Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’


Way back sometime in the 1970s – when I was a very little girl, but already in love with books I read a book called The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols. I loved every word of that little book and have remembered it ever since. I even remembered the author (as a child I thought Beverley Nichols was a woman, and it was many years before I discovered my mistake). I think we carry the books we loved as children with us somewhere – though I’m hopeless at remembering the titles of many of them now. That was pretty much my only experience of Beverley Nichols – until many years later – a few blogging friends began sharing their love of his adult books, their enthusiasm ensuring that I soon acquired some for myself.

Beverley Nichols was an enormously prolific writer – journalism, politics, autobiography and novels. Though some of his most popular works seem to have been his books of gardening and house restoration. Down the Garden Path is the first book in one of the two gardening trilogies that Nichols produced. A book about gardening restoration is not something I would usually read, but there was something very appealing about this trilogy. Having heard such wonderful things about Nichol’s warm witty writing from other readers, it seemed a good place to start. However, I think I probably have the best books still to read, as it seems some people believe the other gardening trilogy starting with Merry Hall is better than this one. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

“I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.
It sounds rather vulgar, but it is true.”

In the early 1930’s Beverley Nichols was already a well-known writer – still quite a young man, he also had a passion for gardens, and it would seem, enough money to buy a cottage with large gardens in the country. This book tells the story of the garden (and cottage) he bought in Cambridgeshire. It and the two sequels which follow were illustrated by Rex Whistler – and were a huge success.

Having quite rashly bought his cottage – because of the gardens he knew came with it –Beverley hurried down to view his new house, hardly able to wait to see the garden. He is met by Arthur – a strange, oddly behaved servant who provides him with uneatable food and stays in bed all morning. The garden however, which Beverley remembered so well has been sadly neglected, and is nothing like it had been. He is devastated, but the immediately starts putting it to rights, planning how it will look, researching in detail winter flowers, so that there is always flowers in his garden. It is a labour of love.

“It was not till I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success…the first thrill of creation…the first taste of blood. This, surely, must be akin to the pride of paternity…indeed, many soured bachelors would wager that it must be almost as wonderful to see the first tiny crinkled leaves of one’s first plant as to see the tiny crinkled face of one’s first child.”


Nichols writes deliciously about his garden, his descriptions are glorious, his passion for his flowers is infectious. Despite not being a gardener – or even all that knowledgeable about flowers I found myself quite happily caught up in Nichol’s enthusiasm and as someone who has been known to push a few daff bulbs into my garden soil and sit in my zero-gravity chair with a cup of tea and book on a sunny day I found myself oddly able to fully appreciate the glory in the appearance of little garden miracles. Though even while he is describing the glories of nature and his simple, never ending joy in the miracle of mother-nature – he can’t resist a little cheeky humour on the side.

“The seed of a blue lupin will usually produce a blue lupin. But the seed of a blue-eyed man may produce a brown-eyed bore…especially if his wife has a taste for gigolos.”

However probably the best parts of this book are Nichol’s mischievous portraits of some of his neighbours. We never get to know these people as well as I would have liked but, he is rather funny about them all – Mrs M, Miss W, Miss X (we never learn their full names either). One of his visitor; hilariously described, an affected woman, who makes much of her apparent tininess and feminine weakness. Another neighbour, Mrs M becomes Nichols’s rival and nagging thorn in his side. She finds something to criticise in everything he does, and Beverley presumably makes himself feel better by writing about her with such scathingly sharp wit. We even meet his parents who visit him in his country home.

It is Beverley Nichols simple joy for life that is so adorable here. I am really looking forward to reading a lot by him now.

BN allways garden

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Chosen by my very small book group as our January read, A History of Britain in 21 Women did seem very appropriate as the first book for a feminist book group to read at the start of 2018. The year which sees the centenary of some women getting the vote. We met to discuss it on Wednesday evening (there were a jaw dropping seven of us – almost a crowd) – but more of that later.

It is worth pointing out, author Jenni Murray is clear, that this is a very personal selection. I think if you asked any group of people who would make their list they would all look very different. I fully admit I raised an eye brow at the inclusion of one or two and wondered at the exclusion of others. In reality, the book is twenty-one chapters of short biographies, there is very little from one chapter that feeds into another. Still, it does provide some fascinating information, the stories of many of these women are quite extraordinary.

The book begins with Boadicea (she insists on Boadicea rather than the more accepted Boudicca) and ends with Nicola Sturgeon. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would be writing about a book. In between we have; Elizabeth I, Aphra Behn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstoncraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Quant. There were a few names there completely new to me – others who I had fully expected to be included in a book of this kind.

There is quite a lot to like in this book, which is remarkably readable. Two of my favourite chapters were the Fanny Burney and Mary Quant chapters, which were possibly not the chapters I had expected to like most. Fanny Burney who lived to her late nineties, despite having had to endure a mastectomy for breast cancer – without anaesthetic when she was in her late fifties. Extracts from Burney’s letters to her sister about the experience are produced and make for jaw dropping reading – not for the faint hearted. I already loved Fanny Burney as a writer but to have come through that horrific, traumatising experience and live a further forty years is surely testament to her strength as a woman. Fanny, I take my metaphorical hat off to you.

“Burney’s is the first example I have come across of a woman writing so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and mastectomy.”

Mary Quant – not someone I had considered very much before – really gave women their freedom in clothes. Suddenly, it was ok to have fun with fashion, look good and feel good, she gave women the freedom of movement. She even had a massive effect on the cosmetic industry.

“Her impact on the cosmetic industry was huge, but men working in the industry often had difficulty in following her thinking. Why, they would ask, would women need a waterproof mascara? It seems so obvious, but it was Mary who told them that women swim and sometimes they cry.”

I also loved the chapters about Aphra Behn and the suffragists Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst – women whose influence is surely still felt today.

Margaret Thatcher – love or loathe her (I do still loathe her even though she is dead) had to be included – I would have been shocked had she not had a chapter. As one of the book group members said on Wednesday night – she is a pretty hard sell. However, Jenni Murray does a good job with Maggie – and it is very obvious in several places where Murray sits politically and it’s nowhere near Thatcherism. As a journalist, Murray met Thatcher a couple of times and it is from this position that she writes about her – and the chapter is short.

“At one point in the late afternoon the crowd trying to get close to her was so pressing she was surrounded by half a dozen huge, burly policeman. I had lost my cameraman and sound recordist in the melee, but I’d managed to stay close to the leading lady. I found myself being squeezed painfully between her fans and her police protectors. A hand popped out from behind the coppers. It grabbed mine and pulled me into the circle.
‘Come along, dear,’ she smiled ‘Stay by me. We don’t want a talented young journalist to be squashed to death, do we?’

So far so good, however, I did have a few small quibbles with the book that went beyond who was in and who was out. Firstly, there is no index, and in the Elizabeth I chapter, Murray makes reference to historical novels – particularly those of Philippa Gregory, I found that rather hard to forgive. In a world of well known, popular historians, I think referencing historical novels a bit lazy. The title is perhaps a little mis-leading, perhaps a better one as my book group discussed – would have been, a history of Jenni Murray’s Britain in 21 women.

This made for a great book group discussion. As a group of seven women – we certainly couldn’t have come up with a definitive list of who should or shouldn’t have been included. We all accepted that this is a very personal selection. Overall, we each enjoyed the book on some level – and I think we were all impressed by Fanny Burney. One member was particularly excited by the scientists who were included, for her the book really got going when she got to Ada Lovelace. Writers, scientists, artists and politicians, whatever your special interest there is probably a chapter in A History of Britain in 21 Women that you would find interesting.

jenni murray

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The first of three books from the end of 2017 I still have to review – please bear with me while I catch up with myself.

I don’t read much non-fiction, I think that much is quite apparent, but Long Live Great Bardfield is the kind of non-fiction book I am most likely to read. An autobiography written in a very accessible chatty style, depicting the lives of writers (or in this case artists) living in the first half of the last century.

tG artI’ll be honest, I didn’t know the name Tirzah Garwood (though I certainly recognised her work) until Persephone books brought out this title last year. I had vaguely heard the name Eric Ravilious but couldn’t have told you anything about him, nor had I heard of the Great Bardfield artists colony. However, if you haven’t heard the name Tirzah Garwood, and you’re a Persephone fan, who has been enjoying the Persephone Quarterlies and now Biannually, you will, as I did, recognise her work. Many of the illustrations used in the Persephone magazine over several years are from the work of Tirzah Garwood. How fitting that they are now publishing her autobiography.

So, with the Christmas holidays giving me plenty of reading time – I settled in with this almost five-hundred-page autobiography and entered into the bohemian world of Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious.

Born into a family of five children, Tirzah (born Eileen Lucy – Tirzah was a nickname) and her siblings were obliged to move around quite a bit with their parents. Living in Glasgow, Croydon and Eastbourne Tirzah seems to have been surrounded by a lively, loving family who supported her artistic abilities.

When she was eighteen, Tirzah went to art college in Eastbourne, where she was taught by Eric Ravilious. Over the next few years, Tirzah produced dozens of remarkable woodcuts, many of which were highly praised and displayed at the Society of wood engravers. The work she has left behind her, is I think beautiful, so intricate, yet so bold.

“I had sent some of my wood engravings to the exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers and they had been liked by the committee of which Eric was a member and The Times had given them a kind mention; this more than anything convinced my parents that they ought to let me go, though they thought my subjects hideous and the Mr Ravilious was perverting a nice girl who used to draw fairies and flowers into a stranger who rounded on them and did drawings that were only too clearly caricatures of themselves.”

All of these wood engravings were completed before she was just twenty-two years old. When she was twenty-two she married Eric Ravilious, another wood engraver, book illustrator and water colourist. Early in their marriage, the Ravilious’ went to live in Great Bardfield – a village in Essex, where a number of Ravilious’s artist friends and associates either lived or frequently visited. I really could have done with an index to help with the all the names of artists, friends and lovers. I ended up doing a lot of googling and in the beginning, struggled to remember who everyone was.

tirzahSadly, from this point Tirzah’s time was taken up with domestic matters, and although she did help Eric with some of his artistic projects (a now lost mural in a Morecombe hotel for one) Tirzah’s own art took a back seat. Being married certainly didn’t stop either Eric or Tirzah from having other love affairs, all of which seemed perfectly normal to the people around them in Great Bardfield.

In 1935 Tirzah had the first of her three children (the youngest of whom has edited this autobiography and written the preface). Those years before the Second World War, were busy for Tirzah, as she struggled with a doomed love affair with another Great Bardfield artist, and cared for her children. Despite their involvement with other people, both Eric and Tirzah were generally devoted as a couple, in their own way. It was unconventional, but it seemed to work for them. During this time Tirzah spent some time designing marbled papers which she found herself able to sell.

Eric decided to volunteer as a war artist, and so in the early years of the war was away quite a lot. Tirzah was diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer – and it was following her recovery that she began to write her autobiography in the evenings while the children were asleep. Yet, it seems that art was never far from her mind.

‘I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.’

Tirzah emerges as a warm, modest woman, she had a lot to deal with – especially with her health, but her writing was obviously cathartic. Her writing style is particularly engaging and provides a compelling record of an extraordinary, colourful group of artists. Long Live Great Bardfield is a fabulous autobiography, well written and hugely compelling.

tirzah garwood

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alive alive oh

Yesterday was Diana Athill’s birthday – she was one hundred years old – an age which seems quite remarkable to many of us, but which, apparently more of us will be reaching. It was a complete coincidence that I chose to read what is surprisingly not her most recent memoir, just a few days before her big day. Having received her book Stet as part of a secret Santa gift exchange between booky friends I was reminded that I had received Alive, Alive Oh! last Christmas and elected to read that one first.

Diana Athill is best known now for her memoirs and short stories, though she began her career in publishing. Working as an editor with Andre Deutsch – one of the founders of the company, through a fifty-year career she worked with some of the biggest names in literature. Her book Stet – which I received recently, is the memoir about that work, and the people she met and worked with. I am looking forward to reading that.

“My two valuable lessons are: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.”

Alive, Alive Oh! was published in Diana Athill’s ninety eighth year, and in this work while dipping into the past as she does in all her books, she also considers what it is like to grow old. She reflects on what it is that stays with one in memory, having already lived a very long life. Surprisingly it isn’t the things you might imagine. She has found herself recalling places visited, things once experienced are remembered with great fondness. She remembers the grounds of the family home. In beautifully descriptive prose she recalls a grandmother’s garden, a memory of place which increasingly sustains her.

(Incidentally, it is worth pointing out to anyone who has yet to read anything by Dina Athill, that her memoirs are neither written or published chronologically, so it is perfectly possible to start anywhere).

“The terrace felt more like house than garden because one stepped out onto it so easily, and after breakfast Gran used to sit on its stone steps while she brushed Lola, her poodle. It was a place for civilised behaviour, where we interacted with our grown-ups more than in most places. The urns that stood at intervals on its wall has been brought back from Italy by Gramps, and small pink roses, with a lot of heavily scented honeysuckle, clambered over the walls – on summer evenings, through the bedroom windows overlooking the terrace there used to come delicious waves of honeysuckle.”

Recalling her visits to Europe and Tobago, the friends she made – and experiences as a traveller.

In the title chapter, Diana talks honestly and quite harrowingly about the miscarriage she suffered when she was in her forties. Having decided years before that she didn’t want children – she considered a termination, she had done it before – but something changed. She describes so poignantly the enormous happiness that she experienced once she decided she would have the child. The child was the result of her affair with Jamaican poet Barry Reckford – their relationship was anything but conventional.

“Those weeks of April and May were the only ones in my life when spring was wholly, fully beautiful. All other springs carried with them regret at their passing. If I thought, ‘Today the white double cherries are at their most perfect,’ it summoned up the simultaneous awareness: ‘Tomorrow the edges of their petals will begin to turn brown.’ This time a particularly ebullient, sun-drenched spring simply existed for me. It was as though, instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, I was flowing with it, in it at the same rate. It was a happiness new to me, but it felt very ancient, and complete.”

However, Diana tragically miscarried the child – described here with gut wrenching honesty, it was an event which very nearly killed her too. Finding herself alive at the end of this traumatic event, Diana realised just how much she loved being alive, how pleased she was at still being so.

In her ninety seventh year, Diana made the decision to go into a retirement home in Highgate in London. She adjusts to her new surroundings remarkably quickly. She discovers a wonderful freedom in this existence, released from the daily worries of managing her own home. She describes some gardening in the company of two nonagenarian friends, what wonderful spirit. I wish I had half their energy.

“Only three of us turned up. Elva had a hospital appointment that day and the others simply forgot, something only too likely to happen at any event in a home for old people. No one was there but nearly blind Vera, aged ninety-four, Pamela, also ninety-four, and me, three weeks before my ninety-seventh birthday…which really amounted to being just Pamela, because although she is the same age as Vera, she is slim and amazingly nimble for her age. It was Vera who said, ‘Let’s try to get one of them in, at least,’ but it could only be Pamela who got down on her knees – squelch, squelch in that sodden clay – to spread out the rose’s roots at the bottom of the hole. I then did the sprinkling of nourishing rose food, Vera did the tipping of compost out of a bucket, and Vera and I then jointly scraped clay back into the hole before hoisting Pamela to her feet (no one in this place can get up once down) so that she could tread the plant in.”

I must say the place where she lives does sound wonderful – probably a little outside the price bracket of most of us- it is lovely to think of her there, happy, cared for and I suspect still writing.

Diana Athill’s most recent book is A Florence Diary – a very slight volume in which she describes a trip to Florence by train with a friend in 1947 – it is high on my wishlist.


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Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

August is Women in translation month, and so when not reading books for All Virago/All August or book group reads I like to try and fit two or three #WITmonth books in as well. August is all about juggling books it seems.

witmonth2017My first read for this year’s women in translation month was A World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, which I remember buying in the London review bookshop on my last London shopping expedition in November. Astrid Lindgren, of course the author of the children’s classic Pippi Longstocking books, stories which at the time these diaries were begun has not even been thought of. The title attracted me – how often in the last year or so have people declared ‘dear heavens, the world has gone mad’ – I have certainly said it and the week I picked up this book, there were further world events over which to shake our heads. I was made to think, more than once, how stupid an apparently intelligent species must be – if they fail to learn from their own history.

“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war – and now today!”

Diaries are rather difficult to review, but this a very readable book and its author is very relatable to. Astrid Lindgren stares forlornly from the cover, pulling the reader in and one can’t help but wonder her thoughts. Karin Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter in her foreword explains how her mother had been determined to document the war from which Sweden remained neutral, but which raged around them on all sides. She remembers seeing her mother scribbling in her notebooks cutting out things from the newspapers, for the five-year-old Karin it was perfectly normal. The diaries were discovered in a wicker laundry basket in the Dalagatan home where Astrid Lindgren had lived from the 1940s until her death in 2002. Her daughter acknowledges how extraordinary it was, for a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with some secretarial training but no previous experience of political thinking to have produced what she did. For almost six years, recording her thoughts, painstakingly cutting out newspaper articles to stick alongside her entries (these articles are not reproduced in the book).

“Today’s huge sensation – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to the British Isles in a Messerschmitt plane and parachuted safely to the ground, where a Scottish farm-worker looked after him and took him to hospital in Glasgow. Now we’ve seen everything.”

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. As she continues to document the war, the shifting political alliances and how they impacted upon the war, she often considers the nature of evil, and the individual’s responsibility at such times to stand against it.

All around Sweden, other nations were suffering terribly, Norway and Denmark occupied by the Germans, Finland by the Russians, resulting in them losing a sizable amount of their territory in uneasy peace negotiations. Sweden was in a vulnerable position, and there were times when Astrid was practically holding her breath, anxious lest her country find themselves invaded, drawn into hostilities against their will.

“It was Karin’s seventh birthday yesterday. I wrote in my diary on this day last year ‘God grant that the world will look different by Karin’s next birthday!’ And it certainly does look different, but there’s no sign of any changes for the better. Possibly Sweden and the other Nordic countries are in slightly less danger, the main focus now seems to be on the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Yesterday the Germans launched an air invasion on Crete, or was it the day before? What’s left of Greek resistance is concentrated there, with British assistance.”

Alongside her entries which document the war so well, we get frequent glimpses of ordinary family life. The children’s birthdays, the gifts they received the food that was cooked and eaten in celebration. We also get some moving descriptions of her marriage – hints of some difficulties in the last year of the war, which she doesn’t dwell on or go into any detail about, in what for her was obviously meant as a chronicle of war. As a mother to a teenage boy as well as a young daughter – Astrid felt especially for the mothers of soldiers killed and maimed, realising, as she considered her own dear son, that the pain of just imagining him in their place was more than she could bear.

As the war years advanced Astrid began working as a censor in the postal control division, the letters that passed through her hands, providing Astrid with another more personal perspective on the war that was destroying Europe. An aspiring writer, Astrid won a competition in 1944 with a story about Britt-Marie, the Pippi Longstocking stories were originally invented to entertain her daughter while she was ill.

These diaries were a great way for to celebrate Women in Translation month. I found I really liked Astrid, and on finishing the book looked up her Wikipedia page – she really was a fascinating woman who was obviously very well loved by the people of Sweden.

astrid lindgren

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I expect the twitterers among you already follow Andy Miller (AKA @i_am_mill_i_am ) writer and co-host of the Backlisted podcasts, if not you should. I haven’t really got into listening to the podcasts regularly yet as I never seem to have time – reading, blogging, a P365 photography group on Facebook, working full time, sleeping argh! I need more hours.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is a book I have been aware of for a long time, but it was only recently I got around to buying a copy. I’m famously bad at reading non-fiction, but I do like a book about books, so I was confident that there would be a lot for me to enjoy in this book – there was.

“It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Andy Miller had the kind of life many people I suspect would recognise as being similar to their own. A job he liked, a commute to London, a wonderful family – a busy routine and a love of books he had stopped finding the time to read. Realising that books had become what was missing in his life, Andy set about putting that right – and so began a year of reading which would slowly transform his life. He committed himself to fifty pages a day – it was a commitment which quickly became a luxury, a joy – though with some books it really was more of a commitment.

This book is about that year of reading, about the fifty books he came to choose and added to The List of Betterment (serious books, classics, literature), his reading of them, reaction to them, and the life he was living as a husband, father and editor while he was reading. The List of Betterment was not a list compiled especially because it contained all the books Miller thought everyone should read, they were simply the books he wanted to read. I love a book list, what reader doesn’t? So, I had to turn to the list first (sorry) and count up how many I had read – eighteen! Oops – I wondered what I would put on my own list of betterment (ugh-o I really wish I hadn’t thought of that!)

It began with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, bought on a day out to Broadstairs with his young son Alex, (Alex got a copy of Mr Small).

“Some part of that book, of Bulgakov himself, now lived on in me. The secret of The Master and Margarita, which seems to speak to countless people who know nothing about the bureaucratic machinations of the early Stalinist dictatorship or the agony of the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one.
You don’t get that from Dan Brown.”

Other books include: Middlemarch, Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Sea, The Sea and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. *Disclaimer* when I looked at that list there were books on it I knew I never wanted to read, and would only ever read should I have the misfortune to be locked in a (well-lit) dungeon with only those books for company. Still, that didn’t prevent me from being interested in Andy’s journey through his betterment books – a couple even got added to my wishlist. His enthusiasm for Anna Karenina, made me want to re-read it, though I too absolutely loved it many moons ago, equally his irritation with Pride and Prejudice only made me love it more – I’ve read it four times.

As well as being a book about books The Year of Reading Dangerously is a work of memoir too. I loved the glimpses into Andy’s world, the relationship with his son is especially touching. I began to think we must be similar ages, so many of his references are mine too – so much resonated, especially his memory of school days. However, literary snob that I am, the thing that got me most excited was Andy’s ruminating about the children’s story book The Tiger Who Came to Tea. So, while I may have only read the tiger who came to teeighteen books from The List of Betterment – I have read The Tiger Who Came to Tea numerous times, and never tire of it.

“Is it wrong to prefer books to people? Not at Christmas. A book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.”

This is a book which will appeal greatly to those who love a book about books, whether you think you want to read those books or not, but it is also honest, funny and wise – the chapter about Herman Melville vs Dan Browne is quite hilarious – and while I shall never read either one, I was wonderfully entertained.

andy miller

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until we are free

Last year, while I was at the Hay Festival I attended an event with Shirin Ebadi – who I admit – I knew nothing about. I thought a talk by an Iranian human rights lawyer would be interesting – it was fascinating, and inspiring. I couldn’t help but buy her most recent book – and queued up to have it signed.

Such is the state of my tbr – and my fickleness as a reader I can buy or receive as a gift a book I long to read and have it sit there for two years – another time I buy a book and read it a week later. I don’t know why Until we are Free has sat unread for almost a year – but I recently suggested it to my very small book group and we will meet next week to discuss it.

Shirin Ebadi published two previous volumes – Iran Awakening a memoir of her life and work, and The Golden Cage, which tells stories of living under the Iranian regime. Until we are Free is another memoir – this time it tells the story of what happened to Shirin Ebadi and her family after she won the Nobel Peace prize in 2003. It is a story of extraordinary determination, and heart-breaking personal sacrifice.

“The story of Iran is the story of my life. Sometimes I wonder why I am so attached to my country, why the outline of Tehran’s Alborz mountains is as intimate and precious to me as the curve of my daughter’s face, and why I feel a duty to my nation that overwhelms everything else. I remember when so many of my friends and relatives were leaving the country in the 1980s, disheartened by the bombs raining down from the war with Iraq and by the morality police checkpoints set up by the still new Islamic government. While I did not judge anyone for wanting to leave, I could not fathom the impulse. Did one leave the city where one’s children had been born? Did one walk away from the trees in the garden one planted each year, even before they bore pomegranates and walnuts and scented apples?”

Shirin Ebadi has spent her life working for improvements in democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She became a judge in 1969 but following the revolution in 1979 – clerics ruled that Islam prohibited women being judges and Ebadi was forced to step down. Until 1993 she was unable to practice law – and during those years she write extensively, publishing books and articles which frequently put her into conflict with the Iranian authorities. Throughout these years, she had the full support of her husband Javad – who she had met in the comparatively balmy days of pre-revolution Iran in the 1970s.

Shirin Ebadi had never feared speaking out, publishing articles in Iranian journals and periodicals she became a well-known figure. When she began to practise as a lawyer in the 1990s – Ebadi worked mainly pro-bono and took on many controversial cases – including fighting for abused children and people of the Baha’i faith who are treated badly by the Iranian regime.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize increased Ebadi’s standing worldwide and brought some unwelcome attention to the regime. By the time, she received the prize – Shirin’s two daughters had left Iran to finish their education and start out on their own careers in the US and Canada. The money that Shirin received with the Nobel prize allowed her to continue the pro-bono work she was doing, it also allowed her to travel abroad, where she continued to pull no punches. This didn’t endear her any further the authorities at home, who she knew quite well were always watching, always listening. She and her husband lived in an apartment with a metal door – she received threatening phone calls, found messages pinned to her door. After the prize, the intimidation she received was stepped up, one man; an intelligence officer was completely obsessed with bringing her down. Her law centre was closed down, her phones were tapped. The intelligence officer had Shirin followed, her colleagues harassed and questioned. It led him to set up a dreadful entrapment.

In 2009 Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel medal was confiscated by the regime – while she was abroad. It was seized along with other belongings from her safety deposit box. She was advised not to try and return to Iran – and found herself thus in exile.

“…My great sorrow arose from being so far from Iran, and no medicine could alleviate this pain.
Some days, when the sun was setting, I imagined I heard the sound of the call to prayer, the azaan, as we say in Persian. I thought perhaps there was a local mosque, and I would search for it. But I soon realised there was none nearby; it had been my mind producing the sounds of the familiar. Sometimes I would overhear people speaking in a shop and would think that I’d picked up a scrap of Persian; but when I listened again, I was usually wrong. So I did the only thing I knew how to: I worked harder.”

The resolve Shirin Ebadi shows in the face of the most terrifying intimidation is in itself inspiring, she knows fear, but she never allowed it to stop her. In a bid to shut her up – members of her family were targeted, arrested and questioned at length – her husband of over thirty years was led into a terrible entrapment – and still Shirin stood firm, she never forgot the people she had fought for over the years. She wouldn’t let them win. Shirin Ebadi remains in exile, living in London.

Until we are Free is a hugely compelling memoir, eye opening and unforgettable.


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