The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In contrast to the modern caricature of the bookseller – in cardigan with cat and tea – for centuries the bookseller was regarded as a rogue, a hell-raiser, someone more than capable of making a few quick bucks off the grief-stricken, or of sowing the seeds of heresy and dissent. From the beginning of the trade, the bookseller existed independently, with little institutional or government sanction or censor, and would act as the conduit for the newest ideas and information of the day.’

YellowLightedBookshopYay for booksellers! Mavericks and subversives one and all! Reading Lewis Buzbee’s charming account of his life as a book addict, bookseller and writer, I felt he had his finger right the pulse of the beautiful double life that obsessive readers so slyly lead. It may look as if we don’t go out much, as if the fascinating people we know are figments of our imagination, as if we take our adventures sitting in an armchair, but we know that opening our minds to all sorts of information is a revolutionary thing to do. To hear the alternative story, to think the different thoughts, these are dangerous practices indeed. It’s only with the cardigan and the mild-mannered air that we can fool others enough to mask our insurrectionist activity; they are necessary props.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a tad. But the history of books and bookselling makes for fascinating reading, and it can’t help but win you over to the great cause of literature. Lewis Buzbee takes us from the first “impulse buy”: the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was considered to be ‘a travel guide to the underworld’ and thus a useful object to be enclosed in the tomb of the deceased, through the library at Alexandria, the first great collection of papyrus scrolls (apparently between 50,000 and 100,000 ‘books’ were held there, as much as your average large bookshop today would hold), to parchment, the Chinese invention of paper, and eventually the Gutenberg press. Meanwhile, the bookshop mutated from a wheeled cart or a blanket on the ground, to a stall, to an enclosed arcade, to the ‘shoebox’ shaped shop we know nowadays, with early shopwindows having little shelves attached to the leading of the panes of glass on which books could rest. At the end of the book, my edition had been updated to include extra chapters on amazon and e-books, although the digital revolution was still in its infancy when Buzbee was writing. For a shop and paper guy like Buzbee, amazon and e-books are pretty much anathema, but he struggles hard to be fair and even-handed, coming up with some advantages of the virtual form, though fighting valiantly against any notion that the world he adores should become obsolete.

For Buzbee’s book is very much about his own participation in a highly particular world with its own ideology and how it has shaped him. He is a passionate advocate for reading, having fallen in love as a teenager with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and then turned up every week for two years at his local bookshop until they finally hired him. The space of the bookshop is unlike any other for him: ‘Time may be money in the rest of the world but not in the bookstore. There’s little money here so we can all take our time.’ And it provides a vital space for readers to commune with one another the way they like best, ‘alone among others’: ‘It’s a lovely combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences as a bookseller, how ringing up a customer’s purchases ‘represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them.’ He was also shaken out of his young man’s contempt for his parents’ reading choices, and told by his fellow bookseller that enjoying reading was the point. I have to say my own experience of bookselling was, alas, the opposite, as my let’s-read-it-all approach to books bumped into the delicately graded canon of superiority of which the other booksellers kept careful account. But it didn’t matter; I kept quiet, I learned a lot, and was only very occasionally caught out by someone saying ‘why on earth are you reading that?’

This is a delightful, charming, warm-hearted book, as safe and informative as the bookshops its celebrates. Wherever you perch in the food chain of book production and consumption, there’ll be something to relate to and something new to exclaim over. Lewis Buzbee is an amiable tour guide and enthusiast, the kind of bookseller you’d hope for when you have a fistful of tokens and the desire for a different kind of book, but be warned you might be left with an insatiable desire to go book browsing (and not online) when you’ve reached the end…. Recommended for book lovers of all persuasions.

Gossip

GossipThe question of whether we ever know when we are being cruel runs through this darker-than-you’d-expect novel by Beth Gutcheon. And of course she doesn’t mean drowning kittens or running amok with an axe; she is talking about the kind of everyday social cruelty that comes from aligning oneself to one friend rather than another or to reaching blindly and impatiently towards desires and failing to notice others in the way. This concern is all bound up with the title – for the origin of the word ‘gossip’, the narrator tells us, is ‘the talk between people who are godparents to the same child, people who have a legitimate loving interest in the person they talk about. It’s talk that weaves a net of support and connection beneath the people you want to protect.’ As the story gradually wends its way towards an unexpected tragedy, so it seems that even the most supportive and loyal love can exact a terrible price.

I need to say straight off that this is an old-fashioned sort of novel. A lot of the story takes place through the sixties and seventies and although we end up in the present day, that’s the era dominating the expectations and behaviours of our narrator. Loviah French runs an exclusive boutique dress shop in Manhatten and her philosophy of life is very bound up with her daily work, which is to hide a woman’s flaws and enhance her social worth through the clothes she wears. Discretion is her watchword at all times. The social spectrum she moves in is akin to that micromanaged by Edith Wharton – the last gasp of moneyed folk who gained their self-esteem from being born into established wealthy families. And although everything I’ve told you about this book could lead to the misinterpretation that this is a piece of chick-lit, or some sort of throwback blockbuster, it isn’t that at all. It’s a serious novel with some intriguing questions, smoothed over by an icy cool narrative voice that could belong to one of Hitchcock’s blondes. I love that kind of writing, and find it elegant and smooth to read, though if you are expecting the cosy, chummy warmth of contemporary genre fiction or the slightly over-written sensationalism of a Gone Girl, you’ll find it flat and low on emotion. This is an easy book to mis-label and the wrong expectations could seriously spoil the reading experience.

So anyhoo, our tale begins back in boarding school, where Loviah French is the scholarship girl. She makes friends with two young women who have a great deal more self-assurance – Dinah, who is vivacious, full of fun and confident, but a hater and a grudge-bearer too. And Avis, a cooly superior brain whose basic kindness and generosity can be concealed by a rather awkward manner. After an unfortunate incident during a school trip to a concert, Avis unintentionally puts Dinah down, and Dinah will never, ever forgive her for it.

The friends grow up and take on quite significant careers – Lovie goes into the dressmaking trade, Avis buys art for collectors, and Dinah becomes a celebrity journalist, running a gossip column that keeps her in the public eye. They gain romantic attachments, though none of them are truly successful – Avis’s husband is a rich alcoholic, Dinah marries for love and is betrayed, and Lovie falls for a married man and must manage her expectations accordingly. Not for her are the children who bring such compensation to the lives of her friends, although she becomes godmother to Dinah’s youngest son, Nick, a delightful, talented boy who will be indulged by love.

We know that some sort of dreadful event will occur, but have no idea what it is, so the reader is teased time and again as the story unfolds by all sorts of semi-dramatic happenings in the lives of the main characters. Which ones will combine to produce the awaited tragedy? I confess that even up to the very end, I never saw it coming, and in fact, if there is a flaw in this novel, it was for me the blindsiding nature of the climax: it wasn’t as causally motivated as I’d hoped. Though really, all the pleasure of this novel lies in the journey, and it is a highly pleasurable one, enriched by the sort of deep character portraits that are too rare a find. It’s extremely easy to read but it’s by no means lightweight – instead Beth Gutcheon suggests that we underestimate the impact of the trivial, for what’s meaningless gossip to one person is devastating to another, and the collapse of a good life can so easily result.

On Teaching Literature

The following is something I wrote initially for SNB before thinking that it really didn’t suit the magazine at all. And so I thought I might as well stick it up here!

The gradual erasure of literature from UK schools has been going on for some time and now the situation is set to worsen. Reforms to the exam system mean that from 2015 onwards, a new English language exam will make the teaching of literature optional for children up to sixteen years of age. It will be perfectly possible to get through a whole education without ever studying a well-known book in our own mother tongue.

I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught? For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen – a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home – I hated the way we did it in school. What I adored was the feeling of being utterly caught up in a different world, lost to the twists and turns of a story. In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion. I understood the ambiguity of the stories, but felt too vulnerable myself to appreciate it. I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.

When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.

Some of the answers came to me as I studied the interactions I had with my students. At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness. We are never more fully ourselves than in that private place where we read and – inevitably – judge. To protect that private place (and we do so fiercely), it seems right to insist that a personal opinion is obvious and universal, and to sidestep the challenge of alternative interpretations. And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.

For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side – forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful – they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.

Other problems arose: the students were quickly frustrated by the length of time their studies took. Couldn’t they watch the film adaptation, which would be so much quicker and less demanding? (No, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is NOT an accurate account of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.) Then they were upset by the troublesome assertion that there were no rules to essay writing, and by the confusion that arose out of differing interpretations. Why was it not so that all interpretations were equally valid? And if there were no rules to organising essays, why were their essays still criticised for structure?

Here they bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument. These things aren’t easy to do, and they eschew the sensationalism that our culture generally prioritises in stories, to such an extent now that to take the sensible approach sometimes felt wrong and disappointing to them.

This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.

This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.

Teaching literature has changed a lot since I was at school, and teachers nowadays do a fantastic job of finding ways to bring the magic and the subtle power of storytelling to children’s attention. My son, who was only really interested in computers during his schooldays, loved the Shakespeare he studied, and the Steinbeck and George Orwell’s 1984. These were books that if someone had asked me, his mother, I might have said they were too hard for him. But no, with the right teacher, any book is accessible. It gladdened my heart to think this part of him was being nurtured. Literature isn’t an easy option; surely if stories teach us anything, it’s that nothing worthwhile ever came quickly, simply or easily. But they offer us a kind of pleasure that can be intense and long lasting and a way of knowing the world that can’t be gained anywhere else.

 

Two Brief Reviews

ChinaDollsI was very curious to read Lisa See, having seen her previous books travel around the blog world to mixed, but mostly positive reviews. China Dolls focuses on the situation for Oriental immigrants in America around the Second World War, and in particular the life of dancers and entertainers. Starting in 1938 in San Francisco, three young women come together in friendship as they try to make a living, and a life, for themselves. Grace is American-born Chinese, running from an abusive father. Helen comes from a large, traditional family in Chinatown and Ruby, as no one knows at first, is actually Japanese but hiding it. The Oriental nightclub, Forbidden City, is holding auditions for showgirls and over the course of these, the girls get to know one another and bond, though the friendship they share will always be shot through with rivalries and tensions, caused by the competitiveness of their careers and history, old and new.

Each of the three girls takes a turn in narrating the story, though it isn’t even-handed. The sweetest of the characters, Grace, gets the most pervasive voice and the simplest storyline as she falls for local boy, Joe, and suffers betrayal at his hands. Ruby has the best plot, being the most ruthlessly ambitious whilst attempting to disguise her Japanese origins. Helen struggles to free herself from the highly restrictive culture that dominates her large family, and turns out to have all sorts of traumatic secrets in her past, none of which are explained for a long time. This is a bit of a flaw, as she is the most abrasive and difficult character for reasons that only come out in a rush at the end. The weakest part of the story lies in the knot of friendship between the girls, which goes through all sorts of permutations as their allegiances to one another shift and change. Motivations are often thrust at us, and so they feel somewhat fragile. I can’t say I was deeply invested in who was best friends with whom and why, though I felt the story wanted me to be.

However, the situational history was extremely interesting, including the rise of Asian performers in Hollywood and the fate of the Japanese in America after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It seemed to be my month for reading about alien enemy internment camps in the USA (two books in the space of a few weeks) and I found their story fascinating. Overall, I did enjoy this – I was always interested in the fate of the girls and found the book very easy to read, but there are a few flaws and the writing is just okay.

 

 

owen's daughterOwen’s Daughter is similarly a tale of survival against rough odds, but set in an entirely different location – Albuquerque, New Mexico and the present day. When the story begins, Skye is waiting to be picked up from the rehab centre where she has spent the past nine months drying out and battling an addiction to pills. She is anxious to rejoin her young daughter who she has left in the dubious care of her mother-in-law, the marriage she had to her son, Rocky, a rodeo star, having foundered some time ago.

Skye’s immense distress that her ride from the rehab centre never shows is both soothed and compounded when her father arrives to take care of her. She hasn’t seen him since she was twelve and her parents’ marriage broke up. At that point her father disappeared out of her life, leaving her with an ever more unreliable mother, and Skye knows that a lot of her own problems have stemmed from this time. But now her father has reappeared and wants nothing more than to forge a new and durable relationship with her. When it turns out that Skye’s mother-in-law is nowhere to be found and her daughter, Gracie, is lost, he is ready to do all he can to trace his grandchild, despite Skye’s sharp tongue and her underlying resentment.

Complications ensue when their lives become entangled with an old flame of Skye’s father. Margaret has just received bad news of her own when the man she loved and lost a decade ago suddenly turns up in her neighbourhood. For both Margaret and Owen, this is a joyful reunion, but now both have troubled offspring to deal with, for Margaret’s son, Peter, is home after the break-up of his marriage and drinking too much.

Basically, this is your comforting tale of lives gone awry that gradually and slowly find traction again. It is apparently a sequel to the novel, Solomon’s Oak, which I evidently haven’t read and don’t see that I needed to. But the ending of the story is also inconclusive in parts, which suggests that a further portion will be forthcoming. There’s a lot to do with horses, as both Skye and her father, Owen, find work with them, Owen being a trainer from way back. And there’s also a friendly spirit, Dolores, who wafts about a bit, doing her best to bring people together, which really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Those (rare) spirit sections are rather well done. Altogether the writing and characterisation are pleasing – unpretentious but believable, Mapson’s characters are a good mix of ornery snark, kindness and self-awareness. The problems they face feel real, but they aren’t allowed to weigh too heavily; this is a book all about moving forward with courage. I found it very engrossing.