Category Archives: Books About Books

Two Bookish Books I Think We Should All Be Reading…

I try not to bark ‘read this now’ as an order too often on Savidge Reads. If I really love a book then I hope the enthusiasm comes of the screen and you might want to go and have a look at it in a book shop or read about it more online. It’s very unusual then that I am pretty much going to bark the orders ‘read these now’ about two books that I actually haven’t read myself the whole way through…

 

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ are two books from separate British publishers which are all about books, reading and libraries. Really that should be enough to have you rushing to your nearest bookshop or book selling website shouldn’t it, in fact it might already have done just that, however I thought I would tell you a little more about both – just to really push you over the edge.

‘Stop What You Are Doing And Read This!’ is an anthology which asks the question ‘why should you stop what you are doing and read a book?’ The ten essay responses collected here are from the likes of authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Blake Morrison, Mark Haddon and Zadie Smith, along with Jane Davis founder of ‘The Reader Organisation’ and Carmen Callil who founded Virago and rather famously quit the International Man Booker judging panel. These ten essays simply tell you, in varying ways, the power of the book and the joys of reading. I have only dipped in and out of a few so far but from what I have seen it’s only going to make my love of reading and desire to read all the stronger. I know that Simon T of Stuck in a Book loves this book.

There is a different twist on the joys of reading with ‘The Library Book’ as this book is of course celebrating the library itself. Some of my favourite authors like Susan Hill, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett (there are lots more Kate Mosse, Julian Barnes, China Mieville, Stephen Fry – I could go on, there are 23 pieces in this collection) have all contributed works to this book, not all of them are essays though as of course we go to libraries for fiction, and so some of the authors have made fictional shorts along with the other essays throughout – all about the library, of course. Again, I have only had a glimpse at this book (as it only arrived this morning) but I am very, very excited about what’s inside. In fact what am I doing here writing this? I should be reading them already!

What I think is another thing that’s special about these books, if I haven’t sold these two you by now you may be a lost cause, is that they are working with the charity The Reading Agency (all the proceeds of ‘The Library Book’ are definitely going to this charity, it doesn’t say with ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’) which encourages people to read in all sorts of ways and is developing exciting library programmes. What could be better?

I am hoping some of you have stopped reading the blog by now and run off to find out more, or even gone and got the book. I am off to sit with my copies for a while. I will report back, I hope you will too!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books About Books

The Book Boy – Joanna Trollope

I wonder if I can explain why I have not read any Joanna Trollope before without implying that I am some kind of book snob. I suppose it’s simply fair enough, and true enough, to say that I have never really fancied them. In my head, with a mixture of the covers and things I have heard along the way, I have imagined she is rather twee and upper class and I just wouldn’t like them. Sometimes though the title of a book will make you give an author a try and when I saw ‘The Book Boy’ at the library, and saw it was one of the ‘quick reads’ initiative title I thought ‘oh why not?’

Bloomsbury Books, paperback, 2006, fiction, 95 pages, borrowed from the library

Alice is a thirty-eight year old woman stuck in a rut. She is her entire families doormat. Her husband Ed domineers over her with a certain edge of the dark and fearful in anything he does, her son Craig seems to be following his example (and has started hanging out with an unsavoury new friend) and Becky, her daughter and possible ally, thinks she is stupid. All this seems to emanate from the fact that Alice cannot read, something she has always wanted to do, and its something that no one speaks of and yet everyone knows. It also seems to be what people, including Alice herself, us to hold her back.

I feel forgotten, Alice though. Forgotten.
 ‘Mum!’ Craig yelled.
Like, Alice thought, something that fell down the back of the sofa. And got lost. That’s what I feel like.

Of course from the premise of the book we know that this is about to change, what we don’t know is how. I will say that help comes in the least expected guise; I will leave it at that. Through the relationships she has outside the house, mainly with her friend Liz (who has a very funny moment when she becomes a spy) and the Chandra family whose corner shops she cleans, we learn just how closed a life she leads and one which is clearly making her deeply unhappy. This is not a melancholy novella however, in fact it is very much one of hope.

This is a piece of fiction of less than 100 pages which gives a very clear insight into the life of its main character. Alice and her situation are fully fleshed out and though the other characters, including her family, aren’t fleshed out so well they are really there in order to act awfully and show us just how dreary Alice’s life is. Its how she got there and the fact that she initially seems to simply accept that this is her lot in life which proves deeply affecting and through provoking.

How much of the world do we miss if we are unable to read? How do people judge those who can’t? How would our lives be hindered by it and in what ways? These are all the questions that Joanna Trollope looks at, and I was impressed by how much I felt in so little pages. It reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to read and how much it benefits my life, not only in the fact I can read little gems like this, but in the everyday things which we completely forget about and take for granted.

It’s interesting that whilst I enjoyed this example of Joanna Trollope’s work I am not sure if I would read any more. I liked this book because of the story it was telling rather than who was telling it if that makes sense? It was a book you could read for an hour and pop away, would I fare so well with something longer? Is there some underlying subconscious snobbery in me? Maybe I am wrong, maybe another Joanna Trollope would be right up my street, or maybe it was nice to read her once and that’s enough? We all have an encounter with an author like this now and again don’t we? Anyone got any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Joanna Trollope, Review

Americus – MK Reed & Jonathan Hill

I like books about books and books about reading. It was this that drew me to a copy of the graphic novel ‘Americus’ written by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill. It was a book I hadn’t heard of and it was only by chance that I spotted it in the library and swiftly borrowed it and took it home. I seem to be having a little graphic novel phase at the moment, if you don’t tend to like graphic novels then still bear this one in mind as it does have a very bookish twist.

First Second Books, paperback, 2011, graphic novel, 2151 pages, from the library

‘Americus’ is a small town in America, where we find Neil and his friend  Danny getting very excited about the latest in the series of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” which has caused a storm in the reading world, and not just with the adults as the local librarian is also desperate for the kids to read the book so she can talk to them all about it.

Neil and Danny are bookworms and as we follow their daily routine at school we realise this is a deeply ‘uncool’ thing to be known for, especially as they are also about to embark on going to High School. Only after Danny’s mother catches him reading the latest ‘Apathea’ book, which she believes is promoting witchcraft and Satanism in children she wants is banned leading to a show down, an announcement from Danny which shatters her life further and his being sent to a Military School and his bitter mother on a crusade to ban all ‘Apathea’ books in the library.

 

If you think I have given too much away I haven’t, I promise. This book has so much more than the initial stories that greet us. It reminded me of some of the controversy that has followed the publications of Harry Potter and Twilight which have both had parents trying to ban them for just the reason’s Danny’s mother does. It also looks at the struggles we all have had, and that some of our children might have, as you go through those teenage years and the transition to the big scary school. It is also a tale of friendship but most importantly it is a tale about books and why they are so important.

I should have fallen in love with it just for that, and I did like it a lot, yet there were a couple of small quibbles I had with it. The first was the ending, it just seemed to fizzle out and after the story had been building so much there was a lot of drama and then suddenly ‘oh, it’s the end’. My second quibble was the interception of an illustrated version of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde”, which while I thought showed how it fired these two young readers imaginations I didn’t really need quite so much of it in the book, especially as we never got the full story or idea of what the concept of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” was. 

 

I did enjoy ‘Americus’ though and I’m glad I pulled it off the library shelves on a whim. In fact borrowing this book from the library seems most apt given the story. It reminded me of a graphic novel version of ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai (though the latter has etched itself on my brain and resonated with me a lot more) and is worth a read if you fancy a book about books or should you fancy dipping your toes into graphic novels.

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Filed under Books About Books, First Second Books, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Hill, MK Reed, Review

The Night Bookmobile – Audrey Niffenegger

If anyone is ever going through a reading funk, which I had been of late if I am honest, then the first book that I would recommend for them as a prescription and possible cure would have to be ‘The Night Bookmobile’ a graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger. I am not sure that I would recommend it to someone who was thoroughly depressed though if I am honest, more on that later though.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2010, graphic novel, 40 pages, from the library

Normally I don’t include the blurb of a book, however Neil Gaiman has written this one so without further ado here is his: “The Night Bookmobile is a love letter, both elegiac and heartbreaking, to the things we have read, and to the readers that we are. It says that what we read makes us who we are. It’s a graphic short story, beautifully drawn and perfectly told, a cautionary fantasia for anyone who has ever loved books, and I hope the story of the library, of Alexandra, finds its place on the night bookmobiles of all of who’d care. It’s a treasure.” Now doesn’t that just sound the perfect book for any book lover?

‘The Night Bookmobile’, which started life as an illustrated column in The Guardian,  is in many ways a complete celebration of the books we have loved and remembers, not finished but meant to and those we read and forgot about.  One night after a row with her boyfriend Alexandra is walking the streets of her neighbourhood when she comes across the Night Bookmobile and is drawn inside. Here she discovers a Tardis-like space of shelves with endless books, as she browses she soon realises that this is her very own library with all the books she has read, or started and left unfinished, throughout her lifetime. This reawakens her love of reading and soon sees her changing her life with a much more bookish bent. I simply loved this premise and it started making me think about all the books and authors I have loved the most, onces who I have said I would keep on reading and haven’t, etc, etc. I soon had a list of lots of reading I was desperate to turn to again.

I do however have a few little qualms about ‘The Night Bookmobile’. The first would have to be its length as it is just 64 pages long, which is fine bevause it is a stuningly beautiful read yet means there is a slight lack of depth. We never quite know what is going on with Alexandra when she remeets the Night Bookmobile at random points in her life and I would have liked to know more. I do also think on a slight tangent but still based on its length – and this is nothing to do with the author – that maybe the price should reflect its length too, though I picked mine up at the library I think it is worth a mention.

The second one is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but I will try, and that is the ending. It is rather tragic, seems to come from nowhere and rather disturbed me with the message it was passing on. I wondered if I had missed something somewhere, so happily read the book again, and I hadn’t. This ending came out of nowhere, didn’t really make sense and left me feeling uneasy and wishing the last few pages hadn’t been included, it was up until then almost perfect.

That said for its celebration of books, and I loved the fact its designed like a child’s picture book too, I did really like this book for the passion about books it has behind it. It is the sort of book that makes you think ‘this author knows why I read’ and I was thrilled to learn that this is in fact part of something called ‘The Library’ which Niffenegger is working on and off all the time. Could she hurry up please and a longer more in depth book by her about loving books would simply be perfect.

Has anyone else read ‘The Night Bookmobile’ and if so what did you think, without spoilers if possible, was the point of the ending or the message? I thought it was tragic yet trying to be hopeful in a tone of some desperation. Does that make sense?

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Filed under Audrey Niffenegger, Books About Books, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

Growing Pains; The Shaping of a Writer – Daphne Du Maurier

One of my favourite feelings is when you discover a book by one of your favourite authors that is no longer in print in the most unlikely of places. Once such incident happened sometime last year when I visited the local hospital and discovered a discarded ex-library copy of ‘Growing Pains – the Shaping of a Writer’ by none other than Daphne Du Maurier. It was made slightly the more joyous a find because I had no idea that this book even existed.

Gollancz, hardback, 1977, memoir, 173 pages, an ex-library gem I bought

It is probably best to let Daphne Du Maurier explain herself what ‘Growing Pains’ is about, which fortunately she does in the author’s note at the start of the book. ‘The following pages will, I hope, give me the answer. They cover my thoughts, impressions and actions from the age of three until I was twenty five, after my first novel had been published. I was uncertain of myself, naive and immature, and readers looking for deep thoughts and words of wisdom will be disappointed.’ The last part of which I couldn’t disagree with more as this is an incredibly insightful account of her life through retrospection, and also a very honest one.

Daphne tells us of her childhood and how important stories were too her, though oddly not a fan of fairy tales (which I would have given anything to ask her more bout) she grew up with a highly over active imagination. Before she could write properly she announced to a new governess that she had written ‘an entire novel’ when in truth, and soon discovered, she couldn’t write a sentence. She always wanted more from stories and would ask when a book was finished ‘why is that the end’ or ‘why did that person live in a wood’, she wanted to inhabit and create a stories entire world. This in turn lead to worrying developments after her imagination went into overdrive as she started to believe her mother actually was the Snow Queen in the book she was reading to Daphne and her sisters. In fact Daphne never quite shook this feeling. Which made me think about the interesting relationship rumoured between Daphne and her father. It was an almost obsessive hero worship.

‘I still believed in Father Christmas and yet… How did he mange to get down everybody’s chimneys all in one night? It just couldn’t be done. And supposing he didn’t… supposing it wasn’t true… ? I remember finding a net stocking full of toys hidden under a cushion in M’s morning-room at Cumberland Terrace. Why was it there? If something was not true, why make it up in the first place? But then, here was the puzzle. Stories in books were not true. The person who wrote the book made them up. Somehow, that did not matter. Pilgrim’s Progress was a story. It did not really happen. That was all right. But if fairies were just invented to deceive children, and Father Christmas too, what about the picture in my prayer-book that my godmother Billy had given me…’

As the book goes on Daphne never stops questioning in fact she questions all the more. The way this subtle decision to write builds over the years is utterly fascinating to read. In fact I am shocked this is no longer in print as it would be the perfect text for all aspiring writers, dare I say even a few published ones. I also loved the book for the snippets and insights into the young life of one of my favourite authors directly from her. There are some great biographies and some wonderful fictional accounts but nothing is quite the same as reading the words written by the person themselves. I also loved it for the pictures, such as this…

I didn’t want ‘Growing Pains’ to end! I know some of it is written from the benefit of hindsight, some of it will shroud the darker elements or highlight the brighter memories but I just loved spending time with Daphne reminiscing. Of course, she could have written it to make herself sound a certain way, but with a girl and woman like Daphne I don’t think that’s the case. Someone please reprint this book!

UPDATE: Thank you for letting me know that this is in print but under the name ‘Myself When Young: The Shaping Of A Writer’ – oops!

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Filed under Books About Books, Daphne Du Maurier, Discovering Daphne, Gollancz Publishing, Review

Hallucinating Foucault – Patricia Duncker

I seem to have had rather a run of good luck with my reads over the last week or so as it seems that everything I have picked up has been brilliant and ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ by Patricia Duncker is no exception. I have to admit that had it not been for the fact that over the Christmas and New Year period I was recommended this book by three separate people as ‘a great novel about books, writing and reading’ I am not sure I would have looked it up or even picked it up. Thank goodness for recommendations hey?

‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is researching the work and lives of the mysterious author Paul Michel. A project that starts whilst he is studying in Cambridge soon becomes an obsession and a quest that takes him to Paris and the south of France. Really that’s the best way that you can sum up the plot, however ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is so much more than that, yet of course trying to place all its themes and idea’s in a review is quite a challenge, as it soon becomes a page turning (I know, I know it’s a cliché to say that, sorry) piece of literature.

As our narrator meets his lover, ‘the Germanist’, as he calls her (who is a rather interesting and deceptive character who keeps you on your toes) in Cambridge and afterwards his initial admiration for Paul Michel takes an obsessive turn when he hears the mysterious tale of Michel’s incarceration into a mental home. The Germanist and her gay father, Michel the fictional author in the novel also happens to be homosexual, then push him to go and uncover just what happened and why a man who meant so much to many has ended up in such a situation. What could it have been that drew this man to madness? Could it be to do with the great, and real, Michel Foucault (the French philosopher who I now want to learn much more about) himself?

What follows, without giving too much away, is a thrilling tale (though not in the way you might think ‘thrillers’ stereotypically are) and journey of self discovery. Duncker uses this tale not only to discuss sexuality, which becomes a key part of the novel, but also to look at the relationship between the people who write the book and those who read them. In fact it’s a wonderful discussion of how reading and writing work yet rather than being a long boring ‘lit-crit’ non fiction tome we have a slim novel that really packs a punch and if you love books and reading you will become totally lost in it.

 “The writing then becomes the wager of a gambling man, the words flung down in one colour, win or lose, for the reader to take up. We are all gamblers. We write for our lives. If, in my life or in my writing, there was anyone who could be described as my Muse, ironically enough, it would be you. But I suspect you would rather be acknowledged as my master than my Muse. You are my reader, my beloved reader. I know of no other person who has more absolute a power to constrain me, or to set me free.”

‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a deceptively slim looking book. I don’t mean that when you start reading it its so heavy and full of things that it bogs you down from the start, in fact quite the reverse. From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.

I was quite shocked to discover this was her debut novel from 1996 as it reads like a book written by an author well into their writing life. This is an incredible fictional book about books and the relationship between reader and writer. It’s also a book I can’t recommend highly enough. 10/10

I want to thank everyone who recommended me this book, you know who you are – and I know you read this, and can only hope that all several of you take on the recommendation from me to give this seemingly undiscovered book a whirl. I am now naturally desperate to read more by Patricia Duncker and was thrilled to discover she has another four novels and two collections of short stories for me to get through. Have any of you read them? Any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Books of 2011, Patricia Duncker, Review

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

I have heard so much praise for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff it’s a book that I have been meaning to read for ages. It is also one of those books where because I had heard so much praise for it I hadn’t picked it up because I was worried it wouldn’t have the effect on me that it did on everyone else. We all have books like that don’t we, it’s not just me? Anyway I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present from the lovely Paul Magrs who thought it would be a perfect read for me, and he was spot on.

’84 Charing Cross Road’ is a series of very real letters, for some reason until I actually had the book in my hand I thought that it was a work of fiction, between writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel a bookseller of Messrs Marks & Co a second-hand book shop in the heart of London. What initially starts as very much a business correspondence, between the rather outspoken Hanff and the more reserved Doel, from October 1949 becomes a friendship through letters and a love of books that lasts over twenty years.

“I just happen to have a peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I’m about as smart-looking as a Broadway pan-handler.”

If that hasn’t already had you running to a book shop to buy it, as it is a most perfect book about books and reading really, there is so much more. As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”

There is a bittersweet twist in the tale, and I don’t think it spoils anything to give this away but skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, is that sadly Frank died before Helene could ever go and finally visit the shop. There are several times that she endeavours to get herself to London but due to finances, teeth and other circumstances it never happens. That all changes after the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which being a huge success means she flies to London to visit the shop, some of the people and the city she has always dreamed of visiting. She keeps a diary during this trip which is now included in every edition of this novel/la named ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ which makes for additional fascinating reading.

“I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back into bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn’t coming.”

It’s hard to say anything further about these two novels, or are they technically novellas, because they simply need to be read. I can’t say anything other than go out and get a copy if you haven’t already. It was certainly a book that was right up my street! 9.5/10

This book was bought for me for Christmas by a very kind friend.

Who else has had the pleasure of reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’? Has anyone seen the movie, and if so what did you make of it? Which books about books and book lovers should I look out for next? Has anyone read any of Hanff’s other novels? Which books have been sat on your TBR and have you been putting off as everyone else loved them so much you fear you might not?

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2011, Helene Hanff, Review, Virago Books