MY BOOKS by a writer who was read bedtime stories about the Napoleonic Wars and who would only save a book from burning if convinced it was truly the last copy. First lines, first books, first literary loves….and more
Lizzie/Elizabeth Enfield is a writer and journalist, copious tea drinker and endless worrier. Her latest novel Ivy and Abe is a love story told over a lifetime and a series of alternate realities. It asks ‘is there are a right person, or just a right time? And raises a lot of ‘what ifs.’
What’s the first book you remember reading (or being read to you)? I think it was probably quite unusual in the sixties that my dad and not my mother used to read bedtime stories. He took over that bit of bedtime routine after gettting home from work. But he made no concessions to the fact we were children and read pretty much whatever he wanted to read himself out loud. I remember being read The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard the comic exploits of an officer in the Napoleonic Army written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Other children were being read Shirley Hughes at the time.
First Line: You do very well my friends to treat me with some little reverence, for in honouring me you are honouring both France and yourselves. It is not an old, grey-moustached officer whom you see eating his omelette or draining his glass, but it is a fragment of history.
Can you name a book from your childhood that made a big impact on you? Well, I guess Brigadier Gerard taught me a lot about the Napoleonic Wars. But my dad also read a lot of Dickens and I remember Great Expectations both terrifying and alarming me: I was terrified that there might be an escaped convict hiding under my bed and alarmed by the inequalities that Dickens writes about. I suppose Dickens awakened a social conscience in me.
What book are you reading right now? Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible. I absolutely love her writing and the way she infuses characters with such warmth that you want to know them all, no matter how strange and flawed they are. A lot of the characters in this book have appeared in her earlier My Name is Lucy Barton so it’s like hearing about old friends and learning new things about them.
And the one you read before that?
William Boyd’s Any Human Heart . It’s my cousin’s best ever book so I keep thinking I must read it and finally did. I loved it for the same reason I love Elizabeth Strout’s and various other writer’s books, it’s the way they render ordinary lives quite extraordinary through their words and paying such attention to details of character.
Burning books is wrong. What contemporary book (written in the last 30 years) would you save from a bonfire? Oh I don’t know that I would. There are so many copies of anything available and everything’s on Kindle. Do I need to risk delving into a fire to save a book?
Same question: what classic would you save? Ok, I know I’m being pedantic here but it would have to be something that’s out of print otherwise I am just getting burned for nothing! So I’d save Dr Dogsbody’s Leg by James Norman Hall. It’s a series of stories told by the eponymous Dogsbody and old seafarer who recreates the naval battles of the Napoleonic wars though barroom tales. The Napoleonic Wars clearly stuck!
Favourite non fiction book?
My friend Neil Ansell’s book Deep Coutnry about his experience of living alone in the Welsh hills for five years, quietly observing nature. It’s a beautifully written book and both calming and uplifting. He writes in a way that makes you stop and look at the world in a way that is balm to the soul.
Favourite poetry book? Or poem? Mary Elizabeth Fry’s Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep. I’ve been writing about death in my latest book and there has been a lot of death around this year. This poem is so beautifully hopeful and a gentle reminder, a bit like Neil’s book, of the simple beauty of the world and our part in it.
And a short story that has lived with you ever since you first read it? Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. It actually makes me cry even saying the title.
What book (if any) have you found yourself re-reading over the years?
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it first when I was about ten without fully understanding the backdrop. It’s a book that had there been any design in the writing perfectly portrays the intensity of ordinary life but set against this enormous tragedy. The fact that it’s a diary written without any artful design makes it all the more poignant and it speaks differently to me, every time I read it.
In fact that might be my real classic to save from the fire, except it’s still in print and I really hope it never goes out.
If you were giving a book as a present what book would you choose? That would depend who I was giving it to! The last book I gave was The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. It was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize and is the true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a journey together. It’s another book about the power of human endurance and the salve of nature.
First line: There’s a sound to breaking waves when they’re close, a sound like no other.
Finally, what do you prefer: a real book with pages that move, an ebook, an audio device? I like reading on my kindle for ease but I prefer real books. The magic of the printed word on paper, the way all those printed letters can move you to such extremes of emotion.
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