Friday 1 April 2011

My Life in Books: Day Five

Happy Friday, one and all. Still lots of wonderful choices to come in My Life in Books - hasn't it been fun so far? Maybe you've been thinking up your own choices... I'd love to see other people try this out on their blogs. Let me know if you've posted your own choices!

Thomas lives in Washington, and blogs at My Porch. Of course, I love all the folk who've chosen books this week, but I especially love Thomas' blog and his witty, sensitive, and occasionally wry look at a great range of books.

Annabel lives in Oxfordshire, and is known to the blogging world as Gaskella. She and I first 'met' when we shared quotations on the back of Angela Young's wonderful novel Speaking of 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.

Thomas: I perceived that I grew up in a book-loving household, but it may not have been so. I remember my dad read fairly often, and my mom traded paperbacks with other women. It was certainly enough for me to recognize that reading was something worth doing, but we didn't have lots of books in the house by any means. But we did live two blocks from the library where I spent a lot of time. When I first contemplated which book would stand out from my youth I immediately thought of The Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert. As I thought more about it, I realized it was an early example of my attraction to housekeeping novels with a cozy twist. Post-war Germany, family living on a farm in two old railroad cars. If you have any doubts, just check out the cover art of the copy I read as a child.

Annabel: Yes – our house was always full of books. My parents read to us from a big book of 365 bedtime stories, but as an early reader, once I was onto proper books I read by myself avidly. The weekly visit to the library was a weekend ritual, and I still have my pile of Puffin paperbacks of many children’s classics. Alice in Wonderland was one of the ones I returned to frequently – I loved the sheer fantasy of it all and wished I could have such wonderful adventures. I love the way that Alice stands up to everyone including the Queen of Hearts in that childlike way that questions everything. I love the inventive language too – I can still recite ‘Jabberwocky’ which I memorised as a child.

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?

Thomas: The first "grown-up" book I read was trash. It was Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews. Pulp fiction about kids forced to live in an attic with a little incest thrown in. I was probably about 12 when I read it. Definitely not meant for my age group. The first "serious" grown-up book was A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White. Although a classic of gay fiction, it was a little over my head at 15. Still, I was eager for anything with a gay theme.

Annabel: It’s not the first, but this is one of my earliest grown-up reads that always sticks out in my mind -
Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov. My Dad & I always ran the bookstall at the Guides jumble sale, and I got it there. It was the first proper Science Fiction book I read and was responsible for an enduring love of that genre – I read nothing but SF and fantasy as a student an in my early twenties. Fantastic Voyage was foremost an adventure, and was full of pacy thrills – could the microminiaturised submarine finish its healing job inside a man’s body in time before the effect wears off? Turns out Asimov wrote the novelisation of the film, not the original story, but I still loved it.

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.

Thomas: I remember many from 20s that I loved, but in terms of books that had an effect on my life (at least at the time) I would have to say A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I avoided reading it because it didn't seem like my kind of book. But I finally gave in and loved it. It also helped me get control of my life in a kind of roundabout, but very important way.

Annabel: TV adaptations of modern classics were probably responsible for bringing me back to reading ‘proper books’ again. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which the BBC televised in 1985, really struck a chord with me. Having holidayed in many of that book’s locations – the mountains above Montreux (where there really is a famous sanitarium), and the Riviera, I found that real sense of place gave an added dimension. As with Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises I got a rather vicarious pleasure and sense of schadenfreude reading about all these posh folk gadding about, getting drunk, and seeming to be waiting for life to happen to them, rather than the other way around.

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?

Thomas: Such a tough question. I could never name just one book. Authors who have come into my life in the last five years who I think are brilliant include May Sarton and Barbara Pym. And then I would have to include the entire Persephone List, which has been, by far, the most important discovery for me. Although does it count as a discovery if it was other bloggers that led me to it? The biggest change from blogging and reading book blogs is that I am now more likely to listen to bloggers than people I actually know when it comes to fiction.

Annabel: Since I started my blog, one of the things I’m particularly enjoying is reading some amazing teen and young adult books. The best of which differ only from novels for grown-ups in that the main protagonists tend to be younger, (and there’s less swearing and risqué bits). The quality of the writing can be top-notch. Marcus Sedgwick and Philip Reeve have been amazing discoveries, and Reeve just gets in first with Here Lies Arthur – a retelling of King Arthur’s story as seen by Merlin’s apprentice – and it’s all spin, no magic. Very brave and different – and it won him a Carnegie Medal.

Blogging has and hasn’t changed my reading habits. I was a member of a book group for years before I started blogging, so I’ve always read a diverse range of books (except for during my SF/Fantasy phase above). Quantity-wise I’m fairly consistent too. What has changed is the way I now think so much more about what I read - I don’t want to write too much rubbish on the blog! I also get many recommendations from reading other blogs, and it’s wonderful to have made so many blog-friends through books.

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

: There is nothing I read that I would consider a guilty pleasure. Bad TV. Now that is a guilty pleasure.

Annabel: I’m never embarrassed by any of the books I read, but there is a time and a place for devouring a ludicrous thriller – get the right setting and even Dan Brown can be a fun read. However my guilty pleasure is far better than that – being a teenager in the 1970s, I’ve more or less grown up with James Bond. My first Bond books came from the Guides jumble sales too and I still love them. I was surprised when I re-read Casino Royale a couple of years ago – the first Bond book in which he gets his licence to kill, but he doesn’t start off as quite the bastard he will later become!

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

Annabel, about Thomas' choices: Shockingly I've only read one of these choices myself (Owen Meany, which I enjoyed), although I've been intending to read Barbara Pym for ages. Flowers in the Attic was such a shocker, everyone was reading it. I was on my Science Fiction kick by then and resisted, but it was the book to read. Everyone needs to watch some bad television - it's very therapeutic. This is an interesting set from someone who obviously has read widely throughout their life.

Thomas, about Annabel's choices: I have only read the Fitzgerald so I think we may have very different reading interests. I am prone to say she is mid-twenties and definitely likes to read about other worlds. From Alice's fantasy to science fiction to the world of 007. Even Tender is the Night is a world that most of us can only really see from the outside. Based on these choices I am going to go out on a limb and suggest she might like Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey (not Peter Carey). [Simon: Oo, I think she might - I *love* Edward Carey too.]


  1. This is a fantastic feature Simon. I have been off-line for a few days and I just now read all of the entries. Thank you so much! Great questions!

  2. I meant to add I thought I was reading the choices of a woman who was about the same age as me (50) and well-travelled, so I'm delighted that Thomas thinks I'm younger! Thank you Thomas - and I'll definitely look up Edward Carey. Thank you Simon too for a fab feature all week - it's been brilliant.

  3. hey! i love your my life in books..
    like you, im stuck in a book too, always!
    i will post something like it too in my blog one of these days..
    followed you.. pls check out my blog. and follow if u want to. i blog about books, fashion and music ((:

  4. Another great installment...I was hoping that Thomas was going to pop up!

  5. I might be one of those having trouble posting. I already left a comment, this one supersedes the first. :) Annabel have you seen the film the book was based on? I saw it many times as a kid. So much fun.

  6. Thomas - I've ordered the Edward Carey - sounds right up my street! Thank you.
    Not quite sure which film you were referring to though ...

  7. Thomas, you've got me interested in The Ark, which I've never heard of. Oddly enough, VC Andrews came up in our house this week when one of the kids asked what was the "weird" kind of book that was popular in my day (like vampires are for them). And, how can one forget Owen ALLCAPS Meany. :)
    Annabel, you've got me really curious about the Arthur book, so I'm adding that one to my list. I, too, after growing up on the movies, just recently read Casino Royale for the first time.
    Simon, this "feature" is worth all the time you had to have put into it - thank you, again!
    Happy weekend!

  8. Such fun to read! And I loved seeing a copy of the Ark, just like the one I used to check out of the library and read. Susan E

  9. Simon, This was such a great idea. I'm just catching up now. Thomas - Flowers in the Attic was my first grown up book too. I also read it at 12 and maybe that's why it's kind of unforgettable.

  10. Sorry for being vague about the film Annabel. The 1960s version of Fantastic Voyage with Raquel Welch.

  11. Thomas - I loved the film of Fantastic Voyage too, one of those Sci-Fi classics from that era - Donovan's brain (book even better than film), The Man with X-Ray Eyes, and The Incredible Shrinking Man - all brilliant too.


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