Senin, 21 Oktober 2013

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

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.

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