“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” (Virginia Woolf)

When I was searching for quotes about libraries I really liked this quote by Libba Bray but it was too long to use for a title:

“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.”

This week’s theme is libraries, because one of the unforeseen benefits of my 2018 book buying ban is that I have rediscovered the joy of the library. You may well be wondering what kind of moron I am not to foresee this, but I really didn’t. The purpose of the book-buying ban is to get through the piles of unread books I own. It’s working, but not quite as well as I hoped because I’ve realised my library has novels. Up until this point I’d mainly used it for non-fiction books. It’s taken the ban for me to realise I can get in the library queue for new releases and get hold of rare books I’ll never be able to afford. Libraries are amazing!

Firstly, I finally reached the top of the queue for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which was published before my book buying ban last year, but I hadn’t got a copy. McGregor is one of my favourite authors and I didn’t want to wait another year before reading this, so I got on a long waiting list at the library.

Disclaimer: McGregor is never going to get anything but gushing reviews from me. I’ve loved his writing since his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and as far as I’m concerned he can do no wrong. I understand this novel has divided people and I think its because the premise sets up certain expectations. A 13 year old girl, Becky Shaw, disappears from a village where she and her parents are holidaying for new year. However, this isn’t a thriller. It isn’t about the search for the girl, or what happened to her, or who may have taken her. What it is about is a community, the people in it, how their stories touch on one another. If like me, you’re a fan of McGregor, this won’t greatly surprise you. Although the rural setting is unusual for him, the themes are not. But if you come to it expecting a missing person puzzle to be solved, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

There are many recurring phrases and details in the book. Becky is 13, the village has 13 reservoirs, the story is set over 13 years and divided into 13 chapters. The chapters begin “At midnight when the year turned…” At intervals we are reminded “The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex”. The effect is to show how things move on within the familiar; village lives continue but they also change. Meanwhile, Rebecca/Becky/Bex is held in a stasis, forever 13, the questions around what happened to her left hanging.

I associate McGregor with urban settings, but he writes beautifully of rural life. Old traditions are dying out: only one of the residents bothers collecting nettles for tea or elderflowers for cordial. The butchers – like so many local shops – closes due to lack of demand. Yet the seasons in their distinct beauty are there:

“On Bonfire Night there was a heavy fog, thick with woodsmoke, the fireworks seen briefly like camera flashes overhead. In the beech wood the foxes prepared their dens. The vixens dug down into old earths and reclaimed them, lining them out with grasses and leaves. In the eaves of the church the bats settled plumply into hibernation. By the river the willows shook off the last of their leaves. At night the freight trains came more often a single white leading and the wagons shadowing heavily behind. The widower asked Clive for advice over pruning his fruit trees and Clive was surprised to see the state things were in.”

McGregor does this throughout the novel, going straight from describing the natural world into a detail about the lives of one of the villagers without a paragraph break. In doing so he weaves the lives into the world that surrounds them and shows how one cannot be understood without the other.

I thought Reservoir 13 was absolutely stunning. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf in the use of repeated phrases and the focus small but significant details. In his usual unshowy style, McGregor captures the beauty and fragility of everyday life.

After I finished Reservoir 13 I went straight to the library to see if they had a copy of Reservoir Tapes, the sequel of sorts, and I didn’t even have to put my name in the queue for it. Reservoir Tapes is a series of short stories connected to Reservoir 13, originally broadcast on the radio. You can listen to them here.

Secondly, I found my library had a copy of Rhododendron Pie, Margery Sharp’s first novel from 1930, which is practically impossible to find and which you pay hundreds of pounds for online. There was a copy just sitting there – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked before.


Image from here

Rhododendron Pie tells the story of Ann Laventie, whose natural leanings towards conservatism mark her out as different from the rest of her family. Her sister Elizabeth begins the birthday tradition of inedible floral birthday pies of the title, while little Ann would prefer an apple pie.

“It had once been said of Mr Laventie that he was a traditionalist in wine and a revolutionary in morals; and indeed, this capacity for making the best of both worlds was an outstanding characteristic of the family. They combined the extremes of old-world elegance and modern freedom, tempering a belief in free verse and free love with an equal feeling for societal decorum.”

As the children grow up, Elizabeth becomes an intellectual forever having essays published in journals while her brother Dick becomes a sculptor. Ann is at a bit of a loss. She is good at admiring what the others do and she is well-liked, but she flounders in working out what she wants and where she fits in. Sharp captures how society is changing for the interwar generation; one of Ann’s friends is perfectly open about the men she lives with on occasion. While there is discussion around this which seems remarkably forward-thinking and would sit well with readers today, Ann does not want a bohemian lifestyle.

“ ‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’”

Ann doesn’t come across as remotely priggish or boring though. She is authentic and truthful, and struggles with her knowing, arch, ironic family

“ ‘One of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas so to speak, just to see what it feels like.”

What Rhododendron Pie is about is working out who you are and what you want from the world, and how tricky this can be when you seem to be at odds with your family and the section of society you live within. Without any didacticism, Sharp captures how this is especially hard for women. New freedoms are opening up, but women are still judged more harshly by society and have their actions further circumscribed by law.

“These were the things they understood, patient hope and quiet brave endurance: these were the woman’s part.”

Rhododendron Pie is remarkably accomplished for a first novel. Sharp would hone her skills further in future novels – particularly characterisation, which is a bit weak here – but her wit is here, her warmth, and her wisdom.

 “‘That’s what you clever people never understand. You talk about life as though it were something rare and surprising that one had to be careful of. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s ordinary. And it’s only when you’ve accepted it as ordinary that you begin to see the wonder of it. That a swallow or a green field should be beautiful is nothing, but that they should be common as dirt is a miracle. I am continually amazed…at the casual beauty of things.’”

To end, a woman whose name helpfully rhymes with her profession, and an annoying man who won’t shut up and let people read in peace:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):


“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” (Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro)

This week’s post was prompted by an elastic band.  But first let me confess to a bad habit: I make up stories about people.  I’m sure lots of people do.  I sit on the train/in the café/bored out of my mind in the supermarket queue and I’ll notice someone and start concocting a whole story about them.  Half the time I don’t even realise it’s what I’m doing.  A lot of the time I forget this means I can end up staring quite intently at someone, and it’s frankly somewhat of a miracle that I’ve reached my ripe old age without getting my face punched in. If you suffer from this affliction and live in the UK, may I recommend the National Portrait Gallery?  A safe space where you are actively invited to go round staring at faces, it’s a haven for the fantasist of this type.  So, with my anti-social habit established, let me rewind to the elastic band…

I was on the train to Brighton (hence the title quote about Metro passengers, and an excuse to highlight one of my favourite poems).  The man across the aisle from me, facing away, was reading a book whose cover I couldn’t see, and on the little pull down table in front of him he had a bag of crisps.  This was a mammoth bag of crisps, and he’d eaten about half, folded over the top of the packet, and secured it with an elastic band wrapped round the packet.  After I’d admired his restraint – because if I open a big bag of crisps the entire contents of that bag is getting eaten – I became mesmerised by this elastic band.  Where had it come from?  Had he brought it with him, planned in advance for just such an eventuality?  Or did he carry round bits of stationery (is an elastic band stationery?) just in case events took a turn and he would be called on to secure something? Did he buy the elastic band having eaten half the packet and deciding the crisps needed better containment that just folding the top over?  How the hell had this circumstance arisen? He didn’t appear to have any bags with him, just the book and the crisps, so it wasn’t like he had an elastic band conveniently buried in a capacious man bag.

I realise thinking about almost anything other than this elastic band would have been a better use of my time, but I couldn’t help it.  This coupled with the man’s appearance – shoulders so big he was halfway in the aisle despite sitting fully in his seat, and a shaved head – convinced me he must be some ultra-capable marine/secret agent type.  I was certain the book he was reading was by Andy McNab.  And now a shoddy visual representation to keep you going through this long, waffly post:


When he got up to leave I saw the front cover of the book and I couldn’t have got it more wrong. Most unexpected.  It was a book the BBC adapted for a Sunday night TV programme, that’s how cosy it was.  As my visions of him as MacGyver (or a more recent reference for the youngsters, Michael Weston from Burn Notice) crumbled to dust, I realised that I am rubbish at judging people.  I’d either got it totally wrong, or he was some hardcore daredevil marine, who just happened to like cosy reading. Either way my ideas about him based on elastic band usage and reading matter were entirely false.  By way of recompense I offer this book recommendation, which I think someone who is fastidious enough to wrap his crisps in an elastic band might enjoy (and yes, I realise this is still me being judgemental – and probably getting it wrong again – sorry, sorry, sorry):

So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006, Bloomsbury) tells the story of David, a museum curator.  Working in museums is his vocation, he has loved them since childhood:

“He liked the smell of museums, the musty scent of things dug from the earth and buried in heavy wooden store cupboards.  He liked the smell of the polish on the marbled floors, and the way his shoes squeaked as he walked across them.  He liked the way people’s voices would drift up and be lost in the hush of the high-ceilinged rooms.  He liked the coldness of the glass cases when he pressed his face against them.  He liked looking at the dates of the objects , and trying not to get dizzy as he added up how long ago that was.  He didn’t understand why people had to ask, why they didn’t enjoy museums as much as he did…”

A friend of his mother’s accidently exposes a family secret, one which sends David into free-fall.  As he struggles to comprehend his present in light of his altered past, he curates his own belongings.  Each chapter has a heading which refers to an object in David’s life: “handwritten list of household items c.1947”, “pair of cinema tickets annotated 19 May 1967”, “cut fragments of surgical thread, in small transparent case, dated July 1983”.  As we learn the meaning these objects hold, we understand David and the life he leads, alongside his mother, wife and daughter.  David fully realises the meaning of the minutiae in our lives when he curates an exhibition on the immigrants arriving in Coventry after the war:

“He wasn’t surprised by the interviewees eagerness to loan him their few treasured keepsakes –the watches, the framed photographs, the religious artefacts – trusting him to keep their last attachments to a lost home safe, pushing them gladly into his arms.  But what he hadn’t quite been expecting was just how readily people held these things to hand, arranged together in the alcoves of their front rooms, or across a chest of drawers in a bedroom, or filling a glass-fronted cabinet in a kitchen, like miniature museums of their own.”

So Many Ways to Begin is a sensitive portrayal of the intensely personal nature of the physicality of lives, how we ground ourselves in objects and are keepers of our own histories.  It is also about the shifting nature of those histories, and how relationships with others, the intangible, is what gives meaning to the tangible.

My second recommendation I give to the man who was sitting directly opposite me, (facing me) on the same journey.  You, sir, are beautiful.  This adjective is overused, applied with alarming regularity to people who simply have capped teeth and a good blow-dry.  But you are beautiful: you look like Henry Cavill and Toby Stephens had a baby together, then got Michelangelo in to complete the job.  (Seriously, why are you on a train in south London?  Shouldn’t you be in a convertible in the south of France?) Shoddy visual representation to keep you going through this long, waffly post:


While I’m on this judgemental trip, I’ll assert that I think you owe it to the world to ensure your mind is as beautiful as your face.  Stop reading the free newspapers that litter every train compartment.  Yes, that’s what you were doing.  It only serves to sully you.  I know they’re free, I know everyone does it, but do you know the free paper is owned by the same group as the Daily Mail?  And frankly there isn’t a blog post long enough for me to tell you all that’s wrong with that newspaper.  So here is my recommendation for reading matter as lovely as your face:

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997, Flamingo) is novel that takes joy in language and is beautifully written.  I know some people found it a bit over the top in this regard, but I really enjoyed losing myself in this lyrical novel.  It tells the story of a family through the eyes of twins, Estha and Rahel.  Roy is a political activist (this is her only novel so far) and there are strong political themes running through the novel, around India’s caste system, economics, and communism.  She considers the effect these large forces can have on families and individuals:

“it was a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent).  It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see.”

The conflict between the family morality and societal constructs results in tragedy that tears the family apart. The twins are separated at age 7 and only reunited at age 31, where the damage that has been done continues to exert its power.  It’s difficult to go into details without giving away great swathes of plot, so I’ll just give you a few little bits.  Estha reacts to the events by becoming increasingly silent:

“A raindrop glistened on the end of Estha’s earlobe.  Thick, silver in the light, like a heavy bead of mercury.  She reached out. Touched it. Took it away.  Estha didn’t look at her.  He retreated into further stillness.”

The Kerala setting is vividly evoked, such as in the opening paragraph to the novel:

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air.  Then they stun themselves against clear windows and die, fatly baffled in the sun. The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.”

The God of Small Things takes controversial issues shows the impact on individuals bound up in circumstances they cannot control.  The beauty of the prose emphasises the drama rather than disguises it, making a powerful and highly readable novel.

Here are the novels with a scene from Strangers on a Train: