What to read RIGHT NOW

The thing I most miss about working in a book shop is talking to strangers about books and the query I particularly loved, often from a regular, was the excitingly simple, ‘So, what’s good, right now?’ I miss the physicality of walking around a shop learning about how someone likes to read, about how they like to think, and gathering a pile of books so that you send them away with a tailored slice of the current week’s publishing. The cream of the crop, chosen and packed up with thought and care.

So, can you indulge me? Can you be the perfect customer, wandering in with a bit of time and money to spare? There are two books in particular which beyond lots of other very good books I would have a spring in my step about trying to sell to you today.

Hope by Shalom Auslander

I’d heard a lot of good things about this and it was on my pile but it was this brilliant review by Naomi Alderman that suggested that Jews and non-Jews consume Holocaust films differently that made me start reading it yesterday, and indeed finish it last night. It is about a man called Kugel who buys a new house in search of a better life and discovers that Anne Frank is living in his attic. It is incredibly funny – I could quote whole chunks – and so clever that I feel like my brain has been rewired. I won’t talk about it at length – click the link to the brilliant review – but I would love to be selling it to you today. If you were real, if you were facing me in a bookshop, you might admit that you wondered if it were, you know, a bit too clever? You might confess to not wanting to work too hard. I could reassure you that it is a breeze. Not a page turner, no, but there is no effort in reading this book. Just an odd kind of near hysterical joy.

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

This is narrated by ten-year-old Judith whose mother died giving birth to her because her religion wouldn’t allow her to accept a blood transfusion. Judith’s father is a kindly man but the same religion leads him to take Judith knocking on the doors of their neighbours to tell them that the end is coming. None of this helps Judith in her quest not to be bullied at school for being strange and as she sits in her bedroom making a model world she starts to believe that she can hear God. This is a stunning novel and I totally believe in it. If the Orange judges overlook it for the longlist I will probably cry myself to sleep.

If you were real, if we were able to have a conversation, our chat might be around child narrators and what they bring to a story. I might confess to you that it is this book that has changed my mind, because I thought I didn’t like them. If you haven’t already, you might decided to leave with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or I Capture the Castle. Or we might instead talk about God, about our belief or lack of it. You might leave with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir or even Alain de Botton’s latest Religion for Atheists.

You might say you don’t buy hardbacks. That’s fine, I’ll say – I never try to sell people things they don’t want – and I’ll get excited because that probably means you haven’t read How to be a Woman by the magnificently incomparable (though my Dad thinks she is like me – swoon) Caitlin Moran, which is out in paperback this week. I’d probably tell you that this is the book that made me start a blog because I wanted to write about how it made me feel. I’ll tell you how much it made me laugh, made me think, how it gave me a massive surge of feminist confidence. I’d tell you that I’ve recommended this to not far off millions of people and they all love it. I’d tell you again that my Dad thinks she is like me. We’d probably have a laugh about that.

We’re getting along, aren’t we? Shall we discuss the Booker winning The Sense of an Ending, fresh out in paperback with a very lovely jacket. Please say yes. Please let’s have a long conversation about Julian Barnes. I can tell you about how I first read Metroland when I was at sixth form in Scunthorpe and you can tell me….What will you tell me?

Because that is what I think I’m really missing, dear customer. I miss talking to strangers about books but mainly I miss the fact that you talk back. I like the magical to and fro of a good bookseller/customer conversation. Because we’ve only scratched the surface here. These are just the biggest publications this week. Imagine all the other things we could talk about.

Anyway, I’m off, before I get too soppy over you. Think about reading some of these books. And you could always comment, I suppose, or talk to me on twitter. My favourite thing even beyond talking to strangers about books was when those strangers came back to talk again…

20 responses to “What to read RIGHT NOW”

  1. I think you have been away from customers too long. They aren’t all chatty and friendly and human…in fact…but don’t mind me I think I’m suffering a severe case of retail fatigue at the mo.

    You would be very proud of me, I have bought 3 NEW books in the past month or so, all from ‘your’ shop. I totally wish you had sold them to me. I would have very much enjoyed that conversation, although it may have been quite one sided, I may have shrugged occasionally.

    1. Ha! Very true. I remember my first Christmas Eve where I cried on the shop floor 3 times!
      Bravo on the book buying. I wish I’d sold them to you, too. x

  2. Love the conversation, I shall investigate your recommendations, thank you.

  3. You and I inhabit different worlds. I feel similarly about the publishing industry to the way Pete Townsend feels about iTunes. I know I have to live with it. I am trying to learn how to work with it, but I refuse to like it, and I cannot always overlook its obvious shortcomings.

    Have you read the winner of the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ Prize? I want you to read it because I can’t think of any reason why you, a person who has gained so much enjoyment from the official Booker Prize, cannot gain even more from a parellel competition, the ethos of which is based simply on the fact that the entrants’ publishers don’t have to pay. The corollary of this, of course, is that there is no prize money. Michael Stewart won a Guardian mug, which took an inordinately long time to arrive after the result had been announced. But his book, ‘King Crow’, stands on its own literary merits. It was chosen by a popular ballot, not a committee, and it was a ballot whose instructions required top-notch IT skills and creativity to carry out: every vote had to be accompanied by an original review, written by the voter, explaining to the competition’s administrators why the book deserved to win.

    1. I haven’t read King Crow but am delighted that an extract of it will be in the World Book Night edition of The Damned Utd. I don’t make decisions not to read things usually, but I have so much to read that it is less likely that I will seek something out.
      My favourite book of last year was At Last by Edward St Aubyn and that didn’t get on the Booker longlist.

  4. I hadn’t heard of Hope, but you’ve just sold it to me!

    I wish you worked in a bookshop just round the corner from me – I’d certainly spend more money in it!

    1. Brilliant! I love your Orange predictions by the way. I’m crossing all my fingers and toes for The Land of Decoration.

  5. I’ll take one of everything – your enthusiasm has persuaded me (except perhaps for the Caitlin Moran…). Know what you mean about missing that contact – having worked with the public all my life, I now get my fix by doing book signings and events but it’s not the same. (And yes, Dawn, sometimes that’s a good thing!)

    1. What don’t you like about Caitlin Moran (that is not a loaded question, by the way)?

    2. I was in the shopping centre at Kingston yesterday and walked by a woman saying, ‘well, it just isn’t good enough’ in a really horrible voice to this poor young man and I though about this conversation about customers. I might write another post about what I don’t miss about working in a bookshop!

  6. The Land of Decoration ? yes, yes, yes, yes , yes , yes I loved this book when I read it, my Wife oved it when she read it and I want my customers to read it and love it and they shall, they shall………

  7. Yes! i loved LAND OF DEC, too (and the whacky cover), but what about CAPITAL? it’s my guilty pleasure. i just can’t put it down, i even take it to the loo. And my reading pile here at Transworld is heaving 🙂

    1. Ah, I haven’t read Capital yet. And good to know it is a guilty pleasure as I am probably stalling a bit on the basis that I think it looks a bit like hard work – I am very lazy!

  8. The Antipodean Avatar
    The Antipodean

    I’d admit I only read The Sense of an Ending because I overheard you tell someone else how great it was. (Or read about it here, but I’m going with the metaphor). I’d tell you about how it stuck with me, and how a few days after finishing it I woke up to discover that the story had heaved itself over in the night, iceberg-like, to reveal whole new angles, and how awed I was at the density of writing it took to achieve that. I’d have to wave my hands around a bit to explain that properly. I’d tell you I only have the e-edition, so the paperback is exciting, because if I buy it I can carry it around and underline it and lose my page and remember favourite bits by where they are in its depth.

    I’d tell you that I’m a little bit scared to read anything else of his: if this is the latest, what next? Do I go back to the beginning? Will that be too much of a shock – is there somewhere in the middle, perhaps, where I can read forward from, and then go back, looking for the roots of what is to come? Or is most of it there already?

    I’d also want to talk about the difference between child narrators and hero/ines, (e.g Anne) but I would have to get back to work and someone would want to ask you a question. Fortunately, in this metaphor, I work nearby so I could ask you some other time.

    1. What a miraculously brilliant comment. There is a great pleasure in feeling understood so thank you.
      I’d suggest Talking It Over as your next Barnes.

  9. Cathy, do you find that when you visit a bookshop for your own pleasure you wind up talking to other customers about the books they’re looking at? Walking through my store at the weekend in civilian clothing (it was actually my day off), I saw a customer looking at R.J. Palacio’s Wonder – my personal book of the week – and bookseller mode just kicked in: “That’s an amazing book,” I found myself saying. “You should totally get it.” Walking out, I wondered, is he more likely to buy it because an apparent customer recommended it than if I had been in uniform and approached him as a bookseller, or does it make no difference?

    1. Hello Isabel,
      Yes I do! Absolutely can’t help it. If I go to book launches at other book shops I always want to start recommending away. And I like to ‘sell’ proofs of things I particularly love at Head Office by walking around with them and pressing them into hands.
      Your last question is interesting. Probably depends on the bookseller and whether they look like they are genuinely sharing their joy or just wanting to flog something.
      I’ll be in Cornwall on Thursday – may drop in to see you!

  10. What a fabulously lovely blog post! This is the first I’ve read and I think I will like to read some more 🙂

    I got sent a proof of The Land of Decoration; I was a bit sceptical about reading it at first, in part due to the fact I have a pile of books to read that is almost as tall as me, and partly because I find it hard to read books with themes about religion. Thank you very much for enlightening me and I will definitely put it near to the top of my pile (underneath An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, and BZRK and Fear both by Michael Grant).

    I’ll get on with reading the rest of your posts now.

    Laura x

    1. Yes, the religion thing didn’t massively appeal to me either. I think what I respond to is the voice of a little, lost girl trying to find her way.
      Do let me know what you think when you get around to it.

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