My Book (ish) life

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We asked folks from all over (including some well known East Anglian people) about the books that made a deep impression upon them as both as children and as adults and it has been an absolute pleasure to compile this feature- so much so that we intend this to be the first in a series of literary reminiscences. All of them read as children, seeing books as solace, inspiration, as a companion or maybe a way of validating their own thoughts and lives. Others were spirited away by their book from a life which held challenges for them, whether from the usual tumult and clamour of childhood or something more. What also emerged was the way in which these readers reinterpret the books they loved as children, reframing them in the current cultural and political context that perhaps escaped them at the time. Or they revisit the comfort the books brought, seeing this in a new and fresh light which nonetheless continues to retain its original youthful purpose. Finally, we see the vivid imagination of the child at play in the way some of the contributors lived those stories, dressing as the characters, apeing their habits or in contrast, rejecting those behaviours or characters they perceived as wrong or unpleasant.

Ray Bradbury was clear about the importance of books and libraries and urged readers to go forth with the ideas discovered within: “You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”. We would say that every person interviewed here is trying to do that, in positive and creative ways, even if those hats upon their heads are strictly metaphorical, albeit many and varied.

So…..from the more traditional childhood reading to the less so; from the books that transported and educated to those that fired them up and made them want to do something, they are all here, in no particular order – person or book. Enjoy.

Suffolk-Bin-Doc-Karen-Cannard-2Karen Cannard lives in Bury St Edmunds and is the creator of the Rubbish Diet, writer of a personal blog and columnist for the Suffolk Free Press. Resourceful and possessed of great shoes, Karen has recently been a judge for the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, continues to take the Rubbish Diet from strength to strength worldwide and has given a well regarded Ted Talk – ‘Abate, renovate & innovate: individual power over waste’. Here are Karen’s book choices:

“My choice for a childhood book is most definitely Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which I read as as a textbook for English at school.  It was quite a scary read at the time.  It wasn’t so much the crash on an isolated island that I found terrifying but how the structure of civilised behaviour could so easily break down into savagery and terror when everyday reference points disappeared and life became a fight for survival.  For me, Lord of the Flies marked an end to my own childhood innocence and my view on the world, saying goodbye to the ginger-beer fuelled adventures created by Enid Blyton and hello to the wider grown-up world of conflict.

As an adult  ‘The Struggle for Land’, by Joe Foweraker, was a study text for one of my degree subjects, International Relations.  Published in 1981, Foweraker tells of the violence, politics and profiteering surrounding the agricultural development in Brazil.  It was my first insight into the social injustice and environmental issues in an economy striving to serve an increasing global demand for farmed produce. From deforestation, violence and a corrupt political system, it was a real eye-opener.

‘Enough: breaking free from the world of more’ and written by John Naish questioned my own part in our consumer culture and my constant need for the latest gadgets and replacing broken things for new. Along with my growing awareness of waste, It helped foster my appreciation of what I already have, encouraged me to keep hold of things for longer and to value creativity and reuse.”

linda-tirado-110714It is not hyperbolic to affirm that Linda Tirado has raised some much needed hell. Linda’s original essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts’ was written as a comment on a Gawker thread and went on to birth her book, ‘Hand to Mouth’, the raw and honest truth about being poor. A campaigner and activist on many issues, civil rights and health care among them, Linda can be found on twitter at @killermartinis and via her website Bootstrap Industries. Her choices are firmly located in the context of access to education and books and the importance of this. 

“The books that stick out are The Borribles, and the ones by Madeline L’Engle and Roald Dahl. I loved scenes of children making big plans and learning incredible things. As an adult, I’ve mostly read nonfiction and history, and I’ve a soft spot for biographies of philosophers because knowing the ideas without context is only half of the philosophy really. Just now I’m reading Tom Clark’s newest book on the economy and I’m back on John Locke.

I still retain a bit of whimsy because of my childhood books; they taught me to accept the impossible and as I dealt with depression and anger I have recalled those lessons and been able to live a bit more comfortably in my head. After all, I’m not a strange elfchild battling giant rodents in Battersea with a slingshot, so how bad could it be really?

I didn’t go to college. But I’m well educated because books exist. They have at times been my only friends, and there is nothing so comfortable as a decent book and a decent whiskey. Preferably in yoga pants.”

Photo by the Bury Free Press
Photo by the Bury Free Press

Barry Peters is the Group Editor at Anglia Newspapers Ltd for five regional print and digital media titles and is also on twitter. He has edited the four edition print newspaper, The Bury Free Press since 2000, steering it successfully into the digital age. Here he tells us about the books that inspired and influenced him, first as a child and later as an adult:

“I was given Richard Adams’ Watership Down as a young boy in the Fens. It conjured up images I could relate to and really got me hooked on words – something which led me eventually into journalism. I loved books which related to country matters at a young age – the fun vet books from James Herriot were magical and a quick, easy, accessible read.

 As for adult books, I’m sure others will write about To Kill A Mocking Bird...I could read that book over and over again and never get bored. I can always lose myself in Pride and Prejudice – you can’t beat Jane Austen being didactic. But here are some left-field ideas:

I love sport and the people who excel. I loved John McEnroe, worshipped Ian Botham and admired Lance Armstrong for his battles with cancer and his ability to win the world’s greatest cycle spectacle. David Walsh’s 2013 expose of Armstrong -Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong- cuts across both my joy for journalism (he is the Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times) and sport. Film to follow.

Sadly for my family, I’m a keen (if poor) angler. Chris Yates’ Casting at the Sun evokes such great imagery and is written in a way which will excite both avid anglers and those without much knowledge at all. Yates featured on the classic A Passion For Angling and, in 1980, was a boyhood hero of mine when he landed a record fish in the fabled Redmire pool. He famously cast aside buzzers, boilies and bedchairs and fished the old way with rod, line and bread flake which reminded me of my (late) dad.

Bit quirky and not very bookish, but hopefully a little different…”

West_MMichael Lee West is the author of eight books, and counting and a blog which celebrates her life on a rural farm in Tennessee. Her books are quintessentially Southern in a modern way, suffused with the glorious food of this diverse region and acknowledging of its complicated history. A food lover to her core (as all those brought up in Louisiana are wont to be), Michael Lee West cooks as well as she writes and shares her recipes with readers on her blog, on twitter and in her books, the first of which was a memoir of food, love and family. 

“I was ill one summer and my mother brought books home from the library. I adored Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (all of the books). The books took me away from quarantine, into the world of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. When I got a bit older, mom introduced me to Dickens. I began to understand the potent magic of fiction and its power to change a life.  As an adult, I re-read the masterful works of Dickens and find something new each time. I also adore Agatha Christie and MC Beaton. and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were also childhood favorites. Now I’m almost 61 and still read JRR Tolkien. So do my children.”

9f264d09ce0c9fae50f959740aea81acThe prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in South Suffolk, Jane Basham’s connections with the region go deep, over 23 years deep in fact. As chief executive of Suffolks leading civil rights charity (ISCRE),  Chair and Womens Officer of the South Suffolk Labour Party, Board member at Runnymede Trust and the Police Public Encounters Board, Jane is deeply committed to the politics of fairness and equality and is a staunch supporter of local campaigns to defend mental health services from cuts. She is a force for good on twitter but does, however, find some time to read and this is what she told us:

“The book that influenced me the most when I was young was Great Expectations. I was born in Gravesend a town closely connected to Charles Dickens. I was therefore only a short distance away from the cottage and forge in Chalk that it is said Dickens based Joe Gargery’s forge on. I find Dickens characters larger than life yet so believable. Great Expectations contains some powerful messages. How those who commit crimes do not lose their humanity.  How betrayal can destroy beauty and how money provides both  and sorrow. How your past influences your future and the power of memory.

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (originally from Sri Lanka) a book that I discovered in 2011 when I was the Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. Set around Aldeburgh the story centres on a refugee from Sri Lanka, his relationship with a ‘middle aged’ woman, the ‘State’ and the memory of home. The book resonated with me with because of my work with refugees, asylum seekers and my understanding of the tragedy that is the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. Tearne makes Sri Lanka feel familiar as the main character connects to the Suffolk landscape – the reeds and migrating birds that remind him of home. Again the book speaks to me about the influence of the past upon us and the power of memory.”

1dd20a84e349712c334d175dd2a50f6c_400x400Alumni of Edinburgh University, teacher at Bury St Edmund’s County Upper School, feminist and organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Fawcett Society, Eleanor Rehahn is deeply involved in regional politics and social affairs. Keep an eye out for the Fawcetts campaign in the spring which will be encouraging young women locally to vote. Eleanor can be found on twitter here.

“Books have been such a massive part of my life, to the extent that I am very suspicious of people who don’t have books in their house, at their fingertips, and are not able to tell you what they are currently reading. In terms of childhood reading there are so many to choose from.

 However, the books that have remained with me for their uniqueness and magic have been the Moomin books. I have been enjoying them again reading them with my 7 year old over the past year and this has at times been a very moving experience.”

Photo- Ben Hatch
Photo- Ben Hatch

Ben Hatch is a writer, family man, gives great twitter and has both fiction and travel books to his name. His book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ triumphed at the top of the Kindle non-fiction charts, not just because of his digital promotion skills but because it is great writing. Ben’s latest novel is called ‘THE P45 DIARIES: How To Get Sacked From Every Job in Britain’ and is under development as a BBC sitcom. A former BBC Radio 4 Book of The Year, it is loosely based on Ben’s experiences of his teens and 20s.

“As a child the books I remember most were the ones that scared me. I remember reading about a description of the plague in a Dr Doolittle story and watching my skin for days to check it wasn’t blackening. Ted Hughes‘ story of The Iron Man gripped me for the same reason. We lived in a tower block and I’d hope each night to see a giant robot staring in through the curtains.

Mostly literature passed me by though until I was 19 and read The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield seemed the coolest guy in the world to me and for at least a year I wore a deerstalker hat turned around the wrong way to emulate him. Salinger just seemed to nail so well how you’d like to be a young man it’s a book I still dip into now. Other books that have blown away as an adult – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is so breathtakingly funny and audacious you smile and lap the book down on virtually every page. Other favourites with more subtle humour – Revolutionary Road and Tender is The Night. More recently I just love Geoff Dyer’s take on friendship in almost all his books.”

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Photo by Lynn Schreiber

I’d say Lynn Schreiber is well on her way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the field of child and young adult digital media. Lynn is the founder of Jump! Magazine, a site whose only assumption about girls and boys is that they want lively and intelligent content that is not predicated upon gender assumptions. Interactive and with content partly generated by its young audience, Jump! recently branched out into digital publishing with a series of e-books. Lynn and Jump can both be found on twitter; here she talks about her book inspirations:

“I’d have to say Anne of Green Gables, as it has always been one of my favourite books. Aside from the wonderfully descriptive writing, and the great humour, I love that girls were encouraged to have confidence in their abilities and their talents, and to view their physical appearance as secondary. Now more than ever, this message is vital, for both boys and girls.

I would love to say that a worthy tome, or a slim book of philosophy had most impact on my adult life, but in my day to day life, the book that most affected me was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. It changed the way I speak and communicate with my children, and also made me more aware of communication skills with others.”

downloadAngela Wiltshire trained as a mental health nurse and now works as a psychotherapist and certified Transactional Analyst with a practice in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Active on twitter too, Angela is deeply involved with local politics for the Labour party and works very hard to support her local High St, encouraging people to shop locally and campaigning about the issues affecting local, rural economies. Angela  was also successfully nominated to stand for the South Cosford by-election to Babergh District Council last Spring, 2014. 

“The book that I read in my childhood, and again in adulthood, and which impacted me very deeply was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee. We read it in English classes at school. I remember looking forward to class to read it. It was powerful and my teacher did all the Deep South accents which strengthened the force of it and after she had read a piece, she would hand over to us to read a paragraph each too. Nothing in my childhood matched it, and I was reminded of it for the rest of my days at that school, as it introduced my classmates to a new name to call me…..’N*gg*r’ (Angela is part Burmese.)

The book that I read as an adult which really left its mark on me is ‘The God of Small Things‘ by Arundhati Roy. Such a sad story. I finished it and immediately started it again. The characters in the story seem trapped in all kinds of cultural quick sand, finding forbidden love outside their groups with unhappy outcomes. Roy’s characters are robbed of their cultural ‘histories’ in post colonial India, something which I strongly relate to, and do not fit into the groups designated to them. The story’s sinister ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’ is way more frightening than any Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster and I couldn’t shift him out of my nightmares for years.”

Photo- James Anderson
Photo- James Anderson

James Anderson is the author of The Never-Open Desert Diner, due to be published in February 2015.  Born in Seattle and raised in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, he has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. For many years he worked in book publishing alongside other jobs including logging, commercial fishing and, briefly, as a truck driver. He currently divides his time between Ashland, Oregon, and the Four Corners region of the American Southwest from where he also tweets. We reviewed ‘Never Open Desert Diner’ here. 

“The most lasting gift of art, in this case literary art, is that is refuses to be static. A poem or a novel read at a young age begs to be read again, and when it is, we find it is a whole new experience because we have changed. I have read Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain over ten times throughout my life and it has never failed to inform my appreciation of those Siamese twins, imagination and youth.

My first introduction to magic realism in my early twenties came not from Marquez or Borges, but from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, at the time banned in the Soviet Union. Magic realism is the voice of the marginalized and oppressed. The experience of powerlessness and victimization is real and the safety of magic in heightened image and metaphor offers sanctuary and hope in a world beyond understanding.  Though seemingly unrelated, Bulgakov’s novel led me in the 1980s to a profound appreciation of desert literature, most notably The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert by Bruce Berger, and the works of Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich and, ultimately, Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In these books I discovered a thread of magic realism that spoke for the beauty of the desert and its preternatural light, again a sanctuary and a hope for a world beyond understanding.”

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Photo- Glosswitch / New Statesman

Blogger , twitter person, writer for the New Statesman, the Feminist Times and other media outlets, Glosswitch shines a feminist light on everything from parenting, mental health and illness to politics- from the big arena stuff to the more personal. Often focusing on the parts of the stories that other media do not reach (the reduction in life expectancy of people with mental illness; why farting is a feminist issue), Glosswitch’s writing is poignant, often very funny and always scythe sharp. Here’s what she said about her life in books:

“I would like to say something much cooler and less politically questionable, but the truth is the books that made the biggest impression on me and which I enjoyed the most as a child were ones by Enid Blyton – first of all The Magic Faraway Tree series, then later the Malory Towers and St Claire’s ones. I’d like to think that in some small way the influence they had on me was positive – I later wrote my PhD on German Romanticism, an interest which was inspired in part by reading slightly sinister fairy stories as a child (I think The Faraway Tree could count as one!). I also wonder if part of the attraction to the boarding school stories was that of a female-only space, in which girls were clearly independent agents who were not acting on behalf of a male audience. I was around 12 when I read the St Claire’s series, a time when my own school life couldn’t have been more different to the ones Blyton described (at a mixed-sex comp with major stress about puberty, impressing boys etc. etc.). While I wouldn’t say Malory Towers is exactly a feminist manifesto, I do think there’s something powerful about how female-centred it is (unlike, say, the Sweet Valley High books I later started reading and now look back on in dismay).

The main focus of my PhD was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a male writer, but beyond that I would say that as an adult I lean very heavily towards reading female authors – there’s less ego in the writing, more truth and less of a desperation to impress (I say, generalising wildly). Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is one of my favourite novels as I think the characterisation is just perfect . Another would be Emma Donaghue’s Room. I would love to be able to write like these women but I can’t imagine how it is that one puts oneself so completely beneath the skin of another, entirely imaginary human being. As a feminist I’ve lately got into reading Andrea Dworkin’s work and that I find utterly inspiring – there’s real lyricism in the way she writes and it manages to convey a real love for women (I put off reading her for years, so convinced was I that love for women = hatred for men!).”

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Photo courtesy of the BBC

Lesley Dolphin, radio broadcaster and show presenter began her career at the BBC in 1980 at Look East, moving onto BBC Radio Norfolk. A migration to Suffolk a few years later saw her start her broadcasting at BBC Radio Suffolk where she presents an afternoon talk and music show packed with regional colour, music and chat alongside promoting local charities and events. A true local ‘celeb’ Lesley is a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town Football Club and is very much involved with Suffolk life although she has been known to step outside of the county to do things like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Find her here on twitter. 

“I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. My bookshelf still displays several dogeared, well read books from my childhood.  There are the classics like The Borrowers, Wind in the Willows and Winnie The Pooh alongside all 12 books written by Arthur Ransome.  These were my dads favourites and several of our summer holidays were spent in the Lake District following in the footsteps of The Swallows and Amazons. I loved our weekly visit to the library although my 4 books didn’t always last so I would also save my pocket money to buy the latest Chalet School paperback.

It’s hard to choose any particular favourites from those years because I just devoured books and so many titles flood to mind :  E Nesbitt’s Five Children and It, Fell Farm Camping, Milly Molly Mandy, Ballet Shoes, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Seven, 101 Dalmations – I could go on!  However If I really have to pick my favourites there are two, both of them trilogies. Firstly Elizabeth Goudge’s The Elliot’s of Damerosehay – I had not read a family saga before and I loved her descriptive writing. The other book was a Christmas present and it was the best year ever when I unwrapped Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings – I didn’t leave my bedroom for 3 days while I read it!”

Photot- Emma Healey
Photot- Emma Healey

Based in Norwich, author Emma Healey’s first novel ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ was published in 2014 to great acclaim and is now being filmed for an upcoming TV drama. A graduate of a book binding course, Emma’s writing speaks of a love of books that goes far beyond the written word and her first novel is partly inspired by the memory of her two grandmothers, one of whom had dementia, the subject (in part) of her book -read our interview with her here. Instagrammer in residence at  the Reading Activists Account, Emma’s website also features her vines and other short films and animations, another form of art she is interested in. Here is Emma’s list:

“One of the books I remember loving as a small child was A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy. I read it over and over with my mum when I was 3 or 4 and I remember getting a huge stuffed lion for Christmas because of my obsession with it. The book is all about credibility, and imagination versus reality, which is a theme I still find interesting!  Secondly, Red is Best by Kathy Stinson. I loved the stubbornness of the child and the focus, I felt similarly about the colour red, but wasn’t as tunnel-visioned. It was the first time I really thought about character, I suppose.

As a teenager I loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. There are two styles of writer in the book – the protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain, who writes while ‘sitting in the kitchen sink’, and her father, the tortured genius who hides himself away in the castle gatehouse. I thought I’d be happy being either.

I also choose The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I was pretty obsessed with Ann Radcliffe when I was 15  (The Sicilian Romance was my other favourite). The Mysteries of Udolpho is a gothic story from the end of the eighteenth century about a young woman locked up in a forbidding castle, what I liked best was the fact that all the seemingly supernatural happenings had ingenious human explanations in the end. The author (and reader) is having her cake and eating is – creating a spooky sinister atmosphere, but anchoring the action firmly in the real(isn) world.

 
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. As you can see above I loved the eighteenth century gothic romances which this book is sending up, and it’s very clever in the way it treads a similar path to Don Quixote, but without becoming farce in the same way. I also think the meeting between Tilney and Catherine is one of the most exhilarating and witty moments in literature – and a master class in dialogue.”

 

As an adult I would choose The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. It’s really wonderful, vivid and funny. The children are brilliantly drawn without sentimentality, the plot is exciting but never takes over, and the structure is quietly innovative. The protagonist and narrator,Cecil Grey, is exactly the confused jumble of awkward/ passionate/ romantic/ practical/ knowing/ innocent that I was as an adolescent. I just wish I’d had a summer in a French hotel with an international criminal.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. This is a brilliantly subtle book, one that explores loneliness above all (a theme which I think is increasingly important in our society). The narrator is sympathetic despite being inherently untrustworthy, the plot unfolds beautifully, and the way the story is told matches the story itself perfectly. Lastly, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym says so much about the position of certain kinds of women in church communities, it promotes a gentle form of feminism and is also very funny. There are some wonderful characters too: Anglo-Catholic priests and anthropologists, a sexy officer just back from the second world war and an elderly woman who insists on having chicken for dinner because she hates birds and believes in ‘eating your enemies’.”

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