The Books That Made Me Me – Penny

We know Penny has a way with imagery that few writers do.  We also know she is very well-read.  I’ve been waiting a long time to find out the books that made her her, and readers?  This does not disappoint.  I want to read each and every one of the poems and books Penny describes below.  I make no apology for the goraning weight of your bookshelves as a result of this series.  And that is why this series is so great.    

All links to the AOW Book Store.  Over to you, Penny:    

Moondial by Helen Cresswell

I was a rather odd, morbid child and have always been drawn to things that go bump in the night. Moondial was one of the first books I ever read that really made me shiver til my teeth rattled. It’s a classic girl-goes-away-to-stay-with-relatives-and-discovers-creepy-old-house story, with a bit of time travel thrown in for good measure. Bonus points for the terrifying 1988 BBC TV series that followed, and for being based on a real house (Belton House in Lincolnshire) that I could actually go and look round, then promptly go home and earnestly write my 1237398nd story in the same mould. This book marked the start of a lifelong obsession with creepy old houses and the chilling tales that go behind them (see also: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson)

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

I’m not really into poetry. And you can drop all your doomy preconceptions about Plath, because I’d never even heard of her when my Mum gave me her tatty copy of Ariel and told me to read it. This book knocked me out. Plath writes about life and death with the wonder of a creature from another planet. Sometimes she is detached and curious, at others she is overwhelmed and painfully engaged. Reading these poems makes me feel like I’m plugged into an emotional amplifier and whacked up to eleven. Best hand-me-down ever given to an aspiring 15 year old writer? I think so. Well done Mum.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

At around about the same time as I was reading Plath, listening to Radiohead and generally being a tortured teen, this book came out. I’d never heard of Coupland before, I just had a book token to spend, read a good review in my Dad’s newspaper, and off I went to buy it in hardback (the only hardback I think I’ve ever bought). Microserfs is about a group of nerds who find their niche, and reading it was like being allowed into a secret society of incredibly clever, very funny people. There is real sadness in this book, but there is hope too – an overwhelming message that you really can fulfil your potential if you play to your strengths. I loved that a lot of the characters find it hard to engage with other people, but sort of muddle through and find like-minded souls in the end. It gave me hope that being unconventional was possibly not the end of the world – that it might actually turn out to be a good thing, in fact. It’s also packed with pop-culture references that probably seem retro now. Tab Clear, anyone?

An Invitation To A Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

Sometimes we have odd months or even entire years where we end up walking around our own heads thinking a bit too much about everything. It was during one of those strange interludes that I read this book. I didn’t really know what it was about when I started reading it, I think I just wanted to ponce about on my own looking cool and reading something difficult and Russian. Instead I ended up almost falling into the book, it went so deep. It’s essentially an allegory for existential crisis. A man is sentenced to die, but nobody will tell him when his execution is due to take place. He tries to grasp at his remaining existence through his writing, but because they won’t tell him the date he’s due to die, his rational mind continues to elude him. The novel plays with notions of reality something crazy – it’s a real head-bender, and dark as hell. Every single sentence struck a chord with me at that time, and I’m not sure if that made me feel better or worse, but it definitely made me feel a whole lot less alone.

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

This book is just fantastically playful, and it changed the way I think about writing for good. Vonnegut is insane, he is a genius, and he weaves narrative so beautifully and simply that the most difficult concepts plop into your hands like apples from a tree. Reading this book I felt liberated from years of trying to squash down the urge to spiral off on my own impossible tangents. Instead I embraced creativity and let it work its way into my everyday life. My husband and I still have endless, ridiculous conversations that meant nothing to anyone but us – frivolous flights of fancy where sentences rhyme and inanimate objects come to life. It’s like living in a Vonnegut novel. I knew instantly when we started going out that he would love this book – and he does. It’s just as quirky as he is, and it makes me almost as happy as he does.

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


  1. Laura
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Coveting a copy of that Nabokov book…

  2. Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Oooh I think a couple of these will be added to my rather large ‘must get these from the library’ list!

  3. Katy
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Ohh I love BTMMM posts but quite often I have read some/most of the books – this time I haven’t read ANY of them (although I do remember the Moondial TV series which was very scary at the tender age of 8) so I have lots to look forward to, particularly as they’re not necessarily books I would pick up without having had a recommendation. Excellent. Thank you Penny!

    • Katy
      Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Erm that should be an eight rather than a smiley face with sunglasses on…

    • Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      The TV series was SO scary. Do you remember the room with all the covered mirrors? ARGH!


      • Katy
        Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        I think I have repressed that bit from my memory – I do remember the “Devil’s Child, Devil’s Child” bit though – GAH!

        • Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          Argh, I had forgotten that, it’s given me shivers!


  4. Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    So. I’ve just bought the Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Coupland books on Amazon (one-click book buying is both genius and dangerous!) My bank account is quietly weeping but I’m in a very happy place.

    Brilliant list Penny, as if we ever expected anything else! You have the be the coolest book nerd ever.

    K x

    • Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      EEK! You’ll have to let me know what you think!


      • Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        I will do! Oh I LOVE when I know books are coming in the mail :-D

        K x

  5. Becca
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I’m from Lincolnshire and spent many a happy afternoon at Belton House (got to love the parents national trust card). I actually thought I was the character from moondial for a while.

    In the same way I spent this weekend with my hair in plaits a la Katniss from the Hunger Games.

    • Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I have been wearing my hair in a plait for the lab since I read the Hunger Games. I’m so happy I’m not the only person who does this.

      K x

      • Becca
        Posted April 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        Katielase….you are TEAM GALE yes?

  6. Esme
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Ok, wow. I want to read all of those (except Moondial because I hate scary things)

  7. Zan
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Oh how I love love love BTMMM! Microserfs and Breakfast of Champions are on my ‘to-buy’ list now.

    And Moondial was brilliant – I loved the TV series, even if it did scare the bejesus out of me!

  8. L1nds
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    THANK YOU!! I’ve been racking my brain for AGES trying to remember what Moondial was actually called so I could reread! I can’t remember whether I read the book or watched the tv series first but I loved both. Much eerier than Tom’s Midnight Garden if I remember right. I’ll have a look at the rest of your list now, I just couldn’t contain my excitement at Moondial!

  9. Posted April 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I think the Nabokov may find itself into Warmth’s birthday gifting…

  10. Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    amazing list- microserfs sounds amazing. I can’t read scary books- they break my brain and I can’t wee on my own for weeks after so given up on that… I read Ariel when I was about 12 I think, should probably revisit that as a grown up.

    Vonnegut sounds INCREDIBLE! Never even heard of him… love the BTMMM lists with new reads. Thanks Penny xx

  11. Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    All of these are books I’ve wanted to read at one time or another but never got around to. Will be looking them all up in the library (but am only reading moondial in the daytime invade it gives me nightmares!). Great write-up, P!

  12. Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Have definitely wanted to read more Nabokov ever since being blown away by the brilliance of Lolita. Invitation to a Beheading sounds like it must be equally mind-bending. Adding it to the ever-growing list.

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