Saturday, July 02, 2005

Books etc.

So… I ventured into Waterstones the other day, which can be risky for someone who has such a penchant for books and impulse buying as I do - and should be especially avoided when said person is still painfully unemployed. But, anyway, I wanted (needed!) to buy The Nightingale Papers for university, because David Nokes is my lecturer for at least two of my courses next semester and because lecturers put their own books on the reading list so it looks like they are more popular with the masses than they really are. I know what they are up to!

I averted my eyes from the tables they lay out so gloriously with 3 for 2 books that I could just eat up in one sitting. I may be a Literature student, but I am all for 3 for 2 books in Waterstones and chart topping reads that are probably just (small ‘l’) literature. Who cares, really? I averted my eyes from those tables anyway, and from every other letter apart from N and some Os and Ps because sometimes I get a little confused about my alphabet. There it was, a hardback bloody book that will not be out in paperback for quite some time. Oh well - there are rumours of a £90 book that classics students have to buy and I have been very good with using eBay for all my other books for next year so far.

The point is that, I thought I was safe at that point. I just meandered through the tables a little bit on my way to the till, with The Magic Numbers playing nicely on my crappy iPod, and then I saw it. The cleverest trick that Penguin has had up its sleeve for a while: a stand full of little books to celebrate their 70th birthday. Now, it has been some time since I’ve actually been in a bookshop so they may have been around for a bit - but this was my first time faced with all these lovely mini books. What a selection! From such trendy contemporary authors as Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby to P.G. Wodehouse and Virginia Woolf. The clever thing? Each is only £1.50. Not quite as good as the 70p that the 70th birthday logo first suggests, but still not a large enough amount to make you feel like you are actually spending money (unlike my £10 hardback. I know, not that much…)

I managed to escape relatively unscathed with just Martha & Hanwell by Zadie Smith. Who, to be honest, I find more than a little bit pretentious at times (with all the Kabbalah-style strangeness in The Autograph Man) but who is simultaneously something of a role model (female English graduate turned literary writer, successful at a young age). I picked it up and read a little of the Introduction, in which she speaks about short stories, and took it to the till without reading much else. I knew I would enjoy it, because aside from any pretension, I think she is a Good Writer, and because short stories are usually delicious anyway. Even bad short stories are over pretty quickly. Plus I knew I was entering risky grounds and had to get out quick: there was a Dave Eggers book in the collection that I’d like to get my hands on, not to mention all the lovely others, and unfortunately my bank balance has OVERDRAWN at the end of it.

As for the Zadie Smith, I read it as soon as I got home in about half an hour. I preferred the ‘Martha’ story to ‘Hanwell’ but they were both interesting in their own way. Something that annoys me in short stories is the amount that is often left unsaid. In a Zadie Smith novel for example, everything is tied up and all questions answered – but in the space of a short story she doesn’t accomplish this. I don’t think that is something inherent in the form, because I am sure I have read short stories that don’t leave a lot to the reader to decide, but I think it’s definitely a sign of a novelist having trouble with adapting to a shorter form. A lot of novelists surely start off with short stories, but I think that once you’ve made the step to longer works it’s probably more of a struggle to work within certain length restrictions. Having said that, the Smith stories weren’t too obtuse, and I was almost led to conclusions, so it wasn’t too infuriating for me. I suppose once in a while it is actually quite nice to have a little space to make your own mind up about what occurs in a story, as long as the possibilities aren’t too endless. As for Martha and Hanwell, they gave just a snapshot of characters that were obviously far more developed in the author’s mind, and it would be interesting to see some more about them. Maybe they will be more developed in a novel one day.

I don’t question buying a newspaper for £1.50, so maybe I’ll invest in a few more of these little Penguin books… As long as they don’t start selling them anywhere I go every day or anything, because then I really would spend too much of my non money.

(Unrelated to the above.) I am feeling very Devonshire and countryside-ish right now, even though I’m not, because I’ve been eating broad beans, courgettes and new potatoes all freshly picked today from the garden!

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