Gateway Books Part One

Hello Bookworms!

I’ve fallen down a nostalgia induced Google wormhole today trying to research this blog post – aargh!

*Bonus points for knowing what 90’s music video this is from

Why have I spent the last hour chuckling at images of old Just 17 magazines and frantically trying to place random tv theme tunes? Well, I’ve been looking back through my life to see which books have been the real game-changers… the ones that I’m calling:

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A whole new worrrrrrlllllldddddd….

Ahem.

So, I thought it would be good to start at the beginning, when I first began to choose my own books. I guess at around ten years old I was mostly reading:

Children’s Fiction (unsurprisingly)

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I remember reading Goodnight Mister Tom with the rest of the class at primary school and it was so sad but utterly captivating too. Even the annoying kids with poor concentration were absolutely gripped by the story! The backdrop of the war led me to¬† other books like Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo and Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden and when I was even older, books like All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks (which I purchased years ago and still haven’t got round to reading, oops).

I also LOVED all of those animal stories written for children like The Sheep Pig by Dick King-Smith (which was made into the film Babe) and Charlotte’s Web, which very nearly made me a vegetarian (but failed at the first sniff of a bacon sandwich). I still love books about animals – I recently read The Bees by Laline Paull which was both super interesting and super-disturbing.

I also read lots of…

Children’s Classics

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I went through a big Enid Blyton phase when I was younger, especially The Famous Five (I wanted to be George, obvs) and Mallory Towers, which made me want to go to boarding school. I can draw a direct line between this book and a later series of books set at a somewhat more magical boarding school… in hindsight these books are pretty problematic but at the time I loved them.

I also loved books like What Katy Did, where naughty Katy got her comeuppance and learnt to be good by following the meek and mild Aunt Helen. I have SUCH vivid memories from this book – the medicine bottles on the shelf, the cracked staple holding up the fateful swing, the menus she would have to write where she complained that every meal had to either be pork, chicken or beef and couldn’t someone just invent a new meat (something I regularly think about when I can’t decide what to cook). The feminist in me shudders at this story now but at the time I couldn’t get enough of it. I have equally fond memories of books by E. Nesbit like The Railway Children and Five Children and It, which led me to the fantastical, magical stories of people like Neil Gaiman.

Finally, I also got very much into…

Humour/Humorous Poetry

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(Aargh why won’t these pictures align????)

I went on holiday when I was about eight or so and, glory of glories, there was a whole bookshelf full of (adult) books for any of my family to borrow. I chose to read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 which, in hindsight, was far too old for me (I think I just skipped over the parts that I didn’t understand) and Some More of Me Poetry by Pam Ayres, which was really funny in a very innocent 1970’s way (or at least, that’s how I remember it). Both of the books were brilliantly amusing and made me love that kind of downtrodden working class sense of humour, leading me on to the rest of Sue Townsend’s works and even into stand up like Victoria Wood and working class folk-rockers like Grace Petrie:

 

And with that solid grounding in literature, I ventured into my teenage years… which will have to wait for another post!

So, what books did you enjoy growing up? How do you think they influenced your reading tastes now? Did they a wider impact on you as a person? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Collected Poems by Primo Levi

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For once, I’m going to write a serious book review, because the work of Primo Levi really does deserve some respect. In case you don’t know anything about him, Levi was born in Italy in 1919 to a Jewish family. He trained as a chemist, but the Second World War drastically altered his fate. After fighting in the Italian Resistance Movement, he was captured and in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews who went there with him, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. He managed this through a combination of luck and good judgement – his scientific knowledge led him to work within the camp’s laboratories attempting to make synthetic rubber, thus avoiding hard labour in freezing outdoor conditions and providing him with an opportunity to steal materials which could be traded for food with the other inmates. Shortly before the camp was liberated, Levi contracted Scarlet Fever and thus avoided the Auschwitz evacuation initiated by the SS which resulted in the death of the vast majority of the prisoners. After the war, he went on to become an author, and produced (amongst other things) some of the most haunting poetry that I’ve ever read.

This book is not to be read by the faint hearted. The earlier poems contained within the first third of the work are clearly an attempt by Levi to come to terms with the horrors of the war and although they often feature themes of anger and desolation, there’s also a sense of forgiveness. It’s quite amazing, considering what he must have gone through, but there’s never any judgement or blame – only reflection and bewilderment that the human race can treat each other so appallingly.

As Levi gets older, his poetry becomes more expansive and although many of the themes of warning, loss and regret are the same, the references become more veiled and allegorical. There’s also quite a lot of literary references (some are more obvious than others) but in the volume that I read all are referenced for easy explanation in the back of the book. I’ve seen some reviewers say that they think Levi’s later work isn’t as good as his war poetry, but I found the same narrative streak running through it all and thought that almost all of the poems had the same level of gravity and emotion.

The language used within Levi’s poetry is surprisingly gentle, and the meditative tone suggests a man trying to make sense of his experiences, rather than to shock or horrify. It’s an incredibly honest and emotive look at life, and Levi has a special way of using concise language to convey a myriad of thoughts and feelings. Although the book itself is quite slim, I would urge you to take your time in reading each poem individually, and really think about what message Levi was trying to get across.

I haven’t rated this book as it seems like an incredibly crass thing to do – but I do highly recommend it to you all.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #23 Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.