Just back from a sunny, Aperol-soaked week in Venice. In between the Biennale action I borrowed this Patricia Highsmith book from the apartment we stayed in and managed to read it all in one sitting while working on my tan at the Lido - score.
Those Who Walk Away is a bit of a tribute to Venice and the story is undeniably mysterious and compelling, so was the perfect holiday reading. It has all the rich-Americans-in-Europe glamour of The Talented Mr Ripley, and the setting of eerie narrow streets and swanky hotels is brilliantly evoked, but the core of the story felt weirdly unbalanced somehow. After the suicide of his young wife Peggy, Ray, an American art dealer, pursues his father-in-law Coleman from Mallorca to Rome to Venice, trying to convince him of his innocence in Peggy’s death. But Coleman - a sort of unhinged artist who, in my mind, looks exactly like John Goodman - is deranged with grief and tries to kill Ray, first by shooting him, then shoving him into the freezing Giudecca Canal - and yet Ray continues following Coleman around.
The claustrophobic setting is an amazing backdrop to this rather odd cat-and-mouse story of grief and revenge, but I found myself wondering the whole time why Ray didn’t just drop it and go home. There was a purposelessness to Ray’s character that just didn’t quite seem convincing – his actions, supposedly motivated by a desire to clear his name, all seemed a little half-baked. That said, I still enjoyed it hugely. Highsmith winds up the psychological tension with a perfectly steady hand and it’s a gripping read.
I’m in love with Belgravia Books, a brilliant independent bookshop in Ebury Street. It’s also home to Gallic Books, a publisher of French books translated into English, including the work of Pascal Garnier.
The A26 came out earlier this year, and it has an irresistible premise: a motorway, a murderer and a hermit coming together in a bleakly offbeat story set in a provincial town in Picardy. I won’t lie - the picture of a bulldozer on the front cover kind of drew me in too.
Garnier’s story begins with Yolande, a woman who’s refused to leave her house since 1945. Her brother, Bernard, is dying slowly from a terminal illness, and there’s a new motorway being built nearby: the A26.
As Bernard realises his days are numbered, he begins to act on his murderous tendencies. Garnier’s precise, spare prose style gives these scenes of roadside horror a surreal edge, as does Bernard’s rather laid-back and philosophical attitude towards the frailty of life and his victims:
'Vanessa, the motorcyclist, Jacqueline, all of them in the rear-view mirror, in one small piece of mirror which saw things back to front. A life wasn't very much, not much at all. Giving, taking away. It was so easy. Sometimes death spares people'.
At exactly 100 pages, The A26 is short and fast-moving, yet also rich in creepy descriptions of the siblings’ life together: the claustrophobia of their old house, Yolande’s manic and disgusting cooking habits. Theirs is a gloomy and unpredictable world, but Garnier’s bursts of black comedy prevent this book from feeling depressing. I loved it and can’t wait to read more of his books.
As well as historical materials it includes ‘everyday’ propaganda: banknotes, social media, and, um, the Tufty Road Safety Club (anyone else remember the board game? It was kind of like Snakes and Ladders in suburbia).
I’d like to think whoever owned this book before me motored across France for their holidays in St-Trop in a ridiculously glamorous and unpractical open-top car with this Michelin guide stashed in the glove compartment.
Buying out-of-date guide books is, of course, completely pointless behaviour, except when they’re as lovely as this one. It’s packed with gorgeous maps and in-depth listings of hundreds of restaurants and hotels across France, as well as illustrations of that loveable chubster, the Michelin Man.
It’s a very brief but brilliant overview of the genre, featuring well-known and well-loved crime writers (Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Henning Mankell) as well as more surprising ones like Pele and Gypsy Rose Lee.
There are some fabulous rare old books on display, plus authors’ manuscripts, notebooks, and a heavily-doodled script from the film version of Murder on the Orient Express. It’s like entering a cabinet full of familiar police Inspectors, from Montalbano to Mr Whicher, and a lovely demonstration of the quirks and diversity of crime fiction.
Murder in the Library is open until 12 May 2013 at the British Library; admission is free.
I adore spy novels, especially if they’re by John Le Carré. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of my favourites. Set in London and East Germany, it depicts the spy’s life as one of reluctant ruthlessness, doubt and mundanity, with a ‘hero’ who’s at the mercy of the bureaucrats and is pretty much the opposite of James Bond.
"…With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones…"
- George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
I love this book so much. I’ve read and re-read Down and Out loads of times, and I heard an extract being read on the radio the other night, which reminded me to share these two great 1970s covers.
In both books, Orwell explores poverty - in the coal areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire at a time of mass unemployment, where people slept as many as eleven to a room in slum dwellings; and in Paris and London, where Orwell spent weeks scraping by on tiny sums of money from menial jobs, or ‘tramped’ the streets and slept in squalid shelters.
They’re my favourite books by Orwell; vivid, fearsome, full of human detail and a forceful yet intimate prose.
New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps,and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost.
I love Milan Kundera’s novels so I couldn’t resist this vintage copy of Granta from 1984. As well as interviews, essays and an extract from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it also features stories by Martha Gellhorn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jay McInerney.
If you love old book covers, you might enjoy this project by Jonathan Bell – a catalogue of his personal (and apparently massive) collection of vintage Pelican books. The Guardian has a lovely online gallery of the covers here, but the full collection has serious scale, covering dozens of books from the 1930s to 1980s. The artwork varies from decade to decade, from the relatively restrained covers of the earlier years through to photo-montage heaven in the 60s.
I got the one pictured here in a second-hand bookshop in Blackheath. I haven’t read much more than a few pages yet and, given it was published in 1957, it’s probably no longer an ‘up-to-date account’. But it’s still fascinating and I love how the experiments are illustrated with stories, including the moment in David Copperfield where Dickens describes the feeling of déjà vu.
A friend from work lent this to me and sadly I didn’t manage to make much progress reading it on the long-haul flights I took recently, so I’m just starting it now. Set in an elite New England college, the spooky atmosphere is amplified by peculiar, prickly characters and the mystery laid down at the outset - how and why was Bunny killed? Beautifully written crime story starting backwards - I know I’m going to love it…
I’ve just returned from a trip to Australia, where I fell in love with Fremantle, WA. It has old colonial buildings, a great maritime museum… and a fabulous second-hand bookshop!
As well as large sections of Australian fiction and naval history, this bookshop had the ultimate display (for me, anyway) - an entire cabinet devoted to books by Graham Greene. The pictures don’t really do it justice, but I was so excited about getting a closer look at the beautiful vintage covers and rare editions that I nearly forgot to take photos at all. It was a tough decision choosing what to buy, especially as it was closing time, so in the end I went for one I hadn’t read before: In Search of a Character, Greene’s journals about his time in West Africa which led to the novels The Heart of the Matter and A Burnt Out Case. All I can say is: I wish this bookshop was closer to home.
The number of breweries in the UK is apparently at a seven-year high, and based on my own rigorous research, there’s a definite beer renaissance going on. It ain’t cheap and sometimes it tastes a bit like soap, but craft beer is popping up everywhere.
Sampling beers from breweries practically on my own doorstep inspired me to pull out my beautiful copy of Home Brewed Beers and Stouts. It’s full of traditional (and slightly bizarre) recipes for brewing your own beers, stouts and lagers. The strangest I’ve found so far is for chicken beer, which as the name suggests involves adding a whole boiled chicken to the mix.
Although I don’t have the space, apparatus or, possibly more importantly, the patience to start brewing my own beers at home, I love C.J.J. Berry’s pure enthusiasm for home brewing and belief in the value of persistence. You will, he asserts continually, produce a delicious truckload of beer for virtually zero cost - just keep at it! Why would you ever BUY beer when you could make your own?
Home Brewed Beers and Stouts was first published in the 1960s, when I’d guess home brewing was more commonplace than it is nowadays, but there’s something inspiring and lovely about this book’s matter-of-fact, ‘just get on with it’ attitude. Cheers to that.
My other obsession, apart from books and writing, is fashion, and I love this photoshoot from October’s issue of British Vogue, inspired by Wuthering Heights - and featuring a lovely old copy of Emily Bronte’s classic.
I’m loving the BBC’s adaptation of Parade’s End at the moment, so I took the opportunity for a bit of geeky book tourism the other day by stopping off at Winchelsea, East Sussex, where Ford Madox Ford lived for several years at the beginning of the twentieth century.
FMF’s residence was one of the town’s lovely white weatherboarded houses, and at one point Joseph Conrad lived across the road in an equally adorable stone cottage. I thought Winchelsea seemed magical and weirdly quiet, seemingly untouched by time - there’s only one pub! And only two shops! (Neither of which looked like the sort of place that’d sell scratchcards, or chewing gum.) Apart from the war memorial, the town can’t have looked that different when FMF lived here.
B: It’s nice, but it’s only big enough for one person - or two people who are very close.
A: You know two people who are very close?
- Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
I loved reading this borrowed copy of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Published in 1975, it’s witty, weird, and very Warhol. Loosely based around a series of taped conversations between Andy and his friend Brigid, each chapter has a theme - Love, Beauty, Fame, and Economics being some of them - but other than that there’s not much of a structure. That’s not a bad thing, though. I like the conversational voice, the candour and sense of spontaneity, the one-liners, and the way Warhol blends at times nonsensical or self-consciously outrageous comments with more revealing insights about himself and his art. The closing chapter is one of my favourite parts: it sees A and B out shopping in a department store, comparing the value of diamonds versus Dr Scholl’s Footsavers.
Rye in East Sussex is the definition of quaint and an absolute haven for anyone who loves history and shopping for old stuff. Not only is it home to dozens of amazing vintage and second-hand shops, it has loads of quirky and beautifully-preserved buildings, pubs, cafes and restaurants, including Simon the Pieman (check that out here).
My favourite discovery of the day was probably the Tiny Book Store. The name doesn’t lie - it really is tiny, the size of a very small front room, and full of beautiful old books displayed all around the walls and on an antique table. And snuffling about in the entrance was the biggest dachshund I’ve ever seen (sadly not pictured!).
“Believe it or not, Generation Y might just be the most bibliophilic generation alive, according to a new consumer study. Gen Y – those born between 1979 and 1989 – spent the most money on books in 2011, knocking the longtime book-buying leaders, baby boomers, from the top spot, according to the 2012 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review.”—Gen Y: the most book-loving generation alive? - CSMonitor.com (via infoneer-pulse)
These are the latest additions to my already ridiculous-sized second-hand book collection, bought last week in the new Oxfam Books in Islington. Graham Greene is one of my favourite writers and over the past few years I’ve read most of his novels, though not Stamboul Train and A Gun for Sale, so I’m really looking forward to them. And aren’t the covers great?
This copy of Under the Net is not so much second-hand as found lying around and cheekily snaffled. Hope nobody missed it.
Under the Net tells the story of charismatic drifter Jack Donaghue - an occasional translator and serial sponger on a series of whirlwind, brandy-fuelled adventures around London. I love the descriptions of the places Jack and his gang of messy comrades pass through. From drinking coffee at dawn in the porters’ bar at Covent Garden Market after a rambling night out, to slipping into the Wallace Collection for a quiet moment and crashing out at various shared flats in Earls Court, Donaghue’s London is an exuberant and grimy playground.
"An umbrella shop was burning on the corner of Oxford Street; in Wardour Street he walked through a cloud of grit: a man with a grey dusty face leant against a wall and laughed and a warden said sharply, ‘That’s enough. It’s nothing to laugh about.’"
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear
The Ministry of Fear is one of my favourite books set in London, partly because it so powerfully recalls what was surely one of the most frightening moments in the city’s history.
Greene was a warden in the Blitz, stationed at Gower Street in Bloomsbury and The Ministry of Fear - set during World War Two - evokes the horror and disorientation of the bombed city.
In the opening chapter, the protagonist, Arthur Rowe, stumbles into a charity fete. Struggling with his guilt at having mercifully murdered his sick wife, he thinks it will be an afternoon to forget to about war and enjoy the simple pleasure of a childhood English tradition. He wins the competition to correctly guess the weight of the cake - and as a result finds himself hunted by people he doesn’t know, forced to go on the run in his own home city.
Rowe’s fragile state of mind is reflected in the changing, crumbling landscape of the city; in one half-dream sequence, while sheltering underground, he imagines recounting to his dead mother the famous landmarks that have disappeared. The hero’s sense of personal guilt and horror makes The Ministry of Fear a moving, unsettling thriller.
I was a total latecomer to reading One Day (that’s the trouble with second-hand books). A friend from work lent it to me last summer, around the time the film version was released, informing me that ‘everyone’ was reading it on the train to work.
I read it while on holiday and have to admit I didn’t really like the characters much at first - and by the end, I wondered if Nicholls really meant for us to like them at all. Either way, their story still drew me in; after a few chapters I was well into that gloriously booky feeling where you can’t wait to know what’s going to happen to them next so you read really really fast and even maybe skip over a few paragraphs now and then just to get there even quicker…
The story is set partly in Edinburgh and Paris, but mainly in London, and one of my favourite city scenes is when Dexter and Emma have a stand-up row outside a Soho bar (we’ve all been there). The characters’ progression is marked out in locations around London; Emma’s grim ex-council flat in Walthamstow, Dexter’s 30th birthday at a club in Regent’s Street, his chi-chi deli in north London.
Although it went by in a bit of a blur (that might’ve been partly due to the 35-degree heat) I really enjoyed reading One Day, and I especially liked its simple but fantastically effective format of telling the story through short scenes. And I’m ashamed to admit, I still haven’t returned it.
Today the London 2012 Olympic Games finally begin and in spite of myself - and my complete lack of interest in sport - I’m actually pretty excited. And what better way to mark the occasion than with… a reading list!
Here’s a list of top ten books set in London from the Guardian, and I plan to blog some of my favourites here too.
"Now she knows: that was the moment, right then. There has been no other."
Michael Cunningham, The Hours
This copy of The Hours has been on my bookshelf for years, unread, until I saw the film on TV recently. It was delicate, moving, elegant: I loved the way the three stories of its characters, Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan, were woven together (plus great performances by two of my favourite actresses, Julianne Moore and The Streep). So I finally read the book.
The Hours is an intimate response to Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, picking up the themes of ageing, of death and suicide, domesticity and same-sex relationships that preoccupy the original Clarissa. Cunningham’s prose is sensitive, incredibly concise (The Hours is only 226 pages) yet somehow packed with detail, combining trivialities and tensions, exploring the melancholy of the mundane. As Laura Brown, the unhappy housewife, observes, where do ‘ordinary sorrows’ give way to deeper ones? The most striking thing about the novel, I think, is how evocatively and effectively the characters’ inner thoughts and lives are portrayed. The Hours is an homage to Virginia Woolf but the stories also stand alone.
Reading a book after seeing the film adaptation is, I think, always a bit weird. Throughout, I found myself comparing the two, but every time I was surprised by how faithful the film was to the book - it seemed as though even the lines spoken by the characters had barely been changed, although there must have been considerably more dialogue added. But it seemed the same, for the most part - seamless. I particularly loved the bit in the book where Clarissa Vaughan sees a celebrity in the street and wonders if it’s Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave.
"If it still smells okay on Monday night - you’re eating it."
-Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
I rarely stray away from my love of fiction long enough to read many autobiographies, but I really enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential. Sweary, unpredictable and energetic, it’s a funny and at times gruesome account of his 25 years in the restaurant business, from a dishwasher in a beachside restaurant to a top chef in Paris, Tokyo and New York.
Bourdain begins at the beginning, describing his discovery of food on his first trip to France as a boy. I knew I was going to love this book when he professed his love of Tintin stories:
"My principal interest at this time was adding to my collection of English translations of Tintin adventures. Herge’s crisply drafted tales of drug-smuggling, ancient temples, and strange and faraway places and cultures were real exotica to me. I prevailed on my poor parents to buy hundreds of dollars-worth of these stories at W.H. Smith, the English bookstore, just to keep me from whining about the deprivations of France…"
Bourdain’s memoirs are definitely modelled on that idea of the boy adventurer, albeit one armed with a Global knife, hurtling from one scrape to another. Along the way, he exposes some of the catering industry’s grimmest secrets, including what really goes into those Chef’s Specials (urgh - if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this book, it’s never to eat out on a Sunday or Monday).
Culinary advice is delivered with a dash of expletives, and humour always cuts through the more painful episodes, including his heroin addiction and the ‘wilderness years’. It’s a wonderful read and a totally rock ‘n’ roll memoir.
I’m reading Roald Dahl’s fantastic collection of short stories, Someone Like You, at the moment. On the bus home from work the other day I read the first three stories and they’re every bit as gleefully dark, disturbing and full of suspense as his other collections, Tales of the Unexpected and Switch Bitch.
For example, in the creepily-titled story Lamb to the Slaughter, a woman kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. The way Dahl sets up the suspense in each tale is just so neat and perfect: what appears at first to be fairly normal or conventional situation is laid out like a trap. The wife waits for her husband to come home, and when he eventually does, he acts strangely, and then tells her something that upsets her very much. But he doesn’t actually reveal what it is, so from the beginning, you’re guessing what’s going to happen next. And there is always, always, a brilliant and unexpected twist in each tale.
It’s July and wedding season is in full swing, so I thought I’d post about this anthology today. The New Faber Book of Love Poems is basically the perfect book for finding literary inspiration for a wedding or civil ceremony - or for escaping from it all with 435 pages of verse.
I bought this book in a charity shop last year and read the entire collection cover to cover. (Trust me, that’s a LOT of love poetry.)
Although there are quite a few wedding-appropriate poems in this collection (classics by Donne and Shakespeare’s sonnets, Alice Oswald’s beautiful poem Wedding and James Fenton’s Hinterhof among them) there’s plenty of bitterness, bile and heartbreak too.
My favourite poem of all from this book is Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss and Other Stories’ by Douglas Dunn.
Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss and Other Stories’
A pressed fly, like a skeleton of gauze, Has waited here between page 98 And 99, in the story called ‘Bliss’, Since the summer of ’62, its date,
Its last day in a trap of pages. Prose Fly, what can ‘Je ne parle pas français’ mean To you who died in Scotland, when I closed These two sweet pages you were crushed between?
Here is a green bus-ticket for one week In May, my place-mark in ‘The Dill Pickle’. I did not come home that Friday. I flick Through all our years, my love; and I love you still.
These stories must have been inside my head That day, falling in love, preparing this Good life; and this, this fly, verbosely buried In ‘Bliss’, one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.