Last Sunday was of course Mother’s Day, another of those horrid exclusive celebrations for the smug.
Anyway, my son was working and my younger daughter didn’t think it was worth the trip back from the States, so it was left to my middle daughter to make my day. We decided to see a film together and she insisted that which film was solely my choice. I looked at the listings feeling sure that the cinemas would have made a special effort to show something out the ordinary: perhaps Mildred Pierce with the wonderful Joan Crawford slaving away and sacrificing everything for her spoilt, selfish daughter; or Gypsy with the wonderful Rosalind Russell doing her best to make her daughter the best stripper ever, only to be cast off with a flea in her ear by her ungrateful daughter. But – nothing, just the same old things about wolf men and lego batmen etc and I am not sure that my son had me in mind when he effused about them in such a glowing, reverential voice.
But undeterred, I decided upon Elle as I had wanted to see it for a while. So off we tripped to the cinema and it was a disturbing and unsettling treat. However, when we came out and I asked my daughter what she had thought, she replied vehemently that it was one of the worst, most violent films she had ever seen thereby implying major maternal misconduct. I asked what she would have preferred, Beauty and the Beast’ (mockingly). Of course she would have, but selflessly (and luckily for me) she had made no mention of her preference. So that was a fun day and a good reason for taking absolutely no notice of such days in the future. Next time, I thought we’d see The Handmaiden, a south Korean erotic, psychological thriller… [T writes – based on the wonderful English novel Fingersmith, in case you thought A was going too far off-piste]
On Tuesday, same daughter (still a bit rankled) and I met my parents and went to Regent’s Park on a beautiful spring day. I hadn’t visited the Park for a long while and it was very beautiful and quite quiet probably because the only locals would be those living in the ornate John Nash terraces that surround the Park and a lot of these houses aren’t homes any more but bank accounts. Apparently one man has bought three of these houses to knock into one dwelling, 10 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms obviously way too few for today’s householder. Not content with the space offered by 3 enormous houses, there are plans for a basement… Anyway, I tried not to let my bitterness and anger at such vulgar greed cloud our day and was soon cheered up by a sight of the penguins by peering over the fence into London Zoo. Or would have done if before mentioned daughter hadn’t kept muttering darkly about animals in zoos…
My read of this week and it has been a slow week because it is a rather big book but do not be put off! It is so worth the read and could be a good one for anyone thinking of buying 3 houses to turn into one and then not live in it… It is The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow and is the story of a mother with 5 children who has to follow her husband to Detroit during the second world war leaving behind her dreams of a self-sufficient farming life in Kentucky. The description of life in a prefab house in Detroit as it churns out steel to support the war effort is desperate and visceral as is the struggle of Gertie, the large and unlovely heroine, to adapt or die. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately gripped and even put it down but now just over half-way through I can barely put it down and it is constantly with me.
I have been giving some thought to ageing: not in relation to myself being of an eternally youthful, ‘age cannot wither her’ sort of person but as portrayed on screen and in books. I have seen two films recently and amazingly the middle-aged female characters actually had faces that moved and wrinkled in joy, despair, horror and grief. Annette Benning in Twentieth Century Women and Nathalie Baye in It’s Only the End of the World were actually able to give vent to a whole gamut of emotions because their faces weren’t frozen in immobility, the mask that passes for eternal youth these days…
Even older age and the proximity of death is the subject of Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, the book we discussed at this morning’s meeting. A nameless caller on the telephone reminds his elderly victims to ‘remember you must die’ a fact that most of them spend all their life trying to forget. Resigned patience and forbearance are not characteristics common to this group of who gripe and grumble and sleep and stumble their way to the inevitable end. They are wilful and selfish, domineering and dismissive determined to remain in control even if it is only by making and remaking their wills, gloating over the obituaries or comparing own debility to the even worse decrepitude of others. However the book is actually very funny due to the author’s acuity of observation and her merciless exposure of the frailties and hypocracies of mere humans. Memento Mori originated to remind people that not only must they die, they must then be judged. I plan to reintroduce the use of this warning to everyone who uses a mobile phone in the quiet carriage! [T writes: or the bookshop for that matter]
I have mentioned elsewhere that a lonely soul is mine, never happier than striding across moor and mountain at one with the elements so I really thought I had found my soul mate in another book that I read this week: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. This is the extraordinary true story of a hermit who decided to turn his back on the world aged 21 and lived undiscovered for 25 years in a forest in Maine surviving sub-zero winters living in a tent with just a calor gas stove for warmth. He stole what he needed in terms of food and supplies from a nearby cabin resort and one of these raids ultimately led to his capture and, with terrible irony, a term of imprisonment for theft. This story is a perfect antidote to the noise and light pollution, the overcrowding of cities and the terrible greed for more and more stuff. Unsurprisingly, the legal system did not really know how to deal with such a case… At one point in the book, Finkel asks himself and others when was the last time and for how long they could remember being totally alone – again unsurprisingly, the answer was practically never, certainly no longer than a few hours. Apparently, people who spend time alone are actually more intelligent than those who don’t – well I should know!
From old age to youth, young girls in particular, nymphs! Yes, I am reading Lolita as chosen by JAM for our classics book group. It is difficult to explain the reading experience in regard to this book, appreciation of the language and writing, revulsion at Humbert’s obsession, slightly guilty laughter at the comedy. Should be a very interesting discussion…
One of the many, many, many problems with Brexit is that it has pervaded the news so completely and so is so stultifyingly boring that it has obliterated the time and the will to cover or listen to the issues that should be receiving our attention. No-one else gets much of a word in apart from that other hideous disaster of 2016. It is like the Government’s Trojan Horse, huge and unwieldy but letting in all kinds of dangers whilst everyone is concentrating on it alone.
One such, very close to my heart, is the Government’s proposal to raise business rates for many small businesses especially in London and the South East. This could mean the death knell for thousands of independent shops and services already struggling with exorbitant rents and rates. I am often confused by political motives, Brexit being a case in point, and insanity often seems the likeliest explanation. Else why would they (whoever thought up this crazy idea) think high streets offering a diversity of services and products could be improved by replacing these with: endless coffee shops; exclusive clothes shops where the assistants look bored out of their minds but are still not prepared to liven up their day with a visit from anyone unless they are dressed head to toe in Gucci; shops selling ‘exclusive’ products, alpaca cheese, raw muffins, elixirs of life and youth that could leave you looking as unreal as Nicole Kidman, none of which would help put a meal on the table but reassuringly at discriminate expense.
Raising the business rates will force shop closure and staff redundancies, and at the very least, wages and bonuses may be frozen to compensate. Following on from the closure of libraries, pubs, theatres, cinemas etc, the loss of bookshops, independent record stores and other businesses that involve the community through reading groups, events, workshops etc will decimate the community even further. Even more insanely, rates for internet-based super-corps such as Amazon and Sports Direct will actually DECREASE!! They don’t pay taxes, they underpay employees and treat them appallingly but hey let’s they deserve a break! London is increasingly coming to resemble a sort of Gotham City playground and provider to the wealthy, essential workers and diversity sidelined to the outskirts.
Anyway we may not have Batman but luckily Amaryllis is on hand and in the fight to keep the community we have defiantly set up yet another bookgroup. Last week saw our first meeting for the Crime Book group which read The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt which was a great book to start with because it explored and asked questions about the conventional detective novel within a detective novel if that makes sense. Well, it will if you read the book. It was a small group, actually just F and I but we thrashed out the very marrow of the book over coffee at the wonderful Pedlars. However, we were eventually drowned out by our neighbours who seemed to be engaged on a very loud discussion of their own although perhaps not of the same perspicacity and reasoning. I believe their topic of interest was the Batman Lego movie…
This week I read a wonderful novel called Pachinko which is a sweeping and very moving story of a family of Koreans forced to move to Japan during the twentieth century. I did not know much about this history and it is a fascinating one and beautifully told and it is always an excellent policy to remind oneself of the struggles others have gone through when faced with the bleak period we seem to be living through now.
We have just had our book group meeting discussing the lost classic, Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm over D’s delicious hand-made cookies and my shop-bought banana bread. Zuleika and I are quite alike in a femme fatale sort of way: ‘a cynosure indeed! A hundred eyes were fixed on her, and half as many hearts lost to her’. How well I know that experience. However I do baulk at the youth of the town embracing a watery grave to prove their adoration. Gifts are always an acceptable and less messy alternative. Really, we decided that Zuleika cannot be blamed for the folly and stupidity of Oxford undergraduates and we wished her well in Cambridge…
Zuleika did not let affairs of the heart interfere with her appetite and I doubt whether such ‘a lithe and radiant creature’ would have had recourse to such a book as L’art de la Simplicite – How to Live More with Less. Generally I do not agree with censoring books but I have had to remove this one from the shelves… You might think such mantras as ‘fasting is an art to be cultivated’ or ‘I can go to a restaurant and be happy just to talk: I don’t need to eat’ and ‘An empty stomach clears the head, cleanses the spirit and feels pleasant’ more likely found on a ‘Pro-ana’ site than an international bestseller supposedly proposing a happy and healthy life. As a young 15 year old schoolgirl, I was told by my very thin history teacher, as she taught through our lunch break, that empty stomachs would improve our intellects: to say I have spent decades with a very fraught relationship with food is an understatement. Of course, that remark isn’t the only reason but these things fester!
Anyway, a good week culturally: on Saturday, I went to see the wonderful Woolf Works at the Royal Opera House thanks to the lovely V. It was dramatic, moving and mesmerising in all kinds of ways; bodies in positions and attitudes one wouldn’t believe possible; an amazing light show; electrifying and powerful music by Max Richter. All in all, a feast for the senses!
Also on the weekend, the weather excusing any possibility of a walk, I devoured The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne’s latest novel and in which he has taken on a Dickensian likeness. I actually laughed out loud several times, which I almost never do (reading) and came perilously close to tears as the book neared its end. It was a perfect fusion of comedy and tragedy played out by a host of marvellous characters, who like the author, I suspect, do not know whether to love or hate their native Ireland.
Last week, despite freezing rain and bleak, grey skies, I found some brave little snowdrops heralding the Spring – we hope!
So far has my name spread that one of my devoted readers has got in touch all the way from South Africa… She has asked for a list of my favourite classics old and new. This is an extremely difficult task but I am always up for a challenge as long as it is to do with books and involves nothing physically exerting.
One of the books that will NOT be on my list is our current choice for the Classics book club which is Kafka’s The Castle. It is the most impenetrable and over-rated book it has ever been my misery to read. When not falling asleep over it I am ready to tear it to pieces in frustration. Which I suppose in my more lucid moments is what K probably feels, stuck in the village with such deadly people, but that is too much reality. Even Kafka got fed up with it as he gave up mid sentence! Apparently it is a completely different experience reading in the original German, the custom of splitting the verb adding tension and humour…
Anyway I am going to limit myself to recommending ten classics that I do love and I’m also not going to choose the obvious suspects – just take it as read that I love Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy etc etc. I’m also trying to avoid books that I have mentioned before.
I’m just going to list them and not give any hints as to the content because I think it is best just to read the book!
House of Ulloa, Emilia Pardo Bazan
Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White
The Man who Loved Children, Christina Stead
In Diamond Square, Merce Rodoreda
A Way of Life Like Any Other, Darcy O’Brien
A Life, Maupassant
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, Javier Marias
An Angel at My Table, Janet Frame
Clayhanger, Arnold Bennett
Testing the Current, William McPherson
As I write this in the bookshop, a man is walking to and fro outside the door speaking loudly on one of those ridiculous hands-free gadgets that make you look as if you are shouting at yourself. Even more annoying, he has now just stopped right outside the door so that on-one can get in but is, of course, completely oblivious to this! I may be more irritable than usual on this never-in-your-worst-nightmare day but – unbelievable! (I just complained of this to JAM and she says she does it all the time outside the shop next door…)
Anyway, to get the annoying things out of the way, one of my gripes this week has been WHERE HAVE ALL THE EDITORS GONE? I have just read The Nix, a debut novel by Nathan Hill. I actually quite enjoyed it, at least I finished it: it reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch but I hated that and this is much better except… It comes in at about 600 pages but could have been so much better at half that length. This, I thought, is where the editor comes in, but apparently not or we would not have to read literally pages of unbroken prose detailing the death of an elf in the computer world of Elfscape or the inner thoughts of a phone obsessed student, both stories largely irrelevant to the greater scheme of the thing.
But it is not just this novel that has suffered for the lack of the Editor’s art: it only too common, as if a book cannot possibly be any good if it is less than 500 pages and is crammed full of the author’s interests and self-conceits. That is why another dispassionate eye is necessary along with a hand wielding a very large red pen to obliterate flights of fancy that should never, ever be transferred from the brain to the page.
Happily, there are people who are masters of the art of writing all by themselves. Such a one is Brigid Brophy, whose book, The King of the Rainy Country, we are reading for book group today. It was written in the late 1950s with spare dialogue and description but so beautifully rendered that one is immediately transported to bohemian London and sun-drenched Italy.
We have just had our book group and The King of A Rainy Country was universally acknowledged as a very good read. I actually consider it a great read. Next month it is Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.
We also shook our heads in despair at the forthcoming day’s events but cheered ourselves up with thoughts of books, films and kittens.
Happy New Year!
I have to say I was pretty exhausted when the door finally closed on Christmas Eve, but invigorated by fresh sea air and the Christmas miracle of kittens, I was soon sparkling like a shooting star across the festive galaxy… New Year saw me in a midnight blue strapless gown and all agreed the shoulders were very Grace Kelly right out of To Catch a Thief.
2016 wasn’t a great year by any means – too many losses, too many of the wrong gains – but I have been going back over my reading history of the year and have to say it was quite a good one. So, before we more forward, forget all the prizes and newspaper round-ups: these are the best reads of 2016.
(As I read a lot of older books, I like to make 2 lists: one of books published before 2016 but which I have read that year for the first time; one comprised of books published that year; then I combine the two and come up with the ultimate top ten). It will make sense when you see it!
Top Ten books published before 2016 (no particular order)
Bastard out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison
Seize the Day – Saul Bellow
Paradise Postponed – John Mortimer
The Case of Mr Crump – Ludwig Lewisohn
Beside the Fireplace – Alice Thomas Ellis
Delta Wedding – Eudora Welty
Bond Street – Norman Collins
Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell
Bad Behaviour – Mary Gaitiss
The Golden Age – Joan London
Top Ten published 2016
Human Acts – Han Kang
Thus Bad Begins – Javier Marias
The Abundance – annie Dillard
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
Lockwood and the Creeping Shadow – Jonathan Stroud
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (not strictly speaking published until 2017 but…)
Golden Hill – Francis Spufford
The Evenings – Gerard Reve
Some Rain Must Fall – Karl Ove Knausgaard
Autumn – Ali Smith
Overall Top Ten – if I was unsure, I went for the books that I would happily read again
Thus Bad Begins
A Gentleman in Moscow
Beside the Fireplace
The Case of Mr Crump
Seize the Day
Lockwood and the Creeping Shadow
But already moving on and looking forward to delectable reads in 2017…
Sadly, for my avid followers, this will be my last missive until next year. Frankly, from now on my life is just too taken up with seasonal celebrations to write a shopping list let alone something as thoughtful and erudite as this column… However, I have been thinking of my colleagues who just don’t live the party lifestyle: they will have time to read this Christmas and I have been thinking what I would give them were I so inclined; I’m not but, as they say, it’s the thought that counts.
So, here are my recommendations for my professional nearest and dearest…
For S, who I know loves nothing better than to snuggle down under the duvet with a thrilling crime novel, I would suggest Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner which I am currently reading. It is well written and plotted but also has believable and sympathetic characters and doesn’t drown the reader with endless back stories. It is also surprisingly, for a crime novel, rather witty and I had to get off the train just as I have reached the denouement and cannot wait to get back on again.
For F, I would suggest The Snow Ball by the wonderful Brigid Brophy. Unfortunately it is not easily available but I know she would love it if she could get hold of it. Firstly, it is very short which is F’s preference, secondly it is about Mozart, sex and death… It all takes place over one evening – that of a New Year’s Costume Ball and is just wonderful.
For D – I have experienced Christmas with toddlers and any chance to read usually means a chance to sleep. So I would suggest one of the wonderful picture books to bring pleasure to both D and Young M. One of my current favourites is Three Little Monkeys by Quentin Blake with lively and funny pictures by Emma Chichester Clark. But I would also like to ‘give’ D The Abundance by Annie Dillard which was my favourite non-fiction book of the year with her stunning view of life and the natural world.
For JF, I would suggest The Poisoned Chocolates Case. JF is the world’s biggest Agatha Christie fan but she has read all those and it is unlikely there will be any new ones. The PCC comes from the golden age of crime but I have chosen this one particularly because as the title suggests, it involves a death from eating chocolates. Poor JF is currently forbidden chocolate and I am hoping this story will serve as a sort of moral and help her to feel superior as the rest of us greedily devour the sweets that usually accompany this time of year.
For JAM, who is whizzing through Vanity Fair and who doesn’t really get out much I considered Clarissa by Samuel Richardson… But, my previous suggestion of this novel for our Classics Book group met with such abuse that I don’t think it will go down very well, so I am going to propose a children’s book. It is one I have enjoyed very much myself and only yesterday bemoaned to T the fact that it had been well over a month since the last one was published. Anyway, the book is The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud and there are four in the series so she should be well compensated for her Cinderella lifestyle.
For FD, who is a reader after my own heart (ie the bleaker the better), I have chosen Tin Toys, a trilogy detailing the childhood and school lives of three sisters. But this is definitely not a children’s book as their lives are really quite awful and the opening chapters deal with the events of one of the most devastating Christmas’ I have ever read. It is a harrowing read but I think FD will really appreciate it.
For T, I was going to suggest the How to Crochet Star Wars set as she is a crocheter extraordinaire. However, then I learned about all the work she has to do over Christmas feeding and entertaining a great many people, so I thought the best present would be some time alone with Benedict so I am suggesting an audio book of Casanova read by Benedict Cumberbatch. If she doesn’t feel like listening, she can just enjoy the cover picture…
For C, I was trying to find a new shark infested book or gruesome horror story as is her partiality. I failed so have gone the way of sweetness and light and would suggest Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter in one of the lovely Pushkin classic range. It is a beautiful Christmas fable of two children who travel over the crystal ice to visit their grandfather and is a perfect antidote to this miserable year.
I would also recommend that everyone watch The Bishops’ Wife which is currently my favourite Christmas film with Cary Grant as an angel who comes down to help David Niven and Loretta Young. It is full of magical moments but especially when he and Loretta and Sylvester, the cab driver go skating on the ice.
Anyway, I hope everyone has a very merry Christmas and that we can look forward to a much happier 2017.
Our beloved Amaryllis is taking a week off from her journal, but never fear she will return next week, and in fine fettle.
This week, she has been particularly taken up with personally selecting, delivering and organising the books for an extremely discerning customer’s home reading room. This task, though satisfying, was not an easy one, and our raven-haired correspondent has earned her break.
Choosing books is one of Amaryllis’ great talents, and if you are in need of her skill, there are a number of ways you can make use of it:
Year in Books – Amaryllis carefully picks books for all of our Year in Books recipients, based on a questionnaire that has been honed over the last seven years.
Personal Bookshopping & Elf Appointments – purchase a book token for over £100 and make an appointment with Amaryllis for a personal bookshopping experience, where she will recommend the perfect selection of books for you (or the lucky recipient); or if you have a lengthy Christmas list, call us and make an Elf appointment and we’ll help you work your way through it.
Library Set Up and Support – if you are lucky enough to be in need of a large number of books, pleae call us on 020 7229 1010 to enquire about our bespoke options.
And of course, anyone is welcome to pop in and ask for Amaryllis without an appointment!
Boris Johnson sees the election of Donald Trump as one of opportunity and has told people to stop wingeing about the result… Well as one of those members of the human race, ie, a white male who wasn’t subjected to threatening, insulting, vilifying and degrading vitriol during the presidential campaign, easy for him to say. But actually as one of the men who lied and manipulated the country towards Brexit, he has even more in common with Mr Trump than just his sex and colour of his skin [T writes – Mr J’s skin is at least a more human shade of caucasian]. In fact I thought Messrs Trump and Johnson manifested the same sort of reaction as the news of victory finally sank in: a realisation that the game had become a reality and that reality meant having to do some work and people were expecting the more and more outrageous promises to happen. Also, after what he has done, I don’t want to see or hear anything of Mr Johnson other than that he is in sackcloth and ashes practicing the penance of silence and abstinence from public life.
I am at home today (Thursday) due to a cold. I don’t actually feel too bad but my colds always come with a very debilitating cough and I don’t think customers care much being helped by someone coughing and spluttering all over them. Anyway I think there is too much emphasis laid on struggling through illness these days, nobly carrying on all the while liberally spreading germs to fellow workers and travellers for far longer than would occur after a few days in bed. Whatever happened to a week at the seaside recuperating? Same with childbirth: no more days spent marvelling at and bonding with the gorgeous baby after several hours of Olympic effort that you’d think would merit days in bed with lashings of tea and biscuits. No, it’s back to the gym and into your size 6 jeans and your iPhone has never left your hand…
Luckily, as I may have mentioned, I live by the sea so I bundled myself up and stepped out for some health restoring sea air. It was a glorious day, cold, bright sunshine and white tipped waves crashing on the shore. There is a café that hangs over the sea when the tide is in and so it is like being in a boat without the seasickness. Actually, being a child of the seashore I don’t suffer from seasickness but a this café is the nearest I get to being on the sea these days.
So I felt quite invigorated by my little constitutional and able to return home to ponder the book we are due to discuss in tomorrow’s meeting, The Other Side Of You. There is a lot to think about: love, art, psychotherapy, living but I had problems with each of these as the story progressed. R, who chose it says that it is one of his favourite books so it should be lively tomorrow…
[A day passes]
Well, we have had the meeting and lively and opinionated it certainly was. I don’t think anyone really disliked it but neither did anyone apart from R and perhaps E love it. The trouble with putting a book up for discussion that you love is that there will inevitably be criticism but as one of the characters remarks ‘it’s a fine quality, minding. I haven’t minded enough’.