My Couldn’t Live Without List

Susan Hill did a top forty of her favourite, can’t live without books at the end of Howard’s End is on the Landing.

Some of them I had never heard of, some of them I had heard of but had never read, and some of them I had read but didn’t think much of. Susan Hill’s list made me realise just how very different people’s reading preferences and experiences can be, and made me wonder at the mystery of how a book can speak so powerfully to one person, and yet leave another completely cold. There is magic inside the pages of some books for me. Magic; gold dust, if you will, that settles upon me as soon as I start to read, enchanting me, entrancing me, pulling me into another world so completely that I become wholly absorbed in the story, immersed in the world the words have created, at one with the characters who have come alive on the pages, and totally oblivious to the real world around me. It is like I have fallen into the pages, and actually become a character myself, watching the events as they unfold, powerless to intervene, a silent, enthralled onlooker.

However, these books that have managed to cast a spell over me may most likely mean nothing to others. They may have never read them; or, worse, they may have read them, and hated every word. How can words that I treasure so much, stories that have become part of the fabric of my being, be boring or uninteresting or just not all that special to somebody else? I have absolutely no idea, but this is, for so many, the delight and the adventure of reading; everyone’s experience is such a personal endeavour, and everyone’s soul is made up of the memories, inspiration, encouragement and emotion of different stories that have combined to mould us into the people we are. The stories we love, and hate, are a window, I think, into the truest nature of our hearts. And that is why I am so fascinated by the books people read.

I have been thinking about my favourite books, the ones I truly couldn’t live without. I’ve decided to limit them to ten, or things could get ridiculous. Making the list as concise as possible has forced me to distil my reading experience down to the bare essentials, those few books that have formed me, that never cease to delight and move me, and that have inspired me to become the woman I am today. The books I could quite happily read exclusively for the rest of my life; the books I would save if all my other books had to be sold, or given away, or disposed of, for some awful reason; the books that would sustain me through all of life’s joys and trials. Quite an undertaking. But I have done it. And here they are, in no particular order. I wonder what they say about me:

  1. The Bible (NLT translation is my preferred version – the link is to my exact copy!)
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  5. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  6. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  7. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  8. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
  9. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
  10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Of course this list can only contain the books I have read so far in my twenty three years, and is subject to change as I read more, and my life experiences widen, but as of today, if someone packed me off to foreign climes with no more than one suitcase to contain my belongings, and no opportunity to ever lay my hands on a book again, these would be the ten I’d be taking with me; my greatest treasures, all of them.

I wonder; what would yours be?

Recent Aquisitions

Perhaps the reason I am eating an awful lot of baked beans on toast and frowning every time I withdraw money from the cash machine of late is because I may have slightly overdone it on book acquisitions recently. I am reminded of the famous quote by Erasmus –
“When I have a little money, I buy books. If any is left over, I buy food and clothes.”
So very true. Except for there is none left over, and yet I must eat anyway or I would actually starve. Thank goodness for overdrafts.

So, in my hungry and poor state, what better consolation than a pile of lovely new books to cheer my desolate mealtimes and lonely evenings while my friends are out having fun and I am left indoors with my empty purse?

I have got a cracking pile here to get stuck into and as the nights draw in I love nothing better than curling up on the sofa and getting lost in a good book.

The top one on the pile is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, something I have been meaning to read for ages and which I will read for Simon’s Sensation Season. I am currently reading Lady Audley’s Secret and am nearly wetting myself with the suspense so I can’t wait for another book in the same vein. What I love about sensation novels from this period is that they were mostly written for publication in periodicals, which means there is a cliffhanger at the end of every paragraph – I don’t know how the original readers coped with the wait for the next instalment! Also, OUP have done themselves proud with their new cover designs and though paperbacks don’t normally appeal to me massively I am greatly enjoying the look of these new imprints on my shelves.

Next up is a gift from my American friend Emily (hi Emily!) – it’s a fascimile of Jane Austen’s A History of England, edited by A S Byatt, of all people. It’s also signed by A S Byatt which I would have been far more excited about had I received this before reading The Children’s Book! It is a lovely edition and is in full colour. I never knew it existed before so I am excited to read some more of her juvenilia.

Underneath this is Molly Keane’s Loving Without Tears, which I bought from the Brompton Road charity shop that receives a hefty proportion of my monthly salary by virtue of being dangerously convenient to visit on a lunchbreak stroll. I adore Molly Keane and have been wanting to read this for a while, so I couldn’t resist picking it up. I look forward to getting lost in her catty world of Anglo Irish aristocracy again – Desperate Reader’s review has whet my appetite immensely!

The gorgeous Bloomsbury reprint of Ada Leverson’s Love’s Shadow was given to me by the lovely Mary, to whom I lent Dorothy Whipple’s Young Anne, and she gave me this as a thank you in return. I am so excited to read this as I have heard such good things!

I snagged The Blue Castle from ebay a couple of weeks ago, a purchase prompted by reading Nicola’s great review and Elaine’s recent slew of posts on L M Montgomery, who I have become increasingly desperate to read. I never read Anne of Green Gables as a child so I thought I’d start with one of her adult novels, of which this is one, before moving on to the Anne series. The Blue Castle is apparently a great favourite of many and sadly out of print so I am very excited to discover the joy I have been promised lies within its pages!

Underneath is another recent ebay purchase – Every Good Deed, an out of print Dorothy Whipple which I have been desperate to get my hands on. It is a much slimmer volume than I had expected, though I think this is something to do with the teeny tiny print and thin war economy standard paper. I can’t wait to read this and it should give me my Dorothy fix until I *hopefully* get the new Persephone reprint of High Wages for Christmas!

Beneath this are two lovely American paperbacks; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and The Known World, which the lovely Claire sent me and which I have also heard many fantastic things about – can’t wait to get stuck into these.

Then there is the controversial Howard’s End is on the Landing…the consensus of it being marvellous has just been broken by some interesting reviews from Claire and Verity so I am looking forward to seeing where I will stand on the debate.

And finally there are six books I bought in charity shops while up North…a first edition of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, which I have wanted for a while and has a great cover of a Russian doll – one of my most favourite objects ever – and which I bought for the sum of 75p…Susan Hill’s In the Springtime of the Year, bought because I wanted to read more of her work after all the Howard’s End is on the Landing hype…Daphne Du Maurier’s The Rendezvous and Other Stories, because Danielle has been posting such tantalising reviews of her stories lately, Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates, because I loved Revolutionary Road, have got some lovely copies of his other books from Vintage, and will be doing a reading challenge on him soon (keep your eyes peeled – with giveaways too!), Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford, which I later discovered is not Highland Fling at all, but Christmas Pudding (also by her) in the wrong dustjacket…slightly annoying but at least it’s still a Nancy Mitford! and finally, The Angel’s Game, which I desperately wanted after loving The Shadow of the Wind but refused to buy new – my stubborness paid off as it was mine for just £2.50.

So, lots to get on with! Has anyone read any of these? What do you think I should tackle first?

Kisses on a Postcard by Terence Frisby

The lovely Elaine sent me Kisses on a Postcard after I won the draw on her blog, and I am so very glad that she did. This is a delightful and surprisingly moving account of three years in the life of Terence Frisby, detailing the time when he and his older brother Jack were sent to the depths of Cornwall to escape the bombings in London.

The period of history this book encompasses has always been of interest to me, and evacuees and their experiences particularly tug on my heartstrings; my favourite childhood book was Goodnight Mister Tom, about a young boy sent to live with an elderly widower to escape the bombings in London, and it never failed to make me cry every time I read it. I just can’t imagine the anguish of mothers forced to wave their precious children off on trains to goodness knows where, not knowing when they would see them again, if ever. Many of these women would have had to send husbands off to the front line too, and I am just in awe of the way they just got on with things and kept going through it all; I couldn’t imagine having to live without the people I love, faced with the fear every day of a knock on the door and a telegram bringing dreaded news from the Front.

My surviving grandparents were active during the war; my nan, who is a few years older than my granddad, was a member of the WRAF, and she joined up straight from being a housemaid. She was a country girl and she loved the glamour of the base; she told me that the American soldiers were the best, and that she’d often sneak out after curfew to go on a date with one of the dashing pilots. She described many an occasion where the base would get machine gunned by German bombers, flying down so low that she could see the pilot’s faces; she would get down behind the bar she served at, wait for them to pass, get up, clear up the damage and just get on with it. Nan said she had to get desensitised to it all, because most days, half the ‘boys’ who went out in their planes just never came back. Her brother, who she adored, was killed early in the war too, so she learned to just compartmentalise that side of things and move on. My granddad was in the RAF right at the end of the war; he was too young to fight at the beginning. He never really talks about it, but he met my nan on the base and they married and moved to Welling, in South East London, where they still live, and which is, much to my delight when I realised, where Terence Frisby grew up. Both of my parents were brought up in Welling and it was on the streets of said dull suburb they met, and so this book had a lovely personal resonance for me, as I recognised all of the places he mentioned in that part of London.

So I already love the topic, and I know where part of the book is set like the back of my hand; therefore, I was predisposed to love the book itself, I suppose, but it delivered so much more than I had expected and I was actually struggling to hold back my tears on the train this morning. One of the aspects of Terence’s story I found particularly interesting was what he remembered, and why; the book is only 200 pages long, not much when you think it covers three years of a life, and so the anecdotes he tells are clearly what have stayed with him over the years, and the remarkable accounts of adventures and friendships and displays of love and affection he experienced are truly worthy of remembering. It made me think about what has stayed with me from my childhood, and why some people and events have become etched in my memory and others have been forgotten. It’s funny how some seemingly trivial events can seem to sum up periods of our lives so completely.

The couple who took Terence and his brother in, Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack, are two of the most wonderful people I have ever come across in a book; their generosity and love towards two strangers is truly awe inspiring and my heart broke for them at the end when the boys inevitably went home. To know that there have been, and still are, such people in the world gives me hope for humanity; true selflessness does indeed exist. The life in the quiet village of Doublebois in Cornwall is enchantingly described, and I loved the stories of the ‘vackies’ and ‘locals’ fighting it out in the streets. Just how much the world has changed in the past 70 odd years was brought home to me by the description of the shock the community had when black American soldiers arrived; none of them had seen a black person before except a grotesque caricature. I can’t imagine a world so small.

Another aspect I found really interesting was how those who had been through the First World War were affected by the Second; Uncle Jack and Auntie Rose were that unfortunate generation who had to fight in the First War and send their children off to fight in the Second, and Uncle Jack’s vehemance towards religion and the government and the ‘superiors’ who decide the fate of those underneath them all came from his terrible experiences the first time round. The frustration they must have felt at having to witness the death of so many young men and then have to go through it all over again, rendering that first ‘war to end all wars’ utterly pointless…no wonder it destroyed men like Uncle Jack’s faith in religion and governments. One character I also found very poignant was Miss Polmanor, an elderly Wesleyan lady whose strict religious morals cause great inconvenience to others in the village, especially the atheist Uncle Jack. Terry discovers that the reason for Miss Polmanor’s extreme religion and prickliness is that her fiance was killed in the First World War and with him died all of her dreams and hopes for life; she became one of the ‘surplus’ women, like so many hundreds of thousands of others whose hopes of becoming wives and mothers died on the battlefields of Europe just twenty years before another war was to take the sons from the fortunate women who did manage to get their husbands back in 1918.

I think it is so important that these types of memoirs are read, as the story they tell of a way of life and a worldwide collective experience that I hope we never have to go through again is rapidly becoming a history that ever fewer people are able to tell. As the generations that went through the war get older, and die off, their stories get lost, and I for one never want to have the heroism of both the soldiers and those they left at home be forgotten. Kisses on a Postcard is a real treasure; it’s told with love and fondness and humour and I never normally read memoirs by men so it’s been refreshing and illuminating to have a male point of view on childhood for once. It really is a wonderful book that shows the tenacity and generosity of the human spirit, and I highly recommend it. Do read Elaine and Simon’s reviews as well.

A Tale of Woe

Oh what a sad day I have had.

First off, my train was cancelled, making me nearly forty minutes late for work this morning. I wouldn’t mind but this is the second time this has happened this week and it’s getting beyond a joke!

Then when I finally got to work I went to the kitchen to make tea and – we had run out of teabags. Yes! I couldn’t have any tea.

I proceeded to have the most DULL day imaginable involving spreadsheets and endless reading of wordy documents, which has now left me with a headache.

All day I was looking forward to going to Simon at Savidge Read’s book group, and meeting Claire from Paperback Reader and other book bloggers, but then I left work late so was running late for that. Not a good start. However, I got off the tube at Embankment, hurried over to the bridge, and went to the cafe I thought we were meeting in at the Royal Festival Hall just in time. I searched the cafe; I couldn’t see anyone. I put my glasses on and searched again; no. I walked all around; could I see anyone? No! So I assumed I must be in the wrong place and went off to explore the other cafes and bars; no one there either. So in the end I went off home, dejected and very disappointed, cursing my stupidity at not being able to find the book group or discuss the book I had read especially for it!!

So I got to the station and oh! what a surprise. I had just missed my train. So I had to get a train to a different station, then get the bus. It was ok, as I did have The Children’s Book to read, which is taking me FOREVER to get through by the way, as there is so much UNNECESSARY DETAIL in it that it takes about ten minutes to read one page, but I was feeling grumpy the whole way because I was hungry and tired and disappointed and A S Byatt was boring me. Then I got home to find an annoying ‘sorry, you were out’ notice from good old Royal Mail who have taken my amazon parcel to the sorting office because of course it’s not safe to leave a parcel in a COMPLETELY SECURE BLOCK OF FLATS! Grrrr!!! So I was looking forward to leafing through the copies of The Moonstone and Lady Audley’s Secret I ordered for Simon’s Sensation Season tonight but instead I will have to get up extra early to walk to the sorting office before I go to work tomorrow and collect them. Wonderful!

Then I made dinner and it was boring and unhealthy and now I feel headachy and moany and miserable because I SHOULD be at the Southbank Centre and I’m not because I’m too stupid and too blind!

So that is my tale of woe. This is probably the only self indulgent and miserable post you will ever read on here so enjoy it now! I’m only writing this because I am so upset about the book group, but I’ll be cheery again tomorrow, I promise. I will write a review of the Book Club Book, I Served the King of England tomorrow because I am too upset to write it now! I am going to make a cup of tea and watch a terrible American drama show instead to try and cheer myself up.

Thank you for reading! Now I have vented I feel much better!

What do your bookshelves say about you?

I saw this fascinating article on the BBC website today about what our bookshelves say about us. It was inspired by the 30th anniversary of the good old Billy IKEA bookcase, of which I own one, that has been put together wrongly (the rough edges of the two sides face the front instead of the back, so mine has a rustic effect…completely unintentional and I was too exhausted from the effort of screwing with a COMPLETELY POINTLESS ALLEN KEY to rectify my mistake by the time I had noticed), and is now almost collapsing under the weight of my books in the corner of my bedroom. Billy holds a mixture of random unorganised books as well as a bottom shelf of ‘unread’ books that I must get around to one day. There are also piles of either recently read or recently purchased books shoved on the edge of shelves that don’t really fit anywhere else, and miscellaneous stuff that I can’t find anywhere else to put dotted on the shelves. It looks a complete mess, but as I have nowhere else to put any of the books, a complete mess it must stay. To the left of Billy is another pile of unread books and to the right is a lovely Persephone bookbag filled with unread copies of the TLS that I subscribed to and then never got around to reading. Some of those are nearly two years old and still in their cellophane. Oh well.

On the other side of my wardrobe (see photo on the left) sits my little bookcase that is made up entirely of unread purchases. It is my Bookcase of Shame and is the first thing I see when I wake up, as it is directly opposite my bed. The Bookcase of Shame’s purpose is to collect all of my unread books together in one place, making me realise just how many unread books I have managed to accumulate, and shame me into stopping my obsessive book buying habit. Needless to say the Bookcase of Shame has failed in its task and the collection of unread books has spilled out into another shelf on the aforementioned Billy and also a large teetering pile beside Billy as seen above. I have admitted defeat on this one and have settled on a philosophy of in for a penny, in for a pound. If I’m going to have a book addiction, I may as well do it properly. I suspect another teetering pile beside Billy will be growing soon.

My third and final bookcase sits in the living room of the flat I share. No one else is allowed to use this bookcase. It is filled with all of the books I have managed to read and is in no order whatsoever. One day when I have my own house and can line the walls with bookshelves and not worry about running out of space, I will alphabetise. Until that day, my books can be grateful that they even fit on a shelf, because some of their unlucky brothers and sisters don’t even have that luxury. They are stuck in boxes under my bed, gathering dust and generally feeling unloved. I know this is heartless but I have nowhere else to put them and they do have each other for company as they slowly lose a little more hope every day that they will have a shelf of their own. The shelf is coming my friends, I promise. One day.

This leads me on to the content of my bookshelves. They are filled with all sorts but most are Victorian to mid 20thc women’s fiction, classics, social histories or literary biographies. I collect Virago Modern Classics and Persephones, largely indiscriminately; I know I will like what they print so I am willing to take a chance on whichever ones I find, as long as they aren’t too expensive. Most of my books are bought from charity or second hand book shops, though some of the nicer hardbacks I have either got as presents or won as school prizes. The majority of my books have been read and loved, and I keep them because I enjoyed them and I want to have them around me in case I should ever want to read them again. Others have been bought because I fully intend on reading them, and though they might have to wait a while, I will get around to reading them eventually. Some of my books I will admit I have solely because they make me look intelligent and well read (I may or may not have read them..) and some I bought just because they have gorgeous bindings. However, I did weed most of these vain purchases out when I last moved so the majority of my beloved books are indeed beloved and will be appreciated when I get around to reading them. Some people (mainly my mother) are appalled that I continue to buy books at a rapid rate even though I have a bookcase and a bit of unread books already, but I like the fact that I can always be sure to have something new to read, and I have such fun browsing book shops for that special find that I can’t stop myself, no matter how hard I try. There are worse addictions to have!

So…what do my bookshelves say about me? I think they show that I:

1. Can’t stop buying books
2. Have fairly traditional tastes
3. Am a bit snobby
4. Am very interested in women’s fiction
5. Am very interested in Victorian fiction
6. Like literary biographies
7. Had a teenage obsession with the Russian Romanovs…hence my huge collection of books on Imperial Russia
8. Don’t do organisation

And if I could pick three books from my collection to sum me up?

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I am traditional, feminine and am very much a homebody. I love to sew and bake and read and drink tea and be cosy and be surrounded by family and friends, much like the girls in Little Women. I was born 55 and I’ve only been getting older since, what can I say!

2. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – Though I have grown up in the suburbs, I am desperate to get out and have had itchy feet for a long time. The protagonist of this book, Karim, is searching for something more than a life in a semi in a non descript London suburb and wants to make something of himself; this was my favourite book as a teenager and it inspired me so much that I gave copies to all my friends. This book shows the secret rebel in me and continues to inspire me to dare to believe in something more.

3. New York Mosaic by Isabel Bolton – New York is my favourite place and I dream of running away to the bright lights of Manhattan and charming the socks off everybody with my London accent and excellent tea making skills. The cover of this book is of the New York skyline and every time I catch a glimpse of it, it makes me smile and my thoughts drift to the city that never sleeps, and my dream of making it my home one day.

So, what’s on your bookshelves, and what do they say about you??