Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

The making of Mary (Queen of Shops)

Shop Girl by Mary Portas

shop girlMary Portas is one of those TV presenter/gurus you either love or find profoundly irritating. I love her and her championing of the high street and independent retailers. Her TV programmes where she helps ailing businesses are full of common sense and good advice jazzed up with her team’s design flair. The shame is that nearly always once her team have left, the businesses helped often gently slide back towards their former bad habits.

Running her own design agency, she has far reaching influence in high places. She was appointed by the Government to survey Britain’s high streets and put forward ways to regenerate them which she did – and then the Government invited towns to make bids for a Portas grant.  Abingdon put a bid in but it didn’t win one – but our town desperately needs something to happen – for the key thing is our little shopping centre is owned by an insurance company, who set the rents so high that no-one can afford to open a shop in it. This doesn’t bother the landlords to whom it doesn’t matter whether the units are full or empty – they’re accruing in property value on their books anyway. It’s a sad state of affairs, and is happening the whole country over – leading to homogenisation of high streets as the big chains are the only ones who can afford the rents, and independent retailers suffer.

Anyway, Mary’s memoir is not about that part of her life – I just took the opportunity to comment!

Shop Girl is a delight, following Mary’s childhood and first steps into the world of retail design up until she plucks up courage to freelance.  She was born in 1960 into a big Irish family in Watford. They all squashed into a small end of terrace house. Mary’s Dad worked for tea manufacturer Brooke Bond, and her mum (to whom she dedicates the book) was the typical loving Irish mother who spends much of her time putting food on the table for her big brood.  Fourth of five kids, Mary, it’s fair to say was the naughty one. Giggling in church, eating dog food for a dare, loud and always looking for fun, and all too often getting caught!

Caramac 1970sThe book is written in short chapters – extended vignettes, typically of three or four pages – and each is titled with a product of the 1960s or 1970s. It’s a memoir driven by sensory memories – the smell of her mum’s Coty L’Aimant perfume, the first taste of a Caramac bar, hearing Marc Bolan’s Ride a White Swan.  (Another sensory memoir is Philippe Claudel’s Parfum which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here.)  It’s an effective style – I was in reveries each time one of my childhood memories was evoked by these headings, (I was born in 1960 too!) – what a nostalgia trip!

The teenaged Mary constantly challenged her teachers at school, but they found a channel for her outgoing personality in drama, at school and at home:

Lawrence hands me the mirror and I stare at myself. My temples and cheeks are dusted with fuchsia eye shadow and there’s a huge red zigzag edged in blue running from my forehead down over my right eye and onto my cheek. My hair looks as if I’ve just stuck my finger into a plug socket. I look like a miniature version of Bowie himself. […]

Mum walks into the room and looks at me singing. ‘Don’t you look grand!’ she says absentmindedly. ‘Now I really must get over to Jean’s. There’s a lot to do for the church jumble sale tomorrow.’

But I hardly notice her leave. I am lost in the moment. Michael, Joe, Tish and Lawrence are my audience and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Sadly, Mary’s mum died when she was 16, and with Mary’s older siblings flying the nest into the world of work, she became more and more of a carer to her little brother Lawrence. When she was offered a place at RADA, she turned it down, she couldn’t bear to leave Lawrence. Instead Mary enrolled at Cassio college in Watford on a course that specialised in shop window design.

As I stared at the huge store-front windows at the end of the day, I suddenly glimpsed the possibility that Cassion might offer for the first time. Sitting in a lecture, I’d heard that Salvador Dali had designed windows. So had Andy Warhol. Now I understood why. These windows were art, drama, performance. They were a stage, and through them the audience of passers-by were transported just as they were when they watched a play. My love of drama had found a new outlet.

A placement at Harvey Nicholls brought good references but no permanent job, but this didn’t deter Mary who talked her way into Harrods’s shop windows team – and so she takes her first steps towards retail stardom.

The young Mary on the page is totally recognizable as the older, more suave Mary off the telly. The same sense of humour, straight-talking and big heartedness was there all along. This is a warm and happy memoir, although tinged with sadness at losing both parents while still young, her determination shines through. Fabulous stuff – I do hope she writes a sequel. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

Mary Portas, Shop Girl (Doubleday, 2015) Hardback, 288 pages.

A funny, sexy, novella in vignettes

Sophia by Michael Bible

sophiaTime for another Shiny New Books link.

A story set in the Deep South and New York, featuring a whisky-priest, a chess-playing savant and a blind assassin was always going to pique my interest, and this short novel repaid that in spades.

Told in short vignettes, this caper is narrated by Reverend Alvis Maloney, who describes himself as:

A holy fool on the hunt for something worthy.
I’m the lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behaviour with female parishioners. I want to die for the King of Kings but can’t quite get it right.

He’s like a character in a Tom Waits song. He’s glorious in his bad behaviour, yet he still believes. The characters just jump off the page, and the style of writing works perfectly. I loved this book!

For the full review – click here.

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Source: Publisher – thank you.

Michael Bible, Sophia (Melville House, 2015). 978-1612194721, 105pp., paperback original.

Graphic novels at Annabookbel…

Lumberjanes 1There is a big interest these days in graphic novels. From comics which are reissued bound together like the Lumberjanes which I reviewed yesterday to full on treatments of classics like the next one on my pile (more of that later, she teased).

Click to go to the Lumberjanes review

Meanwhile, I have previously reviewed just a few others and I thought I’d collect them into one place for you:

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watchmenThe first proper graphic novel I read (as opposed to lovely stories by Raymond Briggs et al) was for our book group – Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  I actually read this pre-blog – and referring back to my master spreadsheet I said the following:

I was totally drawn in to the story and enjoyed it thoroughly. I won’t comment on the writing – others have already done so eloquently. However I found the characterisation of the lone female, in both text and drawing, as totally stereotypical.

I remember I enjoyed it’s mad superhero/SF plot though, and liked the way Moore added in a character reading another parallel story, plus occasional pages of normal text allowed fleshing out of the plot. I gave it 8/10 at the time back in 2007.

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crow special edI didn’t then review any graphic novels here until 2011 when I was offered a review copy of The Crow by James O’Barr.  The Crow was made into a film with the late Brandon Lee which you may recall. Essentially, it’s a revenge drama. When a gang murders lovers Eric and Shelly, Eric comes back to life as The Crow to avenge their murders. Very black again, very violent, emotionally draining, O’Barr tells Eric and Shelly’s story in softer pencil lines alongside the main action. In my review I said:

This book is intense, and then some. It wasn’t surprising to read that the author created it as an act of personal catharsis after his girlfriend was mown down by a drunk driver. The book is totally seared through with his pain.

Totally gripping if you can take the bleakness of it.

Click to go to the full review

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dark satanic millsA couple of years later I spotted Dark Satanic Mills in my local indie bookshop. Written by my favourite YA author Marcus Sedgwick and his brother, I couldn’t resist this dark dystopia based on William Blake’s Jerusalem, written for teens.

It has a strong female lead character too, who is well-drawn by illustrators John Higgins and Marc Olivent.    Set in an England ruled by  the fundamentalist True Church, it follows Christy and Thomas’s attempts to escape London for a better life with rebel atheists.  Strong stuff, full of biblical quotes, and very dark, yet a satisfying plot even if it was only 160 pages. Loved this one.

Click to go to the full review

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Then, the Christmas before last I read the utterly delightful The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins.

This book has a lovely fairytale quality to the story which stretches to 240 pages about man named Dave who is bald except for one hair, and who suddenly sprouts a beard which won’t stop growing.

Although still not a long story compared with novels, the artwork is of wonderful quality and detail. Collins has a brilliant way of splitting a single picture into frames within frames which is a wonderfully artistic way of indicating time passing. I gave it 10/10.

Click to go to the full review.

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And my future plans…

ProustInvolve reading this one very soon. The wonderful Gallic Books (thank you for the copy) have just brought out a large graphic novel treatment of Swann’s Way – the first volume of Proust, in a translation by Alexander Goldhammer and illustrated by Stephanie Heuet. The blurb says it:

…re-presents Proust in graphic form for anyone who has always dreamed of reading him but was put off by the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. This graphic adaptation reveals the fundamental architecture of Proust’s work while displaying a remarkable fidelity to his language as well as the novel’s themes of time, art, and the elusiveness of memory.

proust pageI am obviously hoping that reading this will inspire me to consider reading more Proust in proper novel form, but from dipping inside the graphic novel version and seeing the illustrations I think I have a treat in store.

Do you have any recommendations of graphic novels I should look out for?

This year I’m going to read more graphic novels and started with these…

Lumberjanes I & II by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis, co-created by Sharon Watters and illusrated by Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes 1

Vol I – Beware the Kitten Holy

There was a lot of talk in 2015 about the Lumberjanes – espcially since the comics have been collected into softbacks for our delectation.  Two volumes are currently available comprising 4 issues of the magazine each and a third is due soon, although the series was originally conceived for just 8 comics…

Who are the Lumberjanes?  They are a group of five sort of girl-scout attending a summer school at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqui Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hard Core Lady Types. As you can see, the five girls (L-R are Ripley, April, Jo, Molly and Mal) are very different in looks and style with personalities to match.

lumberjanes_v1_press-14The story starts with our girls, having escaped the watchful eyes of supervisor Jen, having fun in the forest. It soon turns scary though as they’re surrounded by baying foxes with three eyes who howl ‘Beware the kitten holy’ before turning tail, leaving the girls to head back to tell Rosie, the big red-head with 50s style glasses and beefy tattooed arms who runs the camp, about the strange goings on. Jen is naturally very cross at their escapades.

This formula remains essentially the same throughout. In each chapter has its own adventure in which:

  • the girls evade Jen,
  • get into a scrape,
  • get out of a scrape
  • and report back to Rosie.

Underground caves, zombie boy-scouts, moving statues, yetis, dinosaurs and more are out there to trouble them.  A bit like in Doctor Who, there is a big mix of monsters and foes for them to confront and outwit – never the same type twice.  Although each short adventure just about stands on its own, there is obviously an underlying longer story going on too which Rosie is part of.

Lumberjanes II

Vol II – Friendship to the Max

Each of the girls offers different qualities into the mix. Ripley is a crazy monkey, April is feisty and rather gobby, Jo is the brains of the group, Mal may look punky, but is sensitive and supportive and Molly is the quiet one and has a crush on Mal. I immediately took to Mal, and Molly (especially once I found out the secret of Molly’s hat in the second volume). They’re an inclusive bunch too, I later found out that Jo is apparently transgender.

friendship_to_the_max_badgeThe presentation of the books is great. Near A4 sized, full and bright glossy colours on every page. Each comic/chapter is presented as one of the Lumberjanes rather idiosyncratic badges, so the girls’ adventures match up to the badge’s criteria.

My only problem with the Lumberjanes was the same as Alex at The Sleepless Reader had. The stories are just rather slight. They may be packed with technicolor girl-power and general zaniness but they lack depth and the plots aren’t exactly new, borrowing from all over the place – but adding a female twist. I suspect that as a middle-aged adult I’m expecting too much; if I were a teen with a short attention span, I’d probably adore everything about them.

Although it was nice to see the covers of the original comics in the ‘Cover gallery’ at the end of the first volume, twenty pages of variant cover artwork by various other artists was totally unnecessary for me. That’s a fifth of the book!  Volume two had more cover art plus  a fifteen page preview of another comic from the same stable – Yawn.

I loved the concept of an all girl comic written for girls by girls. Lumberjanes will be a big success and has already won prizes. It would be super to see the group given a proper adventure to get their teeth into though – I’d happily read that.  Meanwhile, I wonder if my daughter would like these?  (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copies

Lumberjanes vol 1 – Stevenson et al (Boom entertainment, Apr 2015) Softback, 128 pages
Lumberjanes vol 2 – Stevenson et al (Boom entertainment, Oct 2015) Softback, 128 pages

Getting hygge…

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

DanishlyThis was our book group’s read for January, chosen when our of our group had just come back from Copenhagen enthusiastic to learn more about the Danish way of life. The whole group enjoyed reading it – it’s very easy and the author has a nice line in self-deprecation. We also found plenty to discuss.

Helen Russell was a journalist for one of the women’s glossy magazines when her husband was offered a year’s contract to work for Lego at their HQ in Billund on Jutland. He was keen, and Helen knowing that they wanted to plan a family decided she could make a go of going freelance.  So off they went arriving in the depths of winter in what feels like a ghost town. Billund is famous for two things – Lego and having Denmark’s second largest airport (because of Legoland), otherwise situated as it is in the rural heartland of Jutland, it’s rather looked down upon by the more cosmopolitan capital.

Helen and ‘Lego Man’ as she calls her husband, ask where all the people are?  ‘They’re getting hygge,’ she’s informed by a cultural integration coach she consults.  ‘It’s a private, family time in Denmark and everyone hides behind their front doors. Danes are very wrapped up – literally and metaphorically – from November until February, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see many people out and about, especially in rural areas.’

Hunkering down and getting cosy in candlelight (a big hygge feature) with family for three months which peak at just under 8 hours daylight struck many of us as like an overlong Christmas holiday – too much time for family arguments and feuds to develop.

One thing that came through very clearly in this book was that Danes love, and I mean really love, rules. From not being served in an empty shop until she’d taken a ticket, to an hilarious episode when they wanted to fly a Union Jack – there are rules for everything.  The Danes work hard – but only for a very short working week – staying late is just not on.  The lowliest workers are paid a decent wage which encourages them to excel at their jobs, (one reason why a meal at Noma will cost a fortune). Their taxes are also very high  but everyone is happy to pay them because they are so well looked after. The Danes are also a pragmatic race – if a relationship isn’t working out they can divorce easily – they have a high divorce rate but lots of rules to get through it without fighting.

Talking of fighting though, Helen finds out that the Danes turn out to be a rather violent people.  Men fight men, women fight women, men fight women and women even fight men sometimes. As one of Helen’s contacts says, ‘We are Vikings.’  Viking culture is still very macho and alcohol-fueled and Helen confesses, ‘This glimpse of the darker side of life in Denmark has made me feel a little lost.’  She had been asking every Dane she consulted about their happiness rating – most said 9 or 10 out of 10, an 8 is rare and I can’t remember a single lower rating in the entire book. Questioned like that, the Danes seem extremely happy, but there are obviously unhappy undercurrents – some of which have recently come to the fore with the right-wing government pushing through legislation to seize refugee’s assets and make immigration stricter.

Another intriguing section dealt with the Danes’ attitudes towards animals – they are remarkably unsentimental.  You may remember an outcry a couple of years ago when they put down an otherwise healthy giraffe who wasn’t suitable for breeding, rather than sell him to a sub-standard zoo or institution.  The Danes went one step further:

So on 9 February 2014, the young giraffe was given a last meal of some quintessentially Danish rye bread before being shot in the head with a bolt gun. All in front of an audience of zoo visitors. After this, staff conducted a public autopsy, enthusiastically attended by crowds of Danish children and their parents curious to see the inner workings of the creature. Marius was dissected and fed to the lions – again, in full view of all who cared to watch.

There aren’t many vegetarians in Denmark.

Given that the subtitle of this book alludes to Denmark’s status as the world’s happiest country, I’ve unwittingly tended to dwell on the less positive (to us anyway) aspects of Danish life above. As well as her serious look about how Denmark works as a country, between the covers of this book are many lovely and fun moments – from the joy of eating real Danish pastries to dancing cows, Lego (of course) to Danish design, and not forgetting adult night at the local swimming baths!  As for what happens at the end of their year, I can’t tell. This book is a lovely blend of memoir and reportage told with wit and I can thoroughly recommend it. (9/10)

To round off our discussion we went around the table saying whether we’d like to live in Denmark. It was around 50/50. I’d love to visit Copenhagen, but I’d get cabin fever in the dark winter and pickled herrings rather put me off the idea of living there. However, I really ought to catch up with The Bridge which seems to be universally loved, but I’ve not had time for.

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Source: Own copy.

Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly (Icon Books, 2015).  Paperback, 354 pages.

There is a lot of good sense in here, but …

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo

kondoA few days ago, I posed the question Dare I read this book?

Do read the earlier post for an introduction to this best-selling self-help book by the new young Japanese queen of decluttering. Well, your comments certainly emboldened me and I put the TBR Dare to one side temporarily, and I read the book straight away…

First reactions?

There is a lot of good sense in this book.
She makes some really good psychological points about clutter and tidying.
Kondo’s method is like going on the Atkins diet.
You discover that low carbs is for life.
But life is too short not to enjoy roast potatoes, sourdough bread and chocolate cake.
I simply can’t believe she’s a book-lover.
There’s nothing magic about tidying…
but, good organisation is an art.

It was absolutely fascinating to read though!

Kondo’s clients, trained only keep items that ‘spark joy’, end up getting rid of a mountain of stuff. The treasured possessions that remain each have an assigned place and can simply be returned after using, thus eliminating major tidying forever. That’s her end-plan. First you need to get into the right mind-set – which is not a traditional one:

Focusing solely on throwing things away can only bring unhappiness. Why? Because we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.

That’s fair enough, so let’s get started. What’s first? The easiest category of stuff – Clothes. I can cope with most of this, even if I don’t intend to roll all my tops up and store them end on in my drawers. My wardrobe, amazingly, essentially follows her guidelines already. I can’t cope with her plans for socks though. Here she is talking to a client:

I pointed to the balled-up socks. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?

Please, Marie – don’t anthropomorphise the socks! I understand why you prefer clients to not fold the tops over, just to roll the pairs up and stand them on edge in the drawer. Apart from needing shallow rather than deep drawers to benefit from that, that assumes that your socks last – so not keeping them in a state of tension is meaningful. I have big feet, and I wear out the toes and heels well before the elastic around the top has time to perish – I will continue to fold the tops of my socks over to pair them up, thank you.

Let’s move on to papers. She says ‘Discard everything’, then tells you what you can keep:  the papers that mean something to you including your love letters etc. , those you must keep, and those working ones needing an action.  She does tell you to chuck away your payslips too, but I’d always keep a couple of years worth.  She’s right about equipment manuals (all online nowadays), files of newspaper cuttings you’ve never looked at, even study materials and so on.

Next comes ‘Komono’ – the Japanese word for ‘small things’.  If you accept that you should only ‘keep things because you love  them – not just because’  of course it’s easier to get rid of the excess of bits and pieces you’ve been saving all over the place, the excess of certain types of items and so on.  Sentimental items are dealt with last:

By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realised it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.

That is just too clinical for me. Whittling down is one thing. Mass discarding relies on memory which may fail you – rehandling the items can rekindle the memory. And what about your historical record?  You need to keep enough to let those that follow to get to know you once you’ve gone, surely?

Which brings me to BOOKS!  Books actually come second in her hierarchy of sorting, being the thing you tackle after your clothes.

Put all of your books on the floor

What!  All thousands of them?  Sort them into categories (General, Practical etc).

… take them in your hand one by one and decide if you want to keep or discard each one. The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgement.

NOOOO! It gets worse – she moves on to the TBR piles:

If you missed your chance to read a particular book, even if it was recommended to you or is one you have just been intending to read for ages, then this is your chance to let it go. You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.

THAT’S JUST SO WRONG (for me).  I’ve recently read a book that was on my shelves for twenty one years – The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, which I simply adored.  It hadn’t missed its time, its time had yet to come.  My TBR piles tend to operate on exactly the opposite way to her quote above – if I miss acquiring a book, I’ll probably never come across it again and I may have missed an absolute corker as this example showed. She says, ‘For books, timing is everything.’  True – but not in the way she means it.

Don’t get me wrong, as I said at the top of this post, there are many good things in this book – and it’s certainly thought-provoking, yet it does smack a little of obsessive minimalism – who puts their bookshelves in cupboards – let’s celebrate the spines, let us enjoy the distraction of looking at these treasured tomes.  It’s all a bit sterile.  It’s a bit anti-hobby too, whether you knit, craft, do sports, whatever, having a wide range of bits and pieces and accessories broadens what you can do.  I’ll bet she’s never had a pet either.

I should just mention the translation by Cathy Hirano. It’s very easy to read, I sped through this book, which by its nature is a little repetitive.

In summary:  We can take much from her urban Japanese lifestyle that has to be anti-clutter where space is limited.  However, her methods are difficult to apply to a collection which is how I view my books.  Also, as I previously mentioned, I believe the annual spring-clean is a good way of upping your mood, (and keeping charity shops well stocked). I shall probably apply her ideas in diluted ways to the rest of my stuff and get a bit tidier, a bit more organised. Believe me, that will be an improvement.

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Source: Own Copy. 

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying (Vermillion, 2014) Paperback, 248 pages.

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