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’.
Another day, more sad news, albeit melancholy sad rather than earth-shatteringly awful sad… Leonard Cohen has died. Just when we need these ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ more than ever, this terrible year has seen the death of three of the best. These three were also the soundtrack to my university days: days which now seem increasingly halcyon with student grants, a certain surety of job opportunities and some kind of independent living to look forward to leaving time and enthusiasm to engage with issues of the day and a positivity that it could be possible to make a change. All to a background of glorious, exciting music which was so much more than a catchy tune and a handsome face…
In fact, if anything can save us, it is the Arts, whether books, films, music, theatre, radio, photography, painting, box sets etc. During the dark hours of Wednesday, we were saved by the fact that our Classics bookclub fell upon that day. We were discussing Vanity Fair, the first half, which seems pretty timely in today’s concurrent obsession with ostentation and frivolity. However, I was able to forget the present for that hour as we were all completely absorbed in the narrative sweep, humour, pathos and unforgettable characters. All governments should have a monthly discussion of a good book and they would be better politicians for it as it would help them to understand and empathise and hopefully show some humility and compassion – well, I say hopefully… Anyway, I can only say that we all felt a lot better for our time with Thackeray even if I did force JAM and FD to read an extra chapter as they were woefully behind in their reading…
Fortuitously, it has been a very good week for reading: I read Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, which I loved, set in a TB hospital in Kent just after the first world war and just as Nye Bevan is seeing his wonderful vision of a National Health Service being born. I also re-read a couple of Edith Wharton novels, The Custom of the Country and Ethan Frome. She writes brilliantly about the position and fate of women in turn of the century New York. I am now reading the new Zadie Smith, Swing Time, which is great especially for a Fred and Ginger fan!
But it has also been a great week for film. My son and I went to see Nocturnal Animals, based on the great Austin Wright novel, Tony and Susan. It was so good in every way: the acting of all the characters: the cinematography: the Hitchcockian music: the slow, graceful development of the story.
And also a great week for box sets, as I settled down to the third series of Peaky Blinders which is just so exciting and inventive: a story set in the 1920s counterpointed with fabulously loud and dissonant modern music and the man with the bluest eyes since Paul Newman!
Just even thinking about the above, I don’t feel quite as bad…
It has not been a good week. Even such a serene and sunny disposition as is mine has been sorely tried and tested in the last few days and I’m not even going to mention the ongoing daily torture that is Brexit and the ghastly possibility of the White House hosting parties for the Ku Klux Klan…
It began when a customer brazenly used his mobile phone to take photographs of pages in a design book. I heard the click and whirled round to give him my hardest stare which he ignored by engaging in a loud conversation on said phone whilst wandering nonchalantly around the shop. Unfortunately I was unable to give him the full force of my wrath so was in no mood to go home and switch on the news and learn about the scandalous sums of money being paid by the taxpayer to convert the Olympic Stadium into a home for a football team £323 MILLION and rising. It will cost £8 MILLION a year just to manually move some bloody chairs around!! In times of food banks, refugees, underfunded NHS, housing crises and MILLIONs of other lives, causes and public services at crisis point due to dire privatisation and grim austerity measures of the last government, it is obscene that such sums are being poured into an already overwealthy, corrupt, unnecessary enterprise.
We are living in an increasingly mad world but meanwhile Christmas must go on and we will be doing our bit as soon as Bonfire Night has passed. The Amaryllis elves have already been at work creating a cosy little nook downstairs for gifts for the person who has every(book)thing, the tragic person who doesn’t read or just that extra something. I already have my eye on BookWorm, ‘a game for all the family’, just to make sure I win one game this Christmas… Also, the Tintin mugs.
Another amulet against the dark is the exciting news that one of our dear companions, JF, having gone through an entire grocery store, is now carrying a red cabbage… Of course, I mean a baby but that is what it looks like at the moment apparently. JAM and I are competing to familiarise the baby with our (my dulcet) tones but it is totally unfair because she sits next to JF and is always muttering to herself…
Anyway, I have just read the enthralling but unbearably harrowing, The Underground Railway, by Colson Whitehead. Also, the very good but unsettling last novel by Margaret Forster, How to Measure a Cow and have just started the new Linda Grant, The Dark Circle so I am on a roll!
I suppose the world is waiting to hear from Amaryllis about the Man Booker Winner but actually, after being disappointed with first the longlist and then the shortlist, I have lost the will. I am sure many people will think it a worthy winner – among them CE from the shop – and obviously the judges did (although it did take them about 4 hours to decide), but it is just not my sort of book and so I think I will just leave it there. Fortunately, there are enough wonderful books arriving to make the Booker old news, such as the fabulous Autumn by Ali Smith, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry and the Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam.
It is not my week for winners. I do watch the Bake Off programme, because Mel and Sue make the world a better place, but I was very disappointed that Selasi didn’t win. I’m sure he would have done if we had the same sort of voting scheme that the dancing programme has so that the viewers choose the winner each week. I know purists would say we can’t do that because the decision depends on the eating – obviously! But we have Mary and Paul to do that, a sort of modern day praegustator for the rest of us. If they start clutching their throats and stomachs and groaning, we know it’s not great, but otherwise we can make our choice on how entertaining the baker is and what the finished bake looks like. And, really, Mary and Paul are just a little bit fussy: I have always preferred uncooked mixture to the real thing,so see no problem in a little raw batter. Anyway, it’s all idle conjecture as that was the last series in the current format and, as far as I’m concerned, no Mel and Sue, no programme!
I arrived at work yesterday to an email from my elder daughter entitled “kitten”. We lost our two beloved cats over the past year and K has decided that the period of mourning is over and it is time to cast aside the black crepe and find a kitten, preferably two, maybe even three… So she has scoured the net searching for kittens in our vicinity and has found some. I had always maintained that I didn’t want to get them before Christmas but foreseeing my objection, she cunningly attached photographs to her email and, of course, I am un(wo)manned. So, we are off to see them tomorrow and, so confident are my daughter and colleagues that our visit will result in an addition to our family, that they are already coming up with possible names… Being a bookshop, the names obviously have a bit of a literary slant: FD suggested Behemoth after the cat in The Master and Marguerita; I quite like Dinah after Alice’s cat or Jellylorum from Old Possum’s Tales but Gobbolino is very apt if we get one on Halloween weekend but not great if shortened… Speaking of cats (Jess) reminds me of a great joke:
“What do you call Postman Pat when he retires?…….Pat”!! Hysterical!
So, it is Halloween on Monday and we have decked our window in pitch and blood, well, red and black books. As the clocks go back and darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon, what better way to dispel the murk and gloominess than snuggling up with a good horror story. I am currently re-reading Dark Matter by Michelle Paver for our bookclub which happens to fall on Halloween and it is genuinely scary, set in the Arctic when it is dark all day… I also recommend The Monkey’s Paw by W.W Jacobs which will make your spine tingle in a very satisfying way.
I had a few days off at the beginning of the wee:. I didn’t go anywhere; like Dorothy I prefer home and home is very beautiful at this time of year. It was made more so by the arrival of thousands of Brent Geese from Siberia tempted by the legendary happiness of my part of the world and the finest green algae. It is glorious to see them in flight formation and extraordinarily deafening to hear thousands of them honking with glee, a great improvement on the sounds of the city.
As well as watching and listening to the geese, I decided to put my few days to good use and indulge my artistic bent by making a start on decorating my living space. I started with the bookshelves: try as I might, I could find no way round painting the shelves whilst the books were on them so I had to remove and rehome hundreds of books before I could begin. I wished that my children could have chosen this weekend for a visit despite their constant refrain that I have too many books… but after the zillionth trip up and down the stepladder I was starting to think that maybe they had a point. I mean I would reread some of them but probably not most of them and those that had been reread were looking a bit shabby etc etc. But once I had cleared the shelves I realised how naked and boring the walls looked. Books really do furnish a room, especially when you don’t have much else in the way of furnishings. They provide colour, insulation, interest and a talking point. I don’t mean to be judgemental but books are the first things I look for and the non-existence or lack of books is not a great start to any relationship. What happens in the event of an awkward silence over the cups of coffee without the title of a book jumping out to rescue you? In fact, generally, I don’t see the point of any conversation that doesn’t begin with ‘have you read…’ or ‘recently I read’. So, I didn’t actually throw any books out and they will soon be returned to their lovingly, although not terribly neatly it has to be said, painted shelves.
I made a very exciting discovery on the last day of my mini-holiday: I was ambling through the streets near to home, when I spotted a shop sign that made my heart sing – bookshop – which I hadn’t seen before! So I entered forthwith into one of the most beautiful second hand bookshops in recent memory. It was a jewel of a bookshop: not very big but the books were delightfully arranged by publisher and so all the old orange penguins were together and the blue and the green and the silver; and the old picadors and penguin black classics. These were the days when Penguin covers were artistic gems in a kaleidoscope of colours and the books could sit on a table for more than a day without expanding to resemble a fan… It was beautifully stocked, just the sort of books you would find in the home of a kindred spirit; actually it was very like my own collection!
Not a terribly great week for reading: a dreadful new book about arctic exploration which promised so much but mistakenly decided half-way through that exploration of the body in a 50 Shades of Grey sort of way was the way to go. I am, however, loving Hagseed, Margaret Atwood’s new rendition of the Tempest not least because it has a passage that lists all the Shakespearean words of abuse that apply admirably and timelessly to Trump, Blair, Green amongst others.
Lastly, I would like to say how I shall much I shall miss my monthly telephone conversation with a dear fellow reader and lover of such wonderful books as Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Pym and Elena Ferrante. Her honest and engaging response to my selection of books was a treat and always brightened up my day.
Christmas is coming. We know this not because geese are getting visibly fat but because of the rising preponderance of so called humour books… Last year the Christmas best-seller lists were topped by the Ladybird spoofs: these were formatted on an idea by someone who published an original parody entitled We Go to the Gallery but forgot about copyright. Penguin tried to sue and then realised what a brilliant idea it was but failed, as so often publishers do, to realise that less is more… They brought out six titles and the books found themselves in every secret santa and stocking and by January they were to be found in every charity shop in the country! But undeterred, Penguin have brought out more books for every ‘day’ of the year (see last week) and this Christmas they plan to excel themselves with about 10 new spoofs! Great to see original and thoughtful publishing at the forefront this Christmas. See also, more guinea pigs dressed up in 18th costume for our amusement, more pictures of ‘funny’ buildings and too many books from blogposts. Now, I like a giggle as much as anybody but I just don’t find these books funny. And, it can’t be because I’m old because obviously I’m not!
To make the matter even worse, publishers are very like proverbial sheep; everything one can do, the others (think) they can do better. So the publishers of the Famous Five have our trepid adventurers all grown up and engaged in parenting, strategy and ginger beer and fruitcake free diets. Another has taken the old I-Spy books to another and definitely not improved level. And so on and so on until every beloved literary memory from our childhood has been adulterated and we won’t be able to remember our favourite characters in a prelapsarian existence. It follows on from the dismal colouring books for adults phenomenon which saturated the market, a sop for people who didn’t know what to do once they had put their phone down so why not waste some more time by colouring in detailed but pointless images. We are all fiddling like Nero as time Trump gets into the White House and Syria burns whilst we worry about staying within the lines…
Anyway, thankfully there are still real books about. This week I read Transit by Rachel Cusk which was a wryly intelligent and engaging fictional account of life after divorce. I also read a forgotten classic, Now in November, by Josephine Johnson which was a very bleak account of surviving the drought in Depression era America but was so beautifully written. I am now reading Thin Air by Michelle Paver and thought about buying a ticket to Inverness so I could stay on the warm train and read this chilling ghost story all the way through. I often dream of doing this – just booking a train journey to some distant place, getting off, having a cup of coffee and then coming home again.
So, I had just got over the dire man Booker shortlist and was luxuriating in animated book group discussions when some self important Italian journalist came up with his nasty little expose… Having trawled through her financial transactions – is that even legal? – Claudio Gatti triumphantly proclaimed that Elena Ferrante, author of some of the best books I have read in the last few decades, was not actually Elena Ferrante. She is in fact, well you’ll have to read his article yourself because I didn’t want to know and, as far as I can make out, nor did anyone else apart from Mr Gatti himself. She, Ferrante, as she will always be to me, has consistently avoided publicity and asked repeatedly to remain anonymous. In an age of the selfie and gross over- self publicity, her writing is a pure gift to the reader, an unalloyed narrative with no strings. But Mr Gatti is obviously of the type (male) that thinks that when a person (female) says one thing, she means the exact opposite. He says she is fair game because she has lied about her background in her forthcoming book of essays: obviously not an Agatha Christie fan or he would have heard of red herrings… His article seems to imply outrage that she has commanded large sums from best selling novels under a pen name when presumabably she has foregone large sums by refusing to cash in on her very deserved success. Anyway, for me and everyone I have spoken to, the books speak for themselves. However incalculable damage will have been done by Mr Gatti if Ferrante never publishes again as she has said would be the result of a loss of her anonymity. [T writes, we will not be linking to the offending article, for obvious reasons]
Interestingly, we read All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West in our classics book club yesterday: Lady Slade, 88 years old and recently widowed decides, to the discomfort of her children, that she wants to move to a small house in Hampstead. She does so and having practically barred said horrible children and too youthful grandchildren from the house, settles down to a life of freedom and contemplation for the first time in her life. Vita Sackville West wrote the book as a response to and reflection on Virginia woolf’s A Room Of Her Own, a book still pertinent in the violation of Ferrante’s freedom and space by a self-righteous crusader in search of a story.
Tomorrow is the first National Bookshop Day. I am not a fan generally of ‘days’ – too exclusive! Valentine’s Day/Mother’s Day not really great for the single and childfree, dripping with sentiment and overpriced roses as if we can’t show love and appreciation unless everyone else is doing it too. Of course, Easter Day is different because it involves chocolate and partners and children are not necessary and not in fact desirable in order not to have to share.
I can’t decide about a National Bookshop Day – it doesn’t really hurt anyone but it feels unnecessary – everyday is potentially a day to visit a bookshop and we are not sheep and some people may not want or need a book tomorrow! But to grace the occasion I have decided to create a special window of all my favourite books, well, not all obviously, as big as our window is, it’s not that big! Also, I think we might as well have some chocolate!
Tomorrow it will be the first of October, practically Autumn, season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and cosy evenings huddled up against the radiator with a big book!
At this time of the year, thoughts turn to old familiars and the Penguin classics on my shelf stand up taller and start giving me the eye, pick me, pick me! It is jolly hard to choose, but the first author who usually comes to mind is Dickens, probably because he was my first love, and although I have read all his books several times, lengthening shadows and failing light send me willingly back into the arms of Pip or Esther or David. But I would be just as happy with Jane or Catherine or Anne or Dorothea. So am delighted to have our Classics book club up and running. FD has chosen Vanity Fair for our next read which is a treat for me. JAM is a bit fazed by the size but FD and I are just ignoring her and going with it. Just wait until she has to read Clarissa…
But it’s not just nineteenth century classics that appeal at this time, Pym, Taylor, Wodehouse, Greene, Powell and so on are all screaming to be revisited. In fact the only prerequisite for a cosy, consoling read seems to be that it has been read before. Much as I love the clarity and colour of Autumn days, it’s not all conkers and magnificent sunsets and new Start Rite shoes… The year is entering old age and so inevitably breathes and breeds melancholy. Happily I am forewarned and forearmed and only need a couple of kittens to complete my bliss but hopefully that will be another story…
Anyway, luckily for us sensitive souls, the sun doesn’t seem to realise it is October, so I am happily still reading new books. I have just read Emma Donoghue’s new book, The Wonder which is set in mid-Nineteenth Century Ireland and which slowly builds the tension to a nail-biting finale. I have just re-read His Bloody Project, which was one of the Man Booker shortlisted titles that I actually liked, for a book club.
And I am two-thirds through a shocking and very timely book by Raoul Martinez which details the corruption, hypocrisy, lies and irresponsibility of many of our political and financial and business institutions where money speaks far louder than democratic ideals of freedom, morality, responsibility and equality. It should be a set text for all A-level students to inform them about what they’ll be up against and maybe even encourage them to set aside their phones and stand up and revolt as their chartist forefathers did nearly 200 years ago – although I suppose that didn’t end so well…