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Who Watches The Watchers?

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Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I was saddened to learn last month of the passing of the great British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss, although of course he *had* lived a long and productive life. I own quite a number of his books as you can see:

And yes, I do have two copies of “Saliva Tree”, and no I don’t know why! I’ve only read a couple of his works so far (“The Brightfount Diaries” and some of the short stories) but I’ve loved what I’ve read, so now seemed a good time to pick up one of his books, and I went for the one which had intrigued me most – “Report on Probability A”.

The blurb is interesting, and the plot – well, the plot as such is hard to pin down… The action is set around a house in which live Mr. Mary and his wife. As the book opens, we meet G, the ex-gardener who lives in a derelict building in the grounds of the Marys’ house and who is intent on watching the place even though he’s no longer employed by them. His fascination seems to be with Mrs. Mary (or Mr. Mary’s wife, as she is often referred to) and he watches the house for glimpses of her and pops over the road to the nearby cafe at one point. The second section of the book introduces S, Mr. Mary’s ex-secretary who is lurking in the loft of the Marys’ old coach house. He too is watching the house and Mrs. Mary. Then there is C, the ex-chauffeur, who lives above the garage and yes, you’ve guessed it, is also fascinated with Mrs. Mary and observing away merrily. Add into the mix a pigeon known as X and a black and white cat who stalks the pigeon and you have something of a disquieting set up.

Yet little seems to happen to these people. It rains (and roofs leak); Violet the charlady gives food to some of the watchers; Mrs. Mary goes out and comes back; the Marys have a row. The narrative is repetitious, with details and descriptions being played out again and again with slight variations, and this is unsettling. And then we have the other watchers… Because the descriptions of the events at the Marys’ house are actually a report being read by some observers. However, they in their turn are being observed, as are those watchers, and the chain of surveillance goes back and back until it’s not quite clear who is real and who is not and who is watching who. And will anything of substance happen in this strange little world?

He stared through the window at a road. The road ran south-east. On the other side of it was a wide pavement; a tall man wearing black overalls and a grey felt hat passed along the pavement, followed at some distance by two men in blue carrying a stretcher on which lay a bicycle with two flat tyres; the frame of the bicycle was covered in blood. The surface of the road was of a dark crumbling texture. Cars passed along it, four of them bearing black crepe ribbons tied to their radiators.

“Report…” is a thoroughly intriguing, thoroughly unsettling and very sophisticated book which left my brain buzzing with ideas after reading it. Although ostensibly set on Earth it isn’t really clear if this place is our world or another. Superficially the location seems normal enough, but there are places where there are little jolts, like the sudden insertion of a burrowing, live garden hose, that makes the reader wonder. Unexpected and surreal paragraphs with no explanation are dropped into the narrative and perplex. The repetitions, in themselves, give a sinister flavour to the narrative and there are times when you think you’re encountering something familiar which is then twisted and becomes something else. A case in point is a painting, a reproduction of which appears in the dwellings of G , S and C: “The Hireling Shepherd” by William Holman Hunt. The picture is described in some detail throughout the book, and a number of the watchers appear to know who Hunt is – but the Hunt in their domain is a very different one from the Pre-Raphaelite painter we know!

The Holman Hunt pic

So what, actually, is the book about, and is there a conclusion? Well, not as such, no (although Pigeon X and the cat reach closure); we can make inferences, draw certain conclusions from the oblique narrative, but there can be no real absolutes and I think that’s Aldiss’s point. I’ve seen the book described as an anti-novel and certainly it seems to deconstruct the usual constraints and structure of such a work. The various observers could be real, could live in parallel universes or could simply be figments of somebody’s imagination. Nothing much actually *happens*, yet the book is somehow gripping, and very much draws on the basic sense humans have of something else in the universe, of being watched by outside forces. Often, when alone, we think someone or something is looking at us, and in this book they really are!

Now they…were subjecting those objects to a second scrutiny. They were having to determine WHAT WAS OF VALUE; until that was decided, this life was valueless. Find significance and all is found.

I felt the need to do a bit of research on the book after I’d finished it, and apparently Aldiss wrote it in 1962 but no publisher would touch it and it eventually appeared in New Worlds in 1967. I certainly found it a stunning read, a refreshingly original tour de force and very thought-provoking, making me appreciate that actually everything *is* relative and there may well be no absolutes. Our view of the world around us is entirely subjective, depending on our own individual perceptions of it, and how do we even know others see things the same way? I’m no doubt going to keep thinking about “Report on Probability A” for some time, and also pondering on what finally happened to Mr. and Mrs. Mary and their watchers…

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Finding fun sci fi books – at Tesco….?!?!?!?

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Not only is Tesco not a store I normally shop at (I usually use a small local Asda), but it’s also not the place I would expect to find interesting books as its book section is usually stuffed to the gills with the latest bestsellers – not my cup of tea….

However, as I was lurking in the entrance area yesterday, trying to keep warm and dry while waiting for my lift, I noticed a small bookshelf with some battered old books and a charity tin. There was a notice saying how much had been raised for the local community so far, and the implication was that you took a book and made a donation. Now, I’ve never been one to turn away from a collection of second-hand books and so I had a little browse and this is what came home with me…

sci-fi-tesco

I did, of course, leave a suitable donation….

Finding older sci-fi titles in a place like this astonished me – these kind of ad hoc book sales seem to be springing up all over the place, when I think about it; there’s one in our local Wilkinsons too, but the books are mainly tatty and unpleasant and of no interest at all. These are tatty, admittedly, but the titles *do* intrigue!

aldiss-tesco

Aldiss is an author I’ve enjoyed very much, and I’ve made a mental note to pick up whatever of his I come across. I know nothing about these titles but I’m willing to give them a go!

tesco-sci-fi-others

I’ve never, ever seen a second-hand copy of New Worlds so this one was irresistible. I will, of course, have the Ballard stories in my collected volumes, but I’m hoping the rest of the contents will be interesting. The last book I know absolutely nothing about – but I couldn’t resist the cover!

I have been doing *so* well with not acquiring books lately, but alas these just *had* to come home with me. Time to go and scout for a few to take in and donate today, methinks….. =:o

Leicester Comes Up Trumps Again!

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Last weekend was a bit of a busy one, as we had to take Youngest Child back to Leicester for her final year at the university there. It’s always a bit of a dash, taking up most of Saturday (and weekends are precious when I’m back at work); but we knew we would see Eldest and Middle Child too, so that would be nice! I didn’t expect to be doing any bookshop haunting as time was so tight, and it was frustrating to know that the lovely Lorus Charity shop is not far away…

However, en route I got a call from Middle Child who was in the very same shop, and who proceeded to fire off a load of Virago titles at me to see if they were ones I wanted – and three of them were!

lorus

Left to right, we have a Mary Hocking (Indifferent Heroes), a Victoria Glendinning non-fiction Virago (A Suppressed Cry) and very excitingly, Infinite Riches, a collection of short stories. The latter is very existing and timely, as I was only reading about it on Buried In Print’s lovely blog the other day, and this particular copy is in amazingly good condition.  So huge thanks go to Middle Child, Ace Virago-Finder!

It was lovely to see all three offspring together, and we made such good time on the journey home that I had time to pop into town for some errands. And as I was dropped at the far end of town where I don’t normally venture, I decided to visit the Mind charity shop which I don’t often frequent (although they do have good books – I picked up a Slightly Foxed hardback last time!) Surprisingly enough, there were treats to be found here too:

mind

Yes, I *know* there are already two copies of “The Return of the Soldier” in the house; but this is a beautiful, first generation Virago in again amazingly good condition, and well worth 90p of anyone’s money. The Solzhenitsyn sounds fascinating – ’nuff said.

I guess going to the Oxfam was reckless – and when I got inside to find that they were having a 49p sale and that the sale table was plastered with old orange Penguins, green crime Penguins and blue Pelicans (amongst others), I did rather have the vapours. But I exercised strict restraint and only came home with these:

oxfam 49p

Well, you hardly ever see Aldiss in second hand shops. And I know something about Constant Lambert but I can’t remember what it is – no doubt all will become clear eventually.

So today’s Viragos are rather wonderful:

3 viragos

And the last couple of weeks has brought me 7 lovely Viragos in total:

7 viragos

The question is – what to read next???

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

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I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

Big Books Update – plus some incoming….

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Surprisingly enough, I’m finding it quite enjoyable to read several big chunkies simultaneously – although perhaps I’m cheating slightly as two of them are short story collections, and I’m also reading a slim poetry volume too. Yes, that’s right – *two* short story collections, as there has been a new arrival and here is the state of the currently reading:

big books plus

The new arrival is the Aldiss collection – his short stories from the 1950s. I stumbled across this recently and managed to snag it for a *very* reasonable price online. Staggeringly, his 1960s stories will run to four volumes – what a prolific man!

This is progress so far (ignore the bottom book, the second volume of Ballard, as I obviously haven’t yet started that):

big book progress

As can be seen, I am gradually making my way into them, and I’m finding this method of reading working well. I’m reading at least a chapter of each of the big books, a short story from each of the collections and a couple of poems a day, and this has had several beneficial effects: it’s slowing down my reading, so I’m having time for each chapter to sink in; I’m not feeling I must rush to get through a book so I can pick up another one; I’m able to read a variety of things all at once!

The Dickens is proving to be excellent, and each chapter so far is introducing a new set of characters which I’m having time to get to know. I’d forgotten just how good a writer Dickens was… I’m enjoying DQ very much, though I have to admit that at the moment it reminds me very much of Pokemon: DQ and SP travel along, encounter someone or something, have a fight, get beaten to a pulp, recover, travel along, encounter…..!

As for the short stories: Ballard, of course, is masterly and each story so far is a pure gem. I’ve only read a few of the Aldiss ones so far, but I love them – so clever and so pithy and so imaginative. The poetry is coming along nicely and I’m about to start the third poet in this collection, Peter Porter.

So – thus far things are going ok with the big books – watch this space!

As for incomings, obviously the Aldiss arrived in the week, plus another couple of Modern Poets have made their way in. I hadn’t intended to do much book browsing this weekend, but things never go as planned…


finds 2

I hadn’t been into the RSPCA shop for a while, so I popped in on the off-chance to be met with a BL Crime Classic for 95p! It appears to be brand new and unread, so quite why it’s there I don’t know – but I’m not complaining! I’m trying very hard not to start a collection of these, because lovely as they are I suspect most of them are one-read books for me. But I haven’t seen this one around yet, so I figured it was worth less than a pound to try it out!

finds 22 8

The other three titles were from the Oxfam – Howard’s End is on the Landing because I’ve heard good things about it; The Man who knew Everything because it’s a Capuchin Classic; and the Vintage short story collection because it has a lovely selection of authors. All four for less than the cost of a new book, which can’t be bad…. 🙂

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…

An Interesting-Looking Pile of Books….

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… and I would be fibbing if I said they didn’t arrive over the weekend….

I *have* been doing quite well with reading from the TBR, and last month’s books were a mixture of new volumes and ones I’ve had for a while. And my current reads are also from the stacks. However, this hasn’t stopped a few bargains from making their way into the house!

First up is something rather special: my first burgundy coloured Virago/Beacon Travellers volume:

I was keen to pick this up having read up about Amelia Edwards and what a pioneer she was in the field of exploration and also detective stories, so I confess to sending away for this!

These two bargains came from the British Heart Foundation charity shop – I spotted the copy of Stoner last week and as it keeps coming up on blogs, I figured I really should read it! Likewise The Hare With Amber Eyes, which looks like it’s the kind of non-fiction I would like!

Alexander’s Bridge came from the Claude Cox bookshop – a bargain at £2, and I’m keen to read this after Ali’s wonderful review of it.

And finally – a Persephone and a Brian Aldiss from the Oxfam! The Persephone is The Making of a Marchioness in very nice condition. The Brian Aldiss is a little left-field, but I’ve been intrigued by him for a while and as I’m not so good with hard sci-fi, I thought this would fit the bill – The Brightfount Diaries is apparently a series of witty diary entries by a bookseller living in a bed sit.

But I *shall* try to read more from the stacks before I get onto these… :s

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