Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Only Son - Stephane Audeguy

Something exciting happened to me today. A book I have been waiting months for, finally arrived! But first, a little backstory

Megan and I were in America visiting her family last year, when her step-mom gave us a $20 gift voucher for Barnes and Noble. Well, I hardly need tell you that we were excited. So off we went, eager to sample the local fare.

Barnes and Noble were running an interesting promotion along the lines of Waterstone's recent New Voices, a selection of debut authors with exciting potential. So I stopped by to have a read, and found a book which caught my eye. In every sense, The Theory of Clouds, seemed perfect for me: an ephemeral subject, sparse plot, beautiful sounding prose. The blurb on the back likened it to Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes as well. Eager and excited, I bought the book, unsure exactly what to expect.

Back in Norwich I started it in the bath one night. It was strange, seemingly one biography after another with a thin plot struggling to tie them all together. I had not read anything like it, and wasn't sure what to think. But soon I was engrossed and by the time I finished it, breathless and awe struck one quiet pre-Christmas afternoon at work, I knew I had found a book to love. I was stunned. But no-one I knew had read it, and I wasn't entirely sure of the quality of my taste. So I did something that I had never done before: I read it again. Immediately. And the second time it was even better. In my insanely long review I described it as "the book I have always wanted to read." And it was.

So I recommended it to some other bookshops, put a staff recommendation on it, and convinced my Dad to read it too. We sold 4 or 5 copies in the first 3 months (good going for hardback fiction in a our Campus bookshop) and my Dad loved it. A couple of months later, I even went as far as to encourage the New Writing Partnership to include the author, Stephane Audeguy, in their New Writing Worlds festival (I liked the idea of my favourite unknown author alongside J.M. Coetzee, one of my favourite all time authors). It was too late for him to be included, but hopefully next summer he will be here.

And ever since the day I finished it for the second time, I have been anxiously anticipating the English language release of Stephane Audeguy's second novel, The Only Son. It is a fictionalised biography of Rousseau's lost brother, Fancois, a man of whom next to nothing is known, besides a paragraph in Rousseau's Confessions. Having already won the Prix des Deux Magots in France, I was pretty excited.

And now we get to the significance. IT ARRIVED TODAY! I had just spent 10 minutes being trained in the new Sony Reader by someone who knew nothing about either books, or technology, and was feeling intrigued with the idea of an eBook reader. Then i was handed a small red book, and immediately I remembered exactly why I just don't think i would ever really use an eBook reader. The Only Son is a beautiful book to behold. It has a smooth, unfashionably simple jacket, is strangely short and broad. I have never had a hardback with crinkle cut pages, they are thick and corse to the touch. The typeface is wonderfully familiar from The Theory of Clouds, the smell deep and unknown. And instantly on being handed the book, I was filled with grand enthusiasm, drunk on the potential of these 246 pages, and the adventures to be had within them.

I have only read the first chapter, but so far, so good. When Andy Murray has finished his tennis this evening, I will eagerly devour some more. It is an oft stated, and commonly known fact, but books are utterly enthralling. The more you think you know them, the more they can surprise you. No matter how many I see each day, I am never able to get over that rush of Christmas mornining-esque excitement that I feel when i pick up a book and realise that I want to read it. No matter how much I moan about pay, I am privileged to be able to spend my time working with something I love, and to be charged with sharing this passion with people whenever they step into the shop.

On another note, Waterstone's has today launced another fantastic promotion, Philip Pullman's Writer's Table. I assure you that I am very far from a corporate hack, but credit must be given where credit is due. In the last year, Waterstone's has really made a move to be seen as celebrating great writing. They were becoming far too concerned with profit margins and business speak, so this change in focus has been a delight to witness. First there was Sebastian Faulks Writer's Table, then the fantastic What's Your Story competition (some of the entries, if you havn't read them, were absolutely fantastic), and now Philip Pullman has followed in Sebastian Faulks footprints.

To be given an inside view of Mr. Pullman's tasts is enthralling. Every day, I work with many different promotions, few of which focus on backlist titles, even fewer have a wider purpose than discounting popular book in order to sell more of them. So isn't it a joy to have a non discounted table of books, with a consistant theme throughout them all. Pullman's taste shines throughout, from the inevitable Richard Dawkins, to a whole selection of humourous novels and a couple of books on art and design. Already I have had two customers comment on how interesting it is, on the great variety of books, and how unknown some of hem are. Each comes complete with a little handwritten recommendation from Philip Pullman (one even has a tip-ex mark on it!) which says something about why he chose the book, what he likes about it, or why it should be read. Put together, they look completely unlike anything else in the shop, and offer that rare of things, substance over style.

So well done Waterstone's. You may do some things wrong, (from your absurd decision to remove National Book Tokens from visibility, to your ignoing of Aleksandar Hemon's fantastic new novel, The Lazarus Project) but in this, all praise to you. I think you have realised that big business has a profound place in supporting and celebrating literature, and that perhaps your best chance of long term sustainability is to create a reputation as a company who puts quality above quantity, and who works hard to ensure that books are at the heart of everything you do.

Goodnight people, Andy Murray has just won the first set, and I am eager to read another chapter or two before bed. I love fiction, I really do.

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