Thursday, 31 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Four

Alison, otherwise known as Heavenali, was the first blogger featured this week whom I met through the LibraryThing Virago discussion list - two others will appear this week!

Mystica blogs at Musings From Sri Lanka, where she writes not only about books, but also about quilts, crafting, and Sri Lanka.

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.

Alison: Yes, there were always lots of books at home. My father was a Methodist minister and naturally worked from home. In each house we lived in he had a study lined with books. Aside from Dad’s theological books – both he and mum read for pleasure too. My Mum is still a keen reader and often tells me about what she is reading when I phone her. My sister and I were read to – although I don’t have any distinct memories of being read to – I just know that we were. I was a keen reader from early on, despite not being a gifted or stand out pupil in any way at school – my mum thinks I read from about three years old. The childhood books I remember the best are books I read to myself rather than ones that were read to me. One book that stands out for me is Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. I loved it – and later watched the TV serial enthralled. I think Carrie’s War was partly responsible for a feeling of over whelming nostalgia for stories – be they in books or on TV - set in WW2.  I think I was both horrified and fascinated as a child by the idea of war and the evacuation of children. 

MysticaNot a book reading household at all. I was an only child for 16 years and books were my only salvation! Mallory Towers and Famous Five were the top favourites. It appealed to me since it was always a group or a clique! Again the only child syndrome!

I was also an only grandchild for 16 years and surprisingly for the time in Sri Lanka, I had a working grandmother. She was the source of my books because on every visit to her office which I used to do very often (these were very relaxed days) and she was working at the Port in Colombo as a telephone operator - she used to take me out to the closest bookshop and buy me two books. I think it was done with the idea of keeping me quiet and it worked. I can't remember my parents buying me books other than for Christmas.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Alison: I know that at about 11 or 12 I read lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels and really enjoyed those. However the first really grown up book (in that it was much harder to read than other things) that I read about this time was Jane Eyre. It is still probably my favourite book of all time – I have read it four times – my most recent reading of it was just before Christmas when I sat up till 2am tears pouring down my face – of course I knew what was going to happen I had read it three times before – and seen many different TV and film adaptations – but I still couldn’t put it down. Each time I have read it I have got more from it – it is a book that gets better with every reading. I look back now and wonder what I got from it back then when I was about 11 or 12. I was at the start of five unhappy years at an all-girls secondary school. I often struggled to fit in, and although I had some good friends we were all a bit of a misfit bunch. Something about Jane really resonated with me I think, I loved her friendship with Helen, her romance with Mr Rochester, the way she stood up to horrid Aunt Reed. I found a small pale friend in Jane Eyre – part of that awkward 12 year old probably wanted to be her. 

MysticaSurreptitiously reading Lady Chatterley's Lover at around 13 and not having a clue only knowing it was not quite the done thing.

I was extremely lucky that just down our road we had a "lending library". It was run by a rather old lady who I later discovered had a huge library and turned it into a financially rewarding scheme. I used to borrow all kinds of books and she never remarked on my rather catholic tastes but with Lady Chatterley's Lover she sort of hmphed and did mention that it was not quite the thing I should read. Of course I was more interested than ever but it did go over my head at the time and even on a later read I could never imagine what the fuss was all about. Relationships between the upper and lower classes in society were always existent from time immemorial - now why the hoo ha?

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Alison: Well I’m not sure about setting me off in a particular direction, but there was a book which unleashed a fascination in me. Sometime in my 20s – I’m not exactly sure when, I read The Raj Quartet. The first novel is of course The Jewel in the Crown. The Raj Quartet set me off on a bit of a mini obsession for a few years. Indian literature! I began reading a lot of Asian lit, I particularly liked things set around the time of the Raj – as it horrified and fascinated me in equal measure. I have read the whole of The Raj Quartet twice – and I watched the TV series many years ago – it’s a series I know I will read again. I know I will never get to go to India – even if I ever had the money – which I don’t suppose I will have – I know I would hate modern India – the heat the noise the chaos and the poverty – it isn’t for me – but I have always been fascinated by India – and I love hearing about it, and generally prick up my ears if I hear it mentioned in the news. I often watch documentaries about India, I love Indian food (don’t eat it often – calories!) and Indian culture. I don’t read as much Indian literature as I did at one time now, although I do from time to time, I recently read a couple of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novels – and I have been intending to re-read Paul Scott’s Staying On for ages. 

Mystica I cant think of a book in my 20s but I could say at 16 Pride and Prejudice definitely changed me. I began to love literature in a slightly more formal manner.

English Literature was one of the subjects I studied for my Advanced Levels. With The Cherry Orchard, which I considered boring, and Six Ages of English Poetry, this was another of the subscribed texts. I fell in love with the written word with Pride and Prejudice and my A level text is still with me. Dog eared and pencilled notes in the margins along with all sorts of scribbles from fellow students. Very nostalgic when I look at it now.

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

Alison: In January 2012 I read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I absolutely loved it. I read it breathlessly and didn’t want it to end – such great writing, and such wonderful storytelling – Lilly Bart is a wonderfully flawed and beguiling character – a tragic figure who became unforgettable for me. I think I had read The House of Mirth before – when I was quite young – but it hadn’t clicked – I wasn’t ready for Wharton. Following my reading of The House of Mirth that second time, I went on to read three more Edith Wharton novels and have about five more TBR. 

I first came to blogging via LiveJournal several years ago – I didn’t really blog much – my book reviews were very short and not especially well thought out. I would talk about personal stuff too – which I wasn’t always comfortable with – and my enthusiasm for it came in fits and starts. Then about 18 months ago I decided to give blogging a proper go and transfer what had become just a book journal to Wordpress. I transferred all my LiveJournal stuff over to Wordpress and effectively started again. Now I kind of wish all my old badly written posts had been deleted, rather than transferred over – but there they are, for anyone to see. Having started a book blog at Wordpress I have simply been trying to develop it – connect with people and improve. It has been great – time consuming, but I have enjoyed it. I have been considering whether blogging has changed my reading habits – I think it must have had some effect – though overall I have continued to read what I want to – but I think what I want to read has often been influenced by other bloggers. I have started to receive the occasional review copy from publishers – but I really don’t want to get too caught up with all of that – I have so many books of my own I want to read. One of the things that has happened as a result of my blogging about books, is that I have been made to stop and think about what I have read carefully, fully appreciating the writer’s craft and the effect it had on me. It’s a lovely way to help retain the memory of great books. 

Mystica: I came to blogging through Sakura of Chasing Bawa. When I saw the title of her blog I knew she had to be Sri Lankan and when I went and read her blog, commented and got helped in return, it enabled me to start my own.

English print books are available in this part of the world but it tends to stay with the popular authors only. Plenty of Grisham, Patterson and recently the paranormal and fantasy seem to be popular (like everywhere else). I always have a book where I note down books I'd love to read and this is kept very carefully for when I visit Melbourne generally twice a year. If I am lucky three times a year. I then haunt the library in Carnegie and take out/reserve and try to read as many books as I have on the list. That is how I am able to read some of the latest and the best. My other source is a local library run by an association of British residents here in Colombo. You get gems at times with expatriates who have left behind their volumes. I got to Delafield that way. I would never have got it otherwise - both Colombo and Melbourne were blanks!!!!

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

Alison: My guilty pleasure – is something old fashioned and suspenseful; I’m not sure how else to describe the particular subsection of crime fiction that I sometimes like. As well as being an occasional fan of what is often described as the Golden Age of Crime, I love Sherlock Holmes and some (though by no means all) historical crime fiction. I also love some of the old Victorian suspense novels. I’ve already mentioned Sherlock Holmes, a massive comfort read for me along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, but I also love other old fashioned mystery and suspense tales – and sometimes go looking for obscure things on Project Guttenberg and – one of the joys of the dreaded ereader is that there are lots of such things to be downloaded. I currently have a couple of them waiting for me on my Kindle one is called The Clue of the Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace another is The Camera Fiend by E.W. Hornung, I anticipate them with a delicious shiver – I love those kind of books that make you want to lower the lights and curl under a blanket with a hot drink.  I recently read The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux – brilliant stuff.

Mystica [Mystica chose to surprise people with her life story, instead!] I have worked in the field of abandoned/orphaned children and though not directly active any more in the field, my contacts with the children of the Home in which I originally worked give me enormous pleasure and happiness. They are all young adults now and the fact that they are almost all of 42 in contact with me makes me very happy.

Apart from children I work full time. We have a couple of agricultural properties and they are in different parts of the country so I am permanently on the road! We cultivate tea, rubber, mandarin oranges, papaw, chillies and vegetables, coconut and pineapple. I enjoy agriculture very much - though I hardly get my hands dirty but I like the quietness of these properties and getting away from Colombo is always a pleasure.

As for an unexpected book, Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach made me stop and think.

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

Mystica on Alison's choicesCarrie's War - the WWII era is something I like very much myself and I am fascinated how children were sent so far away from their homes to absolute strangers. Imagine today ever even considering something like this. We do not allow our children to even talk to a stranger, and imagine them living with them. This was a book I felt a bit uneasy over. Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy which I just finished deals with the same theme of a little girl sent to a family in Ireland but where she had such a wonderful time that they became her real, actual family. I feel the reader likes matters of history for them to pick this one.

Jane Eyre - a classic read. A mix of the romantic and fantasy!

The Raj Quartet - I do so like novels about colonial India. I never tire of reading stories from different angles. Here an Indian lover is certainly the exception rather than the rule in staid, prim British circles. I would love this series too.

The House of Mirth - this was a tough one for me to assimilate. Too much of drama, too many highs and lows and the death of Lily in such circumstances seemed very staged.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room - I thought of Agatha Christie right away when reading the synopsis of this book. Felt very much like her books! I'd like this one myself.

Alison on Mystica's choices: I think my mystery reader must be someone who likes novels with an English upper class domestic setting,. The England of Byton's Mallory Towers - oh I loved those stories too -the boarding school life of midnight feasts etc. Austen's England - very domestic and rooted very much within the landed classes of the time and the Lawrence's depiction of the difference between the English classes in Lady Chatterley's Lover, both of which I have read - Pride and Prejudice several times. E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady is a wonderfully upperclass eccentric - wonderfully English of course - (the four provincial lady stories are the only E.M. Delafield I've read) but Delafield seems to me to be another quintessentially English novelist - as are Blyton, Austen, and Lawrence each in their differing ways. I can't help wondering whether my mystery reader is either an Anglophile from North America or an ex-pat living abroad - but that is just a guess - as I too love these type of novels and I am neither : ) I love these choices and can't wait to find out who my mystery reading partner is - I think we would like a lot of similar novels. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Three

Vicki is better known as Skiourophile or Bibliolathas; the latter word, meaning 'book-forgetting', is where Vicki remembers all the wonderful books she reads.

Sasha is a blogger I was introduced to during one of my occasional 'please tell me about new bloggers!' posts, and I'm so glad I was - Sasha and the Silverfish is a blog out of the ordinary, and written so wonderfully.

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.

Vicki: Absolutely! My father is afflicted by bookmania. I defy anyone to tell what colour are our walls, floors and anything that stood still too long, so covered is everything by books. It's definitely genetic: a house without books is no home of mine. I am also the oldest child, so benefited from all the childhood literacy experimenting that high-achieving parents could inflict. My mother read me a lot of poetry, and I still have my copy of Iona and Peter Opie's The Oxford Book of Children's Verse (1973) -- the cover features exactly the sort of demure miss into which my parents, with the assistance of Laura Ashley, would fashion me.

To grow up without fear of poetry is a great gift. The Opie's magisterial edition (do you know about the remarkable Opies?) falls open at my favourite childhood poem, Edward Lear's 'The Owl and the Pussy-cat', that grand championing of interspecies miscegenation: "Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl! / How charmingly sweet you sing! / O let us be married! too long we have tarried: / But what shall we do for a ring?'"

Any book featuring a cat was always welcome: Paul Gallico's Jennie represents my first heartbreak. More happily, my parents gave me their childhood books: Captain W. E. Johns' Biggles books from my father (austerity editions, with dust-wrappers carefully covered in brown paper) and Ruby Ferguson's Jill books from my mother. Persephone fans will recognise Ferguson's name from the delightful Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. Jill was a pony-mad gal, fetchingly attired in jodhpurs and neat blouse, who liked nothing better than to muck out a stable. Do all girls pretend their bike is a pony?! With my pocket money I added books that proved that girls could achieve anything if they were bright, adventurous and fearless: Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were favourites. I also adored boarding school stories, especially Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series, from which I began hazily to comprehend the value of foreign languages - those girls were at a minimum trilingual. These books also fostered a love of history: oh! that thrilling episode where Jo escapes the Nazis and Miss Wilson's hair turns grey overnight!

SashaI was shuttled from my parents’ to my grandparents’ house and then back again until I was nine, but wherever it was that took me in, I was always surrounded by books. Case in point: At my mother's house, I slept in the bottom bunk bed, because the top held a good portion of my mother’s library (dangerous living, I know). I remember, the first summer I lived with her and my two brothers—my father had left for a couple of months—in a pretty much permanent basis, how she would read to us every night from a Stephen King novel, Eyes of the Dragon. My mother would be reading aloud on the bed, the youngest curled against her side, and the middle brother and I would be listening to her from the little bunker we’d built beneath the bed. A minor character was named Sasha—she was a Queen, the mother of the central characters—but I remember the awe that took over me then: “That’s me in that book, who else would be a Sasha?” She was in and out of the narrative too quickly for me, but I do believe my mother indulged me and let those pages drag on.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Vicki: 'Enjoyed' is the key. In grade 5 (ten years old) a terrible teacher devoted his class to The Hobbit, illustrated with florid air-brush paintings by his wife, and accompanied by distractingly incompetent music he tortured from a guitar while resting his feet on my desk. (Yes, I was a front desk child.) He wore cowboy boots. Even now, over thirty years later, I am unable to read the name 'Tolkien' without a shudder. I blame that bloke (the teacher, not the unwitting Tolkien) for almost wholly closing my mind to fantasy, epic, challenge lit., etc. And do not ask my thoughts on cowboy boots.

It was at the local library that, in my early teens, I discovered Agatha Christie, who I consider my first enjoyable grown-up writer. I could happily wallow in crime fiction for the rest of my reading life: it is a source of great comfort when inspiration lacks or life frets.

Or do we mean Proper Adult Books? In my final year of high school -- seventeen years old -- I was allowed to pick a reading project. I chose D.H. Lawrence (why?!), and it was agreed that I could read Lady Chatterley's Lover as long as I brought in a note from my parents to say that was OK. I remember their laughter, as LCL (orange Penguin edition) has sat openly on the bookshelf in the loo (yes, we have books in the bathroom), next to Peyton Place, my entire life. I had definitely already read the 'good' bits. I remain a Lawrence fan, perhaps because of the step he represents towards adulthood. 

SashaReading was pretty much bred into the family, so I had a wealth of “grown-up” books at my disposal. I don’t ever remember anyone telling me that there were some books I wasn’t allowed to read; it was open season for my thirsty little dork-heart. One summer, while I was still living with my grandparents, I discovered a tidy stack of romance novels: Eighties high aesthetics, the bodice-ripper-iest plots ever. From this stack, the very first romance I ever read: The Duchess by Jude Deveraux. It was utterly fascinating; I think I saw it as the grown-up world’s approximation of the fairy tales I’d devoured. I read and reread that little yellowing paperback until it fell apart.

But, again, the Deveraux still had that un-real feel to it. I saw it as this (instinctively forbidden-to-me) fairy tale for adults. It was when I read my mother’s copy of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic that I fully plunged into “grown-up reading.” My father, when he saw me reading it, asked my mom, “Isn’t that too adult for her?” And my mother shrugged, and let me be. There’s this scene in Practical Magic that has one of the lead characters rush to this man’s house, madly possessed by love. Basically: They had sex in the hallway. It was brief and it was hardly fairy tale-romantic, but it was so suffused with feeling, with realness. I remember looking up from that scene a little disquieted. I’d felt betrayed. My mother had read this book, knew what it contained—countless people had, I assumed. They all knew; even my father, who didn’t read but had an inkling. I had read that scene again, and thought, “This was what the world’s been keeping secret from me.”

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Vicki: My late twenties were terrific and terrifying: I went to Cambridge (the UK one) to do a PhD in classical studies when I was 25, and stayed for five years. Living in a college with super-smart people enormously influenced my reading, as did access to one of the best libraries in the world. The biggest bookish changes in my life at this time were, typically, pretentiously name-droppy: literary theory in softer guises (Umberto Eco; Jorge Luis Borges) and women's/gender studies (I remember being dazzled by Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue). If I must single out one book that recalls this time, it was a dear friend's recommendation of Microserfs by Douglas Coupland: a classic mid-1990s' text, with its nerdy protagonists, quirky cleverness, IT start-ups, Lego walled offices, deeply cynically romantic streak, and the sense that anything was possible. It well summed up that era of my life. (I still want a Lego office.)

SashaThis is telling, but Roland Barthes’ utterly beautiful A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments immediately comes to mind. I first read it when I was seventeen, fresh from a summer (why is it always the summers with me?) of first loves and other life-changing shenanigans. In the six, seven, years hence, I’ve gone back to it over and over. My copy—which my grandfather hunted for in the weeks following a heart surgery—is festooned with so many different iterations of myself. I am all over the margins, all over this book: Different pens, different Sashas, conversations between the marginalia. I’m obsessed with this. How breath-taking can a loving be? How can we elevate so trivial a pain such as waiting for one’s date, running about twenty minutes late? How can we further stretch that first glimpse of skin against the beloved? (A less active influence, but perhaps a more pervading one, is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A very, very, very young and rather bored me stole it from my mother’s dresser a long time ago, and dear Jane has been a constant in my life ever since. It’s not an opposite of Barthes’ ideals, but there’s a different (more indomitable!) strength to how Brontë paints a love. To one’s self, and especially when a love for another could jeopardize that. A love that’s more quiet but no less passionate, no less assured of itself.)

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

Vicki: By 2010 I was reading many book blogs, and publishing two non-book blogs (vintage recipes and pretty stuff). I did not go into academia after my PhD, but I do write bits and pieces, and in 2010 I was in a writing rut: I thought that forcing myself to get any thoughts down might kick-start 'proper' writing. While blogging has not changed my intention to read whatever I want, it has introduced me to authors I might never have discovered for myself. It has given me a sense of belonging to an intellectually stimulating and kindly community. It has pushed my comfort levels both in book choices and in how much I put of myself into my writing. It has made me aware of the value of my reading time: I might be a little stricter about the quality of my choices; I might re-read a little less. Sadly, it has not persuaded me that I can, as yet, abandon an unsatisfying book.

A favourite read of recent years? Would it be promiscuous to offer three? I adored the mannered seriocomic Englishness of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women; I delighted in the blend of historical biography and playful vulgarity in Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead; and I scared the bejesus out of myself with Dorothy B. Hughes' noir In A Lonely Place. That covers a fair geographic as well as generic area too, which is something I love about reading: all those marvellous journeys to wherever one wishes to travel.

SashaBlogging’s done much to the dynamics of my own reading. The best part is “being” with people who understand how important, how intrinsic, reading is to you. It’s always been this solitary creature, bibliophilia, and our corner of the internet takes an edge off that solitude. You’re assured that somewhere out there, someone has his/her head buried in a book—one that you liked, maybe even recommended—and all is well.

I have the internet, then, to thank for bringing me Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar—something I would have only picked up under duress pre-blogging. Pre-meeting people I like and whose reading tastes I respect and even jive with. Strayed’s collection of columns, essentially, is this quietly galvanizing text on taking a chill pill, on learning to accept things about yourself like your love for solitude, on realizing that loneliness exists but there are ways to get rid of it and only if you want to, on sharing pain and on sharing joy. And I think it’s only fitting that my friends and partners-in-crime in book blogging directed me to this book. I have, since then, tried to push physical copies to my friends.

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

Vicki: I am without shame, and will read whatever I want, thank you very much. But I do love a spot of romantic suspense. A feisty heroine, a romantic entanglement, a foreign place, great frocks, a spot of cross-dressing, a pinch of light historical turmoil, and, of course, a predictably happy ending. Pass that Georgette Heyer, will you...?

SashaAnother thing I’m very thankful for about this book blogging business—a close second to the joy of “meeting” like-minded people the world over—is that it allowed me to get over whatever insecurities or self-consciousness or even shyness about the reading I do. Anyone who’s spent three minutes on my blog or on my Goodreads or on my Twitter knows what I like to read. It’s hard to feel ashamed about reading erotica or pop culture treatises or autobiographies of MMA fighters or comic books anymore, at this point, haha. That’s the thing: You’re sharing such a big part of yourself to the world, through the books you read and what you choose to say about them, and the world just grins madly back at you.

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

Sasha on Vicki's choicesEek, I am going to make a cake of this, hahaha. I have read none of these books or authors, but Lawrence and Heyer are in the more immediate section of my to-read shelves. I was drawn to them because of their promise of quiet, even dignified, sensuality, so perhaps mysterious reader felt the same way about them? Another thing I’m noticing is the breadth between publication dates, even styles of writing. On one hand, we’ve got a straight-up literary classic in Lawrence—and then we slide into Coupland for some contemporary shock. (The children’s verse is pretty much cultural canon, and it’s amazing that this book’s even been passed down—and do we really even need to contrast this with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, hahaha.) Also: Lazarus is Dead is now on my to-read pile, thank you very much.

Vicki on Sasha's choices: Ah, let me peer into my crystal ball... If this reader was a colour? Definitely a moody violet (but with veins of shimmering iridescence). If this reader was a dessert? I think, a deep-dish fruit pie. If this reader was a drink? A rich warming mulled wine. OK, only kidding, but...

My first thought is that this is a reader drawn to the darker side - places where things are rich and complex (Brontë), where answers are not easy to find or accept (Strayed), and where ambiguities are welcome to flourish (Barthes; Hoffman). There is an openness to the harder reading 'journey' here which is not just demonstrated by the variety of genres. This reader does not necessarily seek peace of mind from books.

This reader likes words (especially their accurate use) and is drawn to narratives in which truth is an important theme. This is not at all at odds with a love of fantasy: the presence of fantasy (King; Hoffman) suggests an optimism about the values of right and wrong, and a desire for reassurance that things do come right in the end. I imagine that this reader possesses a passionate romantic streak (Brontë; Hoffman) which sometimes takes up arms against the logical thinking (Barthes) and practical resourcefulness (Strayed) this reader values. The choice of Barthes is telling: he is a master wordsmith mock-theorizing a topic that fundamentally rejects dispassionate or impersonal treatment ("Each of us can fill in this code according to his own history..."). I wonder if this was the choice of a younger self - whereas the older self appreciates that all that delicious verbal slipperiness can lack a certain compassion, and that the 'hands-on' Strayed offers more practical tools for thinking empathetically about the world? This would also fit with a reader who - as three of the five titles would suggest - is drawn to the theme of women - as narrated by women - who survive and remain strong and harness an inner resilience as they conquer adversity.

There's a lot that I can't tell from this list: the reader's age, where the reader lives, the reader's sex, height and hair-colour (5'2", auburn; oh, hang on, Simon said *no* guessing), if English is the reader's native tongue, and so on. I do know something though: I've read only two books on the list, but a fellow admirer of Brontë and Barthes is welcome to pop around for pie and mulled wine any time s/he likes.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Two

Barbara isn't a book blogger, per se, but her lovely photo/travel blog Milady's Boudoir, documenting her many trips around the country, is often influenced by her love of reading - and I have known her for many years as part of an online book discussion group.

Lisa is one of my newest favourite bloggers, over at TBR 313 - one of those bloggers whose taste so often overlaps with mine, and whose recommendations are always much prized!

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.

Barbara: My dad and his mum my gran were both readers and dad read a lot to me when I was young. We didn’t have too many books around the house but my sister and I both had lots of books on shelves our rooms. I have always loved libraries and wrote about my initiation into that ‘wonderland’ here.

I simply loved Enid Blyton stories from Mary Mouse, through Noddy and the Magic Faraway Tree, to the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Island (etc.) of Adventure. It wasn’t until I was adult that I was amazed to be informed that these books were considered “unsuitable reading material for children”.

However, much as I loved Blyton’s books for my first choice I have chosen a completely different, hopefully “acceptable reading material” book. It’s A.A. Milne’s “When we were very young and Now we are six”. I can picture now the exact edition and the place in that Children’s Library where I stood when I pulled this book of delights off the shelf and had the thrill of being able to take it home with me!  It is hard to choose just one poem (complete with illustrations) but I think it has to be The King’s Breakfast

Lisa: Yes, I grew up in a house of reading and books.  My father treasured his quiet late-night reading time, after everyone else had gone to bed.  My mother, who worked as a nurse as well as caring for children and home, had less time and energy for reading, but she always had a book on her nightstand.  They must have read to me, but I have no memory of it.  I was reading on my own by age four, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve rebelled against being read to.  Just let me read it for myself!   When I was six, my father bought me Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I still remember that trip to the store, and the book’s bright yellow cover.  I read it over and over, completely caught up in Laura’s pioneer life, travelling with her family in a covered wagon to build that little house on the vast prairies.   I read it and the sequels so many times that my dad took them away from me for a while, putting them up on a high closet shelf.  A day or so later, unable to bear the separation, I checked one out of the school library. For some reason, I felt the need to call home to announce what I’d done, rather than just reading it at school or sneaking it into the house.  I don’t remember the consequences, but I got the books back eventually, and I have copies on my shelves today.  I know her books are part of my love for history, the focus of my studies in college and graduate school, which led me to a career working in archives.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Barbara: Does this count as a ‘grown-up’ book? I’m not too sure. In my teens I didn’t read a lot but I did have three favourites that I  read over and over again – The Diary of a Nobody, Three Men in a Boat and, my second choice, 1066 and All That. I still count these as my 3 favourite humourous books. The state of my copy just shows how well read it has been over the years. It’s just dropping to pieces. It’s a 2/6d orange Penguin book first published in 1930. My edition is dated 1964. I bought it new around then. 

Here is the full title and author statement:
1066 and All That: a memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 good things, 5 bad kings and 2 genuine dates; by Walter Carruthers Sellar, Aegrot: Oxon. and Robert Julian Yeatman failed M.A., etc., Oxon.
I understand that history is taught very differently now so you may have no reaction at all to this book but, believe me we learned history – British, of course, who else’s history would we learn? – in just this order and exactly these facts! Here’s an extract chosen at random :
Napoleon ought never to be confused with Nelson, in spite of their hats being so alike; they can most easily be distinguished from one another by the fact that Nelson always stood with his arm like this, while Napoleon always stood with his arm like that.

Nelson was one of England’s most naval officers, and despised weak commands. At one battle when he was told that his Admiral-in-Chief had ordered him to cease fire, he put the telephone under his blind arm and exclaimed in disgust “Kiss me, Hardy!

By this and other intrepid moves the French were utterly driven from the seas.
I think you get the picture. History is what you can remember!

Lisa: I was introduced to Jane Austen by the 1980 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, with David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie.  I was seventeen or so when I first read Emma.  Despite some struggles with Austen’s language, I was soon immersed in the story.  I have such a vivid memory of the shock I felt when I realized how completely Austen had hoodwinked me – I had been just as blind as Emma, falling for Frank Churchill’s charm and his deceptions, and with the speed of an arrow I too realized the danger of Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley.  It was a moment of pure delight.  My mother gave me a Penguin edition of Emma for Christmas that year.  We always opened presents after Midnight Mass, and I stayed up the rest of the night re-reading it, so thrilled to have my own copy.  Reading was very much a refuge at that point in my life.  I was attending a small high school, where I was on the fringes, not one of the popular crowd, subject to some teasing that I took very much to heart.  I had always had my nose in a book, for the sheer joy of reading, but now books became a shelter and a consolation as well.  I usually had one open under my desk in class, whenever I could get away with it, and in the halls and the lunchroom.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Barbara: I was very much put off reading classic books at school especially in the first few years when we had to read The Hobbit, Northanger Abbey, Silas Marner etc. I did enjoy Great Expectations which was an O Level set book and also Shakespeare. 

In my early 20s my first library job was at Victoria Lending Library in the City of Westminster and each day I would be shelving books by the likes of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence. I soon decided that there must be something about the classics if they were still so popular and began to borrow and read them for myself. I think it was the Jane Austen titles that I loved best. I devoured them all within days of each other and was so disappointed to realize that there were only 6 completed books. So, although I would select Mansfield Park as my third choice here, since that time I have always loved reading the classics – nice fat ones to really get my teeth into, like the Barchester Chronicles - Trollope is now a great favourite – and in the 1990s this helped to lead me to study for a Masters degree in Victorian Studies where I re-rediscovered (and now love) Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. I feel I have read Dickens all my life but Jane Austen is the only one of these authors whose books I have reread over and over again. Oh dear maybe it’s time to for another reread!

Lisa:  I was 30 when I got my first computer with an internet connection.  One of the first things I put into a search engine was “Georgette Heyer.”  That led me to an on-line discussion group devoted to her books, where I found a lovely group of people who read like I read.  I saw so many new authors recommended there, but none as fervently as Dorothy Dunnett.  People practically swooned as they discussed Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hero of her Lymond Chronicles.  By the third chapter of The Game of Kings, I understood why.  I have never read anything that drew me in as deeply, that took me from laughter to breathless anticipation to shock and despair.  It was impossible to accept that these were fictional characters!  I quickly found a Dorothy Dunnett  listserv, which over the years has introduced me to still more new authors, opening up my reading horizons, particularly in science fiction and fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis and Diana Wynne Jones), as well as mystery (Laurie R. King and Sarah Caudwell).

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

Barbara: My reading habits have not really changed that much as I discovered lists made during the early 1970s which, to my surprise, include many authors that I read now. What is so special about my reading these days is that since joining our online book discussion group in 2004 I have been bombarded by great suggestions of authors and books that I’m almost sure I’m going to enjoy because of the reading habits and tastes of other members whose opinions I value and whose taste in reading matter coincides almost exactly with my own.

So for my 4th choice it would be very nice to choose the entire contents of the Persephone Books catalogue! (Persephone Books is what brought us all together). However, I know you won’t allow that so I have chosen just one Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. It is a little more than 2 or 3 years since I first read it so I’ll just extract a small piece from the aforementioned catalogue to whet your appetite :
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. The novel asks: is the child really his? And does he want him? These are questions you can take to be as metaphorical as you wish: the novel works perfectly well as straight narrative. It’s extraordinarily gripping: it has the page-turning compulsion of a thriller while at the same time being written with perfect clarity and precision.
Interestingly, my second favourite Persephone is Still Missing which is also about a ‘little boy lost’ in an entirely different place, time and circumstances. 

None of this goes anywhere towards explaining why I took to blogging! That just developed from my interest in travel and uploading photos to Flickr. I wanted to add more and more links and comments and discovered that I could do this easily through a blog hosting site where I’m prompted to supply the relevant information.

Lisa: It was from the Dunnett list that I first learned of Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  Reading it felt like a conversation about books that I wanted to go on forever.  I had never met anyone who read Anthony Trollope, or had any luck convincing anyone to read him, so her chapter on his books would have been riches enough.  She introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor and re-introduced me to Nancy Mitford.  She reminded me of the pleasures of reading diaries, starting with the Rev. Francis Kilvert’s.  She explained why she doesn’t care for Dorothy L. Sayers or Terry Pratchett.  I craved more of that kind of book talk, not necessarily focused just on one author, even the great ones like Heyer or Dunnett.  The search for that type of conversation led me first to reading blogs, and nervously posting comments.  I soon realized though that I wanted to talk about what I was reading as well.  That feeling grew so strong that one day I just sat down and created a blog – naming it for all the TBR books stacked around me, in a vain hope it would help me reduce those stacks.

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

Barbara: Oh dear, I am a sucker for maps and atlases and travel guides and books of lists of best houses, museums, gardens, literary walks, what to see where and the most dog-eared of my books (after 1066 and All That) is probably my latest Road Atlas of Great Britain. My copy of England’s Thousand Best Churches is not far behind in the tatty much-read/loved books stakes. But I think my fifth choice will be from my selection of books by or about people who have lived or live in Paris; Kate Muir, Susha Guppy, Lucinda Holdforth, Collette Rossant, Adam Gopnik, Mrs Robert Henrey, et al., et al.

My Little Paris Kitchen, by Rachel Khoo is just the most delightful book that gets me dreaming about living in the City of Light in a little Parisian attic apartment, flaneur-ing through the streets, window-shopping, sipping tea at Laduree or at street cafes … Rachel is a young British woman who shows us that she has taken that step and moved to Paris. I am not a good cook and not interested in cooking but I love to read her recipes and comments and devour the beautiful pictures of the streets and markets of this still fascinating city.

LisaI can’t think of any guilty pleasures with reading, especially since blogging has shown me that, whatever I am reading, someone else has read it too (and has probably already written a great review). My guilt is reserved for those TBR stacks, though it doesn’t keep me from adding to them on a weekly basis – so often now with books I’ve discovered through other bloggers.

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

Lisa on Barbara's choicesBased on these titles, if I ever meet this reader, we will have plenty of books to discuss, and I’ll also be taking recommendations from him or her.  She or he has eclectic reading interests but has clearly enjoyed classic literature from a young age, starting with When We Were Very Young  - showing a reading life already off to a great start.  1066 and All That suggests someone with a strong taste for satirical humor and parody (one I share).  A fondness for Mansfield Park is a sign of a discerning Austen reader.  Fanny Price is a difficult heroine, in a very different kind of story, but one rich in character and psychological insights, not to mention the awful Aunt Norris.  Little Boy Lost shows that this reader enjoys 20th-century classics as well.  I had not heard of Marghanita Laski before I started blogging, but the
reviews I’ve read have added her to my TBR lists – and this is the title that I’ve seen most often.  Somehow I have also missed Rachel Khoo (I had to Google her name and the title; now I want my own copy).  If this is the guilty pleasure, or it would surprise people, then I’d have to guess that this reader isn’t fond of cooking, or maybe travel – or else doesn’t usually watch TV!

Barbara on Lisa's choices: My initial reaction was that I must know this person and she (for I am sure it is a she) is in the same online book discussion group as me. She could well be American and I am sure she has a romantic streak. Obviously she is very well read – but not as well read as she eventually intends to be! This is a voracious reader who started young with very mature taste.

I’ll be very surprised if Little House on The Prairie is a British person’s choice of favourite book from their childhood years. I’ve read it but only in adulthood so already this person is showing maturity in her reading choices. This evidence of maturity continues into Emma; a book full of romance if ever there was one! Also, for a first adult book it is way ahead of the kind of reading that I enjoyed in my teens. I did choose an Austen but only after her re-discovery in my 20s. Dorothy Dunnett has many devoted fans in our group but I am not one of them. I have never read any. Many have expressed their love for the hero – so more evidence of that romantic streak.

I’ve also read Howards End is on the Landing and I think it appeals to someone who possibly cannot move for books around the place, who wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day so that a big chunk of them could be devoted to reading. Which leads, appropriately, to the choice of the TBR piles - evidence again of someone with more books than time on her hands but here I’m afraid I take exception and think our ‘chairman’ should press for evidence of the secret passion amongst these piles. I imagine most of them will contain fiction, biography, memoir, history but surely there are some ‘odd’ titles that don’t fit the usual categories that make up the bulk of the piles. Come on, speak up and tell us, to say TBR piles is just a cop out – we all have those – no secret!!

Monday, 28 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day One

Pam blogs at Travellin' Penguin, where she writes about the classic Penguin orange paperbacks she finds and reads - accompanied by lovely customised penguins styled for each post!

Peter is better known to the blogosphere as Dark Puss (in comments) or Morgana's Cat at his blog.  And he is second only to my father (another Peter) is tirelessly trying to get me to read about science!

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.

Pam: I grew up in a small country town of 5000 people in mid Michigan during the 1950s and 60s. We had a big bookshelf in the "den" which is what that room was called back then. We had books on the shelves but from what I remember they were books about raising babies (Dr. Spock), a set of Encyclopaedias and a few other books that my mother read. I don't remember having classics in the house and I never remember ever being read to. My family centred around my father's military career and my mother hosting dinner parties and collecting antiques to impress people to further his career. It was only my sister and I until my brother arrived when I was 12 and nobody ever read books except me.

Hosting a military career involves a great deal of alcohol and partying and living in our house was quite like living with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Down the street, only a block away was a small library I used to hide out in to escape the chaos and I don't remember the old cranky librarians liking children very much. Especially if they spoke. I read everything in the children's section and my favourites were the books that lined a separate shelf on wheels, shelves on both sides of biographies written for children. I read the biographies of Madame Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, John James Audubon and would spend weekends building things, pretending to blow up labs inventing things to change the world (mainly coloured water) and studying birds and insects in the back yard. I also read everything I could get my hands on regarding dogs and horses. Black Beauty was my touchstone and in the winter we'd build snow horses instead of snowmen and put blankets over them for saddles and pretend we were riding the Grand National Steeplechase (National Velvet) until our bottoms froze so much we had to go into the house and warm up.

PeterYes a very book-oriented one as my parents had a fairly large library for flat dwellers (a few thousand volumes). We had most of the classics of (British) literature, a large collection of post-war Penguins and a good collection of books by 20th-century European writers (in translation). My parents certainly did read to me, mainly my father I think from (distant) memory - certainly I remember being read A.A. Milne, Paddington, The Hobbit, etc. by him.

A favourite from childhood? That's not so easy as it was rather a long time ago! However I do remember with pleasure Paddington Abroad as it was somewhat contemporary with my earliest memories of going to France by car (though we used the ferry not an aircraft) and I remember well many of the aspects (now mainly lost) of France that Bond describes so well. Given the number of road repair signs and "deviation" notices that there were in those days I did find it funny that in the book they spent a lot of time looking for the town of "Gravillons".

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Pam: At the age of 12 my brother gave birth to my brother and I was pretty much his carer after that. My parents moved us to the country and we had horses and my world was filled with them and my little brother.
I remember I loved books that had to do with the hard lives of immigrants moving into New York city around the time of the World Wars. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith led me to read everything written by her. I had a fascination with the civil war and read Andersonville and Gone With The Wind. I saw more films probably than books because there was a local theatre in this small town and we'd see a different movie every week.

My mother owned the entire set of Agatha Christie books though I never read one as they were her books. She also read Harold Robbins and the latest crime writers of the day. I don't remember anyone at all in my life who ever said to me, "You must read this book" with any enthusiasm. None of my friends read until I reached grade 11 and 12. Our teachers had more enthusiasm for using the old hickory stick to stop us talking so we didn't dare show much enthusiasm and everything was about farming, sports and getting your homework done which was quite boring. In hindsight I would have killed for a reading mentor as I know I would have read anything put in front of me.

PeterLooking into my dimming crystal ball ... I think probably Claudine at School the first published novel of Colette. As a pupil at a boys school and a teenager (I think I was probably 14 when I read this) there was clearly a lot to fascinate me in this coming of age (and homoerotic) story and which of us at that age would not warm to at least some aspects of Claudine the rebellious "teenager"! The quality of writing, though not Colette's finest, the wonderful descriptions of the Burgundian countryside, of which I had some familiarity, the French sensuousness all struck a chord with me. It certainly gave me a lifelong love of Colette's writing and chapeau to my parents for having this book on their shelves for me to find.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Pam: I can't say any book directed my work life at all. I decided to become a speech pathologist once I began Central Michigan University because I knew I could get a job anywhere, make a good income and get out of Michigan. My husband and I moved to Florida just after we both graduated from school to begin our first jobs and then I read the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and romance novels as I was newly married and as there wasn't really a decent library in the city I lived in I had to buy books and we didn't have a lot of money. I also loved Kahil Gibran's The Prophet and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Television (James Herriot series was on then) and films dominated my time. James Herriot books were such a major influence we actually holidayed in Yorkshire and met the man one summer.

 It was also the first time I ever met and worked with African American people and I did crave to know more of their history. Richard Wright was by far my favourite writer in this genre and Native Son continues to be my favourite African American book. I was quite political against injustice and no doubt the Roots book by Alex Haley that came out influenced my knowledge of what a racist country the United States was. I liked stories about the development of the unions in equal rights for women in the workplace as well as rallying for women, minorities and animal welfare. To this day I still have a strong interest in these issues which still have a long way to go.

PeterThat's a hard question! I read a great number of novels, perhaps mainly by European or US authors rather than British ones and looking back I do not easily find one that leaps out as a favourite. My direction in life has not, I think, been driven by literature. Perhaps I might nominate Nice Work by David Lodge as one of my favourites (it is one of his that has stayed the course, some are too much of their time to be good reads today).

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

Pam: I came to blogging and reading more once I retired. Not much in my life directed me to studying the arts. I had a very latent interest in the arts and literature but have always been a better student in technology and science. I would find it easier to dissect a frog or build a computer than read Jane Austen. I wanted to reverse all of that and learn about this vast field I had little knowledge of. The amount of literature I have learned from book blogs, for free, is mind blowing. I follow a great number of blogs and when I get tired of reading too many ' between the wars' books which has been popular with bloggers I began to search out more of the translated fiction from other countries. I also began collecting Penguin books and I love to go in my library and look at the 2000 books there that line my shelves, all in their orange, green, blue and handle them, read some of them, though I don't blog about many of them. I feel Penguin books have led me through a social history of not only the UK but other parts of the world through the authors chosen at the time. I would love to read them all but there are too many other published books I enjoy equally and I tend to get caught up in them as well.

The biggest change in my reading habits is that now a single day doesn't go by that I don't read something but I do get depressed at how much I have missed in the field of literature and how much catching up I have to do. As I'm now in my 60s I am conscious of time going by and how much is out there. It is probably why I enjoy other people's reviews so much because at least I get a flavour of different writing.

PeterKafka on the Shore without a doubt! I've read a number of Murakami's books over the last five years (and liked all of them) but in this book he really weaves the most magical and powerful story imaginable. It also introduced me to the work of an earlier Japanese author Natsume Soseki as the character Kafka reads his works in the private library in which he takes refuge. A book of outstanding invention and with many of the themes that appear in other books by Murakami (cats, music, sexuality, popular culture, suspense, magical realism) coming together perfectly.

Blogging? That's easy! A well known (and much admired) blogger of my acquaintance suggested it to me. I'm not sure it has changed my habits much (although perhaps I read more slightly more thoughtfully now) except that because of it I take part in an on-line book group and thus read books that I might not have chosen for myself.

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

Pam : My guilty pleasure is going into a bookstore and buying a book merely because I love the cover. No idea what the book is about but if the cover appeals I will often buy it. For some reason if there is a cat or a donkey on the cover or it is a European village I may buy it. Fortunately I don't come across many books with donkeys on the cover.   I also love travel books that have an interesting way of seeing the world. I love stories where people travel for months or years on a motorbike, walking, bicycling or with an animal. I have a strong sense of adventure and I assume that comes from all those very young years of only reading the stories of adventurers, inventors and explorers that were available in our small local library. I imagine everything else I would have enjoyed would have been heavily censored by the libraries as they were in the 50s and 60s in the USA. I'm making up for lost time now and loving it. I owe a great deal to the bloggers of the world for opening my eyes.

Peter: I don't have "guilty" pleasures! A surprise? I still read Tove Jansson's Moomin books as I think they (some of them anyway) work well as adult literature as well as the children's books they are generally assumed to be.

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

Peter on Pam's choices I'm not at all sure how to deduce anything about the choices of my "partner". Black Beauty and the love of books with donkeys on the cover might indicate a fascination with horses (and their kin), though Black Beauty is a common enough choice as a favourite children's book. The books by Smith and Wright are both 20th-century US novels set in large US cities; perhaps that indicates a US citizen or at least a greater familiarity with US literature than I have. Interested to read that Penguin Books are a recent favourite; perhaps that also suggests a non-UK domicile. Anyway I'm sure that whoever it is is probably a far better (and far better known) blogger than I am!

Pam on Peter's choices: I won't try to guess the gender of this person but I can't help but think "she" is a "she." I also think I would get along quite well with her because anyone who likes Paddington has a gentle, whimsical side who adores the little animals who live in the forests. I imagine she lives with an animal, either a cat or a small dog. Something not too boisterous.

What comes through the strongest for me is 'her' concern for those weaker people. She believes in justice, fights for the underdog and isn't always afraid to defy authority. No doubt she has had discussions with friends about feminism and how it is interpreted in the world now.

However I think this person has a very quirky sense of humour. Anyone who follows Tove Jansson must have a good sense of humour. I believe this person also enjoys travel and adventure but no doubt likes to read other book blogs especially those that may do a feature of Paris.  There seems to be an enjoyment of European interests perhaps both in travel and reading.  

I think if we were to sit down over a cup of tea or coffee we would talk about how we might like to learn about Asian cultures, read European fiction and then have an admiring comment at anyone who might walk into the cafe in a very quirky outfit and have a bit of a giggle.  Key words to describe 'her' personality are: loyal, whimsical, amusing.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four

Well, one book review down (read it; the book is great!) and already I'm turning my attention to other matters - the very-much-delayed fourth series of My Life in Books.  It was another victim of DPhil-craziness, and I've had an inboxful of wonderful responses for a while.  So, from Monday to Sunday next week, another 14 bloggers will be telling you about their lives in books.

If you haven't read any of the previous series (all available here) or seen the original TV show, then here's a quick breakdown: each blogger talks about a book which was important to them at four stages in their life (childhood, early adulthood, 20s/30s, blogging) and then admits to a guilty pleasure or a much-loved book which might surprise people.

Here's the twist: I pair up bloggers, but don't tell them who their partner is.  I do tell them the books their partner has chosen, and ask them to guess or assess what sort of person is revealed by their choices...

So, I'll see you in a week's time!  Make my visitors welcome - and I hope the bloggers who answered the questions will also chip in and reply to your comments.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Country Boy - Richard Hillyer

Goodness, it feels an age since I wrote a proper honest-to-goodness book review.  Let's see if I can still remember how to do it.  Well, what better way back into the hurly-burly of reviewing than with one of Slightly Foxed's latest Editions?  The review practically writes itself, because it seems impossible that SF will ever put a foot wrong with their endlessly delightful memoir series.  Country Boy (1966) by Richard Hillyer [real name Charles Stanks. You can see why he changed it] is no different.  Review in short: it's wonderful, and you'll love it.

photo source

I made the deliberate decision not to look up Hillyer's post-memoir career, because I thought it would be more interesting to see what I thought about his recollections of childhood and teenagehood without any sense of where his path might go - and I never read introductions until the end, of course.  So I shan't spoil it for you either, except to say that Hillyer doesn't get as far as discussing his career, or even his adulthood - instead, the memoir ends as he moves into a different section of his life.  And for some reason I don't want to spoil that shift either.  At times, the memoir is as tense and exciting as the plottiest novel, and it pays not to know much in advance.

Hillyer was born into a poor farm labouring family in a small village in Buckinghamshire in the first years of the 20th century - in a village Hillyer calls Byfield.  As the grandson of a farm labourer myself, I found it especially interesting to read how my life might have been had I been born a few generations earlier - and the oppressive sense Hillyer reiterates throughout that, though he loves his family and has some friends, ultimately there has never been an escape from Byfield for its non-wealthy inhabitants, and only a windfall or very good luck will enable him to attend grammar school, let alone find a world outside that determined for him by his circumstances.  As a second-generation university attendee, it was more or less assumed from the outset that I would at least have the chance of going to university, but for first-generation university students, I imagine it all felt a bit different (perhaps Our Vicar will comment on this...)  (Of course, with the huge increase in fees in recent years, and thus the clear indication that our government doesn't value higher education in the same way that it values schools, things have swung back the other way.  But that's as political as I'm going to get on Stuck-in-a-Book!)

Hillyer writes simply and touchingly about his family, and seems to have had an observant eye for his parents from an early age - as all children do, I suppose, which must be quite disconcerting for the parents at times.
I have no kind of fear or constraint with my father.  Mother is different, you never quite know.  Things went on in Mother's head that were difficult to guess at.  Father is always easy to understand.  For him life was simple and had no worries.  If he worked, and earned what money he could, Mother would see to the rest.  In a dumb, speechless sort of way he loved and admired her beyond all things, and believed her capable of dealing with any crisis which might arise for any of us.  Beyond that his thoughts did not go.
In any marriage where one partner is idolised and bowed down to by the other, there is the opportunity for the powerful partner to abuse this obeisance, knowingly or unknowingly.  In the case of the Hillyer family, his mother (thankfully) doesn't.  There is no tyrant - rather each family member plays a role in a fully-functioning machine.  It's terribly tempting to (mis)quote "poor, but ever so 'umble" - yet that is precisely what they are.  The stringent hierarchy of class in the village is nothing to celebrate, but the way people behave within it is often moving in their determination just to get on with life, and value the importance of family and friends rather than pipe dreams.

After quite a bit about his parents, I was surprised about how quiet Hillyer was being about his brother John, and thought perhaps they didn't get on very well.  They were, after all, very different.  But towards the beginning of chapter 10, this beautiful passage appears:
We were brothers, but there was more than brotherhood between us, a special relationship, that was entirely satisfactory to us both.  We were two people, as different as could be in our ways and thoughts, and yet each perfectly accepting the other.  He would listen to my confidences without understanding them or trying to; just taking them as coming from me, and no doubt making sense so far as I was concerned, but outside his sphere.  Not treating them as trivial, because they were not his own; listening to them patiently but making little comment, and taking them just as a part of me.  He was the outlet for all the odd notions that milled about inside me, and all the better outlet because he made no effort at all to influence me.
What nicer testimony to a brother - or, indeed, to a friend - could there be?  Hillyer has such a touching way with words which, even amidst descriptions of the mindlessness of his menial apprentice farm work, or the visit of the lord of the manor, can bring out the most moving and acute sentence.

One of the main differences which set Hillyer apart not only from John but from everyone else in the village was his intellect.  In a section which all of us bibliophiles will love, he describes stumbling across a furniture store which also, somewhat indifferently, sold bundles of books.  The idea of owning a book was new and wonderful to Hillyer - and his earnings were soon redirected to this source of joy and the wider world.
Life at home was drab and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days.  Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own.  It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
Anybody interested in rural life in the early 20th century will relish this book, of course, but its appeal goes further than that.  Anybody who believes that a love of literature can be an act of escape will love this book.  Anybody who values the bonds of family, ditto.  And anybody who appreciates simple, evocative, kind writing will want a copy of this memoir too.  Slightly Foxed - you've only gone and done it again.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Great British Bake Off: Series Four Final!

Well, where were we?  You turn you back for one moment month, and almost all the bakers have exited the tent.  It's the final - or the finale, if you will.  My favourites - Howard and Beca - have got the chop, and it's an all-female final three: Kimberley, Frances, and Ruby.  In case you've not seen the episode yet, I shan't reveal the winner until the end of the post.

First, some Bake Off news.  Guess who was reading my recaps?  Only blinkin' Howard!  He references them in this tweet to me, which was exciting if a little unnerving.  And if you want to read about the language of some of the things they've been baking, I wrote a piece for OxfordWords.  Ok?  Ok.  Let's set this ball rolling, and get our Bake Off on.

Mel and Sue are looking, as ever, gloriously like the Mums contribution to a half-hearted, no-budget school sketch show, and maintain a love for blazers which nowhere states, but everywhere implies, a covert sponsorship deal with Boden. Of all the wonderful things that make GBBO great, they might be the best.  Even above Mary Berry, in terms of if-they-went-the-show-would-be-ruined.  Indeed, this is exemplified by how awful that children's series was, without them.  I'll even forgive them the unnecessary flatulence joke.

The preview seems to suggest that Kimberley will be cross, Frances will crack and start naming objects around her ("spoon! spoon! spoon!"), Ruby will keep her rageful-neutral face, and the whole thing will be decided by a variant of the egg and spoon race.

This year's final is mercifully short of finalists confiding in us that it's the final, saying how much it means to them to be in the final etc. etc., so it gives me an opportunity to do a bit of it for them.  Or, rather, tell you how I feel about the contestants after a break of a few weeks.  (Incidentally, I'm not screencapping the bakers walking towards the tent, because they have thoughtlessly circumnavigated the bridge this week.  Give us a chance to say goodbye to the bridge, BBC2!  Rude.)

There's been a lot of talk in social media about Ruby flirting with Paul, etc., and while I don't think there is any justification in that allegation, she certainly seems to have been given rather an easier ride by both Paul and Mary than someone like poor Frances.  I think Mary might be under the impression that Ruby is her granddaughter.  Obviously I've not tasted Ruby's food, and perhaps the flavours are as great as the judges say, but her presentation and consistency certainly haven't seemed good enough to get to this stage.  "I just have to avoid having an episode," Ruby alerts the viewer.  What sort of episode?!  Does she have anger management issues?  Is she a werewolf?  So many questions, so few answers.

My thoughts about Kimberley haven't really changed over the series.  She still seems to be an exceptionally good baker, but just too cool and together for me to empathise with her.  If she'd 'accidentally' flung a plate of scones on the floor, she might be my favourite.  But that accolade is now reserved for...

Jury (of one person; me) was out on Frances in the first week or two, but I swiftly grew very fond of her boundless creativity and endearing gawkiness.  I can imagine her knitting a beret for a beagle, and that is a compliment.  She was self-aware enough not to be annoying, and presentation-wise she produced wonder after wonder - yet Paul, and even Mary, started getting really mean with her, repeating that mantra 'style over substance' every time they spotted her across the baking tent.  Poor Frances seemed quite crushed, and at one point Sue (bless her) even jumped to her defence.  "I need to bake my flipping socks off," she says - and thus her transformation into an Enid Blyton character is complete.

The signature challenge!  A savoury picnic pie, whatever that means.  Almost everyone pays rapt attention to Mel's explanation that it must be served out of the tin.

Or is she carrying an invisible tightrope pole?

Ok, reader, here's my problem with this challenge.  Mary stipulates that the layers inside the pie must be, well, in layers - defined and separate.  As, apparently, indicated by this gesture (which could equally well be the cover of Mary's inaugural hip-hop album):

But who wants to eat a pie like that?  Surely if the flavours all go well together, then you actually want them to be altogether?

Frances gives us a little primary school lesson on how rainbows appear, with nary a mention of Noah, which acts as a segue into her seven layered pie.  The BBC's magical colouring book is, as always, in play.  I particularly appreciate how, for a pie which depends upon its layered interior, they've decided to make it as difficult as possible to see the inside.  Maybe they didn't have all the right colouring pencils?

But they consistently get their apostrophes right.  Well done, BBC.

Mary gives a little shudder or two of joy at the description of the pie, which would have been in contention for OFFICIAL ANDREX PUPPY MOST ADORABLE MARY BERRY MOMENT if it weren't for something rather special that comes up later...

We haven't headed back to the bakers' homes for momentary glimpses into their lives for a while, have we?  Well, with only three bakers left the glimpses are rather longer and more purposeful - and include adorable childhood photographs, like this one of Frances:

I assume Frances doesn't still live with her parents, but nonetheless it is to Momma and Poppa Frances' house that we've gone, and I'm getting definite kitchen envy.  While in this kitchen, Frances' Mum asserts that she can't smell because she was kicked in the nose when she was fifteen - a story told sotto voce while Frances talks about something else, so that I didn't even notice it the first time.  I feel like it deserves a sombre silhouette-talking-in-darkened-room segment at the very least (perhaps an episode of Panorama? Does that still exist?) but instead Frances makes a delightfully catty comment about her lack of substance.

SUCH a nice shade of green. And that cute window!
One day I will live in a house which is nothing but kitchens.
And bookshelves.

And she talks about having won the hurdles in her youth (trivia #254: my brother has a fear of hurdles, having broken his arm while hurdling once) and, cottoning on to the show's love of punnery, says "I've certainly hit some hurdles throughout this whole process."  I choose to believe it is simply unfortunate editing that makes this the next shot:

Ruby is having troubles of her own.  Her vegetarian pie (which sounds amazing - halloumi, couscous, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella - sorry, my computer is malfunctioning from my mouth watering) is covered in lattice-pastry, and Design Queen Frances is doing the same.  "It's a bit like appearing at a do wearing the same dress as someone else," Ruth says (in my paraphrasing), "but the other person wearing the dress is a 6'3'' Brazilian supermodel."  Which I think is hilarious.  Well done, Ruby.

Were you aware that Ruby was a student?  I think it might have mentioned once or twice during the series.  Every time she is on the screen.  Well, they're hammering the point home, and Ruby claims that she's been doing all her baking in her bedroom.  Somebody flick through the tenancy agreement, stat.  Her Mum seems fun, and they obviously enjoy hanging out in the kitchen together - although it couldn't be clearer that the cameraman has told Ruby's Mum to stand and watch, and she looms awkwardly in the corner while Ruby slowly chops an aubergine.

Ruby, as always, is self-doubting in the corner - while Sue takes on Mel's usual role of issuing dire warnings in the voiceover about how horrendously wrong pastry can go.  I am notoriously bad at rolling pastry and, while I've found a recipe for sweet pastry which rolls like a dream, I haven't got one yet for savoury pastry.  Hence this, when my friend and I tried to make a quiche...

Nailed it.

"Kimberley has already made her pastry," says Sue in a voice that is smug, if it is possible to be smug vicariously.  Not only that, but she's made pastry in three colours - green, pink, and (er) pastry-coloured.  The pink pastry (coloured thus by beetroot powder) is shaped into little pigs to go on the side.  Because the pie has pork in it.  Is is just me, as a vegetarian, who finds that a little macabre?  Or adding insult to injury?  Cute, though.

And for her home-life VT she is strolling along the Thames (was it the Thames? I think so) with her boyfriend Giuseppe.  Can we talk for a moment about how ridiculously attractive this couple are?

Sickening.  I feel that, being handsome, clever, and rich (maybe), and having lived twenty-something years in the world with very little to vex or distress her, Kimberley doesn't need to win this.  She's already basically a Disney princess, but one with a brain.  AND she never dropped scones on the floor.

Because it's pastry week, there's plenty of talk of soggy bottoms, but it all feels a bit perfunctory at this stage.  I'm more interested in how delicious Ruby's halloumi is looking.  I can't tell you how much I love halloumi.

I want to make a 'hallo, me' / 'halloumi' joke. Bear with me. HALLO, ME HALLOUMI.
Nailed it.

And now - because I know you've been waiting for it - is the OFFICIAL ANDREX PUPPY MOST ADORABLE MARY BERRY MOMENT.  When Frances' back is turned, Mary, Mel, and Sue launch at her leftover asparagus and wolf it down.  And, yes, Mary was pirate-eating.

The pies are all ready to come out of the oven, and Ruby's efforts to get hers out of the tin resemble the finesse and coordination that I usually show at such times.

But, oh my goodness, it looks wonderful when it's out.  Whereas Kimberley, who would never make such a teatowelly mess of extracting her pie, has got something rather soggy and unappealing.  Revenge of the pigs?  Who's to say. (YES.)

Judgement time.... DUH DUH DUUUUH.  For a show which makes so much of people opening oven doors or the length of time to bake a bread roll, there has been surprisingly little of the DUH DUH DUUUH variety when it comes to judging.  Instead, Frances gets the usual 'good bake' from Mary and Paul, and adorable gasps of wonderful from everyone's surrogate mothers, Mel and Sue.  (They also remind me of those affectionate people at sports days who fawn over the children whose parents couldn't make it.)

To hammer home the rainbow theme, Frances has also baked in
an entire dove and olive branch.

Kimberley's pie has fallen apart altogether, and gets "almost like a glue" from Paul.  Mary leaps in with the old faithful "seasoned very well" (a euphemism for 'an aesthetic disaster').  Whereas Ruby's looks perfect:

As Paul says, "You've finally come up with something that looks like Frances made it."

When Paul asks Ruby what they should be expecting to see inside, she replies "Hopefully some layers" in the most despondent, wry voice ever - for which I love her a little more.  I'm a big British cynic at heart, me.  I'd love to see her on America's Next Top Model, where all the girls squeal in frenzied glee at meeting the CEO of a plastics recycling company or the assistant paint-mixer for the country's third biggest supplier of emulsions.  She'd stand at the back, arms folded, inadvertently death-staring everyone.  It would be amazing.

Also amazing is her pie.  I want it right now.  As Mary says, "I think this is an excellent example of a vegetarian pie - what a difficult thing to get right."  If only more places would realise that vegetarians don't only want 'cheese and onion' in their pies.  (Revenge of the pigs is complete!)  (I realise that in this scenario I have somehow become the pig, but... er, it's a metaphor.)  (Oh, I don't know, leave me alone.)

Paul and Mary are sent to 'frolic in the buttercups' (the very thought... eugh) and the bakers are given the technical challenge of making sweet and savoury pretzels.  I didn't even know you could get sweet pretzels, and I can't really imagine they'd be especially nice.

"Who makes a pretzel?" says Ruby wonderfully, and perhaps it's not too late for me to love her - and the editor, who segues immediately into Kimberley saying "I've made bread like a pretzel."  What, pray (as my friend pointed out) is like a pretzel?

Tell me... what is baking?

Paul explains how to make a pretzel to Mary, who must know already, and wanders madly through the first, second, and third person so that his explanation sounds oddly like a recipe translated into and back out of Russian.

Frances explains that she's good at kneading dough because she often gives her friends massages - as she says this she is flinging her dough violently onto the table, and it conjures up lines of Frances' friends with broken and disfigured necks, wincing when they see her enter a room.

Everything is going well with making the dough, but nobody seems able to make the pretzel shape. Paul's instructions have had the old Russian treatment again, and sound (as Sue observes) like the rudiments of a gymnastics routine.

But it doesn't much matter what shapes they've concocted, as the next step is dropping them in boiling water and bicarbonate of soda - and that's where things go awry.  Sue warns, over the voiceover, that the pretzel dough 'only needs to be in for seconds' (which could thus be anything up to and including eternity) and we pan to Ruby leaving hers for a nice long soak.  Sue wanders over and comments cheerily "They've been in a while" in a manner which is neither subtle nor, at this point, particularly helpful - but bless her for trying.

Paul and Mary re-enter the tent to judge the baskets of pretzels, and they all look pretty impressive to my undiscerning eye.  "There's a sort of pretzel-look about that one" seems pretty damning with faint praise, but Mary's "That's a lovely orange flavour" is similarly damning.  I could make something a lovely orange flavour.  Just add orange zest.  But we all know Mary's love of strong fruit flavouring.

Kimberley's are leagues ahead of the other two, and although Ruby comes second and Frances comes third, it's much of a muchness down the bottom end of the table.  Even Kimberley gets the comment from Paul "It's the closest thing to a pretzel, but don't clap."  Ouch.

I included this picture just because I think Mary looks adorbs, but I hadn't spotted before those framed pictures of pies and cakes in the background.  They seem to be by the same 'artiste' who is forever launched on the magical colouring books.  Also: how many series in do you think we'll get before (a) Paul learns how to be natural with his arms, and (b) starts wearing blazers?  Do Boden have a men's range?  Get on it, Bake Off stylists.

It's time for the very last challenge of series four - and, hurray!, the bridge!

Bye, bridge. Take care.

Thankfully there was no Welcome To Cake History section this week (although some have been unusually interesting of late) so instead Paul and Mary recap the entire first half of the show, for anybody who's flicked channels after Holby City, or whatever else was on.

And the showstopper challenge is... three-tier wedding cake!  In earlier series they've made entire tea parties in the final challenge, so this one doesn't sound all that tricky to me.  Essentially they're making lots and lots of sponge cake.  To divert attention from this, Paul follows Mary's lead and attempts to flog his hip-hop album.

Frances is making a 'Midsummer Night's Dream' wedding cake - although what it has to do with the play I can't think, unless a donkey is shoved in the middle of it - and decorating it with dried beetroot, sweet potato, pineapple, and mango.  That sounds horrifying to me.  Dried fruit I can understand - but in what world is sweet potato a fruit?

We haven't had a Mary Berry Reaction Face for a while, so perhaps it's time to see what she thinks of dried sweet potato?

sweet mother of what now?

Kimberley is making a wedding cake covered in the word 'love' in many languages, and Mel pruriently asks whether she has anybody in mind.  Kimberley coyly confesses that the bottom layer of the cake is her boyfriend's favourite flavour - which leads to an altogether more adorable Mary Berry Reaction Face:

Cleverly, Kimberley has made 'cake pops' and pours her chocolate fudge cake mixture over it.  She's also making poppy seed butter cream, which sounds absolutely heavenly, and something I'll be trying soon - but I've noticed that they tend to make butter cream which is much gloopier than the variety I make and, dear reader, it troubles me.

Ruby is making a cake which sounds equally delish, particularly the passionfruit/raspberry section.  And it strikes me for the first time that these Magical Colouring Book pictures are made after the fact, hence why this one so accurately resembles the end result.

But Ruby is no fan of weddings.  She considers them an 'exercise in narcissism'.  Lovely - there goes her chances of snaring a baking column in Your Wedding.  Kimberley, meanwhile, is doing clever things with circles.

I wonder what it would be like if I tried to make it... A quick reminder, everyone:

Excuse me, I'm writing my acceptance speech for Baker of the Year.

And look who's back!

Well, and several other GBBO bakers too, but it's Howard we're all here to see.  He's cheering on Frances, Beca is championing Kimberley, and interestingly Glenn just says 'I think Ruby will win'.  Not especially effusive, but then there are incidental shots of trombones and small girls in polka dot dresses to montage.

Back in the tent, Mary Berry is reiterating that Ruby is 21 - "very young!" - adding that she has "always winged it a bit".  I'm pretty certain Mezza Bezza has never used that expression before or since.  We've whipped through the baking process pretty quickly, and somehow everybody iced their cakes without me noticing.  Indeed, we've come down to the final bits of decoration, and Frances has somehow sourced a great big tree trunk.  Ruby is struggling, and her decoration does look a bit ham-fisted... (revenge of the pigs!  No, wait, wrong baker.)

Aaand.... they're done!  Cue rather sweet group hug.

The joke with caramelised sugar went too far
when they all had to be taken to A&E.

Judging time!  But not before we've had three rather curious shots of the bakers staring poignantly at their creations.

I've got to say, for the showstopper challenge in the final of the fourth series, I'm not particularly impressed by the way any of them look.  Ruby's is especially amateur, without the icing even being even, while Frances' is fine but rather unambitious.  Perhaps she was terrified of providing style over substance?  Kimberley's is my favourite - I love the quilting detail - but even her cake isn't anything to write home about.  Which I have been doing on occasion, actually, but generally by email.  Hi Mum!

Ruby's critique doesn't go very well, and she does have a bit of a cry, the poor thing.  Paul has to lug Frances' cake (and tree trunk) across the room, and - perhaps dizzied by this display of masculinity - the judges are very complimentary.  "I think the bride would be surprised" is one of the odder things Mary says.  It's apparently a compliment, but since every bride who doesn't appear on Don't Tell The Bride would choose the flavours herself, then surprise can only be a terrible thing, leading to a ruined honeymoon and a protracted journey through the courts to get a full refund.

Of course, most cakes look like this after an ant infestation.

"If you know what you want and you set out to get it, there's always a good chance you can achieve that - otherwise, what's the point?" Kimberley, just before her judging, sweeps away decades of children's television telling us it's the taking part that counts, and it's not her finest hour.  Mary isn't impressed by her finish, which I thought was nice, but they love the poppyseed filling (drool) and give the flavours a general thumbs up - but find the chocolate cake dry.

And now it's time for that egg and spoon race.

Yes, I'm reusing screencaps. What of it?

Paul and Mary repeat everything they've already said.  "We'll always remember Ruby's picnic pie," says Mary - which, since it was a matter of hours ago, is no great testimony to her baking legacy.  They're proud of Frances for learning, and - yes - say everything about Kimberley that they said earlier in the episode.  And honourable mention for OFFICIAL ANDREX PUPPY MOST ADORABLE MARY BERRY MOMENT comes when she suggests that Mel, rather than Sue, might win the trophy.  And by trophy I, of course, mean cake stand.

And the winner is...


I'm not ashamed to say that I clapped my hands with glee and shouted "yes!" - I was so certain that it would be Ruby or Kimberley that it came as a wonderful surprise.  She was definitely my favourite of the final three, totally deserved it, and was touchingly shocked at her win.

And the final moment of my recap must go to old Howard, who takes the opportunity to have a sly dig at Deborah and, in his accompanying clip, reminds me why I love him so.  I like to think that he, Mel, and Sue will all go on activities holidays together.

Thanks all for your kind words and enthusiasm this series!  I know I only recapped five episodes, but it somehow felt like I'd done the whole series - I definitely wouldn't have put in the hours if it weren't for your encouragement and good humour.

And thank you, GBBO, for being such a delight!  The final episode got the most views of any programme on BBC2 since records began, and they'll all be back next year... hopefully, so will I.