Friday 28 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Five

Nicola blogs at Vintage Reads
Barb blogs at Leaves and Pages

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.

Nicola: Yes, my parents read to me and the local library was at the top of our road so books were always on hand. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s boarding school books as a child. Malory Towers was my favourite, who wouldn’t want to go to a girls boarding school in beautiful Cornwall with a tidal swimming pool amidst the rocks? I still have a weakness for a good boarding school book.

Barb: I defintely grew up in a book-loving household. Both of my parents were keen readers, and my mother read to me when I was very young, though this stopped once I was able to read alone, from six years of age or so, so my memories of books read aloud to me are rather foggy.

A favourite I do remember very well, and which I was most pleased to share with my own children, was My Father's Dragon by Ruth Gannett. My young self found it completely hilarious, and I can still recite the contents of young Elmer Elevator's pack, prepared with all eventualities in mind as he heads off to Wild Island in search of a baby dragon: chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, rubber bands, rubber boots, a compass, a toothbrush, six magnifying glasses, a VERY sharp jackknife, a comb and a hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying "Cranberry", some clean clothes, and twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The uses Elmer finds for these items are completely unexpected. The illustrations are absolutely perfect, as well, and I can close my eyes and see the map of Wild Island, and the completely non-threatening, rather rotund baby dragon whom Elmer eventually does locate. Brilliant!

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?

Nicola: I’m not sure that Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives could be described as ‘grown-up’ books but I think they got me thinking about serious themes. I was profoundly affected by the death of Beth in Good Wives because I hadn’t encountered death in books before. That’s not to say Good Wives is all doom and gloom there is a lot of fun with Meg’s first attempts at home-making and the birth of her twins, Amy’s artistic efforts and Jo’s blossoming writing career. If I’m honest Good Wives has always been my favourite of the two!

Barb: Oh, this one is hard. I read voraciously and "above my level" all through my childhood. One book which stands out as perhaps one of the most enjoyable "adult" books read in youth was The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson. I was in Grade 4, so must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and I found this on my father's bookshelf in a very tattered, well-read paperback edition. (I still have it, though it is now in many pieces and completely unreadable.)

The Long Ships is a glorious Viking Saga, following young Red Orm on many adventures, from his teenage capture by a group of raiders to his becoming part of the crew and his ups and downs as he pursues various quests, including becoming a guard in a sultan's harem, and being converted to Christianity in order to woo a king's daughter. Very hearty fare, this book, and I loved every word.

At this point in my life I was going through quite a wonderful year, if truth be told. I had a school teacher whom I absolutely loved, Mr. Ford, who was young and enthusiastic and had us doing all sorts of ambitious projects, such as going out into the school hallway and pacing off the actual size of a blue whale. He was a huge Greenpeace supporter, when that wasn't necessarily a mainstream sort of thing to be, and he shared his passion for environmentalism with his class. We'd never had a teacher like him before, and it was, literally, life changing. So many things "clicked" that year.

I also went to California that year (we went almost every year through my childhood, to visit my mother's family, driving for three days from central British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon and halfway down California to Fresno) and it was an unusually memorable visit. Instead of giving me a bunch of assignments to work on while I was gone, as other teachers had done, Mr. Ford handed me a stack of books. "Your only job is to read these," he said. They were all books on
California, about the Gold Rush and the California Grizzly and such I remember sitting on my grandparent's front porch, reading away with the scent of roses wafting around me. My uncle's night-blooming cereus cactus flowered during that visit; we all stayed up late to watch it unfold in the moonlight, and send forth its amazing fragrance. Quails in the garden, oranges and lemons on the trees, walking my grandfather's happy beagle Bugs - my assigned job during the visit, which I utterly LOVED - I took him on some very long walks - no one knew, or even inquired where we were going as we headed out - a bissful state of affairs which I look back on with a sigh for how the world has chaged, rollerskating with my cousins (I was awful at it and fell down continuously and spent my holiday decorated in knees-and-elbows bandaids), a trip to see the immense Sequoia trees at King's Canyon - it was a wonderful trip, and stands out in my mind as one of my best experiences of that year.

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.

Nicola: I discovered Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey in my twenties. It’s a little gem of a novel about the plight of a governess in Victorian England and it ends with a romantic reconciliation on a sunny day on Scarborough beach! Anne loved Scarborough so much that she spend her final days there and is buried in the churchyard which overlooks the beach. I visited many years ago and her grave was covered with fresh red roses.

Barb: Another tough one. Looking back, let's see... nothing exactly Life Changing, but I remember discovering Elizabeth Goudge in my mid-twenties, and being very much attracted to her philosophy, all about the "rightness" of creating a home and the importance of treating daily tasks with care and the importance of appreciating the ever-present good things in life, even while going through suffering and emotional turmoil. I was already married, and living in Alberta, and my husband and I were both going to college as struggling adult students; we dreamed of someday having our own house and farm, while living in a tiny basement apartment and counting our pennies, trying to stretch our meager funds and looking with apprehension at the mounting balances of our student loans. I read Elizabeth Goudge's Pilgrim's Inn at that time, and found it comforting and encouraging; the feeling of that book and its "message" that life is worthwhile and the little things do matter has stayed with me all of my life.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Nicola: I started studying for my English degree when my twins were six and didn’t finish it until they were around thirteen! I didn’t want to continue studying when I finished because I prefer to read for pleasure. One can only spend so long scouring Wuthering Heights for Marxist/Feminist/Freudian themes! I started the blog because I just wanted a place to talk about my literary tastes - American contemporary literary fiction, Victorian novels and of course, Jane Austen - and be part of a blogging community. The first blogs that inspired me were Yarnstorm (Jane Brocket mainly writes about baking, crafting, knitting and quilting, but she is is very good on books!), Cornflower, Becca and Bella and Random Jottings. If not for book bloggers I woud never have discovered Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for which I am profoundly grateful!

Barb: In the last year or two, let's see...this is *really* tough. New to me quite recently are Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Cambridge, Rose Macaulay and O. Douglas, all of whom I find myself "collecting" and reading with supreme pleasure. If I have to identify one book from the last year or two which was a true favourite, I'd have to say...oh gosh!...The Innocents by Margery Sharp. I've admired Margery Sharp for a long time, and this was one of the last of her books I'd yet to read, and I found it deeply moving, and very funny, too, in its dry and clever way.

I came to blogging through reading, of course. Reading other people's blogs, and appreciating them so much that I felt an ever-stronger urge to join the conversation and share my own books with other questers. Blogging has changed my reading habits only in that I now stop occasionally and mentally note things I'd like to highlight or share in my posts. There is a bit of a crunch trying to decide how much time to dedicate to writing about the books; it inevitably cuts into my precious reading time, but to date I find that it has been worth it - the activities enhance each other. And my family is extremely supportive of the blogging enterprise, which is crucial to my continuation of the project. It has sparked some marvelous conversations among us.

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

Nicola: Jilly Cooper’s ‘girl’ books Imogen, Harriet, Octavia, Bella, Emily and Prudence which were published in the seventies and my sister and I read avidly. Imogen was my favourite because she worked in a library!

Barb: D.E. Stevenson is my guilty pleasure. Oh, and Mary Stewart. And I do have a sci-fi habit, carried over from teenagerdom. If I have to pick a representative "guilty pleasure" book, I think that I'll go to the sci-fi shelf. The Door Into Summer, by Robert Heinlein. Still love it, though I cringe a bit more each time I read it, too. Heinlein was terribly sexist, and his views on women haven't aged very well at all. But I forgive him all for his championship of the cat in this story, and the fact that the 'door into summer' describes so well our own endless function as servants to our own beloved cats and their omnipresent need to be on the other side of whatever passage point is currently closed.

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

Barb, on Nicola's choices: Heading out on a limb here. I'm going to say female. From England, or a British-influenced background. I think my reader has a fondness for books which espouse a strong moral code, and which celebrate family life. The list shows a natural progression of reading tastes, and says to me that my reader is thoughtful and perhaps rather serious-minded in regards to her (his?) choices - a reader of deliberately chosen "worthwhile" books, perhaps? (Or perhaps I am assuming too much!) But I predict that as well as a strong moral compass my secret reader has a lovely sense of humour, as evidenced by the Jilly Cooper choice!

Nicola on Barb's choices: [Added in after post publication] Interesting choices. The only author I'm familiar with from Barb's choices is Elizabeth Goudge and I've been meaning to read more of her novels for years. Thank you Barb, for inspiring me to read her again!


  1. Barb's is one of those dangerous blogs that adds to my TBR stacks on a regular basis :) I haven't come across Nicola's yet, but from her book choices I know I'll enjoy it.

  2. Lovely! And more Enid Blyton! :)

  3. Yes, I agree with Lisa - I have found so many gems through Barb's blog. I enjoyed the shared experience these bloggers had with childhood reading - among supportive readers. This is something that - happily - I can relate to very well.

  4. Two of my favourite bloggers - and, as you'd expect, interesting picks from both!

  5. OMG, I devoured so many books by Elizabeth Goudge in my late teens


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