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’.
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.