May 31, 2009
I’ve never been one for light reading in the summer. With my teaching duties suspended, summer is the time when I can read purely for myself. When the hot sun beckons — if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I must have been a sun-worshipper in a past life — I like to lather up the sunscreen and head to the garden or the beach with notebooks, pens, and a few volumes deserving of serious study. This summer, I find that most of the books I’ve piled up for that kind of attention are those I gathered in independent bookstores in England.
In April, I had the honor of spending a week as Blackwell Books Writer-in-Residence for the Oxford Fringe Festival, held in conjunction with the annual Sunday Times Literary Festival. This is the first time that the bookshop has had writers-in-residence — there were two of us, an elegant and charismatic Italian fiction writer, Simonetta Agnella Hornby, and me, an American poet — a program created by the dynamic Rita Ricketts, fierce champion of writers of all genres, ages, and levels of accomplishment. This was my second visit to the Fringe under her direction. I first read at Blackwell in 2006, on a reading tour for Orpheus in the Park.
Blackwell has a long and fascinating history, documented by Rita in her book Adventurers All; it’s also a great place to buy books. Big enough to wander comfortably in, staffed by people who really love and care about books— including the wonderful Heather, who runs the poetry and drama floor — the Oxford’s Blackwell is five floors of heaven for bibliophiles. Last year, I picked up poetry collections by Jamie McKendrick (Faber & Faber), Grevel Lindop (Carcanet), and Jane Griffiths (Bloodaxe, my current favorite of Britain’s poetry presses), along with a now dog-eared, much underlined copy of Lindop’s edition of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
This year, my husband and I ordered a big box of books to be shipped home, most notably Pursuit: The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder. Perhaps best known as the publisher of Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs, Calder’s history of brave, independent publishing, his championing of censored writers, and his whole-hearted commitment to writers and writing, make him a true hero. His appearance at the festival was a highlight for us. We also come home with two books from Chris Andrews Publishing, the beautiful illustrated Oxford Scene: A View of the University and City, and Heinstein of the Airwaves, a collection of essays by BBC radio announcer and transplanted American Bill Heine. The latter is a terrific read, full of insights into a side of Oxford I’ve raarely seen on my literary travels, while Oxford Scene is absolutely gorgeous, filled with Andrews’ spectacular photos of this town that has won my heart. Now I don’t have to decribe the place to my pals — I can just show them Chris Andrews’ book and see their eyes widen.
I should mention here that another highlight was the number of good, as yet unpublished writers we heard. Poets Adele Bernstein and Henry Bew and fiction writer Mark Pritchard are all writers whose first books I look forward to holding in my hands — along with my husband, Jimmy Patterson, who, on the last day of the festival, read one of my favorite selections from his upcoming book, Bermuda Shorts, at Blackwell.
Another favorite bookshop in Oxford is the Book House, in Summertown. On my first visit there, in 2006, the proprietor asked me if I had “loyalty card.” Not familiar with that usage, I raised my right hand, as if swearing an oath, and said, “Do you mean, I love England, I love England, I love England?” She eyed me skeptically and replied, “Well, no need to get carried away.” I’ve been in love with the place ever since. On that first visit, I bought Elizabeth Jennings Collected Poems; this time, it was Sarah Maitland’s Silence, along with a terrific Rough Guide to the Lake District, which was our destination after the festival.
In the Lake District, lodged at the Swann in Grasmere, we discovered Sam Read Books our first day. Despite its small size, this shop has a wonderful variety of titles. We picked guides to the local flora and fauna, including the wonderfully named Know Your Sheep, as well as Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, edited by Pamela Woolf. The Wordsworth Museum also has a fine bookshop where we bought CDs of Ian McKellan reading The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. He’s almost as good as my father was at capturing Coleridge’s magic aloud!
Back in London for a day and a night before flying home, we made our way to Bloomsbury and the London Review Book Shop. Jimmy says this is a place of pilgrimage for me, and in a way, he’s right –- theirs is the best poetry section I’ve EVER seen, and the drama, fiction and political sections are all pretty wonderful, too. This year, my haul from LRBS included Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love, as well as On Trying to Keep Still, a book of essays by Jenny Diski, whose prose I’ve been admiring in the London Review of Books for some years, and a book of poems everyone in Oxford seemed to be talking about — The Lost Leader, by Mick Imlah, who died shortly after the book was published. Now I’m searching for a good book on Scottish myths and legends to help me explore the sources of his poems.
Back at home, I dove first into a few titles I’d collected at Washington, DC’s own Politics & Prose — Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, in which their friendship just gleams, and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a lovely, well-considered book by one of my favorite literary biographers, Brenda Wineapple. And my longtime pal, the fiction writer and teacher Glenn Moomau just sent me The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I bounced off of Eugenides’ second book, Middlesex, which managed to make its supposedly titillating subject matter quite dull, but I’m willing to try his first novel on Glenn’s recommendation — after all, he’s the guy who introduced me to Don DeLillo and Tom Waits, among others. And I’ve already blasted through Sparks’ book — having seen the movie at an impressionable age, I was afraid that the shadow of Maggie Smith would hang over my shoulder as I read, but Sparks’ tense, neurotic, strangely sympathetic heroine is as engaging on the page as she was when embodied by that formidable actress.
By the way, I’m a fast reader. So if you’ve got suggestions for further exploration, I’d love to hear them. Send them to me at [email protected].