The Liebster Award

The charming and hugely talented Andrew Blackman tagged me for this meme:

1. What’s your favourite memory?

It was early one morning and I was lying reading in bed, about five months pregnant. The phone rang and it was one of my mentors from the university. He’d rung to tell me the results were out and I’d come top of the Mphil group that year. I’d taken a big risk returning to college for graduate work, and I’d loved it: it had felt so easy and right and natural. Now here was an unexpected but wonderful reward. I didn’t leap about or scream or rush off to celebrate; I simply felt enveloped by this deep, peaceful serenity. I’ve never experienced anything like it since.

2. Why do you blog?

I began blogging when I was off long-term sick from college with chronic fatigue. I was used to talking about books from one end of the day to another and I really missed it. But then I began to enjoy writing in a more unconstrained style, and suddenly here was this wonderful community of people whom I was getting to know better each day. For all these reasons, I love it still and I couldn’t give it up.

3. What’s your most unrealistic ambition?

I’ve always found it hard to watch people suffer, which has led to a career of attempting to fix them and their problems. In the past few years it has dawned on me that people are essentially unfixable. Or at least, they have to do it all by themselves. No amount of help and support from me will ever change another human being by as much as an atom, unless they are absolutely determined to make a difference to their own lives. In fact, personal change is extremely hard to accomplish at all, even with good will and tenacity. I would have loved to make everybody I’ve come into contact with that little bit happier and wiser, but I rather think it was too much to hope for.

4. What makes you angry?

I really hate the way internet forums promote pathologically vicious and unkind attacks on people and ideas. It’s scary, the level of hatred and malice that people will bring forth under cover of anonymity, and defend as the right to ‘to have an opinion’. Derren Brown, who performs some very interesting psychological experiments on television set up a mock game show, in which a studio audience decided what would happen to some hapless individual whose evening out was being transmitted to them via webcam. Repeatedly, Brown offered the audience the choice of making a nice thing or an unpleasant thing happen to him. In fact it was the audience on trial, as every single time, they chose the unpleasant thing and took delight in the stooge’s suffering, right up to the point where he was run over by a car. Derren Brown was pointing out how easily the mob mentality takes hold of a crowd, how they egg each other on and ratchet up the suffering. It’s the sort of thing I think we ought to be horrified by, (and Derren Brown made the point brilliantly) not encourage as acceptable and ordinary behaviour.

5. What’s your biggest regret?

I will always be sorry not to have had another child. But it just was never an option, and I’ve been extremely lucky with the one I do have. It’s his 18th birthday today. *wipes away a happy tear*

6. Why do you like reading?

How long have you got?

7. Write a mini school report for the human race. What grade would you give us, and what suggestions for improvement?

In technology, continues to forge ahead, but has an unfortunate tendency to treat the humanities with disdain. Shows surprising strength and resilience in a crisis, but can be lacking sympathy and understanding when it comes to ordinary day-to-day woes. Still, alas, a tendency to lash out with violence when thwarted, rather than stop, think, and use words to resolve issues. Overly concerned with the superficial and the short-term, in a way that belies the genuine intelligence and wisdom that teachers know are readily available. Resistant to change when it comes to long-term flaws and failings. C+

Now I’m supposed to create 7 questions and tag 7 people.

1. What do you think of literary prizes? Good idea or bad?

2. If you could write any sort of book, what would you write?

3. Describe your ideal home library/study.

4. Name two new authors whose work you think will last the test of time, and explain your choices.

5. Which books do you hope to get for Christmas?

6.  What’s the last book you did not finish and why?

7. Would you accept 20 books that were absolutely perfect for you and dependably brilliant reads, if they were also the last 20 books you could ever acquire?

And tagging, hmmm, let’s try to find people who are newish about here: Desperate Reader, Bellezza, Helen, Nooks & Crannies, Miss Darcy, Mrs Carmichael and Karen. And anyone else who feels like it!

Simon’s Book Meme

Quite possibly one of the most useful book memes, ever, from the magnificent Simon T of Stuck in a Book.


1. The book I’m reading

Is Greenbanks by the incomparable Dorothy Whipple. This is the author whose books need to be forcibly shoved into the hands of readers who believe that novels about domesticity can’t ever amount to much. Greenbanks is indeed simple in conception; it’s the story of a family, starting very early in the nineteenth century and recounting events from the next twenty years or so. Holding the story together are Louisa, the family matriarch, and her young granddaughter, Rachel, who enjoy an unusually close relationship. No one constructs a scene with more skill than Whipple, and she knows how to wring tension and drama out of the smallest, most everday occurrence. I’d like to review this properly, so I won’t say more about it for now.


2. The last book I read

Was Palladio by Jonathan Dee. This novel wove two strands together, on the one hand a story of ideas about art, on the other, a love story. Eccentric advertising executive, Mal Osbourne, opens a cutting edge company with the challenging intention of marketing art, not products. A man with a genuine passion for championing modern art, he is distressed by how beleaguered and marginalied art has become. He’s equally horrified by the derivative, ironic pointlessness of much advertising and so a brave new idea is born: since there is nothing much to distinguish one product from another, apart from its branding, he decides to put attention-grabbing works of art in their place with no logo, no slogan, no means of identifying the company behind the image. The uniqueness of this approach creates enormous buzz, as people scramble to find out who is behind the art in question. And thus the most unusual new art is presented to the biggest possible audience with maximum impact. I loved the ideas in this novel and found them fascinating both in conception and the way they play out. The love story, on the other hand, is rather blah, and after a brilliant opening chapter of 290 pages (no kidding), the narrative shifts point of view into one of the characters and loses much of its interest and momentum. But I was so glad to have read it, as the parts about art are just excellent.


3. The book I’ll read next

Is still to be decided. Well, I should qualify that. I will definitely be reading The Life and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre as I’m writing a biographical essay on Beauvoir this month for an online magazine, Cerise Press. It was lovely – the editors asked me if I’d be interested in offering them another essay, I came up with three possible ideas, and they said they’d have them all. So I have this sort of mini-series on French authors and their love lives coming up. As for fiction, though, I am in very fickle mood at the moment. I read the first few pages of Lolly Willowes and it struck me as the sort of book I’d adore in the right frame of mind, but I might not quite inhabit it at the moment. I’m also tempted by Wolf Hall, or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, or maybe The Go-Between, by J. L. Carr.


4. The last book I bought

Was a long time ago. I’ve gone almost completely cold turkey since I’ve stopped working and all I can say is that for the first time in years and years, I haven’t been consumed by a need for more books. Don’t worry; I’m sure it’s just a phase! So the last book I bought was in fact a pre-order on amazon, which has yet to arrive: Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval. Kafka had four major love affairs, each of which resulted in an engagement, a cancelled wedding and an important novel. This looks like a creative non-fiction sort of book, drawing heavily on Kafka’s journals to explore his relationships. Kafka is one of the authors in my great pantheon (Kafka, Colette, Rilke, Cather) whose life and work resonates with me particularly deeply. That’s a blog post for another day.


5. The last book I was given

Arrived this morning – a complete surprise. It came from Tom LoCicero and was the second part of his Truth Beauty Trilogy, The Disappearance. You may remember that I read the first part, The Obsession, and enjoyed it very much. My dear blog friend, Stefanie, also sent a book recently, Heidi Julavits’  The Vanishers, which you can see in the side bar. I was delighted to receive that, too. I hadn’t noticed until I typed it how curiously related those titles are. A little bit of spooky Halloween magic happening there, I think!

7 x 7 Award

I’ve been tagged by Caroline for this meme – woo-hoo, haven’t done a meme in ages!

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.

2: Link to a post you think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.




1. Something people don’t know about me – tricky, after almost six years of blogging. I think everyone knows everything there is to know. Is there anything you want to know? I mean, seriously, we have no secrets.


The Most Beautiful Piece

Probably dates back several years now to another meme that went around my corner of the blogosphere, entitled I Am From.


The Most Helpful Piece

That’s difficult because I always try to write (what I think of as) helpful reviews.  So I’ll plump for something completely different, which is this piece I wrote about meditation. Not least because I find meditation very helpful myself, when I put aside the time to do it and don’t get up halfway through because I’ve remembered something vital that needs to be done….


Most Popular Piece

My most popular post is in fact Best Book Club Books, which was a dreadfully quick and careless thing I wrote one day when I hadn’t finished a book. It seems to attract masses of search engine queries. But the second most hits for a post goes to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which remains at the top of my posts list pretty much every day.


Most Controversial Piece

I admit I’ve never written anything that has sparked off something like an argument, and I would be horrified if I did. So again, I have to go for something different, which is this post I wrote when a graduate student was a bit over persistent in asking me out for dinner. The upshot was that he retracted the invitation somewhat huffily about a week later – so someone, somewhere showed him this post, I have to conclude.


Most Surprisingly Successful Piece

I suppose this one probably goes to What is Existentialism? Which also features near the top of my all time top posts page. It’s nice to know people still care about Existentialism – although a significant percentage are probably students struggling to write essays.


Most Underrated Piece

It’s always the posts that I pour my heart and soul into that fail to get hits, particularly when I do a lot of critical analysis (I love analysis, even about books I haven’t read). I really enjoyed writing about Willa Cather’s novella My Mortal Enemy a couple of weeks back but not a lot of people read it.


Most Pride-worthy Piece

This post on Nature vs Nurture was picked up and mentioned in the Washington Post. I was absolutely delighted.


Name seven other bloggers to pass this award onto:





Simon T.




The Marcus Aurelius Meme

At the start of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists all the good qualities that he has learned, absorbed or inherited from friends and family. I felt it might be in keeping with the true festive spirit to herald all the really important gifts I’ve ever received.


From my father – my polite, conflict-avoidant nature, attention to detail, the desire to master the fields of knowledge that fascinate me, a strong work ethic, my good memory, my love of reading stories.

From my mother – an almost uncanny ability to intuit the moods and feelings of others, generosity of spirit, the capacity to listen properly, the desire to serve those I love with wholehearted enthusiasm, my love of recounting stories.

From my brother – the ability to fight dirty (not much used these days, but who knows that it won’t one day save my life?)

From my husband – the privileging of reason and common sense over freefloating fears, an interest in all sorts of general questions about culture and society, a more stable confidence in myself than I’ve ever had before, that giving people their space is a genuine act of kindness and sympathy. And to trust to life a little; on the whole, things go right more often than they go wrong.

From my son -  the ability to live in the moment and to accept things just as they are, for what they are, the recognition that expediency can be valuable, and that integrity is a necessity, for without it we simply cause ourselves pain.

From my undergraduate French tutor – sympathy for those in the awkward position of having to learn difficult things.

From my undergraduate German tutor – that the only way to be good at what you do is to be really and truly excellent at what you do.

From my PhD supervisor – that generosity and understanding help students far, far more than criticism and censure. To look at a problem always from the perspective of what needs to be done and how best, pragmatically, to do it. And that bad drafts always have the germ of good drafts in them, so nothing learned or written is ever wasted.

From my students – staying young is about being interested in everything.

From various therapists – that there is no cure for life, you can’t perfect it; instead you have to make use of what you’ve got in the moment and often that’s more than enough. That although we may lose access to certain qualities in times of stress, we do possess every nternal resource we need. That I will always be me, no matter what I feel about it, and you know what? That’s okay.

From my friend, Ali – in matters of creativity, you have to stick out for things to be the way you want them to be. Committees dilute and diminish.

From my friend, Kathryn – even dreadful events can be a source of quite fascinating narrative.

From my reiki practitioner – what’s good in my life will always far outweigh the bad, and the good deserves more attention.

From my cat – no matter how mangy, ill-tempered and difficult you are, whilst there’s family around, someone will always take pity and feed you.