Friday 1 November 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Five

Simon is... me!  I wasn't sure if I'd ever participate in My Life in Books myself, but I couldn't resist this year... I felt a bit bad, because there are still plenty of other wonderful bloggers to take part, but... well, I couldn't resist!

Christine blogs at The Book Trunk, a site (and I quote) 'dedicated to my grandmother, who ran away from her Norwegian home in 1915 and arrived in England with nothing but a trunk full of 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.

Simon: As you will already have gathered in a previous series from Colin's answer, our house was indeed rather filled with books - and this in an area where owning books at all was rather unusual - but Mum and Dad always encouraged us to go to the library, rather than buying books. That's a life lesson which has, obviously, been taken to heart... ahem!

I imagine both my parents read to us, but I particularly remember Mum doing so - and having to stop reading The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis because we found it too distressing, although we loved hearing the rest of the Narnia books. Actually, that reminds me of a time Dad did read to us - when he read Mr. Mischief by Roger Hargreaves to us at his sister's house, and we both cried at his misdeeds. Something about destroying a cake, perhaps. (I'm sure Dad also read to us without us crying!)

But, after that build-up, I couldn't really pick any author other than Enid Blyton for this first answer. The first book I read by myself (for which read: I read one page, Mum read three) was a Famous Five book, and I got hooked on Enid Blyton for the next five or six years, reading very little else. Amongst my favourites, and starting a passion for twin-books which persists today, was the St. Clare's series, starting (I believe) with Twins at St. Clare's. I don't know how well it would stand up to an adult's eyes, and it's probably full of hideous morals about stiff upper lips, but I relished it (and never got on with Malory Towers, incidentally.)

Christine: I was incredibly lucky growing up in a bookish household and books have been a huge part of my life from the time I was really small – when I was a baby and wouldn’t sleep my mother held me and read aloud from whatever she was reading at the time! My parents were both great readers so the house was always full of books, and they would talk about what they had read. They encouraged my brother and I to do the same, and they never stopped us reading anything, however unsuitable it may have seemed. When we were very young they read us stories (not just at bedtime, but at other times of the day as well), and told tales ‘out of their heads’, which we loved. We read everywhere, even at mealtimes – I was amazed to discover other families viewed this as bad manners! And we took books on holiday, and acquired more while we were away, instead of souvenirs (a habit I’ve never lost).

I’ve got so many childhood favourites. There was Adventures of Mr Pip about a strange goblinish little man, who loved the colour red, and was always getting into trouble, and The Secret Garden and the Just So Stories, as well as lots of Noel Streatfeild and Edith Nesbit, and Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, and Milly Molly Mandy and too many others to mention.

However, standing out above everything else is my copy of AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young, bought when I was less than a year old, with an inscription at the front written by my father. It’s this book, more than any other, which made me aware of the magic of words and the way they are used, and the rhythms of speech, and how you can read something and imagine what happens next. Reciting the rhymes became a family ritual (repeated, years later, with my own daughters). For rice pudding days there was, of course, 'Rice Pudding'. On trips to London we chanted 'Buckingham Palace', and 'Lines and Squares'. Illness required 'The Dormouse and the Doctor', while the opening of a new jar of marmalade called for 'The King’s Breakfast'.  My daughters always loved this book as well, and I still adore it as much as ever I did – more so, perhaps, because it conjures up such happy memories.

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?

Simon: I'm lucky that there has never been a stage in my life when I didn't love reading, once I'd started, but I clung on to pretty poor teen and pre-teen books for rather too long. It was wise of my parents to let me read what I wanted, so that reading didn't become a chore. But the move from Sweet Valley High (TWINS!) was bound to come and, although I can't remember what drew me to it, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was probably the first Grown-Up book I read - except for that gateway drug Agatha Christie.

Nervously, I re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four a couple of years ago, to see if it was still as brilliant as I thought it was when I was about 14. And, oh, it is. Yes, there is the political satire (or warning), and its dystopian overtones are probably what has secured its literary significance, but for me it is chiefly fascinating for character. Winston Smith is the true everyman, with the hopes and weaknesses and unexpected courage that so many people possess. In impossible circumstances, he is neither an unrealistic hero nor a passive victim, but somehow both. I don't know how much of Orwell's talent I understood at 14, but it took me away from the enjoyable rubbish that (in turn) had put me on the path of loving reading.

Christine: I can remember reading Oliver Twist, and crying for days when Nancy was murdered. And Jane Eyre is my ‘must have’ book’ but I have no idea when I first read it. So I’ve plumped for Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I read when I was at grammar school. It was most definitely not on the curriculum there – I bought it at the local bookshop, attracted by the title and the cover on the 1966 Penguin edition, which shows a photograph of a man wearing a smiling devil's mask, complete with horns, as he peers over the shoulder of a marble angel. It was one of the first contemporary novels I encountered (until then most of my reading was classics based). Written by a modern woman, it opened up a whole new world in my reading life. I loved the spare quality of the writing, the wry humour, the subversive feel of the book, and the fact that there were no heroes and heroines in the conventional sense, just ordinary men and women going about their everyday lives, completely unprepared for the advent of Dougal Douglas and the chaos and confusion he trails behind him.

And Spark blends reality and fantasy so skilfully that you never know what is real and what is not, or whether the whole thing is an illusion. Before that I’d never considered the nature of truth and fiction. I’d read books set in magical worlds, and others that were firmly rooted in the real world, but this novel broke down barriers and genres and mixed things up in a totally unexpected way, and made me think about how it was written, as well as the story.

School was very conventional, very middle-class, with great emphasis on working towards exams and taking part in sports, and I felt very much a ‘number’, rather than an individual. Finding this book helped me realise that I was still a person in my own right, and could make my own choices about things I liked, and it didn’t matter if other people didn’t approve or didn’t enjoy the same things.

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.

Simon: How tempting it was to write about Miss Hargreaves here! But I knew that would give me away in an instant, and instead I focused on the part about 'setting me off in a certain direction'. Since I have yet to set off in any permanent direction, I will have to consider one of the books which led to me choosing to study English Literature at university. Truth be told, I never considered anything else for long (except for a brief dalliance with English and History) and I can't imagine studying anything else - but reading Virginia Woolf still changed things for me. It was after having seen the film The Hours that I wanted to see what it was based on, and the woman whose children I babysat lent me Mrs. Dalloway when I was 17. How strange to think it was only three years since I'd started thinking about adult fiction at all!

Looking back, I'm surprised that a 17 year old engaged with Virginia Woolf's writing, but I must have been either precocious or ahead of my time, because I absolutely loved it. By this age there were plenty of novelists I'd grown to love, but I didn't realise any author could use language so perfectly, or craft such beautiful, thoughtful novels. And analysable ones, too! I realised that Proper Literature could be as fun and lovely to read as anything else, and that I would love to write essays about this sort of thing. I'd found my period, definitely, and ten years later I'm still at university, still writing about Virginia Woolf (admittedly she only gets a paragraph or two in my thesis - but she's still there!)

Christine: I did a lot of re-reading, rather than trying anything new. I think I was seeking comfort and reassurance. I’d moved to the Midlands and was desperately home-sick, not just for my family, but for the sound of a southern accent and the sight of a London bus! One of my few discoveries was Margaret Atwood: I was knocked out by Lady Oracle, The Edible Woman and Cat’s Eye. Again, it’s that blend of fantasy and reality which I find so appealing, and the fact that these women are all searching for an identity and a way to express themselves.

But, since I stuck to old favourites then, my choice has to be Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, which I return to time and time again. It’s seen me through good times and bad, and whenever I read it I am just as enthralled. I love everything about it, especially the way Jane is so quiet and unassuming, but knows her own mind, and has the courage to stand by her convictions, whatever the cost to her own happiness or that of others.

And I am such a sucker for a happy ending! Forget the rest of the final chapter, just read the opening sentence: “Reader, I married him.” That’s all I ever want to know. It’s such a satisfactory conclusion, although I have to admit my view of Mr Rochester has changed over the years, and I no longer see him as an alluring romantic hero. He’s not very nice at all (and that’s putting it politely). He married his first wife for her fortune, hid her in the attic when she became ill, ran away to Europe, kept mistresses, then tried to marry Jane, who had no friends or family to protect her. And what about that chapter where he dresses as a gipsy woman and tells fortunes for his guests? There’s an element of real cruelty there I think as he toys with them all, like a cat playing with a mouse.

But I don’t care! I love him, and I love Jane, and I want them to live happily ever after.

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?

Simon: Usually I'm asking people from other blogs to share their blog story; perhaps, since you're already reading Stuck-in-a-Book, you know the story. But I'll recap - I started blogging in 2007 as a distraction to my final undergraduate exams, since I already knew various people who'd taken up blogging from an online book discussion list I was on.

Although I've been a bit intractable with my reading, more often buying the books that other bloggers recommend than actually reading them, there has (of course) still been quite a number of fantastic books I've read as the direct or indirect result of blogging. But the author I'm going to pick is one I'd read before started blogging, but to whom I have the blogosphere to thank for re-introducing me. And it's Muriel Spark. I'd read, and been pretty indifferent to, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, but enthusiastic reviews from Simon, Polly, and Claire (I think) led me to pick up another Muriel Spark - The Driver's Seat - and I was hooked.

I've since read another eight or nine, and even co-run a delightfully successful Muriel Spark Reading Week across the blogosphere. The one I'll pick here, which was the fourth one I read overall, is Loitering With Intent, a madcap tale of a memoir club, corrupt publishers, and fanciful heroine cheerfully confusing everyone. It's quintessential Spark, and the blogosphere is to thank for making Muriel one of my favourite authors.

Christine: Ask me the same question on a different day and I’ll probably give you a different answer. Today I’ll say Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker – one of Simon’s recommendations. And no, I’m not currying favour, but this was so wacky, and so funny, and slightly disturbing at the same time, and I really, really enjoyed reading it.

I wouldn’t have picked it up before I started blogging, but I’ve been a little more adventurous recently. I’ve read and fallen in love with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and other authors from the first half of the 20th Century, and I’ve ventured into the realms of non-fiction with Kathleen Jamie and Robert MacFarlane. Additionally, I set myself an annual challenge - 2012 was the Year of the Essay, this year I’m exploring short stories, and next year I want to discover some foreign authors. But I still love my 19th Century classics, and I still hate gory crime thrillers and dystopian futuristic novels!

My younger daughter persuaded me to write a blog because I was so downcast after being made redundant. To start with I wrote about anything that caught my interest. Gradually books took over, and I started following other people because I like to see their views on what they’ve read, but I don’t post as regularly as I should.

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

Simon: My tastes tend to stick with fiction, or non-fiction about fiction (author biographies etc.), but I do have a rather unexpected love for books about psychology and neurology. Perhaps it is truer to say that I love books by Oliver Sacks. I know very little about science, and other authors I've tried on these topics haven't captivated me at all, but Sacks's A Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Hallucinations are primarily exercises in storytelling. The human mind is, of course, limitlessly fascinating - and I am usually fascinated by it when it is shown through fiction, and the way characters behave - but Sacks makes the most inaccessible of topics utterly accessible for the layman, and writes so compassionately and engagingly that anybody would be swept away.

Christine: Difficult! My reading matter is very predictable, and I don’t think one should ever feel guilty about books. However, I do sometimes feel slightly uneasy when I’m caught reading children’s literature! Judging by people’s reaction this is not considered normal behaviour for a supposedly sensible adult. All I can say is, it should be. Perhaps it counts as a guilty pleasure? What do other people think? Anyway, I have a real weakness for children’s books, even picture books, like Winnie the Witch. I still read them, I still buy them, and a friend’s young children keep me up to date with modern authors and swap favourites with me. For a really joyous, life affirming story I’d opt for The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which will get you some very odd looks indeed if you read it on a train, as I once did. So perhaps it is a passion best indulged in private!

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

Christine, on Simon's choices: Oh dear, this is the bit I’m no good at! Those are interesting choices – curious that we both selected Muriel Spark, and I very nearly plumped for Mrs Dalloway instead of Miss Hargreaves, so it would seem to be someone with similar tastes, who likes understated writing and authors with a darkly comic edge. Then there’s Nineteen Eight-Four, which is much too bleak for me, but Orwell is another author who produces pared back prose with never a word out of place. So this is someone who is attracted by well written prose, rather than a rattling good story, and the inclusion of the Oliver Sacks’ book would seem to indicate someone with an interest in psychology perhaps… I think it’s someone who’s much better grounded in reality than I am and, perhaps, someone who has studied English. Now let’s see how wrong I am!

Simon on Christine's choices: Of course I'm cheating a bit, since I know Christine's identity, but I will do my best to say what I would have said about Christine's choices.  And what kindred spirits we are!  I should do these in order, but I have to talk about Miss Hargreaves first - anybody who chooses Baker's novel is already a dear friend of mine.  In fact, Miss HargreavesWhen We Were Very Young, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Secret Garden (as well as all being books I love) speak of a reader who loves life to have a bit of fantasy and whimsy, but still has strong emotional responses alongside.  I see a delightful, slightly wry, sense of humour yet firm belief in kindness to others in this reader.  There's an element of fantasy in Jane Eyre too, of course, but it's a curve ball for me - because (to my mind) it lacks the humour of the others, and is perhaps more a case of nostalgic reading; so, someone who allows themself to look back fondly to the past now and again.


  1. There is no shame in reading children's books! Or still buying them! I've loved this series, a real bright spot at 11 every morning this week!

    1. I'm so glad you've enjoyed it so far Liz - and it isn't over yet, of course! Two more days to come...

  2. I do love this series! Christine, I'm enchanted to know that someone else can't see a rice pudding or a jar of marmalade without Milne's lines running through their head (I recite them to myself on train journeys too). Simon, maybe I should give 1984 another chance - I really can't get on with Orwell, which is odd when you consider what a good writer he is, and that there are other dystopian visions that I do like.

    1. Lovely comment, Jodie! I actually usually hate dystopian fiction, but Orwell is an exception for me - maybe, like Peter and Christine suggest below, try his essays? I've read a few, and they are wonderful. And he did write some more 'ordinary' novels, which I've yet to read - I think The Clergyman's Daughter might be up our street?

  3. Orwell is perhaps an even better essayist than a novellist, but I share Simon's enthusiasm for 1984. A question for Simon, is your love of books about psychology unexpected to you or do you think your weblog readers will find it unexpected? For Christine I completely second LyzzyBee's comment about children's books; indeed with some exceptions so rare that I am hard to put my finger on them there is no shame in reading ANY book! Is your pleasure guilty? I have no guilt in my pleasures (even those that might not be approved of by some), but I am beginning to suspect that for some people the "guilt" is part of the fun :-)

    Many thanks from me as one of the contributors and readers to Simon and all the other wonderful people who have made this such a rewarding week over here on SIAB.

    Normal "claws out" service will resume from me next week I suspect.

    1. I do love the essays of his that I've read, and have a couple collections, so I should explore them more widely (and, indeed, more of his novels.) Good question re 'unexpected' - probably unexpected to me and to casual readers of SiaB, but not to those who have seen me rave about Sacks already! I think it is a bit surprising that I read scientific non-fiction at all.

      Thank you for your kind words about the series - still two joyous days to go!

  4. Lovely - nice to have you featuring in your own series, Simon!

    I rate Orwell remarkably highly on everything - he's one of my heroes. I was tidying books recently and flipped open the first page of Nineteen Eighty Four and got shivers down my spine just from the first couple of paragraphs!

    1. I hope I'm not too much of an interloper here! I must read more Orwell - which would you recommend, beyond 1984 and Animal Farm? (The only other book I've read in full is Homage to Catalonia, which I loved.)

  5. I loved Christine's moment of realization that other families do not read at the table when eating (I can sympathize with that!). What great book-filled childhoods you both had -- lots of familiar names there. And thank you, Simon, for putting this week together - I've had a lovely time.

    1. Sadly (for me) reading at the table was banned even in my bibliophile family! But otherwise books were certainly encouraged :)

  6. I so agree with the comments on reading children's books. I love them, and regularly re-read my favourites, as well as experimenting with new ones. Apart from the joy of the book itself, there is a wonderful tinge of nostalgia about losing oneself in a book, or a story, that you loved as a child. Ballet Shoes, in particular, does it for me every time.

    1. Since I only really read Enid Blyton, every now and then I pick up a classic children's book and discover what I could have been reading alongside! Not quite the same, but worth filling in the gaps.

  7. So enjoying the series! I am another guilt-free children's books reader. And I too loved St Clare's (much better than Malory Towers, though I liked them) and haven't gone back to them, because I'm pretty sure Blyton doesn't mature well...

    1. So rare to find someone who preferred St. Clare's! I feel oddly cheered by that news :) I re-read The Naughtiest Girl in the School a few years ago, and it aged better than I expected... and is quite intriguingly Communist.

  8. Simon, I never guessed my 'partner' was you! We do seem to have remarkable similar tastes though, and I do have to put my hand up to dwelling too much on the past at times. I'm delighted to find so many kindred spirits as far as children's books are concerned, especially Geranium Cat - if you are ever in Birmingham, we should meet up and chant the poems in unison, whilst eating toast, marmalade, and rice pudding perhaps!

    And for Dark Puss's information, I am a great enthusiast about Orwell's essays, and think his prose in that genre is second to none. It's just his novels that I hate, which is very inconsistent of me, but I think it's to with plot, subject and character rather than writing style.

    Simon, thank you so much for inviting me to take part (and for partnering me). I've always enjoyed reading about other people's book habits, and it was lovely to take part. Thank you!

    1. I love that we both mention Miss Hargreaves! Every year I make the pairings before I have any of the answers, and try (based on what I know of the participants already) to put together pairs who will complement each other - either by being similar or by being different. But I couldn't have guessed quite how similar our choices would be, with our shared love for Spark, Woolf, and Miss H! Thanks so much for taking part, it was a pleasure to share Friday with you :)

  9. Simon, I was just going to ask how you matched people up - I thought it couldn't quite be random - and there your answer is.

    Another wonderful pair of interviews! Christine, I'm another one who re-reads children's books, and in fact I have several shelves of them. I did think briefly of listing that as my guilty pleasure, but I don't actually feel guilty about it!

  10. So much here I can identify with especially in Christine's answers, almost all of those in fact. I too love children's books and have reread The Secret Garden ever so many times. But 1984 -- not my cup of tea. Fascinating to have Simon's choices at last. Long may this series continue.

  11. "The secret garned" I read it when I was a child... maybe I will read it once again... it was wonderful story:)

  12. I liked Christine's final comment- I believe that no book should be a guilty pleasure, but I do find myself getting embarrassed when people ask what I'm reading and it's a children's book. Sometimes the reactions are strange... but surely it's not an unusual thing to do. So I thought I'd post in solidarity :) Also enjoying this series in general.

  13. Wonderful! Christine - we even chose one of the same books - and could have chosen more as selecting just one in each category was so difficult. I don't think you are in our group but I know you somehow found my blog and are already a regular commenter, which is very much appreciated. I'd love to visit the new Birmingham Library perhaps we could arrange that some time?? Barbara


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