Wednesday, 12 October 2016

My Life in Books ~ talking to author Kate Eberlen @KateEberlen

My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox
I've asked authors to share with us a list of the books that are important to them and have made a lasting impression on their life.

I'm really thrilled to welcome Kate Eberlen to Random Things today. Kate is the author of Miss You, published by Mantle Books on 11 August. I read and reviewed it here on Random Things a couple of months ago. I adored it. Here's a little taster from my review:

"Miss You is a truly wonderful story, an absolute joy to read. It's so cleverly structured and whilst it deals with themes that include terminal illness, mental health, grief and loss, it is also full of sparkling wit and evocative locations. London city stars and Italy takes equal billing, both brought to life; the hustle, the bustle, the culture, the people."

Kate Eberlen grew up in a small town thirty miles from London and spent her childhood reading books and longing to escape.  She studied Classics at Oxford University before pursuing various jobs in publishing and the arts.  More recently, Kate trained to teach English as a Foreign Language with a view to spending more time in Italy.  She is married with one son. 

Kate’s novel MISS YOU was published in August 2016 by Mantle Books in UK and translation rights have sold in 24 languages throughout the world. 

Visit her website at

Follow her on Twitter @KateEberlen

My Life In Books ~ Kate Eberlen

Umphy Elephant Window Cleaner by Anne Hope    This is the first book I can remember reading,  or rather,  having read to me.   My father was one of those men who loved to buy the latest gadgets, but, after the initial flurry of enthusiasm, never used them again.  When I was a very small child, he bought himself a tape recorder, and the first recording he made with it – actually one of the few recordings he ever made - was of him reading me this bedtime story on my second birthday.   Umphy Elephant is a window cleaner who rides a tricycle with a bell and a pail of water on a hook under the seat that goes slip slop.  On the tape, my father can be heard pointing out some of the things in the pictures.  ‘There’s a pussy cat!’  Suddenly, I interrupt him. ‘Tidn’t! It a doggie.’ ‘Well, I think actually it is a cat…’ ‘No, tidn’t!’ My father moves swiftly on to the last two pages which contain a joke that I always found hilarious.  This treasured recording demonstrates three important early lessons I learned about reading – books are for sharing;  they can make you laugh; they are things people can have strong and different opinions about.

A Traveller inTime by Alison Uttley  Almost as soon as I learned to read myself, I realised that books were also a wonderful escape into different lives, places, eras.  I devoured all the girls’ classics like Ballet Shoes, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, especially when there were sequels, so that I didn’t have to say goodbye completely to characters I loved at the end of a book (something I still find really difficult).  The book I loved most though was this story about Penelope who goes to convalesce with her great aunt’s family in a remote Derbyshire farmhouse, and finds herself slipping back to Elizabethan times.  As I was quite a lonely child living in an old house that murmured and creaked with ghosts of the past, I longed to step back in time as Penelope does and play a part in a more exciting story.   The novel has a gripping plot alongside a poignant coming-of-age story, and the sights, sounds, smells and simple pleasures of country life are all beautifully evoked.  To this day, I cannot visit an old house or a walled garden without feeling a powerful sense that I am somehow connected to lives that have gone on there before.  I love the novel so much I still keep a small stock of copies to press upon any children (or adults) I meet who have not read it.

A Kind of Loving byStan Barstow.   The seventies were my teenage years but there were no YA books then,  so when you’d finished with children’s books, you went straight on to the classics.  Because I was a fast reader, I loved long books.  Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence were particular favourites – although I’m not sure all that gloom, doom and sexual frustration was healthy for a teenager with an overactive imagination.  Nor do I think it was a particularly good idea for me to light upon all the orange Penguins about angry young men that my father had enjoyed when he was an angry young man himself.  However, I would still recommend any teenager to read A Kind of Loving, and I believe it appears on some exam syllabuses.  Though very much a book of its era,  it feels fresh and universal because the author writes about the see-saw emotions of first love with such tenderness and honesty. 

BridesheadRevisited by Evelyn Waugh  It was primarily my passion for good stories that led me to choose Classics as the subject I wanted to study at university, but the first friends I made at Oxford were studying English Literature and they introduced me to modern classics by writers such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.  Again, as soon as I’d ‘discovered’ a  new writer, I wanted to read every single book they’d written, so I spent much more time reading English Literature than the Greek and Latin I was supposed to be studying.   Of all Waugh’s brilliant novels, Brideshead Revisited  is my favourite, and not just because evokes memories of the dreaming spires.  In fact,  I find Waugh’s depiction of the thwarted love between Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte  more affecting than his arcadian Oxford days with Sebastian.   What I so admire about this book is the unflinching observation of character (from the fully-realised flawed narrator to the pin-sharp walk-on parts) sometimes wincingly funny, sometimes deeply tragic.  Some readers are offended by Waugh’s critique of the more egalitarian society emerging, post WW II, from his lyrically nostalgic portrait of a socially stratified past.  Whilst his views are alien to me, I never find his writing didactic, and he is so skilled a novelist,  I am always totally immersed in the world of his characters as they struggle with changing fortune, human frailty and faith.  

Scruples by JudithKrantz   During the eighties,  I discovered blockbusters.   Arthur Hailey, with his multi-stranded tales of disparate people brought together in a location, like Hotel, was a favourite,  but Judith Krantz took high-octane storytelling to another level.  As well as the wealth, the power games and the sex, she gave us shopping too.  Scruples is the classic ugly duckling fairy tale  set in a dream department store and Krantz’s secondary characters, Spider and Valentine, are as stylish, appealing and memorable as the heroine Billy Ikehorn herself.  Unlike some other writers in the genre, Krantz creates fully-realised women and men with flaws and insecurities, who also relish their sexuality and power.  It’s as perfect an example of glamorous escapism in book form as Pretty Woman is in film, and just as cheering a way to spend a rainy afternoon.  

Love in the Timeof Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez  From its opening sentence ‘It was inevitable:  the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love’  this novel draws the reader into a world that is  real and identifiable yet mesmeric and magical too.  From the tragi-comic death of a beloved husband as he tries to capture a parrot in the branches of a mango tree, to a river-voyage of discovery with an obsessed and devoted admirer,  this is the  strangest of love stories between two old people facing their mortality in a lush and putrefying landscape, written in prose that veers from sinuous subtley to glorious exuberance, yet remains always incredibly human.  Like hearing the tenor Juan Diego Florez sing an aria, or watching Carlos Acosta dance, reading Marquez feels like being in the presence of genius - a privilege, as well as a scintillating pleasure.     

Pumpkin Soup byHelen Cooper.  One of the many delights of having a child is reading with them. Of all the wonderful picture books I shared with my son, Pumpkin Soup was our favourite.  Cat, Duck and Squirrel live in a cabin with pumpkins growing in the garden.  Every day they make a delicious pumpkin soup by a tried and tested method:  Cat slices up the pumpkin, Squirrel stirs in the water and Duck adds a pipkin of salt.  But, one day, Duck decides he wants to do the stirring, with hilarious results.   Like all the best children’s books, it’s both funny and a little bit spooky, and has wonderful messages about friendship and trying new experiences, even if things don’t quite work out as you’d like.  The words have a lilting rhythm, almost like a song with a chorus, and the illustrations are beautifully detailed, so that you see new things each time you read.  It’s another book I keep copies of to give to any new parents I know. 
My BrilliantFriend and the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante.  My Brilliant Friend is one of the few books I’ve ever bought simply because of the cover.  It was soon after the novel appeared in the UK, but I hadn’t heard of the author, nor read a review. I just loved the way it looked, and, having a passion for Italy, thought it would be interesting to read a contemporary Italian author.   Though I wasn’t the first person to discover Ferrante, I somehow felt I was.  This is clearly the experience of many of her readers.   The sweep of the story is epic, and yet it is so intimate and searingly truthful that you often find yourself thinking ‘How did she know that about ME?’  Once the characters are sorted in your mind - and there are a lot of them, so it takes about 150 pages of quite hard work at the beginning – all four novels are totally compelling and addictive.   I bought the  last volume, The Story of the Lost Child, in Italian because I couldn’t wait for it to come out in English.  My Italian wasn’t really up to it, but I struggled for a month until the English edition appeared.   As the final pages drew closer, I found myself reading increasingly slowly, almost as if I couldn’t bear there to come a time when I wouldn’t be reading it.  I cried at the end,  not only because it is fittingly disturbing and enigmatic, but also because I knew my life would be much emptier without the continuing presence of Lila and Lenu.

Kate Eberlen ~ October 2016




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