Thursday, 28 May 2009


One of the great pleasures of bibliophilia is the discovery and acquisition of interesting or attractive second-hand books, be they bizarre titles perched on the fringes of literary endeavour or previously unknown editions of familiar favourites. Here are some I've added to the bookshelves recently.

A beautiful boxed paperback set of the Earthsea trilogy (before it outgrew that classification and became a pentalogy (?)). These are books to which I return time and again, and I think they represent the best in that hideously overcrowded genre of young adult science fantasy.

The first - I think - paperback edition of Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick. It's hard to choose between the sparkling gems that comprise the Vonnegut canon, but this exuberant, disturbing and hilarious farce is one of my favourites. I was once on the way to realising my ambition to have several different editions of each of his books, but the mundane requirements of space intervened. If the world had had any sense, it would have relinquished total global control to Mr. Vonnegut before his sad death in 2007. But then, if the world had had any sense, his writing would not have been necessary.

Finally, a book published in 2000 by No Exit Press, called Straight from the Fridge, Dad - a Dictionary of Hipster Slang. This little hardback contains such essential vocabulary as:

Dead presidents - meaning cash money, dollar bills


Hot-seat fodder - meaning criminal

as well as a plethora of terms describing such activivites as it is not appropriate to describe in a decent family blog.

Until next time, hep cats.


Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Discreet Charm of George Orwell

I'm delighted to introduce another guest blog from Craig Nova, author of the forthcoming (patience, now) Incandescence. Here he celebrates the warmth and wit of George Orwell.

The first item to consider, or so it seems to me, when thinking about George Orwell, is what should be called Orwell’s Law, which might be put this way. People do not look at the facts and then make a decision about a subject. Instead, they make up their minds and then look for facts that fit what they already think.

One of the delights of this discovery or this law is to see that it applies not only to politics, but to almost all human activities where decisions are made. For a writer, one of the most perfect examples is book reviewing. The decision to give a book a good or bad review is often made before the first word is read, and this is so because the editor of a book page has made up his or her mind
about just what’s what where books are reviewed.

But I am intrigued and charmed by another aspect of George Orwell, and it is one that is more or less constant in the books I read from time to time. These are the four volumes of the Collected Essays Journalism & Letters of George Orwell. You would think that a man like Orwell, so consumed with politics and the darkness of them, would be constantly gloomy, blind to almost everything but the latest conspiracies in various parts of the world.

In fact, another Orwell emerges from these books, and this one is
charming, and, as a sort of multiplier of charm, all the more so because this is so unexpected. For instance, he wrote a piece about Woolworth’s roses, and what a good thing it is to plant them when you can. He did so at a house where he was living and years later came back to find an enormous bush, filled with blooms. Or, he wrote another piece about the English Toad, which, in its sincerity and subdued delight leaves me with a fondness for the man. Another example is his description of what an English pub should be.

One of the most charming aspects of this writing is Orwell’s lovely belief that ordinary life could be improved. In an age before the dishwasher, a device, I’m sure, that he would have applauded, he thought that there had to be some way to get around the drudgery of doing the dishes. Here’s the scheme he came up with. He thought that a business should be started that did the dishes for you, and the model for this was the delivery of milk. In the evening, after you had had dinner, you would put the dishes in a wooden box and leave it on the doorstep. A man, in a van, would come by, pick up the box of dirty dishes and leave a box of clean ones. Then the dirty dishes would be taken to a sort of central factory, where they could be washed more efficiently than at home.

In these concerns, roses, toads, washing dishes, what a good pub should be I find another aspect of a man whom almost all writers respect, and this other aspect is friendly, charming, and it leaves me with the feeling that Orwell, in the right circumstance, would be glad to sit down and have a pint of beer with the reader.

Thanks, Craig. Do I hear the patter of literary feet as their owners seek out various editions of the Collected Orwell?


Tuesday, 26 May 2009


This is a 'meme' about books that's been doing the blog rounds.  Read, paste, delete my answers and pass it on....

1) What author do you own the most books by?
Kurt Vonnegut

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
Slapstick, by Kurt Vonnegut.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Other things better occupy my bother slots.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
Sally Lockhart from Philip Pullman's Victorian pastiche detective series.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
The Once and Future King, I think.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?
I have no idea.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
Capuchin Classics' very own Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (no, honestly).

9) If you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be?
The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Kurt Vonnegut, posthumously.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I look forward to having one.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
A forgotten Star Trek novel.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
Possibly (and ironically, as they're children's books)
The Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
I've only seen the blockbusters.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
For what?

18) Roth or Updike?
Have read neither, shamefully.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
As above.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Shakespeare is the colossus of not only the literary but possibly any cultural world.

21) Austen or Eliot?

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

23) What is your favourite novel?
The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien.

24) Play?
Endgame by Beckett.

25) Poem?
The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice.

26) Essay?

27) Short story?
Anything from
On Becoming a Fairy Godmother, by Sara Maitland.

28) Work of nonfiction?
Fermat's Last Theorem, by Simon Singh, and any Ordnance Survey map.

29) Who is your favourite writer?
Kurt Vonnegut.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
JK Rowling.

31) What is your desert island book?
The Bible.

32) And... what are you reading right now?

Tuesday, 19 May 2009


The author of the very interesting and well-written literary blog - Frisbee: a Book Journal - has just posted an enthusiastic review of Capuchin Classics' How I Became a Holy Mother and other Stories, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  

To quote the blog's author, who goes by the web-name of Mad Housewife:

How I Became a Holy Mother is a beautiful collection of short stories, in which Jhabvala explores the lives of Indian film stars, singers, wealthy older women, students, housewives, spinsters and other unique characters.  Some of these characters are contentedly ensconced in extended families, while others restlessly seek fulfillment outside the  demarcations of tradition.

Ms Housewife (dare I speculate on whether her close friends call her 'Mad'?)  writes entertainingly on a range of books and literary subjects, and I particularly enjoyed her humorous ruminations on what kinds of books one should be seen reading at a coffee house, and what images these books project to fellow caffeine users.

Frisbee contains many stimulating reviews and interesting suggestions for additions to its readers' bookshelves, and is heartily recommended.

Check it out, as the young people probably don't say any more.


Litotes: an expression in which something is asserted by the denial of its opposite, e.g. "Hampstead is not an unattractive borough".


Friday, 15 May 2009


I wanted to further politely gush about The Conclave, now that our reissue has been released.  This wonderful book weaves together the life, loves, thoughts and feelings of its main character - Martin Knight - with a brilliant evocation and description of the professional, social and cultural worlds of the 1980's.

The best way to recommend the book is, I think, to let it speak for itself, so here are a few passages.

Thus, at a time when Great Britain was beginning to be spoken of as two nations—one poor, the other extremely wealthy—Martin Knight could exist in a small world which enjoyed the benefits of credit. Every aspect of daily life, from travelling to shopping, appeared to be reinventing itself, as a process, for those people who did not have to consider the cost. A new class of Briton, neither upper nor lower in background, was busily extending the scope of his territory. And it was a curious world which this new class inhabited; there was a prevalent attitude, comprising of a myriad impressions, amongst its young members, that some comforting spree was getting under way. Whilst, occasionally, the politics of that era were vehemently criticised by those who were enjoying the illusion of opulence that was being created, the illusion itself was so strong and so persuasive that its boundaries could not be perceived. For this particular class, participating in a self-assured, cosmetic renaissance, all things appeared possible. Their tastes and their ambition flattered, a generation of young consumers was taking up residence in an urban wonderland. Later, Martin would say that they were led like lambs to the slaughter.

That autumn, which was filled with mist in the early evenings, could be regarded for Martin and Marilyn’s crowd as the beginnings of the giddy ascent to the zenith of disposable income. It was a time when the principal London railway termini could boast booths that sold nothing but smoked salmon and squat jars of Dijon mustard; and it was approaching a time, so the curators of apocrypha would later say, when a man’s ambition could be measured by the colour of his braces.

The affluence of the times appeared to dispel all notions of doubt. From his friends in the City, Martin was continually hearing stories of vast salaries offered over lunch, or of personal fortunes made with a single phone call. Whilst the facts behind these legends remained obscure, Martin considered his own affluence to be an extension of their mythology. In many ways he had merely drifted into success, whilst the basis of his situation was childlike in its simplicity: he spent far more than he earned, but his character was complicit with a culture which suggested that this was perfectly normal.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009


As an inter-Capuchin break, I've been reading and have just finished the clever and excellent Death at Intervals. This novel, translated from Jose Saramago's Portugese, is set in an unspecified country whose inhabitants' lives are transformed when it is discovered that Death has ceased to function within its boundaries. An initial euphoria is complicated and nullified as the profound social, poltical and moral drawbacks to this situation emerge and multiply.

A book such as this, which can so easily fall into ill-thought out whimsy or surreality for its own sake, depends on strong and consistent authorial tone and direction, qualities which are certainly in evidence here. One of the ways in which the book is sustained is through a marvellously deadpan but never flat writing style, which perfectly suits the increasing agonies of the poiticans and beuraucrats as they struggle to come to terms with the implications of their curse in disguise. The novel then assumes a different character as we are led into the life of Death and the background to her decision to down tools. Again, Saramago avoids the potential cliche and triteness in his anthropomorphism to create a credible - in the book's own terms - and engaging character.

Part social and political satire, part meditation on love, death and mortality, this was entirely a great read, selected by browsing more or less at random through the shelves of my local library.

Go buy or borrow a copy.


Thursday, 7 May 2009


A bumper crop of Capuchins has just appeared, namely:

Silas Marner - introduced by Jane Feaver;

Gulliver's Travels - refreshed by the inclusion of the marvelous satirical piece A Modest Proposal and a new introduction by Jeremy Paxman

Cashel Byron's Profession - George Bernard Shaw’s romp through the worlds of prize-fighting and romance

My Name is Aram - a collection of semi-autobiographical stories about a boy of Armenian descent, set in Fresno, California

You Shall Know Them - a brilliant and disturbing French novel exploring the definition of humanity, and

The Conclave - Michael Bracewell’s brilliant description of the Eighties’ search for happiness through material wealth and business success.

At the moment, however, I'm reading and relishing Norman Douglas's delicious prose and satirical characterisation in South Wind. Although the novel is ostensibly set on a fictional Italian island called Nepenthe, there is no doubt that the setting is infact Capri, and that the island, and the titular climatic phenomenon in whose path it lies, are as much a part of the story as the gallery of engrossing eccentrics who tread the pages of this remarkable work. It's an unusal and sometimes challenging read; there are long passages of glittering monologue in which the various characters reveal both their erudition and their perverse views on life, love and religion, and there seems to be very little plot as such, but the humour and panache in the writing are undeniable. Let me leave you with a taster:

It was not true to say of this gentleman that he fled from England to Nepenthe because he forged his mother's will, because he was arrested while picking the pockets of an old lady at Tottenham Court Road station, because he refused to pay for the upkeep of his seven illegitimate children, becuase he was involved in a flamboyant scandal of unmentionable nature and unprecedented dimensions, because he was detected while trying to poison the rhinoceros at the Zoo with an arsenical bun, because he strangled his mistress, because he addressed an almost disrespectful letter to the Primate of England beginnig "My good Owl" - or for any suchlike reason; and that he now remained on the island only because nobody was fool enough to lend him the ten pounds requisite for a ticket back again.

En danseuse - one of the many joyously lyrical specialist cycling terms employed by the French, meaning to stand - or 'dance' - on the pedals. Does it betray a significant cultural difference to learn that the English equivalent is 'honking'?


Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Not least among the many joys of working for an independent publisher is discovering the host of splendid independent bookshops who are flying the flag for individuality and literary enthusiasm.

Among those who have been particularly supportive of the Capuchin cause - and within whose walls you can find a good selection of our books - is WENLOCK BOOKS in Shropshire. This shop combines the venerable setting of a 15th Century grade II listed building with equally traditional bookselling skills and the latest technology to offer a rich experience on each visit. Among the other publishers championed here are Eland Books and Persephone, both of whose lists are also deeply admired by the Capuchin staff. Wenlock Books also caters to the classical music aficionado by stocking a range of labels including Naxos and Hyperion.

The CALDER BOOKSHOP near Waterloo has also been a good supporter. As well as offering a range of titles aimed at the more discerning literary palette, they host a number of literary events and launches which explore various themes and writers in international literature.

Finally, if you're wandering in the Cotswolds, panting for good books, THE CAMPDEN BOOKSHOP in Chipping Campden will provide what you seek.


Bummel. A ramble or journey without any particular purpose. See Three men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome; a superior book (in this blogger's opinion) to its better known counterpart.


Friday, 1 May 2009


The recent emergence of Cashel Byron's Profession by George Bernard Shaw reminded me of a lovely rural spot very close to my home.  Shaw's Corner, a National Trust property, was home to GBS for over forty years, features the famous revolving writing hut and an attractive garden and plays host to a number of  wonderful events, including al fresco performances of the great man's plays.   The house is embedded in the undersung, undulating Hertfordshire landscape, which is well worth a visit in itself and with which myself and my bicycle are thoroughly and happily familiar.

Cycling was a well-documented Shavian passion, and I came across a lovely quote today - from Michael Holroyd's biography - in the Daily Telegraph blog:

For someone physically timid, Shaw's experiments by bicycle were extraordinary. He would raise his feet to the handlebars and simply toboggan down the steep places. Many of his falls, from which he would prance away crying 'I am not hurt', with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism. The surgery afterwards was an education in itself. Each toss he took was a point scored for one or more of his fads. After one appalling smash (hills, clouds and farmhouses tumbling around drunkenly), he wrote: 'Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been. Nobody but a teetotaller would have faced a bicycle again for six months.' After four years of intrepid pedalling, he could claim: 'If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.'

This brings us nicely back to Cashel Byron, a novel about - among other things - prize-fighting, and about which GBS expounds at some length and with his renowned self-deprecatory wit in the preface.


Anent. About, concerning, derived from the Old English for 'alongside' and used in Norman Douglas' brilliant novel, South Wind, which we published last month.

Happy bank holiday reading, in between creosoting outbuildings and mowing lawns.