Sunday, 31 May 2015

The books of my life

Entertainment Weekly runs a 'Books of my Life' feature that I love reading – so I thought I'd have a go myself. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

Like most '90s kids, I was well and truly swept up in Pottermania and the Harry Potter books are still one of the most fail-safe sources of comfort. J.K Rowling is nothing short of a genius. But there were plenty of other books I was obsessed with; Roald Dahl was the most astonishing story teller – even now someone with a bushy beard immediately conjures an image of Mr Twit and his food-filled facial hair – and my copies of the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda are all completely tatty and dog-eared I read them so many times. Other childhood favourites include The Whitby Child (I've always loved a book set in somewhere I've visited and Whitby almost cries out to be part of gothic stories) along with The Lord of the Rings and The Worst Witch series. It was books like this that must have sparked my lifelong view of reading as a completely escapist activity, because none of them are remotely realistic.

What is your favourite book that you read for school?

It's an angsty teenage cliche, but I loved Catcher in the Rye. Like Holden Caulfield (and the majority of teenagers) it appealed to my smug sense of being an outsider somehow, and the notion that I could see through the 'phoniness' of the world while everyone else went on being dimly unaware. Later, The Great Gatsby and Tess of the d'Urbervilles were two books that I fell for completely. Both Fitzgerald and Hardy, though they might have been writing about completely different worlds, had a flair for the most evocative imagery. Who could forget Gatsby staring at that green light or Tess eating that strawberry? 

Is there a book that changed your life?

The two books I just mentioned arguably changed my life; they both contributed to my decision to study English lit at uni, which set me on a path that could have been completely different. 'Life-changing' seems a pretty grandiose term, but Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman was my first real introduction to feminism, at a time when the movement's fourth wave was just getting going and Taylor Swift still saw feminists as bar-burning maniacs. Quotes like "You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, 'And are the men doing this, as well? If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as 'some total fucking bullshit'" were (as cheesy as it sounds) a real feminist awakening—in a similar way that Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook must have been for women in the '60s  – and have informed my thinking ever since.

Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?

As a teenager I read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity so many times: it's the literary equivalent of comfort food. That's not to say that it's badly written or should be assigned to the guilty pleasure category, it's just so subtly written that reading it feels like talking to an old friend you haven't spoken to in a while – effortless. You can quite easily imagine it happening in real life. I love the way music is woven so neatly into the story, and although on reflection the main character is hugely selfish and self-absorbed, you can't help but root for him and his failed love life. 

What’s a classic you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?

Most of Dickens and Gaskell...some of DH Lawrence...Moby-Dick...Ulysses...Brave New World...Catch-22...the list goes on. But I wouldn't say I'm especially embarrassed about it. I've read plenty of classics, but I've realised I tend to prefer things of a more modern persuasion, and there's no fun in reading if you're just doing it to tick books off a list.  

What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?

At uni, getting through the reading list was often overlooked in favour of getting through bottles of vodka and Netflix recommended lists, so seminars were often a lesson in the fine art of bullshit. Over the three years, books I pretended to have read include Midnight's Children, The IliadTristram Shandy and One Hundred Years of Solitude (amongst others...).

What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?

I don't think anyone could dispute 50 Shades of Grey's lack of literary merit, but it's not that I object to – I've read my fair share of crap (but undeniably enjoyable) books. I used to work in a library, and one day on my lunch break decided to see what the 50 Shades fuss was about. I found myself experiencing another Holden Caulfield moment. How could over 100 million people have paid good money for this bollocks? 

What’s a recent book you wish you had written?

Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party is set at my alma mater during the 60s. Despite the 50 year time lapse, I could identify with the characters in a visceral, I-never-want-this-book-to-end kind of way, and I've started giving copies of it to all of my friends. 

What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?

I tend to be of the 'books are always better than the film' camp, but books turned films that are both close to my heart include Sense and Sensibility, The Hunger Games, Heartburn, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and most recently, Far from the Madding Crowd

What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?

I can't say I read any illicit illicit books, but there were some books that I read and would never have talked about with my friends. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, for instance, it was just before The Fellowship of the Ring came out and fantasy certainly did not have any of the sexiness Game of Thrones and Orlando Bloom as Legolas have since helped inject it with. 

What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?

My school friends certainly won't be surprised to hear this, but for those who met me after the peak of my 2007 Robert Pattinson crush, I did have a shameful Twilight stage. Yes it was terribly written and essentially Christian propaganda for abstinence, but as most teenage girls can attest, it had a disturbing knack for making you the fancy the pants off of a fictional character. I blame the hormones. 

If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Over the past year I've read a fair few memoirs, and perhaps down to my nosiness, I absolutely love reading about other people's lives. I particularly like those in essay form – Nora Ephron's are a particular favourite – and I'm looking forward to Mindy Kaling's new book. 

What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?

I finally got round to reading The Kite Runner, which had my blubbing on the train, in public, before 9 o’clock. The last book to make me laugh out loud was probably Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. I worship at the altar of Amy.

What literary character is your hero?

Lizzie Bennett – she doesn’t take any shit, and she ends up with Mr Darcy.

Who’s your literary crush?

I'm pretty much obsessed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is the most incredible writer, fiercely intelligent, and an advocate of lipstick and feminism. I'm not sure there could be a worthier crush. I fancied Angel in Tess before he turned out to be a massive dick, and I have another geeky crush on David Nicholls, author of One Day and Us. I saw him speaking at an event recently and he was warm and funny and incredibly eloquent. 

Is there something you’ve written that makes you cringe now? On the flip side, something you’re still very proud of?

Probably the majority of the earlier blog posts on this very website. Most of my student journalism, which is the first time I had ever really put my words out there for all the world (or my parents and about two other friends, at least) to see. But when Tavi Gevinson answered these same questions, she said, "I’m also sure that all of that had to be written in order for me to write whatever I write now, so I don’t get too down on myself for any of it", which is a very sensible way of looking at it. 

What are you reading right now?

Fashionably late, I just finished reading one of the biggest books of last summer, Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, and I can definitely see what all the fuss was about. I've just started on Confessions of a Comma Queen, a memoir by Mary Norris, one of the copy editors at The New Yorker, which so far is very witty and completely fascinating for someone with a similarly geeky appreciation of grammar rules.