Tag Archives: books

Hisham Matar and the lost father.

His latest boook, The Return, has just been broadcast on BBC R 4.

It is heartbreaking and for that reason I don’t think I can now read the book. On the other  hand, it is so heartbreaking that I know I must read it.

The Return is  a memoir about his search for the father he fears he will never find.

In the Country of Men, a novel, is about a child’s search for his father. It ranks high in my chosen books and I have always been glad I read it. I am now reading it again.

It is about a marvellous man – the father in the story – who disappears from his home in Libya, is sought in Cairo and disappears again.

Since writing the novel, Matar has gone in search of his father again and so found out more about him.  The memoir is about loss and also about the man who has  been lost.  Lost forever? Only the writer knows.

The final sentences in the radio broadcast were so powerful that I was left alone, in the silent kitchen, the only other person there with me Hisham Matar.



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What’s it like when your book is remaindered?


Mary Russell

My books, my homing pigeons

First you write a book and your publisher sells it. Fine. Then it’s remaindered or the publishing house closes. Happened to me twice – and on both occasions I bought 50 copies of each book, giving them later to unsuspecting relatives at Christmas or substituting them for those bottles of cheap wine you bring to dinner parties.

Fool. I should have bought the lot because now I’m forced to go cap in hand to second-hand booksellers – Amazon even – looking for copies of my own books to buy. Why? Because my most recent book – a travel book about Syria before the war – has reawakened an interest in my remaindered books and I get asked for them at book festivals and when giving readings.

A check of second-hand online booksellers reveals more than 50 copies on offer, which is great. However, closer investigation proves dispiriting. ‘Pristine condition’, trills the seller, meaning it’s never been read – though http://www.usedbooksearch.co.uk distinguishes between ‘gently-used books’ and, I suppose, those that have been hurled around like bags aimed at a carousel.


‘Some tanning’ means the book has been lying on a window sill among the dried up geraniums for aeons.’Ex-library’ means no one was reading it and anyway they needed the space. But at 0.01p per copy plus £2.50 postage you can’t complain especially if you manage to sell it at a reading, which is the whole point of the exercise.

So what’s it like, having your own book return complete with pages turned down or possibly a coffee-cup ring? One came winging back to me with a postcard inside  from one reverend person to another, describing his holiday in Scotland with  Hilda though glad to to be back home and hoping the recipient enjoys the enclosed book.

Another had, inside, one of those address stickers Oxfam send to encourage you to buy your Christmas cards from them – except the name was that of one of my neighbours. And he never said. Cheek.

Then there are the sellers.A hospice in Sussex badly needs  £3 million and all I’m buying is one book and, oh look, here’s one that’s run by an NGO that helps people facing discrimination. Then there’s Tree Savers who are committed to recycling books rather than pulping them which, in the second-hand book world is tantamount to stamping on butterflies. According to the Publishers Association, 61 million books were returned unsold to publishers in the UK last year and that’s a lot of trees but nevertheless, says the PA, pulping is a last resort.

The idea of pulping a book is so terrible that now I lie awake at night worrying about adding to the crime of deforestation and the effects on the environment. Up till then, I thought saving  my own books from pulping and wearing bamboo socks would do the trick.

However, take heart. No book is an unwanted book, a librarian in Killarney tells me. They’re simply redistributed or sold to readers.

The problem is space. At home, you can pile them up on the stairs or under the bed, but neither of these options is open to libraries. And no, no books are pulped, Jane Mason of Oxfordshire County Libraries says firmly. Instead, they circulate theirs among their 43 branches, which also hold regular book sales.

Where do they all come from, these pre-used though much-loved books? James Carruthers, who runs the Oxfam Bookshops, says many just come through the door as donations. Jake Pumphrey, responsible for The Last Bookshop – with branches in Salisbury, Oxford and Bristol – says he is in the secondary market not the second-hand book trade, which means he buys remaindered books from publishers at a reduced rate: ‘Publishers often print too many copies and with warehousing so expensive they sell on to us.’ Anything other than pulping.

Newspapers are usually awash with books. The Irish Times, for which I freelance, regularly holds an internal sale, the frenzy of which leaves the Harrods one standing. There’s also the case of the review copy. One of my books was self-published and my publicist – yes, that’s me as well – sent out review copies to all the reputable broadsheets and within two weeks some of those were being offered on Amazon. Cute hoors, those newspapers.

My recent trawl through the booksellers led me to one who advertised The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt quite poetically: ‘Unread, slight scent to mask damp smell: kept in an attic for 20 years.’ I emailed him and we chatted. ‘It was my mother’s,’ he said, ‘and I found it after she died. I’ll miss it but it really belongs to you.’

Reader, I bought it.


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Writers’ Irish Hideaway

This time next week, it’ll all be over – except for New Years Eve. Have you thought about that – the promises to self, the losing of weight, the giving up of drink, the writing of that book…. I won’t go on. It causes too much pain this giving up business. Why not a bit of affirmation instead? Yep, I’ll do this, definitely do that, go there, read that book. Do something you really enjoy doing.

For starters, how about checking out a lovely new writers’ retreat I discovered in Birr recently: the Tin Jug. Brainchild of interior designer Rosalind Fanning, the retreat is actually a fine Georgian townhouse in Birr where you have your own room – I had the Red Room.  Breakfast is left discreetly on the landing for you and the evening meal is served by the blazing turf fire.

Here’s the Red Room:

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And here’s the welcoming glass of wine on my first night at the Tin Jug:

birr,ox garden binsey fete, eta  septoct 2014 070

To find out more, go to http://www.tinjugstudio.com. The Tin Jug has a writers’ residency week which is worth exploring.  If you found this post useful, maybe have a look at my website: http://www.maryrussell.info

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Looking for a quiet moment in Oxford?

   Why not take a seat?


Here’s when and where:


And why not have a read while you’re here?


Ooops, nothing on the shelves? Hang on a mo:


Book delivery has taken place. And Sainsbury’s do a little product placement with a spot the photographer competition thrown in for free.


Grateful thanks to Oxford City Council. Do come again.

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A few books I’ve read recently.




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I’m difficult  to please and though right now I don’t want any distractions perversely, right now,  I actually  want a book that will distract me.

So in the library I head for the books marked Chosen by Us. First up is Fleet Street Fox by Susie Bonaface. Susie writes the tremendously popular blog about being a Fleet St journalist  which gets 100.000 hits a  month. The book is autobiographical, detailing the breaking up with Twatface (her partner) who leaves her for Fatty – his new main squeeze.  And so on.  To avoid being sued or giving people an inflated ego, she has combined five or six real people into one invented person. That didn’t work for me and so I replaced it on the shelf though I suspect it won’t have stayed there long.

 Next up was a book called Vox by Nicholson Baker. This is a book about phone sex. (What is it about sex and librarians?) Anyway, its claim to fame is that Monica Lewinsky (remember her?) gave a copy of it to Bill Clinton ( remember him?).  It’s a very long conversation about what each one would do to the other and they’re both terribly polite to and caring towards each other. There are references to portable phones which must be why Clinton looks so old these days. Monica managed to look middle-aged even at 21. Vox also went back on the shelf: there’s only so much you can take of a good thing.

And then we come to Whatever You Love, by Louise Doughty and I tell you –  I couldn’t put it down. This is the story of a child’s death and of a marriage breakup but towards the last third, the writer rachets up the drama and excitement and turns it into a thriller.

 The narrative rollicks along and though the whole thing is constructed so that we fast forwards and then backwards, the seams  don’t show. Novels about the trivia of domestic life don’t interest me – I know all about that – but Doughty has the gift of setting a scene in, say, a kitchen, with all the minute   details of what was in the knife drawer or how much caster sugar was spilled on the granite worktop without being tiresome – and that takes some doing. The bizarre sex  bit towards the end  seemed credible enough but on reflection it now just seems bizarre and not  at all credible. But it didn’t spoil what had gone before. I’ll now check out her other books. Apparently there are  five…

And how could I have forgotten this?




Jeanette Winterson last wrote about her fearsome adoptive mother when she was 25 and confesses that though Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit is autobiographical she did add bits that weren’t.

This time, she writes about her awful mother with some surprising compassion, suprising because the woman treated her so cruelly. Winterson has the heart to find  something positive in being exposed to religion three times a day on  Sundays and being named from the pulpit when it was learned that she liked girls. Books and the magic of words dominate, the love of language undimmed by her time at Oxford, There’s humour, sadness and near despair but also hope, the hope that buoyed her up through the dark days of her childhood.  Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal is appyHappya  great read.  

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Calligraphy, the Louvre and a startling debut novel: it’s all here.

Calligraphy, the Louvre and a marvellous read.

There’s an on-going exhibition at the Louvre which should not be missed. Called Islamic Art, so wide-ranging is it that it might just as well and more properly be called Arabic art.

If you go, take some sustenance with you or have a coffee break and be prepared to spend a whole day there wandering between the two floors. You won’t need a guide book as everything is well displayed and comes with excellent and detailed notes covering exhibits from silk carpets and crystal ewers to brass bowls and portable sets of weights and measures including a major display of the ceramics to be found at the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. So be warned, we’re looking here at the lifestyles of the great and the good – of the popes, emperors and caliphs of the day or what the Louvre calls the urban elite.

My favourite section, however, has got to be the section related to calligraphy. The Umayyad dynasty, which flourished 661 to 750, ran a tight ship from their stronghold in Damascus and one of the very important things they did was standardise arabic spelling thus shrewdly arabising their expanding empire.

So, what to see? Well, there’s a writer’s low table, gleaming with inlaid mother-of-pearl, a set of calligrapher’s tools and, best of all, dramatically projected on to the wall,  a series of different styles of writing, all saying the same thing: Bismillah al rahman al Rahim – one of the most-quoted phrases from the Quran.

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The Quran, of course, was in much demand but until the 19th century, there was a ban on mechanised copying of it – ie printing it – which is why calligraphers were so much in demand until such a recent date and why their craft was valued so highly. The closest we might get to something similar, in Ireland, are the illuminated manuscripts the most famous being the Book of Kells.

Nov 2012 etc 037


Calligraphers were mainly men who passed their skills on to younger men and this is why The Calligraphers’ Night is such an interesting novel.

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Written by Yasmine Ghata, the biographical novel is based on the life of her Lebanese grandmother who was herself a calligrapher. Ghata studied Islamic art at the Sorbonne and at the Louvre and her novel is a breath-taking evocation of the contemplative life of a calligrapher in Istanbul where the story is set.We learn about the calligrapher’s family but also about the inks she uses, the miniatures she has to restore. About the jade pitcher she comes across which once belonged to the son of Tamerlaine. He poured all his drinks into it as a precautionary measure: jade will break into tiny pieces if it detects even a minute drop of poison. We encounter some of the great calligraphers of the time –  their idiosyncrasies, their failings, their distaste for women, their silences, their skills. Reading this book, you’ll find yourself turning the page softly so as not to disturb the calligrapher.

Ghata has one thing left that once belonged to her grandmother: her paint brush which contained only two hairs…

117 pages long, this is a book to be read slowly – and then reread. As I am now doing.

The Calligraphers’ Night By Yasmine Ghata Hesperus Press

If you want to take something home with you from the Louvre, buy the paperback guide full of colour, history and text. Islamic Art at the Musee du Louvre.  Well worth 11 euro.

blog louvre  dec 2012 003


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A little bit of literary gossip ( 1)

A little bit of literary gossip (1)


Back in the days, when writer Ian Rodger was living in Cornwall, he was told by his publisher Hutchinson, that another of their writers was living nearby and that he should drop by. Publishers, in those days, cared about their writers and liked to put them in touch with each other.

In due course, Ian did indeed drop by and found the author’s husband acting as host. “What’s your wife’s book like?” Ian asked. “Any good?”

“No” replied the husband, “but it’ll sell.”

And indeed it did. The man was writer Ernie Gebler, his wife was Edna O’Brien and the book was The Country Girls.

Gebler himself published a blockbuster about the Mayflower, entitled The Plymouth Adventure and  which was made into a film. The book itself sold 5 million copies. Ernie’s marriage to Edna lasted some ten years and ended in divorce.

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