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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’

The first book I started after moving to my new flat was chosen for me by Liz – who had actually bought it for me one Christmas. She was helping sort the tbr cupboard (yes cupboard!) and thrust this one at me to read next – I hadn’t known what my next read was going to be. I really don’t know why I hadn’t read it before – the perils of a large tbr I suppose things get forgotten about. So, despite the fact that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, A Bite of the Apple is definitely a book right up my street. Liz knows me, she knew I would love this, I did.

For anyone who has scanned bookshop shelves looking for that tell-tale apple on the spine of a book – or who, like me, has far, far too many dark green spined VMCs to house – this book is a joy. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – is all here.

“It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women’s view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all human life on display, a great library of women’s fiction.”

Lennie Goodings has been with Virago almost since the start, when Carmen Callil founded the iconic press, she really has seen it all. She began part time in 1978 in the one roomed Virago office, accessed by five flights of steep stairs. She had no idea then, that in time she herself would become the publisher, but she did know that she had found her home.

Throughout these years Lennie Goodings worked with some incredible writers, some pretty big names too – and here she describes those working relationships. Remembering her meetings with women like Maya Angelou, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Dunant and Sandi Toksvig among many others. These glimpses of the women, who for some of us lets be honest, are our heroines, is wonderful, Lennie Goodings shows how many of these writers had just as much passion and belief in what Virago were doing as those working for the publisher at the time.

However, like with any organisation of its kind Virago had – and still have – their naysayers. Those who think that having a separate publisher for women, somehow diminishes their art – they have the same problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apparently, and it was news to me, A S Byatt refuses to have her books put forward for the women’s prize – there seems to be a fear from some quarters, that if books are published by a women’s press and nominated for a women’s prize then men won’t read them. (Rolls eyes). So, that there is the problem, isn’t it, still despite over forty years of Virago publishing, there are those who don’t take women’s writing seriously enough. I do my bit, by reading very few men (ha! Sticks tongue out!) Lennie Goodings however puts her case for the need for Virago and for the Women’s Prize rather better than me.

“With fiction, what seems to matter more is the gender of the writer; because even in this new world of outspoken writers and readers it appears not all words are equal. Something seems to happen to a novel when it has a woman’s name on the spine.”

One of my favourite chapters – perhaps not surprisingly was the one about the Virago Modern Classics list that started in 1978 – which includes a marvellous encounter with octogenarian Rosamond Lehmann. The classics of course have been an enormous success – oh and how we cheered when the green spines came back – changed a little for the twentieth century but green again. The first one of course was Frost in May – and was followed by so many more – that are now collected and cherished by people like me. Goodings reveals how the list changed the way women’s novels began to be seen, attracting new readers, becoming a strong and familiar presence in bookshops. Suddenly new life was given to the novels of writers like Rosamond Lehmann who had thought their day was done – and generations of readers can thank the Virago Modern Classics for the books that made it into their libraries.

The Virago that Carmen Callil started in that one roomed office all those years ago is not the same company as it is today. Lennie Goodings discusses how difficult remaining independent was, there were some forthright discussions and disagreements, but things had to change. In 1995 Virago became part of the Little Brown group and Lennie Goodings was there to see that transition through and explains clearly why that was necessary for Virago’s survival. Revealing how the imprint has moved forward, and how many exciting publications have come about since then, that may not have done otherwise. Today, Lennie Goodings is chair of Virago Press – still working with the authors and books that have been her passion for so long.

This was a marvellous book, really giving a lot of insight into the feminist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s – the publishing industry and the books and writers I love. Definitely, a book to keep to refer to again.

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I have been a Barbara Pym fan for some years now so when I first began seeing mention of this new biography on social media, I knew I would have to read it as soon as it was available.

Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s journal has already reviewed this book in two excellent posts – I fear I don’t have the energy to write two posts about a book, though this book is fully deserving of such attention. There is so much to talk about with this wonderful book – but I am going to assume that lots of you will be reading this soon – if you’re not already and so I will try not to get too carried away.

I don’t always engage so well with non-fiction, but this book has a wonderfully readable narrative. Immediately engaging; each chapter a little vignette from Pym’s life with chapter titles such as Miss Pym’s Summer of Love, Miss Pym tours Germany and An Untoward Incident on the River urging us to read on.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym takes its title from Pym’s own diaries which she prefaced – The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym. It seems clear from Pym’s own treatment of her diaries and letters – what she destroyed and those she didn’t – that she always had one eye on posterity. Of course, this isn’t the first biography to have been written about Barbara Pym, in 1990 Hazel Holt published A Lot to Ask, and six years earlier A Very Private Eye an autobiography in letters and diaries edited by Barbara Pym her sister Hilary and Hazel Holt had been published. In my review of that book, I spoke about the revealing nature of letters and diaries that had been first written without thought of publication in mind – having now read Paula Byrne’s fascinating and illuminating biography, I have to say I think Barbara Pym always had an eye on publication. I first read A Lot to Ask in 2010 so it is perhaps unsurprising that I couldn’t remember a lot of detail, I then read A very Private Eye in 2013. I think I had retained enough memory of those books to be unsurprised by some of the things Byrne’s book reveals. However, I think it is clear that Hazel Holt sought to protect her (by that time deceased) friend from certain revelations – and so looking back on that biography now, I think we have to see it as being an incomplete picture. This book I believe gives us a true picture of Barbara Pym, it is both honest and deeply affectionate – and I liked Barbara Pym the woman much better for it.

Paula Byrne takes us back to Pym’s upbringing in Oswestry, Shropshire where she was born in 1913 to Frederic and Irena, her father a solicitor her mother the very model of the excellent women with which we associate Pym.

In 1931 Barbara Pym went to St Hilda’s college Oxford to read English – it was a life changing experience for her, she fell in love with Oxford and found it a very inspiring and stimulating environment.

“Pym went up in the autumn of 1931. In her mind, Oxford would always be associated with that season; the smell of woodsmoke and the picking of wild berries. It was also a place to be forever associated with romance, teeming as it was with young men, dressed not exactly in fancy dress, but in scholars’ sweeping black gowns.”

It was here that Barbara began to form some very important relationships, she was never short of male attention, and as we come to see she fell in love easily, and very hard – liked sex and was unapologetic about it. Her first sexual experience however seems to have been traumatic in some way, and this was definitely one of the things Pym edited from her life, removing the relevant passages from her diary. However, more love affairs followed, Henry Harvey in particular was a big part of her life at Oxford and after. Sadly, Henry was to let Barbara down – and so began a pattern that would last the rest of her life. Falling in love with men who were either unsuitable or unavailable.

One particular section of the book which might surprise some Pym fans are the chapters which focus on Pym’s fascination with Germany. I found it an especially engrossing part of the book. In 1934 Barbara Pym went to Germany with the student’s union – having already started learning to speak German. Like many Britons of this period – Barbara was beguiled by everything the Nazi propaganda machine was pumping out. Her interest was non-political. She was attracted by the German culture, art, music, and landscape. We must remember that England in the 1930s was in a bit of a mess – the Nazi party was quite deliberately presenting Germany to the rest of the world as some sort of promised land – and Barbara fell for it. Later, she clearly had begun to have doubts and she may well have ignored things she really shouldn’t have – but by then she was head over heels in love with Friedbert Glück a handsome SS officer who was quite close to Hitler.

“Pym was thrilled when she caught sight of ‘real Nazis.’ One of them was called Friedbert Glück and he was wearing the black uniform of the SS. The other men wore the brown shirts with the swastika armband of the Stormtroopers (SA).”

We can’t judge the actions of a young woman in the 1930s with 21st century sensibilities, we weren’t there – we don’t really know how we may have acted had we been born then. It is clear that later Barbara Pym bitterly regretted her naivete and saw her later war work with the ARP and the Wrens as some small reparation for her error.

All this was happening around the time that she first started writing Some Tame Gazelle – which interestingly originally had quite a lot of German content in it. Later Pym removed every German and Nazi reference in the novel on the advice of her good friend Jock Liddell. Had Chatto and Windus accepted the novel when it was first sent to them in the mid-1930s, it would be a quite different book to the one we know now.  

Of course, Some Tame Gazelle was finally published in 1950, and paved the way for five more novels – all of which were popular and provided Barbara Pym with a legion of loyal fans. Byrne discusses Pym’s writing and each of the novels brilliantly, with the affection that comes from a dedicated fan. We then sense the sadness and the frustration of those often discussed wilderness years – and her drive to keep writing even when all seemed hopeless. Throughout her life, Barbara had a wonderful relationship with her sister Hilary, who she set up home with when Hilary was widowed. Men came and went; work was at the International African Institute in London. Everything she experienced in her life was rich material for her writing, which remained hugely important throughout her life. Then comes the glorious intervention of Phillip Larkin, and a late renaissance and the publication of her remaining books.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is a wonderful biography, revealing and honest and really compelling. I have already written far too much – I apologise for such a long post – but I really could have written a lot more.

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This Persephone volume of London War Notes proving once again that I am not always very good at reading nonfiction. I started this huge Persephone a couple of days before Christmas when I had lots of reading time, then on Boxing day decided to take a break from it to read a classic crime from the British Library – finally finishing it on New Year’s Eve. It is a book I know a lot of people love – and I have certainly loved Mollie Panter-Downes fiction – and it seems that I do engage with her fiction better. Still there is a lot to admire in this collection, which I have had tbr for some time. After I had finished the book I realised that of course I would probably have done better to read these pieces over a much longer period of time, dipping in and out – after all the pieces were never originally intended to be read one after the other in this way.

Of course, Mollie Panter-Downes has written about the Second World War in her fiction too, two collections of her short stories, one about wartime and one peacetime are well loved among Persephone readers. While her beautiful novel One Fine Day (1947) takes place in the first real summer of peacetime – 1946 – as families all over the world were learning to adapt to the changes that peacetime brought with it. London War Notes brings us into the war pretty much as it was happening. What she does brilliantly, and right from the first page – is to capture a mood – recreating a kind of collective British (well certainly an English) voice.

“For a week, everybody in London had been saying every day that if there wasn’t a war tomorrow there wouldn’t be a war. Yesterday, people were saying that if there wasn’t a war today it would be a bloody shame. Now there is a war, the English, slow to start, have already in spirit started and are comfortably two laps ahead of the official war machine, which had to wait to drop off somebody’s handkerchief.”

Between the 3rd of September 1939 and May 12th, 1945 Mollie Panter-Downes wrote one hundred and fifty three ‘Letters from London’ for the New Yorker magazine – these are they. This complete collection of them first published in 1971 provides an incredible picture of real wartime life – throughout her tone is delightfully confiding and warm, sometimes amusing or a little cutting – most of all she is honest. She did not seek to curry favour with the government of the day – in fact, she can be sometimes rather critical but capable of praise or appreciation where she considers it due. There is a wisdom in her observant eye and a deep understanding for the people of Britain to whom she was clearly loyal and of whom she was very proud.

In these pieces we observe the first almost disbelieving shock of being at war – barrage balloons in the skies as retired army officers answer the call. ‘Battalions of women’ did so too – anxious to do whatever they could. The evacuation of children from London, and the strangeness of the parks without them. Her observations have something of the novelist’s eye about them, she notices the mothers left behind, the cartons that carry gasmasks – which could be transporting grapes to a sick friend, the advertisements offering sanctuary to London pets. She is tuned in to the varied voices around her the rumour, criticism, the anxieties, and stoicism – the hope.

“The last week has been a bad one. The calmness and cheerfulness of the ordinary citizen aren’t in themselves new or surprising, for to be long on both those qualities is part of the national character. Unless it is stiffened by a realistic comprehension of what it may be required to face, such an attitude is possibly as irritating to objective observers as the blithe unconcern of someone taking his usual constitutional along a cliff which everyone knows is in danger of falling.”

She tells us about the ordinary London dweller – their opinions their reactions to each new development. The reality of rationing, the disappearance of eggs Those who watched the Russians arriving with some suspicion, unused to thinking of them as allies. Reporting on what the government were doing or saying, the reactions to German invasions of Greece or Yugoslavia.

“This Sunday morning’s news of Germany’s aggression against Yugoslavia and Greece was the climax of a fortnight so bewildering that Britons have hardly known from one moment to another what emotions they were going to be called upon to register next.”

I couldn’t help but think how different those times were from today with our constant rolling news, the ability, should we be so inclined to absorb hours of new bulletins – never waiting more than a few minutes for an update. Living in such turbulent times when news was much less readily available must have been quite agonising – those few news bulletins each day a must for many.

The final few entries I found particularly poignant – especially coming after such a lot of long, detailed pieces – that sense of finally the madness ending. Another kind of disbelief as the blackout curtains start to come down and some London restaurants begin to open their doors in celebration. The relief is palpable.

This book is undoubtedly fascinating, Panter-Downes is a really excellent writer – but it is also quite big and quite dense – and I probably didn’t really do it justice by reading it in the way that I did.

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The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939

Regular readers will probably know that I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do it is still quite narrative driven – memoirs, biographies, or essay collections. Which is why I had let this book languish on my tbr for a year since Liz bought it me for Christmas in 2019. I had known I wanted to read it – but this year I have read even less nonfiction than usual and so there it sat.

The week before Christmas I was casting about for something new to read and pulled a pile from the shelf to look through. I read the first few paragraphs of A Very Great Profession and was surprisingly hooked – I hadn’t known I wanted to read something like this at that moment. It is described as a book of literary criticism, which perhaps makes it sound a little drier than it is. Subtitled ‘The Woman’s novel 1914-1939’ it really is right up my alley. I found it completely absorbing, a real celebration of many of the kinds of books I love – written by the founder of Persephone books and originally published by Virago in 1983.

In this book Nicola Beauman looks at women like Katherine in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and Laura in the film Brief Encounter. These were women who borrowed books from the circulating libraries, and whose lives were so often recorded in the very fiction that they read.

“Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a café lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O’Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading during her life as ‘a respectable married woman with a husband and a home and three children.’ (This was how she describes herself in Still Lives (1935) the Noel Coward play upon which Brief Encounter (1945) was based.)”

Following her introduction – in which Beauman explains how the book was conceived and written, each of the eight chapters takes a different theme, war, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis etc. Drawing on numerous novels from this period between the two wars Beauman explores the lives that were being led by the middle class women who would have read them.

In the first chapter Beauman illustrates how war influenced not just the lives of men – but also, and in different ways the lives of women too. These novels often reflected the changing lives of women – and what the middle class concerns of many at this period were – and discusses the propaganda type of novels such as some of those by novelists like May Sinclair. Novels such as Mr Britling Sees it Through and The War Workers, come in for some discussion, and throughout this book I loved reading the extracts from these novels I had previously enjoyed as well as encountering many I had never heard of.

The surplus women that feature so prominently in women’s novels of this period are the subject of another chapter. After the first world war, many women who might have married and might have wished to simply couldn’t because of the loss of so many men of their generation in the war. These women began to turn their energies to other things. Novels discussed here include Woolf’s Night and Day, F M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Delafield’s Consequences.

Women’s domestic lives, romance and sex take up other chapters, continuing the portrait of middle class female life during this period. She discusses how gradually women’s lives had started to open up a bit, and how some writers had begun to approach the reality of passion and women’s sexuality. These chapters all contain too much fine detail for me to discuss it adequately in a review – but each chapter is just wonderfully immersive for the lover of novels from this period – largely those written by women though one or two by male writers are included.

The final chapter is about love – and it seems a fitting chapter for this wonderful book to end on somehow. It begins with a detailed discussion of a novel from just outside the time period of 1914-1939.

“The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford is the apotheosis of the woman’s novel about love. In some ways it rounds off everything that was written on this topic during the inter-war period, mingling tenderness and wit into an unsentimental but deeply emotional whole. There are few novels which explore with such insight women’s real natures, and critics who condemn Nancy Mitford as catering entirely for a snob-public are sadly missing the point.”

This book was an easy five star read for me; I knew that when I had only read a third of it – I was so thoroughly absorbed I gulped it down quickly. It is surely a must for any lover of the kinds of novels published by Virago and Persephone. Nicola Beauman is an able literary critic she fully understands these novels and the women who read them and how inextricably linked the readers and the novels were – and I dare say still are.

List writers beware however, there are just so many fascinating novels mentioned in this book that it is tempting to start jotting them down – I didn’t do that, I just didn’t dare! Many of the novels mentioned I have already read or got waiting to read – many others were completely unknown to me. This book is now my favourite book about books I have read for some time.

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I managed to tick off two challenges with one book again with this read. A novella sized non-fiction book for non-fiction November and novellas in November. It was the non-fiction week for novellas in November last week – and while I am not keeping up with the schedule completely I’m not too far off.

Popcorn is a collection of autobiographical essays by Cornelia Otis Skinner – an American writer and actress whose memoir Their Hearts were Young and Gay I read a staggering five years ago. I bought Popcorn and Nuts in May by her around the same time and they have been lingering on the tbr ever since. I am finding it very hard to settle down to non-fiction these days – and have only read a couple this entire year – in 2020 I have needed to lose myself in fiction more than ever.

This collection however struck just the right note with Skinner’s sparkling humour and deliciously wry observations. This lovely old edition comes with a preface by F. Tennyson Jesse and quirky illustrations by Alajalov and Soglow (whoever they were).

The America that Skinner is writing about is not the America of 2020, that is immediately obvious. In fact, it was almost certainly the America of just a certain class – here is the reasonably well off America, the America of the stable family. It is also never serious – there is very little mention of the war at all – presumably, these pieces were meant as an escape from reality. The collection opens with ‘The Defense of Long Island’ in which she is compelled by patriotic neighbours to do her bit.  Even before we get to this first essay, F. Tennyson Jesse immediately dates this collection as she states in her preface how Skinner is making good natured fun of America – and claims that

“…they stand, in their light-hearted way, for the very principle for which we are all fighting. There could not be a German Cornelia Otis Skinner – outside of a concentration camp.”

(F Tennyson Jesse – Preface to Popcorn)

In pieces that may well resonate still with many women – Cornelia Otis Skinner regales us with the tortures she endured in the name of beauty. In ‘The Body Beautiful’ – and ‘The Skin Game’ – she encounters so called experts who regard her with a mixture of pity and dismay and shames her into spending a lot of money. We witness her attempts at learning to dance, ice skating, horse riding and flower arranging. She describes her triumphs and more usually pit falls with a tone reminiscent of our own beloved Provincial Lady. She is never less than a warm and amusing companion, self-deprecating and delightfully observant of the world around her.

American family life comes under some wry scrutiny in this collection too – although it is all pretty tongue in cheek of course. These pieces about her child and family life in general were the ones I liked the best. She highlights the pitfalls of parenting – and the social life of a New York child. Convinced that the children are all rather more understanding of the unwritten rules than their hapless parents. In ‘It’s a Wise Parent’ she goes on to describe a children’s party she gave in New York – after which her son retired to bed in a foul temper, a lolly pop stick is found jammed into the piano strings and a parent rings up to inform Cornelia that her daughters band (a brace for teeth) is missing and could she look for it. She describes it thus…

“A repellent contraption of wire and silver, it looked like a surrealist exhibit or some part of an alarm clock. I wrapped it tenderly in cotton and placed it in a box from Cartier’s. Cynthia lives on Park Avenue in a penthouse I shall never see (although my child informs me he has been there). I left the box with the doorman, requesting him to see that Cynthia’s mother got it immediately. I had it well timed and as I drove away I prayed with fervor that she’d open it at the table.”

She recounts shopping with her very reluctant young son for new clothes in Youth’s Furnishings – and it recalled to me, my own similar shopping trips in the 1970s and 80s. Each generation of child I am sure, lives through this particular loathed ritual

She also recounts the dreaded ‘Business Party’ – in which none of the attendees wish to be there – yet everyone is going through the motions all the same.

I had already decided that I liked Cornelia Otis Skinner when I read – Our Hearts… however she did let me down a little when she says..

“I am no feminist. I don’t for one second think woman is man’s equal and the mere idea of a brave new world in which we all work shoulder to shoulder, even cheek to cheek, with those admirable creatures fills me with boredom and dismay. I don’t want to do man’s work. I don’t even want the vote.”

In this piece called ‘Allow Me, Madame’ she goes on to complain that while she is happy for men to do most things she would rather like to be allowed to lay a fire or tune a radio by herself – despite men not believing she can manage either of these complex procedures. I know feminism was a dirty word in the 1940s – but still – really Cornelia I was disappointed.

Still, pushing that to one side this was a lovely little collection to spend time with – and I need to try and rad that third Skinner book that I have before another five years have elapsed.

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This was a book I bought on a complete whim having seen the gorgeous cover on Twitter. Ring the Hill sounded like just the kind of book I needed, and it really was. I shall have to explore more by this author now.

‘The hare, call him scotart,

big-fellow, bouchart,

the O’ Hare, the jumper,

the rascal, the racer…

The creep-along, the sitter-still,

the pintail, the ring-the-hill…’

The title comes from a thirteenth century poem; The Names of the Hare, hares are a recurring motif in this book, and they are a pretty special animal, there is something about their elusiveness, the folklore and mysticism surrounding them that I love. Just look at the endpapers in this gorgeous hardback.

Ring the Hill is a book celebrating hills, mountains get enough attention. It’s written around and about hills, each chapter taking a different hill at its heart. In the company of Tom Cox – who is very good company indeed it turns out – we find out about a Northern hill, a very small hill, cliffs and tors.

Over the course of several years, Tom Cox moves lots of times, packing up his car, taking the cats with him, and setting out for another place. Drawn to hills and their surroundings when he isn’t moving to a new place, he is taking time to visit and explore the hills he spotted as he drove around the country.

“As I drive the roads, I watch the hills. I always notice the interesting ones, and none of them aren’t interesting, so I notice them all.”

Starting in Somerset on the Somerset levels as Tom moves to the house he is currently living in (although he may have moved again by now) the book then goes back over some of the places Tom lived in or explored before, exploring the countryside, their historical sites and the stories that are still told about them. These include the smallest hill, in Norfolk, the West country, particularly Devon, Herefordshire and a wintry Derbyshire. He indulges in some fascinating family exploration, discovering a grandmother who lived on Dartmoor.

Somerset might not be the hilliest part of the UK, but Glastonbury Tor is legendary, there is a whole industry that has grown up around the legends of that place. Soon after moving in, while consulting his OS map of the area, he comes across a place name; Maggoty Paggoty, and he is soon setting off on foot to find it. He’s clearly a keen walker – never happier than when exploring a new place.

In another chapter we hear about Tom’s favourite Devon cove, a place where he was stung by jellyfish, and healed cuts and bites in its healing salt waters. This cove is apparently not the best cove in Devon for swimming, but the places that have our hearts are about so much more than being the best. We all have our favourite places; they are full of memories and that something of ourselves that we leave behind every time we visit. Devon is a place I love, and visit regularly, my mum was born and bred in Devon and I always feel a pull back there.

In a chapter called Nearly Northern, Tom describes a few wintry months he spent up a hill in the Peak district on the outer edge of Eyam, that renowned plague village. He quickly discovers that up a hill in the Peak District, in winter, is not an easy pace to live. The winter he describes was seriously bitter, and his rented house, down a rutted path, is old and full of strange noises.

“If you pitched the events around my move to Derbyshire as the beginning of a horror film, it might be rejected for being overdone, too full of well-known haunted house tropes and rural life pitfalls. You have the central character driving almost 300 miles through heavy snow, alone in a fatigued and dented car, every possible inch of its interior stuffed with possessions and cats.”

There is nothing very romantic about this Derbyshire cottage in the snow – it sounded like something that must have been hard to endure, However, it is clear that Tom connected with the place – as he does with all the places in this book – his love of the countryside and the stories surrounding Eyam.

From time to time we get a glimpse of Tom’s parents, his dad, I can only assume speaks loudly – his speech is written in capital letters – and he went up instantly in my estimation when he reports to having told a cardboard cut out of Alan Titchmarsh to f**k off.

In the final chapter Tom writes about the time he lived on the Dartington estate near Totnes, in the magic house. An existence that to me at least sounded very nearly idyllic. He arrived at the Magic House with four cats and leaves three years later with two. I mention this to warn cat lovers, the cats are a glorious part of this book, and with very old cats the inevitable does happen. One of the cats was Bear – made famous by the Twitter account Why my cat is sad. That aside, it was clearly a special time, and a place it was hard to tear himself away from.

Tom Cox writes with such warmth and humour – he puts himself right into the middle of this book – and while he is funny and chatty, we see the English countryside through his eyes and revel in his love of it. He takes us with him on his walks, we too can stand on the tops of hills and look around, we watch a red setter chase a fox. In his enthusiastic company we set out several small adventures. Ring the Hill is an endlessly readable book, portraying the intimate relationship the author has with some very special places around the country.

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I bought The Light in the Dark, when it first came out in hardback, and for some reason it has sat unread on my shelves ever since. The days before the clocks went back here in the UK seemed to be the perfect time to read it and it was. Horatio Clare’s prose is sublime, descriptions I found myself stopping to read again, perfect evocations of the British landscape in winter.

I loved this book – and if you like the sound of it too – don’t miss the giveaway at the end of this review.

“I will not lose touch with nature. This is vital. I believe in immanence, in the oneness of living things. Maintaining that faith will carry you through the hardest times. Or such is the hope, this midnight. I start my birthday with many wishes, and this is one.”

The beginning of November is the time when our thoughts really do turn to winter – and for many people it’s a time of year when they struggle. I understand something of that, although I don’t mind many aspects of winter, I do struggle with January and February when everything I have to look forward to feels like such a long time away. However, for many the last days of autumn herald a serious struggle with mood, the long dark days of winter are dreaded and must somehow be endured. It’s a time of long held traditions, the seasonal rhythms that have long been a part of our lives, however it is also a time of seasonal sadness and deep depression, as author Horatio Clare knows all too well.

Suffering acutely from seasonal affected disorder, as the winter of 2017/18 approached, Horatio Clare decided to write about his relationship with this darkest time of the year, and the feelings it inspired in him. In journal form, beginning as autumn drew to a close, Horatio Clare began to look outward, celebrating and observing the natural world, which has its own rhythms. He reminds us that mountains are glorious no matter what the weather, that there is a kind of consolation in our British woodland and winter days can still be bright. In this wonderful book, Horatio Clare shines a light into the darkness and reveals the magic that is hidden sometimes by the darkness. It was a bad winter, when the ‘the Beast from the East’ hit, remember that? I don’t think I will ever forget the journey my family and I made, from Birmingham to Sheffield to attend a funeral, in a snowstorm.

Having previously lived in London – where winter is different somehow, more endurable – Clare is finding the Northern winters of his home in Hebden Bridge – from where he commutes part of the week to teach at the University in Liverpool – especially gruelling. Here he lives with his wife, and sons, recalling the winters of his childhood in rural Wales – where his mother still lives and who the family visit for Christmas. I really enjoyed this blending of past and present, and Clare’s simple appreciation of the natural world, which he stops to enjoy in the midst of his everyday life.

“A joy of magpies rush a buzzard, all three of them low; hedge-height under the air. A solar-panel farm gazes darkly at the clouds, its feet in water. In a hundred flat miles in the middle of half-term there is not a child outside; a man talks to two Labradors at a field’s turn, lecturing them, as they raise their noses and wag their sympathy. Pylons march into a westering afternoon as a swan beats his wings, stretching tall in a sugar-beet field, as if fanning four companions, snowdrop-white. Starlings! A hundred, no murmuration but a trace, a skipping wisp of a flock over the field’s brow.”

As the winter progresses Clare struggles more and more with his mental health, reluctant to see a doctor, though he describes honestly the worst of his moods, he does so retrospectively, sparing us in a sense from the worst. Not wanting, his journal to be as bleak as he feared that could make it. He is honest about the nature of depression and the guilt it made him feel – but he doesn’t impose those feelings on the reader.

“This diary is a refuge, a thing to do, something to put work and time into, a defence against the hopelessness. This depression is a terrible disabler. You cannot flow from one thing that needs to be done to the next; you constantly pause and doubt and disbelieve. When I do the shopping I make a list and stick to it, as if incapable of improvising.”

He acknowledges how it made work difficult, how debilitating it was, how having to function for his young son became a massive focus. Therefore, the book is far from bleak, it is beautiful, honest and infused with a quiet wisdom that I found inspiring, and which I hope will help me through my own winter days of discontent. For as Horatio Clare pushes through the worst of his winter days, there are moments of hope, in which he beautifully balances the dark with the light.

Giveaway

So, the lovely people at Elliott and Thompson who publish A Light in the Dark, offered me one of the new paperback copies – however as I already had my own copy of the book waiting, one of you can benefit instead.   

The giveaway is open to UK readers only I’m afraid, so if you would like to win a brand new copy of A Light in the Dark indicate below. I will draw a name using a random name generator next weekend and the winner’s details will be forwarded to Elliott and Thompson who will send out the book in due course.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

The Secret Life of Books is another in a long line of attractive tomes produced to woo all us book lovers who love reading about the things we love to read. Preaching to the choir? Oh absolutely, but that’s no bad thing. Tom Mole brings his own ideas to the genre and there are some lovely personal anecdotes here too – including an insight into his young daughter’s adorable book group. There is also a rather surprising story about Philip Larkin and an Iris Murdoch book.

“I realised that you couldn’t talk about the book as an object without also talking about the things that people did with books. Reading was one of those things, of course, and people’s reading left their own traces on books. But reading was only one of the things that people did with books, and not always the most important.”

Well… I still think the reading of the books is the most important, but yes, when you think about it, we do, do a lot of other things with books. We buy them, collect them, give them away, deface them, talk about them, socialise around them, take them on holiday, arrange them on bookcases. This book is a celebration of all the things we do with books and more besides – as it also traces the history of how those things we do with books came about.

Looking at the subtitle; Why they Mean More than Words we see the author’s intention in this book is to explore the physical book, rather than what they contain. I found this a very interesting way to approach a book about books. The book is broken up into eight chapters, and between each pair of chapters is an interlude that celebrates a piece of artwork featuring books.

What emerges is a thorough exploration of books as objects, from the early scrolls and codex through to the leather bound first edition that would cost a small fortune to own today, to the cheap second hand paperback sporting coffee stains and inscriptions and on to the e-book. Mole suggests how books can reveal something of the status and wealth of the owner (think those very expensive first editions). There are often so many different editions of the same book – the contents are the same yet the physical object very different and what they mean to the owner can also be different. We leave something of ourselves behind in these books too as the author discusses – food stains, jottings – a bookmark where we stopped reading and never went back. We also take a great pride in the way we display our books. The author also suggests that the books we choose to put on our bookshelves tells us something about who we think we are. Oh, and don’t we all love looking at people’s shelves?

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

The author understands the physical relationship we have with our books. He remembers an old Benjamin Disraeli book he has which had survived long years without being read, Mole had to cut the pages himself in order to read it. When we are searching a book for a favourite passage, we use nonverbal clues to help us – our memory of the physical book itself, the place on the page, how far through the book it was – this isn’t something we can do with an audio or digital book.

Something that resonated with me is how keeping a book previously read on our shelves somehow keeps it alive – something of that book is retained in our memory. Personally, I look at my bookshelves as places filled with old friends.

“Even if we can’t recall most of what we’ve read, the presence of the books serves as an aide-memoire, a reassuring sign that not everything we’ve read is lost. Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.”

The author considers how technological developments are changing the way we read, and therefore our relationship both with books and the way we share them. Once it might have been wing backed chairs that gave a reader a small amount of privacy, shielding them as they lost themselves in a book, today it could be noise cancelling headphones that help to cut us off from the world around us. The author clearly understands the benefits of e-books – but warns how these technologies can also prove problematic, reminding us how e-readers have built in obsolescence, and how files stored on old devices can suddenly become difficult to access.

The Secret Life of Books contains lots of fascinating little nuggets of information with lots of historical facts I didn’t know, an exploration of books as objects is an interesting take on the book about books. The author’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and this is a treasure trove for book lovers.

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My book group chose Educated by Tara Westover for our August read. I wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing I was in the mood for. I needn’t have worried – it’s enormously compulsive and was a great book group choice. We met last Wednesday, we all found things that made us so angry, and there were sections some of the group found very uncomfortable to read. It definitely gave us quite a lot to talk about.


“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

Tara Westover grew up in Idaho, in sight of stunning mountains known as the princess, told all government agencies were her enemies, that the end of days was coming and had to be prepared for. Hospitals and schools were all part of the conspiracy and the family kept away from them. Apart from church attendance the family lived quite apart from their neighbours. Her life was entirely different to that of most little girls born in mid-1980s America. Until she was nine years old, she didn’t even exist, her birth had never been registered later she was issued with a retrospective birth certificate.

“I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.”

Tara; the youngest of seven children was destined however, to prove herself to be phenomenally focused, determined and a real survivor. The landscape in which she grew up in, was one that it would prove difficult to extricate herself from.  

Their community was a Mormon community. However, Tara’s father had taken some of the tenets of their religion to another level. The family home was a little way out of the small local town, incorporating a scrapyard, from where her father made his living. The Westover family were nothing like the other Mormon families in the area, who lived pretty much like other American families. Tara and the three siblings closest to her in age were home schooled – though what Tara’s mother saw as education was somewhat limited. The children could read and do basic maths, and there was one science book in the house for them to learn from. At some level I think (my book group agreed) Tara’s mother must have sensed something of her daughter’s natural intelligence. When Tara was still quite young her mother appeared to have some concern for her daughter’s learning – however she never built on that concern, and Tara was allowed to grow up in appalling ignorance of the world and its history.

For years there was no TV or telephone in the house – later Tara’s father Gene, allowed them – he seemed to change his own rules as it suited him. Tara’s mother became an unqualified midwife (in the same way wise village women did in England during the middle ages) and soon began to mix her own home remedies for the frequent accidents that happened in the scrapyard. Tara’s older brothers were always limping home sporting one gruesome injury after another, their father never very concerned by the battle scars his children wore. Whatever the accident was, no matter how serious, doctors and hospitals were never consulted.

As Tara grew older, she was expected to work alongside her father and brothers in the scrapyard. Her father began to get more extreme in his views, her brother Shawn more and more violent, and Tara’s clothing and behaviour is scrutinised and commented upon, she becomes afraid of falling below the required standard. As Tara becomes a teenager, she is allowed to take part in some local dramatics, when it is discovered she can sing – here she makes her first friend. It is the first small change. Her brother’s violence is shocking, and hard to read about, and Tara survives it by excusing it to herself – she sees his girlfriends enduring the same treatment, and her parents doing and saying nothing.

When she is sixteen, Tara decided that she wanted to learn, and set out on the long, difficult journey that was her education. Having never finished or in fact started high school – she manages to win a place at BYU by passing ACT exams – though her challenges are only just beginning. Showing the most extraordinary determination Tara finally embarks on her education – one that will take her from BYU to Cambridge University and Harvard. During these years and in her visits home she begins to question her memories of home and the things that happened there – and whether she will ever really be able to maintain her relationship with her family.


“But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Educated is a fascinating memoir, not only in the depiction of the Westover family – but in the story of how Tara changes. From her first awkward beginnings; a teenager unused to the company of other girls, who knew nothing of world history, and who felt her own ignorance daily, still terrified of doctors – to the woman who would leave Cambridge with a PhD.

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Last year I saw so much love for Bookworm by Lucy Mangan across Twitter and the blogosphere. As I was deep into A century of books and it didn’t fit, I resisted the urge to buy it in hardback. Fast forward several months and it was chosen by my very small book group as our April read. The rest of the group met Wednesday night to discuss it and it would seem everyone loved it, though I wasn’t able to go, I joined in virtually.

“Each book is a world entire. You’re going to have to take more than one pass at it.”

Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading is a slice of deliciously warm bookish nostalgia. It immediately returns us to those timeless days enjoyed by a child bookworm, the days when spending time with a loved book was the most important thing to be done once the irritation of a day at school had been dispensed with.

The book starts with The Very Hungary Caterpillar and ends with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and in between those two there is a world of wonderful children’s literature to be reminisced over. From Sugar Pink Rose a feminist elephant who refuses to turn pink – through the adventures of My Naughty Little Sister and Milly Molly Mandy to the land beyond the back of the wardrobe, and dozens of more besides. Mangan has such a deep and genuine affection for the books she talks about that her joy in them becomes quite infectious.

There is a big section all about Enid Blyton and the controversy and snobbery she has unleased over the decades – I must say I read a gazillion of her books.

“Blyton is not demanding. She is not an expander of minds like any one of the imaginatively and linguistically gifted authors already mentioned or still to be discussed. Her great gift lies in proving beyond doubt to children that reading can be fun, and reliably so. That the marks on the page will translate into life and colour and movement with ease. This is a thing you can master, a foundation upon which you can build, and also a retreat into which you can escape. She makes it all possible, time and time again. It was for this reason that Roald Dahl – whose own professed primary aim in writing for children was always to entertain them and thus induct them into the world of books – went to bat for her when he was on the 1988 Committee on English in the National Curriculum. He fell out with the rest of the board on the issue of whether her books should be welcomed in schools.” 

Roald Dahl novels come in for several mentions too – as do all manner of children’s classics like The Railway Children, The Secret Garden (I wasn’t alone in my child crush on Dickon) Tom’s Midnight Garden, Goodnight Mr Tom and Little Women. I saw the shadow of TLotR looming – and so couldn’t help but raise a silent cheer when Mangan revealed a dislike of Tolkien’s fantastical world. Her feelings almost exactly my own – although she did actually read all of The Hobbit – while I have never read more than a couple of pages out of idle curiosity.

Whilst discussing the books of her life, Lucy Mangan inevitably talks about her childhood. We meet her family, her mother a gynaecologist – Lucy played quietly, usually with books, behind the secretary’s desk while her mother held consultations. Her quiet father who frequently bought her books, (I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own dear dad – who sometimes bought me books) her younger sister who wasn’t at all bookish. She missed out on outings with her dad and sister because her nose was stuck so far into a book – her family soon became used to her distraction. We meet the next generation – Lucy’s young son to whom she has now begun reading some of the books from her extraordinary collection of ten thousand books.

She was a child who didn’t have many friends – there was another Lucy who lived next door – hours and days lost to other worlds. We’ve all been there – just one more chapter – sneaking the light back on late on a school night.

“The intensity of childhod reading, the instant and complete absorption in a book – a good book, a bad book, in any kind of book – is something I would give much to recapture” 

Lucy Mangan reminds us – should we need it – what it is to be a real bookworm, particularly the child bookworm who without any responsibilities yet, practically eats books. Books were the young Lucy’s friend, her saviour and her frustration when they are banned from the dinner table – Lucy’s relationship with books was and is total – responsible for many of the joys and heartbreaks of her childhood.

Bookworm is a glorious achievement – and I can see why it has become a book so loved by readers. I realised however that I had missed out on a lot of children’s literature by moving on to adult books very early. By eleven I was reading Agatha Christie rather than Enid Blyton, Jane Eyre instead of The Railway Children, terrible nurse and doctor romance novels, Catherine Cookson, Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy, a few classics like 1984, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Nancy Drew (she was definitely for teens). I was less fussy back then. Perhaps I was in too much of a rush to move on to adult books but when it comes to Sweet Valley High – I really don’t think I missed anything.

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