The English Patient

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A lady is in the shop reading to herself The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I am reading to myself The English Patient. She shows her friend the book and her friend says: Oh, I remember that one. And the reading lady says: don’t we all…and they are smiling. Then they look at my book and tell me that I ought to see the film.

My friend says that Michael Ondaatje is slippery, that is, his writing is slippery, luminous and unpredictable so that suddenly he has described something… like translated light and there is no retreat…

the blue and other colours, shivering in the haze and sand. The faint glass noise and the diverse colours and the regal walk and his face like a lean dark gun

And when reading such incandescent sentences, you know that there is more at play that just those sentences, meanings and truths as large as the world itself following behind your reading, towering over your page, creaking gently behind, on and on and on.

A little boy has chosen a book called How to Draw Monsters and he holds it up to show me, he points significantly toward the monster on the cover. He comes over to whisper to me that he is going to draw these now, but bigger ones.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje is an incomparable writer.

An old lady tells me she has read every book in the Outlander Series and now intends to collect them in hardcover and then she will read them all again. She said she has lived these characters and died with them every day when she reads for hours before dinnertime. I show her The English Patient, but she has never heard of it.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje has written a number of other books, not just The English Patient. And they are all worth pursuit. (He has come in to see me for poetry but there is nothing sufficient here today).

A mother buys Thea Stilton: The Journey to Atlantis for her daughter who is about 10 years old and she leaves with the book balanced on her head and her eyes closed so that she runs into her brother in the doorway and he says Oh man, oh man, what are you…

The English Patient is a book that does not seem to contain many words.

A man comes through the door, hurrying, nervous of the time. He has leant a shovel against the window as he comes in and his boots are covered in cement. He takes his hat off and says the weather is a cow. Then he asks for Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, his favourite book, he wants to read it again and he explains how this book is one of the best, possibly the best in the world. I show him The English Patient and he says he has never heard of it.

The English Patient is unloud and sufficient and simple and impossibly complex, and tonight I will finish it, reading the same startling way I way I did last night, taking in Cairo, the indigo markets, the minarets and the charcoal and the aching hearts and listening to The Rachmaninoff 3 at the same time and Max there with me, banging a toy water buffalo on the keyboard and wanting me to choose Duplo instead.

 

Little Bird

Rex Homan sculpture

There’s a little boy come into the shop with his sister, they are allowed in by themselves while their mother waits outside with their dog and all the shopping.

The little boy holds a cork with two blue straws taped to it, it has tinsel on one end and green paper on the other and he cradles it, enchanted by it, lives with it. While his sister reads he flies his bird gently along the shelves and up and over the stacks, greeting the window with a glass kiss, they both look through the window, wondering about the day, inquiring into the magic.
But then one of the plastic wings drops and falls away and he kneels down, cupping the bird, soothing its cork heart, he tenderly attaches the wing again, under the same worn tape where it holds quite well. He sees that I am watching and he holds up the bird, shows me that all is ok.

His sister is finished, she has chosen her book, she says: come on…and then all three of them are slowly leaving and flying home.

Sculpture by Rex Homan

Reading, Standing Up

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The mother and son have edged into the shop together, shoulder to shoulder, she to look at art books, he to read Sea Quest right next to her; he is showing her its qualities, casting for ownership. They read on silently together, it is warm in that room, cold outside. A younger sister comes quickly through the door, she has headphones in and she joins the group, leaning her head into a shelf, rests there, eyes closed and says nothing at all.

Then the father joins them, and he lines up too, curiously, shoulder to shoulder. He has a book that is very funny, but I can’t see what it is. Every time he exclaims, his family glance across, frowning. Suddenly,  the grandmother is here. She is looking for Agatha Christie and her family look at her kindly. Her son shows her a very funny thing in his book and she glances down at the page, frowning.

Suddenly they all lean in together to examine each other’s books and they all begin to talk about Watership Down, a book which none of them are holding.  There is something they can’t agree on, the grandmother is furious with her adult son, who is trying to find his phone. They can no longer stay in the corner of a bookshop, near art and photography, they all look through the window at freedom, which they feel they have abruptly lost.

They leave with great courtesy, splintering off at the doorway, thanking me, looking sideways at each other and diving for freedom.

Sculpture by Max Leiva

The Boy who Chanted a Horse Race

 

Kleine Ballerina

There is a trio of distinct people that has come up the street (quite suddenly) and burst into a family right outside the doorway of my shop. The father thought he would hide from his two children and they, who are still small and full of air and joy,  fly after him and into him, ecstatic with the game, outraged with his hiding place which is far too easy.

They exclaim on the poverty of his choice.

You never find a good place!

And their father, who is also young, raises both hands in the air, cannot defend himself does not even try because he is weighed down and drooping with adoration for the pair of them, brother and sister, one with undone clicking shoelaces and the other with one tooth missing and all three of them lean over caught in  mirth and liking each other quite immensely, I thought.

Briefly they glance in the window and they see Hairy Maclary, the book itself leaning into the joy and the girl shouts it’s Hairy Maclary and their father shouts, not to be outdone: you’re Hairy Maclary, and then they all of them, breathe at the cleverness and move on, father and son running, but the little girl, well, she dances.

The boy, as they leave, is chanting a horse race at great speed and with peppered clarity and his sister obeys into a whooping gallop of her choice and the father shouts as they move away and down the footpath: who is winning, who is winning… and then they are faint in the distance and the cold, and it seems to me that the day itself pauses thoughtfully and must record this brief, outrageous triumph.

Sculpture by Malgorzata Chodakowska
The Kleine Ballerina 

The Sing Song Voice

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Two friends came into the shop and it was freezing outside, and raining, and they asked me about the books on the shelves and then both of them said:

It’s warm in here, can we stay? And one of them said, in a curious sing song voice that was very easy to listen to –

I like these books. Tell me about this Mark Twain.

But the other man was agitated and thought they should be on their way. He said to me: can you tell me how to get onto the freeway from here, actually, can you tell me about the freeway?

I gave directions and told him what I knew and he stood up on his toes and down again and up again and said that these bookshops were amazing. Then he asked me who was Huckleberry Finn anyway and his friend with the musical voice was outraged.

You know Huckleberry Finn man, you know all that river and that, why don’t you even know this anymore…? His friend came down off his toes with a sigh and said: yeah, I know all of that…

Then he said they had to get going and get onto the freeway, that he could see their trip disappearing because he was the only one who was organised. And they left and as they passed back out into the winter afternoon they were still arguing about Huckleberry Finn and the river and that.

The Old Man Who Said He Had Memory Problems

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Yesterday an old man came into the shop and said he had memory problems. He was very apologetic. He said he loved to read and had no trouble with that, he could remember just about everything he had read. And they were all beautiful memories.

He had forgotten his wallet and he went back outside and stood just outside the door and shook his hands gently from side to side and waited. Sometimes he glanced back at the books in the windows and he smiled at me, he seemed sad as if he was causing me trouble, which he wasn’t. He nodded kindly at all the passers-by.

There is an autobiography of Mark Twain on the front table and he looked at that through the window for a long time. Then his wife returned with his wallet and they both stood there, still outside and I thought they were talking about Mark Twain because the old man tapped on the glass and indicated the book and then they both laughed and nodded together. They stood there undecided for a while, they didn’t come back in, instead they headed toward the bakery and they looked pretty happy!

Honey, do you have it?

 

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A young couple came into the shop out of the cold today, he was cradling a tiny baby. She was carrying parcels and bags and she ran into things because she was looking so hard at the spines of the books. He carried the infant on his chest in a sling and he kept one hand on the side of the sling and the baby clutched one of his fingers, holding on tightly while it buzzed in sleep.

He searched the shelves as carefully as she did and he found book after book that looked promising and he said: honey do you have it?

Sometimes she said: yes, got that one…

Sometimes she said: oh I need that one…

Then he would rise up and take the book and place it gently on the counter and cradle the baby again and look down at the tiny hand coming out of the carrier and holding onto his own hand and he looked broadsided by the joy of so many events at once.

 

Hand sculpture by Bruce Nauman

The Reading Challenge

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If I was to take part in a reading challenge, I would attempt this one. I made it because it pushes me to read way beyond my known borders. And while I thought I was a wide roaming reader of sorts, it turns out that I’m not. I have also not yet found titles for the whole list.

Reading across from the top right-hand corner:

  1. A manga title –
  2. History book by a woman writer – Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
  3. Translated from Japanese –
  4. An Indian writer – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  5. A Virago title – South Riding by Winifred Holtby
  6. Ancient Greek literature – The Birds by Aristophanes
  7. A New York Review Classic – The Invention of Morel by Aldopho Bioy Casares
  8. Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Jeremy Fisher
  9. Book 1 of a Science Fiction Series – Wool by Hugh Howey
  10. An Australian Indigenous writer – Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
  11. A children’s picture book -The Wonder Thing by Libby Hathorn
  12. Middle East Book Award –
  13. An epistolary novel –
  14. Short stories written by a woman – The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
  15. A book written in the 1700s –
  16. A Science fiction classic – Dune by Frank Herbert
  17. A book that feature vampires – The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  18. A book over 1000 pages – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  19. A banned book – Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor (Banned in fourteen states in the US, and by Australia in 1945 as: a collection of bawdiness, amounting to sex obsession)
  20. An Australian play – Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler
  21. A book of poetry, single poet – The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
  22. Any translated book into English – My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  23. Any Shakespeare play – Othello
  24. A fantasy stand alone novel – The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  25. Fiction translated from Chinese – The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan

 

 

The Couple Who Came in Together

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This couple came in, came in very together and walked around the shop together and nodded over the books together. They hardly said anything.

Sometimes I heard them murmuring and laughing about something but only briefly. They were in the shop for ages, spending time in all the sections, reading even the children’s books silently and smiling over them. They spent a long time with a book by Jorge Borges called The Book of Sand. They talked and talked about that one. When they got to the science fiction they did not handle any of the books. They stood and looked up and down the titles, sometimes they said something to each other but they did not pull out a single book from there.

They did not buy any books at all but when they left they thanked me for having a bookshop.

Sculpture ‘The Couple’ by Kieta Nuij

The Boys at the Window

Maljavin - Sister Alexandra

The boys at the window, on a cold afternoon, very recently, were headed to Woolworths to buy things to eat. They stopped at the window of the shop and stared together at Hilary Clinton’s book, Living History.

One of the boys said: her!

The other boy answered: I know!

Then they straightened back up and continued on their way. As they left, one boy said: my mum used to always read a lot, books like that. When I got home from school she was always reading. When I was little she would always yell out like: is that you?

His friend said: like it could have been an assassin or something…

And the first boy answered: yeah!

 

Painting ‘Alexandra’ by Filipp Malyavin