I have been reading a lot in the last month, but haven’t wanted to post Great Thoughts about any of the books, for various reasons: not good enough, a bit obvious, meh. Or, I’m actively pursuing the rights so I can republish them, so I am definitely not letting those cats out of the bag.
In the meantime, I shall do the Guardian Books That Made Me Q&A, because they’re not going to ask me otherwise.
The book I am currently reading: Woodlands, by Oliver Rackham. It’s a massive tome in tiny, tiny print, albeit with a lovely purple-blue cover of spring flowers in a beechwood. I read it at night when I haven’t got any other book on the go, and the tiny print and interesting facts about rhizomes usually send me to sleep. But I fully intend to absorb all the information and finally manage to identify a sessile oak from the pendunculate ones.
The book that changed my life: Hmm. Could have been A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, a revelation about it being OK to want to write if you’re a girl. Could also have been Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling, which showed me how we understand different aspects of a historical story as we get older.
The book I wish I’d written: The Lord of the Rings, obviously.
The last book that made me laugh: Margaret Kennedy’s 1950s novel Lucy Carmichael. It has some very good social comedy but is unfortunately weighted down with an interminable plot about a Somerset arts institute.
The book that influenced my writing: Probably John Carey’s The Intellectuals And The Masses, for reasons I explained some years ago here. I know it’s polemical and sweeping, but it blew the lid off my thinking about canon and intellectual pomposity.
The last book that made me cry: Max Porter’s Lanny. Just a few small moments of wet eyes that necessitated taking my specs off to clean them, then we went briskly on. A dark and heartfelt novel about everyday possession in a small commuter village. Many characters are horrible and there is a great deal of talking about folk behind their backs. And any novel about a disappearing child will have me in floods. If I’d known the plot would include that I wouldn’t have read it.
The book I couldn’t finish: The last book I couldn’t finish was C S Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I tried to read for the The 1956 Club and just couldn’t get past the harping on about how ugly the narrative character was. I really did not like the Eros and Psyche fable that it’s based on. It was interesting to read Lewis writing in a female voice, which he didn’t do much, except for Lucy Pevensie. His wife Joy Davidman helped him with this, I think.
The book I’m ashamed not to have read. Middlemarch. I’ve tried three times and hated it each time. I’m not ashamed of giving up, but I’m ashamed of being pointed at and jeered at by George Eliot devotees. I’ve read every other novel by her: does that not count?
The book I give as a gift: Obviously this depends who is getting it. It’s usually Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes if inclined towards feminism and fantasy. Otherwise, I give my fabulous rediscovery for Handheld Press (my company), Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford from 1933. It’s funny, charming, illustrated, written in letters and interdepartmental memos, and is the story of Hilary finding a job in a London department store bookshop in the 1930s, and what happens when she gets there.
The book I’d most like to be remembered for: to have Novelists Against Social Change, my book about popular fiction and conservative novelists, 1920-1960, still being borrowed from libraries in fifty years time would be really nice. I spent a long time working up to writing it.
My earliest reading memory: a gorgeous picture book about elves living in a wood, and fighting scary hedgehogs, that I had from my mum’s best friend who lived in Sweden. Every time I see an acorn I remember it, and of course I still own it.
My comfort read: Georgette Heyer or Terry Pratchett. Any of them.