We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.
Julian Barnes, ‘Levels of Life’.
For Barnes, this was his grief story. A raw and honest piece of writing that details the loss of his wife and soulmate of thirty years. An account of a grief, unflinchingly observed.
How you feel and how you look may or may not be the same. So how do you feel? As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body. This is what it feels like, and why should it look any different?
I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep, smile at the sound of an opening door, fit her body into mine, mine into hers. Nor do I believe we shall meet in some dematerialised form. I believe dead is dead.
You put two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.
It was thirty seven days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it: and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted. Most evenings, as I left the hospital, I would find myself staring resentfully at people on buses merely going home at the end of their day. How could they sit there so idly and unknowingly, their indifferent profiles on display, when the world was about to be changed?
Interestingly, Barnes realized that he had already predicted his own probable feelings in such an event, thirty years ago, in one of his novels. He read this particular passage at her funeral.
When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all. Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. It’s just misery as regular as a job…. [People say] you’ll come out of it…. And you do come out of it, that’s true.
But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.
A friend wrote to him: ‘The things is – nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.’
And that, is precisely what Barnes has managed to present the reader in this slim volume.
We get to see exactly just how much it mattered.
George came to the Grand Hotel anticipating a concentrated examination of the evidence in his case. The conversation has taken several unexpected turns. Now he is feeling somewhat lost. Arthur senses a certain dismay in his new young friend. He feels responsible; he has meant to be encouraging. Enough reflection, then; it is time for action. Also, for anger.
“George, those who have supported you so far—Mr. Yelverton and all the rest—have done sterling work. They have been utterly diligent and correct. If the British state were a rational institution, you would even now be back at your desk in Newhall Street. But it is not. So my plan is not to repeat the work of Mr. Yelverton, to express the same reasonable doubts and make the same reasonable requests. I am going to do something different. I am going to make a great deal of noise. The English—the official English—do not like noise. They think it vulgar; it embarrasses them. But if calm reason has not worked, I shall give them noisy reason. I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps. I shall bang a big drum. I intend to shake more than a few trees, George, and we shall see what rotten fruit falls down.
Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on, everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, and why it was, and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency with which people went on with . . . with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and the thing made perfect sense. [….] The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that those old buildings had been levelled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape?
He has never been a lothario or seducer, and never known how to say those things which are necessary to arrive at the stage beyond the one where he currently stands – not knowing either what the further stage might be, since where he is at the moment appears, in its own way, to be final.
This damn temper of his is not getting any better. He puts it down to being half Irish. The Scottish half of him has the devil of a job keeping the upper hand.
Despite being a child of the Vicarage, despite a lifetime of filial attention to the pulpit of St. Mark’s, George has often felt that he does not understand the Bible. Not all of it, all of the time; indeed, not enough of it, enough of the time. There has always been some leap to be made, from fact to faith, from knowledge to understanding, of which he has proved incapable. This makes him feel a sham. The tenets of the Church of England have increasingly become a distant given. He does not sense them as close truths, or see them working from day to day, from moment to moment. Naturally, he does not tell his parents this.
He rarely feels the lack of what he does not have. The family takes no part in local society, but George cannot imagine what this might involve, let alone what the reason for their unwillingness, or failure, might be. He himself never goes to other boys’ houses, so cannot judge how things are conducted elsewhere. His life is sufficient unto itself. He has no money, but also no need of it, and even less when he learns that its love is the root of all evil. He has no toys, but does not miss them. He lacks the skill and eyesight for games; he has never even jumped a hopscotch grid, while a thrown ball makes him flinch. He is happy to play fraternally with Horace, more gently with Maud, and more gently still with the hens.
Arthur & George.
A book that has been sitting patiently on my TBR shelves for the last decade. I recall how much this Man Booker shortlisted nominee had appealed to me back then in 2005, and how I had really looked forward to reading this tale of how two very different lives that were worlds apart, being brought together by circumstances set off from a gross miscarriage of justice right at the start of the twentieth century. It is described as “a novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race; about what we think, what we believe, and what we can prove.”
Also, the Arthur in this story happens to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I am only midway through this 450 pages of sheer literary brilliance. But it is enough to have me already quite decided that it’s a five star read.
And personally, I think it might be a case of a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ too, that it had not been the Man Booker Prize winner for that year.
Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen was a nice surprise as I was not aware that he has written a collection of essays on food and cooking, prior to coming across this copy.
Julian Baggini’s The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Thinklooks to be another promising one, combining philosophy with food, with questions such as these: “Should we, like Kant, ‘dare to know’ cheese? Should we take media advice on salt with a pinch of salt? And can food be more virtuous, more inherently good, than art?” Food for thought, indeed!
Philosophy aside, we now have a linguist who attempts to address a different set of questions altogether, on the subject of food and linguistics in The Language of Food – A Linguist Reads the Menuby Dan Jurafsky.
“Why do we eat toast for breakfast, and then toast to good health at dinner? What does the turkey we eat on Thanksgiving have to do with the country on the eastern Mediterranean? Can you figure out how much your dinner will cost by counting the words on the menu?” Yeah, I think I’d like to know the answer to that one! 😀
Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Daysby James and Kay Salter.
Although I have never read anything by James Salter before, my impression of his works is definitely not one that is associated with food writing.
A celebration of Nora Ephron’s works in The Most of Nora Ephron.
I have not read any of her works before, but Sleepless in Seattle is one of my favourite movies (for which Ephron was a nominee for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards), so I’m rather looking forward to reading her.
“The Grands Ateliers de France is an elite association devoted to promoting excellence and craftsmanship. Founded in 1993, it now brings together sixty-eight artisans and ateliers, representing more than ninety different craft disciplines.These accomplished men and women are acknowledged to have mastered all aspects of their chosen field, producing one-of-a-kind works or limited editions of the very highest quality. […]Engravers and printmakers, cabinetmakers and upholsterers, weavers and jewelers are just some of the people whose working lives are showcased here, from bookbinder Jacky Vignon to harpsichord-maker Reinhard von Nagel, form the elegant laquerwork of Catherine Nicolas to the couture umbrellas and parasols of Michel Heurtault.”
Now, this would seem like a fitting end to the box haul….. settling down into a quiet nook in the place we call home, with a good book and a cup of tea!
April has been a fairly good month for book hauls. The local hypermarket continues to surprise me with its occasional unexpected offerings. Finding Kate Chopin’s The Awakening on the bargain table was certainly a most welcomed sight, as I was planning to finally get around to reading her masterpiece this year.
Barnes’ Level of Life has been on my wishlist for some time and I have been meaning to watch the film version of Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement for an even longer time. Seeing both of these in such beautiful Vintage editions was a real thrill. I just love the colour tones on these two!
I have only read a short piece by Dyer before, and am otherwise unfamiliar with his other works and style. I am also unfamiliar with the works of D.H. Lawrence, who happens to be the subject matter in this book, but since this comes packaged in an attractive Canongate edition, complete with French flaps and high praise from Steve Martin (he said it’s the funniest book he has ever read), I thought it might be worth a try.
Chloe Aridjis is a completely new to me writer. But there was something about this book and its female protagonist who chose to work as a museum guard at London’s National Gallery because it can offer her the life she always wanted, ‘one of invisibility and quiet contemplation’, that drew me to pick it up and read. I just finished this last week and found the reading experience to be somewhat similar to that of an Anita Brookner. It did take off quite promisingly, but somehow I didn’t find it finishing as strong.
Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is hailed as an Australian modern classic and I just love this cover. Found this and Felicity Aston’s Call of The White: Taking the World to the South Pole (Eight Women, One Unique Expedition) at a book sale. Both these books look set to take me out of my familiar zones, I think. 🙂
And last but certainly not least, are the two Willa Cathers I found at yet another book sale just last week. The offering at the sale was largely disappointing and coming across these two there (and at rock bottom pricing – both were gotten for roughly the equivalent of a pound only!) was an unexpected surprise. Although they were in less than perfect conditions (you probably can’t tell from the photo), I think I can live with that. 😉
Having loved Cather’s O Pioneers after reading it late last year, I am truly looking forward to more (or rather, all) of her works!
So, has April been just as kind to the rest of you? 🙂
So, this is the sale where you pay for the box and get to stuff it with as many books as you wish, as long as the box can be closed and sealed, flat.
I have to say that I was quite impressed with my own packing skills (hahah!) considering the fact that I managed to squeeze all the above, and the ones below (plus a few thick hardcover volumes of food/ healthcare books that my mum wanted that are not in the photo), into one 32.5cm x 46cm x 20cm box.
The Willa Cather letters was an unexpected (but utterly delightful!) find. A lovely hardback volume, with a beautiful dust jacket. I have to confess that I have yet to read any of her works, but have read so many good things about her that I am determined to get acquainted soon.
The two pretty volumes of Gerald Durrells (A Zoo In My Luggage; The Aye-Aye and I) are the lesser known titles compared to his popular Corfu trilogy, with The Aye-Aye and I being Durrell’s final adventure.
What made me pick out Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge was mainly because I had spotted its Penguin Modern Classics spine, and rare is the occasion where I see one and don’t bring it home. Now I guess I’ll probably have to look out for Mrs Bridge, too. :p
Julian Barnes’ Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) looks rather promising as well. “From the deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald to the directness of Hemingway, from Kipling’s view of France to the French view of Kipling, from the many translations of Madame Bovary to the fabulations of Ford Madox Ford, from the National Treasure Status of George Orwell to the despair of Michel Houellebecq, Julian Barnes considers what fiction is, and what it can do. ”
Chris West’s fascinating A History of Britain in Thirty Six Postage Stamps sounds like my kind of history book. Although I was never a stamp collector (I was more into coin collecting back then), this looks to be an exquisite volume that holds much appeal. 🙂
Being the Francophile that I am, I was thrilled to discover Lorant Deutsch’s Metronome: A History of Paris from the Underground Up. “Metronome follows Loránt Deutsch, historian and lifelong Francophile, as he goes on a compelling journey through the ages, treating readers to Paris as they’ve never seen it before. Using twenty-one stops of the subway system as focal points―one per century―Deutsch shows, from the underground up, the unique, often violent, and always striking events that shaped one of the world’s most romanticized city. Readers will find out which streets are hiding incredible historical treasures in plain sight; peer into forgotten nooks and crannies of the City of Lights and learn what used to be there; and discover that, however deeply buried, something always remains.”
I was also very happy to bring home the pile of Home and Living coffee table books in the second photo, as these books are usually out of my budget (even during their normal sale), so if ever there was a good time to grab them, it’s during the box sale. And grab them, I did!
All in all, each book in the box had averaged out to just around 1 USD (or less) each. Now, that’s quite a hard bargain to beat, wouldn’t you say? As the sale is still on till the end of this week, I am planning to make another trip or two, and hopefully come back with more goodies to share. Until then…. happy reading, everyone! 🙂
Yes, I am definitely ending the year on a high! Not contented with just a tiny ‘thud’, it has to be a THUD!THUD!…THUD…THUD!THUD!! :p
In case you are wondering, no, these are not what I found under my Christmas tree. The people in my life obviously do not think I am in need of any help in the book buying department, as I hardly ever get any books as gifts anymore. They probably think I am in need of help in the opposite, rather.
As such, left to my own devices, this is the bounty resulting from my six days of book-hunting at the biggest book sale ever to have been held over here in Malaysia. A person of stronger mettle might have been able to exert more restraint and resist such temptations I guess, but clearly, I am not that person. Honestly, I really do get a tingling sensation of thrill and excitement just by looking at them all spread out there. Many a times when I stop to gaze at my shelves and stacks of books, thinking of all the goodness that is lying in wait for me within those pages, I just feel like I am the richest person in the world.
Does anyone here feel the same?
Anyway, without further ado…… here they are, in all their glorious beauty and dazzling splendour!
Isn’t that about the most beautiful cover you’ve ever seen on a book? I just fell in love with this Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the moment I set eyes on it. And the binding and texture of the book feels really good too. As I am a big fan of all things British (well, almost all), this anthology of how different localities and landscape has played a part in the works of various British poets and novelists seem like a perfect blend of both inner and outer beauty. I have not read anything by Drabble as yet, and am looking forward to reading her. Also interesting to be reminded that she is the sister of A.S Byatt with whom she has a lifetime “feud that is beyond repair”.
Doris Lessing is another writer I am looking forward to reading, not so much her novels though, but rather her essays and short stories. And talking about short stories, Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table and Jeanette Winterson’s anthology of opera-inspired stories by some of the most acclaimed writers of modern fiction in Midsummer Nights look to be very promising too.
I was very excited to come across Four Letter Word, an inspired and unique collection of love letters edited by Joshua Knelman & Rosalind Porter. “Is there any communication more potent than the love letter? Is there any charge greater than seeing those words on paper? The editors of this collection decided to ask some of the most important writers of our time to compose a fictional love letter – breathing new life into a forgotten custom, and affording words themselves the power of seduction that they richly deserve. The result is an iridescent picture of what love looks like in the twenty-first century: a collage of methods and moods. Each letter is radically different from the others, and all but one are published for the first time.” Some of the names included here are Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Lionel Shriver, Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. Delicious!
Speaking of delicious, I manged to get myself a few titles from the Penguin Great Food series, which look really delectable both inside out. I’ve got the ones by Charles Lamb, M.F.K Fischer, Alice B. Toklas and Brillat-Savarin’s Pleasures of The Table. Still on the subject of food, Adam Gopnik’s essays in The Table Comes First is also another much anticipated read. I still want to read his Paris To The Moon (which has been sitting on my shelves for a while now) first though, before getting to The Table. I sometimes see myself like my dog, Sandy, who while having a bone/ treat already in her mouth, still tries to get her paws at another piece. :p
I have always wanted to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and so was happy to find it at the sale. And having recently started on Alexander McCall Smith’s The Dog Who Came In From The Cold (and liking it), I thought I’d add another one (Friends, Lovers, Chocolate) to the collection. Besides, it was in an edition that I like.
I am no gardener, and have close to zero knowledge about plants and gardening. But in recent years, I seem to have developed a fascination for books on the history and science of it, also memoirs of those working on their gardens and such. Maybe it’s also the influence from reading the blogs of all you garden loving bloggers out there that has brought about this new appreciation. At least I know I recognise the name Anna Pavord from having read about her in The Captive Reader’s blog. The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants certainly looks to be a fascinating read.
Although I have been slowly acquiring various volumes on the Mitford sisters and their works, I have never read any of eldest sister Nancy’s books. Now, having found three of her fictions and one non-fiction (Frederick The Great), I can finally see for myself where her genius lies.
Joseph Brodsky is a name I have never come across before, but definitely not unfamiliar to many of you I suppose, being a Nobel Prize winner for Literature at one time. I like essays, and this one (Less Than One & other selected essays) sounds like pretty good stuff!
I have only read, or rather listened, to Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair and although I enjoyed it, I somehow do not find myself wanting to read any of his other books as their subject matters just don’t quite appeal to me. But a book on Greene’s life in letters, that’s another story altogether.
If you haven’t noticed that I love books on other people’s letters, here’s two more to convince you. Jessica Mitford’s Decca and Lillian Smith’s How Am I To Be Heard?. The Mitford one I am familiar with, but Lillian Smith is new to me. “This compelling volume offers the first full portrait of the life and work of writer Lillian Smith (1897-1966), the foremost southern white liberal of the mid-twentieth century. Smith devoted her life to lifting the veil of southern self-deception about race, class, gender, and sexuality.” Sounds interesting enough to me.
I have not read any Nabokov and have no intention of reading Lolita, his most acclaimed work, but I couldn’t resist this lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition of Pnin. I just love the cover design and the paper quality used in this edition. The story about a Russian professor adapting to the American life and language also seems appealing enough. And I get to say ‘I read Nabokov’ at last (that is, when I have really gotten around to reading it).
Penguin really does have a wide selection of editions and most of them are very pleasing to the eye (and hand, for that matter). I bought both the Chatwin and Auster mainly because they were in the Penguin Deluxe Classics editions. I just love the feel of those French flaps and rough cut pages. Yes, shallow reader that I am.
It was only at this book sale that I first discovered the Penguin’s series of Central European Classics. These are translated works of writers from Central Europe who are completely foreign to me, but all of which appeals to me very much. Titles such as The Elephant, Snows of Yesteryear, Old Masters, Proud to be A Mammal, etc… all look to be very compelling reads.
Another writer whose translated works I am rather excited and looking forward to reading is Mikhail Bulgakov. I managed to get four of his books at this sale and am having a hard time deciding which one to start with. I think I am leaning more towards A Country Doctor’s Notebook, though.
For some non-fiction selection, I was most thrilled to find a copy Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, having read Darlene’s wonderful review of it some time back. The Virago Book of The Joy of Shopping is also looking to be a fun read.
For some heavier non-fiction reading, I managed to find The Lost Battles, a historical account of the fierce competition between Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, each trying to outdo the other during their heydays. Hot stuff.
This next title really caught my attention – Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved My Life by Brenda Walker. “Packing her bag for hospital after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Brenda wondered which book to put in. As a novelist and professor of literature, her life was built around reading and writing. Books had always been her solace and sustenance, and now choosing the right one was the most important thing she could do for herself.”
I am really interested to know which books she did end up packing into the bag.
If there was one book I did not have to feel guilty for buying, it would be this one. When We Were Young: A Compendium of Childhood compiled and illustrated by John Burningham. This is because proceeds from the sale of this delightful collection of contributions by various personalities such as Michael Palin, Seamus Heaney, Donna Tart and Kofi Annan, goes entirely to UNICEF. So, that’s my good deed for the day, I guess. What a great excuse for buying a book, don’t you agree? 😉
Back to the fiction section, I was particularly thrilled to find a copy of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West. Having been recently reading (and loving!) her All Passion Spent, I think I’m going to be in for a treat with this one as well. And speaking of treats, I can’t wait to read Ishiguro’s The Remains of The Day.
This was the final batch of goodies I managed to pick up on the last day of the great sale.
I was really happy to see a copy of Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love among books that were still left for the taking on the last day. I had read her debut novel, Days of Grace earlier this year, and had really loved it. It was one of my favourite reads for 2012. Am highly anticipating this one now, especially after reading quite a few raving reviews of it around the blogosphere.
William Maxwell is another writer I am keen to get acquainted with. Managed to get my hands on two of his books at this sale, So Long See You Tomorrow and The Chateau. I was actually on the lookout for a copy of his correspondence with Sylvia Townsend Warner The Element of Lavishness, but since none was found I guess I’ll just have to settle with his two novels for the time being. Not really complaining though, as you can see I have more than a fair share of books to keep me busy for a long, long time!
I also found a collection of Du Maurier’s short stories, an Elizabeth Bowen and a Beryl Bainbridge. And I’ve finally gotten myself a copy of Lady Audley’s Secret, after having been wanting to read it for awhile now. Then there’s also W. Somerset Maugham’s literary memoir, The Summing Up and Stella Gibbons’s Westwood. I had already picked up Maugham’s essays on Ten Novels & Their Authors earlier during the sale.
And for something completely different and refreshing, I found Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams to be utterly appealing. “A room of one’s own: is there anybody who hasn’t at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn’t turned those soft words over until they’d assumed a habitable shape? …. Inspired by both Thoreau and Mr. Blandings, A Place of My Own not only works to convey the history and meaning of all human building, it also marks the connections between our bodies, our minds, and the natural world.”
And now, to find ‘a place of my own’ where I can sit down to quietly enjoy all these bookish goodness. What bliss!