Thursday 27 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Four

Belle blogs at Belle, Book, and Candle

Tony blogs at Tony's Reading List

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.

Belle: I have written on Belle, Book, and Candle about my very few experiences with reading during childhood. I know that there were books at my grandparents' house and I had a great-aunt who had an extensive library (I now have several books from both of those households), but my parents weren't readers except for the newspaper (Dad) and magazines (Mom).

My second grade teacher sent a note home to my parents that I needed to read more 'for pleasure'. Basically there are two books I remember reading before I went to high school: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink about a young girl growing up on the American frontier in the 1860s and a small paperback biography of the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen that I read in third grade. How I came to pick that one I will never understand. Pitiful, I know.

Tony: I’d have to say that my home wasn’t really a bookish one, and most of the books I read as a child came from my local library. There wasn’t much selection at that point – it was a case of taking what happened to be on the shelves. I do remember taking a few books out over and over again, though. One was a collection of stories showing childrens’ life abroad (I distinctly remember stories from Brittany and Lappland), and when I was older there was a book set in East Berlin about a girl who was a high-jumper. It really is amazing what sticks in your brain…

As for a favourite book, I probably couldn’t settle on just one title, but it would definitely have to be something by Enid Blyton. At one point, there was a mysterious box of books in our kitchen (whose they were and why they were there was never adequately explained), and I sneaked them out and read them whenever I could. I enjoyed The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and the school books set at St. Clare’s and Malory Towers (in fact, one of my pet theories about the success of Harry Potter is that it has nothing to do with magic – people were simply reminded of reading books about boarding schools as a kid…).

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?

Belle: Once I got to high school, I must have discovered reading with a vengeance because I remember many nights staying up late to finish Rebecca, Nine Coaches Waiting, The Once and Future King, and the Nancy Drew mysteries. And I recall a marathon reading of Gone with the Wind when I was in ninth grade.

Some time around then, I also read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff which I believe must have inspired me more than I could ever have known at the time. Since then, I have read the book numerous times, enjoyed repeated watchings of the movie (I always cry), and seen the stage play performed on my first trip to London. I can't imagine anyone who loves books not having read this one.

In eleventh grade, I read Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. It was his true-life tale of traveling around America with his poodle Charley. It was the first non-fiction book I read that wasn't a textbook (except for that odd choice on Sun Yat-Sen). When I finished the book, I went downstairs and announced to my mother: “I want to be a writer.” I hadn't realized until then that people actually wrote about their own experiences. That book led me to a career writing for newspapers and magazines.

Tony: This may surprise a lot of people, but I was a very late starter with ‘serious’ literature, and I was pretty bored by English literature at school (on one memorable occasion, I was dragged out of English class by my teacher after he discovered that I’d made up all of my answers on a test about Far from the Madding Crowd – mainly because I hadn’t even opened it…). I distinctly remember buying Wuthering Heights at the start of my second year at university, one of the one-pound Penguin Popular Classics that were released at the time, and it’s a book which set me on the road to reading more classics.

While I’d read serious books for my studies, this was the first time I’d chosen to try it for fun, and it was an interesting experience. I was a little confused by the number of characters (especially the two Catherines…), and it was a bit of a slog. Still, even then, I realised that there was a lot more to it than I was used to finding in the books I’d been reading, and the first step on the road to where I am now was taken that day J

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.

Belle: One that really sticks in my mind is A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. Like Travels With Charley, here was a book full of examples of people writing about their own lives and times. By then, I had started keeping journals of my own and so was interested to see how others – Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau – recorded their thoughts. Of course, I now have a cabinet stuffed with those black and white composition books full of my own experiences and reflections. A journal is such a wonderful place to practice writing.

Tony: I’m not sure that this book did anything more than make me read more by the same author, but reading Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, closely followed by Barchester Towers, is certainly an event that sticks out in my memory. I was living in Japan at the time, and getting hold of good English-language books was fairly difficult, so I was very happy to find a second-hand bookshop with lots of books in English a short train journey from where I was living.

From the moment I started reading the books, I knew that this was a writer I’d enjoy, one with a self-important, mocking style, an author who made books about churchmen’s squabbles seem fascinating. On the day I write this, I’m actually in the middle of another of Trollope’s novels, Lady Anna, which will be about the eighteenth of his books I’ve read, and I’ve also finished his Autobiography (and I have a biography on the shelves…). Not a life-changing decision, then, but certainly one that’s led to countless hours of reading enjoyment.

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?

Belle: This is a Big Question, Simon! I began Belle, Book, and Candle on January 1, 2012. I had been reading other book blogs for a year or so and just decided I needed to start recording my own experiences with books. The name for the blog came to me in that early morning dream-like state that occurs once the alarm has rung and before I have actually gotten out of bed. Since beginning my blog, I have read hundreds of books, so picking a favorite would be difficult.

I will say that I have enjoyed reading children's and young adult books that I missed in my own childhood: Little Women, Harriet the Spy, Winnie the Pooh. And I recently found a vintage copy of The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink, she of Caddie Woodlawn fame, that was so delightful I was tempted to reread it immediately.

One that I loved, which totally surprised me, was So Big by Edna Ferber. I don't read as much fiction as some, but I got very involved in this story of a young woman's journey through life.

I have discovered so many wonderful authors in the past couple of years: Bill Bryson, Angela Thirkell, E.M. Delafield and Elizabeth Gaskell. And have taken to rereading, something I rarely did, some of my favorites: Beverley Nichols, James Thurber, E.B. White, and P.G. Wodehouse.

Tony: Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Facebook that pushed me in the direction of blogging! I was a member of a group that discussed classic literature, and taking part in discussions made me realise that I’d really slipped in my reading – people much younger than I was were far better read, and I felt very uncomfortable about it. Towards the end of 2008, I made the resolution that 2009 would be the year I started reading more widely (and simply more), and to achieve that aim, I set up the blog. The rest, as they say…

The biggest effect the blog has had on my reading (apart from making me read a lot more than I ever thought possible) has been my move into fiction in translation, and I’ve been lucky enough to read and review some wonderful works that I’d otherwise never have heard of. One of the more memorable finds of the past couple of years has been Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s books Heaven and Hell and The Sorrow of Angels, two excellent novels (with a third out next year) set around the brutal Icelandic east coast. Another couple of more well-known names are Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels and, of course, Andrés Neuman, with a special mention for the excellent Traveller of the Century :)

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

Belle: I don't know if this would surprise anyone and I certainly don't feel guilty for reading them: Mysteries, especially British who-done-its and comic capers. I don't want any gore, thank you very much. I enjoy a good puzzle and if the tale is told with a soupçon of humor, all the better. Therefore I binge on Agatha Christie, Peter Lovesey, Martha Grimes, Donald Westlake, Alexander McCall Smith, Peter Mayle, and the mysteries of Georgette Heyer.

Tony: This is a really difficult one for me because I’ve plunged so deeply into serious literature since starting the blog that I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve read in the past few years (that I’ve liked) that would qualify. Instead, I’ll offer up a visual offering, a German telenovela called Alisa – Folge deinem Herzen (Alisa – Follow your Heart), which I watched a couple of years back. It was an awful, kitschy German-language daily soap, one full of clichés and obviously evil and saintly characters, but it was great fun to watch (and good for my German, too!). Recently, I discovered a site called DramaFire, which has Korean and Japanese drama series with English subtitles, so I may try one of those in the near future too ;)

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

Tony, on Belle's choices: From the intriguing choices given (most of which are fairly new to me), I'm fairly certain that this is an American blogger, and while Simon advised against guessing the gender, I'm happy to stick my neck out and say that it's a woman (insert laughter here...). There's also an obvious focus on non-fiction in this selection, and that, along with the children's book choices, might indicate someone a little older than myself... a twelve-year-old boy from Manchester it is, then ;)

Belle, on Ton'ys choices: I am guessing this person is from the UK as we have a dearth of Enid Blyton books here in America. (My library carries exactly three!) She/he likes adventure and is a romantic (although I never could fathom the attraction of the moody, mysterious Heathcliff) and has a mind for the classics. I had to investigate Heaven and Hell (Icelandic journey!) which sounds so very rough-and-tumble, not to mention cold and dark. (Perhaps I am dealing with Heathcliff's modern incarnation here?) I really would need to sit down with this person and get an understanding of what a telenovela is and how to find one. How very modern...


  1. What lovely books and experiences! Enid Blyton seems to have been so pivotal in so many people's reading lives (she certainly was in mine)!

  2. Tony may like to know that the book about the high-jumper in East Berlin is Bury the Dead, by Peter Carter. I read it in my early teens and it has stuck with me too.

  3. Thanks, Rosie - a book I must have read at least half-a-dozen times :)

  4. Belle--It was nice to learn a little more about your reading life. I like many of the same authors you do, and 84 Charing Cross is one of my favorite books. I've read it multiple times.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I just recently reread '84' and its follow-up 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street' about Helene Hanff's - finally! - visit to London. It is written in the form of a journal. So you have two of my favorites: letters in one and a journal in the other. How can you beat that!

  5. Belle, we enjoy so many of the same books ! I was thrilled to discover Edna Ferber's So Big a few years ago, and am also a big fan of Thomas Mallon. Cheers to Simon for posting this.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kat. I was so surprised at how much I enjoyed "So Big." What a fascinating character Selina was. When he was on tour with his novel "Watergate," Thomas Mallon spoke here at the library (sadly, I missed it). I am currently on a hunt for a copy his book "Yours Ever: People and Their Letters."


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