Is there a better city for books than London?
I doubt it.
Sometimes I think British literary culture is Greece to our Rome, but then I am an Anglophile. Even though I’m fond of American novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dawn Powell, I prefer Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Bowen.
And then there are the bookstores.
If I lived in London I would have to wear blinkers, because I could not afford to pump money into the book economy every week. On my recent trip, when I tired of weird self-guided walks suggested in my guidebook (most ended up being about shopping), I binged on books like a librarian who has inexplicably acquired a windfall in her budget.
If my husband had been with me, he would have kept me from buying so much.
Still, he took it pretty well when he saw the box of books I had mailed to myself.
Here’s where I shopped and what I bought–and I didn’t go to as many bookstores as usual.
AT THE LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP: Not yet available in the U.S., Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent has been widely praised in the UK. Set in the 1890’s, it is, according to the description, “enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era.” Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone has also received good reviews, and I was influenced by Margaret Drabble’s blurb on the cover: “[Moss] writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now, about our fears and obsessions and dreams, about mortality and parenthood and just keeping going from day to day.”
LIKE PENGUINS? I found these at Oxfam, Skoob, London Review Bookshop, and a market on the South Bank.
I scooped up Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love his Clayhanger trilogy!), Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning (historical novel set in Egypt), Travels with Herodotus (anybody who travels with Herodotus is all right with me) and John Masters’ Far, Far the Mountain Peak (know nothing about it) at Skoob, an excellent used bookstore in Bloomsbury.
My husband and I are dying to read Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing, a McCarthy era novel which I picked up at Oxfam. Born in Marshalltown, IA, as was the actress Jean Seberg, another outcast of Marshalltown, Miller, a gay activist, wrote the fascinating novel, A Gay and Melancholy Sound, reissued in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series published by Amazon. (I wrote about it here at my old blog, Frisbee.)
At Waterstones and Foyles, I found the three books pictured above by authors hitherto unknown to me. I have begun Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn, a fascinating small press novel described as “a psychedelic road trip”; Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is a Turkish novel; and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.
Waterstones or Foyles? Who knows? Both stores had good science fiction sections. Joanna Russ’s The Female Man is a ’70s classic of the ’70s and I have long meant to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books.
At Waterstones I bought Mary Stewart’s lost novella, The Wind off the Isles, a beautifully-written but very slight novella that will appeal mainly to Stewart’s fans. The narrator, Perdita, a writer’s assistant, researches sites for hter employer’s children’s books and organizes travels to the countries. On the island of Lanzarote, they are fascinated by the story of a young woman and a fisherman who eloped during a volcanic eruption. A playwright and his assistant are pursuing the same story, and there is a mystery involved. Julian Gale, an actor, one of the characters in Stewart’s super novel, This Rough Magic, is mentioned in this novella! So you might want to start with that if you have never read Stewart.