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!


  1. What a wonderful idea for a series Simon! It's fascinating to read Karen and Susan's choices and hear more about their personal favourites. I share with Susan, A Well-Trained Mind as a directional book when I began home-schooling my daughter. Huge congrats on 12 years of it Susan and so agree the most rewarding of experiences if it works for you and your child.

  2. I am delighted to have been paired with Susan, and honoured to have been asked to take part, so thankyou, Simon!
    And yes, as Ramblingfancy says, congratulations to Susan on home-schooling her children. I did that for a while when we spent a brief time abroad, and I know it is not easy.

  3. This is so much fun Simon and I am looking forwrd to the rest of the series. And it's lovely to get to know Susan a bit better as she is such a faithful commenter on my blog too

  4. Well done to all three of you (Karen, Susan and Simon). Curious lack of science books but I suppose it takes all sorts to make the world go round!

    I look forward to the other pairings.

  5. Hi from the Antipodes. I have long been a lurker in love with your blog but this series has me positively passionate! What a wonderful idea. A few more titles now to add to my "must read list". Thankyou so much

  6. Brilliant start to what promises to be the most exciting week. Loved all the answers. And I'm deeply impressed by Susan's home schooling -- I read a great book on this once which I think was called The Children Who Lived on the Hill? though that might be wrong. Anyway it was really inspiring and something I'd love to have done if time and the need to earn money had allowed.

  7. This series will have me flinging back the bedcovers early this week as I am five hours behind. And no doubt add to my tbr list!

    It was really interesting to read the choices these ladies made, and Karen...I can't resist Mary Portas!

  8. I loved this post and am really looking forward to the rest of the series. Like Karen I read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager (studied it at school) and it is still one of my favourites. And like Susan I loved the Brer Rabbit stories as a child and recently got a copy to read to my son.

  9. I feel so honored to have been paired with Karen - always affectionately referred to at our house as simply, Cornflower. ("Mom, what are you reading with Cornflower this month?") My SIL's favorite book of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird and she, too, is an attorney so it was neat to see that as an inspiration to Karen as well. Thank you so much for letting me share in the fun, Simon. And thank you to all of you bloggers who allow us "non-blogging folk" to participate in the conversations. Can't wait to see who's up next! :)

  10. Ooh, ooh! I LOVE the Hawk and the Dove trilogy (discovered the first one in my teens) and have never met anyone else who knew it! Highly recommended.

  11. This is such a lovely idea and satisfies my nosiness about other people's reading habits! Looking forward to more Simon:)

  12. Oh dear. This is a lot of fun, but I fear I may have been too flip in my assessment of my mystery partner.

  13. Most enjoyable! I like the sound of the Hawk and the Dove trilogy so thanks for mentioning it.

  14. This is an excellent idea. I loved the BBC programme (and I hope they make more).

    It was really great reading the response to the questions. Good to hear more about the people behind the blog.

  15. Simon, Hope you are enjoying Paris! What a great idea. I really enjoyed today's post and look forward to the next ones. Well done to all three of you.

  16. Lovely interviews, Karen and Susan. And by coincidence, that's the second time Brer Rabbit has been mentioned to me today!
    Margaret P

  17. Very cool that Cornflower became a lawyer thanks to Harper Lee! And I think my reading background is very similar to Susan's--lots of library visits and I remember those great scholastic catalogs!


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