For my birthday earlier this year, I was given a voucher for a book spa session at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. I wasn’t quite sure at first whether this meant I would be given a book to read or have a book soothingly read to me whilst having a spa treatment… but not having seen any massage oils or nail varnish counters at the bookshop before, this seemed a somewhat unlikely scenario. Intrigued, I decided to pay a trip to Mr B’s – a wonderful independent bookshop in the centre of Bath – to ask them more about their book spa sessions. In typical Bath fashion, the shop itself can be found tucked away down a quaint side street, nestled next to an art gallery and opposite a great pub (The Salamander) and an artisan cheese shop (Paxton & Whitfield’s). It’s housed over three floors yet manages to retain a feeling of salon coziness with its comfy armchairs, book newspaper wallpaper, ‘help yourself’ coffee pot and pretty window box seats.
With no white coats or nail varnish counters in sight, I was pleased to find out that their book spa – or more accurately – reading spa, focuses on the mind rather than the body. It is essentially a guided tour of ‘new and special’ reading materials suited to your interests, based on a 45 minute conversation between you and a book expert which is accompanied by a cup of tea and a cake from nearby Chandos deli. I was sold by the last part alone and so booked in for a morning session later that week.
Before you come to your session, you are asked to email a short paragraph outlining your usual reading habits and literary tastes so that they can match you up to the right member of the Mr B’s team. In my initial email, I had noted that since returning home, I’d been reading a lot of ‘wilderness’ themed literature but that I’d also become drawn to translation works – particularly contemporary Czech and Russian writing…
On the day of the ‘spa’, I soon found myself comfortably seated in one of the comfy chairs of Mr B’s upstairs ‘reading salon’ awaiting my ‘book guide’ Lucinda. The initial chat was casual enough with Lucinda testing the water with a few title names and themes – taking careful note of my reaction – and nudging me a bit further when she needed to. Notes amassed, I was then left to relax with a hot drink while she hunted around the bookshop for a bit, returning soon after with an armful of books which stacked up into a tall tower next to the sofa. Lucinda then proceeded to briefly outline each one, refreshingly based on her own personal reading of the books rather than the publicity hype, book blurb or back cover endorsements. Lucinda was perceptive and cast tantalising threads of information you wouldn’t get from the back cover of a book, such as Herman Melville’s depressive driven yearning for the sea and the reasons why people need to believe in the existence of wilderness. I was then left alone with the pile, to ponder these thoughts, peruse the titles and ultimately decide upon which £40 worth of them I would take home with me (along with a Mr B’s goodie bag consisting of a bookmark, a mug and some hot chocolate powder).
Having been away for over a year, I was intrigued to hear about the books I had missed out on whilst I had been away, but I soon realised that a lot of really interesting books had completely bypassed me in the few years before that when I became too stressed in my job to read that much outside of work (even though I was working in publishing). Lucinda also mentioned a number of titles from smaller independent publishers which simply don’t have the marketing and publicity budgets/networks in place to get their books noticed in the same way the big houses can – and bringing them to the attention of potential readers is where bookshops such as Mr B’s really come into their own, and why it would be such a shame to see them disappear from the highstreets.
Having reclaimed my reading life over the last year, I intended to make up for lost time and the reading spa was certainly a good way to continue. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it (given that I’m quite a fussy reader and usually have book lists of my own to get through) but I found it very refreshing, not least because I came away with a pile of books I was in the mood for reading and not just doing so because I felt I should. I would best describe the experience as something akin to book therapy as I felt that Lucinda had done a frighteningly good job of reading me in order that she might prescribe me some reading. I came away armed with a bag, and list, of books which promised in turn to suit, sooth or challenge my every mood; and over the following transitional months where I continue to try and acclimatise to life back home, this is just what I needed. The books I chose to take home with me were:
The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin
Anna is on her way home from work on a cold winter’s day when she sees a crowd queuing at a kiosk. Though a queue is not an unusual sight in a Russian city, this appears different. There’s a rumour that famous exiled composer Selinksy is returning to conduct his last symphony for one night only – and this kiosk is selling tickets.
The acquisition of tickets to this concert becomes an obsession in Anna’s small family. Her husband, a tuba player in a state band, sees the ticket as a way of embarking on an illicit affair. Their son thinks going to the concert will help him flee to the West on Selinksy’s coattails. And Anna? She secretly hopes the ticket will make her husband love her again.
The Concert Ticket is a heartbreaking novel about the secret, profound longings at the heart of a family struggling in a time of great repression.
Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life – Sofka Zinovieff
In 1907, Princess Sophy (‘Sofka’) DolgorOuky was born in St Petersburg. Members of the Imperial family had attended her parents’ wedding earlier that same year, and the child was born into a privileged world of nurses, private tutors and elegant tea parties. The Russian Revolution caused the princess to flee across Europe to England, but it was the Second World War that left the deepest marks on her adult life. During those years, she left her first husband and lost her second. Later, she was interned in a Nazi prison camp, where she discovered Communism and showed great bravery in defending the rights of the Jewish prisoners. It was her Communism which took her back to the Soviet Union as an improbable tour guide for British workers. And Communism, albeit indirectly, brought her the last love of her life, Jack, a working-class Londoner who had never been abroad. Sofka’s colourful life also included a close friendship with Laurence Olivier, innumerable lovers, some serious, some quickly discarded, and an abiding love of reading and especially poetry. This affectionate portrait of the ‘red princess’ by her granddaughter and namesake uses letter, diaries and interviews to recreate a vanished world and also explore the author’s own Russian roots.
your presence if required at suvanto by Maile Chapman
In a remote, piney wood in Finland stands a convalescent hospital called Suvanto. It is the early twentieth century and the patients, all women, seek relief from ailments real and imagined. The upper floors house foreign women of privilege, tended to by head nurse Sunny Taylor, an American who has fled an ill-starred life only to retreat behind a mask of crisp professionalism.
On a late-summer day a new patient arrives on Sunny’s ward, a faded, irascible former ballroom-dance instructor named Julia Dey. Sunny takes it upon herself to pierce the mystery of Julia’s reserve but soon Julia’s tightly coiled anger, places her at the centre of the ward’s tangled life…
The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane embarks on a series of beautifully described journeys in search of the wildness that remains in these islands. The Wild Places mixes history, memory and landscape in a strange and bewitching evocation of wildness and its importance…
Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi
In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.
The Other – David Guterson
Seattle, 1972: Neil Countryman and John William Barry, two teenage boys from very different backgrounds, are at the start of an 800m race. Their lives collide for the first time, and so begins an extraordinary friendship. As they grow older Neil follows the conventional route of the American dream, but the eccentric, fiercely intelligent John William makes radically different choices, dropping out of college and moving deep into the woods. Convinced it is the only way to live without hypocrisy, John William enlists Neil to help him disappear completely, drawing his oldest friend into a web of secrets and agonising responsibility, deceit and tragedy – one that will finally break open with an unexpected, life-altering revelation.
I Curse the River of Time – Per Petterson
It is 1989 and all over Europe Communism is crumbling. Arvid Jansen is in the throes of a divorce. At the same time, his mother is diagnosed with cancer. Over a few intense autumn days, we follow Arvid as he struggles to find a new footing in his life, while everything around him is changing at staggering speed. As he attempts to negotiate the present, he remembers holidays on the beach with his brothers, his early working life devoted to Communist ideals, courtship, and his relationship with his tough, independent mother – a relationship full of distance and unspoken pain that is central to Arvid’s life.