The Books That Made Me Me – Catherine

Good morning, readers.  Ready for some brilliant writing and some serious book debate?  Yes, of course you are.   

You know Catherine.  She wrote about people’s attitudes towards being single and 30, and she wrote a storming piece (that my dad mentioned, twice) about the right to contraception that closed International Women’s Day on  the blog.  Here she tells you the books that made her her. 

All links are to the AOW Book Store.  Happy Wednesday, readers.  Over to Catherine:


The Magic Faraway Tree

Enid Blyton made me a reader. Naughty Amelia Jane was the book I was reading when I proudly announced that I had learned how to READ IN MY HEAD, I tapped the walls of my (very modern) house looking for secret passageways and I searched the faces of strangers for tell-tale signs they were part of some international smuggling ring. I loved Malory Towers and The Twins at St. Clare’s, and The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, but there was one Blyton book in particular that introduced me to the power of a good story.

I don’t remember at what age I read The Magic Faraway Tree but I remember being captivated. It didn’t seem like a stretch to believe in a tree so tall it touched the clouds and so wide that magical creatures lived in it (in actual houses). That the tree was hollow and had a ‘slippery slip’ to the bottom and a ladder at the top that led to rotating magical lands? Nothing about that fazed me as a child. It saddens me that I haven’t been able to read the book as an adult with the same suspension of disbelief (I just can’t imagine a tree that size!), but I’m happy to remember how excited that story made me and how it taught me that nothing was more fun than my imagination (except probably Enid Blyton’s).

The Babysitters Club

Frankly, I’m flabbergasted we’ve gotten this far in the BTMMM series without the BSC getting some love. I know more about these girls than I do about most of my friends! I know that Kristy is a sports-mad tomboy and Mary Ann cries all the time and inexplicably has a SERIOUS BOYFRIEND. I know that Dawn lives in a farm house, eats tofu and is CALIFORNIA CASUAL. I know that Mal and Jessi are best friends and have an awful lot of freedom for eleven year olds. Importantly I know that the stars of the series are Claudia and Stacey who are so cool it’s actually unreal. Stacey is from New York, wears her blonde hair in a perm and is always dating older guys. She has diabetes and is a maths whizz while Claudia, her BFF, is a JUNK FOOD ADDICT with almond-shaped eyes, her own phone line [sigh] and the most amazing sense of style you could possibly imagine.

These were the books and characters that kept me a reader. They kept me reading when I was through with what I considered ‘children’s books’, but didn’t feel brave or knowledgeable enough to enter the adult section of the public library. They kept me reading when friends were swept away into the dark abyss of television watching. I couldn’t get into Sweet Valley High, where everyone seemed too perfect (though I did enjoy Sweet Valley University where Elizabeth’s world fell apart because she gained 5lbs) but I was pretty sure, should I ever make it to Stoneybrook Connecticut, that these babysitters would let me join their club. In short, I fell in love. Both with these simple stories about the strong bonds of friendship and with Stacey’s glorious handwriting.


The Great Gatsby

There’s no easy way to segue from the badly [and often, ghost] written Baby Sitter’s Club to The Great Gatsby, but here I go…

I kept reading after the BSC. I read my way into the adult section of the library. I read classic and contemporary fiction.  I read whole days at a time, curled up in a living room armchair, and then I read my way to a place at university studying English Literature where I discovered that there was actually quite a bit of literature I didn’t really care for (sorry, D.H Lawrence, but I just can’t cope with you taking two pages to describe a hedge). Thankfully, I was also introduced to a lot of stuff that I really did care for, and in particular, a final year module in American Literature opened my eyes to some amazing works; chief among them, The Great Gatsby. Now, The Great Gatsby is to my mind just about the most perfect novel ever written. So perfect, in fact, that an early draft of this submission had me threatening to set a pack of wolves on anyone who disagreed.

I can’t honestly claim that reading this novel set me on a path to moving to the US (though this is how it will play out in the movie of my life, in a very uneventful but terrifically moving scene), but it’s really never been far from my thoughts while I’ve been here. The themes of moral bankruptcy, the decline of the American Dream and the tragic consequences of believing in illusions seem to resonate just as much today as they did in the 1920s.  

It was also this novel that taught me that great writing needn’t just be a vehicle for a great story. For me, great writing doesn’t make itself known. It bubbles along quietly beneath the surface, drawing me into the story. Reading The Great Gatsby wasn’t like that. I was engrossed in the story of course, but I could not help but be aware of the beautiful and heart-wrenching language which so often reads like poetry to me:

 “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island that flowered here once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” .  

Catherine….bonus points for telling me what was on the cover of the one we had….I know it was brown, but I couldn’t find an image of it anywhere!

Lonely Planet Eastern Europe

In 2003, I was wrapping up my final year at University and Anna K was “studying” in Germany as part of her year abroad. I don’t remember how it came about, but we decided that for three weeks in the summer we were going to interrail around central/eastern Europe (Zone D, if you’re interested) (ed – which does not exist anymore!  Now you can only buy a “global” pass or a specific country pass…grumble grumble) and so a guide book was purchased and military-style planning ensued. I read the book cover to cover, learning about the nooks and crannies of countries we weren’t even visiting. It was indispensible during our trip – advising us of where and when we needed to buy a half fare for our rucksack, informing us that východ was not the name of a Czech town but the word for exit, helping us find a post office in Budapest where Anna and the Hungarian post mistress could engage in the most elaborate game of charades I have ever seen and pointing us to the perfect rocky outcrop for sunbathing in Dubrovnik.

This was the trip that gave me the bug for traveling and it started with this book: with underlining and highlighted paragraphs, turned down corners and margin notes, a broken spine and food-stained pages.


Categories: Books, Books That Made Me Me
28 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted March 28, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    My IRL book club are reading The Great Gatsby & I wasn’t going to bother as I only re read it last year but this post has made me want to speed on with my current book & re read it. Your use of travel books has made nostalgic for travelling & my old ones.

  2. Posted March 28, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Yay more BTMMM! Big whoop for Catherine, also i love that you had drafts of this post, that’s commitment.

    Re Blyton, did anyone else read Mr Gallianos Circus?

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t read that one! I’m glad that so many of us were Blyton fans. I remember when I got older finding out that quite a few of my friends were banned by their parents from reading her books.

  3. Posted March 28, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t remember Galliano’s circus but I had forgotten about naughty Amelia Jane until now – brilliant! I also used to tap the walls looking for secret passages. And even when there weren’t any, I used to imagine there were. So much Blyton love on AOW.

    Gatsby is also one of my all-time favourites. We just read Tender Is The Night in my book club and people were moaning about lack of plot – heathens!

    Great list.


    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Penny! I used to hide out in the cupboard under the stairs since it was the most secret passage-like area of the house I could find. I also used to save the lids of smarties tubes because they had letters printed on the underside, and I could pretend that they were spelling out clues for a great adventure.

  4. Rach M
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Catherine, your writing about reading makes me want to read and write. Prolifically. R xx

  5. Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Oh YAY… I’ve been waiting for this, Catherine!! Brilliant, as anticipated :-D

    Okay I’m going to need to re-read the Great Gatsby now. Just because.

    Now don’t all shout at me at once but… I didn’t really get into the Babysitter’s Club. I’m not sure I know why, I suspect it might be that my local library didn’t have a large selection of them so I got fed up and read Pride and Prejudice from the grown up section of the library instead. I’m sad that I didn’t read them though, I suspect it’s a bit late to go bak and start now?

    K x

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      I didn’t do Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High as I thought they were far too girly for a tom-boy like me. I read Point Horrors instead.


      • Katie
        Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Hehe. Reminds me of my cousin, she used to read Point Romance, and I read Point Horror and The Last Vampire books. Neither of us were able to swap books, as we didn’t like the others taste.

      • Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Ha! I mostly read the Horrible Histories and Horrible Science books instead. What. A. Nerd.

        K x

      • Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        I read A LOT of Point Horrors too. I’d actually like to re-read some of those to see if they are as scary as I remember.

    • Carly
      Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      It’s NEVER too late for The Babysitters Club.

      C x

  6. Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Ahhh, Amelia Jane, the naughtiest girl in the school. I adored that book and Amelia has since been on the top of my fictional ‘kids we may have’ list! Big, big Blyton fan as she, too, taught me to red in my head!

    The GG just has to be up there, in fact, I’m going to re-read it over Easter.

    Lovely writing, as always, C. Thank you.

    SJM x

  7. Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I am thrilled by the Gatsby love! My wolves and I can rest easy today.

  8. Posted March 28, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    In the movie of your life, can there also be a terrifically moving scene where we sit around your desk writing our last-minute essays (Camus me, Shakespeare you), eating Galaxy and taking ProPlus?

    This is one of my favourite ever in these series. I didn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby (I hope our friendship is strong enough to withstand this) and I now wonder if I’ve missed something and I vow to read it again, which, surely, is the point of The Books That Made Me Me.

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      I’m still searching for an Isabel Allende book that wows me, so I guess we’re even!

      • Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Sigh. It’s a wonder we even converse.

  9. Katie
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I love the books that made me series.

    I’ve not read any of these books, although have a book shelf of Lonely Planets. I totally get why you would include it in Books that Made Me. If anyone here hasn’t done a cheap flight to Budapest, do so. One of our favourite short breaks. I now want to travel across Eastern Europe by rail.

    Read a Biography on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife – Zelda. I bought it in a charity shop, years ago, really great read. That sounds ridiculous, read a biography on his wife, but not one of the author’s classic books. Only I could have done that. Must put it right by reading Great Gatsby.


    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Eastern Europe by train is our plan for our first holiday after we (if!) have a child! It’s my way of proving that we can still be us even though our life will have changed in some ways beyond all recognition!

      Baby in a sling, couple of rucksacks, hip flask full of gin, what could possibly go wrong?!

      SJM x

      P.S. Erm, no immediate plans for a child but the holiday plans are agreed!

      • Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        That sounds amazing. Don’t look too closely behind you or you’ll probably see Anna K and I getting shouted at by a Polish train conductor.

  10. Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d forgotten all about the Babysitters Club! woweee. My fav Enid Blyton were def the Famous Five- I thought they were SO cool.

    This was a really great read, Catherine, v amusing! Especially the line

    “though I did enjoy Sweet Valley University where Elizabeth’s world fell apart because she gained 5lbs”

    haha x

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      I used to be VERY concerned reading the SV books because they would go on and on about how the twins were a “perfect size 6″, and even at a young age I thought that was unrealistically tiny. I didn’t realise that the US size 6 was actually a UK 10.

  11. Jenny
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Yeay Babysitters Club love! Finally!


  12. Mahj
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Hooray for more BTMMM! I dont think I ever read The Magic Faraway Tree but I did L-O-V-E the Children of Cherry Tree Farm. So there was a tree in that!
    And I read The Great Gatsby for the very first time last year and I cant believe that I only just got round to it. A brilliant book with such complicated characters. I hope the upcoming film does it justice.


  13. Posted March 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I just followed the amazon store link for the Baby Sitter’s Club . What on earth is that new style cover all about?! terrible.

  14. Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I love Enid Blyton! My husband bought me all the Faraway Tree books for Christmas a couple of years ago and I reread them all. I want Silky to bake for me!!

  15. Carly
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    My taste in books as a child was so trashy – it was Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley Twins, Saddle Club and Point Horror all the way! Oh, and can everyone remember the mystery that surrounded Judy Blume ‘Forever?’ I can’t remember now what they mystery was, but I think it was because it mentioned ‘it!’

    Unfortunately as I have got older my book choices are no less trashy, although I think my tastes are changing but I can’t quite make my mind up what they’ve changed to! I like Douglas Kennedy – so any suggestions along this vein would be greatly appreciated!

    Carly X

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