Wednesday 31 October 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Three

Tanya blogs at 20th Century Vox, and over the past year or so has turned into my conference buddy!  We've attended three together - and it's always lovely to catch-up.

Margaret is the nearest thing I have to a blog twin, since she started Books Please just two days after I started this blog!  She very kindly provided her own photos for her Life in Books.

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.

Tanya: My mother was (and is) a big reader - when I was a child, she would regularly announce that she was going upstairs to "tidy up", which actually meant "sit on the bed absorbed in a Georgette Heyer". She read to me all the time, took me to the library and generally encouraged me to read. An early storybook favourite was Pierre Bear, a story about a hunting bear who in the course of the text dispatches a seal and a moose, which he turns into 'thirteen jars of minced moose meat'. This may account for my conversion to vegetarianism at the age of six. The childhood favourite I'd like to pick, though, is Enid Blyton's In the Fifth at Malory Towers. This was given to me when I was about eight and I found it wonderfully exotic - dormitories, lacrosse and midnight feasts were symbols of a completely alien world - but totally engrossing. It didn't matter that I hadn't read the others; Enid Blyton's characters are never really that complex and I quickly worked out who was who. Best of all, it was one of a whole series of books - I could read all about the earlier schooldays of Darrell, Sally and Alicia (the latter was always my favourite). This was the first book that really allowed me, as a reader, to enter and experience a new imaginative world; and I suspect it shaped my taste for interwar fiction in later life.

Margaret: I did grow up in a book-loving family. It was my dad who read to me and made up stories as well and it was my mum who took me to the library each week. I don’t remember my dad reading many books, but my mum always had one on the go. Birthday and Christmas presents always included books and my aunties also used to give me books. I had my own bookcase that my dad made for me.

One of my childhood favourites is Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.  My Great Aunty Sally gave it to me and I must have read it many, many times, loving the story and the illustrations. It actually sets a chess problem and although that is set out in the opening pages as I didn’t know anything about chess I didn’t bother with that and the story made absolute sense to me without understanding the chess moves. When I say sense, it is of course a nonsense plot, peopled with chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters, plenty of word games and puzzles, with bits of logic and philosophy thrown in. I loved it as a child and I love it now.

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?

Tanya: When I was thirteen, I went to Germany on a school exchange, and woefully underestimated the number of books I'd need to take. My hosts all spoke good English and there were a few English novels about the house; the one I picked up was The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I'd never read a crime novel before and although I must have read other 'grown-up' books by this time, this is the one I remember best. Perhaps this is because I was in an alien (if friendly) environment, and Christie's book took me back to the English village I'd left behind. Miss Marple, that insightful spinster, was also a personally reassuring figure: I had a lot of clever, unmarried great-aunts. The plot of this novel hinges on the truth that lies underneath appearances; with hindsight this seems to be a perfect text for the adolescent me, looking grown-up but not really feeling it..

Margaret: It’s hard to remember which book that would be. It was either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s most likely to have been Jane Eyre because I remember watching a TV dramatisation at a friends house (we didn’t have a TV then) and being scared by the mad woman and I can still visualise the scene where she sets the house on fire. My mum had a copy of the book and so I read it, still scared by the mad woman but enthralled by the story. I don’t think much was going on in my life at that time apart from school and Girl Guides.

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.

Tanya: So hard to choose only one, but here goes: Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack, which I picked up randomly and read devotedly and repeatedly when I was about seventeen. If you don't know the book, it's the story of Katherine, a young Londoner, and her relationships with the family of her ebullient philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman. I loved the narrative style of this book, which is all told in first person but switches about between past and present tense. I loved the sophistication of it, and the way that sophistication is mediated through Katherine's naivety. I loved the unflinching way that the novel deals with pain. Most of all, though, this book showed me that there were other ways to live - that there was a big and complex world outside of sixth form and that I could get out and explore it, although my life turned out nothing like Katherine's. I'd also never read a book with so much swearing in it which was strangely liberating. My paperback copy of this fell apart after a year or so of obsessive re-reading, and my colleagues at the bookshop where I worked kindly gave me a hardback which I still have. I still love Barbara Trapido, too.

Margaret: I don’t think any book has helped me ‘set off in a certain direction in life’, because most of the books I’ve read were as a result of my interests rather than the other way round. In my early adulthood I didn’t read as many books as I did as a child, nor as I do now.

There is one book that I first read as a teenager that is still a favourite – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. When I was at Library School in my early twenties, it was ‘the book’ to read and talk about and I re-read it at that time and again later on several times. It’s such a satisfying book to read on a variety of levels. It’s fantasy, magic, myth, an epic tale about friendship, heroism and the fight between good and evil. It’s beautifully poetically written, with its own historical background, language and culture. It’s a page-turner, about a quest with a multitude of characters facing enormous perils and twists and turns that never fails each time I re-read it to entrance me. I suppose in some ways it’s a continuation of the fairy and fantasy tales I read and loved as a child, brought into the adult world.

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?

Tanya: I'm going to pick Roger Deakin's Waterlog which I read in 2009 and which was not only a pleasure in its own right but led me on to read a lot more nature and travel writing. Deakin's book is everything I like in non-fiction: incredibly expert but always interesting, diverse in content but consistent in theme, related to personal experience, and most of all beautifully written. Other book bloggers have opened up this type of writing for me and it's often from them that I've gleaned recommendations for writers like Robert MacFarlane and Kathleen Jamie. I love this type of writing because it sharpens and focuses my attention to the world I'm in, however mundane; it makes me look. It's also gloriously separate from the sort of thing I read for my PhD. I started blogging partly as a warm-up for my PhD, to get my critical skills in gear, and partly because I wanted a space to think and reflect on whatever I chose to read, PhD-releated or not. I think I re-read less as a result of the blog - partly because I want to read new material to write about, and partly because other bloggers' enthusiasms have enlarged my to-be-read list vastly.

Margaret: How hard to choose just one favourite book! But one book does stand out – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is of course, historical fiction, one of my favourite genres and it also stands out because it’s written in the present tense, which I normally avoid like the plague. However, even with this stumbling block and her slightly confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, Hilary Mantel had me completely enthralled in this story of Thomas Cromwell. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists.

Blogging has most definitely changed my reading habits. I now read more carefully, although I’m still guilty of reading too fast and forgetting what I’ve read, but thinking about what to write about a book makes it so much more memorable. It’s also changed what I read. I now read much more widely than I did before, and it has introduced me to so many new-to-me authors and has taken me back to reading crime fiction, a genre I’d practically ignored for years.

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

Tanya: A guilty pleasure only because both contributors can be so evil: the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. I re-read these a lot with undiminished (and guilty) amusement as they vilify their friends, express vile political opinions (mainly Evelyn), tease unmercifully (mainly Nancy) and generally entertain each other. It's a great collection and very, very funny.

Margaret: Another difficult question, because I read quite widely, and have written on my blog about most of the books I’ve read over the last five years. But I rarely write about books on religion, even though I’ve read many books on Christianity and other religions ever since I was a teenager. One that I like very much is Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase. Actually I like all the books by her that I’ve read, mainly on comparative religion. The Spiral Staircase is her account of her early life as a nun and traces her spiritual journey after she left her teaching order. It’s a sequel to her first autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate and is about her recovery from illness, panic attacks, seizures and depression, about her efforts to come to terms with the ‘real world’, and about her changing faith and her search for God.

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

Margaret, on Tanya's choices: I’ve only read the first two of theses books. I loved Enid Blyton’s books and nearly chose one as a favourite childhood book. And I’m a big Agatha Christie fan. So we started off in life with similar tastes. After that we diverge, and I’ve had to find out a bit about the books to make any comment. This person is probably someone who is younger than me, because he/she has chosen Brother of the More Famous Jack as a book read in early adulthood. I see it’s defined as ‘redefining the coming-of-age genre’, so it looks a good choice for a young adult.

I am interested in reading Waterlog, which I haven’t heard of before, even though I’m not too keen on swimming. A swimmer’s journey through Britain indicates an interest not only in outdoor swimming and in Britain but also in natural science, history and geography, which also interest me. Or, maybe this person is a keen swimmer? Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh is also an interesting choice, indicating a liking for twentieth century writers and social history. Overall, this is an eclectic reader.

Tanya, on Margaret's choices: These look like the choices of a person who really likes a long, involving book with lots of characters, a twisty plot, and the odd spot of magical intervention. I've yet to read Wolf Hall, but this and most of the other books are stories of quests in which a small or insignificant person triumphs against the odds in a world which might be confusing, hostile or dangerous. I couldn't work out why The Spiral Staircase might be a guilty pleasure - you'd have to have a highly serious reading habit for this to be a frivolous choice - so I imagine it is a surprising choice instead, perhaps of someone definitely not religious? But I don't find it surprising in this list - it has affinities with the other books, as there are elements of quest in Karen Armstrong's story, and the world can be as strange to her as Wonderland is to Alice. I think this person cheers for the underdog, admires a resolute hero(ine), and likes to contemplate the individual's place in the wider world. I also wonder if this person likes to accentuate the positive - these are, broadly, stories in which things work out, at least for the duration of the novel. This is probably also a reader who is at home with detail and complexity, unworried by a book with a huge cast, intricate plotting, or challenging ideas.


  1. Oh what lovely selections you have both made, especially Margaret. I read the same books at similar ages to you, my responses were much the same, and I still read and re-read them. Haven't read this particular Karen Armstrong though, but I will hunt it out. Tanya, I liked your Barbara Trapido choice and reasons for picking it - it really is a wonderful book, even for people well past the young adult stage! And you've made me want to read Waterlog - thanks to other bloggers I'm discovering MacFarlane and Kathleen Jamie, so I'll add this one to the Wish List.

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  3. Simon, thanks for including me in your series. I had no idea my 'other half' was Tanya! I think she summed up my reading tastes so well. The Spiral Staircase isn't a guilty pleasure choice, I picked it as a surprising choice because normally I avoid writing about religion - which is something that greatly interests me.

  4. I've only read a few of the titles you mentioned, but what lovely memories you have of how these books have been in your lives.

  5. Thanks for including me in this series - it is great to find out who my other half was and read Margaret's reasons for choosing her books. Margaret, I am a keen swimmer, and swam a lot in rivers and lakes when I was a child, which is partly why Waterlog spoke to me, but it has a lot to offer the non-swimmer too - although it might reinforce a dislike of cold water.

    It's also lovely to meet, at least virtually, another admirer of Karen Armstrong, who is such a remarkable writer.

  6. Margaret and Tanya, you mention so many wonderful books between the two of you! Some are old favourites of mine - Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Tolkien - and I've added both Waterlog and The Spiral Staircase to my TBR list. As always in "My Life in Books", it was lovely to hear the stories behind your choices and I especially enjoyed Tanya's mention of how her mom used to hide away reading Georgette Heyer when she said she was tidying up. That is exactly the kind of thing I could see myself doing!

  7. some great choices ,some books I ve read some I ve not ,all the best stu


  8. What a lovely and interesting selection of books. I too loved an Enid Blyton book when I was younger, though in my case in was The Faraway Tree.

  9. Tanya, if you like Deakin and Macfarlane's nature writing, then I think you might enjoy "Needwood" by Miles Richardson. I've not read it yet, but the previews available via his website ( and, moreover, his beautifully crafted tweets (@richardsonmiles) suggest it is of a similar theme and quality.


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