Friday, 27 July 2012

Something For The Weekend... Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It

Whatever one feels about the Olympics (for the record I'm quite excited) I think we all know that travelling around is going to be a bit of a nightmare. I would recommend you stay at home but then you won't come to the shop so I won't do that. Instead I will give you something to distract you from all the delays and discomforts. I read it standing in the vestibule of a train travelling from Birmingham to Edinburgh. Actually I read most of it standing in the vestibule of a train not travelling from Birmingham to Edinburgh- I remember one particularly lengthy stop in a field not far from Preston, followed by a couple of hours at Preston Station. It was storms rather than sport which did for that journey but Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It got me through with nothing worse than some odd looks when I dribbled a bit from laughing. It will make your journey better.

So the first thing to say is that it is very very funny. I'm not exactly sure why it's so funny, there are some excellent set pieces but it's not these that mark it out particularly, it's more to do with the tone in which Dyer tells his tales of travel, love, and disaster. I think of it as a book which can't quite make up it's mind about what it is, and the tone reflects this. It resembles a travel memoir- and it is this- but it is also something else: it's a sort of attempt to find coherence from a motley selection of memories. As the pieces progress it becomes clear that for Dyer this motley collection of memories already possess an uncanny coherence, he's just trying to figure out why.

Miraculously, the fact that Dyer doesn't seem entirely sure what is going on does not make it difficult to read. By all rights it should be awful. Essentially what we have is a guy we don't know telling us about the time he took lots of drugs, had lots of sex and visited lots of beautiful and amazing places with beautiful and amazing people. It should be like sitting through the endless holiday snaps of some smug friend-of-a-friend just back from Interailing, but it isn't. A lot of the time the drugs have turned on him, the girl has left him and he's lost. Even when he's blissfully happy and content he know's he's not really; or the older Dyer, the one writing the book, knows he's not really, or that he won't be for much longer. But here again the book eludes us because this sounds sad, is sad, and is also funny. When I wrote that much of the humour lies in the tone I meant that it lies in the gap between the man who had the fun and the man writing about the fun. Sometimes this gap is huge and ironic, then at other times you can almost feel Dyer willing himself back to this beach party or that cafe: it's moving, pathetic, honest and very funny.

By the end of the book Dyer has been from New Orleans to Libya to Cambodia, he's met lots of people, lost contact with just as many, and he's still not certain what is going on, but he does have a better sense of his life and his relationship to his memories. And your nightmarish journey will be over without you noticing it had started.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Latitude Festival 2012

Last weekend, a few of us from Charing Cross Road travelled all the way to Suffolk to sell books in the middle of a field for Latitude Festival. We have sold books there for 3 years now, with the weather getting wetter with each successive year. 2 years ago it briefly rained on one afternoon; this year it rained all night for the first 2 nights and most of the 3rd day. This led to a lot of mud!

The Poetry Arena was more of a destination than it perhaps has been in previous years, with Blake Morrison, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage (who has a new non-fiction book, Walking Home) and Benjamin Zephaniah drawing healthy crowds, with the last 3 selling out of books. Benjamin Zephaniah drew the biggest crowd the festival has seen for a literature event since Brett Easton Ellis was there 2 years ago.

The highlights of the weekend for me were the comedians who have written books. Dave Gorman's talk on his new book, Dave Gorman Vs the Rest of the World, was particularly funny, with stories of being locked in a dark attic in Wales waiting to play subbuteo and playing the world champions of various small British games. Russell Kane talked about his book, The Humorist; Simon Day talked about his experiences as a member of the Fast Show team and his struggle to overcome various addictions in his new book, Comedy and Error; Robin Ince, a regular at Latitude built on his success from the Infinite Monkey Cage to talk about science and sell copies of his Bad Book Club; and Miles Jupp talked about all things cricket and his book, Fibber in the Heat.

The non-fiction talks also did really well, with subjects ranging from beekeeping to Bruce Springsteen; from migraines to politics with John Pilger; and from last year's riots to brains. All in all the weekend was a success and we hope to do the book sales for Latitude for many years to come.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Something for the weekend.. Soccernomics

Something a little different this week - it's Soccernomics by Simon Kuper & Stefan Stymanzki.

After claiming a few weeks back that you didn't have to like Football to enjoy 'The Damned Utd' I can safely say the opposite about this title. Having said that, if you do love your footy you will absolutely love this book (& it's a perfect present for the scarf waver in the family).
There are a lot of statistics in this book - this can't be denied, but somehow it's far from a 'dry' read. One reason for this is Kuper's writing style, he's a wry, amusing man who keeps the information interesting by peppering it with witty remarks & sometimes amusingly (almost) bitchy comments. The other is that the statistics themselves are so very interesting. We discover why England are in fact over achieving each time we get knocked out in the quarter finals, yes over achieving. You may scoff but by the time Kuper has run through the reasons you'll be stifling a sob for our plucky heroes!
Another cracking chapter involves the 'science' of penalties, for example the reason Anelka missed that champions league effort was that he was the only one who ignored the advice of the statisticians (Terry was trying to follow instructions when he slipped - he's never to blame ay?).
You'll also discover why it doesn't really matter who your manager is (most of the time), and is Football racist? (nothing to do with high court cases but looking at transfers). It's fascinating, entertaining stuff.

I would also recommend you take a look at 'The Football Men' a collection of Kuper's articles on some of the legends & lesser (but no less interesting) lights of the beautiful game.

But it here


Friday, 13 July 2012

Something for the weekend.. Smut

This weeks Something for the weekend is 'Smut' by Alan Bennett.

There's a lot of talk of sex in literature at the moment isn't there? '50 shades..' is everywhere, but I didn't have that, or that in mind when I picked up 'Smut'.
I've always like Alan Bennett's work, whether it be his autobiographical books, his plays & scripts,or his fiction. A particular favourite is his hilarious yet touching script for 'Prick up your ears' his adaptation for film of John Lahr's Joe Orton biography & indeed, reading Smut, I felt that had Orton been allowed to grow old disgracefully then 'Smut' would have been the sort of work he himself may have produced. It's that delightful, snappy, 'outrageous' dialogue - the oft-repeated question answered with a question that reminds me of prime Orton.
Here Bennett goes behind the twitching curtains in two novellas that both, in their own way, deal with sex, repression & to some degree class. The first story deals with Mrs Donaldson, she finds herself widowed & in need of a little extra money so takes in lodgers. When the student pair are short one month they offer Mrs Donaldson a 'private show' in lieu of payment, opening up new possibilities to the previously homely Mrs Donaldson. I love Bennett's characters, he can produce well rounded believable characters with just a few sharp lines.
The second story involves the preening, self absorbed, secretly homosexual Graham. He takes a wife as he thinks he should but his extra marital affairs lead him into danger, meanwhile all is not as it seems with his new 'plain' wife or his seemingly hen-pecked Father. This story is really all about secrets & lies. Every character's secret inner life being shielded from the other leading to complications that could have easily been avoided. Graham's Mother is a particuarly grand Bennett creation.
Beautifully written, with his trademark wit & biting dialogue this is genuinely a weekend read - I read it in a matter of hours. If you enjoyed the BBC talking heads shows then do have a look at this. It's very easy to imagine (for example) Patricia Routledge or Prunella Scales sat in a cosy armchair telling the first tale with a secret smile & darting eyes. I'd also recommend The Uncommon Reader , Bennett's tale of the Queens literary awakening as another quick but satisfying read.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Fiction for Book Fiends

In the wake of its success, Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired an awakening of interest in erotic literature since its release and subsequent success worldwide. For those seeking an extra thrill, there are some classic works from the world of erotica to whet the appetite. Justine, The Gothic Tales of The Marquis de Sade and Philosophy in the Boudoir are all excellent novels; appealing for their lavish descriptions and the rich language. 

Philosophy in the Boudoir tells the tale of young, virginal EugĂ©nie who is invited to the house of Madame de Saint-Ange for a lesson in libertinism at the hands of two older men, one of them an atheist and homosexual. The ‘action’ takes place in a bedroom in Madame de Saint-Ange’s house over the course of two days. Although it was initially considered as nothing more than pornographic, Philosophy in the Boudoir has come to be viewed as more of a dramatic socio-political commentary whereby the characters argue that libertinism is the way forward as it reinforces the political revolution of the time in France (de Sade wrote this in 1795, amidst the cacophony of the French Revolution). Should people fail to adopt to the ways and philosophy of the libertine, France will reinstate the monarchy and be reduced to its previous stagnant state. The thing about de Sade’s writing is, it isn’t just sex and violence against women, it’s bursting with metaphors about identity, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and  individuality plus, he writes about sex really well. Of course, as with pretty much all of the Marquis’ writing, he does focus on the idea that the sole goal of human existence is pleasure and feels that morality, compassion and religion are ridiculous ideas that obstruct human pursuit of pleasure. As in most of his work, sodomy is the preferred activity for all concerned, all the characters prove to be bisexual and the female being ‘educated’ is somewhat of a fast learner for someone who’s having her virginity taken by several people all at once in some cases. Unlike most of his work, Philosophy in the Boudoir features no murder but does include torture and plenty of sex. Plenty.

My favourite piece of de Sade’s work is Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue, mainly because I think it’s very well written, the story is entertaining and the characters seem to have been thought out much more clearly than those in his other works. The story concerns a young woman who finds herself caught in situations involving perverse individuals, who subject her to their whims and become her masters. In one way, Justine is quite pitiable as de Sade writes her character as though none of her misfortunes are her fault. On the other hand, her tormentors continually warn her that her worship of virtue will only afford her more suffering at their hands, thus she proves to be an interesting if somewhat thick character, to put it mildly. From the outset, Justine is identified as a lone figure, born with a “melancholy turn of mind." In spirit, she is already doomed to be unhappy regardless of any good fortune that comes her way. Unlike her sister Juliette, Justine will never learn to value survival over providence and this proves to be her biggest misfortune. It makes for a very good read though!

E.L James' Fifty Shades trilogy has proved controversial with critics, just as Sade was controversial in his own time for writing about violent sexual escapades that usually ended in murder. Or at the very least, psychological trauma for the female characters; always the victims and never the masters/mistresses of their own sexuality, a theme that is mirrored in Fifty Shades of Grey. In reality, Sade demonstrated that there were few ways for a woman to earn a living in eighteenth century France, other than through prostitution or perverse forms of servitude. Along the way, he indulged in provocative ideas of role play, sexual mastery and dominance, all notions that probably would have made him quite popular nowadays in the age of pornography and BDSM. The difference between this age of lads mags and de Sade is, he knew how to wield a pen (and probably a few other things if rumours are to be believed) and he did write beautifully about horrible events and vile deaths. He was ahead of his time, in short. I still love his work, not that it’s a pragmatic approach to life or that his views on women are esteemed, they’re not and shouldn’t be. I just love the words, I love the way the words work. It says something when someone can convey an upsetting vision in a beautiful way and in the process, makes a provocative facet of life seem just a little less scary.


Charing Cross Road Fest 2012

After months of planning, the Charing Cross Road Festival 2012 finally arrived on Saturday. It was a brilliant day and we hope to repeat the success with lots of future festivals and one-off events.

The day in Blackwell's kicked off with Simon Callow and Michael Pennington talking about Shakespeare and why he is still so relevant to people 400 years after he died. It was a tough ask in one hour, but it was a treat to hear such experienced and eloquent actors discussing the bard. The conclusion seemed to be 'he's still performed because he's so great' - Shakespeare sums up all aspects of the human condition and everything you can experience in life.

The second event of the day was with Ben Aaronovitch who was speaking to Paul Cornell about his new book, the 3rd in his Rivers of London series, Whispers Under Ground. This was a fascinating talk to which a lot of people came. The queue of people waiting to meet Ben and get a signature on their books was really heartening to see - it's what we booksellers live for!

After Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell came Clive Bloom talking to Alex Preston about his new book, Revelations. Clive had been in the shop chatting to people about the history of unrest and rioting in London with his amazing map which people could add their stories to. He then stepped up to interview Alex about his new book.

The events were brought to a close by the lovely people of Influx Press who were reading from their anthology of stories about Hackney, Acquired for Development By..... This was the event most of our staff were looking forward to and it didn't disappoint: there were stories about living on a boat in the Hackney marshes; a story about falling in love with an electricy pylon; and one about the take-over of an individual area of London by big, bad, chain stores.
In the evening we had an epic pub quiz, run by our wonderful Ops manager, Gary (he kept all the questions a secret from the rest of us so we could still join in). One of the Blackwell's teams won - but, really, there was no cheating! There were lots of books which our lovely friends at all of our publishers had given us to give away as prizes but it ended up being a swap shop, with people giving books away and exchanging them for ones they wanted more.

Throughout the day we had the book doctors offering prescriptions of recommends for all ailments and a treasure hunt with Penguin Book and lots and lots of freebies and balloons. The day created a real buzz in the shop and we hope to repeat and build on this success in the future as it was great to see so many people, customer and staff, having such a fun day.
We hope that the festival did what we wanted it to - remind people book shops are an important part of our culture and an integral part of Charing Cross Road.