“There is no friend as loyal as a book” (Hemingway) – a review of Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

blog book review of Bookworm

Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.

childrens-stories.jpgIn one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.

I had the same feeling reading Bookworm.  Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.

My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.

The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.

owl afraid of the darkAs adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular  edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears.  Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.

Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.

This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.

 

Advertisements

My love affair with libraries

blog banner libraries

My love affair with libraries started more than 35 years ago when my parents first took me to our local library and registered me there. To a child who read voraciously this was a gift that kept on giving. To know that I could walk up to the shelves, pick up a book, any book, and hand it over to the nice librarian to have my card stamped and take it home with me to read was intoxicating. On each visit I always checked out the maximum quantity of five and there were times, in the school holidays, when my parents would have to take me twice a week to keep up with my reading demands.

Looking back with an adult’s eyes, I don’t think it was a particularly attractive library, with its fluorescent strip lighting and cheap shelving. But it was beautiful to me.  I felt a thrill every time I crossed the tiled floor of the foyer in the Victorian municipal building where the library was housed, walking past the librarian’s desk to the children’s section where I would choose my next reading adventures with more care than I applied to any other decision I made at that age.

Then I moved away, to university to read English Literature and Language where (in that pre-digital age) a library once again became the centre of my life. I haunted the book stacks there, working my way through bound copies of Blackwood’s Magazines to find contemporary reviews of Victorian novels, reading up on literary theories and criticism and generally enjoying the fact that I could read for many hours a day and call it ‘work’.

Once I started paid work (for a publisher, you may be noticing a theme developing here!) I didn’t visit libraries for a while. I was earning so could afford to buy books (particularly with my publisher discount!). Then my husband and I moved to Australia and the local library became a lifeline once more while I was looking for work; free books to read, somewhere to while away the hours between interviews, free Internet access, a book group where I could meet people.

But the most significant library to me was the one I joined when we moved to Raleigh NC in the US. When we first arrived my husband started his job straight away, but I couldn’t work to start with as I had to wait to be allocated a social security number (which took six months in total, long story). This meant that I was six months without a bank account, a state drivers license, a job. In other words not many ways to fill my days. Luckily there was an amazing library only a 15-minute cycle away, at Cameron Village. This place saved my sanity. The library felt so welcoming, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful and it had a truly amazing array of books over two levels. |i went there two, maybe three times a week.And it hosted so many book groups! I joined four, yes four, book groups. Meaning that I got to meet up with people who were as passionate about reading as I was every single week. And was introduced to books I would never have picked up if not for them.

After moving back to Melbourne (and rejoining my local library!) and living there for a few years, we finally moved back to the UK but to Cheshire not my native Oxfordshire. So once again, I was in an unfamiliar town where I didn’t know anyone and I was freelancing from home therefore not meeting anyone through work. So what did I do? You guessed it. Joined the local library. And I have also been working my way around the amazing libraries that Manchester has to offer: Central Library, John Ryland’s Library, Portico Library, and Chetham’s Library (oldest public library in the English-speaking world), to name but a few.

Okay, so I am not sure how to end this article as really I just wanted to witter on about my love of libraries and didn’t really have an end point planned when I started this. So why don’t I finish by saying that if libraries aren’t used, they disappear.

Visit your local library. Support your local library. Love your local library.

 

Unread, now read book 3 – The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan, book cover

I have slowed down a bit recently, I am currently on book four from my unread books on my bookshelf list – hopefully with the Christmas break coming I can get through quite a few more of them as having a prescribed reading list is already bothering me!

However, I am starting to think that rather than not having the time to read them the actual reason is that it’s because I know that I won’t enjoy them so I keep putting off reading them. Admittedly, I loved The Sense of an Ending, but I really didn’t like The Machine. And now I find myself striking out again, that’s two out of three!

I am sure that when The Cement Garden was published in 1978 it was shocking and confronting and was condemned by the ‘family’ newspapers and magazines for being ‘unnatural’, etc, etc. But coming to it in 2013, I just found it unpleasant and a bit boring. McEwan’s writing is good, I like his strong, sparse style, but his depiction of a socially isolated family turned in on itself, with the requisite incidences of abuse, incest and violence, which I am sure seemed so unnatural and sordid to the reader in 1978, just didn’t  engage me. Perhaps because it has been done so many times in recent years, maybe I have become dulled to this particular plot device. Possibly if I had read it 20 years ago, I would think differently…

Here’s hoping book number four works out!

The curse of the unread book

books

I am an inveterate book buyer; sometimes a red mist descends when I am ‘just browsing’ in a bookshop and I leave in a daze weighed down with books. I am also incapable of passing a secondhand bookstore without going in and buying at least two books. I also have to limit myself to only logging onto booktopia once a month (around pay day).

Unfortunately these bouts of bookish bagging have resulted in a number of books finding their way onto my shelves only to be forgotten about. I hadn’t realized how bad it had got until I was happily rearranging my books the other day and kept coming across them all.

So I have decided that before I buy any more books, I must read every unread one on my shelf, and to prove I have read it I will blog a short review every time I finish one. To make sure I don’t cheat here is the list of the unread books on my shelf (along with the reason for purchase at the time) that I am now committed to working my way through:
The Pages, Murray Bail (loved Eucalyptus)
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (it’s Julian Barnes!)
HHhH, Laurent Binet (heard a lot about it, thought it sounded interesting)
A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt (am working my way thorough her entire oeuvre)
The Trout Opera, Matthew Condon (thought it sounded interesting)
Old Filth, Jane Gardam (Vintage special offer)
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (saving to read on Christmas Day)
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (have been assured it is nothing like EPL)
Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood (Vintage special offer)
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (not sure why I haven’t got round to this)
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa (always wanted to read it, picked it up cheap)
Every Day, David Levithan (heard good things)
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough (saw the TV show years ago, got it cheap)
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan (haven’t liked anything later than Atonement, except Sweet Tooth so going back to his earlier books)
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel (picked it up cheap)
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer (Vintage special offer)
Silver, Andrew Motion (‘sequel’ to Treasure Island, seemed like a good idea at the time)
Goodbye, Columbus, Phillip Roth (Julian  is rude about in The Secret History)
The End of Your Life Book Club (good reviews)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson (liked the title)
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (I like bookstores)
The Machine, James Smythe (in list of ‘must-read’ dystopian novels, had read the others)
A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark (gorgeous Virago Modern Classic hardback 30th anniversary special edition, had to have it)
The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West (picked it up cheap)

Hmm, when I hit upon this idea I hadn’t actually counted how many unread books there were; this is a slightly larger undertaking than I first envisaged. I don’t know whether to be pleased at this bounty of reading material or embarrassed that I have this many unread books on my shelves. My main concern is how I will cope with this prescribed reading list; I hate knowing what I am going to read next, I like it to be a spur of the moment choice. Of course, this is probably why I have so many unread books and quite a few reread books (more of those another time).

So, watch this space. I won’t be reading in authorial alphabetical order although that is how I arrange my shelves and therefore how I listed them – I will dabble. First cab off the ranks is The Machine by James Smythe.