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The longlist for the 2011 Orange prize for Fiction was announced this morning; the full list is here:

It’s particularly interesting to see that nine of the twenty novels are debuts, compared with seven in 2010; not an insignificant rise. Whether calculated or not (and I’m sure the judges would assert not), the increase in focus on first-timers seems part of an overall move to raise the profile of new novelists. This year has seen a Waterstone’s promotion centered around eleven new authors, and the BBC’s Culture Show ran a ‘Twelve of the Best New Novelists’ programme to tie in with World Book Night earlier this month. Much has been written about what this amounts to; realistically, we won’t know the answer to that for another six months or so, when a real sense of sales patterns for these new authors becomes more visible.

For now, though, I’m off to track down the longlisted books here, starting with the newbies. And let’s start the countdown clock on the grumbles about female-only lists being ‘unfair’…

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The Trinity College Book Sale is not for the faint-hearted. For three frantic days every year, book lovers and book sellers descend on the college’s Exam Hall to snap up some of the thousands of second-hand books, from recent paperbacks to 1950s household manuals,  that fill the usually airy room.

If you ever see a copy of this, let me know. Seriously!

It always opens on a Thursday night, which is when the hardcore devotees and the serious book dealers get there to snap up the rarest and most valuable titles, rendering the event more like a rugby scrum than a sedate second-hand book sale. By Friday, things are generally slightly calmer, by which I mean you don’t have to be six-foot tall and built like Ronan O’Gara to shove your way through the crowds around each long table and catch a glimpse of some books.

Despite the crazed crowds, I love the Book Sale. I’ve been going every year since I was a student, and I’ve never left it without my arms full of incredibly cheap gems (seriously, most books cost about a euro at most). And every year I find myself looking out for certain titles and certain authors. There are a few writers whose names I look out for every single time I scan a shelf or pile of second-hand books, whether in a posh London bookshop or a jumble sale. They’re the authors I love whose books are out of print, and when I see one of their titles that I don’t already own I have been known to leap across a table to grab it. I can never pass a Biography section without hoping to find Noel Streatfeild’s Away from the Vicarage, the second volume of her autobiographical trilogy (I already have the first and the third installments), and when looking through fiction from the 1940s and ’50s I always look out for her now very hard-to-find adult novels. I always rush to the Children’s section hoping to find anything by Antonia Forest, whose complex children’s books, all but one of which have been out of print since the ’80s apart from a few limited edition reprints, go for vast sums online. I scour the Humour section hoping to find some volumes of Arthur Marshall’s hilarious literary criticism, or some of the few collections of Ronald Searle cartoons that I don’t already own. And for a very long time I was always on the look out for all three of Dodie Smith’s memoirs (like Streatfeild, she also wrote a three-part autobiography in the ’60s – there must have been something in the air), which I had got from the library and adored as a teenager, until my parents and sister very kindly got me two of them for Christmas last year.

Every book sale or second-hand stall raises my hopes of finding these treasures, and I always feel a tang of disappointment when I leave the exam hall yet again without a copy of Antonia Forest’s Peter’s Room or one of Streatfeild’s ’40s romances.  And yet I have to admit that the day I complete my Forest collection or finally have my own copy of every E. Nesbit book might feel, well, a little flat. Because without that hope of finding the treasures I’ve been seeking for so long, maybe the Trinity book sale will just be a musty-smelling, over-crowded room full of pointless paperbacks. Or maybe, just maybe, it could be the place where I randomly discover a new author who becomes my next obsession. Where there are books, there is always hope…

So what about you? What authors do you always look out for in second-hand shops?

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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I got myself my first smartphone recently, and my most-abused app so far is its little ebook reader, for which I have downloaded a delightful gloop of free classics. It’s a pleasingly tidy thing to be able to sit in the canteen in my office, reading chunky novels using only my right palm and thumb.

“Must be a bloody long text message,” said one of our managers, the other day.

“I’m reading a novel,” says I, pleased as a caramelised glutton. “I’m reading a novel ON MY PHONE.”

“Well, would you look at that! What are you reading?”

“Wuthering Heights.”

“Ah, classic. Speaking of literature, apparently Howard Jacobson’s just won the Booker for The Finkler Question.”

“Yeah, haven’t read it. I’m reading Wuthering Heights.”

“You’ve read it before?”

“Eight or nine times. Never ON MY PHONE though.”

Wuthering Heights, at this stage in my novel-gobbling career, has become rather a cosy duvet of familiar words and themes and characters that I’m loathe to cast off for unproven tomes. It’s an unhealthy thing; one should reach for the contemporary stuff when one intends to be a bit of said stuff herself one day. Wuthering Heights is a classic, true, but it’s also a guilty pleasure, and saying that about a standard of English literature comes across as mightily pompous.

“You enjoy chick-lit, you say? Love and romance and squishy stuff? Interesting. I suppose to well-read ladies such as mise fein, the classics are the no-brainers. Like, I consider the archetypical antihero Heathcliff to be my very own … er … my own *ahem* … Mr. D’Arcy.”

Because that’s what’s happened. As I’ve grown older, and stopped hanging around outside University libraries hugging my colour coordinated notebooks to my perky bosom and looking all intellectually adorable, the “flaws” of Wuthering Heights have become as apparent as janitors’ plans in a Scooby Doo adventure. I considered myself quite the little clever clogs when, at eighteen, I could genuinely nominate Emily Bronte’s gothic classic as my favourite book. While my friends succumbed to Marian Keyes and Ursula Le Guin, I scrambled up my own towering intellect and stood undulating in the hot air of its summit. I was an insufferable wally, in other words. Eleven years later, I’m starting to see cracks in the thing. Fissures. Christ, yawning chasms. And it upsets me greatly.

Where once there was a powerful story of oh-so-rosemantic consuming passion, now there is a deeply sinister tale of sociopathic vengeance. Where once was my deep respeck’ for the feisty Catherine, now festers an irritation at what an irrational hussy she was. Where once stood Heathcliff-my-Heathcliff, there now lies crumpled a right nasty fucker who you wouldn’t let clean out your eaves, let alone take pride of place in your boudoir. I once knew that Catherine and Heathcliff were the very best in star-crossed lovers, and now it seems that they were a right pair of selfish, whingey little sods with more money than sense and unfortunate access to damp, injurious weather whenever they wanted to prove a selfish, whingey point.

Don’t get me wrong; had I the detachment to intelligently critique Bronte’s masterpiece, I would still admire it, for Wuthering Heights is beautifully written, brilliantly plotted, and deep as any other novel you could care to mention. But I don’t have that detachment, and the result is that I’m terribly peeved by all I missed when I first devoured the thing. Who knew that Heathcliff was such an epic dick? Not me; I thought he was faithful love personified! No violent boor my Heathcliff; he was misunderstood, that’s all.

When I was eighteen, I thought of Heathcliff as proof positive that Bronte knew more about true love than anyone who’d ever lived. She knew my kind of man was a tortured saucepot who’d be unable to stop himself ravishing my waiflike self, even after all of the proud ice storms I fecked his way (he’d also have lots of mysterious money and a great big house). Now that I’m all growed-up, I dither between believing Bronte was a genius birther of characters superhuman in their flawed humanity, or that she was a wannabe sex kitten who’d have run away with the gypsies if her tuberculosis hadn’t hobbled her. I still can’t decide whether Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights as art, or masturbatory catharsis.

Plaster the plot of Wuthering Heights into a contemporary setting, package it and send it out for review, and you’d get some horrified squawks from the likes of me. There’s nothing sexy about petulant suicide and domestic violence, so redo that bodice, thank you very much, Ms. Bronte. For shame!

The moral of my story is: don’t read much-loved classics after coming of age. Those delightfully solid assumptions you made about the author’s intentions turn out to have iceberg arses. Those characters you befriended and made precious start to kick lumps out your insides. You start picking holes, and a duvet full of holes is no longer a cosy comfort, and certainly not suitable reading for break times in the canteen.

For God’s sake, I was reading Call Of The Wild the other day, and found myself wondering whether Jack London was into bestiality. That can’t be right!

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One of the many fantastic elements of the Mindfield section of the Electric Picnic was the presence of an excellent little second hand book tent. Fellow Anti-Room panelist Aoife Barry and I had an excellent browse, and I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a collection of de Maupassant short stories (I’ve never read him, and have been meaning to check out his stories for ages) with an incredibly dodgy blurb.

Lots of lovely books to browse through. Who knows what treasures lie within?

It was a reminder of how much I love second hand book shops. In an age where we can track down any title we want online (if we’ve got the money to pay for it), nothing beats the serendipitous joy of seeing a long-searched-for title amid the random paperbacks, of finding a long out-of-print book you’ve never heard of by a beloved author. I find it physically impossible to pass a second hand book-shop without sticking my head in for a second, and I still head to certain sections hoping to find certain titles – the F shelf of the children’s section hoping for a copy of Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest; the S shelf of the adult autobiography for the middle volume of Noel Streatfeild’s memoirs and the S shelf of the adult fiction in the hope of finding some of her long-lost adult titles. For years I also used to look out for Dodie Smith’s wonderful autobiographies, which I’d got out of the library as a teenager, until my parents and sister got  two of them for me for Christmas last year.

Because nothing beats that moment when you see the book you’ve been searching for, or the one you didn’t know you wanted until it was there in your hand in a dim corner of a rambling shop on Charing Cross Road. Over the last 20 years I’ve gasped in delight at the sight of everything from E. Nesbit’s The New Treasure Seekers to Mollie Panter Downes’s London War Notes 1939-1945, from 1940s knitting books to 1950s teenage girl annuals. And then there was the memorable time many years ago when I found my own copy of William Maxwell’s The Chateau, which had been stolen from my desk by a kleptomaniac colleague a week before.

So do you share my love of second hand rummaging? What are your favourite second hand shops (these days, there’s nowhere better in Dublin than Raven Books in Blackrock)? And what have been your best finds?

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Shelf Life

There are many little things that would make my life better. Manageable hair. Better cycle lanes.  Working in an industry whose death wasn’t constantly being foretold by the media. But sometimes, I think that what I really need for inner peace are shelves. I dream of having a house lined in custom-made shelving, where chaos can be calmly catalogued.

Most of the shelves in my house are actually organised by author or subject. This one, in the sitting room, is completely randomly disorganised and, as you can see, double stacked. It's a complete mess. Disgraceful. I need more shelves!

Instead, I live in a house with random shelves in every room, ranging from Ikea Billy numbers to a 1940s glass-fronted book case-cum-writing-desk that once belonged to my great aunts. And that isn’t nearly enough for my and my husband’s vast collection of books, comics, magazines and albums. What I grandly call my study is full of teetering piles of the many book proofs I get sent every month. Despite the fact that I’m much more brutal than I used to be (I pass on or recycle nearly all the magazines I buy rather than keep them; I get rid of books I know I won’t read again – which, it has to be said, are mostly books I get sent for work), our house is still full of stuff that really needs a shelf of its own. Or about ten shelves.

Recently in the Observer, the great comedian Stewart Lee wrote evocatively of his dream of a perfectly shelved house, in which his vast collection of comics, albums and books could be stored. Oh, how I could relate. For, like Lee, I yearn for a house with a place for everything and everything in its place. Instead, I live in a house where at least some of the shelves look like the one I photographed for this post, ie an overstuffed mess.

There are many times when I’m relieved that my husband and I didn’t buy a house during the boom. But the one thing that makes me yearn for a house of our own is that I could, at last, line an entire room with built-in shelves, preferably painted white. Even when you’re long-term renting from an extremely generous and nice landlord, you can’t start installing built-in shelves. Or at least, if you do, you have to be aware that you’re not going to live there for the rest of your life and that some day you will have to move and probably leave those shelves behind (unless you buy a house with exactly the same-sized-and-proportioned rooms, which is frankly unlikely).

Thanks to Lee’s piece, I know that I’m not alone in my yearning for enough shelving. But how many of us are there? Do any of you readers dream of a world where no book is double stacked, and where albums are not squashed into boxes or stacked in yet more teetering piles?

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I’m in the middle of reading Candace Bushnell’s latest book and, to my surprise, it’s not half bad. I read Sex And The City and thought it was a bit disjointed and garbled, although I didn’t mind Trading Up at all. (Is this too much Bushnell to admit to having read?)

The new book is called One Fifth Avenue, which is the address of the exclusive apartment building where the book’s main characters live. In this building you will find all the usual, hyper-glitzy fictional characters: the young, beautiful, vacuous girl; the pinched 40-something stressed-out woman; the older, wiser woman; the hen-pecked husband; the terminally single 40-something man in denial (he keeps his hair long and sleeps with women 25 years younger than him); the rich, beautiful woman who happens to have her head screwed on right and so on.

I’m really enjoying the book, mainly for its escapist value (you can’t beat a good romance with larger-than-life characters), but one thing struck me. A lot of the women in the book are unhappy and this unhappiness stems mostly from a lack of sex or affection in their relationships. I suppose that’s one of the big things that can make women unhappy in real life too.

Now maybe it’s just the change of seasons that has me feeling a bit blue, but this aspect of Candace’s novel has got me down in the mouth. So I got to thinking…Are we destined to a) be unhappy because marriage/long-term relationships seem to descend into a sexless ritual of taking each other for granted or b) be alone because we don’t want to put up with watching ourselves turn into nags before our own eyes? Or is just that a) this is yet another fantasy element of Bushnell’s books or b) I’m feeling a bit pessimistic? Happy Monday!

 

 

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