Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part two

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

An hour later I found a crowd of  books clustered around a YouTube video. They shooshed me. They were watching a demonstration on how to build a perfect guitar pedalboard.

‘What about the dance? Are you still doing it?’ I asked.

‘We’re doing it, East. We’re downloading Spotify.’

The Dickens collection had formed a considerable troupe and were ready to practice. ‘Here come the Dickies,’ everyone always said, whether it was Oliver sprinting across to the Beast Quest games, or old Pickwick waiting for the pub to open. Sometimes Charles himself came out, usually with Ackroyd, leaving together furtively, to avoid the vulgar Americans.

The Antiques and Curiosities were lining up cautiously, with bow ties, dusty coats, and mildew on the collar. Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers were setting up tables and arguing over a three sword centrepiece.

They all watched with thin faces, a Barry Oakly and a biography of Stephen Fry being sold.

The place was getting hot and busy and smoky.

The French women had set up a discussion table. Sagan, Sarraute, Beauvoir, Reza. They smiled graciously as the Canadians passed by. The smiles hardened though, when the Canadians had moved on, I saw that. 

The fantasies were stringing lights. The biographies had started drinking. The craft sat in silence because the main lights had been dimmed, and nobody could see their instructions for scrapbooking or how to make soap. A fountain had been found at the back of Art. ‘Who the cuck brought in a fountain?’ The Skulduggeries were dragging it out. ‘Cool. Get in’.

They argued over music; it was too loud, too strong, too low, too dark, not cultural. They wanted Spotify.

‘Gentlemen, we have Spotify’.

‘No we don’t, Maugham, the account’s been fucking locked.’ There was a collective and dismissive curse on technology.

‘Perhaps everyone can just dance their own dance.’ This from the Atwoods, I sat up to listen.

The political biographies moved in speechfully but were hushed by basically everyone. An Australian autobiography offered some kind of infrastructure promise and was told to fuck off out of it.

The Saddleclubs stood still with mouths open and ponies reined in, silent. They were called out of it, too.

But there was an unlikely agreement, fused out of fatigue, alcohol, and fear (of the Atwoods).

I soothed the political biography, and he said, ‘We believe in women too, of course.’

 I said, meanly, ‘Indeed. Although the menopause is a difficult time of course.’ I saw his eyes flicker upward. Hermione Lee was up talking with the Greers on the front table. They looked down. I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t.

Some books could not get a place in the dance.

No one liked the ex-library books much – this was because of the mess of stickers and tape that covered them.’ Sorry mate. Not in our group.’

The Ian Welshes laughed too loudly. They jumped too high and hard. They were embarrassing to dance with. Samuel Pepys, a massive biography, sat taking spiteful notes on everybody from the ugly angle and called for beer and oysters every ten minutes.

In the back room the Westerns had eased themselves around a small fire. They listened to music coming from the Natural Histories who were putting together The Dance of the Chiasognathus Grantii, which was some kind of weird stag beetle. The music came at them like chimes through smoke. They began to talk.

‘The thing is, I was normal. But did my father have time to look at a kid? No.’

The others looked out and away to give privacy. They stared into the firmament.

One shelf above, a lone book stirred, an Edward Abbey. Said nothing.

‘…and what have you ever done except murder all the losers?’ This was History, climbing down in an ordered line, harping at each other all the way.

‘Endocrine, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal….I could keep on but I don’t want to bore anyone…’

‘Neither do we.’

‘In ancient times, reading was one of the most….’

‘The witch is here; the witch is dead…’

‘Begging pardon my lady.’

At the counter, the little science fiction paperback had returned, was talking again, ‘We won’t end. Even pulping doesn’t end us. Look at old Gilman Perkins. There’s five of her in here. Look at Mockingbird. Can’t end her.’

To the Lighthouse was on the counter with me, lying on its back and writing, writing, writing, to the beat of a migraine. It said to me, ‘Did you know that manuals on life always subside after the preface? There’s a reason for that.’ Bang, bang, bang. I could hear her migraine. Still she wrote on.

But meanwhile,  the front room was not doing well.

The Algonquin group of classics was being forced to come up with their dance plan.….and they had to do it sober. They sat, sullen, not even one useful verb to be had.

Someone was on at the piano. The books had ransacked the music shelves and dragged out anything with music in its title. They had found a pianist. The music was coming from the top of a shelf, a beautiful little piano by the sound of it, and a cello, that ran barefoot and lightly underneath and then over the notes of the piano.

There are books gathered up there. I can see them listening to the piano.  A copy of Cards of Identity, gazing away into some unknown basin of solitude.

The German classics, dancing, elegant despite their rectangular suits. They bob and dip, a court dance, touch hands, exchange longings, move out again.  The others watch.

The Saul Bellows sitting back, shading their eyes from the melody, and needing a drink.

Someone shouted, ‘Piano Man, play Piano Man, man.’ They are getting mellow. As usual they then begin to discuss things.

Jeffrey Eugenides held forth on The Pilgrim Hawk. He likes books with animals in them. He says, ‘Wescott has courage. And in the morning, I can only open one eye. Also, a dog got to me once.’ He repeated this three times.

I pictured a dog eating the book, biting into the soft ideas inside of it.

But the Murray Bails liked The Fish Can Sing. ‘Iceland is perfect, he said.

But someone answered, ‘Who wants to read about that frozen slab of geyser holes?’

The Murray Bails became bitter. ‘You are all afraid of Iceland.’

The Kenyon Review suddenly opened its covers. ‘Serendipity is no accident.’ it shouted.

‘Shut up Friedel.’

‘That wasn’t Friedel, that was Butler.’

Nobody liked being corrected. The conversation broke up.

Poetry and Plays were still arguing (because Poetry has more shelves). There is nobody else in the store even remotely interested in this conflict. Mostly because they can’t understand anything that the poets are saying, even in an argument. On the way back to the counter, I saw the Shelleys, sitting on the edge of the sea, smoking and not taking part.

The Shakespeares have joined the conflict. This always causes uneasiness because everyone claims to have read Shakespeare, and this makes any argument risky. When Robert was here once, sorting through Astrology, he overheard the Shakespeares quarrelling. Robert said, ‘Good on you all. Fuck Centrelink.’ The Bard was immediately interested, and they had a long dark discussion in the corner.

‘Look at the Lemonys. Aren’t they adorable!’

I stood up. The whole set of Lemony Snickets was moving into the middle of the room, into a square formation, Hostile Hospital at the front.

 ‘STOP!’ commanded Hostile Hospital. ‘You are all wretched. You are all woeful.’ They continued on, happily.

‘Weird!’ Said Salinger. ‘But I like them.’

‘Great dance guys!’ This from the Vladimirs, who have painted themselves black. They are pleased, and in a mood to be kind. Vampire books were selling well.  The other groups looked at them blankly. ‘Can we even see you?’

The horse books were dancing in dressage under the window. Very impressive. I went to have a closer look.

‘Watch it East, they’ll trample you.’

‘Thank you, Philip. But they won’t. I tell you that horses can dance”.

“Not these ones.”

The horse books stopped and announced that they are heading for the lodestone. There was an uneasy pause – this meant the greatest book in the shop. It was agreed that there was one, but not who it was.  

The horse books all turned in a single movement and cantered over to Pinocchio. Most of the books in the shop, I knew, had read Pinocchio, and still remembered Pleasure Island.

‘Carlo Collodi you old….’

‘What are they playing at! Bloody little Saddleclubs! They haven’t even read Pinocchio!’

And then Ibrahim Nasrallah stood up and said, ‘God made horses from wind, my friends.’

 Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is a beautiful book, dressed in gold, cinnamon and black, a wrought iron spine, and always with a layer of fine clean sand following its leather shoes. The other books came forward, made to shake hands, backed off, move in again.’ Hello Ibrahim. Nice coat, man.’ They all nodded quietly, ‘ok, man’. Nasrallah smiled and moved gently over to examine the horse books.

We are, I thought, a perfect representation of lust, gluttony, loneliness, sand, aggression lunch and nomads. There is nothing from life that is not in here. No wonder it was so hot in here. We will be thrown out one day. There had been nine customers all day.

A few Saddleclubs, forbidden to take part in the dance, have moved sulkily back to Young Readers. I see them angle in behind the Enid Blytons to take off makeup and change clothes. Obviously, the riding teachers have forbidden certain outfits.

But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.

To be continued…

A Royal One

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Thelma said she can’t take to Charles Dickens.

David said he can’t find anything in Wilbur Smith.

Ursula said there’s no point in reading Somerset Maugham.

I read a comment describing the pointlessness of reading Great Expectations, as there was no plot.

Tyson said that he lost a few months trying to read Atlas Shrugged, time that he never got back again.

I was told that Middlemarch was not worth finishing and that Dante, even Jesus Christ himself would not read that Inferno shit.

I like to give everything a go. And I like to be free to put anything aside if necessary. I am reading Great Expectations, an unexpected choice and a royal one. It has taken me a long time to get to Charles Dickens and this book, Great Expectations, which I am reading slowly, is proving to be the most engaging appeal to the senses and the most tantalizing description of everybody I don’t like. And the most accurately hammered out observations of what we do and why! I am anxious not to reach the end too quickly; it is an experience that is causing me great joy and consternation….Miss Havisham, the awful and chosen decay…the astounding way the story has been all put together.

Thelma, at the shop today, said that she can’t take to Charles Dickens, never has been able to. She had in her hand Graham Green and Hans Christian Anderson and Hilary Mantel and she was also looking for Colin Thiele. And she also had for me a Christmas gift, she had bought brown paper and painted it herself, in bright purple to match me, she said. She has also painted some string bright gold and made a card with a silver and gold angel on a deep purple background of night sky and stars. She has written on the card in gold. It is an unexpected gift and a royal one.

I am instructed not to open it until Christmas.

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

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.

The Ideal Reader

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A fisherman from Kingston came in looking for Terry Pratchett and told me that once he bought a Terry Pratchett in Mt Gambier. He said the beach along the Kingston coast is a mess but that is the fault of developers and the council. He said that Terry Pratchett would have said a thing or two about that! Hahaha! I agreed with this and he went out very pleased.

I remember one morning this week, a man was waiting for his small daughter. But she had found The Lightning Bolt by Kate Forsyth and this book is book five of The Chain of Charms series. She was about seven years old, kneeling on the floor to read the book and her father was moving impatiently. His work boot nudged and toppled Animalia and she rebuked him silently with a lifted finger. He stared through the window, rattling keys, obedient. Suddenly she stood and showed him the cover; she was radiant and suddenly, so was he.

A man said that his hallway was lined with bookshelves and it was the length of a cricket pitch. His wife said she did not think it was this long.

I have finished with the Edith Wharton and I read the best stories in this book twice over so as not to miss anything. I am not reading anything else, not yet, because the story Mrs Manstey’s View will not let anything else in.

I was asked for Batavia by Peter Fitzsimons and Secret Servant: The Life of Sir Stewart Menzies by Anthony Cave Brown. This reader told me that Nagal’s Journal, which he found here last time, is the best thing he has ever read. He said that the diaries on the ships, as kept by the captains are the best reading there is. He squared his shoulders and stood back to see if I might disagree.

Three teenage girls were talking and talking. One asked for Sherlock Holmes. She hopped up and down when she told me how much she loved Sherlock Holmes. But sadly, I had none. She said: imagine this, imagine Sherlock Holmes in hardback. I really want to find this…Oh my God.

Her friend said: look at this, I am so into this. Oh my gosh guys. What will I do? Oh my God, I am going to have this.

What is it?

It’s Harry Potter. They all bent over the volume, close together and suddenly speechless. They whisper: it’s a hardback, it’s in another language. Oh my God. They place the volume on the counter and look at me dazed. She says: I collect them. Then they left, leaning on each other, hilarious, rapt.

A tall man in front of me examines the Wordsworth classics and is intense and frowning. His wife is amongst the Art. He leans back; as usual there is nothing for him! He returns to Art but his wife is not finished. She says: I’m not nearly done. She is frowning now too; he moves away and she stops frowning.

One man was intent upon the histories. Then he came away abruptly from the shelf and regarded his son who was texting angrily outside the front door. He said he might come back another time. He closed the door politely but also angrily.

I was told that Dick Francis wrote better books than his son. A lady told me that her fifteen year old grandson loved to read fantasy series but she was going to buy him a biography of a yachtsman instead.

A very tall and smiling man bought Martin Chuzzlewit and said that Charles Dickens had the most extraordinary way with words. He said he was reading them all, he did not like Bleak House but the rest, just marvellous indeed.

I have only read two books by Charles Dickens and they are not easily forgotten. I told him that when Daniel Quilp drowns in The Old Curiosity Shop I was glad! He said: yes indeed!

Two men together were talking about their teenage sons. One man said that his son would not show him how to use the remote for the television because he learns too slowly. His friend said: hahaha.

They asked me for a copy of Watership Down.

I was asked for books on card tricks and a young girl showed me a plaster dragon she had just bought from the goodwill shop. I was asked for the Wind in the Willows.

A man said he had a lot of time for Willa Cather. He asked me had I read her. I said that I planned to but right now I am with Edith Wharton and he said …AHHH…and he looked very happy. He told me that when I get to Willa Cather to read Death Comes for the Archbishop first.

I am floundering and falling amongst all of the titles, all of the must reads and the best reads and the don’t miss reads. It is a good way to be.

 

“The ideal reader is the translator, able to dissect the text, peel back the skin, slice down to the marrow, follow each artery and each vein, and then set on its feet a whole new sentient being. The ideal reader is not a taxidermist.”

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader by Alberto Manguel