Inspired by the recent TV programme “My Life in Books” on BBC2, I’ve been thinking about what mine would be – a bookish version of Desert Island Discs. I eventually whittled my favourites (summarised below in the order I discovered them) down to five.
Back in the day, I used to ask my friends and family what their favourite book, film and song was. Whilst the initial motivation was to get some recommendations, it ended up being quite surprising and revealing at times. Mind you, if that’s the case, I’m not sure what this lot says about me.
Just for the record, Catcher in the Rye would get my top spot – with the caveat that I’ve only read it once in my early teens. I’m not sure if I’d want to read it again, as it’d probably never live up to my memory.
Come Follow Me – poems for the young, anthology published by Evans Brothers (1966)
I was probably about 7 years old when I got this. It’s a children’s poetry book and contains a poem about a dog called Jacob (the name of my family dog at the time). I used to learn poems from this book to entertain myself. It sounds antiquated now, but that was in the days when there weren’t even four regular channels on the TV – crazy I know. I’ve given it to my eldest and so it now sits on his shelf gathering dust.
Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild (1936)
I loved ballet and this told the story of sisters going to dance school, which was a dream of mine at the time. It’s a similar era to The Famous Five and Swallow and Amazons, so it may no longer be on the radar for today’s girls, but I’d read to a daughter if I had one (unfortunately, it wouldn’t cut the mustard with my boys).
I must have been about 9 or 10 when I also enjoyed A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976). It was one of those books which whisks you off on summer holidays with a bit of mystery and magic thrown in. Another amazing book was The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig (1968), her autobiographical account of the time she spent as a child in a World War II Siberian gypsum mine. It’s along a similar vein to The Diary of Anne Frank, but with a less harrowing ending. It’s beautifully written and I can still vividly remember the part where her mother washed and reused some old red wool to knit her a jumper.
The Famous Five, Enid Blyton (1942<)
I loved The Famous Five adventures and it’s been amazing to rediscover them with my son. It’s the sign of greatness that they’ve stood the test of time and continue to captivate both adults and kids. I also loved Swallows & Amazons (Ransome, 1930), however when I re-read it to my own son, I was surprised how heavy-going it is at the beginning and how technical it is about sailing. I was old enough to read it to myself when I initially read it, so maybe I found it easier to follow. In any case, I was a tomboy, so these were right up my street.
Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (1951)
Probably my favourite book of all time because, quite predictably, I read it in my early teens and it hit the ‘coming of age’ spot for me. I’ve not revisited it as an adult, so I’m not sure whether I’d still enjoy it. At the time though I loved it so much that it prompted me to seek out the rest of JD Salinger’s lesser-known books. One of my kids even has a middle name in tribute to one of his characters (my other son shares his name with a character from A Room with a View (Forster, 1908)).
Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff (1993)
I remember being captivated by this book, I found it amazing, but isn’t one that I’d want to read again. It’s pretty heavy – about someone who watches his mother decline into Alzheimer’s and the effect on her memory and character. I came across it when it was shortlisted for an award and thought it was beautifully written, fascinating and credit it with inspiring me to study psychology.
Regeneration, Pat Barker (1991)
This was a fantastic trilogy about the first world war, which is up there along with All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque, 1929) for me. It’s fiction, but incorporates the stories of actual people (the psychologist Rivers who treated returning soldiers such as Siegfried Sassoon with shell shock). Again, it came to my attention for being on an award shortlist and was an early influence in my interest in psychology. I see now that this book has been slated, perhaps by people who knew more about everything than I did at the time, but as a teenager, it did the job for me.
Affluenza, Oliver James (2007)
I bought this for my sister-in-law to commemorate her taking her first Holy Communion in her 20s. I got it as an alternative gift to the usual religious fare. It’d just come out and seemed to hit the nail on the head in a non-secular way. Oliver James is a fantastic modern-day psychologist and one read of this book gives you instant immunity to the next sports car you see whizzing past. Quite handy when I was living in a part of London where every other car was something that wouldn’t be out of place in Top Gear. He’s also written amazing books on family life (They F*** You up and How not to F*** them up).
Touching the Void, Joe Simpson (1988)
This had me gripped from the beginning. It’s memorable, not only because of the incredible true story of survival against the odds, but because I discovered it by accident on my first holiday with my now husband. We’d gone to Chamonix for a two-week skiing holiday, only for there to be too much snow – all the ski-lifts were shut due to the avalanche risk. Since it’s a mecca for climbers as well as skiers, I found this account of a climbing expedition that went wrong in the bookshop – I bought it because it was the only book written in English. I enjoyed the book so much that my now husband started reading it when I put it down which led us to read it on rotation. The other thing about that holiday was the Black Eyed Peas song “Shut Up” played on repeat on the radio (quite grating, but the sheer repetitiveness of it turned into a running joke). Even more unbelievable, the film then coincidentally came out a week later at the local tiny cinema (because that’s where the ill-fated pair met) and we were there to see it. ‘Every cloud…’ and all that. Whilst on paper the holiday was a bit disastrous, I remember it fondly.
Notting Hell, Rachel Johnson (2006)
I read this book after I’d just had my first son, having lived in London for ten years, so all the money, pomp and preposterousness of life in the capital was very relatable. A couple of years before we’d rented an upper-floor flat of a white stucco building which backed onto a large communal garden in Little Venice. It was like living on a film set (indeed, a little street nearby was frequently commandeered as such – all very Richard Curtis). After a stint in grey Islington, it felt like a little patch of paradise. It was also amazing for people watching. Our square was reminiscent to the setting for Notting Hell in which the author luxuriates in poking fun at the wealthy, privileged and self-obsessed, revealing their lives to be less perfect than their interior design may lead you to believe. Of course, it’s all hammed-up for comedy, but that’s part of the fun.
The BFG, Roald Dahl (1989)
I only properly discovered Roald Dahl last year through the BFG, but not through the recent film as you might imagine. Ironically, we avoided watching the film as it looked a bit scary (ridiculous I know, but I’d only read The Twits (1980) which is quite dark and the trailer for the BFG seemed quite dark too). It was only later that I plonked the book in my trolley when it was on offer at the supermarket. It was even later still that got it off our shelf when I was trying to find a book that would be acceptable to both my kids. My youngest still liked picture books, but he’d just decided to share a room with his older brother, so it was an opportunity to consolidate their bedtime story times. Our copy of the BFG has some of Quentin Blake’s pictures and was also something new for all of us, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It was lovely to all discover it together – collecting dreams in jars and blowing them into children’s rooms with a trumpet was my favourite idea. My youngest was sucked-in by the silliness of the whizz-pops and snozcumbers and so we’ve been wading through the rest of Roald Dahl’s books ever since.
My final Five
I’m conscious that I’ve been way more indulgent than the rules of the TV show, so if I had to choose only five, they would be the following. Probably for the associated memories as much as the books themselves:
- Famous Five
- Catcher in the Rye
- Touching the Void
What would be yours?