I was intending to post the transcript of an interview I did with my husband, who read a popular science book I’d been sent for review and enjoyed it a great deal. But when I finished typing up the recording, I could see there was some serious editing to be done. Honestly, if you are married, and have been for quite some time, record a conversation. It’s quite something. Anyhow, seeing as it will be a while before that’s ready for general consumption, I thought I’d do a quick book meme:
The book that’s been on your shelves the longest.
This took quite a while to work out and I’m still not entirely sure. One contender is definitely Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. Susan Howatch is a tremendously prolific writer, whom you don’t hear much about these days. As a teenager, I loved both her short romantic adventure fiction and her big blockbusters, you know the kind that people don’t write so much any more; sweeping sagas involving extended families with guilty secrets who make a fortune and lose a fortune, etc, etc. I used to like all of that. Anyway, I must have bought Penmarric about twenty-four years ago and it has gathered dust ever since, having rather missed the boat on that particular era of my reading life. I’ve also got an old copy of du Maurier’s The Scapegoat that dates from the same time. And there’s my hardback edition of the collected works of Jane Austen that was a Christmas present from my parents. But I think probably the oldest book is The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I bought with book tokens when I was thirteen or fourteen. It’s in pretty good shape, considering.
A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time).
There isn’t a single book that doesn’t remind me of something or other – living and reading are so intertwined. But I suppose there’s one story I return to (and this is another return as I told it in the early days of this blog). One of the strangest reading experiences I ever had involved Adalbert Stifter’s immense 19th century German novel Der Nachtsommer (which translates as Indian Summer). It is an obscure book that, for some reason, I was determined to conquer in my final university year; a coming of age novel in which very little happens, but its emotional climate is one of achingly suppressed passion. It’s extraordinary. I began that book in the chilly January of 1991 just as the first Gulf War broke out, and I finished it, all 600-pages of dense, heart-breaking prose, squeezed around reading for other papers and woven into the usual mad rush of student life, a couple of months later in the early hours of a March morning. At dawn the ceasefire was called. It felt uncanny. When I saw my supervisor to discuss my essay on the book I told him what had happened. He looked at me a little strangely and said ‘How can you live with yourself?’ and then he grinned to show me he was joking. But, still.
A book you acquired in some interesting way.
The majority of my books were acquired the old-fashioned way – by me in bookshops. But I’m most proud of my first edition copy of Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is signed and dedicated to me by the man himself, a feat accomplished by my academic publisher attending the first conference on Julian Barnes’s work ever to take place. Now if that isn’t book pedigree, I don’t know what is.
The book that’s been with you to the most places.
Another one I had to really think about. In the end I felt the prize had to go to two companion books, Sartre’s La Nausée and Simone de Beauvoir’s L’Invitée, which I bought in Cambridge, took with me on my year abroad in the Lot valley, then returned to Cambridge until I sat my finals. They then squatted with my parents for a while, before moving to Magdalene College (although they might have lived with us in our first cottage for a while) and then through two different sets of rooms at St John’s. I like to think the Existentialists, peripatetic hotel dwellers that they were, would have approved. The fact that ‘most places’ means in my case that they’ve been on five different bookcases in Cambridge says everything there is to say about my spontaneous, reckless desire for travel.
The most recent addition to your shelves.
J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, in its two original incarnations, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy (published together by Penguin) and then the ‘sequel’ that came out not so long ago, Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean. Oh, and about the same time Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest arrived.
Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next.
I finished Paola Kaufmann’s The Sister (the fictionalized account of Emily Dickenson’s life) a couple of days ago and it’s very good. I’ll review it soon. Since then I’ve been reading Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath. Thorpe is a British writer who is often placed in the same sort of bracket as William Boyd – he’s considered to be very good but has never quite achieved the same level of renown. This book is a love story about a composer who goes to Estonia for inspiration and has a love affair there. I’m enjoying it very much so far. One thing that surprised me: the narrator keeps talking about a contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and I thought, hang on a moment, don’t I have something by him? And indeed, I do have some Pärt on a CD with Gorecki and Tavener. I have a peculiar relationship with classical music because too much of it is schizophrenic for my tastes. Your average concerto will have deep, thunderous parts and then tweedly, tinkly parts and my moods can’t keep up. I can only cope with classical when it holds the same emotional tone, more or less, throughout the piece. And most of all I like human voices but if I’m working I don’t want to be tempted to sing along. All of which takes me to the early music composers like Hildegard von Bingen and Palestrina (whose choruses defy audience participation), and their contemporary equivalents. Anyway, I felt briefly and surprisingly hip for my music choices, which believe you me, hardly ever happens.
Next in the queue there’s Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye, Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections and Katie Hickman’s The Aviary Gate (sixteenth-century Istanbul harems and contemporary Oxford academics; we may safely term it a romp). But there are about ten other novels vying for contention here, so it may not fall out quite that way.
Feel free to play too, if you wish.