn around the ballroom with Jane and Bingley, or Elizabeth and Darcy... after all... with so many books unread, should I really be re-reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time?

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Anne, about Lyn's choices: I think this person (definitely a woman) had a conventional education - Jean Plaidy's books would have appealed to her because of their historical accuracy and the way they get inside the mind of the central character(s). The Provincial Lady shows an appreciation of wit and the 'sending up' of the ridiculous - whilst having a real understanding of human nature under a variety of circumstances. Nella Last - ah, the historical theme again - and more intense reading of the female mind when she is 'up against it'; the magazines again hark back to a different age.

This person appreciates the comfort and familiarity of a home well-made. She likes to get 'under the skin' of other people - in the sense of understanding how they tick. She knows her stuff when it comes to history. I think she has lived through changing times and regrets the loss of some of the niceties of a lost age. I'd like to invite her to tea!

Lyn, about Anne's choices: Probably easier to give a few attributes for the lover of these books. All of them seem to involve romance in some form.

Prisoner of Zenda - romantic, lover of lost causes.
Jane Eyre - independent, passionate, moral.
Frenchman's Creek - romantic, adventurous, restless.
Guernsey - literary, curious, compassionate.
Pride & Prejudice - romantic, well-mannered, correct.

Monday, 28 March 2011

My Life in Books: Day One

Hopefully this format will have become second nature to us all by the end of the week, but we'd better have a run-through for the first day. I'm asking all this week's participants the same five questions - to make it feel more like a conversation, I'll give both participants' answers after each question, cunningly colour-coding them to avoid confusion. Orange is me, with my mantle as question-master. Once all the books have been revealed, there is a little bonus section. Rather than asking people what they think their book choices say about them, I asked them to assess their co-participant's choices - but without knowing with whom they were paired! Let's see what books really say about their readers...

Without further ado, let's introduce the first two readers:

Karen lives in Edinburgh and is one of the country's best known and most-loved bloggers - known as Cornflower, she somehow manages to write two blogs: Cornflower and Cornflower Books.

Susan lives in Texas, and is indeed known to many of us simply as 'Susan in TX'. She is the first of this week's readers to be that most generous and beloved of creatures - the blog-reader, rather than blogger.

Qu.1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Karen: I did grow up in a book-loving household, I was read to as a child, and I would spend hours looking at my parents' books, browsing, admiring the jackets of some or wondering about the contents of others. They were and are so familiar to me as objects, as well as being a source of interest and entertainment, and from early on I saw books as ways into marvellous other worlds, ones you could hold in your hand. At my grandparents' house I would sit on the floor behind the settee, while the grown-ups talked, looking at everything in the big bookcase there from medical textbooks to history, classics to popular fiction. If I close my eyes I can still 'see' them all, and remember their lovely old-book smell. A favourite book from when I was 7 or 8 is Hugh Lofting's The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - judging by the signs of wear and tear I read it often in those early years. I had others in the series, but that one stands out particularly: "Dr. Dolittle had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar, and he lived on sixpence a year." And we mustn't forget Jip, the dog, who when an old boy, stayed at home to look after the other animals when the doctor was away.

Susan: I once heard a preacher say, "what parents do in moderation, their children will do to excess - whether good or bad." That is certainly true regarding my upbringing and book-love. My mother was a public school librarian before she had children (in her day, if you got pregnant, you had to retire), so we were read to at home, taken to the library during the summers (we used the school library during the school year), and allowed to purchase to our heart's content from the Scholastic fliers that came home from school. (My parents had NO idea the book-acquiring monster they were creating at the time!)

My favorite book from childhood is probably considered politically incorrect today; it was Walt Disney's Uncle Remus Stories (a giant goldenbook). What made it our favorite (and it was everybody's favorite) was my mother's reading - she would read in the dialect that it was written in, so if you shut your eyes (which we would never do because we loved the Disney illustrations) you would've thought Uncle Remus himself was telling the story. Never mind Brer Rabbit's ability to continually out-fox Brer Fox kept us in giggles. There was one very "scary" story with a picture of a huge snake towards the back. She would never read that one at night lest we have nightmares. We once tried to record her reading some of the stories so we would always have them, but the cassette tape got lost. We have enjoyed listening to her read them to our children, though - and they are still favorites, even among the grandchildren.

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?

Karen: The first grown-up books I remember reading were by Monica Dickens (whose Mariana is now published by Persephone). They belonged to my mother, and I have only the vaguest memories of One Pair of Hands, and later One Pair of Feet, but I recall being very taken by these accounts of life as a cook-general and a trainee nurse. Funny, lively and engaging, and a glimpse of the adult world.

Susan: This is a harder question due to my poor memory, but around the age of 13 I had a school teacher who encouraged me to read Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which set off the domino effect of reading and acquiring all of the books she had written that I could get my hands on (and which I still have!) I still remember how surprised I was at the outcome of Roger Ackroyd, and as I have begun introducing Dame Agatha to my own kids, it is always the first one I give them. [Simon: but of course we shan't give the game away!]

Qu. 3) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

: You've asked for a favourite from my 20s or 30s, but a significant book from my late teens, one which really did determine the direction I took in life, was To Kill a Mockingbird. I wonder how many young people, in the 50 years since the book was first published, have taken Atticus Finch as a role model and joined the legal profession as a result. That's what happened to me, so thank you, Harper Lee!

: Sometime in my early 30s I picked up The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Aside from the Bible, this book has probably had the single greatest impact on my life. Subtitled
A Guide to a Classical Education at Home, it was this book that convinced me that educating my children at home was not only possible, but would be the best education that I could provide for them. FAR, FAR from what I thought I would be doing, but I can say without hesitation, the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. We've now been at this for about 12 years. Absolutely it is hard work. That is not to be denied. But the return on the investment is worth every minute. It's not for everyone (none of our siblings homeschool their kids, and they all think we are crazy - like many reading this may), but it has worked well for us.

Qu. 4) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?

: A favourite book from the last five years, one I often mention - and give away - is One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes. Having read the two collections of her short stories which Persephone publish I was keen to read her only 'adult' novel (she published two others when still a teenager) and it was all I had hoped it would be. A beautifully drawn portrait of a single day in an English village in 1946, of a typical family and a vanished way of life, every well-chosen word counts and reflects the world its author knew so well. As for how blogging has changed my reading habits - I read far more now than I have ever done before, I read more critically, because I have to write about most of what I read, and I've discovered so many books as a result of the passions and interests of other bloggers and blog readers - and met such nice people! So something which I started in a hesitant, unsure way has taken over my life and led to a great many good things.

Susan: One of my favorite books I've found in the last 5 years is a virtual "unknown," The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy by Penelope Wilcock. If it had been up to the book blurb, I would've never picked it up - the blurb sounds like a soap opera, and doesn't fit the contents of the book at all. However, a good friend put me on to it. There are very few books that have ever kept me thinking past the last page, but this book had me pondering for a while afterwards. There is much to consider about suffering, friendship, and grace. (Read it when it's cold outside, in front of a fire!)

As to how blogging/reading blogs has changed my reading habits? Hmmm. Not sure that my habits have changed all that much. As I said earlier, I've been a compulsive book buyer since my early childhood, so I can't blame the blog world for my TBR shelf. :) Blogs have definitely introduced me to authors I probably wouldn't have heard of otherwise - Stuck-in-a-Book chief among them, Simon! [Simon: Why, thank you!] And "challenges" have introduced me to a whole new nerdy way of keeping records!

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

: Mary Portas' shop reviews and the wonderful Social Stereotypes column, both in the Telegraph's Saturday magazine. I read them over breakfast (always special pastries and coffee), and woe betide the paper boy if he's late and I don't get to combine those two particular pleasures!

Susan: Ah, the guilty pleasures. I'll give you two. The Stephanie Barron Jane Austen Mysteries are a lot of fun, and I eagerly await each new release. Also, thanks to C.S. Forester I have a love of Napoleonic war naval adventures which had me racing through all the Hornblower books and led me on to the Master and Commander series which I'm reading a little slower to make them last longer. Check that, I'll give you a third - Harry Potter. ;)

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Susan, about Karen's choices: What a great book list! I'm guessing this person either grew up in the UK, or is an anglophile (like myself!) They likely had a fondness for animals in their younger years, and perhaps studied American literature in high school/college/university. They obviously have an appreciation for literature set during World War 2. And with those guilty pleasures, this person likes to keep a finger on the pulse of the finer things in life, but with a responsible hold on their pocketbook. This economic prudence thus provides them with more spending money with which to feed their love of books. :)

Karen, about Susan's choices: I read Brer Rabbit and Mr. Fox as a child, and I loved them, so we have common ground. Likewise with the Agatha Christie, as I read her, too, and she does seem to be a writer who is good for the child/adult transition - no nastiness, apart from a murder, of course, but that's 'off-screen', otherwise correct behaviour, the satisfactory solving of a puzzle and thus putting the world back to rights, in a way. Order out of chaos, and a keen observer with a brilliantly deductive mind who can be relied upon in a crisis - it's an appealing combination. I hadn't come across The Well-Trained Mind, but a quick look up tells me this is for someone who will put every effort into supporting - or providing - their children's education. This is someone for whom learning, either just for their own interest or to teach others, will be a lifelong pleasure. An interesting person with a keen mind, I'd say. I've heard of The Hawk and the Dove trilogy, though not read any of the books, but someone for whom this is a favourite is a spiritual person, a deep-thinker, again open to learning and developing that aspect of their life - as well as enjoying a good story. The guilty pleasures/surprising favourites are all fun, escapist choices, and taking everything together, I think I'd like this person very much indeed!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

A Week of Lives

Tomorrow morning I'm off to Paris to see my lovely friend Lorna, and probably eat a baguette or two, but fear not - I shall not be abandoning you. Rather, I will be setting in motion a week of interviews with the great and the good of the blogging world!

Lots of us in the UK recently enjoyed the TV series My Life in Books where authors and other notables were asked to tell about favourite reads from different points of their lives. It was a great idea for a TV series, and really entertaining viewing - but I can't have been the only viewer thinking "I bet bloggers could do this just as well."

My original plan was to do my own Life in Books, and then I thought... firstly, you can probably guess most of them, and secondly... I'm only 25. It's a bit previous (as my mother would say) to talk about my life in books. And so I turned my attention elsewhere... Of course there aren't a lot of nonegenarians around the blogosphere, so all the people I've asked to contribute have plenty of books left to enjoy in their lives. But I decided it was just silly to ask anyone under forty to talk about their lives in books, because we've barely started our lives. (Apologies if I asked you and you *are* under forty, and I got my wires crossed!)

So, over the next week a selection of bloggers and blog-readers (who don't get enough fanfare!) will be choosing five books for our very own bloggy My Life in Books series. They'll be up in pairs, starting tomorrow. Even more fun, each participant was told the choices of their co-participant anonymously, and asked to surmise something about their co-participant from those choices!

I'm not going to spoil the surprise of who's turning up on which day, but I suspect there will be some names you'll know... and lots of suggestions for you to follow up afterwards! Have a fun week...

(And apologies to those of you who spotted Day Four's answers up here for about an hour yesterday, they weren't supposed to appear just yet!)

Friday, 25 March 2011

I feel like a leopard...

normally wouldn't bother writing about a book which left me thinking 'meh' (i.e. wholly apathetic) - I don't really feel that I can construct a proper review about it. This post will probably confirm that I can't. But The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston (which I thought was neither good nor bad) was so loved by Kim, as well as most of the members of my book group, that I was left a bit baffled. (The post title, by the way, refers to a wonderful moment in budget awful reality TV show Coach Trip...)

It's late and I'm tired, and as I said I didn't really care enough about this novel to want to put much effort in, so I'm just going to chat and copy across from Amazon:

"Clara, who at 35 makes her living doing "odd jobs for newspapers", is recovering from a serious operation and spends her days wandering around the cliff tops at Dublin Bay. She stares out to sea, trying to rediscover the direction in her life. One rainy afternoon, she encounters Laurence (Lar), a teacher who has run away from his life in Northern Ireland as he tries to come to terms with a family tragedy. The novel describes how these two unconventional people form a fragile friendship. Alternating the narrative voice, Johnston lets their stories unravel gradually. Both characters are trying to come to terms with loss and the novel examines the contrasting ways they cope: Clara is self-depreciating and humorous but can't shake off the knowledge that haunts her; Lar is bitter and coiled, bottling up his pain in an ever-present anger. Johnston has no difficulty in keeping the reader intrigued as the plot is never a foregone conclusion."

Sorry to be lazy... now I'll turn over to my own thoughts.

Jennifer Johnston has a perfectly serviceable writing style, and occasionally has nice turns of phrase... She dealt skillfully with what were essentially four parallel perspectives (Lar's present; Lar's past; Clara's present; Clara's past.) But for the most part I was left cold. It's mean to point out the worst examples within a novel, and I wouldn't have done this, but someone at book group (ironically enough) chose this as a favourite section, and I thought it was the least realistic paragraph. Lar is on the phone to his Dad, with whom he has had little contact of late:
"There is nothing wrong with me."

"You're not yourself."

"I am myself. I am Laurence McGrane. I am a schoolteacher. I know who I am. I know my wife and child were murdered. I know I am acting in a wild and irrational way towards the people who say they love me. I know that one day I will return to normality and be quiet and polite and acceptable, but not yet. I want to be allowed to scream and burn and hate, until I am sickened by my self-indulgence. I haven't got a date for that. So f**k off Dad and stop trying to heal me."

He had never sworn at his father before and the hand that held the receiver trembled as he did so.

There was a long pause.

"We do love you, son," was all his father said, then he put down the phone and all Lar could hear was the emptiness of disconnection.

Does anyone ever talk like that? It felt like novel-talk, rather than real-talk.

And as for Clara... I think she was supposed to be something of a feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroine. I'm all for feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroines - but they topple so very easily into selfish, overblown, rude heroines. Clara was a bit beloved by some book group members, but I thought she was a paragon of self-involvement... Lar was better, but I think I'd still rather read a novel about his cute little dog.

But it wasn't even the plot or the characters which didn't work for me. It was the feel of the book overall - like there didn't seem much point in reading it. Things were happening to people, or had happened to people, or might happen to people - and none of it much bothered me at all.

This is all (as you'll have noticed) a bit of a haze, and I'm really just writing about The Gingerbread Woman to ask a question I might have asked before - have you read any books about which you were more or less indifferent, only to find that everyone raved about them? This happens to me quite a lot with modern novels - so many of which seem to dispense with style in favour of plot, or at least that's true for the ones people recommend. Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is another case in point - interesting idea; incredibly bland prose.

These sorts of clashing viewpoints are especially noticeable at a book group, if you sit down completely unable to understand why everyone else seems enthusiastic about something. So much harder to discuss than a book you hated. In May we're reading Wuthering Heights - hating Heathcliff as much as I do, sit me down with a Heathcliff-lover and we'll be gabbing away for hours. But with The Gingerbread Woman... we could talk a bit about the characters and the events, but... in the end, I couldn't really make myself care all that much.

Over to you. I think reviews like this (not that it is a review; it's been far too all over the place to qualify) are a bit underwhelming to read - but perhaps you'll recognise the feeling. Let me know any books which left you indifferent in the face of enthusiasm - or perhaps tell me why I should have liked The Gingerbread Woman more!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Busy busy

Very busy day today (or now yesterday, I suppose). Some fun and some work activities - most excitingly an authors-meet-bloggers event at Penguin Books. More on that soon, but I'm dead on my feet - so will just post a picture I took today, showing how beautiful the weather was (and how beautiful Magdalen is...)

I've got so many books I want to tell you about, that I'm just waiting for time to write about them... and I've got something exciting up my sleeve for next week. That's all the hint I'm going to give you for now...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Stories are made of words...

Prepare yourself for a totally non-literary, rather silly blog post...
Ok, prepared? Well, here goes. My housemates Debs and Mel joined me in one of our fun little games that take the place of clubbing or political discussion or whatever other people in their mid-twenties do. We write a story between us, by going round in a circle each saying just one word at a time. Of course, foiling others and causing obstacles is all part of the fun. Here's the story we came up with tonight:

"Stop right now!" shouted Kenneth. He ran towards them quickly, waving a hankerchief aflame. The sailors refused to listen: "It's our duty to scrub these potatoes until they gleam!" Softly, Kenneth pushed the boat away from the mooring.

"Ahoy!" complained Aloysius, carefully putting golf-balls directly into Kenneth's outstretched eyes. "These balls need returning before sundown, otherwise all Hell will break loose! Leastways, it won't be sunny, apparently."

Kenneth stepped away, laughing hysterically. "What in the world do you mean? If the portents portend correctly, there needn't be any golfing disaster today. However, if you don't stop scrubbing those spuds, something monolithic, fiery, and generally painful will wreak havoc aboard that vessel!"

"Arrrgh!" concurred multiple sailors boisterously - but Aloysius remained firm. Suddenly water splashed onto H.M.S. Bloomingdale. A second flaming 'kerchief hoved from starboard.

"Ahoy," Kenneth said. "Finally multiple persons are amassed, ha!" (Alcohol made him incoherent.) The second bearer of flaming haberdashery paused, puzzled.

"I am on fire!" As he alerted the sailors to his predicament, Aloysius dove into the cabin, retrieving a hose, but the victim jumped straight over the nearby railings, extinguishing his flaming 'kerchief, alongside the ship.

"If you'd foreseen this end, you mightn't have continued igniting linen and scrubbing root vegetables, willy-nilly," exclaimed Kenneth.


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A bit of 1930s fun

Yesterday I mentioned The Perfect Pest by Adrian Porter, which I picked up in a charity shop and quickly read. It's not the kind of book you normally find in a charity shop - a piece of 1930s whimsy and silliness.

The book is a collection of comic verse of the sort that appeared (as some of these did) in Punch and the Morning Post. The first half covers 'The Perfect...' example of various types - host, husband, child, dog - in a wry way. The second half does a similar thing, but with more varied topics. It's all light and silly and amusing - and delightfully illustrated by Eileen McGrath, in a style similar to Joyce Dennys' wonderful illustrations.

The best way to sell this sweet little book is to give you an example - I'll pick the title poem, and a few images of the sketches. I think this would make a fun gift for anyone with a retro taste in books - or something to pop on the bedside table in your guest room. Fold down the pertinent pages if you want your guest to make an early exit...

The Perfect Pest

She merely sent a wire to say
That she was coming down to stay.
She brought a maid of minxsome look
Who promptly quarrelled with the cook.
She smoked, and dropped with ruthless hand,
Hot ashes on the Steinway grand.

She strode across the parquet floors
In hobnail boots from out of doors.
She said the water wasn't hot, and Jane gave notice on the spot.
She snubbed the wealthy dull relations
From whom my wife had expectations.

She kept her bell in constant peals,
She never was in time for meals,
And when at last with joyful heart
We thrust her in the luggage cart,
In half an hour she came again
And said, "My dear, I've missed the train!"