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World Book Day

As a child, I read avidly: my bespectacled face is a result of reading under the covers by the light of a torch when I the secret sevenwas little. I loved adventure/action books and I especially remember the Willard Price adventure books and Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven (which I dramatically preferred to The Famous Five). I was also captivated by a series of fantasy fighting books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone and on digging them out from the back of my shelves the other day, I am minded to ‘play’ one again.

Reading does not come naturally to me now and I have to really think about making time to pick up a book. On holiday last month I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (on the recommendation of many, many people) – but give me a novel by Agatha Christie, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Harris, Tess Gerritsen…and I’ll be reading into the night (by the light of my bedside lamp and wearing my spectacles).

My favourite childhood book has definitely got to be Lulu and the Flying Babies by Posy Simmonds. As someone who reads a great deal but equally invests a lot of time pouring over imagery, this book was the perfect combination. Much to Lulu’s obvious annoyance, her Dad takes her to a museum when it gets too cold to play The best of everytoutside and she embarks on a journey through the paintings with a naughty group of cherubs. They roll around in snowy landscapes, splash in the sea, growl at a tiger and even feed crisps to a king’s horse. Great stuff.

Lately my favourite book is The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. I think this is a great book because it broke so many taboos when it was first published in 1958 (years before Sex and the City came along and reputedly the book that Mad Men is based on). Jaffe wrote a gritty tale about a group of young women in New York negotiating office romances, workplace politics, broken engagements, tiny apartments, illegal abortions, lecherous bosses, heartbreak and of course, lasting friendship.

I read voraciously as a child, so choosing my absolute favourite has been a very difficult task indeed. My shortlisttintin in tibet included such greats as Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine and E. Nesbitt’s Five Children and It but my upcoming trip to Belgium this weekend has made one particularly stick out – blistering barnacles, it’s Tintin! Reading Tintin’s escapades in far-flung, exotic countries transported me into a world of adventure that I wanted to visit again and again. One particular favourite of mine was Tintin in Tibet where on a quest to save a friend missing in the Himalayas, Tintin, his faithful hound, Snowy, and the cynical Captain Haddock, encounter avalanches, Buddist monks and an abominable snowman.

Luckily my love of reading has stayed with me and I always have a book in my bag wherever I go. Again, choosing a favourite hasn’t been easy but one book I adore is Evelyn Waugh’s darkly comic A Handful of Dust.  Both tragic and hilariously funny, the novel satirizes a certain stratum of English life where all the characters have money but lack practically every other credential. I read somewhere that reading anything by Waugh is like being air-kissed by a socialite who clutches your shoulder in mock affection with one hand while raising an ice pick behind your back with the other. You know you should be on guard for certain disaster, but charisma sweeps you away in an intoxicating wave of champagne and caviar… I couldn’t agree more.

Goscinny’s stories about little Nicholas and his school mates have appealed to me since I started reading. In Nicholas’ world, adults are often childish and dramatic individuals whose behaviour cannot be understood by the-master-and-margarita-by-mikhail-bulgakov-book-cover1Nicholas. Although written almost 50 years ago, Nicholas’ adventures have never lost their charm and wit for me; additionally, Sempe’s funny cartoons make these books even more special.

Boulgakov’s Master and Margarita has been a life-changing book for me. Completely ignored during my high school time (as many other precious books were), it won my heart many years later. Boulgakov’s philosophical (and controversial for his contemporaries) view on politics, religion and bureaucracy transformed into a fantasy story full of hostile characters from a different world and exaggerated personas from Moscow. Although I have read Master and Margarita several times, I still feel there is so much to explore.

As a girl between 7 and 10, the Martine books by Belgian writer Gilbert Delahaye were my favourite! Down to MartineAuParcCoverearth but stimulating stories, I could easily relate to this kind-hearted young girl who has to face tricky situations or go on some exciting adventure. Each book would depict Martine and her friends (or her beloved cat and dog) doing a specific activity (Martine does horse-riding, Martine learns to swim) or a scenario of a child’s everyday life (Martine celebrates her birthday, Martine is ill) or else a concept that may be difficult for children to deal with (Martine and the accident, Martine is moving, Martine loses her dog). Translated in thirty countries, Martine’s stories are often touching and the emotions felt are enhanced by the wonderfully detailed and realistic drawings of Marcel Marlier.

I first read Le Monde de Sophie or Sophie’s World by Norwegian writer, Jostein Gaarder, when I was 18. Doing a literary baccalaureate I had to endure eight hours of philosophy per week. Needless to say that when you have little interest or understanding of the subject, attending these classes felt like a chore. A friend insisted on my reading Sophie’s World to ‘help me’. So I gave it a go… and what a help indeed! Following this adventurous yet innocent 14 year-old girl, Sophie, who is taught philosophy through anonymous (but friendly) letters to start with, Jostein Gaarder completely nails it: captivate and educate Sophie and, through her, the reader. He manages to convey the main principles of the history of philosophy in a clear, creative and imaginative narrative whilst keeping some mystery and suspense going. Personally I felt enlightened; what had been a dark world of philosophers’ mixed thoughts, endless hypotheses and unanswerable questions such as “who are you?” or “where does the world come from?” suddenly became lucid. The book triggered my curiosity and the philosophy lessons at school got my full attention, at last.
Reading Sophie’s World again as an adult, I have experienced the same feelings of discovery and exhilaration as I did before. So, if you want to know why Lego is the most ingenious toy in the world, read this book…

Photo: Dominic Lipinski, AP

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I love The Master and Margarita, which I found discarded in a closet by a previous occupant of my apartment in Zhongshan = )

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