Tuesday 29 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Two

Barbara isn't a book blogger, per se, but her lovely photo/travel blog Milady's Boudoir, documenting her many trips around the country, is often influenced by her love of reading - and I have known her for many years as part of an online book discussion group.

Lisa is one of my newest favourite bloggers, over at TBR 313 - one of those bloggers whose taste so often overlaps with mine, and whose recommendations are always much prized!

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.

Barbara: My dad and his mum my gran were both readers and dad read a lot to me when I was young. We didn’t have too many books around the house but my sister and I both had lots of books on shelves our rooms. I have always loved libraries and wrote about my initiation into that ‘wonderland’ here.

I simply loved Enid Blyton stories from Mary Mouse, through Noddy and the Magic Faraway Tree, to the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Island (etc.) of Adventure. It wasn’t until I was adult that I was amazed to be informed that these books were considered “unsuitable reading material for children”.

However, much as I loved Blyton’s books for my first choice I have chosen a completely different, hopefully “acceptable reading material” book. It’s A.A. Milne’s “When we were very young and Now we are six”. I can picture now the exact edition and the place in that Children’s Library where I stood when I pulled this book of delights off the shelf and had the thrill of being able to take it home with me!  It is hard to choose just one poem (complete with illustrations) but I think it has to be The King’s Breakfast

Lisa: Yes, I grew up in a house of reading and books.  My father treasured his quiet late-night reading time, after everyone else had gone to bed.  My mother, who worked as a nurse as well as caring for children and home, had less time and energy for reading, but she always had a book on her nightstand.  They must have read to me, but I have no memory of it.  I was reading on my own by age four, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve rebelled against being read to.  Just let me read it for myself!   When I was six, my father bought me Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I still remember that trip to the store, and the book’s bright yellow cover.  I read it over and over, completely caught up in Laura’s pioneer life, travelling with her family in a covered wagon to build that little house on the vast prairies.   I read it and the sequels so many times that my dad took them away from me for a while, putting them up on a high closet shelf.  A day or so later, unable to bear the separation, I checked one out of the school library. For some reason, I felt the need to call home to announce what I’d done, rather than just reading it at school or sneaking it into the house.  I don’t remember the consequences, but I got the books back eventually, and I have copies on my shelves today.  I know her books are part of my love for history, the focus of my studies in college and graduate school, which led me to a career working in archives.

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?

Barbara: Does this count as a ‘grown-up’ book? I’m not too sure. In my teens I didn’t read a lot but I did have three favourites that I  read over and over again – The Diary of a Nobody, Three Men in a Boat and, my second choice, 1066 and All That. I still count these as my 3 favourite humourous books. The state of my copy just shows how well read it has been over the years. It’s just dropping to pieces. It’s a 2/6d orange Penguin book first published in 1930. My edition is dated 1964. I bought it new around then. 

Here is the full title and author statement:
1066 and All That: a memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 good things, 5 bad kings and 2 genuine dates; by Walter Carruthers Sellar, Aegrot: Oxon. and Robert Julian Yeatman failed M.A., etc., Oxon.
I understand that history is taught very differently now so you may have no reaction at all to this book but, believe me we learned history – British, of course, who else’s history would we learn? – in just this order and exactly these facts! Here’s an extract chosen at random :
Napoleon ought never to be confused with Nelson, in spite of their hats being so alike; they can most easily be distinguished from one another by the fact that Nelson always stood with his arm like this, while Napoleon always stood with his arm like that.

Nelson was one of England’s most naval officers, and despised weak commands. At one battle when he was told that his Admiral-in-Chief had ordered him to cease fire, he put the telephone under his blind arm and exclaimed in disgust “Kiss me, Hardy!

By this and other intrepid moves the French were utterly driven from the seas.
I think you get the picture. History is what you can remember!

Lisa: I was introduced to Jane Austen by the 1980 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, with David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie.  I was seventeen or so when I first read Emma.  Despite some struggles with Austen’s language, I was soon immersed in the story.  I have such a vivid memory of the shock I felt when I realized how completely Austen had hoodwinked me – I had been just as blind as Emma, falling for Frank Churchill’s charm and his deceptions, and with the speed of an arrow I too realized the danger of Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley.  It was a moment of pure delight.  My mother gave me a Penguin edition of Emma for Christmas that year.  We always opened presents after Midnight Mass, and I stayed up the rest of the night re-reading it, so thrilled to have my own copy.  Reading was very much a refuge at that point in my life.  I was attending a small high school, where I was on the fringes, not one of the popular crowd, subject to some teasing that I took very much to heart.  I had always had my nose in a book, for the sheer joy of reading, but now books became a shelter and a consolation as well.  I usually had one open under my desk in class, whenever I could get away with it, and in the halls and the lunchroom.

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.

Barbara: I was very much put off reading classic books at school especially in the first few years when we had to read The Hobbit, Northanger Abbey, Silas Marner etc. I did enjoy Great Expectations which was an O Level set book and also Shakespeare. 

In my early 20s my first library job was at Victoria Lending Library in the City of Westminster and each day I would be shelving books by the likes of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence. I soon decided that there must be something about the classics if they were still so popular and began to borrow and read them for myself. I think it was the Jane Austen titles that I loved best. I devoured them all within days of each other and was so disappointed to realize that there were only 6 completed books. So, although I would select Mansfield Park as my third choice here, since that time I have always loved reading the classics – nice fat ones to really get my teeth into, like the Barchester Chronicles - Trollope is now a great favourite – and in the 1990s this helped to lead me to study for a Masters degree in Victorian Studies where I re-rediscovered (and now love) Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. I feel I have read Dickens all my life but Jane Austen is the only one of these authors whose books I have reread over and over again. Oh dear maybe it’s time to for another reread!

Lisa:  I was 30 when I got my first computer with an internet connection.  One of the first things I put into a search engine was “Georgette Heyer.”  That led me to an on-line discussion group devoted to her books, where I found a lovely group of people who read like I read.  I saw so many new authors recommended there, but none as fervently as Dorothy Dunnett.  People practically swooned as they discussed Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hero of her Lymond Chronicles.  By the third chapter of The Game of Kings, I understood why.  I have never read anything that drew me in as deeply, that took me from laughter to breathless anticipation to shock and despair.  It was impossible to accept that these were fictional characters!  I quickly found a Dorothy Dunnett  listserv, which over the years has introduced me to still more new authors, opening up my reading horizons, particularly in science fiction and fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis and Diana Wynne Jones), as well as mystery (Laurie R. King and Sarah Caudwell).

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?

Barbara: My reading habits have not really changed that much as I discovered lists made during the early 1970s which, to my surprise, include many authors that I read now. What is so special about my reading these days is that since joining our online book discussion group in 2004 I have been bombarded by great suggestions of authors and books that I’m almost sure I’m going to enjoy because of the reading habits and tastes of other members whose opinions I value and whose taste in reading matter coincides almost exactly with my own.

So for my 4th choice it would be very nice to choose the entire contents of the Persephone Books catalogue! (Persephone Books is what brought us all together). However, I know you won’t allow that so I have chosen just one Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. It is a little more than 2 or 3 years since I first read it so I’ll just extract a small piece from the aforementioned catalogue to whet your appetite :
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. The novel asks: is the child really his? And does he want him? These are questions you can take to be as metaphorical as you wish: the novel works perfectly well as straight narrative. It’s extraordinarily gripping: it has the page-turning compulsion of a thriller while at the same time being written with perfect clarity and precision.
Interestingly, my second favourite Persephone is Still Missing which is also about a ‘little boy lost’ in an entirely different place, time and circumstances. 

None of this goes anywhere towards explaining why I took to blogging! That just developed from my interest in travel and uploading photos to Flickr. I wanted to add more and more links and comments and discovered that I could do this easily through a blog hosting site where I’m prompted to supply the relevant information.

Lisa: It was from the Dunnett list that I first learned of Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  Reading it felt like a conversation about books that I wanted to go on forever.  I had never met anyone who read Anthony Trollope, or had any luck convincing anyone to read him, so her chapter on his books would have been riches enough.  She introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor and re-introduced me to Nancy Mitford.  She reminded me of the pleasures of reading diaries, starting with the Rev. Francis Kilvert’s.  She explained why she doesn’t care for Dorothy L. Sayers or Terry Pratchett.  I craved more of that kind of book talk, not necessarily focused just on one author, even the great ones like Heyer or Dunnett.  The search for that type of conversation led me first to reading blogs, and nervously posting comments.  I soon realized though that I wanted to talk about what I was reading as well.  That feeling grew so strong that one day I just sat down and created a blog – naming it for all the TBR books stacked around me, in a vain hope it would help me reduce those stacks.

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

Barbara: Oh dear, I am a sucker for maps and atlases and travel guides and books of lists of best houses, museums, gardens, literary walks, what to see where and the most dog-eared of my books (after 1066 and All That) is probably my latest Road Atlas of Great Britain. My copy of England’s Thousand Best Churches is not far behind in the tatty much-read/loved books stakes. But I think my fifth choice will be from my selection of books by or about people who have lived or live in Paris; Kate Muir, Susha Guppy, Lucinda Holdforth, Collette Rossant, Adam Gopnik, Mrs Robert Henrey, et al., et al.

My Little Paris Kitchen, by Rachel Khoo is just the most delightful book that gets me dreaming about living in the City of Light in a little Parisian attic apartment, flaneur-ing through the streets, window-shopping, sipping tea at Laduree or at street cafes … Rachel is a young British woman who shows us that she has taken that step and moved to Paris. I am not a good cook and not interested in cooking but I love to read her recipes and comments and devour the beautiful pictures of the streets and markets of this still fascinating city.

LisaI can’t think of any guilty pleasures with reading, especially since blogging has shown me that, whatever I am reading, someone else has read it too (and has probably already written a great review). My guilt is reserved for those TBR stacks, though it doesn’t keep me from adding to them on a weekly basis – so often now with books I’ve discovered through other bloggers.

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

Lisa on Barbara's choicesBased on these titles, if I ever meet this reader, we will have plenty of books to discuss, and I’ll also be taking recommendations from him or her.  She or he has eclectic reading interests but has clearly enjoyed classic literature from a young age, starting with When We Were Very Young  - showing a reading life already off to a great start.  1066 and All That suggests someone with a strong taste for satirical humor and parody (one I share).  A fondness for Mansfield Park is a sign of a discerning Austen reader.  Fanny Price is a difficult heroine, in a very different kind of story, but one rich in character and psychological insights, not to mention the awful Aunt Norris.  Little Boy Lost shows that this reader enjoys 20th-century classics as well.  I had not heard of Marghanita Laski before I started blogging, but the
reviews I’ve read have added her to my TBR lists – and this is the title that I’ve seen most often.  Somehow I have also missed Rachel Khoo (I had to Google her name and the title; now I want my own copy).  If this is the guilty pleasure, or it would surprise people, then I’d have to guess that this reader isn’t fond of cooking, or maybe travel – or else doesn’t usually watch TV!

Barbara on Lisa's choices: My initial reaction was that I must know this person and she (for I am sure it is a she) is in the same online book discussion group as me. She could well be American and I am sure she has a romantic streak. Obviously she is very well read – but not as well read as she eventually intends to be! This is a voracious reader who started young with very mature taste.

I’ll be very surprised if Little House on The Prairie is a British person’s choice of favourite book from their childhood years. I’ve read it but only in adulthood so already this person is showing maturity in her reading choices. This evidence of maturity continues into Emma; a book full of romance if ever there was one! Also, for a first adult book it is way ahead of the kind of reading that I enjoyed in my teens. I did choose an Austen but only after her re-discovery in my 20s. Dorothy Dunnett has many devoted fans in our group but I am not one of them. I have never read any. Many have expressed their love for the hero – so more evidence of that romantic streak.

I’ve also read Howards End is on the Landing and I think it appeals to someone who possibly cannot move for books around the place, who wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day so that a big chunk of them could be devoted to reading. Which leads, appropriately, to the choice of the TBR piles - evidence again of someone with more books than time on her hands but here I’m afraid I take exception and think our ‘chairman’ should press for evidence of the secret passion amongst these piles. I imagine most of them will contain fiction, biography, memoir, history but surely there are some ‘odd’ titles that don’t fit the usual categories that make up the bulk of the piles. Come on, speak up and tell us, to say TBR piles is just a cop out – we all have those – no secret!!


  1. Fascinating reading. Lisa I know what you mean re those Little House on the Prairie books. I could have eaten them for breakfast I loved them so much. It is also great to hear about another blogger I was not familiar with who is very literary and I look forward to visiting her site as well as Lisa's which I already visit regularly.

    1. Pam, we also have Michigan childhoods in common (and then I lived there right after grad school). My dad bought me the Little House book at Meijer's - did you have those?

  2. This one is such a meeting of complementary minds - totally delightful. I think I would greatly enjoy spending time browsing Lisa and Barbara's bookshelves.

    1. It's mutual, my dear - and you have all those boxes I'd love to browse as well.

  3. It's a pleasure to meet Barbara - and I look forward to exploring her blog! When Simon first invited me to join, and I was mulling over the questions, I really couldn't think of a guilty pleasure on my shelves. But the other day I was watching The Godfather, and I had such a strong urge to re-read that book, except I'd gotten rid of my copy in a recent move. I did buy a new one & read it again - but I was wondering how to post about a book with so much violence and sex. Then I got sick & dodged the issue :) But I think it qualifies as a guilty pleasure.

    1. Such a pleasure and such fun to meet you, too, Lisa. If/when we meet we will indeed have lots to talk about - no problem. My reading choices have never been called eclectic before but there is always a first time! Yes, to the satire and parody type humour which we share. I'm not sure that I am ever very serious which a fault I must try to rectify. We would be giggling straightaway I'm sure. You are quite right - cooking not a strong point (although I have to do it so have a limited repertoire of 'successes') and I watch very very little TV. Travel is a big interest of mine though - whether real or armchair - I'm interested in places near and far. If you are who I think you are then we read and comment on the same blogs so I'm sure to come across you again there or on TBR 313. I live in Yorkshire in the UK, where are you?

    2. That's more like it, Lisa. I would say that The Godfather is very far from your other reading choices!

    3. But it's really a romance, Barbara ;-) just of men with their Don, not to mention their guns. And now that I think of it, historical fiction and a mystery too.

      I'm in Houston, Texas. I'm in several on-line book discussion groups on Yahoo (Dunnett, Heyer, Austen).

  4. What fabulous books the two of you have chosen - so many of my own favourites there, with the exception of the Dunnett and the Laski, which I haven't read, and Still Missing, which I have read but didn't like. Isn't it nice to find like minds!

    1. Thank you, Christine. I'm sorry you didn't like Still Missing. I found it a gripping read.

  5. I LOVED the Little House books and also read them over and over again. In fact, I still have my old copies, and I think a re-read in my next Month of Re-Reading is called for!

    Liz www.librofulltime.wordpress.com (I can only comment using my Google account)

  6. Barbara's choices could almost have been mine -- I too loved 1066... when I was a child (and now long to re-read it), and I'm so happy she picked Mansfield Park (discerning indeed) and mentioned Trollope, who I am now devouring. Also totally loved Little Boy Lost, though like Christine I wasn't so keen on Still Missing. Lisa's choices also so interesting though I haven't read many of them. This is such a great series (as I keep saying!).

    1. "This is such a great series (as I keep saying!)" - we have more than just the books in common, Harriet.

  7. What a delightful series to be treated to! It's always such a pleasure to read and learn more about other readers' history and their love affairs with books. Thanks for sharing! :)
    And I'm also reminded that it's high time I get down to reading my copy of Howards End Is On The Landing.....

  8. So many books today that I love. Thank you so much, Barbara and Lisa, for sharing.

    Marianne from Let's Read


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