Yesterday the staff at the bookshop could not bear the suspense any more and ceremoniously gathered round to break the seal on S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst (Canongate, £28), which has been intriguing us since it arrived. Inside the slipcase is a slightly battered looking “library book”, with its own Dewey decimal sticker, and date stamps. The novel is full of side notes, in different hands, debating the text, commenting to each other. Scatttered throughout the book are postcards, old posters, a cloth map, typed and handwritten letters, old newspaper cuttings. Reports are that the novel itself is worth reading, but not brilliant, but what we loved was the attention to detail in the whole package, and the absurd variety of material tucked into the book. A printer was in the shop last night and could not keep his hands off it. How did they do it all for £28, he said. As a publisher, I want to know as well. I hope the novel is good – but really, I don’t care. The whole book is such a masterpiece.
Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t read this book when I was younger – in fact, I wasn’t even aware of its existence. I read 101 Dalmatians many times, and its sequel The Starlight Barking, and thoroughly enjoyed them. I suspect at that age (eight or so) I wouldn’t have thought much of I Capture the Castle. However, at age (ahem), I loved it.
It is a gentle, beautifully written story told in the form of Cassandra Mortmain’s diaries. Cassandra is seventeen, and she lives in a castle with her elder sister Rose, younger brother Thomas, a kind of adopted brother Stephen, her author father and stepmother Topaz. Her father has had writers’ block ever since he was sent to prison for an unfortunate incident where he threatened Cassandra’s (late) mother with a cake knife. As a result the family is struggling to make ends meet – to have a boiled egg with the teatime bread and butter is a treat. Onto the scene come the American owners of the castle, Simon and Neil, and Cassandra finds out about love in all its varieties.
All the way from the classic first line – “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – to the end, I Capture the Castle had me hooked. I believed in all the characters, and cared about them, despite their all-too-apparent flaws. Although the setting is somewhat dated (the book was first published in 1949) I think today’s teenagers might enjoy it as much as I did.
This is not the overlong, padded out, translated version by that Tolstoy bloke, but the twelve word board book by Jack and Holman Wang. Suitable for small children and those who always wanted to read War and Peace but never got round to it.
Andrei and Pierre love their country and the same woman. Which knitted-felt man will knitted-felt Natasha choose? I’d pick the knitted-felt horse myself. Utterly charming.
Copies of what must now be the canonical version of War and Peace are available in the bookshop at £6.99.
“Today, I find I can see through my eyelids.” Which is a good thing, as I need to read Jackson’s debut collection (published by Bloodaxe) with my eyes shut, and I can’t put it down. Her poetry is deliberately unheimlich (the opposite of what is familiar), it profoundly disturbs at the same time as it draws us in. We can hear “The Ten O’Clock Horses” coming down the street, we can feel the “devastating wind” in that deserted hotel in Bulgaria. We reach the end of the book and realise we have to ask ourselves the same terrifying (yet exciting) questions about ourselves and the world around us, which are not quite explicit in the poems but at the same time shout clearly in our minds. And then we start reading again. Longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and winner of the Seamus Heaney award for a first collection, this promises great things to come from Sarah Jackson.
There are two things I know about Preston. One is that Preston’s Brutalist bus station is a Grade II listed building, and the other is that it is the hometown of Jim Burns. Jim is one of those writers you will only hear about if you read small press mags. The smaller the mag the more likely you are to find him. Jim Burns probably knows more about small mags than anyone else living, and writes in them and about them, covering and reviewing poetry, and jazz, and the beat scene. Typically, his collections of essays are published by Penniless Press. With three Penniless volumes to choose from, I had to pick the one with a chapter “In Praise of Booksellers” where he gives brief introductions to forgotten booksellers, selling forgotten works to customers who’ve probably forgotten they went there. These include the Turret Bookshop in London, presided over by the late Bernard Stone, from Nottingham.
One of Burns’ other chapters is, indeed, “The Names of the Forgotten”. Of course some Beat writers could not be more public – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso – but Burns stretches further back, to “The Origins of the Beat Generation” and to (mostly American) journals – the Evergreen Review, The Masses, and to other American writers, James T. Farrell and B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierre Madre. Literary archaeologists will enjoy all his books.