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…
There are people in the world who are fortunate enough to have partners who read to them, people such as our dear JF. Should I ever be tempted again into sharing my life with someones, he who read most divinely and devotedly would be the lucky man. However, I don’t have to bother with all of that because of wonderful Radio Four and Radio Four Extra, the only good thing to come out of dabbling with the Internet! You switch it on, listen to what you want and then just switch off – perfect! Last weekend I listened to a wonderful dramatisation of A Tale of Two Cities and the final scene as Sidney Carlton mounted to the guillotine left me dewy eyed. Then I listened to a marvellously bloodthirsty drama around the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the first in a series of dramatised lives of all the tsars. Then there are the treasures resurrected from the archives, Paul Temple, Lord Peter Wimsey et al. This week sees the return of the radio adaptation of the Forsyte Saga, of which we are great devotees in the office, although it would help our enthusiastic discussions if some people would keep up – JAM!
When my children were younger, some of my very many precious moments were, bathed and clothed for the night, they gathered adoringly at my feet ready for me to begin: we laughed with Polly, Mary Mary and Paddington, climbed the Faraway Tree and went to school with Jennings and the Malory Towers and St Clare’s girls. Then they discovered Martin Jarvis and Stephen Fry who didn’t break off to tell them to stop biting their nails/sucking their thumb/ leave the poor Bella (the cat) alone and my days were numbered. Of course there was always the opportunity to read endless variations of the same story marketed as the Rainbow Fairies much beloved by my youngest but even the most devoted mother has her limits!
To keep you up you up to date with the Man Booker shortlist saga, I read, last weekend, the one remaining unread contender. Was ever practically a whole book built up to such a ridiculous and unlikely outcome? I don’t want to harp on but I wonder if the judges and I are actually reading the same books…
However, to end on an up- beat note, I just read the new forthcoming Ali Smith book, Autumn, and it is wonderful. She does things with language that most authors couldn’t even dream of doing! I am also very happily ensconced in the latest Lockwood and Co mystery by Jonathan Stroud. Strictly speaking they are classified as children’s books but they are better written, funnier and more imaginative and more terrifying than a great many so-called adult books I have read this year.
Reflecting on last week’s epistle, I am conscious that I came over a bit Corporal Fraser with his portents of doom (I have watched the repeats!). I am a bit of a cracked glass, fully empty but there is no reason to inflict my negativity on others so I am aiming for more Pollyanna, less Eeyore this week. Although, of course Eeyore beats Pollyanna hands down in the glad game when he gets excited about putting a burst balloon in a jar licked clean of honey as a birthday treat!
But first of all, I cannot let pass my umbrage at the Man Booker panel for ignoring my suggested shortlist, well four of them! Doubtless they have their reasons but they are wrong! Still it is fine, I have graciously moved on and have even given up a shelf to display their chosen ones but shall be really annoyed if one of my two favourites don’t win…
Anyway, to return to happier things: earlier this week my friend, J, and I went out blackberry picking in the Essex countryside. Those who judge Essex badly have obviously never visited – is it really about the footwear? I only employ white stilettos as a very successful weapon of deterrent to any would be basement builders and high street hi-jackers, and I’m sure the same is true of my neighbours – because it is very beautiful and very happy (see back issues).
So, we went happily in search of blackberries but were largely unsuccessful because most of the fruit had obviously suffered the unseasonally high temperatures and drought conditions and shriven on the bramble. However we did see a lizard and a dragonfly, so not a total disaster zone, and many different birds but neither of us is great on identification. Indeed, also being a bit short sighted, we have on occasion enthusiastically spotted a large bird – heron, crane, vulture? – which on closer inspection turned out to be nothing more than a stunted shrub, and on this occasion a hare was revealed to be a horrid little plastic bag… But I had better not get started on litter as that is nothing to be glad about. Actually nor is no blackberries, therefore no jam, nor apocalyptic weather… so the game isn’t going too well at the moment. Perhaps book club tomorrow can change all that…
[some time passes, please imagine sped up clouds, the rushing of waves towards the shore, a sunrise etc]
Well, I have just emerged from bookclub in a much gladder frame of mind. It was the reunion of the original bookclub which had taken a break over the summer so we were all very excited to be back… Today, over coffee and doughnuts, we were discussing Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty which I have to admit wasn’t my favourite book of the group so far although it was beautifully written. It just felt a bit bleak and flat especially after the wonderful Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty which we did last week in my other book group. But we had a very spirited debate and I was glad I had read it, sort of…
Being Pollyanna is exceedingly trying and must have been incredibly annoying for those around her. I would much rather hang around with Eeyore and play his sort of games. We are better suited and, anyway, it is no secret that depressive people have very vivid imaginations and artistic leanings…
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.