REVIEW: EXPOSURE by OLIVIA SUDJIC

I was going to begin this post with the line: Emerson seems to have finally deserted me. But then just before sitting down to write it, I came to the end of a short book I’ve been reading called EXPOSURE by Olivia Sudjic. I had reached the second to last page, in fact, and there he was. Sudjic is writing here about the experience of fictionalising experiences that overlap in her own life:

This state reminds me, once I came back to earth, of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball. (“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”.)

exposure

 

I found this book fascinating. It’s extended essay length and, among other things, is about Sudjic’s experience when her first novel Sympathy was published. She writes about the crushing levels of anxiety she felt. So much so that her agent advised her to take beta blockers. She did take them but didn’t like the concomitant feelings of numbness and disassociation she felt when she was on them.

This book is very smart and quite complicated to sum up but I loved it. For an anxious writer like myself, it was reassuring, dreadful and very funny in just about equal measure. I particularly loved this bit:

So why do it? Why continue to write for a living if writing is so solitary and publication is so masochistic, like throwing the contents of your own life out onto the street for passersby to salvage.

My first instinct is to stop. Though the horse has already bolted, I could shut the gate behind it and withdraw in an attempt to protect myself and I suppose recover some feeling of control, assuage some of the identity-loss that accompanies book-births.

My second is to steel myself and carry on like Macbeth midway across a river of blood because … this is what I’ve chosen to do and I hate changing plans. I would then be faced with the anxious dilemma of what to do instead.

My third is to acknowledge the anxiety writing generates as an inextricable element of who I am and that the triggers that exist there are to be found everywhere. Anxiety will fill whatever receptacle I give it …

How I love that line about Macbeth and the river of blood. Recently I’ve been weighing the cost of writing because books do cost the writer. What that cost is will vary of course from person to person. Often this isn’t talked about or writers are chary of talking about it. They realize that they are perceived to be very lucky and as having got away with something. Writers, after all, drag themselves from bed to computer (no commuting to work), they sit about in cafes, they indulge themselves by making things up and then they expect to be read and lauded. What is not talked about is the wrestling with demons and also wrestling with various aspects of the commercial side of getting a book out there: agent, publisher, the set backs, the rejections, the utter bollocks of it all (if you’ll pardon the expression). That side of it is rarely written about with any degree of honesty because writers are not fools, they want to be published and slagging off their publishers or agents is not going to help that at all. We are supposed to be ever so grateful but the reality can be far, far removed from anything that could reasonably be expected to generate gratitude.

As a writer of eight books my experience of publication hasn’t really varied much.  It is both something I am very proud of because I’ve worked incredibly hard and yet at the same time, emotionally, it can feel like a car crash. I do feel very, very exposed. Publication thus becomes something that has to be got over rather than celebrated. And this can be confusing and rather irritating  for the people close to me to fully understand. Well, don’t write a book I hear you say. But I am a writer, I reply.

Sudjic is also very good on the different ways men and women fiction writers are judged.

Female experience tells you that the personal is political while the world tells you there is something wrong with you personally and the system is fine. When (white, cis-gendered) men write even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, … their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women about women are not. That’s Women’s Fiction for which category there is no male equivalent.

For my part I hope Sudjic doesn’t stop writing. She’s very good. But having read this book I could understand if she did. As for me, the jury is out. I highly recommend this book; it’s excellent and extremely thought provoking.

 

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NOT MORE TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE?

When I said last week that nothing dates faster than a political book that wasn’t strictly true. Nothing dates faster than a travel book. We end up throwing away about 99.5% of travel books for the simple reason that no one will buy them unless they’re up to date. And people tend to hold onto their travel books for a few years or sometimes many years before donating them.

This week I spent some time with BBHs (‘bloody big hardbacks’). We get a lot of these, the kinds of books that have glossy photos in them and relate to a TV series, for example Life in the Freezer/Life on Earth etc etc… BBHs which relate to art or photography or design are more interesting and often we can put them out for higher prices.

For some reason we had a large number of books on how to put out fires, leading to a discussion about where they should be shelved, a discussion that did not come to any particular conclusion. The ones on fire engines we decided could at a pinch go into our motor section. Maybe they need their own separate section. Appropriate for Christmas though, don’t you think? both literally and metaphorically. I stacked them near a fire extinguisher to make them feel at home.

Things that fell out of books this week:

  • An American  mother’s  account of her son’s second birthday:

Yet he is still so young. Flies, spiders and bees scare him. He still panics if he walks into a room and can’t find me.

This young man was two in 1996. Now he’s twenty two years old. I wonder what he’s up to? If there’s a moral here, it’s to make sure you shake your books before you donate them to a charity. Take it from me, your books hold your life in them. I wonder actually if this woman is a writer. The account has the kind of detail in it that suggests that she is. But at any rate her son should be reading this tender portrayal of himself helping his mother make his birthday cake, (lots of molasses!) not me.

  • The full text of the sermon preached by David Jenkins at his enthronement as Bishop of Durham September 21st 1984 fell out of a copy of the Oxford Book of Prayer.  There’s a strange connection here because he was the chaplain of Queen’s College, Oxford for 15 years, which is where I was brought up. He left in 1969 and my family arrived in 1968 so there is the faint chance that as a small child I was taken to evensong in chapel and heard his sermons.  In due course he became Bishop of Durham where my aunt and uncle lived. My uncle taught English at the university and  since my family background was conservative, with both a small and large C and Jenkins was the archetypal ‘turbulent priest’ (from the establishment’s point of view at any rate) I remember there being a fairly constant critical rumble about him.  But reading his sermon I was struck by how fearless his first paragraph was. 1984 was in the middle of the miner’s strike which hit the North East particularly badly and was a time of extreme social divisions in Britain. The subject of his sermon was this verse from Romans: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace by your faith in him, until by the power of his holy spirit, you overflow with hope. Romans 15. 13.’ Here is that opening paragraph.

“We could do with some help from this “God of hope” here in the North East. Unemployment is at 35 to 50%. They propose to dump radioactive waste on us as if we are the scrap-yard of Britain. The Miners’ Strike highlights how divided and distressed society is, to the point of violence. Christians seem absorbed in bad tempered arguments about belief, or marriage or politics. The organised churches find financial problems looming larger and larger. We all wonder if old men in the Kremlin or in the White House will over-reach themselves and actually use the nuclear weapons which are unthinkable but real. If you stop and think, hope does not come easily.”

I don’t know about you but that is an opening that would make me sit up and pay attention. Towards the end of the sermon he criticized both sides of the dispute, and suggested that Ian McGregor, Chairman of the National Coal Board should be removed. This apparently produced a ripple of applause; the first heard in Durham cathedral during a sermon.

No books donated this week.

Needless to say having donated 70 in the past month I had a trip to Foyles and began buying books like a drunken sailor, including these two extremely stylish books from the publisher Fitzcarraldo.

fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo Editions is a publisher I very much admire. Occasionally, I fantasize about the kind of writer I would like to be: cool, intellectual and so sophisticated as to be completely unreadable by anyone who hasn’t got a PhD in literary criticism or cultural studies. In this fantasy I imagine myself being published by Fitzcarraldo because I love the look (that cobalt blue) and feel of their books. However, as you, dear reader, know perfectly well from having read this blog, I am so laughably not that writer, it is a dead cert that I will never be published by them.

Another reason I am certain I will never  be published by them is because no one involved with Fitzcarraldo sweats. Not one. No sweaty hands there at all. How do I know this? Well, look at this very, very white papery cover of The Years by Annie Ernaux.

the years

Holding back the … but not with dirty hands.

And it’s not shiny, it’s paper. White paper. There could be no more traumatizing book cover for a sweaty handed person than that. Why? because that cover is going to be a complete mess in a nano second if you have got any kind of moisture on your hands. In fact since buying it I have not dared open it. Perhaps before reading it I will have to buy a pair of those gloves that police officers put on when examining the scene of the crime. Either that or make it a nice festive Christmas covering.  It’s not a book cover which will survive being read in the bath (the moisture! the moisture!) or thrown in a bag and taken on the bus, not my bag anyway. You couldn’t read it in a cafe or after you’d read a newspaper… Enough already, I’ll save my deeper thoughts on white covers and why publishers should never ever use them until next week.

Emerson continues to haunt me. Practically the first book I saw in Foyles was The Illustrated Emerson: Essays and Poems which I bought immediately. Pam, who is kind enough to read and comment on this blog told me about a book called Mr Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown which I might read. It’s historical fiction from the point of view of his wife, Lidian, and she also sent me this quote.

emerson

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Something we could all do with being reminded of from time to time. Thank you Pam.

TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE AGAIN

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning with these Tales of the Book Trade posts will remember how everything began with Emerson. A man walked into the bookshop I was working in and asked for books by Ralph Waldo. We didn’t have any. The following week I found a volume of his essays in the back of the shop, then I found I owned a copy of Nature which I found impenetrable and I said I would donate it to the shop in case the man came back. I thought I would update you with the fact that I didn’t and why.

nature

So, this is what happened. I was in Caffé Nero again (I’m a creature of habit) with my bag of books to donate and again I didn’t have a newspaper or a notebook to distract me. When will I learn? In my defence, there are usually newspapers to read or buy there but the recent Brexit dramas seemed to have made these more popular than usual.  So I dipped into my bag of books to be donated and pulled out Second Nature by Michael Pollan and there was this quotation:

When one summer I came across Emerson’s argument ‘that weeds’ (just then strangling my annuals) were nothing more than a defect of my perception, I felt a certain cognitive dissonance.

upstream

Earlier in the week I had bought a book of Mary Oliver’s essays titled Upstream and there was a whole essay on Ralph Waldo including this description Harriet Martineau gave after she had been to his lecture.

There is a vague nobleness and thorough sweetness about him, which move people to their very depths, without their being able to explain why.

So something’s going on, isn’t it? But what? Do all roads lead me back to Ralph? I haven’t donated the book Nature because I feel life is flagging something up and I should pay attention. Otherwise the next thing to happen will be me being run over by a bus with Ralph Waldo Emerson on the side of it. So Nature stays and is being read albeit extremely slowly because his style takes some getting used to.

If last week was characterized by the fact nothing fell out of any book, this week was the opposite. Many, many tickets for musicals, ballet and theatre fell into my hands. A substantial number of them with the price £0.00 on them. I have to say I began to feel rather jealous. Who was this person who had gone to see The Blue God and Firebird for free on the 13th April 2011 at The London Coliseum? A critic, maybe.

There was also rather a sad note sent by someone who had phoned several times and texted with no result and had now resorted to a small card of a dolphin to try and make contact. The kind of card that if you were the recipient of would make you immediately feel so guilty that you too would stuff it in the nearest book and try and forget all about it.

The non-fiction version of Dan Brown (in terms of frequency of donation) is Bill Bryson or as I refer to him ‘Bloody Bill Bryson’ before throwing him in a hessian sack. Is there a single person in the country who does not have one of his books and who hasn’t split the spine reading him and is happy to donate him to us? He comes in so often I groan loudly when I see his books.

My most hated books can best be described as reckless men go on stupidly dangerous journeys in order to write a flashy ‘look at me’ book about it. I mean just stop it. Try staying home for a bit, keeping the cat fed, and renegotiating your energy bills. That would be more impressive than catching jungle rot in the Amazon. Any idiot could write a book about that. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is a much harder and, to my mind, more valuable thing to do.

Somewhat ironically given the feverish and self-destructive state of the Tory party at the present moment, I find a press release for a book titled Back from the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection by Peter Snowdon March 2010. Ha, ha, I think. Maybe the next book he writes will be titled From Resurrection to Annihilation: How the Tory party destroyed itself and the nation over Brexit. I tell you, nothing dates faster than a political book. Mind you, I also came across a letter to a journalist dated June 2009 concerning another book titled Beyond New Labour: The future of social democracy in Britain. The letter states ‘Across Europe Social Democracy appears to have profound structural problems.’ He got that right, didn’t he?

Finally, a customer comes in and asks if we have any books by Solzhenitsyn. I present her with August 1914, followed by The Gulag Archipelago and finally Cancer Ward (all chunky) all of which she firmly rejects. I feel like a cat trundling back and forth dropping mice at her feet only to be told they are the wrong type of mouse. I’m  irritated, so I say to her, ‘We don’t have One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ (novella length). ‘How do you know that’s what I’m looking for,’ she asks. ‘Because it’s short,’ I reply. She then launches into a loud exposition of the problems caused by a lack of female sanitary products in Mozambique.  She has the kind of voice that I imagine Christian missionaries have, not that I’ve met many. Now, it’s not that this isn’t a really important, worthy subject but she goes on for a very long time and in the end all I want her to do is stop. It occurs to me that she is punishing me for being snide and that I probably deserve it. In the end I’ve had enough and  make some excuse and go and hide in the back room.

The last time I read One Day… was when I was seventeen and suffering from flu. I can’t separate the two experiences in my mind and have never read it again. Just looking at the cover of the book makes me feel that post-viral depression is going to reach up and drag me down into its pit and bind me in chains and never let me go and that the sun will never, ever shine again as long as I live. I wonder if that’s how Theresa May* is feeling.

I took another ten books to the shop this week so my total donation for the month is 70.

*Apologies to non UK readers but Britain is in political melt down at the moment over Brexit.

EXTRA TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

My favourite book came into the shop this week in a hard back version I’d never seen before. It’s called Firmin and is by Sam Savage and is about a rat, which lives in a second hand bookshop, and learns to read. Read this book and you will never feel the same way about a rat again. How I love it. Here’s the book produced by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a lovely fake nibble along the top of it.

Firmin cover

‘A rat of deep humanity and intelligence’ says Philip Pullman.

What a creative piece of publishing! So obviously I cleaned it up and bought it.

Books may be stored in all kinds of places before they are donated to us and those places can be dirty and damp and vermin infested. So sometimes books do come in which have been chewed. Mice, rats…? Who knows? Children’s books may well have been chewed by babies who are teething. Whatever has chewed them, they get thrown out immediately, as do books which are covered in mould. Some of those you can feel tickling your lungs in a way you know is not to be recommended.

I experienced something of this recently when going through my father’s papers with my sisters prior to sending them off to a library. They’d been stored in a garage and mice had got in to one box and some of my father’s correspondence had clearly been turned into mouse bedding. So it goes. We just have to hope that anything of interest was in the top half of each page since the mice attacked from the bottom up. The papers are somewhere safe now where no mouse can reach them or read them.

This week it is the question of sticky labels I am pondering. To try and remove or not. You know the ones those round labels saying three for two or Richard and Judy’s Book Club or long listed/short listed for the Booker/Costa/Orange etc. Or as read on BBC Radio 4. If they’re relatively new they can be peeled off quite easily and don’t leave a residue. However if the book is older and has a more papery cover or it’s sat in the sun for a while,  then getting the label off without tearing the cover can be tricky, and sometimes you don’t know how tricky until you start doing it. Then you’re scraping label glue off with your finger nails for the next ten minutes and you end up with a book looking scruffier than if you’d just left the label there in the first place.

No saints and butterflies falling out of books this week. Instead, the card of a man who is a partner at a large city law firm, a bookmark of a Parisian seafood restaurant called La Marée, several sheets of toilet paper (unused) and an old Waterstone’s bookmark with a quote from H.G. Wells.

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

H.G.Wells

I took nineteen more of my books to the shop bringing it up to a grand total of 60 in three weeks. Not bad. I’m feeling rather pleased with myself and sense my shelves are breathing more easily but then my partner says, ‘It’s a drop in the ocean, isn’t it?’ And I look and think maybe I should adopt a more brutal approach. Maybe I should attack my white-spined Picadors. My Coastings and my Songlines, my States of Desire and my Beloveds. Maybe it’s time for them to go as well. I’m gradually getting into the swing of things. Marie Kondo would be pleased with me, I think.

SIGNIFICANT TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

In the course of sorting through my books I discovered I actually own a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Good lord! It’s called Nature, part of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series and is completely impenetrable (to me at any rate), so I’m going to take it into the shop, in case the man who was looking for him comes back. Where on earth am I going to shelve it though? We do have a nature section but I think it will get lost there. I could put it in philosophy but it will get lost there too, so maybe flat on a table or into essays.

A book comes into the shop which is by someone I know slightly. It’s a 2018 hardback and has a personal dedication in it. Well, someone got rid of this quickly, I think. The dedication, I have to say, is mildly passive aggressive. If someone had written a dedication like that in a book I had bought, I’d have lobbed it in the direction of a charity shop straight away, perhaps via the author’s head. My personal opinion about dedications is this:

  1.  Say thank you.
  2.  Say I very much hope you enjoy it.
  3.  Throw in a lot of love and kisses.

That’s it.  Do not make mildly barbed comments about the person’s character; it’s arrogant and self-defeating. Anyway, I price it (maybe slightly too low), stand the book upright in self-help and wonder if it’ll be there next week.

This reminds me incidentally of a great literary feud between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux which was made worse by Theroux flicking through a rare books catalogue one day and discovering that books he had given to  Naipaul and his first wife with written dedications, were for sale at the princely price of $1500 each. He assumed from that, that their friendship was no longer of any value to Naipaul. It can be a mistake as a writer to equate one’s self with one’s book. I mean what do you say when someone says they don’t like your book – throw a punch? However in this case I would probably have drawn the same conclusion.

I spend some of the day pondering the bookseller’s great philosophical imponderable – how do you shelve a name for example like Victoria Waters-Blake vis à vis Victoria Waters Blake? My personal approach is that Waters-Blake goes in the Ws and Waters Blake goes in the Bs. What do you think? Of course in a shop of many volunteers everyone abides by different rules or like me forgets the rule they are abiding by between one cup of tea and the next. There is also the tricky moment when there is lots of room in the Ws and none in the Bs, so one might veer off the straight and narrow due to laziness or not wishing to bend down – Ws are always at floor level. All I can say to you as a customer is always look in both the Ws and the Bs if you are looking for this sort of author. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example.

This week we are inundated with Atonements (Ian McEwan). And for some reason they are making me cross. Everywhere I turn there is another one waving at me, falling on my foot: small paperbacks, large paperbacks, hardbacks ones with covers from the film, ones without. Yoo hoo over here. Look at me. What about me? Oh, and you missed me. Go away, I want to shout. In all your different formats, leave me alone. In order to calm down I go over and stroke the Viragos, all lovingly gathered together on a small table. And then I throw some of the grubbier, creased, coffee-stained Atonements out. That’s better.

Mis-shelvings are fun. This week’s winners are Women who Run with the Wolves (psychology /self-help) in Nature, Men are from Mars Women Are from Venus (self help) in fiction, and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (fiction/it won the 2015 Booker. The cover has a vinyl record on it) in music.

charlotte mew

Incidentally, one of the pluses of sorting out my shelves has been coming across a book called His Arms are Full of Broken Things (1998) by P. B. Parris. It is one my oldest TBRs (to be read). I’ve held onto it for 20 years without reading it. I’ve tried fairly frequently. This time I was determined and you know what it’s fantastic. It’s about Charlotte Mew, a poet, and each chapter begins with one of her poems. They are strange and baffling and I love them. Thomas Hardy fell in love with her but she, although loving him, did not want to sleep with him. She had passionate and possessive platonic relationships with women and, after her father died had his suit and coat cut to fit her. I do love a bit of cross-dressing in my books. I like the idea that this book has been sitting on my shelves for 20 years waiting for me to read it. If you’re out there P. B. Parris I just want you to know how very much I enjoyed your book. Thank you for it. And could you tell me what the tarot reader in St James’ Piccadilly said to you, as mentioned by you in the acknowledgments.

You see this is where I disagree with all the de-clutterers. If you haven’t read it you are not going to, they say. Rubbish. If you have read it you won’t re-read it. More rubbish. If you haven’t worn it in the last year you never will etc etc. Absolute rubbish. This book did not spark joy (obviously) for 20 years but now it has sparked a whole bloody fireworks display of joy.  So, you’re all hideously wrong. And by the way because of the heat wave this summer I’ve worn two skirts I bought about ten years ago and had barely worn. Incidentally, despite this rant I have a great deal of affection for the book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying because it always sells very quickly when we get it in and I always put it out on one of the tables.

butterfly

In case you think I’m making this stuff up: an elephant, a butterfly and a saint.

This week’s things that fell out of books:

  • A few book marks; the most interesting of which is one advertising the world’s strongest chilli with a cartoon of a sneezing elephant.
  • A gift receipt from Tiffany’s for the eye watering amount of £285. It’s for a bow brush. No, I didn’t know what it was either. Anyway, it was bought in Zurich Airport 22/08/2012.
  • Another saint – this time S. Francesco – Greccio, crying. I have to say I like these saints that keep falling out of the books into my hands. On the back of his picture are the words of a prayer in Italian.
  • A small cabbage white butterfly, yellowy white with black dots on its wings.

I have an extremely odd conversation with a customer. It all starts off OK. She tells me she bought a book from the shop in which a woman had put a lovely dedication to her husband. I say something general about dedications and second-hand books and then she’s off. ‘How could he give the book away and not cut out the dedication? She doesn’t deserve him? She should divorce him.’ I’m baffled – does she know them? How does she know the circumstances of the books coming into the shop? The books might have come in because he or she died. And I’ve never thought that someone would cut a dedication out of a book before giving it to charity. I smile slightly and nod and breathe a sigh of relief when she leaves.

I took another 23 books to the shop this week. And this time I managed to get them all there without retrieving one at the last minute. However the following night I wake up with the absolute certainty that one of the books I have donated contains a dedication to me and my partner. I utter up a silent prayer to S. Francesco, Please let it be there next week. Then I can buy it back from the shop. Or at least cut out the dedication.

P.S. I should also probably confess to having bought a book from the shop. It is called: Wait, The Useful Art of Procrastination by Frank Partnoy. And if you’ll pardon the pun, I can’t wait to read it. Once I’ve read it, of course, I will be able to wait before reading it but then I will already have read it so it will obviously be too late. Or maybe I will manage to wait without reading it and will end up reading it in 20 years time.

 

FURTHER TALES OF THE BOOK TRADE

Since receiving my royalty statement I have been re-reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s really good. I came across this bit which I liked.

book of hope

“When your Daemon is in charge do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey.”

RUDYARD KIPLING

Daemon is an interesting word. I wonder what Kipling meant by it? Of course I thought of Philip Pullman’s books because in those each human has a daemon in the shape of an animal. I have always loved that idea. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Drift, wait and obey. And I’ve been doing a lot of tidying and sorting. I have in fact been doing to my own books what I do in the shop. Taking them in hand and considering if they’re worth the shelf space. And I have been discovering things about myself I did not know. I seem to be a person who reads poetry because it turns out I have 76 poetry books. There’s been a cold, high moon these last few days.  Change is in the offing. If I were a dog I’d be sniffing the air and looking far into the middle distance. I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing. Something is going to change. And part of that seems to be making a large pile of all my poetry books.

Another obvious change was that I have decided to donate some books to the shop. Usually the traffic is all the other way. There were 18 of them. There are others but 18 is the largest amount I can carry at a time. Unfortunately, I was early for work and settled into Caffé Nero with the companionship of a flat white and no newspaper to hand and without a notebook and a pen. What to do, what to do…? The bag of books was at my feet. The book on top was Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes.

Flauberts parrot

Well, yes, of course I did. I picked it up and started to browse through it and I discovered I had marked it up. Not only am I a reader of poetry, now I am apparently a marker-up of books. Or I was in 1985. There was a flurry of markings all the way through. I know you long for me to share some of them with you. Given my receipt of the royalty statement that I might possibly have mentioned earlier, this paragraph amused me.

“Let us have the modesty of wounded animals that withdraw into a corner and remain silent. The world is full of people who bellow against Providence. One must if only on the score of good manners, avoid behaving like them.”

And so did this one:

1880  “When will the book be finished? That’s the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven’t a minute to lose between now and then. But there are times when I am so tired I feel I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.”

I have to say that is an exact description of how I feel when contemplating finishing off my current work in progress. Anyway I swiftly transferred the book out of the bag of donations to my shoulder bag. Time for a re-read I think.

Now then, back to the book trade. There was a dreadful doll which my colleague found in the children’s department. We have no idea how it got there. It was ghastly in a 70s horror book sort of way. Do you know the sort? It was stripped of clothes had one eye half closed and the other one was staring hard at us? Stephen King comes to mind. We both looked at it and my colleague went and placed it head down in the rubbish. As I walked backwards and forwards past its dreadful and pathetic plastic legs, it reminded me of the time we had a great many books on poltergeists come into the shop. I was basically being less than reverential about the contents and throwing some of the dodgier ones away. The books weren’t just about poltergeists; they were also about unexplained psychic and spiritual phenomena. And then the books started flying round the room. No, they didn’t, sorry that was a huge lie. I’m a fiction writer and I had a relapse. Actually, what happened was that a pile of books appeared to jump off the table. It was enough for me to stop saying what I was saying and consider if there was something present in that room that might possibly be a bit pissed off with me. And, put it this way, I certainly didn’t want it to get any crosser. So I extended a sort of aura of propitiation into the room and shut up. No, I don’t know what that means either but it seemed to do the trick and I recommend it if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

IMG_1708

Things that fell out of books.

This week’s offerings from the books were as follows:

  • A stained white paper napkin with the following written on it in biro: ‘excoriating’ with the tail of the ‘g’ running all the way back beneath the word in a flourish and then underneath that ‘keep eyes open Keith?’ Had Keith fallen asleep? Was Keith a spy? I imagine a group meal gone badly wrong.
  • An old bookmark with the words Give Book Tokens. What a Good Idea! I know it’s old because the value of book tokens listed is in shillings: 3/6, 5/-, 7/6 etc
  • A Take Away menu for the Pin Petch Thai Restaurant in Islington and Earl’s Court
  • A nice leather book mark of the porch in Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire.
  • A Masonic prayer, well I think it’s Masonic: it talks about ancient spiritual fires and the rose of love … it’s actually rather lovely.
  • A Catholic prayer card with a picture of San Filippo Neri – he is the patron saint of Rome. He was always happy apparently and known as the Saint of Joy. He obviously never received a royalty statement. On the back of it is a prayer by John Newman in Italian. I am placing this somewhere prominent in my eye-line just beyond the top of my computer to aid against liquefaction

So that’s me this week, a dissolving Camembert drifting, waiting and obeying. But if the daemon expects me to read all this poetry I might have to put my foot down unless s/he starts hurling the books round the room and then I will undoubtedly obey.

MORE TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

Waste Lands are selling like hot cakes. There has been a BBC 4 documentary on T.S. Eliot and things that appear on TV have an immediate effect on our customers’ buying habits. I recognize it in myself. Having been tormented by having to study Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, for A Level – I mean for heaven’s sake what on earth is a 17 year old supposed to do with a nun being crucified on an anthill?  – I have spent years thinking that the only Eliot I’ll ever read for the rest of my life is his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ‘There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 when the night mail’s  ready to depart …’  being the  verse I recite when suffering from insomnia but having seen A.N. Wilson’s passionate and strange  documentary on Eliot I feel I have some context within which to read his more difficult stuff and so it appears do all our customers. On the other hand, it might have something to do with austerity, Brexit and Trump.

There is something called BSSL not under any circumstances to be confused with BDSM. BSSL is Bookseller’s Sod’s Law and it means that the book that a person comes in and asks for on one day and that you do not have appears immediately they have gone. As if a genie has pulled it out of a hat and laid it down nice and neatly in your eye line with a note stating, ‘Ha, ha lost sale.’ So obviously half way through my next day at the shop I find a book of Emerson’s essays. There it is in a box in the back. Ooof. I try and comfort myself with the thought it wasn’t there last week but the truth is it probably was and I didn’t look hard enough.

I contemplate the fiction shelves. Obviously this is influenced by the fact I write it. I have an ambiguous relationship, shall we say, with the bestsellers. I try not to feel bitter and twisted. Wouldn’t it be nice I sometimes think to have written a book that had sold so much that it came into charity shops frequently? As I place, for example A Perfect Spy on the shelf I imagine what it must be like to be John le Carré and open your royalty statements, as opposed to being me and opening mine.

Onward and upward. It is interesting noting trends and things, these being different in a second-hand bookshop to new bookshops. For example there was  a book  titled Golden Hill by Francis Spufford which was Waterstone’s Fiction Book of the Month last October. I was hand sold it by a very enthusiastic Waterstone’s bookseller. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that part of the reason I bought it was because I thought the name of the character played by the gruff-voiced child in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was Francis Spufford III and I love that film. It is my go-to film when I am feeling depressed. Perfect for when I have just received a royalty statement. It’s the camp silliness combined with the extraordinary Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell that always cheers me up. But in fact the name of the character the child played isn’t that, I discovered, it’s Henry Spofford III. So there we are.

I read the first paragraph of Golden Hill and then thought Oh, Henry/Francis you strange gruff-voiced child what are you doing to me? Just forget it. And obviously a great many other people did exactly the same (well, not the gruff-voiced child bit) because we had loads of it come in quickly and in very good condition. That’s quite unusual because it was recent. This made me curious and I picked the book up and tried again and did manage to finish it but it was a pastiche of an 18th century novel and hard work to get into. In my opinion Golden Hill is not the kind of book you would contemplate reading again or recommend to friends so it’s easy to give to a charity shop. Incidentally it won a huge number of prizes so other people obviously felt very differently to me. I’ve noticed that now, a year after being long listed for The Booker, A Little Life is just starting to come in. The great bestseller (in the world of newly published books) of this year has been Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. We do not have that because everyone is reading it or has just read it and that probably won’t be in for a while but then, my oh my, it will come in and in and in…

I spy a novel with the beguiling title of Putney Bridge. Well, maybe beguiling is the wrong word but I was standing on that bridge just an hour ago waiting for my bus. This is close-ish to the shop and to where I live so I put it out on the table even though I think they could have tried harder with the title. I mean Putney Bridge?????? It’s not exactly The Elegance of the Hedgehog is it? Truth be told I’m not a fan of cutesy titles and every time I come across The Elegance of the Hedgehog I think I am never going to read you ever but then I’m not a fan of utterly prosaic ones like Putney Bridge either. I like to think the author has suffered a bit to come up with the title (because I do)  and didn’t just glance out of the tube window and sigh, ‘Oh, Putney Bridge, yeah, fine,’ before going back to their Sudoku. Then I remember didn’t Seamus Heaney title a poem The District Line? or was that Circle and District? or even District and Circle? If he can do it then why not?

Back home I have a bit of a rifle through The Waste Land and realize that this is obviously the go to poem for book titles: The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing), The Violet Hour (Kate Roiphe and a great many others), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh), Sweet Thames Run Softly (Robert Gibbings). Better than Putney Bridge. To be frank I find it a bit baffling but having struggled through it (rats, fog, bad sex, oh God, bad teeth) I come to the notes. I have to say I do love notes on poetry. I remember reading or trying to read Tom Paulin’s poem, The Invasion Handbook, and coming to the end of that and thinking, ‘Tom couldn’t you have thrown this poor reader a bit of a bone?’. But actually if I cast my mind back to the glory days of Late Night Review, Paulin was always uncompromisingly stroppy; never a bone thrower and it was one of the things that made him so watchable. I read the notes and come across this, ‘Anyone who is acquainted with these works (The Golden Bough) will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.’ And for some reason somewhat obscure to me start howling with laughter. I think it’s the use of the word immediately. And then it dawns on me. Maybe our customers are all writers looking for titles or maybe they have just received a royalty statement and like me are in desperate need of being cheered up. Unfortunately I don’t think the vegetation ceremonies of The Golden Bough/Waste Land are going to do it, do you?

On the other hand Marilyn just might. Here she is in all her fabulous glory … Someone went a bit overboard with the Grecian 2000 I can’t help thinking and I wonder if those dancers got bonuses for being hit so frequently on the head by her fan.

Incidentally, when I reach the back of this copy of The Waste Land a card falls out. It says:

Dear Maurice – Eureka! Elusive Eliot has come to hand! Pleasant reading Maurice. Love Felicity

Eureka! I tell you Felicity, Eliot is not elusive in our shop at the moment. I wonder what Maurice made of the fog, the rats, the bad sex and bad teeth.

Shantih shantih shantih*, as Eliot would undoubtedly have said.

Leave me comments, lots and lots of them.

*The last words of The Waste Land which mean The Peace which passeth understanding.

TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

I work in a charity second hand bookshop once a week. This was my day. The man who is always outside the council buildings when I walk past and is a shouter, shouts at me as I make my way to the bookshop. That’s OK. It wasn’t the first time he did it, but now I’m used to him and don’t take it personally. It amused me when he used to shout ‘COFFEE F*****G COFFEE,’ at me because I was holding a Caffé Nero take-away cup. Well, yes, mate.

Everything proceeds as normal for the first couple of hours. I throw away old travel guides, I groan at the sight of any Bill Bryson book. It has nothing to do with the contents, it’s just we get so many of them. I clean donated books with baby wipes and pat them dry before putting them out in the shop. Then just when I am looking with pride at the large space I have created, a woman comes in with about twenty large orange Sainsburys bags of hardback and coffee table books. Oh, my knees! We lug them all in and this coincides with another delivery which I can’t help with because I’m doing this one. I then carry all the Sainsburys bags to the back where I have made the large space which is now instantly filled. I have a bleak Sisyphean moment. Now I’ve become so hot my shoes have started to squeak. Each time I put a foot down it sounds as if I’m squeezing the life out of a mouse. ‘Eeep, eeep,’ my feet go. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. The only way to stop it, is to sort of creep about like Mrs Overall or cool off my feet. I take my shoes off, open the back door and stand there waving my feet about watched by a load of council employees, who are on a smoking break. They alternate between looking at their phones, smoking and sneaking glances at me. I imagine that I look like a sweaty elephant doing barre exercises since I am doing weird swinging, pointy things with my feet to air them. Did they do that in Fantasia, I wonder?

When I’m cooler I go back into the shop and a man approaches. There is something about him akin to clinging ivy. ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson,’ he murmurs. ‘Have you heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say which is true but any follow up question is going to be tricky. ‘Where should I look?’ Off the top of my head I say, ‘ Essays, or philosophy or even classics.’ God knows how I even know that. I look. He looks. No luck. He comes up to me, ‘You have heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say rather more snappily than I intend. ‘But he doesn’t come in often.’ His eyes widen, ‘He comes in?’ ‘No, no his books don’t come in. He’s dead,’ I say startling another customer. ‘Dead,’ I reiterate. That much I do know.

book haul

I roam through the shop considering what I might buy. After the earlier delivery I’m feeling rather Ice Cold in Alex-ish so Death in the Bar by Ngaio Marsh catches my eye, along with Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I love the title although I have to say it sums up my idea of absolute hell. I am hardly Ms Flexibility. I contemplate my ideal novel title. It would be something like. Absolutely Nothing Changes  Ever and  the subtitle would be Ha, Ha You’re So Wrong, I’m not Bored. Maybe I should write that one.  It might be a surprise bestseller. An antidote to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. My response to that book was always, ‘No thanks, I’ll pass.’ Then I see The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Excellent because I am currently reading the Iliad and have just finished Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The Guardian review on the back describes it as ‘An exciting, sexy, violent Superman version of The Iliad.’ That will do. Then there is The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith with her own highly idiosyncratic illustrations and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, a lesbian love story from Nigeria with a lovely Gay’s the Word book mark.

I find an American copy of my father’s book on Disraeli in the biography section and take it out. I have to force myself not to buy it. I’ve got about three different copies already although not a St Martin’s Press one. Dear old Dad, I think, patting it and putting it back on the shelf.

A man comes in who wants to donate books to us. He is downsizing and says he no longer wants to have piles of books on the floor. ‘Oh!’ I say. He lives three floors up, it’s all too much. ‘Getting rid of the books,’ he says and then he pauses and puts his hand on his heart and says, ‘The pain.’  I stand next to him nodding my head. I want to hug him and tell him everything will be alright but that would be highly inappropriate and you know what, sometimes everything isn’t alright and maybe this is one of those moments.

Then home. The bus is chaotic. Two baby buggies, too many people. It’s like a lunatic asylum and I’m one of the inmates.  Frail people get on at the hospital bus stop and the whole of the bus has to re-order itself, so that people who must sit down can do so and that babies and mothers are OK. I like this chaotic human shift and shuffle because more so than on the tube the frail and vulnerable are noticed and accommodated. Back home I look up Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, I think, that’s who you are. Then I look up elephants doing ballet and discover they are actually hippos. I watch a clip of Fantasia for longer than is strictly advisable. At least I wasn’t wearing a tutu. I continue to fret about not buying Dad’s book. It was in good condition, nice jacket. Oh well,  it’ll probably be there next week along with the shouting man, the creeping ivy and of course the piles of books.

CULTURAL ROUND UP: PAT BARKER, AGNES VARDA &JR, ALAN BENNETT AND THE OCEANIA EXHIBITION

A book, a film, a play and an exhibition.

First off a book…

silence of the girls

Barker is one of my all time favourite writers and she has a new book out called THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS. It is new territory for her, that of classical history and is the story of Briseis a Trojan Queen who is given as a sex slave to Achilles. She appears in the early chapters of The Iliad, the story of the Trojan war, by Homer. I’ve read all of Pat Barker’s books and I love her more than any other contemporary writer. I’m amazed that this wasn’t nominated for the Booker and doubt there’s a better book on that list. Doubt there’s a better opening than this:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

All I can say is read it and you won’t be disappointed. An off-shoot of reading it is that I’m re-reading The Iliad. Heavy, I hear you say. Well, it’s a book I’ve always struggled with in the past but am now scything through with relative ease since Barker’s book has left a vivid template in my mind to read it against. So instead of constantly thinking, Who is Trojan? Who is Greek? Whose side is that god on etc all that was more or less sorted out in my mind before I started. It also got me thinking of Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial, a book she described as ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere’. That atmosphere is a very bloody one. I’ve been re-reading her wonderful poem, Dart, because I’ve been looking for ‘watery’ writing recently due to my current work in progress.

Second a film …

FACES, PLACES with Agnes Varda and JR. She’s a 90 year old film maker and he’s a street artist. It’s a wonderful film, completely life affirming and celebratory. They are so completely sweet together and it was a joy. Put simply, Agnes Varda and JR travel round France with JR’s photo booth which produces huge black and white photos of the people they meet which are then pasted up in all kinds of different places. The film is playful, compassionate and has great humanity. So go and see it immediately. Now. Here’s the trailer.

Third a play …

ALLELUJHA  by Alan Bennett.

Under no circumstances ever, ever go and see this play. Unless your idea of fun is seeing a load of ‘old dears’ singing sentimental songs in a geriatric ward. It’s abysmal. I’m now going to put out a pointless *Spoiler Alert* because taking my advice you are never going to see it anyway, are you? If it’s supposed to be a paeon to the NHS please explain why at the end the first act Bennett turns a nurse, who has up to this point seemed perfectly OK, albeit somewhat dour, into a morphine-filled-syringe-wielding killer. Why? The only reason I can think of is that it was so tonally weird he thought it might make the audience stay for the second half to discover who she kills next. It was simply dreadful. Mind you, I think it’s no longer on and frankly only a lunatic would ever revive it so you’re probably safe.

Sitting through that got me thinking about how much I love theatre but how bad theatre is a particularly agony. I haven’t been going much recently because of a few ghastly experiences both involving very long plays. First off The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. How I hated that. The critics showered it with universal 5* praise but I have never felt so out of sorts with an audience. I actually felt embarrassed to be English because the play was filled with every kind of cliche about the Irish that ever existed and the predominantly English audience lapped it up. I know Jez Butterworth has Irish grandparents but that just means he should have known better. All I can say is never, ever go and see a play in which there’s a character called Granny Faraway. I mean, how could you? Agnes Varda would have put him straight on that. It was a long time before I read anything that equated with my feelings about the play and then Sean O’Hagan wrote this…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/16/jez-butterworth-the-ferryman-irish-stereotypes-sam-mendes

Excuse this digression/rant but before The Ferryman there was a play by Tony Kushner called the Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism … Also very long and also staggeringly bad. I actually walked out of that at the second interval without a qualm and generally speaking I’m not a walker out of anything much. That play involved a lot of discordant shouting by vile characters to no good effect with a bit of Marx thrown in. The worst play I ever saw was The Illustrious Corpse, by Tariq Ali (yes him) at the Soho Theatre in London. By the end of that I felt like a thoroughly Disaffected Corpse myself. That was so bad I’ve never been back to that particular theatre and that was in 2003. Which I suppose shows my ability to hold a grudge. My thinking was if they consider that’s a play, as opposed to a political diatribe, (no plot, no character, absolutely no bloody point) what fresh hell might I be exposed to in the future?

Finally, an exhibition – Oceania, at the Royal Academy.  Beautiful. Go.  All the cultural sensitivities have been complied with but even so I was left wondering if we should be looking at the items on display. There’s a brooding black basalt monument, a god, that sits in the middle of it all. The fiction writer in me wonders what he thinks about it all. What he might stir up… But oh, I felt sad at the end and I’m not quite sure why – something to do with lost gods, lost cultures, perhaps. And on the subject of the gods –  they are behaving really badly in The Iliad, absolute rotters every one. Incidentally if you are a New Zealand and Pacific Island passport holder you get into the exhibition for free.

One of the things that infuriated me about Bennett’s play and also The Ferryman was the depiction of older women – patronizing and cliched. One of the delights of Faces, Places was Agnes Varda – vital, creative, opinionated, engaged with the world. Of course! More of that please.

Tell me what you’re reading, watching, visiting in the comments below.

Q&A with Joy Rhoades @JoyRhoades1 author of #WoolgrowersCompanion

The Woolgrower’s Companion is a wonderful book written by Joy Rhoades, set in 1945 on a sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia. At a time when all the local able bodied men have enlisted, two Italian prisoners of war, Luca and Vittorio, are drafted in to help. It traces the fortunes of a young woman, Kate Dowd, as she struggles to keep her family farm going in the course of a dry desperate year.

JRhoades

“The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.”

The book combines beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape with compelling characters and has a wonderful page-turning quality. It has been shortlisted for two prizes this year, The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize and The Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. I loved it and was delighted to ask Joy some questions.

Q. I loved the character of Daisy, the Aboriginal girl, and was fascinated by the part of the book that dealt with the Stolen Generations. Could you tell me a little about the research you did and also about the other Aboriginal women  who you acknowledge in the book?

A. It was essential, and very important to me personally, that I approach the Aboriginal characters and cultural aspects of The Woolgrower’s Companion with sensitivity and respect. While it would never occur to me to write a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal character, it would also never occur to me not to include the Aboriginal characters who would have been found in this time and this place: remote New South Wales in 1948. To exclude these characters would be disrespectful and dishonest.

I feel it one of the great blessings of my life to have come to know my Aboriginal cultural guide, activist and poet, Kerry Reed-Gilbert. Kerry, as well as a number of other extraordinary matriarchs in Aboriginal communities in Australia. They guided me on the manuscript. Kerry vetted drafts for me too to ensure I was dealing with cultural aspects appropriately. They have taught me so much and I continue to learn.  It’s a lifelong process and I see it as my duty, as a white Australian, and as a writer.

Q. You teach – can you let people know how they can be taught by you?

A. I love teaching creative writing. To spend time, helping writers and would-be writers hone their skills? Best thing in the world. Mostly the classes are at libraries around London but I’ve also just begun a new account on Instagram, putting in one place writing exercises, posts on writing craft books, and of course, news of my next writing class. Follow at: https://www.instagram.com/start_write/ I plan to go live on Twitter and Facebook as well very soon, and post podcast interviews on writing craft as well.

Q. Was there always going to be a sequel? When can we expect it?

A. As I was writing The Woolgrower’s Companion, I didn’t consciously plan for there to be a sequel. But when I finished the book, there was still so much I wanted to explore with these characters. So almost immediately, I started work on the outline for what would become the sequel. Penguin (publisher of The Woolgrower’s Companion) has bought the rights and it will be out in 2019.

Q. One of the things you do wonderfully well is produce beautiful evocative descriptions of landscape. Does this come easily to you?

A. I’m laughing here because I’m thinking, does any writing ever come easily? Certainly, my desire to get down on paper the strong feeling I have for Australian bush, that’s always there. Readers tend to say two things: what happens next? And I felt like I was there. That makes me happy. I want my reader to be transported, wrapped in this world.

JRhoades2

Joy Rhoades author of The Woolgrower’s Companion

Q. I loved the quotes you use at the top of each chapter from ‘The Woolgrower’s Companion, 1906’ and in fact I only just realized it’s fictional and not an actual manual for sheep farmers from that time! Tell me a little about how you made the decision to do that and why?

A. I’m so glad you thought it was real! It came about because I love Victorian literature: that convoluted sentence structure and the formality of the vocabulary. And I’m also a big fan of The Shipping News, that wonderful novel by Annie Proulx. Annie prefaces each chapter with a quote from the (real) Book of Knots and the knot chosen illuminates what follows. So my chapter epigraphs in The Woolgrower’s Companion are a mishmash of homages to both these loves: Victorian literature and The Shipping News.  I set about writing a faux guide for Australian sheep growers, as if it had been written in 1906. I was able in that guide to talk about breeding and race and weakness of lines and all manner of things to help show the thinking of the time, and so show how much we’ve moved on. I picked 1906 just because it’s the year of the birth of my grandmother, Gladys Chateau. The Woolgrower’s Companion is very loosely based on stories from her life and her family.

Q. You live in London now. How do you cope with the lack of open vistas!

A. London is flat! But that flatness of landscape is something I grew up with in western Queensland. In Roma, (the town where Joy was brought up) a hill, being so rare, gets a name: Orange Hill. Hospital Hill. But in Roma, once you get out of town, and absent a dust storm or a real storm (both rare) you can see for miles in any direction. I miss that very much and am still, even after the years I’ve lived in London, taken aback when I find myself at the top of a rise, and I can see. I love London, though. I miss Australia, absolutely. But the life and diversity and music and books and history of London: it’s intoxicating. I’m living in Charles Dickens’ city. And I’m not yet tired of life.

Thank you very much Joy! I should also add that the book has recipes (scones, cakes, biscuits …) and also an excellent series of Book Club questions.

To buy the book Amazon has an offer on Kindle for just £2.99: https://amzn.to/2MRofwL
And if you’d like to connect with Joy here are her social media links: