Friday, 25 November 2016

Friday Flashback - "The Well of Loneliness" by Radclyffe Hall

“The Well of Loneliness” is not to be read lightly, for its title does not exaggerate. It is tragic and powerful; it shudders with empathy and spiritual resilience.

First published in 1928, it tells the tale of Miss Stephen Gordon: a woman who identifies as a man, who loves other women and must suffer the condemnation of all for her “abnormality”. Incredibly ahead of its time, as far as public opinion was concerned, it was the subject of an obscenity trial at the time of publication. It was published in the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Hall was part of an oncoming wave that rose in the years that followed World War I. It was a wave that saw taboos transforming from absolutes into debatable ideas, and – even more importantly – it was a wave that streamed into the public forum. Ideologies, and the courage of those who lived them, were coming to bear against received wisdom.
“As though gaining courage from the terror that is war, many a one who was even as Stephen, had crept out of her hole and come into the daylight, come into the daylight and faced her country: ‘Well, here I am, will you take me or leave me?’”
The scope and breadth of this highly empathetic and emotional work is without compare. It crosses a number of social boundaries. It begins in the well-to-do grounds of Morton, the home of Stephen’s father, Sir Philip Gordon. We then travel with Stephen to the front lines of the First World War, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Then, the war over, back to Paris, where Stephen mixes with the greats and the groundlings of society’s so-called “inverts”. Having made a name for herself as an author, she is privy to a very exclusive circle. Stephen meets many prominent men and women of cultured society, including writers, poets and artists whose characters often have real life counterparts. From a young child to a middle aged woman, Stephen’s life is a landscape and a broad reel of life, love and loss.

Stephen’s life has many ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that tragedy has the final word. Radclyffe Hall – christened Marguerite – is quite clearly writing from personal experience and Stephen Gordon is modelled on herself. Existential turmoil and fear of and anger against public opinion battle vehemently with pride and courage.
“She would clench her hands in a kind of fury. How long was this persecution to continue? How long would God sit still and endure this insult offered to His creation? How long tolerate the preposterous statement that inversion was not part of nature? For since it existed what else could it be? All things that existed were a part of nature?”
Courage does not win very much in this novel; it is a thoroughly depressing read. But it is so wholly courageous and forward thinking when hope does make its sporadic appearances.
“We’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good.”
The most readable sections of the novel are those set in the grounds of Morton with the young Stephen. Pastoral descriptions are full of English pride and a liberating sense of natural freedom. Stephen is at her most free when she gallops across green hills and fields with her faithful horse Raftery.
“The gardens lay placidly under the snow, in no way perturbed or disconcerted. Only one inmate of theirs felt anxious, and that was the ancient and wide-boughed cedar, for the weight of the snow made an ache in its branches … But it could not cry out or shake off its torment.”
These early episodes make wholesome use of natural metaphors that are infinitely more successful than the later episodes contained within inner-city Paris. The gay bars that Stephen and her partner Mary frequent later in the novel are dirty and degrading and Stephen is appalled that she must be forced to mix with the people for whom life has “at last stamped under; who, despised of the world, must despise themselves beyond all hope, it seemed, of salvation.” They are described as “haunted”, “tawdry” and “shabby” and it is sections like these that betray a hint of classist bias.

Maureen Duffy, in her introduction to the novel, expresses it thus: “The Well certainly has its shortcomings both as a work of literature and as an apologia for a homosexual way of life and love; nevertheless, for decades these have been outweighed for many readers by the novel’s mere existence in telling them that they were not alone, and by the courage of its author in both writing and defending it.”
“I am one of those who God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean. Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond – yet the world will call it unclean. We may harm no living creature by our love, we may grow more perfect in understanding and in charity because of our loving, but all this will not save you from the scourge of a world that will turn away its eyes from your noblest actions, finding only corruption and vileness in you. … And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: ‘I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you.’”

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Fantasy Fans - "Smoke" by Dan Vyleta

For the fourth time this year, I have found my new favourite book.

For those who have a hole in their heart left by the end of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" triology, this is the book for you. A dark and sophisticated fantasy. A gripping story, complex characters and a world rich with ideas

What would a world be like where all your sins are laid bare and you are judged by the smoking gun you carry within you everywhere? Judged for sins you have not committed, for desires you never act on. A world in which even an impure thought is betrayed by your own body, seeping from your pores, staining your clothes with Soot and infecting those around you in a Smoke of your own making. A world where teenage boys fear retribution if their sheets are stained with Soot in the morning because of what they dreamt the night before? In “Smoke”, this is the reality for Dan Vyleta’s characters. Like our sweat glands responding to fear, anger or excitement, so do his characters produce Smoke.

His world is wreathed in the so-called Smoke: the physical manifestation of sin. But if one Smokes when one feels love, lust, pain, is it really as simple as that?

Vyleta’s is a world that could have been. He takes Victorian London, bathed in a different kind of smoke than existed in the Industrial Revolution of our familiar history. A symptom of change and development is transformed into a cause of social and political stagnation in the novel. Everyone believes that Smoke is caused by sin, and that belief breeds fear and separation. The elites of society are the clean ones; taught control from a young age, they appear smokeless. The city of London, on the other hand, filled with common people and common dirty desires, is a well of sin, of Smoke. The gentry therefore appear pure and reasonable, while the commoners are dirty and sinful. But underground, in the mines and the sewers, there are those who speak of revolution.

It is a simple and elegant metaphor which Vyleta extends into a complete landscape, so familiar and yet so altered by this one change. Moral systems warped but still recognisable as our own; a fantasy that rings with truth and is therefore all the more unsettling.
“Power … is underwritten by morality. Those who rule, rule because they are better people than their subjects. It’s written on our linen. It cannot be denied.”
The novel is written in the present tense which I really enjoyed, bringing urgency and reality to the narrative. Vyleta also uses an ensemble style of narration, periodically inhabiting different characters. It’s a great way of not only building tension and helping to the move the story from a variety of different directions, but also ensures the reader gets a full understanding of the world Vyleta has created. He covers all the social strata, reinforcing the significance of the moral function of Smoke as it transfers to the social and political landscape. A miner’s wife, a headmaster, a noblewoman, a drunk priest, a righteous revolutionary, a butler, a teenage girl, a murderous schoolboy.
Dan Vyleta must be a man with an amazing ability to empathise with all kinds of people. He completely embraces the complexity of his characters with an honesty that is acutely felt, existing as they do in a world of moral confusion. What is most striking is the ease with which Vyleta slips into each body. At times, he conveys concise and acute spasms of emotion that sound with absolute clarity. Emotions that are meaty and guttural, but also tender, embarrassing and secret. He embraces the humanity of emotions we are ourselves ashamed of and removes that shame by putting them into simple, unapologetic terms. And that is perhaps the blessing that follows the curse of Smoke. It confronts us with our own intentions and asks us to reckon them, but also to share them and find solace in each other.

“Smoke”, besides being a wonderful read, is a book that raises questions. It highlights truths about the society we live in today and about the social landscape we have fashioned from the roots of our moral beliefs. It also highlights the fragility of those beliefs, warning against damaging absolutism; looking for the greys, not just black and white.

One of my favourite things about the book is the fact that it leaves the reader with a lot of questions unanswered. I like this aspect because it stays true to the book’s themes:  questions of morality have no easy answers. This novel is a great example of leaving the reader wanting more without infuriating the reader with an abundance of loose ends. I can enjoy the invite to speculate. It also means that Vyleta has completely avoided being preachy in spite of his moral subject matter.

Vyleta achieves the ultimate: makes his reader think and imagine in equal measure. And we are made to think not by force of opinion or clunking pointed dialogue, but by favour of the narrative that wills itself into existence within the minds of its creators. As Vyleta says in his afterword to the novel:
“to the reader belongs that greatest act of creation where stories are concerned, the transformation of words and sentences into tentative meaning, forever on the move.”

Georgie Matthews
Bookseller Windsor

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

We Love Wednesdays - Nutshell by Ian McEwan

What a refreshing change from his usual bittersweet format; Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” is like no book I’ve ever read. Told entirely from the perspective of an unborn baby, the intellectual life of this foetus is a fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The bliss and boredom of existing afforded to the unborn promotes the excess of existential thought exhibited by the eponymous Hamlet, who battles vehemently with the notions of life, love and death.

There are moments of fantastic introspective clarity as well as hilarious observation throughout the book, as he makes use of what he hears and feels of the outside world. His observations and sensations are filtered through his mother – her hormonal/emotional/digestive responses are also his. Don’t think that means he has no emotions or opinions of his own, being in fact very frustrated by having to share in everything she feels and eats. But, he has excellent hearing of his own – a known fact of unborn children – and so his commentary and accounts of conversations can be taken as reliable.

He has some very sophisticated tastes for a foetus, not least his penchant for a good vintage – thanks to sharing his mother’s food and drink – and his appreciation for poetry and literary criticism – thanks to having a poet for a father and late night podcasts that his mother listens to when she can’t sleep. The sophistication of this foetus is fantastically absurd. “Milk, repellent to the blood-fed unborn, especially after wine, but my future all the same.” Small talk “is an adult device, a covenant with boredom and conceit.” “God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.” These statements contain a wonderful meshing of childish bluntness with old-age boredom. Things children say because they don’t know they shouldn’t. Things old people say because they no longer care. One thinks of another famous Shakespeare quote – “second childishness”.

Of all the Shakespeare adaptations that exist – books, films, plays, TV – this is one of the most successful I have come across. It rather puts “The Wyrd Sisters” (aka “Macbeth”) by Terry Pratchett to shame, a book I read alongside “Nutshell”. Hamlet is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters and rightly so. His soliloquys are the most infamous, powerful and elegant. It is particularly this feature of the play that McEwan has fabulously reworked in “Nutshell”. The passages I enjoyed most were exactly what you expect from Hamlet’s monologues: powerful exaltations and lamentations on human nature; the wonder that it is to think and be. Consciousness in overdrive. Besides their evident connection with Shakespeare, these passages are also incredibly modern and relevant with regards to politics, science and social analysis.

“Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with ever new handgun. Africa, yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly cerebral soul and that is his fatal flaw. Hamlet fails to be active or effective in the real world and this is precisely what escalates the tragedy in the play. Hamlet thinks and fails to act. Others complain he is too melancholy, too lost in his thoughts. What McEwan has done, by making Hamlet a foetus, is remove the blame that was laid at Hamlet’s feet. A foetus cannot be blamed for its inability to act. Where Hamlet’s is a cage of the mind, the baby is physically caged within his mother’s womb. By replacing a mental cage with a physical one, McEwan also gives us a powerful metaphor for depression, anxiety and even psychosis.

“What’s an imagination for but to play out and linger on and repeat the bloody possibilities? Revenge may be exacted a hundred times over in one sleepless night. The impulse, the dreaming intention, is human, normal, and we should forgive ourselves.”

Equally though, McEwan is crediting the relevance, the potential of a soully conceptual existence. For the foetus, to think is its only activity, aside from giving mum the odd kick, and as such, thinking is the only way it knows how to be. It may observe, speculate, look forward to existence beyond the womb, but at least for now, this warm, moist sac is his world, his universe.

“Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind.”

Throughout the book, the baby is a witness, incapable of taking action, but that does not detract from its contribution to the plot. McEwan gives us an entirely inactive character as our narrator, but does that mean the story does not progress? That the child’s existence has not played its part in the story, or at least, in the telling of it? No.

McEwan has reinvigorated “Hamlet” and reminded us of the value of Hamlets in literature and art in general. “Hamlet” and “Nutshell” are artistic masterpieces because they deal with ideas. We feed off ideas, we exist because of ideas. We think, therefore we are.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Introducing Georgie Matthews

Hello all!

My name is Georgie Matthews. I'm a Bookseller at the Windsor shop and I'm a regular blogger and reviewer but new to this particular blog, so thought I'd briefly introduce myself. I am a writer and actress and I love all sorts of books; classics, modern novels, philosophy, drama and fantasy. But rather than blather on about myself, I offer you to peruse my bedside table book stack and draw your own conclusions...


The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Where did I get it? Received this in the post, adorned with a post-it, which read, "Thought you might enjoy reading this. Granny x" After receiving said delightful little package, I rang my Gran. She said it reminded her of my blog, the way I ramble, tangents veering off.

The tagline reads: "Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted." Do you know what a good bookshop is? Forsyth does. I haven't been in a good bookshop since I was in New York and my wonderful aunt took me to a little treasure trove, where I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg.

While I would happily tell you more about this little beautie, I'm concerned I might ruin the joy of an "unknown unknown." It took less than an hour to read, and made me laugh out loud several times. Clever and witty without trying to be. Delightful in its purposelessness.

Bookmark: A page torn from my notepad where I work as a receptionist. It is the beginnings of a short story I started writing during that last useless hour of a work day. Between half 4 and half 5, when no one really does anything but wait for the day to end. The Twilight Hour.

I have since continued writing the story on the computer at work - typing gives the impression of doing something productive - and I'm hoping to extend this into a collection of short stories. Might post a snippet on here at some point.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Where did I get it? Waterstones, Oxford.

This is one of the classics that follows you around. One of those epic, brick-like monstronsities that act as an adequate book-end until you work up the courage to dig in. Our friend Forsyth puts it thus in The Unknown Uknown:

"Tolstoy, Stendhal and Cervantes, these men follow me around. They stand in dark corners and eye me disapprovingly from beneath supercilious eyebrows. And all because I've never got round to reading their blasted, thousand-page, three-ton, five-generation, state-of-a-nation thingummywhatsits."

I'm taking on this monster. About 6 months in and I'm half way through. The adventures of the deluded knight, Don Quixote and his hapless copanion, Sancho Panza. It makes one giggle in a "Droll, Cervantes, very droll" kind of way. But there's also the odd Dick Joke, which is nice.

"Hastily he pulled off his breeches and was left wearing only his skin and shirttails, and then, without further ado, he kicked his heels twice, turned two cartwheels with his head down and his feet in the air, and revealed certain things; Sancho, in order not to see them again, pulled on his horse's reins and turned him around, satisfied and convinced that he could swear his master had lost his mind."

Bookmark: Another product of the Twilight Hour. My job does very little to stimulate me and it's not unusual for the last hour or so to be spent on arts and crafts... I need a new job.
So: used file dividers, a holepunch, selotape and a black biro and voila!

 Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

Where did I get it? Given to me by an ex-boyfriend.

My audition monologue for drama school was taken from this. Who doesn't love a bit of Shakespearean comedy, with a feisty female lead?

"Not till God make men of some other mettle than
earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be
overmastered with a piece of valiant dust, to make
an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?
No, uncle, I'll none."

You tell 'em, Beatrice!

Bookmark: Sinfully dog-eared...

 Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw

audrey hepburn

Where did I get it? Accidentally stolen from my secondary school...oops.

Most people know this play as the musical adaptation, "My Fair Lady," starring Audrey Hepburn. This is not the musical version, but the original play. Arguably far less exiting than Audrey's delightful attempt at cockney.

In search of another audition monologue, I dug this book out. Turns out, it doesn't contain much in the way of a decent female monologue. Too much quipping back and forth between Eliza and Professor Higgins for them to give each other time to go off on one.

 Think And Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill

Where did I get it? This was a gift from my father at Christmas last year. It's a book he believes everyone should read, if they are serious about being successful in their lives.

It's a formula for success. This book has sold millions of copies since it was first published in the 1930's and this particular publication features a list of famous/wealthy people who attribute their success to this book and the secret it contains. The secret is never directly given. It is rather a means of discovering the secret for yourself. But you will only discover it, if you are ready to receive it. I'm only a couple of chapters in, so have little to offer about its effectiveness. And I certainly haven't discovered the secret yet. My father has read it several times and still isn't really sure he knows.

Bookmark: A sample tester from Bare Escentuals make-up. It was lying around when I started reading. But it's too chunky and keeps falling out of the book in my handbag. And there's always the danger that if I close the book too vigorously, foundation will burst out. All things considered, it's a terrible bookmark.

  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey

Where did I get it?  A gift from my father - the second book that everyone should read. This book was gifted to me by my father a few weeks ago. This book, too was adorned with a post-it: "The most important book you will ever
readlive." An entirely intentional palimpsest that my father was very proud of.
Palimpsest is one of my favourite words, so I just wanted to unceremoniously throw that in. (This may be one of those tangents my grandmother was talking about.)
I have yet to read the first page of this book. It's place on my bedside table is entirely prospective.

The books found on your bedside table say a lot about the kind of person you are - or perhaps the kind of person you want to be. Assuming you have a pile at all. But then, I am a student of English Literature. I've been conditioned to look for meaning in everything I read. Even in the banal words of a young blogger.
The More you Read,
The More you Know.
The More you Know,
The Further you Go.
                                                         - My Daddy
P.s. If you're wondering how true it is that your books reflect who you are, then take a look at my grandparents' bedside table. Says it all really.


Georgie Matthews
Bookseller Windsor

(If you'd like to check out more of my writing then please visit my writing blog:

Thursday, 15 September 2016

New Chapters

Thank you, reader, for your patience in the updating of this blog. We're currently undergoing some changes in our branches, and as such, the continued publishing of content on the blog will be slightly reduced for a short while.

I will be leaving the store in Camberley for pastures new, over in Woking. For the next few weeks, I will be continuing to run the blog, although it may change hands at short notice. Similarly, the project may be rolled out over a wider area, encompassing my new branch, and as such, I may remain a main contributor. All will be revealed.

In any case, thank you, all who have stumbled upon this page.

Matt Smith
Chief Editor and Bookshop Manager, Woking

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Flashback Friday - The Man in the High Castle

Who is the man who resides in the high castle, why do the Nazi's want him dead, and why does everyone who reads a book written by him have the strong feeling that things aren't what they seem?

The Man in the High Castle is written by Philip K. Dick. He sounds familiar because he wrote many novels from the 50's all the way until his death in 1982, the most notable being Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became Bladerunner), We Can Remember it for You Wholesale (which became Total Recall), Minority Report (film by the same name), and the list goes on. He was important because his ideas still stand up today; dystopian futures, inter-planetary travel, and his most personal novel, A Scanner Darkly, dealing with drugs and the effects they have on individuals and the country in general.

The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel where the Nazi's had won the Second World War, and America is now split into Nazi Germany occupying the Eastern States up till the Rocky Mountains, and Japan now occupying the Pacific States. Thirteen years after the end of the war and things are back to "normal". That is until a book surfaces. In this book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the writer talks about an alternative history... where the Allied forces won the Second World War! Anyone who reads the book is filled with a hope that the world they know isn't what it seems, and that this "alternative" present isn't how things should be. Because of this notion the Nazi's want the writer of the book, Hawthorne Abendsen, killed.

The novel follows a number of different characters, each dealing with prejudices and coping with their day-to-day lives. But they feel the need to change things, consulting an ancient Chinese prophetic technique called the I Ching, they make decisions that change the course of their lives.

Once you get your head around the concept of a book inside a book that has its footing in the world we know then you can let this beautifully crafted novel take you to a different place and time, when things are bad but there is still hope.

After watching the TV series of The Man in the High Castle there are yet many more questions unanswered, but because of the type of novel it is there will always be questions. And to go with those questions there is thought and interpretation, and ultimately, opinions.
The series is a beautifully shot masterpiece, with a starkly film noir feel, and intriguing from start to finish.

Craig McLearie

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

We Love Wednesdays - Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

The theme for this month's We Love Wednesdays is the books that changed our lives. This week, Matt explains his love for the Hermann Hesse classic Siddhartha.

I gave away my copy of Siddhartha as soon as I'd finished it. I was sat in the Caffe Nero in my old branch in Basingstoke when I put the book down, sat in a profound silence, before getting up and walking to the till, handing the book to the girl at the counter who I had only known a short while, and told her how fantastic it was, before leaving.
We've been together for a few years now, and I often think of that moment of connection that this book forged between us and how wonderfully life changing it was, how our first love may have kindled from that moment. I think of the many others I've told to read it over the years. My best friends, who all responded in kind, enraptured by the wisdom within this slim volume's pages My customers, who have often returned and told me how moved they were by the spiritual journey. Most recently, I gifted a copy to a staff member who was leaving for a journey of their own, as a memorial of her time with the company and as a guide to assist with the stress of living in the fast-paced modern world.  
At this juncture, I'll state that I am in no way spiritual or Buddhist, nor praise anything that isn't created by Nick Cave. This book, however, is so beautiful in its prose, so moving in its story, I felt deeply affected by it in a way I never have by a book before. Not to say I've found my spiritual side or converted to Buddhism, but the teachings in this tale are enough to change your perspective on the whole world.

Siddhartha is the simple tale of a Brahmin's son, seeking his calling in life, through trial and error, to discover his purpose. He drifts on a river of lust, love, material desire and despair, through positives and existential lows, to enlightenment and nirvana. His journey is beautifully told by Hesse in a simple poetry, that sings from the page in a manner that is enthralling and mystical. Every word is meticulously placed and belies the depths of this novel.

“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else ... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”

For me, Siddhartha as a book represents hope and love. The journey Siddhartha finds himself on is fraught with struggles that test his will and nearly defeat him. He contemplates death by a surging river, but hope and love drive him to continue on the path to enlightenment. We all face difficulties in our lives and this tale could do wonders for someone sat by the banks of their own metaphorical rivers. The wisdom found in this book has helped me through the depths of depression, loss and grief, and ultimately brought me love, friendship and strength.

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself.”

Matt Smith, Chief Editor and Book Shop Manager Camberley

Monday, 5 September 2016

Monday Motivation - A select quote from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

"I have always believed,
and I still believe,
that whatever good
or bad fortune may
come our way we can always give it meaning
and transform it into something of value."  
Check back on Wednesday for a full review of Siddhartha from Matt in Camberley.  

Friday, 2 September 2016

Getting into Classics

I know most people find classic literature a chore, even those of us that generally love reading, and honestly it’s easy to see why: Grappling with ‘ye olde pantaloons’ language can be confusing and a lot of people get bored with plots that seems to be nothing but ladies fanning themselves and wandering around in crinolines. I’m the same and used to be very dismissive of classic literature, but over the years I’ve read my fair share and can now say that I while I certainly haven’t enjoyed all of them, there are a lot that I have really loved and a few that I would count amongst my most treasured books. I put it down to the way in which I now select and approach classics, so if you’ve always been apprehensive of them, or have tried and disliked them in the past I thought I’d come up with a few tips and tricks that I think would help anyone looking to try out classic literature.

01. Pick the sort of book you enjoy. Seems like a no brainer right? Well you’d think so but this is something I see a lot of people overlook. What you enjoy in a modern book is probably the same thing you will want from a classic. If your ideal book is an immersive crime thriller, the frilly gossipy world of Pride and Prejudice is probably not going to be something you’ll enjoy. Conversely if you love a good, girly romance, the Sherlock Holmes stories are unlikely to be your cup of tea.
You might think that classics lack the sort of gripping action and human drama that you love in modern books, but you would be surprised. Don’t believe me? A monk who is drawn into and consumed by a forbidden world of lust, violence and black magic by a girl who sneaks into the monastery disguised as a young boy. Sound good? You’ll like The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Beautiful sweet story about a boy growing up in Edwardian England trying to come to terms with his love for another man in a world that would call him sick and sinful, anyone? Read Maurice by EM Forster. How about a young woman who falls in love and gets married, only to find herself haunted by the vengeful ghost of her husband’s first wife? That’s Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are plenty of amazing books in the classics section, it doesn’t start with Austen and end with Dickens.
02. Be mindful of form. This is a nice cheaty one. What I mean here is some classics aren’t supposed to be read. If anyone talks smugly about how much Shakespeare they’ve read, you have my unreserved permission to give them a good clip round the ear. Shakespeare wrote plays, they were supposed to be performed, not read in text form! Having done a Shakespeare module at university I can tell you that reading the script barely scratches the surface of the sheer genius that is some of his work. The text can’t capture the eeriness of watching Lady Macbeth sleepwalk through the castle, trying to claw imaginary blood off her hands, and you’ll never belly laugh just reading the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the actors at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding bumble through a production of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, a supposedly epic love story that’s a car crash of soppy clich├ęs, accidental smuttiness and bad acting. What I’m saying here is if you want to ‘read’ Shakespeare, or Marlowe or Arthur Miller, don’t read it! Watch it instead! I promise you it will be easier to understand and far more enjoyable which, at the end of the day, is what these writers wanted their audience to get from their work. Another great idea is a modern adaptation in which the same dialogue is used but in a modern setting. David Tennant in the film adaptation of Hamlet is a perfect example. You would be amazed how easily 16th Century speech can be understood when the person talking speaks naturally and is in a context we can recognise.

03. Don’t worry about not understanding. There are often a lot of dense narrative passages and references to things you might not understand because of the time period but it’s no reason to give up. Reading Maurice, written in the 18th Century, I often came across bits of speech or words that I didn’t understand, but with a bit of googling and the ability to just shrug and move on to the next line I persevered and it is now one of my favourite books. If you are worried, start with books that are more recent and work backwards as you become more confident. Daphne Du Maurier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, H.P Lovecraft and Evelyn Waugh are all great writers who published mostly in the first half of the 20th Century and the language isn’t really any different from how we speak now so it’s one less thing to deal with.

04. If you’re really not enjoying a book, stop reading it. I’ll let you into a little secret. I didn’t really like Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye. I have never actually finished anything written by Charles Dickens. His stuff just bores me to tears and that’s ok! He doesn’t care! He’s one of the most revered British writers of all time! Also he’s dead, what’s it to him that one little bookseller with a lit degree doesn’t think much of his books? The thing about these well-known classics is that they seep into popular culture and become this thing that all educated, well-read people have to read, understand and enjoy but the truth is they’re just like any other books, you just aren’t going to get on with all of them! This harks back a little to my first point. Ultimately to really allow yourself to enjoy classic literature, you need to stop seeing them as these fusty, highbrow works and start seeing them for what they are. They’re just stories, written by people who wanted to make you laugh or cry or to teach you something, and some you’ll like and some you won’t. There aren’t any that you HAVE to read, whatever book snobs tell you. I’ve tried a lot of the so called ‘canon classics’ but it was only when I stopped thinking about what other people had said about the books and simply went for stories I thought I’d enjoy that I began to find books that really spoke to me and stayed with me.

05. A few of my favourites. Ok not necessarily a ‘tip’ but I thought I’d share a few of my absolute favourites with you that you may not have heard of – just to get you started breaking away from the obvious choices.

Maurice – E.M Forster. A young man struggles with his homosexuality in a time period in which it is considered a sinful disease. Incredibly sweet and very sad.

The Necromicon – H.P Lovecraft. A collection of horror and sci-fi stories, all of them beautifully constructed and chilling to the bone, some are actually scarier than modern horror.

Lolita – Vladamir Nabokov. The story of a man’s sexual obsession for his young step-daughter, might be a bit uncomfortable but the language is just divine. This guy weaves words like no one else.

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell. Young, clever middle class Margaret Hale moves from the south to the industrialised north of Victorian England and deals with the horrible class divide between the maltreated factory workers and the seemingly cruel owners and meets people from both sides of the struggle. Also a nice bit of fiery romance too. What I wanted Pride and Prejudice to be.

King Lear – Shakespeare.(play) An old king is manipulated and betrayed by two of his three daughters, very intense and incredibly cruel and tragic. I utterly adore it. There are some good productions available free online.
So those are my tips and tricks for reading and enjoying classical literature, hopefully if you’ve been put off in the past you might find this useful and feel a little more confident giving the classics a try.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Flashback Friday - Camberley's Favourite Displays #1

This January saw the publication of the incredible Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, and as a reaction to the most important book of 2016, we created this window to shout about how fantastic this book truly is.
It is a book for everyone, a must read that gets into the nature of depression in a way that, for sufferers, is reassuringly familiar, and for loved ones of sufferers, overwhelmingly insightful.
To be told you're not alone in your struggle against the big black dog of depression, is some of the most important help you can get. Where depression makes you feel isolated and alone in a dark ocean, this book is the first signs of safety on the horizon. Matt Haig's personal experiences are a catalyst for change, to inspire hope and take up the fight rather than succumb to it's pressures.
Haig is extremely open and candid, bravely so, which is why I would recommend this book above all for the topic, and especially for men in particular. For men, stereotypically, emotions are silently pushed down inside, and this book is there to encourage open and frank discussion about what you hold inside. Suicide rates for men in the UK are three times that of women, and this book is here to challenge that. To form an outlet for understanding about mental health issues and encourage a future for struggling souls.
While all genders would benefit from this book, I would say the words Matt Haig writes may resonate most with the stoic silence of male sufferers of depression.
I know it did with me.
Matt Smith
Chief Editor and Book Shop Manager, Camberley.