Book Questions:

I got this from my good friend Ted . Naturally I had to go overboard and provide links (to my own blog), and I can never ever answer a question with only one choice. I refuse.

What was the last book you bought?

Probably some out-of-print dusty book bought at a second-hand store having to do with the shenanigans of the paparazzi during the old studio system. I honestly don’t remember.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

There are only a couple of books I go back to compulsively and read just for the sheer fun of it, of experiencing the book again:

The Blue Castle, by LM Montgomery (excerpt here)
Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt (excerpt here)
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley (excerpt here)
A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle (excerpt here)
Lives of the Saints, by Nancy Lemann (excerpt here)
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (excerpt here)
Mating, by Norman Rush (excerpt here)
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (excerpt here)
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (excerpt here)

Until I shuffle off my mortal coil, I just know that I will never say “That is the LAST time I read The Pigman (or insert whatever title I just listed)…”

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

As ridiculous as this might sound, Baby Doll, Carroll Baker’s memoir – which I go into here.

I also must mention Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield (excerpt here) and Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (I covered Harriet a bit here). No turning back after reading those books. Writing … theatre … that would be my life … however it worked out, I didn’t know. I was 8, 9 years old. But those books changed my life.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

All of the above. I picked Hopeful Monsters because I liked the cover – and that is so scary to me – because it’s one of my all-time favorite books – What if I hadn’t liked the cover?? I’m into impulse buys … and much of that has to do with the look and feel of a book. The typeface is also VERY important. There are off-setting typefaces … and welcoming typefaces. Important to me (especially because my eyes are so bad. I really can’t afford to strain or squint).

I also love books that have to do with the intellect mixed with romance and sex. A rather rare combo – but essential for me. Hopeful Monsters, Mating, Possession, Goldbug Variations (excerpt here) … these are challenging books. With a lot of sex in them, but also a lot of ideas. Not separated out … but integrated. Such a turn-on for me (and quite rare).

I am also a FAN of certain authors and will buy whatever they write, regardless. I will buy anything written by Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, Nancy Lemann, Norman Rush (well, the man’s written 2 books and he’s gotta be 80 years now, so I’m letting that one go), John Irving, Michael Chabon, Joy Williams, Mary Gaitskill, Annie Proulx, John Banville (or Benjamin Black) … So. Sign me up for any of these peeps. Don’t like all their work and sometimes I go a decade (or two, right Margaret Atwood?) without liking one of their damn books. Doesn’t matter. That, to me, is the definition of a fan. I’m IN.

I have sometimes bought books based on reviews – but that’s usually for non-fiction books.

If any of my siblings tell me to read a book, I will do so. If Allison, Kate, David, or Mitchell tells me to read a book, I will do so. If Ted tells me to read a book, I will do so. I’m picky about who I take recommendations from.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

No preference. I have moods and I go with the mood. 2006 was a non-fiction year. Last year, I started reading more fiction than I had in years. This year has been really all about the fiction – and I’ve been adventurous too – reading books recommended to me, or that I’ve read blog-posts about.

What’s more important in a novel – beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

“Gripping” plots don’t really do that much for me all by themselves. Without the beautiful writing of Jane Eyre (excerpt here), the “gripping plot” would be tedious and melodramatic. I’m not a big plot girl anyway. I mean – what exactly happens in The Shipping News (excerpt here)? Sure, there are some events … but it’s the WRITING that hooks me, and it’s the writing that makes me ache. But I’ve never been a really either/or girl, and I am sure I can find many exceptions to what I’ve just said. But if I had to say – I’d say give me beautiful writing. Or, hell, not even “beautiful” writing … the writing in Ulysses (excerpt here) is not necessarily beautiful but it knocks me on my ASS.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Quoyle, The Shipping News
Sydney Carton, Tale of two Cities
John and Lorraine, The Pigman
Nelson Denoon, Mating
Phoebe Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye
Pretty much everyone in Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – I was so so sad to put that book down

And #1, no contest, none whatsoever:


Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

War and Peace – over halfway through – A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 by Paul Berman (almost done – FANTASTIC) … a biography of Jimmy Stewart … and eventually I’ll move on with the Master & Commander series … but I just can’t really read right now. I’m having a hard time with it. I can only manage a couple pages a day.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

My cousin Mike (who – shameless O’Malley plug – is premiering in the new series starring Christian Slater My Own Worst Enemy next week – tune in!!) sent me a box of books randomly last week – awesome books like Ingrid Bergman’s autobiography, and other things like that – bought at a second-hand bookstore … and one of the books was called Conversations with Joan Crawford – Joan Crawford blabbing about her life journey and the people she worked with … I think it was published in the late 70s, so Crawford was out of public life pretty much … but boy, did she divulge … I read it in an afternoon. FASCINATING. I will be doing some excerpts when I remember to breathe.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

The Silmarillion. 20 pages in and I had fallen into a coma.

And I SHOULD have given up on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (excerpt here), the most unnecessarily long book I think I have ever read. But based on the sheer BRILLIANCE of the first 50 pages … I stuck it out. I love Don DeLillo … but Underworld bored me to death. However, by the time you reach 700 pages, you feel you’ve put in so much time you CAN’T give up! Frankly, I felt harassed by that book. Should have put it down. But God, if you want to read some of the best writing in the last 20 years? Read the first 50 pages. Amazing.

But beyond that, I can’t really think of a book I’ve put down. I have a hard time with giving up once I’ve started, even if the book annoys me. You know, like the book I read about the fall of the Roman Empire – where the author referred to things like the “military complex” and also how certain Emperors liked to “work out” (I’m not even kidding) … but dammit, I stuck it out.

Dumb! But whatever. I’m stubborn. I recently read another book which was about the black plague, but within 2 pages I realized it would be Bubonic Plague for Dummies … and I was bummed to be treated as though I were a halfwit, but I still stuck it out. Boring, though. I thought I knew nothing about the Black Plague, outside of the Decameron and crap like that … but turns out, I know WAY more than that book assumed I did … There are a couple of new books out about the plague I do want to read.

I recently had a hard time finishing The Yiddish Policemans Union – it was SO overwritten – and my brother and I were laughing about it – because Chabon kept saying that he was going for a Sam Spade Dashiell Hammett kind of hardboiled prose – but every sentence has 500 unnecessary curlicues on it – he is SO NOT doing what he set out to do – but since it’s Michael Chabon, I don’t care … I’ll read anything he writes. I’ll read all his genre crap, even if I don’t care for the genre. That’s how much I love his writing. And the last 100 pages of Policeman’s Union were suddenly – absolutely heartbreaking … so I’m glad I waited. Still: it was tough-going there for a while.

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20 Responses to Book Questions:

  1. brendan says:

    Dad gave me ‘Magic Mountain’ when I had my appendix out in 1994 and I finally finished it this year.

    Longest time ever taken finishing a book.

  2. Diana says:

    Unbelievable. Every single time I’ve completely lost my mojo you write something like this that picks me up.

    If I could only read one blog for the rest of time (because you will be blogging for the rest of time, right?!) it’d be this one. Thanks for being you, Sheila. :)

  3. ted says:

    Sheila – I love it when you launch into Underworld! It always makes me smile. And it got me to re-read White Noise which was well worth it. Ballet Shoes! My mom would love you! I’m going to read Benjamin Black after I finish the Banville. Can’t wait.

    Brendan – That is hilarious.

  4. brendan says:

    i just finished the second quirk novel, the silver swan.

    so good.

    doesn’t black have an alter ego, some egghead irish guy? (hee hee)

    i might have to read that other guy.

  5. red says:

    Banville is an egghead! But Benjamin Black is sexy!

    I haven’t read The Silver Swan yet – I’m so excited. Christine Falls was magnificent, I think. Cinematic – like all those noir books are. I kept casting it in my head.

  6. brendan says:

    compare the prose in ‘christine falls’ to the circumlocutionistic nightmare that chabon hoists on us in ‘yiddish policeman’s union’ and you will begin to get an idea of how far chabon strayed, albeit in a good hearted, exploratory, and ultimately satisfactory yet challenging way, from sparseness.

    that is to say, black does noir. chabon does not.

  7. jenob says:

    But here’s the question, if a book is boring, annoying, whatever, do you:
    1: keep reading it until it’s done
    2: just set it aside and read it in small bursts
    3: set it aside and try again later

    Just curious, since I’m pretty much the same way. My bookshelf has 6 or 7 books that I just haven’t been able to get through and I absolutely REFUSE to get rid of them until I do. I used to just read them and not allow myself to pick up anything else, now I put it aside for a while.

  8. gene says:

    ditto whatever Diana said about your blog. thank you.

    See if you’ve got time for Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark”. A recommendation from a stranger.

  9. red says:

    Jen – I usually do a combination of 1 and 2. I never put it down completely – because then I know I would never finish it. It’s a matter of determination and sticking it out.


    I tried to read Nicholas Sparks once. I was in a youth hostel on the outskirts of Galway. Not only did I put the book down, but I threw it across the room in disgust – yes – THREW IT, then I picked it back up again, wrote a note on the front page that said, “This book is the worst thing I have ever read” and left it in the drawer of the dresser in the room for the next person to stay there.

    It only took me 2 pages to get to that point.

    But that, to me, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

  10. red says:

    Diana, Gene – thank you both! It means a lot to hear!

  11. Ken says:

    The Silmarillion. Not a chance. 20 pages in and I had fallen into a coma.


    There. This comment thread could not be complete without somebody leaping to the defense of something, and Tolkien fans like me are the most defensive leapers you ever saw. ;-)

  12. red says:

    Yes, I have experienced it!

    Oh well – I YAWN in your general direction! (In a friendly manner, of course, but sticking to my guns. I’m not a Tolkien fan – not like THAT anyway! I love the Hobbit most of all, but The Ring Trilogy is good, too. And I enjoy his collected letters – but The Silmarillion? That requires a level of fan-dom that I just do not have!)

  13. Ken says:

    glances around conspiratorially Truth be told, it took me two tries to finish, but I enjoyed it when I finally did plow on through.

    Really, it’s more like a historical reference or the Old Testament than a conventional work of fiction. Recommended only for people who really want to know what all that “before the seas were bent” stuff is about.

  14. red says:

    glances around conspiratorially hahahahahahaha Ken, you make me laugh. Too funny. I know just that feeling!!

    To be honest – his letters ABOUT writing the Silmarillion are much more interesting for me – because it’s a bit more boiled-down and he’s working it out in print, as he goes along … Like his whole thing on the creation of Orks and crap like that … His later letters get more and more elaborate, as you can see him retreating into the fantasy world he created – it’s so so interesting.

  15. Kate says:

    Boy, am i honored to be on your list. Wow. Especially because I would have been way too scared to even go near Ryszard Kapuscinski if it hadn’t been for you (or the book about Zero for that matter.)

    I actually loved Chabon’s latest, but then again, I’m not as smart as you, and I wouldn’t be able to tell if it was overwritten.

    I’m reading Bernard Schlink’s Homecoming and liking it. (He wrote The Reader, which came out several years ago.) Oh–and I just finished volume one of Julie Andrews’ memoir. LOVED it!!! (I think you would too.) Can’t wait for the second volume to come out.

    love you and miss you,

  16. red says:

    “Youre not as smart as me”???? What the hell? Yeah, thats how I think of you. You know, I love Kate even though she’s not as smart as me.

    So. Is that how it’s going to be?? Hee hee

    I am very excited to read Andrews’ memoirs!!

  17. Kate P says:

    Sheila, I loved the questions and your answers. (Harriet is awesome.) Not sure how to track back, but I did a “speed version” of the questions at my blog. Just wanted to give you credit, and thank you!!!

  18. gene says:

    Recently read a poem by an Irish poet that I immediately felt a heartbreak for. Wish to share with you.


    My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.
    I lift them up and look at them with pleasure –
    I know my parents made me by my hands.

    They may have been repelled to separate lands,
    in separate hemispheres, may sleep with other lovers,
    but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.

    With nothing left of their togetherness but friends
    who quarry for their image by a river,
    at least I know their marriage by my hands.

    I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.
    And when I turn it over,
    my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms

    demure before a priest reciting psalms.
    My body is their marriage register.
    I re-enact their wedding with my hands.

    So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands
    for mirroring in bodies of the future.
    I’ll bequeath my fingers, if you bequeath your palms.
    We know our parents make us by our hands.

    — Sinead Morrissey

  19. red says:

    Kate – I just read your responses and had to laugh out loud – the book I threw across the room in Galway was The Notebook! Ha!!

  20. Pearl says:

    Thanks for the inspiration. Did the same on my blog. Thinking about books and past experiences with books seems to be in the wind…


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