Monday 29 October 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day One

Jackie has been blogging at Farm Lane Books for many years, and we almost never agree on any book!  I'm looking forward to seeing what she chooses...

John blogs at The Asylum, which recently leapt over the coveted 1,000,000 blog views statistic (but he doesn't want to talk about it!  This is where I should point out that I write these introductions...)

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.

Jackie: I didn’t grow up in a book loving household. I don’t remember seeing either of my parents reading a book, although I know my Dad read two or three thrillers a year. My parents encouraged me to read by taking me to the library at regular intervals, but I never had any guidance over what to read and so picked books off the shelf at random. This meant that I didn’t read many classics and most of the books had little impact on me. The few books that did feel important were all chosen by teachers as part of my English lessons. A particular favourite was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien which ignited my passion for dystopian fiction. I loved the central character, a girl forced to survive by herself after a nuclear holocaust killed her entire family. Her resourcefulness and courage was inspiring.

John: Neither of my parents read much when I was a child - I certainly never saw them sitting down with a book - but I was encouraged to read. We had one of those World of Knowledge-type encyclopedia sets which I used to curl up with. The only fiction I remember seeing at home (in my father's bedside cupboard, not out on display) were Henri Charrière's Papillon and Spike Milligan's Puckoon.

I also don't remember being read to, though I can't say for sure. One of my favourite childhood books was Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved its playfulness and trickery - qualities I still admire - and its joy in exploring letters and numbers was catnip to a little geek like me.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Jackie:When I was about 16 I fell in love with William Horwood‘s Duncton Wood series. Each book was about 750 pages long and I was proud of myself for reading something with so many pages. The books follow a group of moles on a epic adventure, but although it sounds like a children’s book it definitely isn’t - there is enough rape, murder and torture to classify firmly that this is an adult novel. I think this series is a modern classic and am surprised it isn’t more well known. At the time I was living in the Lake District, enjoying an outdoor life involving canoeing, walking and lots of camping. I think this is the reason that this story set in the great outdoors resonated with me so much.

John: I didn't read much adult fiction until my late teens, in my last year or two at school. Before then it was stuff like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett: written for adults, yes, but highly appealing to younger readers.

The first two adult authors I really loved - and whose backlists I devoured - were John Irving and Iain Banks, when I was aged 17 or 18 (1990 or '91). Banks's Walking on Glass was recommended by a schoolfriend - I was doing my A-levels at the time. I adored its hard-to-connect mysteries (again, a quality I still admire) and went on to read all his novels: he'd written only five by then.

John Irving I stumbled on after being drawn by the armadillo cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which had just come out in paperback in the summer of 1990. Again I raced through his other novels, and I particularly remember sneaking quick reads of The Cider House Rules in my A-level Physics class, and behind the counter in the clothing store where I worked at weekends for the princely sum of £9.50 a day! I remember sneaking a new Irving into the house past my mum, knowing that I shouldn't be spending what little money I had on more books. Now I sneak new books into the house past my wife. Plus ca change!

Oddly, Banks and Irving are both authors whose new books I don't seek out any more. I think they might be the opposite of an acquired taste, though I still have a great deal of affection for the ones I read back then.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Jackie: I read very little in early adulthood - having to work whilst doing a demanding chemistry degree meant I had very little free time. I got married straight after graduation and my husband and I bought a house together in Newcastle. Once there I started work as an analytical chemist and began reading again, although probably only about 10 books a year. During this time I was almost totally reliant on the Richard and Judy Book Club for my reading suggestions. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was a favourite - I loved the romance and tragedy of it all.

John: I might have answered this above. But another of the first adult books I bought - again in 1990 - was Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Like Walking on Glass, it's a fractured novel told in stories - arguably not a novel at all. I think those two books, looking back, were quite structurally adventurous ones to read as some of my earliest grown-up fiction, and might have forged my tolerance for non-traditional narratives. Another early favourite, Jeanette Winterson, whose terrific Sexing the Cherry I read a year or two later, and which I've reread probably more than any other book, is in the same boat. Both she and Barnes - who I think gets slightly unfair press - remain high on my personal league table.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Jackie: I started blogging shortly after the birth of my second son - I was at home on my own and needed something to occupy my brain. I never expected to still be writing it four years later, but it has become a bit addictive. My knowledge of books has grown immeasurably and I have found a whole world of literature that I was previously unaware of. I now read a range of different books from across the globe and no longer rely on the blurbs of random books in my local library. I have also become more aware of the literary prizes and this led me to read my favourite book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is set in India during the 1970s, a turbulent time for the country. It is a bleak, but inspiring tale that explains the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens of the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

John: Too many to choose from, but I'll plump for Maeve Brennan's story collection The Springs of Affection - out of print in the UK (predictably), but far more deserving of attention than many new books I see. The best stories are the half-dozen about Rose and Hubert Derdon, a Dublin couple in the mid-20th century. Frustration, friction and stasis have never been so beautifully put. William Faulkner, fiction editor of the New Yorker where Brennan worked for much of her life, said, "as a study of one kind of unhappy marriage, these stories are surely definitive." And who would dare to disagree?

I came to blogging in early 2007, having been a member of various book forums for years. I wanted a place of peace and quiet to think - hence Asylum. I think the exchange of ideas and recommendations that bloggers engage in has led me to read (a) more books in translation, and (b) more books by women, both of which I feel richer for having.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Jackie: My guilty pleasure is cookbooks. I love cooking, especially when combined with chemistry to form molecular gastronomy. I’m normally happy cooking traditional food, but when I have the time I love to experiment with more unusual techniques. The only reason I feel guilty is because they cost so much. My current favourite is Bentley by Brent Savage, which is a stunning book to look at as well as one that contains many fantastic recipes.

John: Like other contributors to previous series, I don't really have guilty pleasures, being of the mind that nobody should be made to feel (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) "like something the cat drug in" over what they like. And I've sat here for half an hour trying, in vain, to think of any favourites of mine that are outside my usual field.

So I'll plump, perhaps sneakily, for Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's Tiddler: the Storytelling Fish. I love reading this book to my 3½-year-old son perhaps more than any other. True, I don't get to do my James-Mason-as-the-snake as with The Gruffalo, and I don't get to sing out of tune at the top of my voice as with Tabby McTat, but it's got such intricate and fast-moving rhymes, and such relentless rhythm, that I have been known to slip it into his bedtime selection in place of his own choices, just so I can have the pleasure of reading it all over again. Its only rival in this respect is Dr Seuss's Sleep Book, which has the advantage of being so long that it does actually send him to sleep.

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

John, on Jackie's choices: For a moment I thought this was Scott Pack, who likes both Horwood and The Time Traveler's Wife, but if the Niffenegger is the 'early adulthood' selection, well, old man Pack is far too ancient to have read that at that stage in his life. It was published in 2003, so I'm guessing my partner must be no older than their late 20s...

I'd never heard of Z for Zachariah, but it sounds like good, bleak, Wyndhamesque fun. Duncton Wood suggests an animal lover, or, along with Z for Zachariah, someone with a nascent interest in fantasy or the uncanny. Rohinton Mistry is a wonderful epic storyteller, whose books are full of heart and lively characters, and I think that this and The Time Traveler's Wife indicate someone who likes a strong involving storyline, even if it's not told in a linear way.

The last choice is entirely unexpected! A recipe book from a high-end Sydney restaurant? This makes me, rather obviously, think of someone Australian, and with a lot more patience and energy than me, and the only blogger I can think of off the top of my head who matches that description is Kim Forrester (Kimbofo), but she appeared in the last series (and chose Robert C. O'Brien too!), so I'm all out of ideas...

Jackie, on John's choices: The publication dates for these books are quite revealing. I think that the person who selected them is slightly older than me. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that they are 38-years-old. The inclusion of Tiddler indicates they have had exposure to children (or at least children’s books) in the last few years. I imagine they have children, one of which is around 5-years-old. The books are all quite gentle so I think whoever selected them is a quiet, kind individual who doesn’t like to do anything too dangerous. They probably have a cat and enjoy home baking.


  1. Excellent. I love this series and am so glad to see it popping up again. Thanks.

  2. I would have got Jackie just from the mention of 'A Fine Balance' ;)

  3. I'm glad this series is back. I would have got Jackie too, not John though - which reminds me I've been thinking about re-reading Iain Banks's early books - could be a project for 2013. My daughter loved The Gruffalo, Room on the broom, and A Squash & a squeeze by Donaldson & Scheffler when she was a toddler and I'm delighted to see that Scheffler has designed this year's Christmas stamps!

  4. Thank you Simon for this third edition of the series. The Phantom Tollbooth is an absolutely superb book and was (indeed is) one of my favourites from my childhood. Well worth re-reading as an adult I think!

  5. Simon, Thanks for hosting another series of this wonderful feature.

    I'm really surprised to discover the books were selected by John. I don't think I'd have picked him even if they'd been a short list of 5 bloggers!

  6. Jackie is one of my favorite bloggers and it was great fun to read her choices. John is new to me.

  7. There is something so pleasing about people choosing books you love and explaining why...and then they mention books you haven't read and you think, Oh, I must go and look for that...this is a series that just makes me smile all the time I'm reading it.

  8. Wonderful choices! The Phantom Tollbooth and The Time Traveler's Wife are too of my favorites. I have A Fine Balance sitting on my TBR shelf and I think your review is going to make me add it to my must list for 2013.

  9. Simon, I echo Jackie's thanks for hosting this. I really enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane (and, without realising it, a trip down Farm Lane!).

    I should have thought of Jackie when A Fine Balance was mentioned, yes. Silly me. And I am afraid I must disappoint and report that I have no cats and even less baking ability. I am a quiet, kind individual, though - right?!

  10. Far too ancient?

    You cheeky bugger!

  11. I've asked and featured Jackie's favorite books before so I could probably have guessed her. John is new to me though :)

  12. Great post - really enjoy Jackie's blog (almost as much as yours Simon!), and there are some great choices here. Looking forward to seeing more of this series!...

  13. I agree with Geranium Cat - it is nice to see that a book I love has given pleasure to others, and then I think well, if they liked that maybe I will like books they recommend that I haven't read...

  14. Jackie, you have me very curious about Duncton Wood. You have been the most fervent supporter of A Fine Balance in the blogging world that I know of, I think, and it has been on my wishlist for the longest time. As for the Time Traveler's Wife. You know, I think that was the book I read just after Pride and Prejudice? I was quite blown away by it. I wonder how it holds up on reread?

    It was also very nice to get to know John. He is new to me, although I have heard his name repeatedly in the blogging world.

  15. I would have got Jackie for the mention of fine balance ,all the best stu

  16. Another two bloggers that I really like hearing more about and the books that they love. I would never have guessed John Self but like Stu above I might have guessed Jackie from her love of A Fine Balance.


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