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.

A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.

What Some People Do In The Name Of Love

We were brutally woken at dawn yesterday by thunderous hammering on our front door and yelling. It sounded like a raid, but when Mr Litlove went rushing to the window it was just youths and they (he? I never did ask) went away. I admit I was terrified. It didn’t help that my recurring nightmare of late is of being inside the house whilst it is being broken into – not exactly fun to think that was coming true for a few minutes. Because our house fronts directly onto the street we’ve had people (men or young boys) knocking on the windows and doors late in the evening when they are on their way back from the pub. But we’ve never had anything quite so pointlessly sadistic happen before. Who would want to do such a thing?

theKissWell, one of the many great qualities about reading is that you usually find within the pages of a book a whole lot of people much worse off than yourself. Having been meaning to read Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, for weeks now, I finally got around to it on the weekend. It tells the story of Harrison’s incestuous relationship when she is reunited aged 20 with the father she hasn’t seen since early childhood. When it was published in 1997, it met with a mostly hostile reception, critics decrying the queasiness of such an honest account and reproaching the author for having written and displayed it in the public domain, particularly when she had children of her own.

Much more interesting was an article it spawned that argued such adult reunions were often fraught with sexual intentions. It’s known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and: ‘What is not well known is that in an estimated 50 per cent of cases the meeting is accompanied by strong feelings of sexual attraction.’ What the outrage also seemed to discount was that in Kathryn Harrison’s case, her fascination with her father was platonic, and he was the one who insisted on taking things further. As ever it amazes me that whenever sex comes into the story, it’s always the woman on whom the censure primarily and publicly falls. Very little seems to have been said about her father, except that maybe the poor man didn’t want his dirty laundry put on display; it might, after all, damage his reputation as a Protestant minister.

Harrison must come from one of the most dysfunctional families to have disgraced the literary page. Her parents were 17 when they met and had Kathryn, her mother an aspiring actress who found herself married to a man selling encyclopedias to try and make a living. Her mother’s wealthy and somewhat controlling parents intervened and insisted on a divorce when Kathryn was six months old. She was then brought up almost exclusively by her grandparents. Her mother did live with them for a while, but it was not a success. She was far too young to be interested in her own child, not to mention enraged by all that had happened to her. Kathryn was well aware that any love she received was conditional, for instance on Kathryn being able to learn to speak and read French, something she found at six and seven almost impossible to do. However, when as an adolescent it was her weight in question, she found it all too easy to stop eating. The search for admiration was also a rebellion. ‘You want thin? I remember thinking. I’ll give you thin. I’ll define thin, not you. Not the suggested one hundred and twenty pounds but ninety-five.’ She would suffer from periods of anorexia and bulimia from then onwards.

When her father re-entered her life while she was in college, his upfront and outspoken fascination with her was as hypnotic as it was disturbing. ‘I don’t know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it: my father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.’ When she drove him to the airport to see him off, he kissed her, changing their relationship irrevocably.

In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed.’

This is a literary way of saying that her father blackmailed her emotionally into a full affair with him. He would argue that God had given her to him, that God was revealed to him through her body and her love and that she was everything to him. He would write endless letters and call her up to three times a day.

”How am I” he says when he calls, and he says this because how he is depends utterly on how much I love him. Without me, there is no meaning, purpose or pleasure in his life.’

For the neglected daughter of an emotionally-withholding mother, this was hopelessly binding stuff. When love threatened not to exert its power over her, her father was equally ready to use his anger too:

 “Well,” he says, and he folds his arms. “You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it with me. And now you’ll never be able to have anyone else, because you won’t be able to keep our secret. You’ll tell whoever it is, and once he knows, he’ll leave you.”

As is usual when the mind is held hostage, the body speaks. Kathryn suffered from a whole panoply of symptoms. First a bad case of shingles, then depression and insomnia, bulimia and finally pneumonia. The latter she succumbed to when she had moved in with her father and his second family – her father’s second wife in full awareness of what was going on between them but so controlled by Kathryn’s father that she accepted it. In all this sorry story, it’s the complicit nature of the adults around Kathryn that’s most upsetting. They are all too self-obsessed or weak or distracted to offer her any help at all.

This is a horrifying book, but I didn’t find it a depressing one. It is an amazing testimony to the human spirit that Kathryn Harrison went through all she did and somehow managed to emerge the other side. Not that she says a great deal about the healing process. Her grandfather dies, and then her mother dies at 41, and it is as if an evil enchantment has been lifted. In a moment of perspicacity, Kathryn understands that it was unacknowledged anger towards her mother that was responsible in part for bringing her and her father together. It was the love she ended up feeling for her mother that broke the spell.

I quite understand how people might look at a book like this and think it isn’t their cup of tea. But I’m less sure why anyone would want it censured. After all, it’s denial and wilful blindness that cause most of the worse emotional abuses, or at least allow them to carry on unhindered. Unfortunate as it is, there is a dark side to humanity, one that acts out time and time again. We can be sanctimonious about it, and wish it out of our sight. But I don’t think it will ever go away unless we look at it without flinching, and consider the circumstances that cultivate it.

 

 

Three Disasters

1. I was sitting up in bed writing my diary about a week ago, when I heard Mr Litlove talking on the phone. Few people ring so late, so I was not surprised to hear he was talking to our son, and making many expressions of deep sympathy. I’ve been channelling Dorothy Parker for a while now, and I confess the phrase that sprang to mind was: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Though as is the case when trouble hoves into view, I am always looking in the wrong direction. This is how you know what’s real: you could never have guessed it.

It turned out that it was one of my son’s best friends who was in need of assistance and a bed for the night. His girlfriend lives in our village, and he had gone to visit her, only to find that she and her family were out. He sat on the doorstep for a while and then, bored, had gone for a walk. Only to run into a bunch of youths who had assaulted him. Now he was injured, and the family still hadn’t returned, and it was nearly midnight.

I felt both enormously sorry for my son’s friend, and deeply exhausted at the thought of his arrival. I think I’m suffering from compassion fatigue, after all my son’s troubles of late. Plus it was the end of the week in which we had launched the magazine, and I’m still writing a book here and I was just tired. I’ve noticed, though, that when a situation calls for me to be more engaged and nurturing than I think I can manage, it arouses profound anxiety. The thought of this poor wounded child arriving (would he need to be taken to hospital?) nearly gave me a panic attack. Though in fact, when he came, he only had a small cut on his forehead (where he’d been headbutted) and wasn’t the traumatised boy I’d imagined.

We all went to bed, and in the stillness of the night I could hear him moving around in our son’s room. I was lying there, wide awake, trying to reconstruct his movements. I could hear him talking very quietly on the phone. Then more movement. Then he went downstairs and seemed to try the front door. I could feel Mr Litlove beside me, listening too. After another brief call, he went downstairs again and out of the door. Mr Litlove looked out the window and saw a car arrive and pick him up. Either this was the most willing kidnap in criminal history, or his family had come for him. In the morning we found a really sweet note that he’d left us, saying it was his girlfriend’s family who had finally returned and picked him up en route.

 

2. On Monday morning I was driving to work at the bookshop and sitting in the usual heavy traffic, when I saw my hairdresser pass by in his car on the other side of the road. I was so surprised to see him, as one is with people who belong so intrinsically to their environment. But we waved gaily at one another, and in turning around to do so, I stalled the car. And then, when I tried to start it again, the engine was completely dead.

I put my hazard warning lights on and wondered what on earth to do. I thought for one mad moment I should get out and push, before remembering you needed someone at the wheel to do that. I dug my phone out of my bag, though knew Mr Litlove was in a day-long strategy meeting and couldn’t help. All this time, traffic was pouring around me, white vans honking in protest, the buses squeezing through impatiently with millimetres to spare. And then a saviour appeared at my passenger window in the form of a man on a bike with a beard and ponytail. ‘Have you broken down?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t think you could just be sitting there.’ As he began to push, so the window cleaners from the shop materialised and, recognising me, came to help. I was at least now off the main road in a side street, though parked in a doctor’s space.

The window cleaner had a look at the engine and thought it was the battery. He asked me what had happened and I tried to explain my hairdresser’s surprise drive-by, a narrative he greeted with an expression of bewilderment mixed with indulgent contempt. He had packed off his apprentice – over whom he rules with a sort of benign despotism – to finish the job they’d been doing and said that, when they were ready to leave, he figured they could give me a push start and I could make it home. I don’t have any rescue cover, as Mr Litlove is fond of cancelling things that charge against chance; which is fine when he has the luck of the devil, but not fine for me who most certainly does not. I’d thought I needed to open the shop, so that was a complication, but luckily it turned out that someone was in. So I returned to my car to await my unlikely heroes.

‘I’ve never done this before,’ I said when they appeared. ‘So you’ll have to tell me exactly…’

‘Do you want to push?’

‘Yes.’

So I lined up with the apprentice, both of us grinning wryly at each other in acknowledgement of our lowly status, and we pushed and ran and pushed and the engine caught again.

 

3. So on Thursday night I was once again in bed, writing up my diary, when I became aware of a commotion coming from the bathroom. Mr Litlove was yelling for my help, an act that was unprecedented in our twenty years of marriage, and there was the ominous sound of water cascading. I sped over the landing, opened the bathroom door and saw a drenched Mr Litlove, his hands in the toilet cistern, attempting to stem a gushing fountain of water that would have graced Trafalgar Square. ‘Go and get me a screwdriver!’ he begged, and I shot off, not really liking to admit that I could probably only identify a screwdriver under conditions of complete calm and on receipt of a jolly good clue. In any case, as I hunted around our utility room, there didn’t seem to be any tools in evidence at all. I tore back, tripping up the stairs, with the whole (almost empty) toolbox in hand. ‘You’ll have to stop it while I look,’ Mr Litlove said. ‘Put your hand here and flush the loo when the water gets high enough.’

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s out of control water. It seems to symbolise the most powerful forces of nature able to destroy and wreck in blind chaos. I sloshed through the lake that was covering the bathroom floor and stuck my thumb in the dyke, as it were, my heart pounding and trying not to shiver in my thin nightdress. I could hear Mr Litlove running down the garden path to his shed, and then back to the house and up the stairs. When he had a screwdriver, he could turn off the isolator down by the cistern, and the fountain of water died instantly away. For a moment we neither said nor did anything, catching our breath.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Mr Litlove. He had been washing up downstairs when he heard water running down the windows, which he identified as coming from the overflow. Thinking he could effect a quick repair, he’d gone to take the troublesome part out of the cistern, and…I guess it didn’t go so well. We still don’t have a working toilet upstairs, which is okay, we have a cloakroom, but I’m always halfway up the stairs before I remember.

So it seems the lords of misrule are still aligned over the Fens and I am left wondering what will happen next? It doesn’t bear thinking about…