Sunday 3 November 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Seven

Erica, as well as running the blog Reading 1900-1945, has written a book about Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Arnim and is my frequent conference buddy!

Karen blogs at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, and it was as 'Kaggsy' that I first met her (I believe) in a LibraryThing group which celebrates Virago Modern Classics.

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.

Erica: I did grow up in a book-loving household, and I think my parents must have read to me, but I don’t remember it! I think I must have learned to read at quite a young age; I can remember early on at primary school there being a book sale and being very excited about it. I chose a bumper Mr Man book that I think I still have somewhere with my name in the front and various scrawls.

I remember being a wide-ranging and omnivorous reader, and taking pride and comfort in my own bookcase filled with books in my bedroom, and finding various small spaces to become book-reading dens. I remember that I read Alice Adventures in Wonderland at the age of seven and became deeply attached to it despite not understanding most of it! What were these ‘conversations’ that Alice couldn’t find in her sister’s book? Not a clue. But, importantly, this didn’t seem to matter at all. So much of the pleasure of Alice is in the sounds of the words, and I think those that I didn’t understand were still enjoyable (and many of them are, of course, made up by Carroll). I find the conventional wisdom that children’s books must not contain vocabulary considered to be beyond the level of the readership rather frustrating. How else do you learn new words?

Through the Looking-Glass always had a different feeling to me than Alice; somehow it was more resonant, and more disturbing. I imagined myself going through the mist of the looking-glass into that world which seemed rather nightmarish to me.

KarenYes I did - both parents were always readers: my dad liked factual books (Chariots of the Gods and the like when I was growing up) plus thrillers and sci fi, whereas my mum reads more traditional 'women's books' (Santa Montefiore being her current favourite). They always read to me from an early age - in fact, my parents tell me that they thought I had learned to read particularly early as a young child, until they realised that I had simply memorised the stories and was reciting them back to people and pretending to read!

It's hard to pick out just one book that I loved from my childhood as I tended to read in series - Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, 'Mystery' and Five Find-Outers were particular favourites, and once I started to get pocket money, it would go on a new Enid every week. I was also keen on the Narnia books though I came to them a little later. Trying to pick out one, I keep oddly enough coming back to a book I kept getting out of our local library (and I can still visualise the inside of the building where I would get it checked out) - Dr. Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. It was the strange, surreal, alien imagery that appealed to me, so unlike my real life - I guess books have always been something of an escape for 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?

Erica: I continued to read books I didn’t understand - I remember my Mum not having any children’s books in the house when I was visiting one weekend (complicated family) and giving me Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. At the age of 10 or so I really couldn’t see what was funny about it! (But I soldiered on, as you do, and read all the works of Austen without understanding much by the age of 14.)

One of the first adult books I really enjoyed was Wuthering Heights, an A level set text. But unfortunately, and surprisingly given my current profession, I hated being made to analyse it - or ‘pick it apart’ as I considered it then. I wanted to be transported, to enjoy that narrative hypnosis which I thought was the point of novels. In retrospect this may be related to the fact my life was difficult at this point - more family breakdown - but I also suspect that 16 year old girls are suckers for a doomed love story and do not wish to made to relinquish that surrendered reading!

I did not do an English degree because I thought it would ruin reading for me!

Karen: Again, this is really hard to pick out just one, but I guess I would plump for The Hobbit. Some relatives heard that I loved the Narnia books (I would probably have been about 11 or so) and sent a copy of The Hobbit which both me and my dad devoured, and then followed up by raiding the library for the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and reading the lot. After that I really never looked back - I borrowed my mum's romances (Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart etc al) and the Agatha Christies that were lying around the house, plus other crime authors like Ed McBain, and then followed this up by discovering Solzhenitsyn and the Russians when we studied the Russian Revolution at school. I was a fairly troubled teenager, as my favourite grandmother died when I was 11 and it took me a long time to deal with it - like I said, books were an escape, my coping mechanism.

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.

Erica: Of all the books I read in my 20s, there is a clear winner for the one that changed my life. My post-degree working life was all about books, at different stages in their production. First I worked at Waterstone’s, then in marketing at a publisher, then in editorial. My work was pretty routine and unchallenging, and I was wondering what to do next when I saw an advert for a part-time MA called ‘Women, Gender and Writing’ at Roehampton University. I absolutely loved my MA. It was truly like a door opening. It showed me a way of thinking about books that stimulated and inspired me, and I felt that I had finally found my bookish world. After those years of resisting analysis I now loved thinking in a critical, informed way.

The book that changed my life was A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (1951). We had a seminar with the brilliant Nicola Humble who explained that this novel, and others like it were regarded as ‘middlebrow’ and as light, comforting reads for women, bless their feather-brained heads.

I couldn’t believe it. The novel I had read was funny, yes, but also incisive, acute and downright cruel in its dissection of the disappointments of life. A Game of Hide and Seek tells the story of Harriet and Vesey. As the novel begins they are eighteen and in love. At the end of the summer they will part, Harriet will marry someone else, and they will not enter each other’s lives again for another twenty years. Harriet and Vesey never protest and declare their love, yet it is omnipresent, and entirely credible. I thought it was one of the best novels I had ever read, and so well-written it almost hurt.

It formed part of my MA dissertation, which I called ‘The Reassurance of Cruelty’ - for the only reassurance I could see in it was that Taylor was saying yes, domestic life is as difficult and cruel as you thought. A reality is reflected back: yes, life is like that. A Game of Hide and Seek, my sense of outrage that it wasn’t recognised for the exceptional novel I considered it, and trying to understand why that was, started me on the road to an academic career.

Karen: Well, my early 20s were a pivotal time with my reading - this was when I discovered so many of the writers whose work I still love and return to. So that makes it really difficult to pick a favourite. But I think I will go for a slightly unlikely book, Literary Women by Ellen Moers. It was published by The Women's Press and I was a recent convert to feminism at the time, having recently discovered Virago too. Literary Women was a revelation, opening my eyes to an amazing amount of women writers I'd never heard of, let alone read. I finished up with a huge list of authors I wanted to discover which led me onto another pivotal book, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I'd never read anything like it and it set me off on a whole new lifetime of reading, mainly because I was no longer intimidated by literature, and felt I could read anything I wanted to, from de Beavoir, Sartre, Camus et al to Italo Calvino (whose "If on a winter's night a traveler" almost got picked here as it caused me a major obsession with the author which still continues to this day!)

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?

Erica: I started blogging as part of my work on the collection of popular fiction published between 1900 and 1950 at Sheffield Hallam University. I don’t think I would have started a personal blog, but I’ve found I love being part of the conversation about books that happens in blogs.

Blogging has definitely changed my reading habits, because the reviews are of books in the collection. I very rarely find time to read books that fall outside this 1900-1950 time period. Now, hang on… this is just the same as when I was writing my PhD! I better face it. Contemporary fiction is a bit of a closed book to me. (Actually I did just read Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2013), borrowed from my Mum. It was HORRIBLE. I am mentally scarred. There was a clue in that it is publisher by Hammer, of Hammer horror fame, but I didn’t clock that….)

One of my favourite books of the last few years is Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011). I read it on a long train journey and I snorted and wept with laughter for several happy hours. So much of what she said resonated with me, and she said it all so well. A good rant is an underappreciated genre! And it is part of the splendid resurgence of feminism in recent years.

Karen: I've been blogging for a year now, and really enjoyed it - and probably discovered a lot books because of it! I enjoyed so much reading other blogs and the pleasure it gave me that I wanted to get involved and give something back. I really enjoy interacting with other bloggers and being part of a community, particularly as I don't actually know many people in real life that read the same sort of thing as I do! Blogging *has* changed my reading habits, for the better I think - I read more thoroughly and analytically now, and think much more about what I've read because I have to try and communicate what I feel about the book to any readers!

A favourite book? Again, it seems cruel to only pick one - but Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita stands out as having totally engrossed me and changed the way I look at things a lot - I see the absurd everywhere nowadays! But I think honourable mentions should go to the wonderful Persephone Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which I couldn't put down and had me grinning from ear to ear; and Miss Hargreaves, which I heard about from your blog and really must read again!

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

Erica: My not-guilty-at-all pleasure is to read Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. For my birthday and at Christmas my Dad is instructed to buy me the latest volume - for my birthday just gone it was Series 9, volume 2 - thank you Dad! I love the humour, insight and feminist sensibility of Buffy, and the visual experience of reading a comic, probably because it is so different from what I usually read. I also think it is important to have some reading for which you will NEVER take notes. I guess it is back to the ‘surrendered reading’ of my childhood.

Karen: Cookbooks! I have a weakness for reading them and have three shelves in my kitchen.... It probably stems from when I went vegetarian when I was 18 and had to read up on it a bit - this was a *loooong* time ago without all the veggie conveniences we have now. Some of my oldest are from the 1970s and though I probably wouldn't cook much from the older books, they read almost like a kind of social history - it's amazing how our culinary habits have changed!!

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

Karen, on Erica's choices: Well, the first thing that springs to mind here is that this person obviously likes reading about feisty heroines - starting with Alice and ending with Buffy, both of whom are strong and individual, though in different ways. Alice is contrary from the point she runs off after the White Rabbit to her defiance of the Court and is definitely a good role model for young people! And Buffy is a character who takes no nonsense either.

This reader also seems to have a taste for the dramatic and passionate, as Wuthering Heights is certainly that, and also features another feisty woman in the form of Cathy, refusing to let death get in the way of her love. Although A Game of Hide and Seek might seem like a quieter proposition, it also features a heroine who marries for money, not love, but never stops caring for the man in her heart, so both of these books show a reader who likes to examine the motivations of people's passions.

As for Caitlin Moran - well, there's another feisty one! She's pithy and funny and so although this reader isn't necessarily female (plenty of men I know like spiky, in control females!), he/she certainly has a fondness for dominant women - I could foresee interesting time spent in their company discussing books!

Erica on Karen's choices: Oh, I might know who this is! Is it Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings? It is the Bulgakov that makes me think this, but then by Googling I have just found out that there is a whole website devoted to The Master and Margarita alone, so there are many fans out there. This person sounds very well-rounded, with tastes that range from Dr Seuss (who I love too – his Sleep Book was a favourite as a child) through to Tolkein (who I think of as peculiarly male – is it the questing?) to Literary Women and cookery books. There’s a strong thread of fantasy (and in The Master and Margarita it sounds a very dark fantasy), and then the cookery books bring this reader back into the material world. I had to look up Ellen Moers’ book as I’m ashamed to say I have not read this ground-breaking book – I will be looking it up in the library. I too like reading cookery books for relaxation – and for planning all the lovely things I am going to cook and eat, of course!


  1. Karen - another fan of The Master and Margarita - it's on my classic club list - I must get a copy of the actual book soon. I have never read The Hobbit or LoTR - and I only ever read one Narnia book - my guilty secret. :)

    Erica - some great choices - I agree about A Game of Hide and Seek - though I only read for the first time last year - it is an amazing book, Wuthering Heights though was the Bronte novel I liked least though I will make myself re-read it one day. I have to say I hated How To be a Woman - it actually enraged me - I only read it at all for a book group - everyone including the woman who had suggested it disliked it to some degree - which all goes to show we can't all like the same things or experience them the same way, which is part of what makes reading/blogging etc so fascinating.

    1. I'm sorry I am so late to the conversation - I have been ill. I'm fascinated that everyone in your book group disliked Caitlin Moran's book. It shows that thinking about what it means to be a woman is a something that inspires very strong feelings! I found it hilarious. Can you say what it was that enraged you?

  2. Really good reading and I suppose I HAVE to read Master and Margarita now ... I loved your assessment of one another. I've read that Ellen Moers, too - I started on feminism in my late teens but really blossomed into reading the non-fiction works at university, especially doing courses on Women's Writing - even though I got a bit annoyed with that optional course at the time and struggled with some of the issues, I realise now that it affected my reading and thinking through all the years since then.

  3. Dear LyzzyBee and Heavenali, no "must read" anything in my world but I completely agree with Karen's enthusiastic comment about the Bulgakov!

  4. Thanks for featuring me in this series, Simon, and how lovely to be paired with Erica! I'm mightily impressed that she sussed me, but I suppose I do ramble on about Bulgakov a fair amount! Yes, there's a fair amount of fantasy and escapism - but I do get grounded now and again!

    If I'm being honest, I agree with Dark Puss that there's actually no such thing as a "must read" - as Ali points out, part of the joy of reading and blogging is celebrating our similarities and differences. Nevertheless, I do highly recommend "The Master and Margarita" as something of a life-changing read (well, it was for me!)

    (and yes - I think we did first meet on LT, Simon!)

  5. I too started with Enid, and am none the worse for it! My first adult book was 'Animal Farm' at age 11. I have failed, however, to connect with 'The Master and Margarita' after two attempts. I will wait, and try again. SD

  6. I enjoyed getting to know both of you! I love this series, Simon.

  7. Some wonderful choices here. Karen, I can understand how you felt about Mrs Dallow, because that's so similar to the way I felt about The Ballad of Peckham Rye. And Erica, I can sympathise with the fear that analysing books could spoil your enjoyment.

    Simon, this has been a lovely series, and it's interesting that despite everyone's differences certain books and authors keep cropping up.

  8. Another interesting conversation between book lovers. I have not read Master and Margarita but know it is in my Penguin collection. I might get to it next year when I work on my Century of Books challenge more seriously. Great job all of you.

  9. *giggle* I'd have been able to guess it was Karen from The Master and Margarita being picked too, she's one of the few bloggers I know who gets why I am so obsessed by that book, I love the fact we both picked it as a choice. :)

    1. Was I a little obvious there?! ;)

  10. I'm already a fan of Erica's blog. Is the collection open to the public, like me, Erica? I would love to visit from Leeds one day. Barbara

    1. Hello Barbara, yes the collection is open to the public. It is on level 2 of the Adsetts Centre
      Let me know if you do come over - I'd be very happy to show you round.

  11. Now several people have recommended The Master and Margarita to me I really feel I must give it a go.

  12. Oh, a correct guess - well done! I love Karen's point about similarity and difference - so true. To a certain extent there is a bit of reading the same thing going on, but one so rarely sees a homogenized response. And I have been enjoying Erica's blog so much - and am amused to see such a different (*not* guilty!) pleasure in the Buffy selection. I loved Buffy on the tv, and really should go and find these graphic novels, as they sound wonderful.

  13. Interesting choices. I love how I can find new books here all the time. "Literary Women" sounds great.

    Marianne from Let's Read

  14. another great selection ,I follow karens blog she is great ,all the best stu


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