My week in books – wrapped up

It’s been quite a hectic week in the world of This Girl’s Book Room, and one packed to the rafters with books as usual.

*Back in the bookshop*

After more than two long months of lockdown I was finally back in my beloved bookshop this week, prepping for our opening on Monday. I’m not going to lie, it was very surreal getting the place kitted out with till screens, sanitiser stations and one way signage but with it all in place I now feel strangely calm, happy we’ve done all we can to make the place safe. It’s going to be a very different type of bookselling environment we’re all going back into and I have very mixed feelings about it if I’m honest; but one thing I can say with certainty is I know huge numbers of our customers are going to be delighted to have their book haven back, albeit in a somewhat different form.

*Bookpost*

You’d be hard pushed to find many things more exciting than coming home to find a parcel of books on your doorstep and I had two this week – yay! The latest books to join the Book Room collection are:

  • Little by Edward Carey – I’ve had my eye on this for months and never got round to it, but after a friend’s recommendation (during a socially-distanced iced latte) I decided to pull my finger out and order a copy.
  • Cutting it Short by Bohumil Hrabal – I stumbled across a review of this book on the brilliant Vishy’s Blog and there was just something about his description of it that caught my imagination; I’m really looking forward to giving it a try.
  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley – almost every time I’ve been on Twitter over the past fortnight I’ve seen someone raving about this book. If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know I’ve been reading a fair amount of Japanese fiction lately, so the idea of a cat wandering around Tokyo linking the stories of its diverse inhabitants sounded purrrrr-fect (sorry.)

*Currently Reading*

I’ve just started a book I purchased a few weeks ago: The Descent of Man by the awesome human being that is Grayson Perry. I’ve not got far yet, but already his perspective on male privilege and the social damage caused by centuries-old conventions of masculinity is a real breath of fresh air.

Hope you’ve had as many great books in your life this week as I have! Happy reading.

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

I’m actually quite proud of myself for even allowing this story collection into my home! I don’t mind admitting I’m the world’s biggest coward when it comes to anything vaguely supernatural; there’s a frantic scramble to change the channel when even just the trailer for a spooky programme comes on TV, and quite frankly the thought of consuming any paranormal entertainment by design is pretty much unthinkable. So when my sister recommended this book to me, to say I was wary would be an understatement, and I was completely shocked when not only was I not overly terrified, but I actually enjoyed it.

If you’re of a fragile disposition like me, I think it definitely helps that most of the stories are framed by an objective narrator, who passes on the story second hand after talking to a friend, finding a documented account and so on. This keeps the ghostly action contained within the tales one step removed if you like, and it’s a comfort to come back to the safety of a (surviving!) narrator and a sense of reality after any creepiness is over and done with. Having said that, it’s very much a mixed bag of scariness, ranging from the mildly sinister to the fairly disturbing, and which ones linger in the mind most will probably vary very much from reader to reader: out of all the stories, I count myself fortunate that only one came back to bother me in the middle of the night! (If you have even a slight aversion to puppets, then avoid “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” – you have been warned).

The author definitely has some favourite themes, returning to them a number of times in the course of the collection. There are a lot of stories that take place in and around churches or cathedrals – unsurprising perhaps given the wealth of potentially spooky material attached to these places, but I didn’t mind the repetition of the setting as these tales in particular appealed to me. The notion of revenge or punishment is also a prevalent idea; many of the stories’ victims are hounded by supernatural entities precisely because they’ve committed some sort of sin, whether that’s consorting with evil spirits, or taking possession of a significant object that doesn’t belong to them. At the end of “The Haunted Doll’s House” there’s even an author’s note acknowledging the similarity to another of his stories, but hoping the reader will see enough of a difference to still enjoy it!

I can see why M R James is known as a master of the ghost story; what I found most intriguing – and extremely clever – was his ability to create an atmosphere of menace out of what would normally be the most benign of surroundings: a hilltop on a sunny day, a painting of a country house, the blackberry bushes at the side of a country lane. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to look through a pair of binoculars again for a while without a shiver down the spine. It was a superb mixture of the traditional and the unexpected, and it held my interest from first to last despite there being around 30 stories in all. Even if you think you’re not a fan of ghost stories, like I did, I’d honestly encourage you to give these a try and see what you think – I’m certainly glad I did. Just don’t read them after dark.

My favourite stories:

  • The Mezzotint
  • The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  • A Neighbour’s Landmark
  • An Episode of Cathedral History
  • The Residence at Whitminster

Related posts:

Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

Weekend Book Haul!

haul

Happy Saturday everyone!  Very much hope you’re managing to find some reading time this weekend.  I’m massively excited about my latest book haul (I think this is now the 6th book delivery since the start of lockdown but I’m losing track!) – expect to hear me talking about these beauties over the coming weeks….

Isabella – Alison Weir

I caught up with a really interesting BBC4 documentary on iPlayer a few days ago exploring the nature of power and hierarchy in the Middle Ages.  Queen Isabella got a very brief mention, but it was enough to make me keen to find out more about her.  I love Alison Weir’s history books so this was the obvious choice; she crams in a huge amount of detail and analysis, but in such a readable way it’s easily accessible even if you have no prior knowledge of the period or people in question.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Earlier this week I was chatting to Princess and Pages about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the same author, and I mentioned that I’d deliberately not read Flights because of a couple of fellow booksellers saying they’d been disappointed by it in comparison.  Following our conversation I’ve been converted (this is why I love book bloggers so much!) and am really looking forward to giving it a try; I think it’s going to be very different in tone and format from Drive Your Plow, but I’m going in with an optimistic frame of mind.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

This one’s been on my radar for absolutely ages, but it took the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art School on Channel 4 (is anyone else loving this as much as I am?) to remind me to finally buy it.  I’ve read a number of books looking at gender and society from a female perspective, and I can’t think of anyone better than Perry to provide a thoughtful balance.

Thanks for reading as ever, stay well and stay smiling.

Related posts: My Top 5 Reads of 2020

Japanese journeys

A few days ago I came across a blog post by Amy from Curiouser and Curiouser talking about the books she’d been reading as part of the 2020 Japanese literature challenge, hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza.  The idea was to read and review fiction originally written in Japanese between January and March this year – sadly, I’m a bit late to the party as regards taking part in the challenge, but I hope both bloggers will forgive me for using it as inspiration to share some of the Japanese novels I’ve been reading over the past few months.  When I started thinking about it I realised there were quite a few!  Here are some of the ones that have intrigued me the most….

The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita

forest wool

This novel tells the story of a young piano tuner and his lifelong quest to master his craft.  Not a virtuoso player himself, he nonetheless has an astonishingly acute ear for the different tones and styles in which his clients play, and sees it as his calling to tune each piano according to the unique needs of its pianist.  He develops a particular fascination with a pair of twins, Kazune and Yuni, both young prodigies but both completely different in the way they communicate through their music, and it’s this relationship dynamic that provides the novel’s backbone.  I really loved it; it was such an unusual subject matter, and even during the more emotionally intense moments the writing maintained an air of poise and gentleness in  keeping with the finesse of the music that it described with so much colour.

A Midsummer’s Equation – Keigo Higashino

equation

I’m not a huge crime person, but I do love Keigo Higashino’s crime thrillers.  His characters are always utterly believable and very well rounded compared to some thrillers I’ve read where the supporting cast is pretty two-dimensional.  This is one of the books that features his recurring character, the physicist Yukawa – a slightly unlikely-sounding protagonist but one who nevertheless has a natural instinct for investigation and crime-solving.  The Devotion of Suspect X is still my favourite of Higashino’s novels so far I think (although it’s a close call) but this is still extremely enjoyable, and the story has an interesting – and relevant – environmental theme running through it, as naturalists and environmental campaigners go head to head with a development company hoping to gain a foothold in a fading coastal resort town, with inevitably fatal results!  Even if you don’t think you’re a crime fan, I would definitely urge you to pick up one of Higashino’s books and give it a try.

Dandelions – Yasunari Kawabata

dandelions

Honestly, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this book, but I’ve decided to include it here because, if nothing else, it’s memorable for its strange plot and surreal atmosphere.  A fun read it may not be, but it sticks in your head afterwards nevertheless.  The story centres around a young woman who has developed selective blindness; in the beginning, she found a ping-pong ball disappeared inexplicably from view, and now she is unable to see her fiancé.  The book begins as her fiancé and mother leave the asylum in which the girl has been placed, and follows them over the subsequent day and night as they discuss her mysterious affliction.  That’s pretty much it in terms of plot: the whole book is essentially a conversation between two people with sometimes coinciding and sometimes conflicting ideas of what this bizarre occurrence means.  I’m sure there’s some thought-provoking philosophical stuff buried amid the peculiarity, but I found it hard to engage with and finished the book feeling I’d probably missed the point.  If you want to try something unusual though (and short – it’s only 132 pages, although even that felt long at times!) then there’s weirdness here in spades.

Tokyo Ueno Station – Yu Miri

tokyo

It was the stylish cover art that first drew me to this book, but the inside was just as fabulous.  It’s narrated by a ghost – although if that sounds too much like a gimmick, don’t let it put you off; the effect is so subtle that it becomes simply the tale of a man looking back on his life and watching a familiar world warp, change and disappear.  It’s a delicate and skillful combination of the tragically sad and exquisitely beautiful, as the narrator takes us through his experiences of love, death, homelessness, friendship and loneliness, all against backdrop of a changing Japan that feels like a living, breathing character in its own right.  I think if I had to pick one out of all the books I’ve talked about in this post, this would be the one I’d recommend you read.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to here about any Japanese fiction you’ve read recently, or if you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – review

20200508_182245

It’s been years since I read Erin Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I still remember how I fell head over heels in love with it.  She became one of those authors whose subsequent books you yearn for and then, when they finally appear, it feels like birthday, Christmas and new year rolled into one.  I was hugely disappointed, then, to have to admit that The Starless Sea just didn’t live up to its predecessor.

The premise sounded like it would be right up my street: a magical, underground world that acts as a kind of sanctuary for stories comes under threat and the main character, Zachary Rawlins, guided by a cast of enigmatic characters, must fight to protect this labyrinthine library and stop it from being destroyed forever.  And it should have been exactly up my street: I was captivated by this world that held the loves, losses, dreams and secrets of a million long-forgotten souls in the form of their stories, and I really took to the character of Zachary, the slightly geeky loner who doesn’t ever seem to quite belong.  The trouble was that, for at least half the book, I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in either’s company.

Zachary is set on his quest to find the Starless Sea and save the world of stories by the discovery of a mysterious book, which contains a number of weird and – to start with at least – unfathomable folk tales, fairy stories and legends.  What I found problematic was that for the first half of the novel, the chapters following Zachary’s journey are interspersed with stories from his newly-discovered book; some of these are fairly entertaining tales in their own right, others less so.  Every now and then yet more fragments of story pop up,  introducing (in the most oblique terms) other characters both from our own world and the subterranean story realm.  It’s pretty clear when you’re reading that these multiple narratives are somehow going to interconnect at some point, and I was prepared to go with it on the basis that all would soon be revealed, even though I found the constant hopping about quite frustrating.  Thankfully, once you get past the half way point the novel focusses in much more consistently on Zachary’s story, with far fewer diversions into another character’s story arc, and it’s at that point I felt it became a better book.

There were definitely some things here to like.  I loved Zachary’s companions Dorian and Mirabel; like Zachary, both were very finely drawn and their individual journeys turned out to be quite moving.  In fact, the book as a whole has a palpable sense of sadness flowing just under the surface, always there in a barely definable yet somehow unmissable way.  I actually think that creating and sustaining this atmosphere was the novel’s cleverest achievement, but I get the feeling you’re meant to come away feeling that the smartest part was tying all the different strands together.  Trouble was, by the time I got to the end I wasn’t entirely sure I’d found a place for all the pieces – the significance of many of the fairy tales and snippets of story that appear in the first half of the book becomes clear as the novel progresses, but there were still some I looked back on after I’d finished reading with a bit of a “but what was that bit all about?” feeling.  And it’s very magical; I tend to prefer magical realism with the emphasis on realism – but that’s a purely personal preference rather than a criticism.  In fact, I’ve talked to someone else who really enjoyed the fairy tales and digressions of the novel’s first half and was disappointed when the narrative became more straight forward!  Proof, if any were needed, that it’s all a matter of taste.

Would I recommend it?  If I’d read this one first I have to say I wouldn’t have gone on to read The Night Circus, but if you like full-on magic then it’s probably worth a try; and if like me you find it a bit tough going initially, it’s worth persevering for the excitement of the story in the second half.  Not my favourite book of recent times, but I’d be very interested to hear what you think if you’ve read it – perhaps you loved it?  Let me know!

My May Reading List

20200507_200741

I know from reading the blogs and tweets of my book-loving friends that I’m not the only one struggling to concentrate on reading (or anything much) at the moment.  It’s not that the tempting titles aren’t there, but there’s simply so much chaos, stress and confusion going on in what’s become an almost unrecognisable world that it can’t help but filter its way into everyone’s minds and hearts, whether we’ve been personally touched by the current tragedy or not.  On the days when I do feel inclined to pick up a book, however, they’ve come to my rescue as they always do and taken me to a far more manageable place, if only for a while.  So although May has got off to a bit of a slow start, over the next few weeks I’m going to make a concerted effort to take time away from the news and social media, and just relax with my paperback friends.  If you’re in need of some inspiration yourself, here are my picks for this month.

A Map of the Damage – Sophia Tobin

I’ve been a fan of this author since I read her first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, so I was crazily excited when I saw that her latest was about to be released in paperback.  I started reading it a few days ago and it’s already made me cry, made me angry and got me utterly hooked – so a good start then!

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

Another bookseller recommended this to me, calling it “the Japanese Little Women” and my word it’s lived up to the comparison so far!  Told almost entirely from a female perspective, it’s a real cultural eye-opener, shedding light on the expectations, conventions and disappointments of marriage among the more privileged elements of pre-war Japanese society.  I’m loving it so much, at the moment it looks set to be a contender for one of my books of the year so far.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I read Reality is Not What it Seems last year and was surprised how much I enjoyed it (and also, I’m not going to lie, a little bit chuffed how much I managed to grasp) so decided to give this one a go.  To be fair, any understanding I gleaned from the aforementioned title was entirely down to the author’s skill at conveying complex concepts in an accessible way rather than any innate scientific instinct on my part, so I’m very much hoping he pulls off the same trick with this one.

Collected Ghost Stories – M R James

I’m utterly useless when it comes to ghost stories, horror films or anything remotely spooky, and I usually avoid them like the plague, knowing if I don’t I’ll be sleeping with the light on for at least a week afterwards.  My sister gave me her spare copy of the book this week (with a warning that at least two of the stories are guaranteed to freak me out completely), and I very bravely started tackling it this afternoon.  I have to say, sitting under a tree in the sunshine it didn’t seem that bad, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel about it when darkness falls…..

What’s on your TBR pile this May?  Anything you’ve started reading that you’re particularly enjoying?  As always, please do share your comments!

 

Six Degrees of Separation – a journey in 6 books!

Something new on This Girl’s Book Room today! The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best and it’s really easy to join in. Each month you get given a book as a starting point, and from there you create a chain of 6 more books, each with a link to the previous one. The connection can be anything you like – it can be related to the book itself, such as a theme or setting, or something more personal, such as another book you read on the same holiday or that was recommended by the same friend. This month was the first time I’ve taken part and honestly, I had so so much fun rifling through the bookshelves to make my book chain! If you fancy having a go, you can leave a link to your 6 Degrees blog post in the comments section over on Kate’s page here, and you can join in on Twitter too using the hashtag #6Degrees. So without further ado, here are my 6 degrees of separation.

This month’s starting book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve never read it, so I thought I’d use the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize to take me to my next title, which is…..

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of my all time favourite books! Like The Road, it also won the Pullitzer Prize a few years ago, and is set primarily in France during the Second World War. The Paris setting inspired me to go for my next choice, which is….

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

This novel follows the lives of a group of residents in a Paris apartment block; however, beyond the personal stories of love and loss, it also deals with the wider themes of culture and belonging, in particular in relation to the growing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling festering behind the closed doors of Number 37 and across the city. This notion of culture clash, and of being treated as an outsider in your home country leads me to….

The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

This tells the story of a woman from India who moves to Canada following an arranged marriage. It’s a brilliant, although often quite sad, story of feeling torn between two opposing cultures and identities. I took the book’s theme of moving across the world to start a new life to take me to my next choice….

The Colour by Rose Tremain

This tells the story of a couple who emigrate from England to New Zealand in the hope of making their fortune from the goldrush that gripped the country in the nineteenth century. From here, there was only really one book that I could pick next!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This is also set in goldrush New Zealand; I found it a pretty challenging read I have to admit, in terms of its length and also its labyrinth of plots and characters, but it was certainly highly rated, and went on to win the Man Booker Prize. Which brings me neatly to my last book….

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Once I got as far as The Luminaries I knew another Booker prize winner would give me a nice long list of titles to choose from – but which one? In the end, I simply decided to go for one I’d really enjoyed, and this was it.

So there we are – from The Road to The Sea, The Sea in 6 books! Please do comment and let me know if you’ve taken part; it’s really fascinating to see which direction everyone takes and where they end up!

My top 5 reads of 2020

top 5 2020

Back in 2018 I started keeping a log of all the books I read over the course of a year (the old fashioned way, with a notebook and pen, naturally!)  It came about partly out of a desire to count how many books I actually got through in 12 months – not as many, incidentally, as I would have guessed before I started keeping score – but also because when you’re on a continuous reading cycle I find it can be really hard to recall what you were reading even a few weeks earlier, so absorbed do you become in the latest book pile.  With current events playing havoc with perceptions of time (I barely even know what day of the week it is anymore) I suddenly felt the urge to get my notebook out this morning, in the hope that looking back over this year’s reading would drag me back into some kind of meaningful mental timeframe.  Not entirely sure the strategy worked, but what it did make me realise was how many great books I’ve already enjoyed this year; of course, because I only returned to my blog a couple of weeks ago after quite a long time away, that means a whole host of fantastic recommends I haven’t yet shared!  So I thought it would be fun to do a run down of my top 5 reads of 2020 so far, and here they are – in no particular order (that was too hard!)

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

I found this book via quite a surprising recommendation, from someone I would never have imagined enjoying a book on this topic.  I have to admit I’d looked at it previously and assumed (with little reason and completely unfairly it turns out) that it would be quite dry, but following my friend’s enthusiasm decided to give it a go.  And I have to say, it absolutely blew me away.  Its analysis of the tragic event and the politics surrounding it was absolutely forensic in its detail, yet it remained constantly gripping right to the end, when the disaster itself was receding into the past but the political machinations were far from over.  Be warned, it will make you furious, and also incredulous that any state could disregard the lives of its citizens so rashly in order to maintain a political advantage; but I do believe it needs to be read, if only in order to understand what corruption and deceit institutions are capable of.

Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez

Another book that will leave you absolutely enraged (I realised while writing this there’s a definite theme emerging!), this time about how women have not only been short-changed by societies across the world, but actively put at risk and in the most extreme cases, effectively killed by assumptions that normality = masculinity.  The book hinges on the idea that since pretty much the dawn of civilisation, a male-dominated society has equated humankind with mankind, leading to a blank space where women’s data should be, with horrendously discriminatory results.  From crash test dummies that are based exclusively on the male physique to pharmaceutical companies that run all-male tests leading to drugs that are less effective – or even harmful – to the female body, the pervasive nature of this absence of women will shock and horrify you.  Read it, then get all your friends of all genders to read it – I honestly believe this is one of the most important messages I’ve come across in any book over recent years.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

Laced with a merciless dose of pitch-black humour, this novel bares its teeth and goes for the throat of Polish society.  Patriarchal authority figures, blood sports enthusiasts, the institutions of law and order that ostensibly work for the greater good of society while marginalising those who fall outside the “boys’ club” of politics and business – none are safe from this stinging literary attack.  This superb novel has minutely realised characters, and follows a series of macabre events that will leave you caught somewhere between laughter and revulsion; it’s memorable, stylish and completely different.  Apparently it caused an uproar in Poland when it was published, which possibly shows how acutely on-point the satire was….

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

For decades our ghoulish obsession with Jack the Ripper, in particular the titillating spin that’s been attached repeatedly to his crimes by the accepted mythology around his victims being prostitutes, has completely overshadowed one crucial fact: those he killed were all real people who had a story of their own before they came to be notable in history merely as dead bodies.  In this book, Hallie Rubenhold gives these women back their voices, and in doing so dismantles many of the lurid assumptions that have surrounded them for so long.  In keeping with the theme of my favourite books of 2020, yes, it will make you a little angry – every single one of these women were let down by a society that left no room for a woman to survive and make a life for herself without a man by her side on which to depend.  But it will also make you extremely sad, and yet grateful to the author for putting these victims back into the spotlight as living people, rather than corpses on a street corner.

Austerlitz – W G Sebald

Since I read this back in February I’ve been recommending it to tons of people; it’s one of those novels that’s so unique it sticks in your mind long after the last page.  It’s unusual in that it masquerades as a true story, even to the point where it includes photographs that purport to be of places and people connected to the main characters.  It’s so convincing that while you’re reading part of you starts to wonder if indeed these people are in fact real and this truly is a biography.  That’s not the case, but it is a thoroughly authentic exploration of suffering and loss, and what that does to the psyche over many decades.  The background to Austerlitz’s story is the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews around the time of the Second World War; however, the inevitable fate of his family and the horrific situation from which he managed to escape are only hinted at.  The sadness is somehow more powerful for being so opaque; it’s a truly affecting novel, mighty in its quietude and subtlety.

Which have been your favourite books of 2020 so far?  Do comment and let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

Why we will always need bookshops….

Picture1I was beyond excited last week when the first of three book parcels arrived on my doorstep.  Working in a bookshop, I’m lucky enough never to have any need to order my books online, but I have to admit there was an undeniable sense of anticipation knowing what longed-for items lay within.  I’ve watched a few unboxing videos now and then, and as an enthusiastic proponent of hands-on high street shopping I confess they’ve always left me a little bit underwhelmed; but having experienced the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing the big black W on my post office delivery, I feel a bit more like I get it.  Will this be anywhere near the happiness of stepping back into a bookshop again when these dreadful times are over, however?  I somehow doubt it.

Since we closed our doors my fellow booksellers and I have been struck, and quite moved, by the affection that’s come our way from the local community.  There have been posts and messages online telling us how much we are missed.  A couple of my colleagues have been stopped (at a safe distance let me reassure you) while out walking by customers who want to tell us how much they loved coming into our shop and how they long to be able to return.  I’ve even seen an amazing piece of artwork posted online that was done by someone sitting in our café prior to the lockdown and which depicts various groups of people relaxing with a coffee or browsing the shelves in the background.

All this is proof, if any were needed, of the genuine emotional connection that exists between a community and its bookshop.  It’s so much more than a convenient place in which money is handed over in exchange for goods; it’s an ark of knowledge, artistry and ideas, and a space in which any book lover can wax lyrical to like-minded individuals about a shared passion.  It’s a cornucopia of reading pleasure in which you can get a recommendation from a person, not an algorithm.  It can be a safe haven for the anxious or the lonely, or a place that inspires children to embark on a lifetime of reading.  It’s an outing to look forward to when you unwrap those book vouchers on your birthday, and a place to make and meet friends – or even, if you’re lucky, come face to face with your favourite author.

No cardboard box on the doorstep can ever compete with all that.  I very much hope that there are enough people out there in agreement with me to ensure those bookshops that survive these difficult months will be there for many years to come.