My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Three

Vicki is better known as Skiourophile or Bibliolathas; the latter word, meaning ‘book-forgetting’, is where Vicki remembers all the wonderful books she reads.

Sasha is a blogger I was introduced to during one of my occasional ‘please tell me about new bloggers!’ posts, and I’m so glad I was – Sasha and the Silverfish is a blog out of the ordinary, and written so wonderfully.

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.

Vicki: Absolutely! My father is afflicted by bookmania. I defy anyone to tell what colour are our walls, floors and anything that stood still too long, so covered is everything by books. It’s definitely genetic: a house without books is no home of mine. I am also the oldest child, so benefited from all the childhood literacy experimenting that high-achieving parents could inflict. My mother read me a lot of poetry, and I still have my copy of Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse (1973) — the cover features exactly the sort of demure miss into which my parents, with the assistance of Laura Ashley, would fashion me.

To grow up without fear of poetry is a great gift. The Opie’s magisterial edition (do you know about the remarkable Opies?) falls open at my favourite childhood poem, Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, that grand championing of interspecies miscegenation: “Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl! / How charmingly sweet you sing! / O let us be married! too long we have tarried: / But what shall we do for a ring?'”

Any book featuring a cat was always welcome: Paul Gallico’s Jennie represents my first heartbreak. More happily, my parents gave me their childhood books: Captain W. E. Johns’ Biggles books from my father (austerity editions, with dust-wrappers carefully covered in brown paper) and Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books from my mother. Persephone fans will recognise Ferguson’s name from the delightful Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. Jill was a pony-mad gal, fetchingly attired in jodhpurs and neat blouse, who liked nothing better than to muck out a stable. Do all girls pretend their bike is a pony?! With my pocket money I added books that proved that girls could achieve anything if they were bright, adventurous and fearless: Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were favourites. I also adored boarding school stories, especially Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, from which I began hazily to comprehend the value of foreign languages – those girls were at a minimum trilingual. These books also fostered a love of history: oh! that thrilling episode where Jo escapes the Nazis and Miss Wilson’s hair turns grey overnight!

Sasha: I was shuttled from my parents’ to my grandparents’ house and then back again until I was nine, but wherever it was that took me in, I was always surrounded by books. Case in point: At my mother’s house, I slept in the bottom bunk bed, because the top held a good portion of my mother’s library (dangerous living, I know). I remember, the first summer I lived with her and my two brothers—my father had left for a couple of months—in a pretty much permanent basis, how she would read to us every night from a Stephen King novel, Eyes of the Dragon. My mother would be reading aloud on the bed, the youngest curled against her side, and the middle brother and I would be listening to her from the little bunker we’d built beneath the bed. A minor character was named Sasha—she was a Queen, the mother of the central characters—but I remember the awe that took over me then: “That’s me in that book, who else would be a Sasha?” She was in and out of the narrative too quickly for me, but I do believe my mother indulged me and let those pages drag on.

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?

Vicki: ‘Enjoyed’ is the key. In grade 5 (ten years old) a terrible teacher devoted his class to The Hobbit, illustrated with florid air-brush paintings by his wife, and accompanied by distractingly incompetent music he tortured from a guitar while resting his feet on my desk. (Yes, I was a front desk child.) He wore cowboy boots. Even now, over thirty years later, I am unable to read the name ‘Tolkien’ without a shudder. I blame that bloke (the teacher, not the unwitting Tolkien) for almost wholly closing my mind to fantasy, epic, challenge lit., etc. And do not ask my thoughts on cowboy boots.

It was at the local library that, in my early teens, I discovered Agatha Christie, who I consider my first enjoyable grown-up writer. I could happily wallow in crime fiction for the rest of my reading life: it is a source of great comfort when inspiration lacks or life frets.

Or do we mean Proper Adult Books? In my final year of high school — seventeen years old — I was allowed to pick a reading project. I chose D.H. Lawrence (why?!), and it was agreed that I could read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as long as I brought in a note from my parents to say that was OK. I remember their laughter, as LCL (orange Penguin edition) has sat openly on the bookshelf in the loo (yes, we have books in the bathroom), next to Peyton Place, my entire life. I had definitely already read the ‘good’ bits. I remain a Lawrence fan, perhaps because of the step he represents towards adulthood. 

Sasha: Reading was pretty much bred into the family, so I had a wealth of “grown-up” books at my disposal. I don’t ever remember anyone telling me that there were some books I wasn’t allowed to read; it was open season for my thirsty little dork-heart. One summer, while I was still living with my grandparents, I discovered a tidy stack of romance novels: Eighties high aesthetics, the bodice-ripper-iest plots ever. From this stack, the very first romance I ever read: The Duchess by Jude Deveraux. It was utterly fascinating; I think I saw it as the grown-up world’s approximation of the fairy tales I’d devoured. I read and reread that little yellowing paperback until it fell apart.

But, again, the Deveraux still had that un-real feel to it. I saw it as this (instinctively forbidden-to-me) fairy tale for adults. It was when I read my mother’s copy of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic that I fully plunged into “grown-up reading.” My father, when he saw me reading it, asked my mom, “Isn’t that too adult for her?” And my mother shrugged, and let me be. There’s this scene in Practical Magic that has one of the lead characters rush to this man’s house, madly possessed by love. Basically: They had sex in the hallway. It was brief and it was hardly fairy tale-romantic, but it was so suffused with feeling, with realness. I remember looking up from that scene a little disquieted. I’d felt betrayed. My mother had read this book, knew what it contained—countless people had, I assumed. They all knew; even my father, who didn’t read but had an inkling. I had read that scene again, and thought, “This was what the world’s been keeping secret from me.”

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.

Vicki: My late twenties were terrific and terrifying: I went to Cambridge (the UK one) to do a PhD in classical studies when I was 25, and stayed for five years. Living in a college with super-smart people enormously influenced my reading, as did access to one of the best libraries in the world. The biggest bookish changes in my life at this time were, typically, pretentiously name-droppy: literary theory in softer guises (Umberto Eco; Jorge Luis Borges) and women’s/gender studies (I remember being dazzled by Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue). If I must single out one book that recalls this time, it was a dear friend’s recommendation of Microserfs by Douglas Coupland: a classic mid-1990s’ text, with its nerdy protagonists, quirky cleverness, IT start-ups, Lego walled offices, deeply cynically romantic streak, and the sense that anything was possible. It well summed up that era of my life. (I still want a Lego office.)

Sasha: This is telling, but Roland Barthes’ utterly beautiful A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments immediately comes to mind. I first read it when I was seventeen, fresh from a summer (why is it always the summers with me?) of first loves and other life-changing shenanigans. In the six, seven, years hence, I’ve gone back to it over and over. My copy—which my grandfather hunted for in the weeks following a heart surgery—is festooned with so many different iterations of myself. I am all over the margins, all over this book: Different pens, different Sashas, conversations between the marginalia. I’m obsessed with this. How breath-taking can a loving be? How can we elevate so trivial a pain such as waiting for one’s date, running about twenty minutes late? How can we further stretch that first glimpse of skin against the beloved? (A less active influence, but perhaps a more pervading one, is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A very, very, very young and rather bored me stole it from my mother’s dresser a long time ago, and dear Jane has been a constant in my life ever since. It’s not an opposite of Barthes’ ideals, but there’s a different (more indomitable!) strength to how Brontë paints a love. To one’s self, and especially when a love for another could jeopardize that. A love that’s more quiet but no less passionate, no less assured of itself.)

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?

Vicki: By 2010 I was reading many book blogs, and publishing two non-book blogs (vintage recipes and pretty stuff). I did not go into academia after my PhD, but I do write bits and pieces, and in 2010 I was in a writing rut: I thought that forcing myself to get any thoughts down might kick-start ‘proper’ writing. While blogging has not changed my intention to read whatever I want, it has introduced me to authors I might never have discovered for myself. It has given me a sense of belonging to an intellectually stimulating and kindly community. It has pushed my comfort levels both in book choices and in how much I put of myself into my writing. It has made me aware of the value of my reading time: I might be a little stricter about the quality of my choices; I might re-read a little less. Sadly, it has not persuaded me that I can, as yet, abandon an unsatisfying book.

A favourite read of recent years? Would it be promiscuous to offer three? I adored the mannered seriocomic Englishness of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women; I delighted in the blend of historical biography and playful vulgarity in Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead; and I scared the bejesus out of myself with Dorothy B. Hughes’ noir In A Lonely Place. That covers a fair geographic as well as generic area too, which is something I love about reading: all those marvellous journeys to wherever one wishes to travel.

Sasha: Blogging’s done much to the dynamics of my own reading. The best part is “being” with people who understand how important, how intrinsic, reading is to you. It’s always been this solitary creature, bibliophilia, and our corner of the internet takes an edge off that solitude. You’re assured that somewhere out there, someone has his/her head buried in a book—one that you liked, maybe even recommended—and all is well.

I have the internet, then, to thank for bringing me Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar—something I would have only picked up under duress pre-blogging. Pre-meeting people I like and whose reading tastes I respect and even jive with. Strayed’s collection of columns, essentially, is this quietly galvanizing text on taking a chill pill, on learning to accept things about yourself like your love for solitude, on realizing that loneliness exists but there are ways to get rid of it and only if you want to, on sharing pain and on sharing joy. And I think it’s only fitting that my friends and partners-in-crime in book blogging directed me to this book. I have, since then, tried to push physical copies to my friends.

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

Vicki: I am without shame, and will read whatever I want, thank you very much. But I do love a spot of romantic suspense. A feisty heroine, a romantic entanglement, a foreign place, great frocks, a spot of cross-dressing, a pinch of light historical turmoil, and, of course, a predictably happy ending. Pass that Georgette Heyer, will you…?


Sasha: Another thing I’m very thankful for about this book blogging business—a close second to the joy of “meeting” like-minded people the world over—is that it allowed me to get over whatever insecurities or self-consciousness or even shyness about the reading I do. Anyone who’s spent three minutes on my blog or on my Goodreads or on my Twitter knows what I like to read. It’s hard to feel ashamed about reading erotica or pop culture treatises or autobiographies of MMA fighters or comic books anymore, at this point, haha. That’s the thing: You’re sharing such a big part of yourself to the world, through the books you read and what you choose to say about them, and the world just grins madly back at you.

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

Sasha on Vicki’s choices: Eek, I am going to make a cake of this, hahaha. I have read none of these books or authors, but Lawrence and Heyer are in the more immediate section of my to-read shelves. I was drawn to them because of their promise of quiet, even dignified, sensuality, so perhaps mysterious reader felt the same way about them? Another thing I’m noticing is the breadth between publication dates, even styles of writing. On one hand, we’ve got a straight-up literary classic in Lawrence—and then we slide into Coupland for some contemporary shock. (The children’s verse is pretty much cultural canon, and it’s amazing that this book’s even been passed down—and do we really even need to contrast this with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, hahaha.) Also: Lazarus is Dead is now on my to-read pile, thank you very much.

Vicki on Sasha’s choices: Ah, let me peer into my crystal ball… If this reader was a colour? Definitely a moody violet (but with veins of shimmering iridescence). If this reader was a dessert? I think, a deep-dish fruit pie. If this reader was a drink? A rich warming mulled wine. OK, only kidding, but…

My first thought is that this is a reader drawn to the darker side – places where things are rich and complex (Brontë), where answers are not easy to find or accept (Strayed), and where ambiguities are welcome to flourish (Barthes; Hoffman). There is an openness to the harder reading ‘journey’ here which is not just demonstrated by the variety of genres. This reader does not necessarily seek peace of mind from books.

This reader likes words (especially their accurate use) and is drawn to narratives in which truth is an important theme. This is not at all at odds with a love of fantasy: the presence of fantasy (King; Hoffman) suggests an optimism about the values of right and wrong, and a desire for reassurance that things do come right in the end. I imagine that this reader possesses a passionate romantic streak (Brontë; Hoffman) which sometimes takes up arms against the logical thinking (Barthes) and practical resourcefulness (Strayed) this reader values. The choice of Barthes is telling: he is a master wordsmith mock-theorizing a topic that fundamentally rejects dispassionate or impersonal treatment (“Each of us can fill in this code according to his own history…”). I wonder if this was the choice of a younger self – whereas the older self appreciates that all that delicious verbal slipperiness can lack a certain compassion, and that the ‘hands-on’ Strayed offers more practical tools for thinking empathetically about the world? This would also fit with a reader who – as three of the five titles would suggest – is drawn to the theme of women – as narrated by women – who survive and remain strong and harness an inner resilience as they conquer adversity.

There’s a lot that I can’t tell from this list: the reader’s age, where the reader lives, the reader’s sex, height and hair-colour (5’2″, auburn; oh, hang on, Simon said *no* guessing), if English is the reader’s native tongue, and so on. I do know something though: I’ve read only two books on the list, but a fellow admirer of Brontë and Barthes is welcome to pop around for pie and mulled wine any time s/he likes.

19 thoughts on “My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Three

  • October 30, 2013 at 11:18 am
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    Wonderful – some books I've read and many that I will have to hunt down!

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  • October 30, 2013 at 11:38 am
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    Oh Sasha, don't we go well together? Nice to meet you! And isn't it a tremendous thrill when you are able to introduce another reader to your favourite books? I *love* your story about being read to in your bedroom nest too, and the bunk being covered in books. We have to move the most tremendous about of books from beds whenever we have guests! ;-)

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    • October 30, 2013 at 10:34 pm
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      I don't think I ever recovered from 'Jennie' – I now need the equivalent of a food taster to check animal books for me now before I start reading, just in case… ;-)

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  • October 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm
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    Ooh so enjoyable – these are such a lovely part of my week. I'm on tenterhooks to see who's coming next, do I know them, did they read the same as me … I loved Coupland in my 20s but have gone off his latest ones – such a trauma when that happens! And those Opies, oh yes!

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    • October 30, 2013 at 10:41 pm
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      Thanks Liz – I feel similarly about everything you've said! I wonder now how I'd feel about Coupland if I re-read Microserfs (which I should) with an extra 15+ years under my belt. Would I be nostalgic or would those careless young people drive me crazy?! ;-)

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  • October 30, 2013 at 3:41 pm
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    Vicki, you had the wrong teacher! The teacher who read The Hobbit to us (when I was about 10) did sobeautifully and very dramatically – but without the aid of music or pictures (and definitely no cowboy boots!) He wasn't very tall, was inclined to stoutness, and had traces of a northern accent, and 'my' Bilbo looks and sounds very much like him!

    Lovely memories from both you and Sasha, with lots of choices I have never come across before.

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    • October 30, 2013 at 11:06 pm
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      Thanks Christine – I just think I was incredibly lucky with the teacher who was laid back enough to trust (why?!) my 17 year old judgement that Lawrence was OK! But, re cowboy boot guy, it is a curious (and sad) demonstration of how much influence a bad teacher can have. Your experience would have made such a difference.

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  • October 31, 2013 at 1:10 am
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    I am not familiar with several of the choices both readers picked. I have Jennie on my shelf in a Penguin copy and of course we all went through DH Lawrence as young people. I enjoy the personalities of the readers being revealed in these lovely interviews. Great job to the readers and Simon

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    • October 31, 2013 at 10:59 am
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      It is sort of sad to consider how little and vague was the sex education gleaned from a painstaking read of Lawrence! Peyton Place was almost too racy in comparison. I suppose nowadays it'd be Fifty Shades…

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  • October 31, 2013 at 2:16 am
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    Hmmm, as I said to vicki elsewhere, I'm now convinced my life in books has been a misspent one. I'm looking forward to exploring Sasha's blog now too.

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    • October 31, 2013 at 11:03 am
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      Oh Lisa! I am a terrific misspender (is that a word?) – so easily lured into comfortable re-reads, easily distracted by crime, scared of very large books, frightened by Russian writers, lazy with other languages. But I do enjoy myself immensely, and that is the important thing.

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  • October 31, 2013 at 3:14 am
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    What a great conversation! I loved (and shared Vicki's interest) in Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Agatha Christie. Both of our choices have grown in time, but those still remain treasured friends!

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    • October 31, 2013 at 11:10 am
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      Thanks Jeanie. Sometimes it is the links – such as a shared setting, for instance – with these long ago reads that makes the current read an extra delight. And because such a lot of these series involved the hero(in)es travelling, if I visit these places (my appetite already whetted from my reading), they seem already happily familiar.

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  • October 31, 2013 at 3:02 pm
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    Again, so many books. I am so looking forward to reading more for the rest of the series.

    Marianne from Let's Read

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