Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Needing a psychic

I’m having an odd pang of longing today. It came reading John Rogers blog when he asked people to submit favourite pieces of writing. And one person submitted this:

"It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach."

- Iain Banks, The Crow Road

And I smiled because it is a brilliant bit of writing. At some point I’ll become depressed because it is a fucking awesome piece of writing that I will never hope to match, but right now I can just look at those two sentences and be happy. I still remember reading those opening lines, sitting in my damp apartment in Clarenville and being instantly hooked. It’s a great book and I really must sit down and reread it again at some point.

But no, it wasn’t for excellent writing that I was longing for today. The whole reason I read The Crow Road was due to a woman named Jocelyn who ran a little book store (I’m ashamed I can’t remember the exact spelling of the name, but I think it was Braewan Books) in downtown St. John’s years ago. A bad winter and Chapters ultimately killed the place. But I loved it for the fact that whenever I walked in, Jocelyn always said hi and had three of four recommendations for me.

And she was always right. Always. She helped introduce me to Andrew Vachss (although Vachss latest novel is garbage. A series of flashbacks in search of a plot. Vachss really feels like he’s phoning it in now.). She gave me a copy of Sophie’s World and I thought she was mad because I have almost no interest in philosophy, but the book was oddly charming.

And one day I walked in and she said, “Here, you should try this” and gave me a copy of Whit by Iain Banks. The book was a trade paperback and about $20 and was about a girl who was supposed to be the head of a Scottish religious cult. I was dubious, but I trusted Jocelyn a bit at this point, so I gave it a shot. The very next week I got the bus in from Clarenville, marched down to her book store and demanded more Iain Banks, which she conveniently just happened to have lying around. I didn’t have the money to buy more Banks, starving journalist that I was. But I didn’t care. The next two books she sold me were The Crow Road and Espedair Street. Again, among some of my favourite novels.

And this isn’t a cry for reading suggestions. I can go to Chapters right now and drop money (I’m trying very hard to resist as we’ve spent quite a bit of money recently). But it’s almost entirely on graphic novels. No, for whatever reason, when I read that quote from The Crow Road, I just flashed on how nice it was to have a person who impeccable reading taste and an almost psychic ability to know what people will like. I may never have even heard of the author. It might not be something I would be interested in, having read the description, yet it was something I ended up loving. And Jocelyn always seemed to know.

It’s a rare gift. I wish I had someone like that I trusted. I love Cathy, but our reading tastes rarely intersect. In fact, other than the Harry Potter books, I don’t think they even come close. I just find it hard to find good books to read today. They’re out there, I’m sure. But surfing the Chapters website isn’t the same. Even going into one of their stores and spending hours isn’t the same. I can still walk away frustrated that I didn’t see anything that grabbed my attention.

But walking into a tiny bookstore with a fraction of one per cent of the books that Chapters has, but almost always managing to come out with something great in my hands because of the owner’s psychic abilities…that’s what I’m missing today.

Last Five
1. Look happy, it's the end of the world - Matthew Good Band
2. Tomorrow never knows - The Beatles
3. Doesn't have to be this way - Allison Krauss and Union Station
4. Emergency roadside assistance - Sean Panting*
5. Listen like thieves - INXS

2 comments:

WJM said...

I can go to Chapters right now and drop money

I can't. Then again, I'm not into fiction, but it's been years since I've found anything at Chapters. Their Canadian history section used to go on for three stacks. Now it's three shelves, mainly in Pierre Berton.

They are to the left of the big sign over the escalators that say, "The World Needs More Canada".

But walking into a tiny bookstore with a fraction of one per cent of the books that Chapters has, but almost always managing to come out with something great in my hands because of the owner’s psychic abilities…that’s what I’m missing today.

When you pass through Ottawa, skip the downtown Chapters. Cross the street, into the cesspool that is the Rideau Centre, and if you can figure out how to get upstairs, check out Benjamin for good overstock (high-class "remainders") and scholarly press. Then go north a couple blocks to Nicholas Hoare on Sussex.

Clare said...

This post hit on so many levels Townie... I love the small independent bookstore. There were a couple in Saskatoon on Broadway that I loved. Run by people who knew writing, and knew people. I guess that makes them psychic.

And these days I constantly run across writing and think "It will never happen, but boy I wish I could write half that well."

One of the short pieces of fiction that did that the most for me was Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell A True War Story" - find it here ...
http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/pdocs/obrien_story.pdf