The Joys and Hazards of Reading Memoirs About Reading

I fear the title of this piece is slightly misleading. In fact, the joys and hazards of reading memoirs about reading are both well documented (including by me) and fairly self-evident: You discover new books, but then you want to buy them all. You may well attempt to (I completely understand), then realize—oops—you also need to budget for groceries, water and sewage usage, and electricity. Among other necessaries.

Really, this piece is about a recent reading memoir I enjoyed (a budget crisis indeed ensued, but why get mired in unpleasantness) and the books I discovered as a result. But I’m rubbish at coming up with titles, so the above will have to suffice.

ANYWAY.

I recently read Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan. The most magical thing that happened to me while reading this book was discovering that I was not the only child on earth who attempted to read at birthday parties. I mean, at the time, other kids (and their parents) acted like that was unusual. As if parties were intended for socializing and games.

Mangan discusses the acres of books she read during her childhood, moving chronologically through the stages of her life. She also delves into the publishing industry, developments therein that affected the kind of books made available to children, and the stories behind some of her favorite books. I loved her discursive style, her hilarious family anecdotes, and her self-deprecating humor.

I also had to have all of the books that she mentioned that I’ve never read (or in some cases heard of). But I settled for two that needed to be read immediately.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This book captivated me. It presents as the journals of Cassandra Mortmain who lives in extreme poverty with her bohemian family in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. Her father is the author of a modernist classic but has not been able to write anything since. Her stepmother, who is called Topaz is an artist’s model with a flair for domestic tasks and dramatic displays of devotion to her struggling writer husband. Rounding out the family are younger brother Thomas and older sister Rose, who might be willing to do anything to improve her family’s financial situation. Cue the two American brothers, one of whom is set to inherit the castle.

Obviously, I have to mention that Cassandra is the Trojan princess from The Iliad who has been given the gift of prophecy and the curse than none of her prophesies are never believed. Hence the fall of Troy (among other disasters in which she was involved). Smith’s Cassandra isn’t a prophet, exactly, but she does seem to watch life happen to her quite a lot. Her commentary, descriptions, and brilliant humor made this book a joy to read. As an aside, Smith lived in the States, and her descriptions of Americans are delicious.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

This autobiographical middle-grade novel follows nine-year-old Anna and her German-Jewish family as they flee Berlin ahead of the 1933 elections that brought Hitler to power. Her journalist father has published articles critical of Hitler, and when he hears that his passport may be imminently confiscated, he and his family head for Switzerland, eventually moving to Paris and finally settling England in 1936. With that, the novel is not plot-driven. It is about the impressions and experiences of a young child as she grapples with forces beyond her comprehension and control. Though fairly short, the novel is densely-packed, with a strong sense of place (multiple, given the numerous locales) and acute emotional range.

What are your favorite young adult and middle grade novels? Any reading memoirs you recommend in particular?

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