Friday, 21 September 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (4)

This is my fourth post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2) and Post (3) can be seen by clicking on the links.

I Read you

“To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says,
but to go off with him and travel in his company.”
~ André Gide

Taken as a subject it’s one of life’s greater pleasures because – if the book is good - it transports you to another world.  I particularly love a book which stays with you after you finish it, and encourages you to research the background, making the glow linger for a while.  Most of all I love a rattling good yarn.
That reading is pleasurable is beyond question, but if in years to come the mere evocation of what was to you a watershed book continues crystal clear yet gives you pleasure anew - then that's special.

For me the list of these books is not very long, and is what this series of posts is all about.

As a child my seminal books were Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows...

...and almost anything by Enid Blyton, but particularly The Famous Five (most girls identify with George, but I felt I had more in common with Anne, not to mention all that wonderful food their Aunt would dish out to them.  It was wall to wall clotted cream and scones and cakes...)

As a young girl growing up in the pre-television era I threw myself into books with such a passion that I purchased a torch specially to enable me to read at night after lights out, under the blanket – and on some occasions saw the sun rise through reddened eyes as I reached the final page.  The latest book would be stuffed into my school bag and sneaky peeks taken during lessons taught by absentminded teachers and at break time. 

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels affected me like this.   

Here are some other books I’ve loved since teenage years when I was even more of a drippy romantic than I am now – I hope you’ll tell me yours.

I read Desirée by Annemarie Selinko as a teenager -

and was so caught up in the story of the wife of French Marshall Bernadotte who became king of Sweden, and who had once been betrothed to Napoleon.  Naturally once I had finished it I buried myself in history books about the period – which lead me on to Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.... 

...and The Scarlet Pimpernel.  By the end of that phase my family were begging me to stop talking about the French Revolution. 

I was also besotted with book series read by most romantic teenagers – the Canadian Jalna/Whiteoak Chronicles series written by Mazo de la Roche,

… the sexy and exciting French Catherine & Arnaud and Marianne novels by Juliette Benzoni... 

...the novels of Georgette Heyer set during the Regency period (1809-1820)...

Unfortunately I (and a whole generation of English–speaking girls) grew up thinking that this was how all romances were, and that the perfect happy ever after actually existed.  This has made me look back on these stories with nostalgia-filled pleasure, remembering what it was like to be innocent enough to believe them.

I wept for the Anne Frank in her tragic true wartime diary,

...the cat in Paul Gallico’s Jennie,

and for the Italian donkey Violetta in The Small Miracle,

… was enthralled by Rudyard Kipling’s The Man who would be King

(which at that time was also the most exciting film I'd ever seen)... and learned his best-loved poem If… by heart (I still know it, and use it to practice my shorthand speed). 

 (My sister had the "If for Girls" - written in a more demure 1931 - on the wall of her bedroom during her teenage years):

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a story of a small town lawyer at the beginning of the civil rights movement in America, became my hero (“That’s the sort of man I’m going to marry” I said... and I’m still looking for him).

After Mum introduced me to the animal conservationist Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals,  in which he describes his idyllic childhood in Corfu,

we shared its humour for the rest of her life, particularly enjoying the scene where animal-mad Gerald has a family of little scorpions in a matchbox and they escape, causing hysteria amongst family members.  His brother Larry, always given to overstating the situation, screamed that they were “knee-deep in scorpions”. 
Furthermore, in her youth she had seen the film Gone With the Wind, and read Margaret Mitchell’s book,

which I once found in the study and read cover to cover, without yet having seen the film.  So to get an easy laugh out of my mother down the years if (for example) a few figs had fallen off the tree and were lost to the ants and she was berating my father for not having picked them in time, it was sufficient for me to comment that we were knee-deep in rotten figs and ants, and what a disaster, for her to be amused and change her mood.  Likewise if GWTW was mentioned I would clasp my hands over my chest, toss my head and say in the most dreadful American Southern drawl “Aw Ashley, ah do luuurve you...”  Mum was a very serious person, and making fun of literary characters she knew well invariably took her by surprise.

Then there are books which were (at the time) perfect for the beach or by the pool, and even now my copies of them have a vague sweetish stale smell of Ambre Solaire. 
Harold Robbins, whose storylines were unputdownable,

Wilbur Smith, whose characters were rough and ready and part of the African continent,

James Clavell who wrote about the Far East,

and the Canary Islands author Alberto Vázquez Figueroa whose stories were about Spain, Spanish Africa and South America.

… - all knew how to tell a story and kept me absorbed, and though I don’t remember the plots in detail, the atmosphere they created is with me still, leaving me with a lasting desire to visit the places they described, an unexpected pleasure.

As my interest in the rest of the world grew, I became increasingly aware of how lucky I was to be able to read in English and Spanish, thus doubling the amount of books I could read (as I’ve said in my mission statement on the right of this screen), and tried to make it a rule to alternate my reading equally between the two languages.  The Chilean writer Isabel Allende combines social awareness with being a most wonderful storyteller with a touch of magic realism, and her works have all been translated into English and within reach of most people.  Through her I have learned what nineteenth century life was like in Chile, and subsequently have particularly identified with Mi País Inventado (My Invented Country, a memoir)

in which she describes what it was like to be young in Santiago in the seventies during the time when her first cousin once removed (thought of as an uncle), Salvador Allende, was president of Chile.  A Marxist, he was deposed and probably murdered in 1973 and replaced by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet.  Isabel Allende and her family had to flee to Venezuela and she never returned permanently to Chile.  I knew very little about this beautiful neighbouring country and she made it come alive for me.

Bill Bryson hails from Iowa (he says it’s so flat that if you want a view, you only need to stand on a couple of phonebooks) but has lived part of his adult life in the UK.  He is Commissioner for English Heritage, President of the Campaign to protect Rural England and was Chancellor of Durham University.  He is much loved here, probably because of his book Notes from a Small Island,

narrating his travels around the UK with a very spot-on analysis of the quirks of its inhabitants.  It’s my favourite of his books, and the only one I remember reading which makes me laugh out loud all over again till my tummy aches whenever I dip into it.  He arrived in England for the first time in 1973 barely a few weeks after I did from Argentina, and his first impressions leave me open-mouthed, because it could have been me speaking.  I don’t know him, I’d be too shy to introduce myself to him, but he speaks for me on so many levels.

There are times in your life when you recognise that it has turned in a new direction – good or bad.  My world opened out in 2005 after reading a book, Mollie Robertson’s The Sand, the Wind and the Sierras – Days in Patagonia (1964),

… the memoires of a very young English girl whose father went out to Patagonia just before WWI to seek his fortune as a sheep farmer.  She and her mother joined him in 1916 and lived there till 1922.  They were golden days for her, despite the harshness of the climate, the cruelty towards animals she witnessed around her and the loneliness endured by her mother.  It left me with a very strong impulse to learn more about the family, the conditions and the land. 
I’ve written posts about this (here and here) but suffice to say that with the support of friends I ended up translating the book into Spanish and visiting the part of Patagonia where Mollie had lived, both in 2008 and 2009.  I have not so far been successful in getting the book re-printed in English, published in Spanish or good use made of all the material I discovered about the family.  This is partly my fault, because I know it’s hard work finding a publisher.  My little pleasures with this book have been the little discoveries I made as I went along, the information I was able to string together after hunting on genealogy websites and an unexplained hidden joke in the naming of a horse in the book, which I suddenly realised in a eureka moment one day. 

And now?  The most recent book which has given me a sweeping view of another era and sent me scurrying to Google is The Count of Montecristo

by Alexandre Dumas (père).  A good story well told with an interesting historical backbone.  Lovely.

It's interesting that I've read many wonderful books since my teenage years, but this was my most impressionable age - as of course it is with everybody - and my lack of reading experience gave me a completely fresh and uncritical approach, which for the most part I have now lost and don't regret it.  I get a different type of enjoyment out of my reading now, where the style of the writer is as important as the narrative itself.

Does this strike a cord with you, or do you disagree?  What were your favourite books?


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archives



Joyful said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joyful said...

Hi Caroline, I do love reading also. I can remember always wanting to read more but I don't actually remember much of what I read in childhood. I do remember not liking to read what I had to read for school and I think that put me off quite a bit from reading more.

As a child I remember really liking the Ramona & Beezus books and the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series though I can't remember much about them ;-)

As a grown up I've begun to read a lot more and I'm slowly making my way through many books and trying to read many of the classics which I did not read as a student. So far, the books I've enjoyed most include: Little Women, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Evening Class, The Shellseekers, Kite Runner, Family Matters, A Fine Balance, Troy, The Red Tent, & The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (and the others in the trilogy). There are probably more but this list is long enough :-) Continued happy reading.

Joyful said...

Oh I can't forget "Jennie", the cute little book on your favourites list and the one you introduced me too. I enjoyed it very much!

Lonicera said...

How could I have forgotten Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series!!! I adored them - and when I was even younger and just started to read for myself, the adventures of the Bobbsey Twins which I've just looked up on Google and found that the books were written by many different people... I'm ashamed to say I only recognise some of the books you mention. Am much enjoying Sidney Poitier's book.

Joyful said...

Caroline, I know you enjoyed Gone With the Wind. There was a sequel called Scarlett written in 1991. It is almost 900 pages and I enjoyed it a lot. I thought you might also like it if you haven't already read it.

Lonicera said...

No I haven't! 900 pages - wow. I'll look out for it on eBay UK.

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