Monday 28 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day One

Pam blogs at Travellin' Penguin, where she writes about the classic Penguin orange paperbacks she finds and reads - accompanied by lovely customised penguins styled for each post!

Peter is better known to the blogosphere as Dark Puss (in comments) or Morgana's Cat at his blog.  And he is second only to my father (another Peter) is tirelessly trying to get me to read about science!

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.

Pam: I grew up in a small country town of 5000 people in mid Michigan during the 1950s and 60s. We had a big bookshelf in the "den" which is what that room was called back then. We had books on the shelves but from what I remember they were books about raising babies (Dr. Spock), a set of Encyclopaedias and a few other books that my mother read. I don't remember having classics in the house and I never remember ever being read to. My family centred around my father's military career and my mother hosting dinner parties and collecting antiques to impress people to further his career. It was only my sister and I until my brother arrived when I was 12 and nobody ever read books except me.

Hosting a military career involves a great deal of alcohol and partying and living in our house was quite like living with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Down the street, only a block away was a small library I used to hide out in to escape the chaos and I don't remember the old cranky librarians liking children very much. Especially if they spoke. I read everything in the children's section and my favourites were the books that lined a separate shelf on wheels, shelves on both sides of biographies written for children. I read the biographies of Madame Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, John James Audubon and would spend weekends building things, pretending to blow up labs inventing things to change the world (mainly coloured water) and studying birds and insects in the back yard. I also read everything I could get my hands on regarding dogs and horses. Black Beauty was my touchstone and in the winter we'd build snow horses instead of snowmen and put blankets over them for saddles and pretend we were riding the Grand National Steeplechase (National Velvet) until our bottoms froze so much we had to go into the house and warm up.

PeterYes a very book-oriented one as my parents had a fairly large library for flat dwellers (a few thousand volumes). We had most of the classics of (British) literature, a large collection of post-war Penguins and a good collection of books by 20th-century European writers (in translation). My parents certainly did read to me, mainly my father I think from (distant) memory - certainly I remember being read A.A. Milne, Paddington, The Hobbit, etc. by him.

A favourite from childhood? That's not so easy as it was rather a long time ago! However I do remember with pleasure Paddington Abroad as it was somewhat contemporary with my earliest memories of going to France by car (though we used the ferry not an aircraft) and I remember well many of the aspects (now mainly lost) of France that Bond describes so well. Given the number of road repair signs and "deviation" notices that there were in those days I did find it funny that in the book they spent a lot of time looking for the town of "Gravillons".

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?

Pam: At the age of 12 my brother gave birth to my brother and I was pretty much his carer after that. My parents moved us to the country and we had horses and my world was filled with them and my little brother.
I remember I loved books that had to do with the hard lives of immigrants moving into New York city around the time of the World Wars. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith led me to read everything written by her. I had a fascination with the civil war and read Andersonville and Gone With The Wind. I saw more films probably than books because there was a local theatre in this small town and we'd see a different movie every week.

My mother owned the entire set of Agatha Christie books though I never read one as they were her books. She also read Harold Robbins and the latest crime writers of the day. I don't remember anyone at all in my life who ever said to me, "You must read this book" with any enthusiasm. None of my friends read until I reached grade 11 and 12. Our teachers had more enthusiasm for using the old hickory stick to stop us talking so we didn't dare show much enthusiasm and everything was about farming, sports and getting your homework done which was quite boring. In hindsight I would have killed for a reading mentor as I know I would have read anything put in front of me.

PeterLooking into my dimming crystal ball ... I think probably Claudine at School the first published novel of Colette. As a pupil at a boys school and a teenager (I think I was probably 14 when I read this) there was clearly a lot to fascinate me in this coming of age (and homoerotic) story and which of us at that age would not warm to at least some aspects of Claudine the rebellious "teenager"! The quality of writing, though not Colette's finest, the wonderful descriptions of the Burgundian countryside, of which I had some familiarity, the French sensuousness all struck a chord with me. It certainly gave me a lifelong love of Colette's writing and chapeau to my parents for having this book on their shelves for me to find.

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.

Pam: I can't say any book directed my work life at all. I decided to become a speech pathologist once I began Central Michigan University because I knew I could get a job anywhere, make a good income and get out of Michigan. My husband and I moved to Florida just after we both graduated from school to begin our first jobs and then I read the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and romance novels as I was newly married and as there wasn't really a decent library in the city I lived in I had to buy books and we didn't have a lot of money. I also loved Kahil Gibran's The Prophet and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Television (James Herriot series was on then) and films dominated my time. James Herriot books were such a major influence we actually holidayed in Yorkshire and met the man one summer.

 It was also the first time I ever met and worked with African American people and I did crave to know more of their history. Richard Wright was by far my favourite writer in this genre and Native Son continues to be my favourite African American book. I was quite political against injustice and no doubt the Roots book by Alex Haley that came out influenced my knowledge of what a racist country the United States was. I liked stories about the development of the unions in equal rights for women in the workplace as well as rallying for women, minorities and animal welfare. To this day I still have a strong interest in these issues which still have a long way to go.

PeterThat's a hard question! I read a great number of novels, perhaps mainly by European or US authors rather than British ones and looking back I do not easily find one that leaps out as a favourite. My direction in life has not, I think, been driven by literature. Perhaps I might nominate Nice Work by David Lodge as one of my favourites (it is one of his that has stayed the course, some are too much of their time to be good reads today).

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?

Pam: I came to blogging and reading more once I retired. Not much in my life directed me to studying the arts. I had a very latent interest in the arts and literature but have always been a better student in technology and science. I would find it easier to dissect a frog or build a computer than read Jane Austen. I wanted to reverse all of that and learn about this vast field I had little knowledge of. The amount of literature I have learned from book blogs, for free, is mind blowing. I follow a great number of blogs and when I get tired of reading too many ' between the wars' books which has been popular with bloggers I began to search out more of the translated fiction from other countries. I also began collecting Penguin books and I love to go in my library and look at the 2000 books there that line my shelves, all in their orange, green, blue and handle them, read some of them, though I don't blog about many of them. I feel Penguin books have led me through a social history of not only the UK but other parts of the world through the authors chosen at the time. I would love to read them all but there are too many other published books I enjoy equally and I tend to get caught up in them as well.

The biggest change in my reading habits is that now a single day doesn't go by that I don't read something but I do get depressed at how much I have missed in the field of literature and how much catching up I have to do. As I'm now in my 60s I am conscious of time going by and how much is out there. It is probably why I enjoy other people's reviews so much because at least I get a flavour of different writing.

PeterKafka on the Shore without a doubt! I've read a number of Murakami's books over the last five years (and liked all of them) but in this book he really weaves the most magical and powerful story imaginable. It also introduced me to the work of an earlier Japanese author Natsume Soseki as the character Kafka reads his works in the private library in which he takes refuge. A book of outstanding invention and with many of the themes that appear in other books by Murakami (cats, music, sexuality, popular culture, suspense, magical realism) coming together perfectly.

Blogging? That's easy! A well known (and much admired) blogger of my acquaintance suggested it to me. I'm not sure it has changed my habits much (although perhaps I read more slightly more thoughtfully now) except that because of it I take part in an on-line book group and thus read books that I might not have chosen for myself.

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

Pam : My guilty pleasure is going into a bookstore and buying a book merely because I love the cover. No idea what the book is about but if the cover appeals I will often buy it. For some reason if there is a cat or a donkey on the cover or it is a European village I may buy it. Fortunately I don't come across many books with donkeys on the cover.   I also love travel books that have an interesting way of seeing the world. I love stories where people travel for months or years on a motorbike, walking, bicycling or with an animal. I have a strong sense of adventure and I assume that comes from all those very young years of only reading the stories of adventurers, inventors and explorers that were available in our small local library. I imagine everything else I would have enjoyed would have been heavily censored by the libraries as they were in the 50s and 60s in the USA. I'm making up for lost time now and loving it. I owe a great deal to the bloggers of the world for opening my eyes.

Peter: I don't have "guilty" pleasures! A surprise? I still read Tove Jansson's Moomin books as I think they (some of them anyway) work well as adult literature as well as the children's books they are generally assumed to be.

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

Peter on Pam's choices I'm not at all sure how to deduce anything about the choices of my "partner". Black Beauty and the love of books with donkeys on the cover might indicate a fascination with horses (and their kin), though Black Beauty is a common enough choice as a favourite children's book. The books by Smith and Wright are both 20th-century US novels set in large US cities; perhaps that indicates a US citizen or at least a greater familiarity with US literature than I have. Interested to read that Penguin Books are a recent favourite; perhaps that also suggests a non-UK domicile. Anyway I'm sure that whoever it is is probably a far better (and far better known) blogger than I am!

Pam on Peter's choices: I won't try to guess the gender of this person but I can't help but think "she" is a "she." I also think I would get along quite well with her because anyone who likes Paddington has a gentle, whimsical side who adores the little animals who live in the forests. I imagine she lives with an animal, either a cat or a small dog. Something not too boisterous.

What comes through the strongest for me is 'her' concern for those weaker people. She believes in justice, fights for the underdog and isn't always afraid to defy authority. No doubt she has had discussions with friends about feminism and how it is interpreted in the world now.

However I think this person has a very quirky sense of humour. Anyone who follows Tove Jansson must have a good sense of humour. I believe this person also enjoys travel and adventure but no doubt likes to read other book blogs especially those that may do a feature of Paris.  There seems to be an enjoyment of European interests perhaps both in travel and reading.  

I think if we were to sit down over a cup of tea or coffee we would talk about how we might like to learn about Asian cultures, read European fiction and then have an admiring comment at anyone who might walk into the cafe in a very quirky outfit and have a bit of a giggle.  Key words to describe 'her' personality are: loyal, whimsical, amusing.


  1. Fascinating. I love the way the answers are interleaved (did you do this before, I don't remember). And Pam, looks like you're doing a great job catching up!

  2. Hoho -- Dark Puss a she! Great stuff, both of you -- love this series and very happy it is back.

  3. Lovely post Simon - and both bloggers' blogs are lovely too!

  4. Nicely done. Pam, you're not alone in suffering from "so many books, so little time," syndrome. :)

  5. So very interesting and one of the annual features of the blog that I particularly enjoy, Simon, thank you. I wonder whether the BBC are planning further programmes in the series.

  6. Well! I am entertained to be thought female, though Pam has most certainly been quite prescient in her final paragraph (including my interest in fashion). She also noted my interests in European culture and travel (mainly Geneva for reasons that will be clear if you read my weblog). I'm also prepared to question (and perhaps defy) authority on any occasion that I think it is wrong or misguided and certainly I have a strong interest in discussions about feminism in the C21. Cats and dogs I don't have any as pets (I live in a small flat) and probably my sense of humour might indeed be described as "quirky" too. Impressed! Thank you Simon for inviting me to take part.

  7. Fascinating reflections from Pam and Peter, and, as Lyzzy Bee said, I would never have guessed Pam was a latecomer to literature. And 'Dark Puss' is always so erudite I imagined someone who enjoyed heavyweight, serious novels - Peter sounds much more human!

    1. Dear Christine, you think I am human do you? Not enough clues in my on-line name and weblog name? Anyway I am certainly male, I do enjoy a vast panoply of novels and I'm pleased you have a more rounded view of me.

    2. You are well disguised Peter, and it was meant as a compliment, even if it didn't sound like it, so I hope I haven't given offence!

    3. Dear Christine, absolutely no offence taken (it never crossed my mind for a second). Thank you very much indeed for the compliment.

      All cats have claws I'm afraid so sometimes my comments appear "spiky".

  8. Peter- how funny I thought you were a "she". I was not familiar with your blog but I will be soon. I was surprised how Peter could tell that I had an American interest/experience but might now be an expatriate as I grew up in the U.S. and moved to Australia 25 years ago where I discovered the Penguin Books. This has been a most interesting experience and Peter, glad to have made your acquaintance. Even if you are a 'He". Fun.

    1. If you are in London, or I in Australia, let us meet up. Thank you for being my "partner". Peter

    2. I would love to be in London. That's a deal.

  9. I am already a fan of Pam's blog, and it's fun to read more about the person behind the blog. On the other hand, I haven't met Peter yet, so I appreciate the introduction!

    1. If I am in Texas, or you are in the UK (or Geneva), do let me know and we can meet in person. Whether you will like my weblog I am less sure!

    2. I'll be in Tennessee for a couple of weeks. Too bad Texas isn't a bit closer.

  10. I love Pam's whimsy of buying a book for its cover. I'm going to try that. I am always too list-oriented-and-spine-scanning in bookshops - I need to get more laid back. Lovely post! I do enjoy this series every year.

  11. Simon, I am SO glad you are running this series again, I do love it so much! Thank you. Reading Dark Puss and Pam has been fun. Dark Puss - do you have a favourite character from the Moomin books?

    1. Dear Helen, what a challenging question!

      I've always admired Little My for her "zest" and down to earth character and Snufkin for his independence and need for periods when he is wandering on his own.

  12. What a fantastic idea. This has given me so many ideas on what else to read. Thank you so much.

    Marianne from Let's Read


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