The first book I remember reading
I was able to read before I went to my kindergarten in the Sudan. I don’t know what books we took with us as we moved from there to England to Argentina, but the first I remember, which I found in my grandparents’ homes, were old-fashioned. One was Babar the Elephant. I think I liked it because I was homesick for Africa, though now I realise how much that Africa was shaped by the colonial gaze of Jean de Brunhoff.
The books which shaped my childhood
Reading about Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s love life when I was seven shape did not shape my childhood. To the amusement of the librarian who had allowed me to take it out, and my mother who had allowed me to read it, I declared I did not understand it. The books which shaped my childhood were set in foreign countries – the America of What Katy Did, What Katy did at School and the Naples of What Katy did Next by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey and the Hungary of The Good Master by Kate Seredy – or adventure stories for boys.
The books I read as a teenager
In the school library in Uruguay I encountered Charles Dickens, a supreme storyteller. The headmaster of my English boarding school was Sir Timothy Eden, Bt., elder brother of the Prime Minister. He had an extraordinary Edwardian library which I read my way through. At home I read light fiction, which remarkably did not make me racist or misogynist, and all of Graham Greene.
The first book which made me want to be a writer
At the age of fifteen I was made Chief Librarian and was given a budget to buy books. I bought The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. The RE teacher removed it from the shelves as unsuitable for young girls, which I still resent. The Quartet is too mannered for me now, but it showed me a narrative could be multi-faceted.
The book (or writer) who changed my view of the world
I became a feminist when I was sixteen. Then I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. She validated my view.
The book which will always have a place on my shelves
I came to Moby Dick by Herman Melville when I was middle aged. I hadn’t read it before because I thought it was about a whale. Its account of a man’s obsession, and the writing is electrifying.
The book I tell everyone else to read
Denis Johnson Train Dreams because of the clarity of his language, the simplicity of the plot and the depth of empathy. I think it is a perfect short novel, though it is totally different from his other work.
The book I didn’t finish
I give up on a book when it’s clichéd, when I know what the ending will be, when the writing is poor. But I gave up on Martin Chuzzlewit for none of those reasons. I just lost interest.
The book I am reading right now
The book I am reading right now is Dante’s Purgatorio. Mary Jo Bang translates it with a deep knowledge of contemporary culture and an ear for the vernacular which makes Dante’s verse and storytelling vivid and fresh.
The book I turn to for comfort
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield is a satire of village life between World War One and World War Two, feminist and very funny. I was interested to find that, as a vicar’s wife just outside Oxford in the 21st century, it did not seem to have changed much.