this too
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
  Oh great, another book meme!

I spent last weekend very happily in a wood, above, but more of that later, as Lorianne has sent me the latest book meme. Because, she says, “I can’t recall her ever doing a meme… and I’m sure she has exquisite literary taste”. Just as well Lorianne missed the last book meme I did: she might not have asked me if she’d read that, as I took the opportunity to enthuse about Jane Eyre, an enthusiasm she does not share.

As for exquisite literary taste, I don’t think so! I think I have the obsessive, all-over-the-place sort of literary taste typical of someone who was the first in her family to discover books, and thence education, and thence a wider world… When I was a kid, I read novels by outmoded and prolific English novelists whose books filled the shelves of the public library: Howard Spring, Somerset Maughan, Hugh Walpole – not great writers, but verbose, imaginative creators of landscape, character and emotion. I read without discrimination, without context. I remember with angry embarrassment a university entrance interview where we discussed Jane Austen - I was quite unaware of her satirical intent… But if you read enough, and as you start to live as well, taste and discrimination come. And voracious childhood and adolescent reading usually sets a lifelong habit. Like many students of literature, I went through a few post-college years when I couldn’t read for pleasure and obsessively watched films instead, but it passed. I still read voraciously, immoderately, and any opportunity to talk about books is good.

1. Total number of books I’ve owned

Somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand? I’m always ‘lending’ them and not getting them back. Nonetheless books cover a whole wall of my sitting room, long since outgrew the shelves and sit in piles on every surface – major clearout long overdue. French and Spanish literature and dictionaries from university and from my more recent studies for translator’s exams. Novels serious and popular in equal numbers, mostly in English, but quite a lot in French, Spanish and Italian. Crime fiction. Feminist fiction. Political books. Travel books. Self-help books by psychologists and life-coaches. Buddhism. Herbalism. Cookery books. Books on sociology, media and communication by colleagues in the university department where I work.

2. Last book I bought

Doctored Evidence by Donna Leon. The latest Commissario Brunetti mystery. Long row of these on the shelf. I always rush to buy the new one out in paperback. Formulaic, but beautifully written, lovely characters, politically sophisticated. Sheer pleasure for lovers of crime fiction and of Venice.

3. Last book I read

The Bone Woman by Clea Koff. A forensic anthropologist’s limpid and harrowing account of her work on UN excavations of mass graves in Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Nerdily addicted to her work, to solving the puzzle of bones, she’s also a passionate humanitarian and a spare, vivid, heartrending writer. Wonderful.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me

L’invitée (She came to stay) by Simone de Beauvoir. Aged 20, I went to France for my language student’s ‘year abroad’, to the small town of Ambert in the Auvergne, as English assistant in the secondary school which served the town, surrounding villages and remote hamlets and farms. It was the loveliest place I’d ever seen – Autumn mists curled around mountains; a smell, a piercing clarity of nature I’d never known. And – back then, 30 years ago - a remoteness, an insularity, I’d never known either. France had empty spaces, isolated communities unknown in crowded England. These kids had no interest in learning English, and a foreigner was not welcome in town. I was so alone. Two of the previous three assistants hadn’t made it through the year, and I didn’t either. Meanwhile, in my lonely bedroom in the lycée, I devoured the contents of the town bookshop. These, blessedly, were serious literature, not the very limited stock I might have found in a small-town bookshop/stationer at home, and included the complete works of Simone de Beauvoir. I poured my lonely heart and mind into her several volumes of autobiography and her often autobiographical novels. I especially loved L’Invitée, clearly based on her own life with Jean-Paul Sartre, here transmuted into a famous theatre director. Told in the first person, the narrator struggles to accept her famous lover's charm, his groupies, his distaste for the countryside she loves, his ill-health. And it's a fascinating political and cultural portrait of France just before World War 2. All De Beauvoir’s books remain among my favourites.

Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. A big fat experimental 1960s novel about exiled Argentinian revolutionaries in Paris. I’m not a huge fan of experimental, self-reflective novels, but this is the exception – never clever or difficult at the expense of heart and emotion; a great love story as much as a great game of fiction. I studied it in my last year at college. The famous Cambridge supervision, where one or two students have the (supposed) privilege of a weekly hour’s tete-a-tete with an expert in his/her chilly rooms in some venerable college. In the dark, old-fashioned sitting-room, over García Márquez and Cortázar, I fell for H, my supervision partner, as we grew entranced by the books and suppressed our giggles at Dr B, who came always in full riding kit and toyed pensively with his whip throughout our hour together. Some years later, when H and I moved in together and adopted a cat, we called her La Maga after the heroine of Rayuela.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Long, intense wonderful novel of radicalism, relationships and how being a woman is enough to drive you mad. Loved when I first read it in my 20s and returned to over and over. A book that absolutely incarnates for me the experience, the magic of words as a reason for living, even when life is dire.

La Tabla de Flandés (The Flanders Panel) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The book that brought me back, in recent years, to reading lots of Spanish fiction. Long and lovingly detailed mystery story woven around a Flemish painting of a chess game. I was delighted by the particular blend of obsession, melancholy and page-turning story-spinning that characterise Pérez-Reverte’s novels. An enthusiasm shared by a number of my friends - some reading the novels in Spanish and some in English, its been a source of enormous pleasure, solitary all-night reading marathons followed by frantic exchanges of emails and intense conversations over dinner.

And, on a completely different note, a book that really changed my self-perception and outlook on life when I read it a few years ago: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. An academic psychologist’s argument for the existence of a substantial minority with simply more sensitive than average nervous systems. The big aha. Yes, this sounds like me. Maybe it’s not my ‘fault’ I’m so easily exhausted, overwhelmed by a level of activity and stimulation most people take in their stride. Leslee has been writing about this recently.

5. Which five bloggers am I passing this to?

Natalie – because she’s first a visual artist, but I love her writing

Ruth – because she’s first a musician, but I love her writing

Andy – because his first loves, I think, are photography and the countryside, but I love his writing

Karen – who writes beautifully and prolifically

None of these fine writers say much about their literary tastes and influences, and I’d love to know what they are.

And finally

Ernesto, who writes constantly about what he’s reading: a huge and eclectic and impressive range in at least three languages.

And all of you, only if you want to… I was happy to do this, because I’m always happy to talk about books, but no fun if it’s a chore.
What a gorgeous photograph of that green, green wood!

And I'm glad to hear that you like Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Me too, although I haven't yet read The Flanders Panel. I was crazy about the one about the corsair and the emeralds.
I think I need to read Pérez-Reverte in English. A friend gave me Club Dumas en español but it's too hard, or too slow anyway, for me (I have trouble getting through the Spanish version of Reader's Digest!). I've heard he's great, though.
Beth, do read The Flanders Panel, it's wonderful! And Leslee, yes, Perez-Reverte is HARD in Spanish. English translations of his novels are all excellent - something I don't often find myself saying!
Thanks, Jean. I am looking forward to doing this. I appreciate the compliment!
I particularly love the way you connect up your life experiences with the books that you read and which have great meaning to you. Your writing *about* books is beautiful, insightful and inspirational to read.

Great choices of people to pass the baton to! I read ernesto a lot but will start reading the others too on your recommendation!
Oh, now I'm blushing with embarrassment...I read your first book meme & had merely forgotten! I guess it was a happy accident, though, since it led to this second book post!

How could I have left *The Golden Notebook* off my list of five? As someone who keeps everything in one notebook, I was intrigued with the protagonist's habit of dividing her life into multiple notebooks, something that had never occurred to me. It's been years since I read the book, but I loved getting inside the mind of a bright female writer.
Yes, definitely a happy accident!
Jean, I'm truly honoured to be on your list but I'm going to decline the invitation. Answering all those questions properly would be too much like work and I've got work to catch up with already plus all the other things going on. I'm a reader, yes, but inconsistent undisciplined and self-absorbed in my choices. My groaning bookshelves reflect this. There's hardly any fiction. Lots of art books, technical books, science, philosophy, natural history, how-to-do-its, graphics and whatever else takes my fancy at one time or other. I'm not very "literary" in that I get more absorbed in my own ideas than in anyone else's. I find it very hard to think of a particular book or writer who was an influence. Thank you so much for asking me and I much enjoyed your own answers.
Natalie, I'm so glad you felt able to decline! As I said, I'd hate anyone to do this unless they really want to.
What an interesting list of books.

I just found your site through that of Richard Lawrence Cohen and will be back.

(I loved your post on photography and respecting the "space" of others, by the way.)
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Freelance copy-editor and translator. Keen on language, literature, photography, art, music, buddhist meditation and the countryside.

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