The Diary of a Bookseller

It is not often that I give up on a book.

I had ordered this from the library on a whim – possibly recommended by a friend on Facebook, reinforced by a conversation with an actual bookseller in St Davids who was reading it at the time of my visit a month ago.  It sounded worth trying;  I am always fascinated by what makes other readers tick, what books writers read, and in this case, what a bookseller actually thinks about books and the people who read them.

As far as the people are concerned: not much.  The diary recounts episode after episode of rude, arrogant, slovenly, greedy or self-obsessed people coming into the shop. Many of them don’t buy anything (and I am guilty of this, though I generally do try to make a purchase from an independent bookseller, out of principle).  Most of those who do buy expect a discount, and are disappointed or even offensive when they don’t get one.  You might feel that the author has a very low opinion of his fellow mortals; but then, he tolerates the whacky and at times antisocial behaviour of some of his regular customers, not to mention his part-time assistant Nicky, very well.

I read the first half of the book quite quickly, through some bouts of insomnia as well as morning and afternoon reading time.  But still, I just don’t think I need any more.  I get what the life of a bookseller might be like (and in this case, a reasonably successful one in the bookish town of Wigtown, which appears to be a Scottish Hay-on-Wye – please excuse my ignorance).  Do I need to hear more of the same kind of anecdotes?  It is one of those books where you think “anyone could have written this”.  But of course, only one person DID.


The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love

by Per J Andersson

This book was recommended to me, I think, by a fellow Bahá’í.  I can see why it would appeal: the story is one of hope, a journey to self-knowledge and to realising a dream in the face of adversity.

PK is an Indian, born in an Orissa village to a father of the ‘untouchable’ caste and a mother from a jungle tribe.  In his childhood and youth he is constantly ostracised, bullied and pushed aside because of his low birth. Despite these setbacks, PK establishes himself as a successful portrait artist, earning his keep (although living from hand to mouth) and earning also the attention and respect of people in elevated positions.

It is while sketching in Connaught Place in New Delhi, and mixing with the many European hippies who have trekked across Europe and Asia to experience what they perceived to be a less materialistic culture, that PJ meets the Swedish girl Lotta in 1975.  They fall in love; she returns to Sweden; and PK embarks on a journey, mostly by bicycle, to rejoin her in her home country.  They marry, raise a family, and live on in Sweden to this day.

In general, I am not attracted to books with long titles such as this one.  It strikes me that the author can’t be bothered to think of a catchy, short phrase.  But maybe the short phrases have mostly been used already!  In any case, I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did.  PK’s optimism (in general – though he experienced some very low episodes in his life) and his self-belief are heart-warming.

Per J Andersson has embellished PK’s narrative (based, we are led to assume, largely on his diaries) sensitively and with grace.  There a short descriptions of place that help to bring the story to life, as well as insights into PK’s feelings at various points in the story.  Lotta’s character is not developed much. The accounts of PK’s early life are interspersed with short passages telling the reader of Lotta’s fascination with India from an early age and her determination to travel there.  But we learn little if anything about who she is.  That she loves PK and is prepared to wait for him is evident from his story; and there is a touching episode, shortly after his arrival in Sweden, where the two of them meet a Swedish admirer of Lotta’s who almost succeeds in putting PK off, until Lotta reassures him that she wants to be with him and not Bengt.

Other characters, too, are just sketched in.  PK believes in fate and in karma, though he also recognises that you have to make your own way in life and seize opportunities.  He comes across as sensitive to others but also driven to achieve what he has set out to do, when his circumstances permit it.  He meets powerful and influential people, some of whom help him in his personal life (e.g. by allowing him to move from his shabby room and use a comfortable apartment), but he appears to take these encounters as steps along the path of life, and has few expectations of further assistance from any quarter.

This is most definitely a ‘feel-good’ book, but one which does not shy away from depicting the treatment of lower caste Indians and arguing, passionately, their cause.


The Heat of the Day

by Elizabeth Bowen

The story begins in 1942.  Stella is a divorcée and widow living in London, whose lover Robert, she learns, is suspected of being a spy for the enemy.  Her informant is the slightly unnerving Harrison (we never learn his first name) who has also pulled a bystander, the naïve ‘good time girl’ Louie, under his spell.

Stella’s son Roderick has, a year previously, inherited the Irish estate of a cousin of his father.  Since Roderick is not yet 21, Stella also takes an interest in this estate and goes to visit it.  On another occasion, she and Robert visit his mother, sister and the children of another sister, who live in a house that is far too large for them but from which they cannot tear themselves away.  Other than these two episodes, most of the action takes place in London: a London that has been bombed and is about to be so again, and where the war is never far from the consciousness of the actors in this story.

The atmosphere is tense and charged.  Bowen’s prose is not at all easy to read and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs – and discovered, from other reviews, that I am not alone in this!  Yet she gives a vivid and very real atmosphere of place and, in particular, emotion.  Stella is her own person, making her own decisions though surrounded by people who seem to want to run her life or at the very least, advise her.  She does not know whether she can trust either Robert or Harrison.  They cannot both be who they seem to be.

This is a taut and quite unusual story.  I don’t think I will rush to read more of Bowen’s work, but if the opportunity presents itself in a year or two, I may well come back to her.

I chose this book because it was on the Guardian‘s list of 100 Best Novels.  Oh dear, I am a sucker for lists!  But I’m pleased that I read this book.


by George Eliot

Can it be that I have never yet written a post about one of my favourite C19 novels?

The last time I read it was, I suppose, early 2011 after I first acquired a Kindle.  I promised myself that for every new(ish) book that I downloaded at full price, I would read a (cheap or free, because out of copyright) ‘classic’ novel.  There are enough to choose from!  Since then, I have read most of Eliot’s works, a good few of Trollope‘s (plenty left to read), a few Dickens novels and some Hardy.  I’ve read one Conrad novel and begun, but got bogged down in, Heart of Darkness.

I first read Middlemarch on holiday in 1994, after seeing the BBC TV production.  The book grabbed me then, and I think I have enjoyed it at least as much on the two subsequent readings.  I have also read a little bit around the book, and was partly prompted to re-read it this time after an episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time on this topic.

Why do I like it so much?  Initially, I was struck by the open and honest way in which Eliot exposes marriage as being far from an ideal state for at least two of the couples whose stories thread through the book.  Dorothea chooses her husband for all the wrong reasons, and soon sees the error of her choice.  Lydgate and Rosamond both have unrealistic expectations of the married state and of each other.  How these couples resolve their problems and conduct their relationships with each other and other characters makes the book exciting and edgy.

There are, of course, many more characters, relationships and storylines, and a convincing and historically interesting political setting in the country town of Middlemarch.  What can I write here that has not been said by others, far better qualified than myself?

Although there are so many books on my ‘to-read’ list, I think it fairly likely that I may return to Middlemarch someday for a fourth sitting.