Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Best Bookshop in England and a Review of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Before we travel, I always research the best independent bookstores in the areas we will be visiting. I figured that the Cotswolds in England would be so dotted with charming little book shops that it would be difficult to see them all. All of my research seemed to point me in the direction of Jaffe and Neale Bookshop and Cafe in charming Chipping Norton. We had no difficulty finding the place, as cafe tables sat in front of the building where large Books are my Bag banners hung in the front windows. The bookstore felt homey, with many nooks for reading throughout and even some comfy chairs scattered around. I would have gladly spent all day there, but we had an agenda for the day that involved visiting the nearby Hook Norton brewery in time for lunch.

I had been reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a perfectly appropriate novel to read while driving around the British countryside. I saw Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, on a shelf and carried it over to the cashier to ask if this new book lived up to the delight of Harold Fry. The woman I spoke with assured me that it did, but after I explained that I was an American on vacation who really did NOT need another book in her suitcase – that if I bought a book in England at all, I could only buy one – she took it as a challenge and recommended that perhaps I should consider Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black instead.

Now I was tempted. A signed copy of a book not yet available in the U.S. was worth considering, so I took the two novels to one of those inviting book nooks for comparison and consideration. I was zeroing in on a choice when I noticed that my husband was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who he was leading my way. Alerted by his wife at the cashier’s station, Patrick Neale wondered if David was with the American woman who could only buy one book in the UK. He was personally interested in the choice I was about to make since, in addition to being the proprietor of the shop, he is the current president of the British Booksellers Association – and a fascinating person to talk with about books.

David and I chatted with him about his shop and recommended some of our favorite bookstores in American. We told him about our experiences as English teachers, how we were in England for the wedding of a former student, and our favorite books in general. When he finally got around to recommending my one book for purchase, he picked up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. I knew Barnes from his slim novel The Sense of an Ending , which I had read and reviewed in 2012. Neale described the novel as one with no single word out of place. He was suggesting Barnes new book – which was also thankfully slim for my suitcase.
Levels of Life is a three part memoir of sorts that begins with a section about hot air ballooning, moves into a consideration of the nuances of historical photography, and finishes with Barnes own grief suffered at the loss of his wife in from a brain tumor in 2008. It is a difficult book to recommend to friends because the last section sounds like it would be so depressing. However, the overarching premise of all three parts is “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” I was personally delighted to find mention of Dame Ellen Terry in the second section, which describes photographs of actress Sarah Bernhardt taken by the 19th-century photographer and inventor Gaspard-FĂ©lix Tournachon (later known simply as Nadar). Terry was Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and the subject of my undergraduate Independent Study thesis at The College of Wooster. The book’s pacing and its weaving of historical details and naturalistic descriptions reminded me of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams – two of my favorite essayists. In the end, it is life affirming rather than deflating. The metaphor of the hot air balloon and the precariousness of its flight carries the reader to consider many levels of living and loving. I put off reading the book – and writing this review – because I knew the experience would be difficult to describe for my readers. One day in my life several things were put together – the coincidence of finding the perfect Brisith bookstore, meeting the most charming British bookseller and being handed a deeply moving book that will resonate with me for as long as my photographs of my matchless vacation with my husband remain – and my reading life was changed.