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!


  1. I'm so enjoying reading all these posts, so thankyou again Simon, and now I know Litlove's real name!

  2. Another wonderfully entertaining post by two bloggers I much admire. I love Victoria's comment about crime fiction creating security for the reader and absolutely agree -- happy that this justifies my own liking for the genre.

  3. I enjoyed the idea of Victoria's mother saying 'wait a year'. I wonder how many mothers 'lose' books for a season and then miraculously rediscover them when their child is old enough to read without adverse effects. It's a ploy I was once guilty of - oops! That's given the game away! Glad Simon isn't around to read this ;-)

  4. While being scared as a child is certainly not funny, I have to say that I laughed at Agatha Christie being banned from Victoria's reading list.

    Another two very entertaining profiles!

  5. I am now feeling so guilty for thinking Lisa was a man! Just goes to show you really shouldn't read anything into people's book choices!! Although she was quite right that I like films in translation.

    1. Hmmm, how interesting to re-read this given our discussions about gendered reading recently?


      The cat who claims he is a man.

  6. I loved Richard Scarry's books as a child and I also ventured into Christie territory at a young age (9) but didn't get nightmares (but I rarely do). I'll be checking out The Reader and litlove has also reminded me that I need to go back and read some more Duras! Wonderful post:)

  7. Lovely idea Simon--I'm just catching up now. I loved both Paddington Bear and that exact Richard Scarry book--like Lisa I read it until it fell apart!

  8. I'm really enjoying these posts - and lots of the books mentioned have "sent me off down Memory Lane." :) My brother had a Richard Scarry book that was completely worn out. And I too, appreciated Victoria's mother - there've been quite a few books that I've told my kids to "wait" on. It makes getting to them later twice the fun when they can actually appreciate them. Thanks again, Simon, for doing this.

  9. Good to see Ian Rankin getting a mention. I don't think I would get on very well with Rebus if he were real, and I would certainly prefer to stay out of the way of the crooks he encounters, nevertheless I've long enjoyed this series. I think it might have something to do with the author's intelligent voice, perhaps combined with the Edinburgh setting.

  10. Another great post! Very interesting, I agree about the crime fiction. I think similar.

  11. Another Colette enthusiast! I too loved Paddington (we are pretty much of the same era) and it spoke of a mysterious city about which I knew little. I now know it rather better of course having lived in London for 30 years.


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