This month’s professional bookworm is Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books. After a stint in publishing, then a job at Camden Lock Books, Sam joined forces with Jason Burley to set up a new indie shop on London’s Kingsland Road. Fresh, clean and contemporary – but still community-driven, cosy and kid-friendly – the store specialises in small press titles, skewing towards debuts, poetry and design. Sam’s team also host terrific author events, boast both barista and bagel-making skills, and have a ruddy beautiful Instagram.
His three big books
‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy: I’ll start off with an easy one. This book has everything: love, loss, drawing-room acerbity, imperial absurdity, pre-industrial farming techniques, Napoleon, the Masons, strapping policemen to bears… everything. Tolstoy remains one of our finest draughtsmen; he pays attention to every character, no matter how small a part they play. And when it comes to family (and all our other most fraught/freighted interpersonal relationships), his observations haven’t aged a day. I recommend the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation.
‘Silence’ by Shusako Endo: Set in the 17th Century, a young Portuguese Jesuit priest travels to Japan in search of his former mentor, who is rumoured to have renounced his faith. But the closer the priest gets in his search for his wayward master, the more his own certainties crumble away. This book is a brilliant meditation on the frailty and slippery-ness of truth, and how its greatest test is the moment of its exchange. It would be a prescient book whenever you read it, but its central message seems all the more urgent at the moment. Scorsese has made a film adaptation which comes out in the new year.
‘Orlando’ by Virgina Woolf: More historical fiction, of a kind. This book is a speculative biography of (or love letter to) Vita Sackville-West. The eponymous hero is born, as a man, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and dies some 300 years later a woman. Woolf’s quicksilver prose delights the whole way through; she’s a proper master of the sentence. If you’ve never read any Woolf this is one of her most accessible books, so it makes a good place to start!
His two contemporary titles
‘Eve out of Her Ruins’ by Ananda Devi (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman): This slight novel packs a powerful punch that leaves you staggering long after you put it down. It follows a group of young people in Troumaron, a forsaken and garbage-filled neighbourhood of Port Louis, Mauritius, as they navigate their way through adolescence. The way it skips between the four characters means that the intense, closely-drawn psychodrama never becomes claustrophobic. Zuckerman’s translation is deft and graceful, capturing the febrile, lustful energy of the four central characters. This is a beautiful and moving book.
‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink: This novel is a bloody riot. Those who, like me, were blown away by ‘The Wallcreeper’ and ‘Mislaid’ won’t be disappointed by Zink’s new effort. It follows a young woman who moves into her father’s family home after he passes away. The house has been taken over by a community of activists for smoker’s rights. Zink is the sharpest observer/satirist of identity politics around. This book isn’t perfect; in places it is so plotty as to be almost plotless. It proceeds at a breakneck pace. But goddamn it’s exciting. It’s NEW. And it’s belly achingly hilarious. Read it, there isn’t another writer who can keep up with her right now.
The one on his ‘to read’ list
‘The Complete Orsina’ by Ursula le Guin: Ursula le Guin is one of my all time favourites. She writes speculative fiction that has real characters rather than mere ciphers, and she was a pioneer in tackling gender and environmental issues. This volume has been released to celebrate her induction into the Library of America, and ‘gathers for the first time the entire body of work set in the imaginary central European nation of Orsinia’. For those who haven’t read her, ‘The Dispossessed’ and ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ are great starting points.