Book Questions

1. Favorite childhood book?

I’ll go with Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet taught me an important lesson. “Sometimes you have to lie.” I wrote about the book in depth here.

2. What are you reading right now?

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith. A thriller that takes place in Soviet Russia in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. I cannot put it down. Halfway through now. An exhilarating read.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?


4. Bad book habit?

I don’t know if it’s bad, but I write in most of my books.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?


6. Do you have an e-reader?


7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

I usually juggle. I have a “commute book”, which is usually different from my real “leisure book”. Commute books need to have short chapters, and need to be easily digestible. Also small in size, since I carry them about. “Leisure books” for me are usually big, and daunting, and challenging. 800 page biographies of Rockefeller, for example. My Leisure books are commitments. Then I usually have a third book going – which is usually a book of essays or interviews, things I dip in and out of as the mood takes me.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?


9. Least favorite book you read this year?

Well, I finally had to put down Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I got 200 pages in before I finally realized how bored I was. I still had 400 pages to go. I mean, I knew I was bored all along, with many red flags in terms of the writing (“It hurt excruciatingly” is one of the sentences in the book. Reading writing like that is akin to chewing on tinfoil.) but I had some vague interest in the story itself – the idea of these forgotten old Gods clamoring across America, abandoned, demanding to be remembered. I liked the concept a lot. But the writing was slack, uninteresting, totally surface-focused, and also bad. Finally, when Lucille Ball spoke out of the television at the lead character, telling him that America’s new gods were televisions, strip malls and the Internet, I finally put it down. I could deal with many things, but not being lectured to. I could sense that there was a didactic lecturing spirit behind the book, but as long as it was under cover I tried not to notice. But at that point, I finally thought: Nope. Life is too short to keep reading this. “It hurt excruciatingly?” There was another sentence that read something like, “The light that normally comes on when you open a car door did not come on this time.” I mean, honestly? Isn’t there a better way to say that? NEXT. So although I did not finish the book, I put in enough time that I certainly count it as the least favorite thing I read this year. I also read a Young Adult book called House of Stairs by William Sleator – a man who wrote a book I absolutely love called Into the Dream – so I had high hopes, but House of Stairs left me flat. I already can’t remember it. But at least that wasn’t 600 pages long like Gaiman’s book. Sheesh.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. Wrote about it here.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Not all that much. It’s got to be a really good recommendation for me to pick something up that wouldn’t otherwise. But in terms of TOPICS, my “comfort zone” is enormous. I like science, history, true crime, fiction, plays, how-to books, children’s books, biographies, erotica, poetry, war books … My taste is very eclectic.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Good books. I think I covered that in the question above.

13. Can you read on the bus?

Yes! I can read anywhere!

14. Favorite place to read?

In restaurants and coffee shops.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

I rarely lend out books.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

I try not to.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Almost always.

18. Not even with text books?

Love that this question assumes that the answer to the last question was “No.”

19. What is your favorite language to read in?


20. What makes you love a book?

All kinds of things. Good writing, interesting characters, an ability to show me a world I’ve never seen before, or never even thought about before.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

I get excited by certain books and recommend them in a very targeted way. “YOU, of all people, should read this book,” I say to a friend. I’m usually not wrong. (Mitchell and I have shared many many books that way, he with me, and me with him.) But there are many I never recommend. Hell, I think everyone should read and love Ulysses, but I figure people need to come to it in their own way. I do love how many people write to me out of the blue about my posts on Ulysses, and how helpful they were to that person when they took on the book.

22. Favorite genre?

I’m not a big genre person.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

I pretty much am happy with my reading choices.

24. Favorite biography?

I have a couple. Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Simon Callow’s two-volume (so far) biography of Orson Welles, Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood – I just read Peter Biskind’s Warren Beatty biography and it was faaaaascinating.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

Oh yes. A ton. The Road Less Traveled is wonderful, and I’ve read some books pertaining to some of my particular issues which I won’t divulge here, but which were hugely helpful.

26. Favorite cookbook?

The South Beach cookbook.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or nonfiction)?

I’m not sure what this means. Like I saw God peeping through the clouds? I guess I’ll go with Winter’s Tale, which is not only a phenomenal novel with some of the best writing I have ever encountered, but with a redemptive healing view of humanity.

28. Favorite reading snack?

Irrelevant. I am always reading, snack or no.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

There have been a couple of times when hype held me back from reading a book which I eventually read and then loved (The Time Traveler’s Wife is one. I adored it, but the hype machine turned me off, so I avoided it at first.) In general, I’m a fan of certain authors – so when a new book comes out, I’m in. Some of these authors generate huge amounts of hype: AS Byatt, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore. But the hype itself has never ruined one of their books for me.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Depends on the author we’re talking about. Some authors are praised to the high heavens repeatedly and I can’t understand why, while some of my favorites are ignored or dismissed. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

I’m fine with it. I try, however, to talk about what the book IS, not what it is NOT – which is my problem with a lot of critics. They blather on about what they wish the book was, and never address what the book actually IS. I rarely do negative reviews here. I prefer to write about things that turn me on, that are excellent.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?


33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I’m not intimidated by much, reading-wise. I have challenging tastes, and I like to be challenged. I read political treatises from the 17th century, and I read Stephen King. I read books about quantum physics and I read in-depth biographies of Alexis DeToqueville. I like hard. But intimidating? Maybe I was intimidated by Middlemarch, its reputation, its sheer SIZE. But that book …. my God. I stopped being intimidated from the first sentence:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Oh, George. You are absolutely the best.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Not applicable

35. Favorite poet?

Well, my favorite poem is by Auden – but favorite poet, all in all? W.B. Yeats.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

I actually have my own library, right here. I should join a library, though. These are hard times. But I’m definitely an owner of books, not a renter.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

See above.

38. Favorite fictional character?

Harriet the Spy. Although it kills me to choose just one character, I have so many.

39. Favorite fictional villain?

I have a special fondness for Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. But I also love Macbeth. And The Big Nurse.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Something big and rigorous and something I have been putting off. A giant biography, a huge novel, a daunting classic. When I was out on Block Island in January for a month, I brought Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, and finished both when I was out there. When I’m into a book, I read very fast. War and Peace was a perfect vacation novel.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Last year was a bad year for me. I only read 8 or 9 books last year, and it was a struggle to finish even those. I didn’t read for about 4 months straight last year, and then had a hard time the rest of the year. It took me MONTHS to finish the Nureyev biography. I was so disoriented but finally just gave in to the fact that I could no longer read. I’ve found my sea legs again this year, but last year I didn’t know which end was up. 4 months without one book. That’s the longest I’ve ever gone.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

Well, I just covered that with American Gods. I do have weird guilt about putting down a book before finishing it. It’s like I’m still in school and I need permission. I can be Type A. No, I started it, now let me finish it. If it’s a long book, it is way harder to put it down because I have already invested so much time.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

Nothing. I’ve almost been run over by cabs because I am not paying attention, walking with my nose in a book. I can read literally anywhere.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

I think Ordinary People is a VERY good adaptation. I was a fan of the book. The screenplay is better. Also, Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. I’m an Austen fan, but I think Thompson’s screenplay is better than the novel. I think Carrie is a wonderful adaptation, and I may be alone in this, but I think Possession was a good adaptation as well. Possession is one of my favorite books of all time, so I can be protective of such books … but I really felt the changes made there were good and cinematic, and worked. Well done. That is a hard book to capture – when most of it involves people reading things, and I thought they did a great job.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?

Well, I refused to see The Shipping News based on the cast, so I can’t speak to that, but I imagine it was wretched. I was a big fan of The Perfect Storm and thought they took some liberties with that screenplay that were actually contemptible. The “May Day” call, for example, which never happened, put in by the female sea captain. I was so angry, because then that makes it seem like that ship was lost because the Coast Guard couldn’t get there fast enough … or that they were almost saved … when the whole point of the fucking book is that the ocean periodically SWALLOWS MEN WHOLE. I grew up in the Ocean State. I know of what I speak. The “May Day” call made it seem like maybe those guys had a chance … maybe … when it is clear, in the book, that they never did. And they vanished. I’m not big on insisting on historical accuracy, not really – this is a FILM after all – but that particular detail in The Perfect Storm film seemed actually unethical.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

200, 300 bucks.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

I have no set number of times. I am surrounded by books. I skim all the time.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

Lack of interest. Bad writing. The feeling that the writer thinks I am some sort of moron.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?

Yes. I am totally OCD. I have 4,000 books or something like that and I can find anything in literally less than one second.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

Keep. I do periodic purging and donate books to a local second-hand bookstore.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

I need to read more George Eliot. I just need to gear up for it. She is so so good. I wouldn’t say I am actively avoiding them, just need to be ready.

52. Name a book that made you angry.

Some Nicholas Sparks book I tried to read in Ireland and threw it across the room. Tuesdays With Morrie enraged me, and enrages me more with every passing day.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

I’m not sure if I didn’t “expect to like” the Master & Commander series – that’s not the right word – it’s just that I was not prepared for the veritable FRENZY OF LOVE that overtook me after I read the first book. I still haven’t read the whole series, because I was derailed by 2009. I’ll get back to them. The love I have for that series knows no bounds and it took me totally by surprise, and I am so glad I read the ones I did.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

A Whistling Woman, by AS Byatt. She’s one of my favorite authors, and I read the other books in that series but for some reason I just couldn’t get into that one.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

I have no guilt about anything I read. For me “guilty pleasure” is a term I frown upon. Pleasure is pleasure. I read what keeps my interest. I read trashy memoirs by B-movie actresses. I love true crime, anything having to do with forensic details. I’ve read Helter Skelter 4 times. I love erotica collections. I’ll read anything ever published about any American President. And then, just to switch it up, I’ll read Dostoevsky, because he’s my favorite. I think life is too short to feel “guilt” about what you like to read. I say, bring it on. The problem with a sentence like “It hurt excruciatingly” is that it is surrounded by a pretentious book that strives to be “important”. I have said before and I will say it again: Lana Turner’s autobiography is a great book, in all its silliness, because it is sincere, and also she is incapable of writing a boring or pretentious sentence. Open that book on any page and you will find some GEM. I feel guilt about a lot of things in my life, maybe too much, but my personal tastes? Never.

Got this via Piney Hollow.

This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Book Questions

  1. Dan says:

    Cool questionnaire – given time, I’ll take stab at it.

    I also delight in the fact that ‘TwM’ enrages you. Too funny!

  2. george says:


    “Reading writing like that is akin to chewing on tinfoil”

    Reading writing like that is akin to chewing on something delicious and laughing with your mouth full.

  3. phil says:

    One I can not seem to turn the pages on anymore is Theodore Rex. Got about 150 pages in where TR has a bad leg and is wishy washy on the coal miner’s strike. Rather dull – especially compared to the brilliant The Rise of TR.
    Maybe one day I’ll try to pick it up.

    btw…fav tumblr these days…Women Reading

    A babe reading. Preferably wearing glasses.
    Please tell me you wear glasses. Ha!

  4. sheila says:

    Phil – I know what you mean, about how some books seem to just …….. stop. I am not sure why that is. Sometimes I know it’s me, and I’m just not “in the mood” for said book (the fantastic Nureyev biography is a prime example: wonderful book, beginning to end, I just wasn’t in the mood for it most of the time) – and sometimes it’s because said book is boring, and that’s why I don’t want to pick it up.

    And of course I wear glasses! Ha! Mine have thick dark green rims. They’re so old that I really should get another frame, but I love mine too much.

  5. sheila says:

    Dan – hahahaha I try not to think about Tuesdays With Morrie too much. It’s not good to walk about in a rage.

  6. sheila says:

    George – Ha! I think he even says it TWICE in the book, as though one “It hurt excruciatingly” wasn’t enough. I was disappointed. I wanted to like it. C’est la vie. Child 44 so far is totally fantastic so I’m happy I put AG down.

  7. Doc Horton says:

    I used to not read more than one book at a time, but now I’m old and time is running out. I’ve got three going, all different flavors – Benchley, Gogol, and a Conan Doyle bio. Wouldn’t read ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ at the same time, though. When reading more than one, they gotta be different flavors.

  8. sheila says:

    I love the three you’ve got going right now – what variety! I do the same thing – I like to keep different types of books juggling at the same time, although I have been known to go on a binge of one author for a couple of months (that’s rare, though).

  9. Mark says:

    Well, I finally had to put down Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

    That makes me a sad panda.

  10. Fionnchú says:

    Great interview with an expert, Sheila. I too rarely lend out books, but I’ve been giving away lots to thrift stores, my sons’ school, and friends. I have way too many, and the recession’s kicked a dent in my habits of buying, so the library, and thus more patience, forces me to slow down on impulsively ordering new titles. I used to haunt secondhand stores, but so few of them are left, and the Net has its own dangers for addiction! I enjoyed your thoughts here, as I always do.

  11. Tommy says:

    Dig it. Filed that one away for a rainy afternoon.

  12. sheila says:

    Mark – Cheer up, sad panda. I am not sad at all! Child 44 is MUCH better and I am happy I put the damn book down. That’s 400 pages I won’t have to read.

    • Mark says:

      I know…different strokes for different folks. Gaiman is my boy and it breaks my heart that not everyone loves him. Sandman got me through a rough patch in life and that gives him a free pass to write utter garbage until the end of time if he wished. He hasn’t though; his recent The Graveyard Book is my new favorite of his novels.

      This also illustrates why I’m always reluctant to recommend books to anyone. I’m afraid they’ll think something I love is complete shit. I tend to clutch those books to myself and think “No! Mine! Discover it on your own.” I’m like an anti-librarian.

  13. sheila says:

    Fionnchú – Lending books make me uneasy. I hate to have a stipulation placed on the lending: “Please give this back to me in a reasonable amount of time.” so I really don’t do it. But I do love donating books. I also scour second-hand stores and it is very very rare that I buy a brand-new book. I actually just had a great outing at The Strand. Only spent 30 bucks but found three books I’ve been dying to read, many of them pretty beat up, with torn dust jackets – but I don’t care!

  14. Rob says:

    Ms. O’Malley, I’ve loved every single thing about this post (I feel much the same way about recommending-and lending-books as you do) and as much as I want and need to economize, darn it, I just want to BUY every book that looks interesting, and keep it and treasure it and re-read it whenever the mood strikes me.
    A question for you: might I excerpt and provide a link to your review of Lana’s autobiography? I’m massively in love with LT and have reviewed a few of her movies on my silly little blog and I feel like you’ve really captured what’s so enchanting about her. The Sheila Variations is in my sidebar links but trust me (and I’m very serious about this) this is not an attempt at receiving a reciprocal link from your site–mine is a very “niche” site: lots of Joan Crawford, with a dash of Lana, and some personal observations thrown in, but it’s in no way as intellectual as yours. Still, I’d love to share your thoughts on Lana (and of course, I’d give you full credit) so if that would be okay, just say the word! You and Self-Styled Siren, man…sheesh, I wish I was smarter! Rob

  15. I learned the hard way, after several times, never to loan books because I would never see them again. It took me a little while to do so, but I’ve decided that with my limited lifespan, to just read what I want to, and not feel guilty about my inability to finish War and Peace as well as a host of other classics. I am excited to know that James Hadley Chase is back in print, and have the sequel to No Orchids for Miss Blandish coming my way.

  16. sheila says:

    Peter – Yeah, I’m with you – I learned about lending books the hard way. I also don’t like to borrow books from friends, because sometimes it’ll be years before I “feel like” reading it, and I just don’t like the book haunting me from the shelf. I prefer to buy a book, and then just keep it – ready for me to read when I feel like it. I’ve read many of the books I own, but there’s a lot I haven’t read – so it’s nice. It is like having my own lending library but without the consequent late-fees!

  17. sheila says:

    Rob – I am familiar with your site! Yes, by all means, go ahead. A little Lana Turner love is DEFINITELY something to be shared! :)

  18. Shelley says:

    Sense and Sensibility as the best book-to-film adaptation, yes.

    But there’s a tie: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird translated into a magical film by Horton Foote, whose support of my writing changed my life. There’s something luminous about that film, and it captures the terror and aloneness of childhood, even with a good parent.

  19. milton schulman says:

    You said you spent over $2000,000 at one time for books. Was that a typo?

  20. sheila says:

    Milton – I meant 200 or 300 bucks. Not a typo. Just a pause.

  21. Jeff says:

    This isn’t exactly on topic, but did you know that Chernow has a new biography out on George Washington? When I saw it in the bookstore the other day, you were the first person I thought of!

  22. sheila says:

    Yes!!!!! Can’t WAIT.

  23. Phil Melton says:

    I know you said you rarely read genre fiction. However, you’re missing some amazing writing if you haven’t read “In The Woods,” “The Likeness.” and “Faithful Place” by Tana French. Her writing is lyrical (a friend said it “sings off the page), her characterizations are well rounded and memorable, and her ability to convey atmosphere (the books are set in present day Ireland) is brilliant. If you can get them in your queue, I can say with almost complete certainty that you will love these books.

  24. sheila says:

    I love Tana French. Are those considered genre books? I’ve read In the Woods – could not put it down. She’s a wonderful writer and I look forward very much to reading the other two you mention. I’m excited to hear that they are also good.

  25. Phil Melton says:

    Her books are generally classified as psychological suspense fiction. You find her stuff in the Mystery/Suspense section of bookstores instead of mainstream fiction and literature, though I think those kind of distinctions are more useful for marketing in the case of a writer like her. One of the things I enjoy about her books is the way she takes a secondary character in a previous book and makes her or him the protagonist in the next. Since you liked In the Woods, you’re sure to like the next two. I think her most recent, Faithful Place, may be her best. You can find her second, The Likeness, remaindered in hardcover at Barnes & Noble now for either $5.98 or $6.98.

  26. sheila says:

    Phil – I am pretty sure I bought In the Woods off of Amazon, where the classification isn’t as clear. I am shocked that they wouldn’t be shelved with the regular fiction. I feel that way about a lot of “genres’ – but I realize I’m biased, since I am not drawn to genre shelves generally – but there is a lot I would clearly miss if I didn’t look there.

    I really can’t wait to read the next books. I was haunted by the ending of In the Woods. The fact that we never find out (at least in that book) what exactly happened out there in the woods that day …

    I loved, too, the image of Ireland she presents in the book, an image I recognize. The upwardly mobile suburban Ireland. It’s something that often gets lost in all of the “twee” characterizations of Ireland – although not so much now, not with giants like John Banville and Anne Enright (and others) writing about Ireland NOW. But I did appreciate that aspect of the book very much.

    I couldn’t put it down.

  27. peter says:

    Sheila, have you read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita? It’s a wonderful book.

  28. sheila says:

    Peter – Yes! Fantastic book. Terrifying. Here’s one of the posts I wrote about it.

  29. peter says:

    Sheila, glad you liked The Master and Margarita. It’s a magical fantasia on life and love and freedom. I love the way it depicts the indivisibility of time and history.

    I also recently read Steig Larsson’s very entertaining Millenium trilogy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.