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A Love-Letter to the Art of Bookselling

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The Brightfount Diaries by Brian Aldiss

British author Brian Aldiss is probably best-known for his sci-fi books – both those he’s written himself and also the many anthologies he’s put together. I confess to having read none of his works to date, despite having been aware of him for most of my reading life and despite having gone through several phases of reading sci-fi. However, I stumbled across “The Brightfount Diaries” in a charity shop a while back and was intrigued – it’s a non sci-fi work, Aldiss’ first novel which was published in 1955 and it sounded like something I would like to read – which it was!

the-brightfount-diaries

First some words about Aldiss himself. Wikipedia has a long entry on the author, part of which says: “Brian Wilson Aldiss, OBE (born 18 August 1925) is an English writer and anthologies editor, best known for science fiction novels and short stories. His byline reads either Brian W. Aldiss or simply Brian Aldiss, except for occasional pseudonyms during the mid-1960s. Greatly influenced by science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells, Aldiss is a vice-president of the international H. G. Wells Society. He is also (with the late Harry Harrison) co-president of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. Aldiss was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000 and inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. He has received two Hugo Awards, one Nebula Award, and one John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His influential works include the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, the basis for the Stanley Kubrick-developed Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Aldiss was associated with the British New Wave of science fiction.”

The list of titles he’s written is also impressively long, so much so that it’s a little intimidating to survey, trying to decide where to start with his work. So I guess to start with his first novel is as good a place as any!

“The Brightfount Diaries” are exactly that: the diary entries of a young man called Peter who works in a bookshop called Brightfount’s in a small provincial town. The first entry reveals that he’s moving away from the home of his Uncle Leo and Aunt Anne’s house, where he’s been lodging, and into a bedsit in the house of the wonderfully-named Mr and Mrs Yell! Peter’s uncle is obviously a little eccentric (we first encounter him standing in the fish pond surveying the house and considering adding tessellation!) and his aunt is highly strung and stressed. We gradually get to meet the other staff at Brightfount’s: Mr. B himself, the owner; the junior partner Arch Rexine; Gudgeon, the senior assistant; Mrs. Callow, who has a quip for every occasion; Dave, Peter’s fellow sales assistant; and several others.

As the diaries progress, we follow Peter’s search for female company; watch the ups and downs of sales trends in Brightfount’s; discover that Uncle Leo and Aunt Anne are not quite as straightforward as they seem; and get a real insight into the book trade of the time. There’s plenty of in-jokes and book references – one of my favourite was when Peter was discussing the various book reps that came to visit and how disappointed he was that they didn’t match the livery of the publisher they were from, and how the Gollancz salesman should turn up in a yellow jacket!

The best bookshops leave their doors open, at least in summer. If, directly I get inside, someone asks me what I want, I’m alarmed. Conducted tours should be unnecessary: each book bears its own sign. The books one really loves are those found by accident.

It seems that “The Brightfount Diaries” first came into existence as a series of columns Aldiss wrote for The Bookseller magazine while he was working in an Oxford bookshop (so they’re presumably based on his own experiences), and were then collected into this novel. And I have to say I absolutely loved it! The book is a wonderful and lively snapshot of life in 1950s provincial town, and also a glimpse of the forgotten world of old-style bookselling, pre Internet days; reps would visit with books, lists of books for sale would be typed out and send by post, and a huge wish list would be circulated amongst booksellers.

aldiss

The book also captures the lost world of young people in 1950s and their struggle to meet the opposite sex; no Facebook, Twitter or dating apps; instead, you would meet potential dates at tennis clubs or amateur dramatics groups or as siblings of in-laws. Truly, this was a very different world to the modern one!

I got surprisingly absorbed in the book, even though it dealt with everyday life and not huge, dramatic events; TBD was full of a collection of funny and beautifully memorable characters, and I got very involved in their daily lives, loving to read about their ups and downs. It was quite a shock when the book ended and I realised I wasn’t going to be able to follow their adventures any more.

If TBD is any indication, I’m definitely going to enjoy reading Brian Aldiss’ work – and fortunately I have another of his books on Mount TBR…

A Selection of Bloomsberries in Full Flood!

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Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

As I admitted here recently, I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal that there are books on Mount TBR that have been there for over 30 years – and Aldous Huxley’s “Crome Yellow” is one of them… I picked up his collection of short stories, Mortal Coils, last month on a whim, and loved it so much that I decided to follow it with CY. I confess I was attracted to CY all those years ago because it’s regarded as such a roman a clef; a thinly veiled portrait of many of the Bloomsbury group, and all set in a house based on Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The narrator, poet Denis Stone, is modelled on Huxley himself; the painter Gombauld on Mark Gertler; Mary Bracegirdle on the artist Dora Carrington; and so on.

crome

CY is still being written about in these terms which in many ways is a shame, because this tends to obscure the book a little and make it hard to read without referencing the apparent source of the characters; and it’s a very good read in its own right.

The book opens with Dennis travelling down to Crome, a typical English country house of the period, to visit the Wimbushes. Priscilla is an eccentric woman, something of a patron of the arts and artists, and rushing from one fad to another – the current passion being for horoscopes and mysticism. Her husband Henry is lost in family history, and enlivens the narrative with a couple of wonderful tales of Crome’s previous inhabitants.

Also staying with them are a motley collection of guests and as soon as Denis arrives it becomes clear that he’s suffering from a passion for Anne, niece of the Wimbushes. However, he’s almost incapable of expressing any feelings in words and stumbles around trying to find the chance to confess his love. Meanwhile, Mary is trying to decide who she should resolve her issues about sex with, trying to decide between Gombauld and Denis as a likely partner. Anne seems somewhat detached from all men and simply wants Denis to be a friend. Then there is the wonderfully-named Mr. Barbecue-Smith, writer of fashionable books who manages to write 1,500 words an hour by going into a kind of trance and getting in touch with his subconscious. Mr. Scogan is a believer in a scientific future, and when the discussion about free love is taking place Huxley puts some remarkably prescient words in his mouth:

An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

It’s a way of reproduction to which Huxley would return in “Brave New World”.

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“Crome Yellow” is satire at its best, and if it is a glimpse of early Bloomsbury characters, it catches them at the time when Victorian standards were collapsing, with people incapable of really deciding where to go next. Huxley is cruellest to Priscilla, in his physical description of her and also his lambasting of her various crazes; he’s also quite hard on Mary with her desire to resolve the sex question in a clinical manner. However, he can be forgiven because he doesn’t spare himself, giving Denis plenty of insecurities about his writing and his successes (or not!) as a writer and a man. And Huxley’s preoccupation with the process of writing is evident here, as it was in “Mortal Coils”.

Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language, he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them!

Denis leaves Crome at the end of the book in a flurry, having failed in his love life and also feeling a failure as a writer. “Crome Yellow” was a clever, funny and in some ways touching read (I always find anything involving Carrington desperately moving); and it was more evidence of Huxley’s skill as a writer. Now, if I could only find where I’d put my copy of “Point Counter Point”….

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas – a Guest Post!

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Which is not something seen on the Ramblings before, I think – but Middle Child has long been a huge fan of Scarlett Thomas’s work and so when I saw that NetGalley were kindly offering ARCs of her new book, I thought of MC. One request later, and Middle Child was reading away. I thought it would be nice if she could review it here, as Thomas is not an author I’d probably read, and so here are Middle Child’s thoughts on “The Seed Collectors”. seed collectors Nothing quite strikes panic into my chest like being told I ‘must’ read a book, especially when I’m given a deadline to read it. It’s what I like to refer to as my ‘Post Degree Stress Disorder’. My relationship with reading has been turbulent at times, with the page-counting months of University still haunting my enjoyment of reading. Therefore, when asked to write this post I initially froze, then felt angry, and then finally excited; because Scarlett Thomas is the only author that makes me want to read so fervently that nothing else matters.

As a Reader in Creative Writing at Kent University, Thomas is an expert in weaving tales. With protagonists that quite often centre on students or adults in academia, her novels struck a chord with undergraduate me, and every Christmas when I was taking breaks from revising yet another Medieval Romance, I would retreat to my room with an unread Thomas.

Thomas is endlessly curious, having explored quantum physics, consumerism, mathematics, religion, sexuality, tragedy and postmodernism to name a few. Her most recent jaunt into the unknown takes the form of The Seed Collectors, which explores the world of botany, nature, enlightenment, and desire. You will learn about nature. You will feel illuminated. You will leave wanting more.

Author Scarlett Thomas

Author Scarlett Thomas

“Great Aunt Oleander is dead.” This is what most people start with when describing this novel, because really, it is one of the only certainties of the story you can rely on.

The Seed Collectors is almost a collection of moments, following the characters after their family key-stone Oleander has passed. As you are swept along at an incredible pace through the lives of the Gardener family, there is rarely a chance to stop and ‘Breathe in. Breathe out.’ There is Bryony, the collector of empty mantras sold to her by fad diets, wearable technology, anti-aging cream and Château Pétrus, and James, her vanilla husband. Ollie and Clem, a mid-life-crisis University Lecturer and his wife, a film-maker with a penchant for time-lapse. Charlie, the ‘cool Uncle’ and a-typical bachelor. Fleur, who must pick up the pieces at Namaste House after its guru Oleander has passed, and find her own place in amongst revealed secrets. And behind it all, a family tree more complicated that any botanical language that you can find in these pages, and the mysterious disappearance of the majority of a family generation: Grace, Plum and Briar Rose.

The narrative is beautifully crafted, a nod to the modernist stream of consciousness style, saturated with powerful imagery, cross-pollinated with cruel postmodernism and its up-the-garden-path trickery. There were sections of the book where I was unsure who was talking, when an event was taking place, or if it even mattered to the plot. It all created a feeling of oneness and unity, rather than linearity and structure, which was a resounding take-away message from Thomas.

Everything I try to vocalise about The Seed Collectors sounds a bit fluffy, so let me be clear. This book will not make you feel good. This book will not give you answers. What it will do is take you on a treasure-chase to the edge of your understanding, and lead you to the realisation that it was never about a destination, but the journey.

Thomas’s novels are always oozing with contemporary resonance, so read it. Now.

Many thanks to Middle Child for the excellent review – I’m almost convinced I should read this! “The Seed Collectors” is published on 2nd July  – thanks also to NetGalley and publishers Canongate for providing the ARC!

Shuffling off…..

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Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley

It’s confession time. Although I have a sizeable chunk of books by Aldous Huxley on my shelves, most of which have been there for over 30 years (gulp), I’ve never actually read any of them…. Which is pretty poor, really, as I love 20th century literature and I love the Bloomsberries, so Huxley ticks both boxes. Simon has been reading and reviewing Huxley recently, which brought him back to the forefront of my mind – so when I was hesitating between books recently, I grabbed this collection of his short stories and just started reading!

Huxley, of course, is well-known for a number of things apart from being associated with early Bloomsbury – his Wikipedia entry says: Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer, philosopher and a prominent member of the Huxley family. He was best known for his novels including Brave New World, set in a dystopian London, and for non-fiction books, such as The Doors of Perception, which recalls experiences when taking a psychedelic drug, and a wide-ranging output of essays. Early in his career Huxley edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories and poetry. Mid career and later, he published travel writing, film stories and scripts. He spent the later part of his life in the US, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death. In 1962, a year before his death, he was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. By the end of his life, Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in seven different years.

COILS

“Mortal Coils” is a collection of 5 short stories, published shortly after Huxley’s success with “Crome Yellow”. The first, “The Gioconda Smile” is famous, and I had the feeling I may have read it somewhere before… Nevertheless, it’s an excellent tale, the story of Janet Spence, who has the smile of the title, Mr. Hutton and his invalid wife (plus his variety of lovers!), with a murder and plenty of twists built in. It’s an excellent piece, and deservedly lauded!

Then there is “Permutations Among the Nightingales” a very funny little playlet (you could almost consider it a comedy sketch, I suppose); it follows the romantic shenanigans of a (various) group of people staying in a hotel, and you could almost see it as prefiguring the bedroom farces of later years. I laughed a lot, anyway!

“The Tillotson Banquet” is about the word of art and art collectors; Spode, an aptly named young man writing about the arts, discovers that Tillotson, a famous painter from the 1800s, is still alive, albeit decrepit and destitute. He and his patron decide to throw a benefit lunch for the painter, which again somewhat descends into farce – though not without making a few pithy points about trends in art on the way.

The penultimate story, “Green Tunnels” is set in Italy, where young Barbara is staying with her father and some dull neighbours. Bored out of her mind, she sees a glimpse of romance with a local dashing Italian, but all is not as she perceives it…

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946

And finally, “Nuns at Luncheon”, a really clever and brilliantly told story. The narrator is lunching with Miss Penny, a famous journalist (and something of a character). She relates a story over lunch about a nun who nursed her when she had appendicitis and who ended up disgraced while trying to convert a criminal; but the story itself becomes irrelevant as the narrator and Miss Penny discuss how the story would be told by a novelist and in effect deconstruct the whole writing process. It’s witty and very smart, and actually rather ahead of its time, and features some wonderful imagery:

Miss Penny threw back her head and laughed. Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains; an agreeably literary simile. And her laughter was like brass, but that had been said before.

You might have guessed that I found my first experience of reading Huxley a wonderful one, and I’m asking myself why it took me so long to read him! His prose is lovely; witty and yet evocative, he nails a character brilliantly in a few words, and catches the essence of a place just as easily. His portrayal of Barbara’s bored teenage mind in “Green Tunnels” was particularly impressive. Huxley’s one of those writers who tells his story in a deceptively humourous manner, because underneath he’s always got a point to make or something to tell you about human nature. “Mortal Coils” was one of the best short story collections I’ve read recently, and I have to say that “Crome Yellow” is calling rather loudly from the shelves…

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It’s worth mentioning that while reading this book I was reminded of their fragility. My copy is an old orange Penguin that I’ve obviously had for ages (it has one of the book plates I used in the 1980s in it!) and the pages are getting very brown and crumbly – so much so that bits came off in my hand two or three times and I was a little afraid to keep reading it. If there was only a way to preserve fragile paperbacks for a bit longer…. :(

Shuffling the immediate TBR

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Actually, calling it a TBR is a bit of a misnomer – I have no *physical* TBR in that all of my books are muddled together, read or unread. This is not always helpful when trying to decide what to read, or indeed find a specific book… A case in point being “Point Counter Point” by Aldous Huxley which I knew I had and couldn’t find till yesterday when I realised I had moved my Japanese books to the front of a double stacked shelf and some unread books (including the Huxley) to the back of the same shelf, out of sight….

This set me looking at the shelves downstairs where I keep kind of current books and I had a bit of a revamp. I’m *supposedly* in the middle of two self-imposed reading challenges (Proust and The Forsyte Saga) but I’ve come to a grinding halt, so I brought them downstairs. I took a lot of books away to stash in a spare room and now the current shelves look like this:

revised tbr

Note the Galsworthys and the Prousts displayed prominently! Next to the Galsworthys on the top right hand side is a little pile of poetry books. I need to read more poetry but I’m failing, basically. I’m considering setting myself another little challenge with verse (will I never learn?) If I go ahead, an explanatory post will follow…. Meanwhile, I shall try to decide which one of these books I’ll read next!

Alas, no donations to the charity shop this weekend (life got in the way of more weeding out) – but I did find two little treasures in the Samaritans Book Cave:

zweig x 2

Two lovely Pushkin Press collections of Stefan Zweig short stories – *who* would want to give these away?? Nevertheless, they did and so they came home with me. I’ve read one story from each so far, and they’re utterly brilliant.  Zweig’s a deceptive author – what seems simple ends up packing such a punch. I’m going to ration them so as to appreciate them better by reading one when the mood takes me. But in the meantime – off to rummage in the TBR! :)

Jolly boating weather…..

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Two and A Half Men in a Boat by Nigel Williams

There’s nothing like stumbling on a random book in a charity shop which turns out to be a great read! But that was the case with this lovely volume that I picked up last month in the Oxfam. Nigel Williams is known for working for the BBC and probably best as a writer for his “Wimbledon Poisoner” series of books. However, the title of this one caught my eye – I’m a sucker for “Three Men in a Boat” and anything spinning off from it (to the extent of watching silly TV shows where men mess about in boats in homage to Jerome, and even reading Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog”). So it went without saying that I would want to read Nigel Williams’ 1990 take on the concept.

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The book opens with Nigel being terrified by a visit from Inland Revenue men (who come across more like the Gestapo or the Cheka). Traumatised by the whole experience, he mopes nervously around the house until one of his sons (no doubt fed up with his behaviour) suggests he takes a trip up the river. But who should he take along? After much debating, Nigel settles on JP, an extremely competent traveller and filmmaker, who thinks nothing of popping up Everest and is no doubt going to be ideal for any emergency. The third man is more difficult – Nigel settles on Alan (presumably Yentob, who I believe was his boss at the BBC at the time); however, Alan is a man so important and indispensable that he is committed for about a year ahead and has to have meetings about having meetings. What chance is there of JP and Nigel getting past his barrage of secretaries and pinning him down to a few days on a boat?

However, with a reluctant Lurcher called Badger in tow, JP and Nigel set off – and it’s telling that Badger attaches himself firmly to JP, despite being owned by Nigel, as he obviously recognises which of them would be the superior man in a crisis! However, the main issue initially is their lack of experience at rowing and the physical toll it takes them as they make their way up the Thames. There are run-ins with modern youth, angry lock-keepers and publicans who don’t like dogs. JP proves himself to be more than competent at just about everything, Nigel meditates on the ethics of being towed versus sticking to rowing, Alan makes a flying visit accompanied by a mass of friends and contacts plus Nigel’s family and a giant picnic, and eventually the group become Three Men and row on to their finishing point.

On the way, there’s space for plenty of musing on the way the world has changed since Jerome’s time and the need to get away from the hectic modern pace, gadgets, phones, answering machines etc. It struck me how much stronger than need would be now, with most younger people permanently attached to their phones or whatever mobile gadget they carry, and how this book, written in the 1990s and featuring the most basic of modern technology, is even more relevant today.

Cleverly woven into the book is a lot of background information about Jerome K. Jerome, his life and work, and the critical reception he had at the time. Much of this was new to me, and it seems that Jerome just wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. I wonder how he would have felt about being remembered for a humorous work? (although I have to say that I feel “Three Men” is much more than that, and has a lot of say about the human condition).

nigel williams

There is in “Two and a Half Men”, of course, plenty of humour. Williams is a very funny writer, and I think the opening chapters were some of the wittiest I’ve read for a long time – in the form of real laugh-out-loud writing. There were a lot of laughs in the latter parts of the book, but also some philosophising too (which matches the original book very cleverly). I liked Williams’ extensive use of footnotes too, which were funny and informative at the same time; and one chapter consisted of a single sentence plus several pages of footnote where he paid tribute to his wife’s amazing picnic which was more like a professional buffet served at the side of a river.

The original “Three Men and a Boat” was about the need at that time to escape from the everyday and the rat-race; and although the trappings and the technology around us have changed dramatically, the basic need to escape has not. We humans still long for the simple life and a gentle trip up a river messing about on a boat. Williams’ book manages to be funny and profound at the same time, much like the original, and it was pure joy from start to finish!

Fragments of Genius

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The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Passing through London last month, I dropped into the LRB Bookshop and while happily browsing I stumbled upon this title. Having read and loved “The Leopard” earlier this year, I was keen to read anything else by Tomasi de Lampedusa, though I wasn’t actually aware there *was* anything else – my copy of “The Leopard” kind of implied that he wrote the one great novel and that was that. However, it seems that there are other surviving fragments (and when I dug about a bit more, there seem to be collections of letters too) – so “The Professor and the Siren” came home with me.

productimage-picture-the-siren-422

This slim NYRB volume contains three pieces – the title story, plus two shorter pieces called “Joy and the Law” and “Blind Kittens”; the book also has an excellent introduction by the erudite Marina Warner, which is essential for understanding some of the imaginary in the main story.

“The Professor and the Siren” is narrated by a young Sicilian journalist living in Turin. In a local bar, he encounters the Professor of the title, one Rosario la Ciura, a distinguished Hellenist and also a Sicilian. Despite their differences in age, the men are drawn together by a common heritage, and strike up a kind of friendship. As this develops, the journalist (who appears to be a descendent of the family in “The Leopard”) discovers that the Professor has some odd views about life and love, and one evening, shortly before his departure by boat for a conference in Portugal, La Ciura reveals the secret of his past to his young friend…

To say any more would spoil the impact of what is a strange and beautiful story; the Professor’s life has been formed by the events in his past, and despite the time that’s passed he’s still possessed by it. The journalist has no choice but to believe what he’s told, and the resolution of the story is entirely convincing. It’s a haunting tale, and one which had me thinking of it for a long time afterwards.

lampedusa

“Joy and the Law” is a lighter piece, about some good fortune falling upon a lowly clerk and the social niceties that decide how he has to deal with his luck. The final section of the book, “The Blind Kittens”, is most intriguing – conceived as the first chapter of a follow-up to “The Leopard”, it’s instantly recognisable as such, with a group of old and somewhat redundant aristocrats pondering on the wealth of a local merchant made good.

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s prose is just wonderful, and it’s such a tragedy that he didn’t write more. As it is, at least we have the greatness that is “The Leopard” and these lovely stories collected here are a welcome addition to that. Now to stop myself rushing off and buying his letters…

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