Roundup: Books about Books


If there’s one thing I love more than books, it’s books about books. For a book lover, there’s always extra pleasure to be derived from books that deal with bookstores and libraries, bookish characters, and paragraphs and paragraphs that wax poetic about books (*sigh*).

I’ve read a bunch of them in the last few months, so I’ve put together some capsule reviews for you. Included in this selection are: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin; “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore” and “Ajax Penumbra: 1969” by Robin Sloan; “The Library of Unrequited Love” by Sophie Divry; “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami; and “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff.

AJ FikryWe read “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” back in September, as the chosen book for the first joint discussion of our book club, Flips Flipping Pages, with our friends from another book club, The Filipino Group.

In “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” a surly bookstore proprietor (Fikry) gets a change of heart when he takes in a baby that had been abandoned on his premises.

It was a fast read for me, but like most of the attendees in the discussion, I found the book a bit of a letdown. Not that it was a bad read, but I was expecting so much more. The book already had all the elements I could possibly want in a book about books, but somehow this still wasn’t enough to win me over.

I appreciated the commentary on the publishing industry, but I wished the literary references were less gratuitous — it felt like the author were merely name-dropping to catch the reader’s attention.

Plot-wise, it was quite frustrating for me, too, as nothing much happens. I wanted so much to be more attached to the characters, more involved with the story, but I had nothing to hang on to. The characters were all likeable but not charming enough, and the story stews tepidly, with no high or low points. Worse, everything is neatly tied up in the end, like a Hallmark movie.

imagephoto by Flipper Rhett de Jesus

While the book got a lukewarm reception, the discussion was quite fun, and it was great to see the our two book clubs side by side. A lot of us have become friends over the years, after bumping into each other at book events around the metro and even working together as volunteers for the Filipino ReaderCon, but it was interesting to observe the dynamics of the discussion and the interaction between the members of both book clubs.  Definitely worth an annual repeat!

Rating: 3/5 stars

Mr. PenumbraA couple of weeks later, I read “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloane when I went to Beijing, and it was a great way to unwind (accompanied by my stash of erm, “emergency” Old Dutch Master cheese and sparkling water hoarded from the conference) after the long days, while waiting for feeling to work its way back into my toes.

In “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore,” a young man finds work at a dusty bookstore owned by an odd man and patronized by an even odder set of people. As Clay makes his way deeper into the stacks and gets to know the bookstore and its clientele, he stumbles upon five centuries’ worth of secrets, and a puzzle he cannot resist.

Up against A.J. Fikry, this is more my kind of book because it has plenty more going for it: the mystery and the adventure, the geekery, the juxtaposition of paper-and-glue books with their electronic counterparts, codes and ciphers, and the good old pursuit of immortality, all tied in with a passion for books, and friendships to last a lifetime. This is definitely one of my favorites from all the books I read last year.

While the book has been called out for its unabashed adulation of Google, I didn’t really mind as I enjoyed the story immensely, and subsequently bought the prequel novella off the Kobo store.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

819KxUJjOAL._SL1500_“Ajax Penumbra: 1969” is set before the events in “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” right as Ajax’s first job leads him to the bookstore featured in the titular novel.

For lovers of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” this novella is another delightful read. We get to know familiar characters from the novel as young men, and get a deeper insight into their characters.

While under a hundred pages, Ajax Penumbra’s quest makes for a compact adventure, and will leave fans (like me, huhuhu) wanting more.

If there’s a sequel in the works, sign me up for that one, too!

Rating: 4/5 stars.

tumblr_nhpa8o8usJ1qdo62to1_1280When I got bogged down with work towards the end of last year, I was leaning towards choosing shorter books I could finish in roughly one sitting, and found “The Library of Unrequited Love” while randomly trawling through the bookstore display tables.

I was sold on the cover alone, so I didn’t really find out what the book was about until I started reading it.

“The Library of Unrequited Love,” isn’t really a novel — no chapters, no breaks, just a lengthy monologue by an unnamed librarian past her prime, addressing a reader, also unnamed, who spent the night in the library .

I’m not really sure how to take this piece of work. The monologue covers plenty of ground (and nope, the reader does not get a word in edgewise), from the hierarchy of library folk, her anti-social tendencies (“I prefer the company of books”), the origins of the Dewey Decimal System, and heck, even her secret crush on a researcher named Martin.

While there some amusing bits in there every so often, the monologue does get tiresome after a while, as the stream of consciousness goes off in tangents and the narrator begins to get on your nerves. Also, I don’t care much for the librarian stereotype this book perpetuates — I’m not sure what the book was trying to achieve that couldn’t have been done with a more realistic portrayal.

Rating: 2/5 stars

IMG_9431-001I must confess I’m not a Murakami reader — I was thoroughly depressed after reading “Norwegian Wood” and have not ventured into reading more of his work, at least not until I picked up “The Strange Library” earlier this year.

In this novella, a young boy heads to the library to do a bit of research and becomes waylaid by the old librarian, who traps him in the Reading Room for future (literal) brain-picking.

The story is short and strange, blurring the boundaries between dream and reality. It can be read on various levels, as an ominous fairy tale (though not exactly encouraging towards library visits), an allegory, or even a philosophical novel.

The writing is beautiful and thought-provoking, with passages like, “Our worlds are all jumbled together — your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t,” or “The world follows its own course. Each possesses his own thoughts, each treads his own path. So it is with your mother, and so it is with your starling. As it is with everyone. The world follows its own course.”  It’s a book that bears a lot of readings, I think, the sort where you’ll discover something new each time.

The graphic design, while eye-catching, is a bit garish for my taste (reminds me of a certain, erm, bacchanalian experience, hahaha) and while the designer is certainly talented, I had hoped the art worked more in sync with the text in creating meaning for the reader. I think I prefer the UK edition of this book — the vintage-y  feel and photography and the illustrated play on words in that edition are more my speed.

Rating:3.5/5 stars

image“84, Charing Cross Road” caught my eye while I was trawling a bargain bin. The pages were yellowed but the cover art was delightfully vintage, and when I read the synopsis, I was surprised to find that it was a book about books! I skimmed the first page and thought it was a hoot, so I bought the book and headed  straight to a coffee shop to finish it.

The book shows us a series of letters from a freelance writer in New York, Helene Hanff, to the staff at Marks & Co. book shop in  84, Charing Cross Road, London. The first letter is dated 1949, wherein Hanff writes to the antiquarian bookstore after spotting their ad in the newspaper, to purchase some books she wanted that she couldn’t get in New York.

The first letter made me buy the book, particularly these bits: “The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.”

She sends off her first purchase order, specifying she wants clean secondhand copies of the books on her list, for no more than $5.00 each. After several exchanges (and dispatches of books from her wishlist), Hanff forges a friendship not just with Frank Doel, the store manager, but also with the various store staff, and even Frank’s family.

The exchanges are pretty hilarious, and I can totally relate with Hanff’s outbursts:

“All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop — a BOOKSHOP — starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper.”

“The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over to touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. all that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair — not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.”

“SLOTH: i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. i oughta run straight down to brentano’s which i would if anything i wanted was in print… what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?”

The manic quality in Hanff’s tone when she’s talking about books is something that is vaguely familiar to me (hahaha!). And the Hanff’s batty letters alternating with Frank’s starched and proper ones make the book even more hilarious.

The exchange goes on for more than 50 years, the store sending the books that Hanff ordered, and Hanff sending out foodstuffs (postwar rationing in Britain) and other gifts for the store staff.  As I got to the end of the book, I thought I had read a very clever epistolary novel, but when I looked it up, I realized Helene Hanff was the actual author of the book and she was a real-life person. And I was amazed to find the letters were actually real (*sobs*). And I am dying to discuss certain parts of the book but, well, spoilers, so let me know if you’ve read it so we can talk.

As the cover so eloquently states (haha) there’s a movie adaptation starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Based on what I’ve seen on YouTube, it looks absolutely lovely! I’m trying to locate a copy so I can watch.

Rating :5/5 stars — definitely a book for book lovers!

Don’t you  just love books about books? Do leave a comment if you have any recommendations.

9 thoughts on “Roundup: Books about Books”

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road is my favorite from the lot! :D We are passing around a well-worn copy of it at TFG, so that everyone can read it, too. :)

    Have you read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop? :)

    1. Niice! Will do that at FFP din, though I will have to look for another copy as I already lent out mine in the office.

      Thank you for the reco, I haven’t read those titles yet, will hunt down copies ^_^

  2. 84 Charing Cross is the best! I saw the movie first (college, I think), then I looked for the book. The movie hewed pretty close to it, so it was lovely. Hope you find a copy!

    Re other books about books: if you like sci-fi, try Among Others. It’s amazing. Actually, at one point, the main character’s justification for not committing suicide is the fact that she hasn’t finished her book, and that inter-library loans exist.

    Will second Anne Fadiman’s book and her dad’s, Clifton Fadiman.

    Also, it’s non-fiction, but The King’s English is fantastic. It’s about opening up an indie book shop.

    1. Will put those recos on my list! I think I have The King’s English stashed away somewhere here

      I smell an unofficial book discussion for 84 Charing Cross Road. Or maybe a joint discussion with TFG again? :)

  3. Will now also be on the lookout for 84 Charing Cross Road- i watched parts of it and now I am glad I didn’t finish it or I would miss the joy of reading the book fresh!

    Yes sounds like an official book discussion is in order.I agree with you about the cover of the Murakami book. And the cover of that Sophie Divry book is so delightful.

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