The Transience of Life: Lessons in Letting Go

We had a work experience student at the bookshop a little while ago. She seemed a nice, switched-on kid with the brightness of eye and bushiness of tail only visible in the young and uninitiated. She was eager to please and had, to her complete credit, a flair for visual merchandising. She put together an impressive display of Harry Potter memorabilia: there were towers of books with turrets of character figurines, a moat of mugs with a drawbridge of key rings… Ok I may have taken some creative liberties here, but you get the general idea. It looked great.

A little later on, I bore witness to the first death of a little piece of her soul. Some other task had taken her away from her display, and on her return half an hour or so later, the whole thing was a shambles. You could see that it had once been striking, but its former glory was a mere memory. We stood back and surveyed the damage. I reassured her that it still looked very good indeed but that there was no point in trying to resurrect it: you pick your battles, and she’d be fighting a losing one here. You turn your back for five minutes and this is what happens. She’d have to stand guard all day if she wanted to protect it from the hands of customers, and even though she wasn’t being paid for it, her time was more valuable than that. She accepted my observation, looking deflated and wan with her shoulders slumped as she let out a sigh.

“Think of it as a lesson in the transience of life,” I told her sagely.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means nothing lasts forever. Working in retail is one long process of letting go. Make sure you put that in your report.”

I’d like to think I came across as wise and philosophical, but that seems generous and unlikely when my deeper nature is far more cynical. Realising that her work experience had now taken a decidedly negative turn, I changed the subject.

“So do you know what you want to do after you finish school?”
“Yeah, I think I want to be an architect.”
“Oh that’s cool. Then your constructions might last a little longer than that display.”
“Uhhh yeah, I guess that’s the hope.”
“Don’t stress about it though, having to figure out your whole life after high school. I spent four years studying media & communications. That was years ago, and while I have no regrets, it’s only recently, at the age of 29, that I’ve figured out what I want to do when I grow up.”
“Sell books? And wow, I didn’t realise you were that old.”
“Thanks? And no, not sell books. I mean I like working here and all, but I’m studying to be a librarian.”
“Oh cool, what made you decide to do that?”
“I figured the best job in the world would be to sit in a room full of books and tell people to be quiet.”

In hindsight, I may have scared the poor girl a little. I don’t think she quite knew how to take my deadpan delivery. As an aside, let the record show that being a librarian is a little more involved than shushing people all day. I also believe libraries provide a vital service, and information and research opportunities should be available to anyone with enough curiosity to acquire a card. Libraries are a wonderful equaliser, and no matter who you are, just about all the world’s collective knowledge is available if you know where to look.

Additionally, there’s more to retail than learning to watch your efforts go unappreciated, although that’s a big part of it. I’m good at my job and nearly always polite and helpful to customers. At worst, I’m helpful without being rude. (Please don’t laugh too hard at this, especially if you’ve had to encounter me first thing in the morning at exam/Christmas time before I’ve had my bucket of coffee. Remember: I’m being paid to be nice to people at work.) Unfortunately, this is not a secret to customers, many of whom realise they can take their bad mood out on sales assistants and there’s not a whole lot that can be done in return. Or maybe I’m over-thinking it and they just don’t care.

Which is why, I think, it’s important to take the small victories where you can. My favourite part of my job as a bookseller is sending someone away with a book I just know they’ll love, even if I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them again to confirm it. It’s like I’m in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to find this person exactly what they need but didn’t know it. (For more on this, see this post.) And very occasionally, I get the feeling the customer knows this too. Maybe my enthusiasm towards particular titles is so obvious as to be catching, and of course it’s very possible that I’m attributing too much power to my humble recommendations, but it gets me through the day.

The other day I was in a bit of a funk at work for no particular reason. I probably hadn’t had enough coffee. But my shift was totally turned around by a customer telling me I obviously just love books and will make a great librarian, thanking me with sincere appreciation and then buying a book on my recommendation. I really hope she likes it. Obviously I think she will. I rode on that compliment for days.

So surviving in retail isn’t just about learning to let go, you have to figure out what to hold on to as well. Take whatever small victories you can get, and when someone yells that they’re never shopping here again, just think: you’ll never have to see them again and they’re probably miserable and don’t have as many friends as you anyway.

That’s it, that’s my optimism exhausted. And having said all this I will probably have lost all trace of it by the time the next customer loses their cool with me for not knowing which book they’re after when they don’t know the title, author or content except that it had a blue cover. But it’s nice to know that I held it for a time, and having let it go, it’s out there for someone else to pick up.

Here endeth the lesson.

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So good it’s bad.

“I got this book at the tip. It won some award. I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” – My mother.

I’ve got to hand it to my old mum: she knows my taste in books. If there’s a book she doesn’t like, there’s a solid chance I’ll love it. I like to rebel against the matriarchy when it comes to matters of taste. As a general rule, she doesn’t like literary award winners, while I enjoy books that will make me look good if I die in the middle of it and it’s the last thing I can be judged on. In return, I’ve been known to tell her, “I hated this book. You’d loathe it.” Occasionally we fall in love with the same book and remember we are related after all, but these moments are few and far between.

The interesting thing, however, is that the books she doesn’t like that I love are often rather pretentious, while the ones I hate and she’d loathe are the most pretentious of the lot. There’s a line somewhere in the world of literary fiction where our tastes run parallel, and I usually know when I’m about to pass it and fall into a slightly verbose pit down which she would be reluctant to follow me. Some of my favourite books have a distinct air of wank about them: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, to name a few. I’ve even been told that loving Winnie the Pooh as much as I do is a fine illustration of my high-brow taste because it contains subtexts. However, with the exception of Pooh, I wouldn’t go recommending these books to just anyone and am aware they are not to everyone’s taste. In the case of The God of Small Things, I think it’s right on the cusp of well-written and pretentiously over-written. While I adore it, I can see why one mightn’t like it at all and find it boring. I certainly wouldn’t force it on my mum.

If a book has won a significant award, it’s just about a guarantee she won’t like it. That being said, it’s no sure thing that I’ll love it. As a professional bookworm, I like to have an educated and considered personal opinion on the books that are doing the rounds, and was looking forward to finding time to read last year’s Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I took it away on holidays with me, and thank goodness I brought another book along for the ride, as I spent the first hundred or so pages feeling like the esteemed philosopher Philomena Cunk:

“I found it boring, because I wasn’t sure whether it was boring because it was boring, or boring because it was good. Like how the theatre is good but totally boring.”

It seemed like a book I would enjoy. It’s a fictionalised retelling of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its aftermath, reaching as far as gang warfare in New York and the social implications on Jamaica in decades to come. Modern historical fiction meets social commentary meets true crime meets music. What’s not to like? Disappointingly for me, the kindest thing I have to say is, “I can see why it won the award.” It’s written from the perspectives of a huge array of characters, each with their own unique voice, history and style. I can’t fault James on his talent there. But it’s 900 odd pages with no story, and if I hadn’t had so much time on my hands, only one other book with me and the drive to give such an acclaimed book a fair go, I would’ve shut it forever and given it to my mother as an hilarious prank. It did teach me a valuable lesson though, which is that if I find myself relating to Philomena Cunk, the book is probably not for me.

It’s always tricky when a customer asks for a particular “good” book I quietly hate. I do my best to fight the natural urge to show off and say, “I’ve read that!” and when I fail, pray I’m not asked what I thought. An honest opinion is often appreciated though, and the other day I sent a high school student and her mother away with three classics I’m sure she’ll enjoy, and saved them from buying Jane Eyre, which the mum nearly bought because it seems like the kind of classic a teenage girl should read. I told her how I battled through every single page and struggled to stay awake, then hastily tried to backtrack and explain that obviously a lot of people would disagree with me; it’s a classic after all. Had she come in asking for a smart-people book named for the central female character, I could have easily and honestly extolled the virtues of Anna Karenina, but then that’s another one I suspect plenty of people snooze through.

A customer did buy The Unbearable Lightness of Being on my recommendation a week or two ago, after I told her, “It’s the sort of book that will make you feel smart and kind of dumb at the same time. You’ll feel as though you’re absorbing all this great writing, then worry that you wandered off for a second and missed something crucially brilliant and you just don’t get it. You’ll want to go back for more though.” She told me that was a great way to describe a book and she couldn’t wait to read it. I’m super good at my job when I pitch a book to the right audience, and get a lot of strange looks the rest of the time. But I think the above perfectly describes the kind of pretentious book I’ll love. Nobody wants to spend several hundred pages feeling like a dunce, but there’s nothing quite like rereading one of your favourites and coming away with something new.

I’ve scheduled in time for this year’s Booker Prize International winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and really hope I’ll like it. I could be setting myself up for another round of Cunk-esque moments of wonder, but at least this one is about a quarter of the length of last year’s victor. I think it’s worth pitting my professional curiosity and desire to seem well-informed against a few hundred pages of potential pretension, and if I hold my silence at the other end, you’ll know I missed something. Maybe this year everyone will be harping on about a genuinely good book, and not one we all want to think is good, but when it comes down to it is so good it’s bad.

In memoriam.

Fair warning: this is going to be a loaded post.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my precious friend Cate, who took her life just over a year ago. I miss her terribly and confess to having undergone a minor existential crisis in the months following her death. A year on, I suppose I must feel her absence a little less sharply; I no longer reach for my phone every time I think of something I need to tell her or require her opinion on. I’m slowly getting used to the idea that she’s really gone. To make this easier for me to digest, I sometimes tell myself that she’s gone travelling indefinitely and will come back one day. Eventually, I suppose, I’ll be able to tell myself she’s relocated permanently. Obviously I know the first part of this isn’t true, but it’s rather nice thinking of the adventures she could be having. More recently I’ve tried to reimagine this so that instead of gallivanting through this mortal realm, she’s in her own unique heaven.

Because this is a blog about books, I promise it all relates. Fear not; you won’t have to endure my angst through every single word.

It’s funny, I never really thought of heaven much until I started trying to picture Cate there. I don’t know if I even believe in the place, but I hope there is a heaven, and I hope that she is there. She’s not the first person I’ve been close to who’s died yet she certainly seems to be the first I’ve really tried to keep alive in this way. Anyway, in the absence of any knowledge of what heaven might actually be like, if it exists at all, I have inelegantly constructed my own ideas. Drawn from (you guessed it) books.

It’s been a long time since I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I read it in my pre-note-taking days, and daren’t reread it in case what I can take from my memory of it isn’t there at all. I beg you not to correct me on this if I’m wrong. My memory tells me that the protagonist is in her own heaven, both separate and a part of every other souls’. You can run into other people who have died; the various heavens can intersect. But on the whole, her afterlife is completely her own. Drawing from this, I picture Cate in her own little world, which is possibly the best place for her. Her cat, Button, is there. She has a twelve-string guitar and a massive amp, the noise from which disturbs the neighbouring heavens, which she finds hilarious. And all of this is on a boat.

Not that Cate harboured a particular penchant for boats, you understand. (Please laugh at my pun; this post needs some comic relief.) In fact, I don’t know if she had ever been on a boat in her life. Anyway, she and I were both fans of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I remember spending an afternoon discussing it together, and my joy on discovering she was a note-taker too. She wrote down one of my favourite quotes in her little book. There was something particularly poignant in the fact that she wrote it out by hand when she had an iPad right next to her, and I knew then for sure that she was one of us.

Rosencrantz: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is… not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no – what you’ve been is not on boats.

What a novel way to imagine death, and yet I realise I’ve created a paradox here: if death couldn’t possibly be a boat, and Cate is most definitely dead, then it stands to reason she’s not now living it up on an ethereal boat. If she could choose her own afterlife, I’m sure it would be vastly different to my description. At the end of the day, I think the point is that part of me needs to keep part of her alive, and that part of me is able to do so if she’s on a boat.

For all the note-taking she did, she liked to make unsolicited amendments to mine. Without invitation to read what I had written, much less alter it, she once took it upon herself to make her own adjustments to something I had written and carelessly left lying around. Ordinarily I would be pretty unimpressed for someone to do this, but I was heartened by it just this once. I was recently out of a troublesome relationship, and had written a page of disjointed thoughts that no one was ever meant to read. The last line was something like,

“They end. That’s what relationships do; they end.”

Just between “what” and “relationships” was now a caret (upwards arrow ^) and the word “ephemeral.” In purple ink and her familiar handwriting. I think she was telling me we’d be friends forever.

I don’t think either of us knew then how things would turn out. I certainly didn’t know she’d be dead within the year. While I was slightly mortified she had read my private papers, part of me was glad she did, and all of me now is grateful for it. I’m glad she told me our relationship to her was no fleeting thing. I always had the feeling she and I had some history together that just hadn’t happened yet, that there were bigger things in store for us. I really wish I hadn’t been wrong on that one.

Nevertheless, by her own admission, she and I were stuck with each other. Little though she may like it, to me she’s in a heaven based entirely on what I’ve pieced together from unlikely sources. My ideas on the afterlife will no doubt change with what I read in the future while continuing to look for answers, but this pastiche will do me for now. It keeps her alive, it keeps me sane, and if I ever needed any motivation, it keeps me reading.

 

Catherine Anne Kavanagh: 15 June 1984 – 22 April 2015

Goodbye and hello, beautiful soul. May you return in a longer and happier life.

Cate1

Something you didn’t know you needed.

Have you ever come across something you were missing, but didn’t know it? This probably happens more often than we acknowledge. I have a particular acquaintance in my life who, for no particular reason, cracks me up. I’ve rarely spoken to her but one look is enough to do it for me; everything about her makes me laugh. Every now and then I take an innocuous photo of her and send it to the BF, and the last three times this has happened, she’s replied with something to the tune of, “Haha! I really needed that. You’re a good friend.” Without sending her the fruits of my covert photography, I doubt she’d know that this was just what she needed to cheer her up. What’s more, little am I to know that this is exactly what’s needed to fill a gap I was otherwise unaware existed. Perhaps it’s simply a combination of good timing and a similar sense of humour, but it makes my day to know I’ve made hers. Big things are sometimes just small things that are noticed, and I’m only too happy to be the conduit for big things that are small.

Most of the time, I find the things I need (but don’t know it) in books. A few years ago, I read When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman for the first time. I must’ve paid closer attention than I gave myself credit for, as it wasn’t until months later that one particular quote jumped out in my memory, and gave me something I was lacking, something I really needed, and may not have found anywhere else. This happens fairly early on in the book and doesn’t spoil anything, so feel free to read on with impunity. Also, it’s a relatively insignificant aside to the main narrative. Please don’t be put off reading my favourite book if violence and courtroom drama don’t do it for you. The scene describes a court case where a rape victim is testifying against her attacker. Despite what she has to say, and never mind what actually happened, the accused’s lawyer does such a good job of tripping up the witness, effectively doing away with any credibility she could previously claim. There was one little line in there that I cannot now quote exactly, but is something like, “by the time he was done with her, she wasn’t even sure of her own name.” Here we fast forward in real life to the first time I had to testify as a witness in a murder trial. (You read that correctly.) As I was compiling in my head a show reel of every episode of Law & Order and Judge Judy I’d seen so as to better prepare myself for testifying and cross-examination, this one quote flickered in a corner of my mind. And from that, I really understood that the defence lawyer was there to discredit me: he was going to try and confuse me on every single detail, so that by the end of my time in the stand, I wouldn’t be sure even of my own name, much less what happened on the night of the crime. Terrified as I was, I kept that line in my pocket, and held up under cross-examination with greater poise and eloquence than I have been afforded in any other situation. The Crown Prosecutor described me as “an awesome witness,” and I did my part in convicting two murderers and seeing them put away for a very long time.

I had no idea how important that quote would be to me until months after I first read it. By consequence, I’ve since made a habit of jotting down passages that make me think twice or evoke a feeling. This actually happens rather a lot, given how many thoughts I dismiss after the first, and the amount of feelings I do my best to ignore. I copied out this quote from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts:

“Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies, and three great loves in our lives. But these twelve are always disguised, and we can never know which one is which until we’ve loved them, left them, or fought them.”

In this instance, I’m pretty sure I took note of this quote because it’s the kind of thing I wish I had come up with myself. In fact, this one reason doubtlessly goes a long way to explaining why my “little green book” is as full as it is. Regardless, I was feeling particularly despondent one night, regretting my poor taste in men and the subsequent heartache. Wishing I had never met the now-ex-boyfriend in the first place, considering how much happier and simpler my life had been before I ever met him, I thumbed across this quote. I chewed it over for a little while to see how it tasted. I swallowed it down to see how it felt. And by the time this passage had run its course, I realised there was something in there for me. Sure, I had made some pretty lousy decisions lately. Certainly I had done some loving, leaving and fighting. Maybe I could’ve foreseen how this was going to end, but it was in the loving, leaving and fighting that I learned to tell the enemy from the love, the teacher from the friend. Actually it was in the revisitation of the above quote, but it didn’t mean anything to me on its own. Good old Greg Dave Robs gave me exactly what I was missing. And again, he told it to me years before I heard it, long before I needed it.

However, like going into an op-shop and looking for a pair of size ten jeans, you’re never going to find it until you stop looking. I recently became convinced that there was something hidden inside The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence, something that would really speak to me, something I needed and just didn’t know it yet. I didn’t know what it was, but felt sure I’d know it when I saw it. I had a whole blog post in mind for it, I just needed this one crucial example, and I was sure I was about to find it. I have a perfectly logical explanation for this: my local library had a copy, and nobody knew where it was. It was allegedly on one of eight uncategorised spinning shelves, and every time I went to the library, I made sure to look for it. I checked every one of those spinners closely no fewer than four times, to no avail; the book didn’t want to be found. I chose to be philosophical about it rather than annoyed. Sure, I wanted to read this book, but the fact that I couldn’t must simply mean that there was something in there I wasn’t ready for, something I would fail to appreciate, something I was going to need, and if I came across it now would surely be missed. The book would present itself when I was ready, and not a moment sooner. After about a month I realised this philosophical attitude was but a thin veil over my impatience. Of course the universe wasn’t going to spring a gift on me when I was truly deserving. When has that ever happened? There are times when you have to sit back and wait for things to come to you, but in my experience these are few and far between, and generally take some requisite groundwork. Most of the time, I believe, you have to actually do something in order to get what you want. Philosophy was getting me nowhere.

Luckily for me, the price of said book had by now fallen enough for me to afford to buy it. Maybe this was the divine act of providence I had been waiting for? Either way, I bought and read it immediately, on the lookout all the way for something that would rock my little world. I reached the end with an unsettling sense of disappointment; like the size ten jeans, I hadn’t found it. And I had been all set to write a blog post about the universe providing personal literary game-changers! I began to think that maybe I had missed something, so went back to it. And what do you know, as I went over some of the quotes I had jotted down, a shape began to emerge. And I found it. It was small, but it was there (big things being small, and all that) and I refer now to an Extence quote I had taken down in the first reading: “Every so often the universe offers you a gift, and when that happens, you’d be a fool to refuse it.”

Want to know what it is?

Sorry guys, but I’m keeping this one to myself; suffice to say it’s like missing out on the size tens only to find you actually fit into an eight, and there’s a whole wrack of those. I hadn’t realised what I wanted to say until I read the post-script, which begins with, “You have a choice about what you put into the public domain.” As soon as I decided I wasn’t going to share this poignant little pearl with the internet, I realised what it was. Maybe I’ll tell you one day.

But only when you’re ready.

 

Postscript: Within hours of this post going live, I began rereading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. What should I find but this little treasure:

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers… How delightful if that were true.”

Where were you when…

…and what were you reading?

Because I always enjoy a good over-share with customers at the bookshop where I work, I often find myself telling strangers extremely odd and incredibly irrelevant facts about myself. For example:

“Do you have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?”
“By Haruki Murakami? Yeah, that’s a great book.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Sure, I read it when I was in hospital in Tanzania.”
“What happened?”
“Well it’s kind of a weird story about a guy looking for a cat, and some of it takes place at the bottom of a well…”
“I meant in the hospital.”
“Oh, right. I had this nasty infection in my leg. The doctor wanted to marry me; it was pretty crazy. But the book was great, you’ll love it!”

He bought the book so I consider it a job well done, but then he probably would have anyway. It did get me musing, however, on the fact that I often think about significant events in terms of what I was reading, and vice versa. For instance, I immediately recall that I first read one of my favourite books (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera) after having my wisdom teeth out. For those of you who knew me then, you may remember that my face was approximately the size of Jupiter, so holding my head up at all was pretty impressive. And when Juan Antonio Samaranch announced “And the winner is… Sy-doh-ney!” I was reading The Birthday Kitten and The Boy who Wanted a Dog, both by Enid Blyton. I’ve been double-booking from a very young age.

Perhaps it shows what a self-centred individual I am that when someone mentions a particular book, my response is often something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, I remember reading that in high school. I had just had a fight with my boyfriend and needed something to cheer me up,” or that I like to name/place-drop: “Twilight was awful. I started reading it in Bolivia then gave it to this really excited chick in South Africa. Worst part of the trip, really, and that includes the stint in a dirty African hospital.”

Nevertheless, as I write this my mind calls forth the dates and locations that correspond to a great range of titles. I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia sitting on the green floral couch in our living room 20-something years ago, and didn’t finish it until the aforementioned trip around Africa. I picked up a copy that included all seven books in a secondhand shop in South Africa, then passed it on to an orphanage in Kenya. I read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, in its entirety, in the back room of an art shop I worked at. I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes curled up on the seat of a Greyhound bus. With several hours of the journey to go and nothing else to read, I turned back to page one and read it again. I read The Housekeeper + the Professor by Yoko Ogawa from cover to cover while waiting for an appointment with my hand surgeon, who was running very late. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick took as long as a return train trip from Penrith to Chatswood. See how my mind starts along a particular track (in this instance, books I read in one sitting) and just keeps going?

I’m scrolling through my book lists from the past few years to see what other patterns emerge, and a popular one to my mind is where I was walking while I was reading. If you asked me what year it was that I moved to Petersham, I’d really have to think about it, but could definitely tell you that while I lived there I walked around the oval with everything from Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear to On the Road by Kerouac. And I know I had definitely moved to Chatswood by the time I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I distinctly remember falling in a mud puddle at Beauchamp oval, and dirtying the book, bookmark and my clothes.

The first book I read after my grandma died was The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence, and the fact that I was able to concentrate enough to read it is testament to how good it is. It was much harder to get back into Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl, which I was halfway through when Cate died. I do not believe these two facts are related, but Ms Dunham has a lot to answer for if I’m wrong.

In years to come, I will remark that I was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, and The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts, when Alan Rickman and David Bowie died. The Mountain Shadow is the sequel to Shantaram, which I took with me to England. When not being read, I wrapped it in a jumper and used it as a pillow. I got very annoyed when I discovered a copy in the crappy little hostel where Ellie and I stayed; I carried that book an awfully long way for it to already be there. And it wasn’t even my copy so I couldn’t just ditch it.

Thick or thin, my books have been with me through thick and thin. I don’t know how unusual it is to punctuate my life with references to books (there’s a pun in there somewhere) but it’s worked for me so far. The timeline of my life looks like a rather disorganised library catalogue, and the target readership for a particular book is not necessarily an accurate indication of my age when I read it. Any book can be a children’s book if the kid can read. And does the knowledge that I read Anna Karenina alongside The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as Winnie the Pooh give you any idea how old I was at the time? I am satisfied in allowing you the assumption I was as precocious a child as I am an unusual timekeeper.

Did I ever tell you about the time…

…I bribed my way into prison?

If we’re friends in real life, I have little doubt I’ve regaled you with this one. It makes me sound worldly, daring, and like the world’s edgiest librarian. It’s often met with the words (or a look that says) “You? Quiet, bespectacled, little you?” as if small stature and poor eyesight provide immunity against foolhardy adventures. The first line post-retelling is often, “My god, you’re brave,” and I am quick to point out it’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Needless to say, this story is one I told my poor mother about after the fact. She worries so; can’t imagine why.

Seven years ago, give a couple of weeks, quiet, bespectacled, little I was having dinner  in La Paz, Bolivia, with a troupe of travellers I had just met. One of the blokes mentioned a prison nearby (San Pedro), which ran tours in spite of being a working facility. Something in the back of my memory nudged my frontal lobe, calling to mind the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young. I hadn’t read it at this stage, though a friend back home had raved about it, and if he knew I forwent the opportunity to go inside the prison, I was confident he’d strangle me with his bare hands. This knowledge, coupled with an inherent fascination by true crime, was enough to sell me on the idea. I recruited another (Dorothy, aged 64) to join me the following day. Obviously a much older complete stranger is sufficient security in the world of prison tourism.

We found our way on foot to the prison the next morning, despite its unassuming exterior: save the two small watchtowers, police bus out front and a rifle-wielding guard or two with an air of supreme nonchalance, it could’ve been any old pink building.  (Yes, pink.) We had been told that by loitering in the park across the road, an invitation inside would come forth in no time. Despite our efforts not to look like tourists, our white skin was a bit of a giveaway. Anyway, we put our best loitering skills to use, and were overlooked in favour of a line of locals with large supplies of foodstuffs. We began to think Sunday was perhaps for family and food supplies only, or maybe the guards were an infrequent presence and a deterrent to break-in tourists. We were just about loitered-out when approached by an older white lady with a raspy South African accent – the kind of voice that in another body would be interesting because of how much it keeps inside, but in her betrayed only a lifetime of cheap cigarettes. I had been sure she was just another tourist, and thought every other shady character to make eye contact with me was my “in,” but I’ll never know what was on their minds. It was very exciting to finally be approached, particularly as our Plan B at that stage only included buying tomatoes. She walked us straight into her “office” on the inside, past the guards, told us to hide our cameras on our persons, and after coming back and forth a few times (presumably seeing to it that the right bribes were laid) we were allowed straight in.

You may have gathered that this isn’t a typical prison. Inmates have to pay for everything as per “real life.” Cells must be bought or leased, food paid for by the individual. As such, everyone has a job: there are artisans, chefs, hairdressers, carpenters, doctors, tour guides and plenty of drug dealers. All told, it’s really just an insular, smelly, dirty, dangerous gated community. Wives and children are permitted to live there too, and without the financial contribution of a husband/father on the outside, are often left with no viable alternatives. They come and go as they please, and while the kids were cute (as far as kids go) one wonders how many of them will end up residing there for the duration of their natural lives, free to go or otherwise. Our guide, Ramiro, was 19 and in for drug trafficking. His English was pretty basic, and he had hopes of release, going to uni and becoming an English teacher. I wonder if he ever made it. His friend who silently accompanied us was 25 and in for a murder he said he didn’t commit. My better nature wanted to believe him (present company loves an underdog) but my deepest nature is far more cynical. All I could think was, “Everybody’s innocent in Shawshank.”

Thinking like a cynic and behaving like an optimist (or just an invincible 22 year old), it was a sobering reality to walk through a cafe/plaza type area and be told the guys sitting around drinking were all murderers. We were invited into people’s cells where it was not unusual for a sizeable amount of drugs to sit in plain sight. (“Put that away,” I thought. “You could go to prison for that!”) Ramiro seemed to harbour a penchant for washing areas, showing us numerous bathroom and laundry facilities. We were also shown a round cement pit, kind of like a small pool. The explanation we were given was fresh inmates were “initiated” with a chilly nighttime swim, though when speaking to another traveller, I was told three prisoners were recently killed there. Convicted for paedophilia or rape or other sexually-based offences considered particularly heinous, other inmates paid guards to bring in the dead men walking and then turn a blind eye. Lives were evidently inexpensive commodities.

The protocol of money exchange only perpetuated the discrepancy between currency and value. The smaller cells constituted an upfront payment of US$120 – a substantial amount for a Bolivian prisoner, and even with Sydney property the price it is, it’s more than I’d pay for the pervasive smell of sewage wherever you go. The cells at the wealthier end of the spectrum were owned by the prison’s drug lords and mafia dons (and were closed off to the general public. They came literally with a five star rating.) Ironically, with the majority of the population charged and/or sentenced with/for drug-related crimes, one’s notoriety in a den of thieves can better one’s living standards. The worse your crime, the better things are for you on the inside. Go big or go home. Plenty of men awaiting trial on trafficking charges were not expecting a fair hearing and were trying to raise the requisite US$4000 for a get out of jail free card. Talk about profiting from the proceeds of crime.

Now I’m not an expert on criminal detainment, but this place seemed an easy escape. There was no barbed wire, Dorothy and I walked in and out without so much as a pat-down or bag check, and inmates didn’t have uniforms. In fact, a group had tunnelled their way to freedom quite recently. Given the murder the previous week, one can quite understand why. You’re not allowed cameras inside, but given the only official guards are outside, in the watchtowers and at the entrance (the guards on the inside are merely inmates trying to earn their keep), it was a very simple operation to get away with. Including tips and entry fee it was 275 Bolivianos, about AU$60. A huge amount of money by their standards, which apparently goes toward facilities for the children. I’m not sure how much it would’ve cost to spend the night; one might wonder why on earth someone would do this, but keep in mind the purity and low cost (not to mention abundance) of the drugs available. Rumour has it in years since gone by, two female travellers stayed overnight and the resulting attacks were enough to shut down the tourism operation completely. The official version is that these tours have never happened. My naive theory at the time was that if anything happened to me, a tourist, it would be ruined for everyone. Surely nobody would risk the money tourists bring in, right? I could’ve screamed bloody murder and no one would’ve heard me. Plus I’m certain my body folds up into a size no greater than an IKEA flatpack.

I read the book on my return to Australia, and am relieved I did so in that order. It’s the true story of an English drug smuggler imprisoned in San Pedro, written by an Australian who paid the guards to let him reside in the prison for several months. I suppose I’ll have to come up with an idea for a book all on my own since this one has been done already. Even to myself I seem like an unlikely candidate to author a book on prison life, but I probably have enough material for a novel detailing the misadventures of a wayward librarian.

And yes, Jo… There will be a character named after you 😉

2015 Reading List

Welcome to 2016! Exciting things are happening over here. By “exciting,” I mean “less cynical than usual,” and with Christmas gone we don’t have to worry about the most horrible time of the year for another nine months. I figure Christmas must spend the length of a typical human pregnancy gestating in the retail womb until it’s born again, ironically with the same old decorations, ear-wrenching music and impatient shoppers. Actually, I’ll bite my tongue (or stub my typing fingers) on the “impatient shoppers.” I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively low number of unnecessarily rude customers this year and will save the remarkable ones for a post at the end of a long day when I need to vent my frustrations over people in general, irate customers in particular.

Meanwhile, I’ve set a new PB in number of books I’ve read in a year of recorded history (and that’s not very long, to be honest.) I really began to utilise my local library, and it seems fairly obvious when I’ve gotten stuck in a particular aisle (July followed by Kingsolver with a Kidd chaser) or binged on a particular author (Calvino, Gaiman.) In fact, my first foray into Neil Gaiman was without doubt my Eureka moment of the year. And as it turns out, some of my closest book-buddies are also mad fans so I’m in splendid company. Other highlights of the year were the release of the latest novels by Miranda July, Sarah Winman and Robert Galbraith. An honourable mention must go to Lemony Snicket: I was too old for that bandwagon when it first rolled through town, so I pursued and jumped on it rather late in life. I suspect that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the kind of series written to appeal to children and adults alike as the latter read to the former. Having none of the former in my life is no reason to miss out though, and I suspect much of it is lost on them anyway. I’m a much better audience.

  1. An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks
  2. Sophie: Dog Overboard – Emma Pearse
  3. ‘Tis: A Memoir – Frank McCourt
  4. The Pilgrimage – Paulo Coelho (again)
  5. Dear Fatty – Dawn French (also again)
  6. Who Moved My Cheese? – Dr Spencer Johnson
  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
  8. You Better Not Cry – Augusten Burroughs
  9. 44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith
  10. Life is Elsewhere – Milan Kundera (again)
  11. When God was a Rabbit – Sarah Winman (third time’s a charn)
  12. Rose Madder – Stephen King
  13. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  14. The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald
  15. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July (another reread)
  16. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
  17. The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith
  18. Full Blast – Janet Evanovich
  19. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  20. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  21. Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham
  22. Espresso Tales – Alexander McCall Smith
  23. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  24. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  25. The High Window – Raymond Chandler
  26. Love Over Scotland – Alexander McCall Smith
  27. The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter – Allan Zola Kronzek & Elizabeth Kronzek
  28. Birds, Beats & Relatives – Gerald Durrell
  29. It Chooses You – Miranda July
  30. A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman
  31. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw – Eva Weaver
  32. Maximum Security: The Inside Story of Australia’s Toughest Gaols – James Morton
  33. Adam, One Afternoon – Italo Calvino
  34. The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino
  35. The First Bad Man – Miranda July
  36. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
  37. The Mermaid Tree – Sue Monk Kidd
  38. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary – David Sedaris
  39. Horns – Joe Hill
  40. The Fifth Mountain – Paulo Coelho
  41. This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians can save us all – Marilyn Johnson
  42. The Psychology of the Simpsons – Edited by Alan Brown, PhD, with Chris Logan
  43. When the Bough Breaks: The true story of child killer Kathleen Folbigg – Matthew Benns
  44. Libraries Through the Ages – Fred Lerner
  45. The Valley of Horses – Jean M. Auel
  46. Adultery – Paulo Coelho
  47. Stoner – John Williams
  48. The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks – Bethany Keeley
  49. Book Lust: Recommended reading for every mood, moment and reason – Nancy Pearl
  50. All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot
  51. So Many Books, So Little Time: A year of passionate reading – Sara Nelson
  52. The World According to Bertie – Alexander McCall Smith
  53. Mistakes, Misnomers and Misconceptions: A look at the role played by errors and accidents in everyday life – R. Brasch
  54. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  55. Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith
  56. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (one of my all time favourites and obviously a reread)
  57. October – Richard B. Wright
  58. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  59. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket
  60. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
  61. The Outsider – Albert Camus
  62. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
  63. The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket
  64. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
  65. The Festival of Insignificance – Milan Kundera
  66. The Fictional Woman – Tara Moss
  67. The Wide Window – Lemony Snicket
  68. I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes
  69. Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
  70. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  71. The Miserable Mill – Lemony Snicket
  72. Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
  73. Why Men Love Bitches – Sherry Argov
  74. I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
  75. The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman