Sunday, July 24, 2005

The joy of Bibliophile's monthly catalogue

In today's blog :

The delight of Bibliophile's monthly catalogue
"Nobody has ever had a career as a novelist" : Gerard Jones
Cult fiction
The Starter Marriage
Sex among the book stacks
The funniest book about sex ever written?
"Free" books worth £27 million for children

The joy of Bibliophile's monthly catalogue

It was Frances Whitehead who introduced me to one of my life's delights. On 4 December 1986, she wrote -
I'm enclosing a copy of Bibliophile, an organisation which may not be familiar to you. They specialise in the slightly off-beat (invariably remaindered because they don't have wide appeal) and they quite often feature art, antiques, embroidery and horses, all of which I know are amongst your interests. Scrap it if it's of no use, but I usually find something different and they will post overseas.

At that time Frances was deputy editorial director of Mills & Boon, then at 15-16 Brook's Mews, London W 1, conveniently close to Claridges where Alan Boon, whom Frances later succeeded as editorial director, took his authors for long, champagne-fuelled lunches.

I've been receiving Bibliophile's monthly catalogue ever since. Last Sunday morning, the weather being glorious, we walked down to the harbour and the little café not far from Castle Cornet. There, after we had enjoyed the childish pleasure of licking ice cream in cornets, my husband did a crossword and I started going through Bibliophile's 36-page, tabloid-newspaper-size July catalogue. The people at Bibliophile tell me it contains 1,235 titles. Which is a lot of book bargains!

My method of marking the catalogue is to pencil a diagonal line across the descriptions of books that interest me and, in the bottom margin of the page, write BUY or BORROW. Recently I've started to write BLOG, if the book seems a good blog subject.

Later I cut out the descriptions and prices of all the 46 books I marked in the latest catalogue. These were then divided into groups : Buy 8, Borrow 34 , Blog 4.

In case you're curious about the titles I'm buying [if they haven't already sold out], they are
  • Alone at Sea: The Adventures of Joshu Slocum by Ann Spencer $16.95 reduced to £4

  • RYS 'Wanderer' : From Aristocrat to Tramp by A B Demaus £15.99 now £6

  • Ink Drinker by Eric Sanvoisin $9.95 now £2.50

  • Zarafa : A Giraffe's True Story by Michael Allin $22 now £2.50

  • Caesar's Ghost/The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell £14.98 now £3

  • West Indies and the Spanish Main by Anthony Trollope $15.95 now £4

  • Places In Between by Rory Stewart £17.99 now £6

  • The Laskett : The Story of a Garden by Roy Strong £25 now £8

I'll be writing about these books and their authors as I read them.

Gerard Jones

Had a nice email from Gerard Jones this week. Under the subject line "Aw, what a sweetie..." he wrote "…to have stuck up a link to my site, aldaily and my buddy grumpy, oh, what pleasant company. But you forgot to add .com so it doesn't work. I'm getting totally off on making my little audio book. Go listen to the introduction. Thanks. G. "

Naturally I made haste to correct the mistake and to apologise for it. What a furious tirade I should have received from the Chief Sub on the first daily paper I worked for if I'd left some vital fact out of a report.

It's possible that I was the first person in the UK book world to discover Gerard's wonderfully informative and amusing site: a "must" for everyone who wants to write a book. Ten times better value than all these "creative writing workshops" people sign up for – and his advice is free.

Gerard tells it like it is -
Be who you are and do what you want to do is the short answer...You are not ever in a million years gonna have a "career" as a novelist. Nobody has ever had a career as a novelist. There is no such career. Write books if you want to, sure, and if people want to read the books you want to write there are plenty of agents, editors and publishers looking for books they can make money buying and selling. That part of it is total happenstance; getting yourself in the right place at the right time. With a big advertising budget the most putrid piles of horseshit ever put down on paper can be "best sellers" overnight—go take a look at the New York Times list…Agents, editors and publishers for the most part want to make money, period. Schlock sells. But it has to be genuine schlock. You can't fake it. Stephen King truly believes he's a good writer, that the horsepiss he writes is worth writing and reading. Ha! So do romance novelists and mystery guys and thriller guys and even "literary" guys. It's the job of agents and editors to determine what's gonna sell and genuine schlock sells. The criteria for good writing among agents, editors and publishers is whether it makes money or not...period, end of story, bottom line. Every now and then purely accidentally a piece of decent writing will make some money.

Cult fiction

I don't subscribe to many email newsletters, but one I can recommend to fellow bookworms is The Common Reader which on Tuesday included details of The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction.

What is cult fiction? Ideally, "the true cult author ought to have written one seminal novel, behaved abominably in public and then died tragically young, or better still, vanished." While that precise fate did not befall all of the more than 200 authors profiled in "The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction" (some of whom are thriving -- and well-mannered -- senior citizens), each has managed to inspire the kind of "lengthy and irrational devotion" that admits them to the pantheon. Included are brief, irreverent introductions to Flann O'Brien and Patrick O'Brian, the flamboyant Yukio Mishima and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon, notorious flame-outs Arthur Rimbaud and Weldon Kees, plus Carson McCullers, Paul
Bowles, Flannery O'Connor, Colette, and more. You won't find a better source for ideas to spice up your summer reading.

Of the authors listed, only Patrick O'Brian is a cult with me, but possibly there are others among the 200 profiles.

The Starter Marriage comparable with Amis & Waugh?

A week ago I would not have bought/borrowed Kate Harrison's The Starter Marriage because I find the concept a turn-off.

Now, having read the interview she gave Mike Atherton I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Why the change of mind? Because Kate comes over as the kind of person I'd enjoy having a long book-talk lunch with. Also because of one sentence in the interview : "the books are about people finding themselves".

If only people would find themselves before they marry, the divorce rate would plummet. When I look around at my happily/unhappily married friends, in 95% of cases their present state boils down to whether or not they they knew exactly who they were before they joined forces with someone else.

An Amazon UK reviewer compares Kate Harrison's novel to those of Amis and Waugh.
The Starter Marriage is great fun - a good, fast read with many laugh-out-loud moments. Schoolteacher Tess goes to pieces after her husband leaves her for The Curved One & the story is about her experiences at a recovery workshop for divorcees. The trials and tribulations of getting back on the dating scene when her confidence is shot to pieces produce some wonderfully funny, and moving, scenarios. The glowing condom seduction scene is simply classic comedy writing. Up there with Kingsley Amis, Waugh and the rest.

Sex among the book stacks

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, I read an article headed Stacks' Appeal by Thomas H Benton which began
I have heard that one of the rites of passage for undergraduates at Harvard University is to have sex in stacks of the vast, labyrinthine Widener Library. It's sort of an academic version of joining the "Mile-High Club."

We are told that Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. Later in his piece he writes -
What does it mean when the University of Texas at Austin removes nearly all of the books from its undergraduate library to make room for coffee bars, computer terminals, and lounge chairs? What are students in those "learning commons" being taught that is qualitatively better than what they learned in traditional libraries?
I think the absence of books confirms the disposition to regard them as irrelevant. Many entering students come from nearly book-free homes. Many have not read a single book all the way through; they are instead trained to surf and skim. Teachers increasingly find it difficult to get students to consult printed materials, and yet we are making those materials even harder to obtain. Online journal articles are suitable for searching and extraction, but how conducive is a computer for reading a novel?

He ends –
I wrote this column on a computer in a room filled with books. In five years I will have a new computer on which most of my old software and storage media will not run. The books will still be here, and my children will be able to read them. And so will their children.

You can read the whole article here.

The funniest book about sex ever written

In yesterday's online Guardian I read –
There's no explaining the success of The Da Vinci Code, which is ill-written and fatuously conceived, outside of the satisfaction it offers to the code-breakers. When art no longers answers to a religious or intellectual impulse, yet residual respect still attaches to it, the idea that it exists to smuggle secrets is appealing.
The other proof of our philistinism is our politicising of literature. I am not thinking only of the hijacking of book programmes and literary festivals by the current-affairs mob, I also mean the excitement generated by the idea that a novel, or indeed a clutch of novels, has, say, 9/11 as its subject matter. There is, of course, no reason why it shouldn't. But there is equally no reason why it should.
The old complaint that Jane Austen left out the Napeolonic wars is making itself heard again. If a novel isn't politically au courant, if it isn't ratified by events outside itself, we have trouble remembering what it's for. Henry James's famous criticism of George Eliot…"

The article was headed Howard Jacobson worries about the lack of irresponsibility in modern fiction

Jacobson doesn't seem to have a website, but there's a page about him at Contemporary Writers -
This unique, searchable database contains up-to-date profiles of some of the UK and Commonwealth's most important living writers - biographies, bibliographies, critical reviews, prizes and photographs. Searchable by author, genre, nationality, gender, publisher, book title, date of publication and prize name and date. Authors can supply an author statement. The views expressed are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent those of the British Council or Booktrust.
We have a long list of authors who are being added to the site. They are authors that the British Council and Booktrust work with and holders of prizes and awards. It also includes critics.

In the next few days I'll rummage around to see if the most important living writers include any of my favourites. My guess is that they won't, but I could be wrong.

Apparently Howard Jacobson's Peeping Tom [1984] was described by a Time Out reviewer as "the funniest book about sex ever written" so I went off to Amazon to see what readers had to say about it.
There was only one tepid review. The Time Out reviewer seems to have been exaggerating. But the Guardian article is worth reading, and I'll dip into HJ's new book if the public library has it.

Free books worth £27 million for children

I've just read in the News section of one of this morning's newspapers -
Every child up to the age of four is to be given a bag of books under a £27 million government scheme to promote early reading. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, will launch the programme on Tuesday with a pledge that nine million books will be distributed free to families over the next three years. Much-loved titles for children such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where's Spot? and We're All Going On A Bear Hunt will be among those in the scheme which is being run through the Booktrust charity. Bags containing books, scribble pads and crayons will be made available in three age groups - birth to 12 months, 12 to 24 months and three to four years - and given out by libraries, clinics, health visitors and Sure Start nursery centres.

Whether this £27 million of British taxpayers' money will be well spent remains to be seen. My feeling is that unless children are raised by people who read, in houses where there are plenty of books, they are unlikely to become enthusiastic readers.

If you wish to respond to any part of today's blog, you can hit the comment button or email me direct.