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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

What Books Made You?


Yesterday, I went to Bailey's Women's Prize For Fiction and Grazia present #ThisBookClub Live, a panel discussion by five notable women and readers on the two books that they believe had the most influence on their careers and lives and shaped them to be who they are today. The discussion was part of a week's celebration of reading and authors in the run-up to the announcement of the winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction on Wednesday.

Chaired by renowned author, Kate Mosse, the panel was made up of columnist and author, Grace Dent; Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty and chair of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges; Polly Vernon, Grazia columnist and author of Hot Feminist; Aminatta Forna, award-winning author and Jane Shepherdson Chief Executive of Whistles.

The discussion was lively, the women were intelligent, insightful and a joy to listen to; I was especially spellbound by Aminatta Forna who I must admit I had never read and who has the most mellifluous voice that I ever did hear and smart, lucid opions (must buy her book). Grace Dent is delightfully witty as you would expect from her columns and Polly Vernon is part-girly, part fierce-honesty. Shami Chakrabarti I love, I have heard talk before and she must be one of the wittiest lawyers that has lived... (sorry cheap lawyer joke there). Jane Shepherson, an incredibly impressive business woman came across warm and bright. Kate Mosse, was just well, the narrator/chair that charmed us all, as she does in her books.

Of the two books they chose each, I had read four of ten, the rest are on my reading list now... I will list these at the bottom.

However, what the discussion really left me with, was what books had affected me in the same way? What literature had shaped my life in some way.... obviously there are numerous, but as 60% of these were wiped out of their stipulations, due to the fact that they were written by men, I at least could cut my list a little shorter. Here, after some soul-searching, are my two...

1) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Frankenstein was one of the books I chose to write my dissertation on; a ten-thousand word rambling on motherhood, taking in the novels of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, as well as Wollstonecraft's pioneering text, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. My dissertation, was not as good as it should of been, crafted in my third year at university where I was a little lost in a spiral of slight depression and - as I now recognise - quite bad OCD.

However, Frankenstein sung out to me when I read it... Billed as a horror story, I thought I would not like it, but in fact, I loved every part of it. The creature's narrative especially, which is written in the most beautiful language thrilled me to the core. Shelley is so gifted in telling the story, but she also teaches through it. She teaches about the danger of unnatural creation, the danger of leaving women by the way-side, the story of nature vs nurture. To me Frankenstein, is a story about a lost child and Shelley herself had an absent mother - dead as she was. With all the impressive themes that the novel delivers, what I most gained from it at the time, I think, was the beauty of language, of description and of narrative. The narratives of the three main protagonists of the novel are all written so differently. She is a wonder storyteller is Shelley.

2) Harry Potter series JK Rowling
Ok, I ummed an ahhed about this second choice, there are novels by Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker which all shaped my "womanhood" and how I grew up, how I learnt about feminism and how I learnt about myself. But if we are really looking at books that glare out at me through the years, that I remember and reread. It is this series. From the first book, published when I was 11 to the last which I read proudly at 21, there was ten years of growing up, of fighting with my sister about who got to read the family copy first, of learning. I aged with Harry and Hermione (kick-ass female if ever there was one) and the rest.

There are two main points that I still take from these books, even as I read them now. Firstly Rowling inspires me as a writer because of her ability to tell stories, she is a great story teller, telling tales that span years with multiple characters and plot lines... I envy this and I praise that it can be done so well. 

Secondly, it is the magic. I have always loved the idea of magic existing alongside the humdrum of day-to-day life. Those are the best stories, to me. And at times when I felt adolescent and misunderstood and later when I felt sad and I didn't know why, these stories took me to a world that I wanted to believe was true. Now, older and not wiser and as I still attempt life and still make plenty of mistakes, I like to believe and live in the magic of everyday. And when I read Rowling, she still helps me to remember this.

So tell me please... what books made you who you are?

Books chosen by the panel:

Grace Dent: 
The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Shami Chakrabarti
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Biography of Eleanor Marx - Rachel Holmes

Jane Shepherdson
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Union Street - Pat Barker

Aminatta Forna
The  Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes - Maya Angelou

Polly Vernon
Lace - Shelley Conran
The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

All available in good book shops and online.

#The100DayProject, #100DaysofWriting, Day 15

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