Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

“These lessons do not conclude with simple answers. They aim to stimulate further thinking, and help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time.”

Unlike many commentators, Yuval Noah Harari presents his premises, thoughts and conclusions in calm, measured language that takes into account the wider causes and effects of topics discussed. He states that criticisms made within these pages are not condemnation but rather a study of flaws followed by attempts to work out how a situation may be improved. History has shown that opinions are easily swayed by the repetition of clever rhetoric. Here he encourages a more considered approach from all.

“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.”

As the title suggests, the book is divided into twenty-one lessons, each covering a significant contemporary subject. These are grouped into five broad topics, opening with The Technological Challenge.

The tools governments use to bolster their power include the threat of war but also, increasingly, machine learning. Data harvesting and the growth of decision making algorithms are the future. Machines, algorithms, may not always get it right, they don’t have to. They just have to be better than humans.

“Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.”

Automation in the hands of a benign government may be an improvement but few governments are benign.

“We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons […] The bots could identify our deepest fears, hatreds and cravings, and use these inner leverages against us.”

At an individual level the author writes of the changing job market and how large swathes of the population could find themselves longer lived but unemployable due to a lack of relevant skills in a global economy that increasingly relies on AI.

“Trump and Brexit were supported by many people […] who feared they were losing their economic worth.”

“It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.”

Revolutions in biotechnology and information technology require fresh visions. He asks how we update: liberalism, nationalism, religion.

Following on from the political challenge are chapters on despair and hope. Terrorism, war and God are discussed followed by the impact of ignorance and fake news. Humans, he opines, prefer power to truth.

“If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.”

On nationalism the author suggests that countries offering so called universal support provide it only within their own borders. This can lead to resentment of immigrants manifesting as culturalism more often than racism. Those who champion liberty and equality need to define for whom and in what form. Globalisation means the victims of automation may live elsewhere.

The global problems considered include: nuclear war, ecological meltdown, climate change, technological disruption. There are repeated references to religion, described as the handmaid of modern nationalism. Mass cooperation can be manipulated by belief in shared fictions.

There is a plea for greater humility. Every creed and culture claims they are the foundation and lynchpin of civilisation. The author delves into his own upbringing as a Jew now living in Israel. He explores the hypocrisy of proponents cherry picking elements of their revered stories to bolster behaviours they wish to enforce.

Due to the same premises and arguments cropping up within many of the lessons, the further into the book one reads the more repetition is encountered. What starts out as impressively calm and precise fact seeking, a search for sense rather than sensation, concludes on a personal journey that demonstrates the author’s privilege.

There are flaws, perhaps minor but irritating. As an example, he asks: why would a robot (AI) have a gender? Perhaps had he read To Be A Machine, in which a male engineer is greatly looking forward to the day when he may own a programmable ‘woman’, he would have a broader grasp of the depressing continuation of such human desires which markets will therefore service.

The lessons have been drawn from essays previously published in the media which the author has collated and reworked to provide a concise and readable study of global problems man faces today alongside those he should be preparing for. There is little new or surprising, rather it enables the reader to focus without the usual partisan bluster.

Any Cop?: The broad scope limits the depth available for each topic. Nevertheless, the content is thought provoking and therefore provides worthwhile reading. Such measured and balanced views are rare in our click bait culture.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Weight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Why then did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried? I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed of light power – to break that gravitational pull.”

Each time we tell a story from our lives we tell it anew. Aspects may remain but nuances change. Our present is heavy with all that has gone before and all we aspire to become. We each carry the weight of our individual worlds.

In the introduction to Weight, the author writes

“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended.”

Thus we get a retelling of the tale redolent with Winterson’s personal experiences of living under the burden of her upbringing, and the great effort required to be someone who does not meekly follow what is be expected. Atlas’s burden was a punishment for daring to defy the gods. Winterson wished to step out from under the world she had been moulded to inhabit.

“We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.”

The story opens with an exploration of space and time, the creation of the universe. It introduces Atlas, the offspring of Poseidon and Mother Earth. Atlas was one of the Titans, half man and half god. He resided within the perfection of Atlantis until this was no longer enough.

“Everything that man invents he soon turns to his own destruction. You could have chosen differently. You did not.”

Atlas fought the gods for what he regarded as his freedom. His punishment was to forevermore carry the weight of the world he loved on his shoulders.

The reader is then introduced to Heracles, the Hero of the World. This hero is depicted as unusually strong whilst embodying every weak trait known to man. He is crude and lacks control of his desires and appetites. His part of the story makes for unpleasant reading.

Heracles asks for Atlas’s help, offering a trade that could suit them both. Having got what he requires he tricks Atlas and leaves him with all of time to mull over the lessons learned.

The writing is a mix of the poetic, the profound and the playful. Contemporary elements are woven through to good effect. Heracles’ self-centredness, his ability to quash feelings of guilt over his behaviour, is all too recognisable.

“Every man assumes that what is valuable to himself must be coveted by others.”

I particularly enjoyed the denouement which neatly brought the myth into the modern realm.

Any Cop?: The tale was not as wholly satisfying to read as The Penelopiad, the previous Canon I reviewed, but the layers and musings provide a thoughtful retelling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Penelopiad

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.”

Penelope, the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, waited patiently for two decades on the island of Ithaca for her husband to return home from his part in the defeat of Troy following Paris’ seduction of the already married Helen. Alone on the rocky island Penelope is besieged by suitors, over a hundred of them, eager for her hand in marriage that they may relieve her of the great wealth she acquired as daughter of Icarius of Sparta. She must use all her wiles, and the help of her twelve young maids, to fend off these unwelcome advances.

Or so goes the legend, best known from Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is portrayed as

“the quintessential faithful wife, a woman known for her intelligence and constancy.”

But The Odyssey is not the only source of this story. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood challenges the inconsistencies in the accepted tale. Here she tells it from Penelope’s point of view interspersed with choruses, which were used in Classical Greek drama, sung or told by the twelve maids who were hanged when Odysseus finally returned.

The story opens in Hades where Penelope wanders amongst the asphodel, and contemplates the legacy of her life on earth. Occasionally she catches glimpses of goings on across the River Styx, offering amusing reflections on modern habits, their shallowness and futility. Penelope has waited patiently as her legend has grown from her husband’s telling of events. Now she wishes to ‘spin a thread of her own’.

She begins with her childhood, the reasons for her antipathy towards her parents. When her marriage is arranged she is content to leave them, although finds Ithaca a lonely place. She feels despised by her mother-in-law, learning more about the customs of the place from her husband’s old nurse. When her child, Telemachus, is born, this nurse takes over his care.

Penelope is satisfied in her marriage to Odysseus until her cousin, the vainglorious Helen, ruins things for her. Odysseus is obliged to fight in the Trojan wars due to an oath made to secure peace amongst the many men who had competed for the hand of the famous beauty, including him. Left alone to wait, Penelope raises the twelve maids as her eyes and ears in an increasingly difficult situation. Their views on events are vividly portrayed in the choruses, with the lightest of touches.

When Odysseus eventually returns Penelope realises that she must tread carefully or will shoulder a portion of the blame, and therefore punishment, for all that has happened on Ithaca in his absence, particularly the dent made in Telemachus’s inheritance. She cannot be seen by her husband to be too aware.

“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness”

The writing is acerbic in places but satisfyingly witty. The characters are presented as humane despite their willingness to kill each other with impunity. Given their pedigrees they are suitably god like in their self-absorption and contempt.

Any Cop?: Clever and entertaining, this retelling bridges the gap neatly between ancient and modern, between gods and men. I learned little new of the legend but presenting Penelope as feisty made her more plausible considering the circumstances endured. The question marks left over the veracity of Odysseus’ exploits added to the story’s humour and depth. The maids’ tale is a reminder of behaviours powerful men are permitted to get away with.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Brexit & Ireland

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum of 23 June 2016 did not go as expected. By a slim majority those of the UK electorate who voted, chose to leave the EU. Since then there has been continuous emotional outrage and rhetoric published in the mainstream media and on social media. Much of this has centred on the personal and economic impact of limiting immigration and the apparent enfranchisement some now assert to openly voice their horrifying xenophobia.

There is, of course, more to it than this. The EU is, amongst other things, a behemoth of bureaucracy. Its increasing federal powers have over the years been the subject of much criticism. Since the referendum vote, the EU’s positive aspects have been much vaunted by those appalled at the prospect of Brexit. Yet because a country leaving the EU is unprecedented, the longer term impact can still only be guessed at.

Brexit & Ireland is written from the latter country’s point of view. Physically, historically and economically close they have been European allies since they both joined what was the EEC in 1973. The two countries recognise many bilateral agreements. Since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles in 1998, the island of Ireland has effectively functioned as one unit, albeit with differing laws and currency north and south. The difficulties to be overcome if the UK leaves the EU while Ireland stays is the subject of this book.

Although it is refreshingly educative to read a calm and balanced account of the potential political and economic issues – rather than the personal – raised by Brexit, the detail makes for rather dry reading. Around half of the text explains the challenges faced by sectors that work across the border and with the UK. These include: agriculture and fishing; food processing and distribution; just in time supply to supermarkets across the Irish Sea. Horse racing and breeding gets a mention as does medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. It is not just goods that benefit from unhindered travel but also a workforce, tourists and students.

Ireland was well aware early on in the process of the difficulties it would have to overcome, yet was hindered by the EU’s stance on negotiations with the UK. If Ireland wishes to remain within the EU then it must abide by EU rules and timetables. After Brexit, the UK wishes to continue to trade without borders but will not accept free movement of people from the entire EU, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Other EU member states demand that the UK be punished for daring to leave – they will not countenance allowing the UK to ‘have their cake and eat it’.

A key issue for Ireland is to maintain the peace within the island and this requires that the border remain simply a line on a piece of paper, not a series of cumbersome controls that may require the military to enforce. The EU states that it supports the peace process yet refuses to consider a customs and tariff free arrangement with a country unwilling to pay to be a part of its existing agreements.

“Tusk and his team were eager to help Ireland. But other member states suspected that by being too flexible on the Irish border, they were playing into the hands of the British. Concessions given to Ireland might just suit the British as well.”

“The EU is an historic political project whose future is at stake”

“allowing the UK to have their cake and eat it […] would destroy the European Union”

There are many other borders between EU and non EU countries in the world. Those that function efficiently rely on mutual cooperation. There is reluctance within the EU to allow what Ireland and the UK would benefit from, but other disputed territories, such as Gibraltar or Cyprus, worry that Brexit would set a precedent that they are unwilling to accept.

The author’s access to key documents and political discussion highlights the intransigence over issues which reminded me of the loyalist and republican viewpoints I had to listen to growing up in Belfast. Each side felt justified in their stance, claiming that lack of progress was entirely the other’s fault. It is a comparison that strikes fear given where it led back then.

When it takes a group of EU negotiators two weeks to agree to the wording of a single paragraph in a document, and this can then be thrown out by the DUP unhappy at the suggestion of a border running down the Irish Sea, it is no surprise that little progress is being made. With Theresa May beholden to the DUP since the last UK General Election,

“the unionist and nationalist views on any particular issue come to the fore, rather than the collective interests of Northern Ireland.”

The numerous pages dedicated to the economic difficulties of Brexit are eclipsed by potential damage to the peace process if the EU demands a hard border.

“Peace and prosperity is underlined by the free movement of goods and services.”

“We need to look at the border in isolation and to look for bespoke solutions.”

This does not please certain EU member states.

“Pressure will come on the Commission to balance the wishes of the UK and Ireland and the political wishes of the other 26 leaders around the Council table.”

The author highlights potential positives for Ireland from Brexit but these rely on global businesses being willing to relocate there. Ireland is in competition with other EU countries wishing to attract businesses that will leave a UK that is not in the EU.  Unsubstantiated claims have been made by competitors that Dublin does not have the necessary infrastructure, housing or quality education. Without the UK to support them in EU decision making, Ireland is losing out.

Irish businesses who would be hit by punitive cross border EU custom and tariff regimes could ask for transitional aid from their government to enable them to move business operations south, but the EU is ‘notoriously strict on state aid’. Many businesses rely on the land so moving is not an option.

The final chapter covers a round of negotiations on the details of Brexit and highlights the difficulties of dealing with a notoriously slow moving organisation that scrutinises every detail, fearing a chink in the armour it is building.

“Theresa May was effectively saying ‘if it weren’t for the European Union being so pesky about the four freedoms and things like that, then we wouldn’t have this problem.’”

What comes out of this book is that it is more complex than this, but made more so by the self protecting intransigence of an unwieldy organisation fighting for its survival.

Any Cop?: This is as detailed and factual a perspective as I have read about Brexit. The UK is entering unchartered waters without a map or visible compass. Ireland has clearly stated that it has no wish to follow. Without more flexible support from the remaining EU members, staying may prove untenable.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Linescapes

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“We describe the world in rational terms, aware of geology and geomorphology […] whereas our ancestors saw a landscape filled with agency, one that was animate.”

The land on which we reside is forever being reshaped by the varying needs of its flora and fauna, including man. Pathways form where creatures habitually traverse their domains, their existence in any space resulting in some species flourishing, others being threatened. When changes are made to the land a rebalancing is required. Elements may be lost but, given time and sufficient neglect, nature regenerates.

The ancient tracks formed by man have been developed, expanded and altered dramatically as our ability to travel in new ways has increasingly isolated us from our fellow creatures. The linear features we use to form connections or to separate the land we now work so intensively have resulted in increasing fragmentation. Many traditional species have, as a result, been unable to survive. In Linescapes, Hugh Warwick examines the history and impact of the various lines man has created which shape our countryside. He explores hedges, ditches and dykes, walls, ancient paths and green lanes, canals, railways, roads, pylons and pipelines. He muses on potential steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage caused when these lines denude and shrink the habitats of creatures requiring more space than they are granted.

“They are so much more than their function as barriers or carriageways. To change our perspective – towards an empathetic look at the landscape – is to become aware of the impact they have”

The author emphasises the value to all of a healthy and diverse natural world, even when managed for man’s benefit. He warns against trying to measure this value in monetary terms, arguing for its intrinsic worth. In his research there is recognition that what now appears beautifully peaceful was often once a heavily worked landscape. The old may be lost and what comes after unexpected.

The author clearly favours certain features. Hedges protect his beloved hedgehogs. Dry stone walls offer sanctuary to many plants and creatures. He has little love for canals which he describes as ‘a concrete ditch of stagnant water’. He writes fondly of green lanes and the benefits these bring.

“There is a ‘green-lane effect’, whereby the inside faces of the hedges that bound the lane tend to be warmer, more sheltered and more attractive to wildlife than the outside faces, creating a microclimate tunnel within which wildlife, should the surrounding fields be forgiving, can flourish.”

“finding over 2000 individual species in an 85-metre stretch is not unreasonable”

Although he argues for protection of nature he also wishes to protect his favoured man-made features.

“The biggest threat these lanes face is neglect – left alone for long enough they will become absorbed into the fabric of the land. The next biggest threat they face is being discovered.”

For each chapter he explores the history before going on site to talk to experts in their fields. Where he held preconceptions to the contrary he invariably comes away more sympathetic. The concrete barriers that prevent vehicles crashing through the central reservations on motorways may be the cause of fatal impacts when large mammals become trapped, but motorway verges are home to a wide diversity of life-forms, left alone as they are to flourish. Railway land enjoys similar biodiversity despite the need for regular interventions for tree maintenance. The argument for building HS2 with adjacent cycle lanes, walkways and linear reserves is a rare suggestion that this infrastructure project could deliver something positive despite its exorbitant cost in money and impact.

The writing is eager and enthusiastic. Interesting facts are shared and points made. Nevertheless I wondered at the focus which seemed to wander. I remain unclear what exactly the author wishes to accomplish.

Any Cop?: A country walk is often circular, the point being the pleasure of the journey rather than to achieve a destination. Likewise this book is a pleasing amble through features that most will encounter but may not always appreciate. With my interest in nature I learned little new but was provided with a congenial reading experience.

 

Jackie Law