The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, 1978

In 1959, Florence Green, a widow living in the seaside village of Hardborough, East Suffolk, decides to open a new (and the only) bookshop in town to fulfill her duty “to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.”

Calling upon her youthful experience as a bookstore clerk and using the small amount of money her husband has left her, poor Florence faces many obstacles in her new enterprise. These range from the practical- damp, storage, stock choices-to the the personal- Mr. Keble the bank manager, Mr. Thornton the solicitor, Mrs. Gamart the self-styled patroness- and the paranormal- a persistant poltergeist. However, Florence also has her allies- the local squire Mr Brundish, her able young assistant Christine Gipping and the marshman Raven- and a quiet determination to win out. Whether or not she, and the bookshop, do so is the main question of the book.

This is a short but vivid and sharply observant story which reminded me of Murial Spark in style. An example (which doesn’t give away key plot points!):

The manager (Mr. Keble) replied soothingly that reading took up a great deal of time. ‘I only wish I had more time at my disposal. People have quite wrong ideas, you know, about the bank’s closing hours. Speaking personally, I enjoy very little leisure in the evenings. But don’t misunderstand me, I find a good book at my bedside of incalculable value. When I eventually retire I’ve no sooner read a few pages than I’m overwhelmed with sleep.’

She reflected that at this rate one good book would last the manager for more than a year. The average price of a book was twelve shillings and sixpence. She sighed.”

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman, 2005

I’ve just finished this moving selection of essays from the literary quarterly The American Scholar, in each of which an author picks a piece of writing that had a significant impact on them on their first reading and then re-reads it to see what they now think and feel.

The writings selected are a varied and by no means predictable group, including the collected works of Katherine Mansfield, a field guide to wildflowers, Whitman’s Song of Myself and an album cover (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Yet each essay is intimately personal and, to quote Fadiman in her introduction:

“pursue the same fugitive quarry- the nature of reading- and, taken together, they have helped me understand why the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”

To which I vehemently say, here here!

Really worth a look, particularly if you’ve read and delighted in Anne Fadiman’s essay collections Ex Libris and At Large and at Small as I have.

Another blog is born!

Having happily idled away many hours of ’07 by reading book blogs, I’ve decided to start one of my very own.

Here’s the end-of-year reading I’m treating myself to:

I’ll review the first-time reads- The Bookshop and Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love– and recommend the old favourites- Pride and Prejudice and A Study in Scarlet.

And here’s what I plan to read over January:

From the top:

1. A Pair of Blue Eyes– An early (1873) Hardy novel, new to me and eagerly anticipated due to the Hardy that I’ve read and cherish (Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and of course, Tess).

2. John Bayley’s Iris trilogy- I’ve been meaning to read this memoir of Iris Murdoch by her husband since it came out. It’s languished on the TBR pile ever since!

3. Anna Karenina– because it’s been too long since I read it. Re-reading this may inspire me to tackle War and Peace in ’08.

4. Elementals by A.S Byatt- I recently re-read Byatt’s brilliantly unsettling Little Black Book of Stories. Hopefully these six earlier short stories “of fire and ice” are as good.

5. To start my personal Dickens project, and on a lighter, more cheerful note- The Pickwick Papers. This is a good ongoing read to ration out over the month.

6. Moving from the fun to the fantastic ,Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde. #2 in the Thursday Next series features Dickens’ own Miss Havisham and should provide some literary light relief.

7. Lastly, the first two books in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie quartet. I’m suffering #44 Scotland Street withdrawal symptoms. Until further adventures of Bertie and his fellow residents materialise, I seek consolation in another McCall Smith series.

Of course, given the demands of a FT job and other boring but necessary aspects of life, I may not actually read all of the above. It’s a pleasure planning to, and I’ll be interested to see how I’ve gone at the end of January.

For now though, Rereadings, a cup of tea and my comfy bed are calling.