Reading for Wellbeing: Comfort reads

I don’t know about you but this seems the perfect time for some comfort reads. I have a stack of old favourites that I re-read every so often for comfort and companionship but once in a while, it can be good to seek out new comforts too. Today I’m going to discuss two that you might consider.

Leonard and Hungry Paul – Ronan Hession

A quiet sleeper hit, this, and one that a lot of people found a comfort in the last year. Hardly anything happens in this book, it is not a book for plot lovers. What it does do is provide the reader with a gentle portrait of two ordinary, forgotten men who teach us to treasure the everyday. Leonard writes for encyclopedias, and Paul, who lives with his parents, is a part time postman. They like board games, and drinking tea, and quiet assumptions. They are unsung introverts.

You can imagine how much this introvert likes this. In a world where we are all encouraged to do more, be more, and how all our writing scenes must move the plot on, can there be anything more subversive that doing just the opposite?

What story there is, is based around the impending marriage of Paul’s sister, the recent death of Leonard’s mother, and a gentle romance for Leonard with someone from the office. But it is an engaging, kind book, and very much recommended. You can buy it directly from the independent publishers, Bluemoose Books.

The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery

Yes, it’s that LM Montgomery, the author most famous for Anne of Green Gables. Anne is, of course, on my re-reads for comfort reads, and has been a staunch friend since i was a child but The Blue Castle is one of Montgomery’s only books for adults. Anne fans might recall that throughout the series, there are a few sharp (some might say bitchy) comments about others, and though Montgomery keeps this appropriate throughout the Anne series, in a novel for grown ups she has indulged her wicked gossipy side a lot more. What a treat this book is.

Valancy Stirling is unmarried and nearly thirty, and the victim of a simply awful family who have never valued her, undermined and dismissed her from an early age. What a line up of grotesques they are, from her perpetually disappointed and offended mother, to her Uncle Benjamin who makes a constant series of jokes and who she is instructed to be nice to in case he leaves her some money, a whole load of ghastly cousins who nickname her, tell her she is nothing to look at and that she is going to die an old maid.

Valancy takes comfort in reading books by nature writer John Foster, and in dreaming that she lived in the blue castle, a perfect place where she is allowed to do what she wants. But Valancy also experiences heart pains and in secret one day she seeks out a doctor who tells her she has only a short time to live. Far from worrying her, this news enables Valancy to finally break out and live. Realising she is no longer scared of her relatives, she leaves home to work as a carer for an old friend and in doing so, discovers she is more and can do more than she was ever given credit for.

This is a delightful book. Valancy is sharp witted and funny, and her liberation is an inspiration to read. The supporting characters are all fun, from Roaring Abel, the drunken old sot father of Valancy’s friend Cecily to Barney Snaith, the local ne’er do well (or so it is rumoured). Despite all the wit, the essential heart that so enthralled Anne fans is still very much in evidence.

Reading for Wellbeing: Wintering by Katherine May

This year I’m going to spend some time looking at bibliotherapy: the practice of reading and writing for wellbeing. So once in a while I’ll be reviewing and discussing books that can help your sense of wellbeing. Today, I’m looking at Wintering by Katherine May.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times explores how people have prepared for winter, physically and mentally, and used it as a cycle to help deal with the challenges of life. The book argues that we go through cycles of feeling good and feeling low, and that this is natural, that retreating to nurture ourselves needs to happen on a cyclical basis like the seasons. For some this could be mental ill health, for others it could be life events. May talks to people who have endured hard times and recognises that people often retreat after a distressing life incident, such as a bereavement or loss, an illness or a change to their settled routine. She links this back to nature, discussing how plants and animals also prepare for winter, laying on fat reserves, finding cosy places to sleep, losing leaves etc.

Wintering – this beautiful cover

I enjoyed the book very much, partly because I found much in common with the author, and partly because the ideas within make sense. I remember periods following my father’s death, my miscarriage and even the birth of my child, where I wanted to retreat in order to make sense of changes and feelings. I am and have been lucky enough to have been able to do this, economically maternity leave and compassionate leave are not available to everyone which I imagine can impede a retreat process.

Winter in this country can often be disappointing, with little snow and more grey dreary days of rain and dullness which often leaves us feeling grey and wrung out. Think of those bright fresh winter mornings with a frost on the air and a bright sun. Once in a while those days can make you feel cheerful, eager to get out and enjoy the light, but on the whole a British winter is a dispiriting grey stretch that often feels never ending. It is this that we need to manage.

Katherine May in the snow

I liked the simple things that May suggests to help you cope, and find resilience. Near the end of the book, she loses her voice and is advised to take singing lessons to restore it. She is about to protest that singing is not integral to her when she realises that she does, in fact, sing every day – to herself, along with the radio or music. Me too. These small acts that we put in place for ourselves that help us manage the day to day anxieties – these things are important. I go for a run regularly, I sing, I bake, I knit and I spend time making home a comfortable and attractive place to be. This last year, the year of Covid, these things have all seemed very important as we have undertaken a kind of wintering process ourselves, retreating from our usual lives to try to keep ourselves and others safe.

The test for us comes next, as we try to emerge from this wintering and work out where to go next. May’s book offers us a path, to share our experiences and realise that wintering will come again, and again, and that we can make it through.

“We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure,despair.

“It often seems easier to stay in winter, burrowed down into our hibernation nests, away from the glare of the sun. But we are brave,and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.”

Wintering by Katherine May is published by Penguin and priced at £9.99.

You may also enjoy:

Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell This lovely book contains a range of projects such as silver jewellery, paper-craft decorations and crocheted mittens, to foraged infusions, delicious recipes and nature diaries, that allow you to enjoy and get through the winter months.

Clearing out your books

Happy New Year!

I’m not one for quantities of New Year Resolutions but I do tend to have a clearout around this time. A clean and clear out, once the decorations are down, makes it a little bit easier to face January.

Lockdown, and especially working from home, has made me dissatisfied with the number of books we have in the house. Normally I would have said that I liked having a lot of books but recently the clutter has started to bother me and I now prefer a good selection and room for display.

However, in a small two bedroom terrace containing three bookworms, careful shelving isn’t always a possibility so a clear out was needed. I usually have a book clear out once a year anyway, going through and considering what I won’t read again or that which I no longer fancy reading. Plus, when I’ve finished a book there is a good chance it goes to the clearout pile instead of back on the shelf so I do think my shelves have a high turnover rate.

However, Mr Barsby is a different matter. He reads a lot slower than I do and is never going to get through a lot of the dry history tomes sitting on the shelves. A few years ago he wrote an article for The Bookseller reviewing the history books published that year as a special round up and was sent huge quantities of books as possible titles to mention. Our shelves have never really recovered.

There are many opinions about book clearouts. Marie Kondo had a lot of people yell at her for suggesting they clear out books but if you follow her advice (does your book collection spark joy? Yes? OK.) then there’s really no need to worry. My collection, and that of my husband, did not spark joy.

Some people would say that, as books are replaceable, do you need to hold onto them at all? These are people who a) do not understand the sentimental value of a particular volume, b) do not make notes in the margins for future reference and c) do not wake up in the middle of the night with an immediate and pressing need to check a very specific passage from Wolf Hall. Plus, what do you do if it’s gone out of print?

Helene Hanff, back in 1952 had very definite views on this and I lean towards her way of thinking.

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally cannot think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”

So what criteria do you use to clear out your books? I’m like this:

Have I read this?

If yes, am I going to read this again?

Might I refer to it at some point? Would I like to have it on the shelf to look at it and know it is there?

If no, am I ever going to read this?

The final one usually covers books that I once bought in a fit of self-improvement that have never grabbed me enough to actually read. Perhaps I should know more about economics, the Second World War, art, and social theories but I should really be honest with myself at the point of buying rather than four years later when I give up trying.

The biggest problem currently with clearouts is what to do with them. Our local book donation bank is full. The charity shops are closed and not taking donations. So Mr Barsby’s books are in the boot of the car hoping the book bank might be clear soon. He’s only cleared two shelves and we have a whole bookcase to go still so Oxfam of Nottingham, I know there’s a pandemic but please. We need you.

2020: round up of the year

We made it! The end of this crazy mixed up anxiety inducing, stir crazy making, mess of a year is in sight. Well done to all of you who made it through – you’re allowed to feel like just getting here was an achievement.

This year, we have needed books more than ever and yet I cannot remember seeing more comments about how hard it has been to concentrate properly – on them or on much else. My mind, and possibly your mind too, has been all over the place. But here is how I got through the year – in reading and a few other things too.

This year my reading challenge was to finally read all the books that have been sitting for years on my bookshelf. I had a list of books that had made it through various clearouts with the words, “yes I still want to read that,” but years later were still sitting unread. It was time to deal with them head on.

So how did it go? Well, some books I really should have read years ago and I now regret leaving it so long. The English Patient was the first book to tackle as it had been on the shelves the longest (15-16 years) and I loved it. I also loved Wolf Hall, and the challenge got put on one side as I read Bringing Up the Bodies immediately afterwards in order to make way for the March publication of The Mirror and the Light. If only Covid hadn’t shot my concentration to shreds, I would have finished reading that a lot quicker than I did.

Other reads were not so successful and I found that they had been taking up space on the shelves for no good reason. I couldn’t get on with the flowery nothing-much-happens of A Suitable Boy, I found Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy very hard going and dated, and I struggled with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna much more than any of her other books.

But I’m so glad I did the challenge as it has appealed to my inner Marie Kondo in finally clearing out a few of these tomes and making space for things that did indeed spark joy.

Aside from the challenge, my reading this year is a little muddled. I track my reading using Goodreads, a new app this year called Storygraph (a rival to Goodreads – review coming in the New Year) and in a notebook where I also track what books I’ve bought and read month by month.

The numbers are different in all of these. According to Goodreads I’ve read 90 books, but it’s counted one of them twice and I’ve missed a couple off here that I recorded in my notebook. My notebook records 92 books. When I do a breakdown of the genders I’ve read this year, I get a total of 95 books. So it’s anyone’s guess how many books I’ve actually read this year but let’s say around 90 ish.

Once again, there are loads more women (67) than men (19) and two books by non-binary authors. I also read more non-fiction this year than I’ve read for years and I think this must have something to do with the pandemic though I don’t really know what or why. Finally, I read two graphic novels this year and have bought a third – this is a big step for me.

I still have four books on the go at once so the reading for the year isn’t quite done yet.

In no particular order my books of the year are:

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

Some Kinds I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

Negative Capability by Michele Roberts

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Flake by Matthew Dooley

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (a re-read but it felt like bathing in sparkling water)

What else has got me through this year?

Simple things like hot showers, going for a run along the same route and seeing it change, discovering the huge range of wild flowers in the park, coffee bean deliveries and a lot of toast with Bovril on. Our Chromecast device, allowing me to watch a lot of theatre and independent films, thanks to the magic of streaming from theatres directly, YouTube and Curzon Home Cinema. Subscription boxes of stationery and craft projects – not affordable for everyone but all of them run by women, small British businesses sharing mindful skills. Lego. Jigsaws. Yoga with Adriene. Dancing and singing along to my daughter’s playlist – making sure she appreciates Abba. My journal.

I miss coffee shops and touching things you have no intention of buying, just to know what they feel like. I miss reading on the tram and nosing at other people’s books or screens to see what they’re reading or looking at. I miss my local barista’s cheery call of “the usual?” when I walk in. I miss chip shop chips. I miss my family and the familiar ways we laugh. I miss our annual trip with my best friend and her family to Herne Bay to eat lunch and climb on Amy Johnson’s wooden plane statue and walk along the pier and play in the arcades. I miss nipping out to buy an impromptu snack and impulse buys and seeing faces. I miss festivals and communal singing experiences.

This will all pass and hopefully we will emerge better equipped to go on. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, relaxing Covid-free festive season and here’s to whatever we can make of 2021.

Do we really need… Libraries

You may have seen the kerfuffle earlier this week when Leader of Walsall Council suggested that, as their libraries have been closed due to Covid this year, there was little need to reopen them. “I’m a firm believer that if we haven’t used something for the past four or five months, do we really need it?” he said, presumably standing next to his Christmas tree, unused for 11 months. (I know, Christmas trees aren’t essential but really.)

Uh-huh.

There is no real need to tell you which party he stands for.

Debates around libraries, and this one raged on Twitter for a while, often centre around making books and educational opportunities available for working class children who may not be able to afford them otherwise. One tweeter suggested that this was ridiculous, as working class children just don’t use them.

They may be right. Maybe they don’t. Not en masse. But read Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me, or Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn, and we know that some of them do. Read Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and you see that it’s not that they aren’t interested in words, reading or writing, but that they may just a need little help. Read Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why and you find a boy rescued by words.

But does this matter? These days any discussion about our public services is only about how to reach and support the poorest in society and yes, I have no problem with that. But libraries are a universal service. They are not just there for the poor, they are for all of us. And just because a child is born into the middle classes doesn’t mean they don’t need libraries either.

This year, above all others has shown us how important public spaces are, for all of us, a space where we can just be, safe and free with our thoughts for a while without being sold something or moved on. Just 8% of Britain is accessible for everyone – why do you think everyone piled to the beach as soon as they were allowed to go anywhere? But on a daily basis, parks, open spaces and yes libraries are part of that public space.

Libraries are for the lost. For the friendless, the confused and the ones searching for an identity. My friend LD Lapinski write this amazing story about finding identity with the help of a library. In my first job as a bookseller, we had to refuse to serve a confused boy who had ordered some gentle, enquiring books about homosexuality because his father had ordered us not to sell him anything. Libraries were there for him when the private sector couldn’t help him.

This year a lot of people who thought they were comfortable found that they were just one furloughed period from trouble. The distinction between haves and have nots has altered, and families found themselves worrying about how to manage when they never needed to before. Libraries are there – for help and advice and to provide a world to escape to, like I did on my way home from school.

Where are you writing?

Writing in the time of Covid has, for many, been hard enough but for those of us who have changed to doing our day job at home a new, unforeseen problem has arisen. Spending 9-10 hours a day working at the desk where I used to write, I now find I cannot write at my desk.

So we have the dream:

Then we have the day job:

And then we have the reality:

I just can’t go back to that same chair and try to be creative. Standing at the dining room table, piled high with jigsaw boxes may not be ideal but it does allow to stand, move about as I grasp for dialogue, and focus in a different way. Sometimes we just need a switch to flick and find the right mindset. This is mine and it appears to be working for now.

What about you? Has Covid affected your writing or reading?

November’s reading

November was a strange month for reading and I had long swathes where I just didn’t seem to read much at all. I still have three books I’ve started and am taking a while to get through. But what did I finish this month? Here you go:

The Light Keeper’s Daughters – Jean E Prendziwol

A family saga, I guess, with duel stories from the past and the present running in tandem. A teenage girl tries to impress her boyfriend by spray painting grafitti on the fence to an old people’s home and, after getting caught and sent to clean it up, gets talking to a blind inmate who tells her the story of her life and what it was like to grow up in a remote lighthouse in Canada during the Second World War. I picked this up on a whim and enjoyed it as a light read.

Dear Life – Rachel Clarke

I really enjoyed this but when I tell you it’s a memoir and general rumination on life by a palliative care doctor whose father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, you may wonder if enjoyed is quite the right word. However, there is lots to cover with a careful consideration of what is important in life and in death, and how we treat pain and loss in this country. Clarke is an honest writer, clear and up front about how she learned from her mistakes, and how she can help make people’s deaths better, for them and their families if she can. Also her dad sounded like a lovely man.

What a Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe

This was a re-read, mainly because I bought to ticket to stream the adaptation of the book from The Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre (starring among others, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, ) which was terrific. A murder mystery, biting satire on modern politics and homage to the black and white British farce of the same name, Coe’s novel is as relevant now as it ever was.

The Minaturist – Jesse Burton

Another of the books that has sat on the shelf for years, I finally picked this up to read and was immediately engrossed. Though I’m still not entirely sure of the relevance of the miniaturist herself to the plot, the rest of the story was excellent, with strong characterisation and tense situations. If asked, I usually say I don’t like historical fiction but really, this year I’ve read and loved this, the Mantel trilogy and Hamnet so I really need to have a word with myself.

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

This was one of the last on the list of books to read that have sat on the shelf for years and I really thought I would enjoy it. I usually like her books, and it featured Frida Kahlo. However, I struggled a lot with it. I may have enjoyed it a lot more had it started about 150 pages later than it did but the protagonist’s back story was dull and by the time anything more interesting had happened, I’d lost the will to read on.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee

This is an odd book. It’s based on the excellent premise that Virginia Woolf comes back to life in the 21st century and lands in Manhattan to meet another writer Angela Lamb, who is about to give a speech at an international Woolf conference in Istanbul. There is much to enjoy here – each chapter is divided into bits where Angela and Virginia narrate so their opposing sides to each story and nit picking with the other are quite amusing. And Virginia, once she adjusts to the modern world – mobile phones, washing regularly etc – is good fun, enjoying life and travel and hotels very much. Angela Lamb is less enjoyable as a character and there’s an odd side plot with her daughter who runs away from school. It all felt like a bonkers jumble of a book that could have been a little shorter, but was quite fun anyway.

The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayeri

This is a memoir mixed with reportage, covering Nayeri’s family escape from Iran where her mother was facing persecution for Christian beliefs, and their journey through the Middle East to Italy and Oklahoma and beyond. Nayeri mixes it with stories of other refugees and their journeys. The whole book is shot through with anger at the systems making it incredibly difficult, and how these have really only got worse in recent history, and about the human cost of refugee journeys. It’s also a strong reminder that not all the countries they escaped from were totally awful – the story about her and her brother being taken for ‘treats’ in Oklahoma and finding that treat meant a bright blue slushie, where the children remember the food they used to love in Iran, was both funny and a poignant reminder that we have a lot to learn about others.

Dogger’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

A new Shirley Hughes book is always cause for joy and a sequel to Dogger, one of our absolute favourites of all time, had to be bought immediately. It is essentially the same story: Dogger gets lost, Dave is sad, Dogger gets found, hooray! But it’s still lovely.

Where Snow Angels Go – Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell’s first book for children and there is so much to love in it, and so many threads that you can find from her grown up writing, especially her last two books, I Am I Am I Am and Hamnet. This is a beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated book about a little girl who finds that her snow angel is real and exists to protect her. Buy it immediately for everyone you know.

October reading round up

I know, I know, it’s late. There’s been a lot going on ok? But I’m here now, only 6 days into November and this is what I read last month:

A Song for the Dark Times – Ian Rankin

What is there to say about a new Rankin that we haven’t already said? This is the 23rd Rebus novel, and the cantankerous bastard is still out there getting in everyone’s way. Well retired and labouring under illness, Rebus is nevertheless able to do what he does so well – annoy people, solve crimes and alienate friends and family. As ever, a reliable and enjoyable read and a nice cliffhanger at the end.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

This was everywhere at one point, well reviewed and pushed at every corner so I was quite disappointed at how little it contained. There was little mystery, and in some ways, little curiosity in unearthing the truth about some of the major players. A strange book.

In the Kitchen – various

This, on the other hand, was glorious. A collection of essays about kitchens, cooking and a whole bunch of related stuff published by Daunt Books, who also brought the book about Hampstead Ladies Pond. I really hope this is the start of a series. The essay by Joel Golby about buffets is worth the cover price alone, but there are a lot of really thoughtful and inspiring pieces in here.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

And again, about a year after everyone else. I found this a little hard to get into for the start but by the second section I was won over. Even before reading this, I did wonder if the Booker judges had made a HUGE mistake in the joint award and now I’ve read it, I can say they definitely did. Atwood is fan fic, good enough, but this is better.

The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews often writes of mental ill health and the last book I read by her, All My Puny Sorrows, is a heartbreaking look at this in depth. It’s examined here less, and instead The Flying Troutmans has a more comic focus, while still being able to discuss serious issues. When her sister is hospitalised with serious mental illness, Hattie has to fly home from a failed love affair in Paris and look after her niece and nephew. They decide to drive across America in a battered old van to find the children’s father and on the journey discover more about themselves and how to heal. A classic set up but a satisfying read.

Elisabeth’s Lists – Luah Ellender

I saw this recommended on social media and misunderstood a little about it. Luah Ellender inherits her grandmother’s list book, something she has used to organise her entire life (like a bullet journal these days), and she writes the story of her grandmother’s life just as her own mother is dying. I thought this was a story of ‘ordinary’ people so was a little disappointed to find they were quite wealthy and Elisabeth is the daughter of an ambassador who marries another ambassador so has the chance to travel a lot. But there is a lot of change and sad moments of grief to deal with in her lifetime, one that was cut quite tragically short, and I loved the idea of this one book helping her organise her mind and her life to satisfaction.

To Obama – Jeanne Marie Laskas

President Obama read 10 letters a day from citizens across the US during his time in office, carefully curated by a team of staff, often quite young people, who used the letters as a chance to allow the president to hear from the people and especially those who disagreed with him. This book is the story of some of the families behind the letters, and the team who read them. It highlights the many problems our US cousins faced, and still face, and is perhaps a useful way to understand why there is still so much division over there. What we do need, and have not had a for a while, is a return to the humanity that came from his time in the White House.

There’s Only One Place This Road Ever Ends Up – David Biskoll

I read two graphic novels this month and this is a new genre to me but both of them are perfect in this format and I don’t think would work as well in any other way. There’s Only One Place is the story of David and his girlfriend when she is diagnosed with a debilitating illness that leaves her disabled. It is about how they managed, the things people said to him, their changing hopes and dreams and small moments of joy. It’s quite lovely.

Flake – Matthew Dooley

The other graphic novel was this, a very British comedy set in the North of England and featuring the rivalry between two brothers who own ice cream van businesses. The humour is very dry and the pictures quite monochrome, so the setting is bleak enough to allow the characters to come into their own. This was apparently a sensation when published and this is the second printing, it deserves to be widely recognised.

Daisy Jones and the Six – Taylor Jenkins-Reid

I enjoyed this but it is a light read (I read it in a single sitting one evening when everyone else had gone to bed). The story of a band and their charismatic singer, the book is written as a series of in depth interviews as you would read in Rolling Stone or similar. It takes you through the founding of the band, their rise to stardom and their inevitable bust up, following the usual excesses of sex, drugs, rock and roll. A compelling and fun read.

Dear Reader – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink, registered book worm, takes us through a journey of her life, how books have helped her through some of the changes she’s has experienced and provides some themed recommendations. This takes a while to get into and I found the autobiographical parts much more compelling than the recommends (partly because she, like I, worked at Waterstones and found a husband on the staff). But by the end I was thinking of my own version, and wanting to write my own lists. (Potential blog content! Aha! Watch this space!) This also looks beautiful, it’s got a gorgeous cover and is the perfect Christmas gift for the book lover in your life.

August reading – a step into non-fiction

I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, though I find a lot of it looks interesting and then never really get round to it. But this month I seem to have read more non-fiction than fiction and really enjoyed it. More evidence of my changing reading habits – created by either lockdown or age – or possibly just evidence that there’s a lot of innovative and interesting writing out there and I’ve just never noticed it.

Negative Capability – Michele Roberts

“Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night I decided to write down everything that had happened; the only way I could think of coping. So here goes.”

Here opens Negative Capability, a memoir from Anglo-French novelist Michele Roberts. I’m fairly certain I’ve read one of her novels but cannot for the life of me think which. Anyway, this is her diary, written over the course of a year, after her novel is rejected and a number of other things happen. In it, she charts her thoughts about literature, walking, living partly in France and partly in London, relationships, friendship, sex and all manner of things in between. I found myself drawn in by her lifestyle which is delightfully stereotypically writer-y, all glamourous poverty, cheery local neighbourhoods and eccentric friends, with a whiff of high culture and really good food. The title comes from a state described by Keats, about trying to exist and accept uncertainty, and realising that this state can help rebuild after uncertainty or change. This book is the year Roberts spent in trying to achieve it. Strange and good-quirky, and a helpful idea to have in your arsenal in these strange times.

At the Pond: Hampstead Ladies Pond – various

What a sweet little book this is! It’s a series of essays written for each season of the year, about women who have swum in Hampstead Ladies Pond. I’m not at all sure about swimming in a pond with creatures and weeds (it feels less fresh than the sea) but there is something beguiling about this space that I’m really intrigued about what it’s like there and have been Googling pictures. It helped to have this to read in between chapters of the Lemm Sissay book (see below).

Everybody Died so I Got a Dog – Emily Dean

I bought this on the basis of its title alone, it seemed so very me. I had never heard of Emily Dean before – apparently she presents things – but very much enjoyed this story of her upbringing, politely described as bohemian but essentially closer to child neglect and general awfulness by her parents. However, that is all background to the main part of the story – her beloved sister gets an aggressive form of cancer and dies very quickly, and then as Emily tries to deal with this, her mother and later her father both die. These are not likeable people but it all felt very human, the messes we make and the ways we can only rely on dogs to save us from ourselves.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – Kate Clanchy

Oh this book. I read it the week of the exams fiasco. Many people have described it as ‘uplifting’ but I cannot fathom why. It is one teacher’s story of working with vulnerable children, children who have been dumped on by the system, and while you might find it uplifting to see how she gets them to describe how they feel, and how they can write poems that help describe their experiences, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly angry. We are broken. We are letting them and ourselves down. Loads of teachers are doing excellent unsung work, like this but without a book deal, but they are not receiving the wider support and resources they and the children need. I don’t know why we accept this, why we aren’t pouring cash into making sure we educate people and help look after them. Read this. It’s excellent. Then for god’s sake vote for someone who will resource education the way it needs to be resourced.

Vita and Virginia – Sarah Gristwood

I bought this on our first visit back to a National Trust property, along with jam and scones. Obligatory. It’s a basic intro to the friendship between Vita and Virginia, how their story started as a love affair and settled into a deep friendship. As I read so much Woolf last year, I knew most of it but this is a lovely book and I enjoyed the focus on the two of them and also the pictures.

Gears For Queers – Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

I like a good travel book and have read a number of cycle touring books over the years but it never really occurred to me that the writers/ cyclists were all fit, able bodied folk pedalling miles without a care. This changes all that. Abi and Lilith are partners who have a range of health problems, mental and physical, and who decide to go on a cycle tour across Europe. They are unfit, very poor and in some ways quite badly equipped. But this of course adds to the experience and this diary is told in alternate chapters by each, often giving you both sides of the story. I enjoyed this and it’s good once in a while to be reminded that you need to look at things from another point of view.

My Name is Why – Lemn Sissay

I read an excerpt of this when it was first published and wept all over the newspaper. The book is perhaps a little better – no less awful in terms of what happens – but you get a sense of how he became the man he is, how he found the necessary resilience to manage. Lemn was born to an unmarried single mother who had to go back to Ethiopia after he was born, and after he had been taken from her. She would not sign the adoption papers but having had to leave, lost what little claim she had. He was raised by foster parents for a number of years and was given another name. Then his foster parents, almost on a whim, it seemed, rejected him and sent him away from the main home he had known. He spent a year in a children’s home. I won’t tell you more, but this is all described through the documents kept at the time and which he had to request as an adult in order to find out the truth about his childhood. It is incomprehensible to me that people can treat children with such casual attitudes, such banal cruelty. Again, an essential read.

Fiction:

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

Just the two fiction titles this month and to be honest, at times this felt like reading a newspaper. This is the third in Coe’s Rotters Club trilogy, and examines the years leading up to and including the Brexit referendum. Coe is excellent when considering the personal impact of Brexit, and he does try to put across some idea of why people may have voted to Leave, even if his sympathies are very firmly on the Remain camp. His strengths lie in his characters and he writes with fondness for many of them.

Dissolution – CS Sansom

This is the first in the Matthew Shardlake series and is set in Tudor times. Shardlake, an associate of Thomas Cromwell, goes to investigate the violent killing of another associate, at a monastery. At the time of the Dissolution, the monks are obviously shifty and on edge, unwilling to accept that change must come to them and there are lots of secrets buried in the monastery. I really enjoyed this, it’s good to remember other interpretations of Cromwell besides Mantel and, like the best crime fiction, this gives you real insight into the troubles in society at the time of such change in the kingdom.

The Little Free Library NG7

At one point recently, I looked at the pile of books by the back door waiting to be donated to a charity shop and wondered if it might be easier to find somewhere to leave them nearby for other people to enjoy. I envisioned a little shelf on my road with a sign asking people to help themselves. The main argument against this (aside from not having a spare shelf or anything to waterproof it with) was that I was concerned that my neighbour would spot the two books she gave me over the fence and realise that I hadn’t read them. (It was a nice gesture on her part, I just don’t fancy James Patterson books.)

Luckily for Nottingham, other people are less rubbish than me and do amazing things with scrap bits of wood. So, if you find yourself in the New Basford area, take a stroll to Central Avenue (it runs parallel to Nottingham Road) and check out the Little Free Library.

Here it is.

It’s jam packed with books, of all kinds, including a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book that E hadn’t read and was very pleased to find. The library works on an exchange system: you leave a book, you take a book. We took two books and left three. We also left a comment in the visitor’s book to say hello and thank you.

A while back, a local phone box was full of books and I thought that was great too. Certainly no one uses it for phoning people any more. Perhaps we should reclaim more spaces to share our books.

For now, you can find the Little Free Library on Central Avenue, New Basford, next to Cooper and Berry’s, and on Twitter @littlefreeng7