The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
A book is a wonderful gift because it incorporates both the intent and a flavour of the giver as well as, hopefully, the character and purpose of its recipient. The giver seeks to reflect themselves in the book chosen as well as match it to his quarry’s taste bud. But then so much of Christmas is schizophrenic.
Here are some suggestions, not based on any current publisher listings or bestseller status, but based on intuition (remember each of you are more than a statistic to any bookseller ££), based on overstocks I wish to rid myself of, and personal taste.
For aunts and uncles :-
To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield, a tearjerker that ricochets through English social life of the interwar years. Similarly with a Welsh theme, How Green is My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, an engaging barnstorm of a book, though humourous in retrospect because its author pulled off one of the literary frauds of the century, rivalling even Sholokhov (the book is convincingly autobiographical, as Llewellyn claimed, yet he had never even been to a mining village; the immense book and film royalties he wasted on a life of excess). Both are analgesic reads to compensate for the lack of Blankety Blank or the ‘Allo ‘Allo Christmas Special on TV, and both are sweeping narratives with plenty of paged paunch to last beyond Boxing Day. They’ll shut up otherwise troublesome guests who, like fish, can stink after a few days.
Three books of much more engaged and imaginative fare for parents, displacement reads to mask their own tears of nostalgia for when you were less barbaric and noisy than now :-
Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, fabulous and magical, guaranteed to leave any reader with a hangover of joy. J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, pastoral and spruce, which will delight as much now as when first published over forty years ago. Any of David Constantine’s selections of short stories, or his more recent novel The Life-Writer (who copy-Edited this title?).
For dangerous guests, or for anyone you want to present an image of self exoticism to, the following reads are recommended :-
Lars Iyer, whose Spurious Trilogoy was rampantly good, has published recently Wittgenstin Jr, whose chaotic and mutinous hero is a melancholic genius teaching at Cambridge. Two books of recent times, The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds, American in style and jaunt, and Todd McEwen’s The 5 Simple Machines, a brilliantly inventive foray in to the world of male sexual mechanics by an author who clearly wasn’t getting much slap and tickle at the time of writing, or perhaps too much.
For brothers and sisters who you consider to be a little bit dimmer than you, here are two book suggestions slightly more demanding than a Daily Mail crossword (but only just) :-
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the mouldy chestnut by Robert M. Pirsig (by accident I am currently overstocked with this and I want shot of its mundanity, help me out). James Rhodes’ Instrumental, a classical pianist making waves at the moment, though largely because of his substance abuse and an errant wardrobe as it seems to me that if he plays an octave scale he murders rarely less than, say, seven of the notes; interesting for what he says nonetheless, and we seem to love these hopeless, hapless, bleeding hearts, pace Russell Brand or Robbie Williams.
For those of you who have brothers and sisters just a little bit cleverer than you :-
Oxford man James Attlee’s Nocturne explores the meaning and moods of the moon; Gilad Atzmon, a perennial visitor to the shop, prods at political correctness in The Wandering Who?, a man who never irons or hoovers and whose wolf whistling will eventually break a pain of glass one way or the other.
And novels for children (that, like the best children’s writing, can be read also by adults):
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, full of so much more imagination and wit than anything C.S. Lewis could muster, in fact this book is Narnia does LSD. The best antidote to Narnia remains Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, an allegorical trilogy set in Oxford which, published head-to-head with Harry Potter, has outboxed and outlived its great rival; Northern Lights, the first in the series, is a brilliant romp. Clive King’s Stig of the Dump is a delightful and nostalgic book, though the plot falters and disappoints at the end (but name a book that can’t be saved by Edward Ardizzone’s cross-hatching, just look at the cover). Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is the headline act of children’s fantasy writing, beguiling, smart, and timeless (as are all of Garner’s books). For readers still in short trousers, Michael Morpurgo’s The Butterfly Lion has that mixture of enough attention to detail and a heady emotional pull to satisfy most computer addicted eight year-olds.
Picture books for younger children are published relentlessly, but two old chestnuts still stand out: Where the Wild Things Are proved Maurice Sendak to be a natural and brilliant successor to Ardizzone. And Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Cops and Robbers is the most engaging poetry for children ever written, verse asking to be read out loud to a child on your knee, where to contort your tongue and impress yourself with a funny voice and thespian talent for each of the book’s vivid characters is a natural; it’s also the most engaging of books for adults, to be cherished long after the blighter has gone to bed.
Christmas of yesteryear was a far more bookish festivity than it is today. A town like Oxford would have housed few Christmas trees that didn’t have packaged underneath them at least one book for every member of the household; our digital taste (and the low concentration level required to service it) moved this on more recently to a DVD under each tree, though I am not sure what is the default present these days. But perhaps apart from unnecessary things like world peace, a time warp wish list this year could include a book for each member of the family: a return to tactile values. Stuff the philosophy, rather bring some good cheer to your local bookseller, and books remain much better than cheap socks or naff perfume.