My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Six

Alex blogs at Alex in Leeds and recently made storms in the blogosphere with her ingenious idea of the book jar.

Liz blogs in two places!  Her book blog can be found at Libro Full Time, while her work blog is at Libro Editing.

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.

 Alex: My parents both read but I remember being rather embarrassed by their book choices – mostly Dick Francis and Danielle Steele. I was a voracious reader and wanted to know about everything from medieval churches to dinosaurs to how computers work so my mother signed me up to the library very early on, something I am very, very grateful for. Having access to the library gave me the freedom to explore without worrying about how much all these books actually cost or how long my enthusiasm for steam trains would last. It’s down to those six orange cardboard tickets (and some wonderful librarians) that I am the reader I am today!

My happiest memory of that first library is spending hours sitting cross-legged in the corner of the children’s section reading all of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Each volume is a different colour – Green, Blue, Crimson etc – and the editions I read were illustrated. I didn’t know they were classics but nearly all the stories were brand new to me and I was spell-bound.


Liz: I did grow up in a book-loving household, with books all over the place, books the main thing I bought with my own money, and books bought for me. I was read to, and I remember the excitement of going through Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea with my Dad. As for a favourite childhood book, this is a bit difficult, because I’m a great one for re-reading childhood favourites, so it’s hard to differentiate between my favourite books then and now. I loved the E. Nesbit books, and the Noel Streatfeilds, and had a huge passion for pony books. I would guess that maybe The Secret Garden is the book I remember loving as a child and still loving now.

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?

Alex: I, Claudius by Robert Graves when I was about 12 or 13. I was far too young to be reading it but I was going through a phase of being fascinated by the Romans. My parents had split up earlier that year and I was looking for escapism. It’s such an outrageous book in so many ways, scandal on every page, very confessional in style and not at all what I thought it would be when I picked it up. It was the perfect book for taking to the park that summer and getting lost in.

Liz: I read The Hobbit aged 7, because I was a precocious and advanced reader, but I recall not really getting much out of it. May I skip forward to the age of 14, when I was introduced to a whole slew of new authors by a dear neighbour, who was an outpost of socialist feminism in a sea of Tory reactionary village life? She got me into Virago books, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns, and especially Iris Murdoch. Although I was working my way around the adult section of our TINY village library by then, doing Agatha Christie and Patrick Moore’s sci fi and the James Bond and Georgette Heyer books from my school library, when I read Murdoch’s A Severed Head in my mid-teens, I remember feeling VERY grown-up and sophisticated, even though, as a rather sheltered only child attending a girls’ Grammar School, I have no idea what I would have actually made of it and whether I’d have understood much of it!

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.

Alex: It has to be Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I had a modern English version that I’d enjoyed reading in my teens but I fell in love when I read it in the original Middle English in my early twenties.

The tales crackle with sarcasm and subversion to the point where Terry Jones has even made a case in Who Murdered Chaucer? for the poet’s mysterious disappearance in 1400 (no grave, no official mention of his death, no family story about it) being down to his dangerous use of commoners’ English instead of courtly French and critical portrayal of religious characters like the nun and the pardoner. The tales are vibrant, earthy and foreign and they’re great fun to read aloud. They also switched my interests from formal monarchy-led history to social history. I now have a bookcase entirely filled with non-fiction history books but very few of them are about kings or queens and that’s largely down to Chaucer!

Liz: I discovered a good set of writers in my 20s and 30s – Larry McMurtry, Anne Tyler, Jill McCorkle, Douglas Coupland, and got into a great habit of picking up every new book they wrote, which has seen me through.  I especially like Anne Tyler’s A Slipping-Down Life. I suspect that reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth when it came out in the single-volume paperback, which must have been in about 1997 when I was 25, sealed my love of books set on the Indian sub-continent.

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

Alex: I came to book blogging nine years ago because my personal blog was being overtaken by bookish thoughts. Book blogging in 2004 was an odd thing to be doing and the few of us that were doing it were truly isolated. Watching a book blogging ‘community’ form and then fragment over the years has been fascinating and being part of it has definitely affected my reading. Without book blogging I suspect I’d have lost my childhood enthusiasm for diverse reading and the happy confidence to try just about anything. Without my favourite bloggers’ recommendations I would have missed so many quirky, niche or older books and my reading life would have been much poorer for it.

2012 was a great reading year for me but The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was my favourite book by far. I’d read it in my teens but got much more out of the re-read. It breaks so many literary rules – the main characters don’t show up till halfway through the book, the heroes aren’t actually good people, it’s crazy and cruel… yet it is funny and provocative and just about perfect.

Liz: A favourite author I have discovered in the last few years is Dorothy Whipple, via, of course, the Persephone books imprint. I can’t pick a favourite, but knowing I have Persephone in general and Whipple in particular in my life gives me great joy and comfort.

How did I come to blogging? Well, I’ve been keeping a reading journal in notebooks since 1997, and in August 2005, I decided to put my book reviews onto my new LiveJournal blog – I didn’t really want to blog just about my personal life, and I liked sharing my book reviews. I started my second WordPress blog in November 2011 in order to record my transfer from employment to full-time self-employment, and my book reviews snuck onto there as I transformed it into a blog about my life as a self-employed person, including having time to read (at last, after a couple of sticky years where my reading totals went WAY down). Reading is one of my comforts and keeps me sane, and it was important to me to build that up again, and I started putting my book reviews on this blog, finally bringing my LJ archive through earlier this year.

Blogging hasn’t changed my reading habits, but book review blogging has changed my book review blogging habits (still with me?) as I discovered a few months ago that I was dissatisfied with my short reviews, and decided to review two books at a time in a longer review format, rather than three or four snapshots. I’ve really enjoyed doing this, and my readers have appreciated the new format, too. Amusingly, I thought that blogging about and posting a picture of my current State of the TBR every month, and confessing when I bought new books, would rein my book buying habits in a bit. Nope!

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

Alex: I don’t really have guilty pleasures! I’m going to pick No Logo by Naomi Klein. Published in 1999 it details how much power the major brands have – in sweat shops and McJobs, in media and lobbying various governments. It quickly became the bible of the culture jamming and anti-globalisation movements and remains one of my favourite social history/political books. I think it’s also one of the first non-IT books I read that cited websites. I don’t often write about my politics so perhaps the fact that I strongly believe in actively avoiding multinational companies and supporting local ones instead, am about to give up my TV for good and have NEVER eaten anything from a McDonalds will surprise people.

Liz: I surprised someone just the other day by having a Jilly Cooper book or two on the bookshelf. Not a guilty pleasure – I like a well-written (and that’s the key – Cooper has awful puns but writes well, Binchy and Keyes catch the nuances of Irish English beautifully) lighter novel, so Cooper, Maeve Binchy (A Scarlet Feather) and Marian Keyes have a happy place on my bookshelves among the Murdochs and Viragoes. I do like a cosy mystery, too, preferably set in the world of quilting or knitting. I don’t count these as a guilty pleasure, either, as they still rank higher than a trashy mag or rubbishy TV programme in my estimation! Another massive passion which many people don’t know about is for mountaineering, sailing and Polar exploration books – such as Tim Moore’s Frost on my Moustache – I am not known for my physical prowess or for venturing far from home, but these are a love that has sustained me from late childhood onwards.

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

Liz on Alex’s choices: A fairly serious person with an interest in myth and legend, who possibly had a humanities-based education and has been influenced politically by their reading. They like to keep up to date with current themes in sociology and politics and read books for their basic interest rather than trendiness. They’re well-read, fairly serious, and have fairly intellectual pursuits.


Alex, on Liz’s choices: Wow, what an eclectic mix. Let me see, we have a 1911 children’s classic, a 1961 tale of adultery, incest and the sexual revolution and a 1993 monster of a novel (nearly 1500 pages!) about India’s independence and partitioning. Speculating wildly I’d say that was someone who grew up with access to conventionally ‘safe’ books for children with the Hodgson Burnett but quickly developed a taste for pushing their reading boundaries. From picking up books with very risque themes in their early teens to tackling huge tomes to enjoying discovering lost gems like Dorothy Whipple through small printing presses like Persephone Books, this is someone who likes to feel like a literary adventurer when they step into a library or a bookshop. I bet they’re good at finding quirky titles others miss. I’m not at all surprised to see mountaineering and polar exploration books as their guilty pleasure though since it seems an obvious escalation of their interest in discovery and pioneers! I’d actually love to spend some time perusing this reader’s shelves, I think I’d find a lot to challenge and delight me there.

32 thoughts on “My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Six

  • November 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm
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    '…a cosy mystery, too, preferably set in the world of quilting or knitting': if someone would provide the relevant reading list, I think the rest of my life might be spent in perfect bliss!

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    • November 2, 2013 at 12:42 pm
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      Earlene Fowler and Monica Ferris are two authors I'd recommend in that area. They're US based but you can get them in the UK.

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    • November 3, 2013 at 9:28 am
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      *grin* I was very flattered by your comments. Yes to the humanities slanted education and being an untrendy but curious reader. I'm not sure I qualify as well-read in the traditional sense but I have good grounding in my niches!

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  • November 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm
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    Great choices, I had guessed some of Liz's choices in a recent conversation.
    Alex – I find I have never read any of your adult choices though I have The Master and Margarita on my classic club list.

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    • November 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm
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      Yes, we had a lovely time guessing each other's that time, didn't we!

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    • November 3, 2013 at 9:31 am
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      I suspect if I was asked again in a couple of years Ali I'd be picking more Century of Books inspired titles for my recently loved books and we'd have more in common there. :)

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  • November 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm
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    The Master and Margarita is one of the most fantastic (in all senses) books of C20. I've never eaten in (or from) McDonalds either! I too have very fond memories as a child of my father, who had a lot of pre-war sailing and WW2 naval experience, reading me "We didn't mean to go to sea".

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    • November 2, 2013 at 2:31 pm
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      I still love that most of all of the Ransome books, to be honest. Although they're due a re-read I think. I have never read The Master and Margarita, maybe I should!

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  • November 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm
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    The Master and Margarita is truly extraordinary, one of those novels that's unlike anything else you will ever read. However many times I read it I find it totally unputdownable, Liz, I too find Persephone a comfort and a joy (I feel the same way about the old VMCs, which is odd, because they were so exciting when they were first published), and Alex I remember Andrew Lang's Fairy Books at the library, and how difficult it was to choose to a colour to take home! I think you are both braver readers than I am, and I admire that – I tend to stick to things I think I will like.

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    • November 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm
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      Yes, you make a good point there: I always feel safe and at home when I've got a good stock of VMCs to read, yet they should be radical still! I get a lot of my books from charity shops and via BookCrossing, which makes it easier to strike out into new fields without a lot of financial commitment. And I do get influenced by other people in trying stuff further out of my comfort zone!

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    • November 3, 2013 at 9:40 am
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      If you're as comfortable with Bulgakov as you are with Persephones I don't think you're un-brave as a reader Christine! Like Liz I get a lot of my books secondhand which helps increase serendipity but I really am the girl that libraries built – I could *never* afford all the books I'm curious about trying. :)

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    • November 3, 2013 at 8:27 am
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      I'm glad you enjoyed it, I've loved 11am every day this week when it's time for a new one!

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    • November 3, 2013 at 8:30 am
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      That's something I've loved, too, and finding new ones, of course!

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  • November 3, 2013 at 5:04 am
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    Such thoughtful answers – I loved Alex's point about the link between blogging and being a diverse, serendipitous, childish (in a good way!) enthusiastic reader. That is so true for me. And I thought Liz was *terrifyingly* accurate in pinning down Alex. A really fascinating post.

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    • November 3, 2013 at 8:32 am
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      Thank you for confirming that and Alex's assessment of me was excellent if more celebratory than the way I'd describe myself!

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    • November 3, 2013 at 9:45 am
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      Can you hear me blushing over here? I love the fact that I've learnt more about someone I didn't know at all well and it's really interesting to see how our blogging experiences compare since we started only a year or so apart. :)

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  • November 3, 2013 at 9:47 am
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    Thanks again for including me Simon, I've loved finding out it was Liz I paired with!

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    • November 3, 2013 at 12:49 pm
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      It's quite amusing that we have actually met in real life, if years and years ago – I don't think Simon could have known that …

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  • November 3, 2013 at 10:54 am
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    This has been a really fun series to read and today was no different. Two very daring, energetic, intelligent readers. Great fun. Thanks Simon for hosting this.

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    • November 3, 2013 at 12:49 pm
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      Daring, energetic, intelligent – I like that, thank you!

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  • November 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm
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    I have really enjoyed this series but this post is particularly interesting to me. Alex in Leeds was my gateway into the wonderful world of book blogs. I found her blog via Vegan Month of Food and I'm so glad she had that connection to pull me in.

    Liz's blog is new to me but she's a kindred spirit in some ways. I, too, am self-employed, working full-time from home. I have added her blog to my feed and know I will enjoy reading it.

    Thank you, all!

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    • November 4, 2013 at 6:18 am
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      Hello there, lovely to meet another person who works for home – I'll be sure to pop over and visit your blog, too. I hope you are managing to find enough reading time – I've had to be quite strict with myself about that!

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  • November 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm
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    I totally relate to Alex's first response. My mom read a ton, but when I was a kid/teenager I was embarrassed by all of the political thrillers and mysteries she read. Now that I'm less snobby, I'm just happy she modeled and supported a love of reading.

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  • November 5, 2013 at 7:32 pm
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    Nice to see that many people grew up in a book loving household. I did. And passed it on to my children. It's one of the best things you can give them, the love of reading.

    Someof the books look really interesting, too.

    Thanks for this idea.

    Marianne from Let's Read

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    • January 1, 2014 at 10:43 am
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      I encourage other people's children in their reading and love sharing recommendations with them as they grow up.

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  • November 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm
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    wonderful choices love alexs blog and another in liz to add to my reader

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    • January 1, 2014 at 10:42 am
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      Hope you enjoy reading my blog, just doing my Best Of post at the moment …

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