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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.

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.