Florence blogs at Miss Darcy’s Library, and I am grateful to her for getting me finally to read some Rosamond Lehmann, after she led a Reading Week devoted to this author earlier in 2012.
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.
Stu: I did very much grow up in a bookish house. My earliest memories are of my dad reading on the chair, in the car waiting for my mum, and his hour long visits to toilet at home with his book reading! That said our tastes in books are very different – my dad is an escapist reader, thrillers westerns and spy novels. He also reads maybe double the number of books I do. My grandparents were also very bookish – my gran was a crime fan so holidays were spent reading but also looking through her collection of old paperbacks with their slightly creepy sixties and fifties covers. Her favourite writer was Agatha Christie. My other gran was an English teacher and headmistress so her shelves open my eyes to classics and although I don’t read as many as I should these days, I discovered names like Saki and Dickens in her shelves. Also she maybe inspired one of my favourite childhood books, which is The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, as she had a old version of The Lord of the Rings that I found very enticing as a kid with its cover and Runic writing – so I was given The Hobbit when I was about ten as The Lord of the Rings was maybe too had for me at that age. I fell in love with the idea of far away places and adventures in them.
Florence: I grew up in a diplomatic household, and every two to three years we’d up stakes and move to another country. It was difficult keeping up transatlantic friendships, and I learnt early on to rely on books rather than people for comfort and companionship. It helped that wherever we lived, there were always books all around us. Every night after dinner my siblings and I gathered on my parents’ bed for story-hour, and my mother read aloud from all the great classics. When we grew too old for children’s books she swapped them for Jane Austen, Margaret Mitchell, or Tanizaki. It was only when I finished high-school and moved to Paris that the tradition finally – sadly – came to an end.
If I had to pick one book from my childhood (oh how hard it is to choose!), it would probably be E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. I was very keen on tales of magic and adventure, and I read and enjoyed a great many of them, but only The Enchanted Castle had statues that came alive in the moonlight, and an invitation to dine with the Greek gods on an island in the middle of a lake!
Stu: I always say my first truly grown up book… well I have mentioned The Hound of the Baskervilles in a post on my own blog, but maybe I’ll mention another book I read around same time (that would be about fourteen or fifteen) that maybe gives a clue to my later reading tastes, and that is The Plague by Albert Camus. A dark book about how people react when a plague breaks out and I, in a way, associate with this as my parents had got divorced in my early teens and my mum remarried and I gained a brother and sister and a step father who I didn’t and still don’t get on with. So a book about people struggling with life maybe rung home as my teens years weren’t the happiest for me, in reflection, as I never felt at home in my late teens so writers like Camus then the beat writers gave me a outlet on my life. Damn that sounds depressing but it has affected the rest of my life. There were of course good times but as a growing teen I felt alone at times and angry at the world.
Florence: I was twelve when I first read Jane Eyre. I tried Pride and Prejudice first and found Austen so dry that I gave up at the end of the first page, vowing never to open the book again (luckily, I have gone back on that vow multiple times since then!). We were living in Cape Town at the time, and I vividly recall the sunshine pouring into my bedroom and the way I leaned over and put P&P back on the shelf, with a small but decided plunk. For some peculiar reason, that is the image that has stayed with me, rather than the drum-roll moment when I first opened Jane Eyre. And there should have been a drum-roll! For I fell utterly, irremediably, head over heels in love with Jane and Rochester. It was the first time I met a heroine who was neither a princess nor the most beautiful girl in all the kingdom – and yet, poor, obscure, and plain as Jane was, she was wonderful! So full of fire, and so unquenchable… She and Rochester are still my favourite literary couple.
Florence: As a teenager I was very fond of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, which I always preferred to the Anne of Green Gables series. Emily was so much more mysterious than Anne, and I loved New Moon and the aunts. In fact, though I couldn’t have put it in so many words then, the Emily books – and especially the last one, Emily’s Quest – appealed to me because it combined everything that is most important to me: a quaint old house, a large and eccentric family, and writing. That’s always what bugged me the most about Anne Shirley: she was a failed writer. And she accepted that. Whereas Emily never gave up. She was going to be writer whether people liked it or not! I wanted to be like her – and I still do..
Stu: Oh I’m going to twist the rules here and pick a publisher, if I can Simon, I want pick Peirene Press. I have loved all the books in the last few years, and as you may know they publish books in translation that have been called movie books because they take a couple of hours to read. But the main thing I love about them is, yes, they are short, but every book they have published has felt so much more than its size and if it wasn’t for Meike the publisher, they wouldn’t reach us in English. So yes, they were the first publisher to send me a book for the blog but also the reason the blog is here to highlight books in translation. I hope that is ok – if you need to push me I’ll name Stones in a Landslide as my favourite book by them but it is like picking your favourite child.
Florence: It was my best friend who pushed me to start a blog: it amuses him when I get all worked up about a book and do my best to get him to buy my latest favourite. Because he lives far away in the States, opportunities for heated debates about books are not as frequent as we would like, so he suggested a blog as a way of getting around that… And I am very glad he did! Apart from the many lovely blogs that I’ve come to know, and the countless fascinating titles I have added to my TBR list, I would never have discovered A. S. Byatt or Mary Stewart if it weren’t for blogging, and they both (albeit in very different ways) make my life much happier!
Paradoxically, though, blogging has slowed me down: I have trouble starting a new book until I’ve reviewed the one I’ve just finished, and because I take forever to write up my reviews, I actually read less now than I did before. Moral of the story: be organized and don’t procrastinate!
Stu: Oh guilty pleasure – I think I may have mentioned this on the blog before but it is dog biographies, books like Marley and Me. Damn, that is my credibility gone now there! No, the truth is the blog is named after my own dog Winston and I just enjoy a bit of escapism reading a story of a dog’s life, although usually get upset at the end and I can’t even watch the film Marley and Me without crying loads. I just love dogs – man’s best friend and in my case they have often been my best friend over last twenty years, well til I met my darling wife
Florence: No surprises in store for anyone here! I think my tastes in books are a pretty accurate reflection of my personality. There isn’t much guilt involved either – I would perhaps refrain from mentioning my enjoyment of Georgette Heyer novels in certain academic circles, but all in all, I don’t think one ought to be made to feel guilty about reading, whatever one might choose to read. As a matter of fact (since the truth will out!) my guilty pleasure is watching American TV series, such as Friends and Gilmore Girls. Hmm. Please don’t hold it against me!
Florence, on Stu’s choices: This was a fascinating list of titles to analyse! Though judging a person by what they read as a child is not exactly foolproof, I think that in this case, the choice of The Hobbit is very telling: it points towards an imaginative and adventurous mind – a trait the other titles tend to confirm. For the adolescent reader’s forays into French and German literature (Camus and Hermann Hesse), and the adult’s appreciation of the Peirene Press‘s very diverse European publications, reveal an open, curious mind and a desire to explore beyond the confines of the English literary canon which seem in perfect accordance with the child’s love of Bilbo Baggins’s adventures through Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains. Lastly, I think my mystery reader probably has a soft spot for animals, a kind heart and a sense of humour, or they wouldn’t like Marley and Me so much. Definitely someone I’d like to meet!