Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood ReadingBookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
by Lucy Mangan
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780224098854
Publication Date: March 1, 2018
Pages: 322
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Square Peg

When Lucy Mangan was little, stories were everything. They opened up different worlds and cast new light on this one.

She was whisked away to Narnia - and Kirrin Island - and Wonderland. She ventured down rabbit holes and womble burrows into midnight gardens and chocolate factories. No wonder she only left the house for her weekly trip to the library.

In Bookworm, Lucy brings the favourite characters of our collective childhoods back to life and disinters a few forgotten treasures poignantly, wittily using them to tell her own story, that of a born, and unrepentant, bookworm.


Were you a bookworm as a kid?  I was.  I was even voted “Class Bookworm” in 7th grade – a category they made up just for me.  I was the kid with the book inside the text book during school lectures.  So when I saw this a few years ago, I thought … maybe.  As much as I enjoy most books about books, I figured the title was likely to be an overstatement and I’d be reading a sedate, literary criticism of childhood books.  The front flap reinforced this suspicion.  Which is why it sat on my shelves for so long.

Oh, how wrong – and kinda right – I was.  Lucy Mangan is a true bookworm; back in the day, she’d have given me a run for the title and the award.  She was also way better read than I was, so there is some lit criticism here, but it’s fabulous lit criticism; she’s hilarious and she’s rational and she’s so very real.

On Enid Blyton:

I can barely bring myself to talk about my Enid Blyton.

Like generations of children before me,
and like generations since (she still sells over 8 million
copies a year around the world) I fell head over heels in
love. No, not love – it was an obsession, an addiction. It
was wonderful.

It was an older girl that got me into the stuff. Becky-
next- door lent me her copy of something called Five on a
Secret Trail. It was a floppy, late 1970s Knight Books
edition with, I believe, the original 1950’s illustrations
inside. I read it. It was good. Very good. I enjoyed it. I
enjoyed it very much. I asked Becky if she had any more.
She did. It was called Five Run Away Together. I read it. It
was good. Very good. Possibly even better than Five on
a Secret Trail. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much. I
noticed it had a number ‘3’ on the spine. Five on a Secret
Trail had a ’15’. What did that mean? I decided to look for
clues. Even without a loyal canine companion to help me,
it didn’t take long. The endpapers carried a
list. Apparently Enid Blyton had written twenty-one
books! What excellent news! What riches! What vital.
absolutely essential riches!

I took the news and the list to my parents. I’m going
to need all of these,’ I said, gently.

And so it began.

And on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series being a Christian allegory:

The tale of Lucy Pevensie discovering the secret
world beyond the wardrobe door is a story about
courage, loyalty, generosity, sacrifice and nobility versus
greed, conceit, arrogance and betrayal. You can call the
former Christian virtues, or you can just call them
virtues, let the kids concentrate on the self-renewing
Turkish delight, magically unerring bows and hybrid
man-beasts and relax.

Reading this, I feel like I missed out on something amazing by not living down the road from Lucy.  I suspect we’d have had a lot of fun swapping books and comparing notes.  But it was a joy to read her memoirs now and in so doing take a trip down the memory lane of my own reading.

Mangan primarily recounts her childhood reading in a fun and often funny style, but she also dips lightly into the historical aspects of Children’s literature here and there, when the subject matter seems to call for it – a specific genre, or the roots of illustrations.  These bits are less engaging, more straightforward, and in context with the whole, makes the pace drag a tiny bit when you get to them.  They’re interesting, but they’re not entertaining.

Because Mangan’s writing style is very conversational, the sentences that include many clauses and often long parentheticals can sometimes be hard to follow.  This was probably my only criticism – not that I didn’t enjoy the style, because I absolutely did – it’s just once or twice, by the time the sentence ended, I had forgotten how it began.

Admittedly, a large number of the books that Lucy Mangan covers are books unknown to me.  I expected this because she was growing up in London, and I was growing up in tiny town Florida.  But I was delighted at how often our book titles did converge, and how many titles that, even if I didn’t read them, I was familiar enough with to easily follow along.

The author has written a few other books, and I enjoyed this one so much, that I’m interested to discover what they’re about and see about getting my hands on one or two.

Books & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local Bookstore

Books & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local BookstoreBooks & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local Bookstore
by Gibbs M. Smith
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781423650430
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Pages: 152
Genre: Books and Reading
Publisher: Gibbs Smith

A visual feast celebrating the alluring power of bookstores - 68 paintings by illustrator Gibbs M. Smith.

The local bookstore, a place of wonder, refuge, and rejuvenation for book lovers the world over. Books & Mortar is a celebration of these literary strongholds. Sixty-eight oil paintings capture these storefronts at a moment in time, and pair the artwork with quotations about the joy of reading, the importance of bookstores, and in many cases, anecdotes about the shops and owners themselves.


I’m a sucker for these types of books, even though I know they date quickly, and I was feeling grumpy about my DNF and needed something easy and quick.

Based on the About this Author on the back page, I gather that this was a posthumous publication of primarily the author’s (who was also a publisher) personal paintings of bookstores around the country, put together as a memorial of sorts.  As such, some of the bookstores included had already closed (thought only a small number).  Most have some description about the history of each shop, some only a quotation.

The painting style appeals to me and I was delighted to see a section at the back for “bookshops I have visited” with each shop listed and a place to include the date, making this book a journal of sorts for anyone willing to write in a book.

The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings

The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in PaintingsThe Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings
by Ainslie Roberts, Charles P. Mountford
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0851790259
Publication Date: March 1, 1970
Pages: 79
Genre: Fiction, Mythology
Publisher: Rigby

I wanted a collection of Dreamtime myths from the moment I arrived in Australia, but it took me almost 10 years to find it and when I did, it was from a Canadian bookseller.

I picked it up today and read it all in about 90 minutes.  The introduction, written in the mid-60’s, tries to be respectful, and succeeds for the most part, but the style was at times hard to swallow: it sounded like one of those wildlife tv shows from the 70’s.

The stories themselves, and the paintings that pair with them, are mostly well told, though I noticed areas of geography are referred to by their colonial names.  The art is wonderful, sometimes haunting and sometimes disturbing, but always beautifully executed.

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History

The Madman's LibraryThe Madman's Library
by Edward Brooke-Hitching
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781471166914
Publication Date: October 7, 2020
Pages: 255
Genre: Books and Reading, History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

This is a madman’s library of eccentric and extraordinary volumes from around the world, many of which have been completely forgotten. Books written in blood and books that kill, books of the insane and books that hoaxed the globe, books invisible to the naked eye and books so long they could destroy the Universe, books worn into battle, books of code and cypher whose secrets remain undiscovered… and a few others that are just plain weird.

From the 605-page Qur'an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein, through the gorgeously decorated 15th-century lawsuit filed by the Devil against Jesus, to the lost art of binding books with human skin, every strand of strangeness imaginable (and many inconceivable) has been unearthed and bound together for a unique and richly illustrated collection ideal for every book-lover.


I knew I wanted this book as soon as I saw it; gorgeously illustrated in full colour, and really well written, this is exactly what is purports to be.  Broken into categorical chapters that include “Books that aren’t Books”; “Books Made of Flesh and Blood”; “Literary Hoaxes”, etc., the book covers a comprehensive span of the beautiful, the frightful and the unusual.

I enjoyed Brooke-Hitching’s writing style, appreciating his small infusions of humour as well as the information he imparted about each category and specific books. It was easy to read, but not easy reading; I found reading a chapter at a time worked well for my comprehension and enjoyment – the one time I tried to read more in one sitting, I found my eyes glazing over.

All in all, an enjoyable book and one that I’m happy to have on my bookshelves.

The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten AuthorsThe Book of Forgotten Authors
by Christopher Fowler
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781786484895
Publication Date: October 5, 2017
Pages: 374
Genre: Books and Reading, Non-fiction
Publisher: River Run Books

"Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you're dead."

So begins Christopher Fowler's foray into the back catalogues and backstories of 99 authors who, once hugely popular, have all but disappeared from our shelves.

Whether male or female, domestic or international, flash-in-the-pan or prolific, mega-seller or prize-winner - no author, it seems, can ever be fully immune from the fate of being forgotten. And Fowler, as well as remembering their careers, lifts the lid on their lives, and why they often stopped writing or disappeared from the public eye.

These 99 journeys are punctuated by 12 short essays about faded once-favourites: including the now-vanished novels Walt Disney brought to the screen, the contemporary rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie who did not stand the test of time, and the women who introduced us to psychological suspense many decades before it conquered the world.

This is a book about books and their authors. It is for book lovers, and is written by one who could not be a more enthusiastic, enlightening and entertaining guide.


The 4th star I’m giving this book, a collection of 99 authors who have been ‘forgotten’, is a tip of the hat bump-up for witty dialog that made me chuckle throughout the book, and for giving me a handful of author names worth researching for future used bookstore treasures.

Otherwise, this is a collection of 99 authors who have been ‘forgotten’, along with a half-dozen or so essays that discuss additional forgotten authors, that is made a bit average through sheer volume.  It’s both a book that doesn’t lend itself to reading through, nor dipping into here and there.  It’s best read in chunks, I guess, but then one is apt to get to authors who write – or wrote – in areas of no interest to the reader, and suddenly there’s skimming and skipping.

There are a number of authors Fowler includes that I’ve not only heard of and/or read, but whose titles are actively sitting on my shelves: Allington, Wheatley, Orczy, Mitchell and Crispin, among others.  This made me feel oddly better about myself in a way I probably shouldn’t admit to, but there it is; suddenly my wall of cozies seem a tiny bit elevated by sharing company with these names who have been deemed worth remembering.

The Sherlock Holmes Companion

The Sherlock Holmes CompanionThe Sherlock Holmes Companion
by Michael Hardwick, Mollie Hardwick
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0517219166
Publication Date: January 1, 1962
Pages: 262
Genre: Books and Reading, Reference
Publisher: Bramhall House

One of my acquisitions from my visit to the Berkelouw Book Barn, this isn’t really a sit-down-and-read book, so much as it’s a handy reference of characters, story plots and a selection of quotes (which I found to be a mediocre selection, at best).  But there are two ‘chapters’ at the back that offer small biographies of Sherlock and Holmes, and one of Conan Doyle himself.

The Sherlock/Watson biographies about what you’d expect, although I’m constantly amazed, whenever I read these types of things, how much presumption is done on the part of the fans who write them, no matter how learned those fans are.  I can never get through one without periodic outbursts along the lines of give me a break!.  While this one was no different, I was, at least relieved to see that the authors dismissed the nonsense that Holmes, pre-Watson, had had a great love that died, leaving him unable to ever love again.

The chapter of Conan Doyle’s mini-biography was concise but packed with his life, including quite a few facts I’d yet to read about (I have Hesketh’s biography waiting for me on my TBR, and one of these days I’m going to get ahold of Dickson Carr’s ACD bio too).   ACD was not only an author of mythical skill, he was a truely good man who fought for pretty much any cause that needed fighting for, and a prescient man, correctly forseeing what a war with submarines and advanced weaponry would mean for the crumbling empire soon the enter WWI.  That question that makes the rounds every once in awhile: who would you go back in time to speak with, if you could?  Without question, it would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, every time.

Under the Covers and Between the Sheets

Under the Covers and Between the SheetsUnder the Covers and Between the Sheets
by C. Alan Joyce, Sarah Janssen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781606520345
Publication Date: October 15, 2009
Pages: 175
Genre: Books and Reading, History, Reference
Publisher: Reader's Digest

Bibliophiles, grab your glasses! Here is a compendium of interesting--and often scandalous--facts and quips about the literary world. Featuring authors and tomes of yesteryear and yesterday, from Tolkien's Middle- earth to Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, you'll sections such as:

Parental Guidance Suggested: Banned works of fiction and the controversy surrounding them.

Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My!): The real-life stories and inspirations behind beloved "leading creatures."

Time to Make the Doughnuts: Odd jobs of famous authors.

Tell Me a Story: Dahl's short stories, Seuss's political cartoons; the lesser-known, and sometimes shocking, adult writings of beloved children's authors.

The Long Con: Shocking (and sometimes shockingly long-lived) literary hoaxes: Frey, JT Leroy, The Education of Little Tree, The Day After Roswell, etc.

Science Fiction, Science Fact: If alien monoliths are ever found on the moon, the safer bet is that they would be translucent crystal; Sir Arthur C. Clarke is celebrated for making accurate predictions of various technologies, years ahead of their time. A look at which of his predictions held true and the same feats of other authors.

Yes, But is it Art?: The weirdest books ever written: books without verbs, without punctuation...or without the letter "e".


I had no idea that Reader’s Digest was still publishing books, nor that they were publishing things I’d find interesting. (Are they still doing condensed books?)  But this little reference tome of odd and interesting facts was interesting; trivia is cat nip for me, and while some of what was in here were things I already knew, quite a bit wasn’t.  I found myself reading some sections out loud to MT, and more than a couple sparked interesting conversations, and at least 1 debate.  (MT got a bit sloppy and made a throw-away comment about Australia not banning books like America did – to be fair, a national sports icon died young yesterday, and he wasn’t in top form.  Still, Wikipedia was called up, and there was a reckoning.)

I always pick these type of books up at used book sales, or remainder shops, so I always feel like the knowledge gained was good value.

Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home

Howards End is on the LandingHowards End is on the Landing
by Susan Hill
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781846682650
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 236
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill's eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howards End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation's most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.


I had issues with this book and with the author.  Mostly the author.  She starts off strong, impressing me with the fact that the first book she chooses from her library to read again is a Dorothy L. Sayers.  She goes on the name more than a few books we both have on our shelves, and I’m just settling in with delight, when she suddenly turns uppity.  And I don’t mean with the name dropping – she’s met famous authors and they make up important moments in her memoirs, that’s fine.  But in the fourth or fifth chapter she opens with “Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That’s a known fact.”  Well, that’s a bold and rather inflexible statement.  I don’t quarrel with girls reading more than boys historically, or even presently, but to state categorically that they always will, and state it’s a known fact rankled.  I knew Susan Hill is an author and publisher, but I didn’t know she was a prognosticator too.

If only this was a one off, I’d probably have forgotten by now.  Alas it was not.  In a chapter about writing in books, she says “Bookplates are for posers.”  Wow.  She then explains how she unapologetically scribbles in all her books, folds down pages, cracks spines, etc.  But Bookplates are for posers.  Nice to know where Susan Hill draws the line.  Personally, I’d never use a bookplate or write in my books, or dog-ear pages, but I’m also not going to judge anyone who chooses to do those things to their books.  I’m totally ok judging Susan Hill for her self-defensive and hypocritical judging of others who enjoy bookplates, though.

In another chapter she talks about covers and fine bindings, offering a backhanded compliment to The Folio Society by praising their products, but suspecting those who own them as “not being a proper reader”.  To which she can kiss my south-side.  I own Folio Society editions and I read them.  In fact the list of authors and stories I’ve discovered because of my Folios is long and distinguished.

In between all these grievances, and in spite of all the books we have in common, she fails to connect with me, the reader.  While I admire her honesty and forthrightness about her trouble with Jane Austen’s work – even though it mystifies me – I can’t help but think her failing is the same one she perceives in Austen’s work:  “… I never feel empathy with, or closeness to, an Austen character.”  I could not find a closeness or commonality with Susan Hill.

I finished the book out of sheer cussedness, I think.  I have her second memoir, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, but I can’t see mustering any enthusiasm for it after this one.  Perhaps out of perverseness, to see who she manages to belittle or insult next, but I doubt I’ll ever be that curious.

Heroes

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and AdventuresHeroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
by Stephen Fry
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Pages: 462
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Penguin / Michael Joseph

 

Well, with the lockdowns, it took me not quite 6 months to finish this on audio (I can only listen in the car), but I finally did it.  It was, of course, worth every minute, and I’d recommend the audio version to anybody who even wants to like Greek mythology.  Especially those who want to like it, but always struggled with the names, and the who begat whoms, and the who married whoms.  Fry unapologetically tells the listener to ignore all of that – there won’t be a test at the end – and just enjoy the stories.  His narration makes this all the easier, as he’s absolutely brilliant at it, even if the Greeks are speaking with Scottish, English and at one point what I think was a distinctly cockney accent.  In fact, the hint of Monty Python in some of the stories made them all the more enjoyable for me, because they made me chuckle.

I’ve never been all that interested in the Trojan War, but I’m sorely tempted to check out his version with the next book in this ‘series’.

I’d Rather be Reading

I'd Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of The Reading LifeI'd Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of The Reading Life
by Anne Bogel
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780801072925
Publication Date: September 15, 2018
Pages: 156
Genre: Books and Reading, Essays, Non-fiction
Publisher: Baker Books

 

So, I ended up finishing How About Never? Is Never Good for You? entirely too quickly last night and needed something else to read while waiting for sleep to claim me.  The bookshelf right next to my bed held this slim little tome and it felt just right.

And it was.  A slim volume of 21 essays about books, reading books, owning books, borrowing books, and becoming the books you read.  Each one well written and thoughtful, touching on subjects that any dedicated reader has faced before, be it library fines or a dearth of bookshelves and the space to keep them.

It was a pleasant, relaxing read that reminded me that slump or not, I’m a book nerd and will always, always be a reader.