Monday 24 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day One

Jenny blogs at Reading the End

Eric blogs at Lonesome Reader

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.

Jenny: Yes, I did! My mother started reading the Chronicles of Narnia to me and my sister when I was three, and she read a ton of books to us over the years. A favorite book from childhood was Emily of New Moon (et seq. -- is it cheating to say more than one book if it's three in a series?). I wanted to write myself, so I loved reading about all the stories and poems Emily wrote over the years. One of my favorite bits was in the third book, when she's finally published a book and she and her relatives are reading through all her contradictory reviews.

Eric: For a period of my childhood, my mother was a school librarian and we always had a fair amount of books around the house. My father is more of a reader of history. I remember a lot of bedtime story books that centered around famous world leaders, but we’d also read my preferred fantasy novels together.

One realistic book which made a huge impression was Stephen Manes’ Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! It’s about a bookish outcast boy who happens upon a self-help book with steps that promise to make him into a perfect person. However, it turns into a celebration of all our quirks and imperfections. This message didn’t quite get through. It surmises that perfect people do nothing but sit quietly in a room all day sipping weak tea. This seems to me like a near perfect state of being.

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?

Jenny:Jane Eyre was a gift for my ninth (I believe) birthday, and I loved it so much my heart hurt; it remains one of my all-time favorite 'grown-up books.' At the time I was miserable in school and feeling woefully misunderstood and wretched, so I identified with poor Jane right away and wanted to see life do right by her. I loved it when she inherited all the money and got to do whatever she wanted.

Eric: My parents recommended I read Shōgun by James Clavell when I was 12. It’s a fantastic epic adventure story with some fairly grown up themes, violence and explicit sexual content if I remember rightly. Like many adolescents at this point in life I was gangly, awkward and felt like a social outcast so loved sinking into this story of a foreigner’s immersion into an unfamiliar, beautiful culture.

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.

Jenny: Can I go a bit earlier? I read a book called Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, when I was seventeen or eighteen, which is about a socially anxious girl who leaves her regular life and goes to be a completely different sort of person in a completely different sort of life. So many things about this book hit me like a ton of bricks, but particularly the idea that although it is impossible to change who you are, it is always possible to change what you're doing. I can't count how many times I read this book in my late teens and early twenties.

Eric: During one of the seminars I took during my Masters degree which I began when I was 22, I was assigned the novel Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates. Setting aside all the clever post-modernist theory you can read into the book which self-consciously plays with the genre of “mystery and detection,” this novel is a fantastically imaginative, thrilling and absorbing read that totally floored me. While creating a brilliant story of intrigue with dynamic memorable characters, it also unpretentiously raises the kind of philosophical questions which felt most central to my life at that time. It converted me into a life-long fan of Oates’ writing and made me realize the full elasticity of narrative to reshape reality. This is a book and writer that has really changed 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?

Jenny: I came to blogging because I realized that if I read book blogs all the time, I'd never have the problem of having no ideas for what to read next. I've been blogging for most of my adult reading life, so it's hard to say how it's altered my reading habits -- I can't properly remember the baseline I'd be returning to if I stopped blogging! I think I'd probably read more nonfiction and more classics if I weren't blogging. And I think I'd be less attentive to the demographics of my reading. Because of other bloggers, I make a concerted effort to read more diversely, and that's brought a lot of awesome books into my life!

Most of my new favorites over the past year or two have been debut novels: Hanya Yanagihara's gorgeous, chilling The People in the Trees; Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home; and Laurent Binet's HHhH. Those were all books that surprised and entranced me and reminded me why I love to read in the first place.

Eric: Artful by Ali Smith is a brilliant example of a novel that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does in the hands of this genius writer. The majority of the content is a series of lectures Smith originally wrote to deliver at a university and then later reshaped into a novel building a story of an individual mourning the loss of a lover around them. It may seem like an intellectual exercise, but this book chimed emotionally with me to the extent that I found myself totally engrossed and frequently crying. I read this novel late in 2013 and went to see Smith reading from it. I could spend my life sat at this writer’s feet endlessly listening to her good-humored attitude towards life and wisdom about literature.

Feelings of isolation brought me to blogging and the community of book bloggers. I don’t necessarily read more now that I’m blogging, but I read more attentively and critically. Rather than putting a book down and thinking “I liked it” I really quiz myself about why I thought it was effective and what the author was really trying to say and do in their narrative.

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

Jenny: I'm going to go with the shmoopy historical novel Shadow of the Moon, by M. M. Kaye. It's about a British girl born in India who grows up in England and then gets to return as an adult, right in time for the Sepoy Rebellion. Lots of high drama.

Eric: I wouldn’t call this a guilty pleasure, but it’s a book I would certainly shy away from reading on public transport due to its size and the explicit nature of its drawings. The graphic novel Lost Girls written by Alan Moore with illustrations from his partner Melinda Gebbie imagines a fantastical meeting of three of literature’s most enduring young heroines: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from Kansas and Wendy from Peter Pan. In their adulthoods, the girls meet in an Austrian hotel and have a series of frank sexual adventures and misadventures leading them on paths to self-discovery. The book plays with the original stories by reimagining them and delving into the deeper meaning of these girls’ awakening into adulthood. This book gave me some of the most intense dreams of my life; clearly some doors were opened. Some will consider the book perverse, but I think it’s truly radical and brilliant.

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

Eric, on Jenny's choices: This is a fascinating group of books and out of the bunch I’ve only read Jane Eyre. Looking up the themes and storylines of the novels I’d say this is a reader who is attracted to stories about savvy/feisty heroines, coming of age tales and universal stories that are found in other cultures – reading subjects very similar to what I’m interested in! I would guess it’s a reader who re-reads his/her favourite novels every few years – someone who is introverted, likes reading late at night and is excited by taking on book-reading challenges.

Jenny on Eric's choices: I'm going to be terrible at this bit because I haven't read any of those books. (Except -- I realized after some googling -- I did read Become a Perfect Person when I was small! I had forgotten about it completely until just now!) It seems like someone who reads widely and enthusiastically, and plunges with relish into reading challenges -- Shogun's massive, Lost Girls looks like a strange beast even for the wonderfully strange Alan Moore, and Ali Smith's one of those authors I'm too intimidated to do more than admire from a distance. S/he sounds like the kind of adventurous reader I always admire!


  1. Very interesting! I love reading about other people's bookish histories. Intrigued by the mention of the Joyce Carol Oates book - I keep circling her but haven't quite taken the plunge yet!

  2. It's great to see this series return - and with two wonderful book bloggers! I think I'd have guessed Jenny from her answers - she persuaded me to buy Shadow of the Moon and I really should get around to reading it one day!

    1. Ahahaha, there are some books on the subject of which I am quite the broken record. :p

  3. What a grand pair to start the week off with! Thank you, Jenny and Eric, and Simon of course for getting everyone organized. Jenny - I've just gone and ordered Greensleeves. I haven't ever read it, but from my past experience with Eloise Jarvis McGraw I know it will be beautifully written. Eric, I think you've given me the nudge to *finally* give Joyce Carol Oates a go - like Kaggsy I have been aware of her forever, but not yet taken the plunge. Oh, and back to Jenny - Shadow of the Moon - I think I have it somewhere in my mom's books - I'll see if I can find it for a day when a historical romance is as "deep" as I want to go. And back to Eric - Lost Girls sounds like something my daughter might be into - or maybe she is already aware of it/has read it. Must investigate.

    1. Thank you and I hope you do get to reading Oates. It depends on your reading tastes, of course, because she writes in a number of genres. But for a good taste of her realistic fiction which demonstrates her common themes I recommend starting with her novel The Gravedigger's Daughter.
      I'm not sure how old your daughter is, but I must stress that Lost Girls is quite explicit! However, it is very literary and a fascinating book created by a husband and wife.

    2. Oh, I can't tell you how excited I am that you've ordered Greensleeves! I hope you like it! It's one of my all-time favorite books (which I recognize is partly to do with the life stage I was in when I read it first), and it's so out of print that hardly anybody has read it.

    3. Eric - my daughter is 18 and very "into" graphic novels and manga so is pretty cool with graphic/explicit content in the genre - she has stuff on her shelves which makes me raise a motherly eyebrow occasionally but if it has redeeming qualities - "artistic merit" and such - then it's worthy of exploration, to my mind. And your description of Lost Girls is extremely intriguing. Thank you for the Oates recommendation - that does sound like a good place to start. Not quite sure why I haven't already read JCO - she's certainly been on the radar for many years...

      Jenny - I am already something of an EJM fan from some time back - I won't say school days because I don't recall reading any of her books then - but when I started acquiring her titles for my own children I was quite taken with them myself. I have a cherished copy of The Striped Ships (historical fiction, Norman invasion of England in 1066) which no one ever discusses and which is long out of print but which is beautifully written. Looking forward to reading Greensleeves - I *know* I will like it!

  4. Lovely to read these answers. Like the others above I've just added the Joyce Carol Oates to my wishlist. I can see this week will be very damaging to the size of my TBR pile!

  5. Such an eclectic mix of books! I love the combination of classics and contemporary titles and there are so many books that I've never heard of - always refreshing. Thanks Jenny and Eric!

  6. Really such an interesting blend of books here -- the only M.M.Kaye I have read it her series of crime/gentle mystery novels, the 'Death in...[Exotic Place]' series. I really must read some more Ali Smith now too - have only read her 'Boy Meets Girl' - a lovely reworking of Ovid.

  7. Taking notes, taking notes... will this torture (and delight) never end?!

  8. Jenny read so much better books in her childhood than I did! She already caught me out reading Lurlene McDaniel, and now I learn she actually read fantastic sounding stories called Greensleeves.

    1. Aw, bro, but in fairness, I also read, like, A LOT of Babysitters' Club books. That's just not the stuff I chose to highlight here. :p

    2. I read The Babysitter's Club, too. In a way, BSC was ahead of its time in portraying a diverse array of babysitters. Though obviously, Dawn and Stacey got the best stories...


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