This post has failed to keep to my planned ‘one a month’ but only just and it is much longer than I intended. Writing about seven books, some of which I care passionately about, has made me wordy. Read in parts, or skip, as you will.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of going on holiday is choosing which books to read. Recently I went to Wales and although I was only going to be there for four days I had a train journey at either end so I embarked on some careful book planning. For the past ten years or so I have always based my holiday reading round a rhyme; as you will see I am prepared to bend its rules but it is a useful guide. I discovered it in Claudia Fitzherbert’s column about her bookshop in The Telegraph in 2005. I still have the original cutting because, although I am a rare and irregular reader of newspapers I am a great ‘cutter out and keeper of useful and interesting articles’, some of which eventually get read. Anyway, here is the rhyme:
- Something old, something new,
- Something made up, something true.
- One that’s here and one that’s there
- And one that could be anywhere.
Something old: E. Nesbit, The Lark
Beloved by generations of children, E. Nesbit was also a successful writer of fiction for adults. The Lark, reissued as part of the Penguin Women Writers series, is a delightful tale of unexpected freedom and gentle adventure. Set in 1919, the story opens with Jane and Lucilla at school, confident in the knowledge that their inheritances will ensure comfortable lives until they marry. Largely lost by a hapless guardian, the inheritances turn out to be a small cottage and an even smaller bank account. Armed with Jane’s uncrushable conviction that the whole thing is a lark, a little luck and a degree of freedom rare at the time, the two young ladies set about earning their livings.
Something new: Rowena House, The Goose Road
This is very new, at the time I read it, it hadn’t even been published – one of the advantages of my day job as The Shop Scribe to Hatchards is that I get advanced copies of all sorts of exciting books (the downside is that I get far more than I have time to read, but that is hardly a just cause for complaint). The Goose Road is a children’s book but, like many, it is a worthwhile read for anyone, regardless of age. Set during the First World War it tells the story of Angélique, daughter of a French farmer. The book opens with his death and, try as she might, Angélique cannot mourn the death of this bully; her concerns are with her brother and the task of maintaining the farm for when he returns from the fighting. However, her father died in debt, the Requisition plundered the farm and Angélique’s only hope is to sell her brother’s Toulouse geese for a good price. The necessary journey across France really captures the times with trauma and danger but also humour, especially regarding Napoleon, the authoritative gander.
Something made up: Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
This is my favourite book of the year so far – and I shall be surprised if anything supplants it. Beautifully written it follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, opening in 1922 when he is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal. He is branded an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the hotel where he lives – not in his usual grand suite but a small and bare attic room. The count philosophically takes charge of his new life, not just making the best of the situation but delighting in it. The hotel is large and forms a world within Moscow, a world which the count makes his own, rising through its ranks with style and charm. He is one of the most gracious gentlemen in all fiction – and quite probably in fact as well. I would love to have met him.
Something true: Claudia FitzHerbert: The Diary of a Stockmistress
Although I am an erratic newspaper reader, there are times when a column will make me faithful: Monty Don in The Observer, a series of articles following a 2CV in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge of 1997 (I had a 2CV) and Claudia FitzHerbert’s The Diary of a Stockmistress in The Telegraph. Between November 2004 and March 2006 she wrote a weekly (?) column about the QI Bookshop in Oxford which she ran. It was tiny, quirkily arranged and, to my great regret, I never went there. Like so many things, I assumed it would always be there and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. I hadn’t even saved all the columns, just the one with the rhyme and half a dozen others. A trawl of the internet unearthed about half of them. The others may be there but my technological skill and patience ran out.
I worried the columns would not have stood the test of time but a second reading, a decade or so later, is just as pleasurable as the first. The shelves of the shop are arranged by theme, with fiction and non-fiction rubbing shoulders under headings such as Dislocation, Bohemia and Modest Proposals. The only subject she seems to consider putting on its own is poetry, because she notices that people who buy poetry never want anything else. I like coming upon poetry unexpectedly but possibly that is because I edit anthologies so I am always on the look-out for a new discovery. The staff include The Hungry Pole and Implacable the sixth-former who takes charge after school and at weekends. Rereading the columns I have laughed, grimaced, noted down a huge number of forgotten books and ultimately cried at the demise of the shop I failed to visit.
One that’s here: Philip Pullman, Deamon Voices, Essays in Storytelling
This earned its place as the ‘here’ book because Philip Pullman spent part of his childhood in Wales (which was lucky as I really wanted to read it and otherwise my books didn’t match the rhyme). Sadly, this book is not a joy to read. Badly produced it is bulky, heavy and doesn’t stay open. Oh it looks attractive enough; a substantial brick with a nice cloth binding. Everything about it says “I am worth the price printed on the back; you are getting value for money.” The problem starts when you try to read it. It is far too heavy and bulky to carry around. With 400 pages it doesn’t need to be so; Everyman’s Classics with 6-700 pages are perfectly manageable. You can’t read it in bed in case you fall asleep; it drops forward and knocks you out and it is awkward to hold as the binding means that it is intent on closing itself.
Having got that rant out of my system, the words themselves are a joy to read. Most of the essays began as talks or lectures and cover everything from the duties of a storyteller, via religion, humorous anecdotes and interesting asides to Philip Pullman’s own books. His voice comes through clearly and I think this would be perfect as an audio book.
One that’s there: Fran Cooper, These Dividing Walls
The dividing walls of the title refers to those at number thirty-seven, a late nineteenth-century building hidden away in a quiet corner of Paris. Inside the apartments there is a rag-bag of residents: the sad, the lonely, the furtive and the defiant. One hot summer’s day Edward, a refugee in all but name, arrives from England, mourning a past he cannot change. Employed in the bookshop on the ground floor he quickly learns to recognise the residents and becomes privy to some of their secrets. The story is set against a backdrop of mounting racial tension and violence in the city and as this threatens the peace of the building itself he becomes increasingly entwined in the lives of its residents.
One that could be anywhere: Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library
The premise of this immediately caught my attention: the story of a professional spy who collects fiction from different realities for The Library. An alternative London was the setting and Irene the interesting and charismatic heroine. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations but I think that was because I had ridiculously high hopes for this book. It has adventure, clever magic and excellent characters; I enjoyed it but not quite enough to read the others in the series.