As you may know from my weekly blog posts I have signed up to buy books from anywhere other than Amazon this year, having realised from my reading of The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell that the glory of independent bookshops are threatened because we all buy our books from the cheapest source. I love bookshops and one of the pleasure I have in life is taking an hour or so to just browse, touch the books, soak up the atmosphere, physically relax because of the smell and, maybe, buy a book. But in reality I found myself seeing a book I wanted to read on line or in the paper and immediately flicking to my Amazon app and pressing buy with one click. Next day that ubiquitous brown envelope lands on the mat and with no fuss that book is in my life and quickly forgotten. Unloved, unread. My bookshop challenge is about finding the bookshops out there in a bid to enjoy the pleasure of buying books again. And little did I realise that the joy of reading would return too! Being with books and thinking about books and writing about books has led me back to reading and wanting to read, wanting to find other books to read, being led by the hand to the next book. Frankly the list I made of books to hunt for in my bookshop quest has been fairly redundant this week and I’ve read all sorts based on recommendations in other books, in newspaper articles. Its like a life story based on the books you’ve read.
But, to business. This week I visited Whitstable in Kent, a classic seaside town that has seen a transformation over the last few years from little backwater to quaint town inhabited at weekends by those on short breaks. In Summer I find it best avoided as every inch of it is packed with people, their children and their dogs but winter sees a reasonable reduction in the population and it is a bearable and perfectly pleasant place to visit. Though not at the weekend! There are numerous boutique shops along Harbour Street and a plethora of cafes and charity shops along the main High Street. Until a few years ago I regularly visited as there are two reasonable vintage shops and, as I say, a vast amount of charity shops. These no longer hold the same draw sadly as charity shop prices increase to outdo my own vintage business these days! The two bookshops in the town are not new but I felt I needed to see them with my new bookshop glasses on.
Oxford Street Books – I’ve been visiting this bookshop for a few years and it was always a good second hand bookshop where sometimes I would find a nice antiquarian copy of a classic. But again, I haven’t been for years and the last time I went they had opened the basement and it really had a terrible aroma about it. On this occasion I nearly didn’t venture there because it had been such a cave last time but my husband went down and I didn’t think he was coming back. I was amazed to find a whole new world! Refurbished and redecorated, well ordered and no hideous smell of books dying!
There’s a crime room, a cookery book room and a selection of contemporary fiction, antiquarian and children’s books on the ground floor. Downstairs in the basement is a good mix of sci-fi, horror, music, war, books on collecting and an esoteric section, which is a nice find in a book shop. It turns out, on speaking to the owners, that they took over a year ago and have worked hard to save the building so that it no longer smells damp in the basement. There are a lot of books in there!
Also in the town is a bookshop selling new books – Harbour Books. I rarely used to visit this one because I do tend to prefer a second hand book shop. But given the nature of the challenge I visited Harbour Books and was pleased to find a good mix. The fiction collection is heavily curated and whilst the bookshop is quite large the fiction section takes up one wall of four bookcases, one of which is crime. Despite the low number of fiction books available in the shop I found all the books that I had gone out to look for on this day! So I say heavily curated because the owners seem to have cleverly selected books that people want to read! A great bookshop for the weekend breakers. It will be interesting to see how often the stock changes.
Books Read this Week:-
On Beauty by Zadie Smith – I kept seeing Zadie Smith books when I was looking for Ali Smith books so found this one in a charity shop for 50p and thought I would give it a go. I had read an article in the weekends Guardian about Zadie Smith and so was propelled to this book from my reading to do list. Zadie Smith is a well thought of author, a prize winner and current literature professor in New York as well as a Londoner. She wrote On Beauty based on E M Forster’s Howard’s End which she rates highly as a piece of fiction. On Beauty is a magnificent book and I was wholly engaged with it. It has been ages since I’ve been reading a book that I wanted to get to and read whenever I was away from it. It was like moving into to someone else’s life for a few days. The main character (as I see it) Kiki is still with me now days after I have moved out. This is a story about life, a snap shot of a year in the life of two families with chapters set in London and Boston. It’s the story of lives in houses, going to work, bringing up children, saying the wrong or the right thing to each other, arguing with others, developing friendships and the reality of communication with our parents. There are layers to this that gently fold back as the story progresses, there are no obvious, in your face morals to the story or lessons to be learned, it’s just a story about two families. And it really is beautiful. I am really looking forward to reading more by Zadie Smith, she enchanted me!
Humans by Matt Haig – This was the one I picked up at the recent book signing and I selected it as I have read so regularly that this is thought of as his best book. Sadly it is another Matt Haig book I really did not enjoy. This is the story of a Maths Professor at Cambridge who unlocks one of the secrets of life. Just after he does it an alien is dispatched to kill him, destroy the discovery and anyone else that might know about it. The alien is under strict instructions not to get involved with the humans and to just do its job but it does not take long for him to start learning and realising that this life is surely better than his own. The start of the book is hilarious. The naked alien begins his time on earth by the side of a busy road in the human form of the mathematician. With no understanding of human ways he thinks that people spitting at him and shouting at him is a normal way of communicating so initially he spits at everyone he meets. That whole scene was very funny! I had high hopes. As I have tended to find with Haig though a strong start is followed by a downhill path to a speedy and ill thought out finish. Crammed in will doubtless be a list of how to be good to people. I find the writing over simplistic with no depth or particular development of characters. And I find all this tough to say because I really liked Matt Haig when I met him. One of my friends posted on Instagram in the week that she was reading another of Haig’s books and it made me really question my perception of his writing. I sought out Amazon reviews and found a whole-hearted and positive response to him with only a few criticising his writing style, suggesting this was just a self-help book in reality. That review resonated with me. Perhaps that is in. These are just a new style of self-help book, basic pinstructions on how to be a better person or to believe in others? Another question I had related to my own autism. Perhaps I read the books differently to others because I myself see the world differently and feel like an alien in at a lot of the time. The world the alien sees is the world I see I guess so these basic instructions on how to live life better are troubling to me because I basically do live like that anyway, I think very logically and don’t lie. Seeing someone struggle to understand the world as I do is perhaps a troublesome read to me? But I still rest comfortably that again, this is such a great idea for a book and I find it poorly executed. It reads as if written for a 10 year old. Sorry.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – I took a recommendation for this one out of Jen Campbell’s Little Bookshop Book and ordered it from Hive. I had high expectations of it having read that someone had reconciled with his long estranged brother as a result reading it. Frankly I sobbed through the whole book. It is wonderful. Harold Fry is a lovely character as is every character in the book, Harold’s wife and neighbour, Queenie – the lady that Harold is travelling to visit and all those he meets along the way. The premise is that the retired Harold Fry receives an unexpected letter from Queenie, a lady he used to work with, telling him she is very ill and has not long left. Harold hasn’t seen her or heard from her for years. He writes a brief response to her and sets off to post it in the postbox down the road. The book then covers his inability to post the letter and his decision to walk to see Queenie in person. He lives in Devon in the bottom corner of England and she is in Berwick Upon Tweed, up by Scotland on the East Side. Clearly having set off to the postbox at the end of the road he is not dressed for it and doesn’t even have his phone with him. This then covers how he survived the walk wearing yachting shoes, the thinking he did, the kindness of strangers and the way human beings take over a good idea for their own means. This a long journey for Harold in terms of how many miles he covered on his feet and how many years he had to process in his thoughts. Twenty years. See if you can read it without crying and I would genuinely wholeheartedly recommend this over The Humans if you are looking to feel better about people and have hope for the human race.
A special shout out this morning to my mother in law who’s birthday it is today, please join me in sending her birthday greetings. Have a great week and pop back next Monday to see what bookshops I uncovered!