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The Best Little Bookshop in England – and a review of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

December 14th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Before we travel, I always research the best independent bookstores in the areas we will be visiting. I figured that the Cotswolds in England would be so dotted with charming little book shops that it would be difficult to see them all. All of my research seemed to point me in the direction of Jaffe and Neale Bookshop and Cafe in charming Chipping Norton. We had no difficulty finding the place, as cafe tables sat in front of the building where large Books are my Bag banners hung in the front windows. The bookstore felt homey, with many nooks for reading throughout and even some comfy chairs scattered around. I would have gladly spent all day there, but we had an agenda for the day that involved visiting the nearby Hook Norton brewery in time for lunch.

I had been reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a perfectly appropriate novel to read while driving around the British countryside. I saw Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, on a shelf and carried it over to the cashier to ask if this new book lived up to the delight of Harold Fry. The woman I spoke with assured me that it did, but after I explained that I was an American on vacation who really did NOT need another book in her suitcase – that if I bought a book in England at all, I could only buy one – she took it as a challenge and recommended that perhaps I should consider Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black instead.

Now I was tempted. A signed copy of a book not yet available in the U.S. was worth considering, so I took the two novels to one of those inviting book nooks for comparison and consideration. I was zeroing in on a choice when I noticed that my husband was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who he was leading my way. Alerted by his wife at the cashier’s station, Patrick Neale wondered if David was with the American woman who could only buy one book in the UK. He was personally interested in the choice I was about to make since, in addition to being the proprietor of the shop, he is the current president of the British Booksellers Association – and a fascinating person to talk with about books.

David and I chatted with him about his shop and recommended some of our favorite bookstores in American. We told him about our experiences as English teachers, how we were in England for the wedding of a former student, and our favorite books in general. When he finally got around to recommending my one book for purchase, he picked up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. I knew Barnes from his slim novel The Sense of an Ending , which I had read and reviewed in 2012. Neale described the novel as one with no single word out of place. He was suggesting Barnes new book – which was also thankfully slim for my suitcase.

Levels of Life is a three part memoir of sorts that begins with a section about hot air ballooning, moves into a consideration of the nuances of historical photography, and finishes with Barnes own grief suffered at the loss of his wife in from a brain tumor in 2008. It is a difficult book to recommend to friends because the last section sounds like it would be so depressing. However, the overarching premise of all three parts is “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” I was personally delighted to find mention of Dame Ellen Terry in the second section, which describes photographs of actress Sarah Bernhardt taken by the 19th-century photographer and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (later known simply as Nadar). Terry was Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and the subject of my undergraduate Independent Study thesis at The College of Wooster. The book’s pacing and its weaving of historical details and naturalistic descriptions reminded me of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams – two of my favorite essayists. In the end, it is life affirming rather than deflating. The metaphor of the hot air balloon and the precariousness of its flight carries the reader to consider many levels of living and loving. I put off reading the book – and writing this review – because I knew the experience would be difficult to describe for my readers. One day in my life several things were put together – the coincidence of finding the perfect Brisith bookstore, meeting the most charming British bookseller and being handed a deeply moving book that will resonate with me for as long as my photographs of my matchless vacation with my husband remain – and my reading life was changed.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

December 1st, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

My favorite book of the year!  Amazon’s Book of the Year!  One of the New York Times five top works of fiction for 2013!  What else to I have to say to get you to put this book at the top of your Christmas list.

Thirteen year old Theo Decker and his mother have just finished admiring The Goldfinch, a legendary painting by Carel Fabritius, in a New York art museum when a bomb blast rocks the building.  Theo’s mother is killed, and although Theo escapes, he does so with two items that will change his life forever – an heirloom ring given to him by the dying grandfather of a girl who had caught Theo’s eye AND the Fabritius painting.   The rest of the novel follows Theo through repeated moves and losses, friendships and relationships, adventures and drug-induced skirmishes.  There is something in this book for everyone.

I agree with Stephen King, who likened the scope of the narrative to Dickens when he reviewed the book for the New York Times .  He also called it the sort of book that comes along only a few times per decade.  Such is the pattern of Donna Tartt.  I first read The Little Friend in 2002, when I received it as a Christmas gift from my, then, new husband David.  He gave me the book and an Amish rocker that Christmas, and I sat in the rocker and rarely left it until I finished the book.  I went back and read her earlier novel, The Secret History, so I guess that puts me among the Tartt fans who have been waiting over a decade for her next work.  Tartt labors over her story telling, immersing herself in writing, rarely granting interviews and never apologizing for the time that passes between masterpieces.

I decided not to wait for the book from the library, and downloaded the Kindle version to my iPad and also ordered the Audible audio book so could enjoy listening to the book while I walked and while I worked in the sewing room.  It helped to get me through the nearly 800 pages more quickly, because once I got in to the narrative, I wanted to stay in.  In fact, although it is one of those rare books that I didn’t want to finish reading, I pressed through til the end, staying up late on the night before Thanksgiving.  And as soon as I finished the book, I wanted to start re-reading.  The last several pages struck me as a love song to art, in all its forms, and were so lovely that it would do a disservice to the whole book to quote anything out of context.

I LOVED THIS BOOK!  Final comment.  You be the judge.