Tag Archives: Books about Books

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick: The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Cover imageOne of the many good things about shadow judging this award is that it’s made me review non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t read it but the last book I reviewed that wasn’t fiction was back in May. Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure was already in my sights before the shortlist was announced but if it hadn’t appeared on that I may well not have written about it and so wouldn’t have paid so much attention. Subtitled ‘How Books Restored my Appetite’, it’s about the way in which reading helped her to find a way to eat again.

Freeman was thirteen when she first felt there was something wrong with her body. Drying off in the sun after a swim with just one week of the holidays left before returning to her hated school, she’s seized with a wave of revulsion. So begins a gradual paring back of food until all she can do is stay in bed apart from the weekly outings to her therapist followed by a visit to Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street. Always bookish, Freeman takes refuge in Dickens, consuming almost his entire works. Over the fifteen years between her diagnosis and writing The Reading Cure, Freeman relished descriptions of food, from the resplendent plum pudding of A Christmas Carol which helped her eat her first sliver at the Boxing Day family dinner, to the essays of M. F. K. Fisher whose abandoned delight in eating got her over her potato hump, marking her steps towards recovery in literary milestones. Her journey’s punctuated by stops and starts, including three serious relapses, the third prompted by deluge of strictures from the clean eating brigade. By the end of her memoir, Freeman knows that the clamour in her head isn’t silenced forever but she has a stout defence next time the Jabberwock comes calling.

Freeman weaves her story lightly through her reading so that books are to the fore, describing her illness in plain language that rings with truth. She writes about books beautifully, picking out evocative descriptions of food which have helped her inch towards a less fraught relationship with it. Reading helps clarify her thoughts while walking muffles the voices in her head just as it did for Virginia Woolf as Freeman discovers in Woolf’s diaries. The epilogue is both a lovely testament to the love and help of friends and family, and an expression of hope that her book might help others with whatever ails them.

Freeman’s raw honesty and gentle humour coupled with a delight in books elicit empathy far more effectively than any full on confessional misery memoir. I wanted to cheer her on to the next small mouthful of bubble and squeak – the Nigel Slater recipe – or Cornish saffron bun, inspired by Laurie Lee, but my favourite moment isn’t book related at all. Sitting in a café having just heard the complicated, finicky order of a clean eater, Freeman defiantly orders a boiled egg with buttered soldiers and a proper cup of tea. It might not seem much to you, but it’s a pleasing indication of the many strides made by her.

If you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of The Reading Cure, Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Lizzi’s is at These Little Words. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How one man got his mojo back

cover imageThis is a book I would have read anyway – it’s a book about books after all – but many years ago I worked very briefly with Andy Miller at Waterstones head office, when it was in full possession of an apostrophe, so there’s an added interest for me. Having spotted my blog, Andy remembered the connection, contacted me through Twitter and even managed to recall my last name. There’s more than a tinge of envy in my admiration for his excellent memory. I remembered him – he’s a very funny and thoroughly nice chap – but I can’t for the life of me remember what we worked on, or when it was.

Andy’s book is about rediscovering reading. Mid-way through his thirties his life had become a little humdrum, a bit ho-hum, with every second accounted for and he was exhausted. It wasn’t a bad life – he’s happily married, loves his son and worked as a commissioning editor – but something was missing. He wasn’t reading, or at least not reading with attention. Not only that but he’d spent much of his life pretending he’d read books he hadn’t, even to himself. So when he starts reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita it’s a glorious revelation. He decides to tackle more and, with his wife Tina, draws up The List of Betterment, eventually extending it to fifty titles ranging from Anna Karenina to Lord of the Flies to The Handmaid’s Tale with The Da Vinci Code thrown in as number fifty-one. There are a few bumps in the road – Of Human Bondage and Pride and Prejudice remain unfinished (lucky him, I had to plough through OHB for A-Level) and Beckett’s The Unnameable proves a bit of a strugglebut he makes it to the end and it’s a thoroughly entertaining journey. In between his reading, there are a multitude of digressions many in footnotes with which I was just about to become irritated when he apologised (in a footnote). He’s often very funny – it’s one of those books which has you sniggering and chortling in a way guaranteed to annoy anyone else in the room (sorry, H, but it’ll be your turn when you read it)  – and he’s admirably honest about his reading shortcomings, particularly for a man who’s spent his working life in the book world, or perhaps that’s the problem. In between the hilarity there are some serious points to be made about the way we read today and the distractions at every turn – literary festivals, bookshop events, radio shows, not to mention Twitter and bloggers… It’s a thoroughly entertaining read and I’m glad to have made Andy’s acquaintance again.

Andy’s clearly convinced that we all lie about reading books we haven’t read but I don’t. I have however, nodded my way knowledgeably through many conversations about books I have read but remember absolutely nothing about, then made a panicky search on the internet for a synopsis. Even books I read a few weeks ago. And reviewed. What about you, do you sometimes tell people you’ve read what you haven’t or are you like me, afflicted by memory-wipe?

Books about Books: bibliophile heaven

I’m a sucker for books about books. There are two on my horizon right now – Andrew Cover imageTaylor’s Books That Changed the World and Gabrielle Zevin’s The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry, set in a failing bookshop. I even kick-started my reading year with a novel called Books in which Charlie Hill lampoons everyone, from publishers to booksellers, literary editors to authors, bloggers (how dare he!) to publicists and adds a swipe at performance artists for good measure in a Jasper Fforde meets Black Books kind of satire. Mr Fforde’s own The Eyre Affair which saw the first outing of Thursday Next fighting the good fight against Acheron Hades who is kidnapping characters from books and holding them to ransom had me chuckling my way through the first few days of a holiday in Slovenia much to H’s annoyance. Then he got his hands on it, and I wished I’d brought the second instalment. One of my 2013 favourites for its sheer invention and for reducing me to surprised tears with its revelation of the puzzle’s solution was Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore which playfully meshes the old reading world that most of us still inhabit with new technology in a quirky edge of your seat story of bookish folk. Then there’s Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love in which a librarian finds a young man who has been locked in overnight – surely a bibliophile’s dream – and treats him to a passionate, if slightly scolding, soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher.

Cover imageDelving back further into reading past, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things is a booky highlight. It’s set in the Arcade, a rambling New York bookshop – suspiciously like the legendary Strand – staffed by a bunch of eccentrics who are joined by a young woman fresh from Tasmania. When she opens a letter offering a ‘lost’ Melville manuscript the fun begins. I’m sure some of you will remember Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a bestseller set in Barcelona’s ‘cemetery for lost books’ where, aged ten, Daniel finds the book that will intrigue him, bedevil him and ultimately shape his life – The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carfax. On his sixteenth birthday, Daniel sees a stranger smoking a cigarette from his balcony, instantly recognising a scene from Carfax’s novel. Sadly, another bestseller – Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief narrated by Death who tells the story of Liesel, the nine-year-old eponymous book thief whose family has been taken to a concentration camp – didn’t quite do it for me although now I’m quite unable to remember why.

There are vast numbers of non-fiction books about books and I’m sure you’re becoming aCover image little weary of the subject but I can’t finish without mentioning Lewis Buzbee’s memoir The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, so wonderful that Tetbury’s excellent independent bookshop borrowed the name. If you’ve ever worked in a bookshop – or shopped in one – this book’s for you.

There are many, many more books about books, some I’ve left out so as not to bore on and some I should have read but haven’t got around to – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a glaring omission – and quite a few more I know nothing about, I’m sure. Given that there’s no such thing as too many recommendations, let me know what your favourite books about books are.