Friday, 25 February 2011

16/111 - The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle

I bought this book at the same time as Heroes and Villains, for the subject matter. But then when I found out that I had been offered a place at Oneworld, I decided to move it to the top of the list so I can get a little more of a feel for what they’re publishing at the moment.

I’m very interested in self-sufficiency and permaculture, and I have read several other books which I’ve really enjoyed on the subject, including Free by Katherine Hibbert, How to be Idle (and Free) by Tom Hodgkinson and Off-Grid by Nick Rosen (and I also have his UK book, How to Live Off-Grid). Unsurprisingly, I’m not actually personally that off-griddy. Yet. But I’m interested in it, and in particular reading about other people’s experiences of it.

A little off topic for a bit: I am bothered by modern life. As much of a consumer as I am (I’m not the worst, but definitely not the best either), it bothers me. There are three things that bother me the most:

The first one is living space, or the dilemma of renting/buying a place to live. I am constantly astounded by the cost of simply having a roof to put over your head, before you’ve even taken into account any other living costs, like council tax and being connected to the National Grid. If you live in a town, you have to share that space with plenty of other people, maybe in a house share, or maybe you don’t earn enough to live in a safe part of town and get scared walking to and from your house every day (true story). That such a high proportion of the money I earn should go on a roof over my head is preposterous. I don’t have a solution for this problem.

The second thing is working. I have no problem with hard work, but it seems to me that so many of my choices are for things that just don't matter. Job to uphold structures which are fanciful, at best, and delusional, at worst (like banking). It has taken me all this time to figure out that what I really wanted to do was something involving books. I have always loved books, and they matter to me. But there's a part of me that doesn't see the merit in the trade-off implicit in getting money for your time spent working. Then, when you have that money, you pay other people to do the tasks that you don't have time for, like buying food instead of preparing and growing it yourself. Or paying the National Grid to heat your house instead of chopping down wood for your own fire.

The third thing is food. Food is so expensive. So pre-packaged. So sprayed with all kinds of shit and grown/killed in dreadful conditions. What’s more, the amount of food that we waste in the West that is still perfectly good to eat is disgraceful. The solution here is to grow your own food and support local farmers etc. But this is hard, too. This is effort. And in my hypothetical life with a job, I don’t have time to do this because I’m working 40 hours a week to pay for my shitty, unsafe house, and commuting 3 hours per day to my job.


I can certainly see the appeal of opting out of this system, and creating a new system for yourself, so I am always delighted to read about someone else’s experiences of doing so, as it gives me hope that one day I'll be able to find a way of living that is somewhat off-menu.

Mark outlines his plan to spend a year with no money – earning no money, having no bank account, accepting no money. Everything will be done through foraging and nature, bartering, and making use of what he already has. He begins his year just as Winter is about to get brutal in the UK, and tries to source everything that he needs from local sources and relying on members of the community exchange skills with him. 

At the beginning of his quest he sets out some pretty strict rules for himself, which I don’t always agree with (there is one incident where he’s cold whilst waiting for a boat and refuses to go into a heated room). There are a couple of sad moments where his project seemed to get in the way of him living his life fully, like missing out on a friend’s stag do because he has no money, but refusing to let others pay for him. But I guess he was learning his own rules at the time, and he should certainly be commended for being able to laugh at himself, too. (Although maybe a couple too many poo jokes).

Of course, things don’t always go smoothly, but Mark has a keen sense of adventure and has a lot of faith in the power of human interaction (probably more than I do). I was also pleased to see his approach was a ‘living off the land’ kind of deal, very different to Katherine Hibbert who ends up living in abandoned spaces for a year. I’m much more attracted to Mark’s way of doing things, partly because I don’t like the idea of the instability that comes with squatting, and I also don’t really feel comfortable in big cities where most squatting happens. I like his appreciation for nature, and the way he makes his caravan his home. Squatting seems too precarious to me. I also do have an attachment to things. I might want to live with fewer things, but that doesn’t mean I’d enjoy coming home to find all my things thrown out by the landlord of the property I’m squatting in. A nice little caravan of my own would be fine.

The other problem I have with squatting and skipping for food, is that you end up relying more on what other people are wasting than creating something of your own. Obviously, I’d rather that empty buildings and extra food went to good use, but my personal preference would be to live more in the way that Mark sets out.

All in all, very enjoyable. I’d like to learn more, so will probably end up visiting his Freeconomy project online at some point. I’m not sure if I’ll ever end up taking the leap into a more self-sufficient lifestyle. I’d like to, but I’m not quite sure where to start. My only criticism of the book is that at 200 pages, it's very short to cover what Mark gets up to in a year, and feels a little rushed in places. 

Next time: since I'm clearly unable to stick to my guns this week, my next book will either be The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, or almost definitely, The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

15/111 - Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

I bought this very recently, and decided to read it because the cover photo was so appealing for some reason (the Penguin Modern Classics range are all pretty cool) and because I’d also been craving some good female fiction.

I’ve read a bit of Angela Carter before, I loved The Bloody Chamber and also Nights at the Circus, both of which I studied at Uni. However I found Heroes and Villains to be much more of a slog. It’s very short, only 160 pages, and the subject matter of a girl making her way and discovering her sexuality in a post-apocalyptic world was exactly the sort of thing I would usually choose, but I couldn’t enjoy it 100%.

The story takes place at an indeterminate point in the distant future. There is no mention of the past, or how the human race came to be the way it is now, so we only have the impression that something awful has happened. Marianne is the daughter of a ‘Professor’, living in a somewhat civilised village, learning to read and otherwise her life is pretty much idyllic, even though she doesn’t appreciate it. Underneath the calm exterior of the village are some darker undertones, with the Soldiers exerting more and more power and educated people committing suicide. The society of ‘Professors’ live in fear of the ‘Barbarians’ (as the Professors call them) who periodically raid their villages, steal their supplies and sometimes, their women.

Marianne is itching to get away from her village, and is at the same time haunted by the image of a young barbarian soldier who killed her brother as a child. One night ten years later, there’s another barbarian raid, and she helps the one surviving soldier, named Jewel, escape from hiding and runs away with him. But also kind of gets kidnapped by him. Unbeknownst to her, Jewel is the boy who killed her brother all those years ago. The society of the Barbarians is also less than perfect. They do not make or grow anything, and everything they want is taken by force, which is how Jewel and Marianne eventually end up getting married.

Their relationship is one of opposites, mostly switching between revulsion and desire; and hate, but probably not love. Out of all the Barbarians, Jewel is the most educated, which he owes to the ‘Doctor’, Donally. Donally appears to be an ex-Professor who has either been cast out or has chosen to join the tribe, though it’s never clear which. It is he who arranges the marriage between Jewel and Marianne, and he is cruel and deceptive, and beats his ‘idiot’ son often. The members of the tribe seem to fear and respect him.

Marianne is a complicated character, and one who I would have liked to sympathise with more. Certainly I can appreciate her desire to leave her home village after the murder of her father and childhood nanny. But her venture into the outside world is a strange kind of awakening, which often left me feeling confused. She is headstrong and outraged when Jewel prevents her from leaving the tribe, but she also finds herself drawn to him sexually after their ‘wedding’. But I say it was difficult to sympathise with her because I felt like she was written very confusedly. Not that the character is confused, although she is, but I was confused by her. And not in the way I would like to be. There wasn’t enough to her and she seemed to leap from one mood to another without explanation. She does kick some ass at certain points, though. When Jewel hits her she’s definitely not afraid to hit back, and she’s no damsel in distress. 

It's possible I just didn't get it.

I don’t know. I didn’t dislike this, but it also wasn’t easy to read. There is some cool stuff in here – it’s very dark and gothic, and at times funny and there are even some erotic moments. But I was ultimately left feeling that maybe it was too rushed considering the length of the book and the very high style of writing that Carter uses.


Just a small note: over the next couple of posts I am going to be deviating slightly from the selection process because I have been offered some more work experience with a different publisher, Oneworld, which starts next month. So in preparation I’m going to be doing a little brushing up and read a couple of their books so that I can maybe do some sucking up. (Just kidding; I already have a couple of their books unread.)

But next, I am definitely reading The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Something I've been thinking about

For my next review, I've decided allow myself a veto for my latest randomly allotted book and read a different one. I think that realistically I'll have to allow myself to do this around once a month, as discussed earlier, because I'm not always going to want to read the book the system chooses for me, and that's not really fair on the book. So I'm going to read Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter instead.

I will be getting back to The Eyes of the Dragon after, I swear.

I just wanted to have a brief interlude and explore some ideas that have been bothering me a little bit. A week or so ago I was frustrated after reading This is Where I Leave You, because I didn't enjoy it much and I said I was sick of reading about male angst for a while. Also previously, I had been disheartened by the recently released VIDA statistics, which revealed a very large discrepancy between the number of books written and reviewed by men and women.

Around the same time I had been talking about that, I had been trying to think of female authors which I had read an enjoyed in the last year, and came up with these off the top of my head: Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Catherine O'Flynn, Emma Donoghue, Monica Drake, Jennifer Egan, A.M. Homes, Miranda July, Susie Orbach, Natasha Walter, Kat Banyard, Jessica Valenti, Delphine de Vigan, Charlotte Roche, Audrey Niffenegger and probably some others that I have foolishly omitted from this list.

What I have been trying to work out in my head is whether there is a lack of more 'edgy' and 'cool' women's fiction. Certainly, all of the women I've named on the list above I consider to be cool, but I mean something else, I think. Where are the female Tao Lins, Chuck Palahniuks, Douglas Couplands, Irvine Welshes and Lee Rourkes? I certainly consider writers like Miranda July, Monica Drake and Charlotte Roche to be writing in the same vein, but I feel like there is a gap. Like there are not as many female writers doing the kind of thing that their male contemporaries are doing. I'm not sure if I really know what I'm talking about or if it's all in my head.

I remember when I first chose to read The Help, and feeling that it was so far removed from anything that I thought I would enjoy. I would still stand by that statement and say that for the most part, that kind of women's fiction is not the sort of thing I generally like. I just wonder why aren't there more women out there writing about the same things that young male writers do? Most of the fiction about female angst tends to be more chick-lit centred. Where are the women writing about fucking? About the visceral? About the grotesque? Where are the female Bunny Munros? Have I just missed them? Or do they not exist? Is it because women do not write about these things? Is it because women are not these things?

It's not that I don't enjoy reading novels by male writers about these things - I do. And I'd also like to make it clear that I really do not wish to segregate the genders, as I don't think that's a helpful approach. I'm more just curious about whether women writers are doing this kind of thing, and if not, why not? Perhaps they are and I'm just not aware of it, but could it also be that people are not so willing to publish or publicise the kind of thing I'm talking about? 

I read something recently that a male character's introspection is generally labelled as moving and important, whereas a female's is labelled as self-absorped. Is that fair? I don't think I know enough about what I'm talking about to make that huge sweeping statement. But I can kind of see where the sentiment is coming from. Of all the comment pieces I read after the release of the VIDA statistics, one of the things which was mentioned time and time again was that critics and readers care less about the things which are important to women than the things which are important to men. That men's thoughts were revelatory and that women's were trivial.

I don't know if this is right or not. I'm not even sure if I'm relating what I mean by 'this kind of fiction' all that well. I just know that I'd like to see more of it. I love reading quirky, contemporary stories about young misfits and their hijinks. I just wish more of them were women.

Monday, 21 February 2011

14.5/111 - Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

I tried to read this, I really did. I just couldn't get into it. My curiosity about how well it linked up with Tree of Codes was simply not deep enough to push me into reading this whole thing. I just wasn't curious enough. My heart wasn't in it.

A couple of things I would like to say about it, though. Of the parts I did read, the language was beautiful. I can see why Jonathan Safran Foer decided to pick this text, as there is such a huge variety of language to choose from.

In addition, the Penguin edition that I read has a foreword written by Jonathan Safran Foer, so I think I might just assume that this was the translation he worked with. Although I stand by what I said in my last post about the omission of this information from Tree of Codes being a little careless on his part. It is very problematic - I have since read in several places that the title itself has been mistranslated, and that the more accurate translation for Street of Crocodiles would in fact be Cinnamon Shops, which of course raises the question of what else has been creatively translated.

The thing which was most enlightening to me was to read JSF's foreword to Street of Crocodiles, in which he describes the death of Bruno Schulz at the hands of a Nazi officer. Schulz was an extremely creative man, and spent much of his time painting murals for another Nazi officer who had perhaps taken pity on him. Decades after his death, a journalist decided to attempt to find the murals painted by Schulz for this Nazi officer, and discovered that many of them had been painted over, but that by rubbing his hand over the paint, a faint outline of the characters underneath could be revealed. Mmm, parallels.

That's all for now.

Next time: The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

14/111 - Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

I remember hearing about this book towards the end of 2010, and bring surprised by how cool the idea sounded. I had no idea it was being published (I had assumed it was a private project), let alone that it was going to be published in the UK and available one day while I was in Foyle’s passing some time. It’s published over here by Visual Editions, who are a teeny but evidently very cool publisher, and I’m a little bit breath-taken by what they’ve produced.

A short explanation of Tree of Codes: Jonathan Safran Foer has taken a translation of the story The Street of Crocodiles, written by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and carved his own story from that text. He has cleaved away all the words he did not want, and what we’re left with are the words Jonathan Safran Foer has chosen for his story. In this case, the words which not selected have literally been cut out from the page.

The book itself is amazing. The jacket design is lovely and the inside kind of made me feel magical. It’s a gorgeous thing. I’ve read elsewhere that people have remarked that it’s more of a sculpture than a book. It boggles the mind to look at it, and when I first opened it, I wasn’t even sure HOW to read it – the holes on the page create a layering effect where words from other pages show through. Evidently, I figured it out.

When I was doing a little research before writing this post, I was surprised by public opinion towards Jonathan Safran Foer. I don’t know if it’s just something I’ve never come across, or if it’s not all that widespread, but I was a little surprised at how much some people seem to dislike him. (I’ve read Eating Animals, and I enjoyed it very much. I don’t yet know how I’ll feel about Everything is Illuminated; we’ll have to see.) There was a lot of stuff I read online accusing him of being smug (and his supporters deeming that jealousy). There was also some animosity regarding this work. I don’t have any strong feelings about him as a human either way.

The book itself has a complicated origin. It’s carved from another story, and some people seem to have taken offense at the fact that Jonathan Safran Foer has called this work ‘his own’ even though it is made from that other body of work. It’s all a bit semantical. One of the biggest issues is that presumably, Jonathan Safran Foer worked from a translation of Street of Crocodiles – of which I’m sure there are many. I’m not going to get into a huge debate about fiction in translation here, but obviously there are huge and complicated discussions associated with translation, creativity and ownership of work. My own copy of Street of Crocodiles is published by Penguin, and translated by Celina Wieniewska. I haven’t yet been able to work out from the book if this is the translation Jonathan Safran Foer worked with, as there is no acknowledgement of this in my edition of Tree of Codes.

The face of a child will tell you the #1 enemy is HATE

Anyway, leaving aside all that, I still think this is a fucking spectacular book, and I was pleased to read it. Jonathan Safran Foer's reputation aside, it’s just cool. It also reminded me fondly of the God Loves Poetry project, which composes poems by a similar method of erasure. They take hateful flyers from the Westboro Baptist Church and instead of cutting, they black out the words and letters they want left out, and a poem is left in its place. Lovely. There are also other books and projects, like Tom Phillips’ Humument which is also really cool.

Now onto the book itself: it’s a quick read. It only took me around 45 minutes to read from start to finish (the pages are only printed on one side). I found myself getting lost at first, so I decided to read it aloud to myself. It reads a lot like poetry (and I also prefer to whisper poetry aloud to myself when I read it, which is not often), and I had similar hesitations that I do with poetry over punctuation and pausing, but you get the hang of it in the end. Just make sure to keep an eye out for those phantom floating commas and full stops!

As far as plot, I couldn’t really tell you what this book is 'about'. There really is no narrative in the traditional sense to speak of. It’s about mental breakdown and death, and dreams, and masks, and family, and it all kind of meshes together like a very pretty fever-dream. It’s creepy and abstract and hypnotic.

Some reviewers have questioned whether this would have been published just as a stand-alone piece, and I’d have to say, I’m not entirely sure. It is gorgeous and I don’t think it’s a gimmick, as some people have unfairly termed it. Did I finish it feeling satisfied? Not entirely – but I’m now going to move onto Bruno Schulz’s work and see how I feel about that.

A new system

I've been thinking: I need a better system for selecting books, and the pedant in me has come up with a foolproof system which will still stay true to the original aims of this project. This was to read my 111 acquired books before buying any new ones.

It's obvious to me now that I have at least partially failed: I now have way over 111 books. Realistically, I'll probably end up with more before I come anywhere NEAR to finishing the books I already have. But I'm okay with that. This will be my system, similar to the goldfish bowl approach I considered last week:

This is Box A. Box A will always contain 111 bits of paper with the titles of 111 different books written on them. Once I have finished reading a book, I will select a new piece of paper from the handy hole in the top of the box, and that will be the next book I read.

This is Box B. Box B will contain the names of all the pesky extra books I accumulate over the course of this project, which will more than likely be lifelong. I will add new books to this box as and when I need to. Now here's the clever part: once I have selected a new book from Box A, the number will be down to a lame 110. Therefore, I will select a new title from Box B and add it to Box A.

So clever. And I also managed to waste quite a bit of time decorating my two boxes, specially for selection purposes.

I guess this is the fairest way to do it, to give myself a chance to both get through my old books and to give the new ones a chance, too. Realistically, I'll have to allow myself a veto every now and again. I don't want to start reading books without slightly looking forward to reading them.

13/111 - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I made the decision to put my random selection process into operation to choose this book, as I wanted something un-delicate that I could read while out and about, and Tree of Codes just didn’t cut it. I’ll read it next, for sure. This is Where I Leave You is another book I bought during my stint at Waterstone’s. It was a total impulse buy, and one I have kind of not wanted to read for various reasons. I had a feeling that I might have picked the wrong book.

The story follows Judd, whose marriage has recently fallen apart after walking in on his wife having sex with his boss. His father has also just passed away, and he and his family have to sit shiva for the week following his death, as is the Jewish tradition.

There were a few moments that made me laugh out loud, but all in all, I would have to class this as a kind of male chick-lit. The self-deprecating narrator, the ‘wacky’ family, the only slightly dark moments in the narrator’s past, his objectification of women – all kind of bland and predictable. You kind of feel sorry for him, but when he yet again goes through a scenario of what he would like to do in bed with the woman he’s talking to, you stop feeling much sympathy. He seems kind of like a less edgy Bunny Munro. A bit of a failure, a non-alpha male bemoaning his non-alpha maleness. Snore.

The writing itself is good, but the story and the characters were a little too weak for my taste. As I said, there are some genuinely funny moments, and also some really tender moments. On the whole, it just didn’t keep my interest that well. Maybe I’m just not that interested in the traumatic lives of 30-something men, after having read about a string of them over the last few weeks. I think I need to take a break from them.

I really don't have much to say about this one. It was okay. Below average. Certainly not terrible.

Next time: Tree of Codes and Street of Crocodiles, for real this time.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

My shelves

I've been wanting to do a post on my shelves for a while now, but I was waiting for the books that I posted myself from Vintage to arrive. They finally did this morning. Yay!

This is how they looked around a year ago

The original 111 books

Top shelf - A-E
Middle shelf - E-S
End shelf - S-Z & comics

The photos below are all the books I snagged from Vintage, plus some others that I MIGHT have bought when I shouldn't have, because I went to Fopp and they were only £3 each.

To more accurately see what's on these new shelves, go back to this post to see what's new.

Good grief, I have my work cut out for me, don't I?

12/111 - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is one of my oldest books. Not the very oldest, but pretty old. I must have bought it around the time the film came out and just never got round to reading it. The choice wasn’t deliberate – it just never leapt out at me, even though I had always been fascinated by the premise and had always intended to read it. I haven’t seen the film yet either.

The last couple of books I’ve read for this blog have been quite short. I’m not sure why – I think it’s been a combination of wanting something fairly light to carry with me while I was commuting and also the pleasure of getting through a quick read and being able to strike it off my list.

Having finished The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I think I have an improved appreciation for the luxury of being able to do, well, anything. A quote from Edmund White on the back of my edition assures me that this book will prompt me to fall back in love with life, or something similar. I’m not sure I would go that far, but in many respects this is a remarkable book.

Jean-Do, as he was called by his friends, suffered a stroke in his early forties, and when he woke up around two weeks later, he was ‘locked-in’ - totally unable to move and yet completely aware of everything around him. He narrated this book, composed in his mind, to an editor through the blinking of his left eye to signal which letter he wanted based on the frequency of its use in the French language. I guess he certainly had the time to be meticulous. I definitely felt very starkly the effort and perhaps agony that must have gone into constructing this book, contrasted with how quickly I read it. At only 140 pages, it only took me a couple of hours. I almost wish I could have savoured it more in honour of the feat of writing it in the first place.

It’s a devastating idea, to become stuck in your own body with no hope of recovery, and obviously Jean-Do feels this acutely. He is continually torn – does he re-live his memories to savour what life was like before his illness, or risk spiralling into despair at remembering what he'll never again be able to experience? Surprisingly these moments are also at times pretty funny, for example when remembering different foods he used to enjoy eating, Jean-Do concludes that he quickly becomes tired of imagining a different feast for himself each day, and is eventually satisfied with a little sausage here and there.

The most interesting areas for me were the parts involving language, and how other people responded to the new barrier between Jean-Do and themselves. Obviously, only being able to blink at a letter at a time makes conversation and correspondence a mammoth task – and one that not everyone in his life was able to successfully adapt to. Jean-Do has no choice, of course, but sadly finds himself cut off from those who cannot cope with this new form of communication. Moments of lightness also appear, such as times when people attempt to pre-empt what Jean-Do is trying to communicate (‘lune’ or ‘lunettes’?).

For this reason too, I’d also like to read the text in the original French one day. I don’t know much about the translation of this text and I have no reason to think that the translator was careless or flippant with the work, (although the title is not quite right – according to the notes at the back, the French title translates to the ‘deep-sea diver’ rather than ‘diving-bell’) but this book in particular strikes me as something with a higher degree of precision than ‘normal’ (not sure what I mean by that) so I’d love to give it a go in the original French.

Jean-Dominique died very shortly after his book was published, which is a shame, but probably also a small mercy. He died from pneumonia, probably as a result of being unable to breathe properly on his own. In all, I think he was ‘locked-in’ for about two years, with very little hope of recovery. I wonder if dying was a relief to him in the end. I know it probably would have been for me.

On that happy note, next, it’s time for Tree of Codes and Street of Crocodiles.

Monday, 14 February 2011

11/111 - The Beaufort Diaries by T Cooper, illustrated by Alex Petrowsky

This book is a Melville House title that I picked up while I was in New York interning for them. I haven’t had it for very long, and I’m not sure why I picked it to read next. It’s just such a nice little book. It’s a lovely glossy hardback, which reminds me a little bit of the Ladybird series of books I used to read over and over again as a child. The story itself lends itself to this kind of interpretation too, I think, as it’s very simple and sweetly told. The ones I used to read were the ones adapted from the Disney films like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, and The Beaufort Diaries is also like a fairytale in many respects.

Beaufort, a polar bear, becomes separated from his mother on the ice and decides to take his chances heading south towards Hollywood, where he has dreams of making it as a big star. When he gets there, he finds that reality is harder than he anticipated, however with a stroke of luck lands a role in a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The rest of Beaufort’s journey comprises of classic coming of age stuff – coming to Hollywood, making it big, falling hard and then: redemption. These events are also layered with really subtle explorations of climate change – (Beaufort is forced to drift away form his homeland, and ends up starring in a film called ‘Separation of Oil and State’.)

It’s a very funny and sweet book. Beaufort’s rites of passage such as his first drugs binge, or becoming ‘cuntstruck’ by a supermodel, are told with earnestness, and the fact that he is a polar bear is inconsequential. Also funny is the use of ‘real’ people like Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe it’s something I haven’t noticed, but T Cooper seems to be part of a canon of authors including Tao Lin (and others, I’m sure), who use ‘real’ people in their novels. Usually they are celebrities, and the authors make no claims that their characters are behaving in the same way the ‘real’ person would behave. The use of celebrity names is interesting: it’s not a sales tactic, but I’m not sure it adds anything to the story other than to ground it into its Hollywood framework. In the instance of The Beaufort Diaries, I like it; the contrast between the names of real people, versus the absurdity of a polar bear being the main character feels kind of appropriate, not to mention hilarious.

As I said, the book itself is a lovely little thing. It’s peppered with full-page illustrations from Alex Petrowsky whose work I’m not familiar with, but his illustrations are a really cool layering of mixed media (usually photographs) with his own illustrations over the top, which works really well with the feel of the novel itself. In the end, I think I ended up feeling a similar way about Fup and All My Friends Are Superheroes. A sweet, short and pretty little book that makes a great gift for any occasion.

Next, I'm going to be reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby before I tackle Tree of Codes. I think for that one, I'd also like to read the novel it's 'carved' from, which is Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Reaching ten

So I said to myself that I would look back reflect on how things are going so far when I had read my first ten books, as that seemed to be a good number to choose from.

Already, in this first six weeks or so of doing this, things have changed. A job came up where I couldn't possibly say no to taking free books (especially since I'm not getting paid any real money), and I also learned that I might have a bit of a blind spot regarding gender. Hm.

I've tried to think about the best way to move forward with this, and I think I'm going to have to go for a more random approach. At the moment, I've been asking Pete for help with picking out my next book, for a bit of discipline (otherwise I would pick all the new ones, and the old ones would be left behind again) but he also has his prejudices. So I think I'm going to go for a goldfish bowl approach. Write all the names on a bit of paper, mix them up and then pick one at random each time. Then I'll have an even chance between the new and the old ones, and I'll be happy either way. The bowl will decide for me.

I'll have to wait a week or so to implement this, as I'm still waiting for some books to arrive from the office (I posted some home to myself so that I wouldn't have to carry them all).

One more thing: I am going to buy a book.

Today, probably. I am going to buy Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. Because I read about it last year and I saw a copy in real life yesterday and it just looks too amazing not to own. I have to have this book.

Friday, 11 February 2011

10/111 - The Still Point by Amy Sackville

I wanted to love this. Really wanted to. Especially after my last post lamenting the lack of female authors on my massive list of books. So all I wanted to do whilst reading this novel was to enjoy it. But I just… didn’t.

I bought this novel, once again, while I was working at Waterstone’s. I had picked it up because of it’s unusual size and had liked the cover design, with bits of paper snipped into an ocean design, because I’m a bit of a sucker for crafts. Looking closer, I discovered that the author was a girl around my age and that it had been the Radio 4 ‘book at bedtime’ and so I pretty much picked it on all those points.

I want to take a moment to pause here and reflect on what to do now. I don’t know what to do about reviewing a book I didn’t like. I dislike it immensely when critics write insulting or scathing reviews, because you’re talking about someone’s art, here. Something that someone put a lot of heart and soul into. And I therefore believe that you should treat that work with some respect, even if you didn’t like it much.

The novel contains two stories. The one we are first introduced to is the story of Julia and Simon, who are a contemporary married couple. Julia is the great-granddaughter of Emily and Edward. Edward was a famous explorer who went to seek the North Pole and got lost and never came home, leaving Emily, his young bride, behind. Julia spends her days chronicling the life of Edward, while Simon works as an architect or something. His job is unimportant. Their stories are sort of told in tandem.

My main problem was that I fundamentally disliked the style of narration. The use of an omnipotent narrator is nothing new, but I disliked the way in which the narrator seemed to address the reader. I think that this can work in some cases, but very few. Not in this case. The narration also felt very over-bearing. There is very little dialogue in this book, and I was exhausted by it. Lots of description, and little action. On the back of the book, there is a quote comparing Amy Sackville with another great meander-er, Virginia Woolf. The comparison is suited, but I dislike reading Virginia Woolf for the same reasons. However, I tried to continue.

I didn’t like Julia, Simon, Edward or Emily, but more importantly, I wasn’t compelled by them or their actions. They came across as flat and a little inconsequential. I didn’t feel I had any reason to care about any of them. The title, The Still Point, seems to have some significance here, because all the characters seem still, and some of them are stuck. Stuck in the past, stuck in an old house, stuck in their relationships, stuck with bad memories and worse decisions. It seemed to take itself very seriously. There were no moments of levity or lightness – if there were any intended then they were drowned out by the narrative voice. There were many observations of human behaviours and characteristic, but they weren’t held together by anything. There was no story. No glue.

There were also moments where darker memories were alluded to – a descent into depression; the death of a child - but only half-revealed later in the book – a tactic that as a reader annoys me sometimes. If it’s done right, then it builds suspense, but this just seemed like withholding information to try to create a sense of mystery. Unfortunately these dark hints never amounted to anything substantial. An infidelity fizzles out without consequence, and Julia's dark moods seem to be an unthreatening lifelong problem.

However this is not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful. It often is, and there were several passages where I went back and read them again because they had conjured such a lovely image, but unfortunately that’s not enough to sustain me for 300 pages.

Ugh, I hate writing about something I didn’t like. It wasn’t shitty – it just wasn’t for me, that’s all.

Next time: The Beaufort Diaries by T. Cooper

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A disturbing trend

I've been following the recent news articles regarding the disparity between male and female authors and reviewers, and noticed something a little disturbing about my own reading habits.

Laura Miller's piece over at sums up the what's been going on so far really well if you haven't been following along. Basically what's been happening is some researchers decided to to a quantitative analysis of books which are reviewed in 14 major publications such as the NYRB and the New York Times, and see what the difference was between the number of books reviewed which were written by men and those written by women. The results are astonishing.

Books written by men are overwhelmingly reviewed over those written by women. Not only that, but book reviews are overwhelmingly written by men, rather than women within those same publications.

Now a lot of head scratching is going on, because no one can quite work out why. In fact, studies have shown that women tend to read more diversely than men do, so if anything, the disparity ought to swing the other way, but that's not the case. Laura Miller suggests that it might be to do with the fact that male reviewers don't tend to care as much about the kind of issues women write about. Does women's writing seem 'less' important than stuff written by men? Is men's writing taken more seriously? Both male and female authors certainly have trashy names that I could roll off the tip of my tongue...

I decided to do a casual analysis of my own book list and see how I fared. I guess I shouldn't be that shocked by the results below, considering that I did pick out all these books.

Of my original 111 books, 84 are by men, 25 by women and 2 are collections.

Of the new list, 23 are by men and 8 are by women.

This leaves me with a total percentage of: 75% male authors, 23% female authors and 2% mixed.

I guess I get brownie points for being a female reviewer, right?

Like I said, I bought all these books, so how can I possibly be surprised that they are mostly by men? I'm a little disappointed in myself, because I consider myself to be a feminist and a champion of women's writing, and I can't figure out how this happened. I would have to stress that I did not consciously choose  not to buy women's books.

I guess all I can think to account for how this might have happened is to go back to the original roots of this project. My aim was to get through the 111 books that I had left over from previous years. Thinking back, I have read and loved a great many books by both women and men, and I can't say with absolute certainty, but one reason that I might have so many books authored by men left on my shelves might be because they were the ones left behind.

Here are some female authors I have read and loved in the past year: Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Catherine O'Flynn, Emma Donoghue, Monica Drake, Jennifer Egan, A.M. Homes, Miranda July, Susie Orbach, Natasha Walter, Kat Banyard, Jessica Valenti, Delphine de Vigan, Charlotte Roche, Audrey Niffenegger and others, I'm sure.

Okay, I feel a bit better now.

UPDATE: You ARE taking books, aren't you?

Since last week, I have taken the following books:

  • The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. - Jaques Strauss
  • The Echo Maker - Richard Powers
  • Reheated Cabbage - Irvine Welsh
  • In Great Waters - Kit Whitfield
  • Personal Days - Ed Park
  • Solar - Ian McEwan
  • Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
  • Half the Human Race - Anthony Quinn
  • The Hare With the Amber Eyes - Edmund de Waal
  • Teach Us To Sit Still - Tim Parks
  • Barney's Version - Mordecai Richler
  • Spring - David Salazay
  • The Illumination - Kevin Brockmeier
  • The Afterparty - Leo Benedictus
  • Small Is Beautiful - E.F. Schumacher
  • Glister - John Burnside
  • Life Inc. - Douglas Rushkoff
  • The Rime of the Modern Mariner - Nick Hayes
  • Vignettes of Ystov - William Goldsmith
  • Wilson - Daniel Clowes
  • X'ed Out - Charles Burns
    This could be getting out of hand.

    9/111 - The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

    I bought this book when it was still out in hardback at the beginning of 2010. It was half price, and so a pretty good deal. I bought this book mostly for totally stupid reasons, but they are reasons all the same. Firstly, I liked the cover. It had a huge cuddly bunny on the front of it. It also had a ribbon marker, which I thought was also pretty cool. All in all, a good-looking book. I also had some sort of notion that Nick Cave was cool, because my manager at the time had said as much. My final reason for buying the book was that it had been recently nominated for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award. I couldn’t say no.

    Bunny Munro is a door-to-door salesman of beauty products. He is a cad. In fact, he is more than a cad – he is a total scumbag. He is married to Lydia and they have a 9-year-old-son, Bunny Junior. Early in the novel she commits suicide and the rest of the story is spent following the exploits of Bunny as he drags Bunny Junior around with him.

    In some way this is a very funny novel. It’s crude and sort of obscene, but in a way that makes me laugh because I can be kind of crude and obscene sometimes. Bunny himself is a sex-obsessed chauvinist who, unable to keep his enormous sexual appetite in check, nudges his wife into suicidal depression. Which is kind of funny, in a way. For Bunny, every other thought is of Avril Lavigne’s vagina or playing with his dick. The funniest moments however are not the crude bits, but his interactions with the ever-so-sweet Bunny Junior. Nick Cave does a really great job of switching between the thoughts of these two characters, and I was utterly convinced by Bunny Juniors well-meaning and heartfelt confusion, and his unfailing love for his dad. The saddest moments are when he realises all over again that his mother is dead and won’t be coming back.

    The book is set in Brighton, which is cool, because having lived there for several years myself I enjoyed reading all the names of places I’ve been to and being able to imagine much more clearly how a house full of women in Moulsecoomb would behave. The quality of the writing itself is also very good, though I’m not so sure about some of the characters. Pretty much everyone we encounter in Bunny Munro is a figure on some kind of spectrum of pathetic human beings. 

    Aren’t we all?

    Ultimately there was very a sinister element to Bunny’s character, too. Which I can’t really talk about unless I spill some plot details, but whatever. If we are to believe Bunny’s account of things, he is God’s gift to women. He has some seriously powerful mojo and the ladies just cannot resist him. In reality, there are several glimpses of him from about halfway through the novel and onwards, behaving in loathsome, despicable ways. He’s obsessed with his dick, and constantly thinking about the vagina of any woman who enters his sphere of awareness. He describes with lasciviousness the physique of one girl, and in the next paragraph she is revealed to be a three-year-old. In another instance, he is thinking back to a great time he’d been having with a girl, wishing that he had brought some lube, and then lamenting that she would probably recover from the rohypnol soon.

    As the novel gears towards its climax, Bunny’s action s reveal him to be less like the old-school charmer that he thinks he is, and more like a monster who imposes his sexual will on women no matter what they have to say about it. As his character unravels, the plot also seemed to do the same thing. It seemed to be going in a particular direction and then just become stuck in one place for ages before ending abruptly and strangely with a strange dream sequence that I didn’t find all that convincing. One review I read of this described Bunny Munro as a tale of redemption, but I would have to disagree. Whatever ‘redemption’ is reached at the climax of the novel left me feeling unsatisfied.

    Next time: The Still Point by Amy Sackville

    Tuesday, 8 February 2011

    8/111 - Local by Brian Wood, illustrated by Ryan Kelly

    I received this book as a Christmas present last year. It’s a huge, gorgeous hardback. Mmm. Pete got it for me, presumably after having noticed a copy of Demo on my shelves last year, which I had also very much enjoyed (and I’m looking forward to Demo 2 out later this year).

    I really, really enjoyed this, for many different reasons which I’m still trying to digest, but I’ll do my best for now. The hardcover is a collection of twelve single issues, which were originally released once a month over the period of a year. They are each linked by the main character, Megan, and each ‘episode’ takes place in a different year of her life, so you end up with a little snippet of what she’s doing from the age of about 17/18 up until she’s about 30. The stories, each set in a different North American city, each have a very different feel to them; some sad, some angry, some sexy, some funny. They don’t all follow Megan, though she does feature in them all at some point or another.

    I was really pleased to read this, not only because I’ve enjoyed Brian Wood’s stories before (and am now enjoying the artwork of Ryan Kelly) but also, very importantly to me, I was enjoying a story where the main character was a girl around my age, and sorting through some of the same ideas about your place in the world, or how to go about finding it. I have started to love comics, I think, and there are many that I have read and enjoyed whose main characters are not young women, and that’s okay. I think that perhaps before reading Local I hadn’t really even noticed it at all, but all the same I was thrilled to read something with a focus that could easily be considered too boring to pay much attention to.

    I guess in the grand scheme of things, most comics are not aimed at women. The vast majority of them are written and drawn by men, and lots of them are probably also read by men. There seems to be more balance to this on the indie comic side of things, but with the superhero stuff, it’s glaringly obvious who the main intended audience is. So the focus of this collection is a breath of fresh air to a reader like me, and is just the kind of thing I wanted to read to keep me interested in comics as a whole.

    Each story is a small vignette of Megan’s life, and out of the magnificent twelve, I had three clear favourites. The first one I really enjoyed was the Polaroid Boyfriend story, about a guy whose relationship with Megan consists of him letting himself into her apartment and taking photos of himself. Megan leaves photo messages in return. I love Polaroids and I also love sending messages in unconventional formats. I loved the idea of sending messages through Polaroids, and my enjoyment of this story was as simple as that. This story, like several in the collection, seemed to have the potential to become a little sinister and frightening. 

    The second story I enjoyed was the room-mate story, Megan and Gloria, Apartment 5A. Megan moves in with a room-mate, Gloria, who has some very specific requirements of Megan. There's some kind of OCD and she also requires that Megan stay out of their apartment on certain nights… There was a kind of paranoia surrounding Gloria that made me very curious about her, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she was up to behind closed doors. 

    My favourite of the collection is probably the story in which Megan works at a cinema called, The Last 10 Lonely Days at the Oxford Theatre. She appears to be the only member of staff there. She interchanges her nametags daily, each one with the name of a different girl, and Megan invents a new persona for herself with each different nametag that she wears. There's an obvious sense of loneliness and Megan's lack of identity here, that is probably a reality for most of us lucky twenty-something women.

    Another really nice touch about this collection is the mini essays in the back. These were probably in the single issues, too, but it’s nice to see them all gathered together. It’s cool to read them after you’ve finished the stories and see what was going on behind the scenes at the time. I feel like I should say more about the artwork, but I almost don’t feel very qualified to say anything about it... not that I’m qualified to comment on the quality of the writing either, but hey. For what my opinion is worth, I really liked the art. Like Demo, I liked that it was in black and white. I think the essays in the back of this volume also helped me to appreciate in a new way the way the relationship between the writer and the artist works. I think that before I had read any comics, I might even have assumed that the same person did both, or that it didn’t matter. How wrong I was. It’s also very cool to look at the artist’s take on real places, even though I have never been to most of them.

    The twelve stories are all linked and the collection rounds off in an unexpected but interesting way. All in all, a pretty cool book. I wish Megan all the best.

    Next up is: The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

    Sunday, 6 February 2011

    7/111 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    I decided to read this next as Pete has been asking me to so that we could talk about it together. I bought this early in 2010 when I was working at Waterstone’s, and I had intended to read it fairly swiftly, but it just sort of got lost among other things until now.

    The story doesn’t just follow Oscar, though at points he does seem to be the focus of the tale and is at times the most pitiable character, but not all the time. The main idea behind the story is following the trials of the Cabral family from their ancestral homeland in the Dominican Republic to their new home in New Jersey. The time spans from the era of the brutal dictator Trujillo to the present day, tracing the course of several generations of family.

    Although the novel is fiction, it is also closely interwoven with its historical setting. Diaz provides numerous footnotes throughout the pages when he feels some historical point requires further explanation. He is incredibly thorough, and best of all, these mini history lessons are told with such skill that you barely even realise you’re learning! To a lay person like me, who knows nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic, they are also totally necessary. Much of the historical detail itself is astonishing – I know you can’t know everything, and that the education system here has a bias towards white European history, but damn.

    The sections of the novel focusing on Oscar were funny and sweet, and a quite sad too. A massive nerd, whose only desire in life is to have a girlfriend, I was rooting for him the entire time. His ‘sections’ and some of the others, are often peppered with sci-fi and fantasy references (I was delighted by the Stephen King ones, in particular) and while it’s pretty neat to recognise a reference and give yourself a little pat on the back, it’s not necessary to the understanding of the story. I’m not sure what else to say about Oscar without giving too much of the plot away, so I might leave it at that. Except to add that the changes he goes through as a child and a young man are just as amazing and in some ways as tragic as the histories of his other family members, and I was in the end surprised and impressed by Oscar’s transformation.

    But to me the most interesting parts of the novel were the interactions and histories of daughter, mother and grandmother. Maybe it’s because of the troubles I have with my own mother, but for me the story really came alive during these parts. Not only were they realistic and compelling, but totally fraught with emotion. I know first hand that relationships between mothers and daughters can be complicated, but this is something else entirely. To these women, the line between love and hate is very fine, and a lot of their interactions seem to be based on how much cruelty they can endure from one another, and how they can rise above the constraints of their relationship with the previous generation.

    At times I got a little lost with where the narration was going – there are a couple of points where I’m not entirely sure whose story is whose, or who’s narrating what, but it becomes clear eventually. I’m not sure it matters all that much since it all involves the same family. There is also a lot of colloquial Spanish used throughout the novel. At first I was tempted to look certain things up, but I decided not to. As someone who speaks French and a tiny bit of Spanish, there were certain bits and pieces that I could make out for myself. But ultimately, I found it more fun to just kind of imagine what was being said or referred to. Sometimes the sounds, when you try them out in your mouth, speak for themselves.

    Sad, funny and totally engrossing.

    Next up: Local by Brain Wood

    Friday, 4 February 2011

    You ARE taking books, aren't you?

    This past week I've been doing some publicity work experience at Random House in London. It's been good so far; everyone is really nice and it's interesting to see the difference between a small indie publisher like Melville House, who employ under ten people, to move to a publicity department which has more than that number alone, and that's only for half a dozen of their imprints.

    Anyway, this post isn't to talk about my work experience, but to talk about what someone said to me on my second day. I arrived and set up my things, turned on my computer etc, and one of the publicists turned to me and said, "Cassie, you ARE taking books, aren't you?". I kind of froze for a second because I thought maybe she was accusing me of taking books, but she was in fact saying quite the opposite.
    She encouraged me to take books, see what the different publicists were working on and to feel free to ask for a copy of anything if it caught my eye. Heavenly.

    I guess since they're a big company, it's the kind of thing they can afford to do, and since they're only paying my travel and food expenses, then I also have the added feeling of not feeling that bad when they suggest I take books. However this does leave me with a slight problem with regards to this project.

    I now have way over 111 books.

    It's not a huge problem - I kind of have over that amount already. There are a few on my list that I have grouped togther (like Kavalier & Clay and The Escapists) because they seem to go so well together. The idea was for me not to buy any more books until I have finished all the ones on the list.

    So I guess technically I'm not breaking any rules, since I'm not actually buying any books. And I simply cannot say no to taking books for free.

    So far I have accumulated:

    • Pulse by Julian Barnes
    • Savage Lands by Clare Clark
    • February by Lisa Moore
    • The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
    • Precious by Sapphire
    • Annabel by Kathleen Winter
    • Swamplandia by Karen Russell
    • Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
    • What to Look for in Winter by Candia McWilliam
    • Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton

    I'm sure there will be several more before my second week is over.

    I'm not quite sure what to do with them. I don't feel like I can read them ahead of my other books. That was what this whole project has been about. I can't just get new books and read them ahead of the others! Can I?

    I might make a couple of exceptions depending on the book. Some new ones, for example. Or if I really really don't want to read any of the others. We'll see. I'm keeping them separate for now...

    Thursday, 3 February 2011

    6/111 - Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

    This is another book I bought quite recently. I had wanted to buy it on the recommendation of a co-worker at Melville House, but at the time it was only out in hardback, and since I had already way over-packed, I decided that this particualr book could wait until I returned home. Plus I kind of preferred the UK cover, too. It is obviously rooted deeply in the canon of dystopian science fiction and satire, so I had high hopes. The story follows Lenny, a middle-aged, unattractive man who falls madly in love with the princess-y Eunice, a woman half his age with daddy issues. Completely self-absorbed, the characters barely even notice as the world around them falls apart.

    I have mixed feelings about this novel. In some ways it's really funny and forward-thinking. I love that it's told from the point of view of a middle-aged loser-ish guy who is losing his grip on youth and the changing world around him. It sort of reminded me a bit of 1984 and Brave New World, in the way that there are new abbreviations and colloquialisms that Lenny is unable to learn fast enough (JBF = 'just butt-fucking'). The world itself is like ours, at some indeterminate point in the near future. At some un-named point in the past, the US has ceased to be a global economic leader and has been surpassed by China. Literature is dead, and people spend most of their time glued to 'apparat' screens, either shopping, finding out information about those around them, and ranking themselves within the group of people they are currently in. Face to face communication is kept to a minumum. The top jobs are Media (for the men) and Retail (for the women). Instead of interacting with the world around them, people are glued to their screens, buying more and more things and getting into greater and greater debt. People are obsessed with youth and image, and terrified of death and ageing. Hm, I think I sense a message here.

    Even though the message is a little obvious and clunky, I loved the way it was put across. I also really enjoyed the way that the story was told through different mediums. The narration is primarily from Lenny's perspective, who continues to narrate in the 'traditional' style (even though reading books is discouraged and now laughable in this future world.) Eunice, his love interest, narrates her portions through msn-style chat logs and emails with her best friend, Precious Pony, and her Korean mother. The use of these different mediums is really effective and serves to highlight the immense differences between Lenny and Eunice. They are also really funny.

    Their characters are often funny, but the worst thing I experienced was that I just hated them. This isn't necessarily a problem - you can still be compelled by the actions of characters whose actions you find distasteful. But for the most part, the actions of Lenny and Eunice were shallow and self-absorbed, and at times I felt myself drifting and wishing for the narrative to hurry along instead of lingering over these vapid people. But I guess that might be the point.

    I'm not being totally fair - they are more complicated than that, and at times there are dips below the surface, like Eunice's relationship with her family, but they didn't go quite deep enough to sustain me, which was a little disappointing. Considering the book is over 300 pages, I thought that it could probably have done with culling a proportion to hurry it along a little at those times when it was stagnating.

    The political stuff in the book is very interesting, and frighteningly realistic. If you look below the shallow musings of Lenny and Eunice, you get an amazing sense of a society falling apart at the seams in a way that doesn't seem impossible. In this near-future, there is only one party in power, and they weild their power without compassion or humanity. People are judged based on their 'Net Worth'. Everyone suspects everyone - there's plenty of back-stabbing and double-talking. The novel is initially set up as a romance, though it's obvious to everyone that Eunice is never really all that into Lenny. Moments that were supposed to be poignant were lost on me because I disliked the two of them so much. Instead, the most poignant moments for me were the times of chaos in the story, after things begin to fall apart in America.

    By far the most interesting and funny areas of the novel are seeing the characters using their 'apparati'. Like a sort of demented iphone, the apparat is used for everything. Eunice uses hers to shop at brand name stores like AssLuxury and Juicy Pussy for a type of panties which pop off, aptly called Total Surrenders. Another character spends hours each day video-streaming about her imaginary fatness. Obviously it's possible to draw a parallel here between the obsession the characters have for their technology and the growing obsession with ours. Not only that, but the increasingly blurred ilnes between public and private. Lenny is a character of the old world, and as a result he finds it difficult to thrive in the future world where the way you appear in relation to those around you is what counts for the most.

    Not easy and not perfect, but good.

    Next time: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    Wednesday, 2 February 2011

    In defence of Waterstone's

    When I read last week’s diatribe in The Spectator criticizing the staff of Waterstone’s, it hit a nerve. As a former employee and a loyal customer, I was stunned by the rudeness and some of the assumptions made of Michael Henderson. The article begins by recalling that he entered the Waterstone’s Piccadilly store only to encounter what he calls a ‘duffer’.

    The offense: someone among the staff had addressed Evelyn Waugh as a ‘she’ rather than a ‘he’ on a review card. Upon questioning a member of staff he was apparently met with blank looks. Henderson then goes on to describe several visits to other branches, perhaps to confirm his suspicions that the staff are all ‘duffers’.

    As someone who has worked for Waterstone’s I can attest to the fact that Christmas and the post-Christmas recovery period is a chaotic time — not to mention that the Piccadilly branch is one of England’s busiest bookshops. So when a customer comes into the store and decides to pick at a relatively small error, I can understand why the reaction was not what Henderson had hoped. When there are plenty of other customers with real queries, they tend to get more of a bookseller’s focus. We booksellers also learn to develop an immunity to customers with weird and wonderful complaints — I was once asked by a customer, ‘Don’t you have all the books?’ Damn — guess you can’t please everyone.

    To be fair to Henderson, mistaking Evelyn Waugh for a woman looks bad, and the bookseller in question should be embarrassed. Had it been me, I certainly would have corrected the offending card. But Henderson cannot let it go, and goes on to portray staff as morons.

    I love bookselling. I love being enthusiastic about books and recommending titles I love to customers who are genuinely interested in having a dialogue. And the majority of the booksellers I have encountered at Waterstone’s have felt the same way. I often wish bookselling were taken more seriously as a career, rather than being regarded as just another retail job that any idiot can do. David Vann points out that booksellers in France, ‘undertake a course of study similar to that of a librarian in this country, suggesting the premium the culture places on literature’ which would be marvelous. Instead, people with a passion for books do the best they can.

    Furthermore, a situation like the one Henderson describes would best be approached with humor rather than snide remarks about the educational background of the staff. I resent the implication that booksellers ‘should’ go to university and study English Literature. Full disclosure: I went to university and studied English Literature. But I know many booksellers who studied in other areas (it should also be obvious to most people that fiction is only one area of bookselling). Each person at my old store had their own area of interest and they brought those passions to the job, with a well-rounded approach to books as a whole. But you can’t know everything. I’m 25 and I consider myself well-read for my age, but I am humble enough to realise that my knowledge is minuscule compared to most, and what knowledge I do have, I wouldn’t dream of lording over others.

    I would also like to stress that several of the most passionate and knowledgeable booksellers I know do not have a university education. These people got where they are by hard work and a love of books, and like me, with a dash of humility for the sheer number and quality of books out there. Henderson sounds like he could do with a dose of it himself.


    Also posted to MobyLives