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.

A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm

A Farmer's DiaryA Farmer's Diary
by Sally Urwin
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788160698
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Pages: 248
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Sally Urwin and her husband Steve own High House Farm in Northumberland, which they share with two kids, Mavis the Sheepdog, one very Fat Pony, and many, many sheep. Set in a beautiful, wild landscape, and in use for generations, it's perfect for Sally's honest and charming account of farming life.

From stock sales to lambing sheds, out in the fields in driving snow and on hot summer days, A Farmer's Diary reveals the highs, lows and hard, hard work involved in making a living from the land. Filled with grit and humour, newborn lambs and local characters, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the fence.


It will come as no surprise to anyone, with the loony menagerie we have, that MT and I enjoy being surrounded by animals, and have both flirted with the idea of someday doing some small scale farming.  Extraordinarily small scale; a few acres with a variety of edible landscaping, a small garden, and a few more rescue animals that would seem sensible.

If we ever thought anything more than that would appeal, this book would have put paid to that fantasy.  Farming is hard, which isn’t a newsflash for most people, but more than that, it’s a form of voluntary indentured servitude that guarantees 365 sleepless nights a year, as Urwin’s diary attests.

From context, this seems to be the book form of one year of Sally Urwin’s blog entries.  They’re well-written, funny, heartbreaking and depressing all at once.  I mean, come on, one of their breeding rams is named Randy Jackhammer.  For someone like me, these memoirs of farm life are fascinating, and a potent reminder of why I’m still working in IT.  I enjoy living off the land, but as the author so brilliantly illustrates, depending on the land for your living is a horse (or a sheep) of en entirely different colour.

A fascinating read.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You?

How about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in CartoonsHow about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in Cartoons
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250062420
Publication Date: December 8, 2015
Pages: 288
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Picador

 

My life waiting for Halloween Book Bingo to begin has been frustrating.  I’m in the tail end of a weird book slump that feels like it’s lasted forever (over a year to be sure), and my recovery still feels precarious, like it could go either way.  Because of this, I’m not doing any pre-planning for Bingo, but I still know there are a few books I’m waiting to read that will fit, so I’m trying to hold off.

Last night, I was sooo bored with this plan that I almost scrapped HB all together and just started in on the small stack I’m trying to wait on, and in a last ditch effort to find something else on my TBR to hold my attention, I found How About Never? Is Never Good for You? on a very small outlier of my TBR pile.  I’d forgotten all about it, and honestly can’t remember where I bought it, only that I did so because I like most of the New Yorker’s cartoons, and I’d read Mary Norris’ Between You and Me which I thoroughly enjoyed, leaving me with a positive feeling about the staff’s extracurricular writing.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You? turned out to be a very engaging, and very fast read.  I knew nothing about Bob Mankoff before reading it and therefore had no expectations.  The subtitle is My Life in Cartoons which is a nice double play on words, as this memoir covers almost exclusively his career as a cartoonist and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, and the book is liberally sprinkled with cartoons, both his and others’ works, which is, along with the engaging writing, the reason the read goes so fast.

He discusses the rise of the periodical cartoon as an art form, the genesis of The New Yorker’s cartoons, the process by which the magazine chooses the cartoons each week, and the advent of, and the fiendish difficulty of, the “add a caption” contest and how not to win it.  And he does it all with a charming brevity that is just long enough to be interesting and just thorough enough that the reader gets something out of it.

All in all, it turned out to be a delightful way to kill 3 hours or so last night.

The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Format: Paperback
The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of SicilyThe Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily
by Theresa Maggio
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780738208008
Publication Date: April 4, 2003
Pages: 246
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Perseus Publishing

Thoroughly average.  While Maggio had moments in the book where she really brought the villages to life, overall the narrative fell flat and failed to do justice to what I’m sure is a beautiful and rapidly disappearing way of life.  It was one of those books that was interesting enough to keep reading, but not so interesting as to make it hard to put the book down.

I suppose it’s for the best, as the book hasn’t dampened my desire to go to Sicily, but neither did it light a fire of “must plan a trip NOW” magnitude, which given current conditions might have proved more frustrating that reading a bland book.

Running with Sherman

Running with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a ChampionRunning with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a Champion
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781258279
Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Pages: 338
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.

With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.


A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons –  and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.”  I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run.  “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.”  She knows me well.

So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself, was me.  So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.

And was completely captivated.  I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?”  Er… no, but shhh…

Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again.  The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there.  Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.

The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder.  Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.

That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t.  This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish.  Yes, the Amish.  It works.

McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that.  It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books.  It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends.  Who are awesome, by the way.

Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins.  As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read.  Even MT is planning on reading it.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong ObsessionTo See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
by Dan Koeppel
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781594630019
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Pages: 278
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press

What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?

Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.

To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.


The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her.  Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.

To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime.   There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published.  In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book.  Needless to say, it’s not my jam.

BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers.  Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world.  Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand.  The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand.  This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds.  Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way.  The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.

And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety.  True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place.  But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.

But I have no desire to ‘do better’  because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds.  When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels.  Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land.  The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida.  I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention.  And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).

So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.

Confessions of a Bookseller

Confessions of a BooksellerConfessions of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
ISBN: 9781782835394
Published by Profile Books on August 29, 2019
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Literary Collections, Letters
Pages: 381
Format: Hardcover
four-half-stars

"Do you have a list of your books, or do I just have to stare at them?"

Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. With more than a mile of shelving, real log fires in the shop and the sea lapping nearby, the shop should be an idyll for bookworms.

Unfortunately, Shaun also has to contend with bizarre requests from people who don't understand what a shop is, home invasions during the Wigtown Book Festival and Granny, his neurotic Italian assistant who likes digging for river mud to make poultices.

 

The follow up to his Diary of a Bookseller, a book I enjoyed even more than I expected, so when I heard this was out, I immediately went out and bought it.

Every bit as good as the first, though where the first was primarily wacky and funny, this one had a sharper, more contemplative edge and, as far as my memory goes, this one feels a bit more personal.  The book he read/talked about made more of an impact with me in this book too, though I can’t say why.

A great read if you like books about books, or memoirs of misanthropic booksellers.

four-half-stars