Tanya blogs at 20th Century Vox, and over the past year or so has turned into my conference buddy! We've attended three together - and it's always lovely to catch-up.
Margaret is the nearest thing I have to a blog twin, since she started Books Please just two days after I started this blog! She very kindly provided her own photos for her Life in Books.
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.
Margaret: I did grow up in a book-loving family. It was my dad who read to me and made up stories as well and it was my mum who took me to the library each week. I don’t remember my dad reading many books, but my mum always had one on the go. Birthday and Christmas presents always included books and my aunties also used to give me books. I had my own bookcase that my dad made for me.
One of my childhood favourites is Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. My Great Aunty Sally gave it to me and I must have read it many, many times, loving the story and the illustrations. It actually sets a chess problem and although that is set out in the opening pages as I didn’t know anything about chess I didn’t bother with that and the story made absolute sense to me without understanding the chess moves. When I say sense, it is of course a nonsense plot, peopled with chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters, plenty of word games and puzzles, with bits of logic and philosophy thrown in. I loved it as a child and I love it now.
Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?
Margaret: It’s hard to remember which book that would be. It was either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s most likely to have been Jane Eyre because I remember watching a TV dramatisation at a friends house (we didn’t have a TV then) and being scared by the mad woman and I can still visualise the scene where she sets the house on fire. My mum had a copy of the book and so I read it, still scared by the mad woman but enthralled by the story. I don’t think much was going on in my life at that time apart from school and Girl Guides.
Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.
Margaret: I don’t think any book has helped me ‘set off in a certain direction in life’, because most of the books I’ve read were as a result of my interests rather than the other way round. In my early adulthood I didn’t read as many books as I did as a child, nor as I do now.
There is one book that I first read as a teenager that is still a favourite – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. When I was at Library School in my early twenties, it was ‘the book’ to read and talk about and I re-read it at that time and again later on several times. It’s such a satisfying book to read on a variety of levels. It’s fantasy, magic, myth, an epic tale about friendship, heroism and the fight between good and evil. It’s beautifully poetically written, with its own historical background, language and culture. It’s a page-turner, about a quest with a multitude of characters facing enormous perils and twists and turns that never fails each time I re-read it to entrance me. I suppose in some ways it’s a continuation of the fairy and fantasy tales I read and loved as a child, brought into the adult world.
Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?
Margaret: How hard to choose just one favourite book! But one book does stand out – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is of course, historical fiction, one of my favourite genres and it also stands out because it’s written in the present tense, which I normally avoid like the plague. However, even with this stumbling block and her slightly confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, Hilary Mantel had me completely enthralled in this story of Thomas Cromwell. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists.
Blogging has most definitely changed my reading habits. I now read more carefully, although I’m still guilty of reading too fast and forgetting what I’ve read, but thinking about what to write about a book makes it so much more memorable. It’s also changed what I read. I now read much more widely than I did before, and it has introduced me to so many new-to-me authors and has taken me back to reading crime fiction, a genre I’d practically ignored for years.
Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!
Tanya: A guilty pleasure only because both contributors can be so evil: the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. I re-read these a lot with undiminished (and guilty) amusement as they vilify their friends, express vile political opinions (mainly Evelyn), tease unmercifully (mainly Nancy) and generally entertain each other. It's a great collection and very, very funny.
Margaret: Another difficult question, because I read quite widely, and have written on my blog about most of the books I’ve read over the last five years. But I rarely write about books on religion, even though I’ve read many books on Christianity and other religions ever since I was a teenager. One that I like very much is Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase. Actually I like all the books by her that I’ve read, mainly on comparative religion. The Spiral Staircase is her account of her early life as a nun and traces her spiritual journey after she left her teaching order. It’s a sequel to her first autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate and is about her recovery from illness, panic attacks, seizures and depression, about her efforts to come to terms with the ‘real world’, and about her changing faith and her search for God.
And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?
Margaret, on Tanya's choices: I’ve only read the first two of theses books. I loved Enid Blyton’s books and nearly chose one as a favourite childhood book. And I’m a big Agatha Christie fan. So we started off in life with similar tastes. After that we diverge, and I’ve had to find out a bit about the books to make any comment. This person is probably someone who is younger than me, because he/she has chosen Brother of the More Famous Jack as a book read in early adulthood. I see it’s defined as ‘redefining the coming-of-age genre’, so it looks a good choice for a young adult.
I am interested in reading Waterlog, which I haven’t heard of before, even though I’m not too keen on swimming. A swimmer’s journey through Britain indicates an interest not only in outdoor swimming and in Britain but also in natural science, history and geography, which also interest me. Or, maybe this person is a keen swimmer? Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh is also an interesting choice, indicating a liking for twentieth century writers and social history. Overall, this is an eclectic reader.
Tanya, on Margaret's choices: These look like the choices of a person who really likes a long, involving book with lots of characters, a twisty plot, and the odd spot of magical intervention. I've yet to read Wolf Hall, but this and most of the other books are stories of quests in which a small or insignificant person triumphs against the odds in a world which might be confusing, hostile or dangerous. I couldn't work out why The Spiral Staircase might be a guilty pleasure - you'd have to have a highly serious reading habit for this to be a frivolous choice - so I imagine it is a surprising choice instead, perhaps of someone definitely not religious? But I don't find it surprising in this list - it has affinities with the other books, as there are elements of quest in Karen Armstrong's story, and the world can be as strange to her as Wonderland is to Alice. I think this person cheers for the underdog, admires a resolute hero(ine), and likes to contemplate the individual's place in the wider world. I also wonder if this person likes to accentuate the positive - these are, broadly, stories in which things work out, at least for the duration of the novel. This is probably also a reader who is at home with detail and complexity, unworried by a book with a huge cast, intricate plotting, or challenging ideas.