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Gray’s Anomaly

For years, then, I skipped modern poetry – until I discovered Billy Collins. Cue thunder and lightning! Now I’d walk backwards across town in a blizzard to buy the latest book of Billy Collins’s poems. His gift is to visit the familiar and reveal the outlandish. My lazy imagination wonders what lies behind that door, down that road, beyond that picture. Collins goes there. He’s a permanent trespasser on parallel worlds, making short expeditions and reaching offbeat conclusions.
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Inside the Brotherhood

Inside the Brotherhood

I first read the book when I was 16; later, Gaunt became a recurring figure in my life, cropping up unexpectedly like one of the incidental characters in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was Mr Sweatman, my art master, who first gave it me to read and it had me utterly enthralled. Mr Sweatman was meant to be conducting the art class, but he was obsessed by a school  society called the Marionette Circle. He gave most of his attention to the few boys, members of the Circle, who arrived in class with tiny gibbeted figures dangling from their hands. He and they would disappear behind a lime-green screen, where the marionettes were made to perform their antics and danses macabres. Occasionally Mr Sweatman would emerge from behind the screen to bellow ‘Noisy!’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (a subject for us to paint). He was equally happy for the non-marionetteers to study art history; and with Gaunt’s book he found a perfect way of keeping me occupied.
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Going up in Smoke

Going up in Smoke

The dogmatic persecution of those whose unhealthy lifestyle falls below the high standards of the lawmakers is vividly and terrifyingly dramatized in Benoît Duteurtre’s novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. The French writer sets his action in the near future – without saying exactly when – and in a familiarly Western democratic country – without saying exactly which. The story, or rather one of the two stories we follow through the book, opens with a distinctly modern dilemma.
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A Guernsey Lad

I have just returned from a long holiday in the Channel Islands visiting with Ebenezer Le Page, an old and valued friend, at Les Moulins, Ebenezer’s cottage by the sea. It is built of the same blue Guernsey granite that he is, and as he says, it will last for ever. They both will. Ebenezer is the creation of G. B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It is his only book, published posthumously. It is fiction, but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. The word ‘creation’ is precisely the correct term. This is not a work of literature. It is a thing of flesh and bone. Ebenezer and I had often journeyed together in imagination, and shared our tea in front of a coal fire, but now I had come to Guernsey in body as well as spirit, to walk the streets he walked and follow the path of his life.
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Not Getting on with Aunts

Not Getting on with Aunts

Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money. Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism.
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Love versus Science

Given this personal history, Carrie Tiffany’s quirkily titled first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, struck an immediate chord when the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Its intriguing plot turns on a state government-funded ‘Better Farming’ train, which rattles around rural Victoria in the 1930s, loaded with agricultural and domestic scientists preaching the gospel of science to farmers and their families. This was a book that demanded to be bought and read with the insistency of loud bells and flashing lights at level crossings. I was not disappointed.
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Needy Authors, Literary Hacks

In a tiny seventeenth-century cottage, fashioned from stone stables, I found the Idle Bookseller. Not that Ros Stinton lives up to her trade name, presiding as she does over the largest collection of books and pamphlets by or about the Victorian novelist George Gissing to be found anywhere. The shrine-cum-bookshop is up a steep flight of stairs at the back of her home, in Town Lane, Idle, once an ancient village but now swallowed up in the suburbs of Bradford. To the rear, which would have suited the mildly reactionary novelist, is the Idle Conservative Club. Down the road is the Idle Working Men’s Club, for which I imagine there is a long, if rather desultory, waiting list.
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The Ruthless Truth of War

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was invited to join a private train for its first – and, as it proved, only – excursion, from St Petersburg to Tashkent. Things in Russia had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. The streets of former Leningrad had been commandeered by homeless urchins and men in dark glasses with mobile phones. In a hotel bar, a drunken Red Army veteran pulled a pistol on me. Moscow seemed more dilapidated than ever, but L’Oréal perfume was on sale at the GUM store. As the train puffed south towards the Caspian Sea, blank and hungry faces stared from desolate village halts, and the carriage windows were locked for the passengers’ protection.
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The Spyglass of Tranquil Recollection

There are books which sit on our bookshelves for years, getting slightly more foxed as time passes. My Dubliners has followed me to five different addresses and, although a rather flimsy paperback (picked up second-hand, I see, for 1s 6d), remains in fairly decent condition. It was published in 1947 for Jonathan Cape by Guild Books, an imprint of the Publishers’ Guild ‘dedicated to bringing out the best from the lists of the twenty-six members’. I like the idea of trying to capture the spirit of a place through a series of stories such as Dickens’s sketches of London life, Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories and Jack London’s tales of San Francisco. Joyce wrote almost all his Dubliners’ stories away from Ireland and, like most of his work, they focus unremittingly on a brief period at the turn of the twentieth century – years around which the whole of his imaginative life revolved.
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Bentley Gently

Bentley Gently

One of the literary forms that has always given me most pleasure, in between the serious stuff, has been the clerihew, named after its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). Bentley was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph from 1912 to 1934. In 1905, a decade before he produced another of his inventions, the modern detective novel, with Trent’s Last Case, he published a slim volume entitled Biography for Beginners, which opens, under the heading ‘Introductory Remarks’, with this four-liner: The Art of Biography / Is different from Geography. / Geography is about Maps, / But Biography is about Chaps.
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Islands of the Mind

Islands of the Mind

I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn.
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A Whiff of Sulphur

When an Italian friend recommended a Sicilian writer of detective fiction called Leonardo Sciascia (and pronounced, in the author’s island dialect, as sash-arr), I listened politely but unenthusiastically. He explained that I should begin with A Man’s Blessings, first published in English in 1968 (and in 1992 reissued under the title To Each His Own). In this book, I was told, I would discover the essence of the Sciascia style, and if it was not to my taste I would be saved reading anything else by him.
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Dining in Parnassus

Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.
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Murder Most Civilized

Murder Most Civilized

When I was at school I tried to start an Agatha Christie Club. Number of members (including the Chairman – myself ): three. Number of meetings: zero. This somewhat unenthusiastic response has not tempered my love of ‘good old Agatha’, although she was rather – as one of my friends described her – ‘a fascist in tights’. In her huge collection of whodunnits, the dodgy women always live around Bayswater, there is always a ten-to-one chance that the husband did it, and in Poirot, her much-loved Belgian detective, she gives us a wonderfully clichéd portrait of A Foreigner. But perhaps that’s why I enjoy her books. Reading Agatha Christie is a welcome relief from both political correctness and the convolutions of the modern world. She wrote books you can take into hospital with you – indeed, they were what my mother read when she was awaiting the birth of the Agatha Christie Chairman – or curl up with when you feel like being simultaneously scared and sentimental about an age you didn’t even experience.
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Legging It for Lotte

Werner Herzog, the German film-maker, was friends with the late Chatwin (on the subject of walking they once compared legs together). He is known for such expansive and luminous works as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and recently Grizzly Man, as well as some eye-catching stunts in real life. He pulled a ship through jungle and pointed a gun at an actor. But that winter journey? The resulting book? It appeared rather slimly, all of eighty-eight pages. Vom Gehem im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, outdoes his other exploits by a country mile.
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