Diego Marani

Curious and Curiouser… The Bookshop Band’s debut at Blackwell’s

Curious and curiouser

Things aren’t what they seem…

Last night on the 3rd July, Blackwell’s staff and customers were treated to an intimate but astonishing show from The Bookshop Band.

The Bookshop Band comprises the talents of Ben Please, Poppy Pitt and Beth Porter, who can take as little as a new book and one or two hours to create beautiful songs about books. Normally to be found in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, The Bookshop Band are currently on tour sponsored by Vintage. In order to prepare them for the evening, we gave Ben, Poppy and Beth two new books for inspiration – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as a pre-Alice’s Day celebration, and Blackwell’s favourite and bestseller New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani.

And I am afloat, on a great sea

In a boat, veiled from reality…

As the last week before the show came round, we realised that only four tickets had been sold… panic! How could we let people know how brilliant this band was? We spent the week creating posters, writing to newspapers and playing their CDs on repeat in Blackwell Music…

The Queen of Hearts is furious

This life is but a dream…

The hour drew closer and we were terribly excited to find out what the band had done with our favourite books – and still panicking that we’d have failed to provide them an audience… we need not have worried! Our lovely customers saved the day, and came streaming through the doors, filling the thirty seats we’d set out in our Norrington Room.

Playing the Norrington Room was particularly significant for Ben Please, as the room is in fact named after his grandfather – Sir Arthur Norrington… or as he was affectionately known in the family ‘Grandpa Eyebrows’.

The band’s first song ‘Curious and Curiouser’, based on Alice in Wonderland, was fast paced, frantic and exciting to listen to, conjuring up all the familiar images of smoking caterpillars and ‘Eat-Me’ cakes.

‘A Sea of Sound’, based on New Finnish Grammar, was slower and more gentle, but still full of intriguing images and capturing the confusion and difficulty of learning language.

Unknown sounds, echo emptily

In my mouth, But I cant repeat

A transitory feat, as they slip back down beneath

But I drag each word, back to the surface to be heard…

Once the new songs were finished, we were treated to a collection of The Bookshop Band’s earlier works, including songs based on The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. A music-hall tune based on The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack got the entire audience singing along to the chorus (which incidentally, I’ve had in my head all day)…

Smoke over London, looks jolly splendid, I’ve heard…

So, the evening was a complete success, and both staff and audience left not only with great music still ringing in their ears, but also with several new books on their ‘must read’ lists.

 “We felt really privileged to play in such a magnificent and famous room of books. The commissions were great choices too – Alice in Wonderland is a real treasure trove of images and ideas – we had lots of fun writing about that one, and just in time for the Alice celebrations in Oxford too. We’ll try and get the video up online in time! Hope to see everyone again for Christmas. Any Christmas book ideas?” – Ben Please

 If you’re currently kicking yourself for missing out on this amazing evening (and so you should be!) then never fear – The Bookshop Band are still touring the UK, and you can always find them at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. Here at Blackwell’s, we have a selection of books from the band’s reading lists, and we’ll be keeping CDs and band merchandise on sale – so come and have a listen!

We’d love to ask The Bookshop Band to come back again, so keep an eye on our events page for to see when they’ll pop up next…

Curious and curiouser

Things aren’t what they seem…

That was the week that was

May is always one of the quieter months in the shop – students have their heads down revising, the tourist season hasn’t fully kicked in yet and there are various Bank Holidays where, often, the denizens of Oxford make a dash to warmer climes.

However, we never stop in our quest for sniffing out a sale or two and our bookstall and shop events programme was stuffed to the gills last week.

Our week started on Sunday when we attended a talk at the Sheldonian given by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Fellow of Exeter College and author of the fantastically well received ‘Origins of Sex’. The lecture was part of the 700th Anniversary celebrations of Exeter College. The book details the extraordinary change that took place between 1600 and 1800 in the attitude of society towards sex and has been one of our bestselling History titles since its publication in February.

Monday was a day of rest but Tuesday was a day of high anticipation and excitement as the incomparable Marilynne Robinson was spending the evening in the shop. It was, as expected, a thoroughly enjoyable time with nutrition for the mind and the soul. She read from her latest book ‘When I was a Child I Read Books’ and then from ‘Gilead‘.

For many, though, the highlight was the question and answer session that followed where she fielded every query with aplomb and fluency. Her down-to-earth common sense and towering humanity shone through. A fabulous event. Hear Marilynne talk about Gilead in a Guardian podcast

On Wednesday morning we took some books along to the ‘Early Modern Lucretius’ conference where the opening lecture was given by Professor Stephen Greenblatt. His most recent book ‘The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began’ won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction this year – a worthy accolade for a simply stunning book. Obviously we took along various editions of De Rerum Natura. Sales were brisk…

Also on Wednesday one of our Children’s booksellers was out and about in schools around Oxford drumming up support for our Festival of Illustration.

In the evening we had the latest meeting of Group 2012 (the writers group that we started in January with Hersilia Press and the Oxford Editors) in the Norrington Room. It was another event that was great for the soul with guest appearances by author Mark Lynas, Juliet Mabey – the co-founder of Oneworld publications and Phil Henderson – Senior Marketing Manager at OUP. All spoke eloquently and with great insight on the topic of ‘How to get published in non-fiction’. However the highlight was the announcement that one of the writers in the group had just been snapped up by an agent. Fantastic news that was heartening for all the other group members.

Thursday dawned and I woke up very excited. Thursday was the day that I was going to meet Diego Marani. For followers of this blog and our Twitter stream you know how obsessed I have been over the past year with New Finnish Grammar. Ever since I heard that Diego was coming over to England and that he was coming to the shop I had been like a child on Christmas Eve. And now the day was here. Everything ran smoothly (except the car of Eric, the publisher) and Diego was charm and humility personified. Judith Landry, the translator of his books, read from his latest novel, ‘The Last of the Vostyachs’. I should mention that Judith is on the shortlist for the Oxford – Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her translation of New Finnish Grammar- the winner is announced on June 7th and we have everything crossed for you Judith. After the reading I asked some clunky questions which they answered with patience and supreme skill that made me look a shade less ridiculous than I felt. We learned a lot about language, national identity, the European Union and an authentic Ferrarese dialect. As Diego signed books for the audience he effortlessly spoke in Italian, English and, of course, a little Finnish. A night that I will remember for a long time.

Also on Thursday evening we took books along to a talk given by Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum on The Origin Of Our Species. The book is a tour de force on the development of the earliest humans, I would have loved to have worked this event but my Marani-love took precedence.

And so to Saturday when we had our second Festival of Literature. Boy, did our Children’s booksellers pull out all the stops. Every event throughout the day had crowds of kids hanging on every word spoken, every story told and every picture drawn by our delightful authors – Emma Chichester Clark, Clara Vulliamy and Louise Yates. Of course we musn’t forget the amazing Animation Station and Rebecca, Hannah and Harry and who made the whole day go off like a dream. I overheard one customer say ‘I love that these tiny front doors open on to a huge fairytale of a shop’ That just about sums it up.

And so onward to next week – Victoria Hislop on Sunday, Terry Eagleton on Tuesday evening, the start of OxBardFest and Liz Pichon at the Pegasus Theatre next Saturday  in addition to a host of children’s bookstalls as part of the most excellent Bookfeast on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Phew! It’s not a bad job this bookselling lark 🙂

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Spring Events at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford

Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford continues to bring you a magnificent selection of author events through the Spring. We look forward to seeing you at one – or more – of these very soon!

Tickets cost £2 for most events and can be obtained by telephoning or visiting the Customer Service Department, Second Floor, Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford. Telephone 01865 333623, unless otherwise stated. Alternatively, please email: events.oxford@blackwell.co.uk

Jen Campbell

Tuesday 17th April at 7pm

Post-event wrap: We had a wonderful day with Jen – in the evening she spoke about her passion for books and bookselling, recited five stunning poems inspired by each floor of the shop and also played out some scenes from ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ A snippet can be seen here


Jen Campbell is a writer and a passionate bookseller. She is the author of the just-published Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. She is also a poet, a Twitter phenomenon and a book-blogger. Jen will be here in the bookshop undertaking a one day writer’s residency on Tuesday 17th April, culminating in an evening event where she will discuss her new book and recite poems inspired by her day at Blackwell’s.

The Current State of Chinese Fiction

Wednesday 18th April at 7pm

Post-event wrap: As expected, an intriguing and enlightening evening. Although Tash Aw and Bi Feiyu were unable to join us the panel of three authors, two translators and one chairperson were more than enough to give a superb flavour of the modern state of Chinese fiction. Thank you Rebecca for allowing us the chance to host such an eye-opening event. A review of the evening can be found here 

In 2011, two Chinese authors made the shortlist of the high profile Man Booker International Prize. Is Chinese fiction flourishing as China realises its new economic ascendancy? Or are there barriers to creativity? And what is the definition of a ‘Chinese’ writer?

We are bringing together five writers to take part in a very rare and special panel discussion about “The Current State of Chinese Fiction” – two acclaimed China-based novelists, Bi Feiyu and Li Er will be in conversation with renowned Chinese writers living in Europe, Ma Jian and Yan Geling, and Tash Aw, a Malaysian Taiwanese novelist who has been living in the UK since his teens.

Roman Krznaric: The Wonderbox

Thursday 19th April at 1pm

Post-event wrap: Really enjoyed a thought-provoking and charming presentation of how History can help us, on practical level, improve our lives day-to-day. The author focussed on Greek definitions of love and suggested 5 dead people to follow in 2012.

Drawing on his new book, The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live, cultural thinker and School of Life faculty member Roman Krznaric delves into the past to reveal the lessons that history offers for the art of living. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love? What inspiration does the Renaissance offer for finding fulfilling work? How might a seventeenth-century Japanese Zen poet inspire us to live more deeply and creatively?

This is one of our lunchtime events which take place in the Norrington Room – there’s no cost and all are welcome.

Dennis O’Donnell: The Locked Ward

Thursday 3rd May at 7pm


 The Locked Ward is an extraordinary memoir that sets out to reveal the true story of life in a psychiatric ward – the fear, the violence and despair, and also the care and the compassion. Recounting the stories of the patients he worked with, and those of the friends he made on the ward, O’Donnell provides a detailed account of day-to-day life behind the doors of the most feared and stigmatised environment in healthcare. We are hosting this event is in association with Mind Your Head Oxford, the mental health awareness campaign by Oxford University Student Union – http://mindyourheadoxford.wordpress.com/

Marilynne Robinson

Tuesday 15th May at 7pm


 We are thrilled to announce a highlight of our Spring events calendar: Marilynne Robinson, one of our greatest living writers, will be in the shop at 7pm on Tuesday 15th May to talk about her new book, “When I Was a Child I Read Books”, a volume of essays about the big themes that permeate her writing – politics, religion, literature, human frailty. This is a rare opportunity to hear first-hand from the author of Houskeeping, Gilead, Home and Absence of Mind.

Tiokets cost £5. Please telephone our Customer Service Department on 01865 333623.

Diego Marani

Thursday 17th May at 7pm


 Diego Marani is a man of many talents – a senior translator in the EU, a weekly columnist for a Swiss paper and creator of Europanto, a mock language. He also happens to be the author of one of this bookshop’s favourite novels of 2011 – New Finnish Grammar. It is therefore with great excitement that we are able to announce that Diego Marani will be with us talking about two newly translated novels “The Last of the Vostyachs” and “Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot”.

“I can’t remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I have been more tempted to use the word “genius” of its author” Nicholas Lezard on New Finnish Grammar


Terry Eagleton

Tuesday 22nd May at 7pm

Is Marxism dead? Should it finally be buried? In ‘Why Marx Was Right’, controversial critic Terry Eagleton argues that Marx’s imperfect yet serious critique of capitalism is newly relevant in this global post-crash moment.

Terry Eagleton is currently Bailrigg Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Since the publication of ‘Marxism and Literary Criticism’ (1976) and ‘Literary Theory’ (1982) he has been recognised for producing highly informed, accessible works that explore the relationship between literature, history and society. Eagleton has also been praised for his humour, wit and graceful style. He was described byThe Independent as ‘the man who succeeded F. R. Leavis as Britain’s most influential academic critic.’

As he says in ‘Why Mark was Right’ “After all, if you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was.”

This promises to be a provocative and stimulating evening.

Tickets cost £4 and can be obtained by telephoning or visiting the Customer Service Department, Second Floor, Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford. 01865 333623

Wednesday 23rd May at 7pm

Tiffany Stern: ‘Such Place, such Men, such Language & such Ware’: The Theatre of London’s Fairs

It is often said that fairs presented cheap, secondary and ‘unliterary’ entertainment. Theatre, on the other hand, is said to be, though disliked by certain protestant factions, respectable, its high class literature ‘allowed’ by monarch and privy council. This talk will question both notions, reassessing fairground entertainments and showing how much they influenced drama – and vice versa. Looking at performing animals, puppets and magic tricks, it will show the role of popular culture in the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights. We are hosting this event is in association with OxBardFest 2012, the Oxford Shakespeare Festival, organised by the Oxford University Drama Society, which runs from 21st May-2nd June. http://facebook.com/oxfordshakespearefestival2012.

Liz Pichon: “Tom Gates”

Saturday 26th May at 10.30am

Pegasus Theatre, Oxford


 Liz Pichon is the author of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, Tom Gates Excellent Excuses and Everything’s Amazing (sort of) and this special event is guaranteed to have you laughing. Liz Pichon will be talking about her award winning series and how she created such a wonderful character. Before Liz Pichon went freelance “to do more illustration and less straight lines”, she studied graphic design at Middlesex Polytechnic and Camberwell School of Art in London and went on to work as a designer and art director for Jive records. She started writing her own stories when “the books I was being asked to illustrate didn’t make me laugh”. Liz Pichon has won National parent book award in the USA, the Smarties Book Prize Silver Award, and the Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2011.

Tickets cost £5 and can be obtained by telephoning the Pegasus Theatre Box Office on 01865 812150. Family tickets (max 4) are £15.

London in Verse

Wednesday 30th May at 7pm

London A History in Verse is the first anthology about London to offer a cultural history of the city through poetry, from its beginnings to present day. Poet Mark Ford has assembled the most capacious and wide-ranging anthology of poems about London to date, from Chaucer to Wordsworth to the present day, providing a chronological tour of urban life and of English literature. Many of the poems respond to large events in the city’s history—the beheading of Charles I, the Great Fire, the Blitz—but the majority reflect the quieter routines and anxieties of everyday life through the centuries. The result is a volume as rich and vibrant and diverse as London itself. This evening will feature readings from some of the more contemporary contributors: John Fuller, Jamie McKendrick, Heather Phillipson, and, of course, Mark Ford himself.

Iain Sinclair / Ghost Milk

Thursday 7th June at 7pm


Following on from his extraordinary and bestselling documentary fiction, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Iain Sinclair sets out from the East London Olympic site – a ruin in the making – on the trail of other recent Grand Projects. The result is Ghost Milk. He presents a country-wide tour of grand projects, millennial follies and imposed-from-above schemes and presents portraits of visionary or subversive people clinging to the wreckage. Sinclair crosses territory and time like no other literary traveller, reporting back on the trouble to come and lamenting the ‘throwaway impermanence’ of our times. Iain Sinclair was born in Cardiff and studied in Dublin before moving to London. His early work was self-published, and he worked as a teacher and labourer while researching occult aspects of the city’s past. He is described on his website as “a British writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist.”

Holiday Reading so far…

I have managed to find some quality reading time amid the competing charms of a first visit to Sydney and catching up with family. Me being me means that from my original reading pile I added Diego Marani’s  ‘New Finnish Grammar’ and a proof copy of Nigel Warburton’s ‘A Little History of Philosophy’ that is published by Yale in September. Whilst I have read the two new additions to the list it means that I have so far only completed ‘The Company of Fellows’ and ‘Ill Fares the Land’. Being part-way through ‘Boxer Beetle’ and ‘This is not the End of the Book’ with less than a week to go until I am on the plane home I fully expect to polish these off and also have a decent crack at ‘The Divided Self’ I suspect that ‘Shantaram’ will have to wait until a later date – sorry Becky, I can hear your squeals of disappointment from the other side of the world.

First up my bookseller thoughts on ‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani

  I tend to be more a reader of non-fiction but I have had the great fortune of reading two contemporary literay novels this year that have reminded me that the thoughts explored and language used in certain books can be as exhilarating as any plot line or character, and more rewarding to the reader. The first book that reminded me of this was ‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke (I have been trying to write a proper review of this for months but cannot find the right words to convey just how much this book moved me and how it thrillingly reignited my love of reading quality literary fiction) For another novel to come along within a couple of months and capture my imagination as comprehensively is a rare treat indeed, but ‘New Finnish Grammar’ is extraordinary on many levels.

It was originally published in Italy in 2000 and has, I believe, been translated into various languages before this Dedalus Books edition came in May. The plot is pretty straightforward – set during the Second World War a man is found on the quayside in Trieste, he has been beaten up to such an extent that he has completely lost his memory. The only clue to his identity is the name Sampo Karjalainen on a tag sewn in to his sailor’s jacket. A doctor, originally from Finland, takes him under his wing and facillitates the recovery of the man and helps him return to Finland where slowly and painfully he learns to read, write and speak again. The relationship between identity and language underpins the book and the love and respect that the author (and, indeed, Judith Landry the translator) has for words and language is apparent on every single page. I lost count of the number of times that I chuckled quietly or gasped involuntarily at a simple yet beautiful word play.  “But only those who are fully acquainted with the power of the word should dare to have recourse to its magic” Marani weaves into this story the troubled history of Russo-Finnish relations, ancient myths and sagas and a doomed love story that is heart-wrenching but never cynical.

A stunning book that deserves the wide audience that it appears to be getting after a gushing review from Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian I know that it is a book that I will be thrusting into peoples hands for years to come urging them to buy it, read it and spread the word. It is the least that I can do for the pleasure that it has given me.

Time to go and read now, I hope to do some more mini-reviews tomorrow…