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.

 

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

 

 

When Sarah Visited the Shop Again on a Cold and Dull Day

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Sarah came this afternoon to pick up her Faber Book of Love Poetry and a copy of David Copperfield.

She said she has a shelf this big full of books as yet unread and it was time now to get stuck in. She looked pleased as she thought about this.

She talked, as she always does about how her mum read all her life, and how it was when her mum died and how it is now and how she, herself, once bought a costume and wore it, walking around the block on New Year’s Eve which outraged her friend and scandalised the neighbourhood.

She said that she has always been a one for standing near the edges of things, and that most of the time she’s had no choice.

She spoke disapprovingly of the Liberals, of Telstra and of Tony Abbott and described her bitterness against Jetstar, whose online booking system is a disgrace.

She said: I’m glad you’re open, it adds a bit of colour to my days, it does.

And this is a bit like Sarah herself, a survivor on the ragged, steep edges of things without a trace of self-pity, armored only with individuality and a love for classic literature and political biographies. And she adding colour to my day.

Soon she announced that it was time to get on home and sort the laundry. She promised to return and tell me what David Copperfield is actually like as there is no point in going by the movie of it. And she left with her books carefully packed, swinging the bag and herself through the door, into survival and the rest of the day.

 

 

Reading

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When things are difficult, reading is such consolation. It is thought that life is for living, not for merely reading about, and this is true.
But as with all art, what we are gazing at and the quality of our watching, makes a difference. Some books console, and other distract and others entertain. Many stories reaffirm and add to what we already like. Some writing keeps us liking what we already know.
But reading, like any set of complicated muscles, can move us further. And reading, if given permission, will transfer gently along the contours of our fearful selves, as all great art can, if allowed. This, in turn, can allow us permission to consider what we, all of us, hold in our ghostly hearts.
The greatest literature is by nature provoking rather than judgemental – to provoke without verdict is complex and risky and so the greatest artists rarely present answers.
They, all of them, seem to have halted everything in order to dive.

Fiction, if allowed, can breach defences with undimming compassion.

 

 

Artwork by Leng Jun

 

 

 

 

Young Man Reading

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The young man came in here during the afternoon, the last of April, the last of the summer warmth and sat in the wicker chair to wait for his mother who needed some more of Georgette Heyer. He glanced around the place, he was not too interested in the place, he was serene enough, happy to wait for her. Later I noticed him reading, it was a worn paperback copy of The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud. I wonder why he chose it. He read for more than half an hour and then his mother finished with Georgette and came to the counter with nothing at all and he stood up and carried the book over and tapped the cover and paid me for it.
He said, “good one,”  and then they left, out of the door and gone.

Young Man Reading by Ignis Bednarik

 

 

Max Stacks

 

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There is always work to do in the realms of gold.

And Max is always in arrears with the work; the number of shelves that need to be unshelved is relentless and the books clamouring to be loaded cause him untold frustration and joy.
Each day, many times a day, Max works patiently, carrying paperbacks, one at a time across acres of living room to another place, clearly a better place. He surveys each fresh cargo seriously, standing in silence, giving a benediction. Then he returns, the toddler ship, to the shelf, which will soon be another empty harbor.

Sometimes, from somewhere, he will receive new orders and be forced to stop at sea. It is time to stack.
This is an apprenticeship that he has embraced and practiced since he could crawl and when his infant services of carry, balance and freight were precarious at best. Now he is master tradesman, stern with assistance, moving the wrong book aside without courtesy or comment, uninterested in advice.
His baby brain is noticing that dimensions make a difference. He can pack paperbacks with precision. It is appropriate to sandwich classics between Hairy Maclary and Schiller’s Poems and Plays. Once I saw him stack The Father Brown Stories beneath Simone de Beauvoir and on top of her, a small plastic truck.

The prevailing stack is lively. Colin Thiele is a mere slice underneath Cooking with Copha, Manning Clark’s History of Australia has been re dealt, only three of the volumes are necessary and these are decked on top of Hilary Clinton, A History of Persian Architecture and three Viragos. Max stares at Footrot Flats and allows himself to dribble on the cover. He recognises the kitty. He presses the souls of his feet into Asterix. The Britannica Greats are too heavy, Freud, also too heavy, ponderous and creaking along with Dickens, Butler, Proust, Trollope, all the males in heavy sensible shoes that cannot be lifted with one hand. The Russians are no better, the whole set is the same, they talk too much and do not cooperate. Twilight, Breaking Dawn are light and pleasing but they are not placed well, they cannot hold their own weight, they are limp in the sun, they allow Greek Mythology and the Bullfinch to lean and fall. The north corner of the wall is weak, Wolf Hall, although working brilliantly is flung calmly aside as if it was the one that caused the limp.
A History of the World in 100 Objects and Blinky Bill are auditioned.
The Lord of the Rings leans against the window, smoking a pipe, calm, watching.
There is a copy of The Stories of Edith Wharton, once again poked into an odd place between armchairs, its dust cover gently removed, (once I found next to it, a disrespectful and small piece of toast). The dust cover is always found, unharmed, slid between 500 Cabinets and Rocks and Minerals for Young Readers. This book does not get a go at the wall.
Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat has taken the top of the stack.
On the Banks of Plum Creek is sliced on top of Gobbo.
Teddy Goes on a Picnic is the flag, placed carefully on top of a Somerset Maugham.
But then it is lunchtime and there is a calling and a cajoling from the kitchen and the stack is abruptly forgotten and abandoned, its inhabitants left rocking in the warmth of the choosing and the building and the heights and the taking part of library life, in life.

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Peggy 2

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When Peggy was young she left her husband in Woomera and he burned all her books in revenge. When she told me this, she laughed and said: more fool him.

She came to the shop again, last Friday, driving up from Adelaide all by herself, fearless, irreverent, divine and eighty four. She only has one eye, the other one is made of glass but she threw it in the bin some years ago: the doctor that prescribes that can go to hell. Once when I visited her, she showed me a photo of herself just before she was sent to an orphanage. She said: gawd I was ugly. But she wasn’t.
Peggy has read everything.
She always carries a few emergency thrillers in case she is forced to go to a show, a musical, to church,  and then, luckily, she can read to pass the time.

She says: what have you got for me to read Kerry? I offer her Good Literature and she says it is all shit. She goes to the science fiction instead. She is very tall, very angular, very bold, unforgettable. When I used to visit her in Strathalbyn she wore a man’s dressing gown to the door and carried a glass of red wine. She has read all of the Game of Thrones and can’t wait until the next volume or the next season to comes out, when she will be 85.

I said: that series is very violent and she said approvingly: hahaha.

Last year she nursed her own daughter, who was dying of cancer, until she died. Her new friends she has made since moving to Adelaide tell her to join a walking group. They say it will be good for her. They say she should not read so much.
(Peggy has read everything.)
She looks at me and asks me if they are right.
I ask her to please never change. She says: hahaha!
Peggy has never once had an easy life but this does not impress her and it has never mattered.

Sarah

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Sarah has seen the Jura Mountains. She said they are north of the Alps and very beautiful. I have never seen them and she said that I ought to. She herself plans to travel again, this time by ship because this will give her time to read on the way. I approved of this – I always plan the slowest way possible to anywhere so as to bank up some reading hours for withdrawal later.
Sarah has not had an easy life. But having had no other, she carries it around tenderly for what it’s worth – which is a great deal.
She was raised amongst books, many, many of them, mostly the English classics because England is where her mother was born. She will recite them off: Wind in the Willows, Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Louis Untermeyer, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Moomins, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, Little Women, The Borrowers, The Water Babies, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens….
Sarah is an only child.
When she was 15, her mother took her to France and they stayed at Saint -Claude. They saw a film there – Casablanca – in subtitles. She loved it. Her father didn’t come, he was an accountant in Adelaide at John Martins and he stayed home to look after Sarah’s dog Bruno. Also, he didn’t like travelling.
Now she is reading Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright – the one about the suffragettes which she told me is an important part of our history. Sarah is always reading. She told me that it has helped her through the more difficult times of her life. Which has been most of it.
Reading was one of the last things her mother gave up before she died.
When Sarah was 15, and her mother took her to France and they saw the Jura Mountains, they stayed with cousins at a vineyard. And her cousin gave her two beautiful French dolls for her birthday and she tasted French wine and it was summer and it was really very, very beautiful.

sonder – n. the realization that each random passer by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig

 

I don’t know how these places even keep going…

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Outside, some passers-by look through the window at the biographies and one man says: I don’t know how these places even stay open. Fucking hell, we can just get books on the internet, just as easy. His friend says: yeah…

It is a public holiday here in South Australia and Strathalbyn is full of people on their day off.
I am reading The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield and looking up every now and again wondering if anyone will come in to the shop and buy a book. Maybe no one will, but Dorothy Canfield makes this all ok.

The door does open though, and two old ladies come in and they are confident and bright and a propelled onwards by their solid and purposeful cardigans. They know already, what they need to say:
There’s your Ken Follett.
I’m not usually one for that kind of thing.
Oh, see the Ray Bradbury…
I wanted to get on well with it but…
There’s a relation somewhere there – some one with Dickens, a grand daughter or something.
I’ve got most of the Dickens.
I’ve got all of the Dickens. You’ve seen them.
I don’t hold with that sort of writing.
What do you mean?
Clive Cussler.
Oh, good heavens, we don’t bother with him. I told you that.
I like Bryce Courtenay.
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes…
But that film –
No, that’s all right, of course it is –
I’ve read some of those
I’ve read all them all.
Oh nonsense…
Isn’t Herriot still very good
Very good indeed.
Gracious and serious…
I have a problem with that.
I’m one for having books around me.
It’s the way now isn’t it, though, to have no books.
Look at this rubbish.
Well, yes but why make a whole new film about it… 
Well, that’s right.
I think we need to give all the young people one each of all these grammar books.
Well, you can try can’t you….
I shouldn’t just blanket across everything, I know I’m judgemental.
Yes you are, now look at that…I’ve got that…
Yes, I’ve got that too
Yes, I’ve got all of hers.
Gradually they pass by, they don’t see me, they don’t need to purchase a book and they pass by and out though the door, they confront the solid spread of bikies that are gathered on the footpath outside and part them like butter with a hot knitting needle and they go on home.

And then  –

The skateboard family is back! The oldest boy has a book which he carries around and carries around. His mother is within the novels, his brothers are by and by, here and there but mostly with Star Wars. One brother is eating from a paper bag –  sherbet bombs. He is looking at the roof through a haze of sherbet, he is in sherbet bomb heaven. The oldest brother is waiting outside, balancing on his skateboard and staring significantly through the window at his family that are keeping him waiting.
The boy with the book presents it to his mother, he is staring upwards into her face, in an attitude of prayer. She looks down at her son. She says: you got that book last time.
He says nothing at all.
She says: but you gave it to your friend. We should get that one for you this time. He looks at her, astounded by her memory. He hugs the book to his chest and leans backwards under its enormous valuable weight.
They all weave around and around and here and there and then eventually purchase their books and leave together, with skateboards and sherbet and the book of life and one brother saying: get out the way…and the boy outside saying: thanks for taking a thousand years.

 

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