A Suitcase Full of Books

It’s coming up to that time again… time to fly! This time next week, I’ll be in a metal tube 10.668km (approximately) above the Philippine Sea hurtling towards Tokyo. After a few days there it’s on to Scotland, Ireland (Republic of AND Northern) then a couple of days in London before coming home to remind myself that these trips don’t pay for themselves and I rather need to return to work. After coming home from India, I found myself pacing my apartment for about 10 minutes in existential despair. I had a load of washing on, had separated gifts to others from gifts to self, restored my passport to its Safe Place, and it was throwing away my spreadsheet that began the spiral. What was I even doing with my life now that I wasn’t out experiencing the wider world? Sure, I had work the next day and a job interview in three. I was quietly confident about the interview (spoiler alert: I got the job) so change was already afoot and I had things to be working towards, but in my post-holiday blue, I wanted none of it. If my clothes hadn’t all been in the wash and my body in such need of a lie down, I’d have been sorely tempted to repack my bags and head back out the door. (Jokes! I knew darn well I’d have an even greater guilt complex about failing to show up for work the next day, and couldn’t trust myself in travel-mode without a spreadsheet.) Then I remembered there was another spreadsheet. The next trip was already booked, I had a thing to look forward to. In one relieving realisation, my life had meaning again. Please remind me of this in a month’s time when I’m back here experiencing an identical crisis – I’ve already booked part of a trip for this time next year. I haven’t started the spreadsheet yet, but that’ll give me something to do when it’s stupid o’clock in the morning and my jetlagged brain thinks it’s a good time to do some work.

With an overseas adventure imminent, the pressing question is a big one: what should I read while I’m away? I’ve read 32 books this year so far, which is an average of 2.667 per week. I’m away for 3.5 weeks, which means 9.3345 books. Invariably, I read less when I’m on holidays; apparently I need less distraction from the world when I’m not at work, and have greater interest in scenery when it’s not part of my commute. Oh, and am more inclined to talk to people when they speak with an exotically attractive accent. Let’s conservatively say I’ll need 5 or 6 books. Maybe even fewer if they’re particularly long.

I usually like to read a book or two set in the place I’m visiting. For India it was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Last time I was in Scotland, it was the first in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been prepping for Japan with The Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki, and Ireland with Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. But what do I take with me? Fortuitously, my last trip to Scotland came not long after my 30th birthday, for which I was gifted a Kindle from my brother and his then fiancée. They’ve always been excellent and generous gift-givers, and since the upcoming trip was for their wedding, a Kindle was perfect. Naturally, it comes with me whenever I leave the house for more than a day, and now that I think about it, it has the next two Outlander books on it already. (As I recall, there was an Amazon deal at the time of purchase that meant it was cheaper to buy three books than just the first. Bit of a no-brainer, really.) Evidently I didn’t enjoy the first book enough to move on to the next, but part of me knew I’d be back in Scotland before too long, which might provide a prompt sufficient for me to continue the series. The books are also on the lengthy side, which is great when it’s all on Kindle anyway, and means lugging fewer physical books in my carry on.

Which brings me to the next criteria: I don’t think I’d know myself if I didn’t have a physical book on me. It has to be something long enough that I won’t finish it in one plane ride, but not so big I’ll be discouraged from carrying it with me. In previous years, when not reading my book of choice, I’ve wrapped the hefty tome in a jumper to use as a pillow. Having said that, my financial situation at such times meant I could not afford accommodation anywhere the pillow provided could be trusted not to give you bed bugs, so this last point is not the deciding factor it once was. My bookshelves are overflowing as it is, so I plan to take a book I can pass along to the next reader somewhere on the road to free up some space at home. For India, this was A Fine Balance, and the last Eurotrip was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. For this trip, I’m thinking a classic I bought secondhand – something like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, something I can easily buy a cheap secondhand copy of again if I think I’m really going to miss it.

If I’m taking a classic, I probably want to balance it out with something contemporary, which is where you guys come in. What have you been reading? What might I like to read when the weather is European-mild but I’m nevertheless wearing three jumpers because that’s how I roll? What Amazon deal of the day has piqued your interest? What have I missed that’s come out of Scotland and Ireland recently? Note: I’ve read both of Sally Rooney’s already (loved them) as well as Milkman by Anna Burns (very “worthy” but also impossible for me to enjoy.) I should also point out I won’t be taking any library books with me. I’ve never had so much as a late fee (except for my cunning scheme within the university library, but that’s another post) and don’t intend to accrue any now. I also don’t have anything on my non-fiction TBR pile that’s burning to be read, so will gratefully accept any such recommendations.

I’m sure you appreciate the weight of such decisions, and I really would like some recommendations. Because I like to be proactive about such things, I’m now going to consult The Novel Cure, “a warm and passionate, witty and wonderful way to expand your reading list,” according to the blurb. And if I don’t see you before I go… so long, suckers!

Travel Books


2018: Quite a Story

Like any year, like any day, like anything, really, 2018 had its good and bad points.  I went skiing in Winter (as no year really feels complete without it) and to India with Lou in Spring, which was most definitely and easily the highlight. I finished reading my hundredth book of the year (A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry) in flight from Mumbai to Goa, a book which kept me company for much of the trip, including a 17 hour train journey. I might add that audiobooks were an additional graceful saviour during said journey. I read books aloud to Lou, even as she fell asleep and later swore she was enjoying it. Perhaps she was, so on those grounds I continued. I finished working at the bookshop for a full time job at the library – something I’m still figuring out and impatient to feel competent in. Three weeks in and I’ve not burnt the library to cinders, which I’m chalking up as a small victory. I’m still all about achievable goals. One of my brothers got married, and I’m to become an aunty in 2019.  With this pleasing news, I’ve been entrusted a child’s literary upbringing. Which is just as well, as it’s the only branch of adult guidance I feel naturally inclined toward and rather think I’m a good choice for the job. Any tips on auntying are otherwise welcome, if you please.

It hasn’t all been the fun of expansive travel horizons and career progression, and even my reading habits took a hit after Luke died. I think I said all I needed to for cathartic release in the previous post, so I’ll say no more about it here. I was happily distracted while in India but on my return picked up books I would ordinarily probably quite enjoy, then put them down for inability to focus. I turned instead to the comforting familiarity of Harry Potter rereads and even a Marian Keyes. Achievable goals, once again.

On balance, I think I’ve come out ahead. I read more books than ever in previous years. Highlights were Normal People by Sally Rooney, Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale, and Lethal White by Robert Galbraith. I don’t tend to finish books I’m not enjoying, since there are so many good books out there that it just seems like a waste of time. I’m not sure why I stuck with Katerina by James Frey, since I didn’t enjoy it or find it well-written, and it’s not one of those literary buzz titles that I thought I needed a professional opinion on. I’m naming it as my least favourite book of the year, so I guess that’s something.

Without further ado, this is what I read in 2018:

  1. A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. The Dry by Jane Harper
  3. Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Annie Buist
  4. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
  5. The Simple Act of Reading edited by Debra Adelaide
  6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  7. One Day We’ll All be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
  8. Indian Takeaway: One Man’s Attempt to Cook his Way Home by Hardeep Singh Kohli
  9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  10. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  11. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
  12. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  13. This House of Grief by Helen Garner
  14. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  15. Night by Elie Wiesel
  16. The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben
  17. The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury
  18. Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice
  19. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
  20. Travelling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd & Ann Kidd Taylor
  21. The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth
  22. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  23. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane (Scots Edition) by J.K. Rowling, translaitit intae Scots by Matthew Fitt
  24. An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney
  25. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
  26. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  27. The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells
  28. Room by Emma Donoghue
  29. The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser
  30. Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt
  31. One Life One Chance: A Story of Adrenaline and Adventures in the Most Unforgiving Places on Earth by Luke Richmond
  32. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  33. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
  34. Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
  35. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  36. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
  37. Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kari Gislason
  38. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  39. Circe by Madeline Miller
  40. The Moth edited by Catherine Burns
  41. Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World by Stephan Orth
  42. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  43. The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman
  44. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  45. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  46. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  47. Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
  48. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
  49. Lovesome by Sally Seltmann
  50. Staying by Jessie Cole
  51. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  52. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
  53. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  54. Sinning Across Spain by Ailsa Piper
  55. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  56. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusal
  57. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  58. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur by Steve Brusatte
  59. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
  60. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
  61. Broken Republic by Arundhati Roy
  62. We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (this one was a reread)
  63. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
  64. Cedar Valley by Holly Throsby
  65. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  66. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  67. Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
  68. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
  69. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  70. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
  71. The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada
  72. Christopher Robin by Elizabeth Rudnick
  73. Shock for the Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
  74. Danger Music by Eddie Ayres
  75. A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (reread)
  76. The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
  77. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  78. Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale
  79. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson
  80. Snap by Belinda Bauer
  81. You’re Just Too Good to be True: A Love Story about Lonely Hearts and Internet Scams by Sofija Stefanovic
  82. Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  83. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
  84. Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin
  85. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
  86. Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  87. Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough
  88. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
  89. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  90. The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux
  91. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
  92. Katerina by James Frey
  93. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
  94. Ignorance by Milan Kundera (reread)
  95. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
  96. Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales
  97. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  98. Hippie by Paulo Coelho
  99. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  100. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  101. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
  102. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  103. Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith
  104. Milkman by Anna Burns
  105. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  106. Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet
  107. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  108. Enid Blyton: the Biography by Barbara Stoney
  109. Making it Up as I go Along: Notes from a Small Woman by Marian Keyes
  110. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  111. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  112. The Children Act by Ian McEwan
  113. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  114. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
  115. Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald – the Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling
  116. Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman
  117. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  118. The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
  119. Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
  120. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (reread)



Tribute to an Old Flame

The last couple of months have offered me a little bit of everything: some of the happiest, most hilarious, laughter-inducing moments served as a timely chaser to the most heartbreakingly sad, snot-and-tear-soaked moments I’ve lived through. You’ll hear all about my trip to India in due course I’m sure, not least because I finished reading my 100th book of the year while I was there. But this was prefaced by some terrible news and a funeral of such sadness, such complex layers of grief, that I’m not quite sure where to begin.

Luke was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, ages 15-28. In the interest of clarity, we were together less than we were apart; of those 13 years, I think I celebrated three birthdays where we were romantically involved, five or six where we were just friends, and during the rest we had little to no contact at all. I don’t wish to overstate my significance to him, but we were important to each other during our formative years, and seemed to orbit one another the rest. He introduced me to some of my favourite musicians: Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins, Bright Eyes, and he gave me the complete Nirvana collection for my 21st. More importantly, he got me onto some amazing authors. I doubt I’d have come to Milan Kundera on my own, and it would’ve taken me a while to reach Haruki Murakami but for his recommendation. When he worked at Borders, he’d borrow books he thought I’d like as long as I promised to read them carefully and within a week. Another time he bought me a book of Courtney Love’s letters and artworks, then hastily reneged on the gift: having miscalculated his finances, he’d accidentally spent his rent money and had to return it the next day. A very sweet gesture nonetheless. When he worked at JB Hifi he bought me wireless headphones and a waterproof Bluetooth speaker so I could listen to audiobooks in bed and in the shower. The dude provided books and encouragement to read them. Easy to love, right?

He was easy to love, but hard to be in relationship with for all that. He seemed to struggle to identify his emotional needs, making it damn near impossible to communicate them. He was a quiet boy and a private man, ill at ease maintaining relationships on his own mysterious terms. Much as I value quiet and personal boundaries, his were too rigid for me and I felt like the only one emotionally engaged, which obviously wasn’t true by his reaction when I’d then pull away. We’d break up, spend time apart, see other people, commit to other people even. One way or another though, our paths kept crossing and we’d end up back together. He was my dead-body guy: I lived with full certainty that if I showed up with a corpse in tow, he’d help me get rid of it. Turns out, however, that an eager accomplice does not a soul mate make: it would be far more helpful for the other party to discuss one’s options and diplomatically urge you to alert the authorities. Still, there’s something deeply comforting in the knowledge that there’s someone out there who will take your side no matter what. That doesn’t mean you’re right for each other though. And while I don’t regret getting back together with him time and time again, nor do I regret finally calling it quits. We weren’t really that good together, in the end.

He wanted to stay friends; I didn’t. It’s hard to bear helpless witness to such angst, and I didn’t have it in me anymore. I knew he’d sought professional help with his mental health since we broke up for the last time, and I was glad for him. Relieved for him. He had been struggling for as long as I knew him, reluctant to admit it and terrified to face it. As far as I can tell, he was doing well for a while. He went back to art school, something he had given up and longed to return to. But evidently it didn’t last. News of his suicide hit me like an iron-fisted punch, but it didn’t come as a total surprise. It wasn’t a fear I had entertained in recent years, but it fit the rest of the picture. And the fact that I first met Cate through him, who took her own life three and a half years ago, brings an awful sense of symmetry that seems too painful to be fair.

His funeral was a heart-rending reunion and outpouring of grief for the old gang, the worst reason for getting the band back together. Ellie took the day off work to accompany me and pay her own respects – she had been friends with him too, back in the day. I brought along a copy of When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman to give to an old school friend, Mia, who is a bookworm like myself. I had a feeling she’d like it (she did) and I wanted at least one of us to walk away with something other than a heavy heart. She rose to give me a hug, elegant in her sadness. I trod on her toe as my tears fell onto her shoulder. “I think I stepped on your toe,” were the first words I spoke to her in person in nearly a decade. “You did,” were hers to me. Then I said I had a present for her, which everybody thought was a feeble attempt at a joke. I reached inside my bag for the book and pulled out instead a half-eaten packet of chocolate pretzels I had brought for the drive then promptly forgotten about. I offered the pretzels around, which made everyone laugh more than it should’ve. I guess I wasn’t the only one worried about breaking the ice at such a miserable assembly, but I think I succeeded, albeit with spectacular awkwardness. I gave her the book, which she appreciatively accepted, and again offered around the pretzels, which were politely declined. Just as well, really, as I hadn’t offered any to Ellie and we were hungry on the drive home after all the grieving.

The chapel itself was adorned with relics from Luke’s life. Artworks, photos, his soccer shirt and year 12 jersey. His coffin was carried in to a Smashing Pumpkins song. For one last time, he was everywhere. The service was as sad as they come – it could never have been anything else. At its conclusion, we were invited up to his casket to share some final private moments with him. I was thinking Deep Thoughts in his direction while Ellie stood by my side. Things like, “I’m sorry for the parts that were my fault,” and, “I forgive you for the parts that were yours.” But because the coffin was positioned left to right rather than top to tail, I wasn’t sure if I was addressing his head or his feet. So I switched, which obviously didn’t solve the problem. Instead I directed my parting missive somewhere in the middle, which was probably right at his crotch, which I think he would’ve liked. So I laughed, because he would’ve laughed, but tears and snot were pouring from my face so it came out as a breathless choke, and that’s how I said goodbye to Luke.

I met up with his brother a couple of days ago. He hand-delivered a folder to me that had my name on it and was filled with half of Luke’s and my history: the half I cared less about, which was my own. I already knew the secrets hidden there, but was deeply moved by what he had kept. There was a photo of me aged about 15. One from his year 12 formal. The Valentine’s Day 2015 card I made him with a wry, brief attempt at poetry: “I love the way your mouth fits mine, will you be my Valentine?” – seriously, I’m not making this up. And letters. Lots and lots of letters. Letters that I had written, of course – he kept them all. I don’t have his replies anymore. He was never as wordy as me anyway. But it’s nice to remember the time when I still called and he still responded. And in the middle of it, a letter he had written me post-break up and never sent. That one was particularly hard to read. I don’t know what to do with these memories. Writing it out with sadness and fondness seems as good an option as others, any past hurts now so thoroughly eclipsed.

Luke: the boy who made me mixed CDs, the man who kept making them for me well into our 20s. The deeply flawed lost boy. The guy who would muscle his way to the front of a crowd so I could have the best spot at every gig. The only person ever to buy me a bouquet of cats. The boy who loved me first. The softest spot in my heart.

I hope the world sees the same person that he’ll always be to me.



Here we are, ten years apart. Age apparently did not help us look any less awkward.



The Bibliotherapist Will See You Now

I learn all sorts of things during a day’s work in the shop. Sometimes it’s a piece of juicy goss from a colleague, others it’s exciting news about an upcoming release, occasionally it’s academic and obscure. And often it’s a chapter of a person’s life: unsolicited political views are frequent, as are the details of a person’s most recent bad day/week/month/life. I don’t know what it is about my appearance that makes me seem so approachable or interested. I strongly suspect it’s more the fact that I’m a captive audience, paid to be polite. Paid, what’s more, by my employers and not directly out of the pocket right in front of me. You can come in, unload your baggage, and leave one grumble lighter with a book or two under your arm. It’s like therapy but cheaper.

I say this as though I’m completely unsympathetic, which isn’t exactly true. I’m happy to help if and where I can, especially if it’s with a book I love and just a minute or two out of my day. But there’s a big difference between helping someone who needs it, and the lady who comes in to talk at anyone within earshot, other customers included. She rattles off a list of everyone in her life and what they’re up to, as though I know who they are. There’s absolutely no cohesion though and I’m still unsure whether John is her husband or her dog, just that the sound of a paper bag will wake him up even though it’s only mid-afternoon. I don’t care enough to ask, especially since the answer will take a circuitous route via Karen’s 60th birthday party and Leo’s third day at school.

But then there’s a sweet middle-aged lady who comes in for a bit of downtime and a bit of a chat, and as she always leaves having purchased a book, I never feel guilty that I’ve neglected actual work for a cozy catch-up. She comes in, tells me the latest problem she’s facing, and I pair her up with a novel she didn’t know she needed. So far we’ve covered her separation from her husband, difficulty negotiating shared custody of their daughter, the well-meaning friend doing more harm than good, and the declining health of her mother. Perhaps unusually, I remember what she’s read and what she’s liked, even when the titles escape her. Even more unusually, she seems to trust me implicitly to help guide her over these obstacles with which I have approximately zero personal experience. I’m not separated from my fictional husband, and we don’t squabble over the living arrangements of our daughter, because even in make-believe I’d never have a child. My friends are all pretty rad, and both parents in good health. Her taste in books and mine only occasionally overlap, although now that I think about it, she probably doesn’t know that. I found myself feeling a little smug the other day when she purchased the first book I suggested rather than one of many suggested by a colleague. I think she’s expecting her mother to die fairly soon, and I don’t know what I’ll suggest when she does. Maybe I’ll load her up with the Harry Potter box set and a packet of tissues, and call it a day. I’m not sure how much help I actually provide, but she seems to find it all beneficial, which maybe is the same thing.

Having said that, a different customer burst into tears at the counter a couple of weeks ago. He was after the book On Grieving, which we had, and I gently recommended another. I didn’t want to come right out and ask if it was for him, but a moment later he burst into tears and I had my answer. His adult son had just died, the poor man, and he was flying to London to bring him home. I came out from behind the counter to offer him a hug, which he accepted, before pulling himself together to pay for his book and be on his way. I’m not usually in the custom of hugging strangers, but I didn’t know what else to do. I probably did as much as anyone could. I don’t think his salvation is to be found in any particular volume. As he left I wondered if I should’ve told him something sage I’d found in book; something like, “Surviving this is the second worst thing that will happen to you. The worst has already happened,” but I’m sure that would’ve only sounded trite, and he didn’t come in looking for platitudes. My repeat customer might’ve appreciated it, but as she actually refers to me as her bibliotherapist, it would’ve been a little less out of line. Wherever that man is right now, I hope he’s doing ok.

I’d much rather help my regular customer with a novel than a self-help book. I have far more faith in the healing power of reading itself than in whatever the latest inspirational fad is. However if ploughing through books about bringing joy to your life by rearranging your sock drawer and giving fewer fucks about everything else does the trick for you, then sally forth with abandon. Horses for courses and all that, what doesn’t work for me might work for you. My inherent cynicism doesn’t make it easy for these things to get through to me, and I tend to think that if these motivational books had any staying power, there wouldn’t be so many of them. I’m not the best person to help you select your latest self-help book, but then you shouldn’t really need outside assistance. A customer at my old bookshop once asked if I could tell her where the self-help books were. Thank goodness she laughed when I told her I could, but that would defeat the purpose. Of course after that I did tell her where to find them, and as with the aforementioned grieving customer, I hope she found what she was looking for.

To call myself a bibliotherapist does of course overstate my skill set, qualifications, job title and pay grade; but I do think that booksellers and librarians are undervalued when it comes to the service we can and do provide. Obviously none of you should fire your therapist and replace them with a long-suffering bookworm, but if someone recommends a particular book for a particular time and it actually helps, perhaps tell them. They might come up with the goods a second time. Just know that if you ask me and I’ve no idea how to help, I’ll give you a hug, the box set of Harry Potter and a packet of tissues, and call it a day.

Customer Nervous

For someone who spends so much time in a shop, I both disappoint and pride myself on how little I enjoy shopping. Pride because it saves a lot of money and suggests a good work-life balance, and disappointment because many of the things I need are to be found in shops. It’s a necessary evil for me much of the time. I don’t mind grocery shopping, and when it comes to most other things, I’m usually organised enough that there’s no last-minute gift buying or frenzied purchase of other essentials. I completely lose my cool, however, when it comes to the transaction of goods & services to do with physical appearance.

Most of the time, I don’t wear much makeup. This cuts down expenses, getting ready time in the morning, means I look way better in photos of special occasions, and reduces the time I ever have to spend buying cosmetics. This last point is key. I realised I’d have to buy some nice makeup for a wedding a little while ago, and since it was overseas, figured I’d buy it all duty-free, saving myself a little money and killing time at the airport because I always get there obscenely early anyway. I was with my mother, who shares my cosmetic-related aversion and proclivity for punctuality, and since we both had to remove our glasses to sample any kind of eye makeup, it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind. We fumbled along as best we could but realised we weren’t going to be able to do this alone. An employee approached to offer her assistance:

“Can I help you with anything?”
“Yes please. I don’t really know much about makeup, but think I need some foundation.”
“Ok, what kind of coverage do you want?”
“My… face?”

At this her eyes practically rolled out of their sockets. I was prepared to take whatever suggestions she offered but instead she let out a sigh. It was the sound an unimpressed cat might make when a new puppy is brought home. I bought the first thing she deigned to offer me a sample of, and to this day still don’t know what she meant by “coverage.”

“What about some lipstick?”
“Oh yeah, guess I’d better get some. I think I should be able to choose that on my own though, thanks all the same.”
“And do you need lipliner?”
“They’re over here.”

I was even more confused. I didn’t have any, but did that mean I needed it? Is that the kind of thing anyone ever actually needs? I forewent the product on account of it sounding a little too much like dark magic. I ended up with foundation, lipstick, new eyeliner and eyeshadow (the only items I had any familiarity with but have probably been doing wrong for years) and free mascara for my expenditure. I put the lot on my credit card, grabbed my mother (who had cleverly taken a backseat to the proceedings) and rushed to the gate as though we were in some sort of hurry. I messaged Jenn to disperse my stress and unravel the mystery of lipliner. She told me that my decision to forego it was for the best and never to go makeup shopping without her. My relief was palpable, because to go back for lipliner would feel like reentering the gates of hell, and flagrantly gone against her second instruction. I got out of that shop, that airport, that country, as quickly as I could. I reentered the country and airport (but not the shop) a month and a half later, having put off the retraumatisation for as long as I could.

It did teach me a useful lesson in customer service though. I had admitted to the sales assistant up front that I was in unfamiliar territory, and am certain I looked at least half as scared as I felt. Even beneath the currents of perfume samples, she could assuredly smell my fear. What I needed in that moment was a basic makeup kit and some assurance, and while I was satisfied with my purchases in the end, as she looked down her perfectly made up nose, I felt about the size of the free mascara I’ve since used only twice. I already felt like an idiot, in need of help without disapproval. I’m prepared to admit that I was already very sensitive to even the slightest whiff of judgment in that department, but it felt lathered over me like shellac. It got me wondering if that’s how I come across when a customer at the bookshop asks for the latest 50 Shades instalment.

Disappointingly, I think I sometimes do, albeit perhaps to a smaller degree. Not only do I quietly enjoy feeling superior, I also have a very expressive face. My expressions of disapproval are never far away, and because I can’t raise one eyebrow without the other, half my lip curls instead and I fear I go around this world sneering at anything that causes me even the slightest displeasure. I’ve tried really hard to correct this though, and think I’ve been at least moderately successful because I still have a job. Two jobs, in fact, both focused on customer service. Mostly it’s friends and colleagues who bear my accumulated sneers, and because they have a solid sense of self and know it’s nothing personal, they laugh it off as a symptom of my curmudgeonly old soul and general world-weariness. They know me well.

So when a customer approached me in the bookshop and said she needed to buy a present for a kid, but didn’t know much about them or what their age group might be into, I was ready to help. It’s not her job to know what the youths are reading, it’s mine. She followed up with one proviso, however, that completely countered both productivity and intuition: she didn’t want to buy a book. Thankfully I was leading her to the kids’ section at this point, and as she was walking behind me, could not see my face. Even my most pronounced reactive judgment doesn’t reach the back of my head, and I had a couple of seconds to compose a response. How desperately I wanted to inform her that she was in a bookshop, that we sold books, that when someone comes into a bookshop to buy a present, they invariably leave with a book. But who would that have helped? Presumably she knew she was in a bookshop and hoped we were the kind that sold puzzles, board games, crockery and plant seeds. (These are all commodities which can be purchased at a bookshop I used to work at. Yes, even the seeds.) So hey, who was I to be judging her? Obviously I did or I wouldn’t have laughed about it with colleagues later or be writing about it now, but I realised I could do so without calling her out on her faux pas. I would’ve enjoyed a second of smugness as the insult sunk in, and then we both would’ve felt like fools. I’d have offended her and regretted it immediately. I showed her to the craft section instead.

I optimistically expect the makeup I bought to last me a good long while, and when it does run dry I’ll make an identical purchase online. There’s a lot to be said for cutting out the middleman, but my livelihood is as exactly that. I’m not paid for my snide comments, which I happily give away for free. If I weren’t so intimidated by potentially rude makeup salespeople, maybe I’d buy it with slightly greater frequency. I don’t want to put people off buying books, and I have some great book-related conversations with customers. They’re not all as out of their depth with books as I am buying makeup. I certainly don’t want to put myself out of a job because I come across as superior and unaccommodating. I may have to begin my career anew as a makeup sales assistant. And who needs that?

2017: Pretty Good Year

I won’t speak for the rest of the world, which at large has had a crazy old year; but my 2017 was a pretty darn good’un. I made new friends, visited new countries, skied new slopes, quit a job I liked for two jobs I like more, saw people I love marry people they love, played with new puppies, saw some great shows and live music, and of course read some great books. I rarely make new year’s resolutions: if there’s something I want to do (or think I should,) I’ll either do it, or I won’t. 2016 was an exception though, when I decided I wanted to read 100 books that year. I hit this goal with eight to spare, and decided for 2017 I’d just read as and when I wanted to. I didn’t read much in January (busy seeing the world and doing other things) and figured I’d fall far short of my 2016 tally in any case, but finished on 104.

The book I was most excited to read also turned out to be my favourite, so perhaps I’m a little bit biased, but I’m certain I would’ve loved Tin Man even if I’d never heard of Sarah Winman. Coming in second is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This is her debut novel, so I came into it with no expectations, but knew very quickly that this book and I would be friends. My third favourite is The Idiot by Elif Batuman, which was a very pleasing novel to take my time over and get to know – the type of book where while not every sentence contributes to the narrative, I didn’t want to drift away for even a second for fear I’d miss one of the many moving one-liners.

An honourable mention goes to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has been around for a while, and I was just late to the party. My non-fiction pick goes to Just Kids by Patti Smith, and I don’t think you need to be a fan of her music to luxuriate in her writing.

There are quite a few books I read either because I felt I should have them on my list at some point (Little Women, a Sherlock Holmes and an Agatha Christie) which is not to say they aren’t worth their classic status. Plenty I read out of what I’d term “professional interest” – typically award winners, or the ones everyone seems to be reading/have read (Big Little Lies, The Girl on the Train, Eat, Pray, Love etc.)

More as an aside, I haven’t listed the times I’ve listened to Harry Potter on audiobook. Really this is because I listen to it in bed to help me drift off, have stopped and started all over the series for several years now, and it’s hard to put a number on the amount of times I’ve covered each book. Having said that, I’ve been gifted a copy of The Philosopher’s Stone translated into Scots, and also have some of the books in German. When I read those, they’ll definitely make the list.

Please let me know what you’ve read and enjoyed this year. As it turns out, even when I don’t set a goal of 100+ books, sometimes these things just happen and I don’t really do much else.

  1. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Outlander – Diana Gabaldon
  4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple
  5. The Drifters – James A. Michener (this one was a reread)
  6. The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
  7. Just Kids – Patti Smith
  8. The World According to Anna – Jostein Gaarder
  9. The Carnivorous Carnival – Lemony Snicket
  10. Furiously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson
  11. Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice – Helen Garner
  12. M Train – Patti Smith
  13. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  14. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt
  15. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
  16. Tin Man – Sarah Winman
  17. Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf
  18. Down the Hume – Peter Polites
  19. Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
  20. Nutshell – Ian McEwan
  21. The Journey Back from Hell: Memoirs of Concentration Camp Survivors – Anton Gill
  22. Midnight Express – Billy Hayes with William Hoffer
  23. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
  24. The Slippery Slope – Lemony Snicket
  25. Maus – Art Spiegelman
  26. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender
  27. All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven
  28. The Return – Hisham Matar
  29. The View from the Cheap Seats – Neil Gaiman
  30. Bertie Plays the Blues – Alexander McCall Smith
  31. If I Forget You – T. C. Greene
  32. The Museum of Modern Love – Heather Rose
  33. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells – Andrew Sean Greer
  34. What Belongs to You – Garth Greenwell
  35. The Ruins of Gorland – John Flanagan
  36. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante
  37. The Lost Pages – Marija Pericic
  38. The Girl from Everywhere – Heidi Heilig
  39. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
  40. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
  41. Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami
  42. Carry On – Rainbow Rowell
  43. The Girls – Emma Cline
  44. Woman of Substances – Jenny Valentish
  45. Reckoning – Magda Szubanski
  46. Everywhere I Look – Helen Garner
  47. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You – Alexander McCall Smith
  48. A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle
  49. The Nothing – Hanif Kureishi
  50. Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
  51. Flesh Wounds – Richard Glover
  52. A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley
  53. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
  54. Out of Orange – Cleary Wolters
  55. Half Wild – Pip Smith
  56. The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce
  57. The Sun is also a Star – Nicola Yoon
  58. The Weight of Him – Ethel Rohan
  59. Go Ask Alice – Anonymous
  60. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
  61. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan
  62. The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton (reread)
  63. Spectacles – Sue Perkins
  64. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith
  65. Candy – Luke Davies
  66. Colombiano – Rusty Young
  67. Fight Like a Girl – Clementine Ford
  68. A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  69. Gut: the Inside Story of our Body’s most Underrated Organ – Giulia Enders
  70. The Last Great Australian Adventurer – Gordon Bass
  71. Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay
  72. Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
  73. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
  74. The Age of Kali – William Dalrymple
  75. Between a Wolf and a Dog – Georgia Blain
  76. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – Tom Stoppard (reread)
  77. Note to Self – Connor Franta
  78. More Fool Me – Stephen Fry
  79. Turtles all the Way Down – John Green
  80. Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noel Harari
  81. Nevermoor: the Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend
  82. Sunshine on Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith
  83. How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been: on the Importance of Armchair Travel – Pierre Bayard
  84. Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
  85. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – Mark Manson
  86. His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
  87. Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet
  88. Holy Cow: an Indian Adventure – Sarah Macdonald (reread)
  89. The Underdog – Markus Zusak
  90. Far from the Tree – Robin Benway
  91. The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest
  92. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
  93. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
  94. Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
  95. Going Solo – Roald Dahl
  96. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  97. Goodbye Christopher Robin – Ann Thwaite
  98. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick
  99. Devotion – Patti Smith
  100. Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
  101. The Spare Room – Helen Garner
  102. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: the Zoo Quest Expeditions –David Attenborough
  103. The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
  104. A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman


Oh, and here I am with some of my best friends. We had sold out of Eleanor Oliphant, so last year’s fav stepped in.

What Belongs to You

I’ve been a particularly neglectful blogger these last few months. I’ve been kept busy with my two jobs, which has also meant I’ve had more money coming into my account since before I went to librarian school, which has meant money to go out into the world and do things, buy books and see shows, and enjoy the extravagance of three meals a day. What luxury! As such, I’ve spent less time fishing for ideas for the free entertainment writing a blog provides, and consequently don’t have a list of ideas for what I might write about. This post is all about banging the keyboard and seeing what comes out. Are you ready to wing it with me?

Good, I’m glad! Thank you for taking a chance.

I’m turning over that old piece of advice, to “write about what you know.” When taken literally, I think this sounds well-suited to essay-writing and not a lot else. It’s a way to get from A to B, to make a specific point, to get a particular message across. Most of the time I write to either find out what I know, think or feel about something. For me it’s a good way to clarify abstract ideas and arrange them in a way that makes sense. In my student days, it was an effective way to learn about something. I figure I was given a year to write a thesis because that’s about how long it should take to learn enough about a very specific subject, clarify what your thoughts are on it, and arrange them in a way that makes sense. And sometimes, like right now, I write just because I want to, which seems as good a reason as any, and better than many.

The first piece I remember writing was a letter to Santa. The second was, quite literally, a work of Enid Blyton’s. I copied out an entire Noddy book, traced the cover, stapled the whole thing together down the middle, wrote “Written by Erin,” on the front, then proudly showed my dad. I was flummoxed when he changed the cover to say, “Rewritten by…” and argued fiercely that I technically HAD written the entire thing, so could he please tippex over his two letter alteration. He duly explained my faux pas, that copying out an entire text did not entitle one to claim authorship. Given that it had taken me all morning to hand-write, illustrate and bind an entire book, I was decidedly unimpressed: for my next written work, I had to ask the teacher how to spell “funeral.” (Not even kidding, although I suspect this had more to do with the fact I had just been to one rather than a desire to attend another.)

I wish I could say it was an important lesson in plagiarism, but I think what it shows is probably that I was trying to write the kind of thing I wanted to read. I don’t think my later attempt to write a book called The Famous Four had anyone fooled. The four in question were completely different to The Famous Five but did find themselves in all the same situations. They also sported an uncanny resemblance to my school friends: I certainly wasn’t clever enough to come up with a racially diverse group of friends and a Sri Lankan character named Ruvani. I felt like these characters were my own though, so I put them in and called it original.

There was only one character who ever found herself in even slightly un-Famous situations, and she was an amalgam of a real person, every Blyton story I had ever read, and my own childish desires. The character Becky was usually a long lost sister who went to boarding school, could play the violin, run fast, had a dog; someone who had abilities I wanted and qualities I lacked. The real Becky moved interstate when we were six, though I kept her character in my pocket, to take out and imagine into new situations, as and when required. Presumably I got a little more creative as I levelled up at school and stopped writing about her, but for a couple of years this imagined Becky and I went on wonderful adventures in my head. They usually began with us finding out we were actually sisters (having never had one myself,) and she’d take me to boarding school with her where we’d have all sorts of fun solving mysteries and getting up to mischief. We were looked after by an older girl named Susan, who now that I think about it was lifted in her entirety out of Narnia. I must’ve outgrown Becky by the time Harry Potter came along, otherwise I’m certain we would’ve gone to magic school together too.

Reading over that last paragraph, I realise that my own fictions were nearly identical to something Enid Blyton might punch out, but in imagining myself into them, they became something I could experience more fully than passive observation might allow. Although I hadn’t exactly come up with them on my own, these stories belonged to me now. Perhaps it taught me to be in the real world where my actual best friend had moved to the far off land of Warrnambool. At the end of the following year, New Best Friend moved to Japan. The next one changed schools after two years, and a year after that the next moved to Tamworth. A year later, I was the one who changed schools, and it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn I spent most of the first term in the library. It was much the easiest way to feel like I was somewhere familiar.

Reading has the unique capacity to take you somewhere completely different while feeling wonderfully at home. And writing puts you right in the thick of it, with more agency than you might otherwise find you have.

Is “write about what you know,” another way of saying, “write about your experiences,” or “write about what you wish would happen”? Maybe that’s what I’ve always done, and changing details is a way to spice things up rather than protect anonymity, which my uninventive naming clearly failed to do. But I think the greater purpose is to turn What I Know into What Belongs to Me. All of this probably belongs on the more appropriately labeled shelf Things I Think. But if I start writing a story, you can be sure the goal will be to end up with something I’d like to read. At this stage there’s a strong likelihood it’d be set in Cornwall and about a rabbit named God, so now that my desire to write something has been satisfied, I think I’d best get back to reading.