Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

 

If I am asked for advice I always say, “Don’t give up the day job”, no matter what it is, because however well your first book did, however large a sum of money you may have made, one swallow does not make a summer or one successful book a long and lucrative career.

-Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

I’m struggling to get caught up sharing thoughts on the books I’ve read in Scotland, as well as those I’ve bought and will have to ship back to the States. Because failed relationship.

Anyhoo, it’s been difficult not buying more, but I need to show restraint on all but those books difficult to find in the States. I cannot pass up select vintage Penguins, for instance, nor the occasional work by more obscure British authors I know would be more expensive there.

At least, those are my excuses. No bibliophile would bat an eye.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books I purchased in hardcover, an irresistible volume written by a writer I respect who cherishes books, liberally peppered with anecdotes about other writers she’s known and lots of digressions into things like the weather. I’d expected more focus on Hill’s personal favorites, reminiscences about what she’s read; in reality it’s less that and more a delightfully eccentric, jumbled diary of sorts. It’s a memoir of scattered memories. If you sat down to a meal with Susan Hill, this is the conversation you’d love to have.

Writing a book like this is on my mind, relating specific books to specific stages of my life and discussing my personal iconic writers. Just as everyone’s story is distinct, mine diverges sharply from Susan Hill’s. Though nowhere near as extensively, I’ve met and rubbed elbows with writers of staggering reputation, insinuating myself into their circles, buttonholing them at events, contacting them for interviews unfazed by prizes as the majority of writers I’ve worked with have been gracious, refreshingly humble. A nobody in the literary world, my accomplishments haven’t so much fallen into my lap as been forcefully pulled. Fast talking – or typing – and sharp elbows go a very long way toward competing with writers who have more talent but less assertiveness.

Ultimately, you make your own luck.

Hill’s book introduced me to several writers I’d never heard of, like Duncan Fallowell:

 

“the author of How to Disappear and other brilliant, eccentric, quirky books by a man who Has Adventures. Duncan has adventures because he goes about looking for them – admirable trait, though one which I have never shared.”

  • Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

Hill may not have ventured far, but I certainly have. Sitting here in Scotland, for the second time having left my American life behind for the sake of trying a relationship that’s twice failed, a roamer afflicted by wanderlust several times traveling to Europe alone, I’m clearly not of her disposition. Rather the opposite, though if you’d have told me I’d be this way as a reticent child I’d have thought you crazy. My days of traveling extensively outside the country, barring unforeseen incidents (and dear god I’ve had my share of those), are likely to be eclipsed by roaming my own country once I’ve returned home. But I never expect I’ll lose that passion.

Handily, Susan Hill has included a bibliographical list of books mentioned in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I’d say helpfully, but it’s also dangerous as I’ve decided I need several of them, Duncan Fallowell’s travel writing included. I suspect his style is closer to my own writing, being less sweet of nature and more inclined toward snark. I’m not a mincer of words. His example may help show me the path, giving me a few ideas. Another necessary book in the Amazon cart.

I recommend Hill’s book. Some have said it drops too many names, but good lord what has she been doing all her life but consorting with fellow writers? And, while it may not be devoted solely to books, there’s enough to have satisfied me. Once you’ve finished that, she published a prior book that’s much the same, Howards End is on the Landing. They make a great pairing.

More books to go before I’ve caught up, then I’ll do my best to stumble through a year-end wrap up. No surprise I have trips both booked and in consideration before I leave the UK. The next is a one day trip to London next week to meet up with friends, then a December jaunt to Penzance for a week’s holiday spent on the most westerly tip of England. As it’s off-season – way, way off-season – it will be freezing and empty.

Are there any bookshops is my first question. If so, no promises I’ll bring back more souvenirs. I’ve just returned from pretty Perth, and will put up photos soon. No bookshops of note there save Waterstones. Not that I don’t love it, but secondhand shops reign supreme.

Back to planning the remainder of my stay. Too early to worry overly much about what I’ll do when I return. Don’t let the present be ruined by difficulties that can be saved for a later date, that’s my motto. Meantime, allons-y!

 

 

 

 

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens

 

panmacmillan.com

 

Not currently employed outside freelancing – not outside the home, I mean – how I spend my time is at my own discretion. A rabid reader, it’s not a stretch guessing what I’ve been doing with my free time these past seven or eight weeks.

You betcha!

Cups of coffee and toast crumbs litter my desk, books stacked on and around me acting as a fortress. It’s an apt comparison. Books have always served me well keeping harsh realities of the world at bay. They represent both passion and comfort. Between used bookshops and the wonders of the internet I’m doing a laudable job building my collection.

I’ve read some astonishingly good books lately, at least one not so great. Two of the astonishingly good have been on my TBR for years, surfacing because the Edinburgh-based book group I joined chose them. Funnily enough, I didn’t make it to discussion for either book I did manage to finish. I only made it for the one I didn’t. I read the unfinished book at least a decade ago. A classic of contemporary Scottish literature, I will finish this go ’round and write about it. I showed up for that discussion without worry the ending could be spoiled and to introduce myself to like-minded readers. I also wanted to hear native opinions about an Edinburgh-set novel so wildly popular it was later adapted to film.

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart made it into my Scottish home library thanks to an itchy Amazon One-Click finger. I can never order just one book. How lonely for it to ship alone, who could bear the thought of an orphaned book. And the title of its companion … how could I resist? Then the description:

In 1857, after two years of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell fled England for Rome on the eve of publication. The project had become so fraught with criticism, with different truths and different lies, that Mrs Gaskell couldn’t stand it any more. She threw her book out into the world and disappeared to Italy with her two eldest daughters. In Rome she found excitement, inspiration, and love: a group of artists and writers who would become lifelong friends, and a man – Charles Norton – who would become the love of Mrs Gaskell’s life, though they would never be together.

In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her Ph.D. – about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century – and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.

Mrs Gaskell and Me is about unrequited love and the romance of friendship, it is about forming a way of life outside the conventions of your time, and it offers Nell the opportunity – even as her own relationship falls apart – to give Mrs Gaskell the ending she deserved.

  • Amazon.com

Charles Eliot Norton

I knew little of Gaskell’s beloved Charles Eliot Norton but his name rang a small bell.

An American author, art critic and professor of art, he enjoyed friendships with a number of writers of his day including: John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf), John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) and, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Rudyard Kipling, from his autobiography:

We visited at Boston [my father’s] old friend, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, whose daughters I had known at The Grange in my boyhood and since. They were Brahmins of the Boston Brahmins, living delightfully, but Norton himself, full of forebodings as to the future of his land’s soul, felt the established earth sliding under him, as horses feel coming earth-tremors. … Norton spoke of Emerson and Wendell Holmes and Longfellow and the Alcotts and other influences of the past as we returned to his library, and he browsed aloud among his books; for he was a scholar among scholars.

Norton’s place in Gaskell’s heart was a delightful surprise, admittedly voyeuristic. Digging into his life, small wonder she found kinship in a way she couldn’t with her husband. Meeting the great thinker on a trip to Rome, what better setting to spark romance. A feeling he reciprocated made obvious through barely restrained, coded correspondence, it’s safe to assume it was never consummated considering the time and upstanding reputations of both. And when he eventually married, realizing a relationship could never be, Gaskell’s heart was crushed.

I’ve been thinking of writing just this sort of book, weaving a life’s worth of reading literature in with my experiences. I’m not old and decrepit – though the snaps, crackles and pops emanating from my leg joints suggest otherwise – but I do have enough life experience to look back with benefit of well-earned wisdom. Stevens seems a bit young to have already begun looking back, but then she’s chosen a brief window. Mine would involve looking back further along than halfway, a bigger task.

A memoir of several years of her life juxtaposed with a period of Gaskell’s sharing a

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

similar theme, it hits the ground running. I loved the first third or so, empathizing as she struggled heroically with her doctoral thesis (NOTE: I don’t have a Ph.D. but based on my Masters experience I have an inkling) and recalling the heartbreak of failed love, something we all know too well.

The material concerning Stevens’ life – as far as the love story – began running thin the further I got into the book, not quite successfully stretching to match Gaskell’s. It became repetitive; I began to drift off. I identified with Stevens mostly in the beginning, when the love was unrequited. I can’t help thinking if she’d maneuvered that period forward a bit, starting earlier in the relationship, she’d have made it to the end with more effective balance. Her struggles with scholarship provide plentiful material but it’s the romantic element binding her to Gaskell. It never felt quite matched to me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, formed my opinion and gotten through one draft of my own review, I’m at this moment revising. Safe to read the thoughts of others without them bleeding into mine, I see I’m distinctly in the minority – not uncommon at all. Reviews in big name periodicals are overwhelmingly positive, though Amazon’s readers are more mixed. A couple mention factual errors, disconcerting considering Nell Stevens is a scholar. While I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that, I’m investigating.

Enough about the book irked me I can’t give it a firm recommendation. Yes, the premise is intriguing, and yes I’m delighted to see Elizabeth Gaskell’s name brought into the 21st century, but conceits such as slipping into second person in the Gaskell sections made me grit my teeth.

Then, keep in mind I’m a hard ass reviewer. Your experiences may vary. I do recommend caution against plopping down the hardback price, though.

If you have read or do read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

An evening with Ian Rankin: Music and Murder

I first met Ian Rankin in 2006 on his Chicago tour stop. I’d been a fan of his John Rebus detective series a short while, as much for the familiar Edinburgh setting as the writing.

I fell all over myself talking to Rankin, stuttering and turning red. His accent and rugged good looks made my knees shake. Literally. It was embarrassing as hell. By that point I’d interviewed a U.S. Poet Laureate and string of high profile writers, but you’d never have known from my (total lack of) mad interpersonal skills. I managed to blurt out a request for him to inscribe, “You complete me” on the title page. He smiled and complied, possibly assuming English wasn’t my first language. Or that my handler was hanging back watching, waiting to change my drool bib and take me home.

Little did I realize dude gets that ALL the time. I should have known.  You mean I’m not the only woman easily swayed by a Scot? I dinnae ken!

 

Photo credit: The Irish Times

 

Discussing his fan base with him years later, he said he’s been asked to sign women’s necks, cleavage and hotel room keys. Also an arm, for a woman who planned to have it permanently inked. The only rule is no inappropriate touch. And no, I don’t know that from personal experience.

THE CHEEK OF YOU.

Although …

Ian Rankin values his fans; he won’t abide hearing them referred to as “stalkers”. No matter they follow him to his favorite pub in Edinburgh, using the address to

Pardon the low resolution.

send mail directed to him. He’s fine with that, and I don’t blame him. You want to send me gifts? It can be arranged.

But I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he opens them. I can only imagine.

Since our first meeting I’ve interviewed him briefly by email on behalf of the library I worked for, sent him a t-shirt he took a picture of himself wearing (though it was too small and he had to shoehorn himself into it), a goofy beer glass, and a Moleskine notebook and pen he promised he’d make use of for his next book. We’ve been in regular Twitter contact ever since.

He’s a genuinely good soul.

 

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. Ian Rankin event 16 October 2018.

 

This past Tuesday evening I had tickets for an event with Ian Rankin “and guests”:  a police pathologist and Rankin’s “Dad band,” Best Picture. Held at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, it was well attended, if not packed. Frequent local events celebrating the release of his latest In a House of Lies have spread the wealth as far as the crowds go. And thank goodness for that. It was hotter than hell from the body heat. The crush of the signing line gave me anxious moments.

It was standard interview fare: the 31-year history of the Rebus series, recurring characters and how they’ve grown and progressed, a few continuity gaffes he’s committed, stories of his early days and how he came to be a crime writer. There’d be nothing new to anyone who’s heard him speak before. He was witty and charming, natch, poking fun at himself in his genuinely down to earth way.

 

Interior, Queen’s Hall.

Contributions from the police pathologist presented real crime in Edinburgh, unsurprisingly nowhere near Rankin’s fictional body count. Whereas Ian admitted he’s rubbish at figuring out crimes, the pathologist said he’s generally able to tell cause of death from newspaper articles and pictures. I suppose that’s the difference between the real and fictional worlds.

The real treat, though, was the performance of Rankin’s band. Of all the author events I’ve attended, this was the most singular. And though I took video of two songs, I don’t have the copyright to embed them. Instead, here’s his record label’s official video of their first single, “Isabelle”:

A truly great evening, crowd anxiety aside. One of these days I’ll catch him down at the Oxford Bar, where I can buy him a pint while I stutter and fall all over myself all over again.

 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

Penguin (1 Jan. 2015)

 

I’m blaming dismal cold and wet weather on my grumpy reading mood. I have never suffered mediocre books gladly. I do not hesitate to throw dull books aside with such force they dent the walls. The older I grow, the less latitude I’m willing to give as time grows shorter.

Reviewing books more than fifteen years has accustomed me to high quality prose, spoiling me in receiving these books for free, so when I splash out with my own funds I expect they’ll meet or surpass my best hopes. The last two books I’ve read have not quite hit the mark.

This makes me very, very irritable.

Before I get into the first book, let me qualify it’s not a failure, per se. My mood is sour today because the second book, finished less than an hour ago, was just such a read. Worse, I paid for it in hardback, not a cheap secondhand copy. The first missed the mark with me, but by no means is it not worth the read.

 

Amazon:

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

 

Books with unreliable narrators, especially involving memory gaps, grab my attention. Coupled with the premise of the mystery, I needed this novel as soon as the seller could ship. The “Costa Winner 2014” sticker slapped on the cover sealed it.

As a young girl, Maud’s life is ripped apart when her glamorous and beautiful older sister Sukey (Susan) disappears under menacing circumstances. A young wife with a husband home from war, her life appears content from the outside – until Maud and her father begin exploring further. Her husband Frank, neighbors and the police revealed, was both volatile and involved in shady black market dealings in rationed goods. Seen leaving the house in the middle of the night carrying a suitcase, his story was Sukey was being menaced by a mad woman well known in town, a woman driven out of her mind by the death of a daughter who’d been run over by a bus.

But where had she gone, and why had she not gotten in contact with her family?

Told in alternating narrative, Healey follows the young Maud’s traumatic loss of Sukey, then skips to modern day when she’s grown old, rapidly losing her mind. Despite both a carer and her daughter Helen checking in twice a day, Maud manages to slip out of the house and get herself into scrapes. There are silly things like constantly buying sliced peaches when she already has a cupboard full, to, more seriously, getting lost and dangerously muddled. Over and over, she takes the short walk to Elizabeth’s house, knocking on doors and peeking in windows. As the house grows emptier, so does her suspicion.

Maud keeps notes in pockets and drawers, desperate to keep a grasp, but disjointed words and phrases rarely make sense when found again. There are just two things for certain: buried inside her head is the answer to Sukey’s fate, and her only friend, Elizabeth, is missing.

With Elizabeth, the elderly Maud shared adventures and companionship. Less well cared for, Elizabeth appreciated both Maud’s company and the treats she brought. Together they enjoyed outings to local charity shops, buying cheap knick-knacks that gave them pleasure. In these brief moments, both felt the burdens of old age slipping off their shoulders. Then, suddenly, Elizabeth herself seemed to disappear, the jolt triggering Maud’s memories of her sister’s unresolved mystery 70 years earlier.

Maud began searching as well as she could, repeating ad nauseum to anyone who’d listen, “Elizabeth is missing”. The more she uttered it, the less anyone took notice. She was a silly, demented old woman who spouted random memories and fancies.

For most of the book I was riveted. Healey did a magnificent job getting inside the head of a very muddled elderly woman. It felt authentic, the desperation and frustration of Maud, her daily life and slipping away from reality. Not having dealt with the situation first-hand, the descriptions felt real.

My quibble is perhaps minimal but nonetheless interfered with my complete absorption in the book. If my daughter went missing I’d be absolutely frantic. While the family was concerned, I was never convinced this was an all-consuming, desperate event. They did a perfunctory search, talking with neighbors and trying to gather clues, but I never felt in my gut this was a major upheaval in their lives. I never felt the immediacy.

Then, none of the characters were fully fleshed out as Maud. Realizing the story’s told through her eyes, not often grounded in reality, I still felt it came up a bit short. The challenges in conveying characters seen through a clouded lens are huge, but I missed that. What Healey does well she does very, very well. What she left out continues to niggle at me, perhaps more than it should.

Still, I recommend the book. Maud’s story is heartbreaking, the twin mysteries compelling. The approach of winter seems an appropriate time to add this one to your reading list. If you do, or have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. Tell me I’m overly particular if you wish, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t find something to love about it.

New books!: a Confessional

 

“When you steal from the library, you are preventing anyone else from reading that book, and the very notion makes me want to drop you in the Void.”

  • Piers Anthony

 

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been, oh, a week since my last confession. The sin’s the same, which should make it easier doling out penance.

I miss my books. Those poor orphan children of mine are sitting, boxed, in a storage unit back in Illinois, keeping the bulk of my furniture and other bits and bobs company. Fortunately, I am living with a man who has a healthy number of books himself and enjoys the used book hunt as much as I. I won’t run out anytime soon, but temptations there are a-plenty.

Sure, you have a nice collection, but you don’t have this book, or that book, which I desperately need before someone else snatches it away.

Yes, NEED!

What I’ll do with the books and other possessions left behind in the move will be decided when it must. Meantime, I’m trying to restrain myself from buying too much – and failing miserably. But something has to fill that void.

I try and schedule Amazon deliveries for when Chris isn’t here. It’s not that he doesn’t get it, but the money’s tight. I’m living off my own savings; it’s not like I’m draining his account. But with mounting bills it’s taking away funds perhaps more rightly earmarked for household expenditures. Compounding the guilt, this morning we found out Chris’s car needs hundreds of pounds worth of repairs. It’s always the unexpected the comes back to bite you in the arse.

I could argue what’s mine is his, but our reading projects don’t match. I’m concentrating on early Scottish female novelists, as well as modern stuff I can count as research, helping inform the fiction I’m writing. I need examples of how other writers use unreliable narrators to create suspense. The best way to learn is by example.

So, yeah. Legit.

I’d rather he didn’t hear the SMACK of books coming through the letter slot and hitting the mat. It just makes me uneasy. Next week he’s on break from classes and I have two more on the way. My palms are already sweaty.

At least he’s fine shopping at bookshops like this one in Glasgow, which we visited together yesterday:

 

Nirvana

 

Holy mother of god and all the saints

 

He’s clearly an enabler.

Did he buy books here? Why, yes. Yes, he did. So the books popping through the letter slot have nothing to do with him. Details.

Anyway, here’s yesterday’s haul:

 

Penguins and Brunton and Oliphant, oh my!

 

This may be a bit difficult to read, I realize. Here’s a bit of help:

 

The Sailors Return & Beany-Eye by David Garnett

Scottish Short Stories

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Dr Johnson & Company by Robert Wilson Lynd

Lady Hester Stanhope by Joan Haslip

Ten Years Under the Earth by Norbert Casteret

The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark

England Made Me by Graham Greene

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (book group read)

Mary Brunton: The Forgotten Scottish Novelist by Mary McKerrow

Autobiography and Letters by Mrs Margaret Oliphant

 

I consider my penance to be reading these, lest they go to waste. And before the next group arrives. But really. I’m going to slow down.

Really.

Honestly.

Would this face lie?

 

 

Daily Scotland: Excursions to Haddington, East Lothian and Dean Village, Edinburgh

 

Haddington, East Lothian

 

Life’s been challenging for Chris and me this past week. Outside forces have been exerting a lot of negative energy, leaving us two anxiety-ridden insomniacs walking around like yawning zombies. The onset of autumn hasn’t helped. Shortening days coupled with cold winds and driving rain don’t improve the mood.

But then it’s Scotland, not Fiji. Get. Real.

I’ve been struggling with the excruciating SCOTUS hearings and subsequent confirmation of the Dishonourable Brett Kavanaugh – revealing so much misogyny and perversion entrenched in our justice system it staggers. I’ve insisted “this is not my country” whenever there’s been a racist or misogynistic event. Two years on, I may have to rethink that.

The mid-term elections on 6 November will be pivotal. If the country comes out against the Trump administration, hope lives. If not, the fight continues. It will swing back. The problem is rectifying the damage done will take a very long time, healing the rift between left and right the biggest hurdle.

We are a nation divided, indignation fueled by fury.

We took full advantage when the weather cooperated with brilliant sunshine last Tuesday. Yes! Sunshine in Scotland! Chris suggested a side-trip to the village of Haddington, East Lothian. Just twenty minutes-ish outside Edinburgh, it’s a pretty little place to spend an afternoon – longer if you search out all the historical sites.

For Chris, who’s powered by music, it has a used record shop. For both of us, used books and other fun things from a myriad of charity shops then a quick bite at a quaint little café called Diggory’s. If you happen by make sure you mention my name. They’ll have no idea why, but my ears will burn and I’ll know you care.

Try the paninis!

 

Clock tower, Haddington

 

Jane Bailie Welsh Carlyle

I didn’t read about the history of Haddington until I got home that evening. Turns out it has a lot. Walking in the main shopping area, I saw a plaque commemorating native daughter Jane Welsh Carlyle, woman of letters and wife of writer Thomas Carlyle, but didn’t follow through tracking down her birthplace. We both had plans later in Edinburgh so didn’t have the whole day, but her house was right there on the high street.

ARGH.

 

I’ve not read Jane Carlyle’s famous  letters, but was force-marched through an excerpt of Thomas’s excrutiating famous Sartor Resartus as an English literature undergrad. Virginia Woolf was a big fan of hers, and I’m a big fan of Woolf. She admired Carlyle because the woman pulled no punches:

I do think there is much truth in the Young German idea that marriage is a shockingly immoral institution, as well as what we have long known it for – an extremely disagreeable one.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, not particularly fond of Thomas

Haddington’s also where John Knox – minister and leader of Scotland’s reformation – and misogynist extraordinaire – was from. A ruined castle and churches, medieval bridge and connection to Mary, Queen of Scots are a few other things we missed. But then it was a let’s get the hell out of here and forget our worries for a while outing.

Chris’s cappuccino – much prettier than my Diet Coke

It was off to Edinburgh after lunch, for me pretty Dean Village. It took some doing finding an access point, since a lot of it’s pedestrian only. Poor Chris found a good spot to dump me through a lot of trial and error. Walking there is a lot different than driving, and he’d never driven. He’s a good egg.

Until the 19th century a separate village within Edinburgh, for 800 years a mill town, it’s now a staggeringly expensive, trendy place to live. Easy to see why:

 

Dean Village on the Leith

 

Still a few roses in bloom.

 

 

Have I made you sick with jealous loathing yet? If not, here you go!:

Dean Village is filled with wanderers, locals and bloody tourists. Chris dropped me  around 4 or so when it was largely deserted, so I had a relaxing meander until it got too dark for decent photography. My one regret is I didn’t make it to the cemetery before it closed. I won’t talk about the why until I’ve been there. It has to do with artsy, literature-related stuff and this post isn’t about that.

Pretty much a perfect day, overall. Stress? What stress. For a few hours it was possible to forget all about it.

 

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

 

 The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is published by Profile Books (£14.99).

 

Monday, 3 March

Online orders: 9

Books found: 8

Another beautiful day, marred at an early stage by a customer wearing shorts and knee-length woollen socks who knocked over a pile of books and left them lying on the floor. Shortly afterwards, a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.

A book we had sold on Amazon called Orient-Express: A Personal Journey, and which we had sent out three weeks ago was returned today with a note from the customer that reads: ‘Unfortunately not as expected. Require a more pictorial version. Please exchange or refund. I suspect that the customer was treating us like an online library and had read the book.

Till total £90

customers 4

 

 

Reading books about books is what I do when I’m not reading books. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but bibliophiles will get it. And what’s more delightful than a snarky, acerbic daily diary written by a bookseller?

Answer: perhaps a wee kitten sleeping, but precious little else.

 

Cute overload.

 

It didn’t take long to start ordering books from Amazon.co.uk, once I’d settled back in Scotland. As I slammed the last drawer in my dresser, clothing folded away, my hand’s muscle memory awoke, typing A-M-A. Google knows me. Like a crack addict, I had to have it. Like an enabler, it provided.

An unabashed Anglophile, my “Buy Later” queue of books only or more readily available in the UK is already longer than most people’s list of “books to read in my lifetime”. I pop one in the cart with every order, and I order everything from Amazon. With Prime free delivery, I’d be silly not to. The price of a taxi to and from the local mall costs the equivalent of an average paperback.

Tell me I’m not penny-wise.

Shaun Bythell’s book was the first to jump the queue. Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, the largest second-hand bookshop in the country. One of the most entertaining and satisfying works of humorous nonfiction I’ve read in quite a while, I’m struggling to remember what else has made me snort-laugh so hard. Bill Bryson’s sent his share of coffee spraying out my nose. Ditto David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs.

I love a good curmudgeon, especially a man with so great a knowledge of books. Shaun Bythell doesn’t hold back. Were I ten years younger, and not living in the house of another bookish man, hoooo boy. I’d throw myself across his path.

Hey, big boy.

Summary: it’s damned funny. I don’t hand that compliment out often. It’s difficult writing funny prose. Or prose I find funny, the important point. I’m a tough audience. I don’t throw my laughs around willy-nilly. Not for me the polite laugh. If you delight me, my reaction’s genuine.

Read this book if you love books. Read it even harder if used books are your thing, hardest yet if you have a streak of evil a mile wide.

N.B.: I must lodge one little complaint: I sent The Bookshop a Facebook message inquiring if they have any novels by Muriel Spark. I need to replenish my supply and thought what better way to compensate the man who’d just entertained me with his biting wit for several days, but never received a response.

It’s been over a week now, and nothing. Sorry, I may love your book, but I take my book buying awfully seriously. I’ll have to take my business elsewhere this time. Now I’ve given you a reason to snipe at me.

Feel free to run with it. I can take it.

 

 

Daily Scotland: Accent(uate) the positive.

 

Where’s the damn escalator.

 

Assimilation into Scottish life and culture has been hampered by the obviousness of my American accent. It’s not obnoxiously regional (sorry, fellow countrymen), more News Anchor American.

Still.

American.

I hope it’s my imagination all noise around me stops when I open my mouth, like a space alien has just spoken, causing jaws to drop in disbelief and eyes to search for the nearest exit. I have the Celtic red hair going on, and attempt to keep my style of dress out of Hawaiian shirt and white sneakers territory, so possibly it’s just unexpected. I’m not pushy, don’t feel a sense of entitlement, say “sorry” even when it’s inappropriately ingratiating. My natural personality inclines toward British.

It’s that damned, glaring accent. I’ll never shed it.

The reaction’s been pleasant, though a bit surprised, when I speak to strangers. Nothing rude or prejudicial, though God who could blame them, especially these days.

I AM SO SORRY, WORLD.

My irritating habit of deferral toward Chris was a big part of last year’s dismal relationship failure.  Planning what to do, where and what to eat, how to spend time, etc., the vast majority was left to him. I took his lead, trailing behind like a puppy.

You never get to know a wishy-washy person who doesn’t speak up. Relationships kind of thrive on things like sharing and expressing interest. He genuinely wanted to get to know me better, to learn my likes and dislikes, share interests.

Who knew?

This year, I’m making a point of modifying that. His busyness with classes and my new-found book group buddies alleviate some of it, broadening our horizons and giving me more confidence. I’ve graduated from puppy to female dog, letting myself have actual preferences. For tonight, I’ve scheduled us for a pub trivia contest at a pretty little place in Edinburgh. Both of us tapping away in the office last evening, I asked if he was interested. Trying not to appear too surprised lest he scare me off, his answer was happily casual. Yes, he said, inside thinking OH MY GOD, THANK YOU, SHE DOES HAVE A PERSONALITY.

What keeps us coming back to each other if we have had such difficulties. I hear you asking that. What we have in common are the big things, mostly sharing political and tolerance philosophy; foul mouths; a passion for literature and lifetime learning. I think he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, and he thinks I am.

What keeps any relationship together?

No, really. I NEED TO KNOW.

 

 

Meanwhile, when I’m not watching weirdly fascinating British game shows (future post in the pipeline), I’m setting about the process of setting up a freelance editing business. It’s going to take forever. It wants to take forever, but I can’t let it.

M-O-N-E-Y, friends. It helps you buy stuff. I like stuff. Especially food, clothing and shelter. In that order.

I’ve been watching videos about how to set up websites, how to go rogue wild freelance. Driving myself crazy over-thinking. I need to set achievable goals, realize things will change and evolve, that my first website will be complete shit.

Life’s a learning process. You go forward, you screw up, blah blah blah, motivational quote so sweet it gives you cavities. Complicating it all, I’m an American living in the UK.

Have you heard my accent?

 

 

Still having trouble posting decent photos, sorry. Taking Chris up on his offer of borrowing his DSLR will improve things. Then I can upload higher-quality stuff: NOW WITH REAL PIXELS! As of now, all pics come from my camera. They have that distinct not great quality that’s pretty not ideal. I’m a better photographer than that.

I swear.

Goddamnit.

 

 

That time again: The Man Booker Shortlist.

Lest you forget this is, at heart, a book blog, I’d like to interrupt the lovely Scotland talk to briefly address my annual love-hate rant about the Man Bookers. The shortlist’s just come out, tripping the switch for my traditional snarky comments outlining all the reasons it’s utterly ridiculous.

I bitch and moan first, puffing up about THE PATRIARCHY, then wind up buying a few – if not all. I loathe myself, cry in the corner, read the books or don’t, then opine on them all. The winner I choose invariably doesn’t, triggering one last bout of bitching before I load all the titles onto my bookshelf and move on.

At worst, I’ve supported five also-rans, plus one who hardly needs my money, as they’ve won THE BIG ONE. All get stickers slapped on their covers, selling extra copies to those swayed by the reputation of the prize. Finally, CVs are updated with  “nominated for the Man Booker Prize for his/her 2018 novel FILL IN THE BLANK,” which, ultimately, winds up on bookshop 3 for 2 tables.

The romance is dead.

 

 

 Shortlisted Titles:

Milkman by Anna Burns (UK –  N. Ireland)

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (UK – England) – youngest ever nominated, age 27

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA)

The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA)

The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK – Scotland)

 

Two Americans made the cut, one Canadian and three from the UK. Four of six are female. All have previously won some literary prize or other, and several have published in Very Big Literary Publications.

Richard Powers is the literary giant who could bitch-slap them all. His book is also the one predicted to win. It’s the only shortlisted title I’ve bought, though I did come damn near picking up Washington Black at Blackwell’s last week after reading the first few pages.

It’s a damn fine book.

I think Richard Powers will win. He’s writing about trees, which sounds soporific but isn’t, because they’re at the center of every set piece in the book so far (I’m not far into it) and he just writes so damn well.

The bit that bothers me is he’d be yet another American winner. There’ve been two others in the last few years. I’m not keen on American inclusion in the Man Booker. We have our own prizes – loads of them. To see Americans dominating this prize rubs me the wrong way, and I’m American.

I’m not sure I’ll have more to say about the prize this year before the winner’s announced sometime next month. That would be a first, I know. I’ll talk about Powers’ book when I’ve finished or given up.

Otherwise, that’s all she wrote. Possibly.

Daily Scotland: Settling In

 

The familiarity gained from last year’s three-month stay in Scotland’s shortened the re-acquaintance process with life here. It already feels familiar walking to the market to pick up simple things like milk and bread. There’s a small shop, a mini-mart we’d call it in the States, five minutes away. The nearest supermarket’s further than I can walk. A taxi would add a lot to the cost of buying just a few items, but there’s the British equivalent of Walmart anchoring the local mall. In that mall is, among other things, a Waterstones. I can take a taxi there when I have a longer list of needs than just vanilla and cake pans.

In preparation for making two pies with apples from the tree directly behind the house, I mistakenly bought “sponge” flour in place of self-rising, to go along with the folly of “caster” sugar in place of regular granulated, for my coffee. Thank God Chris put me in my place as far as caster sugar, since “no restaurant would ever serve caster sugar for my coffee.” As far as I can tell, caster sugar is more coarse than granulated, not so coarse as what we’d call “crystal” sugar, which is decorative. That’s used on top of baked goods to make them look more appealing and fancy, I guess you’d say.

 

We don’t have so many choices for baking ingredients in the States. There’s brown sugar, powdered sugar, granulated, and crystal sugar. As for flour, there’s self-rising, standard flour with no baking powder or baking soda (if you need to add specialized amounts), wheat flour, specialty flours made with other grains for the gluten-intolerant, but as far as I know, that’s it. For sponge cake, we’d use regular self-rising. If it needs a finer texture, we’d run it through a sifter. British bakers, you’re much more sophisticated.

Today I was looking at the flour and sugar I bought to stock the pantry, thinking as long as I had these maybe I should just bake a sponge cake. Exploring the kitchen cabinets for other critical ingredients, I found he had none. Add those to the list for a trip to the shopping mall. Heaven forfend I should have to go shopping, but what does what one must.

 

Lots of excitement two days ago, when the remnants of a hurricane barreled through southern Scotland. Growing up in the Midwest I’ve seen huge thunderstorms, but never an actual hurricane. Fascinating watching detritus hurtle past the windows, like a Scottish-set The Wizard of Oz. I half expected the Wicked Witch of the West to cycle by. I’m glad it came through so early in autumn. The leaves have only just begun changing; I’m crossing my fingers there’s no tree-baring repeat nearer peak color. I’d love to drive up into the Highlands for spectacular photos.

Colors become brilliant in Scotland later than the Midwest – between late October and early November. Colorful leaves are long gone by November in Chicago, and it’s not particularly stunning where I lived. Two charming possibilities in the Highlands are Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. I picked them out while researching hamlets with bookshops. These two fit the bill. Right next to each other in Perthshire, they’re approximately an hour and a half away. Chris mentioned Perthshire as a beauty spot. Cross fingers the weather cooperates.

 

I can’t escape without admitting the number of books I’ve bought so far – in just over two weeks. It’s not staggering – well, maybe to a non-reader – but decent. Charity shops netted me a few finds, but Amazon.co.uk has been no slouch, either. Considering a blog devoted to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, I found several here and there. Edinburgh is his home town; no worries about finding all the volumes.

I may have picked up a sequel to Cold Comfort Farm I never realized existed, as well as the same Bloomsbury edition of The Brontës Went to Woolworths I used to own, once upon a pre-Scotland purge. Then, there’s Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, a book by an up and coming Edinburgh author named Sam McColl, Alexander McCall Smith’s first book in The Sunday Philosophy Club series, a book about bookshops, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for a book discussion group meeting in Edinburgh. And no, you may not see my Amazon shopping cart.

 

Speaking of the book group, I attended my first meeting last evening at a lovely little cafe called Nom de Plume on Broughton St. in Edinburgh. Jean Brodie provoked a brilliant discussion, and I was very interested in hearing what actual Scots thought about this iconic title written by one of their iconic writers. All sorts of fascinating points were brought up, lots of bits and pieces I’d never have picked up on my own. This is the wonder of book groups.

 

I’m looking forward to the weekend, hoping it brings travel – weather permitting. A Scottish author and friend recommended a couple of abandoned sites I’m keen to see. One’s an old manor, the other a railroad tunnel no longer in use. The manor sounds delightfully creepy, though potentially dangerous. There are beams perilously near falling, and a staircase in the same condition. She warned of drop offs, so if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know why. It’s Chris’s chance to wander off, whistling innocently.

I’m still working out adding photos without the Windows snipping tool, and I have some lovely ones to show. If I must, I’ll post those separately. If you see photos in this post, I was successful. Yay!

If not, they’re coming. Gives you a reason to keep living.