Saturday 2 April 2011

My Life in Books: Day Six

Happy weekend one and all, no miscellany or Sunday song this weekend - because we still have four wonderful people who are going to share their lives in books! Over to them (and they are the week's chattiest people! Sadly they were both so enthusiastic that I've had to cut a fair bit from both of them, simply so you're not reading through to next week - but it was painful to cut anything from such wonderful bibliophiles!)

Elaine lives in Colchester, the UK's oldest recorded town. She blogs at Random Jottings and has been made the subject of her very own expression - in some circles, 'doing an Elaine' is slang for voraciously reading all the works of a newly-discovered author one after another.

David lives in Crosby, Liverpool. He is a loyal blog-reader, and tweets @David73277. He's also, I discovered, not over forty... but let's let him choose his books anyway...

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.

: I was not aware of many books in my household as a child and also cannot remember either of my parents reading to me. Though my father was a very clever man he was a mathematician and rarely read any fiction and when he did it was Thomas Hardy, hardly attractive to a child! [Simon: what similar fathers we have!] My mother did not come to reading until later in life.

I don’t know where my love of books came from, but I cannot remember a time when I have not loved reading. My sister, Judith who is five years older than me, read but not hugely and I have a vague recollection of the odd occasion when she read aloud to me. So any reading I did came from my wanting to do so and nowhere else. Favourite books from my childhood are numerous and many and though the literati always despised her, Enid Blyton was one of my favourite childhood authors. I loved her Adventure books best of all though the Famous Five were also favourites. The gift Enid Blyton had in abundance was that she made reading fun, easy and enjoyable so that the junior reader gets in the habit of reading which I think is essential. I think the one childhood book which really stands out is A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. There was an old copy in our house, heaven knows where it came from as nobody laid claim to it, and I discovered it one day and read it through in a sitting and wept and wept and wept through the entire reading. I remember so well Sara Crewe alone in her attic with her doll Emily and longing for her dead father and even now when I read it, as I do as an adult, it brings tears to my eyes. Of course, I now read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult books and they are wonderful too.

David: Mine was not an overly bookish household, though I do remember being read to by my parents and, slightly later, being signed up as a library member. For some reason, my clearest memories of being read to seem to involve the Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves. [Simon: Hurrah!] This may be influenced by having had on my bedroom wall a long poster containing the full cast of characters. At the time I probably identified most strongly with Mr Fussy for all sorts of reasons, not least his obsessive tidiness. It appears that the Mr Men are back on television now, where Mr Fussy appears to have been renamed Mr Pernickety. This seems like quite a long and difficult name for the target audience; or am I being pernickety? In book form, I am pleased to report, he is still Mr Fussy. [Simon: don't get me started on the TV series...]

I was more of a bookish child in the metaphorical rather than the literal sense. I always enjoyed the academic side of school, but with hindsight it seems odd that I loved writing, both in the sense of composition and of putting words on the page, without displaying particular enthusiasm for reading fiction. I followed the news and politics from quite an early age, but my love of fiction came along much later. That's not all that's changed: I now find writing long hand very hard work and, on the rare occasions I do, it is even harder for anyone to actually read it!

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

Elaine: Jane Eyre was the first ‘grown up’ book I read and as I was only eleven at the time, all that was going on in my life was school and homework. I found a new copy on the shelves – it was a small World’s Classic with a red cover and it just felt good in my hands – small and just the right size to slip into a bag. I was very proud of taking such a grown up book out of the library and was even more determined to read it when the librarian, Mrs Collins, asked if I was sure I wanted to read it. Well, read it I did and I found it hard going and skipped a lot of it, but I remember enjoying the first section all about Jane’s childhood and being sent away to school by wicked Mrs Reed and her friendship with Helen Burns. The rest of the book passed me by, as it would at my age, but I re-read it when I was about fourteen and then it gripped me totally and Jane’s cry of equality with Mr Rochester made my hair stand on end and still does now after endless readings. It was a life shaping book for me and started me off on my love of Victorian literature.

David: I didn't become seriously interested in literature until studying for GCSE and then A level. There was a particular lady with connections to Bath whose books were among the first to really work their magic upon me, but I am not going to talk about one of those. It is certainly true that I came to nineteenth century classics long before developing any interest in anything more recent. I first read Anthony Trollope either in the summer after completing my A levels or the summer I finished my degree, I cannot actually remember which. The particular work of his that I would like to highlight is Barchester Towers.

This is the second installment of his five book series set in the fictional southern English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral city of Barchester. It brilliantly satirises the internal politics of the Victorian Church of England, but the reader does not need any prior knowledge of, or indeed interest in, the struggles between the High, Broad and Low Church factions, in order to derive a great deal of pleasure from the scheming of characters like the reforming cleric Mr Slope or the domineering Mrs Proudie. The latter has her husband, the new Bishop of Barchester, well and truly under the thumb. A junior member of the clergy, not strong-enough to resist becoming a pawn in the factional jostelling within the diocese, goes by the fitting name of Mr Quiverful. He is presented with the opportunity of preferment to a wardenship post, a position he very much needs since he has no fewer than fourteen children to support. The extent to which it is ethical to pursue promotion within the church for worldly ends is one of the more serious themes with which this witty novel engages. A reader wishing to ponder this surprisingly topical issue could turn to an economist like Will Hutton but - no disrespect Will - he or she could have much more fun by stepping into Trollope's Barsetshire.

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.

Elaine: At this time I read a lot of books I had missed out on as a child. I still love reading children’s books and it was about this time I read, and I am ashamed to admit I only discovered it in my 20s, Wind in the Willows, the subtleties of which would have passed me by as a child. The friendship between Ratty and Mole and the discovery that life is exciting and rich and full of promise, the bombastic antics of Mr Toad (and don’t we all know a Toad in our lives), the wisdom and grumpiness of Badger and the glorious fight at the end when the Wild Wooders are thrown out of Toad Hall. I simply loved it.

A book which did influence me in one particular direction was A Town Like Alice. My sister was going through a Nevil Shute phase at the time and I picked it up one day, read it and though I don’t think it was the greatest literature in the world, loved the story and, particularly, the second half set in Australia. It instilled in me a wish to visit this country which I have now done, and as you know have just returned again, so I have to say thank you to Nevil for that.

David: Roy Jenkins biography of Victorian British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, was published in 1995, when I was 21. It exemplifies a number of my interests and concerns both in reading and in life: politics, religion, biography, the nineteenth century and, significantly, quality history written for a general audience rather than solely by academics for other academics. I had at this time just completed my History degree. It had been fulfilling and enjoyable, but I had never fully subscribed to the view - popular in academic circles at the time - that historians should position themselves as social scientists, by producing dense publications, heavy on statistics and light on narrative. Gladstone had featured strongly in my studies, so I was already familiar with his life. It was, nevertheless, a pleasure to sit back and enjoy it being told with panache by a someone who had no qualms about being a historian of the old-fashioned story telling school.

Reading this book did not exactly set me off on a certain direction in life - I'm at the latter end of my 30s now and still lacking a sense of direction, but we'll draw a veil over that. Gladstone's religious convictions led him to believe he must devote his life to the service of his fellow men. Initially, he considered taking holy orders, but he later came to believe that he might do more good as a politician - don't laugh, it was more plausible then than it may now appear! Both politics and religion are now regarded with deep suspicion by many, and I suspect that even some believers might be uncomfortable with the extent to which these two fields overlapped in the nineteenth century: the past, as the saying goes, is a different country.

Gladstone is now perhaps best known for the travel bag which took his name; for his "rescue" work with members of the oldest profession; and for addressing Queen Victoria, in her words, 'as though one were a public meeting' - she much preferred the exotic and charming Disraeli. However, what may be of much more interest to Stuck in a Book readers is the fact that Gladstone was a voracious reader. Jenkins tells us, for example, that when recovering from poor health in early August he 1869 his subject was reading Pride and Prejudice and George Eliot's Romala.

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?

: I freely admit to being set in my ways when it comes to reading but one thing blogging has done has made me venture forth into different genres. Not sure that this has been entirely successful but at least I have tried and with the number of books sent to me by publishers I do feel it behoves me to at least try to read them. They are a varied mixture and out of them have come some gems and a few such come to mind. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is one of the books read in the last five years that I absolutely adored from start to finish. An epistolary novel set in the occupied Channel Islands during the Second World War it is witty, wise and heartbreaking.

Resistance by Agnes Humbert is another such gem. True story and diary kept by a member of the French Resistance and tells of her incarceration in a camp throughout the war and the suffering and pain she endured. Her spirit and bravery, as well as her humour, shine through in this stunning book and makes one wonder how we would react if placed in such a situation.

The answer to this particular question could go on for pages and I am trying hard to restrict myself, but I simply have to mention the discovery, somewhat belated, of the Mapp and Lucia books of E F Benson some three years ago which reduced me to tears aging, this time with helpless laughter. HOW had I managed to not read these all these years? HOW? Quite quite wonderful, already re-read three times and has led me to reading others by this author who was, thankfully, incredibly prolific. I am going to stop right here but cannot leave without mentioning Persesphone Books of which I have read some 50+. This publishing house was just made for me as it is clear from the books I have listed above, that my real reading love is for books written in and around the two world wars. I have tried more modern literature, I have tried reading some of the yearly Booker List, but I am a lost soul and freely admit to being a bit of a Stick in the Mud.

David: This is probably the hardest choice to make, not least because reading blogs has introduced me to so many fantastic novels in recent years. Having said that, I'm going to chose a book I don't recall having seen mentioned on a blog, since this seems an ideal opportunity to draw attention to a hidden gem. The book in question is A Bit of Earth by Rebecca Smith who teaches creative writing at Southampton University. It was published in 2006 but I found it in the library in 2008.

Such is the beauty of libraries: they give us the opportunity to a take a chance on books that we might otherwise never come across. We all know that hundreds of libraries are currently under threat in the UK. Much of the campaigning talk in support of libraries has understandably, and rightly, focused on their importance for the less well-off in society, however, I think we should also champion them as resources and centres for the whole community, including those who are lucky enough to have lots of their own books at home. The more of us who use libraries the more likely they are to survive. We should not feel guilty about using them to sample books. If we later go on to buy some of them, then that is money going to retailers, publishers and authors, so even the most uncompromising believers in the primacy of the market should like the sound of that.

Anyway, I really ought to get off my soapbox and tell you what I liked so much about A Bit of Earth. Actually, reference to the battle to save libraries is relevant, because at the centre of this novel is a fight to save a community facility, in this case to prevent some botanic gardens from being built on. The story is about an academic with a young son whose wife is killed in an accident, and how the gardens and the people around them help this shattered family to heal. Commenting on the book on Librarything I wrote: "The idea of the healing power of involvement with nature may not be particularly original, but there is a gentle and wholesome quality to this novel that is quite rare these days." Other reviewers there described it as charming, warm and good-hearted: all qualities that I love to find in a book. I also felt it was important to feature a book by a female author because despite the fact that my other selections have been written by men, female writers do account for a lot of my reading, certainly as regards fiction.

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

Elaine: Mills & Boon. I have recently come out of the closet on my love of these incredibly, wildly, over the top romantic novels. I simply adore them. Man meets woman, they fall in love, something causes a separation and heartbreak, but eventually all misunderstandings are cast aside and all ends happily. I have just finished one today when two lovers, after quarrelling ten years earlier, finally meet up again and marry (her illegitimate child is his son though he does not know it), he goes off to explore the Brazilian jungle (as you do), his plane crashes in the forest and he is pronounced dead. She is pregnant and has another baby and then lo and behold he appears on her doorstep on Christmas Eve having survived in the jungle for months, totally unaware he is a father again and all ends happily. MAGNIFICENT! And yes, we all joke about them and some of them indeed are hilariously awful, but you just try and write one and then write another and keep churning them out every two months.

I used to call this a guilty pleasure but no more. To lie in a soapy bubbly bath, scented candle lit, cup of tea to hand, and wallow and read a Mills & Boon and not leave until it is read and arise out of the bath, not alas like Venus arising from the waves, but more like a pink prune with wrinkled fingers, wrap oneself in a warm dressing gown and then go to bed is one of life’s pleasures which I intend to continue to enjoy.

David: I think the term "guilty pleasure" should be quietly retired, since it suggests we should feel bad about enjoying something that does not find favour with either the arbiters of literary merit or the self-proclaimed guardians of what is "cool". I am not in the least bit guilty about proclaiming Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland Street series of books as one of my most pleasurable reading experiences. Of course, to get the best out of them you really need to read them in published order from the start, but it is the fourth volume in the series,
The World According to Bertie, that I would like to trumpet - although a saxophone would be a more appropriate musical allusion, given that it is the sax which the eponymous heroe, Bertie Pollock, now aged six, was forced to start learning to play, at the age of three or four, by his scarily pushy and opinionated mother, Irene.

Bertie and his mum are, I imagine, the principal stars of this series for most of its fans, but they are just two of a wide cast of characters that includes a portrait artist and his dog named Cyril, an anthropologist, a Glaswegian gangster and, in this particular volume, one of the current descendants of the Jacobite claimants to the thrones of Scotland and England.

Words like gentle and charming, spring to mind once again when describing these books. I also find them very amusing, though I know humour is highly subjective.
I particularly like this fourth book because it is the features the blossoming romance between art dealer Matthew and the delightfully named primary school teacher Elspeth Harmony. Commenting on this series on Lyn's I Prefer Reading blog, I wrote: "I'm an Elspeth fan too but I'd best not say too much about that since it might not be an entirely healthy thing for a grown up to admit to becoming besotted with a fictional character!"

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

David, about Elaine's choices: I think that the person who chose this books is a romantic at heart who had a happy childhood and remains in touch with her inner child, continuing to enjoy Wind in the Willows. Based on the inclusion of both Jane Eyre and Mills & Boon, I would stick my neck out and suggest she is a member of the National Trust who likes to visit stately homes, where she dreams of being swept off her feet by the ruggedly handsome lord of the manor. Reading blogs has given her a taste for gentle fiction, either set or written in the first half of the twentieth century.

Elaine, about David's choices: As I love the Mr. Men and read them to my children, I would think anybody who loves these has a sense of humour and is not ashamed to admit that he/she has a soft spot for books of their childhood. As a lover of Anthony Trollope all I can say is that anybody who likes this book has a fine mind and is a kindred spirit! I find Victorian history fascinating and remember Gladstone well. An interest in political history and this book in particular would make me think we have a good inquiring reader here with powers of concentration as this is quite a hefty tome and needs staying power. As a fellow history lover I would feel in good congenial company. Ah, and the lover of McCall Smith's books would have a sense of the ridiculous and the whimsical and, at the same time, would probably have a soft heart and a warm sense of humour


  1. David, are you familiar with St Deniol's - in Hawarden Wales Gladstone's home village - near the border, close to where he lived. It's a Library Hotel and was founded by Gladstone. St Deniol has his books - he decided Oxford had enough books.

    He "acquired 33,000 books and, somehow, found time to plough through 22,000 of them. We know this because he also took a moment to keep fastidious notes of every book he read."

  2. Ooops, I meant to add the url -

  3. Elaine: Soooo Happy to 'meet' another fan of Mapp and Lucia. You should know that re-reading those books (sometimes regularly, as once a year) is a very common thing among many other fans.

  4. Hi Nancy

    I've used St Deniol's on a couple of occasions - a clergy reading week and a couple of days preparing to move from Merseyside to Worcestershire. However the name has now gone - it is now officially known as Gladstone's Library.

  5. What can I say -- this has to be the most brilliant blogging series ever. Equally delightful whether you are recognising old favorites or discovering new ones. Thanks, Simon.

  6. David - used to be a member of the National Trust so you are correct there, but left some time ago after discovering that properties bequeathed to them were being flogged off to developers.

    The idea of being swept off one's feet by the dashing owner of a stately home is an alluring one, but two marriages and two divorces have now put paid to that romantic fantasy which is probably why I enjoy M&B. All the romance I need but no socks to wash after and no meals to cook.

    Simon had to cut my ramblings and I had mentioned that since blogging I have tried to come up to date and read more modern novels a la Booker, Costa, Orange et al and have failed miserably.

    Seems to me that the dissection of human foibles, portrayal of hypocrisy and weakness and humour too, is done just as well, if not better in the novels of Trollope, Dickens, Austen and thus renders the Rushdies and the Amis of this world superfluous.

    Feel free to disagree, call me a stick in the mud and a narrow reader - many others have done this in polite and not so polite terms but I am an unashamed recidivist and I Don't Care!!!!!

  7. Elaine, I'll certainly disagree with your hypothesis but I hope in the most dashing and charming way.

    Surely you have a rather reductionist view of "modern" literature"? Why not abandon Austen, Dickens, Trollope for the great writers of the 17th and 18th C, or the Classical Greek era? They also cover human foibles, portrayal of hypocrisy and weakness and humour with unsurpassed skill. So do many writers who are still young today.

    I doubt if you are narrow (in the sense narrow-minded) and I'm not going to quarrel with your choice of favourite authors, just the hypothesis that it isn't done well today.

    Thank you for letting us read your answers to Simon's questions.

  8. "I doubt if you are narrow (in the sense narrow-minded) and I'm not going to quarrel with your choice of favourite authors, just the hypothesis that it isn't done well today"

    Dark Puss - perhaps my choice of words was not clear. I, personally, find modern authors, on the whole, justnot my cup of tea BUT I do not argue that 'it isn't done well today'. Sure they are, just that they are not for me. My daughters say I make sweeping statements and dismiss genres of reading/music etc which I do not understand and I am not going to disagree with them on that, but just as sitting listening to Philip Glass and Schoenberg brings me no pleasure, so with modern authors. The fault is with me, not them.

    Took me years to like Mozart for heaven's sake - so, yes I am set in my ways, but have tried over the last few blogging years to read more and I have though I may not go on about it much. In 2006 I carried out Elaine's Personal Challenge which was to read one book a month written by a modern author. I succeeded and enjoyed what I discovered so perhaps I might try it again....

  9. Please see my post just up on Random re this:

  10. Thank you for having me, Simon. I could hardly spot the edits; which either suggests I have a poor memory or that you are quite a skilled editor.

    Elaine, thank you for such a positive and friendly assessment of my choices. The childhood stuff was more a product of Simon's questions. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't mention anything I read before the age of sixteen. I'm pleased I wasn't too far of the mark in summing up what your choices suggested about you. I for one agree wholeheartedly that if reading is your hobby then you should read what you want, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.

    Thanks to Nancy for mentioning St. Deniols. I have been to Hawarden but not to the library. Nor was I aware that it has now changed its name, so thanks for bringing me up to date, OV.

  11. Loved reading all the things said by David and Elaine here. And was excited to see the illustration to the edition of Jane Eyre I grew up reading. My parents had this and Wuthering Heights with the same intense woodcuts and I have them now and will have to go look at them again. I do appreciate well illustrated books and wish there were more now.

  12. haha The Mill & Boon made me laugh. My firend loves these so every year I buy her a few for christmas. I buy them online so I dont have the embarrassment of buying them in person ;)

  13. I just realised after reading Elaine's post that this was similar to My Life in Books on telly a few weeks ago! Duh! I loved that series and it's brilliant that you're introducing us to what your friends are reading Simon.

  14. Another delightful pair of reading lives. And, more titles to add to the list...

  15. I have responded to Elaine's thoughtful reply to my comment upon her weblog here.

  16. I am enjoying this series of interviews Simon, and am going to go out on a limb and say I'm far more interested in the readers you've had than I was by the tv version or than I am by author interviews.

  17. Regarding Gladstone's Library - I found this bit of info. interesting - & thought Simon might as well:

    "Every book is catalogued according to a system devised by Gladstone, who was a nerdy advocate of three-sided shelves and also came up with the space-saving brainwave of sliding stacks in libraries, which he first suggested to the Bodleian in Oxford."

  18. More delights, here, so thanks to Elaine, David and Simon.

  19. Simon, Thank you for a wonderful series. A visit to my local "Hard to Find" Bookshop is on my list for next Saturday - as a pleasure not a chore - and I will go equipped with a long list of titles garnered from your blog.

  20. I always think of you Elaine, when a copy of Resistance comes across the counter at the library.

    So enjoying this series, Simon!

  21. Darlene - thank you! and the more often that book is borrowed the better

  22. How lovely to hear more about a well known blogger and a loyal commenter on my blog too! I love your takes on each others answers.


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