Monday, 17 June 2013

Reading and Me

Last week's post about why I write revealed that it's mainly because I read. So today's post is all about reading and me.

Silence. This was the rule of my house when I was little. With elder sisters who didn’t want to play games with me – that decade between us meant we had little in common – and a mother that worked nights, it seemed that if I had to be in the house my job was to be as quiet as possible. Ideally also remaining still for lengthy periods so that I wouldn’t disturb with my footsteps either. What was a girl to do on those long, wet and dark winter days when being outside was not an option and playing with dolls was as dull as the weather? Read – that’s was this girl found to do.

My earliest reading memories are of the mainly wonderful but sometimes frightening
worlds at the top of The Magic Faraway Tree and the delights of the exploding toffee pop sweets – I felt the aftershocks in my own mouth as I lay on my bed and the rain lashed down. I read the books in this series over and over again. Re-reading is a habit that I started early and one that has stayed with me to this day. From those earliest reading days I have a vague recollection of a summer holiday tale featuring a stuffed dog called Shrewsbury and another where a girl who liked ballet and her two brothers were orphaned and sent to live with their aunt and uncle in house called Dunroamin, a reference that meant little to me at the time. But the memories of these stories are vague and I can’t quite grasp them, make them more solid.

Charlie and his Chocolate Factory, along with James and his Giant Peach, kept me company through many school holidays, as did the christening gift from my grandparents - an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales and another of Aesop’s Fables. My teenage years started out with the books of Judy Blume, who introduced me to periods in Are you there God, it’s me Margaret, and death and sex in Forever, long before any of these things appeared in my life for real 

I had a precocious friend at school and she got me reading Harold Robbins when I must have only been about thirteen or fourteen – 74 Park Avenue alerted me to the world of high-class prostitution and Goodbye, Janette to sado-masochism. A little put off by the seediness of these novels, and the fact that this friend had underlined all of the really graphic sexual parts in each of them, I found some new friends, both real and literary, and spent some time with Gerald Durrell, George Orwell, Daphne du Maurier and John Steinbeck, while also dipping into the wholesome world of Sweet Valley High when I didn’t want to think too much.

My late teens was the start of the horror era and many nights would see me cowering in my brightly lit bedroom unable to switch off the lights as a whole array of Stephen King’s books, from The Shining and Misery through to Insomnia and The Stand, scared me witless. These were backed up by a few James Herbert novels and a couple of Dean Koontz’s then I went back in time to Margaret Mitchell’s tale of the Deep South and I stayed there for ages.
I’ve discovered that my reading sometimes has literary themes and over the years I have had periods where I’ve only read novels about certain things for a few months at a time. I’ve had World War Two time and the book that has stayed with me most from then is Rachel Seffert’s The Dark Room, closely followed by Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. The Vietnam war as told through the eyes of Graham Greene’s Fowler in The Quiet American and Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in The Heart of Darkness – a late addition to my favourites in this era is Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. The colonisation of Australia, the star of the show Kate Grenville’s Secret River; anything and everything about China but particularly the Mao regime and especially Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which is truly amazing and a book that I have read about four times, so far. 

I’ve always had a hankering for post-apocalyptic/dystopian tales in the genre that is termed speculative fiction, and many of the tales that I like the most in this category are from Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood. But then I also like her other work too, Alias Grace standing out for me and inspiring me to want to take a real life character and fictionalise her story myself. The woman I chose is Amelia Dyer, one of the forty-one women hanged in Britain, who was known as the Reading Baby Farmer and lived in a house opposite a flat I used to live in on the River Thames in Reading. I have reams of notes and have done many hours of research into Amelia but don’t quite know how to approach her story so I’ve parked that project for another day.

Essentially, I just can’t get enough of reading and there are writers who I read a lot of their work: David Mitchell, Helen Dunmore, Maggie O’Farrell, Peter Carey, Linda Grant, Kazuo Ishiguro, Karin Altvegen, and R.J. Ellory, to name just a few. I really enjoy if not all then the vast majority of the stories these authors tell. Then there are the stand alone books from writers that I have only met the once so far, Property by Valerie Martin and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller are just two that spring to mind as they swept me away completely into another world.

Sadly, this is something that happens less and less as I write more myself and also study literature. I find myself analysing technique and thinking about how I can apply that to my writing instead of just getting lost in the story the way I used to do. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, maybe it’s both, but I do know that the quiet and the stillness drilled into me at a young age have stayed with me, and to sit in silence and read for hours on end is my absolute favourite thing to do. I also love to just sit and look at my many books on their many shelves and think about when and where I read them and what was happening in my life at the time. Is that weird?

What impact has reading had on your life? Tell me all about the books that matter to you.

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  1. Hi! Well, without giving you a long list of books I love, I'll make two comments. The Faraway Tree series was also very popular in Singapore. My Chinese daughter-in law introduced this series (her favorite) to me as an adult. She was born and raised in Singapore but went to a British Catholic school. My second comment is that I remember becoming fascinated with F. Scott Fitzgerald in my 20s. I think I read everything he wrote. Looking back, I have no idea why, but stories of the unhappy rich in the 1930s just fascinated me. (Was also hooked on his peer, Hemmingway).

  2. Hi Sharon, no give me lists - I love lists! It's funny that we all go through stages of reading. I've read The Great Gatsby but that's it - shockingly, no Hemingway. Maybe I should make that my next theme. :-)

  3. Hi, Amanda. Would love to say different but I read very little as a child, only what I HAD to for school. However, Mr Foley, my English teacher would read to us at least once a week, and his droll, soft voice carried me away without fail. This is probably why I love books now that have a strong narrator's voice (ie John Irving, Annie Proulx, Du'Maurier, Zafon, Faulks, Dickens.) All this after I read nothing for many years (the dark ages), only really starting after I read one book, The Da'Vinci Code. Sorry, but there it is.
    Have a good week.

  4. Hello Stephen. Absolutely no need to apologise - at least you have found your way into the light now! ;-)

    All of those authors you mention are great ones. I always think of Annie Proulx books as the cold one, the dusty one, etc. as she does setting so well that the images stay with me for ages afterwards.