It would be fair to say that Mariella Frostrup’s current career as a literary critic didn’t take a traditional path. After leaving her home in east Ireland to move to London at just 16, her first brush with showbiz came two years later when she married the lead singer of punk band The Skids (she was divorced by 21). Then after working as a music PR on events including Live Aid in the Eighties, at 25 she got her first job on TV presenting a music programme on Channel Four called Big World. Stints presenting The Little Picture Show in the Nineties, interviewing Hollywood’s A-list for The Guardian and appearances on Have I Got News For You followed. As a result she was never seen as particularly bookish.
Today, however, the 48-year-old mother of two has carved a niche for herself as a literary authority, presenting Open Book on Radio 4 and taking seats on the judging panels for the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year. She’s also presented The Book Show on Sky Arts 1, now in its seventh series, for four years and is a regular fixture at the nation’s most exciting literary festival in Hay-on-Wye, where she’ll be presenting live coverage for Sky this weekend. Put simply, Mariella is passionate about books and gifted with an ability to give an honest, informed and intelligent opinion; the sort of recommendation you’d want from a friend. To celebrate an issue dedicated to the nostalgia of books, we asked Mariella Frostrup to choose the 10 stand-out titles that have influenced her life.
THE BOOK THAT TAKES ME BACK TO MY ROOTS: Victoria by Knut Hamsun
This is by a Norwegian author and is full of aching, existential love. It reminds me so much of Norway, where I was born and lived until I was six. The people there are very decent but quite tortured – my father, who died [of alcohol poisoning] when I was a teenager was definitely of the tortured Norwegian variety. I’m more confrontational, perhaps as a reaction to that, but I felt melancholy when I read this because it reminded me of Dad and made me miss him.
THE BOOK THAT REMINDS ME OF MY BEST FRIEND: The Stories Of Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende
My best friend Natalie lives in Italy and when we first met in the Eighties there was an explosion of books about magic realism. We were addicted to the author Isabelle Allende, particularly The Stories Of Eva Luna. The book is terribly romantic and has stories of people meeting then disappearing into the ether to became one soul. These stories collided with the beginnings of our romantic lives when we were 18, when, unbeknownst to us, we both had two marriages to go through and endless, tortured love affairs.
THE BOOKS I LOVE TO READ TO MY CHILDREN: The Princess Knight and The Wildest Brother both by Cornelia Funke
There’s nothing better after a stressful day than to come home and have half an hour with my kids snuggled up against me while I read to them. Molly loves The Princess Knight, about the feisty daughter of a king who learns to joust secretly and beats her brothers and suitors for her right to independence, and Dan loves The Wildest Brother, about a little boy who’s always fighting monsters. I love that my kids are very much their own little people. As a parent it’s one of the most surprising things – to find you give birth to these individual and unique little creatures that are fully formed in terms of their likes and dislikes and personalities way before you’ve had the chance to play a role in it.
THE BOOK THAT HELPED ME UNDERSTAND MEN: Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi
This chronicle of a man’s crumbling marriage is one of the cruellest, most brilliant books I’ve ever read. There’s no point being illuminated on the good things about men – you need to know what goes on behind the facade, and to understand them as separate creatures. I don’t think women should look at men through rose-tinted glasses. In fact, if this book had been around when I was young it would have saved me an awful lot of time.
THE BOOK THAT MAKES ME WANT TO BE YOUNG AGAIN: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
The heroine of this novel, Lyra, is such a feisty, brave, clever, inspiring girl – I wish I’d had her as a fictional role model as a child. The novel is a wonderful confirmation that it’s possible for girls to go out and do brave things and I miss that sense of possibility you have when you’re young – the idea that every phone call and new experience can lead to something unexpected happening.
THE BOOK THAT HELPED HEAL MY BROKEN HEART: The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie
Only time heals a broken heart but a great story like this can transport you to another place while you recuperate. I buried myself in this book when my heart was last truly broken, in about 1995. I’m all for staying in your pyjamas for a month, reading an epic book of your choice and playing sad songs. My parents broke up to Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room so that sort of music instantly transports me to the sense of aching sadness and whispers behind closed doors. Some people think Salman’s writing is too taxing but it took me away from the pain.
THE BOOK THAT INSPIRES ME AS A WOMAN: Half The Sky by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A friend of mine, Livia Firth [wife of Colin], sent me this book of stories about women in different countries who have no rights in the 21st century – those who can’t report rape, are not allowed an education; victims of sex trafficking... But instead of presenting a load of tragic stories it tells you about the bravery and achievements of women against adversity. It’s a call to arms. And that’s what the charity I set up, the GREAT Initiative (thegreatinitiative.com), is committed to – helping women taking control of their lives against the odds.
THE BOOK THAT GAVE ME THE DESIRE TO TRAVEL: Into The Heart Of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon
I’ve always loved books set in exotic climes; I’ve got such wanderlust. This is hilarious – it’s about two hapless guys who go on an adventure together, don’t know what they’re getting into and fall out. I’ve had lots of amazing travel experiences myself but the most life-changing was when I went to Nepal [in 2001] for a two-week trek with my friend [former GMTV presenter] Penny Smith and met Jason. I think that’s the perfect example of how your life can change in a moment and the further you wander from your safety zone, the more likely it is that you’ll reap really positive benefits.
THE BOOK THAT MAKES ME FEEL ROMANTIC: Dirt Music by Tim Winton
I’m very realistic about romance, I don’t believe in the idea I’d walk down the street one day and meet someone who’d steal my heart – but Tim’s writing is so hopeful it makes me want to reclaim some of the romance in my life. When you and your partner work and you’ve got two kids, it’s easy to fall into a kind of humdrum existence but this makes me want to fight to keep romance on my agenda.
THE BOOK THAT TAUGHT ME ABOUT STYLE: Coco Chanel: The Legend And The Life by Justine Picardie
This book about Coco is so well written and I think it really defines her as a trailblazer and individual. I bought two Chanel suits in the Eighties and wore them non-stop for about a decade, I’m such a fan. I’ve lost one now but I’m keeping the other for my daughter, even though my friend [Coupling actress] Gina Bellman tried to make me send it to charity for years.
The Book Show will be broadcasting from the Hay Festival on Sky Arts 1 from 28-31 May at 7pm; sky.com/books