Monday, 17 February 2014

Lisl's Bits and Bobs: The Never Ending Story

…is something I have always loved to do, and there have always been books in my environment. I remember books collected by my mother on shelves in a family room, books I sought out at an early age, but of which I have only distant memories. To my grown-up mind, these books are quaint and perhaps old-fashioned, but I suppose then they were modern and certainly I was fascinated by them. I was very small, perhaps four, and remember my mother's delight each time I brought them out. 

She herself was a voracious reader, though she tried to limit my spending from getting out of control. As a night-shift nurse she often slept during the day and I, older by then, would creep into her room at lunchtime with my filled-out book club order form from school. I would say my hellos, ask her to sign, then soothe her to sleep once more before I was back off to class. A couple of weeks later she would get the bill and marvel at why she allowed me to spend so much money. In her continuing education for nursing, she often took night classes, and each week would end her night with a visit to the campus book shop where she picked out and brought home a treat for me. One of these was C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I already enjoyed reading then, this book expanded my passion not only with a wonderful story--for I loved magic--but also a young girl a lot like me. I also remember loving another class-night treat, Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

My father read at almost every spare moment, but even that must not have been enough, for he was up and dressed at about 04:00 each day and could be found sitting at the dining room table with his tea and open book. Every day of my childhood--even at weekends--he was at the table for two hours in the morning reading. He, too, brought books back for me, often from church book sales or shops he happened upon, and since he walked a lot, he seemed to find many of these. I recall great presentation of a hardbound book with plastic covering, ripped and crackling, and held in great esteem by my father. I devoured Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution; it and my father's great interest in the American Revolution must surely have influenced my own later interest in history, including weaponry and how wars have been conducted across eras.

I still remember our school's little library (although then it was vast) and chose books about a talking crocodile, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Cricket in Times Square, Treasure Island, and how I loved the Beverly Cleary books! Henry Huggins and two neighborhood children, Beezus and her annoying younger sister Ramona, who had their own books but crossed paths with Henry in the various stories, gave me such joy for many hours. I can still remember the main character in Otis Spofford finally getting his "come-uppance" not by any classroom rules or punishments, but in the more natural method of social consequences. Still I liked him, perhaps in the same way I did Edmund Pevensie of Narnia, as mean as he was to his sister, Lucy.

My auntie's house had a bookshelf upstairs, which somehow managed to always have books of interest to me, despite that my cousins were all much older. My first Trixie Belden mystery came from these shelves; another young detective in the Nancy Drew series also greatly appealed and I remember being envious of my friend's full collections.

I also immensely loved words, individually as well as as part of a larger passage or work, and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland gave my brain tremendous exercise, especially when I discovered The Annotated Alice. I was fascinated by Carroll's mathematical genius and the way he applied the subject to language, puzzles, logic and games of many kinds. One year I was gifted The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll and named my two hamsters (also a gift) Sylvie and Bruno, after the characters who lent their names to the story's title. Sylvie and Bruno--the pets--actually were silver with white (Sylvie) and brown and white. Unfortunately, I knew little of how hamsters interacted with each other and despite my fussy care of them, Bruno attacked Sylvie and did her in. The literary characters were much more placid and I made up silly rhymes in the style of their tale, so much did I like the pair.

Then I came upon a lobster quadrille
Who looked to me and said, "Be still.
Would you be free to take some tea
With no one else except for me?"

I don't recall how old I was when I began to read Dickens, but agreed straightaway when a high school teacher told someone, "If you are looking to increase your vocabulary, read Dickens." I loved his characters' names and often engaged for hours in the goings-on within their lives. My favorite became Bleak House, the intricate details of which I frequently discussed with my mother, whose own oral stories and historical information played a large role in my absorption of information. Through her I grew up hearing Arthurian tales and she drove me from one library branch to another for about a one-year period, as I looked up and sought out every book I could possibly find on the topic. One book in particular whose title I no longer recall, told the tale of Tristan and Iseult in a way no other yarn on the pair did: I spoke of it for years afterwards and even got some of my older relatives to read it.

The summer before school one year I was given a list of books to read, one of which was Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. It may have been the influence of my Italian friend's monthly romance books, but crazily I didn't want to read it. My mother pleaded with me to do and purchased the entire trilogy, despite my protestations, setting them on my night table shelf. On a weekend afternoon I sank to the floor in the process of dusting and happened to catch sight of the second book's cover, which enraptured me. It held me in its sway and I ended up reading the entire series. (The Wicked Day came later, as I hadn't at first realised a fourth existed.) My previous passion for this era re-ignited and I also began to read more about the Middle Ages. In history class we learned about 1066, naturally, but somehow I never read much about it on my own. Also, required like other pupils to specialize in one historical era, I chose World War II, and later was deeply moved by the German university student protest group The White Rose, which I read about in books such as A Noble Treason and At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl.

It was about this time I was also moved by Willa Cather's short story, "Paul's Case," which I currently own in the volume The Troll Garden, a collection of her selected works. As I set out on my own I continued to read and started to collect more books, including titles not ordinarily within my range of attention, such as Len Deighton's Hook, Line, Sinker and Game, Set, Match spy trilogies. I also started to read le Carré and Forsyth: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Secret Pilgrim, The Day of the Jackal, The Devil's Alternative and The Odessa File. Though it has been some years since I have read these last titles, I recall them with fondness not only because I enjoyed the stories woven within them, but also because each one and others led me to other topics I was hungry to learn about: history, cultures and languages to name but some. 

In more recent years I have been reading a lot of educational and, lately, historical fiction. By chance several years back I happened to have a conversation with someone, quite superficial really, about Richard III, and we discussed what we'd all been told in school. I decided to re-read a bit about him but, unsatisfied despite having intended to read the one book and be done with it, went on to read more, fiction and non-fiction. One of my favorite fictional accounts is Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour

Perhaps these prepared me for what the future would bring, for as I continued on, by now reading a lot of "boy books" given my interest in boys in education and the way their reading skills tend to taper off and fall below those of girls by about fifth grade--many schools still teach heavily biased towards a female style of learning and ignore the needs of boys--I also found a flame still burned within me for the  histories my father had led me to, and also the Merlin of my childhood, who also piques the interest of my young son. When the opportunity presented itself I read a book I might not have at another time, given my curious hesitation to immerse myself into the time of the Conquest: Paula Lofting's Sons of the Wolf. This book was and remains so important for me because Lofting was able to persuade me into the era as no other author had, and I cared immensely about the characters. Moreover, the novel opened up my world yet again; another turning point was reached in which I learned I could explore a new time and be fascinated (not frightened) all over again, continue to learn as I believe we are meant to in this life, and utilize that growth to shape what else waits ahead. 

My boy also has loved and/or led me to many wonderful books, either because he enjoyed them or he thought I would: Harry Potter, which I'd already read and enjoyed, and he begged me to speed up the learning to read so he could read them on his own; The Alchemist and the rest of the Nicholas Flamel series; Skinny Bones; Dying to Meet You (we both dissolved in laugher trying to read this aloud). Turtle also is rather adept at finding books likely to interest me. Several I've got now in my TBR include: Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality; Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain; and Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue and the Heresy Trial of His Mother.

Perhaps books fascinate me so because in addition to the tales they tell--and humans through history seem innately to like nothing more than a great story--they have such a profound effect on the mind, part of us that scientists have never truly been able to study.The memories our and others' stories stimulate, or events we associate with them, feelings and emotions they elicit, all of this in various ways tell the stories of our lives—even if not completely, though in turn creating yet more stories, linking us to each other. Given the ongoing nature of lifetime learning and constant hunger and reach for new books to read, they become part of our own tales, indeed each a never ending story.

I discovered this title in a US East Coast library, 
initially unaware it was part of a series. I later 
discovered several more series by this author, 
though these tales of a detective in a small, 
landlocked African country remain my favorite.

Do you recognize any of the books mentioned? Do they remind you of other forgotten faves? Do any appeal to your interests? Would you recommend any to Lisl and friends? Write it in below! Facebook users may also comment here.

Lisl can also be found at her blog, before the second sleep, where she writes about anything from her love of math to book reviews and children's literature. 


  1. Oh I so enjoyed reading this Lisl. What a wonderful "Book life" you have had. I am envious!

  2. Fantastic book life story Lisl. I am blushing at being included on your list. We have a few titles in common, like Mary Stewart, Sharon Penman and Charles D. May your happy reading continue