Gwenda Major’s Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them

Article published on December 26, 2017.

After reading other reviewers’ Ten Books… lists, I couldn’t resist having a stroll around my bookshelves to reacquaint myself with some forgotten volumes. Nowadays I tend to acquire books after reading reviews online or in the press, but it wasn’t always like that.

1. The Golden Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermeyer – This large hardback book was a birthday present when I was about eight years old. I loved everything about it – the size, the illustrations and the huge variety of poems inside. It not only introduced me to Lewis Carroll’s limericks and the surreal silliness of ‘The Akond of Swat’ by Edward Lear but also gave me an early taste of the work of so many other great poets.

2. Private Papers by Margaret Forster – I remember buying this paperback at the Words by the Water Literary Festival in Keswick in 2016 just after the author’s death. She was already a favourite author of mine for books such as Lady’s Maid, The Memory Box and Have the Men Had Enough? – I have always admired her unpretentious prose and the deceptively simple way she lays bare motives and feelings. It’s sad to think there won’t be any more of new novels by her to add to my bookshelves.

3. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson – This little second-hand hardback book came my way in 1982. We were living in France in a remote mill-house with two small children, after my husband accepted a job and house swap for a year with a French teacher. There were lots of positives about the year but I remember feeling quite isolated and desperate for stimulation. Then a bookseller friend arrived on a visit from England. This magical and timeless description of rural life in Victorian England was one of the delights in a box of books she brought over to France, books that saved my sanity.

4. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – A well-thumbed Penguin edition bought in about 1968 when I was studying English for A level. We had a wonderful, charismatic English teacher who talked to us like adults and gave us a suggested reading list of books to broaden our experience of literature. Among the authors on the list were Iris Murdoch, Mary McCarthy, J.D. Salinger – and D.H. Lawrence. I felt terribly sophisticated and daring as I read the novel, aware of the obscenity prosecution against Penguin in 1959. I went on to devour Lawrence’s other books but sadly, when I tried to re-read one recently, I found it very dated and the sexual descriptions slightly absurd.

5. Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach – I have a weakness for reading books with a particular setting in the relevant place if I can. Some years ago my daughter was living in the Netherlands and we were frequent visitors as our first grandchild was born there. Tulip Fever had been published earlier but I remember buying it to read in Leiden in 2009 and being caught up in the tale of greed and gambling set in the seventeenth century when a single bulb could be worth a fortune. The phenomenon is now being compared to the surge in value of bitcoin. It seems human nature does not change.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – A small hardback copy published by Collins with an inscription on the flyleaf ‘To Lily with love from Edna Xmas 1932.’ My two great-aunts had a glass-fronted bookcase in their living room and I would pore over the titles whenever I visited. When they both died many years ago I had the pick of the books and chose Jane Eyre among others as it had long been one of my favourite stories. The story of Jane’s unhappy childhood and struggle for independence, plus her passionate love affair with Mr Rochester, affected me deeply and I would re-read it often when I was younger.

7. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems – A Penguin edition dated 1967 and covered in sticky-back plastic. Another reminder of how many of my lifelong literary favourites date from A-level days. Reading the ecstatic, metaphysical poems written by this unhappy Victorian Jesuit priest was a revelation to me. It taught me that poems can operate on different levels and to recognise the beauty and power of language. Phrases from Hopkin’s poems such as The Windhover and Pied Beauty still float into my mind today.

8. A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan – An elegant slim hardback volume of short stories sent to me for review for the Nudge website in 2016. I had already read two novels by Ryan, The Thing About December and A Spinning Heart, so was keen to try his short stories. I was not disappointed – his language is beautifully lyrical even when his themes are brutal and bleak. Pessimistic but poetic, Donal Ryan’s work stays with you long after you’ve closed the book.

9. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell – A book group choice in 2012 on a list compiled from the titles available through our local library service. This was my introduction to Maggie O’Farrell’s novels and still my favourite, although I have gone on to read several others such as Instructions For a Heatwave, The Distance Between Us and This Must Be The Place. I love her prose style and her meticulous telling detail. Now looking forward to reading her recent memoir I Am, I Am, I Am.

10. Carus and Mitch by Tim Major – Proudly acquired in 2015, this was my son’s first published novella. An unsettling tale full of threat and tension about two young girls left alone after their mother’s disappearance. Tim is a freelance editor and writer of speculative fiction and has gone on to have several more books published. His books naturally have their own shelf in our house!

Gwenda Major
December 2017

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