Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J Ryan Stradal

9781784291938 An unexpected treat . . . a book that grabbed me instantly due to its unique voice – a bemusing quirkiness combined with a poignant bittersweetness.

There are many things to recommend this book – its somewhat unorthodox narrative style which plays with the notions of who you think the main character is or isn’t, its ability to make you care deeply for things that you wouldn’t expect to (the tension generated out of a small-town summer fete bake-off competition is very impressive), its gallery of wonderfully rendered characters (some of whom you root for, others not), its observations on identity, inner lives, unrequited love, childhood, adulthood, the gap between the two and what makes us who we are.

The ingredients that make up this debut work are reminiscent of a highly imaginative cookbook, which perhaps is a very apposite comparison given the extraordinary love of food which is evident throughout this novel. Yes, this book is a sort of literary smorgasbord full of succulence and rapture, concocted by a very talented author-chef who doesn’t play by the rules. You are left feeling thoughtful, entertained and touched by the powerful observations of human vagaries . . . Read this and then pass it on to everyone you love . . .

Join us in the shop on Saturday 1st August where we will be celebrating the publication of this extraordinary novel – thanks to the kindness of publisher Quercus we will have the book a full week ahead of any other bookshop in the UK) There will be food made from recipes in the book, readings and the odd copy to give away to lucky customers…

The Hidden Pleasures of Life: An evening with Theodore Zeldin on Thursday 11th June

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Theodore Zeldin, the astonishingly intelligent and highly esteemed philosopher was, unsurprisingly, wonderfully profound – he talked for about 25 minutes to kick proceedings off and he explained his thinking behind the search for a meaningful life. Sitting on a tall coffee shop stool and speaking into the microphone, he radiated thoughtfulness and wisdom – he talked about (and I’m paraphrasing a little here as I stupidly wasn’t taking notes) our minds being like antique shops, full of – whether we realised it or not – ways of thinking from many different disciplines and centuries – the result being a rather cacophonous babble of different voices.

He said that he didn’t want to try and summarise his entire book in a short time because to do so would be glib and that all thinkers were distorted in the way people interpreted them. (He also said that he really couldn’t understand why people want to meet authors, given that books are so different from talks. If this talk was a book, he explained, then he might take a day to write a sentence. And that day which led to the single sentence might have been preceded by ten days of research whereby the author would have read other authors who had written on the subject, none of whom agreed with one another!)

He explained why, from his point of view, the search for happiness was not an especially fruitful one since, even if we found personal fulfilment and satisfaction – there were surely too many appalling things going on in the world for anyone to declare themselves happy. Instead, he said, what he found interesting was the pursuit of a meaningful life – and that meant a life characterised by empathy and understanding, aimed ultimately at making the human lot an improved one. ‘Truth is beautiful’, he said, going on to say that he would rather be insulted to his face (if the insult was motivated by truthfulness rather than mere unkindness!) than be told something soothing but without sincerity.

Then we went into the discussion part of the evening and ultimately we ended up in pairs for our ‘conversational supper’. We were provided with menus outlining questions to ponder and discuss, and these included such ones as ‘How have your background and experience limited or favoured you?’, ‘Which parts of your life have been a waste of time?’, ‘How have your opinions and behaviour changed on the way the two sexes treat one another?’ and ‘What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life?’ All in all, there were twenty such questions from which to choose.

It might sound like a terrifying ordeal, but actually, the way it had been introduced – with gentleness and lucid explanation of what we were being encouraged to do – lent it a much calmer and unintimidating ambience than might otherwise have been the case, and it is true to say that the entire room of people entered into the exercise with great diligence. I was paired with a woman called Laura, we had never met before, but we both experienced a sincere and meaningful exchange of thoughts and views. We did not tread into areas that we felt uncomfortable about, but equally we traversed challenging terrain and we took seriously the process that Zeldin had suggested, namely that the person who chose the question should answer first to demonstrate that they were willing to answer it truthfully, then the other partner should answer the question, then the answers should be discussed further, and we should end by discussing how the conclusions we had reached would benefit wider humanity (people gasped with an understandable sense of near-overwhelmedness when he said this bit!)

Towards the end of the evening, Laura leant close to me (she knew I worked for Blackwell’s) and said ‘I don’t know how influential you are, but please make it so that Blackwell’s organises more evenings like this!’ The expressions and body language of around sixty other people in the room suggested that they would echo this feeling.

Then Zeldin gave a brief conclusion to the evening, took a few questions and ended with a book-signing and perhaps the chance to ask one or two questions more quietly while getting your book signed.

Empathy Week, of which this was the final event, seems to have been a thoroughly worthwhile experience. Many people would agree that there is far too little compassion, kindness and understanding in this world and that a good and humble starting point to redress that is simply to get to know better the people around us. By extension of that, how well do we really understand people from radically different cultures, or geographical locations, or experiences?

Imagine if, en masse, all of us earthlings cultivated our abilities to empathise further than they currently extend. If that immense pang of love we may sometimes feel for a loved one or a close friend was extended to fellow humans generally, would that not be a worthy achievement for twenty-first century humankind?

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A Year at Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

Want to join a reading group but don’t know how or where? At Blackwell’s we host three reading groups every month. If you are interested in knowing more information about any of these groups please feel free to email  events.oxford@blackwell.co.uk or visit their websites listed below.

• 1st Monday of the month- Books on the Broad, a fiction reading group

• 2nd Friday of the month- Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

• final Wednesday of the month- Non Fiction Reading Group

Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

We’ve been running a teen fiction reading group in the bookshop for four years now and every year the books we read together are as varied as the next. We’ve had fantasy with reading the classic Eragon by Christopher Paolini, historical fiction reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Weir and dystopian with Patrick Ness’ More Than This.

What is so great about being part of the group is that everyone has different thoughts and opinions on each novel. Sometimes we all loved it, with no one challenging the views but other times we’ve had disagreements which is great for discussion. The group is made up of teenagers from 13+ and adults who enjoy reading teen fiction; the group is for everyone who enjoys picking up a teen fiction book. We decide what we read together fairly, by putting forward suggestions, five being pulled out, these are then put on our blog and voted for. The one with the most votes is the book we read for the month.

Our meeting is on the second Friday of the month at 6:30pm-7:30pm in Cafe Nero on the first floor. We are always looking to welcome new members, so if you’re interested in knowing more about us please visit our website www.blackwellsteenfictionreadinggroup.wordpress.com.

Recommending books is what being part of a reading group is all about, so I’ve written little reviews on the books we chose to read together last year.

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January: Every Day by David Levithan

I really enjoyed reading this book. David Levithan, who is supposedly best friends with ‘it’ man of teen fiction John Green, has a great style of writing. In this novel the main character ‘A’ wakes up every day in someone else’s body. For that day only A has to live the life of this person, trying to follow through the norm so that no one really notices the changes. Until one day A meets a girl, one it wants to be with and to fight to get to know. So with determination A every day wakes up in a body, a boy or a girl, and finds Rhiannon. The novel looks at the importance to not judging people by how they look but what is inside, the difficulties of overcoming the times when A ends up in a girls body, the understanding of loneliness and sacrifice for love. It’s a really warming story and one that should be read. The only thing I will say is it is for a mature teen readership, there is content of a sexual nature so be aware of this.

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February: The Kissing Game by Aiden Chambers

Our meeting fell on Valentine’s Day this year and did we pick a nice fluffy romance? No we picked The Kissing Game by Aiden Chambers. This is the second book I’ve read of Aiden and I love his style of writing, he could write about anything and you’d want to know all about it. In this collection of short stories there are 16 to get your teeth round which made it both fun to discuss as a group but also difficult! As quoted on Aiden Chambers website from a quote by School Library Journal: “These 16 stories focus mostly on dangerous or awkward difficulties that can underpin a burgeoning relationship.” Some of them were sad, where we all sat there saying “It made me nearly cry” with others being shocking (I wont reveal which one I’m talking about, but, ew). It’s not one for the lighthearted but definitely worth a read, especially as the stories are short so can jump in and out as little or as often as you want to.

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March: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Book number one of the Old Kingdom trilogy, Sabriel by Gareth Nix is the perfect read for anyone who likes a fantasy adventure. Sabriel has been living in a boarding school, working hard and getting good grades. Her Dad comes to visit every few months and everytime he comes she is thrilled. Sadly, she gets note that her father has died and it is now her time to take over his role in the kingdom beyond the wall, as Abhorsen, the keeper of the dead, making sure they pass to the other side. With the help of her fathers talking cat, Sabriel must try to fix the kingdom that is turning inside out and at the same time work out who killed her father and make them pay.

Also the good thing is a series, so perfect to get your teeth into.

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April: Maze Runner by James Dashner

What I can I say, James Dashner created a great series when he wrote the Maze Runner. At times they are grossly disturbing but that is the charm of this series. What would happen if a group of teenagers were stuck in a maze with mechanical creatures set out to kill them… erm. But this series is honestly the perfect read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games, it’s fast paced with lots of unexpected twists in the series a whole and it’s guaranteed after reading the first book you’ll want to finish the series.

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May: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

I loved this series. A few years ago I read this book, to have something in common with someone I was sharing it with at the time and I honestly struggled to get through it and didn’t continue with the series. This time though I gobbled the story and went on to read the other three books in a short period of time after finishing Eragon with the reading group. If you love reading fantasy novels, this is one you have to read. A world with dragons, dragon riders, elves, bad kings, fight scenes, what more does a great fantasy novel need to have?! One of the best parts of it is the relationship between Saphira, the dragon and Eragon. Don’t be put off by the size of each of the novels, the extra content is needed and don’t judge it by the film… the book is a million times better.

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June: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Weir

Sometimes a book leaves a mark on you after you’ve read it and Rose Under Fire promises to do just that. It is based in the Second World War and is the story of a young women who bravely flies planes from England to France after they have been repaired for the soldiers, with no weapons. One day she ends up being captured by the Nazi’s and taken to a concentration camp, and this story is her survival in that camp. It looks at the obviously horrific treatment of the people there, the friendships that the girls formed in their bunk rooms and how these characters kept trying to be strong through this horrific experience. Elizabeth Weir is a research writer so the story has been told close to the true facts. Not a great book to discuss as a group but definitely one to be read.

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July: Half Bad by Sally Green

If you struggle with violence, this one may not be the book for you. Half Bad by Sally Green deserves being part of the Telegraphs top Teen fiction reads of 2014 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11030589/The-best-young-adult-books-of-2014.html) but it is at times worryingly violent in a physical violent way. Nathan is a half witch, which means he is half white witch (good witch) and half black witch (bad witch). Half bads are treated as though they are dirt and Nathan, he is the lowest of the low because not only did his mother, who was the white witch, commit suicide and leave him, his father is the worst black witch of the lot, notorious for killing white witches and eating them… On a witches 17th birthday they must receive three gifts from someone in their family, which defines what type of adult they become, or they die, Nathan must find his father to save his life. In the meantime, there are hunters after him and with the help of a few he must defy all.

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August- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Dystopian fiction at its best, Uglies is set in a world where beauty is the most important thing. Everyone lives the first 16 years of their life as an ‘Ugly’, where they are normal human beings with wonky ears and frizzy hair. When they reach the age of becoming an adult, they become a Pretty, where they are made to be perfect, given designer clothes and live the life of parties and happy fun. The government set in place that every person would go under intense operations to fix the imperfections of the human race, including their ability to think for themselves. They are told they must be this pretty person and spend their whole lives living for the day they become pretty and Tally is no different. Until she meets Shay. Shay fills a void that her best friend left behind when he turned pretty months before she was due to. Shay however tells her that there is a way of living without being turned and a whole new adventure starts.

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September: More Than This by Patrick Ness

I would highly recommend reading Patrick Ness if you haven’t read his Chaos Walking Series. More Than this is a weird but exciting read. Seth in the opening chapter is drowning and thinks he is dying. The next thing you know he wakes up in a deserted town with no one around. You learn about where he is, why he tried to commit suicide, how he survives. I can’t really explain more than this as it would reveal too much of the plot and the joy of this book is learning information as you read along.

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October-: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas

This has to be my favourite read of the year. Set to be huge in teen fiction Throne of Glass I feel could be the next Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner. There are three books out in the series already, technically four with a prequel written about Celaena’s life before Throne of Glass when she was an Assassin. Celaena is living in a prison where they are treated badly by the king. She is offered an ultimatum, she can continue living in the prison where she is going to die or she can represent the prince in a tournament to become the Kings Assassin. If she becomes the Kings Assassin she can be free in years, the only issue is, the King is the one man on the planet she detests and would rather she killed herself. In the meantime there is romance and the competition. You find out more about her as the book goes along, Caelena is feisty and funny and a character you really do love as she has lots of different layers. A must!

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November: Paper Towns by John Green

John Green. I don’t think this book needs a review because everyone must know about John Green and this book. Currently being made into a movie set to come out next year, Paper Town looks at the life of Quentin, the good hard working boy next door to Margo. Margo and him used to be the best of friends. One day she knocks on his door and they have this epic adventure, the next she has vanished and only Quentin can work out where on earth she is. Insert two brilliant best friends and you have the start of an epic quest to find where on earth Margo has vanished to. John Green is very good about writing friendships and I think this is done well in this novel.

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December: Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

A nice little festive read, Let it Snow is a novel made of three stories which intertwine together. It’s fun to find the links and be like “Oh he was in the story before”. There isn’t enough Christmassy stories for Teen fiction so I think it’s great for that alone. Mixed feelings with the group for all of the stories but I think overall its a solid 7/10.

 

 

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The English Project by Robert Lipscombe

We applaud Robert Lipscombe for his bravery, ingenuity and passion for publishing his most recent novel as a newspaper and we thank him for taking the time to write this fascinating piece for Broad Conversation.

The English Project is available now from our Fiction Department on our Ground Floor for just £2.99

englishprojectA newspaper?  And yet a literary novel?    One hundred and forty-four silkily tabloid pages loaded with contemporary artwork?  And why is it called The English Project  —somebody’s essay, perchance?  Perhaps a social-political initiative in a run-down neighbourhood, on the American model —could it be that?  And since it’s a quarter of a million words of text, why is it only £2.99… that’s roughly 800 words per pence, my calculator tells me.  Talk about bucking the trend.  But is there any point?  And why does the flag [is it?], on the cover, that is —  appear so faded, khaki-coloured, even tinged with blood? And why is there a sky-blue colour, leaking, as it were, from the panels?
In case you are asking these very reasonable questions, here are some modest attempts to answer them.   The flag is faded, yes, perhaps tinged with blood, as you say, to represent the swag wagon of empire, now become a tumbrel, in fact — still on the road but now poorly maintained and somehow hijacked ..or perhaps just so much more obvious as it fades.  You’ll see St George rather pitifully fending off an enormous serpent; a weeping angel, gaze averted, but refusing to abandon the nation, hitches a reluctant ride at the back; a unicorn ‘abandons ship’; and while infants labour to turn the heavy wheels of this historic bugaboo as it lumbers towards its end, the reins are firmly in the hands of the diabolical Doctors Pisle and Gisle of The College.  As to the sky-blue colour breaking through the khaki panels— this is the promise, still considerably in doubt, true, but of a brighter future for us all— if we can only get the tumbrel stowed and definitively locked away at last.
But a newspaper? Why so? Well, broadly speaking, on the axis which runs from fact to fantasy a newspaper is perceived to be predominantly factual, or at least fact-specific and in its narratives true-to-what-is-in-fact-the-case. A novel, in sharp distinction, is usually a book, and is perceived to be located towards the fantasy, or at least ‘imaginary world’ end of the axis. At best it explores possibilities — possible environments and possible events within those environments only ‘as if’ they were real.  A newspaper, by comparison, purports to reveal the true/real hitherto unknown facts of the environments in which we live [especially political, economic and social], and gives detailed descriptions [not always accurate!] of events within those environments which are thought to really matter in the everyday business of life. In short, what’s in the newspaper really matters; what’s in a novel does not. Everybody knows that.
So the newspaper, in that it purports to be the vehicle of truth about the world, conventionally  enables and engenders dissent. However, a novel is fictive and does not much matter in terms of everyday needs and is far more easily dismissed  —  its dangers [if any] generally overlooked, even disregarded. Of the two, naturally enough, power greatly prefers the novel [of course, although ever disdaining to read it], considering it to be a far lesser dog with smaller, duller teeth and a snout that is imprecise in its attack.  What better way, then, to smuggle truths into a public space than a fictive, obviously imaginary text dressed up/down as a weekly rag?  As Hugo Thayer says on page 24 [column three]without truth we sleep in the demon’s lair — a fitful, dangerous sleep..  so art comes at truth by devious ways, enchanting its audience, stealing closer, closer yet — until it is suddenly upon us. .. There! And now it has you marked! Will you scurry away? Or will you stare it in the face?’

Yes, The English Project novel in a newspaper is a true hybrid at the level of information and cannot fit into either column in a truth table.  Furthermore, the newspaper is flimsy, throwaway, the price of a pint, a thing to be swiftly browsed and then binned, or left on a seat – as such it is very nearly common property for those very reasons.  A novel, especially a literary novel, on the other hand, and especially in its hardback form, is a possession, the property either of an individual or of a library. As an owned object it carries the presumption that its existence has been licensed by the gatekeepers, whether they be literary agents or publishers [except, of course,  in the case of self-published publications — and these, no matter how good they may be, for the reason stated suffer inevitably from a certain lightness, perhaps even a perceived spuriousness, a not-quite-adequateness].
Furthermore, a conventional publishing of a book swankily purports to certify and affirm a competitive quality-in-itself in the text so brought to publication and this a self-publication quite blatantly lacks. This is so precisely because the flow of information, of story, of comment, of written discourse is guided, monitored and to a very real extent directed by the status quo, by power made fair-seeming and palatable by ‘authority’, the authority which licenses itself to license text to be. The apparent quality-in-itself of the  conventionally published book is actually in most cases little more than a kite mark of the invisible censor and it is this invisible imprimatur, this itself quite spurious mark that lends the book its often quite spurious weight. In the main, however, the kite mark means only this:  the  writing herein contained has been deemed  acceptable to power.  Hence the obvious fact that so many unworthy books are conventionally published despite their flooding the bookshops while so many others [who knows how many — it’s anybody’s guess] remain forever manuscripts gathering dust. By comparison with the conventionally ‘kite marked’ book, the newspaper is flimsy by design and by default,  charged with fleetingness, with provisoriness, and is always incomplete—  is something which typically can be carried away in a wind.  It is both subversive by nature and as discountable as shiftless rumour [as long as it does not libel the powerful]. Indeed, the truths of a newspaper are as it were under water; the lies of a conventional novel are so to speak above board.
Now it may well prove to be the case that newspapers are in fact as much fictive as novels are true to the facts [or if you prefer it: the newspaper lies to the same degree that a novel tells the truth]. Either way, it is a truth that a literary novel published as a newspaper endows the writing with a quite peculiar relationship to truth.
But there is a further, more important reason why The English Project is deeply, inescapably ambiguous and equivocal.
It would have to fiction, Hugo Thayer tells the Good Men and True [those cruel executioners]…. ‘You’d need to put a real man into a real situation which is um, it’d have to be horrible, yes, but everyday, even quite banal. Fathers fighting for the right to see their children, for example, in the secret family courts. A national scandal which everyone knows about. I mean a real blot on our record as a society, as a post-modern, basically Christian society, a really damning scandal that no one can deny.’
‘Things as they are,’ she said. ‘Your real situation.’
‘Yes. And then you’d have to expose your character to something fantastical, notional, generic, I guess… perhaps with roots in earlier traditions.. something obviously and completely farfetched but which people can make sense of somehow. Purely for purposes of entertainment, for the fun of story really. And then, once that was in place, you could present your character with this other thing, your thing, this third thing, I suppose, which would read like crime fiction on the page, or some kind of mystery thriller component… And, you see, the reader would then have the problem…’ He was thinking on his feet.
‘Yes? The reader would have the problem..?’
‘— wouldn’t know quite how to deal with the stuff, your stuff, I mean. Wouldn’t know how to relate to it.’
‘Why?’
‘Why? Because you’d be changing the texture of the book. You’d be mixing genres. People would get confused. And the spell of suspended disbelief would be broken, which would probably kill the book, unless you linked this stuff to the other thing, the entertainment thing, the fantastical notional thing – then the one would buoy the other up, you see.. Or each would give the other a bit of camouflage, a bit more merging with reality, especially if you were able to bring them together, link them, link by link.. I don’t know.’ He paused, pondered, shook his head. ‘Either way,’ he went on, ‘with a bit of luck people would keep reading, could in fact keep reading without having to take a clear position…’
‘Do you mean a moral position? A political position?’
‘Well, I meant actually, they wouldn’t have to take a position on whether or not it was fiction. They could – relatively comfortably, I suppose – they could let the book just take them along.’
‘So people would not know whether what they were reading was fiction or not?’
‘No, no. In fact the reader would need to be able to say that it was fiction, and so probably would the author, if he could be persuaded to put his name to the book in the first place.’
‘It’s fiction?’ she asked, with undertones of anger and disbelief. ‘You’re saying it would be fiction? You?’
‘It would have to be fiction,’ he said firmly, as though coming to the realisation for the first time. ‘The kind of fiction that makes you feel very uncomfortable. A fiction which has an awful undercurrent of truth, but is nonetheless fiction. That way, you see, you’d get it past the powers that be, and then, if you were lucky, it would start to resonate, as a sort of suggestion device. And once that happened people in the know would start to blow the whistle…’

The English Project  suggests that it is, in its newspaper form, itself a solution to the problems of sayability [can you really write this down and publish it?] and validity [do you really expect us to believe it is true?]. For this reason The English Project is a thing which cannot rest, cannot settle, its tensions cannot subside. For how is one to speak where no speech is licensed, none permitted to be heard? How much truth or at least countervailing reality can be articulated, uttered or written where consensus is sham and prevalent and ubiquitous – and by what means?  How could a grown man declare that the emperor has no clothes? It is almost inconceivable; indeed, only a child, a naïf, a callow youth could be allowed to say such a thing precisely because the truth uttered is almost completely negated and annulled by the wholly deniable yet mildly favoured status of the person who speaks it. And so there remains a jot, a jot of truth after the subtraction of status has been made. In the case of The English Project , too, the awful things that carry the appearance of truth are purveyed through the experiences of a fictional character, by which I mean to say a character invented in a different book, a clear fictional character created many years before. This greatly reduces the danger of the narrative and burns away its awful charge, almost completely.. and yet, as with the child and the naked emperor, there remains a jot. There remains more than a jot, which taken with the newspaper format ramifies in peculiar ways. Just as was hoped.
Yes, Hugo Thayer is a character from The Salamander Tree, an earlier novel, and at all times he is treated as such —  he is a fictional character as character, not a fictional character who the reader is expected to believe to be real.  He asks of George Herbert [another fictional character from a different book as well as the narrator of The English Project]
.. ‘Is art a power? ..Or is it just a power to delude?’
‘I believe it to be a power,’ I conceded. ‘It can help change the world.’
‘I agree with you,’ he said, ‘It is a power, yes, but only as long as it restricts itself to make-believe.’
‘I’m not sure I follow…’
‘It must allow itself to know that it deludes. It is ludic, ironic even when epic or deadly serious, apparently, or it loses its power to change the world.’
‘So if art takes itself too seriously,’ I started..
‘Or, which is the same thing, of course — if it too closely follows so-called reality, even when reality is funny – having one of its comic turns…’
‘Then…?’
‘Then it loses its power. And the light disappears.’
‘The light disappears?’
‘Pulled back. The light falls back. It falls back down into the black hole of the real.’
‘The real is a black hole?’
‘Yes. In a sense it most definitely is.’ He gave me a sudden, bright smile.  ‘But we don’t have to worry, George,’ he appeared to wink. ‘Because we’re both characters in a book.’
I smiled back, notionally. I was bored with it, quite naturally. But then, as ever, he took me out into the deep, deep water and again I grew afraid.
‘Remember the Ancient Mariner? Who stoppeth one in three…’
‘The poem, yes.’
‘The man, the character — who had seen too much, who simply had to speak… that’s me. Except I cannot speak, I mustn’t speak. Not just because they threatened me with prison if I spoke.. there’s the other thing, too, you know.’ He paused, waiting for me to take it up.
‘What other thing?’
‘When you see something,’ he said, ‘something pernicious, even wicked, that gives the lie to everything that decent people cherish and desperately need to believe in… and the evidence is secret, only barely glimpsed, hard to put together, incredibly complicated and almost impossible to give an effective account of… because veiled, fair-seeming, carefully managed.. Then, if you are alone in what you see, how can you speak? The culture is a force, a tide, a rushing river. You cannot stand against it. You must do something else.’

Interestingly, in The English Project you will find the most satisfying comic moments in close association with the most awful things of all in the text [what you might refer to as the very hard edge of political veracity in the work]. These flow from the character of a family court judge, now a spirit engaged in case study work in Hell, whose overwhelming intention is to get out of Hell by collaboration with one of his own former victims.. Now, this character does not purport to be fictional nor does the narrative suggest that he is, despite the fact that he is a spirit. Indeed, not for nothing has it been promised to him that he is to be the Spirit of England. And yet, as the novel draws to an end there is a further suggestion to the effect that the whole thing was simply feverishly dreamt up by a person in a cave. Ah, but this takes us back to Plato, does it not?
So we can ask of this newspaper novel  What is being said? Who speaks? What is their status and how does this affect their plausibility, their credibility? George Herbert writes [after all, he is the narrator of The English Project ]…  if you want to know the truth
.. you’ll need a man like me; In the general run of things, if you want to know something that really matters you’ll be needing a person like myself — a person of no consequence, a person with nothing to lose. You’ll get my drift soon enough. You’ll see the need for parables, for coded talk, not a blurred babble that entertains but does not challenge. And by happy chance I am free; free of the claw roots of income and repute, free of respectability. I am of an age and state to lay me down in a cardboard box, companionable and loyal to my peers, that commonwealth of citizens under all the bridges in all the cities of the world. And Hugo Thayer, I reckon, saw all of this straight off. He was probably paranoid, yes, but he was very perceptive. He had my card marked right from the start.

The novel in the newspaper is really about the challenge of writing in its purest, most ardent form.. the challenge to power [as Thayer himself says], and its search for a gestalt, a story which has sufficient power in itself to carry the challenge to the inmost court of power itself.
And of course there is the proposition that The English Project is only a thrown spark from The English Project itself, which is a spiritual configuration of energies in evolutionary space, a challenge laid upon the nation in its journey towards evolution. Hence the association with Stauffenberg, who took the bomb in a briefcase to a meeting with Hitler, and with The German Project, a similar spiritual challenge which was laid upon the nation of Germany in the twentieth century and which was hijacked by gangsters to become The Third Reich.
The novel asks very seriously, are we truly spiritual beings? Is there a process underway, an  unviewed, unimagined enactment of which we know nothing and yet such that it is the only important reality in our lives— which are otherwise shadowy, notional, even imaginary? Can story enable evolutionary energies; can it liberate populations from the delusions, false beliefs and manipulated consciousness visited on them by means of their rulers and their helpmeets? Does each nation really face evolutionary challenges, tailor-made and of the utmost significance and import?
The English Project does have an objective correlative, which is a father child story in its environment of the nefarious secret courts. But what this novel in a newspaper is really about is whether writers can make a spiritual contribution to the nation’s fate.  Do please have a browse and get in early on the debate.
Robert Lipscombe  February 2014

The books were are looking forward to in 2014

We’ve been digging into the publishing schedules to find the books that we know are going to cause much excitement in the shop when they arrive this year. Here’s what we have found so far:

people in the treesPublished on January 2nd so no wait for this one! ‘The People in the Trees’ is a first novel that has caused quite a stir in the States since publication. The author charts the rise and eventual downfall of fictitious Nobel-winning scientist Dr. Norton Perina, who accompanies an expedition to a remote island, where a “lost tribe” may have unlocked the secret to immortality. Adventure and devastation ensue and the novel has disquieting revelations that promise to stay with the reader for a long time.

murakami_1449871fA new Murakami. We’ve known this is coming since the requisite hysteria surrounding the publication of the Japanese edition last April.  I don’t have a confirmed publication date but The Guardian suggests that it will be October. For the “Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” we shall be inhabiting the mind of a 36 year old railway station planner as he reconnects with old school friends. There is the obligatory love-interest provided by Sara and this time the musical accompaniment is provided by Frans Liszt. Can’t wait…

bone-clockAnother author beloved of booksellers throughout the land is David Mitchell. His new novel ‘The Bone Clocks’ will be in the shop on 4th September. The narrative will move from the very near past to the very near future, following the story of Holly Sykes who runs away from home in 1984 and sixty years later is living on the west coast of Ireland as the armageddon of climate change is playing out…

It was only a few weeks ago that it dawned on me that if I am transported back to, say, the 17th Century I would be useless. Of course I could tell tales of electricity and computers and the like but, practically, I would be useless. It is with great relief then that I received a proof copy of ‘The Knowledge’  by Lewis Dartnell. The premise is slightly different from me being transported back in time – the world has been destroyed and this book is a users guide to re-booting civilization…I shall certainly be keeping an eye on the website over the coming months. It is due on April 3rd, the same day as…

vermes‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes from the ever-excellent Maclehose Press this is likely to be the most blogged about jacket cover of 2014. An astonishing bestseller in Germany with over 700,000 copies sold since Autumn 2012. The proof copy of this book is being fought over by our booksellers. That says a lot…

In summary:

Summer 2011. Berlin. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground, alive and well. He barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman. People certainly recognise him though – as a brilliant, satirical impersonator who refuses to break character!

From the captivating first line “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it redeployment“Operation Scooby”. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot’, ‘Redeployment’ is a collection of stories by former Marine Phil Klay. Ray, one of our Ground Floor booksellers, has told me that this book is ‘breathtakingly good’. The hope is that as Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’ was for the Vietnam war this is for Afghanistan and Iraq

OttolenghiSeptember sees a new cookbook from Yotam Ottolenghi. ‘Plenty More’will delight his original fans with the spotlight back on vegetable dishes.  Sure to be under many a Christmas tree next December…

For the mathematically curious there is Alex Bellos’ ‘Alex Through The Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Number Reflect Life’

To give you a taster of his genius here is some Zombie multiplication

MarilynnIf this shop was the sole judging panel for the Nobel prize for Literature I am pretty certain that we would award it to Marilynne Robinson. 2014 could be a year of unparalleled riches with not only ‘Lila’ her fourth novel (and third set in the ‘Gilead’ universe) but potentially a book about the Old Testament that rumour has it is in the pipeline.

This from the Virago website about ‘Lila’

After publishing her Pulitzer prize-winning novel Gilead in 2005, Marilynne Robinson, one of America’s most esteemed writers, returned to her same fictional world three years later and wrote Home, which won the Orange Prize in 2009. Both books were hailed as masterpieces and went on to become international bestsellers. Now this writer astonishes us again and returns once more to the town of Gilead, this time to tell the story of John Ames’ wife, Lila. Says Lennie Goodings, Publisher of Virago, who has acquired the new novel from Claire Roberts at Trident Media Group, on behalf of Ellen Levine, ‘What a wonderful treat and surprise. I am simply amazed to realise that this character has lived quietly, almost unobtrusively in the other two novels and yet has such a huge and full story to tell. I am just thrilled.’

Also from Virago in September comes ‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters, the follow up to ‘The Little Stranger’:

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach…

It is sure to delight her legion of fans and win new fans too. She truly is one of the best storytellers at work today.

The Rise and Fall of Communism’ by Archie Brown has been a bestselling book in the shop for years – it is one of our Golden Leaves He has a new book coming from The Bodley Head in the summer on political leadership. Sketchy details at the moment, but with a proof copy winging its way to me as I type more will follow soon…

Staying on political books and with the Scottish independence vote happening in September there is unlikely to be a more impassioned call for a Yes vote than Alasdair Gray’s ‘Independence’. Even with no vote to cast I am looking forward to an incisive, fiery polemic

hilaryclintonOne that could be good but will probably disappoint is a memoir from Hilary Clinton, as yet untitled. She has a story to tell from her time as Secretary of State but with a potential bid for the White House in the offing it could be bland and play safe. I hope not…

I have no further details than the title; ‘On Liberty’ and the author; Shami Cakrabarti. To be honest I do not need more detail to be hopeful and excited.

Just a few of the jewels that we are looking forward to. Keep an eye on the blog as we add new finds and tell a little more about these books as we learn more ourselves.

2014 I’m liking the cut of your literary jib!

2 ‘Books’

I love my job, especially at this time of year. There can’t be many people who spend a large chunk of their day looking for beautiful, amazing, quirky books to put in front of our lovely customers.

Today has been a good day in this regard. I have become aware of two ‘books’ that I am sure you are going to love. The quotation marks are because both are a bit more than a book as most of us understand it.

First up is ‘Where You Are’ published by Visual Editions. I described it on Twitter as a book / map / box thingy and have no reason to change my description. Here are some photos of it

So you have an impression of what it looks like, but what exactly is it?

The publisher’s website describes it thus:

“16 Artists, Writers, Thinkers and 16 Personal Maps. Each one exploring the idea of what a map can be. The result is a book of maps that will leave you feeling completely lost”

Well, I ask you, who wouldn’t want to own that! And one of the contributors is Geoff Dyer. It is on my Christmas list to myself. At least once.

The other ‘book’ that I came across today ‘The Reason: Tales For Success in Life & Business’ by Juan Mateo. So far, so normal. And then you see the actual ‘book’. It’s got pop-ups, lists, letters…all sorts of things. I can barely find any information about it online so you will have to make do with my dodgy photos (unless you come into the shop where we have plenty of copies)

Again the publisher description:

“Seven tales of wisdom that will inspire and enlighten you at both a professional and personal level. Seven motivational stories that combine experience, emotions and intelligence to show how you can enjoy a more fulfilling life”

Whether these tickle your fancy or not I am confident that you will find things in the shop that you never knew existed, let alone considered for your Christmas List. Visit us to see even more hidden gems that our booksellers have uncovered for your consideration and delight!

What we are looking forward to in 2013

“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience:  this is the ideal life.”  

Mark Twain

As we face up to a fresh start, a new year, it is time for me to renew my bookselling vows. Primary among these is to find the ‘books of worth’ to put in front of our customers. Some of these books will garner much attention, some less so; some will sit atop the bestseller lists, some will only sell a few; some will have the full resources of a major publishing house put behind them, some will be published by a one man band.

Here then is the first tranche of books that I am looking forward to becoming acquainted with for the first time this year:

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A bittersweet recommendation this as it is the last complete work from that most-loved friend of booksellers Maurice Sendak. A veneration of his brother, Jack, this is guaranteed to have added poignancy with the death of the author last year. Due for publication on 31st January.

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From one of our greatest living historians comes the story of the first Anglo Afghan war. No doubt there will be parallels to be drawn between this disastrous episode and the current situation. As ever with Dalrymple you will get a rollicking history dripping in authentic detail

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James Wood is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent literary critics of our generation. Expect this collection of 23 essays to fizz off the page – he writes about a variety of influential writers from George Orwell to Michel Houellebecq, Cormac McCarthy to Thomas Hardy. Due for publication on 7th February.

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 The author was a pioneer of web 2.0 but is now the most credible dissenting voice of the less appealing society that new technologies are likely to mould. Taking off from where his previous book, You Are Not A Gadget, left off this book is a political, technological manifesto for a better future. Due for publication on 7th March

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If you like your writing to be imaginative, creative and thrilling then Anne Carson is for you. Her new book is a sequel to the verse-novel ‘An Autobiography of Red’ that was published in 1998. Quite a wait (although not as long a wait as a later entry in this list!) but I have no doubt that it will be worth it as the story of Geyron – “who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles” – carries on later in his life.

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This looks to be a beautiful book albeit with a salutary tale – this is taken from the author’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust  ‘In the last 80 years our bumblebee populations have crashed. Two species have become nationally extinct and several others have declined dramatically’

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One for the bibliomaniacs to look forward to here – the story of a ring of thieves in 1920s America who stole thousands of rare books to order for secondhand book dealers

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 From the brilliant Dalkey Archive Press comes an unexpected treat; a collection of shorts by Flann O’Brien, many included in book form for the first time as well as his last, unfinished, novel ‘Slattery’s Sago Saga’  I shall have a large glass of something full-bodied and round to hand in readiness for this

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Danny Torrance is back – 36 years after he survived The Shining. It is safe to say that this is the most anticipated novel of 2013. The quality of some of the writing of Stephen King is now, rightly, acknowledged as having literary merit above and beyond his extraordinary popularity. Due for publication on 24th September.

This is just a glimpse at some of the gems coming your way this year and, of course, we would love to hear what books are making you quiver in anticipation. Happy New Year!

1848547528Already the need to add to this list has arisen – and how! The concluding part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s legendary 1930s walk as an eighteen year old from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople is being published in September. ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ are, rightly, revered as Travel Writing at its absolute best and although ‘The Broken Road’ is unfinished it is gleaned from an early draft he wrote and his diaries.

And then this 

There is no information other than this, but this information is enough to set many hearts afluttering…

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