Back Again — With Books!


Why is book shopping part of any vacation I take? It’s not as if we don’t have bookstores in Halifax. I think it’s something to do with the feeling of freedom from constraints that holidays bring. If I’m not responsible for work, regular meals, or housecleaning, surely I can be irresponsible in other ways too! Not that buying books is necessarily irresponsible. As my wise sister once pointed out to me (and she’s a person who has bought a book or two in her day…) a new book costs about the same as a decent (not even a really good) bottle of wine — and it lasts a lot longer and can be shared more widely! Besides, I’m an English professor, a critic, and a book blogger: books are necessities, not luxuries, right? (I feel pretty safe asking this rhetorical question here, since people who disagree are unlikely to be reading.)

My book haul this time is actually quite modest, especially considering some were gifts and one is a loan from my mother. I could actually go “book shopping” just on her shelves and make out better than in most bookstores, as there is a lot of overlap between our interests and tastes. Her Bloomsbury section alone is a treasure trove! And if you want to read about the history of the Balkans, she’s there for you. But I restrained myself and took only Carol Shields’s Small Ceremonies. I’m teaching Unless again this fall and this is one of Shields’s that I have never read. It has a great opening line — understated but immediately engaging in a way that reminds me of Anne Tyler: “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”

olafsdottirMy mother and I made our traditional trip to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, which has a relatively small but carefully curated selection that always provides many tempting options. Here too I was restrained, though! I chose Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which I had eyed there last year in hardcover but which is now available in a neat paperback. I liked Oleander, Jacaranda a lot; this later memoir looks as if it will focus more on Lively’s writing life. My other choice was more impulsive. In general my book browsing this trip was influenced by my frustration with the highly-touted The Goldfinch, and as a result I was drawn to books I had heard little or nothing about — which has its own risks, of course! (Serendipity isn’t always the worst guide, though, as I found when against all precedent I chose Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden a few years back.) I don’t know exactly what made me pluck Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November off the shelf, but once I had, everything about it appealed to me, from the cover design to the description of it as “a charming story of a free-spirited woman who reaches a life-changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical Icelandic road trip that sets her on a new course.” Who could resist? (I’m not sure if I mean the book or “a whimsical Icelandic road trip,” which actually sounds pretty inviting to me. If you come calling in a month or two and I’m nowhere to be found, I may be in Reykjavik.)

Small-Blessings_tpWords like “charming” can be warning signs for me, and yet I was also drawn to Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, which has a blurb from calling it “a charmer.” Oh dear, right? But it’s about a college professor and a book store manager, and (like Small Ceremonies) it looked like it would have an Anne-Tyleresque vibe. I looked at it in Hager Books but decided against it. When I stopped in at Indigo a couple of days later, though, there it was again, and this time I bought it. I read most of it during my long travel day home and finished it up this morning. It is charming. It’s not as good as the best of Anne Tyler, but it has the same interest in fairly ordinary people figuring out how to be happy, which is nowhere near as small a topic as it sounds. I appreciated how unpretentious the novel was: it never seemed to be straining after something the novelist couldn’t do. Usually I admire ambition: once again, I blame The Goldfinch — which, while not exactly a failure, seemed arrogantly inflated — for my seeking modesty for a while. Small Blessings does a lot less than The Goldfinch, and it doesn’t even aspire to be a novel of ideas (as far as I could tell). But what it does, it does nicely, with (yes) charm.

My other Indigo purchase is similarly small-scale, though not necessarily unambitious: I chose a volume of Alice Munro stories to add to the too-few I already have. I’m always vowing to read more short fiction in general and more Munro in particular. I chose Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because it includes “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which I have read and found thrilling and deeply moving. (It’s the basis for the film Away from Her, which I thought was very good.)

The only other book I bought on the trip was a slim book about Emily Carr, from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have always loved Carr’s paintings, particularly the ones that are almost entirely trees: they so wonderfully capture the mystery and majesty of the coastal forests I grew up beside. Perhaps because her work was so casually familiar to me, I have never tried to actually learn about Carr as an artist, though I have owned her autobiography Klee Wyck since I was a child. There’s something poignant about looking at Carr’s rich, dark woods now, when fires are burning along the coast and this kind of dire forecasting is in the news:

Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island’s iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.

The other books in my photo are also artsy. One is a collection of Arts & Crafts postcards, a souvenir from my parents’ recent trip to England. (My problem with this sort of thing is that the cards are always so lovely that I hesitate to use them as they are intended! Maybe I should buy one of those photo frames with a whole bunch of spaces and create something decorative out of them.) And finally, we visited a wonderful woman who is a dear friend of my parents and who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Knowing my love of 19th-century literature, she very kindly gave me a beautiful Jane Austen “daybook” from the British Library. It is full of elegant illustrations and choice quotations from Austen’s novels. I hate to sully it with my not-so-elegant handwriting, but it would be very useful for me to enter the birthdays of everyone in my family: maybe if I did that I wouldn’t be late with gifts for anyone again!


My trip was about a lot more than books, of course: that’s just the part it seems appropriate to write much about here. Most important was the chance to spend time with my parents, and with my brother and sister and their families, and to catch up with some of my cherished friends. I was very happy to be able to do all that, even in the middle of a heat wave (and even when the city was blanketed in smoke from the fires). It’s good for my soul to reconnect with them all, and it’s also always restorative to soak in the beauty of the mountains and the sea.



Vancouver Vacation: Sun, Fun, and Family

I’m back from another trip to Vancouver, this one organized mostly around the festivities for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was glorious weather the entire week, which was an especially good thing for the big party — a great event featuring family, old friends, lots of food and wine, and four musical performances from Bulgarian dance music to Bartok violin sonatas.

This was a shorter trip than my last one and involved quite a few family events, so I didn’t get around the city quite as much or see as many of my own old or newer friends (sadly, including Liz, with whom I had such a delightful lunch last year). Next time! But the city was as breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful as ever:




And my parents’ garden was as tranquil as ever, with its colorful pots, shady trees, and soothing “gurglers”:



And Granville Island (my happy place!) was as bustling and tempting as always:




And, of course, there’s always time to do a little book shopping:


My mother and I went on our traditional outing to Hager Books, which is small but nicely ‘curated’ and so always has particularly tempting options. I bought something old (Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence), something new (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) and something that’s a bit of a gamble (Zoë Ferraris’s Finding Nouf, a mystery set in Saudi Arabia which, if it turns out to be well-written and smart, is a possible contender for my detective fiction class — I’m always on the hunt for books that offer a different perspective or use the form for different kinds of inquiries — we’ll see how it goes).

I picked up Heyer’s Friday’s Child at Carson Books, a used book store in my parents’ neighborhood. It’s a fun place to rummage around, though overall the prices strike me as a bit high for second-hand. This is a pristine copy of a Heyer I’ve never read, though, so I snapped it up. I also bought an Inspector Morse novel there, because something about being around my folks always reminds me that I haven’t read any of these (they are big Morse fans), but I started it and wasn’t grabbed, so I left it behind for them to enjoy. (I’m sure my Morse days will come: for my sins, I’m unmoved by the TV show as well. In the meantime, though, I may try the prequel show Endeavor, which they all highly recommended.)

And then at the big Chapters downtown (which, once you get up to the third floor, past all the frou-frou stuff that comes first, has a pretty big selection of actual books) I found two books from my standing wish-list: E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (because you can never have too much British social satire in your collection) and Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters — contemporary Canadian, so a bit of a rarity and a risk for me, but recommended to me by Steven Beattie, who knows a thing or two about Can Lit. I gave it a good look in the store before deciding to actually buy it, and I like his instincts: it looks meta-historical and original, but not so quirky I either won’t get it or won’t like it.

Now I have to get myself re-organized and on track for what remains of the summer!

Back from Boston Bearing More Books!


I’m back again from another trip to Boston, where I went for another of our more-or-less-biannual Open Letters Monthly editorial summits. Along with the pleasure of seeing my colleagues face to face comes the treat of visiting some of Boston’s many excellent bookstores. I brought back a more modest stack than last time (or the time before that): it’s dimly possible that I was chastened by my awareness that I have only just read some of the books from those previous expeditions (not that the others are wasting away – they are just still ripening on the shelf!). It was as much fun as ever lingering luxuriously over my options, though, and I had very good luck finding some things I have been particularly looking for.

One writer I’ve often been advised to try, especially because of my interest in philosophical fiction, is Iris Murdoch. I’ve gotten a lot of different recommendations on which novel to start with; of these, The Sea, The Sea (which won the Booker Prize in 1978) has always seemed like a good option, so when I saw a nice copy of it at the Brattle I grabbed it up. My recent reading of Angle of Repose had me on the look-out for more Wallace Stegner (the only other one I have is Crossing to Safety), so The Spectator Bird (which won the National Book Award in 1976) was also a happy find. My other Brattle pick was Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, which I spotted on one of the dollar carts. It’s clearly a student copy (there’s a Brown Bookstore tag inside, and a lot of purple underlining), but it’s otherwise in good shape.  Even before I started reading romance novels  I knew that Radway’s was one of the key studies of the genre, and now that I have a little more experience both with the books themselves and with the interesting conversations people have about them, I’m curious to have a look at her arguments for myself. (The book is 30 years old now, and I know the field of romance studies has changed and grown a lot since it came out. But my guess is that a lot of those conversations still start with frameworks she set up.)

I usually love browsing the vast stretches of shelves at the Harvard Coop, but this time I actually found it a bit too much trying to make my way along them. Instead, I hunted up a few titles I have been wanting but unable to get a look at locally and finally settled on Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. It’s no secret that I am a ridiculous fan girl about Dunnett’s Lymond series. I love it so much I have never really wanted to read anything else by her…which is irrational in all kinds of ways! I have the first in the House of Niccolo series and one day may follow through on those, but I’ve heard from a few readers that King Hereafter (in which, the blurb tells us, she “peels away a thousand years of legend to uncover the historical figure of Macbeth”) is actually her very best historical novel. Better than The Ringed Castle? Incontheivable! But OK, I’m game. Stay tuned for a full report.

I was specifically hoping to find W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on this trip. I looked for it a few places and finally spotted it at the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center (where one or two of the OLM team can be found working most days of the week). Sebald is a writer I hear about often (most recently, in Tom’s comment here).  I bought Austerlitz a few years ago and have started it once or twice but put it aside — it’s still ripening! The Emigrants looks like it might be a bit more accessible to me. Again, stay tuned!

We made a pilgrimage to the OLM post office box, where Steve unpacks an astonishing haul of books almost every day. Fortuitously, the day I was with him one of them was an advance copy of the third book in Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which I promptly took possession of. Then at the Harvard Book Store I picked up The Days of Abandonment. So I’m all set for harshly unsentimental Italian fiction.

I guess I’d better start reading if I’m going to get through all of these before my next trip! Though maybe I should start with those Ivy Compton-Burnett novels from my first visit…

“Good novels, nothing else”: Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore

A_Novel_BookstoreWhat if Jonathan Franzen opened a bookstore, called it “The Good Novel” and refused to carry any of Jennifer Weiner’s books — not to mention Dan Brown’s, Tom Clancy’s, Jodi Picoult’s, or E. L. James’s?

It’s only too easy to imagine the brouhaha that would ensue, with cries of “excellence!” on one side and “elitism!” on the other, with one side proclaiming itself literary purists trying to break the cycle of commercialism that’s leading to the decline of Great Literature while the other side set itself up as democratic champions of the common reader, their store (call it “For Every Taste” ) selling pleasure rather than High Art. Who would be right? Which side would you be on? And, perhaps most to the point, where would you shop?

This is the basic premise of Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, though the characters who establish “The Good Novel” bookstore are not set up as smug Franzen-style curmudgeons but as passionate idealists. When they come under attack for their governing principles, their patron issues a stirring defense:

For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror, grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of businesses have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

But those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to think that they have the power to radiate all by themselves. That alone is our ambition. . . .

We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.

We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the ‘Go on, I need it for July, and in September we’ll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it’s in the bag’ variety. . . .

We want splendid books books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it will always be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

Stirring, as I say, and because the founders of The Good Novel are A Novel Bookstore‘s protagonists, it seems pretty clear whose side Cossé is on and wants us to be on too. And it’s tempting, because after all, who wants to be on the side of insignificant books, hollow books, or sloppy hurried books?

But the devil is in the details, of course, or, in this case, in the identification of these unworthy books — in discriminating decisively between the good and the bad. The Good Novel team orders their stock following lists submitted by a secret committee of writers, among whom there are in fact some differences of taste and interest, and all of whom (along with the bookstore staff) relish the opportunity to be advocates for lesser-known novels they believe deserve a wider readership. (One of the treats of A Novel Bookstore is noting the authors and titles that are batted around, many of whom were certainly unknown to me.) They are united against most bestsellers and prize-winners, however. Are they doing readers a disservice by refusing to stock books that, as they point out when challenged, are available by the thousand in every other bookstore in town? Is their insistence on exercising their own exclusive literary judgment heroic or, as one critic argues, fascistic?

This . . . is nothing more nor less than a totalitarian undertaking . . . What does good novel mean? Who are these kapos who have the nerve to place their seal of approval on this book and not that one? Where are they coming from? What gives them the right?

Those most offended, of course, are the excluded novelists as well as those in publishing who rely on highly commercial titles for their profits.  The actual plot of the novel is put in motion when some members of the selection committee are attacked. The investigating officer sums up his theory of who’s behind the attacks and why:

The Good Novel has caused every element of a fairly limited socio-professional group to break out in hives. Far be it from me to suggest . . . that this group represents everyone in publishing, the media, or criticism, or bookselling. They are a sub-faction of people who share the view that a book is a product that can make a lot of money and that literature can be a rich seam.

He goes on to compare the cabal working against The Good Novel to Al Qaeda — there’s not much middle ground in A Novel Bookstore, and that’s actually one reason I didn’t love it the way I expected to. The oppositions seem polarized in a way that suits this novel’s concept better than the novel as a genre, or novel readers.

The mystery plot is one of several facets of A Novel Bookstore: there’s a love story as well, and a number of subplots, really more like anecdotal digressions, about the various characters involved in setting up the bookstore. It all has a certain charm, and it is certainly executed with panache. But without the central debate about the value of ‘great’ literature, it would be a fairly insubstantial book, and even with it, it seemed somehow superficial, the working through of an idea for a novel more than a novel of the kind that The Good Novel would stock.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking about Cossé’s conceptual gambit as I was shopping in an actual bookstore myself yesterday. As I browsed the fiction shelves, I was frustrated as always at the crowding out of backlist titles (or just less mainstream titles) by stacks of the latest releases. What a different experience it is to shop at the London Review Bookshop, clearly curated on different principles! Yesterday I was also plagued by an over-enthusiastic employee who (when he wasn’t badgering me to see if he could help me, which he couldn’t, except by stocking more good novels!) was selling — by which I mean both promoting and taking money for– a lot of James Patterson and Tom Clancy. My inner literary snob cringed at his loud sales pitches even as my better angel (or was it?) reminded me not to look down on other people’s genuine reading pleasures. I wouldn’t be able to find everything I like to read at The Good Novel (yesterday I bought Tana French’s Broken Harbour, for instance), but I’d still rather browse there than at Coles.

Vancouver: By the Books!

I’m back from my trip to Vancouver. Including travel days, I was on vacation for 11 days, making this the longest trip I’ve taken in ages. It was wonderful to spend so much time with my family and to meet up with so many of my friends — among them the wonderful Liz of Something More, who is every bit as smart and witty and energetic in person as she is online. A special treat was getting to know my newest nephew, who made it to almost three  before coming face to face with his Aunt Rohan. There was lots of good food and drink and general conviviality; the weather was spectacular, and so, as always, was the scenery. A small sample will make you wonder why anyone bothers vacationing (or, for that matter, living) anywhere else:

Sunset at Kits Beach


Along the Seawall


The Beach at Spanish Banks


Along Kits Point


Plaza at Granville Island
My happy place:
the deck at Granville Island Market


But enough about all that! This is a book blog, so of course what you want to know about is whether I had any bookish adventures along with all that socializing and sightseeing. Well, of course I did. Here’s the stack of books I either read, bought, or borrowed on my trip:

Vancouver Books I

The Woman Upstairs and Jane and Prudence were the books I brought along to read on the plane. Barbara Pym was excellent company from Halifax to Toronto: I appreciated her much more after reading Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, so I was happy to find when I arrived in Vancouver that my mother had helpfully picked Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings from her collection and put them out for me. As you can see from the picture, I have “borrowed” them to read at my leisure! (I promise, I will give them back to her … next time she visits me here. See how cleverly I’m adding in incentives for her to come all this way?) The Magnificent Spinster is hers as well: one of the fun things about visiting my parents is exploring their incredibly well-stocked and various shelves, from the rows of vintage Penguin Classics in the living room to the mysteries shelved two deep in the study to my mother’s Bloomsbury nook:

Bloomsbury Corner

From Toronto to Vancouver I made good progress on The Woman Upstairs, which I had suggested for my F2F book club for August; I finished it up a day or two after I got there. I was pretty disappointed in it: it seemed heavy-handed and straining towards significance. Nora’s anger was particularly uninteresting to me, largely because it was so insistent. Though the overt allusion is to Jane Eyre, I found myself thinking more about Villette as I read it. Lucy Snowe is a much more layered and complex character — or perhaps I should say characterization: Brontë gives us mysteries, deception, and self-deception where I felt that Messud gives us mostly clichés and plot twists. And speaking of twists, the one at the end is painfully predictable, isn’t it? I ended up feeling that I had once again made the mistake of following the hype. But perhaps as I think it over more, and after we’ve discussed it in our group, I’ll realize how this preliminary reaction is inadequate.

Also in the pile is Arabella, which I bought myself as a treat at the big Chapters downtown. I ended up reading most of it on the flights home: it was sweet and cheerful and not too demanding, which is just about right for a stressful flying day. (Overall I was pleased with how well I handled the flying on this trip — there was a minimum of armrest clutching, for one thing, and my “self-talk” strategies were more effective than usual, even during turbulence. Still, even at its best it’s a crowded, uncomfortable, and disconcerting experience, isn’t it?)

My other purchases were from Hager Books, one of the very few independent stores left in Vancouver. From their carefully curated selection, I chose Gift from the Sea, which I was inspired to buy because of Litlove’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the April issue of Open Letters Monthly. I had planned to read it on the plane home but didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on it, so now I have it to look forward too. And I chose Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures for the contrasting reason that I’d never heard of it (or him) before and was intrigued that Hager had several of his titles in stock, as if he’s a readerly favorite. Besides that, of course, I also thought it looked interesting! Has anyone read any of Hellenga’s novels? If you hated them, probably best not to tell me that I may have wasted my Hager’s opportunity on the wrong thing!

In the Woods is there because I ordered a book for a gift to be sent to Vancouver ahead of my arrival, and I wanted something to add it so I’d get free shipping! I chose it because Tana French is a name that keeps coming up when I ask for mystery recommendations. I’d been avoiding it because it begins with bad things happening to young children, but I need to refresh my mystery reading. (Pretty soon, in fact, I have to order books for another round of the ‘Women & Detective Fiction’ seminar, so you’ll be seeing more questions about that here later.)

palfreyThe book I liked best of the ones I read on my trip is actually not shown here because I finished it and decided I really shouldn’t kidnap yet another of my mother’s books. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and it is by far my favorite of the novels by Taylor that I’ve read. It’s got the same clear-eyed, almost ruthless perspective on people’s foibles and self-deceptions but is also both funny and poignant. It was on the shelf next to Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which I did make off with. Really, if I lived in Vancouver, I would hardly need bookstores or libraries at all!

And now, back to my regular life. . I’m pleased with how much I got done on different projects before I left, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, the reviews for Open Letters, and the draft of the Dick Francis essay (now in the editor’s hands); it’s time to think about how I want to use the rest of the time I have before teaching once again becomes the #1 priority. First, though, I have to get over my jet lag …


Magical Thinking: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

tiffanyBreakfast at Tiffany’ s is the January read for my Halifax book group: we’re meeting next Saturday at Pipa to talk it over and celebrate the new year.

I more or less enjoyed reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s: more because the prose is so elegant, less because I found Holly Golightly tedious. She seems to me one of a type, though a particularly fey and charming example of it: it’s a type I think of as the intellectual man’s idea of a temptress, and other examples include Sue in Jude the Obscure and Julia in Brideshead Revisited. I believe I accused these two of representing “pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness.” Holly lacks their intellectual pretentiousness and shows no sign of haphazard piety, but she raises the same question for me as the other two: what’s so attractive about her? Is it that she’s so unstable her sexuality is not threatening? Is it that her intelligence is randomly dispersed rather than ambitious? Is it that for all her allure she seems fundamentally vulnerable?

Actually, even as I write I’m thinking of more ways Holly is different from my other examples. She is more endearing (at least to me), because for all her elaborate artifice, she seems warmhearted. Though she uses the men in her life to serve her selfish ends, she also enjoys giving pleasure, and she’s loyal . And she says some wise things, including “Anyone who ever gives you confidence, you owe them a lot.” And — and here’s where I think much of her charm probably does lie, for every reader — she’s a wistful dreamer, someone who, like all of us, is just wishing for a way to live her life that feels safe and happy, and maybe even a little bit dignified:

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Do we all have a place that works its magic on us the way Tiffany’s calms and cheers Holly? I bet in this crowd a lot of us feel that way in a bookstore. I’ve been feeling kind of fretful lately, but this afternoon I treated myself to a browse and a coffee at Chapters, and though it’s not even my favourite bookstore to visit, I sure felt better after an hour or so roaming the shelves. While I was in there, I was wondering about one of the sources of my fretfulness–the surge of writerly confidence I felt after I got back from Boston last year, or rather the way that surge seems to have ebbed away. I spent a lot of my time in Boston in bookstores, and with other people who thrive on reading and writing and talking about books. I’m not looking for excuses to buy more books, really! But it occurred to me today that just spending my time in that way might have affected me at some subterranean level by affirming priorities, and even an identity, somewhat different from my day-to-day reality. My relationship with the wider book world is much more furtive in my ordinary life: I often (if irrationally) feel kind of guilty when I buy books, or when I steal away from work and family to browse them at my leisure; my bookish contacts and conversations are nearly all virtual; I have to fit in my non-academic reading and writing in between my “real” work tasks; my home office where I do my blogging and non-academic writing is even in the basement! I think there’s a way in which being in an actual bookstore summons up a fantasy life for me the way Tiffany’s does for Holly, though the precise things we want to feel and do are hardly the same.

Back from Boston Bearing Books!

I got back yesterday from my second annual (?) spring expedition to Boston. Once again I loved exploring the city and meeting up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues. And this time I had the special treat of also meeting up with my mother. Though we had a delightful time sightseeing, visiting museums, and eating all kinds of good food, there’s no question but what our favorite activity was browsing in the excellent bookstores (and trading comments and suggestions back and forth): we spent hours in Brattle Books in Boston, in both the Harvard Book Store and the Harvard Coop in  Cambridge, and in the Broadside Book Shop and Booklink in Northampton. Here’s most of my haul (a few others will be wending their way to me by post):

Book buying is such a funny thing–when you are surrounded by thousands of titles, many different, sometimes conflicting, even irrational influences and impulses go into the final decisions. I had a little list of books I particularly hoped to find, ones that I hadn’t found in stock in Halifax but wanted to look at personally, rather than just online, before ordering, or ones that I could order but would have to wait for. Other titles or authors I had in mind in a general way and looked for to see what the options were–with such great stock all around, I found more of these than I expected! So what did I get, and why? Let’s go through the pile starting at the top.

A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library. I can’t get over how beautiful and inspiring the BPL is. Here are two of the exterior inscriptions: “The Public Library of the City of Boston Built By the People and Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning”; “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” Yes, yes, yes, it does! And public libraries are such a wonderful commitment to and investment in that conviction. The BPL is a great public building not just because it serves this great cause, though, which many modern libraries do in a very utilitarian spirit, but because it is itself filled with art and grace, from the grand entrance hall to the elegant Bates Hall reading room to the astonishing murals by John Singer Sargent. This little book was just $2 at the gift shop. It has no color plates but gives lots of detail about the history, design, and art of the building.

Next in the pile is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve heard a lot about this novel and it sounded really interesting, but so do lots of recent books, so it hadn’t made it onto my TBR list until my mother reported having been won over by it. When I saw a nice copy at the Brattle, I grabbed it up.

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is one I went looking for. I was moved and impressed by Crossing to Safety when I read it a few years ago, and my interest in Stegner was rekindled recently by a documentary I watched about him–though the documentary itself was not very well done. This one I found at the Harvard Coop in the handsome Penguin edition with an introduction by Stegner biographer Jackson J. Benson.

I’ve been wanting to break up my nearly-all-fiction reading diet with more poetry, and Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath are two of the poets I wanted to read more of than is found in my heaps of anthologies (most of which include the same small selection of poems). (We’ve run pieces on both Larkin and Plath recently at Open Letters that further stimulated my interest.) I found The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin at the Coop and Ariel downstairs at the Harvard Book Store. I’ve never written anything on poetry for Open Letters. Maybe someday–but what? In the meantime, I may venture some comments on these volumes here on my own turf.

Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul was recommended to me some time ago by a friend, who thought it was both a really fine read and a book I’d respond to because it’s about a pianist, and my son is a very gifted composer and performer. It too I found at the Coop (which would have been even more dangerous to my budget if it hadn’t been one of the last bookstores we went to, as every time I thought of something to look for, it was there!).

I’ve found New York Review Classics scarce here in Halifax and often with limited availability from Canadian online retailers as well, so I was especially glad to find so many of these around. Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado sounded delightful when I read about it on different blogs and reviews, so I pounced on it when I saw it at the Coop. I’ve been looking for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts all over town here and hadn’t found it yet; I picked it up at the Broadside Book Shop in Northampton. And I found Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner (also the subject of a good piece in Open Letters) downstairs at the Harvard Book Store, where they have all kinds of NYRB Classics on their remainders tables!

I’ve read two novels by Jane Gardam–Old Filth and Queen of the Tambourines. The Man in the Wooden Hat, which I got at the Broadside Book Shop, tells the story of Old Filth’s marriage over again, from the point of view of his wife Betty. The blurb calls it “as fine a portrait of a marriage as any written in English.” We’ll see about that!

Flaubert’s Parrot is the next book chosen by my local book club–the one that just finished Madame Bovary. We have tried since the beginning to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next. The thread here is pretty obvious! I think the only other Julian Barnes I’ve read is Arthur and George, which I didn’t love. I got The Sense of an Ending from the library as an e-book just before I left last week, and I started it on the plane, but it turned out to be too cerebral for me to read under those conditions. (What did I read on the plane? Mostly Jennifer Crusie, actually, several of whose books I had also borrowed electronically with precisely my fear of flying in mind. And they were just right: cheerful, diverting, and easy to keep track of even if you are pausing every few minutes to clutch your armrest and take deep breaths.) I don’t have high hopes for Flaubert’s Parrot (and so I was glad to find it remaindered at the Harvard Book Store for just a few dollars), but at the same time I like that my book groups get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise, and who knows, I might love it.

Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden was my one real unforeseen impulse buy of the trip. I started leafing through it quite at random in the MFA gift shop (I picked it up just because it looked very beautiful) and got quickly intrigued by the concept of the book–“An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.” The first epigram to the book is from its main subject, Mary Delany, who invented (discovered? developed? conceived of?) an intricate form of collage. “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old?” she writes to her younger sister in 1750; “It is just the reverse.” Her spectacular paper renditions of flowers are a testimony to her own utter lack of indifference (sample). I ended up buying it at Booklink in Northampton, as I kept thinking about it after I put it back at the MFA, and I started reading it right away. It’s an odd book in terms of genre, as it interweaves a biographical account of Delany’s life with meditations and speculations on the psychological and sexual meanings of her her flower collages (some quite speculative, though I’m trying to go along with that for now), and with autobiographical material from Peacock herself. I often resist books that offer epigrammatic snippets of wisdom about life in general (you really have to earn the right to them, I figure) but so far I’m liking the delicacy with which Peacock moves from Delany to herself to thoughts about creativity, aging, and other topics.

Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf was not a purchase but was hand-delivered to me by my mother, who has a vast collection of Bloomsbury materials. I’ve read quite a bit about it, and some excerpts from it, and I’m very keen to read the whole thing. (I’ll give it back, though–I promise!)

I found Sandra Gilbert’s Rereading Women at the Brattle. It’s the only academic literary criticism I really even looked at in all these bookstores. Gilbert is a good stylist and always an interesting thinker and reader, and this looks both accessible (it’s an essay collection, not a monograph) and provocative.

The little book Samplers from A to Z, from the Museum of Fine Arts, was a consolation prize to me for just barely missing their exhibit on Embroideries of Colonial Boston. I love looking at samplers and needlework: there’s something so intensely personal about them. It hadn’t occurred to me to time my visit around special museum exhibits, but next time I’m booking a ticket with some flexibility in my dates, I will have to pay attention to that kind of thing, as I was so disappointed to see the poster with the “closed” sign on it.

The last book in the pile is also from a museum, but this time for an exhibit we did manage (though just barely!) to see: the marvelous multi-media display on “Debussy’s Paris” at the Smith College Museum of Art. The displays were fascinating and very thoughtfully done, with listening and viewing stations bringing the music and street life of Paris into the room along with the drawings, paintings, and posters. I don’t often buy companion books for exhibits, but this book is much more than a catalogue: it includes a series of essays on topics like “Dance in Debussy’s Paris.” And I was really absorbed by the attention to dance, visual art, and music–such a rich display, in just one small room, too. They had a listening station with excerpts from some of Debussy’s pieces (with introductory commentary), some of which I hadn’t heard or even heard of before and a couple of which I made a note of because I thought they’d appeal to my son (whose favorite composer is Ravel but who has been experimenting more and more with different styles and modulations).  Here’s a link to Dawn Upshaw singing the “Chansons de Bilitis.”

It’s not as if I don’t already have books to read (and I haven’t forgotten about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon–I have another post on it lurking in my ‘drafts’ folder already!). But it’s really exciting to be surrounded by books and readers the way you are in these shops, and to get a hands-on sense of what the books are really like before you decide what to get, something that just isn’t quite replicated by the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon. There’s only one book I was sorely tempted by but resisted, and the temptation arose purely from what a lovely tactile object it was: the Penguin ‘Threads’ edition of Little Women. We already own the book (of course!)–in fact, I think we may have two copies of it–but I kept picking this one up just to fondle it. I wonder if Penguin (and the artists responsible for the covers in this wonderful series) would consider releasing them as needlework or cross-stitch patterns.

So! I think I’m ready for the annual ‘summer reading challenge’: Maddie signs up for it at our own local public library, and I always promise to match her book for book. The first one I’m likely to write up here is The Paper Garden, so stay tuned.

London Books

In the grand tradition of May’s post on Boston by the Books and last summer’s post on my equally bookish expedition to New York, here’s a recap of my book buying adventures in London. First of all, as I have mentioned here a few times, the London Review Bookshop was my top destination for the trip. It was everything I’d imagined. It proves that, when it comes to bookstores anyway, size really doesn’t matter: it’s far from the largest bookstore I’ve ever been in, but every shelf is packed with interesting titles, with no space wasted on the mass-market blockbusters of the mostly disposable kind that fill huge display racks at so many other stores. I could have spent hours more exploring and learning. I didn’t even really go downstairs, except to grab the one Mr. Gum title missing from our collection from their children’s section–this series, much beloved of both my children, is very hard to get on this side of the pond. I was especially looking for a couple of books I hadn’t found locally, John Williams’s Stoner and Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and sure enough, they were both in stock. I couldn’t resist Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder, which has not been released here yet in paperback, and having just helped edit Michael Adams’s lovely piece on Barbara Pym for this month’s Open Letters Monthly, I leapt on Jane and Prudence when I spotted it. I could easily have bought another dozen titles, but I had to respect not only my budget but also the impracticality of adding too much more weight to my suitcase when I knew I still had to lug it to Birmingham and back. So I made it out of there with only five additions to my library–restrained indeed!

I enjoyed browsing in a number of other bookstores, including Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road and two Waterstone’s locations, the one on Gower Street (just up from my little hotel) and the giant one at Piccadilly Circus. There, after much dithering deliberation I picked out another couple of books that have proved elusive locally, Susan Hill’s thriller The Woman in Black and Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel. Again, there were many other tempting choices (including Elizabeth von Armin’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which I am still rather regretting having put back on the shelf, and Sebastian Faulks’s One Day in December–though deciding against that one, I think, was probably the right call). But I had already added Avrom Fleishman’s George Eliot’s Intellectual Life to my stash from the Cambridge University Press table at BAVS, and while roaming Waterstone’s Piccadilly I was actually carrying with me, in my trusty Lug shoulder bag, the beautiful book on the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries that I treated myself to at the Victoria and Albert Museum Bookshop, so I was keenly aware of the increasing weight of my luggage! My final book purchase in London was a tiny one, the British Museum’s Little Book of Mummies. Then, having arrived virtuously early at Heathrow for my flight home and checked my heavy bag, I felt at liberty to explore WHSmith, where seeing Mary Stewart’s Stormy Petrel  brought to mind a recent chat with a former student and fellow avid reader about her novels and how much I had once enjoyed them. And now here they all are, just waiting for me!

Both the tapestry book and the mummies book are part reading material, part souvenir: they will remind me of and teach me more about some of the museum exhibits that moved and interested me the most on this visit. In the same spirit, here are two related pictures from those exhibits for you to enjoy!