Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan

Square Peg, Random House UK|1 March 2018|336 p|Review copy|4*

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan will appeal to all bookworms, but it’s more than an account of what Lucy read, it’s also a history of children’s books, details of their authors and a memoir of Lucy’s childhood. I loved it – it’s full of the joy and love of books, the intensity of reading and the ‘instant and complete absorption in a book‘. She writes with verve and humour, in a chatty style that makes it so readable. Reading her book is like being in conversation with a friend.

As I am older than Lucy, inevitably she mentions books I didn’t read as I was growing up (but have read some of them in later life) , especially in the later sections of her book, books she read as a teenager, but I was quite surprised and pleased to find that our reading in early childhood was so similar, and just like her, books have made me the person I am – why else would I be writing a blog called ‘BooksPlease‘.

As long as I can remember I have loved books and I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. So I was delighted to find that she too loved Teddy Robinson by Joan L Robinson.  This is the first book I remember borrowing from the library. I loved it so much I was dreadfully upset that I had to return it. Teddy Robinson was owned by a little girl named Deborah and I am so envious that Lucy Mangan has actually met Deborah, who showed her the original drawings for the books her mother wrote.

And then there are some of my most loved books when I was young such as Milly-Molly-Mandy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Katy books, Little Women, Good Wives and Jo’s Boys, The Borrowers, the Narnia books, Ballet Shoes, and The Secret Garden. I re-read them many times over.

There’s a whole section on Enid BlytonThe Blyton Interregnum. I was very interested to see her view of this writer whose books I too adored. Blyton wrote around 760 books during her fifty-year writing career! Despite the criticism of her books as mediocre material, formulaic books with fantastical plots Lucy considers, correctly I think, that they are books that provided comfort reading during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not only that, they are satisfying stories that lay down a base for future reading, providing books that are fun to read and opening up the ‘pleasure-filled world of reading’. Then there are the questions about prejudice, sexism, class snobbery and racism, in Blyton’s books, which Lucy (and I) missed completely whilst reading as children.

She writes about re-reading the books as an adult as a ‘discombobulating experience‘ – stories that once wholly enraptured you no longer have that same magic, and about her disappointment in returning to Enid Blyton’s books and finding them unreadable. It’s the main reason I don’t go back to the books I loved as a child – I really don’t want to lose the magic they held for me then.

There is so much in this book I could write about, it’s packed with the magic of books and reading it has given me hours of nostalgic pleasure – but the best thing I think is to leave you to read this lovely book for yourself.

Many thanks to Random House UK for a review copy via NetGalley.

My Week in Books: 28 February 2018

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now:

51IBFwYPBfLMunich by Robert Harris, set in 1938, beginning in September as Hitler is determined to start a war and Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace. I’ve read about half the book and am finding it fascinating.

Blurb

As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the Channel and the Führer’s train steams relentlessly south from Berlin, two young men travel with secrets of their own. 

Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries; Paul Hartmann a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance. Great friends at Oxford before Hitler came to power, they haven’t seen one another since they were last in Munich six years earlier. Now, as the future of Europe hangs in the balance, their paths are destined to cross again. 

When the stakes are this high, who are you willing to betray? Your friends, your family, your country or your conscience?

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan, due to be published tomorrow, 1 March 2018. This is a delightful book taking me back to the books of my childhood as Lucy Mangan describes the books she loved. I’ve nearly finished it, so I’ll post my review soon.

Blurb

The Cat in the Hat? Barbar? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Whoever it was for you, it’s very hard to forget the vivid intensity of your first encounter with a book.

As a bespectacled young bookworm, Lucy Mangan devoured books: from early picture books, to Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton to Little Women, and from trashy teen romances to her first proper ‘grown-up’ novels. In Bookworm, she revisits this early enthusiasm; celebrating the enduring classics, and disinterring some forgotten treasures.

This is a love letter to the joys of childhood reading, full of enthusiasm and wit, telling the colourful story of our best-loved children’s books, the extraordinary people who created them, and the thousand subtle ways they shape our lives. It also comes packed with brilliant recommendations to inspire the next generation of bookworms and set them on their way.

This impassioned book will bring the unforgettable characters of our collective childhoods back to life – prompting endless re-readings, rediscoveries, and, inevitably, fierce debate. It will also act as an invaluable guide to anyone looking to build a children’s library and wondering where to start, or where to go next.

Then:

The last book I finished is Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman. This book has won several awards: Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (2014), Edgar Award for Best First Novel (2015), Strand Critics Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2014). I really enjoyed it. My review will be up soon.

Blurb

When an elderly recluse discovers a corpse on his land, Officer Henry Farrell follows the investigation to strange places in the countryside, and into the depths of his own frayed soul.

In Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, secrets and feuds go back generations. The lone policeman in a small township on the sparse northern border, Henry Farrell expected to spend his mornings hunting and fishing, his evenings playing old-time music. Instead, he has watched the dual encroachment of fracking companies and drug dealers bring money and troubles to the area. As a second body turns up, Henry’s search for the killer opens old wounds and dredges up ancient crimes which some people desperately want to keep hidden.

With vivid characters and flawless pacing, Tom Bouman immerses readers in this changing landscape. In these derelict woods, full of whitetail deer and history, the hunt is on…

Next:

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey, also due to be published tomorrow, 1 March 2018.

Blurb (Amazon):

15th century Oakham, in Somerset; a tiny village cut off by a big river with no bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim, Thomas Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?

Moving back in time towards the moment of Thomas Newman’s death, the story is related by Reve – an extraordinary creation, a patient shepherd to his wayward flock, and a man with secrets of his own to keep. Through his eyes, and his indelible voice, Harvey creates a medieval world entirely tangible in its immediacy.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

New-to-Me Books from Barter Books

On Tuesday it was time for another visit to my favourite bookshop Barter Books, one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain. We were early getting there just after it had opened for the day, so there was space to park right outside the entrance.

I was quite restrained and only brought three books home, with me. But at least I’ve made some room on my bookshelves as I’d brought in six books. These are the books I brought home:

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Killing Floor by Lee Child,the first in his Jack Reacher series. I’m keen to read this because I’ve recently read the 22nd book in the series and want to know more about Reacher, an ex-military cop of no fixed abode.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. I’ve read some of Valerie Martin’s books before and enjoyed them. This one weaves fact and fiction concerning the mystery surrounding the Mary Celeste, looking at it from different viewpoints including those of a psychic and Arthur Conan Doyle, who was inspired by it to write a short story, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement

Defying Hitler: a Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, a memoir of life in Germany during the Nazi rise to power. It was written in 1939 during Haffner’s exile in England. I’ve been reading novels about the Second World War period, so I think it would be good to know more about  the Wiemar Republic, particularly from a German who lived through those times.

What do you think? Have you read any of these? Do they tempt you too?

Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I haven’t read.

Lincoln in the Bardo

It’s about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Moving from a fictional and highly original book by the looks of it my chain goes next to a biographical account of Lincoln:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a biography of Abraham Lincoln and others, by  Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book I bought after watching the film, Lincoln, which is loosely based on this book covering the final four months of Lincoln’s life. Goodwin examines his relationships with three men he selected for his cabinet, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing

Writing biography is the subject of Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee, a collection of essays on Shelley,  T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty  and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. Lee explores the relation of biography to fiction and history and of the connection of writers’ lives to their works.

So my next link is a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf –

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished.

The title essay is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane. As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. Woolf watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life.

Moths provide the next link  – to a novel, The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

Behavior Of Moths

This is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time.  What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. Two events in particular affected their lives. One was when Vivi, aged 8, fell from the bell tower and nearly died. The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives.

Bell‘ is the next link in my chain – to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, a book with an impending sense of evil and menace. It looks at the angst and self-denial of the relationship between religion and sex.

The Bell

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself.

And my final link is to a book about the author of The Bell, Iris Murdoch – Iris: A Memoir by John Bayley.

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

I first read this in 2003. It’s a very loving and touching account. Iris died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Bayley explained how he had coped emotionally and practically with the illness that beset the woman he loved and cherished.

Writing this post as disrupted my reading because I got Bayley’s book off the shelves and began reading it again. He writes in such a warm and affectionate way that I’ve decided to read it right away.

For once there is no crime fiction in my chain! It contains books pondering the nature of life and death, beginning with a meditation on the death of Willie Lincoln and ending with a memoir of the life of Iris Murdoch.

Next month (March 3, 2018), the chain begins with a controversial book that Kate reports had everyone talking in the nineties – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Everyone that is, apart from me – I don’t know anything (yet) about this book.

Six Degrees of Separation: Wild Swans to A Dark-Adapted Eye

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Falling Leaves Return To Their RootsThe first book in my chain is also about a Chinese daughter. It’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter  by Adeline Yen Mah. She grew up during the Communist Revolution, was blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A moving story set during extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong.

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

My next book is about a fictional daughter: The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham, historical fiction set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War. It covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth Summer should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.

The Tiger in the Smoke (Albert Campion Mystery #14)

This leads on to a book by another author named Allingham. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham in which Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem. Meg’s marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett should have been happy, until she began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, presumed dead in WWII. She calls on old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry – until a brutal triple murder. I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything.

Our Mutual Friend

And the next book is also set in foggy London – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,

… the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking,  wheezing, and choking: inanimate London was a sooty spectre … (page 242)

This book has multiple plots, centred on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. It begins as a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, find a corpse in the Thames.

A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4)

A body found in the Thames provides the next link in my chain to a modern crime fiction novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.  This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. Police Constable Lacey Flint thinks she’s safe. Living on the river, she’s never been happier. Until she finds a body floating on the surface, as she wild-swims in the Thames.

This leads to the last book in my chain, another book with the word ‘dark‘ in the title:

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed.

The narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories.

For once I have read all the books in my chain and they are all books I thoroughly enjoyed, a variety of genres – autobiography, historical fiction, classics and crime fiction. It begins in China and travels to Sussex to London through time from the nineteenth century to the present day.

When I begin a chain I never know where it will end. What about you, where does yours go and where does it end?

Next month (October 7, 2017), the chain begins with a book that I haven’t read (or heard about) – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean

Notes on Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (1926 – 1994).

Alasdair Maclean was a Scottish poet, born in Glasgow. He left school at fourteen to work in the Clydeside shipyards. In his late thirties he read English at Edinburgh University, later returning to the family croft at Sanna in Ardnamurchan to write. His father had worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks until he retired in the 1950s and moved back to take over the croft from his father.

What their life was like on the croft is captured in detail in Maclean’s only book of prose Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family.

The main section of the book is made up of extracts from his father’s journals forming a factual account of his daily life on the croft covering two years, a decade apart: 1960 and 1970, for the same three days at the beginning, middle and end of every month in those years, with explanatory comments where he thought necessary.

I  enjoyed this section together with the Prologue and two introductions – the first about his father and their relationship and the second, a brief history of Ardnamuchan – more that the section on Alasdair’s own journal of 1979 – 1980.

I quoted the opening of the book with an extract from page 56 in this earlier post. Here are a few more extracts to give a flavour of the book:

Due to Father’s complete lack of push, coupled with his unwillingness to flatter or connive, he was passed over for promotion on several occasions. In the early 1950s he retired, somewhat prematurely, and came back to Ardnamurchan to operate the family croft, which my grandparents were getting too old to look after. Poverty accompanied him north and this lasted till a state pension at sixty-five brought some slight ease. He died five months after my mother of a coronary, they said, but of being worn out and heartbroken, say I. (page 23)

Each journal entry begins with a description of the weather and its effects. This is a typical example:

November 15 1969

Moderate to fresh Southerly wind became strong in evening. Drizzle in early forenoon. Dry for an hour in the middle of the day. In the afternoon the sleety rain became torrential and continued into the night. Did a little more to a new house for Tilly. Gave cattle a little hay. Managed across river at Cnoc Brac peats.

Alasdair commented: Tilly was a pet sheep, the first of many orphans we hand-reared. She was a privileged character (I tell her story later) and no ageing butler, slopping sherry around the salver on his tottering passage between pantry and drawing room, could have been more conscious of possessing security of tenure or more determined to exploit it. The ‘house’ that was being built for her was but one indication of her status. Your ordinary sheep shivers it out on the hillside all night, having no roof but the low cloud of winter. (pages 84-85)

The state of the weather had great importance. To the crofter:

…  clinging by a mixture of instinct and experience to the remote fringes of these islands, the weather is a god. It is the difference not merely between a pleasant and an unpleasant life, but between success and failure, until the advent of the welfare state between – possibly – living and dying.  (page 52)

Winter is hard on Sanna:

Gales often blow for days on end, accompanied for much of the time by rain. The ground around house and outbuildings, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of animals and people becomes a churned-up quagmire, a constant drag and hindrance to everything one tries to do.

… Even to enter or leave one’s house, if it lacks a back door – and most of the old cottages did – may be a hazardous operation in a gale and a door once opened may not be easy to shut again. I have seen old people in Sanna go from house to steading on hands and knees, being unable to proceed any other way. (page 52)

This is an unusual book describing not only life in a dying community but also revealing the relationship between children and parents, particularly in an isolated community. I was fascinated.

I was also interested to know what Ardnamurchan is like today. The Ardnamuchan website states it is on the most westerly peninsular of the British mainland, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and with views from every shore of islands, castles, lochs and wilderness, an amazing part of the West Coast of Scotland.

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Sanna Bay (The copyright on this image is owned by Stuart Wilding and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

Amazon UK –  only available from third-party sellers

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (22 Feb. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140108122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140108125
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 3.5 stars

My Friday Post: Night Falls on Ardnamurchan

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
Reader
 where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean.

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family

It begins:

Introduction 1: Father and Son

We hardly conceive of our parents as human. There are innumerable actions, there are whole areas of life and thought, that we do not care to see connected with them, that we scarcely allow ourselves, far less others, to connect with them.

From the back cover:

The Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean records the rise and fall of the remote crofting hamlet in the little-known area of Ardnamurchan where his family had its roots.

Perceptive, humorous and sharp he binds his own account of the crofter’s lifestyle and extracts from his father’s journal, a terser, more factual and down-to-earth vision of the day-to-day. It is an unusual and memorable story, one that not only describes life in a dying crofting community but also illuminates the shifting, often tortuous, relationship between children and their parents.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

The events on page 56 are concerned with winkle gathering, which provided an additional income to many of the crofters. The winkles were gathered and then stored where they could be refreshed by sea water until they were shipped to a merchant.

The reaction of a bag of thirsty winkles to a good splash of Mother Atlantic is delightful. For a few minutes all is creaks and squeaks and bubblings, as though a buzz of winkly conversation had broken out.

I found it was slow going at first, but now I’ve read half the book I’m really enjoying Maclean’s commentary on his father’s journal.