Stumbling on a much desired book when browsing in a bookshop is like finding a fairy ring of daisies on a dusty lawn. The sheer delight of it never fails to amaze me. I particularly revel in small bookshops filled with remaindered books that are not on the bestselling list. It is on jumbled bookshelves in shops like these that I glimpse a favourite writer or a book that I yearned for but never found in the glossy stacks of predictable titles in mainstream book stores.
My favourite bookshops in Canberra are The Book Grocer in Kingston and Clouston and Hall Booksellers in Civic. The latter makes absolutely no attempt to be a cosy, coffee scented paradise. The scruffy handwritten signs on the wall are askew, the man at the counter is often deeply engrossed in his own novel and I am free to wander for hours amongst some very fine titles at bargain prices. It is here that I discover books, that I have not yet read, by some of my favourite writers. Last week I came across a novel by Barbara Pym. I was ecstatic. The last time I saw her books was in Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross, London in 2010. I bought four of them and relished every carefully chosen, crisp and impeccable word. So when I found another book by her, No Fond Return of Love, it was all I could do not to skip about the shop and sing with happiness.
Like Jane Austen, Pym painted her pictures on a small square of ivory, and covered much the same territory as did her better-known predecessor: the details of smallish lives led to places that could only be in England. .. And yet although Pym’s novels are about as far away as possible from engagement with the great political and social issues, they are powerful reminders that one of the great and proper concerns of literature is that motley cluster of small concerns that makes up our day-to-day lives. This is what gives her novels their permanent appeal. (Alexander McCall Smith).
A few weeks ago (at Clouston and Hall) I came across a collection of delicious and slightly tipsy essays by the wonderful MFK Fisher titled Musings on Wine and Other Libations edited by Anne Zimmerman. Again, it is almost impossible to find any publication by this witty, intelligent and erudite gastronome. The book itself is a thing of beauty – a neat little hardback with a claret wine glass cut out of its simple pale brown cover. It cost $14.95. I immediately bought two copies – one for my father and one for myself.
The Book Grocer in Kingston is my local bookshop and I love it. It has a pirate themed cubby for children (with hand painted murals on the walls) and no book in this store is more than $10. It is here that I found The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins . This book (published by Virago Modern Classics) is exquisite to look at (with a Japanese floral cover designed by Florence Broadhurst) and impossible to put down.
…she is like Jane Austen: formal, nuanced, acid. She surveys a room as if she were perched on the mantelpiece: an unruffled owl of Minerva, a recording angel (Hilary Mantel)
OK… I think we’re seeing a pattern here which involves my penchant for modern female authors who write like Jane Austen. I make no apologies for this.
Other fabulous finds over the past few months include A Little of What You Fancy which is the last book in The Darling Buds of May series by H.E. Bates. I never knew this book existed so imagine my thrill upon finding it and realising that my rollicking, carefree, exuberant romp with the magnificent Larkins was not yet over. On another day I happened across Provence 1970 by Luke Barr (who is the great nephew of MFK Fisher). It beckoned me like a delectable honey fragrant madeleine straight out of the oven.
Provence, 1970 is about a singular historic moment. In the winter of that year, more or less coincidentally, the iconic culinary figures James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones found themselves together in the South of France. They cooked and ate, talked and argued, about the future of food in America, the meaning of taste, and the limits of snobbery. (Amazon)
Finding a longed for or unexpected book is heart swoopingly joyful. There in front of you is a bunch of pages and a cherished lifelong friendship. I have raced home in rapture with Katherine Mansfield, Louisa May Alcott, Rumer Godden, Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Virginia Woolf, P.L.Travers and a throng of other friends. And I will always throw my arms around the inimitable Jane Austen in whichever guise she appears.
(Many thanks to The Book Grocer in Kingston, ACT for allowing me to photograph the shop.)
© Anita Patel, 2015