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Saturday, July 04, 2009

My life in books

It's what old hacks call "the silly season," that period in summer when it goes very quiet except for the odd superstar's death. When I was a journo, it meant revisiting tedious stories about beasts of Exmoor.

In a nutshell it's a time when occasionally there's nothing much to write about.

I could tell you about our 10 day sojourn in Majorca except that it would be a brief post along the lines: 1) 8.30 had breakfast; 2) 9am bought papers; 3) applied suncream and sat on lounger; 4) went for lunch; 5) bought ice-cream; 6) sat in the shade reading; 7) had shower; 8) went out for dinner.

So instead I'm going to indulge myself by writing about my favourite books. They're my favourites of all time, so some may actually not be favourites now, if you get my drift, but were favourites a few years ago.

Not in any particular order:

1) Never No More by Maura Laverty
I have a weakness for whimsy and stories written from the guileless perspective of a child. This book combines both. Laverty was an Irish writer who was notable for cookery books. This is the charming account of life "in the bog" by 13 year old Delia who lives with her beloved gran who cooks treats like boxty in the pan. I've always thought it would make a wonderful film along the lines of Chocolat (perhaps because there are gipsies in the story.)

2)The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns
In a similar vein to (1), a child's perspective. Comyns was a wonderfully eccentric writer and hugely overlooked today (in my view). The chairs in question belonged to the Colonel, a gruff old gentleman living in the big house. And were they really made of skin, as the children had heard rumoured?

3) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I would happily consign all the Brontes to Room 101 except that I was crazy about this book when I was around 15. It's a real adolescent's treat, the idea of a plain but virtuous girl eventually winning the love of gruff old Mr Rochester (although he's blind by then so it's not a very good feminist message!).

4) The Women's Room by Marilyn French
When this first came out it had huge stickers on it saying "this book changes lives". It's a feminist tract about a woman from the 1950s, Mira, and how she overcomes the oppression of the life she chose for herself. You'll see by the way I worded that I don't have much time for the book now. I re-read it recently and wanted to shake Mira and tell her to get a grip.

5) Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
Predictable one this and boy did I adore it when I was aged 13 - 14, particularly as it was serialised on TV around that time. Although I too spent long hours upstairs writing stories, I didn't identify with Jo. I had a sneaking regard for Amy with her limes and her vanity (putting clothes pegs on her nose.) Re-reading the book, I am struck by how preachy and saccharine it is now that I am a seasoned old cynic.

6) The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz
The true story of Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz who was arrested by the Russians in 1939 and sentenced to 25 years' hard labour in the Gulags, for spying. After a three-month journey to Siberia in the depths of winter he escaped with six companions, realising that to stay in the camp meant almost certain death. They travelled on foot for over 40,000 miles in inhospitable places like the Gobi desert, and Rawicz saw the Yeti. A marvellous book.

7) The Elves & The Shoemaker (Ladybird)
Now I can still remember the first sentence: "Once upon a time there lived a shoemaker and his wife. They were very poor, and as time went on they grew poorer and poorer".
The reason it stuck with me is that this is the book that taught me how to read. I was a late starter (nowadays I would have been tested for dyslexia and no doubt sent to a special school) and it was my dad who taught me, painstakingly taking me through this book for weeks and weeks. In the end my mum reckoned I had memorised it, but one day I could suddenly read every word. After that moment, I became an insatiable reader and according to my teacher Mr Mogford, went immediately to Dickens (I doubt that myself although I remember clearly the next book I read which was about the tightrope walker Blondin and how he cooked an omelette halfway across Niagara Falls.)

8) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
I love all Hardy's books. To me they lack the twee rhythms of Dickens and paint breathtakingly realistic portraits of people rather than characters with silly names. I love Jude because we all know people like these: the shallow Arabella who ensnares Jude; his priggish cousin Sue; the well-intentioned but weak hero Jude. And the shock twist takes your breath away. It is also unrelentingly gloomy, another reason to cherish it.

9) I Sent a Letter to My Love by Bernice Rubens
I was introduced to the work of Rubens with this novel which came my way when I was a book reviewer on the South Devon Times (one of my better duties.) Rubens wrote very dark comedies and showed the tragedy of unlived lives. In this novel, a middle-aged brother and sister living together start corresponding to each other, unaware who they're writing to, and a romance develops by letter. Poignant and occasionally bittersweet.

10) Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough
I don't just read fiction and this one was a surprise hit with me. I love reading about astronauts and space travel and this book is about the ill-fated Mir space station at the end of its 25 year life. I read open mouthed about a fire and a near-collision, plus the hideously cramped conditions for the cosmonauts who included Briton Michael Foale.

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