Heywood does it again

I’ve received and read my second Year in Books delivery from Heywood Hill, and their bespoke service is growing in my esteem. This on top of an already great first delivery. The logical part of me realizes that they have competent booksellers who read my detailed consultation information and are pulling books for me that they think I might like. But then another part of me is convinced that one of them is living inside my brain sending radio signals back to Mayfair telling them what to wrap up and send my direction. Of course, ever the doubting Thomas, another part of me is convinced they have made two lucky guesses and next month it will all crash and burn when they send me Eat, Pray, Love. But I kind of doubt that third scenario.

This time around was Vikram Seth’s 1999 novel An Equal Music. I’ve read Seth’s doorstopper A Suitable Boy which I enjoyed but perhaps not enough to look at what else he has written. And clearly I must have said something on my consultation form about liking novels about classical music. But on that point I was still a bit trepidatious. So many books with classical music as a subject, or even background, can really come off as forced, self-conscious, exercises in name dropping (cf., both of Alexander Chee’s novels).

Although my intention with my Heywood Hill subscription is to read each novel the month it arrives, I was a bit surprised how quickly I picked this one up. One night before bed I was between books and, as I sometimes do, I gathered 5 or 6 titles I was considering reading and read the first three or four lines out loud to my husband and then had him tell me which one sounded the most interesting to him. There were a lot of really good options, and An Equal Music wasn’t the one John picked, but before putting it down to start on the book I thought I was going to read, I read a few more lines of the Seth, and then a few more, and before I knew it I was all in.

This book was everything I wanted it to be. It was smart without being too smart, I was easily swept up in the characters and the story, and the musical details were expertly woven into the book without ever feeling obvious. And for me, it was unputdownable. The kind of book that made me turn off the TV, had me staying up far too late, had me reading at 6:00 in the morning before I went to work, had me trying to juggle a Ruben sandwich and the book at the same time, and was engrossing enough to allow me to ignore airport chaos. An utter freaking delight.

Having said all that, it is possible that this book might not work if you aren’t a music nerd–or perhaps if you are too much of a music nerd. I think I am probably at the right level of musical nerd-dom. Too little and you might find the discussions of musical keys and time signatures confusing. Too much and you might find those same discussions laughably unrealistic. But on the latter end of the spectrum I don’t know. I wonder what a real musician would think of this novel. And I love a novel that provides its own soundtrack that one can look up online and listen to immediately, as one reads. An Opus 1 Beethoven trio that gets turned into a quintet later in Beethoven’s life as Opus 104, yards of Schubert, heaps of Hayden, glances of Brahms and Mozart and Vivaldi.

Beyond the music, if that is possible, is the lovely, sometimes heartbreaking story of violinist Michael Holme who walked away from Julia, his piano trio and his piano-trio partner and piano-playing girlfriend 10 years earlier because of what he perceived as an incompatibility with his mentor. Finding the teacher/student relationship overwhelming and fraught with unpleasantness Michael flees from Vienna and waits too long to get back in touch with Julia. In the intervening decade no one in Julia’s life will tell him where she is, and this being the gloriously old fashioned days before the internet juggernaut we know and love today, he is unable to track her down. Until one day he sees her on a bus headed the opposite direction. The two do meet again and, well, I’m not sure I am allowed to tell you what happens next.

Beyond the relationship angle, if that is possible, Seth creates completely compelling back stories and numerous subplots that definitely provide the complete package. Michael’s family, his violin, his musical upbringing, the relationship within his string quartet, programming concerts, deals with agents and managers and record companies, looking for gigantic violas, bidding on violins…all of this appeals not just to my love of details but all those gossipy behind the scenes things that happen in the world of classical music. I’m not sure how this would play (no pun intended) for those who don’t know or care about such details. For me it was like being dropped into a pool full of hot cocoa and floating around on a toasty marshmallow. That’s how much I love that kind of stuff.

And then there is Venice. This is another point where I am certain the Heywood Hill team is living in my brain. We are headed to Venice in June and I relished the scenes that took place there. Like his writing about music, Seth includes lots of details without making you feel like he is trying too hard. And again, the internet brings it all to life as image search after image search provided a brilliant background to the text–not that one needs it, the imagination, etc., but it is quite fun.

So there we are. Another successful pick from Heywood Hill. They are 2 for 2. Two very different books about very different things. I love the variety. Have they peaked too early? Stay tuned.

A blurb too far

” . . . strange, daring, and very moving. . . . The book is a rare and dazzling feat of art.” —George Saunders, The Paris Review Daily
“Disturbing, one-of-a-kind . . . “ —Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
“Unforgettable. . . . An ambitious tour de force that demands the reader’s attention; those willing to follow along will be rewarded with a singular and haunting story.” Publishers Weekly 

If I had read Reservoir 13 without having heard anything about it, I would have loved it.  I would have appreciated the details of daily life in a small village in the Peak District. I would have enjoyed the way the novel tantalized me into thinking I was about get a clue about who abducted 13-year old Rebecca Shaw only to have my hopes dashed and later built back  up again. I would have relished the way McGregor gradually reveal the layers personality/foible/secrets of the numerous characters that move in and out to the story.

I think most of all, I would have appreciated the yearly, cyclical, rhythm of the book. I liked hearing about the condition of the cow parsley in the hedgerows, or the quality of the chestnut mast. I liked how McGregor repeated certain phrases each year–particularly his yearly observance of Mischief Night, Bonfire Night, and New Year’s Eve.

In fact, I don’t have any issue with the high praise the book received, I think that is probably deserved. What I do have a problem with is the praise that made me think that something unbelievable was going to happen. The George Saunders’ excerpt above may have been taken out of context, but I saw a lot of similar blurbs. That this was the book about an abduction that was going to surprise and amaze me. Well it didn’t. I feel like this book was click-baited to death. I’m a fan of Anita Brookner–I can handle slow. I like repetition in books. I don’t need a plot. I like authors who twist things on their sides. But McGregor’s twists are extremely subtle, and anyone who was led to believe they were going to be blown away are left wondering what the fuss was all about.

Dazzling, haunting, chilling, disturbing, one-of-a-kind? No. Just stop. I’m not going to click on you. Stop talking. Shut down the blurb factory.


Bits and Bobs – The Epaphras Edition

It has been a really long time since I have done a Bits and Bobs episode. But I wanted to be in touch without having to come up with a real blog post, so here it is.

Veteran’s Day

EpaphrasAs I have been working on my ancestry (mainly at Ancestry.com) it is interesting to see how many of my relatives and ancestors served in the military. My dad, many uncles, and it turns out my 5th great grandfather, Joseph Waters, was a sergeant with the Connecticut militia in the Revolutionary War. Yes, that’s right, I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution. When I was poking around on Fold3.com for records related to his service I discovered paperwork filed by his son in the 1850s to get the pension funds that were owing to his mother (Jospeh’s widow). Not only were those documents fascinating to read, many of them being affidavits by octogenarians who had known Joseph and could vouch for his service and his offspring. Anyhoo, as I was reading them I realized that the son filing the petition was not on my tree. His siblings (like Erastus, Ozias, and Russell) were, but there was no Epaphras G. Waters on my tree After verifying that he was indeed Joseph’s son and brother to my 4th great grandfather Russell, I searched for records related to Epaphras.

Not surprisingly there are not a lot of Epaphras Waters out there so it was easy to find some things. What I discovered was that Ep (as I call him) served with the New York militia in the War of 1812. At first I was dubious because the name was slightly off and his date of birth meant he could only have been about 13 at the time of his service. But there was no way it could have been anyone else. Then I found a payroll card that showed his rank as “Drumm’r”. Off to Google I went, sure enough some Drummer Boys were as young as seven although most were in their late teens. They helped send signals and communicate information to the troops. And my 4th great uncle happened to be one of them. How seriously cool is that? I think I find that more interesting than if he had been a general. It makes me want to write a novel about him.

Apple Paltrow has nothing on my ancestors

As I have been doing my ancestry research I have come across some really interesting names. It is a good thing my childbearing years are over or I would have progeny getting beat up in school left and right. Here are some of my favorites in no particular order (although Roxy Miles is John’s favorite).

Roxy Miles (1789-1873)
Temperance Waters (1739-1804)
Eliphalet Ball (1680-1686)
Rejoice Plaise (1616-1677)
Elizabeth Wapples (1618-1669)
Habiathia Pye (1578-1681)

I’m not a total fraud

One of the reasons I didn’t have the mental energy to do a real post was that I squeezed my brain really hard to come up with a ‘review’ of Anita Brookner’s Fraud that wouldn’t make me look totally stupid. I also updated my guide to Brookner’s London where I’m creating a gazetteer of all the London place’s that appear in her 24 novels. The problem is that I’m only halfway through my chronological re-read of her books and at the rate I am re-reading them (1 to 2 a year), it is going to take me about six more years to finish the gazetteer. I really need to speed that up. I also realize that I need to have not just a list by location but also one by book. I’m also getting distracted by the fact that I want to actually put the plot all the locations on a map.


Like me, if you are a fan of Ruth Reichl’s wonderful, foodie, memoirs Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, you have been afraid to pick up Reichl’s first novel Delicious!. Well, I finally picked it up last week and was quickly drawn in. At first I found some of the writing too similar to her memoirs–which works very well in her memoirs–and it made me cringe a bit. But then I kind of let go and started to enjoy it. A young woman moves to NYC to be an assistant to the editor of magazine Delicious! magazine (No doubt somewhat modeled on the fabulous, but defunct Gourmet magazine of which Reichl was the editor). I start to love her new foodie friends as much as she does. And then Delicious! closes down but our heroine, Billie, is kept on to keep providing ombudsman services for the magazine’s recipe guarantee.


But then, get this, she finds herself alone in the mostly empty old mansion that was the magazine’s headquarters and ends up discovering the library that had been locked up for years and includes a secret room full of correspondence from the 1940s. I could have peed my pants. CAN YOU IMAGINE? A neglected, old, private, food library, with a card catalog, and files of letters, and did I mention she had the place to herself all day and got paid for it?! I mean hello.

But then again, about half way through it began to get less and less joyous as my willingness to suspend disbelief was overcome by one too many crimes against plausibility, believeability, and reasonable plotting. IF, you can overlook these things you might want to read it. If you are more like me, you could stop at about 150 pages and be as happy as you could ever be with this book.

I still love Ruth Reichl to bits. But you should read her memoirs if you have never read her before.

The problem with so many ‘documentaries’

On my flight back from my recent trip to Europe I was excited to see that there was a LEGO documentary available on the in-flight entertainment system. I’m a mild fan of LEGO and a big fan of behind the scenes documentaries. Unfortunately, this one has all the trademarks of the crap that passes for documentaries on TV today.

Always has to have a time crunch. Will the shop open on time? Will the displays be done in time? Will the staff be trained in time? Will the equipment work in time? Will this shitty documentary be done in time? It’s like every home improvement show ever made: WILL THIS FUCKING BE DONE ON TIME?!

Always has to have some sort of human interest angle. Will this long-term unemployed guy get a job as a shop assistant? Will the mum of two get a job as a shop assistant? Will the designer of the photo-booth mosaic maker who moved his family from Mexico to Denmark get the job done in time (oops see the first category for this one, but inextricably linked to WHO CARES ABOUT HIS FLIPPING FAMILY?).

Always leaves the interesting questions unasked. Seriously, how about telling us something interesting about the mechanics of that machine, or how a design gets turned into a ginormous LEGO sculpture? Don’t just tantalize us with some shots of the factory in the Czech Republic where they built the gigantic LEGO Big Ben, tell us something about it FFS. It’s similar to the Great British Bake Off where they repeat the same lines endlessly (take the cake out too soon and it will be raw, leave it in too long and it will burnt) instead of telling us something we didn’t already know.  YOU HAVE PLENTY OF TIME, TELL US SOMETHING INTERESTING, YOU STUPID GIT.

Always has to be some sort of competition. Of course related to the first two points about time and the wannabe employees competing for a spot on the team, but I can’t forget the giant Tower Bridge replica clad in LEGO to support two Range Rovers and break a record for most boring LEGO sculpture. I CAN’T RELATE TO ANYTHING UNLESS IT IS PART OF A COMPETITION.

Always has to be some sort of moment of peril. Will the Big Ben replica get into the store without doing any damage? Oh, shit, no damage done. Wait, what about this heavy photo booth mosaic maker thingy? Will that make it in okay? Of course fucking not, drywall gouged just days away from the store opening. OH GOD, WILL THE DRYWALL BE PATCHED IN TIME, WILL SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN. Don’t even get me started on the fact that they could have removed two of the glass panels instead of only one.

Always have to hear from the dimwit on the street. The drywall is repaired, the store is going to open on schedule how in the world can we create drama? I know, let’s talk to the disgruntled whiners who crawled on their knees all the way from Yorkshire to London and have been waiting in line for 32 months only to find that people who arrived 32 seconds ago are ahead of them in line. IT’S UNFAIR, IT’S SO GODDAMN UNFAIR. FUCK LEGO AND FUCK THIS FUCKING STORE.

I find this particular approach to documentary making to be of British origin. Don’t get me wrong, American television “documentaries” have their own issues for sure (lack of any real content, 10 seconds of footage repeated 1400 times, screaming electric guitars, etc.), but the particular formula for this LEGO programme could have been written by David Walliams and Matt Lucas (cf. Come Fly with Me).

Please, hire a few more nerds next time.

Bookshops in foreign lands

I just got back from 10 days hanging out with two of my best friends at their house in The Hague and a bit of a mini-break we all went on to Milan. Despite the fact that I had five books with me and was in two non-English speaking countries, I still managed to buy about 23 books. And all but one of them were in English.

I’ve already shown you my excursion into a glorious heap of used books I found in The Hague. But I managed to find a few other things along the way as well.

First off was a dedicated English-language bookstore that is charming and cozy for browsing. After about 7 years of visiting it, however, it has finally dawned on me that it is really just charming and cosy. The stock seems geared at the twee and/or obvious with lots of Englishy nostalgia items like Penguin merch. I had a bunch of UK titles that aren’t out yet in the US that I was hoping to find and this store only had one of them, and only one copy at that. It’s not a bad store by any means, but feels a bit like they might be missing the opportunity to broaden their offerings and still sell books–particularly when compared to other English language sections at other Dutch bookstores.

I love following Matt Haig on Twitter, but I have never read any of his books. This one is getting so much play on the internet but still isn’t available in the US. Finally glad to have my hands on a copy.

I asked my friend who is Canadian but has been living Europe since 1992 and in The Hague for a decade to take me to a good Dutch bookstore. I had never been in one in my visits. He took me to Van Stockum Boekverkopers where I was very impressed by the aesthetics of the store. If I spoke Dutch it might be possible that it wasn’t very comprehensive, how could something so stylish without tall shelves be comprehensive. Still, I quite liked it. They had a decent English section but I didn’t buy anything.

This store was very nicely designed, but does it hold enough books?
I’m told this is a great book, but I think I will find the English edition.
I’m not sure what’s going on in this coffee table-sized book, but I was hoping it was just full of officephilia pictures like the one on the cover. It wasn’t.


And then we were off to Milan. Just inside the world famous Galleria we bumped into Rizzoli Books which was disappointing only because most of the stock was in another language. Although that might have been a good thing. God only knows how much I would have purchased.

This has nothing to do with Tess Gerritson. Although I guess her books might be inside.
Books that won’t be mine.
The large English section was down in the basement.
Doesn’t this remind you of Breaking Away?
I like an event space that doesn’t require rearranging the store. On the other hand it looks a bit small.
Certainly a compelling cover for book lovers.
I loved this wall of little blue books.
Recently I began Italian classes to try and resurrect the two years of college Italian I gook almost 30 years ago. I picked this up off the blue shelves at random and found I was able to actually read the first paragraph. So I bought it to use as a study aid when esercizi start to get me down.


I cooled my jets in the Tauschen Store in Milan while my friends were in search of espresso and a toilet. If I was rich and had a huge library with special slanted reading tables, I would buy lots of Tauschen Books which tend to be enormous.

I was really tempted to buy this. But I had only brought along a messenger bag as my luggage and this would not have fit.
I think this one belongs to Yotam Ottolenghi. I would love a print of this framed somewhere in my house.

We had some time before our bus left Milano Centrale for the airport so I popped into the extremely good bookstore at the station. They had a pretty big English section. Reminded me of the the time in 1992 when I was a poor student passing through Rome and ran out of reading material. I found a copy of The Razor’s Edge at the Rome train station. It was a cheap mass market edition that cost me a whopping $15. Did I mention I was poor and it was 1992? I still bought it though, I was desperate. I wasn’t desperate this time but I bought books like I was.

So happy to have this much to choose from.
So happy to get Elmet and Tin Man which everyone has been talking about and I haven’t been able to find in the US. The others were impulses. I finished African Pyscho on the plane ride home.

As if I wasn’t laden enough with books, I couldn’t resist browsing a bookstore at Schipol Airport on my way home.

Can you believe I bought the Ali Smith. I really hated How to be Both, but the cover made me pick it up and when I read a bit of it I thought it might not be so bad. The bottom one is all about the whos whats and whys of air travel written by a pilot. I eat that stuff up.

I can’t help following up on my previous post about the used bookstore in the Hague with these photos.

Thought you might want to see the cover of the Mrs. Harris edition. Couldn’t believe the good condition of the dust jacket.
I love these Faber editions and this cover is particularly nice. I first encountered them with the Alexandria Quartet and now I buy them whenever I find them. It was only recently that I realized Lawrence and Gerald were brothers. There outlook and books are very different.
I actually found this at a different used bookstore in The Hague. Much better organized but much less to buy. There is a little part of me that thinks I may already own this, possibly even read it.


If at this point you are thinking this post random and poorly written, it kind of is. I will blame jet lag.

Book tidying fantasy camp

Yesterday was not the first time I fantasized about organizing books.

After a visit to the truly astonishing Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (think Mondrian not Rembrandt) my friend was on a mission to buy toys for Koko, a cuddly cat he and his husband recently adopted.

If it wasn’t for Koko’s entertainment needs, I never would have stumbled across this bookstore.

While he was weighing the merits of low effort cat toys, I noticed a particularly full used bookstore across the street.

I didn’t even catch the name of the store. I was mesmerized by the mess within.

Given that I knew most, if not all, of the contents would be in Dutch, I first satisfied myself with taking a picture from outside the shop. Plus the aisles couldn’t even really be called aisles, I didn’t think I would even fit inside. But then, after witnessing the cat toy exploration for about a minute, I thought it might be worth it to cross back over to the bookstore.

The books in the small English section were double-shelved. Pretty much everything I took home with me was hidden behind the front row.

Turned out they did have some Engels books. And it turned out to be a bit of a treasure trove. Although it was extremely difficult to find a place on the floor for my size 12 feet to stand, and forget about bending over–I knocked one stack over trying to do that–I wedged myself in for a rather successful and short fossick. It was a smallish section but it yielded pretty good results.

The heel of my foot was up in the air because I had a hard time being able to place my whole foot on the floor. Essentially my feet had to be perpendicular to each other in order to have both feet on the ground.


I would truly love spending a week helping to organize a store like this. But with most of the books in a language I don’t know, I’m guessing that would be pretty unsatisfying. I did my bit to deplete the stock but I don’t think it was enough to allow for much in the way of tidying things up. My guess is a couple thousand books would have to be sold in order to really see the floor again.

From top to bottom:

  • An earlyish Monica Dickens I had never heard of.
  • A thriller from Paul Gallico. To date I have only read his cosy, sweet stuff.
  • Speaking of cosy, sweet Gallico, Flowers for Mrs. Harris is by far my favorite. I think I only have a paperback at home and this neat little hardcover was in really good shape.
  • I’m a big fan of these Faber editions of Durrell and these are two titles I have never stumbled across in the U.S.
  • I pretty much buy any old green cover Virago’s that I know (or think I know) I don’t own.
  • Pretty sure I don’t have these Bensons. I know I don’t have Final Edition, which appears to be his final memoir. I have quite a few of these Hogarth editions at home. Probably getting dangerously to becoming completest about them.

All in all, a good job for about 15 minutes in a store where only about 1% of the stock was in English.

Back in Europe

After all the Africa photos, I intended to do a post about my day with Simon Savidge in Liverpool at the end of August. One thing led to another and I never got around to it. Now here I am staying with dear friends in The Hague writing this post about something that happened almost two months ago elsewhere in Europe.

This is going to be a photo essay.

Me trying to take a selfie at Liverpool’s central train station. Spoiler alert: it was indeed Liverpool.
Tell me about it. Because of Bank Holiday track work, it would have taken me over 4 hours one way to get to Liverpool from London. This would have made it nigh impossible to spend the day with Simon. So I ended up flying from London to Manchester and then taking a taxi to Liverpool and then doing it all again about 6 hours later to get back to London.
I took this shot surreptitiously on the little shuttle bus out to my plane. The gentleman next to me was reading, or at least carrying around, The Readers summer 2016 read along novel. I hope he liked it more than Simon and I did.
I can’t understand who in Liverpool thought this statue was a good idea. Some famous Liverpudlian know for his zany feather duster humor. I forgot his name. Must have been dreadful.
We did a quick walk through of the beautiful central Liverpool library. Simon has read all the books in the on the shelves behind us..
Pretty fabulous cover. It was 3D.
On the bus to Simon’s house. We didn’t actually get into a fight. I just wanted to be by a window that opened.
Simon hates it when I air his dirty laundry so I opted for showing some clean linens.


While I was there we recorded two episodes of The Readers and one vlog for Simon’s Book Tube channel.


John was asleep when I left for Liverpool and had to fly to Jackson, WY for work so he was gone by the time I got back to our hotel.


I only had about an hour in the lovely, original Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street.
In the United lounge at Heathrow on the way home.
Yes, that’s how I do it.
The speed with which I ate them was a little nutso.