From Laura of Sills Bend.
What was the last book you bought?
Val McDermid, A Darker Domain
Kathy Reichs, Devil Bones
Robert Drewe, The Rip
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Française
Susan Wyndham, Life In His Hands: the true story of a neurosurgeon and a pianist
Robert Dessaix, Arabesques
Lauren Smith and Derek Fagerstrom, eds, Show Me How: 500 Things You Should Know
Name a book you have read MORE than once.
[LAURA:]Let's make that 'name a book you have read MORE than ten times'
The Once and Future King, My Brother Jack, King Lear, Persuasion, Middlemarch, The Tempest, Sense and Sensibility, A Passage to India, Howards End, Our Mutual Friend, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette, Little Women, Seven Little Australians, Gaudy Night, Voss, The Eye of the Storm, The Virgin in the Garden, Possession and all six volumes of The Lymond Chronicles.
Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?
* The Once and Future King, as recommended by my first-year high school English teacher.
I knew less than nothing about the medieval period till I read that book. By the time I got to the end of it I understood that there was this great shadowy set of medieval narratives that was a cornerstone of contemporary Western culture -- and probably a whole lot of other equally significant stuff that I didn't know either. It was my first glimpse of how much I didn't know.
It also made me aware that there existed adults -- T.H. White being the first such adult I had encountered; they are very rare -- who could address children without either talking down to them or being incomprehensible, and doing that with no added sugar. This changed my life in the sense that I was determined to be one of those when I grew up.
* The Female Eunuch, which I read in 1971 when I was 18.
When I finished reading that book I was a fundamentally different person from the one I'd been three days earlier when I began it. Almost every single thing that has ever happened to me since (at least in the realm of the Important Three: love, money and work) has reinforced the change.
* Reading Patrick White, to whose work I was introduced by a precocious schoolmate in 1968 when she loaned me her copy of Riders in the Chariot, showed me that it was possible to write about life in Australia -- and to live in Australia -- at a level of intensity and complexity I would not have imagined possible.
* A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden showed me the same thing, except on an international scale, as did the three sequels.
The Byatt tetralogy, which I read from 1985 onwards, also showed me (a) what it meant to live an intense intellectual life without feeling self-conscious and limited about it, and (b) why I and every other woman I knew who was still studying had floundered so badly in trying to manage our personal and intellectual/pre-professional lives between the ages of 17 and 25: for women, the question of managing love, sex, marriage, babies, studying, work and ambition was and, it seems, still is an almost intractable problem to be solved. But I hadn't formulated it like that or realised the reason for the floundering (in spite of The Female Eunuch) until I read Byatt, and carried on much better equipped for the life I was living.
* Persuasion, Middlemarch and Anna Karenina, all of which I read in the same year and all of which reinforced the effects of The Female Eunuch.
How do you choose a book? e.g. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews?
Sometimes by review but not in the way you might expect. I tend to ignore the reviewer's evaluation but will go looking for a book that sounds interesting, even if the reviewer thought it was bad. In my own practice as a reviewer I try to concentrate on giving the reader as clear a picture of possible of what kind of book it is, rather than giving it points out of ten.
I'm more likely to buy a book by a writer whose work I already know and like than to invest in a new writer unless I've read a lot about the book beforehand, and more likely to buy a novel on the strength of a profile of the writer than on the judgement of a reviewer. I've never read any David Foster Wallace but will shortly go in quest of some on the strength of this fantastic article about him in Rolling Stone.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction. But some nonfiction is wonderful, like certain writers' journals and letters, or my favourite Australian biographies: Nadia Wheatley's of Charmian Clift, Brian Matthews's of Louisa Lawson, David Marr's of Patrick White and Barry Hill's of T.E.H. Strehlow. I love the writing of M.F.K. Fisher, and some of the more imaginative and adventurous historians who can also really write, like Theodore Zeldin and Simon Schama. I loved Christopher Hitchens' writing so much that I went on reading it even after he went a bit mad. (He appears to be on the way back.)
What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?
I understand what this question is getting at, but I don't accept either its assumptions or its terms.
'Beautiful' in particular is not an adjective I would choose in thinking about the plot/style question. There's a wonderful moment in one of Alice Munro's short stories where the young heroine, desperate for sexual knowledge and experience, is being flashed at by an unsavoury older man; she is looking at his exposed penis, which is the first specimen she's seen, and observes that its cheerful ugliness seems to be 'some sort of guarantee of goodwill, the opposite of what beauty usually is.'
Most loved/memorable character?
Daniel Orton in Byatt's Potter tetralogy, because it's been my life's misfortune to acquire a profound understanding of chronically angry men -- I get Daniel. Philippa Somerville in Dorothy Dunnett's peerless Lymond Chronicles, plus Phelim O'LiamRoe from the second volume of same. Inman in Cold Mountain, the book not the film. Pierre Bezuhov in War and Peace, though that may have something to do with seeing Anthony Hopkins play him on TV at the age of 34 (Hopkins not Bezuhov). And Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?
Val McDermid's latest, A Darker Domain, for pleasure, and for work an unpolished but weirdly gripping and vivid debut novel called The Reinvention of Ivy Brown by Roberta Taylor, the actor who plays Inspector Gina Gold in The Bill. The bedroom is eerily tidy.
What was the last book you read?
Alexander McCall Smith's latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comfort of Saturdays. My God that man is prolific.
Have you ever given up on a book halfway in?
Yes, and I do so more often as I age and the time left to me in this life gets shorter and more uncertain and precious. I can't tell you what they were; if they had been memorable, I would have finished them.
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