December To Be ReadWhat HAVE I been doing? It’s 16 December and this is the first book review I’ve posted this month? I’ve looked around and I really can’t find that I’ve missed out reviewing some huge book that I’ve read. Oh dear! And my TBR has burst (more on that later) so I’ve really got to find the time for MORE READING! I am reading a book on editing to review, so there’ll be a standalone review later on in the week, and I have also been writing up my Iris Murdoch research, which has gone out for comments to my lovely mentors and will be going off to my reading groups once I’ve made a few amendments – that took a couple of evenings. Anyway, here are two book reviews that are both related to booky events.

Jen Campbell – “The Bookshop Book”

(Borrowed from Ali)

This book was the Books Are My Bag book this month – you can read more about this and this book on Heaven-Ali’s blog and it was she who loaned me this lovely book to read (don’t worry: I’ve got her back with a lend of a little pile myself!).

This is a delightful wander though the bookshops of the world, celebrating the shops (whether selling new, second-hand or a mix of books), their owners, customer and pets, with interviews with writers about their favourite bookshops and pages of little snippets and facts. It’s really nicely done by someone who clearly has a huge love for bookshops, and some of the stories about pairing customers and books are very affecting.

It was great to see some bookshops that I know in the mix, and good to be reminded of the excellent second-hand bookshop in Reykjavik which I haven’t explored properly (yet). Bookshops do come and go, so it couldn’t be used as an actual guidebook for very long, but it’s a lovely book to dip into, with a gallimauphry of images and impressions of book shops and their owners.

We don’t have an independent bookshop in Birmingham, but I would mention the excellent arts bookshop in the Ikon Gallery. Other favourites of mine are Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, the Penrith Bookshop in the north of the Lake District, Fireside Books in Windermere (which is moving to East Sussex), Halls in Tunbridge Wells (which I think is still there) and the marvellous High Street Books in New Mills.

Willa Cather – “Youth and the Bright Medusa”

(Kindle book – downloaded in December)

7-14 December was Willa Cather Reading Week, and again inspired by Ali, I downloaded this book of short stories, reasoning that even if I only read one out of the collection, I’d still be taking part in the Reading Week (and read more about that here and the round-up here). I did actually manage to read the whole collection by the end of Sunday (but didn’t get round to writing this review).

I’ve read several of Cather’s  novels over the last decade and greatly enjoyed their construction and atmosphere, although these have tended to be her pioneer novels (with the exception of Alexander’s Bridge, which was partly set in London). Here’s a link to all of the reviews I’ve done so far – some early ones laughably wispy! These stories mostly address Cather’s other main strand of interest: the artist and their psychology, with “Coming, Aphrodite!”, the longest and first story, examining both a painter and a singer and their startlingly modern relationship. “The Diamond Mine” goes into the demands placed upon the goose that lays the golden egg, narrated by that marvellous type, the quiet sidekick who’s seemingly there for every event while not taking part in the action themselves. “A Gold Slipper” throws the artist up against the implacable but strangely erodable dislike of Industry. “Paul’s Case” takes a different direction and is a fascinating and hugely atmospheric piece about a boy whose only desire is to grab a bit of sophistication and luxury for himself; I really don’t know how Cather manages to foreshadow the rather grim ending so that it is entirely expected, but a shock all the same, but she does, and she does it well. “A Death in the Desert” is a superb exploration of identity, art, personality and family.

These are very good stories, old-fashioned in a good way (I’m one for a short story that tells a proper story) and reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s stories, or even Thomas Hardy’s. I love the way she describes people’s faces and clothes, and the unexpected details of a room in a shabby house or the birds in Washington Square. I have downloaded “The Song of the Lark”, which takes her heroine from the frontier town to a singing career, and will definitely get to that one soon.

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Dec 2014 2Christmas started this year with the BookCrossing Christmas party, with its attendant Not So Secret Santa parcels flying around the table. I was thrilled to open the parcels containing these four lovelies, all from my wish list (some wished for aaages ago), as well as a lovely ornament, some chocolate and a Lush Christmas Pud bath bomb. Lucky me! I’m in another two Secret Santas this year – my LibraryThing Virago Group one has arrived and I can tell there are two books in there but I’m not opening it until Christmas Day, and I’m thinking the Project 365 Photo-A-Day one (not yet arrived) might NOT contain books, although you never know (and I will admit to sending my Santee a book …) I also have a little pile of grey-wrapped, grey books which I bought for myself from other people on my trip to the Persephone Bookshop in November – so that’s my own fault, isn’t it. There are two Dorothy Whipples in there, so what’s the betting I promote one up my TBR pile and get into it between Christmas and New Year.

Dec 2014 3I’m currently reading this book on editing which was kindly sent to me by the publisher. I’m quoted in the book and appear in the index, which is quite exciting (but won’t influence my review, I promise). On reviews, I’ve sent off my piece on James Evans’ “Merchant Adventurers” to the folks at Shiny New Books and will point you to the review when it’s out in January.

Claire visitsOne more thing – I had a lovely afternoon with Claire from the LibraryThing Virago Group, up in Birmingham for a training day, on Sunday. We had two cuppas, looked round town and peered at the Library of Birmingham, and had a nice meal with Matthew at Woktastic. Here’s a photo for all those LibraryThingers who wanted to see one!

Have you received any book-shaped parcels yet? Are you getting any reading in among the tree decorating and card writing (if you celebrate Christmas) or are you planning a reading fest between Christmas and the New Year?