Ms. Mirabile on The London Box & Do We Like Writers?


The London box:  Dickens’ Mrs. Lirriper, Jane Bowles’ Everything Is Nice, a D. J. Taylor omnibus, Compton Mackenzie’s The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, and Mavis Cheek’s The Lovers of Pound Hill.

The London box arrived.

Yes, I FedExed a box of books to myself from London.

Another stack from the London box:  Platanov's The Foundation Pit, Mishima's The Temple of Dawn, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Means of Escape, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Dicken's The Pickwick Papers, Robert Graves' The Golden Fleece & L. P. Hartley's My Fellow Devils

More from the London box: Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, Mishima’s The Temple of Dawn, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers, Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece & L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils

I wasn’t home to sign for it, so I begged my husband to take me to the FedEx store to pick it up.

“Couldn’t we get it on our bikes?”

“It’s huge.”

And in my mind it really WAS huge.

When he saw it, he couldn’t stop laughing.  It was the size of a slightly oversized Amazon box.

“We could have biked.”

“But it weighs 9 pounds.”

All I know is it was a struggle to lug a laptop bag and a tote bag of books into the taxi.

It’s satisfying to receive a box of books.  My husband wants Platonov’s The Foundation Pit.  We both are fans of Russian literature.

It is ridiculous that I bought a copy of The Pickwick Papers at the Dickens Museum, when I could have found it at home.

It was something about being in the Dickens Museum.  I wanted books I had bought at the Dickens Museum.

I also bought a copy of Dickens’ Mrs. Lirriper, which I have never seen anywhere except at the Dickens Museum.

And below is a scene from Hereafter, one of my favorite movies, in which Matt Damon visits the Dickens Museum.  Unfortunately there’s no sound, but you can see the museum.


Although I’m patting myself on the back for traveling cheaply, I am also relieved that my husband understands why I bought my Dickens at the Dickens Museum.

He is disappointed I didn’t go to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

It didn’t occur to me because I was burning out, but next time.

I will return to London after I’ve read all my London books.

And I have a couple of more boxes coming, because at the end I was madly paying money for the bookstores to ship books to me.

I spent almost nothing!  Everything I did except the Dickens Museum was free.

My husband looked askance at my food bills from Tesco Express and Waitrose.  Five pounds?  All I can say is, it was a great deal cheaper than eating out.  And everything cost at least five pounds, except coffee!

Free things to do in London?  There are so many.


Storied Life of A. J. FikryI have just finished one of the most charming novels I’ve ever read, Gabrielle Zevins’ The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I couldn’t resist a novel about a bookseller, and it is very, very funny and smoothly written.

The main character, A. J., is a rather cranky bookstore owner.  He is lonely.  He is a widower.  He misses his wife.  He has poor social skills, so he doesn’t have a particularly strong customer base. It was his wife who did the PR and who sponsored the Vampire Ball.

Every chapter begins with a brief journal entry by A. J. about a short story, and he  loves short stories more than novels.

There are many things he doesn’t like, among them Y.A. vampire books.

He doesn’t like writers.

And the only writer event he hosts in the book is something of a bust from his point of view, but the customers love it.

A. J. says about writers:

Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers.  He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people.  He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin the books for him.

This made me burst out laughing, because I organized a series of readings for various bookstores and schools years ago.  (I was a fanatic about books, and did this pro bono.)  Most of the writers were very kind and charming, and some wanted to hang out with me.  (I was MUCH younger then, and I read their books.)  Very few people at these events have read the books.

There were a few difficult writers.  I won’t pretend there weren’t.  You want to stay away from prima donnas, if you know they’re prima donnas.  They are not better writers than the non-prima donnas, but they are picky about everything:  their flights, their food, their escorts, professors putting their arms around them (these particular professors put their arms around everyone, male or female), they want juice instead of water, they can’t eat anything at the restaurant, because they’re on a special diet of beef, and they make fun of the people at the reading.  Sometimes it really puts you off a writer.  In general, though, I found them to be very easy-going people.  Book touring is part of the job.  And they were getting paid an honorarium.

So overall, though I love books, I don’t need to meet writers, even if I would like to. I do wish I’d attended something at the Oxford Literary Festival, because their standards must be high (it’s Oxford!).

There are, however, a lot of readings in Iowa City, if I want to attend.  For instance, on Saturday Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers, will be in Iowa City for two events.  And she has been longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize.  I’m still jet-lagged, so I won’t be there.  But someone will be thrilled.

Usually attending readings makes me want to read more of the writers’ books.  It is very unusual for it to put me off.  If you don’t have to deal personally with the writers, it’s always a breeze.

But how do you feel about writers?  Do you like writers?  Do you want to meet them?  I’m sure some of you go to readings, and some do not.    Let us know your impressions!  What’s the best event you ever attended?

Wouldn’t you like to meet Dickens?

15 thoughts on “Ms. Mirabile on The London Box & Do We Like Writers?

  1. I don’t think I would like to meet Dickens because of the way he treated his wife. It’s ok not to like your wife, but fair’s fair. He got her pregnant again and again and then found her a lot less attractive. It was her fault for having all those children!

    Have you read Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley? It’s a 1930’s novel about a traveling bookseller (“on wheels’). Very funny and rather sweet and a picture of a simpler time, since his wheels are horse-drawn.

    In the supermarket did you try the egg salad / watercress sandwiches?


  2. I love readings. I’ll always go to Colm Toibin’s because he reads so well and is so amusing. I’d love to have drinks with him. The most boring reading was Janet Malcolm’s. I had to apologize to the friend I dragged there.

    I totally understand about buying the Dickens at the museum.

    I was going to start reading only books I own but I’m hearing a lot about Fikry so I’ll get it from the library.


  3. Oh and just because you’re talking about London, I just finished Hangover Square. Patrick Hamilton is such a gem! At first I didn’t think I was going to like it as much as The Slaves of Solitude but I sure did.


  4. Nancy, you’re right about Dickens. I had forgotten about his wife. She suffered depression, too, and no wonder since he wasn’t nice to her. But he was such a great writer, and I would have loved to see him perform. He built a special desk (really a podium) to take on tours. It was just the right height! I have to forget about writers’ lives. If you know, well… didn’t Wilkie Collins have two households or something?

    And I love Parnassus on Wheels. I would put The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry in that class.

    Cynthia, I can imagine hearing Colm Tobin! Such a good writer. And I know The Testament of Mary (which I haven’t read) was written for the stage. I had really better read that. I’m glad you liked Hangover Square. There are some other Hamilton books I haven’t read. I think there’ a trilogy about a crook, and I did read one of them. Reading only books you have is such a good idea. I think I’d better do that for a while, too.

    Catherin, I do love Graves, but I’d never seen the Stapledon. I really do love science fiction. I picked this up at Foyles, having never heard of it. I loved the bookstores in London. Probably worth it just to browse. Perhaps next time I won’t go so far.:)


  5. Those are some lovely books Kat (I own several of them and would read most of them!) I think it was very sensible to get them shipped to you. And yes, I would have bought a Dickens in the Dickens museum (but for the fact I have a lovely set OH got me!)


  6. How nice to have a set! But you know how it is about multiple copies. We can’t have too many Dickens from the Dickens Museum.

    Most (though not all) of the books aren’t available in the U.S., so I was very happy about it. You’re lucky you live where you can still shop easily for books!


  7. I’ve been following your trip through your blog. I’m so jealous!
    About liking writers.. I find that with social media and all that stuff, being able to contact a writer directly takes away from the mystique.
    I recently read The Goldfinch and part of the appeal was that Donna Tartt is so elusive and secret. I do love to read about writers and their lives but I don’t think I would want to meet them. I hate small talk and I would hate to be in the presence of a favorite writer and ask silly questions and receive silly answers. I don’t even want to get their signatures…


  8. Kat: Your question if we like meeting writers is a tough one and I had to think about it for a day or so. During my tenure living in Washington, D.C. for almost 19 years and one of the few perks I truly miss by not living there anymore, were the many readings where I got to meet many of my favorite writers. The problem with me was that approaching them during a book signing I always got jittery and had a tendency to utter the first thing that came into my head! Just to mention two of them: Martin Cruz Smith, the author of “Gorky Park” the first of the Arkady Renko detective series, turned out to be one of the most unpretentious writers that I ever met dressed in a cotton plaid shirt not tucked in his jeans. The signing was held in Olson’s Bookstore on Connecticut Ave. and there were only about 20 people present which gave all a chance to chat with him. I told him how delighted I was to find a copy of “Gorky Park” in paperback in 1982 when I was living in Athens and the novel helped me get through a bout of flu that winter, but I was sure before then I would’ve had to wait until I returned to the U.S. to read it. He signed my copy of “Stalin’s ghost” by writing: “To Joel. No more waiting this time!” I remember asking him if he was fluent in Russian in order to do his research in the Soviet Union. “No,” he replied, “I hired an interpreter.” It was a most pleasant encounter.
    But another occasion was not so pleasant. Paul Theroux still remains one of my favorite fiction and travel book writers. I buy all of his books as soon as they’re released. I paid $10 for a ticket at the National Press Club building and even though I got there early, there must have been at least 300 fans of his already seated and I was lucky to even get a seat (many were left standing). Theroux gave a talk for about 45 minutes which was not only boring but had nothing to do about him or his writing or even literature. He sounded like a politician giving a political stump speech! The line for the book signing was long, longer than his talk. When I finally got up to the table where he sat, I was in a mood of total disappointment. The first thing I told him was that I thought his novel, “The family arsenal” was one of the finest pieces of fiction I’d ever read. “Thank you very much,” he replied in a rather squeaky thin voice which utterly surprised me because his prose always has such a macho tone to it. But then for some unknown reason to me I blurted out, “But I didn’t care much for ‘Chicago loop.’ Would you care to compare that to any of your other novels?” Theroux was obviously startled by my comment in disbelief and simply uttered another squeaky “No, I would not.” I left being sorry that I ever met the guy and thought he was a pretentious ass who was just there for the honorarium. The irony for me is that I reread “The family arsenal” just this past year and wondered why I thought it to be “one of the finest pieces of fiction.” It isn’t now in my opinion.


  9. Luisa, I really want to read The Goldfinch! You’re right about the mystique: it’s amazing that we can go to their websites and contact them. But not Donna Tartt, right? I find it rather sweet that writers take time with their fans online, but it’s probably one more thing for them. No, I can’t do the small talk at all! Once I tried to tell Kaye Gibbons how much her book had meant to our book club, but the poor woman was obviously too tired to take it in, since there were over 100 (maybe even 200?) people in line to get their books signed.

    Joel, these readings really do vary, but at least you’ve got good social skills so you can think of something to say to the writers. It is nerve-racking if you really admire them and can’t think of a word to say. How nice that Martin Cruz spent the time to talk to you. I’m sure he was impressed by your admiration and anecdote. I loved Gorky Park! I, too, love Paul Theroux, but am not really surprised that he disappointed you. Who knows what’s going on? Some of these people really hate book tours. The worst experience I ever had? Well, I won’t name the writer, but even a lovely friend of mine was upset by some of the remarks this person made. AND he/she made fun of the people in the audience. You just have to wipe it out of your mind and forget it never happened so you can enjoy the books, but come to think of it I never did read his/her books afterwards, so do as I say, not as I do…

    And once Alan Dugan at a poetry reading made fun of the middle-aged women and faculty wives in the audience. I thought What an idiot! But I did like his poems, so I ignored him. I was still very young then.

    The best readings I’ve ever been to? Carol Shields, Sherman Alexie, Kaye Gibbons, Marge Piercy, and John Thorndike.


  10. Hi – I totally understand your buying The Pickwick Papers at the Dickens Museum, particularly as Dickens wrote part of Pickwick while he was living there, and indeed the outfit worn by Job Trotter in that book (the mulberry suit) was probably inspired by the uniform of the street porters who manned the entrance to Doughty Street, where the Museum is located. I used to go to the Museum a lot myself, though I am afraid that I fell out with both the Museum and the Dickens Fellowship in 2012, and haven’t been since.

    Anyway, I thought you might be interested in hearing about my forthcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick, which will be published in May by Jonathan Cape of the Random House Group (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). The novel explores the origins and subsequent history of The Pickwick Papers – it’s not a prequel, nor a sequel, it shows how The Pickwick Papers came to be and what happened afterwards. In my view, Pickwick has the most amazing backstory of any work of literature. Anyway, if you are interested, you can find out more at: (where I can also be contacted – and please do, if you feel in the mood), or you can get a quick overview from the first pre-publication review, which has just appeared in Publishers Weekly:

    Some scenes in my novel indeed take place in the house in Doughty Street.

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis


    • Thank you for telling me about your book! It sounds wonderful. I love the Dickens Museum, though I’m not going back to London for probably years. Perhaps they were reading The Pickwick Papers on the sound system? and I subliminally got the message to buy it!


      • LOL!

        Did you by any chance see Robert Seymour’s tombstone at the Museum? As you can read on the website, I found the stone in a tombstone dump in a spooky church crypt, and got it moved to the Museum.


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