Two Books, Two People

I finished two books recently that belong together, so I must review them together.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, Grade: A-

Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets by Jessica A. Fox, Grade: B+

I became interested in these books because of the setting (a bookshop in Scotland) and the real-life story going on in and around it. In Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets, Fox visits a Scottish bookshop, falls in love with owner (Shaun Bythell, called Euan in the book), and moves in with him. In The Diary of a Bookseller, Bythell writes about his daily life selling books and occasionally mentions his girlfriend (Jessica Fox, called Anna in the book). I will try to keep in mind that these are real people as I review the books, but I still have to be honest.

I read The Diary of a Bookseller first. This book encompasses one year from Bythell’s life, a record of the notable customers who came into the shop, his expeditions to buy new stock, and his relationships with his friends, family, and wacky employees. I thought it was funny and informative, which is why I gave it an A-level grade.

As for the downsides, a few bits didn’t ring quite true, and his descriptions of people occasionally came across as mean (to me, anyway). I felt that the author always kept a careful distance, and I was sort of puzzled by the way Anna came and went without much reaction from him. Though the brief epilogue and the sprinkling of quotes from George Orwell’s “Bookshop Memories” helped give the book some unity, still it seemed to need something more to hold it together and to soften the abrupt ending. Those are all minor points, though. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the book trade, particularly anyone who secretly (or not so secretly) harbors a fantasy of owning their own bookshop someday. A bookshop is most certainly a labor of love and not anything close to a goldmine. Good to know.

Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets began with a list of three things you need to know about rockets. Those things were interesting, but I honestly have not taken the effort to ponder how they relate metaphorically to the story of Fox’s adventures in Scotland. The reason for that is simple: I did not love the book, and I was relieved to reach the end.

There were times when it was excellent, and it began well enough. It started with a Jewish-American woman, originally from the Boston area but living in LA, having a vision of a bookstore in Scotland. She decided to go to Scotland for a longish vacation.  She managed to get herself invited to stay with the owner of The Bookshop, a used bookstore in Wigtown, Scotland and to attend the annual Wigtown Book Festival. Scotland was wonderful. The people of Wigtown were wonderful. The books were (and presumably continue to be) wonderful.

By the time she returned to LA, she’d fallen for Euan, and he’d fallen for her, and soon she returned to live with him on a longer-term basis. And it was all grand for a while, but it was not long before she felt something missing. She’d given up everything to be there, and he’d given up nothing but some space in his life, and he seemed uncomfortable with even that much. She was persistently unsure of how he felt about her, and for most of the book, I wanted to scream at her, “He’s just not that into you!” I guess I had started to think of them as real people, and I had become disappointed in both of them: her for throwing herself headlong into a relationship and putting it ahead of her own needs, and him for being so stereotypically British in his “dithering” and lack of overt emotional response.

Isn’t that terrible of me? But that’s the thing about reading a story that you know is at least partly true. It’s possible to start to think of the people in the story as real. But though these people might actually exist, you see them through the lens of someone else’s mind, not your own eyes, so they must be treated always as fictional characters. You cannot tell a fictional character what they ought to do. A character is always going to do exactly what he or she must do, and that’s the way it has to be. So I’ve forgiven Jessica/Anna and Shaun/Euan for not quite giving me the “real-life Scottish fairy tale” that the subtitle of this book promised me. It’s not their fault.

I also thought the story faltered in other ways, but rather than pick it apart, I’m going to tell you what I really liked. Every chapter started with a quote from another book, along with the location in Euan’s shop where that book might be found. She picked some intriguing quotes, and in this way she did a better job of selling his books than he did. So thanks, Jessica. I want to go on a reading binge right now.

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One Response to Two Books, Two People

  1. Pingback: 10 Quotes, Plus One More for Good Measure | Blue-Footed Musings

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