This week on The Books That Built the Blogger I am excited to welcome Karen, from BookerTalk. If you haven’t checked out her blog yet, please do! IT’s a fantastic mix of reviews and articles on Booker Prize winners, classic literature and translated fiction. I love her reviews and insights and am a regular visitor to her blog.
Here are her excellent choices for the books that have made her the reader and blogger she is today!
Hello or as we would say in my native country of Wales “Schwmae”. I’m Karen, the blogger behind BookerTalk which is a mixture of reviews and comments on anything to do with reading/buying books. When I started blogging five years ago my plan was to use the site to capture my thoughts as I read my way through the list of Booker Prize winners. It’s evolved to reflect my other interests in the classics of literature (especially the nineteenth century) and fiction in translation.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. As a child I was into Enid Blyton of course – rattling through The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Naughtiest Girl in School series as fast as my pocket money would allow. By the time I was 12 I’d graduated to historical fiction and began devouring everything that Jean Plaidy could throw at me, including those novels she wrote under two other pseudonyms Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt. Of ‘classic’ literature I knew very little ….I can’t remember reading anything by Charles Dickens for example.
Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare
My epiphany came when I was 14 and had to start the syllabus for a major set of exams (called O levels in the UK). Until then English lessons had passed in a blur and I have little recollection of what we studied. But this first day of the new term was my introduction to Shakespeare. The play was The Merchant of Venice and I was so hooked that when I went home I read the entire play twice. By the time the next English lesson rolled along I could recite from memory the key speeches from Act 1. I recall that day so clearly; me in
the second row of desks oblivious to anyone else in the class as I answered every question; the teacher looking at me rather stunned. The experience triggered in me not just a love of Shakespearian drama but of literature in general. Oh and in case you’re wondering, I can still recite Shylock’s speech that begins:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold:
George Orwell: Collected Essays
The hands of the clock moved on a few years and I was in a different classroom, this time studying for my Advanced level in English. Who choose the set books I have no idea but they were masochists for making us study John Milton’s masque Comus. I am eternally grateful however for their choice of George Orwell’s Collected Essays. I can’t recall all of the essays now but it was the sheer versatility of the writing that astonished me. This was a form of journalism I’d never before experienced. One moment he was writing movingly about the long and painful death of an escaped elephant (Shooting an Elephant is one of his most famous essays), the next he was delivering a witty critique of the stereotypes portrayed in boy’s comics. In between he found time to condemn Charles Dickens for merely posturing as a social reformer and to demonstrate the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. I was heady with Orwell…
Years later I took my own steps in journalism. I never reached the heights of Orwell’s prose but I like to think as I bashed out my reports on an aged typewriter that he was looking over my shoulder all the time, reminding me of the possibilities of the spoken word.
Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse
The Daily Mirror, one of the biggest tabloid newspapers in the UK, was delivered to our house every day during my teen years. The version on sale today is a pale imitation of the campaigning journal I recall that frequently ran exposes of corruption and social injustice. My favourite columnist was Keith Waterhouse who held forth on topics such as his love of public libraries, his contempt of computers and his obsession with the smallest, most ordinary things, such as the change in his pockets. He also fought a one-man battle against what he considered to be a decline in the standards of modern English, regularly berating shopkeepers whose window displays advertised “potatoe’s” and “pound’s of apple’s and orange’s.” His passion carried through to his book Daily Mirror Style in which he argued against a cliché-ridden, overblown style of writing seen in tabloid newspapers. It became my bible as a young reporter. This is the book I hold responsible for my hatred of the kind of jargon I found all around me when I moved into the world of multi-national business and heard such aberrations as “leverage” and “mind-set”.
The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott
It took just one paragraph for me to fall in love with Paul Scott’s quartet which is set in the dying years of the British Raj in India. The first novel, The Jewel in the Crown, begins with a British girl fleeing the men who have raped her: “Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance…” The girl we discover is Daphne Manners (one of my favourite literary characters). She’s clumsy, awkward and shy but very spirited and independent. She doesn’t believe in the privileged lifestyle or the racism inherent in the British presence in India. Nor does she believe it’s wrong for her to fall in love with a young Indian boy. Her attack threatens the stability of a regime already under pressure from Ghandi’s independence movement. In this and the next three novels Scott shows how the British in India were as much trapped by codes and principles as the Indian subjects of the Empire. It’s a superb series that taught me a lot about India’s history and ignited my interest in the sub-continent.
Germinal: Emile Zola
I’ve read this novel four times and it never fails to make me angry and sorrowful. It’s set in a coal mining village in northern France in the 1860s. Life here is harsh but when the miners go on strike to try and improve their lot, it becomes brutal. It’s painful to read descriptions of the way these villagers toil underground with little in their bellies to sustain them and of the indifference of the mine owners to their plight. I know it’s a faithful and uncompromising depiction because Zola visited French mining towns, seeing at first hand the effects of the miners’ struggles. It’s a book which has a deep personal resonance since I come from a coal mining family myself so as I read Zola’s words I picture my own grandfathers and uncles underground, experiencing similar conditions to those he describes. It’s a book that always reminds me how hard my parents had to work to get out of that life and to find a better future for themselves and for their children.
What great choices from Karen and the second outing for The Raj Quarter in the Books that Built series. I’m most intrigued by the Keith Waterhouse, whose plays I love, but whose essays have passed me by so far and I am always happy to see a Shakespeare play in the mix!
Are any of your favourites here?