My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Four

And we’re halfway!  Still plenty of wonderful people to come – and plenty of time for me to kick back with a cup of tea and enjoy a week off ;)  By the way, today has my favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ of the whole series!  I’ve taken the liberty of accompanying it with a cartoon from www.unshelved.com

Kim is an expat Australian living in London, and has been blogging about books since (gasp) 2001.  Reading Matters has had well over a million hits, and deservedly so.

Jenny is the other half (alongside Teresa, featured earlier this week) of US-based blog Shelf Love.  She’s also the first of this week’s bloggers that I’ve never met in person – I hope this will be rectified one day!

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.

Kim: My father was a primary school teacher and an avid reader himself, and while my mother didn’t read novels, she had a large collection of books about art and nature, so I definitely grew up in a book-loving household. My sister and I were read to as young children and later, as teenagers, we went on weekly visits to the local library, accompanied by Dad. (Funnily enough, long after we left home, my dad went to the library after a long absence and the librarian handed him a new card and two additional ones “for your daughters” — seems we had been remembered even though we hadn’t been for at least five years!)

One of my fondest childhood memories associated with books was staying in a holiday house on the beach during the off-season (read wet, cold and windy) accompanied by the boxed set of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which Dad had borrowed from the library at his school (which was also my school, but that’s another story). Throughout the week we took it in turns to read the books in order — Voyage of the Dawn Treader still remains my favourite.

But if I was to pick a favourite book from my childhood I would have to say Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown, which I must have read at least two dozen times.  It’s an adventure story meets psychological thriller; it was my first introduction to the concept of a page-turner. In it, a girl called Ellen receives a mysterious silver crown for her tenth birthday.  When she puts it on and goes for a walk, little does she know the lengths that (bad) people will go to in order to steal the crown from her.  For most of the story she is on the run from men wearing black cloaks and along the way she meets other characters whom she’s never sure whether to trust or not.  It’s essentially a story about good versus evil, and I just remember loving the feeling of fear and suspense it evoked in me as I read it. 

Jenny: I grew up in a house where reading was as natural and as expected and as full of pleasure as eating.  My parents read to me when I was an infant on up through my teen years — I can remember summer evenings when all five of us sat around listening to my father doing the Ent and Gollum voices in the Lord of the Rings books.  I must have been fourteen or fifteen then. I was a constant reader. All of us were.

When I was a child, I tended to read books over and over again.  I’d take big bags of books out of the library, bring them back the next week, and then check them out again immediately.  One favorite that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else mention was Sesyle Joslin’s The Night They Stole the Alphabet.  It’s about a little girl who wakes in the night to find that three shadowy robbers have stolen the alphabet from her bedroom wallpaper, and all her beloved books are missing their printing as well.  She takes off in pursuit, and her adventures lead her (with the help of some engaging friends) to a baby with a B in its bonnet, a reversed mermaid who warns her to mind her Ps and Qs, and a hospitable owl who invites her for a refreshing cup of T…
 

Qu.2) What was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that you really enjoyed?  

Kim: Probably the first truly “adult” novel that I read was Virginia Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic, which was about four siblings locked in an attic who were being slowly poisoned by their grandmother.  During their confinement, the two elder siblings — a brother and sister — fall in love.  It was quite a risqué book for a 14-year-old to read.  I probably would never have come across it on my own; my best friend, who had taken it from her mother’s shelf, had loaned it to me.  It didn’t take long for the book’s raunchy reputation to spread like wildfire through my school and the paperback did the rounds of all my friends.  It was quite battered and forlorn looking when it was finally returned to its proper home!  I don’t think my friend’s mother minded though, because we ended up reading the follow-up that was published the next year.  I occasionally see Flowers in the Attic in bookshops and have a little titter to myself.  I’m actually tempted to read it again, if only to confirm that it was probably the trashiest novel I’ve ever read!

Jenny: My mother majored in 19th-century British literature when she was in college, so she had a tendency to give me grown-up books before I was really ready for them.  But I can clearly remember a summer’s vacation to France when I was completely possessed by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  I must have been eleven years old, and I sat in a chair in our little attic apartment in Strasbourg, with our friends’ cat on my lap, and read that novel as if my life, and not the second Mrs. de Winter’s, depended on it.  I probably read it three times that summer.  What a punch that book still packs, doesn’t it?

Qu.3) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood – especially if it’s one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Kim: I spent most of my early adulthood reading a lot of trashy thrillers, sappy romances and horror novels. By the time I was 20 I’d worked my way through Stephen King’s back catalogue and had just discovered Dean R. Koontz, Maeve Binchy and Leon Uris.  But then, for a reason I cannot remember, I picked up Patrick McCabe’s Booker shortlisted The Butcher Boy in a bookshop, bought it and took it home.  It was probably the first proper “literary” novel I’d ever read and I was knocked sideways by it.  For a start, the entire novel is written without punctuation, so you’re never sure where one sentence ends and another begins.  And the voice, that of a young troubled boy who commits a murder, is horribly disquieting.  Before long you realise he has become unhinged and is in desperate need of help — and love.  It’s a very dark and disturbing novel, but a compelling one.  It completely transformed the way I thought about fiction.  I was no longer satisfied reading middle-of-the-road “supermarket” novels; I wanted something meaty and confronting and challenging; I wanted books that explored moral dilemmas and showed the darker side of human nature.  As a result, I started reading a lot of dark literary stuff, including Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory and the early works of John Banville (The Book of Evidence, Mefisto and The Revolutions Trilogy), to name but a few.  To this day, more than 20 years later, I still seek out that kind of dark fiction — and I look for that kind of subject matter in the non-fiction I read, too.

Jenny: I’m not certain whether this is cheating, because these are books I have read many times, but the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy by Elizabeth Goudge (The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim’s Inn, and The Heart of the Family) were very important to me during early adulthood struggles in particular.  In this trilogy, Goudge follows the Eliot family between the first World War and the second, and deals with the notions of what home means, what truth and integrity are when they are not centered only around the self, and how your own pain can be made into joyful sacrifice so something greater can be built.  She does all this with lightness and humor, and she has the tremendous gift of writing good people who are not boring.

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

Kim: I read up to 100 books a year, so a book has to be exceptional to stand out from the crowd. But one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in the past five years, and the one that I still think about years after having read it, is John McGahern’s The Barracks. This semi-autobiographical novel, first published in 1963, is about a young woman (based on McGahern’s mother) who marries a widower, who already has a large family. Just as she’s getting used to her new routine and becoming a stepmother for the first time, she discovers a lump in her breast — and decides not to tell a soul about it. It’s an incredibly moving and haunting story — and it’s by far the best depiction of a woman’s voice, as written by a man, that I have ever come across. It made me rush out to my nearest Waterstones and buy McGahern’s entire back catalogue in one hit. I’m yet to be disappointed by anything he has written.

In terms of how blogging has changed my reading habits, I would say it has made me a “better” reader, by which I mean I think more deeply about what I’ve read and I tend to analyse a book’s structure, its plot, how the characters are developed, what the prose is like and so on. I’m constantly thinking why does this book work — or not work. And I’m more inclined to be forgiving of a book, knowing that getting all these elements “right” is so very difficult. I’ve never studied English literature or any arts subjects, so, in many ways, blogging about books has been a little like educating myself about the world of fiction — it’s been a constant learning exercise.

Reading so many other book blogs has also exposed me to a greater variety of literature and, while I’ve always been willing to read outside of my comfort zone, I’m now more inclined to try different types of books on the basis of blogger recommendations.



Jenny: Just one?!? Simon, that’s impossible. I’ve read so many magnificent books in the last five years — okay, um, just one then:  HomebyMarilynneRobinsonLittleBigbyJohnCrowley-andPaleFirebyVladimirNabokov. (!!) Blogging has changed my reading habits a lot. I used to go to the library, look around me at the sea of books I couldn’t remember, give up, and re-read an old favorite. Now that I have a real TBR list and a good way of remembering what I’ve read in the past, I read far, far more new things. I almost never re-read any longer. I get so many wonderful recommendations from other bloggers. And I never feel alone in what I’ve read or what I enjoy reading. 

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

Kim: I do like a good psychological thriller or suspense novel.  I don’t mind if the plot’s absurd or if it’s riddled with holes, as long as it’s a page-turner and keeps me guessing until the end I’m happy.  It’s only very recently that I have realised I’m trying to recapture what it was like to read The Silver Crown all those years ago!

I find these kinds of reads are perfect for when I’m on holiday and want to disengage the brain or when I need something to lift me out of a reading slump or just to cleanse the palate in between more “high-brow” reads. My favourite writer in this genre is Nicci French but I’ve also enjoyed novels by Helen Fitzgerald and James Siegel.  More recently I’ve discovered Patricia Highsmith and John Bowles.

Jenny: My reading habits are so eclectic that I doubt anything I said would surprise people (old issues of Popular Mechanics? Boxing Today? Waxing My Mustache: A Personal Memoir?  No, that last one would probably be interesting.) And I don’t feel guilty about anything I read. Oh, here’s a guilty pleasure: when I go to bookstores, I take the blaring political books with nasty titles (Liberals Are Ugly And Dress Funny; Republicans Hate Their Mothers) off the shelves, and shelve them in unexpected places where they are hard to find (travel, feminist theory.)  I ought not.  It’s making life difficult for the bookstore clerks. But I do it.



And… I’ve told you the other person’s choices, anonymously.  What do you think these choices say about their reader?
Jenny, on Kim’s choices: This person, from a young age, has never been turned off or unsettled by the dark side of human nature.  Not for them the “cozy” mystery or the comfort read!  Instead, they like to find out everything they can about what people really are and do in unusual and trying situations.  Even their guilty-pleasure reading is dark — though it’s ordered, so you know the bad guy will be caught.  Their taste in writing has changed a bit over the years (though I read Flowers in the Attic when I was a teenager, too!)  Since people in dark spots sometimes react very poorly (The Butcher Boy) and sometimes with dignity (The Barracks), it’s a side that never loses its fascination, and one I’m interested in, too.

Kim, on Jenny’s choices: This is such an interesting selection books of which I’ve only read one — Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — and that was very recently.  With a little help from Amazon, I can see that many of these titles share similar themes — in each of the reviews the words “charming”, “magical” and “poignant” keep appearing.  So I suspect that this is a reader who loves books that provide a little warm inner glow and they appreciate stories that are deeply imaginative, perhaps transport them to a world that looks like ours but is more magical, strange and romantic.  I think this reader also enjoys tales with a touch of suspense.


28 thoughts on “My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Four

  • March 8, 2012 at 1:18 am
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    What a wonderful array of books, most of which (excepting Rebecca, which I also read for the first time when I was 11) I've never read. I'm particularly intrigued by the Elizabeth Goudge trilogy and The Barracks sounds amazing. Jenny, I laughed out loud when I read about your fun at bookstores. Usually, I'm the kind of obsessive customer who reshelves anything I find out of place but these I would definitely let lie!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm
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      I was attracted to exactly the same two you were, Claire (and, like you, have only read Rebecca.) My Amazon wishlist is going to be so full this week – I should have bought all the most tempting titles before I published the posts!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm
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      Simon, I sent you a book by Elizabeth Goudge (The Dean's Watch, I think) very very early on in our blogging relationship… I think she is really up your alley! But this trilogy is my favorite.

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    • March 9, 2012 at 12:07 am
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      Ah, that's where it came from! How awful of me not to remember…

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    • March 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm
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      The Barracks *is* amazing. It's quite slow and gentle, but is filled with heartbreaking scenes which still stay with me. When I read McGahern's Memoir I realised he was essentially telling the story of his much-loved mother who had died of cancer when he was a young boy. That made The Barracks all the more devastating — and memorable — I think.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 6:53 am
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    Rebecca I know and love, but I've not the other selected books – Kim's choices are probably all a little too dark for my taste. I keep coming across references to Elizabeth Goudge, so perhaps I should try her. And The Night They Stole the Alphabet sounds interesting… I wonder, is it at all like The Phantom Toll Booth or The Wonderful O?

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    • March 8, 2012 at 11:54 pm
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      Chris, yes, it's quite similar! Word and language play, puns, and a wonderfully plucky heroine. Now the book is impossible to find under about $100. I wish they'd reprint it!

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    • March 10, 2012 at 8:56 am
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      Simon, do read them! The Wonderful O is a short story for children, by Thurber, in which a very nasty pirate arrives on the island of Ooroo and banishes the letter '0' (he hates the letter because his mother got stuck in porthole). It's very funny, very clever, and should be read by anyone who loves words and language, whatever their age. The same applies to The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, which is very bizarre and, I think, bears comparison with Lewis Carroll. It's one of the greatest children's books ever. I blogged about it last year.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 7:44 am
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    I haven't even read all of this yet because JENNY!!!! YOU HAVE READ THE NIGHT THEY STOLE THE ALPHABET TOO!!! I have never ever met anyone else who's even heard of it, which is such a shame as it's excellent.

    Jenny, I now know that you are the premier arbiter of reading taste on the blog and when I've had a little lie-down and a cup of tea I'll be back to read the best of this interview.

    [SO thrilled!]

    Helen (gallimaufry)

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    • March 8, 2012 at 11:55 pm
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      Helen, I have literally never met anyone besides my own sister who has read that book! You and I are clearly sisters in book taste!!!!

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  • March 8, 2012 at 8:09 am
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    This series continues to be wonderful. What great choices, though like others I have not read any except Rebecca, which I also read and loved as a teenager. I've heard of Flowers in the Attic and I can well imagine how you would have lapped it up in thrilled shock! Jenny you wicked bookstore woman — how I love it!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm
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      Thomas chose Flowers in the Attic for one of his books last year – I must say, nothing about his description, or Kim's, makes me want to read it!

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    • March 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm
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      There's a film version of Flowers in the Attic, too, which came out in the late 1980s, but it wasn't as good as the book.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm
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    Kim, You will always have a place in my heart for leading me to Fair Stood the Wind for France, how I loved that book! And as a circulation clerk I laughed at your Dad being handed new cards for his daughters. We're expected to have said child dragged in front of us to execute performance art and recite something witty…well, that's exaggerating but almost!

    Jenny, Sitting on a little chair in an attic in Strasbourg…how sweet an image. And then there's you wreaking havoc in bookshops, what a hoot!

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    • March 9, 2012 at 9:50 am
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      You remind me, Darlene, that I must read my copy of Fair Stood.. and weren't Jenny's attic and bookshop images priceless, in different ways?

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    • March 9, 2012 at 6:48 pm
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      Ah, how lovely is Fair Stood… so pleased you enjoyed it. I'm anxious to read more of Bates' work but haven't got around to it yet…

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  • March 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm
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    The Butcher Boy sounds fantastic! I haven't heard of that title, but, like Kim, I love darker subject matters. I'm going to keep an eye out for it.

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    • March 9, 2012 at 9:50 am
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      I might steer clear of that one myself, but The Barracks sounds dark in a way which would fascinate me.

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    • March 9, 2012 at 6:50 pm
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      Jackie, I think you'd like The Butcher Boy.

      Simon, I think you'd like The Barracks; it's set in rural Ireland but there are aspects of the storyline which are set in wartime London.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm
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    Jenny: so YOU are the reason I spent ages looking for that book that the computer said was in stock but mysteriously disappeared? Thanks. ;)

    I worked at a bookstore for two years in a very conserative area. Consequently, people were often embarrassed to ask for, or be seen reading, sex advice books. Customers would carry a big stack of them off to remote areas of the store, and then the employees would find the Kama Sutra and How To Be a Better Lover in the gardening section. It was kinda funny.

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    • March 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm
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      Diana, I did say it was a guilty pleasure. :) I know I shouldn't do it but I cannot bear those sorts of books, that bash people who don't agree with you. They are so nasty.

      I love your story about the sex advice books, though. Gardening, eh?

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    • March 9, 2012 at 12:53 am
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      The employees at my store hated those books too! The worst was when in addition to requesting them, the customers would then hold us up for several minutes by telling us how informative 'Democrats Are the Scourge of the Earth' was and why we should read it. Politely listening and feigning even mild interest was a difficult task.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 9:37 pm
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    Like some of the rest of you, my wish list is getting longer and longer. I'm eager to seek out the Goudge trilogy and agree with Claire that The Barracks sounds amazing (and perhaps a little on the gut-wrenching side). I remember reading Flowers in the Attic and finding it especially "creepy," but that is about the limit of my memory (which is probably for the best). Thanks to Jenny and Kim!

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  • March 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm
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    Thanks so much for asking me to do this, Simon. Until Jenny summed up my reading, I hadn't clocked how much dark stuff I read… even my kid's choices are black! What an interesting exercise.

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  • March 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm
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    I loved all of Kim's choices, I wouldn't have guessed it was her oddly until the Nicci French mention if she had been paired up with me.

    Hoorah for Jenny bringing in Rebecca, is it one of the most mentioned novels in these series I wonder?

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  • August 8, 2014 at 4:54 pm
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    "The night they stole the alphabet" was a favorite when I was about 8-10. Reread it recently and it wasn't quite as wonderful as I'd remembered but definitely something my kids should read. If only I could remember where I found it. also her books, "What do you say dear" and "what do you do, dear"–very funny and instructive for kids and adults.

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