Sunday, 30 June 2013

Review: Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Forgive me if this review is a little hard to follow. I am just wrapping up my first exploration of the mind of Haruki Murakami. And for those of you familiar with his work, you are hopefully equipped to confirm that his books exercise a strange domination over everything. So attempting to recall the details of Lost in a Good Book, which I finished a few days before starting Kafka on the Shore, may be slightly tough. Fortunately, Jasper Fforde's second offering in his Thursday Next series is a little easier on the brain. It was for this very reason that I decided to line it up as an excellent post-exam read. Be prepared to leave reality behind!

"Landen Parke-Laine's eradication was the best I'd seen since Veronica Golightly's. They plucked him out and left everything else exactly as it was. Not a crude hatchet job like Churchill or Victor Borge - we got those sorted out eventually. What I never figured out was how they took him out and left [Thursday's] memories of him completely intact. Agreed, there would be no point to the eradication without her knowing what she had missed, but it still intrigued me over four centuries later. Eradication was never an exact art."

Lost in a Good Book picks up the story of literary detective and heroine Thursday Next, from where The Eyre Affair (read my review here) left off. Now married to Landen Parke-Laine and enjoying the fame associated with her spectacular defeat of the villain Acheron Hades, it seems that Thursday is set for a life of relative stability and happiness. But shortly after discovering that she is pregnant, she learns that her husband has been 'eradicated' by the nefarious Goliath Corporation. In an effort to retrieve one of their operatives, Jack Schitt, from his incarceration in Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, Goliath have removed Landen Parke-Laine from existence, with only Thursday's memories of him intact. By using this as leverage, Goliath force Thursday to find a way of retrieving Schitt from the infamous poem. Recalling her mysterious trip into Jane Eyre as a small girl, Thursday realises an ability to read herself into books and becomes apprenticed to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations - a member of the book security network, Jurisfiction. And so the chase begins, with Thursday determined to find a route into The Raven in order to secure Schitt and guarantee the return of her husband. 

If you have read my review of Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, you will already know that I am a big fan of his work. The books are enormous fun and intelligently constructed, with great appeal to those who enjoy literary allusion and satire. Lost in a Good Book offers unique perspective on well-known works - with Thursday's secondment to Great Expectations, a brief sojourn into Kafka's The Trial, and a Jursifiction Committee Meeting that takes place in Sense and Sensibility. These are not, however, allusions designed for intellectual consideration. Rather, Fforde's purpose is to bring pure and unadulterated enjoyment to his readers.

" 'Okay,' continued the Bellman. 'Jurisfiction meeting number 40,311 is now in session.' He tingled his bell again, coughed and consulted a clipboard. 'Item one is bad news, I'm afraid.' There was a respectful hush. He paused for a moment and picked his words carefully. 'I think we will all have come to the conclusion that David and Catriona aren't coming back. It's been eighteen sessions now and we have to assume that they've been...boojummed.' There was a reflective pause. 'We remember David and Catriona Balfour as friends, colleagues, worthy members of our calling, protagonists in Kidnapped and Catriona, and for all the booksploring they did - especially finding a way into Barchester, for which we will always be grateful. I ask for a minute's silence. To the Balfours!'"

Lost in a Good Book employs many of the mechanisms that made The Eyre Affair a literary success, but most of its appeal undoubtedly resides in its protagonist. Thursday Next is the epitome of an independent and uncompromising heroine - defiant, brilliant, and perceived as the greatest threat to the villains of the piece. I believe that it is shockingly rare to find a female heroine presented as such purely on the basis of her personal virtues and vices. Fforde's faithful and consistent delivery of a character worthy of admiration is a large part of the series' brilliance. Combined with a humour that virtually leaps off of the pages, no aspect of this book speaks to anything other than an utter zest for literary entertainment.

"...I read the library passage again and was soon with Miss Havisham. 'This is the outings book,' she said without looking up. 'Name, destination, date, time - I've filled it in already. Are you armed?' 'Always - do you expect any trouble?' Miss Havisham drew out her small pistol, released the twin barrels, pivoted it upward and gave me one of her more serious stares. 'I always expect trouble, Thursday. I was on HPD - Heathcliff Protection Duty - in Wuthering Heights for two years and, believe me, the ProCaths tried everything - I personally saved him from assassination eight times.'"

So with some fantastically farcical literary crossovers (I mean, who could not love the idea of Miss Havisham saving Heathcliff from assassination?) and the greatest of comical heroines, Lost in a Good Book serves as perfect light escapism for the dedicated bibliophile. I could not have picked a better means for post-exam reading relaxation!

Friday, 28 June 2013

Just for Fun Friday

Given my horrendous photography skills, it is no surprise that I often look to the internet to fill in the gaps. Partly necessity, partly for the sheer joy brought on by the number of truly weird photos I come across. I've been saving up my favourites over the past couple of weeks and share them now, for your enjoyment.

Have a brilliant weekend everyone!

The guy we all secretly want to be friends with...

And his motivation...

The greatest dog in the world?

And the biggest Harry Potter fan ever?


Wait, no, that's this guy...

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Weekly Reader

Hi chaps!

I hope that this post finds you well. Since I will be absent from the blogosphere tomorrow due to some crazy work hours, I wanted to drop by today with this week's literary updates. Enjoy!

Top Stories

'Miscommunication, Or mismanagement?' - Smile Politely

This is a really interesting article about the 'weeding' taking place at Urbana Free Library (UFL) in Illinois, US. It discusses the "hasty, arbitrary" decision to discard thousands of non-fiction books. While the actions taken at UFL certainly have little direct bearing on our reading habits, there are wider implications. Reading this article made me think about the way that the books in our libraries are selected - a particularly acute issue in the UK, with the current plague of library cuts. The problems that this article addresses are certainly ones that we should all keep in mind as we take advantage of our local library services.

'US Writer Uses Self-Publishing To Get Past Industry "Racism"' - The Guardian

I assure you, I haven't purposefully focussed on the US this week! But here we have another topical article, raising some key issues about the book industry. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, an award-winning American author, has written that racism in the publishing business forced her to self-publish. Her books, featuring a black detective, were apparently rejected on the basis that "When the publisher's realised that I was not black, too young to be in the Civil Rights movement, and had no 'marketability' or 'platform', they withdrew the offers. The book was worth nothing to them if I couldn't tour 'with legitimacy'." While the nuances of publishing are not something I am familiar with, I found this article interesting in the questions it poses about the considerations made in publication decisions. Where should the line be drawn in terms of marketability and platform? It is certainly worrying to consider the possibility that wonderful literature is being lost as a result of such superficial details.

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Musical Opens In West End' - BBC

Now, you all know how excited I have been about this event. Unfortunately, a somewhat restricted budget means that I am relying on birthday generosity to secure myself a ticket (assuming that the run survives all the way to September). Obviously intended to follow the success of the musical adaptation of Matilda, expectations have been understandably high. With a fantastic team behind it, including direction from Sam Mendes (director of Skyfall), you would be forgiven for thinking that success if assured. Yet some recent high-profile West End closures mean that there is still a lot of uncertainty. Personally, I cannot imagine a book that lends itself more fully to musical staging than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That is as long as we keep Johnny Depp away from the starring role.

Top Events

'Coriolanus' - 6 December 2013 to 8 February 2014: Donmar Warehouse, London

I know that this notification is a bit premature. But I was online at 9am yesterday, ready for public booking, and it was quite intense. So if you are interested in this one, I would recommend seizing the moment. This staging of Coriolanus at the Donmar is hugely anticipated (by me, at least). Starring Tom Hiddleston (who gave one of the best Shakespearean performances as King Henry V in the BBC's Hollow Crown series) and directed by Mark Gatiss (of Doctor Who success), I am already certain that this will be a fantastic experience. I make a point of seeing Shakespearean stagings without preconceptions - largely a consequence of my certainty that nothing can rival the experience I had watching Michael Sheen as Hamlet. But how can one possibly walk into this adaptation free of expectations? 

'Macbeth' - 20 July: National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live is a truly brilliant conception. Understanding that we do not all have the time or money to invest in tickets to every staged production, this programme delivers live broadcasts of selected plays to cinemas around the UK. On 20 July, National Theatre Live is facilitating broadcasts of Manchester International Festival's production of Macbeth. I cannot begin to express my excitement for this because: (1) I am clearly obsessed with the Bard; and (2) KENNETH BRANAGH. Now, those of you who know me already understand that I have a strange adoration of Kenneth. His performance in Hamlet convinced me of the relevance of Shakespeare's plays and the power that they continue to have. He is also my hand twin. So this event is truly to be the highlight of my summer (take from that what you will).

Top Book Fetish Items

'Virginia Woolf Library Bag' - The British Library

We all knew that it could not be much longer before I decided to celebrate another tote bag. The British Library has an unsurprisingly fantastic array of totes on offer, but this is definitely one of my favourites. The quote really says it all.

'Best Bookshelf in the World' - Bookshelf Porn

Ok, clearly this is not an 'item'. But this section of The Weekly Reader is truly an opportunity to dream about the possibilities that would accompany limitless cash. My discovery of this site is owed entirely to my wonderful friend Lucy, who appreciates the joy brought about by some seriously attractive bookshelving. The link goes to my absolute favourite - a favourite because it features: (1) books; (2) a ladder; (3) a cafetiere; and, (4) biscuits. All there, then.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Happy Birthday George!

Today is the birthday of one of my heroes - the fantastic George Orwell. Steering clear of too much gushing (with difficulty), I am here today to pay homage to this literary giant. A man of formidable talents, Orwell is remarkable for his appreciation of human nature and understanding of its expression within social structures. Both Animal Farm and 1984 remain positioned as the greatest political dystopian works in circulation and will, I believe, continue to be celebrated as such.

I do not want to stray into the realms of biography here - these are details that I have already related in my Literary Excursion: An Orwellian Outing post. Instead, I believe that the only way to truly celebrate the contributions that George Orwell has made to the literary field is through the words of the man himself.

On Writing

"When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art.' I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing."
- Why I Write

"I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life."
- Why I Write

On Politics

"Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
- Politics and the English Language

"Political chaos is connected with the decay of can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."
- Politics and the English Language

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
- The Freedom of the Press

"Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."

On Humanity

"Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is possible that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never had much temptation to be human beings."
- Reflections on Gandhi

"On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good and not quite all the time."
- All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays

And finally, a poem...

Awake young men of England (1914)

Oh! give me the strength of the Lion
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I'll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War lord's mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if when your country's in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Monday Musing

Hi pals!

In honour of that fact that I have finally made it to reading Kafka on the Shore, we are starting our week off with a little wisdom from the fantastic Haruki Murakami. 

Enjoy this last week of June, my friends. Read some books, drink lots of tea, and take a walk in the sun (*cough* rain).

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Review: A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

This review begins with a confession. After committing to working my way through my most recent book acquisitions before making further purchases, I caved. One bookshop trip later, a number of ongoing reads have been cast aside, usurped by new books of demanding presence. This is, I think, both the peril and pleasure of the bookstore. Yet it certainly proves the principle upon which my A Book Buyer's Guide post was based. Because, without the bookstore, discovery of hidden gems and accidental finds would be a near impossibility. So while the bookshop may present a magnificent threat to your pile of current reads, it is also a place of endless potential - where every trip brings the real possibility of stumbling upon your new favourite novel. With a coincidence of chance and purpose, my most recent bookstore visit has left me in that very situation. Browsing through the shelves, I spotted A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, translated from French and published by the small company, Europa Editions. That this book was on sale in Waterstones was a surprise - contemporary, unknown French literature published by small publishers is not exactly their forté. But proving that bookshops are a place for fortuitous finds, here it was. And I am so glad that I happened to be looking in the right place, at the right time. I am also thankful that my wages had just gone into the bank, but that's another issue.

A Novel Bookstore is a story for lovers of literature. Opening with three seemingly independent attacks on individuals in France, it transpires that the three are members of a committee connected to the Parisian bookstore, The Good Novel. Once the bookstore's founders, Ivan and Francesca, learn of the attacks, they decide to approach an investigator. To this investigator, the two relate the story of The Good Novel and its founding. The Good Novel is a product of belief in good literature. After Ivan and Francesca meet for the first time, a shared love for contemporary and classic novels that are good, leads to the decision to establish a bookshop - a bookshop that sells only fine literature. To make the selection, Francesca and Ivan put together a secret committee of eight authors, with the request that each submit a list of 600 titles to be stocked at The Good Novel. In order to protect the committee members and ensure their independence, it is decided that the composition of the committee will be known to no one but Francesca and Ivan. The Good Novel is opened to acclaim, providing a refuge for those exhausted by the onslaught of cheap, for-thrills fiction. Yet, before long, opinion turns. Beginning with a newspaper article that attacks The Good Novel as a totalitarian conception, dissent mounts. It is, however, only when committee members are subjected to apparent murder attempts that the extent of the offensive becomes clear. For Francesca and Ivan, the question becomes one of the price worth paying for the realisation of their vision.

Given that I knew nothing of this book before purchasing, I was guided entirely by the blurb and my short scan through the book's opening pages. With A Novel Bookstore sold as something of a cross between mystery and literary homage, I was entirely surprised by how completely I fell in love with this novel. I had expected an enjoyable trip into the cultural realms of France combined with allusion to some fictional masterpieces. What I got was a fantastically multidimensional narrative, offering an exploration of the intersection between lives and literature.

"We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the 'Go on, I need it for July, and in September we'll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it's in the bag' variety. We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer's block, the author's panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure."

On the most superficial level, this book offers a compelling narrative and some wonderfully enjoyable characters. At its heart, however, A Novel Bookstore gives the reader an opportunity to reflect upon the process and purpose of reading. As you read this novel, you become part of The Good Novel's clientele - following Francesca and Ivan through the shop's establishment and feeling both the elation of their success and the pain of their victimisation. This is, I think, the most important stylistic tool that Laurence Cossé brings to bear. Through tying the reader to the bookshop's fate, Cossé initiates a process of self-reflection, inviting you to question what it is about literature that keeps you turning the pages.

"We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels. We want books that leave nothing out: neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs. And even if there is only one such book per decade, even if there is only one Vies miniscules every ten years, that would be enough. We want nothing else."

For me, reading A Novel Bookstore could not have come at a better time. Running this blog has inevitably thrown up questions I have never thought to pose. I have done little to adapt my reading habits, believing that an honest reflection of the type and number of books I read is best. This is something I still maintain. Yet, The Book Habit has inevitably forced me to consider my literary habit more deeply. Reading is something we take for granted - for me, it is as natural as breathing. A Novel Bookstore is a novel that throws much-needed light back onto the importance of literature. Because what this blog has taught me to-date is that we often celebrate the impact of literature on human history and culture, at the expense of forgetting its impact on the human soul. Perhaps that is a grand claim but it is, in my experience, an accurate one. As The Good Novel grows in size and reputation, the centrality of reading as a means to overcome pain and celebrate joy becomes clear. Francesca's use of literature to deal with the suicide of her daughter is perhaps the most poignant example.

A Novel Bookstore reads as a love poem to literature. That Cossé packages this within a tightly constructed and immaculately developed plot simply adds to the novel's compelling nature. While my literary fire requires no stoking, I closed A Novel Bookstore having been reminded of exactly why it is that I turn to reading.

"My grandfather left me a great deal more - a passion for literature, and something additional, fundamental: the conviction that literature is important. He talked about it often. Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare and inexhaustible joys in life, but it's not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality. Everything is there. That is why I never use the word fiction. Every subtlety in life is material for a book...Novels don't contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done? It 's a question you have to ask yourself. Listen carefully: it is a way to learn to live. There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life."

Friday, 21 June 2013

Just For Fun Friday: Literary History UK Style

One of the great personal tragedies of 2013 has been the departure of one of my very best friends, Lauren, to the exotic climes of Singapore. We have shared many memorable and completely bizarre experiences, not least a somewhat spontaneous backpacking trip through the Baltics. In mid-February. Among the greatest memories we share, however, are some fantastic marathon-viewings (and inevitable re-enactments) of the Horrible Histories songs. Quite how it has taken me so long to get to this post, I am not sure. But in honour of friendship across the seas and with a desire to show you all the best possible way of imparting historical information, I give you Just For Fun Friday: Literary History UK Style. Honestly the most fun I have had in putting a post together. Enjoy!

Charles Dickens: A Life

A Lesson in Language

Nothing to do with literature, but just about the best thing ever created. And all you could possibly need to know about Britain...

The main explanation for the outcome of World War II

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Weekly Reader

Apologies for yesterday's absence (assuming you noticed, of course). Thankfully, I am finally getting back into the swing of existence, helped in no small part by some serious literary indulgence. I have got some truly fantastic reads on the go at the moment and am really excited to share over the next couple of weeks. Before turning my face back to the pages, however, I wanted to stop in with a slightly delayed edition of The Weekly Reader. I hope it finds you well!

Top Stories

'Librarians in Exile group launches appeal to save Timbuktu Manuscripts' - The Guardian

If you recall my post about the Conservation Project at Wimpole Hall, you will know that I have a real interest in efforts directed at book preservation. Although much of my knowledge is restricted to the UK, I am fully aware that cultural conservation is an issue with which most, if not all, countries are concerned. A few months ago, I read an interesting article regarding destruction of cultural heritage in Mali (a consequence of the pervasive armed crisis that continues to plague the country). Since then I have made efforts to follow events and track the fate of the hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts to which Mali is home. This article is a great insight into the ongoing efforts to preserve Mali's heritage, detailing the evacuation of 300,000 manuscripts (faced with destruction by Islamist rebels) from Timbuktu, by courageous librarians and archivists. It also addresses the ongoing Libraries in Exile campaign to raise $100,000 for the preservation of these precious documents. Damage through exposure to moisture means that this is an urgent appeal and, with Mali's heritage representing some of the oldest and most comprehensive in the world, it is an issue with which we should all be familiar.

'Iain Banks' final novel The Quarry is published' - BBC

What a sad couple of weeks it has been. We have lost some literary greats and, if you will allow me a brief non-literary aside, one of my favourite actors - the brilliant James Gandolfini. Amongst those we are currently mourning is Iain Banks. I will say up-front that I have tried, and failed, to get into Banks's books, but I would still like to pay homage to the author enjoyed by readers worldwide. Undoubtedly a giant within the literary world, Banks was named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 by The Times. His final book, The Quarry, was published just 11 days after his death and has shot to the top of the UK's bestseller lists. It is always sad when a talent is lost prematurely, but Banks fans can at least rest in the knowledge that he leaves a vast legacy to be enjoyed.

'When Book Graffiti Goes Bad' - Book Riot

Easily in my top five 'most detested habits' (there is indeed a list) is the propensity to graffiti books. Nothing riles me quite like opening a library book and finding inane scrawl plaguing the inside covers or dotted in the margins. It is akin to the exam pencil-tapper - once my attention is grabbed by it, the inner coil tightens, and I can focus on nothing else. Book graffiti can ruin an otherwise joyful reading experience - read this article and I am sure you will, if you don't already, agree. Keep your graffiti on the toilet walls, people. It doesn't belong in books.*

*Disclaimer: I do not advocate graffiti in any form. Unless, of course, you are Banksy. In which case, please carry on.

Top Events

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: In Conversation with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman' Saturday 22 June - Foyles, London

As regular readers know, I am a huge fan of both Roald Dahl and Foyles bookshop. So you can imagine how excited I am about this upcoming event. Unfortunately (and predictably) work prevents me from being there, but I want to highlight it for any fellow Dahl obsessives. With the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a West End Musical (group trip anyone?!), Foyles is playing host to the composer and lyricists of this fantastic creation. If you are in London on Saturday, the event is free but reservation is required.

'Book Club with Zadie Smith' Wednesday 17 July - Kings Place, London

The Guardian Book Club is running yet another fantastic event, in discussion with Zadie Smith about her latest book, NW. Zadie Smith is something of a groundbreaking author, and those familiar with her work are typically enthralled. Whatever you think of her books, Smith's unique style makes her a fascinating author in discussion. 

'Word for Word' Until 2 July - Bryant Park, New York

Obviously, living just outside of London, my 'Top Events' tend to be quite capital-centric. Attempting to serve all of my readers, however, I am making efforts to diversify (if any of you have literary-related events that you would like for me to highlight, do send me an email). I recently had a tip-off regarding a fantastic series of events running at Bryant Park, NY. When I was living in NY, Bryant Park was one of my absolute favourite places - a small oasis of calm, seemingly unintimidated by the surrounding skyscrapers. Up until 2 July, Bryant Park is hosting poets and writers from around the globe in its Word for Word event series. Check the webpage for the daily schedule!

Top in Book Fetish

'The Mole and Toad Ring' - Theo Fennell

My childhood was one in which The Wind in the Willows served as an underlying and constant presence. To this day, I know the book almost by-heart, following many readings and a nightly playing of the cassette-bound audio version. I am utterly obsessed. When I came across this ring, there was inevitably a little bit of squealing. For the non-Wind in the Willows fanatics, I am sure that it looks like a bit of an eyesore. But I am completely in love. Sadly, the 'price and availability on application' side-note leads me to believe that this  item may be a little outside of my student budget.

'Toad Hall Doormat' - DamnGoodDoormats

Is it weird that I want this? Answer - yes. However, I remain unashamed. See above.

'Harry Potter Parody Bestfriend iPhone Cases' - icozycraft

Occupying a worryingly substantial amount of my time has been a search for a new mobile phone cover. My current iPhone case is severely bashed (or, to the normal eye, broken) but, displaying my favourite Jane Eyre quote, I have been reluctant to seek out a replacement. Unfortunately, my terrifically clumsy nature forces me to face reality, unless I would rather witness the demise of my phone. The search has turned out some truly worrying finds - not least a case proudly displaying the words 'Keep Calm and Obey Mr. Grey'. Concerning. While I am still dithering over a number of cases (clearly it is a decision requiring careful thought), I am seriously considering these Harry Potter Parody cases. Unfortunately, they only come in a set of two. So if anyone is on the market for a Harry Potter case, let me know (the Ron Weasley one is MINE).

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A Book Buyer's Guide

In last week's edition of The Weekly Reader, I mentioned an interesting article about demands from Britain's independent bookstores for government assistance in combating Amazon's market dominance. I also declared my intention to forgo Amazon book purchases in favour of supporting the nation's bookstores (one week later and I am still going strong). I was surprised by the level of response that this decision received - all extremely supportive but supplemented with queries about how such a commitment could be upheld by budget-bound bibliophiles. I have been giving this some thought because, much like the doomed but inevitable New Year's resolutions to which we subject ourselves, it is all too easy to fall back into old habits. After all, the service offered by Amazon is both cost-effective and unbelievably convenient - books ordered while sat in front of the third run-through of Firefly (yes, I am that girl) and delivered right to your door, for just a wisp of the RRP. Yet, as I stated in my comments in The Weekly Reader, this is inevitably a question of priorities. So to support those good intentions - intentions that I am sure many of us share - I have put together this post as A Book Buyer's Guide. Some easy ways to maintain your bibliophilic habits, while keeping those purse-strings tight and supporting our all-important bookshops.


The Independent Bookshop

There is such a preponderance of independent bookshops around - and this is certainly not a fact restricted to the UK. While living in New York, I visited a number of brilliant bookshops, including the unbelievable Strand bookstore. Even in the backwaters (and by this, I obviously mean Missouri), you will always be able to root out some wonderful and under-appreciated book sellers. Independent bookshops are everywhere, once you know to look for them. It is, inevitably, down to readers to do much of the work in seeking these places out - they do not, after all, have the budget to imprint their presence on your consciousness as with the onslaught of ads for Amazon services and chain stores. But I fully believe that, for the true book fan, efforts to hunt down independent shops bring the most fantastic of rewards. You will encounter people of passion, who have given over their lives and careers to set up shop; you will find yourself in the weirdest of literary worlds (for anyone who has found themselves lost in the rabbit-warren that is Foyles, you will understand what I mean); and, most importantly, you will know that your purchases are supporting the dedication of fellow bibliophiles. Because this is the fundamental point. Independent bookshops are the product of a decision to risk everything in order to share a love for literature with the local population - created by and for lovers of literature. In a world where the most determined of bibliophiles give themselves over so easily to the powers of Amazon (and I include myself in this category), what chance do independent bookshops really stand?

So I would encourage you to put in the effort to find some wonderful, local independent bookshops. It isn't tough - Google is an invaluable resource for the purpose. For those in the UK, I would recommend The Guardian's Independent Bookshop Directory as a great starting point. I promise you all that your time will be well-rewarded! It is also worth bearing in mind that many of these shops have loyalty deals for regular customers. While it is undeniably the case that frequenting independent bookshops will take a higher toll on your bank balance than would Amazon purchasing, there are certainly numerous ways of making savings. 

The Second-Hand Bookshop

Creating this as a distinct category is not necessarily true to reality - many independent bookshops also offer wonderful second-hand deals (great for those on a budget). In fact, The Strand, as one of the most fantastic independent bookshops of all time, consists largely of second-hand stock, making it a wonderfully cheap option. 

Beyond those shops that fall within both categories, however, I am alluding to the numerous charity shops that offer up second-hand deals. You will no doubt have picked up on the many shout-outs I have given to my local Oxfam bookshop - well-deserved, given the expansive selection of books on sale and the relative lack of expense. For the most part, every book I buy from Oxfam is half the Amazon price, and always on sale in as-new condition. Oxfam is not the only charity to function as a fantastic option for book buyers (although it is the only one, I think, to have exclusive bookshops). My book rummages always involve visits to a number of other charity shops and I have found some fantastically good deals. Again, this is an option available globally (admittedly, to varying degrees).

I also want to use this as a chance to highlight The National Trust as a wonderful resource. I adore The National Trust, mostly for the sights, but also for the second-hand book selling that it conducts at virtually all of its locations. On my recent trip to Wimpole Hall, for example, I was able to visit their comprehensively-stocked shop, which offers books at brilliant prices. This is a great way to support the work of The National Trust while maintaining some serious bibliophilic habits.

The Chain Shop

While I know that the advantages of chain bookshops are somewhat debatable, particularly in light of an Amazon avoidance, I have chosen to include it here. Certainly not as ethically-sound and beneficial as frequenting independent bookshops (and, I would argue, failing to offer the same reader rewards in terms of ambiance and uniqueness), it still gives readers an opportunity to indulge their book habit on the high street. I really do respect chains such as Waterstones and Barnes and Noble for what they offer readers - there is something strangely comforting and reassuring about them. While not the ideal in terms of making purchases to support dedicated booksellers, the chains are an inevitable presence and a valuable option for many. Offering plenty of loyalty programmes, they are also an effective means of non-Amazon book-buying on a budget!


These three avenues for book purchasing are by no means exhaustive. They are, however, the three options that feature most prominently in my non-Amazon buying strategy. My recent post-exam book binge was, in fact, supported by each of these, and with truly minimal impact upon my bank balance. Like any kind of ethical purchasing, book buying simply requires some forethought and a little research. While this may not sound appealing to those of us with hectic schedules, it is unavoidable if we wish to see bookshops remain on our streets. As an avid reader, I have struggled with this issue for a long time and have, essentially, chosen to blinker myself to its existence. Faced with the impending demise of our independent booksellers, however, I have decided that I cannot avoid the problem any longer. I do not want to be the self-declared bibliophile who chose convenience over championing the dedication of fellow literature lovers. As book lovers we are, after all, the ones who will bear the most responsibility for letting the book industry fail. And I will certainly be doing what I can to ensure that people will be enjoying the joys of Foyles and The Strand for many generations to come.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Monday Musing

Happy Monday, chaps!

I hope that you have all had a fantastically refreshing weekend and are ready for the week ahead. Now fully back in blogging mode, I have some exciting reviews and other literary-minded posts to carry us through June and into the height of summer. Please keep the post suggestions coming in - I am doing my best to integrate your various recommendations into my posting schedule. For those of you who emailed in response to my comments about book buying from independent bookshops, tomorrow is the day when your queries will be addressed. In the meantime, I leave you with another Monday Musing. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Review: About A Boy by Nick Hornby

About A Boy is a book that I have had on my radar for some time. Yet, in a strange reversal of my typical process, I have been pretty content to restrict my familiarity with the story to what is depicted in the film adaptation. I am fully aware that, in saying this, I am committing a terrible kind of bibliophilic blasphemy. In the midst of revision-induced insanity, I decided to go on a book rummage (my cure for everything) in one of my favourite literary haunts - Welwyn Garden City's fabulous Oxfam bookshop. Finally coming face-to-face with a hardcopy of About A Boy, and looking for a book that would not place too much demand on my already over-taxed mind, I added it to my pile of purchases. Two weeks, several exams, and many tears later, I have finally made it to the review.

About A Boy depicts a truly strange juxtaposition of lives. Thirty-six year old Will Freeman - trendy, wealthy, and utterly self-involved - is a man wrapped up in the search for immediate pleasures. Frequenting nightclubs and parties, his life is guided by an unrelenting pursuit of women for one-night stands and only the most superficial of relationships. This all changes when his path crosses with twelve year old Marcus - wearer of fuzzy jumpers, fan of Joni Mitchell, and social outsider. Living with his depressive single mother, Fiona, Marcus meets Will while on an outing with Fiona's friend and the single-parent group SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). Will has joined SPAT with the intent of hitting on single mothers, creating a fictional son, Ned, to do so. After Marcus returns home to find that his mother has attempted suicide, he forms an unlikely friendship with Will. As Will attempts to teach Marcus the ways of social convention - from the right sort of trainers to wear, to the right kind of music to listen to - he finds himself confronted with the reality of a life guided entirely by self interest. Coming to play a central role in Marcus's life, and with Fiona slipping back into her old habits, Will is forced to make a choice between retaining his detachment from emotional existence and accepting that no life can be lived entirely apart from others.

It is a strange thing, coming to a book after having seen some sort of adaptation. It is, after all, the ultimate kind of spoiler, inevitably divesting the plot of much of the author's stylistic individuality and narrative quirks. For this reason, I will always maintain that impending film viewings should be pre-empted with a dip into the book. Yet, there is something to be said for having a superficial familiarity with the plot before reading. Without the almost inevitable desperation to discover the book's conclusion and resolution, it is undoubtedly easier to absorb the various literary techniques at work, as well as the authorial skill. About A Boy is not a book that presents any practical challenge to the reader. But it is a novel for which some advance knowledge of the plot is definitely an advantage. Because this is a work that captures the voice of its main characters with remarkable efficacy - a fact that I think is better enjoyed when unhampered by concern for the book's resolution. Nick Hornby's narrative style is totally refreshing, based largely in the strange paradox he creates between the perspectives of the self-involved Will and the odd, but fantastically observant, Marcus. And in amongst the virtually tangible levels of pain, the reader is treated to some of the most well-written comedic moments in literature:

"Marcus couldn't believe it. Dead. A dead duck. OK, he'd been trying to hit it on the head with a  piece of sandwich, but he tried to do all sorts of things, and none of them had ever happened before. He's tried to get the highest score on the Stargazer machine in the kebab shop on Hornsey Road - nothing. He'd tried to read Nicky's thoughts by staring at the back of his head every maths lesson for a week - nothing. It really annoyed him that the only thing he'd ever achieved through trying was something he hadn't really wanted to do that much in the first place. And, anyway, since when did hitting a bird with a sandwich ever kill it? Kids must spend half their lives throwing things at the ducks in Regent's Park. How come he managed to pick a duck that pathetic?"

Fundamentally, however, this is a truly poignant work. The circumstances surrounding Marcus and Will's friendship, and the underlying concern for Marcus's mother, are woven throughout the plot. As Marcus faces his Mum's illness, dominated by concern for her and for his own future, it is the parallel narrative of Will's superficiality that really brings the themes home. While Will seeks out his latest conquests and concerns himself with the newest fashions, Marcus's battle is given an added dimension. Because it is through Marcus that Will is finally able to mature and address his inconsequentialist attitude towards life. Despite About A Boy's comedic elements, it is a difficult read in places. Yet, I am convinced that it is the juxtaposition of these elements - the placement of comedy next to tragedy, of selfishness next to selflessness - that really brings this book to life.

"One Monday morning his mother started crying before breakfast, and it frightened him. Morning crying was something new, and it was a bad, bad sign. It meant that it could now happen at any hour of the day without warning; there was no safe time...Marcus never said anything when she cried. He didn't know what to say. He didn't understand why she did it, and because he didn't understand he could't help, and because he couldn't help, he just ended up standing there and staring at her with his mouth open, and she'd just carry on as if nothing was happening."

As I have said above, this book is not a difficult read in practice. The tone and style make for a work that is easy to get through in relatively little time. But About A Boy is the perfect example of a book that is practically easy, psychologically tough. I think that, in placing Will and Marcus side-by-side, Hornby has managed to create a powerful story - one in which the reader is inevitably forced to consider the trivialities of his/her own life. Through Will's education - the lessons learnt through his friendship with Marcus - this book also triumphs in celebrating our interconnectedness:

"Will looked at this strange little group, his gang for the day, and tried to make some sense of it All these ripples and connections! He couldn't get his head round them. He was not a man given to mystical moments, even under the influence of narcotics, but he was very worried that he was having one now, for some reason...Some of these people he hadn't known until today; some of them he had only known for a little while, and even then he couldn't say that he knew them well. But here they were anyway... Will couldn't recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human."

So even though this is a book that I came to with preconceptions, my resulting impression was not the worse for it. It is a truly wonderful novel - at times emotionally troubling and terrible, at others refreshingly honest and utterly hilarious. 

After trying very hard, I could not resist adding in the film clip. Apologies to all of the purists out there!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Just for Fun Friday: Writers on Writers Take 2

And so begins the period of aimless wondering. I have cleaned, ironed, been running, watched two seasons of The West Wing, and begun to diminish the book stacks. Still feeling somewhat directionless, I set myself the task of putting together another edition of Just for Fun Friday: Writers on Writers, working through the wonderful Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, edited by Gary Dexter, to pull out some more favourites. Proving, once again, that no group throws insults like the literary-minded.

Voltaire on Shakespeare:

"Englishmen believe in ghosts no more than the Romans did, yet they take pleasure in the tragedy of Hamlet, in which the ghost of a king appears on the stage. Far be it from me to justify everything in that tragedy; it is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy."

D.H. Lawrence on Charlotte Bronte (this is a really weird one):

"And I'm sure poor Charlotte Bronte...did not have any deliberate intention to stimulate sex feelings in the reader. Yet I find Jane Eyre verging towards pornography and Boccaccio seems to me always fresh and wholesome [...] Wagner and Charlotte Bronte were both in the state where the strongest instincts have collapsed, and sex has become something slightly obscene, to be wallowed in, but despised. Mr Rochester's sex passion is not 'respectable' till Mr Rochester is burned, blinded, disfigured, and reduced to helpless dependence."

D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman:

"This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time. All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe."

William Faulkner on Mark Twain:

"[A] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven 'sure fire' literary skeletons with sufficient color to intrigue the superficial and lazy."

Harold Bloom on J.K. Rowling:

"How to read 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?' Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. Is there any redeeming education use to Rowling? Is there any to Stephen King? Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality? [...] Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter."

Have a wonderful weekend!