chestnut book blog

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My ten most influential / inspiring books

A little Facebook meme has been keeping me and my friendship group amused recently. We’ve all ‘tagged’ to write a list of the ten books that have most influenced / inspired us. I thought I’d share mine here to hopefully inspire a few more recommendations and inspirations!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first time I read this book, the world looked a little bit different after I had finished it. I have read this book countless times now and every time I love it a little bit more.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
My favourite childhood series and I have a very soft spot for the red headed orphan to this day.

3. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
* I wrote a little explanation below for my friends on this one, but if you are a regular here, you’ll know how much I love this one already!

Am I allowed non-fiction? This book is virtually unknown, but I turn to it every time I need a comfort read. It describes the author just reading from her own library for a year, without buying any new books. She discovers old favourites, remembers the authors she has met and the stories around her books. In the end she complies her list of 50 essential books…fascinating and inspiring.

4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Not as well-known perhaps as The Age of Innocence (which is also one of my favourites) but Lily Bart’s story broke my heart. Beautifully written.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
My Dad’s favourite book and so I absorbed this from the cradle upwards! A masterpiece.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Just how did a woman who had barely left a Yorkshire parsonage imagine a man like Heathcliff??

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a Yorkshire woman, I feel I am allowed two Brontes on my list. This was the first classic I read around the age of ten or eleven and so it has a special place in my heart. I have a quote from Jane Eyre engraved on one of my favourite bracelets: ‘I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ …just to remind me!

8. Othello, Shakespeare
Does a play count? I really struggled whether to choose Othello or Macbeth, but went for Othello as I don’t think anyone understands or describes human beings better than Shakespeare and all his genius is displayed in Othello. Having studied both at school and seen them many times, I can quote from them copiously!

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
The ending astonished me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after I had read it. A modern classic.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Opened my eyes in so many ways.

I apologise to all the wonderful books that I have forgotten to mention, but this was the list that came to me on Tuesday night. My friends’ lists contained some other wonderful recommendations that I have never read: I’ve added the The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Shogun by James Clavell to my wish list! What would be on your list? I’d love to know.


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The Age of Miracles

For eleven-year-old Julia, it is the age of miracles; the age where kids shoot up three inches over the summer; that rough crossing, from childhood to the next life.

I have a long love affair with dystopian fiction. Aged eleven, I sat at a battered, oak, lift-top school desk and a work copy of The Guardians by John Christopher was put in front of me. It had a frayed purple cover and I can still remember the bitter, brittle smell of it. Goodness knows how old it was and I’ve not seen it anywhere since, but I loved it. Three years later, in the same classroom with high Victorian windows and institutional buttercup paint, I was given George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We were to read and compare them for our G.C.S.E’s. I read 1984 in about 48 hours and the world did not look the same afterwards. I think this was the start of my love of books that unnerve, make you think and leave you wiser. I then, inspired, found Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale by myself and if you’ve read this blog for very long, you will know I loved that enough to come back to it in my Open University Masters degree last year. Fahrenheit 451 and The Road have also been added to my collection in the years that followed.

Some of my Dystopias collection

Some of my Dystopias collection

When I saw that a new dystopian novel had been released, The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, I knew I had to read it. I will say immediately that this was lighter than I expected. More of a holiday read than a life-changer like 1984. However, it was perfectly enjoyable. The premise, a ‘slowing’ of the turning of the earth with days and nights getting longer is shaky at best, but the real story here is about Julia and her family. Thompson Walker uses the device of an adult looking back on childhood to good effect and the characters are well drawn in the main.I thought there were a few too many loose ends that felt just forgotten rather than deliberate, for example, what happened to Sylvia and would life really continue as normal for as long as it does?

If you are heading off on holiday soon, The Age of Miracles is a good book to take along. It keeps your attention, the plot flows nicely once you’ve suspended your disbelief and it is more gently executed that most dystopian / possible future novels. That said, do not expect more than it can give.

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My life in books

I caught an old episode of ‘My life in books’ this lunchtime and it got me thinking about which books I would choose. I believe the format is two childhood books, one formative book, one adult book and one guilty pleasure: five books in total. Phew, it is a hard task to narrow down all those books I love but here goes:

1. My first childhood book is Matilda by Roald Dahl

2. My second childhood book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

3. My formative book is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4. My adult book is Atonement by Ian McEwan

5. My guilty pleasure is Katherine by Anya Seaton

The first book from my childhood was the most difficult of this whole list to choose . I have so many happy memories of fairy stories, Enid Blyton, C.S Lewis, Nancy Drew, Mrs Pepperpot, Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, Little WomenThe Borrowers etc that I read, and had read to me, in my early childhood. I choose Matilda in the end as it was one of my favourite books when I was very young. I think Roald Dahl mixes the humour and the darker side of childhood better than anyone. Matilda trotting off to the library to read appealed to me as a bookish child and Miss Trunchbull has to be one of the best literary villains of all time.

Jane Eyre was the first classic ‘grown up’ book that I read aged 10 or 11. I remember being precociously proud that I was reading Jane Eyre whilst my friends still grappled with The Famous Five. At last, I had found something I was really good at: reading! Since then, I have reread Jane Eyre many times for pleasure and more recently for one of my early MA essays. It contains one of my favourite quotes from any book: ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…’ Ever since that has helped me remember that I am free to choose, which I do need reminding of sometimes!

The Handmaid’s Tale is a strong contender for my favourite book ever. I was 15 or 16 when I read this for this first time and I vividly remember reading the last sentence, looking up from my chair and feeling like my understanding of the world has profoundly changed. It literally blew me away. Since then, like with Jane Eyre, I have reread it many times for pleasure; studied it for A Level English Literature and chosen to use it for my MA dissertation. I think it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and I am sure it will stand the test of time.

I have chosen Atonement by Ian McEwan as another for my list. This is again a rare book which fundamentally changed my outlook on life. I was haunted by it after I’d finished for weeks and thought the twist at the end was one of the most clever things I’d ever read.

Finally, my guilty pleasure is Katherine by Anya Seaton. This is one of my favourite books and I am blushing as I type this as I know it is somewhat uncool. I am a complete sucker for a good historical romance and Katherine is one of the best. The research Anya Seaton had done shines through and Katherine emerges as a real, believable woman, very much of her time, but someone who made her own independent choices (see Jane Eyre quote above to know that is important to me!) I recently had to buy a new copy as my original – given to me by my Grandma – was falling apart I had read it so much!

What would your list contain?

Can English Literature be summed up by one symbol?

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Can English Literature be summed up by one symbol, ‘The Island’? I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s guide to Canadian literature, Survival. As well as being very useful for my dissertation, it has raised this interesting question that I thought I’d share.

Atwood explores the idea that every country or culture’s literature ‘has a symbol at its core’. She acknowledges this is a massive generalisation, but suggests that America’s symbol is ‘the Frontier’, for England, it is ‘the Island’ and for Canada, it is ‘Survival’. I’ll be addressing the American and Canadian ideas in my dissertation, but it got me thinking about English Literature. Is the one unifying principle of my culture’s literature ‘The Island’?

Atwood goes on to explain that by ‘Island’, she means the sense of ‘island-as-body, self-contained, Body Politic, evolving organically, with a hierarchical structure…’ She gives the example of old proverb ‘the Englishman’s home is his castle’ as a practical example of this. I think there are two key ideas in here, first that English Literature is remarkably self-contained and secondly that it is defined by our class structure. Whilst ‘the Island’ represents self-containment well, I don’t think it is particularly true that English literature is self-contained. From our earliest stories, English literature has been influences by a wide range of cultures, ideas and countries. Beowulf for example was influenced by Scandinavian sagas, Chaucer by French romances and Shakespeare by Boccaccio. I am sure there are many more examples, but that was just off the top of my head! I think literature by definition is a melting pot of different influences and so to say any literature is ‘self-contained’ is problematic. What is less problematic for me is the idea of our literature being extremely influenced by class hierarchy. There is plenty of evidence for this, from Dickens to Austen and more recently, Ian McEwan. However, is this the central unifying principle to our vast canon of literature? It is certainly a strong candidate, but I do feel slightly uncomfortable with endorsing it wholeheartedly. I’m trying desperately to think of exceptions to justify not feeling comfortable, but the more I think about it, the more positive examples I think of!! One thing I can say though is that I don’t see the link between ‘The Island’ as a symbol and class hierarchy. Why not just call our symbol ‘Class’? I don’t think there are any easy answers to this, but it is a question I will have to keep thinking about until I reach a more satisfactory conclusion for myself. If I have any further worthwhile insights, I’ll let you know!

In conclusion, a big thank you to the wonderful Margaret Atwood for making me think, as she always does!