I bought this at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (before the Five Leaves Bookshop was a gleam in Ross the Boss’s eye, I hasten to add) on a whim, purely on the basis of the cover and the title. A 24-hour bookshop… now there’s an idea… (sorry boss)
Clay Jannon loses his job as a web designer. He accidentally finds a new job on the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s Bookstore, and soon realises that this is no ordinary bookshop. Part of his training involves how to climb the ladders to the ridiculously high bookshelves, which customers aren’t allowed to access. Customers, there’s another thing. There aren’t many, they’re all very odd, and they only ever borrow the books. Clay is determined to work out what’s going on, so he applies modern technology to the problem and soon works out that the customers are trying to solve an ancient riddle. Of course, he tries to solve it… then Mr Penumbra disappears…
If you asked me what genre this book fits, I couldn’t tell you. Amazon UK has it tagged as contemporary fiction, Amazon US places it in metaphysical genre fiction. The lone copy at the Five Leaves bookshop has wandered all over the place, and I think it’s now residing in the ‘books about books’ section. I guess magical realism just about covers it. It’s a fun read – kind of a Da Vinci Code for people who have brain cells to rub together. I loved it.
This is a novel that shouldn’t be enjoyable. It purports to be the journals of Jean-Marie d’Aumout, a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. We first meet him as an orphan eating beetles (the black ones taste nicer than the brown ones) outside the house where his noble (but stupid) parents have starved to death because they were too proud to beg for food. Throughout his life, Jean-Marie is obsessed with food, more particularly with the taste of food. He isn’t a glutton, he just wants to taste everything at its best. His journal entries are interspersed with his recipes for the various foodstuffs he encounters. Through a series of adventures he becomes friends with Ben Franklin, Voltaire and de Sade, and achieves some prominence at Versailles. He marries and has children, is aware of the unfairness of French society but fears the revolution which he can see is approaching.
It shouldn’t be enjoyable because it dispenses with little details like plot arcs, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, tying up all the loose ends… it’s written exactly as if it’s the journal of one man’s life. But despite that, and despite the inherent ickyness of a boy/man who will describe eating anything and everything, I loved this book. Jean-Marie was beautifully developed and totally believable, and the surrounding cast of characters are still living in my head. The tawdry not-quite-splendour of post-Sun-King France is presented in the matter-of-fact manner one would expect of someone who lived there, but that someone has a way with words that takes all your senses from the present day and plonks them down in eighteenth-century France.
I’m looking forward to Grimwood’s next novel – I hope it is equally mould-breaking. (Jean-Marie doesn’t mention eating mould, but I’m sure he would have done)
I read this book last night. Started to read at 11.45pm, fell asleep on it a couple of hours later, woke up at about 4.30am and switched the light on and finished it. Couldn’t not. It’s funny, touching, mad, sad, and totally un-put-downable.
Gunnar Huttunen comes to a small village in the north Finnish backwoods soon after the Second World War. He sets to repairing the mill, and to start with seems to settle in. He entertains the villagers and the children by imitating various animals and birds, and apart from the odd period of depression when he howls in the woods all night long, waking the village dogs and setting them to barking, he makes friends. He falls in love with Sanelma, the horticulture advisor, who persuades him to start a small vegetable garden. This idyll doesn’t last, however. Gunnar lapses into manic behaviour on a regular basis, upsetting his neighbours and incurring their wrath. For instance, when his vegetable garden is still bare earth after a few days despite his care and attention, he mulls over the problem then races up to the farm where Sanelma is lodging in the early hours of the morning and demands to speak to her there and then. As a result of a bizarre yet seemingly inevitable sequence of events, the fat farmer’s wife is tumbled down the stairs and claims to be deaf and paralysed thenceforth.
Can’t recommend this highly enough. The copy I read was produced by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in – in conjunction with Canongate – one of the best small publishers I’ve come across – in a limited hardback edition. It was my mother’s copy – I may have to acquire my own.
This slim and rather beautiful volume (I’m a sucker for good-looking books) is part of a series from The School of Life, which is “a cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life. [They] offer a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” I thought it might offer advice – the title seems to indicate as much – but it’s more like a series of musings on the nature of life today, and how everyone’s life (and the shape and functioning of society itself) is affected by the pervasiveness of technology. Chatfield pulls in research and ideas from influential and lesser-known thinkers and ties it all together into a neat little package which doesn’t tell you how to thrive, but (perhaps more usefully) tells you what you need to be aware of in order to determine your own survival strategy. I found myself alternating between ah, so that explains why I do that and yes, but how do I deal with that particular problem?, and I got to the end of the book with a peculiar feeling that I hadn’t really learned anything. I suspect that isn’t true, and I suspect I’m going to have to read it again to make some more sense out of it. It’s to Chatfield’s credit that I’m happy to do so – I can very rarely be bothered to re-read books.
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.