The Handmaid’s Tale

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I am about to read The Handmaid’s Tale. It is written by Margaret Atwood and I have never read it before, I have been told it is confronting. A lady also told me this morning that it is disturbing and she said by God, the Canadians have some good writers!

It is endlessly interesting to be on the unread side of a book. And to consider it from its smooth side.

Another lady told me that everybody should read it. I said that I had only read The Blind Assassin so far and she said urgently that this isn’t enough, that I must read more, that we should all be reading more Margaret Atwood.

Bill saw my book and said he had never heard of her. He said that Bryce Courtenay was good enough for him. Robert was tremendously impressed when I described the book to him. He said he should read it but is very committed to the ancient Greeks right now.

I heard that there is a TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale and that it is brilliant, but I am advised to always read the book first. Leanne said she might give it a go. She said: well done for trying the new stuff!

Most books are new to me because I am not a fast reader and the more I read the slower I go. Every good book insists on a new way of regarding basically everything. I am expecting The Handmaid’s Tale to be good because The Blind Assassin, which I read years ago has still never left me alone.

Moby Dick


aaron-burden-236415.jpgA young boy came in to the shop with his father and was anxious for a copy of Moby Dick, which was his favourite book. I only had a volume that contained Moby Dick and Omoo and Typee and Israel Potter. I was doubtful of this 1700 page volume but the child reassured me that this was ok, he had already read all of these and they were as good as anything. He said that Moby Dick was a good book, as good as Star Wars or anything like that.

His father stood patiently by.

The child then said that Moby Dick is just more exciting than the other versions, it is just more exciting….than…the other versions. And it is as good as Uluru. He did not explain this last statement but instead went to another shelf to get a Star Wars Encyclopaedia which he was getting for his teacher.

I’m getting this for my teacher. He’s a really really really really big fan of Star Wars. He’ll really get into this.

He stood there, confident, pushing his glasses back to the correct position, squared up and facing the world, his enormous world full of enormous books, glowing and supreme, while his father stood patiently by.

Photography by Aaron Burden

Max travels down a dirt road in his pram.



This evening we took the pram down the dirt road, way out the back, away from all the houses.

Running down the dirt road, Max and his family and the dog, running through the ribbons of late sunlight, running away from the winter.

Masie, the brown kelpie runs alongside the pram on her small truthful feet. She never swerves, never stumbles. She avoids neatly every pothole and rock in her path.

Max’s nose is streaming in the cold wind. Still he sits up straight, hanging onto each side of the pram, facing the cold, riding the evening. He sways with the pram, rides over the rocks and his eyes are fixed on the front, watching the things that only babies see. He turns to watch Masie still running quietly alongside, he holds out his hand toward her trotting ears. She acknowledges him kindly, noses his hand, continues to run. He calls out a baby tune which is tuneless but important. The pram vibrates his voice box, plays in his throat, he allows a stream of sound that goes on and on, pebbly and bouncing, he sings more loudly, delighted with his jogging voice, the humming sounds, both hands in the air, swaying and singing and the cold wind blowing and Masie running patiently, gently alongside the pram and the family.


The small boy and the glazed doughnuts…


The small boy was walking along the footpath the other morning with his dad and he was carrying a box of glazed doughnuts. As they walked past the shop windows, his dad said: we’d better get home, get the doughnuts home, hey, and then I’ll be getting married. The child was staring down at the glazed chocolate in amazement. The man was staring up at the grey sky in amazement.

They continued on past the shop, looking neither left nor right, just walking along together in amazement.



Noah and Linden


Noah’s hand is so small that it can only just hang onto his Pa’s thumb. But he holds onto it, not even knowing that he does. His Pa is 193cm tall and Noah is 65cm tall. Noah’s Pa towers over him, a monument of strength and gentleness. Noah is protected on all sixty sides. Who knows what his life might be. Maybe he also will grow tall and true – if all goes well. If all does not go well, he will probably grow tall and true anyway. He has, after all, stories, music and parents that gaze at him for hours on end. And outside, he has a small vegetable garden, windy days and opportunities to look all around while sitting on an ordinary lawn.


Thelma and John

59830ceb33ff5_67WYiHWr__700Thelma and John are regular visitors to the shop. I met them one summer when it was hot and they were concerned for their garden and worried about never finding a copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. They have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, they finish each other’s sentences and find many things hilarious, especially the illustrations of The Gumnut Babies by May Gibbs and especially the picture of the banksia man running away with a gumnut baby upside down.

John loves railway artists and Sherlock Holmes. Thelma, at the moment, loves Roald Dahl. Today John is telling me about Charles Dickens, he has read most of these books. He is telling me about Dombey and Son, which is sad, sombre and just sad. This fellow, Dombey, wanted a son to carry on the business but the baby of course is born sickly. John is hilarious; following the memories of the story in his head (Dickens used so so many words… I shouldn’t tell you anymore…I won’t tell you anymore).

Thelma and John just keep on living on, they have put down roots into the things they love. Alongside their medley of conventional health problems, their lives seeming to grow bigger, richer and deeper as they grow older and slower, telling me about their fabulous library, their fabulous family and the fabulous garden, this fabulous wine, and a fabulous shed where John has an easel and Thelma has flower pots.

Suddenly, today, a young girl appeared at their elbow as they talked to me. She had a copy of The Fault in our Stars which she wanted me to put aside for her until tomorrow when she would have some money.

Thelma swept forward, majestic, delighted and paid for the book herself and presented it to the child, who accepted it anxiously, speechless, delighted.

Is there a book that you couldn’t finish?



Sometimes at the shop I ask people this question.

Robert said that he finishes everything except for all the books that have been stolen from him over the years. His ex’s ex stole the most.

Barry said: oh mate, heaps. Don’t even remember, I mean, yeah, you know. But I always finish the good ones.

Irene said she finishes every book she starts, always.

One couple said they did not finish Fifty Shades of Grey.

Madeline, who is about 12 said that she…thinks that she might not finish…some books…if they are not very good…but some books she has read 4 times…if they are really good.

David will not continue if he cannot connect with the author. He could not connect with Patrick White.

Michael, who reads all the Spanish and Latin American novelists says he always finishes everything by the Spanish and Latin American novelists. He has a copy of The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez in his pocket; he always has a paperback novel in his pocket which he reads over coffee in the bakery next door. His answer to me was that anything by the Latins is worth finishing and he tapped his pocket to show me that this was true.

Cory said that he never finishes a book if it is dumb.

Peta said that Middlemarch was a concern.

Glenda told me that Bonfire of the Vanities and A Dance to the Music of Time were her triumphs, she made it to the end of both. But Poor Fellow, My Country defeated her finally.

Dale said he gives a book 15 pages and if it is no good for him after that he always knows. He has another way too: to open at any page and if that page is good he will get the book. He demonstrated his method for me with The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing). He looked at one page and said that he would not read this book.

Margaret said that Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (Marguerite Young) was a book she did not want to finish. But she did and it is one of the most brilliant books she ever read.



You just need to watch your feet a bit more.

Two boys are walking past the window of the shop, weighed down with adolescence and school bags. One says: I’m going to just go up to every teacher and say like, I’ve read that. His friend nodded, approving, excited. They continued on to the bakery, they walked shoulder to shoulder, staring at the ground, colluding in low voices. Later they walked back again, still speaking intensely, exultantly.

A teenager came in to buy a bookmark for her friend’s birthday. She chose a silver dragon with clear glass beads and deep emerald beads and silver spacers. She chose one with a silver love heart suspended on the end, it swung clear of the glass and metal and she looked at it from every angle in the light, the clear lights and the green lights and she told her mother: this is the one. She told me she had a book about a dragon, with silver on the ends of the pages and green writing on the front and this bookmark would go with this book. And she just knew her friend would just love this, as she knew her friend so well.

Ruth came to pick up her book: Religion and the History of Violence. She reads history intensely, all history. She said that you can’t know unless you know how much that you don’t know. We need to watch our feet, watch the details, watch what we miss and then we will see what we miss. Her voice is strong although she is not anymore; she walks carefully and it is hard for her to manage the door. Sometimes she comes in gumboots, straight from the garden, from life, from details.