Thursday, 31 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Four

Alison, otherwise known as Heavenali, was the first blogger featured this week whom I met through the LibraryThing Virago discussion list - two others will appear this week!

Mystica blogs at Musings From Sri Lanka, where she writes not only about books, but also about quilts, crafting, and Sri Lanka.

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.

Alison: Yes, there were always lots of books at home. My father was a Methodist minister and naturally worked from home. In each house we lived in he had a study lined with books. Aside from Dad’s theological books – both he and mum read for pleasure too. My Mum is still a keen reader and often tells me about what she is reading when I phone her. My sister and I were read to – although I don’t have any distinct memories of being read to – I just know that we were. I was a keen reader from early on, despite not being a gifted or stand out pupil in any way at school – my mum thinks I read from about three years old. The childhood books I remember the best are books I read to myself rather than ones that were read to me. One book that stands out for me is Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. I loved it – and later watched the TV serial enthralled. I think Carrie’s War was partly responsible for a feeling of over whelming nostalgia for stories – be they in books or on TV - set in WW2.  I think I was both horrified and fascinated as a child by the idea of war and the evacuation of children. 

MysticaNot a book reading household at all. I was an only child for 16 years and books were my only salvation! Mallory Towers and Famous Five were the top favourites. It appealed to me since it was always a group or a clique! Again the only child syndrome!

I was also an only grandchild for 16 years and surprisingly for the time in Sri Lanka, I had a working grandmother. She was the source of my books because on every visit to her office which I used to do very often (these were very relaxed days) and she was working at the Port in Colombo as a telephone operator - she used to take me out to the closest bookshop and buy me two books. I think it was done with the idea of keeping me quiet and it worked. I can't remember my parents buying me books other than for Christmas.

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?

Alison: I know that at about 11 or 12 I read lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels and really enjoyed those. However the first really grown up book (in that it was much harder to read than other things) that I read about this time was Jane Eyre. It is still probably my favourite book of all time – I have read it four times – my most recent reading of it was just before Christmas when I sat up till 2am tears pouring down my face – of course I knew what was going to happen I had read it three times before – and seen many different TV and film adaptations – but I still couldn’t put it down. Each time I have read it I have got more from it – it is a book that gets better with every reading. I look back now and wonder what I got from it back then when I was about 11 or 12. I was at the start of five unhappy years at an all-girls secondary school. I often struggled to fit in, and although I had some good friends we were all a bit of a misfit bunch. Something about Jane really resonated with me I think, I loved her friendship with Helen, her romance with Mr Rochester, the way she stood up to horrid Aunt Reed. I found a small pale friend in Jane Eyre – part of that awkward 12 year old probably wanted to be her. 

MysticaSurreptitiously reading Lady Chatterley's Lover at around 13 and not having a clue only knowing it was not quite the done thing.

I was extremely lucky that just down our road we had a "lending library". It was run by a rather old lady who I later discovered had a huge library and turned it into a financially rewarding scheme. I used to borrow all kinds of books and she never remarked on my rather catholic tastes but with Lady Chatterley's Lover she sort of hmphed and did mention that it was not quite the thing I should read. Of course I was more interested than ever but it did go over my head at the time and even on a later read I could never imagine what the fuss was all about. Relationships between the upper and lower classes in society were always existent from time immemorial - now why the hoo ha?

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.

Alison: Well I’m not sure about setting me off in a particular direction, but there was a book which unleashed a fascination in me. Sometime in my 20s – I’m not exactly sure when, I read The Raj Quartet. The first novel is of course The Jewel in the Crown. The Raj Quartet set me off on a bit of a mini obsession for a few years. Indian literature! I began reading a lot of Asian lit, I particularly liked things set around the time of the Raj – as it horrified and fascinated me in equal measure. I have read the whole of The Raj Quartet twice – and I watched the TV series many years ago – it’s a series I know I will read again. I know I will never get to go to India – even if I ever had the money – which I don’t suppose I will have – I know I would hate modern India – the heat the noise the chaos and the poverty – it isn’t for me – but I have always been fascinated by India – and I love hearing about it, and generally prick up my ears if I hear it mentioned in the news. I often watch documentaries about India, I love Indian food (don’t eat it often – calories!) and Indian culture. I don’t read as much Indian literature as I did at one time now, although I do from time to time, I recently read a couple of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novels – and I have been intending to re-read Paul Scott’s Staying On for ages. 

Mystica I cant think of a book in my 20s but I could say at 16 Pride and Prejudice definitely changed me. I began to love literature in a slightly more formal manner.

English Literature was one of the subjects I studied for my Advanced Levels. With The Cherry Orchard, which I considered boring, and Six Ages of English Poetry, this was another of the subscribed texts. I fell in love with the written word with Pride and Prejudice and my A level text is still with me. Dog eared and pencilled notes in the margins along with all sorts of scribbles from fellow students. Very nostalgic when I look at it now.

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?

Alison: In January 2012 I read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I absolutely loved it. I read it breathlessly and didn’t want it to end – such great writing, and such wonderful storytelling – Lilly Bart is a wonderfully flawed and beguiling character – a tragic figure who became unforgettable for me. I think I had read The House of Mirth before – when I was quite young – but it hadn’t clicked – I wasn’t ready for Wharton. Following my reading of The House of Mirth that second time, I went on to read three more Edith Wharton novels and have about five more TBR. 

I first came to blogging via LiveJournal several years ago – I didn’t really blog much – my book reviews were very short and not especially well thought out. I would talk about personal stuff too – which I wasn’t always comfortable with – and my enthusiasm for it came in fits and starts. Then about 18 months ago I decided to give blogging a proper go and transfer what had become just a book journal to Wordpress. I transferred all my LiveJournal stuff over to Wordpress and effectively started again. Now I kind of wish all my old badly written posts had been deleted, rather than transferred over – but there they are, for anyone to see. Having started a book blog at Wordpress I have simply been trying to develop it – connect with people and improve. It has been great – time consuming, but I have enjoyed it. I have been considering whether blogging has changed my reading habits – I think it must have had some effect – though overall I have continued to read what I want to – but I think what I want to read has often been influenced by other bloggers. I have started to receive the occasional review copy from publishers – but I really don’t want to get too caught up with all of that – I have so many books of my own I want to read. One of the things that has happened as a result of my blogging about books, is that I have been made to stop and think about what I have read carefully, fully appreciating the writer’s craft and the effect it had on me. It’s a lovely way to help retain the memory of great books. 

Mystica: I came to blogging through Sakura of Chasing Bawa. When I saw the title of her blog I knew she had to be Sri Lankan and when I went and read her blog, commented and got helped in return, it enabled me to start my own.

English print books are available in this part of the world but it tends to stay with the popular authors only. Plenty of Grisham, Patterson and recently the paranormal and fantasy seem to be popular (like everywhere else). I always have a book where I note down books I'd love to read and this is kept very carefully for when I visit Melbourne generally twice a year. If I am lucky three times a year. I then haunt the library in Carnegie and take out/reserve and try to read as many books as I have on the list. That is how I am able to read some of the latest and the best. My other source is a local library run by an association of British residents here in Colombo. You get gems at times with expatriates who have left behind their volumes. I got to Delafield that way. I would never have got it otherwise - both Colombo and Melbourne were blanks!!!!

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Alison: My guilty pleasure – is something old fashioned and suspenseful; I’m not sure how else to describe the particular subsection of crime fiction that I sometimes like. As well as being an occasional fan of what is often described as the Golden Age of Crime, I love Sherlock Holmes and some (though by no means all) historical crime fiction. I also love some of the old Victorian suspense novels. I’ve already mentioned Sherlock Holmes, a massive comfort read for me along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, but I also love other old fashioned mystery and suspense tales – and sometimes go looking for obscure things on Project Guttenberg and – one of the joys of the dreaded ereader is that there are lots of such things to be downloaded. I currently have a couple of them waiting for me on my Kindle one is called The Clue of the Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace another is The Camera Fiend by E.W. Hornung, I anticipate them with a delicious shiver – I love those kind of books that make you want to lower the lights and curl under a blanket with a hot drink.  I recently read The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux – brilliant stuff.

Mystica [Mystica chose to surprise people with her life story, instead!] I have worked in the field of abandoned/orphaned children and though not directly active any more in the field, my contacts with the children of the Home in which I originally worked give me enormous pleasure and happiness. They are all young adults now and the fact that they are almost all of 42 in contact with me makes me very happy.

Apart from children I work full time. We have a couple of agricultural properties and they are in different parts of the country so I am permanently on the road! We cultivate tea, rubber, mandarin oranges, papaw, chillies and vegetables, coconut and pineapple. I enjoy agriculture very much - though I hardly get my hands dirty but I like the quietness of these properties and getting away from Colombo is always a pleasure.

As for an unexpected book, Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach made me stop and think.

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

Mystica on Alison's choicesCarrie's War - the WWII era is something I like very much myself and I am fascinated how children were sent so far away from their homes to absolute strangers. Imagine today ever even considering something like this. We do not allow our children to even talk to a stranger, and imagine them living with them. This was a book I felt a bit uneasy over. Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy which I just finished deals with the same theme of a little girl sent to a family in Ireland but where she had such a wonderful time that they became her real, actual family. I feel the reader likes matters of history for them to pick this one.

Jane Eyre - a classic read. A mix of the romantic and fantasy!

The Raj Quartet - I do so like novels about colonial India. I never tire of reading stories from different angles. Here an Indian lover is certainly the exception rather than the rule in staid, prim British circles. I would love this series too.

The House of Mirth - this was a tough one for me to assimilate. Too much of drama, too many highs and lows and the death of Lily in such circumstances seemed very staged.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room - I thought of Agatha Christie right away when reading the synopsis of this book. Felt very much like her books! I'd like this one myself.

Alison on Mystica's choices: I think my mystery reader must be someone who likes novels with an English upper class domestic setting,. The England of Byton's Mallory Towers - oh I loved those stories too -the boarding school life of midnight feasts etc. Austen's England - very domestic and rooted very much within the landed classes of the time and the Lawrence's depiction of the difference between the English classes in Lady Chatterley's Lover, both of which I have read - Pride and Prejudice several times. E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady is a wonderfully upperclass eccentric - wonderfully English of course - (the four provincial lady stories are the only E.M. Delafield I've read) but Delafield seems to me to be another quintessentially English novelist - as are Blyton, Austen, and Lawrence each in their differing ways. I can't help wondering whether my mystery reader is either an Anglophile from North America or an ex-pat living abroad - but that is just a guess - as I too love these type of novels and I am neither : ) I love these choices and can't wait to find out who my mystery reading partner is - I think we would like a lot of similar novels. 


  1. A wonderful selection of books!

    Alison has made me want to try the Raj Quartet - I think I've seen some of the tv episodes but never managed to tackle the books. And I love her list of mysteries, some of which are my favourites.

    And Mystica - it makes me happy that someone out there understood the title of my blog! And you've reminded me that I've meaning to read Mallory Towers since I was a child!

  2. What a lovely contrasting pair. I love the idea of reading Lady Chatterley and not understanding what the fuss was about! And great to see my dear friend Ali, who shares my love of books on India, talking about how that started.

  3. Great conversations form both of you, thank you very much. I too am an only child, though I'm not sure that made me long for groups/cliques. I did like (most of) the "Swallows & Amazons" books as a child however. I too read Lady Chatterely's Lover in my mid-teens (the original Penguin edition) and concur with not really seeing what the fuss was about. Later in life I suspected, as the trial perhaps highlighted, that class was not an insignificant issue.

  4. It is always great to find people who recommend books I have read and loved because it means I will probably love their other choices, as well. I think I have a lot in common with Mystica. Thanks for blogging.

    Marianne from Let's Read

  5. Lovely feature - I've never read the Raj Quartet either, so that's another one for the wishlist. I too loved the Malory Towers book and had an unfulfilled longing for a boarding school. I think this might have been because I only had a brother..... (We do get along, but it's certainly not the same dynamic as having a sister!)

  6. Lovely mix of books here (again) from Alison and Mystica. I often feel my age when I look at people's favourite children's books - Carrie's W'ar wasn't around when I was a child! Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are old favourites of mine, and I too read Lady Chatterley's Lover and wondered what all the fuss about. I suspect Dark Puss is right, and it was much more about class than sex.

  7. Great choices here - I loved the Famous Five (also the Five Finder-Outers-and-Dog although I suspect one couldn't call a hero 'Fatty' anymore) and the first three of the Raj Quartet (no. 4 wore me out totally - so much politics). And then there's the WW2 link, and the bits of 'guilty' crime. There's so much here to think about and explore! Thank you for sharing.

  8. Thanks for this Simon, it was great thinking up my replies to your questions and reminded of some brilliant books that I have loved.

    I loved Mystica's choices - Mystica - I hope you continue to find lots of English language books to read :)


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