Verity has several blogs, but is perhaps best known to SiaB readers at Verity’s Virago Venture – she is also my line manager when I’m at work in the Bodleian! Sorry I’m on holiday today, Verity, hope the reading room is quiet…
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.
A favourite children’s book is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. I think this came out of a combination of movie-watching and reading, as our Sunday morning television used to broadcast lots of Swedish children’s movies. The movies based on the stories by Astrid Lindgren were always favourites and it wasn’t long before my mother pointed out her books to me at the library. What I loved about The Brothers Lionheart was the unconditional love between the brothers, the world-beyond-dead that Astrid Lindgren managed to paint first as picture perfect, before revealing its darker shades, and then leaving a particularly heroic role to the two brothers (who were children, and taken seriously as if they were adults, which is a big plus) in defeating that darkness. Of course, I might not have been able to articulate it as such when I was younger. However, the book had a lasting impression on me. Growing up in an atheist household, I was fascinated with the picture of life after dead. More so because it’s idyllic atmosphere held much of what I would have considered a ideal setting myself: nature, bunnies, a small cottage/farm, and fruit from your own orchard.
Verity: I did indeed grow up in a houseful of books, although a lot of them were academic rather than literary. 80% of them belonged to my father who rarely reads fiction; my mother preferred to rely on the library for a constant supply of reading material and would take me weekly. I never got enough books (only allowed 8 at a time!) to last a whole week, so I’d often have to read them a couple of times, although my school did have a reasonable library which acted as a top-up. I had many favourite books, and was a great fan of Enid Blyton, so I am going to mention the Stories of Mr Pinkwhistle, a fat tome given to me one Christmas, which has gone down in family annals as the first book which I was unable to finish in one day.
Iris: I have been thinking about this for some time, because I am sure I must have read more “grown-up” books before I turned to the one I am writing about here, but I cannot for the life of me remember it. Perhaps because when I consider my reading life during the first years of high school it is dominated by Harry Potter. The book that changed me from a Harry Potter fangirl [which I still am] into one that fell head over heels in love with classics was, rather predictably, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Somehow, the reason why I started reading Pride and Prejudice was again connected to television. I became interested after seeing a glimpse of the 1995 television series on TV, before my father put on another channel because he didn’t want to watch “such drivel”. I remember looking up the name “Mr. Darcy” (the scene I saw was the one where Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy at Pemberly and exclaiming his name) on the internet, and finding out about Pride and Prejudice. I knew I had heard about the book before, I knew it was “a classic”, but I really didn’t have a clue what it was about [I still wonder how that is even possible]. The reason why I searched for it was because I saw what I considered to be a similar dress-style to the Little Women movie, which I really liked.. [oh, for all the silly reasons..]
So, I took Pride and Prejudice out of the school library and read it in two days straight. I stayed up late at night, pretending to be asleep but reading beneath the covers because I had to know what happened next. I hadn’t yet gotten used to reading in English, and I remember being thoroughly confused about the meaning of the word “elopement”, but I loved the love story. I loved the passion and the tension and the grand declarations combined with the restrained etiquette. I very much fell in love with the love story when I was 14. I desperately needed that love story having just lived through a horrible first relationship of my own, with a controlling boyfriend and all that jazz. It was only after Pride and Prejudice, after I had reread it numerous times, after I had desperately searched for another story that would make me feel like this one had, that I started appreciating Austen for everything she offers besides the love story. But because the book made me search for other classics, and because it was the first “grown-up” book I read in English (I had read Harry Potter in English before) I still consider it to be the starting point of my “adult” reading life. However, I cannot do that without giving Harry Potter its due too, for those were the books that truly made me define myself as a reader again, and a proud geek, and that made me turn to English books as I couldn’t wait for the translation to appear.
Verity: The first “grown up” book I really enjoyed was Jane Eyre, aged about 10. A still-good-friend was even more of a precocious reader than me and would read whatever her parents had to hand. This ranged from Mills and Boon to a beautifully bound set of Jane Austen. I remember being impressed, obviously out loud, because our form tutor Mrs. Dickens then told me that the classics would be wasted on me. Red rag to the bull, and I found a paperback copy of Jane Eyre in our bookcases at home. I was gripped. Obviously at aged 10, and a lover of school stories, the school scenes at the beginning were of more interest to me than those involving Mr Rochester but I read it all.
Iris: In a way I want to repeat the answer to the second question here, for Pride and Prejudice was a defining book for me. But I’ll take “early adulthood” as meaning the years beyond teenage life and force myself to think of another title. Which then turns out to be, predictably, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. This is perhaps not so much a change from Pride and Prejudice and more of a logical follow-up, but for me it came with a different framework.
For one, Jane Eyre allowed me to think about a lot of things. Reading this book was not solely about the love story, but also about its other themes: religion, feminism, “othering”, and coming-of-age. Whereas I only thought about other themes besides the love story later when it came to Pride and Prejudice, the other themes were part of the instant appeal of Jane Eyre.
I think Jane Eyre was a book I only understood later, as an adult. It wasn’t for me when I was 14. I remember reading it back then, liking it, but not as much as I did when I was an “adult”. There were things to it that I couldn’t grasp, or wasn’t ready to admit to myself. One of those things is almost certainly the more sexual overtones of the story. I have never been comfortable with the ideas of desire and sexual tension in books. One of the reasons why I loved Pride and Prejudice was that they were there, but hidden, concealed. Jane Eyre plays upon the same concealment, but it is also vastly more open about passion being a part of human nature. It is more muddy in that way. I am still not overtly open about sexuality, nor about “finding men attractive”, or whatever, but I think Jane Eyre was part of a process that at least let me acknowledge it to myself, and some other online friends.
Jane Eyre also taught me a lot about loving a book that might not be perfect all-round. There are things to be said about Rochester’s behaviour, and about the portrayal of his first wife in a way that recalls colonial discourse, that usually halt me in my tracks. It was the first book that taught me about how feelings of discomfort might join with feelings of all-round-love. I haven’t been able to find a solution to this dilemma yet, except perhaps the acceptance that you can enjoy a story despite recognising its faults.
Verity: Aged 16 or 17 I read Lark Rise to Candleford, passed to me by my father. Obviously this was before the dreadful television adaption (sorry to those who enjoyed it!), and rather than as an inspiration for costume drama, this book had a key place in social history. It was fascinating to read an autobiography which showed the influence of things that I was studying at school (for example the early twentieth century Liberal Reforms – Flora Thompson mentions the elderly pensioners coming to collect their pensions from the Post Office and saying “God bless Lloyd George”) and thus started to awaken an understanding in me that rather than a list of dates and wars, history could be about real people and their lives.
Iris: One of the books that has turned into a favourite in recent years is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. And it could only do so because I started blogging, since I believe I would never have found out about Lanagan’s novels if it hadn’t been for other bloggers being so passionate about them.
Tender Morsels challenged me, because I did not read much fantasy pre-blogging. I think I may even have been one of those readers who wasn’t sure if it was correct to admit to liking fantasy before I became part of the online world. Genre reading is such a taboo in “the real world” sometimes. And it isn’t often that the complexity of books that contain fantasy elements is acknowledged. Tender Morsels was my “big revelation” about the true beauty and complexity fantasy novels can have. About the big issues that can be tackled (abuse, rape, self-acceptance) in a balanced manner.
Tender Morsels is the perfect example of how blogging changed my (reading) life: reading outside my comfort zone was challenging, but rewarding, and blogging has motivated me to do this more than ever. Moreover, Tender Morsels was a gift from a blogger, and came recommended by yet another, which I think is what blogging means most of all: friendships created through a mutual conversations about books.
Verity: It’s difficult to single out one book from the last year or two. I don’t have so much time for reading, so I don’t tend to continue to bother with books if they’re not very good! I also have read quite a lot, maybe not this year, but in preceding years, which means I have a lot of books that I could recommend. I’m a big fan of Greyladies Books and I think the novels or “romances” by Susan Scarlett are just wonderful. Susan Scarlett was the pen name for Noel Streatfield, and I’d like to describe these books as like her children’s books, but for adults. Certainly her adult novels under the Streatfield name can be quite bleak, but the Scarlett books are delightful and make wonderful holiday reading.
I came to blogging in 2008 I think. I was working in a very unstimulating job which didn’t always occupy all of my time. Stuck-in-a-Book was one of the first blogs that I came across and I spent many hours going through the back posts and making lists of things that I might like to read. I felt that my reading was a little directionless at the time and apart from the weekend papers I had no idea how to find out about books that I might want to read, especially books which were not just being published. Stuck-in-a-Book and the other blogs that I found through it gave me lots of ideas and sent me off on the path of reading Persephone books and Viragoes (although I’d already encountered them in other guises previously). Now that I am back in a super-stimulating job, I don’t have very much brain space for reading or blogging, but I do continue to read all of the blogs that I’ve started to follow and make notes of the books that I think I might like to read.
Iris: I used to answer Twilight to this question. I haven’t reread it in a few years though, and lately I am having big-time problems with its story (even more so than before). Perhaps that might turn it into more a guilty pleasure, but I’d have to read it again to see if it would still pull me in like that.
After Twilight though.. I don’t know. Perhaps I have been less willing to categorize books as “guilty pleasures” lately, for nothing truly comes to mind. I have browsed through the titles of books I read in the past two years, and I wouldn’t define any of them as guilty pleasures. There is a lot of comfort reading in there, as well as YA titles such as Divergent or Matched. Some might define that as guilty pleasures, I guess.
Verity: I seem to have more and more guilty pleasures at the moment, as a stressful job being balanced with other things, doesn’t leave me with as much time as I would like to concentrate on reading. In times like these, you can’t go wrong with some chick lit, and Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Adele Parks, Lisa Jewell and others can always be relied upon for something that’s easy to read but not entirely frivolous. I have no shame at all about returning to children’s books, and as an adult have built collections as diverse as the Chalet School and the Babysitters Club. I just wish they wouldn’t shelve children’s books in a separate room in the library! Talking of the library, another odd pleasure of mine, is to borrow books on entirely random subjects, just because they are free and interesting. I had a fascinating book out earlier in the year on how to run a B & B, something that I never intend to do, but it was fascinating. I suppose really that’s what reading is all about – exploring and learning about other worlds from a place of safety.
Verity, on Iris’s choices: It’s nice to see that I have been paired with a blogger who has some similarities to me! Jane Eyre is always going to be a book that crops up for many people as significant. Whilst I haven’t read Twilight, I could easily have included another cult YA book The Hunger Games as a guilty pleasure which I surprised myself by enjoying earlier this year. I have never read The Brothers Lionheart, but having looked it up on Amazon, I think I should redress this immediately although it looks as if I might make me cry. Seeing the inclusion of Tender Morsels in the list gave away this blogger’s identity as someone whose blog I have been enjoying now for several years, I remember Iris mentioning it as something she really loved.
[Simon: I should add that, unofficially, Iris suspected that Verity was her mystery partner!]