Sunday 3 April 2011

My Life in Books: Day Seven

Well, folks, we've reached the end of the Week of Lives - just two more readers to share their choices. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers who participated this week (and the two people who turned down the opportunity very politely!) I didn't expect - although perhaps I should have done - such a brilliant range of titles, and lovely personal anecdotes too. Thank you so, so much! But it's not over yet - let's hear from our final two readers... and don't forget to let me know if you've done My Life in Books on your own blogs.

lives in Oxford, and blogs at the efficiently-named Harriet Devine's Blog. She is the author of several books, including a wonderful memoir Being George Devine's Daughter.

Nancy lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is a lovely reader of blogs. She also often sends me pictures and videos of cats, which are always welcome!

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.
Harriet: Yes, I did grow up in a book loving household, and, though she taught me to read before I was five, my mother loved to read to me and I loved to be read to. Many of the books we read were ones she had as a child – The Secret Garden, all of E. Nesbit – but when I was very tiny my favorites were the beautiful little books of Beatrix Potter. I could have picked almost any one of these but I was particularly fond of The Tale of Tom Kitten. It’s such a perfect story – Mrs Tabitha Twitchett dressing up her three children in “elegant, uncomfortable clothes” and giving them strict instructions to stay clean and out of trouble, which of course they absolutely do not. The illustrations are so perfect, too – Tom with his buttons bursting off, the ducks waddling off wearing the kittens’ clothes. I must have read this hundreds of times, to myself and to generations of children, but it still makes me smile with total delight.
Nancy: Hmmmm, that's hard to answer. We lived out in a small community, 20 miles from a town of any size (where I went to high school and college) and I don't remember going to any bookstores there. Though the reading textbooks were not supposed to leave the classroom - they sat on a shelf except when in use - I always managed to sneak them into my satchel and take them home. We were not supposed to be reading ahead, and take up each story as a class - but I could never wait. Once I got to high school there was a great library. I read before and after school (waiting on my ride), at lunch, in study hall, even in class, and into the night. Many times, I read a book a day.
Back to my childhood in the 1940s: I remember my parents reading a lot of magazines, the sort with stories - my mother kept a subscription to Redbook for many years, especially for the story. I cannot call up a mental image of being read to but I must have been, since I would have been since I would have been unable to read them myself. The only books I remember owning are the Little Golden Books - The Shy Little Kitten, The Poky Puppy, Tootle, and The Saggy Baggy Elephant - which are for sale again, so I have bought new copies of them. There were also the Little Big Books (I think they were called, or perhaps Big Little Books), chunky, blocky shaped - I had Little Orphan Annie and my brother had Dick Tracy in that format. There were a couple of other books that I can't call up right now. Here's the sad part, I did not know about books by Beatrix Potter or A.A. Milne or Kenneth Grahame until I was an adult!

Qu. 2) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?
Harriet: Believe it or not, this was William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and I read it when I was about ten years old. Both my parents were in the theatre – my mother a designer, my father an actor and director – so I was used to seeing a lot of plays, sometimes several times if I got dumped at the back of the stalls during rehearsals. Around this time they both started working at Stratford on Avon, where my father directed a production of this play. For some reason I became fascinated by it, and got hold of the big red hardback Arden edition he’d been using to work on it. I was immediately hooked, not just by reading Shakespeare’s words but also by the fact that there were notes at the bottom of each page, explaining difficult words, offering alternative readings, providing background references. My first introduction to literary scholarship and obviously, in the end, hugely influential.
Nancy: When I was in about grades 7 or 8 through 9, I made my uncle who lived with us join a book club so I could pick out the books and of those, I remember two - Not as A Stranger by Morton Thompson (was made into a movie) and another one about an alcoholic newspaper editor (also made into a movie). I was quite taken with the one about the editor, and thought I might like to be an editor one day. This uncle wasn't much older than my brother and I, he had a medical discharge from the Navy (rheumatoid arthritis) and was in a wheelchair, not able to go out on his own. With not much he could do, he read a lot of magazines, would regularly order all the current "men's magazines" from the local cafe. I read those too - you know (or most probably don't) the "I was held captive by a tribe of Amazon women" sort - or war stories. Yup. That made up a good bit of my reading material until I was in high school.

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.

: I didn’t go to university until I was in my thirties, which in some ways was probably quite a good thing, as I think I was a lot more dedicated and hard-working than I’d have been at the “right” age. When I was a postgraduate student, I was asked to give some lectures as part of a new course on women’s writing, and one of them was to be on Jane Austen. I’d probably read all Austen’s novels by then but I re-read them with a new angle in mind – could Austen be called a feminist writer? In my lecture I discussed all the novels, but the one I focussed my main argument on was Mansfield Park.
Many people will say this is their least favourite, and many people will say they dislike Fanny Price for her weakness, her fainting fits, her strict morality. But my argument – and I still stand by it – is that this is precisely the point. Fanny is marginalised in every possible way. A poor relation, she is treated almost with contempt by most of the family who have taken her in, but my goodness does she have the strength to stand by her beliefs and principles, even when she’s being abused for doing so. You see this most clearly when she astonishes and upsets them all by refusing to marry Henry Crawford, but it’s evident throughout, and by the end she proves to be the only member of the household to have got it all right, and everyone finally recognises it. So that was my argument for Austen’s feminism – women may be outwardly powerless and severely put-upon, but they have incredible inner strength and that’s what really matters when the chips are down. I expect I put it rather better than that at the time. But in any case all this did set me off in a certain direction, as what I suppose you could call that of a feminist literary historian.
Nancy: One book that stands out in my mind when I was 21 (summer of 1962, just out of college) was Hawaii by James Michener. I got it from the bookmobile - and with nothing else to do, read it during all the waking hours of two or three days. Now, that's a big book. Then, in 1974 (age 33), I read another book by Michener, The Source - and liked it so much I thought I'd be reading other books by him but I never did. I loved how that book was laid out, alternating chapters following story lines from different ages in time for the same locale. I don't know that either of those books set me off in any particular direction in life but they are the two that I remember the most, that made the most impact.

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?
Harriet: This is a really hard question because, to answer the second part of the question first, blogging has caused me to read so many more books and I’ve really loved a number of them. But one particular strand of that reading that’s really blossomed is my developing interest in books by women writers of the early to mid twentieth century. And here I must speak up for Emily Hilda (or EH) Young, a writer who has been astonishingly overlooked in recent years and is well overdue a revival. The first one of hers that I read, for my reading group, was Miss Mole (1930), and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Hannah Mole is very much subject to the times in which she lived. Intelligent, witty, perceptive, she is also poor and disadvantaged. Her only means of support is the jobs she has to take as a companion to generally unpleasant old women, from which she frequently gets sacked for insubordination. Her sharp, often cynical, sense of humour has always got her through, but at nearly forty she is keenly aware of the grim future that potentially awaits her when she is too old to get another place. But when she takes a job in a family, she transforms not only their lives but her own into the bargain. Young writes with wit, intelligence, and astonishing perceptiveness about people, their peculiarities and their interactions. Wonderful stuff.

Nancy: The Espionage! Books by Alan Furst - his last ten, published between 1983-2010. As for book blogs, I love reading about the books that everyone else is reading - and have read a number of ones featured (your blog, Cornflower, and dovegreyreader), but not a lot. I seldom, if ever, read new books (other than Furst's), especially not the "best sellers" - prefer books from the same time period as you. My reading habits - other than espionage (about the only fiction I read) - fall mostly into books by authors about themselves, such as letters, diaries, autobiographies - have always been interested in the lives of authors and how they work (especially E.F. Benson and Virginia Woolf). And then, of course, I love the Mapp and Lucia books and the Provincial Lady books.

Qu. 5) For your final choice - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!
Harriet: I don’t think anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, will be in the least surprised to hear that my guilty pleasures always take the form of crime novels. Whether I’m on the plane, or on the beach, or down in the dumps, or not very well, or just in need of some light relief, out come the detectives. Sometimes it’s the classics – Allingham, Marsh, even Christie – but here I’m speaking up for Steig Larsson and his astonishing Millennium trilogy. I got hold of an audio book of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last summer and was absolutely rivetted. Yes, there’s violence, and yes, many upsetting things happen, and I know people who have hated these books because of it. But, for me, the combination of complex, interwoven plots, fascinating political and social skullduggery, and complicated, intelligent characters was an absolute winner. Above all I was entirely enthralled by the Girl herself, Lisbeth Salander – brilliant, difficult, damaged, with her own strict, though highly unconventional, morality. I loved every minute of all three of these and, if by chance anyone hasn’t read them, I’d say – don’t listen to the skeptics and the cynics – give them a go!
Nancy: I don't know if this qualifies as a guilty pleasure since it isn't actual reading, but what (in the last couple of years now) has kept me from reading as much as I used to: I am firmly Addicted to Sudoku. When I am not up and out and about - or at the computer - I have a book of Sudoku puzzles in my hands. I end the day (wee hours) with it and begin my day with it (lie abed way too much). And, when I say "addiction," it is just that - cannot be without it, take it with me if I will have to wait anywhere or if I am away overnight - just as I used to take a book along. This is what retirement was done to me! Other than Sudoku, my interest is solidly in books, bookstores, libraries, and online - and my two grandsons (19 years and 9 months), of course.

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

Nancy, about Harriet's choices: I love that the co-participant lists Tom Kitten and I wish I could have met Beatrix Potter's characters in my childhood. I was never introduced to Shakespeare anywhere along the line, so have no idea here. Mansfield Park and Miss Mole lead me to believe the co-participant is much, much younger than I. The Larson book: not put off by the violence there, but unsure whether others would approve(??) I loved all three movies, by the way. This was very difficult!

Harriet, about Nancy's choices
: This is obviously someone with a great interest in history, which is a feature of both the travel book and the spy series. In fact even though Woolf and Benson are mentioned, it's for their letters and biographies rather than their novels. Since Not as a Stranger is a medical drama, I wondered if this person might have become a doctor? In any case it's a person with a strong factual bias and a liking for problem solving (spies/sudoko). I'm going to really stick my neck out here and say I suspect this list belongs to a man! [Simon: oops, maybe you shouldn't have stuck your neck out!]


  1. Harriet - I recently read Miss Mole and LOVED it. Also another discovery, post will be up this week, is The Third Miss Symons by EF Mayor. Another marvellous find.

    And I am so with you on your feelings about Fanny and Mansfield Park. The only character in the entire book who sticks to her guns. the more I read it, the more I love it

  2. Harriet, I wonder sometimes if the Beatrix Potter books are getting overlooked these days. It seems (over here anyway) that more people decorate with them than actually read them. They are such treasures!
    Nancy - a fellow Michener fan here. :) My grandfather introduced me to him when I was a teenager, and I read my way through his work in my college/young adult years.
    Simon, sad that it is coming to an end, but have so appreciated the whole week!

  3. Oops indeed -- sorry, Nancy! Elaine, I read The Third Miss Symons the other day -- haven't blogged about it yet. Glad to see we agree on Miss Mole and Fanny Price

  4. An excellent last episode. Simon well done for taking up the mantle for this, I hope you do it again sometime.

    It was interesting to read about everyone's choices and the background and it evoked some memories for me and made me think about what books stick out for me throughout my life so far.

  5. I'm sorry this fascinating series of posts has reached its end - at least for now, as perhaps you'll do more another time, Simon?

  6. I have enjoyed them too. Dear Cornflower, why not take up the mantle yourself and manage the next set of pairings?


  7. Dear Cornflower and Dark Puss. Speaking as Simon's Mum, I wholeheartedly agree - he loved doing this but there is the small matter of his research studies which ought to get a bit of time now!!! (Not that he ever shirked them... but there are only so many hours in a day!)
    Don't you just love us talking about you over your head Simon?

  8. Oh mother! But, Karen, I would be very happy for you (or anyone else) to take up the idea sometime - I did steal it from the BBC, after all, so I'm not protective about it ;) Plus I think I ran out of suitable bloggers! There must be lots more, but few which came to my mind...

  9. How wonderful to be exposed to the theatre in such an intimate way, Harriet. And I am thrilled to read another glowing recommendation for Miss Mole having just discovered a copy a few weeks ago.

  10. How could anyone not be totally addicted to research? Well I think it means Simon is more "human" than I ever was. I gave up practically all other activities to pursue my search for charm!

  11. I can think of a lot more bloggers who would be happy to do this. I am happy to do a few if you would like me to. No studies for me of courses! Let me know what you think. I would be most interested to ask these questions, slightly amended, to younger bloggers to see how their reading lives are shaping up.

  12. Another very interesting pairing. I worry like Susan in TX that Beatrix Potter is loved mainly for her nursery decorating potential today rather than her wonderful words. Mind you I have been guilty of buying a few of the old-fashioned figurines and children's china sets myself! How many children increased their vocab and learnt to read with those wonderful books though? I loved Nancy's "I was held by a tribe of Amazon women" recollection! Not presumably a path she's taken in her own life. Just goes to show it doesn't really matter what you read when young, just that you read :)

  13. I loved the contrast between these two readers and how their book choices demonstrate that a passion for reading will come about through whatever reading materials are at hand.

    When I re read MP I will certainly look at Fanny in a different light.

    Thank you


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