I have always been very fond of travelling by train: travelling at speed through hill and dale, the possibility of romantic brief encounters; in fact it is quite one of my favourite places in which to read and that is fortunate because I spend quite a few hours on trains throughout the week…
However, being of a very sensitive nature, I have noticed some distressing habits creeping in among my fellow travellers. This is quite apart from the crazy compulsion that seems to overtake many to phone everybody and anybody the moment they take their seat, and then to treat other passengers to the intricate and intimate details of their relationship breakdowns, ailing parents and exactly what they had for lunch… But, horrific as it is to be seated in the vicinity of such people, I am talking about the new phenomenon that has brutally forced itself upon my attention! As soon as people plug themselves into a laptop or phone and don headphones, they seem to believe that if they can’t hear themselves, then no-one else can, and because they are holding some contraption they are unable to use a handkerchief or put a hand in front of their mouth. So, all their horrid little germs are free to waft over me as they heedlessly cough and splutter and sniff and yawn. How am I meant to relax into my book with that going on around me? Yet I am the one too embarrassed to tie my cardigan around my nose and face in case I offend them – and, yes also because I would look a bit odd…
Anyway I alighted from the train last night gulping in the fresh sea air and with the song ‘Anything you can do I can do better’ running through my head. This was because I had been reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari and had reached the bit where humans basically become obsolete… I suppose I should have been feeling quite positive because presumably coughs and colds won’t thrive in the otherwise-identical-to-humans-robots he predicts, but still I can’t say the future looks bright for the average homo sapiens. In fact it looks like all those drugs Huxley consumed did make him pretty prescient as the future looks a lot like Brave New World. Of course, as always, the super rich will be alright: largely immortal, with robots to fulfil their every wish without having to pay lip service to working conditions and minimum wages and living in some sort of pure air pods to keep out appalling, killing pollution and rising tides. But the rest of us can look forward to life as a form of subspecies one up from the animals and obviously most of those will be extinct by then because, although the architects of the future can ensure their own immortality, they can’t protect the few surviving lions and elephants from gun-mad game-hunters with too much money! We’ll all be herded into the poisonous, ravaged wasteland gasping for breath and probably the new prey for the aforementioned when they fancy a bit of sport…
And if people can just be designed without flaws and with perfect intelligence, what happens to genius? I suppose Shakespeares, Mozarts and Amaryllises could become two a penny and where’s the fun in that?
Anyway, not to end on a down note, the Man Booker shortlist is announced next week and I have made my own selection of six which are:
The Story of Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Schooldays of Jesus, J M Coetzee
Serious Sweet, A L Kennedy
The North Water, Ian McGuire
We’ll see if the judges make the right decisions on Tuesday…
This week, we are beginning to see the return of the residents of Notting Hill from their sojourns to foreign lands, and now the carnival is over and the shadows are lengthening we are looking forward to the resumption of business as usual.
Yesterday, the first of our book clubs, the lunchtime classics group, reconvened to discuss the Awakening by Kate Chopin, much beloved by English literature courses on gender studies and hailed in the 60s, although written 70 years earlier, as an early strike for feminism. A very lively discussion took place over the smoked salmon and lemon cake but we were somewhat divided as to how we viewed the central character, Edna: 29 years old, married, 2 children, suddenly decides she doesn’t want this comfortable life any more, takes lovers, learns to swim, (close your eyes now if you don’t want to know the ending) kills herself…
So oppressed, victimised, early feminist heroine or rich spoilt southern belle who needed to get a grip? Willa Cather famously described the book as ‘the Creole Bovary.’ But there is a crucial difference: Emma lives a relatively poor, stiflingly provincial life for whom shopping becomes a frenzied attempt of diversion and whose persecution by creditors contributes to her suicide. Like Edna, husband and lovers disappoint but she also has to face the condemnation of rigid social mores; Edna lives a life of luxury with the means to travel and buy endless boxes of bonbons and, although affairs are not actually condoned, she does not seem to face the fate of social outcast. Kate Chopin herself was widowed early on, raised 6 children and took on the running of an estate that was deeply in debt. She also conducted at least one affair quite openly and wrote stories about divorce and venereal disease… And really, if one of my lovers judged it his duty to tell me how a book ends ‘to save … the trouble of wading through it’ it wouldn’t be my own life I would be thinking of ending! Anyway the hour flew by and hopefully the next time JAM reads it she will be able to distinguish childbirth from an upset stomach…
Book groups do seem to have the potential to swiftly change from cosy chats around the table to bloody scenes of carnage. Kindred spirits and former allies are discovered to be deadliest adversaries. Eyes are averted, fists are clenched, voices drip with ice and it is advisable to remove all potential weapons from the vicinity. However none of my present book groups bear any resemblance to such a scenario. All are exemplars of conviviality, tact and forbearance, any breach smoothed over with lashings of coffee and cake (and all in thrall to the flash of an eye or the toss of a curl from your humble authoress). But I have to say that I am not so easily subdued! Should anyone dare to criticise a book of my choice, the wrath of my ancestral clansmen is aroused and is frightful to behold.
But happily such an affront is rare and our meetings are jewels in the crown of bookshop life.
Although my heart is undoubtedly in the glens, it would be churlish of me not to extend my ample charms to the world at large so I have taken up residence in a little seaside town on the Essex coast.
This town has just been voted the happiest place in Britain to live, just 3 years after I moved here. Some might say this is by lucky chance but my nearest and dearest,who have long basked in the glow of my sunny disposition, would see it an inevitability and only be surprised it took so long…
However, I also am blessed to work in that most happy of workplaces, a bookshop, and whilst my heart leaps upon entering most small, independent book shops, I do feel an extra surge of serotonin to be working in ours. I’m not really keen on people as a rule, having a Wordsworthian disposition, but bookshop people are the exception. We start talking about the books and end up by exploring the world, the universe and everything. I have never worked in a hedge fund place but cannot help feeling that walls of books would go along way to improving the conviviality of the place…
Take this week for example, a week comparatively quiet due to the holidays but full of happy incident: a visit from our beloved customers and friends ALF and PJS, the latter momentarily confined to a wheelchair, but wit and sparkle undimmed as we deplored the decline of the quality of the paperback (of which more at another time) and enthused about the joys of mudlarking.
Then on Wednesday we had a visit from an author, Michelle Paver who brought us proofs of her new book, Thin Air, and some bookshop staples: chocolate and tea. Michelle was a joy of an author, very interesting and interested in everything from ghost stories and films to the Arctic and Sherpas on Everest. Just the best kind of conversation! Thin Air looks a likely Hallowe’en best-seller at L&R.
Then yesterday: it began badly as I awoke to the sound of Nigel Farage speaking at a Trump rally – enough to make even the most effervescent cower under the bedclothes – but I refused to be cowed and was rewarded: this afternoon DH brought in a game for us to peruse before possibly stocking in the bookshop: I gamely volunteered to try it out it out and my efforts caused T to weep – with laughter and a sweeter sight is not to be seen! Needless to say, we shall be stocking the game!
And I haven’t even mentioned the books I read this week: the unputdownable My Bloody Project By Graeme Macrae Burnet, the wonderful Golden Age by Joan London and J M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus which engages the reader in questions and lets us make up our own minds.
I’ll stop now because I fear I’m in danger of becoming a bit Paulo Coehlo and that would be a tragedy.
Anyway, happy bank holiday, and happy Carnival to those brave souls who remain in Notting Hill. We shall be closed from lunchtime on Saturday, and back on Tuesday morning for another season of bookselling.
A recent article in the New York Times was headed ‘London bookstores go rogue as no wi-fi zones’. We merited inclusion as the bookshop where you wouldn’t even dare to ask for the wi-fi code’. My colleagues (JAM in particular) assume that this customer asked me and I had no idea what he/she was talking about… Some shops actively advertise their shops as wi-fi and mobile phone-free zones. But contrary to my dear, very funny, colleagues’ view, I just don’t understand why one would expect or need wi-fi in a bookshop! I know our colleagues need it for the very important work undertaken in their secret bunker, but surely one comes into a bookshop to look at the books or to talk about the books or to inhale the books or to ask if we are ‘the famous library of the film’ – none of which require immediate wi-fi gratification as far as I am aware.
I would prefer that people didn’t use mobile phones in the bookshop: I know traffic makes it really hard to hear in the street but it’s really not great to step into the shop to continue the conversation… However I like to think that the bookshop is a haven of liberality and democracy and really just not the place for bans and interdicts – we all know what that led to in 1930s Germany. Anyway I have perfected the Paddington hard stare and that seems to floor even the most ardent user! Either that or what is a phone compared to the vision of an Olympian goddess behind the desk?
This week I went to an airport, Heathrow actually. The occasion was a sad one, seeing my youngest darling child literally fly the nest to the New World. Casting my tear-filled eyes around the soulless space (no books, lots of phones), I noticed a weird change. It’s been a long time since I was on an aeroplane but seemingly 3 year olds now make up the majority of the passengers… Mr Aeroplane and Mr Forgetful patronisingly (even for the junior traveller) remind one what you may and may not take and not to get on the wrong plane. I am sure most people crawl onto their aircraft screaming for gin!
Anyway, planes are far too mundane for my volcanic soul. In books and films, the only exciting event to hope for is the inevitable crash – hopefully in a desert where you either have to eat your fellow passengers or stumble upon shangri-la. Notable intelligent exceptions are No Highway by Nevil Shute where a crash is actually averted, Transatlantic by Colm Toibin which novelises the first atlantic crossing as a true awe-inspiring feat of courage and ingenuity. Trains, on the otherhand offer a wealth of possible drama: you can conduct love affairs, confront nazi spies, meet psychopaths or pick up a bear and those are just my own experiences! Other locomotive adventures feature in this week’s display in the bookshop.
I was at the seaside earlier this week and, inspired by the athleticism on view in Rio, I decided to have a go at my own triathalon. I’m not quite sure what it entails in Rio but I do know that tri usually involve three things: in my case, walking, cycling and swimming. So I set off at a brisk pace for the high street, stopping only for a small elevenses to fuel the energetic output to come. Then back to the house and on to my bike. This was a very generous gift from a very dear friend and only my second expedition but nothing ventured… and off I went along the sea front.
It was a stunningly beautiful day: a quantity of sailing vessels were bobbing about on the sparkling waves, people were ambling joyfully along the promenade and casting admiring glances at my bronzed lithe figure as I wove among them. However… It has been quite a while since I last cycled anywhere and in the meantime, a terrible scourge has taken over the land! Of course, I am talking about the mobile phone! They are an elephantine thorn in the side of walkers, cyclists, train-users and booksellers, basically me! I do have a mobile phone but mine is a lovely vintage model with only the basically necessary functions. JAM and DF mock it cruelly but I fear the Green-Eyed Monster Is Touching Their Soul. There are cycle lanes all along the sea front and most people abide by them but too many people are too transfixed by their horrid little screens to take account of anything. Children painted their faces with toxic blue ice-cream, dogs fed up with being ignored ran off to play with the seagulls and cyclists like myself would need fog horns to attract their attention. Of course, normally I would just carry on and leave them to take their own chances but it was too lovely for bloodshed. So, I womanfully shrugged it off and soothed my burning rage with my final event – a dip in the sea!
Anyway, back to the sea or the ocean or really any body of water but I love it and any books, films, music etc that evoke it. Think Charles Trenet singing La Mer…
I have read a couple of quite different books this week that are largely about the sea or really the ocean: the first was the wonderful The Outrun by Amy Liptrot in which she returns to the Orkney Islands where she grew up and immerses herself in the natural world. At first, she seizes nature as a distraction from alcohol but gradually nature itself becomes the replacement fix. I immediately googled the Islands for places to rent, places to buy, but the real attraction for me is the fact that the Orkneys and particularly Papa Westray where Amy stayed are surrounded by the North Sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other and they come together at the Bore. This is just so exciting!
The other book I read was the North Water by Ian Mcguire, one of this year’s longlisted titles on the Man Booker list. This is the story of a whaling expedition sent to the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century. Now, my colleagues will tell you how much I love the bleak but this was almost too much. The reason was the complete lack of empathy between man and man and man and beast, each one totally intent on his/its own survival. The book is also a terrible reminder of the plunder and devastation that man has made of the seas and oceans. I marvel at things like the Bore and shudder with appropriate awe every time I think of the Marianas Trench but grieve at the pictures of the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. Although it could be a great project for Trump when he fails to get in – doesn’t he deal in real estate? And if Cameron and Osborne are at a loose end…
Until next week…
I took a few days holiday earlier this week. Perfect weather: gale force winds and driving rain as I strode across the glens to meet the Laird for a highland fling, raven curls becomingly disarranged by the elements etc etc… (see last week).
Anyway, I was thinking about Ruth Rendell: I love a good crime novel, so comforting when well done but recently I am more and more often disappointed; the rave reviews sound promising and the first few pages aren’t bad but we soon descend into blandness, the characters, the dialogue all sacrificed for the sake of an increasingly absurd plot, less red herrings, more gold-spangled turbots! Mid-way, I have resorted to speed-reading just to find out the culprit and upon finishing, the book is flung across the room – that is hours of reading life I’ll never get back!
Having disposed of the latest in a such a manner, Girl Goes Crazy In a Hovercraft, or some such, I decided I needed professional help so I consulted one of those ‘best of’ lists and in the top ten was Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. It was beautifully short (see last week) and as I started reading I realised I knew the story from the fine Chabrol film, La Ceremonie. This didn’t matter because the amazing thing about Rendell’s books is that you know who does it and how from the first couple of pages. This does nothing to lessen the tension and it is an extraordinarily chilling and gripping read with realistically defined characters, appropriate dialogue and acute understanding of the mind of a psychopath, all in under 200 pages! Same with the next one I read, A Demon in my View.
Not finding any very interesting books to listen to on the radio as is my wont when my eyes tire of the written page, I listened instead to a few old editions of Desert Island Discs and this started me thinking of what I would choose if the choice was weighted in favour of books instead of music. I think Radio 4 do something like this, With Great Pleasure, but it sounds a bit dance-hall with none of the exoticism of a desert island. Faced with all the many wonderful books I have read over my long life, I decided the only way I could make a choice was to choose a book from each of my life-stages. So here are my Desert Island Books…
Childhood – almost too difficult but went with Paddington as I laughed hysterically at his misadventures with Mr Curry and I love marmalade
School Years – Marianne Dreams – still very scary!
University – Lord of the Rings
Post University – Our Mutual Friend – a second hand copy devoured in days was the start of my love affair with 19th century novels totally contrary to what school had led me to believe…
Marriage – Proust, the Moncrieff editions then in 3 volumes given to me over 3 consecutive Christmas’ and read throughout January
Saturday Girl in first bookshop – A View from the Harbour, encompasses all the wonderful Virago/Persephone women writers
Later bookshops – The Rabbit books leading to huge love of American literature apart from anything set in New York, to the disbelief of all my L&R colleagues
Now – probably the Knausgaard My Struggle books as they are still ongoing and they stand for all the other amazing European literature I have read
I don’t know what the equivalent of Shakespeare and the Bible would be in musical terms but I am hoping for complete Radiohead and David Bowie and I would choose Tristan and Isolde to cheer things up. For my luxury, I would like a cinema and selection of films from the 30s, 40s, 50s and now I am all set up… where is the plane?!
I decided our new window should celebrate the Olympic Games because, let’s face it, it has been less Rolling Down to Rio more Was Anyone Going to Turn Up! Anyway, I have decked it out with a variety of books representing the Olympic sports. Note to any budding sports writers: turns out that baseball is not an Olympic sport but water polo is…
Until next week…
My pen name was born out of one of those joyful days last week when you read one of those books that is so captivating and funny and smart that you want to press it into the hands of every customer in sight. The book is Alice Thomas Ellis’ Other Side of the Fire and unfortunately and scandalously it is out of print so no such pressing can take place at the present time. However, one of the funniest bits in the book is the bodice-ripper that one of the characters is writing and the female who slays the men with one toss of her raven locks and one glance from her fiery green eyes as she strides among the glens, faithful wolfhound by her side is Amaryllis! And the name just seemed to suit so here we are.
One of the other wonderful things about this book was, as F, who loaned me the book and I agreed, that it was so short! So few writers have taken on board the advice that less really can mean more. There is such art in conveying character and realism in a short novel where every word has to count. Women, in particular, number some of the masters of the art, presumably dating from times when they would dash off a chapter whilst waiting for potatoes to boil or a sponge to rise. Some of my very favourites which I can read time and time again and always find something new are Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen and Laurie Colwin, Ali Smith, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam and Penelope Lively. There are obviously male exceptions as well but can only think of Denis Johnson at the moment so will leave that until another time…
I am about to install a window of witches and wizards, dragons and other mythical beasts to celebrate the publication of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child on Sunday. I love the books and spent many happy hours reading them aloud to my children, but to add my bit to the Guardian article last Saturday, I have to admit that I am not a fan of fictional children growing up. I should hate to think of my beloved Jennings and Darbishire forsaking the future adventures of Flixton Slick and donning grey suits for life in the City; or Alice too tight laced to draw breath let alone chase rabbits. One of the most devastating and damascene moments of my childhood came when reaching the end of Peter Pan: Peter returns after a good few years expecting to take Wendy flying again but she is too old to fly! He blubs for a bit but then Wendy’s daughter walks in and in moments they are flying off together as Wendy watches them go weighed down by adult responsibilities…
Lastly, despite being disappointed every year, we yet again waited the publication of the Man Booker Longlist with anticipation and T was on to it on the stroke of midday. Actually we were all rather taken with the look of it although obviously none of us has yet read all the titles. It is refreshingly full of new or little known books and there is even a crime novel in the shape of His Bloody Project. I have read the shortest, The Story of Lucy Barton, and the longest, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, on the list and loved both of them so am hopeful as I embark on the others.
I hope you have enjoyed this first missive. (I can’t use the word blog – it is too awful a word). Until next week…
Our Lunchtime Classics Book Club met for the first time on July 6th to discuss Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.
The next book will be The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and we will meet at 1pm on Wednesday August 31st. If you’d like to take part, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Travelling Bookbox show is a touring exhibition of book-themed shadowbox sculptures created by artist Lisa Swerling.
When British shadowbox artist Lisa Swerling moved to California five years ago, she was charmed by the primary-school art of making book dioramas in shoeboxes. So she decided to make some grown-up versions of her own. Lisa began writing a list of her favourite books – re-reading some, nearly ruining a few by watching the movie versions, all the while looking for particular scenes and feelings that had stayed with her over the years.
We are delighted that Lisa will be exhibiting at L&R in June and July, and we would like to invite you to join us to view the works, have a glass of wine and an opportunity to meet the artist on Wednesday June 29th, from 6.30pm.
After a very popular second Juke Books in May, Juke Books returns on Wednesday 8th June at 10.15am.
Last time, we had readings from books by Anne Tyler, Anthony Burgess, Evelyn Waugh and more, but the whole of literature is yours for the choosing.
In case you’ve forgotten the format:
Juke Books is hosted by two of our wonderful regular customers – Jessica Arah and writer Tim Lott.
Each person brings along a passage from one of their favourite books, explains why it’s a favourite of theirs and reads it aloud to the group, everyone then discusses the passage, before moving along to the next person. And if you don’t like to read aloud, Tim or Jessica will read on your behalf.
So we have time to properly discuss the readings, we ask that you keep your choices to no longer than about three minutes, and to please email us on email@example.com to confirm that you are coming along.