Sunday Salon: Getting the New Year going

The Sunday SalonIt’s been mostly a good start to 2016 for me. I got through the first week back at work with not only no major mishaps but also no major stresses, which is nice. I’ve got another year older but don’t feel it, which is also good. I’ve just had a lovely weekend away with friends. The only negative is my apparent lack of attention span to any one book. It’s not that I’m not reading, I just seem to have picked a couple of giants to start the year with, and then I got disheartened that I wouldn’t finish a book for several weeks, so I started yet another book. I did finish that one, and I’ll try to review it this week as it has a certain timeliness factor.

I did gain a few books for my birthday, which is inevitable and I am not at all upset about it, but it’s probably for the best that it’s a much smaller pile than I got for Christmas!

Continue reading “Sunday Salon: Getting the New Year going”

Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life

A Novel Bookstore

A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossé
translated from French by Alison Anderson

Have you ever dreamed of opening a bookshop? Have you ever planned what it would be like, how it would be different from all those other bookshops? I can’t decide whether this book would encourage or discourage such an ambition but there’s definitely some wish-fulfilment going on.

The novel opens with a series of attacks on seemingly unconnected people. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the link is The Good Novel, a Paris bookshop opened by rich booklover Francesca and idealistic bookseller Ivan. They discover that they share the same dream of a bookshop that sells only great novels, and pour everything into making their dream a reality, but their shop strikes a nerve in French cultural circles and comes under increasingly severe attacks.

“If I spent my money restoring a Roman viaduct or any other masterwork of our heritage, everyone would think it was a very worthy cause. What we are doing is no different. We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage, which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable.”

I found that I couldn’t grasp the tone at first. And then just as I was getting the hang of it, there was an odd switch from crime drama to the idealistic story of setting up the dream bookshop. But it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read considering all the action is in the first three chapters.

At the core of the book is the debate between high and low culture. Francesca and Ivan have pinned their hopes on high culture: their choice of “great” novels is primarily classic or overlooked literary works. They opt out of the bestseller lists and new releases, which isn’t the most effective business model and isn’t entirely popular with publishers and other bookshops – it does admittedly smack of snobbery – but of course it’s the authors whose books aren’t chosen for sale at The Good Novel who express the most anger.

“The essential problem raised by the notion of literary value is that this value changes with time. A work that might have been hailed by its contemporaries seems trivial a hundred years later, perhaps even thirty years later. Inversely, another work that was judged unpleasant or uninteresting may now be praised to the skies.”

Personally, I’m torn which side I’m on. Not that I condone the attacks on The Good Novel. And I love heartfelt book recommendations, such as are at the core of Ivan’s bookselling style. But I think getting people reading is always a good thing, and those easy reads and bestsellers – they’re a big part of that process.

“Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it’s not only that. It must not be disassociated from reality…There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”

This book is jam-packed with references to “great” books and you could make a very long recommended reading list from it, though how many of them would be available in English translation I don’t know. The other thing it has going for it is a sub-plot that’s a sweet realistic romance. I kept expecting darker things around the corner but this novel’s beauty is its simplicity.

“He had no more imaginary space, nowhere he could escape to, no more expectations, all he could do was make himself available to the present moment, to what was immeasurable, the terrible profusion of moments that make up a day.”

Au bon roman published 2009 by Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Translation published 2010 by Europa Editions.

Source: Won in a giveaway from Savidge Reads.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Sunday Salon: Here and there

The Sunday Salon

We keep on doing lots of stuff with our weekends. Mostly of the fun variety, which is good, but it isn’t half cutting into my reading time!

Last weekend we went to visit my family. As my Nan has been ill we dropped by to see her and my Grandad, which was lovely as she is now doing well. We saw my Mum’s new house that she moved into a few weeks ago. I got to spend time with my little brother who I hardly ever see. I showed Tim a few more sights from my younger days. And we enjoyed being in the countryside. Even if it was raining almost constantly.

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Before we came home, my Dad had the brilliant idea to take me and Tim fossil hunting. That was so much fun! We were on the Severn Estuary and it was hideously muddy but we found loads of real actual fossils, which was amazing. And the dog had a whale of a time.

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This weekend I went to London to see my friend H while our menfolk did their man thing at Farnborough Airshow. I finally got to go to Persephone Books, which is just as wonderful as I had imagined. Huge thanks to H for taking me there and buying me one of their beautiful books. We also talked endlessly and painted our nails and had a generally brilliant time.

Persephone Books

It’s all been great. But I’m still a teeny bit glad that we don’t have much planned for the next few weekends. What have you been up to lately?

Local bookshops: Beware of the Leopard

Beware of the Leopard is a secondhand bookshop in the heart of Bristol’s Old City, overflowing with books and a particular treasure trove of old annuals. Not to mention that awesome name (a quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Beware of the Leopard

It occupies two units opposite each other in the covered market, plus as many boxes and shelves in-between as they can fit. It looks haphazard but is actually well organised, you just need to know the system. It’s not really a place to go with a specific book in mind, it’s more of a browse and stumble across several gems sort of a place.

Just browsing

The shelves are crammed close together so that you are constantly manoeuvring around other customers, which makes for a pretty friendly experience! And the staff know their stock, so it’s always worth asking.

Beware of the Leopard benefits from having a fantastic location within St Nicholas Market, which is my (and many other Bristolians’) favourite lunchtime venue. So many tasty foods to choose between, my mouth is watering at the thought. And when you look up, it’s an impressive building too.

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Beware of the Leopard
66–69 & 77 St Nicholas Market
St Nicholas Street
Bristol
BS1 1LJ

Today x, y and z came to visit

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952–73

edited by John Saumarez Smith

This is the first collection of Mitford letters that I have read, after a couple of years of build-up, and I must confess that I feel a little bit let down.

Nancy Mitford briefly worked at the London bookshop of the title, before her writing career took off and she moved to Paris. The bookshop was started by, and for many years run by, Heywood Hill. Their correspondence lasted from 1942, while Nancy was still working at the shop, through Heywood’s sale of the shop and subsequent retirement, right up to Nancy’s death. From friendly but businesslike beginnings, they became firm friends and confidantes.

Between Nancy Mitford’s reputation (and indeed my great enjoyment of her novel The Pursuit of Love) and the bookish basis for the book, I had high hopes. I imagined an 84 Charing Cross Road with added gossip and celebrity shoulder-rubbing, and to an extent that’s true, but this book almost entirely lacks the charm of Helene Hanff’s classic. While both Heywood and Nancy are clever, witty and bookish, their letters seem to be largely composed of lists of people who they have visited/who visited them, most of whom are famous or aristocratic or literati (or all three).

Now, this may be down to the editing, which I was not impressed by. Smith also worked at the shop, starting there just before Heywood’s retirement, and struck up a friendship with Heywood and his wife, so he is not an impartial outsider. He is even mentioned in some of the letters. He has heavily cut the letters – ellipses abound – and added lots of explanations in square brackets, but he has not changed anything. So there are varying styles for book titles or emphasis, and abbreviated names are left abbreviated. I am sure it would have been acceptable to readers to spell out all those ampersands and contractions (seriously, text messaging was not the first time people wrote in their own shorthand code to one another) and it would have been a sight easier to read.

What he has done is summarise the first nine years of letters and occasionally throughout he adds in italics his summary of a letter or exchange of letters rather than the originals. But he hasn’t explained some events that are obliquely referred to – a falling out between the Hills and Heywood’s successor at the bookshop, for instance, which comes up often but is never explained. There are also bookshop/publishing terms used often and only a couple of these are explained. (What on earth is a Rainbird?)

Between Smith’s interjections, footnotes and a bibliographical index, there are a lot of different ways of filling in the details of the large cast and it felt bitty. A lot of the letters have been cut down to half a page or less and I constantly got the feeling that the better half had been cut out. There was certainly very little that was personal left in. I understand that in places a letter had been lost and Smith was piecing together what had been said from other sources but he also chose not to include letters that had been published elsewhere, leaving odd gaps, especially early in the book.

Perhaps more time needs to pass between a person’s death and a publication like this (Heywood Hill died in 1986 and I imagine this book took many years to compile). And I would certainly have thought that an editor who did not count the book’s subject as a personal friend would be preferable. Or perhaps surviving family (Hill’s widow and Nancy’s youngest sister are both still alive) were responsible for the odd editorial decisions that appear to have been made.

Whatever the reason, though both letter writers come across as warm, intelligent, humorous people, this collection was only occasionally entertaining and often tedious.

First published 2004 by Frances Lincoln.

See also: review by Simon at Savidge Reads.

Local bookshops: Foyles

Foyles Bristol

As bookshop chains go, Foyles retains the respect of booklovers by being a darn good bookshop. The Foyles in Bristol’s Quakers Friars was the first in the chain outside of London but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I first came across Foyles when I was a magazine intern in London and I discovered this incredible series of talks run by Foyles. They have an author event almost every night. The only other bookshop I’ve known to equal it is Topping & Co in Bath.

The new Bristol Foyles store feels spacious and yet full of books. There is a fair selection of related paraphernalia – notebooks, diaries, games, postcards – but these are so well chosen, not to mention well designed, that I’ll forgive them using up floorspace that could have gone to books.

Pretty things from Foyles

This is not the place to go to get the latest celebrity autobiography or 3 for 2 chicklit. The “top ten” and “staff picks” bookcases showcase mostly literary fiction, including a few titles I’d never heard of. There is a surprisingly large cookery section, including a display of the new Penguin Great Food series. In fact, there was a certain emphasis on this current trend for beautiful books, which I am all in favour of. I picked up a few pretty tidbits for forthcoming birthdays in addition to some books for me.

I’d still like to see more independent bookshops out there but I do think Foyles is a welcome addition to Bristol.

Foyles, 6 Quakers Friars, Cabot Circus, Bristol, BS1 3BU