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April reading round up

April has been a reading month. I mean a lot of reading. Though in the last week I’ve barely touched a book so crammed it all in early. I had a week off work which helped. Anyway, this is what I read this month!

Books among the tulips

This Lovely City – Louise Hare

Oh I loved this. It’s set in London and features a group of black men who came to England during the Windrush time and how they try to settle for work and family within the city. It’s a love story between Lawrie, a postal worker, and his neighbour Evie, and how they get entangled in a tragic discovery. I thought this was brilliantly written, and really liked how it brings a whole scale of racist actions to life – from blatant attacks to micro aggressions – and the effect these have on someone who is just trying to have a normal life. This is Hare’s first book and she’s clearly a great new writing talent.

The Most Fun We Ever Had – Claire Lombardo

No idea where the title came from as I couldn’t finish it, or even get very far but this should be a life lesson – that if a book has recommendations that compare it to Jonathan Franzen then I need to put it down and not bother (I never finished a Franzen book either). Anyway, if whining rich white Americans is your thing, perhaps this would work but I thought they were weird as all that and wasn’t interested.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Loved this, in what is likely to be Joyce’s best book yet. She writes loneliness and isolation so well, and yet this is not a lonely or sad book. Instead it details the blossoming of a friendship and of a life and is written as a girl’s own adventure, including all the tropes of the boy’s own genre but in reverse. It’s splendid fun and I’ve been waiting for the paperback for so long but it was worth the wait. Miss Margery Benson jacks in her soulless teaching job in the 1950s and goes off to fulfill a lifetime ambition – to find an as yet undiscovered beetle. Advertising for an assistant, she finds she is travelling with Enid Pretty, a pink suited, high heeled extroverted cupcake of a woman who should be the last person you would expect to travel to the jungles of South Pacific islands. But Enid has a secret and Miss Benson needs help. It’s an unlikely friendship but I thought it was fantastic.

Listening Still – Ann Griffith

I really liked the quiet poignancy of Anne Griffin’s first book and was delighted to find a cameo appearance by the protagonist of When All is Said in Listening Still. Listening Still is the story of Jeanie, who works in her family’s undertaking business. Jeanie can talk to the dead. She take their last confessions, their messages and regrets and requests. But the rest of her life is falling apart. Her marriage is rocky (for the record, I thought her husband was a whiny petulant type who was lacking in empathy but never seemed actively unpleasant – masterful stroke of characterisation) and her parents have decided to have retire early and up sticks to the seaside, leaving her and her husband to run the business with her aunt. The book tells of how Jeanie grew up with this gift, how she had a grand passion and a close circle of friends and most of all, it tells of the burden she carries by listening and talking to the dead. This is a great concept for a novel and I thought Griffin really carried off the ‘supernatural’ element of this well, never allowing it to become fantastic or silly. This is another quiet triumph for Griffin, who can tell deep truths about unknown lives with charm and insight. Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum

A book set among Palestinian families settling in Brooklyn and how the women are treated in these close knit Muslim communities. The story centres on Isra, a shy woman sent from Palestine to be married , and how she tries to please her husband’s overbearing mother Fareen, and fit in with the rest of his family. Years later, we see Isra’s daughter Deya having similar battles with Fareen to avoid being married off – but there is no sign of Isra. The truth about what happened to her, and how Deya can have a different life is what drives the book – incredibly sad but fascinating look into another culture.

David and Ameena – Ali Rauf

The second book this month about immigrant families in New York – this time a love story between a Jewish chap and a Mancunian Muslim girl. I found him quite annoying tbh, but otherwise this was interesting without being entirely emotionally engaging.

Love Letters – Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West

The title is a misnomer, to be honest, as these are letters and diary entries for the whole length of the Vita and Virginia’s relationship, which was not always that of lovers, but I imagine “Close friends who were once lovers and also had a business relationship letters” doesn’t really work as a title. Anyway, while I had read some of these before, putting them in a book together makes it comes across as much more of a story – Woolf wrote to so many people and had so many visitors that her diaries and letters volumes are jam packed. These are quite lovely, and made me feel very affectionate towards them both.

Reader, I Married Him – ed. Tracy Chevalier

These are short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, or at least by the line from Jane Eyre used as the collection’s title, but in truth, there seemed little to link them well and it was a rather odd collection. Not badly written and there are some great writers here but I didn’t really get the concept well and it all fell rather flat.

There was Still Love – Favel Parrett

I can’t remember who or what recommended this but I’m so glad I found it. It’s a quiet book where little happens but is rather beautiful and has much to say about unseen lives that nevertheless witness moments from history. There Was Still Love features a Czech family, including twin girls, one of whom is sent away to escape the war (the family could only afford the ticket to send one girl away) and the other who stayed in Prague. The ramifications for them and the rest of their family are explored in slow steady detail here and its rather lovely.

The Ends of the Earth – Abbie Greaves

Another book I picked up via Netgalley as an advance read and I got through it quite quickly – I read faster on the ereader app than in an actual book. Mary sits each evening in a tube station with a sign reading ‘Come home Jim’ and has done for the last seven years. Why? Her friends set about trying to find out. It is a shame, then, that the reason is really very poor.

Crossroads – Mark Radcliffe

A music book that explores moments where musicians reached a crossroads to make a change in their career that went splendidly well for them and for music in general. Mark Radcliffe reached a similar crossroads in his life, following cancer treatment and a milestone birthday, so he decided to loosely use that as a theme to talk about things he really likes, and throws in tons of dad jokes too. A fun read.

You, Me and the Sea – Elizabeth Haynes

I really wanted to like this and still quite can’t put my finger on why I didn’t. It is about Kate who has made a series of ‘”fuck ups” and decides to take a temporary job on a remote Scottish island looking after a birdwatching holiday retreat. Also on the island is the lighthousekeeper Fraser, a large man with a tragic past that has followed him to the island (though to reveal more would spoil the plot, but I did guess it anyway). I think it would have been better had it been at least 100 pages shorter – there’s a lot of introspection on Kate’s fuck ups and Fraser’s bad dreams – and Kate could have been less annoying, perhaps if she didn’t try to base her whole self around being one of those women that can’t exist without a man. Whatever it was that I didn’t like – length, characters, fewer descriptions of puffins than expected – I did at least keep reading to the end.

Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luselli

This was the book group choice for the month – and my pick too. I chose it because of the fuss surrounding American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (which I also read and thought was very badly written tosh) – Lost Children Archive was on a list of alternatives people might like to read if they wanted to find out more about the Mexican border crisis from more authentic authors. But this is barely a book about the Mexican border crisis and instead a quite dull essay on the disintegrating marriage between two very strange people as they drive across America with their children. I think somewhere in there may have been the point that she was trying to make about families, connection, about how we treat each other – and there was a tenuous attempt at creating a parallel between the border crisis and the eradication of Native Americans which was quite clumsy. Weirdly, in the middle of the book, I came across a single paragraph which was all about how we experience time differently and, while she wasn’t writing about the pandemic, it made so much sense to me and really resonated, and then it went back to the self indulgent nonsense it had been before. I need to apologise to the reading group. This was a disappointment. If anyone has any good recommendations about the border crisis then I’m still interested…

Moments of Pleasure

We loved Queen of Katwe which was on BBC iplayer this month – a film about a Ugandan chess champion. And with the easing of lockdown restrictions, we also made it to a National Trust shop and stocked up on their superior blood orange curd which has been gracing my daily toast – it is a thing of joy. On the whole, my forays into the city have so far been fun enough to stimulate by listening to other people gathering and enjoying the atmosphere, but then I’ve been glad to come home away from them all. So obviously the best moment of pleasure this month for any reading fan has been going into bookshops again. I came home with a lovely new pile of things to read from both the shops in town.

Writing for wellbeing: Journalling

Last week I was talking about free writing and writing by hand, and I guess the most popular and useful way of putting this into practice regularly is by journalling. Journalling seems to have come into its own recently – a few years back I don’t remember seeing as much about it but I suspect the pandemic may have put everyone into a state where they want to try and nurture their mental health as best they can.

It’s good to remember that journalling is not the same as writing a diary. You don’t have to record your day. Unless you want to, of course. But the danger of that is that it quickly becomes boring, or at least it has done for the last year:

Stayed at home

Worked from home

Walked round the park

Stayed at home

And so on.

The other danger of only writing your day is that you can spend a lot of time ranting and capturing a lot of negative feelings. So it’s important to try and write the joy too.

Journalling should be about capturing how you feel about things, so if you are keen to record your day then you can add this extra dimension to it. And journalling by hand allows you to connect your mind to the page, which can take all sorts of different forms. It can be all about capturing a moment, a scene, using all your senses; it can be about how you feel; it can be recording a memory or moment from the past. Or you can use prompts and see where they take you. The great thing about journalling suddenly being ‘the thing that people do’ is that there are loads of prompts out there at the moment.

And I shall be adding some more! Every Monday over on my Instagram site I’m posting a journalling prompt for you to try. See how you get on!

Prompts are a good way to help you start writing if you’re feeling a bit stuck but want to keep at free writing. You can use these to loosen up, a warm up exercise or just as an experiment and see where they take your thoughts. I know there have been days when I’ve looked at a prompt and thought, “oh what?” but given it a go and found all sorts of random things appear on the page. It can be fun, as well as beneficial.

If you do find yourself delving deep into feelings or memories, it is important to remember that journalling is not the best place to explore everything. A lot of people use journals as a tool to deal with day to day mental health issues but you can stumble across quite serious issues, at which point please do consider getting extra help. However, as a way of getting out your daily, weekly, whatever frequency thoughts, a journal is a really useful tool.

The other great joy of journalling is that you can buy some lovely notebooks for the task. I tell myself this is part of the motivation to keep writing, but as you may know, I am a stationery addict. My preferred journals are usually A5 size, clothbound and with ribbon bookmarks. My current one also has gold sprayed edges.

You can also get some really good ones with prompts in at the moment. I really like the new Women’s Prize Journal, which celebrates 25 years of the Women’s Prize and has short pieces about each winning book as well as room for your own notes. A perfect volume for a reading journal perhaps?

London-based stationers Papier have teamed up with Gurls Talk, a mental health charity for girls of all kinds, to create a Reflections journal – I think this is aimed at young people and adults rather than children. But the great thing is that there are some good products on the market for children too. It’s one thing handing a lovely blank book to a child but they will soon lose direction. Journals for children allow them to direct their thoughts, extract positive lessons and reflect their feelings without the task being too arduous. E and I have been trying out children’s journals: we like the Happy Confident Me journal or the Happy Self journal, both of which have prompts, quotes and fun activities for children to start journalling and exploring their feelings in a safe way.

So tell me this, is there anything else out there that allows you to take a few quiet moments, make yourself feel better, get in tune with your thoughts AND allows, nay positively encourages, you to buy new notebooks? No, there isn’t. So don’t forget, drop by my Instagram on Mondays and try out the prompt I’ll put up each week, and see how you get on!

Happy journals!

Writing for Wellbeing: free writing

At work recently I’ve been running workshops about Reading and Writing for Wellbeing, an hour-long slot where we explore the concept of bibliotherapy in a basic sense to help you through your daily life. It’s been a while since I’ve done any training or development courses for anyone so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me, plus delivering them via MS Teams has been a further revelation. In short, if you’re sharing slides for people to look at, then you can’t see their faces so you have no idea how it’s going down with them. Plus, they were all very quiet. It’s a little unnerving, however they all assured me that they enjoyed the sessions.

The thing that has gone down the best has been the free writing. For those if you not familiar with free writing, you write non stop for a certain period of time – I give them 5 minutes but you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes – and you don’t stop. If you have nothing you can think of, you write I can’t think what to write. You don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making sense. And more importantly, you write by hand. I think it’s this part that has been the most revelatory for staff at work. Having spent the best part of a year at home, most of us working on laptops for online meetings, instant messaging, emails and report writing, then writing by hand for a longer period of time than a shopping list has been quite a novelty.

I think those of us around my age have an interesting relationship with writing by hand. I wrote all my school essays by hand, spending time having to try and make my handwriting neat enough to read. Arriving at university, the requirement to type essays was a culture shock and to start with I had to write them out by hand and then go to the library and type them onto the computers there. The idea of writing my thoughts straight onto the page was a very strange one. Sometime in the second year this clicked and I just typed straight onto the page. Much of my writing these days is straight onto the laptop. I really admire writers who type their first drafts on their phones, as I’m just too Gen X to manage typing with both hands the way the kids do…

But there is a place for writing by hand. This past year, where I have felt so stuck, I did scribble a lot by hand. I bought E a pack of school exercise books with paperback covers for her home-schooling work and then ‘borrowed’ one and it really helped unlock words for me. The size of the paper, the neat margins, the lined pages, all contributed to me spilling things out on to the page. And I’ve always kept a journal going, sometimes less regularly than other times, but always there to help unlock thoughts.

There are many advocates of writing by hand, even in these digital days, and recognise the power it has in helping you express yourself. (I recently enjoyed one of the biggies, Julia Cameron, talking on Viv Groskop’s podcast.) The act of writing it all down, from the heart through to the fingers, slows you down, allows you to connect your mind with your pen. It makes writing a physical thing, a kinaesthetic process, which can allow you to explore thoughts in a different way to when all you are concerned about is how many little red lines appear under the words on your Word document.

The great thing for many of my workshop attendees was that their perception of journaling was challenged. So many people see journaling as a chance to write down what you’ve done that day, or a space to rant about how awful the news is, but in looking at this as a free writing exercise and opening up the world to them, there was a new element to it. Some wrote about memories, about places they wanted to go when the pandemic is over, others wrote more generally. Some have contacted me afterwards to tell me how they have continued the practice.

If you fancy having a go, here are the basic rules:

Set a timer. No longer than 20 minutes.

Write all that time, anything that comes into your head. If there’s nothing to start with then write that.

Do not go back and start to edit until after the time is up.

Do not worry about spelling, grammar or if it makes sense.

Enjoy the feel of the pen and how it flows across your page.

Let me know how you get on!

Books from my Mother

For Mothers’ Day I thought I’d look at reading and mothers, or to be specific, how my mum is woven into my reading history. 

To start with there are the books she read to me, especially the ones she read to us over and over again. Beaky the Greedy Duck and Rapunzel, and for my sister, One Little Bee and Tootles the Taxi. If pressed I’m sure she can still recite them.

We had a bookshelf in our dining room that was in my eyeline as I ate at the table each night. On it sat a number of hardback children’s books that I love though I have no memory of reading them or having them read to me. These included Little Grey Rabbit stories, Winnie the Pooh, Milne’s poems and a volume of Nonsense Verse. These are stories I associate with home as a child: The Owl and the Pussycat, Alexander Beetle and a bit of butter for the royal slice of bread.

Next the titles she passed onto me. Books I knew she loved, books I discovered when poking around the shelves at home. These include Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Jane Eyre. It’s funny, although we had books at home and both my parents had favourite authors, I don’t have any memories of them sitting reading, not at weekends or on holidays or anywhere. I do remember watching film and TV programmes with them both but not of us reading. 

I remember that she took me to the new village library when it opened. It was exciting, previously we had to make do with the mobile library or school library but here was a whole building full of books just down the road. I spent many an hour there after school and on Saturday mornings. She tells me now that she suspects it will not reopen after the pandemic, that the council will justify closing it. It’s tiny to me now but back then it was enormous and full of possibility. It was here that I found all sorts of companions, where my friends borrowed Judy Blume’s Forever so frequently that it was always in need of mending and the librarians never go the chance before another of us requested it. (Naively, I asked my mum what some of the expressions in Forever meant and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” in horror. It was the last time I would talk to her about book content for a while…) 

Books I associate with my mother brings us to cookbooks. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and the Homepride of Home Baking are the two that I feel were used most, although does anyone still really use Mrs Beeton? I cannot recall any recipes from it. But I think as my mum is known for her cooking, especially cakes, she is associated quite widely with cookbooks. Certainly she has been given more than she can ever use. Delia’s Complete Cookery Course and of course, the Australian Woman’s Weekly book of birthday cakes. When my daughter was born, I bought a copy of this from ebay – it is a cracking example of fun things to with cakes that are impressive but in theory not difficult. For people with more skill in icing than me. 

These days, or those pre-pandemic days, we often swapped books. The occasional biography but mainly fiction. I shared Elizabeth Jane Howard, Lissa Evans and Joanna Cannon, she recommended Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and A Song for Jenny. She reads more cosy crime and chick lit than I do but there is a thread of things I can share with her. If we lived closer there would be a lot more. 

So I want to hear from you – what books do you associate with your mum? How have these woman shaped your reading and your reading experiences? 

February: a short month with many books

Somehow I’ve read 11 books this month. And while one of them was a re-read, the others were new. Three of them I read on the Kindle app which means I didn’t read them as thoroughly as I would have done on the page. Still quite pleased with it though.

Home Cooking – Laurie Colvin

A friend recommended this as their comfort read and I love cookery books you can read so I got hold of a copy. It is indeed a delight, being a cook book written by a frank talking New York woman, who comments on lifestyle as much as food and recipes. If you like Nora Ephron movies, you’ll like this.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My re-read for the month and my favourite book. It will always be a comfort and a joy to read.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner

Lord. This is an unflinching book, a stark exploration of how a friendship can be tested through the worst of life. Helen’s friend Nicola comes to stay – Nicola has very serious cancer and is seeking treatment at an alternative therapist near Helen’s home. Helen is completely unprepared for the impact this event will have on her and how hard it is to deal with. You like to think you will support your friends in anything they need but we all know there are sometimes limits – and Nicola refusing to countenance any criticism of the quacks who are ‘treating; her s incredibly difficult for Helen and for us, the reader, to manage. A stark, portrait but a very successful treatment of a difficult subject.

The Family Tree – Sairish Hussain

I really enjoyed this. It’s a big absorbing family saga, in the style of Tim Pears or Elizabeth Jane Howard but centred around a British Pakistani family of a dad, two children and their grandmother. Having had their mother die when the girl Zahra was born, the book explores Zahra and her big brother Saahil, and what happens to them – in the form of racism, family ties and drugs. I loved the characters and how they forced themselves through the worst of events to come back together. A big hearted, absorbing novel.

Girl Reading- Katie Ward

A series of short stories, very loosely linked, based around paintings. This would have worked much better had the paintings been reproduced in the book so you could have seen them while you read (I imagine copyright issues are a factor and they are available on the website) It was alright.

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid

This was one of those books where you could see what the author was trying to do quite early on and once you got the point then she didn’t stop hammering it home. I couldn’t warm to it, though I tried. I did get the point though.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

This is published next month and there is a lot of buzz about it. I enjoyed it. It’s based (loosely) on a true story of how three lighthousemen went missing from their very isolated lighthouse in the middle of the sea one day at the turn of the twentieth century, with the doors locked from the inside. They were never heard from again. This takes that basic premise and imagines their fate, shifting the story forward to the 1970s and flitting further forward to the wives and girlfriends still looking for the truth thirty years later. It is a strong debut novel, exploring themes of male isolation and mental ill health and deserves to do well.

Father of Lions – Caroline Wallace

Well this looked interesting from the front cover, and parts of it were interesting but they weren’t what was promised on the front so I spent much of the book being very cross. If you expect this to be, as billed, ‘How one man defied Isis and saved Mosul zoo’ you will be disappointed. If you want to read what life was like in occupied Mosul by a bunch of people who lived near a park where some animals were dumped and how many of the animals (spoiler alert) don’t make it, then you will find that here. To be honest, there was a lot of detail that wasn’t needed and the book could easily have been a magazine article – it may have been better if it was.

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness

I love Bill. This is a series of chapters about things he has done that inspire happiness, and he hopes might make you think or want to try some out or consider what makes you happy and do more of it. And it’s worth reading for the chapter about the dog alone.

The Lip – Charlie Connelly

This is published in March and is the author’s debut novel, though he has previously written non-fiction. It took me a while to get into it as the narrator and protagonist Melody Janie, is a prickly and odd soul who doesn’t invite you to get close to her. And you do get to find out why. This is an antidote to all those people who bang on about how beautiful Cornwall is (it is) and close their eyes to the huge social and economic problems of the area. Melody’s difficult life, the sudden loss of love and security that she has suffered and the trauma of her later experiences make you love her. This is not the Cornwall the tourist brochures want you to know, it’s the one that gets mentioned in passing : the lack of secure employment, the unaffordable housing for local people, the seasonal poverty and isolation. It’s an unsparing portrait but a skilful one and should serve to make people think.

Together – Julie Cohen

A few months back, I took an online writing workshop with Julie Cohen and enjoyed it so thought I would try her books. This was well written and intriguingly structured but sadly I was so bothered by the denouement that it spoiled the whole thing.

Moments of Pleasure

This month, my moments of pleasure have mainly been food related: Bovril on crumpets late one evening when I’d skipped having dinner; making lime curd and spreading it in between a lime and courgette cake, teamed with thick double cream. Clemency Burton Hill introduced us to the lovely piece ‘Handel on the Strand’ by Percy Grainger and I spent an enjoyable evening indulging in the Hitchcockian glamour of post-war Nice with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, in To Catch a Thief.

Bedtime reading

E and I finished reading the third in Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair Mysteries (only one more to go) and have started reading The Dark is Rising, book two of the series of the same name. She likes it but finds it a bit spooky. This month she also (of her own accord) picked Anne Frank’s diary off the shelf and raced through it, finding she had a lot in common with Anne; I think we may have a new role model.

The Duchess of E 95th Street

Over on Twitter, I seem to have spent quite a bit of time recently discussing Helene Hanff with fellow book lovers. I guess it shouldn’t feel strange that book Twitter talks about famous book lovers but Hanff isn’t so well known that she would be mentioned as much as I’ve seen her name pop up on my feed recently, so I thought I’d devote a blog to her.

Helene Hanff is one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a writer, and while ideally I’d like to be a writer in 1950s New York, a part time writer in 2020s Nottingham will have to do. Famous for writing 84 Charing Cross Road, the bookshop lovers book, Hanff churned out a range of writing across her career and I’m pretty certain most of it is now out of print. She has the happy knack of making you feel as if you’ve known her for years when you read her, as if you would bump into her in the street and could carry on a conversation with her without having ever met her before. As such, she also puts me in mind of Nora Ephron, another New Yorker writer I admire hugely.

15-year old me wanted to go to New York so very much. I taught myself to drink coffee because I knew that’s what New Yorkers drank. Much as Helene Hanff used to go to English movies to watch the London streets, I love a good NY film – When Harry Met Sally and Crossing Delancey being two of my favourites. And so I also collected writings by my favourite NY authors. Here’s my Hanff collection.

Aren’t they lovely looking? Kudos to Futura editions who published them all so lovingly. Looking at the prices on the back, the most expensive cost £4.50 and the cheapest £1.95.

84 Charing Cross Road

I have two copies of 84, the hardback was a gift from Mr Barsby for my birthday last year. It’s got a picture of the original shop on the back, and is published by Andre Deutsch, Hanff’s first British publisher.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this classic, it is a collection of letters exchanged between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, a bookseller working at an antiquarian (second hand) bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The letters begin in the immediate post-war period when Hanff is trying to find a range of books to suit her antiquarian taste in English literature. She writes to the shop, they dispatch books and she gets increasingly familiar in her tone so that she and Frank develop a friendship, despite never meeting. Hanff yearns to visit London and makes a huge impact on the lives of the English bookshop by sending food parcels and crazy letters. The book has built a cult following over here and in the US, and its charm comes from Hanff’s bold manner and Frank’s polite but humorous replies.

The paperback also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is the story of Hanff finally making it to London for the first time when 84 was published over here. After Hanff died, there were a few mean spirited articles criticising her, especially in this book, for making caricatures of the people she met over here but she was always clear that these books were her impressions of people and I guess once you’ve spent your whole life imagining a place, you might fancy more than you really see when you finally get there. (Conversely, I was never more delighted than when the NY cab driver called me “Lady” in an exasperated voice as I wrestled with my rucksack in his back seat. Just like in the movies…)

Q’s Legacy

This book tells a similar story to 84 but with a wider context. Hanff explains where she began to read English literature, being too poor to attend college. She checked books out of the library instead, including a series of books by Cambridge professor Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known as Q. It was through his written lectures that she read a huge amount of books and developed her taste. This book also tells the story of the impact that 84 has on her life, taking her to London, watching plays and TV adaptations, and the letters and contacts that she had from fans who wrote or called her. Like 84, it sounds like a thin premise for a book but as I said, Hanff is one of those gossipy charming writers where as a reader, you feel like you’ve known her for years when you read her and it all works. Plus some of her fans do amazing things for her.

Underfoot in Show Business

Hanff did well writing quirky autobiographical volumes and this is the story of her early writing career in the theatre in New York. Full of anecdotes, famous faces and silliness. What makes this work is that she is underfoot, poor, striving about for any income in a business she loves but that doesn’t want her and this is so relatable to almost anyone who started out working a rubbish paid job with a bunch of misfits. It’s a popular formula, replicated many times in TV and film scripts.

Apple of My Eye

In the mid-1970s Helene won an assignment to write copy on a tourist book of photographs of New York. In her mind, it was the dream assignment, right up until she realised that she’d never really been to any of the tourist landmarks and knew nothing about them. So she enlisted the help of her friend Patsy and together they investigate New York. In the 1970s NY’s reputation wasn’t great, and it was before the big clean up and regeneration projects that leave the city looking so shiny these days. (One of the reasons I love the film Crossing Delancey is that you see New York looking a bit run down and rubbish, but people live there happily. Modern film and TV representations of rundown areas in cities are so often filled with stories of drugs, gangs, crime and trafficking, that you forget that most of the time, urban dwellers are just normal people are just going about their daily lives.) Helene and Patsy dash about the city, passing on tips and unearthing all kinds of facts that I doubt ever made it into the photo book but make for a great read about a great city in this book.

Letter From New York

In the last Seventies, Helene was asked to write her version of Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America for BBC Woman’s Hour and this book is her collected letters. She thought it would run for about six months and instead it ran for six years. The scripts then sat forgotten for many years in Helene’s filing cabinet until she mentioned to someone that she had written them and in the early Nineties this book was published. I spotted it in a remaindered bookshop one week and didn’t have the cash to buy it and when I went back the following week it had disappeared so I hassled the shop assistant to go and root through the back until she came across a copy. It’s the kind of dogged persistence that I like to think HH would have appreciated, even though her words were in a remaindered bookshop. It was during my ‘I hate book jackets’ period and I threw the jacket away, which I regret now as I’m certain it would have matched the others in red, white and blue US magnificence.

If you have the chance to read more Hanff, in battered second hand editions, then please do. It’s a good friendship to have.

A postscript. As a 21-year old who had finally made it to New York after what felt like years of waiting, I sat in a coffee shop overlooking Fifth Avenue and sipped at my huge vat of black coffee and watched the cars and the people, and thought to myself, “This is exactly how I thought it would be.” It isn’t often that our dreams come true in real life. I put this success down to having a dose of heavy reality and humour in the dreams in the first place. Thanks Helene, for that.

January: a round up of books and assorted nonsense

Is this it now? The passing of each month no longer feels like a mere date change but some kind of endurance test where we stand, licking our wounds and looking uncertainly at the future. How have you got on through this, the longest month? Well, I hope.

What has got me through January? What’s been on the reading pile? I started the month badly with books, had to put a couple down that weren’t working for me and immediately felt bad about it. Here’s what did work:

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

I reviewed this as part of the reading for wellbeing series and you can read the review here.

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carre

Le Carre’s death last month (last month? recently) made me wish to read one of his, and he was a reliable writer, which is what I needed after the bad start to the reading year. I needed someone I knew would give me a good story. This is a modern tale, post-Brexit and the usual slightly confusing spy story where the writer is always one step beyond. A solid assured novel.

The Blue Castle – LM Montgomery

I reviewed this earlier this month too and I’m still marvelling at the memory of reading it. It’s really delightful. I may press it on everyone I know.

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line – Ruth Thomas

I think this has been on Radio 4 recently. I read this in one afternoon, it’s a nice light hearted tale of head injuries, museum workers and love rivalry. Yes really. Deftly written with light characterisation and a sense of fun, while the story is perhaps predictable, it was nevertheless a good way to spend an afternoon.

There There – Tommy Orange

A strange one this. I read the first half on one chunk and enjoyed it, and then put it down for a few days so that when I came to finish reading, I had forgotten who everyone was. And then it ended. So there were some problems but on the other hand, I don’t think I know of many other books written by or about Native Americans in a modern context,and the anger in the book is palpable, and with good reason. It is a very bleak book but I think I wanted a little more detail about fewer characters.

The Littlest Library – Poppy Alexander

After a very bleak book I downloaded this off Netgalley which is the very opposite. A highly improbable ‘chick lit’ style story about a recently unemployed woman who ups sticks and moves following her grandmother’s death, and finds herself in a village in the West Country. As soon as her male neighbour stormed in complaining about her parking i knew he would be the love interest and the rest of the book was as easily predictable, and full of fun eccentric country dwellers that bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met in the countryside. Books like this are dangerous myth making nonsense, they really are. As an urban dweller I find the fetishisation of the countryside to be absolute bollocks. Anyway, she builds a library in the phone box and changes everyone’s life. If you like this kind of thing, it’s alright.

A Wood of One’s Own – Ruth Pavey

A real life version of the above (kind of, not really). Ruth Pavey decides to buy a wood, as you do, and this is her story of how she developed it and planted more trees and encouraged wildlife and chatted to local farmers and so on. I started off liking it very much but Pavey is an odd person and occasionally make casual remarks or observations that do strain your liking of her. And it could have perhaps been a little more focused or structured. But despite hating the countryside, I like the idea of a wood of my own and will give this book a cautious thumbs up.

Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden

A poetic jam-packed book about Death, a black woman, who visits the narrator Wolf after his mother dies in Grenfell Tower. There is a lot to take in here, observations about modern society and our casual relationship with the deaths of other people which is terrifyingly accurate in these pandemic-ridden times. It is written in a poetic, grand sweeping style, as fitting Godden’s day job as a poet, and can be hard to get into, but it’s an original and striking book, and a fascinating look at death.

The Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot – Marianne Cronin

This is published next month and there is a LOT of buzz on book Twitter about it. I was lucky to get a review copy via Netgalley and it really is a lovely book. Lenni is a 17-year old who has an unnamed fatal condition and is living out the last of her time in hospital. She is bolshy and sparky and, as one character says, “so alive”. She makes demands on the hospital chaplain, and on the nurses, and then chances on an art project set up by an intern. Here she meets Margot, an 83-year old woman who is being treated for another unknown condition. The two of them make friends, both of them being inclined to rebel, and embark on an art project to tell their stories to each other. We learn about their lives, their loves and their losses. This debut novel is absolutely right for our dark times, being full of honesty and pain and laughter and questions. I loved it.

Moments of pleasure

What else has got us through this month of home schooling and bad weather? Tapas delivery from a local restaurant made my husband’s birthday special; and I spent an enjoyable Sunday filling the house with orangey smells as I made marmalade and orange curd from a bag of Seville oranges. Sharp, tangy, lovely. A snow afternoon rolling snowmen in the park and enjoying the curious effect a heavy snowfall has on the sounds and light of the city.

Spiral. The final series, series 8, of Engrenages just aired on BBC4. Always a brilliant hour of TV, I’m really going to miss it. Fortunately BBC have all series on iplayer so I may have to re-indulge.

Clemency Burton-Hill’s book Year of Wonders, taking the layperson through a piece of classical music each day. I started playing pieces to my daughter for her Brownie’s New Year Resolution and we’ve stuck with it so far. The book is good but this month I am particularly glad for its introduction to Hildegard von Bingen and Morten Lauristen’s Dirait-On. Both beautiful.

Bedtime reading

We have alternative nights reading to E at bedtime, each reading different books. This month we’ve read Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (the first of the brilliant Dark is Rising series), and are now halfway through the third in Katherine Woodfine’s crime series set in Sinclair’s department store: The Painted Dragon. E and S are reading a book by a local children’s author, The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar. A special mention this month also for Lindsay Galvin’s beautiful new book Darwin’s Dragons which E whizzed through in about two days after delivery.

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.