Not Quite 5 Books

The title of Balancing Jane’s latest post is: “Quick! Which 5 books have made you who you are?”. I would have replied there, if I thought for a moment that I could choose just 5. But of course, I could chose 5 books before I’d even got to secondary school, and perhaps I should, given how much your childhood can affect the rest of your life. If I did, I’d pick:

  • the Worst Witch series, Jill Murphy
  • My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
  • Alice (in Wonderland, and Through The Looking-Glass), Lewis Carroll
  • the Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton
  • Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Mildred, the “worst witch”, was a hillariously forgetful, charmingly inept character in a series of stories that featured a beautiful charicature of boarding school, with the innevitable turning-people-into-frogs style of magic thrown in for good measure. She taught me that even if it looked like everything was going wrong, it would probably turn out alright in the end. Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical My Family is a disarmingly funny and honest account of his family’s life in Corfu, plus some commentary on animals. In secondary school, I returned to my Durrell collection – at that time, I owned almost every book he’d ever written – and read them continuously, to try to pass a creative writing exam by absorbing the style of a published author. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I didn’t quite manage it – probably because I wasn’t being original enough!

Alice In Wonderland is probably the best-known of the books in my list, and certainly the oldest. I’ve always enjoyed maths, and logic, and the flights of absurdity in Alice are still fantastic to read. Darrell, the main character in the Malory Towers series, endeared herself to me for two reasons: she was drawn with short hair, and she often lost her temper! Farmer Boy, and indeed the rest of the Little House series, I’ve already written about in this post on Teaspoon of Sugar.

Between 11 and 16 I read hundreds – literally hundreds – of books. I think I got through most of the books in my school library, which – now that I think about it – were a fairly odd mix. I can’t even begin to narrow my choices down to 5 here, but some of the authors I read in that period were:

Tamora Pierce (a USA-based fantasy author – too many books to list), Gillian Cross (The Demon Headmaster series), Diana Wynne Jones (UK-based fantasy author), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Michelle Magorian (A Little Love Song and Goodnight Mister Tom), Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses), Nancy Werlin (The Killer’s Cousin), Jaclyn Moriarty (Feeling Sorry for Celia), Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials series and the Sally Lockhart series), John Wyndham (The Midwich Cuckoos, Day of the Triffids, The Seeds of Time), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series – the books came out in the summer of every year I was in secondary school, you couldn’t miss them), Douglas Adams (The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), Phillipa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden), Mary Norton (The Borrowers), Judy Blume (USA-based teen fiction), Agatha Christie (crime fiction, and yes, I think I’ve read almost every book she wrote!).

And after that, I did a lot of re-reading. Many of the authors I’ve listed still appear on my bookshelf. That’s pretty impressive, given how often I’ve tried to trim it back! But here’s five adult books that I can’t go without mentioning:

  • 1984, George Orwell. A popular book for any list!
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Magaret Atwood. Truly terrifying.
  • The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter. Again, scary.
  • The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova. A beautiful re-working of Dracula, with extra libraries.
  • I Am Legend. Richard Matheson. More vampires – you can never have too many!

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except to say: books. I like them. And I would like to have the space to store more of them, so that I could re-populate my bookshelf with all of the authors I’m now thinking of.


I am a grumpy bastard. Why?

  1. I’m bleeding.
  2. I’m trying to use more emotional energy than I actually have, resulting in tears before bedtime.
  3. My eating patterns are all out of sync, so I feel crap.
  4. Have you tried revising while hungry, grumpy and tearful? Not good.
  6. FLATMATE! CLEANING THE BATHROOM IS NOT SOMETHING FOR WHICH YOU SHOULD RECEIVE A COOKIE! (Also, I would have noticed it was clean all by myself. Because the dust was gone.)

On The Lone Heroine

Now, this is an epiphany I don’t quite know what to do with.

Fantasy books for women perpetuate a binary that makes no sense: be ordinary, with company, or be extraordinary, alone. Well, I say “ordinary”. I probably mean “feminine”. And I say “extraordinary”, but I probably mean “masculine”.

All those female leads, with no family, no female friends, only one or two men, at least one of whom they invariably end up having sex with…. To only realise now what kind of message that gave me, that it still gives me – well, it feels about as clever as the time I spent half an hour looking for my glasses, only to find them on my face.

I always wanted to be that girl.

Always alone, always the best. Never needing anybody. Especially not other women. I don’t like to write that, but it’s true. Yay for deeply entrenched misogyny. It’s always fun discovering that in yourself.

And only now do I realise that I’m not that girl, that I never was and I never could be. Not only that, but now – now I don’t want to be her anymore.

Well, I Feel Suitably Feminine

My blood donor records now have a special note on them, asking whichever nurse I see to make sure I lie down for 5 minutes after I’ve finished donating, lest I do what I did the first time and collapse twice.

I was very well behaved this time round, and didn’t feel faint once. That came later, when I was in a bookshop, having convinced myself that I was fine this time. I think perhaps I destroyed my feminine credentials by immediately dropping everything I was holding and sitting down on the floor. In the fantasy section. Which wasn’t decorated in pink.

If Only All Temp Work Could Be Like This

Yesterday and today, I have been working for a library, moving books around.

I get a fifteen-minute break in 3.5 hours, a cheerful and entertaining third-year zoologist to work with, and work that keeps me busy. Although it also covers me in dust. Whoever would have thought that books could be so mucky?!

I’ll be working with the Library and the entertaining zoologist every morning this week and next week, because I was an idiot and didn’t realise that that’s what the advert had said. I had thought that I was only working for one morning, and made plans which I’ve now had to cancel – I was not pleased.

On the other hand, there are any number of sensible reasons to do the work (mainly concerning money, and me having to be up and working every morning, but also being able to do my own thing after 1 in the afternoon every day, which technically gives me no excuse not to do that university work I was trying not to think about) and also a very silly reason, which is that I have never met anybody other than Kirsten with such a talent for turning up dead baby jokes.

For instance, when we were sorting a shelf of books about injuries to children (it’s a hospital library, it does make sense), we found one entitled “the battered baby”. She looked at it for a moment, poker-faced, before turning to me and saying “do you think it’s a serving suggestion?”

Things Not To Do When Ill

When you have the lurgy, and want to relax quietly in a semi-darkened room, don’t try to read Sexing The Body. You will end up with the book on top of your head when you fall asleep. This does not make you look or feel clever.

Also, although it is interesting, there was a whole chapter on cutting up brains. In my weakened state, I decided that Anne Fausto-Sterling must have some connexion with zombies.

Also also, although it was published in 2000, it presumably took some time to write, because she refers to “something called a listserve…. The comments are read by a group of people hooked together via electronic mail.” Perhaps because I was growing up when the internet prettified itself, and so never participated in forums like that, both the idea and the explanation seem terribly quaint to me. In much the same way that my brother finds it amazing that I existed before DVDs.

At some stage, when I am less ill, I might try to review this in a way that approaches sensible writing. Right now, the only other thing I have to say is that it’s a very dense book. I am only halfway through. And the bloody thing’s a short-term loan from the university library, which means I should be giving it back on Thursday. I’ve already renewed it once, and I only got it out yesterday!


I like Oxfam.

They sell me books cheaply. I’m veering between reading a book about sex-role stereotyping written in 1979 and Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell. They work well together, mainly because when the arguments* that make me grind my teeth and pull faces from the first book get too much for me (“men have better spacial awareness and worse verbal skills than women because men needed to work out how far away the moose that they were hunting was and women needed to teach babies how to talk”), I can pull out Things Can Only Get Better.

Not only does the title work in much the same way as the front cover of the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (“don’t panic”), but the book itself is full of classic quotes like

“I was going to commit myself because they needed someone dynamic like me, someone who got things done, who didn’t sit around talking but actually got in there and made a difference. About twelve months later I finally got around to sending the form off.”


“Like bubonic plague and stone cladding, no-one took Margaret Thatcher seriously until it was too late.”

This, and my upcoming tests in three out of my six modules, is why I’m not really around to blog at the moment. And, you know, taking part in student demonstrations, making friends with hippies and giving a plackard about the high price of student housing to a bemused and giggling estate agent. All those things you’re meant to do as a student. I took one of his leaflets about cheap student housing, so I think it was a fair trade.

* The book is actually refuting these arguments. The problem is that in order to say why they think the arguments are bollocks, they have to repeat the arguments. Hence the teeth-grinding and face-pulling.