Tuesday 25 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Two

Scott blogs at Me and My Big Mouth.

Catherine blogs at Juxtabook.

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.

Scott: My dad was the big reader in our house. He left school quite young to become an apprentice in the print trade and was certainly not academically inclined as a youth—I think driving down to Southend on his moped to beat up some Mods was a more regular pastime—but by the time I came along he had started to build a library. I can remember the purple spines of the Kings & Queens series edited by Antonia Fraser, he had most of them. Lots of books on Egyptology as well. Not much in the way of novels but there was definitely a bit of science fiction. And the Doc Savage books, a popular series of adventure stories from the 1930s that were reissued in the 1960s which much have been when he started collecting them.

My favourite book as a child was The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preussler. My dad woke me up one night to show me a box of books he had liberated from outside a local charity shop (he assures me he dropped a fiver through the letter box) and I was drawn to the spooky cover. I think I started reading it the next day and it was definitely the first book that moved me, that made me realise the power of storytelling. It captivated me, moved me and scared the shit out of me. I would have been about ten or eleven at the time.

Thirty years later and I was able to republish the book in the UK under its original title of Krabat. One of my proudest moments.

Catherine: My home was very much a reading household as my parents were both teachers. My parents both read to my younger sister and me. I particularly remember Mum reading us The Canterville Ghost and Dad used to read things like The Jumblies by Edward Lear. I loved my books as a child (when not reading I used to play libraries) and it is so hard to pick a favourite but one that stands out is Her Benny by Silas K. Hocking. It is a sort of Dickens-lite, set in Liverpool, and it is very melodramatic and a terrible sob story but I loved it. The copy I read had been a prize from Sunday School for my maternal grandmother. She had sobbed her way through the book, and then my mother had, and finally it was my turn. I'm wondering whether to try my daughter with it now. Fortunately Blue Coat Press in Liverpool have brought our a new edition as my grandmother's copy won't bear many more re-readings. I think my interest in older books, and books' physicality, stems from that volume.

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?

Scott: I left home at 17 and didn’t have a great deal of money for books so if I did buy anything I was sure to read it from cover to cover and make the most of it. I borrowed a fair bit from the college library as well. Around this time I would have been making my way through the novels of Milan Kundera, and I know that Life is Elsewhere blew me away. It has a dream within a dream within a dream sequence that knocks the socks off anything in Inception. Metroland by Julian Barnes made me laugh a lot. The non-SF novels of Philip K Dick made an impact in my late teens as well.

Catherine: When I was 13 my mother suggested I read Frederica by Georgette Heyer. I loved it! I have since read all her regency romances two or three times each and never tire of them. They're so warm and witty. I think reading Heyer's faux nineteenth century idiom tuned my brain into the language for later readings of Dickens and Austen – Heyer was perfect for getting your eye in with nineteenth century fiction. At the time my parents had moved jobs and I had to move school. In all the upheaval the constancy of a Georgette Heyer novel was a great thing to have.

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.

Scott: Ahh, my 20s was when I discovered Haruki Murakami. This was back in the days when his books were actually quite hard to track down. I had to get hold of translations intended for students in Japan. A Wild Sheep Chase was the one that got me started. The books of his I read in the early 1990s undoubtedly shaped the adult me, for better or worse.

Catherine: If I'm allowed non-fiction, that's easy: A Beginner's Guide to Secondhand Bookdealing by Stuart Baldwin. I read about Stuart Baldwin in Sesame, the newspaper of the Open University. He'd taken something like 28 years to graduate because he kept getting ideas for businesses and taking time off to build these businesses up. One was Fossil Books and he'd written his guide based on this experience. At the time I was struggling to get the books I required for my MA here in the Yorkshire Dales, and I thought other must be having the same problem. Within a year I was dealing, within two I'd quit teaching to sell books full time. You don't get more direction changing than that!

For fiction, it would be The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge. When I was teaching in my twenties I used to mark GCSE Eng Lit and a colleague and I used to share a lift to meetings in Manchester. He recommended Lodge – funny and a great antidote to the mental wear and tear of teaching he said. He was right.

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?

Scott: I started blogging when I joined The Friday Project and it was a platform to sound off about the book trade and try to get some publicity for the stuff we were publishing. It has evolved over the years into something far more personal, thoughts on the books I read and music and the like. The fact that I get sent lots of books to review because of the blog means I don’t really buy books in the way a ‘normal’ person would, so it has changed my reading habits quite a bit. The books come to me rather than the other way round. It still makes for lots of wonderful chance discoveries and, if anything, means I read more widely.

And I suppose my favourite books of recent years are all things that have plopped through my letter box. We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen is a Danish epic set in a small fishing village and has been loved by everyone I have recommended it to, so do check it out if you get a chance and thank me later. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood was a sumptuous joy from beginning to end. And The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. All masterpieces, if you ask me. Which you did.

Catherine: A stand out series for me in the last year or so has been Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths series. Very quirky female detective, very page turning, very intelligent. I don't think blogging (writing my blog) has changed my reading habits. Buying and selling books means that what passes through my hands is my greatest source of reading material and that of course hasn't changed. I do buy more books for myself as a result of other people's blogs. I buy more books for my personal shelves than I ever did when my recommendations came just from the broadsheets. A blog review from you or Harriet or Annabel or Karen means so much more that anything in the LRB. I know what you all like, and I know where our tastes cross, and so your recommendations are all the more pertinent. If bloggers can make a bookseller buy more books then they're getting something right!

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

Scott: I have grown to dislike the term guilty pleasure as I think it is indicative of the sort of snobbery that is still all too common in the book world. I have seen plenty of interviews in which ‘literary’ authors are asked that question and they nearly always answer with a piece of genre fiction—crime, science fiction, fantasy—or perhaps a children’s book. If they feel guilty about reading Ian Rankin or Harry Harrison or Roald Dahl then they need a jolly good slap if you ask me. A great book is a great book no matter what the genre or subject matter.

Having said that, I know you didn’t mean it in that way, and I too enjoy it when people surprise me with their book choices.

I am a big fan of Miss Read. She wrote dozens of books set in and around small English villages and her Village School novels, the early ones in particular, are wonderful slices of social commentary. Her Thrush Green series gets a bit twee as it goes on but she created such a warm cast of characters with real depth to them that I can forgive her that. Comfort reading, rather than a guilty pleasure.

Catherine: My biggest guilty pleasure is probably football books – fact and fiction. I particularly like a good football fiction book though they are few and far between. The Damned United and How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup are the obvious standouts. In non-fiction I'm very taken with the writing of David Conn though my favourite non-fiction is The Promised Land: A Northern Love Story by Anthony Clavane which parallels the history of Leeds the city, Leeds the football club, and the Jewish community in Leeds and is a fascinating study that anyone who enjoys social history would get something out of, I'm sure.

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

Catherine, on Scott's choices: This is an impressive group of novels. I'm not ashamed to admit that though I know some of the authors I haven't actually read any of these and I'm having to go on online reviews.

The reader is obviously someone of great taste (they're all very well reviewed) and is not afraid of a challenge with the number of works in translation there. I very much like the sound of The Satanic Mill, a children's fantasy, and have added that to one of my own wish lists. Like some of the other highbrow works on this list, like the Murakami and the Jenson, it seems exciting. The reader obviously likes to be entertained as well as challenged! Dear old Miss Read (never read any but I've certainly sold a lot) seems very cosy by comparison showing that though this reader likes to go off on adventures he or she likes to come home too.

I've no idea if this person is male or female but I am guessing he or she is not British because of the large number of non-English works, though the Miss Read did make me question that at the end. I hope I'm not wronging my compatriots but apart from RobAroundBooks and Stu Allen such dedication to translated works, to the exclusion of all but Miss Read, doesn't seem to me to a very British trait (I say that as a bookseller)!

Scott on Catherine's choices: Clearly they are a football-loving, secondhand bookselling individual with a penchant for Cornish writers sporting large beards and curling up with a Regency romance. And as there are probably only three such people on the planet they had better not murder anyone or they’ll be pretty easy to track down, I reckon. I am hugely intrigued to find out who it is.


  1. The 'guilty pleasures' are a fascinating study in how gender expectations can go totally awry! - very amusing. I haven't read any Miss Read, but really should, and I am now definitely going to track down a Harry Bingham - always on the lookout for a new series.

  2. So you set the bookseller alongside the publisher! Fascinating to read Scott's answers, and to find out who those complicated translated novels belonged to! Thank you very much again for asking me Simon, I really enjoyed this.

  3. This was so funny and interesting, I am off to check Harry Bingham - and to look happily at the Miss Read books on my bookshelves.

    Thank you Simon for such an entertaining and enjoyable series.


  4. I have We, The Drowned in the TBR. I bought it at a second-hand shop because of the cover but have since then discovered it has really great reviews. I managed to convince my bookclub to read it in January :)

  5. Every day is different in this series and fascinating too. I've been meaning to get Krabat/Satanic Mill for ages since Scott keeps mentioning it, and Harry Bingham is a new one to me - and as it's a recommend from Catherine, I'll be investigating further - our recommends go in both directions.

  6. Scott - The Satanic Mill - I've read that in my younger days - early teens? - and had much the same response. I wonder how it would be on an adult re-read? I think my old paperback copy (different cover - seems to me it has a flying coach and horses) is still with me, in one of the many boxes of books from my mother's attic which I haven't gotten around to unpacking yet. (Need more bookshelves...) And it's grand that your guilty pleasure is Miss Read. (I like her too, guiltily, because my spouse teases me mercilessly when I read her - he's not a fan himself.) What a nicely eclectic bunch of books you've highlighted.

    Catherine - so happy to see you're a Georgette Heyer reader. I'm a recent convert, thanks to fervent recommendations from passionate bloggers. And your Harry Bingham recommendation is going on my follow-up list.

    Thank you both!

  7. Lovely! And more new books and authors to track down! Thanks for hosting the series Simon - it's always fascinating!

  8. I love Georgette Heyer, too! And while I think I read Austen first and then went onto Heyer, I completely agree with Catherine that she gets into your eye and is absolutely great when your life is in a bit of upheaval, or you're in a funk, or you just want to read something fun and become immersed in a different (perfect) world.


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