Friday, 30 November 2012

The Re-Extended Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary

Due to no kind of demand whatsoever, the third installment of my reference work, already hailed as having three parts so far, can now be revealed to an undeserving world.

CANTICLE:        Is not unable to stimulate sensitive bodily areas.

EROTIC FICTION:  'It was great for me too, darling'.

FOLIO:           A pastiche lion.

EXPOSITION:      Where something was.

FABLE:           An other-worldly bovine.

FREE VERSE:      A shoplifter's poetry collection.

KINDLE:          A reading accessory deployed by a South African during a        
                                              power cut.

SEMANTICS:        More than one jolly jape, or wheeze.

TEEN FICTION:    'It will be a supervised party, with no alocohol.'

Beware of the next exciting episode....

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Yule Blog (part the second)

Before proceeding with another personal Christmas book recommendation, I have to declare an interest which, if not quite vested, is holding a vest in its hand and seriously considering it as a style option.  The publisher of the particular edition I would like to discuss - Capuchin Classics - once paid my wages. I hereby declare, however, an honest and objective admiration for their list - prompted not at all by the receipt of any brown paper bags whatsoever -  and freely endorse the suitability of their hardback Christmas Pudding, by Nancy Mitford, as a gift to be deployed during the aforesaid season.

The six Mitford sisters (the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire being the only survivor) must be prime candidates for the award of Britain's most eccentric clan, and the family name became a byword for controversy and scandal as various of them developed infatuations with both extremities of radical politics (they were equal opportunity scandalisers) during the 30s and 40s.  I've found a marvellous summary of this (after an exhaustive 10 seconds of research on Wikipedia) by Times journalist Ben Macintyre: 

'Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur'.

Nancy's novels tread a balance between satirising and celebrating the glittering, privileged elite to which she belonged, and she revelled in placing her characters in bizarre and uncomfortable situations, and then standing back to see how they reacted.  She also used her fiction to cast a beady and none-too-favourable eye on her own family members.  In Christmas Pudding, beautifully presented in this recent edition, the gloriously-named Lady Bobbin is entertaining (at Christmas) a typically diverse collection of characters, including a young, earnest novelist whose attempt at a profoundly tragic novel is being hailed as the funniest literary achievement in years.  The activities, passions, subterfuges and uncertainties of the characters meet, intertwine and develop over a bizarre and memorable holiday period.  We are not, by any means, in the neighbourhood of Great Literature here (nor, probably, on the same continent), but as a piece of deftly-written and amusing confectionery, studded with amusing characters and expertly-choreographed set pieces, it's a seasonal treat for oneself or one's best pals and kinfolk.

While I'm trawling my professional history, a highly relevant but considerably less festive book is worth mentioning, namely Maia's novel Unity, by Michael Arditti (I used to be a sales rep (see this post) for a company that carried Maia's books).  Arditti's work fascinatingly frames the story of Unity Mitford's relationship with Hitler within that of a film being shot about this subject, and then assumes further narrative distance by having the narrator examine the reasons behind the dramatically violent events that caused the film to be abandoned.  The interplay between these levels of history and narrative, and the emotional and moral journey undertaken by the narrator, are rendered with immense skill and make this a wonderful modern novel.  There aren't many chuckles, however.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Bookseller's Diary

Being a wholly accurate and faithful account** of a day in the life of an humble book vendor in a Garden City word emporium

6.45     The first stage of my double alarm system (unimaginatively, an alarm clock) summons me to semi-consciousness.

6.45.01     The second stage, our ancient cat Sally, whose voice is aging in the opposite direction (it may also have something to do with her being deaf), suggests somewhat forcefully that I have been indulging in a luxurious lie-in for long enough now and asks whether I realise that if I don't administer her First Breakfast soon, there won't be time for her to demand the Second, and it will have to be called Early Lunch instead, which will discommode her thoroughly and probably compel her to ask for an early tea.  I knew letting her read about hobbits was a mistake.

6.45.01- 7.40     Feed cat, warm uneaten food for cat while she displays shock and disgust at cruelty of treatment, perform ablutions and related activities accompanied by Radio 4, wear sandwiches, make clothes, realise something has gone awry, leave house.

7.40-8.25     Enjoy pleasant walk to Hitchin station, board 8.06 to London (the 8.06 train, for preference) and attempt to restrain feelings of smug superiority that I am licensed to escape the train at Welwyn Garden City.  Disembark, bow in homage to Shredded Wheat factory (see previous post), walk past Starbucks and fail to restrain feelings of smug superiority over those who are indulging therein. Enjoy flat white at The Muffin Break instead, assuming, with possible naivety, that their parent company showers the Chancellor regularly with gold coins. Find it disappointing that I still find it amusing to think that their slogan should be 'Muffin ventured, muffin gained.'  Wonder again why it took so long for a 'flat white' to be invented, and what, infact, it is.  Decide it was probably discovered in a particle accelerator, hiding behind an anti-gluon.

8.50     Report for duty to The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City.  Perform series of courtesy stretches and helpfulness limbers under direction of manager; sing company song and whoop spontaneously several times before running in slow motion on to the shop floor to the accompaniment of stirring orchestral music.

9.00 - 9.30     Repair major damage to sections caused by previous day's trade (if previous day a Saturday, then this procedure is extended by several hours), deposit small persons, forgotten by parents in children's section, into centralised receptacle in shopping centre.

10.00     Attempt to use middle-aged brain, which had grown accustomed to selling book tokens on paper, to manage the new, electronic variety.  Accidentally charge book token card with £40,000,000 and destabilise several small national economies.  Manager is forgiving.

10.00 - 12.00     Launch exploration party to locate the 1 copy of an obscure Hungarian melodrama which the computer insists we have in stock and about which a customer has, bizarrely, enquired. Mission fails, but a valuable amount of stock is discovered behind the shelving, along with a few more small people.

13.00 - 14.00     Lunch, which is eaten once muscles holding welcoming smile in place have sufficiently relaxed.

14.00 - 15.00     Check in delivery and telephone customers to announce the happy arrival of their book order or that a publisher has sent yet another message about a book's unavailability which is either contradictory to the previous seven messages or lacks the ring of credibility ('our printer is besieged by stoats').

15.00 - 15.30     Decide to resurrect expedition to find lost Hungarian classic.  Expedition fails but considers writing best-selling book based on experience.

15.30 - 16.00     Indulge in childish competitiveness with colleagues over whose display table is resulting in the most sales, and justify own table's poor performance by claiming that all the good books had already been used.

16.00 - 17.00     Retidy shop and place personal favourite fiction titles face out on shelves, often having to rearrange half the section to achieve this.

17.30                  Manager discusses day's performance and allocates merit badges accordingly.  Glow with pride at being congratulated for not answering 'Kurt Vonnegut' to more than half our customer's requests for recommendations.

Rest of the day  Decommute, explain day to wife, feed cat a variable number of times, eat, television, blog, read, sleep, perchance to be leapt on by cat.

**Except for this sentence.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Da da da da da da da da - Bagman!

A local author visited The Bookshop today, and asked us if his publisher's sales representative had advised us of the former's new book.  This encounter tipped over a fence in my past experiences enclosure and caused a stampede of memories - relating to when I carried out this role for various publishers - to trample over the plains of my consciousness, until they were rounded up by the lassos of (you're quite right, this metaphor has overstretched itself already, and needs urgent physiotherapy).

This strangely persistent species - (Venditionesque Repraesentativum Publica, as it's technically known in Google Latin) - continues to flourish, despite having in recent years come under increasing threat from a number of factors, including centralised buying, the closure of bookshops, diminishing sales budgets and a peculiar mutated virus whose sole target is large black pilot bags.  Still these brave crusaders for literature stride forward by car, train and on foot, undaunted by the thousand rebuffs that their profession is heir to, their eyes glowing with the quenchless  desire to sell that burns deep within their souls.  One of the most formidable types of sales rep. is The Freelance, who often works on a commission-only basis, representing a myriad small publishers and wielding almost as many black pilot bags. The distinguishing features of this creature include hideously lengthened arms and a basilisk-like stare from which, once it is met by a hapless bookseller, there is no escape.  Before the victim fully realises what is happening, they have sat down with the rep., gone through fifteen folders of badly-produced information sheets and ordered books on modelling historical figures with tapioca and epic poems on the history of snuff.

One of the fondest memories I have of sales repping is visiting thriving, intelligently-run independent bookshops, and (these being generally staffed by fewer people) meeting the challenge of performing one's duty on the shop floor.  At Newham Bookshop (hello Viv, hello Jon), I would often find myself balancing a sales folder in one hand, stroking one of the shop's cats that had decided to perch on my shoulder with another, and wishing I had a third to fill in my order form, all this while Viv served customers, answered the 'phone and arranged one of the phenomenally successful author events for which the shop is renowned.

Another experience that comes readily to mind is selling in a particular title from Zed Books on the Taliban, during one of the early modern Middle East conflagrations.  As this book was then the best intelligent short introduction to the subject, I was kept very busy with stock-checking and taking orders from many of the bookshops in my patch, and could often be found in a quiet corner of such an establishment saying, with great intensity - 'Hello, this is David - I have some urgent orders for The Taliban'.  I was never once even slightly arrested.

I could speak of hiding behind pillars in Foyle's, wearing deep camouflage and waiting to ambush elusive buyers, or the many happy hours spent turning my publishers' books face-out on shelves (although, need I add, never, at all, on any occasion whatsoever, concealing those from rival houses) - but I will save these and their ilk for another time.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Yule blog (part the first)

Today's blog launches a short but reasonably well-formed series of Christmas book recommendations, which will comprise a mixture of overtly festive titles and those which, through their beauty, shininess or similar qualities, qualify as gifts.

Many years ago, (before the Internet was discovered in a laboratory accident, and we had to discover information by asking the village elder, who would, before divulging anything, recite advertisements from the blacksmith and local shop, unless you'd paid for the Premium Service) I was a rosy-cheeked schoolboy, possessing an interest in writing poetry and a friend who was similarly inclined, (apart from lacking both rosy cheeks and boyness).  The school which we attended, being then a particularly good example of the comprehensive variety, recognised this enthusiasm and encouraged it by arranging our subsidised attendance at a residential course run by the estimable Arvon Foundation.  There are various forms of Arvon course, centred around many different creative endeavours and genres, but ours was one in which, enfolded by the bucolic tranquility of Totleigh Barton in Devon, we wrote and discussed poetry and received feedback and guidance from two professional poets.  The social aspect of these weeks is an integral and important element, although cooking (usually in pairs) for the entire ensemble can be more of a challenge for some students than the writing, and leads to many a stubborn case of Caterers Block.

Both of the tutors for this course, namely Lawrence Sail and John Mole, aside from performing their didactic duties to a very high standard, and in a winning and diplomatic fashion, went on to make positive contributions to my professional life.  John Mole would enliven the bookshop in St. Albans where I worked for many years through various events (he lived in the city and taught in one of its schools), while Lawrence Sail co-edited the subject of this blog, around to which I am finally getting, namely Light Unlocked, an anthology of poems which the writers had enclosed in Christmas cards to their friends or families.  The publisher - Enitharmon Press - was one of many whose books my then employer represented to the book trade, and handling the book would also bring me into contact with the other co-editor, Kevin Crossley-Holland, who reaffirmed my experience that not even the best-known literary figures are immune to being charming and thoroughly nice people.

This is one of those few books which, since first seeing or reading them, I have more or less continuously and with a kind of idiotic intensity and persistence evangelised about to anyone who would or - for that matter - would not listen.  Its heavy gold end-papers, exquisite restraint of design (including elegant and playful engravings by John Lawrence) and selection of poems combine into the perfect anthology.  Buy it now, in bulk, and solve your Christmas present a stroke!  If any of your recipients don't immediately swoon with gratitude, they are not, in any case,  deserving of your acquaintance, so the book will serve a useful secondary function as a friend filter.

The poets range from very well-known literary names to Rowan Willams, and the poetic styles vary accordingly.  I'll leave you with a droll piece of UA Fanthorpe.

Christmas In Envelopes

Monks are at it again, quaffing, carousing;
And stage-coaches, cantering out of Merrie England,
In a flurry of whips and fetlocks, sacks and Santas.

Raphael has been roped in, and Botticelli;
Experts predict a vintage year for Virgins.

From the theologically challenged, Richmond Bridge, 
Giverny, a lugger by moonlight, doves. Ours

Costs less than these in money, more in time;
Like them, is hopelessly irrelevant, 
But brings, like them, the essential message


Friday, 23 November 2012

A day in the death

Christmas, like an entity being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise, is shimmering into ever greater definition at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City.  When last we visited this jewel of literacy in the Home Counties, customers were occasionally brandishing lists; now these pieces of paper are near universal, with children's books, and enquiries about children's books, being the most popular subjects.  Luckily, we as a team are pretty darned clued-up on this subject and - if I had ever felt that the hours I've spent reading junior fiction were misplaced (which I haven't) - being flung back into the front line of Christmas book retailing would have reversed this opinion.  It's heartening to witness that, as our customers pursue their individual quests for the Christmas shopping completion grail, they remain - despite their arms being encumbered by several gaily-bedaubed carrier bags and their ears likewise by the Howard Centre's incessant pop music soundtrack - of good cheer in their dealings with us.

My first task each morning has to do with a serious overflow of crime in our neighbourhood.  A large influx of new titles meant that some copies of books which were multiply stocked had to be rested on a trolley until sufficient spaces appear to re-shelve them.  Thus, ironically, this person, who finds the genre eminently resistible (see this post), is obliged each day to scan carefully each single title on the criminal trolley** and correlate it with those on the shelves, replacing stock where able.  It's a peculiar way to start the day, as if with some dark, perverted catechism, as I look along the rows of titles and murmur: Death in the Morning, Death in the Evening, Death a bit Later, Deathly Death, Look at all the Dead People, etc.

My colleagues and I have devised a devious stratagem to hasten the acquisition of crime fiction by our customers; in a simplified version of subliminal advertising, we hold up a piece of paper with appropriate novelists' names written on it (in a seductive font) and then lower it again, really, really quickly.  It's working a treat.As an antidote to this ritual, I was today imagining a new genre - crime blanc - in which concerned citizens report apparent minor misdemeanours to honest, emotionally stable police officers and are reassured that, in each case, there was a perfectly simple explanation and that no infringements had actually occurred.  Mightily relieved, all the protagonists, gather after the working day and share excellent home-made cakes and a variety of delicious hot beverages.  Each book should start: 

'Down these well-maintained streets - admire in particular the imaginative use of tree varieties - a man or indeed woman must go. To do some shopping, probably. Or just potter about'.

**You're right - it doesn't squeal.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Karel for Christmas

I've just finished reading May by Karel Hynek Mácha, a long narrative poem translated from the Czech by Marcela Sulak and published in a beautiful edition by Twisted Spoon Press.  This book is so attractive a physical object, in fact, that you will spend at least as much time gazing at and fondling it as you will reading the text.  Be careful, however, not to drool, as this may be injurious both to your social standing and the fabric of the book.

As the very useful introduction explains, the poem, first published in 1836, marked a watershed in Czech letters as it ruptured the absolutism of patriotism and nationalism as dominant themes, and embraced many of the Romantic ideas, themes and techniques which had already pervaded other European literatures and cultures.  May also broke new metrical ground, and saw the author introducing the iamb into his country.  I can picture the scene now, as Mácha pads around the quieter districts of Prague and the outlying countryside, stealthily crouching to open the door of a small but comfortable cage to usher out another flock of iambs into the wild.  Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM resound their tiny feet as they scatter abroad, giddy with the excitement of freedom and relishing the prospect of befriending the native dactyls.

Anyhoo - the poem remains massively popular in its native land, with new editions disappearing rapidly from bookshops and schoolchildren being able to recite - presumably before they can be restrained - huge chunks of it verbatim. Learning this made me feel somewhat bereft of a poem with similar status in the home life of our own dear nation; I'm not sure Morte D'Arthur quite passes muster in this capacity, and there doesn't seem to be the same unselfconscious interest in and embracing of poetry nationally and across all classes as there would seem to exist in Slovavakia and (in my experience, for example,) Wales.  Discuss.

The poem itself is a rich mixture of melodrama, romanticism and lyricism, and is structured around the last hours and execution of a 'forest lord' who has led a gang of criminals and who has been arrested and convicted for killing the man who ravished his (the forest lord's) lover, this man happening to be his (ditto) father. Meanwhile, his (you know whose) lover languishes and pines by a lake, waiting in vain for her paramour's return.  This rather stark framework is decorated with unusual and arresting imagery, particularly of nature, and the poem is particularly good at weaving together natural description with the portrayal of psychological states and ruminations on mortality.  There is excellent and dramatic use of repetition and an extraordinary interlude in which the spirits, landscape, flora and fauna of and around the graveyard sing a chorus to explain how they will lay the condemned man to rest:


"Then I will breathe a pleasant fragrance."


"I'll sprinkle on the coffin rain."


"I'll make the wreaths for it."


"We will take them to the coffin."


"Little candles we will bring."


"I will awake the hollow bells."

There is also a very powerful and moving scene in which the surviving outlaws sit on the ground an intone a dirge for their fallen leader, and the very opening of the poem is evocative and compelling:

It was late evening - first of May -
was evening May - the time for love.
The turtledove invited love
to where the pine grove's fragrance lay.
The silent moss murmured of love,
the flowering tree belied love's woe.

I've enjoyed everything I've read from Twisted Spoon, a publisher as interesting as it sounds, and recommend that you buy their entire list as Christmas presents for your legions of pals.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Bog standard, or How was it for you?

As the days grow shorter, so the shortlists lengthen.  Having just been presented with the Specsavers National Book Awards (see my incisive socio-critical deconstruction of same here), publishers, wholesalers, bookshops and booksellers throughout the country are frantically coming to grips with the Costa finalists.  The two most obviously newsworthy aspects of the Costa are the inclusion of Bring up the Bodies (they should simply rename all the fiction prizes 'The Hilary' and save time) and that of a brace of illustrated prose (see this blog post and marvel at how on the pulse is my digital finger (can fingers be anything other than digital?)). I'm sorry - I think I've been hopelessly seduced by nested brackets.  The graphic works, interestingly, are divided between the Novel and Biography division, with Days of the Bagnold Summer and Dotter of her Father's Eyes respectively waving the flag for books with pictures, the former from a major traditional publishing house, the latter from a respected independent comics publisher.

Which, preamblingly, brings me to the peak of the prize-giving season, The Bad Sex Award, which has excited most comment over two exclusions, namely J.K. Rowling (no, not for Hairy Porter) and EL James.  The list of non-excludees, together with the appropriate extracts, can be found in the link.  I applaud the aims and sentiments of this award: 

"to draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel – and to discourage it"

and have often found that perfectly reasonable novels are rendered unpalatable by such scenes, especially where a male author has created a female participant whose listed personal and physical attributes, along with the degree of unbearable ecstasy she is able to precipitate, smack of a rather grubby kind of wish-fulfilment rather than literary creation.

'But what' I hear you ask, with your typical perspicacity and intelligence, 'about the good sex?'.  Perhaps bizarrely, one of my favourite descriptions of physical conjugation takes place within a graphic novel (can this get more intertwined?) and involves a human communing with a plant elemental in a kind of physical and mental union that allows them to share each other's consciousness and embrace the universe in a single vision.  I speak of none other than a creature who has gurgled his way into these posts on a few previous occasions, the enigmatic Swamp Thing and his lover, Abby, who perform this union in volume 4 of the collected Saga of the Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore, when Abby (as you do) eats a particular plant that constitutes part of Swampie's physical form.

The writing in this scene, as is often the case with Moore, is high-flown and florid, but - taken in context - is entirely appropriate, and the passage is typical of the intelligence, wit and range of cultural and literary references that this writer brings to his work.  The whole Saga is an incredible tour de force, embracing a dizzying range of subjects (vampires, misogyny, pollution, God and the afterlife, garden furniture), themes and perspectives, and makes the average Superbloke story seem like something scrawled in crayon by a very young child.

I'd love to hear your examples of good sex (fiction and poetry only, please).

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Do not go gentle into those good shelves

Herein are found further meandering remarks occasioned by the delightful experience of being a born-again bookseller in The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City, (winner of the Doughty Tradespersons' Least Deceptively-Named Retail Outlet Award, 2011) (yes, there was a statuette).

The Shredded Wheat Factory; from Audrey  Bassingthorpe's Book:
Buildings of Welwyn Garden that are not  The Bookshop

There has been a certain amount of shuffling and creating of sections within our word emporium, with one of my intrepid colleagues causing to exist - by means of arcane ritual, esoteric incantations and - most importantly, a good, sturdy trolley - a Dark Romance department within Horror.  Unfortunately, because of a delay to the re-supply of our blank shelf labels (which has transcended epic proportions), we are unable to indicate this new area overtly, so we have drafted a new rota ensuring each of us in turn stands near the appropriate area looking pale and sensitive, with a faint aura of supernatural menace.  I dare not tell you how we're flagging up the new Erotica section.

Booksellers tend to have favourite sections within shops, (usually, but not always determined by personal interest) and the bond that subsequently develops is usually of a fiercely parental nature; a mixture of unconditional love, concern and jealousy whenever a threat to the size or position of the section is perceived, or - in pathological cases - whenever another bookseller attempts to shelve some stock in it, tidy it up or even approach within fifty yards of it.  An amusing consequence of this custodial relationship is the inappropriate championing of books to customers. When you hear a phrase such as:

'Yes, Sir or Madam, that 4-volume Oxford Latin Dictionary would be a perfect christening's never too early....'

you know that someone has become a little too keen to boost the Language department takings.

Conversely and, so to speak, on the other hand, I have known booksellers who would tremble with apprehension when they were required to enter certain subject territories, the usual suspect here being 'Mind, Body, Spirit' or - as its known by its less spiritually-inclined detractors - the Miscellaneous Books Section.  This fear tended to be based on the difficulty of organising and therefore navigating the section (arranging it in ascending order of strangeness, for example, seldom works well) and of the subjects contained therein.  Often this led to the pitiful scenario of the bookseller who ran MBS being dragged out of their tea break by a whimpering colleague who would be told by the former, not for the first time, that 

'Astral Phenomena comes straight after Alien Encounters; it's obvious, for goodness' sake'.

My own spookiest experience in this category occurred many years ago when I telephoned an esoteric publisher to enquire for a customer about the availability of a certain title.  I was informed that the person who dealt with that particular series would be out of the office for some time.  There then followed an unconventionally long pause, which terminated in the revelation:

'He is a student of the Fourth Way'.

I confess, dear reader, that I was too discomfited to ascertain if and how these two statements were related.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Left writes

As awareness rises of how some well-known large corporations are organised to obviate the necessity of paying UK taxes, my mind has turned to writing about the global economic system, and in particular Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater. This novel has an arresting opening line:
 A Sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
and concerns the attempts of one Eliot Rosewater to use his massive inherited fortune to perform public good works and improve the lot of the disenfranchised and unfortunate, a campaign to which his family responds by attempting to declare him legally insane. As with all Vonnegut's work, much of which is concerned with questions of economic and social equality, this broad satirical canvas is decirated with brush-strokes of irony which undermine any attempt to see the work as a simple declaration or manifesto, but there is some very astute writing about capitalism, especially - in the context of tax behaviour, in this well-known passage, in which Eliot's father is attempting to fathom his son's perspective: 

'"You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?"

"The what?"

"The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it - and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts' content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently."

"Slurping lessons?"

"From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers' men! We're born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes' screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping."'

"I wasn't aware that I slurped."

This is Vonnegut at his best in terms of dialogue, imagery and humour, and the book is one to which I return frequently.

In the same vein, my dear wife kindly alerted me to a new children's graphic novel from an American labour organisation - Union Communication Services, inc. - which explains the violent circumstances under which the classic protest song 'Which Side are you on?' was penned.

In the interests of proper balance and objectivity, I will of course be posting a marginally slightly less left-wing article tomorrow.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Writing wrongs

Is there such a thing as a 'booksellers' book'?  The title I keep coming across as a staff favourite in the retail environment is The Master and Margarita, and our bookshop in Welwyn Garden City (town slogan: 'Almost the first garden city') is no exception.  Bulgakov's book has the appropriate blend of literary quality, knowing eccentricity, grand themes and black comedy to endear it to self-conscious literary types, who are not unknown behind bookshop counters.  I came across, and was enthralled by the book relatively late in life, and was pleased to discover in the early pages that it had been referenced in another literary favourite, Alan Moore's Swamp Thing saga; mention of which there may already have been in this blog.  Buy it immediately, need I add;  Alan Moore is a self-proclaimed witch these days, and cauldrons ain't cheap.  The book was reactivated in my memory today (my first day as a full-time (temporary (Christmas)) bookseller) when a customer ordered the graphic novel version published by Self-Made Hero.

We witnessed an advanced symptom of Christmas today - a wide outbreak of people carrying lists and looking anxious.  Purchasing books in satisfying-looking heaps is the only reliable cure. We had a jolly day, and the till received plenty of exercise, in between our doughty crew attempting to extrude a large stock order of Fiction and Crime onto the shelves, a process which involved advanced book relocation skills, including the invasion of defenceless display tables and the attempts to reclassify books into less-populated sections (I've always thought of Patricia Cornwell as Mind, Body, Spirit, especially Body).

My own brief was to organise crime (there is such a thing as organised crime), a genre with which I have a strange relationship, in that I have always felt I ought to like it, but have never succeeded in doing so.  I have close friends who regularly wave their current favourite detectives, police officers and private eyes seductively in front of me, but I always feel disappointed by the conventions of the genre.  I thought Jo Nesbo would convert me, but about two thirds of the way through The Redeemer, there was a proliferation of sub-plots and twists that seemed like a literary Japanese Knotweed, and I lost patience as the book lost credibility for me.  And what is it with these cynical, alcoholic or drug-addicted police officers who are inevitably dragging at least one failed marriage in their psychological wake?  Is there a training course they're sent on?  Do bright and capable police personnel who have clumsily failed to become addicted to anything, and whose marriage has somehow succeeded, find themselves bumping into a glass ceiling when it comes to promotion? 'Sorry, Sergeant Normal, but you're simply too psychologically well-balanced for this role.  Take this large amount of crack and come back in a few months'. If I do happen to enjoy a book that might be claimed by the Crime mob (e.g. Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow), I reclassify it as Literature.  People have been doing this with Science Fiction for years.

Reading update: I'm about a quarter of the way through Kaddish for an Unborn Child, which means I've read about four sentences of it. It's still very good.  Buy it when you pick up Swamp Thing.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Words of Pray

The Reading Fairy has led me, in its characteristically capricious manner, from the bright bedding plants of frothy delight (Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader) into the sterner, darker groves of Nobel prize-winning novelists.  Not that Mr. Bennett's work didn't abound in intelligence and wit, nor was it lacking in perceptive and telling comments on how reading and books are regarded in British culture, and it had a great ending.

Anyhow, I've got a lovely bit of Mo Yan simmering on the back shelf, but at the moment I'm reading Kaddish for an Unborn Child, by Imre Kertész.  This was a classic case of a book fixing me from the library shelves with its glittering eye; well, actually, with its elegantly minimal cover and intriguing title.  The term Kaddish, a form of Jewish prayer, seems to be fairly free-floating, but Wikipedia clarifies that 'Mourners say Kaddish to show that despite...loss they still praise God'.

The book's narrator is a middle-aged (Hungarian) Jewish writer and, though I've only just started this novella, I've gleaned that it will explore parenthood or the lack of it, the search for a purpose in life and the Holocaust.  An impressive score on the Big, Important Stuff Meter, then.  It is written as a brilliantly-accomplished interior monologue which is intense, digressive and anguished, with long sentences meandering through each paragraph and turning back on themselves several times, and often requiring re-reading.  Unless the gradual revelation of the narrator's life history be defined as such, there is no plot - nothing happens, but it does so in a very literary and profound way.  I do, of course, offer myself as a hostage to fortune by posting a review of a book I've just started; it may be that after page 47 car chases, albino assassins and sparkling dialogue break out.  I'll let you know.  Reading Kaddish is like (so far) hitching a ride on the tortured, tortuous thoughts of the narrator as he responds to human and natural stimuli - it's quite mesmeric and very powerful.  There is also excellent observational humour and some very good natural description.

There is a cultural thread for me here: one of the songs that first (belatedly, but hey, it's never too late for an epiphany) alerted me to the ineffable genius of Leonard Cohen was 'Who by Fire', which was also inspired by a Jewish prayer, and about which (I apologise for the neatness of this) I have a book, waiting to be read.

The Reading Fairy moves in mysterious ways, but I'm glad she visits libraries.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A large number must have prizes

It doesn't require working in any aspect of the book trade for very many months before one realises that there almost as many book prizes as there are books.  As well as the household names (Man-Booker (or Mantel Prize) Orange (as was), Pulitzer, etc) there is a host of less well-publicized awards, ranging from the general to the highly specialist.  If, for example, you are both an American and  have written a work which promotes peace, you could be eligible for The Dayton Prize, while writers whose careers are still embryonic can vie for the The Paris Literary Prize  which awards 10,000€ for the best unpublished work. There is probably an award for the best book about wombats by a left-handed lathe operator, but I haven't yet been able to track it down.  Give me time.

Awards are germinating and flourishing all through the Garden of Letters at the moment, while their literal counterparts are whittled down by Winter.  January will see the climax of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, while the shortlists for the National Book Awards were announced yesterday. The headline sponsor for the latter is Specsavers, whose name is especially attached to the award for Popular Fiction Book of the Year, and  it has already excited some considerable comment that Fifty Shades of Grey is on the shortlist in this category. Not having read this book, I must, of course, refrain from comment on its quality as literature (Wikipedia observes that 'Critical reception of the novel has been mixed') but there is no denying its popularity, nor that of its sequels, nor indeed of the host of similarly themed and presented novels that major publishers seem to be able to produce with uncanny speed (I think they have secret machines).

Perhaps, however, there is a conflict of interests; not only does the title of this book identify a specific item (using the popular or slang term) purveyed by Specsavers, but the alleged results of a particular activity said to be inspired by the perusal of erotic material would surely increase demand for the staple Specsavers product?

In any case, good luck to all the shortlistees, and here is my list of books that ought to be awarded special Specsavers commendations:

The Squinter's Tale
Chart of Darkness
The Lens Room
Specs and the City
Blurred Brothers
Eyes Station Zebra


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Good, better, verse

It's proving quite the Tennyson-infested winter (see this previous post), the latest manifestation to have swum into my ken being John Carey's delightful review of the new biography by John Batchelor.  You don't need close reading skills to sense that Carey dislikes Tennyson's stab at The Matter of Britain; (while I'm gaily strewing links around, see this post), in that he says:
 'The Idylls of the the impression of being made out of some high-class decorative material rather than poetry'
and then goes on to assert:
 'However, cleverness is not essential for poets.  What they need is a faultless ear, a gift for phrase and instant access to the human heart.'
before citing some examples.

This struck me as an interesting view of what constitutes a poet, in that it excludes a 
quality - cleverness - that many people would cite as the defining characteristic of the genre.  A reason popularly produced by people for not reading poetry is that it is too 'difficult', which could be interpreted as too intellectually challenging, which in turn is not a condition arrived at in the absence of cleverness.  We hail, it seems to me, many of the poets from the last two centuries (Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Pound) as great because, at least in part, of their philosophical content and intellectual insight. There is also the aspect of 'cleverness' which allows the poets of the highest stature to employ language in a concentrated, precise manner that is not necessarily susceptible to full immediate apprehension.

One can, of course, proceed too far down this road into the unappealing neighbourhood of wilful obscurity, and there is the famous literary joke about someone publishing a volume of poetry and following this with publication of 'the answers'.  I still maintain, however, that we need to keep clear critical dividing lines between great, literary poets and (albeit hugely talented) versifiers such as, for example, John Cooper Clarke or Benjamin Zephaniah, who are among writers periodically presented as representing poetry that is somehow more acceptable (even 'genuine') because it doesn't attempt to embarrass its readers with 'cleverness' that smacks of elitism or cultural snobbery (which seems to me like criticising a racing cyclist for being disconcertingly rapid).

Carey's witty dismissal of 'The Idylls' (apropos of nothing else in particular) reminds me of a typically, brilliantly deranged short story by Richard Brautigan, Homage to the San Francisco YMCA, in Revenge of the Lawn, in which the protagonist decides to replace his domestic plumbing with poetry.  It does not perform well.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Extended Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary

Those humble and assiduous lexicographers, toiling away in the soily murk of word-root and phrase-stem, immune to discomfort and hardship, have just delivered a new cart of entries for the The Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary.  It is my duty to share them with you.

ANTICLIMAX:      a specialised hatchet which assists in the process of          

DIALOGUE:        a truly awful tree remnant.

DIRECT SPEECH:   a Welshman sabotaged some oratory.

MOTIF:           additional dentures.

PHONETIC:        an instruction to contact the loft.

PREQUEL:         the age of very early writing instruments.

PROLOGUE:        in favour of a tree remnant (regardless whether or not it is  
                                               truly awful: see dialogue).
SEQUEL:          a writing instrument deployed on board ship (compare

It may be untrue to say that more will not follow.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Purr ardua ad astra

Trade was reasonably brisk at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden, today. That ancient bookshop manager's cry, which has for countless ages rung out across the shelves in hope and apprehension: 

'Any sign of Christmas?

was answered with at least partial affirmation: 

'Yes, I think I saw a bit of it at lunchtime.'

Moreover, somebody bought my favourite novel, (and the best ever written, according to page 47 of the Book of Stuff that Just Is) The Third Policeman; 'Is it about a bicycle?' yes, and everything else besides.

One of the titles that has found particular favour with our customers is A Street Cat Named Bob, which seems to belong to a trend of cat and dog-based animal biographies.  I'm not going to wax cynical about this - frankly, compared to other such waves of books I've seen roll onto the shore of popularity in my various book-selling incarnations, such as Magic Eye and Irish misery memoirs, it's quite refreshing.  This phenomenon also lies behind the several recent prolonged absences of our own domestic goddess, Sally the Cat, (pictured below, impersonating books) from her hearth and home.  We discovered recently - by fortunate happenstance - that she's been meeting literary agents along our alley attempting to persuade them that her past conceals untold hardship and deprivation, and that they really ought to sign her up for a three-book deal with a 15% royalty on rrp globally. This is of course a piece of childish whimsy on my part; no publisher would actually countenance such terms.

Which brings me by a leafy, picturesque but indirect route,  containing many suitable areas for picnics, to my list of favourite literary cats.

Poetically, these have to be the enigmatic and eerie Minnaloushe, in Yeats' poem The Cat and the Moon

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon...

and Jeoffry in Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

It's harder to select from novels, as the genre is benignly infested with them, and they seem to be a particular favourite for the anthropomorphically-inclined scribe, so I have nominated one each from the following categories:

Most compellingly unsettling:  the god-like primal entities Mogget and Kerrigor in The Old Kingdom trilogy, by Garth Nix, which are bound into the forms of a black and a white cat;

Most silly (but enjoyably so): the cats in Felidae, a crime novel in which the victims, perpetrators and investigators are all...well...cats, albeit of the rare variety that are capable of speech and inductive reasoning and handy (pawy?) with computers;

Most romantic: a long out of print novel by the gloriously-named Dolf Wyllarde, called: Felise. A Story About a Cat By a Cat For Cats to Read, in which episodes in the titular cat's life, and especially her amorous adventures, are mirrored in those of her human companion (they both enjoy what is I believe in popular parlance termed 'a bit of rough' at one point).

I hope that among the countless works I have omitted to mention are favourites of yours about which you will evangelise in response.

Paws for thought?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Anyone for Tennyson?

Having been dragged like a sulky child to see Skyfall by my wife, I found the film surprisingly enjoyable (although I was dismayed that the opening song rejected the opportunity to use the words 'trifle' and 'eyeful').  I was particularly impressed by the deftness with which The International Tennyson Marketing Board (obviously an organisation with which to be reckoned) insinuated the end of Ulysses into the film, spoken by 'M':

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I remember the commercial frenzy that ensued when some Auden was sprinkled over Four Weddings and a Funeral. I was a bookseller in St Albans then, and a tiny Faber pamphlet which  contained the poems, and which was hardly competitively-priced, flapped out of the the doors in sizeable flocks, its staples glinting in the sunlight, causing many a Poetry section manager to gibber with surprised delight.  I'm at The Bookshop in Welwyn Garden tomorrow and am eager to learn if this phenomenon is repeating itself.

In a time when poetry seems to be threatening a popular rehabilitation - Twitter today, for example, was buzzing with discussions about how to make the great reading public less averse to the form - I wonder if this inclusion in major films is the most efficient vector to accelerating the process.  The estates of our major poets could vie with each other to have Batman and Bourne pause in mid-action to stare reflectively at the camera and quote some Hopkins or Hughes, then sit back and wait for the tills to ring:  'You know what, Joker, at times like this, I always say to myself: 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God''.  What's good enough for Pepsi and Apple, after all...

This post leaves you with a brace of Bond-related books, namely:

Licensed to Kill a Mockingbird and

The Prophecies of Not-Stirred Damus'.

Sorry, and goodnight.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Working titles

I have, at the moment, an advanced degree of self-consciousness about the subject of work, seeking as I am a permanent berth and temping in various places in the meantime.  This has led me to dwell upon the relatively small number of books (of which I am aware) which feature paid employment as their main theme, which is perhaps surprising given the financial and temporal significance this activity has for most of us.  Many novels and stories are obliged to make reference to work as part of their mimetic weft, but I thought it would be jolly to construct a select list of those in which toil was the overarching subject.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by the British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson, is the first to clock in to my memory. Johnson may be best known for The Unfortunates which is a series of unbound chapters (presented in a box) which - aside from the helpfully-labelled 'First' and 'Last' - the reader is invited to read in any order that takes their fancy.  Christie Malry, on the other hand, takes conventional narrative form and describes what occurs when the titular, deranged antihero applies the well-established accounting technique (which he learns in his first job, in a bank) to (as he sees it) people's moral value and the fate they have 'earned' through their behavioural lapses.  A good deal of the novel takes place in a sweet factory and (it says in my Goodreads review, so it must be true): 'In its especially good evocation of the vacuous nature of modern working life, and its faux-naive style, it prefigures Magnus Mills, among others.'

Moving to Mr. Mills (see how prescient I can be on Goodreads), his The Scheme For Full Employment presents - like many of his novels - a fable-like scenario, the character of which is at once surreal, sinister and satirical.  The novel describes an industry whose purpose is the complex movement of boxes by a fleet of vans so that said boxes can then be collected and replaced by the same vehicles - something like a corporate Ouroboros.  Mills uses this idea to describe patterns of conformity and deviance, capturing as he does so the culture of a certain kind of British workplace.

David Lodge's Nice Work is a delightful comic novel (later converted into an excellent TV series) which blends pastiche and affectionate parody, as a self-consciously academic feminist lecturer and an aggressively practical engineering manager are thrown into each others' lives by a 'shadowing' scheme.  All of Lodge's narrative expertise is on display as the pair move from unthinking disdain for each other and (each other's professional world) into grudging respect and beyond.

To conclude this very brief site inspection, it's worth nodding to the presence of the 9 to 5 in poetry. Philip Larkin's superb choice of a toad as a metaphor for the opressive necessity of earning a living probably stands out for most of us, but there are some lines of Auden which I have always loved as an example of his ability to conjure remarkable images, feelings and thoughts in an apparently casual register:

   Caesar's double-bed is warm
   As an unimportant clerk
   On a pink official form.

Your own recommendations are warmly welcomed.