Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Other People’s Bookshelves #85 –Anna O’Grady

Hello and welcome back to the series Other People’s Bookshelves. Every so often here on Savidge Reads we welcome a guest who takes over the blog and feeds into the book lust we all crave by sharing their shelves. This week we are off to Sydney, where we are joining the wonderful, wonderful  Anna O’Grady, who is responsible for me hearing about many a wonderful read and even sending me  one or two from Australia that she really, really wants people to read. Like Charlotte Wood’s amazing The Natural Way of Things, which if you haven’t read by now you must. Anyway, Anna has kindly invited us to have a gander at her bookshelves with a nice cup of tea or two and some lovely treats, though the Violet Crumbles are all mice. Before we have a peruse of her shelves though let’s let Anna introduce herself a bit more…

I come from a third generation of booksellers – so you might say that books have always been my destiny and they certainly are my passion. My grandfather was a Polish bookseller and collector of rare books before World War II. Sadly his bookstore and most of his collection was destroyed during the final bombing of the city of Poznan. There is only a handful of books that survived, but one of them is an extremely rare hand-printed book of Japanese poetry. My mother carried on the tradition of family bookselling and married a man who was first trained as a printer, but went on to work in a small publishing house. As far back as I can remember our tiny apartment was always full of books and often full of writers having big political discussions around our kitchen table. I always loved reading, but rebelling against ‘following in my parent’s footsteps’ – I vowed not to work in a bookshop. I left Poland at the age of 19. It was really hard to start a new life with limited language skills and no friends and family, but I quickly discovered that bookstores were the best places to cure my homesickness and help me understand new countries. Here I came across old friends –  classics and authors that I’d read over the years, but  I also discovered a the whole new world of books and authors that I’d  never heard of. It was not long before my vows were forgotten and I started working in a bookstore. Although I moved countries a few times, I never left the book world, spending my working hours in bookshops in England, Switzerland, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. I made a move to the publishing side about three years ago and although I do miss bookshops, I also enjoy this different way of ‘making’ books.

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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?

There is no way that I could have possibly kept all the books I read, but I did become very creative in finding new ways of stacking books ;-)….. My current library has over 3000 books, and I regularly do some ‘pruning’. I keep books by all my favourite authors (and there are quite a few of them) and I collect books in a couple of specific areas. Although I reinforced the floors under the part of the library that holds most of my hardcovers, I often pray that my little house does not collapse under the weight of all these books. I am also trying to make more use of my local public library to reduce the load on my bookshelves.

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?

Yes, I definitely have a system going. First my books are divided by the three languages in which I read; secondly they are divided by fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction is divided into subsections: history/politics, arts, nature etc. with two special subsections in which I collect books about history of women and books about books, libraries, reading etc. My fiction section is divided by continents and then by the country of the author’s origin, the two biggest parts being dedicated to Canadian and Australian writing. I also have a special section for classics and poetry … and then there are of course my various stacks, books to be read later, books to be read now, books that I am dipping in and out of etc. etc. Yes, I know it’s all a bit mad.

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

My first recollection of books I bought with my own money are The Moomins by Tove Jansson. I was probably about 7 or 8 when they started appearing in Poland and I saved money for them in my little piggy bank and yes I still have them. I still love them and have added to the collection over the years.

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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?

My guilty pleasures are some of the horror novels (especially Japanese) and lots of mysteries, but I am not embarrassed by them and they live on the shelves in perfect harmony with all other books.

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?

This is the hardest question – I honestly could not name a single book. It would be more like an armful of books. I would definitely want to keep my original Moomins, but I also have an amazing collection of signed books. Most of these carry memories of unforgettable encounters and long conversations with extraordinary writers –  these include books by my favourites –  Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Gunter Grass, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, Jose Saramago, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Marra, J.K Rowling and so many more. I also should single out my 1st Canadian edition of Life of Pi. Sorry, I know it sounds like a lot of name dropping, but over the years I have been very privileged as a bookseller to meet some truly remarkable people.

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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?

Probably some of the American classics of the 20th century, I distinctively remember being in  high school and discovering a  whole shelf of them in my parent’s library – books by Joseph Heller, Irvin Shaw, Ernest Hemingway. I had a preference for dark stories and that has not changed.

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?

If I really loved it yes I would go and buy it, but I no longer buy all the books I want to read. I really enjoy using my local library.

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

I bought this week The Mothers by Brit Bennett, on a recommendation of my favourite Australian bookshop: Readings in Melbourne. (I am ¾ into it and I would highly recommend it too) and I borrowed a copy of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan on the recommendation of another author Aoife Clifford, whose reading tastes I always respect. I do have to add here that both you and Kim from readingmattersblog are very trusted and frequent source of recommendations too.

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

Nothing that I really would lose my sleep over, but I always have lists of books that I would like to read.

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

Well it is quite a mix of books that I have – so the only thing that I hope people would say is that I have an open and curious mind.

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A huge thanks to Anna 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, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Anna’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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A Summer of Short Stories

I have fallen in love with short stories again this year. Not that I am sure I ever fell out of love with them. I think if anything I tended to read collections by authors I knew, and saw them rather like bonus scenes to the full novels, which I know is daft but it is true. It was rare that I would read a completely new to me authors collection, though when I did and they were like Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles (which if you haven’t read after the amount of times I have recommended it, you are bonkers and there may be no hope for you, ha) I was lost in them completely.

This year they have really come into their own though for me. During Fiction Uncovered I was introduced to several collections of which the standouts were longlisted The Way Out by Vicki Jarrett and one of the winners The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, both of which I will be telling you about and raving about in due course.

Collections can be an interesting experience as some will blow you away and some will leave you cold, I hasten to add none leave you cold in the two I mention above, which can create an interesting reading experience of peaks and troughs. When a short story is amazing though it can blow your mind and as I said when I was talking about how intense reading taught me about my own read habits and that Sometimes a single short story in a collection can have as much power as a 500+ page novel, which is true.

I also think they could be the perfect way to get people back into reading more if they think they haven’t the time or that reading isn’t really for them. You can read a story or two on a commute, or when you are on the loo (sorry over sharing) or when you’re waiting in the car park for your partner to finish faffing around Homebase or any other DIY store, or clothes store if your partner is more into that than DIY or just on your lunch break and need a quick fiction fix.

They are a few pages of magic and so I am planning on reading lots more over (what is left of) the summer. Here are some, not all, of the collections I have been buying and others I have dusted off for just such a short story binge…

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  • Don’t Try This At Home by Angela Readman – This is a collection that The Beard bought me after I had heard great things about it from various lovely sorts on Twitter and also declared I wanted the cover art as bedding.
  • The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg – I saw this collection from Daunt Books (who have a publishing house as well as gorgeous bookshops) out the corner of my eye, because the cover shimmers, in Waterstones in Newcastle where they have wonderful displays of eclectic books, so purchased it.
  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim – This collection won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year (why all prizes don’t include short story collections I do not know) and my lovely pal Natalie was one of the judges and raved about it, a lot.
  • Young Skins by Colin Barrett – This won last year’s Guardian First Book Prize and whilst it pains me that the author was born in the same year as me, 1982, and is so talented it does mean I can tick off a box on my BOTNS Bingo Summer Reading card. This also links nicely with…
  • Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan – This was longlisted for last year’s Guardian First Book Award and was the public’s addition to the longlist. I read and really liked May-Lan Tan’s chapbook of two short stories Girly earlier this year and then randomly sat next to her at an event and had a lovely long chat about all sorts.
  • The Not-Dead and The Saved by Kate Clanchy – I do not know a single person who has seen Clanchy read her stories that has not been in hysterics and in tears in both happy and sad ways. This was enough of a recommendation for me.
  • An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass – One of the first books to come from the John Murray Originals imprint (the cover is stunning) which I want to read for the title, and title story, alone.
  • Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas – I love Tsiolkas’ writing and this is one of the collections I have been most excited about this year, it is out in September.
  • Jellyfish by Janice Galloway – Almost everyone I know loves Janice Galloway so by default I am sure I will and I think short stories can sometimes be a rather wonderful way of trialling an author, or maybe trying them out sounds nicer.
  • Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers – Again all the right people have been raving about this.
  • Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – Why on earth has this gone unread for so long, I am frankly embarrassed. She is a genius, we all know this, and this is meant to be a brilliant collection of nine tales.

Phew. You may notice that there aren’t any classics on this list, which I have realised is rather remiss of me. That said I am reviewing a modern classic collection next, so you’ll be hearing all about that. I have also been contemplating Hemingway’s short stories in September as I will be at some of his old hangouts and watering holes by Lake Michigan when I go on my road trip around some of northern America, we will see.

Have you read any of the above collections or other collections by some of those authors? What did you make of them? Are you a fan of the short story? As always I would love your short story recommendations be they new, recent or classic (I have a feeling many of you will mention Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, which I have read and adored but am struggling to write a review of) so let me know which other collections I should look out for and why…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Short Stories

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors that I had always meant to read and yet somehow not quite got round to actually trying. Yes, I know. Gran used to go on and on about how amazing For Whom the Bell Tolls was and after reading Naomi Wood’s marvellous Mrs. Hemingway I was even more keen to give him a whirl at some point. As it happened Rachael chose The Old Man and the Sea for book group which I was both excited by (as I had meant to read him and it was a novella, so a quick intro) and wary of (because as we all know I don’t like books set on boats) before I started. Yet the whole point of a good book group is that it gets you reading things you mightn’t normally, and so I got on board…

Vintage Books, paperback, 1951 (1999 edition), fiction, 112 pages, bought by myself for myself

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders to another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea pretty much gives you the premise of the book straight from the off. There is an old man, who used to be quite the fisherman we gather, who now lives alone and hasn’t caught a fish in ages. He used to have a young man help him who still visits, and gives a wonderful and touching start to novella, yet now the locals believe he brings bad luck and so he goes out by himself though less and less. Upon waking one day he has the feeling his luck might be changing like the tide (just to through a seaside metaphor in there, there’s a fair few in the book) and so sets out to catch a big fish, hopefully the biggest that he can.

This makes The Old Man and the Sea sound both like a tale of adventure and one of adversity, an old man in his slightly knackered boat, going out to catch a blooming big fish and show those youths he still has it in him. Indeed in many ways it is, and I liked that feeling despite my aversion to boats and sure enough pretty soon fell in love (I wanted to say hook, line and sinker – sorry) with the prose. With sentences like this…

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

Or this…

Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.

… How can you not? Sometimes, sadly no matter how wonderful the words, if you aren’t quite lost in a book it loses its charm and fairly soon after we had set sail I started to get rather disinterested. I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that whilst I spent a lot of time with the old man and occasionally in his head, as Hemingway flips between perspectives now and then, Hemmingway holds of telling you exactly what he’s thinking or feeling outside catching a bloody massive sea monster of a fish. He remainssome sort of unknowable figure with little characterisation therefore meaning I didn’t care about his plight or quest. The second issue was that no matter how much beautiful writing there was at the start, and indeed again at the end, it all seemed to be rather flat and monotonous in the middle making me somewhat bored. I can see how this may have been the idea, we had to wait patiently for ages while the old man does, yet there is a difference between being bored literally and being literally bored.

He was rowing steadily and it was no effort for him since he kept well within his speed and thethe surface of the ocean was flat except for the occasional swirls of the current. He was letting the current do a third of the work and as it started to be light he saw he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour.
I worked the deep wells for a week and did nothing, he thought. Today I’ll work out where the schools of bonita and albacore are and maybe there will be a big one with them.

That said when the old man finally encounters the big fish there are some rather exciting scenes where the old man must conquer both the nature of the sea and its other inhabitants. Be warned though, if you are a fan of fish for your dinner this may turn you, I haven’t fancied eating fish since I read it which was about two months ago. The Old Man and the Sea does encourage some interesting discussion; though we were divided about how much we liked it we had a really interesting conversation about whether this was a fable about adversity, as I mentioned above, or actually about greed – and it got slightly heated!

So did I like The Old Man and the Sea? Well, I am not really sure… kind of. If I was being very honest I think I would describe it as being an inoffensive and interesting-ish read. (It only won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, so what would I know!) I think the writing is wonderful, if sometimes a little lengthy even for a novella as it felt longer than it was. That said, it is certainly a book I won’t forget and not just for the fact I may never eat fish and chips again. As it was “Hemingway” I expected that I would be much more bowled over than I was and really needed more character and a little more back story. Maybe it’s not the best of his books to start with? Maybe I needed something meatier (rather than fishier – sorry again) to get my teeth into.

Who else has read The Old Man and the Sea and what did you make of it? If you fancy some more thoughts you can see Sanne of Books and Quills discuss it here, we seemed to be of a mind. As I am still keen to read more Hemingway where would you recommend I head next where I might have a little more success?

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Filed under Ernest Hemingway, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Mrs. Hemingway – Naomi Wood

I am rather fascinated by authors, I can’t pretend I am not – more dead and classic authors than living ones, though with certain podcasts and events I do you know I am partial to a good chat with a fun living one. I digress. Interestingly I know that not every reader feels like this about authors, they find the books more fascinating, I however am firmly in the ‘let me know all about authors that you can’ camp. This even includes some authors who I haven’t read and one such author I have heard much about and yet not read a word of is Ernest Hemingway (sorry Gran, I know you loved him) so when I discovered lovely living author (who I have had virtual fig roll fights with on this very blog) Naomi Wood’s second novel was going to be about his wives I knew I would have to read it.

Picador Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Mrs. Hemingway is a fascinating fictional account of the lives of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Hadley, Fife (or Pauline), Martha and Mary told from their perspectives at various points of their marriage to Hemingway. From the poor and humble beginnings to the darker depressive days of his last years Naomi Wood gives us a novel where the wives become as fascinating, if not more so, than the man whom they all married. A man it seems who wanted to feel like he was truly loved, which in some ways as his fame grew, became all too easy as women threw themselves at him, even if they weren’t his wives or wives to be.

What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

At the start of Mrs. Hemingway it is a marriage of almost three which we enter. Hadley and Ernest have been joined on their holiday by Hadley’s friend Pauline, or Fife as we come to know her, who we soon learn (from her sister no less, the shock and horror) has become Ernest’s mistress only it seems that the feelings run far more deeply than a mere infatuation or soon to be over indiscretion. We watch, feeling wholly for Hadley, as Hemingway’s first wife inadvertently draws her husband and his lover together whilst her intention is to do quite the opposite. What is marvellously done is what remains unsaid between all three, but particularity what remains unsaid between the two ‘friends’ as things continue. I was heartbroken with Hadley and thought Fife was an utter piece of work, yet strange how as I read on my opinions would change on each wife, and indeed each mistress.

Hadley eats alone at the round table where their books sit on the shelf above. Ernest’s first book of short stories, In Our Time, sits along Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. She remembers one of Ernest’s stories. The images are still so cool and fresh they resurface as vividly as if they were her own memories – how the fish broke the surface of the lake and the sound of them landing was described as gunpowder hitting the water. Hadley could picture everything in that story: the boat out in the bay, the boyfriend and girlfriend trolling for trout, the old sawmill that was now a ruin. But then it came, the moment when the boyfriend tells the girlfriend how it isn’t fun anymore – none of it is fun he tells her, desperate; none of it is going to work. She wonders how much it was about them. The story is called “The End of Something” after all.

Mrs. Hemingway is fascinating for many reasons. Firstly because as I hinted above it is a book which will have you completely on the side of whichever wife you are reading, thinking you will hate the next one and quite possibly coming away from the book feeling admiration and heartbreak for them all for many different reasons. What is wonderful in Wood’s prose is that each wife is very different and also celebrates what was wonderful and unusual about them that made Ernest fall for them and want to marry them all (marriage being something he was vehement about). Each woman has flaws, each woman has certain feelings about Hemingway’s writing, in short each woman is equally fascinating and when you come to the end of one’s narrative you really hope they crop up in the next one.

It is also a fascinating book, not only because it is about all sorts of woman and all sorts of marriages which seems slightly obvious to highlight but is true, because it is a book that really looks at the different emotions that we all go through in our lives. Love, jealousy, rage, hate, happiness, sadness. It also looks at the different shades of love we feel for someone. You can be infatuated. You can be unsure but wooed. You can fall under someone’s spell. You can fall in so fast and out so fast. You can love to hate someone. All these emotions and feelings we have all been through are laid bare in one of the women at some point, or even a few of them at various points, and gives the book a real heightened emotive edge.

He’d be thinking, no doubt, about his life here in the twenties, when he was poorer and happier, a man only once married. His Paris life is a memory Ernest loves to slide over and over until the place is smooth and cool with his affections. Today he would surely be longing for the sawmill apartment and his lost Saint Hadley: a woman all the more exquisite for her generous retirement of the title Mrs. Hemingway.
A title Martha has come to hate.

What I found very admirable, and in its way deeply affecting, about Mrs. Hemingway was that Naomi Wood never seems to favour one wife over another. Nothing they do is judged unless by the wife who happens to be narrating her part of the tale. For example, when we first meet Fife we think ‘what a nasty bitch’, yet when we get to hear her side of the story we start to soften towards her and I could occasionally feel myself starting to bristle against the next wife who was waiting in the wings seemingly to usurp the prior, only for Wood’s account of their actions and motives somehow wins you over again.

Then of course there is the man himself, and in this case as clichéd as it sounds he is the ‘man of mystery’, and indeed the mystery and enigma, at the centre of this book. To each wife he is a different person. A man who seemingly felt he had so much he had to prove that even his successes were never quite good enough. A man who seemed to feel addicted to being loved and needed and admired. A man who didn’t seem to really know himself, or was trying to work himself and the world out through his writing. A fascinating, flawed and incredibly charismatic, dark and talented man.

I say that like I know the man, as I mentioned earlier I haven’t even read any of his fictional writing, I didn’t even know about his ‘infamous death’ (which isn’t really a spoiler as we all know he is dead) before I read Mrs. Hemingway so I came to it, to him and his wives from a very uninformed angle. Well, thanks to Naomi’s wonderful writing (which never shows the amount of research she must have done, my favourite kind of writing) I feel that I have lived through it with them now and I am also desperate to read some of his work.

Mrs. Hemingway is a beautiful novel which initially seems to be about a man of many wives and many times, yet that would sell it short. It is actually about four fascinating women and a man who happened to be lucky enough to have them in his life, no matter how little or how long it was. I highly recommend it whether you be a fan of Hemingway or not, it’s marvellous.

If you would like to hear Naomi talking more about the book, strangely with little old me, then have a listen to the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Who else has read the book and what did you think? If you are a Hemingway fan, where should I head? Which fictional accounts of an author or their lives have you read and would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Naomi Wood, Picador Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #29 – Anne Coates

Hello and welcome, to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves. In the grand scheme of things we have now gone from a post on porn, well sex, in books to book porn as we all nosey through someone else’s book shelves. This week we are in finally joined by Anne Coates. I say finally as we have been trying to get Anne’s shelves shared with you all for quite some time but technology has been defeating us until now! So without further ado here is Anne to introduce herself and her shelves…

Books have been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. After graduating in English and French, I worked in publishing and this was wonderful for reading and learning about contemporary fiction and different genres. As a freelance editor and writer, I have been involved in non-fiction as well. I have always written short stories which were published in women’s magazines. Endeavour Press have recently published two ebook collections Cheque-Mate & Other Tales of the Unexpected and A Tale of Two Sisters as well as two parenting books linked to my family website, Parenting Without Tears. As you may imagine Roald Dahl is one of my favourite authors and as an antidote to my work in non-fiction, there’s nothing I like better than a good murder!

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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?

Obviously I keep all my favourites but every now and again I have a cull. Once I kept every Reader’s Digest book I’d worked on then thought – why? So out they went. Also some non-fiction books become outdated/superceded so they go too. A lot of the non-fiction books on my shelves were for review or research. I love re-reading books I’ve enjoyed but Twitter has introduced me to a whole world of new writers and the “books to read pile” has become a tower or rather several towers if you include my ebooks!.

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 tend to evolve organically and they have moved around the house. Used to have all my fiction in the dining-room but then needed the space there. Having looked at my shelves for this article, I’ve realised what a mess they are in. Fiction used to be alphabetical with a separate shelf for French texts and plays and poetry together. However the shelves are rather chaotic at the moment – time for another cull? On the other hand sometimes, when I’m looking for one book, I find another I’d forgotten about and that’s always a joy.

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

I remember being given some money when I was about nine or ten and I went straight out and bought a maths book! However I’ve no idea what happened to it.
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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 harbour any guilty reading pleasures (she said in her best Lady Grantham voice) but I don’t like westerns or erotica. However on my shelves is a copy of Joy in Love translated from French by one Anne Dante (!). My mother read it without comment but she had read The Story of O. I probably wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d read it but I just can’t bring myself to throw away or hide the first book I translated.

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 having books that members of my family (who are now dead) have owned. My paternal grandmother won a copy of Mrs Beaton’s Family Cook Book (second prize for a Victoria sponge) which contains notes and comments and some of her recipes. So I’d certainly want to save that. Plus I’d grab Mum’s Shakespeare knowing that she had held the book and read the plays. I also have her copy of Andrew Marvell which I bought her as she loved his poetry. Whenever I read those poems, I smile thinking of my mother. I also have books signed by authors I have worked with which are very special to me.

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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 didn’t own many books (although my mother was a voracious reader and went to the library every week) but I do remember As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Essential Hemingway and Sticky Wickets by Lionel Lord Tennyson. I still have their Pears Encyclopaedia. I did read the first two but am not that interested in reading about cricket.

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 to buy every book but then had to reduce expenditure so use the library and share books with friends. Having a Kindle has made a huge difference as I buy books on special offer.

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

The latest book has literally just arrived: The Unquiet Grave by Steven Dunne. I shall be reading it to see if I am hoodwinked by Steven’s perfect plot twists. A lovely challenge.

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

Am looking forward to the latest from Peter James and Mari Hannah –Dead Man’s Time and Monument to Murder – they’re on my Christmas wish list.

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

I hope they’d think here’s someone who loves books and reads widely. Some of my books are “well-thumbed” and some have notes written in them which would probably say more about me than the book. Observers might wonder at some of the non-fiction titles … but all in the line of duty.

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A huge thanks to Anne for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves! 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 Anne’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #22 – Simon Sylvester

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Grab some Kendal mint cake, or even better some Grasmere gingerbread (nothing on earth like it), as we are off to the Lake District to join a man who has seen me at my worst, on both a long haul flight (I hate flying) and in an air balloon (I hate heights) when we both went to Philadelphia on a travel writing trip many moons ago. Today we join Simon Sylvester (another SS, they are the best) and I will hand over to him to tell us more about himself before we go routing through his shelves…

I live in Burneside, just outside Kendal on the southern edge of the Lake District. I moved here about three years ago with my partner, the painter Monica Metsers. Last year we bought a house, which took us six months to strip down and make habitable. We always wanted to have big bookshelves, and my father-in-law made us these to fit the living room. I work part-time teaching film production at the local college, and I make short films for local bands and businesses. Whatever spare time is left goes to my writing. I started writing in 2006, and my short stories have been published occasionally over the years. My debut novel is coming out with Quercus Books in 2014, which is almost as terrifying as it is exciting. Regarding my reading, it’s worth mentioning that I spent a miserable year at boarding school when I was younger. I remember virtually nothing of that time except the library, devouring Hardy Boys books. Reading has always been an escape for me.

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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?

Once upon a time, I kept them all, but those days are long gone. A book stays if I’m certain to read it again because it’s useful, it’s beautiful or it has personal value. Even with these huge shelves, space is at a premium, and those standards get higher as my collection grows. And despite strict monitoring of what stays and what goes, the books quietly multiply and migrate into other parts of the shelves. I think the board games will have to move elsewhere, soon.

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?

The big shelves have fiction alphabetised by surname, which is dull, perhaps, but then I know where to find things when I want them. I used to work in a record store, and filing is hardwired in me – I get antsy when they’re out of order. Anything borrowed from friends sits flat. On the other side of the room, poetry and graphic novels have shelves of their own. I don’t own enough of either to warrant alphabetising them. I’m actually a little intimidated by comics. I love the ones I read, but it’s so vast and varied a genre that I don’t really know where to begin. Every year or so, my friend Ali Shaw suggests something else, and I’ll give it a go, and invariably enjoy it, but still not know where to take my reading next.

Literary journals and fiction anthologies live on a shelf with my published short stories, good and bad. Above them, nonfiction is a bit of a free-for-all. I’m a sucker for obscure non-fiction book, so the shelves here have sumo wrestling and saints, bikes and kites, whales and weather. Mon’s non-fiction is totally different to mine, so we have shelves of stunning art books as well as rock’n’roll autobiographies and tomes on yoga. I’m pretty sure she’s trying to organise the art books by ascending size, but I get in the way by absently taking them off the shelves to read them. Upstairs, the shelves by my desk are a bit more spartan, but that’s where I gather anything relevant to my current project. My next novel is about a woman losing her way in a huge swamp, so at the moment there’s everything from historical accounts of draining the fens to Finnish folktales. I also keep my finished notebooks and diaries here. The final set of shelves belong to my daughter Dora. She’s two and a half years old, and there’s no point arranging her books, because her first job every morning is to hurl them to the floor and pretend she’s reading them. It’s been a joy beyond measure to rediscover some children’s classics.shelves misc 1

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

My memory is abominable, so this is a little fuzzy; but I’ve always been hooked on second-hand stores. I grew up in Inverness, where there’s an extraordinary bookshop called James Leakey’s. It’s an old church with shelves jammed with books, books in double layers on the floor, and banana boxes of loose books stacked three deep behind the counter. I spent a lot of time in there. Although my first purchase was probably something and somewhere else, I clearly remember buying a very tatty copy of Dune by Frank Herbert from that amazing place. I must have read it half-a-dozen times. I don’t own it any more, unfortunately, though I still love it – one of many books that have escaped over the years. I bought a lot of Iain Banks, too, after I discovered The Wasp Factory. I loaned three Banks books to a passing acquaintance, back in 2001, and never saw them again.

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 secrets in our house, Simon! Mon has books on the shelves that I probably wouldn’t read, just as I have books she wouldn’t read, but they’re all up there. The only one I make a habit of hiding (behind a picture of my daughter) is the True Blood collection by Charlaine Harris. We loved the first two seasons of the TV show, but never enjoyed the books, and after the show withered, neither of us summoned the strength to go back to Sookie and Bon Temps. I don’t know why they’re still there, to be honest. It’s something we don’t talk about, like the cupboard under the stairs.

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 don’t own anything financially valuable, but there are several books on the shelves that are peculiarly important to me. The Battle At Sangshak by Harry Seaman is an account of a small but pivotal fight in the godawful jungle war in Burma and India. Sangshak was crucial in turning the tide against the Japanese army in World War Two, and it was nothing less than hell on earth. My grandfather fought there. When he died, his annotated copy went to my dad, and I received my dad’s copy. Inside the back sleeve is a photocopy of a note to my grandfather from the man who led the fight. It’s very humbling to reflect on what they went through. I have another letter, somewhere, that his brother, my great uncle, sent him from a military hospital in Egypt. He’d been injured while fighting in the tank campaigns in Northern Africa. His leg had been smashed in six places by a cannon recoil, and he waited all day in the baking heat, under shellfire, before being rescued. “Still,” he wrote to my grandfather, “I prefer my war to your war.”

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My first attempt at a novel was about the war in Burma. I wanted to write about my grandfather’s experiences. I didn’t get anywhere near it, but I don’t think he’d have minded. Funnily enough, the most prized thing on the shelf isn’t a book, but a missing bookmark. Buried in one of those hundreds of books is a photo of me fishing with my grandfather. I must have been eight or ten, and I don’t remember being there. He’s dead now, and that picture means a lot to me, but I have no idea which book it’s hiding in. I often use different bookmarks – especially the ones I find in second-hand books – cheques and postcards and bus tickets – but I’d like that photo back.

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?

The earliest one I remember, again when I was ten or so, was Jock of the Bushveld on my grandparents’ shelves. I read most of it, I think. They gave me Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls for a birthday around then, too. I still own that one. It’s strange, writing this, to realise how often my grandparents are cropping up. I can also remember borrowing some Dean Koontz nasty from the mobile library when I was about thirteen. Days after I’d finished reading it, my dad had a quick flick through – he was so horrified that he hid it until the van came again. I remember thinking it was no worse than the Alistair MacLeans and Desmond Bagleys on my parents’ shelves.

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?

Guilty of this one – I’ve absolutely bought my own copies of borrowed books. Neil Gaiman was a massive gap in my reading until only a few years ago, when a friend loaned me Neverwhere and Fragile Things. I devoured those and promptly bought my own copies – as well as all his other fiction. I still can’t believe it took me so long. Again, when I was 26, I spent a year working and backpacking round Australia. Months of swapping books in youth hostels led me to discover David Mitchell. Travelling light, I couldn’t carry them with me, so I swapped them on, and promptly bought second copies when I came home. I’ve even done this with books I already own; my favourite novel, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, has been on loan to different friends for more than two years. I crumbled and bought a second copy because I couldn’t be without it. It has the best ending of any modern novel.

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I’ve just noticed that the only Pratchett I’m missing is Soul Music. When I was fifteen I went on an exchange trip to France. I managed to forget the stack of books I’d put aside for the month abroad, and took only Soul Music in my hand luggage. As a result, I read it continuously over that month. It suffered in rain and sun and rucksacks, becoming ever more curled and dog-eared. It went through some abuse, that book, but it stayed with me. I was still reading it on the plane home. I’d like to get another copy of that.

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

Tales of the Fenlands by Walter Henry Barrett. It’s on longterm loan from my storyteller uncle Rich Sylvester. He was in Cumbria a couple of months ago, when we both read some of our work at the amazing Dreamfired storynights in Brigsteer. I hadn’t seen him for a years, and we talked through some of my next novel. A few weeks later, this book arrived in the post. The mythology of the Fens is incredibly concentrated and well-preserved. We’re hoping to go for a few days walking round Wisbech next year.

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

Hundreds! Like your post on Doris Lessing, I’m acutely conscious that there are dozens of gigantic gaps in my reading. My ongoing issue at the moment is time, time, time. I used to read two or three books a week; I’m so exhausted at the moment that I barely manage ten pages a night before falling asleep. If I can recover some more time to read, then I have Toni Morrison and Alice Munro in my sights. I’ve only recently discovered Haruki Murakami, having read Wild Sheep Chase, 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood in the last year. My friends rave about Kafka On The Shore, and I’ll work my way through the rest of his writing in the next couple of years.

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

I had something of an epiphany two years ago. It was a bright summer day, and sunlight was streaming into the room Mon and I stayed in at the time. I was sitting on the end of the bed, considering my bookshelves and thinking about what I wanted to achieve as a writer. I’d received some great praise for the novel I wrote about Burma, but the agents and publishers who read it generally felt it was too dark for a first novel, and nothing had come of it. I now had the kernel of an idea for another book, and I was considering whether it was worth the heartache, the effort and the time away from my family. Looking at my shelves, I noticed a distinct line between the authors I admired as ferocious artists, and who had inspired the combative style of my first attempt at a novel – William S. Burroughs, David Peace, Hubert Selby Jnr – and the authors I returned to time and time again because I simply loved to read their stories – David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde, Sarah Waters, Terry Pratchett. The first group experiment with language to deliver emotional punches; the second achieve emotion through characters and situations the reader comes to care about. On making that distinction, I realised that I very seldom returned to the first group, and that I kept them on the shelves almost as proof that I’d read them, rather than because I’d enjoyed them. I felt a little ashamed to realise that they’d stopped being books, and they’d become badges. With that understanding, a huge weight fell from my shoulders. I no longer felt that my stories needed to be experimental, obscure or deliberately challenging. They needed to deliver what I wanted in my own favourite books – the joy of escaping somewhere new. That was the moment I understood not only that I needed to write for myself, but also more about who I was.

Knowing I wouldn’t read them again, I boxed up dozens of those dark literary heavyweights, and took them to a charity shop. Then I started work on my second novel. Two years on, I have a wonderful agent and a very exciting publisher, and a clear path of where I want to take my work. I suspect every writer has that epiphany at some point on the journey to finding their own voice. That was a gigantic turning point in my life, and it couldn’t have happened without my books and my bookshelves. This is a long-winded way of saying that now I’ve challenged myself over why I keep certain books on my shelves, I’m no longer troubled by what other people think of my reading taste or me. These are my books, and I’m proud of them. In any of the new houses Mon and I have moved to, I’ve been unable to settle without shelves on the wall and my books on the shelves. They’re a comfort to me. They remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Books are part of what make our house a home.

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A huge thanks to Simon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves 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 Simon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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The Authors We Should Have Read…

We have recently learned the sad news that author Doris Lessing has passed away. Whilst all the outpourings of love for her and praise for her work was going around the internet and social media I stayed rather quiet. You see I was rather embarrassed to admit that I had not read anything by the powerhouse that Lessing was. We all know, if we are being really honest with ourselves, that we are simply not going to read all the books in our lifetimes that we would like to. Sorry if any of you are in denial about this, but it is true, there is highly likely to be ‘just one more book’ or ‘just thirty five more books’ that you would like to read. The same is true for authors.

I have lost count of the times I have heard someone mention a marvellous book, and I am not just talking powerhouses in the literary world as it happens with debuts too, or declared their love of a certain authors writing and so I make a note to self that ‘I really must read x author’. Invariably I haven’t, and it irks me. I have been thinking it and these are the top five authors that I feel I really should have read and haven’t…

  • Maya Angelou
  • Elizabeth Bowen
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • John Irving
  • Rose Tremain

I am sure some of you might be reaching for the smelling salts and saying ‘out of all the authors in the world, those five’ but don’t forget that this list changes daily (because I am a bit fickle and whim prone) but also these are authors that I have read nothing by, not even a short story, nothing. Zilch. Authors I have read a book, or a few books, of and really must return to at some point is a whole other can of worms I don’t want to open right now, it may also really depress me.

You may have noticed that Doris Lessing isn’t on that list (no I am not being fickle again) and this is because I am rectifying that. After the sad news I was having a chat with the lovely Nathan Dunbar, all the way over the ocean, and we have decided to do #DorisInDecember and read The Grass is Singing over the coming weeks before talking about it on twitter on Sunday the 15th of December on Twitter using that hashtag (I know, it’s terribly modern, I will be popping a review on here too for discussion if you aren’t a tweeter) I have a lovely old small paperback of it I need to hunt down. We would love it if you would join in.

Back to the subject in hand though and those authors you should have read… Do you have a list of authors that you are rather surprised at yourself for still have not yet read even though you have been meaning to? Would you share who any of those authors are? What does it take to suddenly make you decide to give them a whirl? Or do you not pressurise yourself, consciously or not, with a list of authors you should have read? Divulge!

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