Posts Tagged ‘bookshop’

Three things

March 7, 2016

Last week was an exciting one, because THREE pieces of my work were published in various places.


Here is my piece about book thieves in the Spectator. Bookshops might seem like sanctuaries, but they are in fact full of thieves pocketing everything from Mr Men to Ottolenghi… And you can also hear me talking about it on the Spectator’s podcast here. I come in at 18.50, just after all the men have finished talking about the much more minor issues of Donald Trump and the EU.

Cockfosters TLS review

Then here is my review of Helen Simpson’s absolutely amazing collection of short stories Cockfosters, published in The Times Literary Supplement. Apologies for the pay-wall avoiding low-quality photo.

The Fishermen by Obioma

Last, but by no means least, I am thrilled to be writing for this lovely website Five Books. They have the ingenious idea of asking people to recommend Five Books on a certain subject, relevant to their own work. I talked to the very charming and intelligent Chigozie Obioma – whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – about boyhood and growing up. You can read it here.

I’d love to know what you think of them!

Now I am on a train on my way to Scotland to walk through the beautiful highlands while talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel for an Emily’s Walking Book Club special at writers’ retreat Moniack Mhor. Heaven. Happy March everyone. More soon.

Moniack Mhor


The Secrets of the Wild Wood

October 14, 2015

A man came into the bookshop the other day with a long white beard and extraordinary eyebrows. My jaw dropped and I only just managed to stop myself asking, ‘Are you the Master of the Wild Wood?’

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtYou see I was currently in the middle of Tonke Dragt’s wonderful children’s classic The Secrets of the Wild Wood, written in 1965 and now translated into English for the first time by Pushkin Press. This is the second book – the first was The Letter for the King – and continues the adventures of young knight Tiuri and his sidekick Piak across a magical land, questing and battling for good over evil. Most of the action of this second book takes place in the Wild Wood, where there are mysterious Men in Green and – even more mysterious – Tehalon, the Master of the Wild Wood.

The man in the bookshop was not Tehalon, I soon discovered. I had my doubts when I saw the bottle of vodka in his hemp bag, and these doubts were confirmed when he said, ‘The thing about libraries and bookshops is that they always have such pretty girls working in them.’ Oh dear, I thought, as I handed him his receipt while trying to make my wedding ring as visible as possible. ‘You’re all right,’ he continued, ‘but you should see the girl in my local library, she’s a f**king stunner.


I have to say that this exchange rather unfairly clouded my opinion of Tonke Dragt’s character, but no matter, it remained an incredible book and one I recommend to all readers – both young and old.

As more seasoned readers of Emilybooks might be aware, I adore reading a good children’s book every now and then. Favourite occasions for indulging in children’s literature include Christmas, whenever I’m ill, or when I’m struggling to get engrossed in a more grown-up book. Since having a baby, my mind has been rather more prone to being all over the place than before. Free time is so precious and yet it is hard to enjoy it when one is so exhausted (STILL??!!!) and one’s brain feels quite feeble. This means that a book needs to be really great to keep me gripped, otherwise I don’t have the strength of either will or body to pick it up, keep going and before I know it I’ve stopped reading a book altogether and my only reading matter is a Mumsnet forum about teething.

So I put down the rather dry book that I’d been not reading for the past fortnight and picked up this instead. The Secrets of the Wild Wood is the best part of 500 pages and I read it in under a week. (I’m aware that this doesn’t sound quite so impressive to those of you without babies.) The story is gripping, the scale epic, and Tiuri a hero with nerves, flaws and feelings which make him very easy to relate to. But I suppose the true feat of the book is how Dragt’s world of quests and adventure, knights and mysteries, which is a million miles from my reality, can be so powerfully rendered, so utterly immersive that for that brief moment it felt entirely plausible that a character from her world could step into mine.

I adored both of Tonke Dragt’s books – and so did the husband. I should add that this last one is the only book he has read in months that isn’t a cookbook (an obsession with which I will not meddle as I am getting so many yummy dinners out of it). Now we both feel rather bereft of Tiuri, Piak, Lavinia and co. Oh Pushkin – has Tonke Dragt written anything else that you might translate? Please?

Tonke Dragt

Bye bye bookshop

October 13, 2014

You are just like my cat.

Thus spoke a young woman in the bookshop the other day. I had just heaved myself up from putting a book away on the bottom shelf – no mean feat when one is quite so heavily spherical – and she had caught me exhaling perhaps a little too vociferously. I certainly didn’t feel especially feline.

The lady’s cat, it transpired, had just been pregnant. She said that as she herself was only twenty-seven, she’d never given much thought to being pregnant or babies before, but watching her cat get more and more pregnant had made her really think about it all. And, she explained, it was very funny because I looked just like her cat when she’d been about to give birth. She giggled slightly madly, and I could only feel grateful that she didn’t have a pet elephant instead.

It was one of the stranger exchanges to have taken place in the bookshop over the past few weeks. Saturday was my last day: now – with under two weeks till due date – the blissfully wide open space of maternity leave spreads out ahead of me.

A friend dropped into the bookshop on Saturday afternoon, and stayed for a little while, chatting to me in any brief gaps in what turned out to be a particularly busy day. This must be the nicest place to work ever, said my friend, who had been quietly and smilingly observing the various comings and goings over the past half-hour.

I could only agree.

And, though certainly tiring, it has been a particularly special place to work when so obviously pregnant.

The thing is, my enormously protruding bump has turned out to be an amazing signal of common ground, an open invitation for conversation. I imagine it’s not dissimilar to going for a walk with a very sweet pet dog. Everyone wants to come up and say hello, stroke or pat it, ask some questions, and tell you about their own. Of course, in a bookshop, one has conversations with customers all the time. These are, however, always about books, and while I am at my happiest chatting away with people about what they enjoy reading, it transpires that most people are keener to talk about babies.

In the bookshop over the past months, I’ve had at least ten conversations a day about having a baby. They don’t usually begin with someone telling me I’m just like their cat. A more standard opener is: ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ or, ‘Where are you having it?, ‘Is it your first?’, and – especially over the past few days, accompanied by looks of faint alarm – ‘How long have you got left?’

There have been other comments, which are rather funnier: ‘You are getting nice and fat.’ Or from one rather awkward gentleman, ‘I had no idea you were so, so … well …’ Um, pregnant? I eventually had to offer.

These are just opening gambits and before long the customer has launched into smiling reminiscences of their own pregnancy, or offered advice on babies and children. Over the end of the very hot summer I was given a great deal of sympathy while I was so visibly melting. Someone offered to buy me an ice cream and one lady advised me to time it better with the next one – she said that she’d had all her babies in the early spring so she hadn’t needed to turn the heating on all winter. I’ve been given all sorts of advice: from what sort of sling to get, to the pros and cons of routines, and, my favourite: ‘If anyone offers you any help, take it … always take it. If you say no to help with the first one, no one will offer you any help at all when it comes to the second.’

Sometimes there’d be a note of cynicism along the lines of ‘read/sleep/have fun/go to the cinema now while you still can…’ but any vague hints of the horrors to come have always been compensated for by a very tangible excitement and feeling of goodwill. The customers were always smiling as they left, wishing me good luck, all the best, asking to let them know how I get on.

I’m sure that some of them, with whom I’ve built up a bit of a friendship and rapport over the years are genuinely interested in my baby, but for many I think this strange happiness that comes with seeing the bump and talking about babies is more of a reminder of something universal and miraculous.

People have babies all the time. It is, of course, how we all came into the world. There shouldn’t really be anything so special about it … and yet it is – evidently –undeniably, unavoidably exciting and mindblowingly amazing. A whole new person is about to arrive in the world! A whole new life!

For many of these customers, their children are no longer babies. Parents come in and are usually rather fraught, with their scootering sprogs knocking all the books off the shelves, making a racket, demanding the sixty-seventh Beast Quest book. Or their children are teenagers, or going off to university – all so grown up. It must be easy to lose sight of the quiet miracle of the start, when they are so tiny and helpless, all wrinkled and squashed, more like a frog than a human. Perhaps seeing the bump inspires a chance to remember this special time of newness, firsts, and beginnings.

The bump is such an obvious visible cue that it is impossible to ignore it, it is impossible not to think of a baby being just in there, so close to coming into the world. Perhaps seeing me heave my roundness around the bookshop is not so unlike the lady watching her cat fill up with kittens.

To return to this particular exchange … After a long account of the ins and outs of her cat’s birth, the lady said that I so reminded her of her cat that she’d like to give me one of her kittens. Somewhat bewildered, though touched, I politely declined. I explained that I already had a pet tortoise, who might well find it hard to adjust to life with a baby around, and the addition of a kitten as well would be a recipe for disaster. I could just see the kitten playfully pouncing on a terrorised Daphne, whose curious head would never emerge from her shell again. The lady seemed a little disappointed, but I think she understood.

As I left the shop at six o’clock on Saturday, looking especially spherical after having scoffed a great deal of cake – thank you dear bookshop colleague – and bearing flowers, cards, and a stack of books, just in case I find I am able to read while breastfeeding in spite of what the cynics warn, accompanied by the husband carrying a load of boxes for when we eventually manage to move house (let’s hope), I felt excited about this next chapter, and also very aware that I’d just experienced a strangely wonderful few months.

I would never have imagined that having a bump would prompt so many people to be so chatty, friendly and open, so full of stories and advice and excitement. Working in the bookshop has been exhausting, for sure, but as people keep telling me in an attempt to reassure me about the sleepless nights to come: you don’t really mind feeling so tired when something amazing is happening.

So bye bye for now bookshop … see you on the other side.

The Wife

July 7, 2014

What a week! Having done pretty much nothing for two months other than eat too much ice cream, returning to work – to a job where one must STAND FOR NINE HOURS while being significantly heavier and rather more off-balance than one used to be – was unbelievably exhausting. It was of course a joy to see the regular bookshop customers happily surprised by the now very visible bump, and to talk books with bookshop co-conspirators (one of whom had even baked delicious celebratory banana bread), but by the end of each day I was a goner. Which was unfortunate, because the evenings were of course filled with seeing friends and family, and then there was moving back into our flat …

Well, perhaps you understand why my brain now feels like it’s gone through a tumble dryer and I have been left in a peculiar, semi-catatonic state of vague pain and bewilderment. All I know is that I must locate a sturdy stool for some of next week’s bookshop stint, and that all inessential evening plans must be cancelled. So my apologies if this post is not quite up to form; as soon as it has been written I shall retreat back to bed.

The WifeIt was, however, a great pleasure to be reunited with the Walking Book Club in one of its most populous incarnations yesterday for rather a slow stagger around Hampstead Heath discussing Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

The Wife is told from the point of view of Joan, the wife of great Jewish American writer Joe Castleman. It begins when they are on a plane heading for Helsinki, where Joe is to receive a prestigious prize:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquillity. Just like our marriage

Over the course of their Helsinki visit, Joan tells the story of their relationship. It began when she was a college student and he her creative writing professor, married with a new baby. His wife soon discovers the affair and confronts Joan by hurling a walnut at her head. It is a special walnut, a gift from Joe to Joan, on which he has painted ‘To J. In awe. J.’ It is all the more significant as his wife has been given a very similar walnut. Joan and Joe run off to New York together. Though Joan has shown great promise as a writer, whereas the only story of Joe’s that she’s read is terrible, it is his writing career that is pursued, a decision which is reinforced when his first, very autobiographical, novel – The Walnut – is a hit.

The Wife is hard to write about as there is a huge twist right at the end, which affects everything that comes beforehand and it would be terrible for you to discover the twist here. So, in order not to be a spoiler, I will try to continue as though I too don’t know anything about the twist…

The big question that looms through the text is why does Joan let Joe become the writer while she becomes the wife? It is evidently not a question of talent. Joan, after all, is narrating this book in her brilliantly dry, witty voice. Is it Joe’s ‘powers of persuasion’, as her mother says? Or is just a mistake of youth and inexperience?

No doubt it has a great deal to do with Joan’s encounter with Elaine Mozell, a woman novelist who comes to read at Joan’s college. Elaine tells her:

‘Don’t do it … Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature … The men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? … Because they say so.’

This extract provoked a great deal of anger at the Walking Book Club. It is still the case, people shouted in outrage. Indeed, the annual Vida Count is ever discouraging. This counts the number of women and men who are published in, or have their books reviewed by, literary magazines. While a few, such as The Paris Review, are getting towards gender equality, the majority, including The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker are hugely skewed towards men, with respective figures of 574:157; 2156: 795; 555: 253 for the 2013 count. (I actually wrote a review for the TLS recently, so let’s hope that skew is shifting a little.) And just look at the way men’s novels are published compared to women’s! They are almost invariably more expensive, given a hardback edition, and a smarter cover …

On and on the gender debate raged as we swarmed across the Heath: Is women’s writing so different from men’s? Why is women’s writing less valued than men’s? Why is it such a male establishment? Why has so little changed since Joan and Elaine Mozell’s fictional conversation in the 1950s? And so on… until I called a halt to sit down and eat some Panforte brought back from Lucca.

Joan is aware that even in the 1950s, it is not be impossible to be a woman and a writer. Wolitzer gives us a great image of Joan’s box of women writers:

It was as though there were a box I kept under a bed and pulled out only once in a while, and in this box were crammed Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and now Lee the journalist. It I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers, and that maybe I could have done it if I’d tried. But instead I was standing with the wives, the kerchief-wearers, all of us holding ourselves in a way we’d grown accustomed to, arms folded, purses slung over shoulders, eyes flicking left and right to keep watch over our husbands.

‘Maybe I could have done it if I’d tried.’ This ‘maybe’, the slim possibility of success against the odds, makes it all the tougher. Given that some women manage to do it, the impetus is on the individual woman to try to succeed, and if she doesn’t, it is as much her fault as anyone else’s.

West with the NightThere was a funny moment when someone said, ‘What about West with the Night?’ This wonderful memoir by Beryl Markham tells of her gung ho adventuring life as the first aviatrix in Kenya in the early twentieth century. We discussed it at a Walking Book Club a while ago. What about it? Well that, said the walker, isn’t at all like a woman’s book, it could just as easily have been written by a man.

The odd thing is, West with the Night might indeed have been written by a man. A teeny bit of internet research shows that many people suspect Beryl Markham’s memoir to have been written by her third husband, who was a professional ghost writer. Though for such a suspicion even to exist makes an uncomfortable point about our gendered perceptions of writing.

Perhaps gender is especially on my mind at the moment, as everyone wants to know is the bump going to be a boy or a girl, and many people seem surprised that we have decided not to find out, preferring to have a surprise. People seem puzzled as to how can we possibly not want to know? Well, without wanting to sound too San Francisco about it, the sex is such a small part of the picture. Knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl is pretty irrelevant really. I’d much rather know if he or she will be keen on reading, or climbing trees, or misbehaving, or music, or chatting, or (and this one’s important) sleeping. And I would hate to think it’s a girl and be told that therefore she will love reading and dolls and all things pink and hate climbing trees. It’s rather a relief, in fact, while imagining what this little person will turn out to be like, not to let gender come into it at all.

If only we could be just as open-minded when it comes to books.

Pietrasanta and Carrara

June 2, 2014

Emilybooks in-laws have been to stay, and while they were here very little reading ensued, I’m afraid. I have embarked upon re-reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, remembering how much I enjoyed it first time round at University and feeling its Florentine setting appropriate to my own Italian adventures, but alas I am not even two hundred pages in, with several more hundred to go… they haven’t even made it to Florence yet! So I’m afraid you must wait until next week for my Jamesian thoughts.

Pietrasanta bookshop treeIn the meantime, I thought you might like to see a picture of this little bookshop in Pietrasanta, a city just over the hill from Lucca. I say hill, I think I might mean mountain. We drove up there one Saturday evening, thinking it would be another sleepy little Tuscan place, complete with picturesque main piazza, beautiful Duomo and campanile, and we found we had accidentally stumbled upon the centre of the Italian contemporary art scene. We both felt decidedly scruffy as we wandered amongst crowds of women in structured, ‘interesting’ designer dresses and men in jackets, jazzy shirts and light cotton scarves,who spilled out from the various art galleries which lined the streets. Over dinner, we got chatting to a friendly man who hailed from London and had settled out her. He was full of all sorts of surprising information. For instance, he told us that the art gallery he looked after – just next door to our restaurant – would stay open till three in the morning throughout the summer! They don’t even bother opening until early evening and all the deals get done once everyone was drunk late in the night. He also told us a little about Forte di Marmi, the grand beach resort down the road. Apparently everyone is seriously snobby about getting the right spot on the beach, and I was particularly intrigued by the sound of a grand old Italian lady he knew, now in her seventies, who every summer still reserved the same sun bed she’s been frequenting since she was a little girl.

Just a little farther along the coast from Forte di Marmi is Carrara, where vast marble quarries are cut into the mountains. It’s the beautiful white marble that one pictures when someone says marble – used by the Romans, e.g. for the Pantheon, and also the Renaissance sculptors, most notably Michelangelo. Wikipedia informs me that it is also the stone used for London’s dear old Marble Arch.

The marble mountainsThe husband, being an architect, is rather more interested in things like quarries than most, so booked us on a tour of Carrara. The four of us piled into a jeep, with our lovely guide Stephanie, and Manuela, our formidable driver, who was also a guide but who spoke no English. I had great fun exercising my minimal Italian with her. We drove up the bendy roads into the mountains, which are, we were informed, all marble, and the quarries are where they literally cut huge chunks out of the mountain side. You can just see the quarry nestled between the peaks here. On the roads, which grew increasingly alarming, we encountered lorries with the most colossal chunks of marble on the back. As we pulled over to let one pass, Manuela casually told me a chunk of that size would weigh around 30 tonnes. Soon we were driving almost vertically up a scrabbly track. At the top, we were told it was where they’d filmed a car chase in Quantum of Solace and that the stunt man had at first been too scared to do it. Manuela then laughed heartily and said she was a real ‘stunt woman’ and we zoomed down towards the quarry, clinging on tight.

Michelangelo's quarry in CarraraWe went to Fantiscritti, the quarry where Michelangelo used to come to choose his pieces of marble. I found it very uncanny to think of him in the same place as us, only so much higher up, as over those hundreds of years so much more marble has been quarried. Each one of those steps is three metres tall (you get a feel for the scale by the tiny stick figure men in the bottom left). It is exactly the opposite to the feeling one has when seeing the Roman sites, which are of course always lower down than the present day and this lent a peculiar feeling of topsy turviness to the whole experience. Incidentally, I suspect that when T.S. Eliot wrote so scathingly of the women who ‘come and go/ talking of Michelangelo’, they would not have been talking about his awe-inspiring quarry.

Apparently marble dust is the new gold dust, being put in pills as a source of calcium for things like osteoporosis. My thoughts immediately turned to Daphne, who of course needs to be given rather a lot of calcium for her shell. I wonder if we could give her a little chunk of marble to peck away at instead of the calcium powder we sprinkle over her food. I wonder if the husband could chisel a little chunk into a Roman column for her, which would be rather a bling addition to her house. Any tortoise experts care to advise?

Little else to report, really, other than that my Italian seems to be developing mostly in the direction of ice cream flavours thanks to our strict upholding of a daily gelato at four o’clock. Nespola was a recent discovery, meaning medlar. Pompelmo rossa – pink grapefruit – is my longstanding favourite. Mandorla – almond – is a good one, as is zenzera – ginger. The husband is obsessed with fior di latte, literally ‘flower of milk’, which seems ironic given his early stumbling to order a coffee with milk, which some of you might remember.

So back to Henry James I go, with a little piece of roadside Carrara as a handy paperweight.

The Portrait of a Lady plus paperweight

Second-hand book-hunting with Cosybooks

June 12, 2013


*********************Introducing the first guest blog ***********************


This special spot is a chance for you to meet, or, indeed, reacquaint yourselves with, other talented book bloggers.

The first guest blogger is Cosy Books – a Canadian librarian, who has a penchant for brilliant twentieth-century novels written by women. A taste that I, for one, share. Here she takes you on an illuminating tour of second-hand book buying in Canada.

If you would like to contribute to the Emilybooks guest blog spot then get in touch here.


If you have been following Emily’s blog for a while or landed here via a link from another blog you probably already know that a keen interest in books is a connecting thread.  While my fondness for reading reaches back as far as I can remember a certain group of book bloggers has made it possible for me to achieve an even greater appreciation for the written word.  This camaraderie has also unearthed a side of me which never existed before I carved out my own tiny space in the world of book blogging.  As a circulation clerk at a public library I nearly always borrowed my books but over the past few years I have turned into a book buyer on a mission.  It’s a nice way of saying that accumulating books at a rate faster than I can find space for them has become a pleasurable pastime.  Woeful posts by bloggers surrounded by bursting shelves only serve to reassure me that my guilt about unread books is unwarranted and that my collection is practically inadequate.

Since 2009, my reading has been centred around twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, E M Delafield, Dorothy Whipple and their contemporaries.  Since I have yet to meet another person in my daily life who has struck up a conversation about any of the aforementioned authors you can imagine how rare it can be to find their books in nearby shops.  This makes the hunt more challenging than if I were spending the day on Charing Cross Road, but not impossible.

Little Boy LostSo where have I found some of my favourite treasures, you might ask?  The best place for turn-over is called BMV Books.  They have a few locations in Toronto with my favourite being on Bloor Street.  Each day there are green plastic book bins dotting the floor waiting to be unpacked and shelved.  There is no catalogue so if you’re looking for something specific you have to be willing to dig for it.  The books are mostly used but in excellent condition. BMV also get batches of books sold back to them from local university students so you get an idea of what has been on offer in the English courses that term.  I was thrilled one day to spot the orange Penguin edition of Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, pushed back a bit further than the other books and for the pittance of only two dollars.  The Persephone edition was already on my shelves but that image of the little boy on the cover has always haunted me so I just had to bring it home.

The Tortoise and the HareAnother interesting place, albeit filthy, for some outstanding older clothbound books has been our local Reuse Centre.  Picture a massive warehouse full of the contents of your grandparents’ attic or garage sale rejects.  It’s an intriguing mix of dump run/nostalgia tour.  The lighting is horrible, my contact lenses go dry and you can taste the dust but it’s where I found a gorgeous black Virago edition of Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  The cover design features a young lady wearing the most stunning pair of red tights and I’ve never seen another copy like it.  The funny thing is that it was discarded from the library where I work but it must have been ages ago.  A couple of years ago I brought home a first edition copy of New Bond Story by Norman Collins as well as a first edition of Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens for the same price.  Books such as these are housed separately from the paperbacks but the room resembles something more akin to a hallway at five metres long and barely wider than my shoulders and I’m not very big!  Bending is done very carefully and usually sideways!

The Way Things AreAnother place I loved to visit was called Nostalgia Books in Port Credit.  Nestled at the end of a long high street and a bit past the bridge over the harbour it was a nice destination when I had the day off from work.  The owner, David, was passionate about books (of course) but he also enjoyed people.  When he discovered my daughter had chosen to do a minor in English Literature he asked if I could keep him updated on her reading lists just for interest’s sake.  This shop was where I found my first green Virago, The Way Things Are by E M Delafield, and I beamed all the way home.  Last month my husband and I took a drive out to the shop but were saddened to find brown paper covering the windows and no sign of life.

For an anglophile living in the land of maple syrup and moose (I’ve only seen one that’s been stuffed but I’m going for effect) there can be no greater book hunting expedition than in England.  I could spend ages browsing along Charing Cross Road or the Southbank book market, admiring the faded spines and drinking in the aroma of aged chimney smoke you sometimes find emanating from the pages.  I can hardly believe it has been almost two years ago since I met up with my friends from Book Snob, Stuck in a Book and Mrs Miniver’s Daughter for a bit of second-hand book shopping while I was on holiday.  Mary was dreading a case of tug-of-war should we both spy a prize at the same time.  There was no need to worry though as they were more than helpful in handing over all sorts of titles they thought I would enjoy.  The charity shops in Canterbury where my daughter did her MA were oh so tempting but those dreaded luggage allowances are always at the back of my mind.

Look at all Those RosesRegardless of where my books have come from I never fail to get a tiny thrill from the signature of a previous owner along with a date.  My favourite inscription is in the front of a first American edition of Look at All Those Roses, a short story collection by Elizabeth Bowen published in 1941.  I have Rachel (Book Snob) to thank for this one.  It reads:

For Scott Merrill from John Butler in affection –

Elizabeth Bowen’s wisdom

May 1944

A story within a collection of stories but one which will have to remain a mystery.

The King of a Rainy Country

June 10, 2013

The King of a Rainy CountryAs some of you will have by now discovered, there are few things I love more than reading a book in its setting.

So it was a wonderful coincidence that when I began reading The King of a Rainy Country on Thursday morning, immersing myself in the bohemian world of Susan ‘somewhere off the Tottenham Court Road’, I remembered I was heading down to Soho that very evening for a friend’s birthday party. I decided that if I hurried down to Soho after my day at work in the bookshop, I might just have time to sit in a café for half an hour or so and read a little bit more before joining my friends.

After work, I hopped on the tube, hopped off at Tottenham Court Road and decided to treat myself to an unbelievably expensive coffee at Bar Italia, not least because I think the till they have there is so extraordinary and I wanted to have another peek at it. You could imagine my delight when I sat down with my coffee, feeling peculiarly on holiday with the background noise of Italian radio and the unusually warm evening, when I read in the novel that by extraordinary good fortune, Susan and Neale – her sort of but not quite boyfriend – stumble into a travel agents and end up getting jobs as ‘couriers’, i.e. tour guides, and going to Italy.

I felt as though, just for a moment, my world had collided with Susan’s. Although, as I emerged from the café and headed to the party, finding that everyone was now speaking English and the temperature had dropped rather, the illusion swiftly passed.

Susan is a sympathetic character in more ways than just this accident of circumstances. At one point, she asks another character why she likes her:

O, sympathy of some sort. Tu sei molto simpatico.

It is a huge achievement for a writer to create a character who one feels so instinctively aligned to, in sympathy with. Perhaps it is helped by the honest, confiding opening:

I had been scared for a fortnight. Concentrating on my fear, I became dogged and literal. At once another fear seized me; fear that I might bore Neal.

I recognized the day, the moment I woke, as the day of the interview. Only secondly did I remember I was moving house.

Who hasn’t woken up with that stomach-clenching realisation of terror – that feeling of argh today’s the day, the horrid sweaty nerves of a job interview? And how often has that day of terror collided with a completely different reason to be nervous – moving house or some such – when the fear doubles up on itself? It made me think of the awful morning I awoke to face my final A-level exam, followed by meeting my then boyfriend, who had been wanting to break up with me but had ‘thoughtfully’ decided to wait until I’d finished my exams. The double dread of having to go into that exam hall for an English paper and then walk down to St James’s Park to face the music with him was completely horrific.

You can’t help but sympathise with poor Susan, and admire the way she gets on with it in spite of her nerves, taking a taxi to Neale’s flat, then anxiously taking a bus to the interview:

My mouth was so dry that it caused me a palpable pain to ask for my ticket.

The moment I knew I was utterly committed to her was a couple of paragraphs later when she is walking down Park Lane to the interview and gets lost ‘in autobiographical fantasy’:

I told some imprecisely imagined interlocutor that each year I hoped to have outgrown being moved by the autumn and each year I hadn’t.

It’s just the sort of pretentious idle fantasy in which I indulge when wandering along. Mine usually goes along the lines of imagining what records I’d choose for Desert Island Discs, or what I’d say when asked about the inspiration for my first novel on The Culture Show. Far too long is spent in such vain, idiotic, autobiographical fantasy, and it is cringingly embarrassing to admit to. I loved Susan’s disarming honesty in telling us this straight up.

Of course when Susan then gets a job working for a bookseller, I essentially decided we were versions of the same person, and so shouldn’t really have been so surprised by the coincidence of my going to Italy via Tottenham Court Road that evening.

On the face of it, Brigid Brophy sets up a straightforward narrative. A young woman gets a job and moves in with her boyfriend. But Brophy is too playful and clever for this. The bookseller turns out not to be just a bookseller. just as his name turns out not really to be Finkelheim. The boyfriend turns out not really to be a boyfriend. It’s not long before they move settings and go to Italy to try out a whole new scenario.

Brigid Brophy wrote The King of a Rainy Country in 1956, a time when, I suppose, people’s narratives were beginning to seem particularly changeable. Brophy’s own life certainly twisted and turned, resisting a straightforward path. She went up to Oxford only to be sent down for ‘unspecified offences’. She married an art historian, but then had an open marriage, enjoying affairs with men and women. Like her creator, Susan doesn’t settle into a straightforward life.

It is the ambiguity of Susan and Neale’s relationship and their sexuality that is so exciting. One is always wondering, are they sleeping together? Are they about to sleep together? Are they falling in love? Is Neale going to sleep with the young French man he picked up, who knows no English other than the word ‘quair’? Is Susan still in love with Cynthia, her crush from school?

There is a casualness to gender and relationships that is refreshing today and must have been strikingly unusual in 1956. Susan and Neale are trying things out for size, experimenting with different roles, finding their feet with an innocence and naivete which is very endearing. It is no coincidence that the other works alluded to in the novel include As you Like it and The Marriage of Figaro – with their cross-dressing and ambiguous, playful treatment of gender.

I shall leave you the enjoyable, twisty-turny plot to discover for yourself. Be assured that it is peppered with very funny moments, as well as acute observations. There is an overarching poignancy for being that age, so free and open, and the vulnerability which that entails.

When they pass through Paris, Neale looks up at the shuttered windows:

“Anyway, what is it about the shutters?”

“The slats,” I said.

“Yes, it’s clever. They give an impression you can see in, though in fact you can’t. And isn’t that the whole of romance?”

Perhaps, then, this is the ultimately romantic book, teasing us with its subtle, playful opacity. You think you can see in to Neal and Susan’s relationship, but in fact you can’t. You think you can see into Susan’s feelings about Cynthia, but you can’t. It isn’t that Susan is wilfully hiding from the reader – as I said, she is winningly sympathetic – but she is still discovering her feelings and sexuality herself. We join Susan as she gradually prises open the shutters, and share the spirit of discovery, excitement and pain that it brings.

We should all be grateful to The Coelacanth Press for prising opening the shutters on Brigid Brophy herself. This remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life and, if this is anything to go by, wrote wonderful novels, is almost forgotten. The Coelacanth Press have republished The King of a Rainy Country as a labour of love – it being the only book they’ve published. I urge you to buy it and keep Brophy on the bookshelves. It might even encourage The Coelacanth Press to publish more work by such wrongly neglected, brilliant writers.

Brigid Brophy

The Innocents

January 28, 2013

Literary celebrations abounded over the past week. Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which has given rise to many Janeites sporting period costumes and also to this great article in the Guardian – I particularly liked Paula Byrne’s thoughts on Lydia as a proto-feminist icon. Tuesday was Byron’s birthday – the poet, not the burger chain (although I discovered to my horror that when I google Byron the burger chain comes up before the poet).

The InnocentsBut my reading this week was predominantly steered by Edith Wharton’s birthday on the 24th. Instead of picking up one of her classic novels, I decided that now was the time to begin The Innocents by Francesca Segal, a reimagining of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in contemporary Jewish Northwest London.

Although I work in a bookshop in the heart of Jewish Northwest London, I kid myself that I have escaped the confines of the community in which I was raised. There was the first seminal moment when I was kicked out of Jewish Sunday school for repeatedly eating Frazzles – it’s just bacon flavour, not actual bacon, little smart arse me protested; I then forwent my Batmitzvah, choosing cello lessons over Hebrew for my after-school activity. Since then, the rebellion has continued in such acts as refusing to go on Israel Tour, moving to East London, marrying a Goy and regularly eating actual bacon, not just Frazzles.

And yet there are some things I have not left behind. Friday Night Dinners are now but once a month, but are still a time for a family get-together and Granny’s chicken soup with matzo balls. And there are the frequent patrons of the bookshop who know me as ‘Georgina’s girl’, or ask me about married life, or tell me how beautiful they hear my wedding dress was – all people who know rather a lot about me, even though, other than to sell them books, I’ve not seen them since I was a child.

I happened to be selling books at a talk Francesca Segal gave a while ago to a largely Jewish Northwest London audience. She talked about how mad it was that someone would phone up her mother just to say she’d seen her (Francesca) in Waitrose. She talked about how everyone is obsessed with everyone else’s news and gossip, how everyone knows of an engagement within seconds. An elderly Jewish lady raised her hand to ask a question: ‘I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. Who is it you’re married to? And what does he do?’ It was absolutely perfect!

While a close-knit community brings with it a wealth of support, it can also seem intensely claustrophobic, and it is with this that Adam Newman – the protagonist of The Innocents – struggles to come to terms.

We meet Adam soon after his engagement to Rachel Gilbert, his girlfriend since Israel Tour, over a decade ago. He is already part of the Gilbert family in everything but name – always coming on their annual holiday to Eilat, a staple at their Friday night dinners, a well-practised chauffeur and errand-runner; he even works for Rachel’s father’s law firm.

Into this perfectly contained little set-up, strides Ellie Schneider in vertiginous heels. She is Rachel’s cousin, a vulnerable, beautiful, very thin, New York model, who – it’s rumoured – has just starred in a porn film. Adam finds himself falling for Ellie, wonders what he’s doing with his life and faces a dilemma: should he escape and break Rachel’s heart, or can he come to terms with such a blinkered existence?

It’s a gripping dilemma, and I raced through the novel, swerving with its twists and turns, desperate to find out what Adam would do next, how the growing mess could all be resolved. I loved seeing Adam be challenged by Ellie again and again, in small acts like walking to the newsagent on her own at night, and staying at a friend’s studio in Bethnal Green:

Bethnal Green was not within Adam’s usual locus of operations. It seemed like somewhere that should be ‘South of the River’, that vague designation that conveyed an essence rather than a geographical truth. Several places felt ‘South of the River’ when they were really north of it – Shoreditch, for example, and her naughty brother Hoxton, places that required satellite navigation and a faint concern over the fate of one’s car during the visit. Like all places that were not contained within the bounds of either Central London or the N-prefixed postal districts, it was out of Adam’s comfort zone.

This perfectly captures Adam’s neurosis, shared by many a Northwest-London Jew. My brothers have never been so anxious as when they came for dinner once when I was living in Stepney. One of them recently refused to meet me for lunch near my flat. (He agreed eventually, after several cross text messages from me, but, he told me, he’d bring his mace.)

While Adam lusts after Ellie for her looks, and her vulnerability makes him long to protect her, he also envies her independence – her freedom to move from New York to Bethnal Green to Paris, to wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things. His life, in stark contrast, is firmly bounded by what society dictates. Adam tries to inject Ellie’s spirit of freedom into his relationship with Rachel:

He would have to find the means to show Rachel how vital it was that they open their eyes to the rest of the world, for however circumscribed his own horizons might be, Rachel’s were ten times more so. What form this intrepid exploration might take was not yet clear, only that they could, and must attempt it. He had vague thoughts of travel, of literature and of inhabiting broader social circles, knowing all the while that these had always been available to him had he chosen to reach out for them, and in any case did not contain the essence of what it was he craved.

When Adam does try to reach out for them, wanting to go to see an alternative play or visit an art gallery, Rachel firmly resists.

While Rachel is shown to be utterly content in this blinkered, limited world, and Adam, although he struggles, is pretty well adapted to it too, Francesca Segal’s feat is her host of peripheral characters who have found their own alternative ways of living. There’s Adam’s sister Olivia, an eccentric feminist Oxford academic; Ezra, who crops up now and then as an alternative playwright; Nick, the only Jew in the Fens village where he grew up, now an impoverished writer living in Stepney; Ziva, the Holocaust survivor granny, who pockets Bittermints and on Yom Kippur takes a taxi and refuses to fast. Segal shows that being a Northwest London Jew doesn’t have to mean a life like Adam and Rachel’s.

So this isn’t really just a book about Jews. The Innocents is about choosing whether to give up complacency and familiarity in order to venture into the exciting unknown. Adam’s struggle is something with which many people can empathise, for a close-knit community comes in many different guises.

My childhood best friend is Iranian. She knows every other Iranian in London and New York, spent her youth going to very glamorous Iranian parties and yet was filled with terror at the prospect of another Iranian knowing that she ever got drunk, as it was so vital to preserve her ‘reputation’. A great friend from university had a similar experience with her Bengali family and community. Even my ultra-English friends whose families go back to William the Conqueror, experience something of this claustrophobia, in that they all went to the same schools and balls growing up, and are usually god-relatives of each other.

Really, Francesca Segal has achieved something brilliant – The Innocents is an insightful guide to the peculiarities of Jewish Northwest London, told through a story to which anyone can relate.


December 3, 2012

We’ll be talking about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont on the Walking Book Club this coming weekend, so I thought now was as good a time as any to read another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Angel has been warmly recommended to me many times, and, it transpires, rightly so!

Angel by Elizabeth TaylorAngel is a strange fifteen-year-old, when we first meet her, living with her mother above their grocer’s shop in a ‘hateful’ Victorian factory town. She lives more in her imagination than in reality and spends much of her time inventing stories about being the mistress of the improbably named ‘Paradise House’, where her aunt is a lady’s maid:

Lax and torpid, she dreamed through the lonely evenings, closing her eyes to create the darkness where Paradise House could take shape, embellished and enlarged day after day – with colonnades and cupolas, archways and flights of steps – beyond anything her aunt had ever suggested.

Paradise House is Angel’s escape from her squalid physical existence; her imagination is her way out:

She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.

She decides to write a novel based on her daydreams, set in 1885 at ‘Haven Castle’ where ‘white peacocks wandered on the moonlit terrace the night Irania was born’.

She writes her novel in bed, and then sends it off to various publishers until one of them – in stitches from the  romantic purple prose, but suspecting that women might react like his wife, who ‘devoured and gobbled every iridescent word’ – takes it on. He says,

I feel an extraordinary power behind it all, so that I wonder if it is genius or lunacy.

Angel indeed possesses an extraordinary power. Through sheer force of will and imagination she propels herself forth from her unpromising start in life to a wealthy published novelist. Indeed she ends up actually living in Paradise House – her fantasy becomes reality.

Elizabeth Taylor allows Angel this success but doesn’t let us lose sight of how ridiculous she is. At the height of her stardom, Angel rents a house in London for the Season:

Some of Angel’s stories about her lately-acquired portrait-ancestors were disastrously comic; her sense of period was so vague and her notions of country-life wonderfully sensational. A handsome young man among dogs was going off to shoot his rival in a duel, not pheasants among the autumn foliage; a lady in an Empire gown had been a mistress of Charles the Second… She went to the Royal Garden Party in violet satin and ostrich-feathers with purple-dyed chinchilla on her shoulders; amethysts encrusted her corsage and mauve orchids were sewn all over her skirt where they quickly wilted. Glances of astonishment she interpreted as admiration.

Sadly Angel’s success doesn’t last forever, and the book draws to a close when she is a lonely old woman marooned in Paradise House with her lady-companion, a couple of servants and many cats, while the decrepit house rots and crumbles around her, and more and more furniture is sold off. Yet Angel’s spirit never dies, even as her money dwindles:

Dismayed and indignant tradespeople received copies of her novels or old photographs of herself; they invariably returned them but by that time the account had been written off in Angel’s mind.

Angel stubbornly adheres to her fantasy right until the end, and you can’t help but feel a searing affection for her, admiration for maintaining her headstrong perversity, refusing to be brought down to bleak reality by anything or anyone, ever in all her life.

Intriguingly, characters tend to describe Angel as a witch. Elizabeth Taylor uses this image again and again:

Hermione could imagine her sitting under the sea, casting spells, counting the corpses of the drowned.

Or later:

A strange figure to Clive, in her long, faded red dress and with her black hair hanging down her back. Cats followed her, arching themselves and cavorting about the hem of her skirt, bewitched by her presence.

Indeed you can see why Angel might seem like a witch – as her publisher said, she has an ‘extraordinary power’ and perhaps it is easier to explain this power as witchcraft, something not of our own world and not quite right.

But really what Angel possesses is the power of fiction – the novelist’s craft. Her stories might be ridiculous but they grow beyond the page, envelop the reader and the writer, grow more real than reality.

Angel’s novels are the opposite to Elizabeth Taylor’s – they are over the top, impossibly romantic, passionate and daft as opposed to Taylor’s domestic observations of everyday minutiae. And yet both novelists were panned by the critics. (Angel decides they must be jealous of her talent.) It begs the question, how can these two authors create such different novels and yet both be so easily dismissed by the literary establishment? Perhaps, with Angel, Elizabeth Taylor is having a little jibe at the critics.

Luckily Elizabeth Taylor, unlike Angel, has a wonderful sense of humour, and it is infectious, seeping out of the page and making it impossible not to laugh as soon as you recognise an element of Angel in yourself, or in someone else.

Certainly, next time an eccentric local author comes into the bookshop, draped in purple chinchilla and carrying a pile of signed copies of their book, then I might not be able to resist pointing them in the direction of this wonderful novel, to which they will undoubtedly be able to relate. Having said that, I suspect I will foist it upon others too – it is a magnificent book, dazzling and dark at once, like witchcraft, and I can’t see how anyone can help but fall under its spell.

Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.