‘The World Of Jeeves’ by P.G.Wodehouse (Arrow; Random House) I am always fascinated by which books people have on their bookshelves. Last year, whilst reading a book about what a variety of people list as their favourite books, I was amazed that so many of them listed this book. Years ago I had the search engine ‘Ask Jeeves’ on my computer and I realised that Jeeves must be a very helpful, knowledgeable type of guy, but I didn’t know his literary reference. This is the first Wodehouse book I have ever read and I just loved it. There are a myriad of Jeeves books, but this one is a really good place to start as it introduces the characters in order from the moment of Jeeves’ employment . Set in England early last century, we meet the hapless young Bertie Wooster who has an independent income, quirky personality and gets himself into all manners of strife and awkward situations. He employs the all-knowing, capable, rational Jeeves as his man servant and Jeeves gets Wooster out of all sorts of crazy situations. The combination of Wooster’s fabulous and flamboyant expressions and Jeeves’ deadpan, unemotional responses made me laugh out loud time and time again. My second eldest daughter is really enjoying reading this book now. A wonderful, light, but clever read.
‘The Diary Of A Young Girl’ by Anne Frank (Puffin; Penguin) My dear friend, Harriet, recommended this book for the Book Group we were both in a few years ago. It was the first time I’d read it. It’s the true story of 13 year old Frank and her family and friends who hid very quietly in an annexed area of a warehouse (whilst other people worked downstairs) in Amsterdam to avoid the horrors of Nazi occupation during World War II. Franks wrote her diary for 2 years whilst in hiding and it’s an intimate reflection of family life, hopes of freedom, fears of discovery and the perils of hunger. The diary ends abruptly when the family and friends are discovered. The pages of the diary were found and given to Frank’s father, the only member of her family who survived the concentration camps, after the war. I found this book a terribly moving and very sad tale of persecution. It is often referred to as the single most poignant true-life story to emerge from World War II.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen (Penguin) This is the first Austen book I ever read. I remember my wonderful English teacher, Mrs Mitchell, read it aloud to my high school class and I was so captivated by the characters and plot. One of those books you HAD to just go home and read what happened next BEFORE the next English class – what more could an author want from a reader! I have read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a couple of times over the past years and I marvel at Austen’s wonderful character descriptions and developments. They are so rich that you really feel like you get to know each character through their spoken words and actions. This year celebrates 200 years since the book was first published and even though Austen was writing about the issues of her time, her wit and clever twists and turns of the plot keep readers today intrigued. My eldest daughter and I share a passion for this book. I am a huge fan of designer Coralie Bickford-Smith’s work. This edition of cloth-bound edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in mustard yellow and butterscotch is designed by Bickford-Smith and is sumptuous, tactile and just a beauty to behold!
‘84 , Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff (Penguin) This short, surprising book of letters was a real joy to read. It’s the true story of Hanff who, as a free-lance journalist, writes from New York and asks used book dealer, Marks & Co. booksellers in London (84 Charing Cross Road, London), for out of print books she is trying to find. What follows is a wonderful correspondence and professional friendship that develops between Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Co., from the letters and parcels between them sent across the ocean for 20 years between 1949 and 1969. We learn of the day-to-day happenings, family celebrations of both parties and wartime deprivations in London. The letters are quite candid, warm and often funny – actually, hysterical. Hanff and Doel never meet, but share a fondness and rapport bound by their love of books. As a lover of letters, especially hand-written ones, I loved this celebration of friendship, books and the joy of receiving correspondence and parcels in the mail.
‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss (Fourth Estate; Harper Collins Publishers) If I was told that this book was a book about punctuation, I might have run a mile, but one of my sisters and one of her daughters both consider it a great read. Now that I’ve read it, I totally agree – so thank you to Kate and Phoebe for suggesting it to me. Truss is a magician because she actually makes a book about punctuation hilariously funny, which is quite a tall order! The title is an example of how punctuation can be used in different ways – a panda eats a sandwich, fires a gun and then leaves. The panda explains that, ‘in a badly punctuated wildlife manual’ it describes a panda as ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ (obviously the comma is not supposed to be after the word eats and it should be ‘eats shoots and leaves’). When I asked the wonderfully flamboyant lady in a local bookshop for this book, she threw her hands up in the air theatrically and exclaimed, “Oh, THAT book! I’m SOOOO sick of explaining the joke in the title!’ This book is funny, witty and demonstrates the use of apostrophes, commas, semi-colons and other tricky punctuation rules of the English language. I never knew punctuation could be so much fun!
Read my interview with Lynne Truss here.
Visit Lynne Truss’ website here.
‘The Story Of My Life’ by Helen Keller (Bantam Classic; Random House) I remember that my one of my sisters, Kate, had a copy of this book with grass green edging that she had chosen to buy from the treasured book order brochures at school. I didn’t know anything about Keller, but the back of the book had a raised copy of the Braille alphabet which intrigued me. Recently I read this book and was amazed by the story of Keller. Born in 1880 in USA, Keller suffered from an illness when she was 19 months old which left her with complete loss of sight and hearing. Blessed with an amazing and insightful teacher, Keller was taught to read and then write, initially by the teacher writing out letters with her fingers on to Keller’s palms. Keller explains the moment when the teacher finger-spelt ‘water’ on her hand whilst they were at the water-pump and connections were made. Written by Keller when she was 22, the book traces her frustrations and also breakthroughs into the world of communications including her graduation at college in an era when the very fact of a woman going to college was unusual. This book is an amazing and inspiring account of someone overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles with great courage, grace and peace.
‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens (Penguin) This was my first Dickens, once again read aloud by my fabulous high school English teacher, Mrs Mitchell. I can still hear her blood-curdling rendition of Magwitch’s voice and see her change of posture when reading Miss Havisham’s words. ‘Great Expectations’ was originally published as a serial in the newspaper each week and, basically, I don’t know how the readers waited! The suspense must have been dreadful! I have read the book a few times recently and loved it anew. With a wealth of sad, poverty-stricken stories to draw on from his own childhood (and then, presumably, some stories of his tremendous rise to fame), Dickens weaves his stories with examples of inequality, child labour, the effects of the industrial revolution and a range of other topical subjects of his day (and, sadly, many still relevant today). His characters are so well defined that I can hardly remember life before them. The end of the book is unpredictable, astonishing and clever. Once again that talented Coralie Bickford-Smith has designed the most glorious cover in royal blue with the aged yellow chandeliers of Miss Havisham’s mansion.
‘George, don’t do that…’ by Joyce Grenfell (Hodder; Hodder Headline) I was first introduced to this fictional account of a wonderful English Nursery teacher by one of my sisters, Kate. She must have been doing it for a skit (which she was fabulous at doing) and rehearsing it at home. This thin book is divided in to 6 quick sketches of different times in the nursery room filled with boisterous, noisy, active 3 and 4 year olds and a very harassed teacher who tries so earnestly to calm each child down, solve problems and include them all in the activities that it is priceless. The hysterically funny monologues are brilliantly observed and witty. Apparently when Grenfell was 28 she was asked to give an impromptu speech at a dinner party – she was so hilarious and clever that her genius and for comedy dramatic monologue was discovered there and then. In the book, we hear the nursery teacher cope (just!) with a boy hiding a hamster in his jumper, girls biting boys and 2 day old toast and marmalade found in pockets. We never do hear what George is repeatedly asked NOT to do, so, as the reader, we can make our own version up.
‘I Can Jump Puddles’ by Alan Marshall (Puffin; Penguin) I knew she was good, but I didn’t realise she introduced me to so many of my favourite classics! Here again it was my wonderful high school teacher, Mrs Mitchell who introduced me (this time in Year 7; first year of high school) to this book. I have read it a few times recently and remembered why I loved it so much. A memoir of his childhood in rural Australia, Marshall follows his family and schooling life in the early 1900s. Marshall contracts poliomyelitis (polio) as a child which he was determined not to let him stop climbing, horse-riding, swimming and all the other joys of childhood. The book gives an insight to life in Australia in that era with stories of bushmen, farmers and people who were self-reliant by necessity. An inspiring Australian tale of a humble and courageous boy.
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl (Puffin; Penguin) My brother was the first person I ever knew to read a Dahl book. I used to wait until he’d read them before I borrowed them from him. Dahl has a wickedly perceptive way of seeing and describing people and events. Pure storytelling magic! I re-read this book recently and loved the story of the humble Charlie Bucket and his grandfather winning a ticket to see the chocolate factory. I must admit that I think that illustrator, Quentin Blake’s, lively line drawings really enhance the text. You get the impression that Dahl must have loved imagining the rooms in the factory, the descriptions of the lollies and the various characters. When my family and I were in England we made a special trip to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden which was particularly well designed and interactive. You could dress up in outfits from Dahl’s various books, there were drawing rooms, an area to ‘bottle’ your own dreams and even Dahl’s original chair which you were encouraged to sit on just like he did with his writing board over his knees. I loved that this book was inspired by the fact that when Dahl was a child he boarded at school and nearby was a sweet factory which used to send the boys boxes of test lollies and chocolates from time to time. The boys would have to try them and then rate the sweets! As a family, we then made a trip to the Cadbury Factory in Birmingham which was a real treat seeing the production lines and creating your own chocolate mixture.
Read the interview with Quentin Blake here.