I’ve frequently been asked by other writers and readers – what are the books that meant a lot to me growing up? And which particular books are my standout, all-time favourites?
This is an extremely difficult question because there are so many books that I love! And when things get a tad tricky and I need an evening at home – so I can escape into a good book – I often revisit the books that I already know are going to transport me. In winter it’s especially delicious to slide under a feather doona just to read in blissful solitude. When I was a kid I used to keep a torch on standby so I could continue reading under the quilt once the lights went out.
So, I’ve picked four of my favourite books off the top of my head, and have listed them in no particular order of merit.
Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson (with drawings by Hilary Knight).
At seven I discovered six-year-old Eloise, parent-free, running amuck in the Plaza NY and Paris with Nanny, a pug and a turtle. I didn’t find it strange that Eloise exercised with champagne bottles, as my sister and I had hidden a bottle of Sweet Marsala under my bed. It was delectable topped with cream. When ‘you cawn’t get a good cup of tea’, Eloise simply had to devour a peach languishing in champagne.
I was smitten.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
At twelve I discovered Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff living on the wild English moors. I promptly identified Heathcliff as the wicked but irresistible villain. I was terribly disappointed in Cathy when she fell for the decent but deadly dull Edgar Linton – who also happened to be filthy rich. It was the outrageous drama that appealed to me: the lustful overheated emotions, histrionics, stricken moors, bitter winds and soul-destroying generational hatreds.
I yearned to acquire Cathy’s burning, yearning uncontrollable fever. Then I’d have an excuse to tear a feather pillow apart – with my bare teeth.
Ada Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov
I devoured Nabokov’s Lolita at about fifteen – then came Ada.
Narrated by Dr Van Veen, it’s ostensibly an erotic love story. But Ada is much more than Veen’s lover; she’s his muse, devious tormenter and co-writer. Further erotic complications involve Ada’s decadent little sister, Lucette. I still love this book. For each time I read Ada I find that there’s another layer to discover – the nature of time, sci-fi elements and humorous asides about great art. It’s been said that Ada is uneven and not as accessible as Lolita – but I don’t agree. For one thing Ada lacks the disturbing cruelty of Lolita and it’s much more lyrical.
I greatly admire Lolita – the first sentence is decadent and perfect – but Ada completely captivates me.
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’
History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova
(My favourite version: 12 Volumes in six large books – unabridged & translated by Willard R. Trask)
Casanova brilliantly narrates his traveller’s tales. It’s a wild ride because he had many professions including: violinist, priest and gambler. While living the high life amongst European royalty and nobility he also befriended scoundrels, conmen, thieves and creatives.
Casanova met just about everyone who had power or reputation in 18th century Europe including: Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Rousseau, d’Alembert and Crebillon in Paris, King George III, Louis XV, Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great.
Unfortunately, Casanova’s name has become synonymous with womanizers, man whores, philanderers and rakes everywhere. He openly admits in History of my Life, to being ‘an unrepentant libertine’.
In Casanova’s memoirs there are many incidents when he recalls unleashing his charm, with the sole intention of bedding a woman. I’m using the term bedding somewhat loosely, given Casanova’s ability to fornicate just about anywhere. Frequently the situations he finds himself in are comedic, but he had the ability to laugh at himself and his wicked sense of humour permeates his writing.
He usually accepted women as equals, made sure they were satisfied sexually and was remarkably nonjudgmental – unless his lover or mistress was stupid enough to double cross him.
I revisit Casanova when insomnia grips me and he sweeps me back to the 1700’s. His was an elegant life of beauty, excitement, danger, wit, intellect and daring.
Photograph: collage by Lesley Truffle