The Book Trail: The Very Bookish Edition

I am focusing upon books about books here, one of my favourite genres to read.  I have used as my inspiration an absolute gem which I re-read back in September, Helene Hanff’s charmingly witty 84 Charing Cross Road.  We go through a host of wonderful books, some of which I have read, and some of which are high on my wishlist.

97807515038451. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.


2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Anne Fadiman is–by her own admission–the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.   This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope (“My Ancestral Castles”) and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections (“Marrying Libraries”), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony–Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced 9780140283709between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.


3. A Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury… by Howard Rabinowicz
“When I have a little money, I buy books. And if any is left, I buy food and clothing.” — –Desiderius Erasmus — Those who share Erasmus’s love of those curious bundles of paper bound together between hard or soft covers know exactly how he felt. These are the people who can spend hours browsing through a bookstore, completely oblivious not only to the passage of time but to everything else around them, the people for whom buying books is a necessity, not a luxury. A Passion for Books is a celebration of that love, a collection of sixty classic and contemporary essays, stories, lists, poems, quotations, and cartoons on the joys of reading, appreciating, and collecting books.  This enriching collection leads off with science-fiction great Ray Bradbury’s Foreword, in which he remembers his penniless days pecking out Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter, conjuring up a society so frightened of art that it burns its books. This struggle–financial and creative–led to his lifelong love of all books, which he hopes will cosset him in his grave, “Shakespeare as a pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-travelling.”  Booklovers will also find here a selection of writings by a myriad of fellow sufferers from bibliomania. Among these are such contemporary authors as Philip Roth, John Updike, Umberto Eco, Robertson Davies, Nicholas Basbanes, and Anna Quindlen; earlier twentieth-century authors Christopher Morley, A. Edward Newton, Holbrook Jackson, A.S.W. Rosenbach, William Dana Orcutt, Robert Benchley, and William Targ; and classic authors such as Michel de Montaigne, Gustave Flaubert, Petrarch, and Anatole France.  Here also are entertaining and humorous lists such as the “Ten Best-Selling Books Rejected by Publishers Twenty Times or More,” the great books included in Clifton Fadiman and John Major’s New Lifetime Reading Plan, Jonathan Yardley’s “Ten Books That Shaped the American Character,” “Ten Memorable Books That Never Existed,” “Norman Mailer’s Ten Favorite American Novels,” and Anna Quindlen’s “Ten Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer to Read (but Aren’t Beach Books).”  Rounding out the anthology are selections on bookstores, book clubs, and book care, plus book cartoons, and a specially prepared “Bibliobibliography” of books about books.  Whether you consider yourself a bibliomaniac or just someone who likes to read, A Passion for Books will provide you with a lifetime’s worth of entertaining, informative, and pleasurable reading on your favorite subject–the love of books.


4. The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson
Inspects the allure of books, their curative and restorative properties, and the passion for them that leads to bibliomania. This title comments on why we read, where we read – on journeys, at mealtimes, on the toilet (this has ‘a long but mostly unrecorded history’), in bed, and in prison – and what happens to us when we read.


97815559124065. Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe
‘A hilarious guide for book lovers that brings book addiction out of the closet.  Have you ever… awakened, the morning after a book-buying spree, unable to remember how many you bought or how much you spent?
been reprimanded or fired for reading on the job?
purchased or rented additional living space… just for your books?
You are not alone. Your complete recovery awaits you — just buy one more book!


6. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.


7. Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Book Store by Suzanne Strempek Shea 9780807072585
Suzanne Shea has always loved a good book-and she’s written five of them, all acclaimed. In the course of her ten-year career, she’s done a good bit of touring, including readings and drop-ins at literally hundreds of bookstores. She never visited one that wasn’t memorable.  Two years ago, while recovering from radiation therapy, Shea heard from a friend who was looking for help at her bookstore. Shea volunteered, seeing it as nothing more than a way to get out of her pajamas and back into the world. But over next twelve months, from St. Patrick’s Day through Poetry Month, graduation/Father’s Day/summer reading/Christmas and back again to those shamrock displays, Shea lived and breathed books in a place she says sells’ideas, stories, encouragement, answers, solace, validation, the basic ammunition for daily life.’ Her work was briefly interrupted by an author tour that took her to other great bookstores. Descriptions of these and her memories of book-lined rooms reaching all the way back to childhood visits to the Bookmobile are scattered throughout this charming, humorous, and engrossing account of reading and rejuvenation.  For anyone who loves books, and especially for anyone who has fallen under the spell of a special bookstore, Shelf Life will be required reading.


8. An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up In the World of Books by Wendy Werris
Little did Wendy Werris imagine that when she began a temp job at a Hollywood bookstore in 1970 at age nineteen, she had embarked on a thirty-five year career that would stretch into a journey of self-discovery and literary enlightenment. In An Alphabetical Life, Werris reflects upon how she came to embrace the book culture as her singular way of being in the world. Her career began when the book business was conducted amid an atmosphere of civility and wry humor, and her memoir captures the essence of this time and the people she met along the way. The challenges she faced, in what was then a male-dominated industry, are also discussed — particularly in 1976 when she was one of only two women repping books in the entire country. In describing the hilarious, eccentric characters that were her colleagues, lovers, and partners in crime, the essence of retail bookselling comes alive. Among the figures she profiles are Henry Robbins, editor of The World According to Garp; Alan Kahn, then of Pickwick Bookshop in Los Angeles, now President of Barnes and Noble Publishing; and many great and memorable retail bookbuyers and authors.

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One From the Archive: ‘My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Winter Romances’, edited by Stephanie Perkins ****

I will just highlight the fact that I do not tend to read young adult books at all, but wanted to read something a little different a couple of years ago.  I received a review copy of this, and enjoyed it far more than I first thought.  The moral of the story is read everything, folks.

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Winter Romances features a variety of authors who largely write solely within the Young Adult genre, from contemporary fantasy and the paranormal, to ‘the strange things that love can do to people’.  Edited by Stephanie Perkins, this collection features one of her tales, along with work by Rainbow Rowell, Holly Black, Ally Carter, Gayle Forman, David Levithan, Matt de la Pena, Laini Taylor, Jenny Han, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire and Kiersten White. 9781250059314

The blurb of My True Love Gave to Me calls it ‘a gift for teen readers and beyond’.  It is ‘the perfect collection of short stories to keep you warm this winter…  Each is a little gem, filled with the enchanting magic of first love and the fun festive holidays’.  The inspiration within the collection is vast, and whilst all of the authors have used the festive period in their stories, they have done so in decidedly different ways.

Rainbow Rowell’s tale – the lovely ‘Midnights’ – opens the book.  In it, her protagonist, Mags, sits in her friend’s garden on the 31st of December and reflects upon three of her previous New Year’s Eve celebrations.  Each of them revolve around her allergy-prone friend Noel, who is described as ‘her person’; the one whom she turns to in periods of strife.  Rowell’s writing is sharp and her characterisation works marvellously.  In Kelly Link’s interesting ‘The Lady and The Fox’, a mysterious figure in a beautifully embroidered coat befriends a young girl named Miranda during successive Christmas celebrations.

In Matt de la Pena’s ‘Angels in the Snow’, a young man faces spending Christmas alone, hours away from his family.  Jenny Han’s story ‘Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me’ is told from the perspective of Natalie, a Korean who was adopted by Santa, and is the only human girl to live in the North Pole.  In Stephanie Perkins’ ‘It’s a Yuletide Miracle’, protagonist Marigold has gone in search of a boy who works in a Christmas tree lot near her apartment because she ‘needed his voice’ for a project; the sweetest of scenes and most sharply observed conversation ensues.  The narrator of David Levithan’s ‘Your Temporary Santa’ dresses up as Santa Claus to keep the dream alive for his boyfriend’s younger sister, despite being Jewish.  In Holly Black’s ‘Krampuslauf’, a New Year’s Eve celebration converges with a hearty – and clever – dose of magical realism.

Whilst I have not discussed each story here, it is fair to say that there is not a weak link in the collection.  Only two of the stories were not to my personal taste, but they were still interesting to read.  My True Love Gave to Me is both quirky and memorable, and it provides a great introduction to a wealth of different authors writing contemporary YA.  One can never quite work out where the majority of the stories are going to end, or what will occur within them; they are largely very unpredictable, and incredibly sweet. The physical book itself is lovely, with its duck egg blue and gold cover, fluorescent pink page edging and gold ribbon bookmark. My True Love Gave to Me is a great collection, in which many different viewpoints have been considered.  The characters which have been created are both believable and unpredictable, and each narrative voice has been crafted with the utmost care.  It is sure to make every reader – whether teenage or older – feel marvellously festive, and is a great antidote to those winter blues.

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One From the Archive: ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall ****

Chasing the King of Hearts is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is by internationally acclaimed bestseller Hanna Krall.  The novel appears in its first English translation, which has been well wrought by Philip Boehm.  Chasing the King of Hearts is a little longer than the majority of the books on Peirene’s list, but it is a difficult story to put down.  The entirety of it is told rather simplistically, but this technique only serves to make the horrors of the Holocaust which Krall portrays all the more chilling. 9781908670106

The novel begins in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and is told entirely from the third person perspective.  It tells the story of Izolda, a young Polish woman, beginning with the pivotal day in which she meets her husband, Shayek, for the first time.  Izolda believes that she is already ‘in love’ with another man, but when she realises she is not and her friends urge her to become engaged, ‘Shayek tosses out: I’m available.’  Izolda works tirelessly as a nurse, and in this way she views the balance between life and death firsthand.  Krall describes the way in which, ‘She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign.  Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though.  To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.’

The most poignantly portrayed aspect of the novel is the disparity and hopelessness of being Jewish at such a tumultuous period in history.  Izolda and Shayek are called ‘Yids’ by some young boys who pass them, and this is what follows: ‘Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell.  He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.  She hadn’t realised it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star’.  To draw attention away from herself, Izolda drastically alters her appearance, dying her hair ‘ash-blonde’, changing her name to Maria Pawlicka and saying that she worked for a Jewish family in order to escape from and gain access back into the ghetto.  The narrative style rallies against the inherent fear of Jewishness – many have ‘terrible looks and a terrible accent’, which means that they can potentially be found out and taken away in convoys to the concentration camps.

The entirety of the book has been split into small vignettes, the majority of them full of sadnesses.  The most powerful sentences are portrayed in relation to Izolda’s own life – for example, when she was younger and learning English from a private tutor, ‘[she] would certainly have mastered English if the teacher hadn’t hanged himself.’  Krall has addressed many themes of importance within Chasing the King of Hearts – the resistance and underground movements in Warsaw, the notion of trust and how easily it can be broken, violence, interrogations, betrayals and deceit, bravery, imprisonment, forced transit to the camps, grief and forgetting – which enable the book to be historically grounded.  In this way, Krall has ensured that her novel does not merely portray the experiences of one woman and her family, but of an entire nation of people.

And now for the not so positive elements of Chasing the King of Hearts.  There are several black and white photographs which have been placed at random points within the text, but none of them have captions, and it is unclear as to who or what the photographs are meant to relate to.  Despite the book’s power, the story does fizzle out a little toward the end.  When the final sections are reached, it feels as though another book entirely has been tagged onto the end, which is a real shame.

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‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Raven Girl’ by Audrey Niffenegger ****

Raven Girl is the eagerly anticipated new release from the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Here, in her longest illustrated book to date, Niffenegger has married together her love of art and literature. The illustrations throughout have been produced with an ‘aquatint’ technique, which uses ‘metal, acid, wax and rosin’ and dates from the seventeenth century. Aesthetically, the book is a work of art. It has been beautifully produced, and has silvered edges, glossy pages and beautiful pieces of art which sit alongside the carefully crafted story.

‘Raven Girl’

Niffenegger has strived to create a modern day fairytale ‘full of wonderment and longing’, and a ‘mesmerising story that explores the bounds of transformation and possibility’. Raven Girl is a quick read, but a striking and unforgettable one nonetheless. It opens with the intriguing line: ‘Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven’. The story unfolds from here. The characters are all unnamed throughout and go by their easily identifiable titles of ‘Postman’, ‘Raven’, ‘Raven Girl’, ‘the doctor’ and ‘The Boy’. Similiarly, the English city in which the ‘flat, desolate suburb’ of the story takes place is vague in its location.

The real crux of the story comes when the Postman is tasked with delivering a letter to an address which is unknown to him – ‘Dripping Rock, Ravens’ Nest’. On meeting the Raven, who has fallen out of the nest at this address, her brothers ‘made unflattering comments about the Postman, whom they mistook for a cat; none of them had seen a person before, and cats featured in all the scary stories their parents told them at bedtime’. The Postman, believing the Raven to be ill, ‘wrapped her up in his scarf and began the long walk home, the Raven trembling in his arms’. Once at his home, he cares for her rather touchingly: ‘He made her a nest out of his old uniforms and shredded junk mail, and she lived on his kitchen table. He fed her sardines, earthworms, eggs, cheese, Weetabix, and raw lamb chops’.

As the story continues, the Postman and the Raven’s relationship begins to build. ‘As the days and weeks went by’, Niffenegger writes, ‘the Raven was charmed by the Postman. She understood that he meant no harm and that he was not a cat… Slowly the Raven and the Postman began to fall in love’. An egg is laid, ‘greenish-bluish with brown speckles’, and a ‘human girl’ hatches from it. This is the Raven Girl of the book’s title. Her life is a sad one in many respects – she cannot communicate with her father and she is lonely in her childhood – but her parents are determined that she should live as normally as is possible. They send her off to University, where she studies Biology. A visiting lecturer, teaching Raven Girl and her fellow students about chimeras – creatures made from two or more different species – tells her that he can turn her into a bird.

The characters are described to us as soon as they are introduced. The Postman is described as ‘no longer being a young and ardent postman… He yearned to have an adventure, but suspected that he probably wouldn’t… He sometimes had nightmares that featured e-mail’. Such touching and unique details make the characters seem realistic almost immediately, and they feel more endearing in consequence, merely because we know the secrets which bubble below their fixed exteriors. The Raven Girl, too, feels realistic – she is a misfit of the most original kind.

Raven Girl feels like a modern fable in many ways. Its structure is dreamlike in places, and the mixture of the human’s relationship with a creature and the lack of named characters certainly adds to this. The story is inventive, and Niffenegger astounds in the way in which she is always able to create something so utterly unique. Not one of her books is alike, but all are incredibly intriguing and have a way of drawing the reader in almost immediately. The writing style, both simplistic and quite poetic at times, is pitch perfect for such a story. Niffenegger has woven together many elements, from ethics and genetics to the future of humanity in just a few pages, and for this she should certainly be commended.