I ♥ books…

This isn’t news, but it struck me on the tube this morning just how much I love to have my nose stuck in a good book. Today I got a seat immediately (a bonus of running late), opened up a brand new book – the last of the gorgeous books – and got stuck in.

Immediately, I was in heaven. The pages felt just as the pages of a book ought to – heavy, textured, full of promise; the jacket was firm in my hands; the story unfolded before of my eyes…84 Charing Cross Road has been on my ‘to read’ list for a good number of years, and because it was the only one of the pretty books I’d come across before, I’d left it till last. I’m barely 30 pages in, but it’s a beautiful tale told simply via correspondence, I’ll probably review it properly when I’m done.

Leaving my seat in something of a daze at Baker St (always a sure sign that I’ve been completely immersed) I congratulated myself on having such a nice way to spend 20 minutes at the start of the day. Making myself read ‘proper’ books on the tube as opposed to trashy free papers was my advent mission the year before last and as a general rule I’ve stuck to it. Without this 40 minute daily haven, I’d probably end up reading next to nothing which would be a travesty. [My handbags therefore always have to be large enough to hold a book comfortably, I couldn’t bear to be stuck somewhere with nothing to read!]

It’s not just the act of reading I love, it’s the books themselves. One of the reasons I’ve immediately connected with today’s new read is that it’s the tale of an American woman searching out specific editions of books. The discovery of beautiful publications sends her into ecstasy. Of one first edition, she writes:

The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair – not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.

A few months ago, I found myself sat at a lunch table with a bookbinder and got incredibly excited. (She probably thought I was fantastically weird.) Coming from France, she said that she found British books to be a lot more interesting in terms of their style of binding and beauty – I think my contribution was to ask whether she got upset (as I do) when people leave books open spine down, as it can damage their binding beyond repair – can’t remember if I got an answer, but I felt as though I’d found something of a kindred spirit.

I love meeting people who work (or have worked) with books. Whether it’s bookbinders, those in publishing,  fellow booksellers or even authors, it’s a joy to have the opportunity to share a passion. Despite all it’s frustrations, I can still honestly say that I was incredibly happy during my bookselling days. Crap wages it’s true, but at least I spent the days surrounded by piles of books.

Lately, I’ve discovered a few book-related blogs – enough almost to have a ‘literary blogs’ tab on my google reader. They’re all a little different, some written by writers, others simply by book lovers, but each is a great source of potential new reads. So, just to spread the love, here’s my selection:

Tea Stains – A British woman, living in Bangkok who’s currently writing her first (?) novel. It’s not solely about writing or books and can generally be relied upon for amusement. [I actually discovered her because she was one of the people who commented after my unfortunate remark about a Bravissimo on Mrs WF’s blog!]

Sassymonkey Reads – Canadian woman who reviews tons of books (also writes a non-book related blog too). She also sets herself interesting book-reading goals relating to the colour of books…

Nose in a Book – a new blog by a friend of a friend who I first met at New Year. So far it seems to be a source of well-written, thoughtful reviews and I highly recommend it. (Fabulous name for a blog too!)

Abidemi’s blog – I couldn’t write about literary blogs without mentioning the esteemed Abidemi, author of several novels, most recently Eyo – short listed (Africa’s best book) for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Although she didn’t win, I would like to state publicly that I’m fantastically proud of her & next time we do lunch, the Argentinian red will be on me… Excellent destination for tips on writing and other wise gems.

And my conclusion – do I even have a conclusion? Or a point?

I suppose I just wanted to share a little of my specialness, (friends know that I’m an utter geek when it comes to books, it’s one of my endearing characteristics!) as well as some book love. In this day and age of 24/7 multimedia entertainment, it’s easy to forget the humble book – God forbid they should ever be completely replaced by e-readers. They’re art, both inside and outside, and deserve to be appreciated as such.

All I want now is the prospect of a lovely holiday, somewhere relaxing, where all I’m expected to do is lie somewhere pretty reading book after book….bliss.

A final (tear-stained) review

It seems appropriate to end my book themed week with a review of one of my all time favourite reads that I finished re-reading less than an hour ago…

The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger [incidentally, is that not an utterly fabulous surname??]
You’ll have heard of it, you might have read it, you’ve probably heard about the film – but forget the hollywood version, if you haven’t already, READ IT!
I’ve actually come across few books (The Bible excepted) that triggers such strong opinions from its readers. It’s like Marmite – you either love it or you hate. Juliet (who recommends great, if sometimes suspect books) didn’t even finish it and passed her copy on to my sister, from which it travelled on to me and then my Mum. Another friend can’t stand it because her fascination with sci-fi leads her to believe that the time travel in the book is totally unfeasible. (I think she also finds the relationship between Henry and a Clare of differing ages a little suspect.) But if you’re able to suspend disbelief for long enough, it’s utterly worth it.

Re-reading it for only the second time, I was amazed at how much suddenly hit me. Reading it shortly after publication in 2004, many of the dates towards the end of the book were still in the future. Today, I noticed December 4th 2008 and found myself thinking back to what I was doing on that date (it wasn’t a great day, as I recall). Plus, it brought home the eternal time-travel conundrum – do you try to prevent things you know are going to happen from happening? If you obey Back to the Future rules, you can’t – and thus this time I read Henry’s watching of 9/11 with a greater realisation of how traumatic this dilemma would have been.
I realise that actually much of what I’ve said about this book makes no sense if you know nothing about it. Basically it’s a classic love story of a couple who have 17 years together in the present, but love each other before and after outside the constraints of conventional time. And it’s beautiful. The penultimate line of Henry’s final letter to Clare reads: “We will see each other again, Clare. Until then, live, fully, present in the world, which is so beautiful…Time is nothing.”

It was this, and much of the rest of the last 50 pages that had me sobbing this morning (actually, the sobbing continued into the shower, I’m pathetic) and again this afternoon as I at last read the final page.
Honestly, I don’t rave this much about nothingness (unless you happen not to share my opinion on musicals) and this book is well and truly one of my all-time favourite books, so much so that I won’t watch the film, just in case it spoils the version I’ve created in my head.
And with that, I’ll be off to Oxfam over lunch tomorrow to see if by any chance a copy of her latest book (Her Fearful Symmetry) has miraculously shown up – unlikely as it’s still in hardback, but worth a look.

Elvis and Babylonians

And on to something a little deeper…

Almost this time last year I made an Advent resolution, in which I vowed to stop reading free papers on the Tube and reclaim my journey for reading actual books. I also proposed that I would alternate fiction with non-fiction – particularly Christian books as I was in the habit of buying lots of them and never getting round to reading them. It carried on well past Advent, into the new year and on to the Spring/Summer.

One Sunday, whilst working in the Church bookshop, Phil asked for some recommendations and rather sadly I didn’t have much wisdom to share, but had noticed a new book by Rob Bell that I’d not read, so at his instigation (he was disappointed to hear that I’d been reading free papers again) I bought it and set about reading it before hearing him speak at Greenbelt.

Anyway, the book in question was Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Like all Rob Bell books it’s delightfully put together in terms of aesthetics – nice cover, non-conventional size, lovely typeface…generally, a pleasure to hold and read.

But the most brilliant thing is that it’s totally accessible. This particular volume explores the relationship between the journey of the Israelites in the Old Testament (particularly through the Exodus and exile in Babylon) and Jesus. OT theology can often be deeply inaccessible, so it’s a joy to find a book that explains it clearly and concisely.

And what about Elvis? I’d heard good things about the audio versions of Rob Bell’s books, plus, having heard him speak and been captivated, I figured as he read them himself, they’d probably be a good listen. My American travels involved quite a long time on coaches (a form of transport I’ve never willingly paid to travel on before) and I can’t read without feeling ill, so it was iPod all the way. Velvet Elvis lasted me from NYC to DC and back again. (In fact, it should only have lasted one leg, but listening to people speak sends me to sleep, so I had to keep going back to catch what I’d missed.)

Anyway, also a really important book to read – especially if you’re a bit fed up of where you see the Church heading at the moment. And who doesn’t want a book on their shelf entitled Velvet Elvis? I’m definitely going to have to read it in book form so I can properly cement what I’ve heard.

An Englishman in New York (and 49 other states)

Moving on to a little bit of travel writing, TV tie-in reading…

Ostensibly this was prep for my American holiday, but the truth is that I probably would’ve read it anyway, particularly as I’d missed most of the series when it was on TV. (Note to self: must borrow the DVD off someone.)
Stephen King of Twitter Fry is a comic genius and a quintessential Englishman. Travelling to every single American state (and DC), he shares the eccentricities, bizarre happenings and quaint charm of the America we don’t generally hear about. The book combines the stories from the TV series with hordes of useless facts, just the kind of thing I love. Did you know five states’ State Beverage is milk? (Rhode Island has Coffee Milk, which is lush; Ohio has Tomato Juice, which is not and Indiana, pathetically, chose water.)
Think Bill Bryson, but British and you’ve pretty much got the tone of writing. Americans fear not, there is no American bashing – except when even Americans would bash their countrymen. This is simply a collection of amusing, touching and informative stories – oh, and a couple of truly gross ones, like a visit to a research project into decomposing corpses…

Reading Week

Inspired by a comment on my LOTR rant last week, I’ve decided to devote this week to some book reviews. Very old skool, but I always like good recommendations so hopefully you will too. I’ll do my best to make the selection truly reflect my rather eclectic taste…

First up are two of my holiday reads. I was very lucky in my reading choices – all the books I read were great, Atonement was a great start to the trip, but there’s no point reviewing it because most you will either have read it or watched the film (I’d done neither). I’m very pleased to discover that I finally seem to be growing into Ian McEwan as an author.

A wonderful Oxfam bargain as it only came out at the start of the summer, this is the third book by the author of The Abortionist’s Daughter (which I also recommend). It’s basically the story of a group of people brought together on a holiday rafting through the Grand Canyon, told from the perspectives of several different characters.
I was enjoying the book and then had an experience I don’t think I’ve had before. I’d been reading in bed one morning in DC and reached a major plot twist, but had to put the book down and get dressed before I could find out what happened next. All day this bothered me. I’d be walking down the Mall and suddenly feel anxious for no apparent reason, until I remembered that I was concerned about a character in a book! Very odd, but I do like it when a book gets under your skin.

Even better than a charity shop find is a free book – this was on the long mantle shelf in my room with the Mennonites and was a very welcome discovery at a point when I was running out of reading material! Unlike most of her others (like the infamous Tipping the Velvet) this is set in the 20th century, during WW2 and the blitz. (And for those of a sensitive disposition, it’s not as graphic as some of her others either.)
Reading this lying in Central Park probably caused me to get nostalgic for London, which might be one reason why I liked it so much, plus the many Marylebone references which are always appreciated. But, it also had a great structure – beginning after the war and then going back in time in three stages. Weirdly, I sometimes like reading books backwards (it’s probably very wrong of me!). I liked the way that jigsaw came together slowly, as if you were getting to know someone and gradually working out why they acted the way they did.