This was my selection for a recent trip I took. I tend to pack more books than clothes, because God forbid one gets stuck waiting for their plane without something to read! (and don’t judge me on the Mills & Boon, one needs variation in their selection).
If you love books (which I’m going to assume most of you do), then the one thing you must add to your bucket list is a trip to Argentina and Uruguay. Not the most obvious of choices, I know, but trust me when I tell you that you will not regret it. Here’s why.
Last month I spent 10 beautiful days in Buenos Aires and Montevideo generally feeling very good about myself. The reason being that almost every single street corner housed a bookshop and I felt very literary and intelligent while I browsed through their offerings. From run down, second-hand fares to slick branded chains and cozy independents, there are bookshops for everyone in these two cities. Here I will tell you about my top 3.
We stumbled across Libros del Pasaje on a sunny Monday afternoon in Palermo Soho (the bohemian neighbourhood in Buenos Aires) whilst trying to find somewhere to eat – a task that was developing into quite the adventure.
As soon as I entered I had one of those ‘WOW, this-is-where-I-belong’ moments.
If you’re not a hardcore books person, then I’ll give you room to cringe, but the rest of you know what I’m talking about – the floor to ceiling shelves, the rolling ladders, the cozy chairs, the creaking stairs, the coffee shop nestled in a corner…. It was just perfect.
Though it was my last day in Buenos Aires, I couldn’t resist spending a couple of hours in the sunny conservatory eating my cake and reading my book. A rare moment of serenity in the bustle of Buenos Aires. This place is a real treat.
It’s strange because I don’t know the name of the bookshop, but the cafe upstairs is called PV Restaurant & Lounge. I had some beautiful scones there, washed down with this uh-mazing hot chocolate (it was surprisingly windy and freezing in Montevideo). I swear it had massive chunks of real chocolate just melting all over the place.
The beautiful stained glass windows, the grand staircase leading you up to the first floor (or, alternatively, there’s an ornate, old-school elevator that can crank you up); it’s all so elegant yet so cozy and welcoming.
Now for the final bookshop (which is back in Buenos Aires), set in an old theatre and is just simply so breathtaking in its grandeur.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just so very cool, with the box seats set up as private reading nooks and the main stage having been converted into a cafe. What’s not to love?
What made me sad about all this is that we don’t have anything even remotely like this in London. Amazon has taken over the publishing world and all the independents have closed their doors, leaving us with the likes of Waterstones and WH Smiths. Life is unfair. Make up for that by taking a trip to South America.
Everyone’s talking about this book, and it has to be said that I’m not the sort of person who reads the books that everyone is talking about (case in point, ’50 Shades of Nonsense’). However, I saw the author in person a few months ago and, you know, he was kinda hot, so I gave in to the hype and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.
I cannot remember the last time that I was so absorbed in a book that I actually switched off my Netflix. I was so desperate to see how the book ended that I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night/Monday morning (knowing full well I would suffer at work the next day) just inhaling the book. That I am a slow reader is a fact. That I finished this 640 page novel in one busy weekend is another fact. This is such an effortless read, the pages simply turn themselves.
If you’re not one of those people talking about this book, then let me give you a bit of background information. The book was first published in France in 2012 and has since sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages and has also won some literary prizes in France. Plus, the writer is only now 28 years old and looks like this:
Anyhow, back to the book. Marcus Goldman is our lazy but likeable protagonist who has achieved continuous success throughout his life, due to the very simple fact that he only competes in situations where he’s guaranteed to win, against people who he knows to be weaker than he is (and the one time he saw that he was not going to win a race, he chose to deliberately break his leg rather than allow the illusion of “Marcus the Magnificent” to be tarnished):
‘In order to be magnificent, all that was needed was to distort the way others perceived me; in the end, everything was a question of appearances.’
The book opens in New York in the spring of 2008 where Marcus is experiencing severe writer’s block. His publishers are on his case and are threatening to sue if he doesn’t deliver the follow up to his wildly successful debut. In search of inspiration, Marcus goes to New Hampshire to visit his old college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, a novelist still famous for a single book he wrote in the 70s. This trip doesn’t work for Marcus’s creativity so he goes back to New York, resigned to the fact that his career is now over.
Except, a few weeks later, he receives an urgent call from his agent urging him to switch on the TV. Harry’s in trouble and is all over the news: The body of a 15 year old girl who went missing 33 years ago has been found buried in his back yard. Buried with her is the original manuscript of Harry’s famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Maybe, now, Marcus has something to write about. Harry is quickly arrested and admits to having had an affair with the young girl. The national media hang him out to dry – not only is he a murderer, but a paedophile to boot. There is one thing though: Harry swears to Marcus that he did not kill Nola Kellergan, in fact, she was the love of his life. Marcus, eager to clear his friend’s name, heads back to New Hampshire to start his own investigation into what really happened on August 30, 1975, the day Nola went missing, the day the little town of Somerset, New Hampshire lost its innocence.
On the surface, Somerset is a quaint little New England town, but as the investigation progresses, one has to wonder if, perhaps, Somerset hadn’t lost its innocence long before Nola went missing. Marcus stays in Harry’s house receiving threatening mail as he continues to uncover the truth about the affair, writing his surefire bestseller as he goes along. This novel is as much about publishing and the writing process as it is about the Kellergan murder (very self-reflexive, metafictional stuff). There’s an interesting cast of characters here, a couple of which were slightly exaggerated and caricaturish, but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at the (often dark) humour exhibited in their conversations. There’s the chauffeur with a distorted face, the pastor with the Harley motorbike and, of course, the seemingly unknowable Nola Kellergen herself, the object of Harry’s obsession. I was often struck by how young Nola came across. She would accuse Harry of being ‘mean’ to her and once said of God, “If you believe in Him, I will too.” On these occasions I found it difficult to understand why Harry was so consumed by her, why ‘once she had entered [his] life, the world could no longer turn properly without her.’ How could an academic have a relationship with someone so naive and childlike? But then we are told by a Somerset local:
‘That girl was madly in love with Harry. What she felt for him was something I had never felt myself, or I couldn’t remember ever having felt, for my own wife. And it was at that moment that I realised, thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl, that I had probably never been in love. That lots of people have never been in love. That they make do with good intentions; that they hide away in the comfort of a crummy existence and shy away from that amazing feeling that is probably the only thing that justifies being alive.’
The narrative flicks back and forth between 1975 and 2008, slowly piecing the facts together. Or at least what we believe to be facts. There are so many twists and turns in this novel so be warned that as soon as you’re convinced of one thing, several chapters later you will learn something new that weakens your conviction. This is your classic whodunnit at its best. There are 31 chapters in this book, and Dicker has very cleverly started off with chapter 31, making the reader work their way down to chapter 1 where we finally find out:
The last chapter is filled with pleasing revelations that allow everything to finally lock into place. It is only then that you’re able to let out the breath that you didn’t even realise you were holding.
I, personally, didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it, but I did recently watch the film on a rainy Netflix weekend and was left perplexed as the end credits rolled: the big twist in this blockbuster thriller is that the girl who everyone thought was dead had actually escaped in the boot of a car? Really?! That was Larsson’s great achievement? If critics have time to commend Larsson, then the same (actually, more) credit is due to Dicker. His story is much more layered, more intriguing and a hell of a lot more clever. Fact.
The British critics haven’t been very nice about this book (pretty brutal, actually), and I don’t think they’re being fair to Dicker. I do imagine that some of the elegance of the prose was lost in translation so, yes, there were one or two occasions when I felt the writing felt a bit basic (descriptive passages in particular), where the dialogue didn’t ring quite true, but did this detract from my overall enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I was, honestly, gripped. I sighed through my weekend engagements, my eyes lingering longingly on the book nestled in my bag, made my excuses to leave early and kept reading as I changed lines on the tube, unapologetically bumping into people as I walked. I just HAD to to know what would happen next, I had to finish it. And was then sad when I did. In the words of Harry Quebert:
The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly plotted murder mystery, cleverly constructed. Though it might not be as literary as the French claimed it was, it ultimately does not matter because it’s a bloody good read.
So it turns out that I have a book blog and I haven’t posted anything on it in about six months. Yup. I think I passed the embarrassed stage about three months ago, now I just look at this blog fondly as a thing of the past. Get all nostalgic and sh*t about that time when I used to post more than once a week; it’s great. ANYHOW.
I recently (two months ago) went to a David Sedaris event. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as it was a ticketed event in a concert hall (wasn’t cheap) and it was titled ‘An Evening with David Sedaris’. Was he going to do some stand-up, read from his new book, mingle with his fans in a room of swirling cognacs? Turns out that is exactly what the evening was (minus the cognac).
I don’t remember the last time I had such a good time. So much so that I stopped feeling resentful about the money I had spent to go and see him. I laughed so hard throughout the evening, listening to David (we’re totally on first name terms now) recounting stories and reading diary entries in his surprisingly high pitched voice. I, honestly, fell in love with the man.
The evening was coming to a close and David said he’d be outside signing books for a short while. Which reminded him of a time when a young guy came to one of his events and said his mum was a huge fan of David’s and would he mind writing something outrageous in her copy of one of his books. Naturally, David wrote ‘Your son left teeth marks on my dick’. HAHAHA. The boy was horrified.
My friend (whom I had very kindly introduced to the world of Sedaris) and I decided to get our books signed. The queue wasn’t moving particularly fast as some fans had his entire backlist with them that they wanted specially signed. Double sigh. So our moment finally came and my friend was nervous, which then made me nervous, which normally results in me talking too fast and laughing too hard at people’s jokes. And overcompensating for my quiet friend.
I asked David to write something outrageous in mine, and as I’m black, I wanted him to write something that was inappropriate and racist. He started telling me a story about a dog shelter run by some elderly people. Long story short, there was an important dinner being held and the words ‘black bitch’ were unknowingly thrown around in reference to a dog they wanted to move out of the shelter. This got us to the following inscription in my book:
I have to say, it was funny how, in a matter of minutes, he picked up on the dynamics of the relationship between me and my friend.
We talked to him some more and then made our exit. I was really impressed with how he took the time to speak to each person in that very long line, not the usual “Thanks for coming” type sh*t, but genuine conversation. If ever you get a chance to go to one of his readings, I highly recommend you do.
By his own admission Eric Nye is an asshole, ‘and not loyal to anyone, not even [him]self.’ He’s what you’d get if American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Mad Men‘s Don Draper gave birth to a man-child. “Chief Idea Officer” at Tate, a New York City ad agency, the bonus on top of Eric’s already six figure salary is dependent on him firing 50% of his staff – a task that he carries out with “HR Lady”, relishes and draws out for his own entertainment.
‘We pretend with each other in big, long sighs that it was difficult work, very hard, we would go out afterwards and have a nice meal and get shitfaced and take limos home and expense it because of how difficult it was.’
SO; all appears to have been going as well as could be expected in the life of Eric Nye until “Intern” entered his life. After an almost one night stand, Eric finds that despite the fact he can’t remember her name, she’s now interning at his agency. Intern soon begins to stalk him, turning up wherever he may be to the point where Eric starts to question who’s stalking whom. For no logical reason, he can’t seem to get her out of his head, leading to his slow unravelling… Another chance encounter leads to a complaint against him being filed with HR, but there’s something about Eric that makes it very difficult to believe everything he’s telling you. Is the intern to have a cathartic effect on him?
Eric is a darkly fascinating character. A guy who says things like ‘For no reason I consider hitting on birch-like juice girl but I fear there is too high a chance she will say yes‘, and ‘I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly imaginative‘, and who dismisses a beautiful view of the New York skyline as it’s ‘trying too hard.’ That he’s a jackass is no question, but he’s a hilarious jackass. Or at least I thought so. Even when he’s making certain staff members jump hoops, knowing full well he’s about to fire them, you can’t help but laugh because his cruel indifference knows no bounds (especially because at the office, when he’s not firing people, he does absolutely nothing).
Living in a false world devoid of any real interactions, Eric struggles with his ‘unalterable inability to deal with [his] unreality.’ It doesn’t appear like he’s able to stay still; restless, deeply jaded and dissatisfied with what life has to offer:
‘Waiting, I realise, isn’t the time between things, it’s the thing itself.’
There are deep echoes of American Psycho here, but if you find the endless listing of material possessions to be boring, you’re missing the point entirely. That listing is what makes American Psycho a classic. The essential difference between Nye and Bateman is that Nye is mocking himself when he reels off his material possessions, aware of some of the absurdities, whereas Bateman loved himself (interestingly, Nye experiences self-loathing) and his possessions; full stop. What struck me as being quite amusing is that Eric neither desires or needs any of these ridiculously expensive items he owns, but he buys them because he can, and often bespoke so he can prove a point.
For all that Eric lacks in character, he makes up for with the precision of his societal observations. He mocks the Brooklyn hipsters in a way that is so scathing, so sharp; I could not have articulated it better myself:
‘Never before have I seen so many people in one place who are exactly the same: the same age, the same race, the same wardrobe, the same facial hair, the same taste in music, socioeconomic background, college experience, shoes, political beliefs, and hair; but I suppose what really unites them is the shared fantasy that they are rebels.’
He goes to an art show called “Show Us Your Tits!” which features ‘lots of photos (taken, it seems, by anyone who can push the button on a camera) of girls flashing their breasts…I can’t decide if I like this show because it’s not really art at all, it’s just stupid, or if maybe I hate this shit because it’s trying so hard not to be art and there’s nothing more arty than that.’ Haha. Every major city has these hubs; in London the equivalent is Shoreditch/ Hackney.
Underneath the layers of dark wit and narcissism is an intelligent commentary on corporate America where we are told that ‘Advertising is how corporations outsource their lies.’
‘You see, what I think is interesting about what I do is that I personally don’t believe in what I do, or should I say that I believe very strongly that technology is actually destroying us as human beings, it’s taking away the fundamental truths about our humanity and making us pay to get them back: it’s called Creating Value.’
Without spoiling too much, the example he uses was quite an eye opener for me, showing how we have learned to buy back what was fundamentally ours to begin with.
This is a highly entertaining read that is, in parts, hilarious, and although Eric is indeed an asshole of the highest degree (as it says on the spine of the novel, he’s ‘a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.’) I couldn’t help but be taken in by his unashamed self-centredness. And what, exactly, is the Deep Whatsis? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.
I received my copy of The Deep Whatsis from the publisher (Other Press) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’
Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.
What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?
Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.
I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.
The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.
There are a lot of strange people in this world. Some of them make into bookshops and ask silly questions. Here are a selection of the most ‘omg-are-you-serious?’ questions and comments.
CUSTOMER: Did they make a film edition of the Bible when The Passion of the Christ came out? You know, the text of the Bible, but with Mel Gibson on the front cover?
CUSTOMER: Do you have an LGBT fiction section?
BOOKSELLER: We don’t have a specific section, but we do have LGBT literature – Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson etc Which author were you looking for?
CUSTOMER: Don’t worry, I’ll have a look through the fiction section – thanks for your help.
OTHER CUSTOMER: Sorry, did I hear you right? Did you just say that all the homosexual books are in with the normal fiction?
BOOKSELLER: All our fiction is one section.
(Other Customer looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and slides it back on the shelf)
CUSTOMER (pondering): How much would a signed copy of the Bible be worth?
BOOKSELLER: Signed by whom?
CUSTOMER: Well…I don’t know. Not God, obviously. (Nervous laugh.) That would be silly…wouldn’t it?
CUSTOMER: Pride and Prejudice was published a long time ago, right?
CUSTOMER: I thought so. Colin Firth’s looking really good for his age, then.
WOMAN (holding a copy of a Weight Watchers book in one hand, and The Hunger Games in the other): Which of these diet books would you recommend most?
CUSTOMER (to her friend): What about this book? (holds up a copy of The Hobbit).
CUSTOMER: No. I don’t want to read that. It’ll spoil the film.
CUSTOMER: Do you have audiobooks on sign language?
CUSTOMER: I’d like to buy a book for my wife.
BOOKSELLER: Sure, what sort of book?
CUSTOMER: I don’t know. Something…pink? Women like pink stuff, right?
CUSTOMER: Urgh. Shakespeare. He’s everywhere, isn’t he? You can’t escape him. I wish he’d do us all a favour and just die already.
CUSTOMER: I’m looking for the fourth Fifty Shades of Grey book.
BOOKSELLER: There are only three in the series.
CUSTOMER: No, there are four. I saw it in another shop yesterday. It’s really big. It’s called Fifty Shades Trilogy.
BOOKSELLER: …That’s the box set.
CUSTOMER: Do you have a copy of Atonement? But not the film cover, please. Keira Knightley’s neck makes me want to punch things.
101 short ‘stories’ (or paragraphs, really) each 101 words long, each one more bizarre than the last. I’ve had this book for years and find myself dipping into it whenever I feel like laughing. Each story is narrated by an unnamed man who is experiencing one difficulty or another with a girlfriend. The stories are disturbingly hilarious and undeniably dark with a common thread of absurdity running through them. Here’s a little taster; enjoy!
My girlfriend told me she had been the victim
of nature’s cruellest trick, that although born
male she had always felt female. She said she
had started dressing in women’s clothes at
the age of seventeen, and three years later
had undergone the necessary surgery. I was
stunned, but told her that I loved her first and
foremost as a person, and that I would give her
all the emotional support she needed. She
looked horrified. She had only been joking.
She left me. She said she was going to find a
real man, not some queer little gayboy like me.
I found my girlfriend smashing our two-year-
old’s toes with a rock. I told her to stop. ‘What
are you doing?’ I cried, above the baby’s
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ she said,
winding a bandage tightly around the crushed
digits. ‘It’s a woman thing. It’ll help her get a
‘But darling, don’t you remember what the
doctor told us? It’s a boy baby.’
‘Really?’ She looked surprised. ‘Oh well.
Men look nice with small feet too. I expect
he’ll be gay, anyway. He’s got that look about
him. See?’ I had to agree that she had a point.
My girlfriend started charging me for sex. She
said she had to think of her future, and
anyway her friends did it so why shouldn’t
she? I didn’t mind too much because her basic
rates were very reasonable, although she
always expected tips for extras. Once, as she
was holding the banknotes I’d given her up to
the light to make sure they were real, I asked
her if she ever went with anyone else for
money. She was furious, and asked what kind
of girl I thought she was. I said one with
laughing eyes, and lovely long dark hair.