My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Three

Hope you’re enjoying the week so far!  I certainly am.  Here’s a game you can play whilst you read, this week… spot the books which appear more than once!  One particular novel makes three appearances, I believe… and you can probably already guess which children’s author is going to dominate proceedings…

Hayley has been a member of my online book group for many years, and so I was delighted when she finally took the plunge and started up her blog Desperate Reader.  She knows as much about whisky as she does about books – which sounds like winter evenings at her house must be rather lovely!

Karyn lives in Australia and has the most niche blog I’ve come across – and deliciously niche, too, since it only covers old Penguin books.  Appropriately titled A Penguin A Week, it does when it says on the tin.  I recently had the pleasure of meeting Karyn, making her the furthest-flung blogger I’ve met.

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.

Hayley: Yes – dad had inherited a Victorian house with a library, lots of Wilkie Collins, illustrated bibles, bound copies of Punch, and mouldering boxes of book club choices in the attic. I wish I’d had more time to explore in there before the house went. My mother is, if anything, an even more compulsive buyer of books than I am (she turned her spare room into a library which works for her because she doesn’t like guests much) so there have always been a lot of books. I remember dad reading The Wind in the Willows to me but not much else sticks. It took me ages to learn to read and then it clicked pretty much overnight – that was the power of Enid Blyton. I loved the secret series and the famous five – especially the ones set on islands, and Five On A Treasure Island was an absolute favourite. I only remember sketchy details now but bits have stuck like glue. Blyton was a terrific writer for children, she made me feel like adventure was on the doorstep – and criminals excluded, it was. Nothing could distract me from those books and happily my parents were really good about always buying us loads of books.

Karyn: No, I wouldn’t describe it as a book-loving household.  Everyone read, and reading was certainly encouraged, but no one collected books, or thought to assemble a library, or spent any time discussing what they had read. It was romance novels and adventure stories, and reading for entertainment. 

I don’t remember being read to; my parents were both very young and they worked a lot of hours saving to buy a house. I can still remember how exciting it was to be given a book though, so perhaps it didn’t happen very often.  My earliest obsession was with The Famous Five, and I’m sure I loved every one even though I don’t remember anything about them now.  I’ll nominate Five get into a Fix, because I can still remember that cover. I came across the same edition recently in a secondhand book store in Chester and bought it for my  daughter.

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

Hayley: I pretty much went straight from The Famous Five to Dorothy L. Sayers when I was about 12 but much as I enjoyed herand others who weren’t children’s writers – I was still reading as a child. I think grown up reading probably started a year later with Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon at a Venture. My sister and I had moved from one parent to another, from Scotland to England. It was a huge move and we got very homesick; a book about an abortive attempt to hunt basking sharks in the Hebrides really helped. Like most of Maxwell’s books it’s an object lesson in the best (or worst) laid plans going wrong but with wonderful writing and the sense that you could try anything however unlikely (never mind that it always seems to go wrong for him) it was inspiring.

Karyn: When I was 11 I was rewarded for winning some contest at school with the Penguin editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and so they were the first grown-up books I read. I think I understood very little, although I can still remember everything about the moment at which I read of Helen’s death, of where I was and who I was with, and I think it was the most devastated I had felt by that age.

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.

Hayley: It’s not exactly a favourite but Jancis Robinson’s Confessions of a Wine Lover changed my life. I was working in a bookshop and picked it up one lunch time, her passion for wine jumped off the page and sent me straight into the nearest wine shop. That led to a job and that’s been my life for the last 13 years. Wine is endlessly fascinating – and there are new things happening all the time, this book opened up a whole world of possibilities and excitement.

Karyn: The book that helped to establish the direction of my reading life was John Fowles’ The Collector. I read constantly but aimlessly before I found it, without much idea how to choose what to read. But in The Collector John Fowles alludes to The Tempest and discusses other books and authors, and so it gave me a blueprint to follow. I set about finding and reading every book it mentioned, and then every book they mentioned, and in the 1980s that meant searching through secondhand stores or ordering them from overseas. At some point I noticed that much of what I was reading had been published by Penguin so I just started buying any secondhand book I found with an orange spine, and I’ve never stopped.

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?

Hayley: There are a lot of favourite books from the last five years and blogs have had a huge influence on my reading. About four years ago I lost two jobs over six months (most careless) after which came a spell of near unemployment. It gave me a lot of time to read and a lot more time to spend online. Blogging was a godsend; it felt like a positive thing to do and had the unexpected bonus of bringing me into contact with lots of new people. Following other blogs has bought my attention to books I might never otherwise have heard of – like Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves – and changed my reading habits entirely.  I think more about what I’m reading, and about what I’m going to read.  I make sure I finish books now which means I’m less likely to start something I don’t think I’ll enjoy, but the offer of review copies has lead me down paths I wouldn’t have expected.  The downside is that there are so many things I want to read that it’s hard to remember it’s not a race sometimes.  I used to re read favourite books all the time but rarely do it now, instead I get very excited about something, rave about it, and then all but forget it, however without doubt one of my favourite books of the last 5 years has been Lady Audley’s Secret.  It’s got a bit of everything – a cracking good story with a labyrinthine plot that never slows down and a touch of feminism in a villainess you can feel sympathy for. Proper can’t put it down stuff but thought provoking at the same time.  Perfect.

Karyn: Blogging hasn’t changed my reading habits as I have always collected the Penguins in order to read them, but I now discuss these books with an audience that is bigger than just my husband. I find I read fewer books now though, as it takes me a few days to reflect on what I have read in order to write up a post, whereas previously I would have just moved straight on to the next book.  The whole point of collecting and reading the old Penguins is to be exposed to books and authors I wouldn’t know of otherwise, and so I make discoveries all the time. My favourite so far has been The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford don better known as the mystery writer Michael Innes. It is the Penguin I would nominate as most deserving of a larger audience, and I loved everything about it.

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

Hayley: I save the really trashy stuff for television where I’ll watch any old rubbish as long as it’s super colourful and glossy looking but sometimes (and this may not be a surprise, and I don’t feel very guilty about it either…) that spills over into my reading.  I have a soft spot for Jilly Cooper circa Riders and Rivals. 1980s bonkbusters with horses and very little political correctness – Riders was my book of choice for long train journeys back up north and it was a blast (apart from the bit where a horse dies which inevitably caused tears somewhere near Oxenholme). It was totally absorbing with a great villain and didn’t demand much thought which was a great way to bookend a holiday. I tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on the same trip once but it didn’t take. 

Karyn: My reading is strictly Penguins or books on maths and statistics, so no guilty pleasures there.

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

Karyn, on Hayley’s choices: With the exception of Five on a Treasure Island these are books I don’t know, which makes it rather difficult have a guess at what these choices say about their chooser (no vintage Penguins!) I’m relying here entirely on the outlines published on the internet .  Confessions of a Wine Lover seems the easiest, for it suggests this is someone who appreciates good food and wine, and perhaps this also implies someone who enjoys company and being social. I can see that the book is actually much more than this though, telling the story of Jancis Robinson’s lifelong obsession with wine, and that it is one of two autobiographies on the list. And I read that Lady Audley’s Secret also includes many biographical details, so perhaps this reader has an interest in people, in their stories and in their lives. The subject matter of the chosen titles is varied, but they all seem to share a grand scale; they seem to be complex and elaborate tales full of drama, adventure, and romance, celebrating life. I picture someone female, who is vibrant, outgoing and friendly, and with a wide range of interests.
Hayley, on Karyn’s choices: I would love to meet this person and spend an afternoon in bookish chat (assuming I haven’t already) choosing the Famous Five and Jane Eyre shows that we have common reading ground.  I’ve skirted around The Collector for years and would love to get my hands on a copy of The Last Tresilians now I’ve read about it.  I also like that this is someone who feels no guilt over their reading and like to think that this is because they see no reason to feel guilty about time spent with a book – it would be intimidating to imagine a person who is so well organised that there’s no time for self indulgence.  It hardly needs saying that this is clearly a cultured, thoughtful reader.  This list is a nice balance between classics, contemporary, and what I’m guessing was a chance find, I’d also guess that they collect books, and probably other things, as much for the book itself as for what may be inside it, and although there is probably a theme that runs through the books they really love I have an impression of someone who reads very widely to find those books. 

31 thoughts on “My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Three

  • March 7, 2012 at 7:45 am
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    Another fantastic read from two thoughtful and erudite bloggers. I'm curious to see how many of Simon's guests have such vivid memories of Enid Blyton's books. I read them as a child, but can't recollect the details from any one story, which is odd, because I can remember the other books I read then, even the ones I didn't like.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:41 am
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      My siblings and I all grew up with Enid Blyton as well. I loved the Faraway Tree series but the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find-Outers were also very popular. A few months ago, I came across some old tapes in the basement of my parents' home and for a laugh, I put them in the boot of my car. On the long drive back to Paris, my brothers and I found ourselves listening the The Mystery of Banshee Towers and Five on Kirrin Island – it was so much fun!

      Florence (Miss Darcy's Library).

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:09 pm
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      I have horrendous memories of any books, and Enid Blyton's are no different, but I do remember how much I loved reading them – and then reenacting scenes from them. Lucky me to have such a creative mother – once she turned our house into Kirrin Island, caves and all!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 12:57 am
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      How absolutely marvellous!! My own mother didn't create caves for us (we made enough of a mess all by ourselves!) but she did nickname my dad Uncle Quentin, because they share the same trick of constantly misplacing their glasses…

      Florence.

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  • March 7, 2012 at 9:45 am
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    This series is lovely – it's lovely to read more about my favourite bloggers so thank you for organising it Simon!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:10 pm
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      You're very welcome! I'm pretty sure it'll have to have a third series next year…

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  • March 7, 2012 at 11:26 am
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    Hayley, I like your Mother. There is definitely a case for filling a room full of guests rather than books!

    Thank you Simon for a fascinating second round of my life in books. My favourite last time was your Mother. There must be something about me and blogger's Mothers!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm
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      My mother is amazing(though not always very sociable if you want to stay with her)she has a brilliant collection of the oddest books as well as all sorts of other things. I love going to her house.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:11 pm
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      Merenia – maybe that should be my next series, a whole round of blogger's mothers! I do love it when family members crop up on people's blogs. I'm lucky that mine understand bibliomania, even if they do not suffer from it to *quite* the same extent…

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    • March 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm
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      That would be SUCH a fun series Simon! I'm currently trying to talk my mom into co-blogging a couple books we both recently read. :D

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  • March 7, 2012 at 11:28 am
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    Oh, I got that round the wrong way….

    There is definitely a case for filling a room full of BOOKS rather than guests.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm
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      If you choose your guests right you can do both AND guarantee that the books are put back in the right order (although you might have to frisk them before they leave!)
      (The guests, that is.)
      Our guest room doubles as 'the library'. We keep a notebook in it for people to enter details of 'loans' so that they can finish the book they are reading once they have to leave.
      Am I odd? I thought this was quite normal!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm
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      Ooh I wish some of my friends thought this was normal. Would have saved me 'borrowing' a book 40 years ago from my Aunt – I still have it!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:11 pm
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      No wonder you kept anonymous ;)

      I instantly forget when I lend people books (which I'm always happy to do) and thus rely entirely upon their honesty…

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  • March 7, 2012 at 11:29 am
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    I've been hearing a lot about The Collector these past few months and am starting to think I'd better add it to my TBR list. Has anyone else read it and can recommend it?

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:12 pm
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      I've not read word by Fowles, but Karyn's endorsement definitely makes me intrigued.

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    • March 8, 2012 at 1:49 am
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      The Collector is only a short book, and from memory I would suggest you could read it in an afternoon. I nominated it because it stands out in my memory as a landmark book which completely changed the direction of my reading, and perhaps the film is responsible for the enduring obsession I have with '60s cinema, but if I was recommending a book written by Fowles I would choose The Magus first, The French Lieutenant's Woman second, and The Collector third. They are all worth reading.

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  • March 7, 2012 at 11:57 am
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    I would love to inherit a library! That must have been quite the resource.

    I'm hoping to get to Lady Audley's Secret in the next couple of months, so I'm thrilled to hear that you loved it so much Hayley.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm
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      It wasn't a great library Diana – yards and yards of Burke's Landed Gentry and a few bibles really, but there was also a good run of Wilkie Collins and bound Punch's. All books of any value were sold before I was old enough to enjoy them, but I don't think there was anything very exciting. It was a very romantic atmosphere though and I've hankered after a library of my own ever since.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:12 pm
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      I would love the bound Punch volumes! The other day I was trying to find secondhand copies of Time and Tide online, and I couldn't find any at any price. There must be some somewhere!

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  • March 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm
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    Oh Hayley, thank you for that moment of fantasy when everything went a bit fuzzy while I fantasized about inheriting a Victorian house. Thanks for sharing a bit about your book world, ladies!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 4:38 pm
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      I fantasise about it to Darlene – unfortunately the house is long gone to owners with the means to enjoy it so I will never have the headache of working out how to keep the roof in one piece or the fun of turning over unexpected treasure. It was a brilliant place to be a child in though.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:13 pm
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      That must have been wonderful, Hayley. I do now live in a Victorian house, and can appreciate it's history and character, but I'm glad the other problems are the landlord's and not mine…

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  • March 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm
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    Lovely ladies both, and some new books to add to my reading list. Inheriting a Victorian house has to be up there on the dream list. I had to laugh about the guest room full of books. I've pretty much threatened my kids that their rooms would be filled as soon as they leave home.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 11:14 pm
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      Ha! I am doing it the other way around – taking over my parents' house with books, even when I'm not living there…

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  • March 7, 2012 at 6:50 pm
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    loved them all so far simon great posts and interesting choices ,all the best stu

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  • March 7, 2012 at 7:33 pm
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    I really enjoyed this.I too read all the Enid Blytons.I also met her.another good writer was Malcolm Saville.

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    • March 7, 2012 at 8:02 pm
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      How exciting to meet Enid Blyton, I loved her books so much as a child. Some of the details have stuck, most of them are gone, but she was the best.

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  • March 8, 2012 at 12:04 am
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    All the Enid Blyton talk this week is making me want to reread her! I walk past my very battered copies of her books every day but I don't think I've touched them in at least fifteen years. I have virtually no memories of any of them, except for hating Kiki the parrot from the Adventure series.

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