4 February 2016

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My new job placement, through a rotation, is in a high school.  While of the teacher librarians were putting together a display last week I was asked about books I've abandoned (Villette by Charlotte Bronte at page 364) and books that intimidate.  Being in the midst of Mrs Dalloway I mentioned that I shied away from Virginia Woolf's writings for years.  I've read a few essays and Between the Acts but in Mrs Dalloway any feelings of trepidation have melted away.

This classic novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925, has been sitting on my shelves for something close to ten years.  Perhaps it's being close in age to Clarissa Dalloway, or the mention of flowers in the middle of our winter, that made me feel it was the right time to read this book.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself....

Taking place over a single day the reader is presented with the details of Clarissa's preparations for a party.  Her errands take her through busy streets of central London, and the chiming of Big Ben constantly reminds citizens that time is running out.

As Clarissa goes about her day her thoughts float through the guest list.  Among them is Peter Walsh, a past lover, who is currently in love with a married woman planning a divorce.  A habit of flicking his penknife open and closed when agitated belies Peter's well-presented smooth exterior.  Another guest is Hugh Whitbread, a former valet...'He was the perfect specimen of the public school type, she said.  No country but England could have produced him'.  Married to the Honourable Evelyn, theirs is a life lived in a grand home filled with oak furniture and pillowcases fringed with lace.  Sally Seton is to arrive soon and will add sparkle to the event.  In early adulthood she was quite vocal about socialist causes and the two friends felt an intimate attraction toward each other.   Eventually though, Sally goes on to marry a wealthy man, live an aristocratic lifestyle and bears five sons.  Sally and Hugh have been acquainted for many years and are therefore well-informed of each other's humble beginnings and the status to which they've risen.

While certainly not guests, Clarissa's husband Richard, and her seventeen year-old daughter Elizabeth are scrutinized by others.  In fact, Richard catches a glimpse of his daughter from across the room and hardly recognizes her as it seems in that moment she has gone from being a girl to a woman.

One of my favourite guests is Lady Bruton who 'detested illness in the wives of politicians'.  I especially like the image of her conjured up by Woolf as a 'spectral grenadier, draped in black'.

'...if ever a woman could have worn the helmet and shot the arrow, could have led troops to attach, ruled with indomitable justive barbarian hordes and lain under a shield noseless in a church, or made a green grass mound on some primeval hillside, that woman was Millicent Bruton.'

While preparations are under way for Clarissa's party, another character struggles with post-traumatic stress after witnessing the death of a friend on the battlefield during the Great War.  Septimus Warren Smith is a tragic figure who is so badly affected by what he has experienced that he thinks birds are singing in Greek and he frequently sees a wall of flames before him.  Moments of lucidity bring joy to his young Italian wife, Rezia, but they are too few and there seems to be little help from the doctors.  One even suggests, whether through condescension or ignorance, two bromide tablets should do the trick.  Virginia Woolf's struggles with her own mental illness and frustration with the medical world's lack of understanding are clearly evident.  

Septimus and Clarissa never meet but we are reminded that for every festivity taking place in a corner of the world there is also suffering, and sometimes not so very far away.  Through Woolf's keenly observed characters we see a brilliant portrayal of the breadth of difference that often exists between persona and person.

The iconic opening line of Mrs Dalloway is the equivalent of a first bolt in the construction of a space shuttle.  Such a humble and unassuming beginning to something so powerful in its end product.  This is definitely a novel to return to as I'm sure further readings will reveal many more facets of the characters in this stunning book.

21 January 2016

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Even as the lights in the cinema dimmed, there was a moment of regret that I had not read the book first.  And then Cate Blanchett's luminous face appeared on the screen and that thought vanished.  When my hold for The Price of Salt became available I wondered if there was any point now; I knew how the story played out.  I'm so glad I bothered; if you've never read anything by Patricia Highsmith - you need to.

Highsmith's inspiration for The Price of Salt occurred in 1948 while picking up temporary work during the Christmas sales rush.  A well-dressed woman came into the shop and the author was captivated by her.  Later that evening, she wrote the outline for this novel in less than three hours.  The next day she developed a high fever and came down with chickenpox.  Talk about the best of times and the worst of times.

Therese Belivet is nineteen and lives in a mean apartment in New York.  She dreams about saving enough money to eventually buy a proper bookcase.  While working at Frankenberg's, a department store, during the Christmas season, she tells a colleague that her parents are dead.  This isn't completely true but it's preferable to unpacking the story of her past.  Therese has a boyfriend named Richard.  He's a sterotypical all-American young man and despite the fact that she keeps him at arm's length, Richard is determined to include Therese in his long-term plans.

When Mrs. Carol Aird walks into Frakenberg's, Therese is immediately captivated by the woman's beauty and sophistication.  Carol buys a toy for her little girl and leaves an address so it can be delivered.  The two women establish a friendship while slowly unravelling a game of courtship.  Carol introduces Therese to cocktails, nice restaurants, fashion, and driving a fabulous car.  Richard, despite his desire to see Europe with Therese, has never made her heart flutter in anticipation the way it does when she's about to see Carol.

There is another fly in the ointment.  Carol is married to Harge Aird, a businessman with connections.  He's is the process of divourcing his wife and there is no question of their daughter being allowed to live with Carol because of a previous 'situation'.

It was both fascinating and frustrating to read about two men who know that the women they are in love with, love other women.  The venom they hurl at people they profess to love down to ignorance and feelings of rejection is painful.  It's painful to read because the scenario rings so true.  This book glaringly portrays the tension of keeping your true feelings and gestures in check while in public during a time when same-sex relationships went against social mores.  This story also made me cheer for Therese who flourished despite such deep levels of discrimination and a lonely childhood.

Patricia Highsmith received bags of letters when The Price of Salt was first published from people who were thrilled to read a book they could relate to.  The letters continued to trickle in for decades.  There's more to say but I don't want to ruin the experience of reading this thrilling story.  Despite having seen the movie I was desperate to know what would happen on the next page.

The Price of Salt is a very American novel with a section featuring a road trip through the American Midwest.  But I'll just add that being the anglophile I am, the writing reminded me of one of my English favourites, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor.  Patricia Highsmith has just become another favourite of mine.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in 'Carol'

11 January 2016

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

This is an absolute joy of a book.  Not only does The Bookshop Book shine a light on bookshops you'll want to seek out on your travels it but points out how similar we book lovers are.  Apparently, no matter where bibliophiles live around the globe, we love tea, cake, the smell of a second-hand bookshop, and dream about being locked in a shop overnight.  And while so many of us would love to own a bookshop, it was surprising to me how many shops have been opened with little regard for bank balances, business experience, or long nights viewing spreadsheets focused on cost predictions.  I applaud those people and their bravery.  A small church nearby has been standing empty for quite a long time and I dream about turning it into a second-hand bookshop.  The wooden floorboards would creak, a small staircase would lead to nowhere so there could be a reading room for children underneath.  A counter would be topped with tea and a cake stand, and...this really is getting away from the book so back on track it is.

Covering three hundred bookshops across six continents this is a book you can dip in and out of or read cover to cover.  Being an Anglophile I enjoyed being back in London and picturing the shops on Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court.  On page nineteen, author Vivian French shares her love of one of my favourite shops, Persephone Books.

'Generally I'm a big fan of the Persephone classics and I actually managed to persuade three people to buy them whilst trying my hand at bookselling.  My favourite is Miss Ranskill Comes Home.  All of them are beautifully made.'

I can attest to that particular edition being an excellent read.

Books are a great source of joy and comfort but for Ellie Potten, who developed agoraphobia while in university, they proved to be a lifesaver.  Her mother left her job to care for Ellie full-time.  Through discussions on choosing a different approach to earning a living they began to dream about running a bookshop.  In 2009, when the economic climate should have frightened them, they started looking at tourist towns and real estate.  One thing led to another and in due course, Ellie was running a bookshop in the Peak District.  The shop is still open but under new management which really isn't the point.

Another favourite story from the book features a shop called Ripping Yarns situated opposite Highgate tube station,  The lineage of this shop is fascinating but the part that I loved most was about a woman who called the shop because she had seen a copy of a nature book she had owned as a child.  Her mother had sold the book at a jumble sale forty years ago and the woman wanted a copy for her grandchildren.  Days later she called the shop in tears.  The woman told the shop owner than through some miracle the book that arrived in the mail was the very copy she used to own, still bearing the inscription from her aunt.

Dotted throughout the book are pages dedicated to 'Bookish Facts' such as General Ho Chien banning Alice in Wonderland in 1931 because he thought animals talking as if they were people was offensive.  I find it slightly ironic that his name means 'dog' in French?

One of Toronto's best bookshops is called Monkey's Paw.  I've written before about the in-house Biblio-Mat that is a converted vending machine that turns out a random title when you deposit a toonie (two dollars).  

'Far and away the most notable Biblio-Mat customer is a man named Vincent Lui, who bought one book a week from the machine for all of 2013.  He read every book - and no matter what the title or subject - from cover to cover, and wrote a review of each on his blog (therandombookmachine.com).'

One of the many charming anecdotes in The Bookshop Book comes from Mongolia.  It warmed my heart and made me swoon a bit, if I'm honest, it's about the man who bought his wife a bookshop as a wedding gift.  The couple opened their shop in 2006.

A handful of years ago it seemed like every other person was buying an ereader or talking about buying one.  I would stand at the circulation counter of my library and watch a stream of people walk past carrying their device, looking for answers about downloading books.  With a 'if you can't beat them, join them' attitude we stocked different brands so customers could try each one before buying.  The list of people on hold for these devices was a long one.  While ereaders have their place and their fans, I'm pleased to see that small tsunami receding rather than picking up momentum.  The Bookshop Book is a love story for those of us who connect with paper and ink, and find comfort in shops filled with treasure...and sometimes even a cat or two.

I'll give the last work to a bookshop owner in Singapore...'I am the Joker that says, 'Bring it on!'.  As a tech-driven country, we are well-known to be early adopters when it comes to new tech gadgets.....'So, yes, if it helps to increase the readership numbers, let's get them hooked on reading first, and we, these magical creatures called booksellers, we will stealthily convert them into print-lovers, too.' 

Hear, hear!

Avril English, mother-in-law of Biblio-Mat inventor Craig Small

22 December 2015

We Three Books...

Visiting bookshops during the Christmas season is a little bit of heaven.  Over the past couple of weeks I've been in chain shops, independent shops, and clicked on-line.  So what have I treated myself to?

A Notable Woman: The romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield

  'In April 1925, Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal.  She continued to write until just a few days before her death in 1986, producing well over a million words in 45 exercise books during the course of her lifetime.  For sixty years, no one had an inkling of her diaries' existence, and they have remained unpublished until now.'

Jean Lucey Pratt contributed to the Mass Observation project but under the pseudonym 'Maggie Joy Blunt'.  Owning a copy of Our Hidden Lives (also edited by Simon Garfield) I looked for her entries and immediately fell in love with her voice and wanted to know more.

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell
  'From the oldest bookshop in the world, to the smallest you could imagine, The Bookshop Book explores the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at more than three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents.  (Sadly, we've yet to build a bookshop down in the South Pole).'

...and my favourite bit...'This book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world.'

Jen Campbell wrote Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and as someone who works in a public library...yes, customers say weird things there too.  This book is a sheer delight and has made a great gift for library friends who can relate.

I'm so looking forward to reading this book.  Some of my favourite bookshops in London are covered and Toronto also gets a mention as having the smallest bookshop in the world.  There are photos as well;  I loved the picture of a shop in Portugal, that looks similar to a VW van that has been retro-fitted to serve as a very quaint shop.

Stories From the Kitchen - Everyman's Pocket Classics

    '...is a one-of-a-kind anthology of classic tales showcasing the culinary arts from across the centuries and around the world.
  Here is a mouthwatering smorgasbord of stories with food in the starring role, by a range of masers of fiction - from Dickens to Chekhov to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Shirley Jackson to Jim Crace and Amy Tan.'

This would make a perfect gift for your favourite foodie.  I've read the excerpt from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and will just have to succumb to reading the whole book.  Does Minta ever find her grandmother's brooch on the beach?  Saki's Tea was as humourous as I thought it would be, and Emile Zola's The Cheese Symphony from The Belly of Paris is so rich in detail.  The writing is sublime and something that very likely could have passed me by if not for this glimpse at authors I've never read before.  I need more Zola!

Special mention goes to a beautiful new calendar for next year A La Belle Jardiniere.  

Merry Christmas to all of you who have stopped by!