Friday 2 November 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Five

Lisa blogs at A Bloomsbury Life, and gives me daily life-envy.  But it's impossible for me to hate her, because she's so funny and sweet and has Persephone Books in her blog banner.

Jane is better known to most of us as Fleur Fisher, and her distinctive style and excellent taste make her a daily must-read.

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.

Lisa: One of my earliest memories is seeing my mother curled up with a book in a Saarinen Womb chair while my four younger siblings wreaked chaos around her. She had escaped to somewhere else completely and I remember wishing I could follow her! She was a voracious reader and read to me all the time. I had my Enid Blyton phase and my Jean Plaidy phase but it was The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Edwards (i.e. Andrews) that clicked on a light bulb for me. The children in the book use “thinking caps” to take them to the fantasyland of the Whangdoodle. It struck me that our imaginations are the only super-powered vehicle we need to make our dreams come true. And that if we work toward something and think positively and don’t give up, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.

Jane: My parents were both readers, and there were always books in the house. Over the years they built up a collection of books that they wanted to keep, and borrowed many others from the library. My baby book records that my first walk was through the Morrab Gardens to the public library. 

I remember being given classics for birthdays and at Christmas, being encouraged to spend my pocket money on books rather than sweets, and regular library visits. Best of all though were the book than my mother had saved, hoping that she would have a daughter to share them with one day.

And the very best of those was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was a lovely hardback edition, but we’ve read it so many times between us that it is coming to pieces. I wanted a sister, but she never arrived, and so a story of four sisters was quite irresistible. I loved that they were so different and yet they were such a close family. I loved their different stories, and I felt so many different emotions as I watched their lives unfold. It was all utterly real to me – it still is – and I wasn’t at all surprised when I discovered that the book was inspired by the author’s own family.

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?

Lisa: I read Atlas Shrugged when I was twelve partly to be precocious and partly because a friend of my parents had asked me, “Who is John Galt?” and of course I had to find out. A lot of Ayn Rand’s moral relativism went over my head but her strong-willed protagonists were potent role models for a shy middle-schooler whose life resembled The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I think it was the first time I realized that I had a choice in life: I could follow the herd or I could follow my heart. And that if I chose the latter, I needed to stop worrying about what people thought of me and start making my own damn decisions.

Jane: I remember, in my first or second year in secondary school, an English exam with a comprehension test that used a passage from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. I loved his rich, descriptive prose and I picked up a copy of the book from the library not long after. I loved the language, I loved reading about country life, and I loved the story that Hardy span around Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors.

After that I read my way though every book by Thomas Hardy I could find, and I looked closely at anything I came across that was dressed in the black garb of Penguin Classics. The Brontes came next, then Wilkie Collins, then George Eliot. And when I saw a book that looked very similar, but was dressed instead in green, I picked that one up too, and discovered Virago Modern Classics. But that’s another story.

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.

Lisa: Easy. David Copperfield. I read it sophomore year of college and for a long time afterwards, it was my favorite book. It’s all about the triumph of character over circumstance. Dickens tells us, “Look. Life is a struggle, but it’s important to suck it up and keep plugging along because unimaginable joy could be just around the corner. And if things go wrong, it helps if you try to find the funny.”

Jane: When I came home from university for Christmas one year my father told me that he’d bought my mother a book. The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman: a big historical novel about Richard III and the end of the Wars of the Roses, painting a more sympathetic than usual picture of the last Plantagenet king of England. I wasn’t at all sure she’d like it. In those days my mother usually read romances and family sagas, historical novels, and I had no memory at all of her reading historical fiction.

When I came home next, for Easter, the bookmark was still just a few pages into the book. Just before I left my mother told me that she didn’t like it at all, but she thought that maybe I would. I started reading on the train back to London and I was smitten. It brought a period and characters I had known little about to life and it brought it home to me that history was rewritten by the winners, that there could be very different interpretations but on the same facts. I’d read a little historical fiction before then, but since then I’ve read a great deal more.

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?

Lisa: I read Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig a few years ago and its intensity still haunts me. I think of Zweig’s writing style as Sigmund Freud meets F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s psycho glamour. In the novel, an innocent act sets off a chain of events which spiral to a horrifying conclusion. The tension is so palpable that it feels like it was written in one long breath. I’ve now read everything he’s ever written.

And yes, blogging has started to change the way I read. Blogs are the 21st century version of a 19th century literary salon. I love hopping from site to site and listening to a miscellany of different voices and perspectives – the mash-up can create some incredible connections. Lately, I’ve been doing the same thing with books. Right now, I’m alternating between Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (dense, fascinating) and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Out the Bodies (a thrill ride). Reading both together feels like a richer experience.

Jane: There was a point in my life, a little over six years ago, when I had to store a lot of my books in boxes in the attic. I decided I needed to catalogue them, so I knew what I had and where it was, and after a bit of looking around I decided that LibraryThing was just what I needed. Not long after I’d started entering books an invitation to join the Virago Modern Classics Group landed. It was wonderful to find that there were so many people, in so many places, who still loved those green books, and those people led me to new books, new publishers, new places to find books. Blogging came a little while later, as I found some lovely blogs when I explored ‘similar libraries’ and found myself wanting to write a little, to fix the books I was reading in my mind.

All of that didn’t so much change my reading habits as make me realise that because there were so many books out there I had to be a little more selective than I’d been in the past. And that it was always worth picking up an unknown title by an unknown author if the book caught my eye, just in case it was a lost gem waiting to be revived by one of those lovely reprint houses.

And that brings me to Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley. I picked it up, from the Cornish fiction bookcase in the Morrab Library, because I knew people with the same name. There didn’t seem to be a connection, but the dust jacket was beautiful and an enthusiastic introduction by Daphne Du Maurier (a friend and neighbour of the author) told me that I had to read it. I found one of those lost gems.

A man and a woman from the north-east were in love, but their situation was complicated, so they ran away to Cornwall. They leased an old army hut and struggled to live off the land, while he wrote a novel. Love in the Sun is fact rewritten as fiction, honestly, thoughtfully and beautifully written. It was out of print when I read it, but I was thrilled to hear from the Walmsley Society that they now have it back in print, in a very nice new paperback edition.

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

Lisa: I am starting to feel guilty that I might be too insistent that my friends read Beverley Nichols. His Merry Hall memoirs are so wickedly funny. Beverley writes like he’s Noel Coward lost in a P. G. Wodehouse novel and I want to live in every house he ever writes about. If I’m feeling clever-deficient, I read a few pages of him and my wit comes snapping back.

Jane: I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. Books can offer so many different things, and I think the trick is picking the book that offers what your head and heart need at any given moment. And if sometimes that’s great literature and sometimes its chick lit, so be it. I’m not sure what might be surprising either, because I can see a thread that runs through pretty much everything I read.

But maybe this is the time to confess that I sometimes read to Briar (my border terrier) from The Dastardly Book for Dogs by Rex and Sparky. Santa Claus left it for her a few years ago and she has learned a great deal from it. How to pick a pill out of peanut butter; what to do during a thunderstorm; building a bed out of your owner’s laundry; the formal rules of fetch; making toys out of household items ...

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

Jane, on Lisa's choices:My initial reaction was that I have no idea, and that I don’t think we’ve ever crossed paths.
Then I thought a little more and I decided:
1) This is someone who is very purposeful, and not afraid of hard work.
2) This is someone who lives in a city or a big town, not in the country or by the sea.
3) This is probably a cat person rather than a dog person.
but it wouldn't surprise me at all of I'm wrong on all counts.

Lisa, on Jane's choices: How fun! Let me put my Miss Marple hat on…and away we go. First of all, Little Women suggests someone who understands the struggle between family devotion and the desire to be independent and live your own life. With Love in the Sun, I'm envisioning someone who is passionate about adventure and life’s simple pleasures. Including The Sunne in Splendor with its empathetic perspective of Richard III makes me think this person doesn’t rush to judgment and has faith in the power of redemption. He/she also possesses a great sense of humor about the absurdities of modern life (The Dastardly Book for Dogs) and has a deep and haunting empathy for the vagaries of human nature (Far From the Madding Crowd).

So to recap: This person is fair-minded, optimistic and always gung-ho for adventure, has a keen sense of the absurd, a deep passion for domesticity and family and looks on life's tribulations as being exciting opportunities for personal growth. Who says the perfect person doesn't exist?!


  1. Simon, I must tell you how much I have enjoyed all three of these series. We have had a very difficult week here in NYC and late each evening I have gone to your blog to read wonderful tales of dearly loved books. And Lisa, Beverley Nichols!! I discovered him about a year ago and have read everything I could get my hands on, fiction and non-fiction alike. Fascinating stuff. Thank you Simon - wonderful idea. EllenB (Rachel's friend)

  2. EllenB in NYC: Another Beverley fan! I am so happy to meet anyone who can relate to my absolute ardor for him! Keep the flame burning...I can't help but think that a rediscovery of his wit and talent is long overdue.

    And dearest Jane aka Fleur Fisher:

    Your three predictions hit the nail on the head!

    1. I absolutely think of myself as someone who's goal-oriented and not afraid to get my hands dirty.
    2. I live in Hollywood, California.
    3. And --yes -- I have a cat --although how you were able to figure that one out completely stumps me! You have scary Sherlockian powers, methinks!

    And Simon...
    Many thanks for including me in this lovely round-up. I am honored to be a part of this illustrious group of readers!


    1. Hello Lisa, it's lovely to meet you.

      Your deductions are exceedingly accurate, though my adventurousness tends to stay with the printed page and rarely passes over into real life.

      I must confess that when I saw your list with Atlas Shrugged as a first grown-up book I was a little startled and deduced someone who was the opposite of me, but now that I have read your wordsthe picture is much clearer, and I can see that we have things in common too.

      I have a few of Beverley Nicholls' books on my shelves, and clearly I need to make time to read them soon.

      And Simon, thank you for doing this again. The writing stirred up so many memories and sparked ideas, and the reading has been fascinating.

  3. A very varied choice from today's guests, and a lovely insight into their characters and reading habits.

  4. I'm thrilled to find someone else who counts Beverley Nichols as a guilty pleasure. I love all the house and garden books.

  5. More lovely answers from two admirable bloggers. Thanks yet again.

  6. I recently read Beverley Nichols Crazy Pavements (review on my blog), and have definitely become a fan. I've just got his autobiog Twenty-Five, and am looking forward to that very much. I also know another recent fan!

    1. Have read that review now and liked it very much. I also read the Angela Thirkell review. I have all her novels and enjoy them in spite of the faults.

  7. I love that Jane's first baby steps were to the library! And I will be checking out Beverly Nicholls, Sharon Penman and Leo Walmesley!

  8. My choice of words may have been a little misleading - that particular jaunt was in my pram. But that shows that bibliophilia runs in the family. And what I didn't mention is that my mother even took a book with her when she went to the maternity hospital to give birth.

  9. I have an almost pathological interest in what either people are reading so I'm very much enjoying this series. Must check out this Gone Girl book.

  10. Two lovely ladies. I had never heard of Beverley Nichols, but I have one of his books winging its way to me now. :)

  11. Good to see David Copperfield getting selected. Great Expectations always seems to come out top when people are asked to name a favourite Dickens novels, but it is way down my list. Copperfield has a much broader canvas, and a richer mix of light and shade. That said, I have always struggled to understand what Davy admires about dippy Dora!

  12. Merry Hall sounds absolutely brilliant. I hadn't heard of that one before. I will have to seek it out.

  13. I haven't heard of Whangdoodles before, but I'm going to seek them out for my boys as they sound fantastic! The Dastardly Book for Dogs also sounds like something I'd enjoy - not sure I'd read it aloud though!

  14. Great reminiscences and excellent recommendations!