Friday, October 31, 2008

Book meme!

From Laura of Sills Bend.


What was the last book you bought?

A stack:

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?

Yes, several.

* 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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does your storage space for books exceed quantity available? If so, how do you decide what's got to go?

cheers
BS

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, Goddess, yes -- has done for some time. I have found that the 'got to keep all books and get more and more' compulsion lessens with age and getting rid of them gets less painful. I keep hardbacks over paperbacks, beautiful books over ugly ones, and keep only the books I know I will consult extensively or re-read at some point in the future. I think of my book collection as a kind of exotic soup stock, getting more concentrated and richer and deeper and darker all the time.

Australian books are less likely to be given away (the Red Cross shop loves me), on professional grounds -- work comes up regularly involving specialised knowledge of Aust Lit; as recently as this year I've had cause to be wildly grateful for my extensive if battered Aust Lit library, much of which had to be excavated from boxes in the garage, and which saved me many hours of frustration and note-taking in the local, state and university libraries.

TimT said...

I especially appreciate your comments on T H White. I encountered 'The Once and Future King' far too late for it to become one of my childhood obsessions (a space nevertheless filled by the Narnia books, and various fairy tales). Though I enjoyed it immensely on reading it as an adult.

What are some of the shadowy medieval narratives that you would identify as hangovers in modern western culture? Courtly love, perhaps? The martyr/prophetic narratives about various saintly and semi-messianic figures (Parsifal and the Fisher-King)? I suspect my continuing Lewis obsession is partly because he restates some of these medieval narratives with a modern focus.

My meme response is here, by the way.

Peter said...

Thank you!

I printed the post out as a shopping list.

I have read (once) seven of the books you mentioned, but I feel right iggnerant.

Ann O'Dyne said...

This is A Meme Too Far for me, but I Second your vote on 'The female eunuch' for most influential. In 1972 I was just the right age and in just the right situation for it to move me the way the Christian bible moves some.
The last book I bought was for a holiday read and I can emphatically recommend 'Death's Jest-Book' by Reginald Hill - mediaeval references, drollery and dark viciousness.
Look out TimT - I'm coming over ..

Bwca said...

Tim linked to Andromeda Spaceways inflight Magazine, and I was amused to ponder the cover artwork on all the books there, looks just like Barbara Cartland covers on bad acid.
A thesis topic, no doubt.

tigtog said...

I think of my book collection as a kind of exotic soup stock, getting more concentrated and richer and deeper and darker all the time.

I badly need to cultivate this attitude much more fiercely.

The Female Eunuch was a biggie for me as well. I read it at about age 15. Should reread.

Fyodor said...

Philippa Somerville is obligatory, but Phelim?

Also, given you liked the Lymond Chronicles so much, what did you think of the House of Niccolo?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Phelim is cool. I like the way he's not dazzled by Lymond, and the way he keeps his dignity when he discovered he's been punk'd playing tennis with the king, and the way he steps up when he absolutely has to.

I loved the first Niccolo book, but after that my problem with the House of Niccolo is that I hate the heroine (Gelis, not the little brilliant one who marries Robin), which is kind of hard to get past. And I don't understand the Gelis/Niccolo relationship at all. All enlightenment welcome.

I got to sit opposite Dorothy Dunnett once for a whole Writers' Week dinner and ask her a lot of adoring and bedazzled questions. I should have asked her about that, and of course it's too late now.

Misrule said...

Is this a tag-team meme? I'm tempted to do one on Misrule.

BTW I had a brief mutual appreciation session about Still Life with a friend on Facebook the other day--thanks to the eggcorns!

Fyodor said...

"Phelim is cool. I like the way he's not dazzled by Lymond, and the way he keeps his dignity when he discovered he's been punk'd playing tennis with the king, and the way he steps up when he absolutely has to."

I don't read the character in quite the same way, as I think he is dazzled by Lymond, but because of his blithe detachment from most of what's going on around him, this comes across as solipsistic equanimity. That is, IMO he lacks true self-possession, or "cool". At some points in Queen's Play I thought the bloke might have suffered from a mild case of autism.

"I loved the first Niccolo book, but after that my problem with the House of Niccolo is that I hate the heroine (Gelis, not the little brilliant one who marries Robin), which is kind of hard to get past. And I don't understand the Gelis/Niccolo relationship at all. All enlightenment welcome."

Yairs. Gelis is profoundly flawed as a character. She works OK right up to THAT scene at the end of Scales of Gold. I concluded at that point that Dunnett had sacrificed the internal logic of the character to the plotting of the overall series*. The melodrama that ensues is exciting enough, and it yields plenty of development for the character of Niccolo himself, but Gelis is diminished. Which is weird, because she's subsequently replaced as Gamine Auxiliary to the Protagonist by the little brilliant girl (Kathi Sersanders) who is - to me, at least - Philippa Somerville in all but name.

"I got to sit opposite Dorothy Dunnett once for a whole Writers' Week dinner and ask her a lot of adoring and bedazzled questions. I should have asked her about that, and of course it's too late now."

Bugger.

*The other conclusion was that I was right about Dunnett having a an extraordinary capacity for ruthless cruelty with her characters.

Pavlov's Cat said...

TimT -- no no, my friend Stephanie would never let me get away with letting you get away with 'hangover'. I like my word 'cornerstone'. The medieval narratives are foundations, not leftovers.

Peter, no no, it is not a matter of iggnerance. Comparisons are odious, and anyway I've spent my whole adult life reading and thinking about literature for a living; it would be a bloody disgrace if I didn't know a fair bit about it by now.

Judith -- I don't tag people with memes because it sorts of puts them on the spot, but if I see a meme I like enough to do it, I'm always interested to see what other people make of it. (Also, glad you are enjoying le blog!)

Fyodor, I think you're right about Gelis. As for Kathi -- well, she is ...


**SPOILER WARNING!!!!***





...Lymond's grandmother, after all.

TimT said...

Yes, 'hangover' was the wrong word to choose, thanks for picking me up on that.

Millamant said...

I'm a long time reader and admirer of your blog, PC, but this is the first time I've left a comment. You inspired me to order the Lymond Chronicles from Amazon. I'm nearly finished The Game of Kings and feeling particularly resentful that work is interrupting my reading time. Thank you!