Friday 26 January 2024

From "Dead man in garage" to "Rather odd boyfriend": tantalising snippets from my mother's book book

Today is the 25th anniversary of my mother's death. This isn't going to be a tribute post as such - I have already written one of those, on the occasion of the 11th anniversary. It is true, however, that an item belonging to my mother has inspired this wit, her book log / book diary? / book book?!. This is a small hardbacked notebook in which she used to write down every title she had read in recent years. I don't know how far it goes back exactly, as there are no dates next to the entries, but she was clearly jotting things down in it right up till her death. (I will explain how I know in a bit...)

Taking a leaf out of my mother's book (no pun intended), I have kept a similar record myself for the past 15 years, and have been reading quite a lot lately. Michael Mosley (the ubiquitous TV doctor) has included "reading fiction" in his list of "just one things" that are beneficial for our health - in this case because it supposedly staves off dementia. I must say I don't need any encouragement to pick up a book, unlike some of his other exhortations, such as cold water showers, playing video games, or fasting, but it is nice to know that reading is not simply a stimulating escape into other worlds, but good for the old grey matter. I do find it harder to follow plots now than I used to, mind. I get so far into a book and come across a reference to Dorothy's bad leg, say, when I have no recollection of who Dorothy is, never mind an issue with either of her legs; this invariably has me flicking back fifty pages to see if I can find an earlier reference I must have missed. 

I read 40 books last year in fact, and will mention some of my favourites here (they are not all fiction, to be fair). It is a pretty mixed bag...or, as the Germans say, "diagonally across the garden":

Bill Bryson - The Road To Little Dribbling

Dorothy Max Prior - 69 Exhibition Road 

David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty Some Day

Laurent Gounelle - Le Réveil

Philippa Perry - The Book You Want Everyone You Love To Read

Mitch Albom - For One More Day

Lionel Shriver - Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

Lucy Atkins - The Night Visitor

Shari Lapena - The Couple Next Door

Molly Keane - Loving And Giving

Going back to Mother's notebook, there were a few symbols to decipher: a tick means she has acquired a book, then the tick is turned into a cross when she has read it. 

She also writes where she heard about each title ("Times", "Telegraph", "S.T. (Sunday Times), "Spectator" - and occasionally me - "Van"), notes down the price, and often adds a comment. Some books my mother admits she didn't finish, and there are quite a few mentions of not being able to get into a story, or not being in the mood for a particular style of novel: I should add that she was ill throughout this period, and it is possible that the treatment she was undergoing could have affected her stamina / interests.

Without further ado, here is a selection of her intriguing mini-synopses ;):

"Lesbian's Foxy (sic) interspersed with torturing deaf boy next door."

"Set in E Coast resort. Moslems and murder. Stars Barbara Havers."

"19th C magician used by French to sabotage Algeria."

"US woman wanting to escape 4 men in family."

"NZ novel couldn't read."

"Dead sister - heroine seeks regression."

"18th C man who felt no pain." - I can recommend that one myself!, by Andrew Miller. Has a feel of The Miniaturist about it.

And finally:

"Women has three men but gets rid of them to Dublin."

I also chanced across a postcard I had sent my mother in March '86, where I am talking about a book she must have recommended to me - no idea what it was, though my curiosity is piqued now. 

"So glad Edith tore up the letter in the end - much better to have so small a ration of great happiness than a whole lifetime of mediocrity if she'd married that smug Swindon businessman!"

Then over Christmas I decided to see how many of the books featured in my mother's book book I had read myself, and interestingly there were a good 15 or so - we had similar taste it seems.

As for how I know the notebook was up-to-date, this is to do with one of the later entries,"The Breaker" by Minette Walters, which is marked as unread. I had sent it to my mother as a present, as it had just come out and hadn't yet reached the hospital library, and when I finally made it to the hospital in Oxford on the day she died, I spotted my handwriting on a parcel at the nurses' station. The book had arrived, but Mother had not opened it. I took it home with me again, but couldn't bring myself to broach it for a long time afterwards. The last book Mother finished was "Eleven Hours" by Paullina Simons, which was one of the titles we had in common. I bought a used copy the other day with a view to rereading it sometime...

Do you keep a book book / log / diary, and if so, what the heck do you call it? ;)

How many books a year are you managing to read, and what would be any recent top picks?


Nicola Watson said...

What a charming writer you are Vanessa. I have just turned off the radio and I’m winding down after my book group “Christmas Party”. I hosted so have spent a happy hour afterwards clearing up, putting stuff in the fridge and generally fending off Tio. I’m sitting in bed with ginger tea and came across your blog post. Coincidentally, a post from another old friend read that it’s the anniversary of her mother’s death today. I think I met your mother once but maybe I just have seen photos of her and heard you talk about her. I feel like I’ve met her and can picture her clearly. She really was beautifully put together wasn’t she? How lovely to have such a delightful mother.
Im sure she would have appreciated your blog Vanessa. I certainly did.
I’d list the secret Santa books we’ve received today and books that we’ve read in our group, but I’m too lazy. You know that I’ve read at least one on your list.
I’ve wound down now so will say goodnight xx

Undina said...

I loved reading this post: it’s warm and slightly nostalgic. And it is kind of tribute to your mother.

I stopped reading books a while ago. From my childhood and through young adulthood, I was an avid reader and read something non-stop. But then something had changed. I can’t blame language: I kept reading books in both languages after I moved to the US. I think reading and writing a lot of “technical” stuff for work somehow killed the joy of reading fiction for me: it feels also like work. I want to try getting back into habit of reading for pleasure, but we’ll see how that goes.

I must mention though that books’ names from your recent reading list sound intriguing, which doesn’t happen to me often. I wonder: how did you choose them?

Anonymous said...

Oh this was lovely V. What a treat to get some wonderfully enigmatic entries from your mother's reading diary.

I used to log my reading on GoodReads but stopped a couple of years ago. I hear Story Graph is a much better option.

I read Yellowface by R. F. Kuang recently which was a big literary hit last year. It was an easy, fast paced read but didn't live up to all the hype for me.


Vanessa said...

Hi Nicola,

Thank you for your heartwarming comment! I can picture you in bed with your tea - and fending off the cat. ;) I can't quite remember if you have met my mum, but she came to Talbot Road a few times when I would have known you, so it is possible. She was indeed delightful and well "put together"...funnily enough that was one of the phrases she used to use to describe men of whose physique she approved without being overtly specific. ;) xx

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Glad you enjoyed the post, despite not being into reading fiction yourself anymore. You are right that it is a kind of a tribute to my mother after all...

Sorry that work related reading has displaced reading for pleasure for you, though I can see how that might happen. When you retire one day, perhaps that will change?

Here's the lowdown on why I chose those particular books:

1, 3 - humour
2 - numerous references to members of The Monochrome Set that I know. ;) Her latest memoir, which is not quite out yet, focuses on the band even more, apparently!
4 - blisteringly good satire of France's experience of the pandemic
5 - constructive book on relationships, happiness and more
6, 7, 10 - thought provoking and moving, and also funny in places
8, 9 - incredibly gripping page turners!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Thank you for supplying me with the missing term I am looking for - "a reading diary"! But of course. ;) And as a veteran of book reviews yourself you of all people would know.

I never thought of logging my reading on a public platform - think I will stick to my notebook though I do enjoy reading reviews on Goodreads.

I like the sound of Yellowface, but won't rush to read it based on your take. Plus I have too many book piles as it is! I was so impressed with The Night Visitor that I bought used copies of three more novels by Lucy Atkins as soon as I finished it.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post! I read your blog regularly, and enjoy it, but sometimes my posts get eaten-have no idea what happens to them.

In the last year of her life my mom and I would often read the same books. She'd be in hospital so she'd read whatever book in the day, and I'd manage a few pages at night. It gave us something to talk about. Also there were a ton of good books written about women and by women at that time-so strange an occurrence. Lots were Julia Child - biographies, and her letters back and forth to avis de Voto, who was instrumental in getting The French Chef published.

I was reading Half Blood Blues when my mom died. I remember loving it and I remember the feelings it brought up-but I can't remember anything about it, other than it was escapism at a tough time. And I cannot re read it now, 12 years later :)

Thank you for the hours of enjoyment I get from your blog-hope you're well and that your place in France is giving you some joy :)

Best regards,

Portia said...

No book log here Vanessa,
My memory is so bad that people get well past halfway telling me about something before I remember reading it. Got through nearly half the Harold fry movie before that twinge of memory appeared.
HA! Even reading can't stave off my minds slow demise.
Portia xx

Anonymous said...

Just to say I missed you, then discovered I wasn't getting my emails! Glad you are there!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carole,

Thank you for your lovely comment - I am pleased to hear you still enjoy Bonkers!

And what a touching tale of your own mother and your shared reading experiences at the end of her life - you know exactly how bittersweet that can be...

I haven't been to the French house since August, but have my next trip planned at least. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

Oh would think that Harold Fry movie would stick in your mind. I haven't seen it, but it sounds distinctive.

Reading can't stave off the mind's slow demise, I agree, but I shall keep trying anyway!

Vanessa said...

Hi Jillie,

Nice to see you again! Blogger is so erratic with its notifications, I'm afraid, and I don't know how to fix it. Take a look once a month at the blog maybe, to be sure of seeing if any new content has appeared?

Portia said...

Sorry Vanessa, I badly explained. I read the Harold fry book when it first came out and it wasn't till halfway through the movie that I realized I'd read the book. It's a bloody good tale in both forms and produced torrents of tears. Excellent and satisfying.
Portia xx

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

I see what you mean now! And sorry for the late reply to your comment.