Welcome to The books that shaped me - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Nina Stibbe.
Nina Stibbe was born in Leicester. She is the author of two works of non-fiction - Love, Nina and An Almost Perfect Christmas - and three novels: Man at the Helm, Paradise Lodge, and Reasons to be Cheerful, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2019 and the Comedy Women in Print Prize 2020. Love, Nina won Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2014 National Book Awards and in 2016 was adapted by Nick Hornby into a BBC series starring Helena Bonham-Carter. She lives in Cornwall.
How have books impacted your life?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books and a family that reads and talks about books and culture. I didn’t realise at the time what a huge privilege that was, and what a great start in life. Our mother, though fairly unorthodox in other ways, would gather us together to read The Hobbit or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at bedtime. Books have offered excitement, entertainment, identity and comfort to me from an early age. I think this is the case for a lot of people.
The childhood book that's stayed with you...
Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty (1877) intending it for an adult audience but by the time I read it - almost a hundred years later - it was considered a children’s classic. It was one the first novels I read on my own and I loved it immediately. Satisfyingly horsey, incredibly sad with straightforward goodies and villains. And, most intriguingly, the narrator was a six-year-old horse (incidentally the first English novel to be written from the perspective of an animal). I remember being surprised by his moralistic tone on human shortcomings, but reading in the introduction that the book brought about a reduction in cruelty to working horses was very pleasing to the eight-year-old, pony-loving me. Though I can’t say I have very often passed it on to children, it was definitely the perfect book for me at the time - the author’s activism, the innovative narrative voice and horses.
Your favourite book of all time...
I’m asked this a lot and of course it changes, sometimes it’s Toni Morrison’s Beloved and other times The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien, both of which I love. Right now though I’m due to reread The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908), a book I first read in my 20s and again in my 30s and have just been discussing adoringly with my mother. The story spans 70 years, largely following the lives of the very likeable Baines sisters who are born into a shop keeping family in the Midlands. It is a wonderfully gritty episodic saga that asks questions about women’s lives during the onset of modernity, specifically; is it possible to escape one’s destiny?
Will the life of passionate, impetuous, Sophia - who elopes to France and lives through the siege of Paris, be all that different to that of her sister, Constance - who stays at home, marries the draper’s assistant, has a child, and lives her whole life in the house she was born in? There’s drudgery and magic in both lives and moments of such high drama; a childbirth scene in the Midlands and an execution by guillotine in Paris, both of which are breathtaking. I also recommend The Riceyman Steps by the same author.
The book you wish you'd written...
Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is a wonderful example of how to write a brilliant bittersweet sad/funny book (my favourite kind). This is the story of an ordinary family with quite common concerns. Optimistic, chirruping Audra and taciturn husband Graham live in “parallel universes” bringing up their 10-year-old son Matthew, who has Asperger’s syndrome. They accompany him to origami club, micromanage his social life, and try to live life the best they can. The book’s success depends entirely on the reader building a relationship with the characters. Here they are drawn with such tenderness that we very soon, within a few pages, love and care deeply (and equally) about them. This means that happy moments and moments of poignancy, pain and disappointment hit us acutely. I envy Heiney’s ability to write such equally charming, flawed, relatable, funny characters. It’s the hardest thing to do.
The book you wish everyone would read...
A routine investigation in 2017 led Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow to a story that had long been whispered about: one of Hollywood's most powerful producers was a predator, protected by fear, wealth, and a conspiracy of silence.
Both a spy thriller and a meticulous work of investigative journalism, Catch and Kill broke a devastating new story about the abuse of power in Hollywood - and shed light on investigations that shook the world. Many of us have read extensively about this in press articles, and seen Harvey Weinstein brought to justice but the book provides the whole story; the surveillance and intimidation tactics deployed by powerful men to threaten journalists and silence victims of abuse and, most importantly, it is the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author and highly recommend it.
The book that got you through a hard time...
Like many people I have turned to books at times of trouble. As a child I got lost in adventure and animal rescue, as an adult I have relied on funny books by the likes of Barbara Pym, PG Wodehouse and E.L. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books. Recently I read a glorious new book that is all about the power of books to soothe and console us. Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, is part memoir and part showcase for books that have the power to hold our hands through dark and difficult times at different times in our lives. It’s worth having for the recommendations alone.
The book that uplifts you...
Girl With Dove by Salley Bayley is exactly the kind of book I find uplifting. Memoir combining sadness and domestic adversity with strength of character plus a sense of the absurd.
Sally Bayley grew up in a dilapidated seaside town with her mother, several younger siblings, and extended family. An early tragedy plunges her mother into a depression and results in chronic neglect. Like many of us, she escaped into books and soon fictional characters– among them Miss Marple, Jane Eyre, Milly-Molly-Mandy and Betsey Trotwood were as real to her as her own family. Later, as an adult she has borrowed voices from literary classics again to make sense of the strange goings-on in her dysfunctional family’s past and tell the story of her chaotic childhood. I highly recommend the author’s exuberant reading of the audiobook for the full effect of this beguiling, eccentric, funny memoir.
Nina Stibbe won the Comedy Women in Print Prize 2020 for her novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful (Penguin). Find more information here.
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