Books That Taught Us The Secrets of Life

As I listened to the Whiffenpoof Yale Choir singing ” As I was young and foolish”, at their concert  last night, I thought I know all about that… I was twelve in 1950 when we were given a lecture during science on human reproduction. It was very boring, nine tenths of it was a film about rabbits , and the last tenth was a diagram of stick figures with arrows demonstrating that the sperm passed from the man to the woman.

“Any questions?” said the science mistress at the end of this, in a very repressive voice, to which I was totally insensitive. I pressed brashly on.  “Yes, how did it get from the man to the woman”, I asked? “You should have watched the film.” she snapped, as the whole class took a deep collective in-breath. “But I did”, I protested. End of lesson. It didn’t really matter, I was more pre-occupied with Baroness Orxy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at that stage… “they seek him here, they seek him there….”

A year later I got the lowdown on the rudiments of human reproduction in the school train. Rude was what it seemed to me, and I looked with utter distaste at the forty year old English master whose wife was having a baby. How could an elderly man like him – I thought to myself – how could he?

The next step in my education was the publication of Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”, which was the subject of hushed talk in the Lower Fourth. Most people think it’s about a couple who fall in love during their brutal imprisonment by the Japanese. But we were n’t interested in that. There were two sentences in the whole book which riveted us. The couple found each other after the war, and went off on holiday to try to re-capture their original feelings. One night she wore a sarong like the one she’d worn in Malaya, and this did the trick apparently. We read with bated breath the words “Did what I think happened last night really happen?” and read with some horror, her strange reply: “Well, I’m covered in bruises.” This was puzzling on several counts. What on earth goes on, we pondered.

Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the Durbervilles” was the next heroine who furthered my general knowledge on this rather arcane subject back then. I discovered from this book that human reproduction was a very risky business, which in Tess’s case, led from seduction to unwanted pregnancy, a husband who abandoned her on their honeymoon when she told him, and then the seducer rescuing Tess from poverty and despair, until the husband pops up again. In her rage she stabs the wretched seducer, and ends up being hanged. Not a good look for ignorant teenagers searching for information.

But it came in a much more attractive package when I was at boarding school. This blue book was wrapped in brown paper so that none of the teachers knew we had it. It was furtively passed around the senior girls’ dormitory, and I was at the end of the line, being the most recent arrival. Finally I got to the pages of Frank Yerby’s  “The Foxes of Harrow”, which were causing all the excitement. I discovered from this sex manual that women could be frigid – what on earth was that? And the hero of this tale – if hero he could be called – got so fed-up with his frigid wife that he packed her off to town to be de-fridged by a sort of white witch, who was actually a Black American.

When she returned to her home, and expectant husband, they both couldn’t wait to get up to the bedroom, where the husband stripped off her clothes as fast as he could. But his patience gave out when he fumbled with her pearl necklace, and to our collective relish, he ripped it apart, and priceless pearls cascaded unheeded around the bedroom. Wow, we all thought!  You don’t wear jewellery in bed! This couple too, seemed to have had a rough ride, because in the morning, one or other of them had a back which had, in the words of the story, been “raked” by fingernails. Hell’s teeth! as my father would have said.

Finally Gone with The Wind fell into my eager hands. Not much sex here, but a manual on childbirth for me. Melanie Wilkes giving birth while Atlanta burned around her, and stifling her groans of agony by wringing her hands on a knotted towel stood me in good stead.

When I gave birth to my first child, having moved house as an army wife, and having slipped too through the cracks of any ante-natal classes – if indeed they existed then – I only had Melanie’s example to guide me. I lay on my bed of pain, sunk into the deepest, blackest pit, suppressing my groans like Melanie had done. Somewhere high up above me I heard the midwife say to my husband you might as well go home, she’s asleep.

So off he went, and I didn’t see him for another six months. When I was wheeled back to my room in the morning, there was a brief telegram:” Gone to Cyprus”. The unspoken other half of this communication was: “to be shot at by Greeks and Turks.” His regiment had been bundled off to Cyprus to quell another insurrection.

We were too young to qualify for army allowances, so back home, sans money, family, neighbours, phone and car – since I couldn’t drive the one holed up in the garage, I needed help. I turned to Dr Spock.

Pregnant again as soon as the husband returned unharmed by Greeks or Turks, for the next few years the only book I read was Dr Benjamin Spock’s child rearing manual, as I wrestled with colic and constipation, solids and sleep deprivation. And since those desperate days, the raunchy reading of my youth hasn’t had the same allure. We called them Blue books back then, though they probably weren’t,  and I can’t see me thumbing through Fifty Shades of Grey now… especially since a survey has shown that a surprisingly large number of readers never bother to read to the end!

Dr Spock, on the other hand, I read from cover to cover. Not once but many times, hoping to enlighten my ignorance on how to cope with babies. But really, I needed more than Dr Spock, just as I needed more than Melanie.

Recipe for Threadbare Gourmets

Yesterday I ran out of time and ingredients, and was feeling guilty that I’d been out two nights running leaving the old chap with a cold meal. One night at a concert listening to The Whiffenpoofs, the Yale Choir, and last night, Tai Chi. So I felt I had to cook, and an omelette didn’t seem good enough. Though this is a real threadbare meal, it’s one we love. You need a cup of long grain rice, well washed, and put on to boil with two scant cups of water, salt, three cloves and quarter to half a teaspoon of cinnamon.

Clamp the lid on tightly and boil on as low as possible for twenty minutes. Then pull off the heat and leave covered for another ten minutes. Meanwhile gently fry one or two onions, and two cups of chopped celery, adding several cloves of chopped garlic towards the end. At this stage I either chop up some cooked chicken, open a tin of shrimps, or fish out some frozen prawns, and stir whatever it is into the onion mixture. Allow two eggs for two people, but three eggs for four – and this amount of rice is probably enough for four reasonable people – beat the eggs lightly and stir into the pan for fifty seconds. Then add the rice, gently stirring to mix it all up. If I have spring onions to hand, I chop them in. Eat immediately with some green salad. (Just don’t try to eat the cloves.) It’s a very delicately flavoured meal.

Food for Thought

The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.          Lao-Tse     Ancient Chinese philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching, and considered to be the founder of Taoism


Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, food, great days, life/style, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life

41 responses to “Books That Taught Us The Secrets of Life

  1. Alice

    Wonder what books move generations now?

  2. Where would we be without our much loved books? Gone With The Wind continues to be a favorite…the interesting thing is that when I was a teenager I fancied myself as Scarlett…when I matured, I grew to admire Melanie. Always LOVED Rhett, though! When I was younger for sweeping Scarlett off her feet, later for mourning the loss of his baby.

    • I felt exactly the same until I saw the film, then I fell for Ashley Wilkes as played by Leslie Howard. I saw the film eleven times over the years, and the last time went right off it, including wimpish Ashley Wilkes. I must have grown up!

      • Love the film as well, have seen it many, many times, and still love it. Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes never did it for me. Leslie Howard as The Scarlet Pimpernel…vaavvooom! lol

  3. Oh, what a funny story. Loved it :)

  4. The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Mrs. Mike, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca….They are still a source of enjoyment and inspiration. Enjoyed reading your post – which have inspired me to revisit books that I read many years ago. Thank you!!!

    • Great to hear from you, yes, I can identify with all your list, except for Mrs Mike – Have I missed something delicious? And yes, I can feelTtess coming on – more for the beautiful writing about a vanished way of life, than for the drama of Tess’s story….

      • You must read Mrs. Mike (by Benedict Freedman). Set in the Great Canadian North, it is a love story between a RCMP Sergeant and his young bride, Katherine Mary Flannigan, from Boston Massachusetts. One of the most memorable quotes: “But death does not stand at the end of life, it is all through it. It is the fear of losing, the knowledge of losing that makes love tender.”

  5. Pingback: Not one, but two – Liebster Blog Awards! « catnipoflife

  6. What a great post, it made me smile. The thought of you and your schoolfriends hiding ‘salacious’ books from your teachers :)

  7. Amy

    It’s a long journey to become a mother and to be where we are now… Thank you for the quote from Lao-Tse!

  8. I loved this post, so reminiscent of much of my own (though not the army bits) It was the Spock manual that really reminded me.I still have my tattered copy and he still makes sense for the bringing up of grandchildren! Great post! Thank you :)

    • Thank you so much for commenting, good to hear from you. In the end I grew out of Dr Spock… but I did once interview him! And afterwards his wife told me she had brought up their children and given him all the information about the book while he sat behind his big desk in his office!

      • Wow! You interviewed him! I don’t know whether to be pleased that his wife was the good parent and all he did was write or to be disappointed in him! Perhaps a bit of both! :)

  9. Maggie

    Valerie ,
    A link to the Guardian column ‘better reads than 50 shades of grey’ which is rather rude in places but had me crying with laughter.

    • Maggie, thank you so much for this – I immediately Googled the link, and ended up reading it aloud to my husband to share the laughs – and the groans of envy as I noticed who had written the Mills and Boon job – written by a young thing from our office years ago, and now a prolific ( and presumably rich) Mills and Boon regular… Thanks for sharing it, and thinking of me!

  10. this was wonderful. I clung to Dr. Spock and one other as if they were the Bible. I wanted to do each thing perfectly…..and as for the “other” subject, well I must have shut my ears and ears through each lesson…to much information! the other extreme, No No No! please don’t tell me anymore!!! I learned more living on a farm for a while…. Love to you, Linda

  11. oh, I watched the mini-series, Anne of Green Gables done quite a while ago, it was one of my all time favorites…

    • LInda, thank you for your messages, lovely to hear from you… yes, I loved Anne of Green Gables – one of my all-time favourites,,, as well as ” I Capture the Castle” – another lovely one – did you ever find that one?
      Love Valerie

      • hello, no I did not ever hear of ‘I Capture the Castle’, sounds fun, eventually everything comes back… I will look out for it. Great Feeling to be settled in the midst of a miniseries, I remember! Love, Linda

  12. Oh Valerie, Valerie….what laughs, what memories (should I break into a Streisand-like solo of Memories….actually probably not unless you are wearing ear muffs)! All those wonderful books, I just recently re-read Rebecca which I found in a second hand bookstore and couldn’t resist. I think we had a mystery to solve with sex education, all very hush hush….kids these days have to re-discover the mystery cos it’s all so, dare I say, in your face, so a great deal has been lost cos they have almost had things scripted. Bring back the mystery and reading under the covers!!!!Thankyou for such fun and memories

  13. oops forgot to say ta for the recipe and more so the quote….only recently have been reading the Tao te Ching after buying it on my Kindle, what a wonderful text.

    • wish I knew your name – feels a bit strange saying Dear Mindfulness4 now! Your messages were lovely… and I was so delighted that you picked up the messages in the post… Rebecca – I can feel a re-reading coming on, after your mention, along with a few other nostalgic favourites!
      Yes, Tao Te Ching is very thought-provoking is n’t it… and I love its clarity and common sense……

  14. I am not young anymore and remember reading Lady Chatterly’s Lovers and thought what is all the hubbub about?!! I grew up in the 60’s and was not yet a teen when I heard all about free love and the pill although it did take me awhile to figure out what “the pill” was. I assumed it was to get pregnant, boy was I was wrong! LOL will be happy to know I still read and watch my Anne Girl!! ;) Blessings – Patty

    • Great to hear from you… yes, they were simpler times, and I suspect less challenging, since we weren’t bombarded with information over-load like today’s teenagers. Yes, wasn’t Lady Chatterley’s Lover ho-hum after all the fuss…

      • :) I agree – when I look back I noticed I was not scared for life because I had my facts a bit wrong. Give me the peaceful life of laying on the grass and watching the clouds roll by and dreaming little girl dreams any day!

  15. Hi,
    Just thought I’d let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award. Please visit my blog post link below if you choose to participate. Blessings, Cathie

    • Dear Cathie, am not sure whether when I reply on my blog, it gets to you and your blog. But congratulations on your award, and thank you so much thinking of sharing it with me. It’s such a thrill and an honour to be a part of this blogging world and to be nominated for an award. I enjoyed your witty answers to your questions, and thought the questions you set were really interesting, and will enjoy tackling the answers.Many many thanks again, Valerie

  16. Dear Cathie, Congratulations on winning your award, and thank you so much for thinking of me as part of your sharing it. I love the questions you answered, and your witty replies, and thought the questions you’ve set were pretty cool too. I ‘ll enjoy getting onto this, with many thanks from Valerie.

  17. Fascinating discussion on BBC Radio 4 today about 50 Shades of Grey and whether teenagers should be reading it. Made me remember your adventures (and mine!) with forbidden texts! Haven’t read 50 though and am not likely to! It has received some terrible reviews! :)

  18. Yes, I’ve read that it’s one of those books that will be crowding the shelves of op-shops quite quickly! I’ve only read About it, so maybe I shouldn’t express an opinion,. but it sounds like voyeurism. When we read our dan gerous books we were actually looking for information, rather than trying to get cheap thrills.I think teenagers have plenty of opportunity these days to find the facts without the fiction!
    And I remember nearly swooning with bliss when my first boyfriend held my hand in the pictures. I think that would be very tame these days….

  19. Pingback: Blog of the Year 2012 « catnipoflife

  20. Dear Sharla – thank you very much for the ping back … but what does it mean? I’m still a hopeless computer illiterate.. Is there something I should be doing?????
    Love valerie

  21. Pingback: A Summer Bouquet Blossoming with Awards | catnipoflife

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