Monthly Archives: July 2014

Other People’s Bookshelves #46; Charles Lambert

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshleves, a series of posts set to feed into the filthy book lust/porn and either give you a fix of other people’s shelves to stave you off going on a buying/borrowing spree, or making you want to run and grab as many more books as you can. This week we are heading off to Italy to join author and avid reader, Charles Lambert. So grab yourself an Amaretto and orange juice, a slice of pizza and let’s have have a nosey round his shelves and find out more about him…

OK, I was born and grew up in various parts of the Midlands. I left the UK a year after finishing university in 1975 and I’ve lived in Italy ever since, with brief spells in Ireland and Portugal, and two failed attempts to return to England. I may have one more try at this before I’m too old. I’ve published four novels, the two most recent this year, one collection of short stories and a novella, with two more novels due in the next 15 months. I’m inordinately fond of my latest book, With A Zero At Its Heart (obligatory plug). I live in a large old house halfway between Rome and Naples with the artist Giuseppe Mallia, my partner since 1986 and my civil partner since 2012. I consider myself very fortunate indeed.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I’m a terrible (although not, I hope, pathological) hoarder, so getting rid of books is something I find quite hard to do. I need to dislike a book extremely before I’ll consider throwing it out, although I might give it away or contrive to lose it by leaving it on public transport by ‘mistake’. So pretty much everything I read ends up on a shelf. For more on this, see the next answer.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

As a teenager I organised by colour, series, etc. so all my Penguins were side-by-side, with the Modern Classics on a shelf of their own, and so on. (There’s a section in ZERO about this – second obligatory plug.) I was (am) a bit of a completist. I’m still tempted to do this with particularly attractive books, like those published by And Other Stories. Now, though, I separate fiction from non-fiction and use a rough and ready alphabetical system for the former and whatever seems reasonable for the latter, with my criteria getting more and more idiosyncratic as the subsets emerge. Books I don’t really love may hang around on the still-to-be-shelved shelves for months, or even years, before I get round to putting them where they should be. And then there are the to-be-read shelves, which are also pretty daunting.

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In the past I’ve had a few culls, often because I needed money, and sold books I wish I still had, which has taught the accumulative side of me a lesson it probably would have been better not to learn. From this point of view I’m dreading the next house move (something I’m looking forward to in most other ways) because it will almost certainly involve downsizing my library, and I’m not sure how or where to start.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I don’t remember. Probably an Enid Blyton and, if it was, probably one of the Adventure series, to which I owe many of my darkest nightmares. (I can’t thank you enough, Enid.) I almost certainly don’t have it any longer because practically all my childhood books were destroyed when my parents’ house burnt down in the mid-1970s; the few that were rescued have blackened spines, a toxic mixture of smoke and water, presumably. Some of the ones that were lost, including the Adventure series, have since been replaced at enormous cost.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I don’t feel guilty about anything I’ve read, and certainly not about anything that’s been a pleasure. And, yes, I do have a copy of the Da Vinci Code somewhere, although I’m not sure where. I admit that I was briefly embarrassed when we had the builders in and I found one of them thumbing through one of my Straight to Hell anthologies, bought in the days when pornography was only obtainable from specialised outlets in places like Camden High Street (or Blackwells, in the case of the STH series). But embarrassment isn’t the same thing as guilt. And, come to think of it, I did buy a copy of 120 Days of Sodom once, from the late and much-lamented Compendium in Camden High St, and, after reading the first third of it, decided I didn’t want it in the house and took it back to the shop. That felt like guilt. I may have swapped it for an Eleanor Farjeon collection. At least, I’d like to think so.

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Ah yes, fire! (See above.) Mine is Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems. I’ve taken it with me from room to room, and house to house, since 1973. It’s stained and battered and heavy, and I love every page of it.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My parents weren’t great book collectors. My father distrusted fiction and my mother, who had been a great reader, developed glaucoma when I was a child and turned to the radio. But the family of my best friend, the girl who lived next door, had just moved back from the States, which made their shelves very glamorous, and I do mean that in a ‘Fifty Shades’ way! So the first adult book I wanted to read was probably a James Bond novel, in which case it is on my shelves now. But it might have been The Carpetbaggers or something else by Harold Robbins, in which case it isn’t. Apart from that, I don’t remember feeling that there was a distinction between books for children and grown-ups. I read pretty much everything I could, and a lot of it would probably have been considered unsuitable if anyone had noticed. Fortunately, no one did.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I used libraries a lot as a child and teenager, but I still remember the wrench of returningbooks. More recently, I had a spell of library-going and still wish I had my own copy of Francis Spufford’s brilliant Red Plenty. Generally though I buy everything I want to read specifically to avoid having to give books back. On the odd occasions I do borrow books from friends I have an unforgivable tendency to hang onto them longer than I should, so be warned. I must admit that I feel the same sense of frustration when I’ve read a book I love as an e-book, and often end up buying a print copy as well. I suppose I want to be able not only to read it but also to possess it as an object, and as a record of the reading. Hoarder, moi?

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall – an extraordinary memoir by a father of his child’s cerebral palsy organised into 424 steps. This was sent to me by my wonderful publisher, Scott Pack, because he thought it had similarities with ZERO (third and final plug). The last book I bought myself was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I’ve been meaning to read her for ages…

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Yes, the copy I bought of The Golden Key by George MacDonald when I was at university. It was a beautiful little hardback and I don’t know where it’s gone. If anyone who reads this has it, can I have it back please?

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I’d like them to think I was a widely-read and totally un-snobbish. I hope that’s what they do think!

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A huge thanks to Charles for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, I will be sharing my thoughts on With A Zero at Its Heart very soon! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Charles’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Rollercoaster Reads…

Rollercoasters have been on my brain rather a lot in the last week. Firstly (and I don’t mean to go on about it) because work has been a real rollercoaster of highs, lows and extremes. Has anyone else noticed that when you are doing 12+ hour days for a few weeks, dreaming about work restlessly all night and then having the small pressure of making a listed building the perfect venue for some high profile businesses, clients and guests that you go a little bit hysterical? And breathe. I am loving it but this weekend I decided I needed to get away from it all and go a little bit bonkers throwing caution to the wind (literally) and so I headed on the train to Blackpool and its Pleasure Beach which is brimming with rollercoasters and their thrills and spills. Amazingly whilst whizzing round them at three times g-force, or something, I thought about books.

Rollercoasters

This is funnily enough called ‘The Big One’. We of course screamed throughout.

No really, let me explain… There is something delicious, and also rather perverse I suppose, in rollercoasters that is kind of like reading.  You are completely out of control, probably out of your comfort zone, yet you are also in safe hands. Let me tell you some of these rollercoasters are so slick and comfortable it is nicer than riding first class on a train, apart from the speed and possible steep drops or upside down spins and loops hopefully.  Before you start a book you have that slight trepidation of if you will enjoy it and it be worth the time, though with a rollercoaster the ride only lasts 90 seconds max (though queues may last an hour) rather than several days/weeks. Also like books, as you start it you have no idea what you are going to get – unless you look at the POV videos on YouTube and cheat, a bit like turning to the last page maybe – until you get to the end and catch your breath whereupon you feel thrilled/sick/disappointed as illustrated below by myself and my sister who is here on work experience and who I took for a post-GCSE exams treat.

Did we love it, were we thrilled?

Did we love it, were we thrilled?

Basically you go on an escapist journey, hopefully with many ups, downs and thrills and spills on whatever scale. Some people like the full loop the loops, some people like the pink elephants/teacups. The similarity is that you go through something you don’t know if you will enjoy or not but hopefully the outcome is one of a breathless wonderment after whizzing through taking unexpected twists and turns yet with the knowledge (with the perfect books and the perfect authors) that you are in a safe pair of hands even if you are out of control for the duration. Do you know what I mean? Or has the blood whoosed around my head so much I am loop the loop?

So I wondered if you would recommend me your ‘rollercoaster reads’ the one that have really pushed you out of your comfort zone and yet been deftly delivered so the thrills, spill, twists, turns, highs and lows ended up being an utter rush?

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#BookadayUK – Join In, Wherever You Are…

Just a very quick post today as I am a little bit frantic at the moment as I am working on one of the biggest events I have had to organise with one of the biggest banks in the UK which also involves some possible VVIP’s from British Government. All very exciting, all very good for the CV and actually a lot of fun (especially as my little sister is here helping on work experience) though not so good for the blog and all things bookish as I only have short swift speedy moments for anything book based, which links into today’s post…

I am sure you are already aware of it, however one of the things I have most enjoyed taking part in and watching throughout June has been #BookadayUK both on Twitter and on Instagram. The publishers and good folk at Borough Press started a craze by posting a list of daily book based themed tweets (with or without pictures, but with is so much more fun) such as ‘best bargain from a second hand bookshop’, ‘your favourite book’, ‘favourite cover’ etc, etc. Well thrillingly, because I was pre-empting having withdrawal symptoms, in July it is back with Doubleday publishing at the helm and here are there daily themes…

BookadayUK

So I thought I would share as I thought you would all like it and probably want to join in, if you haven’t already, wherever in the world you might be – you don’t have to be from the UK alone. Let’s make worldwide book porn, if you know what I mean. Anyway… If you are already joining in the fun do add me on twitter and instagram (both with the username of SavidgeReads, original huh?) because I am finding it fascinating seeing everyone’s response to each theme, some being nothing like you would expect. In the meantime I have got to go and find my all time favourite SFF novel!! You might not think I have one with my taste, but I do and it isn’t from the speculative author you might expect…

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Mrs Fox – Sarah Hall

I was discussing the idea of my reading shorter fiction over the summer with a colleague recently when they asked ‘but what can make a short story better than a novel?’ Now of course any answer to any bookish question is going to be subjective to every reader, I was flummoxed though. I couldn’t give a definite answer. Then I happened to read Mrs Fox, after rediscovering an old interview I did with Sarah Hall and was going through her bibliography and getting a copy almost immediately as it sounded like another foxy tale I had read, and was vividly reminded of why (in the right hands) it is sometimes the shorter a book is the more intense the experience.

Faber & Faber, paperback, 2013, fiction, 48 pages, bought by myself

Mr Fox is in love with his wife, as any husband should be. However love sometimes seems to almost go to the level of obsession as he ponders the woman who is his and yet remains somewhat distance and unattainable because there is an air of mystery and the unknown about her no matter how intimate they are. Their life is a contained, comfortable and routine one, though like all the best stories we know that a change is coming, quite literally, to the Fox household and routine will soon be a thing of the past.

He wears nothing to sleep in; neither does his wife, but she has showered, her hair is damp, darkened to wheat. Her skin is incredibly soft; there is no corrugation on her rump. Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what’s inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own. Afterwards, she goes to the bathroom, attends to herself, and comes back to bed. His sleep is blissful, dreamless.

Sarah Hall has a wonderful way of describing all this. There is the almost erotic compulsion as Mr Fox thinks about his wife, along with a feeling of something being rather out of place from the start as if she shouldn’t really be with him and if not why not? There is a matter of fact tone, and I don’t mean monotone, throughout the tale which makes it seem all the more real even though something magical and unusual is around the corner. There is also a real charge to the writing too, it’s very earthy and raw which I really liked.

There is of course a transformation coming which no matter how inevitable it seems as you read on (and you can probably guess what this might be) which is deftly crafted by Sarah Hall. For a start you don’t want the lovely Mr Fox having his life broken into pieces, you empathise with him and how much he loves his wife. Yet at the same time without knowing Mrs Fox, who remains a real enigma throughout, you feel life and nature should take their course. When it does it is wonderfully creepy and rather sinister, which naturally I liked rather a lot.

She turns her head and smiles. Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been recarved. Her lips are thin and her nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened and her brows are drawn together, an expression he has never seen, a look that is almost craven. A trick of kiltering light on this English autumn morning. The deep cast of shadows from the canopy. He blinks. She turns to face the forest again.

As well as being unnerving I found the book incredibly moving. To watch as Mr Fox’s idyllic (to him, you are never sure of Mrs Fox’s view on things really) suburban household is torn apart as nature takes over and his world destroyed it heart breaking. Obsession and luck turning to grief and despair especially when he sees his wife again (no spoilers, but it is very moving) is pitch perfect, Hall playing with all our experiences of loss and subtly ramming it home – if that is possible.

It also brings up the age old, and always fascinating, question of how well we know our partners. What secrets do they have to hide? Can we ever really know someone or what they are thinking? Can we get too comfortable with our lives and too routine, taking everything for granted. It also seemed to particularly bring up the question of who we end up with and if we can ever really believe someone wants to spend the rest of their life with us? Are we worthy? Much to ponder indeed.

Mrs Fox of course reminded me of the equally marvellous Lady Into Fox by David Garnett which it is loosely based on. Now Lady into Fox is short but Mrs Fox is even shorter and I think that makes the book all the more intense as you read on. I am not saying that this is a ‘better’ version, because I would recommend you read both frankly, but there is something much less twee in Hall’s description which sits it all the more in reality whilst of course still being very magical and other.

I loved Mrs Fox. It has reminded me how much I enjoy a really well written (it should be noted that this won the BBC National Short Story Award 2013, I can see why) and crafted short story, the power and the intensity they have. It has also reminded me how much I loved Sarah Hall’s writing when I read her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference which for some reason I never reviewed, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back and re-read them all again. So all in all highly recommended! I believe some bookshops still have it in stock as a (very) small standalone book, if not I believe it is also available on the devil’s device for a small sum, which would be well spent.

Which short stories would you recommend because they pack as good, if not better, a punch as novels? Any particular authors who are stand out for shorter fiction? Which Sarah Hall novel should I give a whirl after I have re-read The Beautiful Indifference – which incidentally you can hear Sarah talking to me about here. All recommendations and thoughts welcome as always…

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