I recently emptied out the laundry basket that sits under my bed that holds—along with the requisite unread New Yorkers and optimistic scarves and beanies of a sub-tropical inhabitant—all the books I’m currently ‘reading’. I use this word in the loosest term. I dislodged a month’s worth of abandoned tomes, nearly all of which were review copies, as my job is the kid-in-a-candy-store vocation of buyer for an independent bookshop. Alongside being an amateur writer myself, I get to sit down with publishing reps ever month and—get this—they give me free copies of books that haven’t even come out yet. Awesome, right? Yes and no.
I pulled ten books out of my laundry basket (necessary protection from my cat who likes to ‘eat’ books to get me up in the morning), of which only two I considered myself realistically finishing. The one downside of getting to peek ahead in the publishing world (with a view to deciding what to stock on the shelves at the bookshop) is that I feel duly pressured to be across it all, which means I often lug home six or seven books every weekend, saying to myself this time I will read them all. Unfortunately this means I give too many books to little attention, and quite often means reading becomes quite the opposite of what it should be: that is, a pleasure.
With that in mind, it allows me to get the jump on what will go on to become a good seller and stock the shelves accordingly (such as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Susan Cain’s Quiet, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and, more recently, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project). But for every success there is more than one bomb. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, for instance, was a book I adored, and mistakenly thought people would love as much as me. Seriously mixed reviews and the reluctance of people to read a book where an entire chapter is narrated by a parrot meant my sales expectations were sorely dashed. Do not even mention the name Schapelle Corby to me, so often have I been burned by ‘explosive’ new biographies of everyone’s favourite boogie-board insulator.
Anyway, the greatest thing is sometimes books rise to the top of the pile and surprise you. The last book I finished and enjoyed was The Crane Wife (Canongate, April) by Patrick Ness, an author best known in Australia for his Young Adult series Chaos Walking. Despite having two other works of fiction under his belt, The Crane Wife promises to be his breakout hit. Inspired by the Japanese folk tale (and album by indie-folk band The Decemberists) of the same name, the novel follows an ordinary Englishman whose decision to investigate a strange noise in his back garden one night has dramatic effects on not only his life but those around him. I won’t spoil the story, except to say Ness has an imagination I envy entirely. While the more fantastical elements of the story were a little too much for me and my allergy to Magic Realism, the writing was of such impressive quality that I’m sure it will be a hit.
Lined up next to read is the new novel by spymaster general and publishing verb John le Carré, A Delicate Truth (Penguin UK, May), which I chose simply because it came with an embargo letter binding whichever lucky bookseller chose to read it to a series of terms and conditions so comprehensive that I’m sure just mentioning it in a blog post will cause a group of large Ukranian men to acquaint themselves repetitively and forcefully with my kneecaps. All I can say is that the first bit is set in Gibraltar and it’s good so far.
My other job, if you like, is a writer, albeit one whose aversion to research is legendary. Why, then, I’ve chosen to write for my third book a historical narrative about an artist, a chemist and a chess composer spanning three countries on the eve of World War II is quite beyond me. As I know nothing about art, chemistry, chess or history, I’ve been forced to learn basically everything that’s happened in the entire world in the last 80 years. Before I actually travel to Europe later in the year (wherein I hope to accidentally learn some history just by eating a strudel or purchasing a truffle pig) I’ve been working my way through all the books I’ve bought over the years with a view to eventually writing this stupidly ambitious book.
One I recently finished was Simon Garfield’s Mauve, the excellent biography of William Perkin, accidental inventor of the world’s first mass-produced chemical dye. The outline makes this book sound terribly boring, but I can assure you it is a riveting tale of a young chemist who changed the world in ways we still see today, simply by mucking up an experiment trying to produce artifical quinine from coal tar.
Further to my basic historical education has been Jackie Wullschlager’s Chagall: Love and Exile, an all-encompassing biography of one of the 20th Century’s most important artists, Marc Chagall. Far from a simple recitation of dates and occurrences, Wullschlanger (whose name I simply enjoy saying) manages to evoke a rich sense of place, society and historical context, from Belarus to St Petersburg, to Paris and beyond, and sends me scurrying down endless Wikipedia warrens with every new word or name (chiaroscuro, I have discovered, is not a delicious biscuit but rather a fancy art term!).
And so the books go back in the laundry basket and are slid back under the bed only to be discovered weeks later whereupon I excavate them like a literary archaeologist, brushing off layers of New Yorker sediment to reveal the solid books beneath. And then I think, once again, but what’s next? What’s newer than these? What if I’m missing out? and sure enough, next week, there will be more.
05 Sep 13 at 12:47
What do you mean don’t mention “the name of Schapelle Corby to me” have you watched the doco at www.expendable.tv ? Have you searched the 100’s of FOI documents published on Expendable website? I think Schapelle Corby’s name will be mentioned a lot more once people wake up to the truth of hat the Howard administration has buried from the public for almost 9 years.