Tag Archives: Elizabeth McCracken

Other People’s Bookshelves #79 – Sarah Shaffi

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the perfectly natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in London where we join the lovely Sarah Shaffi, who works for the book news bible that is The Bookseller. There is, as always with these lovely bookish folks whose houses and shelves we invade, quite the spread on so let’s all grab a drink and a snack and get to know Sarah and her bookshelves better.

I’m a journalist by trade, currently working at The Bookseller magazine as online editor, which feeds my book habit. I’ve had a blog for a few years now, mainly focused on books, but also includes a little bit of whatever takes my fancy!

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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?

My system basically consists of trying to keep my bookshelves at home and at work under control. This means being able to stack everything bar maybe half a dozen or so books on my shelves. I don’t always succeed, but I am thankfully past the days when my floor was taken up by multiple large tote bags full of books. I generally keep books I only really, really, really love now. And even then, something else can supplant that if needs be.

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?

My bookshelves at home are double stacked horizontally, and then those rows have books lying on top of them. The top shelf of my bookcase has some of my university textbooks on it, and some non-book stuff (*gasp*), and at the front is where I keep my graphic novels. The rest of my shelves are a mix of fiction and non-fiction – the back row is ordered alphabetically by author surname. The front rows, which are the ones you can see, used to be for books I hadn’t read but intended to, but given that I have so many books they’re a complete mix now, and I’m sad to say there’s no order – read, unread, fiction, non-fiction, new, old, proofs, final copies. I’ve learned how to live with them.

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

I really don’t remember. I do remember buying an abridged copy of a Dickens’ novel, possibly Great Expectations, on a school trip when I was about eight. And I’m sure I bought something from one of those Scholastic fairs that used to come to school, but I really don’t remember what.

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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 believe in book guilt – read what you want, enjoy what you want, don’t be ashamed of it.

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?

I love my copy of Anita Desai’s The Peacock Garden, which was the first book I ever read with a non-white protagonist and which I got for completing a summer reading challenge with my local library. I also adore my battered copy of The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton, which was a birthday present. And I have a gorgeous limited edition proof of Ryan Gattiss’ All Involved, which is signed and which I would love to rescue because it definitely can’t be replaced.

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?

I spent many, many hours at the library, but the grown up books I remember are all from my dad’s bookshelves. I read my way through all his Jeffrey Archer novels when I was about 12, and the book I always wanted to read that he had was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I’ve never got round to it – life is too short to spend reading classics you think you should have read.

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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’ll only buy a book I’ve already read and enjoyed if I really, really love it. I just don’t have the room otherwise, and I grew up borrowing books from the library, not owning them, so I’m in the habit of not buying everything I read. But I do have a tendency to buy books I love to give as presents to other people in lieu of buying them for myself.

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

The last book I bought was The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie, for my Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction reading, but I’m constantly bringing books home from work, so I’m not sure that was the last one I added to my bookshelves.

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

When I was little my dad bought me a box set of the Beatrix Potter books, and we gave them away once I’d grown out of them. Now I really regret that, I’d love to have those on my shelves, not least because you never grow out of great books!

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

I like to think they’d think I’m a person who just loves books and words.

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Huge thanks to Sarah for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. 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 forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) 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 Sarah’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Thunderstruck & Other Stories – Elizabeth McCracken

One of the most talked about short story collections of last year was undoubtedly Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories rave reviews were flying in left right and centre and so earlier this year, when the praise had died down somewhat, I decided that I would give them a whirl. Having not read any of McCracken’s work before (which interestingly horrified many and led them to say ‘but The Giant’s House is so you’, I still need to get my mitts on it) I went in blind to a collection of stories that when you initially describe them might sound dark and maudlin but actually have many moments of hope and humour.

Vintage Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Short stories are always a little difficult to write about because you don’t want to give everything away in each one, yet at the same time you want to give anyone thinking about reading it a sense of what the whole work is about. In the case of Thunderstruck & Other Stories the one thing that ties them all together really is loss. It might be the loss of a partner, a child, an animal. People tend to die or go missing predominantly in these tales at the start and then we go off backwards to find out more about them or forwards into the ripples of loss and grief that follow. ‘Oh bloody hell,’ you might be thinking ‘this sounds like a right cheery bunch of tales.’ Yet whilst the overall feeling, particularly as it ends on the title story, might be one of make sure people know you love them before they or you die or disappear, there is a quirky humour and sense of hope that resides within the whole collection. I probably sound like a loon saying that, once you have read it you will know what I mean.

Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street. Nobody saw her go. She must have stepped out the door of the Victorian she shared with her father and son. She must have walked down the front steps. She was accompanied or unaccompanied, willing or unwilling. She left behind her head-dented pillow like a book on a lectern, on the right page one long hair marking her place for the next time. She left behind socks that eventually forgot the particular shape of her feet and the shoes that didn’t, the brown leather belt that once described her boyish waist, dozens of silver earrings, the pajamas she’d been wearing when last seen. She left behind her mattress printed with unfollowed instructions for seasonal turning. She left behind her car. She left behind the paperback mystery she’d been reading.

I am not going to tell you about every single tale in the collection as I think that might over egg the pudding and you would have very little left to discover. I will however give you a taste of some of the stories I really loved. If you go and read any other reviews, as I did before I borrowed the collection, what you will find interesting is that no person’s top three or four stories are the same though some feature the same one or two. Those tend to be Juliet and Thunderstruck itself.

Juliet initially starts as a slightly kooky tale of a town seen through the eyes of a librarian as she observes her patrons, soon enough things take a darker twist as we discover that there has been a murder, of a woman named Juliet, which leads to a confrontation between patrons and librarians and librarians with librarians. The farce with the tragedy becoming truly bittersweet. In Thunderstruck a pair of concerned parents decide to take their daughter away to France, after she is brought home by the police having done drugs at a party. In France it seems that she blossoms and all is well, only of course McCracken has a twist waiting for you and what a twist indeed. I thought this was interesting both in how it brought up the subjects of parents not always knowing best and teenagers just being teenagers, whilst also being a contemporary look at the old historical act of sending young girls to France to better themselves which has happened throughout time.

Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s landing. Still, surely somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.

Two other highlights are Property which tells of a couple who sell their house to return to America for the next stage of their life, only for the wife to die before they leave. Her widow then has to move into a new rental home which is far from idyllic and seems to match his situation as life no longer has the shine, romance or excitement without his wife with him. If you aren’t broken (and then enraged) by this you have no heart. Hungry also looks at grief, though in a very different way as whilst staying with her grandmother one summer not knowing her father is about to be taken off life support, ten year old Lisa is left to her own devices and the contents of the larder and fridge, where she gorges her grandmother to grief stricken and guilty to do anything about it. It sounds funny but it becomes incredibly difficult to read. I should also nod to The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston and The House of Two Three Legged Dogs which were also highlights but I won’t say more about as I will end up telling you about them all.

I do have a favourite though and actually I would suggest you leave this till last, though it is first in the collection. Something Amazing is just that, something amazing. It is the tale of the children of a neighbourhood who believe they still see the ghost of Missy Goody, who was six and a complete bully, since her death they believe her mother Mrs Goody is a witch and a mad woman. In many ways Mrs Goody is mad, driven crazy by grief, to the point where her grief and loneliness cause her to do something quite bonkers indeed. Yet oddly, because McCracken writes her so well, understandable in a very, very weird way – you don’t condone it, you get it though.

Something Amazing just worked for me on every level. It has a Du Maurier (highest form of compliment from me) gothic sensibility, it is utterly creepy and then utterly heartbreaking whilst also having the elements of a ghost story, mystery and fairytale. I had to read it all over again as soon as I had finished it. For me the whole collection is worth the cover price for this tale alone. There, I have said it. I liked the others very, very much indeed this one though completely stole my heart.

Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Gooby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.

So as you can see I concur with all the rave reviews of Thunderstruck & Other Stories and think that the way McCracken uses tragedy and farce, emotion and dark humour marvellous. I also love the way she writes about every day people, everyday problems yet at moments of great endurance in one way or another. I am now very keen to go and read all of her other collections and novels. So would love to hear your thoughts on them and of course on this collection too.

*Note in case you are thinking ‘didn’t you say that book was from the library yet you’ve had it sent from the publishers?’ I did get it from the library in hardback and read that copy in Spring and then was sent a paperback unsolicited later and read Something Amazing another three times, which was delightful.

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Other People’s Bookshelves #58 – Lloyd Shepherd

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we spending time round at author Lloyd Shepherd’s where he has kindly laid on an afternoon tea for us all. Before we have a nosey through his shelves let us get to know more about him, it is only polite after all…

My name’s Lloyd Shepherd and I’m a writer (I always said to my wife that I wouldn’t call myself a ‘writer’ until I’d had four books published, and the fourth book is out next year, so I’m going for it). The four books I’ve published to date have all been historical crime fiction – with a twist. The twist being there’s more going on that quite meets the eye. Before writing books, I worked as a digital product manager for the likes of the Guardian, Yahoo, Channel 4 and the BBC, and before that I was a journalist, writing about the tortuous financial shenanigans of the film industry.

As well as writing a new book, I’m currently engineering an Adventure In Reading, called The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club. You can find out more about that at www.riddleofthesands.net – we’re calling it Taking a Book for a Walk. Because books need to get off their bookshelves every now and then, you know.

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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?

Well, first things first – they’re not MY shelves, because I’m married to a woman who reads voraciously, and who has a hoarder’s attitude to books. I’m more vicious – I’m only really sentimental about books that I have personally loved, or were given to me by someone close to me. Other than those – they’re heading out. Even the hardbacks.

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?

I have what can only be called a Multi-Zone Approach To Book Husbandry. Zone One is in the living room, and consists of Attractive Books Wot Might Be Worth Summat In Future Years. Hardbacks of classics, first editions, and a massive number of Folio Society publications acquired by my father. He was a lifelong subscriber to Folio, and though I’m not convinced he read a lot of them, they’re all beautiful things. So, if you need to read Moby Dick or a history of the Byzantine Empire written by a 1950s emeritus professor, it’s the living room you want.

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The bedroom is the Fiction Grotto, with two bookshelves groaning with paperbacks and hardbacks in alphabetical order, often double-shelved and generally all over the place, thematically. Also, my wife hangs her clothes on these shelves. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps she’s hoping they will gain something from being hung next to made-up stuff. Finally, my office is the Library of Facts (and poetry and drama and other stuff we don’t read in bed). It’s where I keep my history and reference books, my graphic novels, copies of my own books (hem hem) and my wide and random collection of sheet music. I also have two guitars in there, which are monumentally unplayed.

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

Gosh, good question. I don’t think I can quite remember. I want to say The Dark is Rising, but I’ve got a feeling that was a school library book which never quite made it back to said school library. I did buy a copy shortly afterwards, and two years ago I got it signed by Susan Cooper, which was thrilling. I remember going to buy The Lord of the Rings in Sevenoaks Bookshop (which is still there, bless its soul) with my Dad, and picking up the massive paperback collected edition while looking longingly at the three-volume hardback version. We left with the hardbacks. As I said, my Dad was a nut for nice books. I didn’t even pay towards it. I read those hardback editions, out loud, to my son when he was little.

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?

No, not at all. I’m not embarrassed about anything I’ve read. Wish I could say the same about everything I’ve written.

The Study: History and Poetry n ting

The Study: History and Poetry n ting

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?

Well, Dad’s Folio books and the Lord of the Rings volumes mentioned above. My copy of Paradise Lost from university (there, I’m allowed one affectation, aren’t I?). The thing about books is, of course, that they’re replaceable – it’s only when they constitute memories rather than literature that they take on a different meaning. An old paperback of Sophie’s Choice, a collection of Emily Dickenson, a two-volume edition of The History of the Port of London – they’ve all got memories outside themselves which would be lost if the books were lost, even if the words were replaceable.

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 Dad had one of those massive Hamlyn collections of Robert Ludlum novels – you know, the 70s things which contained five or more novels in one edition, with type so small only a young vigorous chap could read it, but weighing so much you needed a fork lift truck to turn the page. I read The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend, The Gemini Contenders and, most brilliantly of all, The Holcroft Covenant, which is still my favourite thriller of all time. It had a Fifty Shades of Grey bit in it, too, I seem to recall.

Smart Books For Public Display (Folio!)

Smart Books For Public Display (Folio!)

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 buy almost everything I read, I think. I like buying books. People should buy more books. And I also like giving books away, a practice which is a bit shit if you’re an author but a bit great if you’re a human being.

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

In no particular order: a 1970s edition of The Riddle of the Sands for our Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club project; The High Middle Ages (Folio!), Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck (the best book I’ve read in the past year), Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, and The 9th Directive by Adam Hall. My reading overlaps!

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

David Hepworth’s upcoming book on 1971. Julian Cope’s One Three One and Krautrocksampler. An edition of Ulysses abridged by Simon Armitage (this doesn’t exist).

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

He Liked Books And A Good Story Well Told. Also, why is that dress hanging there?

Bedroom Fiction Shelf with Clothes

Bedroom Fiction Shelf with Clothes

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A huge thanks to Lloyd for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, don’t forget to check www.riddleofthesands.net and follow the adventure into the world of a book! 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 forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) 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 Mark’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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