Eric blogs at Lonesome Reader
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!