Shelf Indulgence – July 2019

So what did you read in July then, Jackie? Well, let me tell you! It was a pretty good reading month, all told.

Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore has been on my ereader for a few years, I’m glad I finally got to it. An enjoyable romp of a mystery focused on books and a secret literary society – this was basically geeks do the Da Vinci Code. It wasn’t life-changing literature or anything, but it was fun (although the female characters were a bit one-dimensional for my taste, and the focus of his friend Neel’s start-up tech company had my eyes nearly roll out of their sockets). 3.5/5.

No sooner bought than read! Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book about writing, and so much more, and I’ve meant to get to it for ages. Short chapters cover all aspects of the writing process, from deciding to write, first drafts, plot, writing groups, publication, and all sorts of other things. This isn’t a book about improving your writing per se – it doesn’t have writing exercises, or millions of examples – I suppose it’s more about the philosophy behind why we write, and how to make the most of the experience if we decide that’s the direction we want to take. I did find some of it a bit too hyperbolic and overblown for my taste (especially the penultimate chapter on publication), but there were plenty of bits which I absolutely loved, and in particular towards the end when she talks about writing as giving. I think this is one I will dip in and out of often. 4/5.

Trevor Noah’s memoir of growing up in South Africa around the end of the apartheid regime, Born a Crime, was absolutely brilliant, I loved it. He is an absolute master storyteller, and could teach fiction writers a thing or two about writing characters, about crafting scenes, and evoking a time and place. He discusses family, politics, identity, and race, both through stories of his family and in short sections explaining how the politics of apartheid impacted on daily life. A couple of the sections had me laughing out loud (for those who have read it: the bit where he takes a dump in his grandma’s kitchen instead of using the outhouse, and also later on his break-dancing friend Hitler). But amongst all the absurdity, he doesn’t shy away from the more violent side of life, with an abusive and violent stepfather, and the realities of living in a police state. An absolutely wonderful book. 5.5.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree is currently shortlisted for this year’s Wainwright Prize (my absolute favourite literary award – I’ve never read a Wainwright nominee I didn’t love). The author and her husband owned a dairy and arable farm in Sussex in southern England, but increasing financial precarity led to them selling their livestock in 2000 and gradually letting the farm return to a wilder state. They introduce some free-roaming grazing animals (longhorn cows, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs), and stop spraying and weeding the land. Over the years they see the resurgence on their land of animals that had disappeared (or were close to disappearing) from the English landscape – such as the Purple Emperor butterfly, turtle dove, and nightingale – and muse on alternative ways to farm sustainably whilst not destroying biodiversity. They are also open about the resistance they faced, certainly in the first decade, from neighbouring farmers and landowners, and the frustrations of political caution and obstruction. This is a really important book, and I’d urge everyone to read it. 5/5.

Jayne Stephenson’s The Home Front Stirling 1939-1945 was a short book from the library detailing local memories of WW2 in Stirling. The city only saw one hostile action (two bombs dropped on Kings Park in 1940), otherwise this just mentions things like rationing, evacuees, and changes in employment, plus memories of the VE Day celebrations. It’s a thin volume (30-odd pages) which reflects the lack of action here – it would be of interest I presume to local historians. 2.5/5.

I’ve acquired a few essay collections recently, and amongst those were a couple of collections of essays by Hubert Butler. This one, The Eggman and the Fairies, is a collection of his Irish essays (the other one I bought is of his essays about the Balkans). He was writing throughout much of the 20th century, and I found that many of the essays were pretty timeless. I liked some more than others, of course, but throughout I appreciated his focus on the importance of the local, as well as his discussions of nationalism and history. The essays I particularly liked were one on Irish literature (a hastily-written but impressive talk he gave to the Union of Writers in then-Leningrad in 1956), and an essay from 1941 called ‘The Barriers’, about nationalism and small nations, and the importance of diversity to national culture. There was also a quote in the final essay which really made me think nothing has changed at all really, however much things change – this was written in 1956, but could have been written yesterday:

Speed of communications has increased, and we are expected to have strong feelings about an infinite series of remote events. But our powers of understanding and sympathy have not correspondingly increased. In an atmosphere of artificially heated emotionalism truth simply dissolves into expediency.

I’ll look forward to reading the Balkan essays when I eventually get to them. 4/5.

Propaganda: Photographs from Soviet Archives (curated by Mark Holborn and Torsten Nystrom) is a coffee table book of photographs from the Novosti Press Agency archives in Sweden. Mostly from 1960-1990, it details the vast scale of Soviet enterprise in many domains, from forestry to space. It made me think how exciting it must have been in the 1960s and 70s to see so much technical innovation, even if a lot of the hardware today looks slightly ridiculous. A really interesting set of photos, recommended. 4.5/5.

Author Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a member of a number of online writing groups, including the one that I am part of, so I was happy to buy this to support a very supportive writer. Love Letters to Writers is a series of 52 short letters (so you could read it one a week for a year, which I might well do, although I read it in a couple of short sittings this time) covering various aspects of the writing life, and has plenty of wisdom and down to earth advice. 4/5.

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit is a series of essays, originally published in the early 2000s around 9/11 and Iraq invasion time. This features a foreword and afterword from 2016, and could clearly be updated again (sigh). She discusses activism and protest, and ways of looking at it, and at a time when I’m feeling politically quite impotent I needed this shot in the arm. I freely admit to being her target audience, but I did really like it. 4/5.

Lost in a Good Book is the second book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and it was just as fun and silly and clever as the first one. This time, the dastardly Goliath Corporation manage to ‘eradicate’ Thursday’s new husband, Landen Parke-Laine, and she embarks on an adventure jumping between books in an attempt to a) get him back, and b) save the world. In order to do this she is apprenticed to ace JurisFiction agent, Miss Havisham (yes, that Miss Havisham). I loved this, and the explanation of the Well of Lost Plots (which, as it happens, is also the title of the next book in the series) made me laugh out loud. 4/5.

It’s not like me to race through a fiction book in 2 days, but that’s what I’ve just done with Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality for Beautiful Women, the 3rd in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. As with the previous books, detective Mma Ramotswe gently goes about solving mysteries (in this case the alleged poisoning of the brother of a Government official), and observing daily life in Botswana. And as with the other books, this was just the gentle read I needed. 4/5.

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Shelf Indulgence – June 2019

I just realised I didn’t yet post my June reading. It was another good reading month!

I really struggled to know how to review this book. Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a short novel about grief – a dad and his two young boys lose their wife/mum suddenly, and the story is told in three voices, the dad, the boys, and the crow, which is a metaphor for their grief and helping them get through it. The positives: it’s beautifully written, poetic, with stunning use of language. The negatives: it just felt slightly out of reach to me – I understood the crow as a metaphor, but aspects of what was written felt clever and a bit arch, and made me feel like I wasn’t quite clever enough to really fully get it. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t know that I’d rush to read it again. 3.5/5.

I had high hopes of Kate Evans’ graphic non-fiction book Threads: from the Refugee Crisis, having previously read her excellent graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Red Rosa. I wasn’t disappointed, this is an absolutely fantastic book. She documents her trips volunteering in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais a few years ago, foregrounding the people living there trying to eke out an existence and find a way of reaching the UK (often to rejoin family members who were already there). Amongst their stories, she includes images of tweets and comments received against her work – the typical below the line ‘how do you know they’re refugees, they’re coming over here, taking our jobs’ type comments – and the stories that she presents really show the ignorance and prejudice behind those comments. She doesn’t shy away from the deprivation and traumas that people have experienced, and the reality of the prejudice, indifference and politics they are likely to face if they are ever successful in reaching the UK, not to mention the police brutality and traffickers that prey on camps like the Jungle. But infused throughout is hope – a celebration of the human spirit and generosity. Outstanding. 5/5.

Migrations: Open Hearts Open Borders was completely and utterly gorgeous. Here’s the blurb:

From all over the world, picture book illustrators sent original images and personal messages, in postcard form, for Migrations, an exhibition curated by the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society.

Over fifty of the cards are reproduced in this very special book. With contributors including Isol, Jon Klassen, P.J. Lynch, Roger Mello, Jackie Morris, Chris Riddell and Axel Scheffler, it carries a powerful message about human migration, showing how cultures, ideas and aspirations flow despite borders, barriers and bans.

All of the pictures are of birds, and many of the cards featured messages from the illustrators, either personal messages or extracts from poetry or prose by others. It is just so beautiful, and so moving, I loved it. 5/5.

I picked up Ian Crofton’s Scottish History Without the Boring Bits at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh a few years ago. This is the blurb:

Scottish History Without the Boring Bits offers a colourful melange of the bawdy, the bloody, the horrific and the hilarious episodes and characters that have spattered the pages of our nation’s story. From the War of the One-Eyed Woman to the MP cleared of stealing his ex-mistress’s knickers, Ian Crofton presents a host of little-known tales that you won’t find in more conventional works of history.

The story starts in the 4th millennium BC with the expulsion from Eden of the first Scot. It then makes its way via the medieval bishop roasted in butter and the appearance of the Devil in Ayrshire disguised as a lady’s lapdog, right up to the twenty-first century, when US intelligence identified a distillery on Islay as a possible threat to world peace.

So forget the usual parade of what James Bridie called ‘Wallace-the-Bruceism’ and Charlie-over-the-waterism’. That’s all history. Here, for the first time, is the story of Scotland as it’s never been told before.

The book is a succession of anecdotes, some with stronger claims to historical accuracy than others, and I must admit I found the 20th century and beyond section the most entertaining (not least because I remembered some of the latter things happening, and in fact one of them was round the corner from where I used to live in Glasgow). This is the ideal book for the toilet bookshelf – it’s one to dip in and out of. Reading it from beginning to end got a bit stodgy, but with occasional dips into random pages I think it would be more entertaining. 3/5.

Marcia Kester Doyle’s Who Stole my Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane was a book I got via bookbub a couple of years ago. The author is an American blogger who writes the Menopausal Mom blog, and what I hadn’t realised when I bought it was that this book is basically a collection of blog posts. Which is fine, but there were so many that they did start to feel very repetitive after a while. I also found the blurb and the introduction rather over-promised on the hilarity, although maybe that says more about me than the book. I do like mum bloggers (eg the Unmumsy Mum, etc), but just found this book wore a bit thin. She is clearly a very good and entertaining writer, and actually the three posts that she wrote about family members she had lost (her twin son who died shortly after birth, her sister, and her dad) were really very moving – I’ve added an extra half star for those ones. The rest all pretty much ended blending into one for me, and I can’t help feeling a stronger editor might have made this a stronger book. 3/5.

Pete Souza was the official White House photographer throughout President Obama’s 8 years as US president. This huge coffee table book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, is a collection of over 300 of his photos of that time. I got it as a Christmas present a couple of Christmases ago, and until recently hadn’t even taken the cellophane off it, because I thought I would feel too sad looking at it. Actually I found it very uplifting – even though politically he wasn’t all I had hoped – particularly when I made myself remember that it wasn’t actually a lifetime ago (even though that’s what it sometimes feels like). Souza’s commentary on the pictures is very minimalist, he largely lets the pictures do the talking. Some of these photos are really very powerful. 5/5.

How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices that Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business, by Alena V. Ledeneva, is an academic book which carries on from her previous book which looked at blat (personal informal practices) during the Soviet period in Russia. This book looks at the late 1990s, and analyses the various informal practices that have moved beyond the personal to grease the wheels of political and economic life in Russia in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It covers practices in elections (eg use of PR), media (use of compromising material), industry and business (barter and financial scheming), and legal and security (alternative enforcement). It was very interesting, although I can’t claim to have been able to fully follow all the ins and outs of quite complex trails of accountability and obligation. 4/5.

Dea Birkett’s Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers is the book that accompanied a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2004. I went to the exhibition and bought the book at the time, so I’m glad I got round to the book eventually! Most of the women featured here, at least the British women travelling round the world, are from the moneyed/aristocratic classes, as might be expected, but despite me not being a huge fan of aristocrats generally, this was a very entertaining look at some very enterprising (and, it has to be said, very very white) women. The final section detailed women who travelled to Britain, and at last there was a bit more diversity to add to the mix. I remember enjoying the exhibition very much at the time, and I enjoyed this book too. 4/5.

On shitty first drafts

In my quest to improve my writing (both quality and quantity), I’m reading and listening to a lot of stuff about the craft of writing, and one thing that comes up a lot is the mantra that ‘all first drafts are shit’. Most recently, that’s appeared in the book I’m currently reading, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, a classic of the writing craft genre, so it does have a pretty impressive pedigree as an assumed truth. I’m sure she’s not the only one – it’s certainly something I’ve seen and heard a lot on writing sites and in interviews with authors.

This emphasis though on the shitty first draft has always not sat quite right with me. I didn’t realise how uncomfortable it made me until I heard the author Alison Belsham interviewed on The Bestseller Experiment podcast (ep.153). Towards the end of the podcast episode, she talks about how much she disagrees with this idea that ‘all first drafts are shit’, and I actually cheered and punched the air, it was so great to hear someone else say it out loud!

I think my issue with it isn’t the intention behind it (which is to say, don’t expect your first draft to be amazing, you’ll still have to do a fair bit of work on it so don’t be discouraged, but also it’s probably best not to submit it just yet), which I know is meant to be supportive and encouraging. Rather, I think it’s the actual language which rubs me up the wrong way, with its implication that nothing about the first draft is worth anything much. When I wrote my PhD thesis, of course it went through several drafts, each one more polished and coherent than the one before, and I certainly didn’t submit the early draft or have any illusions that it was of the required standard. But, having said that, there was quite a bit of it that did find its way into the final draft, in some form or another – there was enough there that wasn’t shit that I could work with and craft into something worth reading.

One of the pieces of writing I’ve been working on over the last few months, on and off, is a set of essays, which may or may not end up submitted or published at some point – they’re all in need of a fair bit of work still, and all are still at the first draft stage. A few of them I really like, despite their rawness, but one of them I honestly don’t think is any good. In fact, it’s a bit shitty. And one thing I’ve realised as I write more is that life (and time) is too short to polish turds. So that one I am just going to abandon. For me, ‘shitty’ means ‘not worth spending the time on’, which is why I wish the ‘all first drafts are shit’ mantra could be reworded to something kinder and more realistic. My other first drafts, which of course are not in a publishable state yet, do (in my humble opinion) show some sparks of promise that I want to nurture into something shinier. Yes, they’re a bit raw and unsophisticated, and yes, they require a lot more work to get up to scratch. But what they’re not, even in this raw state, is shitty.

Shelf Indulgence – May 2019

Here’s what I read for fun in May:

Peggy Shinner’s You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body was an interesting musing on what various bits of the body and what we do with them (eg autopsies) mean. What made it more interesting and lifted it above the ordinary, for me at any rate, was how imbued it was with her thoughts on how it all related to Judaism, the religion she is a member of but doesn’t observe. So the opening chapter about the nose, and subsequent ones on posture and feet, both drew on and subverted religious stereotypes. I’m glad I read it. 3.5/5 (although really it’s a 3.75).

Ellen Lewin’s Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture is quite an old book now, and gender and sexuality scholarship (not to mention popular culture) has moved on a bit since this was published, but I did find it interesting, particularly the final chapter summarising her findings and their implications. The author interviewed lesbian and heterosexual single mothers (135 in total), in the late 1970s and early 1980s, about their experiences of family, views of motherhood, issues around fatherhood and contact with the fathers of their children, and where sexuality fits in to all that. Overwhelmingly her findings were that the groups were remarkably similar, with both groups seeing ‘mother’ as a greater marker of identity than sexuality, and in so doing were showing how influenced they were by cultural markers and traditional gender orders, even if their lives were ostensibly not the ‘norm’ (as defined by a culture which privileges 2.4 children within heterosexual marriage as the ideal). 3.5/5.

A rare foray into fantasy for me here, made even rarer by the fact that I was one of the people who crowdfunded the production of this novel, (via unbound.com) – and I have to say, it was worth the investment! I’ve invested in a handful of other books there too, most of which will hopefully be out sometime this year – the others have quite a bit to live up to after this good start!

The End of Magic by Mark Stay tells the story of two mages, Rosheen Katell and Sander Bree, whose magic is derived from the Lapis Moon. When the moon is destroyed, and with it the source of their magic, they have to rely on their luck and nous to try and thwart evil warlord Haldor Frang, avoid the vengeful crowds who resented the mages’ previous power and are all too happy to kill any newly-weak mages they find, and rescue Rosheen’s brother Oskar (a so-called moon-child whose world is also turned upside down, though in a very different way, by the destruction of the Lapis Moon). I’ve seen the author describe this story as ‘like Game of Thrones without the boobs’, which I thought was a great description. Yes there are battles (and death, and gore), yes there’s swearing (not excessively though), and yes there are no boobs, not even the hint of romance. And this literary wimp could cope with all of that. I particularly liked how all the characters were very flawed, there was no obvious ‘goody’ to counteract the very obvious ‘baddie’. It kept me engaged and had me guessing right till the end, and was an absolutely cracking story. 4.5/5.

This month’s library book was Amanda Owen’s The Yorkshire Shepherdess, subtitled “How I left city life behind to raise a family – and a flock”. It’s her story of ending up first working as a freelance shepherd, and eventually marrying a sheep farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, and their life on the farm. She’s basically living the dream – close to the land, living with the changing seasons – it sounds great, I’d love that, although her dream involves a lot more sheep and children than mine does!

In all honesty I preferred James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which I read a couple of years ago and LOVED, but this was a nice read and gave a good glimpse into a very different way of life. 3.5/5.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is fantasy author China Mieville’s retelling of the momentous events of 1917 in Russia. Whilst this is non-fiction, and is based on an impressive amount of research and recourse to scholarly and eye-witness sources, I really liked that his literary background meant that this book was never stuffy, even when it was detailing player after player after committee after Soviet, and meeting after congress after meeting. It brought the events alive in a way that the more academic accounts I’ve read just haven’t. Mieville is a well-known left-winger, and makes no claims to impartiality here, although he does say that he has tried to be fair in his portrayal of everyone. Largely I think he’s achieved that.

One thing which really struck me when I was reading it yesterday, was when he was talking about the leader of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, in the final days and hours before the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and wrote: “He was certain that the Preparliament would now support him. The man was ‘completely oblivious’, the Left SR Kamkov would recall, ‘to the fact that there was nobody to put down the uprising regardless of what sanctions he was granted'”, and all I could think of as I read those words was “that’s Theresa May, that is!” Of course even as I’m reading about momentous political upheaval of 100+ years ago, over here we’re living through momentous political upheaval ourselves. And just like the people in revolutionary Russia would have had no idea where what they were living through would lead, same here too. 4/5.

Gathering Carrageen by Monica Connell is exactly my kind of book. It’s a memoir of her year spent living in rural Donegal in Ireland – the people, places and events that make a community and a place. From farmers to fishermen, widows to teachers, she seems to make friends easily and settle into the rhythm of Donegal life, cutting peats, going to the pub, experiencing the Atlantic storms that howl over the land, making friends. A nice gentle read. 4/5.

Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (subtitled ‘What they feel, how they communicate – discoveries from a secret world’) is a book I’ve wanted to get to for ages, and luckily my former book group (who I’m still in touch with) were reading it this month so I joined in with them. Initially I was a bit worried that I was going to be disappointed – there is a bit of anthropomorphising going on which, until I got used to it, put me off a bit. The author is a forester in Germany, and this is based on many years of observations, and study of the academic science looking at trees and forests. My overriding feeling after reading this is that trees are amazing. 4/5.

Shelf Indulgence – April 2019

Books I read in April 2019

Rima D. Apple’s Mothers & Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding 1890-1950 has been on my bookshelves for several years. Shortly after I moved to Scotland in 2005 I attended a really interesting guest lecture she gave on the history of infant feeding and I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since. She outlines the industry, medical, and cultural factors which led to the increase in formula feeding in America during the period. I must admit when I was reading about the various concoctions that were cobbled together for babies who were deemed to be failing to thrive, I was amazed that any of them survived at all! As well as the expected dominance of big business, one of the main take-homes I got from this was the incredible paternalism of the medical profession, wanting to maintain control over the process of infant feeding and position themselves, not mothers, as the experts. 4/5.

Well, my plan was to read a chapter a day of Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy for 2 weeks. That happened for the first couple of chapters (as I was reading just before going to sleep). But then I picked it up one day during the day, and I ended up reading the rest of the book in a single sitting. It’s gorgeous. The author details, month by month, her walks in the countryside (mainly local to her, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, but occasionally further afield), and the impact that it has on her mental health (she lives with severe depression). During the year that she was writing this she had a particularly prolonged and serious depressive episode, which she doesn’t shy away from, but her writing is exquisite, and the importance of the outdoors for her wellbeing is made clear (whilst being very emphatic that she is not saying ditch the meds and hug a tree). Illustrated throughout with the author’s photos, paintings and sketches, it is a simply beautiful book. 5*

Tara Westover’s Educated is a memoir that I’ve been picking up and putting down for several months now. By the end I couldn’t put it down though. This is the memoir of her childhood as one of the several children in an extreme Mormon family, and her eventual move away from the family (where she was supposedly home-schooled, although the reality was basically working for her dad’s scrapyard business and trying to avoid the many horrific accidents that the various family members have (whilst avoiding either insurance or mainstream medicine)) to higher education and beyond.

What was clear from the very beginning was that Tara Westover is an extraordinarily gifted writer. She really has a way with words, and it was very easy to picture the places and people and events she was describing. She is also not afraid of ‘less is more’, and whilst there were plenty of horrific things going on, it never felt like she was describing events, arguments, fights, accidents or whatever just for the sake of it. Having said that, although I honestly wouldn’t call this a ‘misery memoir’, the first half of the book (which deals with her childhood before she leaves home to attend Brigham Young University) is pretty relentless, and I think that’s probably why I needed to keep taking breathers from it. The second half of the book details her time at BYU, figuring out a lot of things (like how to take exams and write essays, and events such as the Holocaust) that she’d never ever heard of before, and gradually finding her place and her feet and her voice, and then to her subsequent postgraduate experience at Cambridge and Harvard. This is the section I found really interesting, although here the ‘less is more’ didn’t work quite so well for me – there were a few places where the transformation from clueless undisciplined kid to serious scholar seemed to happen quite quickly without a lot of detail, as well as her recovery from what sounded like quite a serious mental breakdown, and so had to be taken on trust, whereas I’d have liked a bit more about how she got from A to B. What I did really like about this section though was how she described her relationship with her family evolving over time, and how the relationships with individual family members changed over time (not always for the better). That evolution over time was much more clearly portrayed, with fewer gaps.

Overall though, this is a fantastic memoir which is well worth the time, and a worthy 5* from me. It really is as good as the hype, in my view. 5/5.

Hooray for the library, thanks to them I found Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths: journeys in and around an Italian mountain village, and it was gorgeous. Part memoir, part oral history of the elderly residents of the remote Italian village near the French border that she and her husband made their home. She details gradually getting to know the residents, and then gradually hearing, and getting their permission to write, their memories of WW2, partisans, Fascists, greedy landowners, and the other people that lived and worked there over the years. It’s gentle and beautiful. 4.5/5.

Dan Papworth’s The Lives Around Us: daily meditations for nature connection was the book I chose to read for Lent this year. He is a member of Cheltenham Forest Church, where a couple of my friends are also involved (in fact they appear in the acknowledgements). This book features 40 daily readings, each focusing on a different animal, plant or mineral found in the UK. He explains about the life of the creature, and also features a passage from the Bible and a section on prayer and reflection. It’s nice and crusty, and right up my street!

I did wish that the Bible passages he had chosen, particularly for the last week, had been more reflective of the Easter story (so the Last Supper, Gethsemane, etc), rather than more general passages, although that does mean that this book isn’t just restricted to Lent but can be used throughout the year. What raised it up for me from a 4* read was the concluding chapter, where he looks more generally at the links between Christian spirituality and nature, and our responsibilities (particularly given environmental degradation and climate change) and I’ve added an extra half star just for that. 4.5/5.

Journalist and academic Timothy Garton Ash writes in The File: A Personal History about discovering his Stasi (East German secret police) file, and sets out to track down the informers and Stasi officers who were monitoring him during his student days in West and East Berlin in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not just a dry ‘he said, she said’ description though, but musing on memory, morality, nation, history, not to mention the secret service activities of the UK state, as well as the actual content of the file. The 2009 afterword (the book was originally published in 1997) has a very interesting discussion about present-day surveillance and politics, and the relevance of the Stasi to this question (although now, 10 years after the Afterword, even that feels a bit out of date, with him talking about “personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace” – although plenty of it is pretty prescient still). A very interesting read. 4.5/5.

Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, by Paul MacAlindin, is the sometimes inspirational, sometimes frustrating, often exhausting tale of the formation of the NYOI, from the initial idea in 2008 to its final summer school and concert in France in 2014. The author was the musical director, and much of the vision and energy required to form and maintain the orchestra, when they were only meeting once a year for a summer school and having to negotiate the complex politics of having players from all ethnic groups and backgrounds and languages, was down to him pretty much single-handedly. Each of the summer schools (the first few in Iraqi Kurdistan, then Beethovenfest in Germany, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and finally in Aix en Provence in France, plus the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get them to the US the following year), are described in detail, plus the behind the scenes activity the rest of the year. The final few chapters detail the achievements and learning from the years of NYOI.

What the author does really well here is portray the frustrations and lows of the story, but also the moments of inspiration and breakthrough, and the growth of everyone involved. Whilst it’s uplifting, it’s also realistic, and I think that’s what I liked most about it. 4/5.

Shelf Indulgence – March 2019

Books I read in March 2019

The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz by Aaron Swartz is a bit out of my comfort zone in terms of subject matter, but was really interesting. Swartz was a young internet ‘hacktivist’ who was involved in setting up both RSS and reddit, and who eventually was charged after making vast numbers of academic journal articles freely available and threatened with a 35 year jail term. He committed suicide before he could be sentenced, at the age of 26.

The writings here consist of blog posts, longer essays and speeches, and the earliest ones date back to when he was 14 years old. It is clear that he was a very intelligent and talented young man, and even when I didn’t agree with him (or understand him, as in the collection of writings on computers), I found him a very engaging writer who often was quite compelling. The most impressive section, in my view, is the section on politics, including an extended seminar he gave outlining the workings of American politics, in particular the various decision-making processes and the ways that bills do (or more often don’t) get passed. That was fascinating, and also quite scary. I’d love to read what he’d have made of the last couple of years, and it’s a tragedy that his voice was lost too young. Although I’d say I was largely sympathetic to a lot of what he was saying, there were a few topics where I felt that his conclusions went way beyond where I would go (this is particularly true of his thoughts on free downloading, and also on ‘unschooling’), but I was always interested in seeing where he was going with his arguments. 4/5.

Calum’s Road by Roger Hutchinson is a fantastic book. I bought it a few years ago while on holiday on the Isle of Skye. It tells the true story of a remarkable man on the neighbouring island of Raasay, who after decades’ worth of petitions to the local council to extend the main road on the island had fallen on deaf ears, decided to take matters into his own hands and build the road himself. By the time he finished it (well into his 60s), he and his wife were the only residents left in the north of Raasay, and since their deaths the north of the island has remained uninhabited. Calum had hoped when he started building the road that it would encourage the then population to stay, and once they had left, that it would encourage new crofters to come into the area. Sadly that didn’t happen, but the road is still there, now officially known as Calum’s Road, and this is its extraordinary story. A wonderful and inspiring man, and his story is really well-written here. There’s a brief summary of the story here. 4.5/5.

Chris Moon’s One Step Beyond is one of my longer-standing TBRs, bought from the QPD (postal!) monthly book club, which I was in in the late 90s/early 2000s. I bought it after seeing him on a talk show (I suspect either Wogan or Parkinson) plugging the book. Chris Moon left the army and started working for the HALO Trust in mine clearance, first in Cambodia and then in Mozambique, in the mid-90s. In Cambodia he and his team were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, but managed to make it out alive. While he was working in Mozambique he stepped on a mine, and lost part of his right leg and his right hand. He nearly died, but made a remarkable recovery and ended up running the London Marathon. That’s where this edition of the book ends – I gather that a subsequent edition features his subsequent running of the Marathon de Sables, a 137 mile race across the Sahara.

There was a lot of interesting information about the mine clearance programmes, and this plus the latter chapters detailing his treatment and rehab were the most interesting for me. The kidnapping in Cambodia took up about a third of the book – they were captive for a few days only, but this section is told in minute-by-minute detail, which did give a sense of the tension and stress and foreboding they must have all gone through, but did also make the book drag a bit. In contrast, the only things he really details about the Mozambique work is the day of the accident. He’s clearly a very impressive person – having survived the kidnapping where everybody assumed he’d be killed, and then horrific injuries after the mine blast which would have killed most people, to have survived at all, never mind achieved all he has, is testament to his strength of character (facetiously, with luck like that it also made me think I’d like him to choose my lottery numbers). It took me a while to get into – he writes throughout in the present tense, which I found a bit jarring, and I think I also found him a bit intimidating. Not in a bad way, he’s clearly a nice guy with a great sense of humour, but it was just going through so much and making so many right decisions in extreme adversity made him feel a bit on a pedestal. I’m not explaining that very well – suffice to say, I’m glad I’ve read the book, and I’d recommend it although I probably wouldn’t reread it. 3.5/5.

I don’t want to go to sleep! by Christopher Francis is a sweet picture book with simple and minimal words, that would be ideal to read to a pre-schooler before bed. A brother and sister don’t want to go to sleep, but the Moon tells them about all the dream-adventures they’ll have if they sleep. Cute. Pdf copy received from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. 4/5.

Sally R. Munt’s Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame is an academic book which I bought towards the end of my PhD (as shame was a theme which had emerged from my research), but which I never got the chance to do much more than skim at the time. The book looks at aspects of historical and contemporary culture (including TV programmes such as The Office, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under, the St Patrick’s Day parades in the US, and the art of Tracey Emin) and looks at how shame, as well as being a negative thing, can also be productive in forming identities and communities. This is done with particular reference to Irish, queer, and working class communities.

I found the book mostly very interesting (I particularly enjoyed the Six Feet Under chapter), although sometimes I did find the academese writing a bit dense – I suspect I’d have got a lot more out of this if I’d read it when I bought it when I was in a more academic frame of mind! Mostly though it was a thoughtful and interesting read, and I’m glad I got to read it eventually. 3.5/5.

I’m a sucker for a good book title pun, so was already favourably disposed towards Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly (subtitled ‘Uncovering the secrets of the world’s happiest country’). The author is a journalist who was based in London and fully living the rat-race life, when her husband gets a job with Lego for a year and so they move to rural Jutland. She discovers that Denmark is regularly touted as the happiest country in the world in international surveys, and sets out to discover why. The book is a January to December look at various issues as they settle in and try to make sense of Danish traditions and see if living there really can make them happier.

Initially I thought I was going to be disappointed, and felt that the book was a bit superficial. However, a few months in she does start addressing the more negative side of Denmark (the everyday sexism, despite legal gender equality, and the growing rise of right-wing anti-immigrant parties) and then it felt much more balanced and realistic. About half way through the book they are visited by a Swiss friend, and the incident where they hoist the Swiss flag in his honour is hilarious (turns out Denmark has Rules about flag-raising).

I did feel sad in several places, that the move that they were able to make so easily (due to the UK being part of the European Union) is likely to be much harder (if our stupid politicians can ever get their act together, that is). Bah. 4/5.

In Siberia by Colin Thubron, one of my favourite travel writers, was every bit as good as the other books of his that I’ve read. He travelled east from the Urals in the late 90s, sometimes on the Trans-Siberian railway but not always, discovering the length and breadth of this vast unknown land. As usual with his books, we meet locals, experience life in the raw, and his descriptions are just beautiful, it was easy to picture what he was describing and there wasn’t a word out of place. Fabulous. 4.5/5.

I’ve been binge-listening to the Bestseller Experiment podcast for the last several months, and it is one of my favourite writing podcasts out there. The premise is that the two Marks set out to write, edit, market and sell a book that became a bestseller, all within a year, and share the journey in the first year of their podcast, which features tons of writing and publishing industry advice from both indie and traditionally published authors and publishers. Back to Reality, by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, is the book that was the end result. The first thing I have to say is that this really isn’t the kind of book I normally read – I guess it basically falls into the ‘up-lit’, women’s contemporary fiction type genre – and so despite loving the podcast I wasn’t actually holding my breath that I’d like the book all that much. However, I was increasingly pleasantly surprised, and would thoroughly recommend it as a light-hearted and funny read. This is the amazon blurb:

Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time

Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.

As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.

Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.

In her desperate quest, Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.

Back to Reality is a funny, heartwarming story about last chances, perfect for fans of Rowan Coleman and Helen Fielding.

It’s well-plotted, fast-paced and funny, and I could absolutely see it as a fun summer movie. 4.5/5.

Shelf Indulgence – Feb 2019

Books I read in Feb 2019

Tim Peake is the British astronaut who spent 6 months on the International Space Station in 2016, and did an amazing job of enthusing the country as a whole about space and science. Ask An Astronaut is a collection of all the various questions he’s been asked since, and it covers everything from astronaut recruitment, to training, to living on the ISS, and returning to Earth. It includes the obvious question of course (ie, how do you go to the toilet on the ISS?), but even though it is presented in a very accessible and readable way, the main thing that I have been left with having read this is the sheer amazing amount of scientific knowledge that has gone into building, running and maintaining life on the ISS (and space exploration in general). A very good (and not too taxing) read. 4/5.

Rabbit & Bear: Attack of the Snack is one of several kids’ books I got from the library to look at things like story length, level etc (I’ve got one pre-school picture book on the go, but want to see about writing for slightly older kids too). Although I’ve not come across the author Julian Gough before, Jim Field is one of my favourite illustrators (we have all of his Oi! children’s books and they are a big hit in this house!), and Neil Gaiman has given a glowing quote for the back cover, so I was looking forward to this very much. And it didn’t disappoint! This is actually the third book in the series, and I’ll be looking out for the other ones. Rabbit and Bear are two friends, and in this book their tranquil life is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a small, dazed baby owl. Bear wants to help, but Rabbit immediately remembers his dad’s tales of scary huge owls, and instantly jumps to the conclusion that the owl is dangerous and needs to be imprisoned. Basically this is a fable about ‘fake news’, and about how easy it is to be deceived by loud voices and people jumping up and down labelling ‘others’ (there’s even a fleeting, but unmissable, throwaway nod to the current occupant of the White House). This does have a happy ending, with various of the animals realising the error of their ways, and they all end up as (slightly wiser) friends in the end. Highly recommended! 4.5/5.

Second-Hand Time is the most recent book by Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read, although I do have The Unwomanly Face of War on my TBR pile and I’m now keen to get to that too. This book is an oral history, she interviewed dozens of people throughout the former Soviet Union about their memories of the Soviet time and the end of communism, and their thoughts on contemporary life in the new post-Soviet countries. Nearly all of it is basically verbatim what the people tell her, with almost no commentary or interruption by the author; that took a little bit of getting used to, but I found I really liked that, and I think it shows a brave writer who doesn’t have a fragile enough ego that she has to keep getting in the way. The people she spoke with ranged from survivors of the gulags, students who’d taken part in the demonstrations in the early 90s, parents whose children had died either through suicide or conflict, as well as people from many of the various republics that are now independent but at the time had been part of the Soviet Union (Armenia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Ukraine, etc as well as Russia). There were quite a few common themes, even though the stories themselves were all highly individual – domestic abuse, alcohol, the kitchen as a place of communal discussion, salami as the symbol of ‘freedom’, and many others. I really liked how she interviewed people from all sorts of different backgrounds and generations, this gave a really rich picture of the Soviet Union and what has followed it. I would have liked to have heard an account from someone from one of the Baltic states, as their experience of the Soviet Union would have probably been quite different again. But that’s a small criticism, as the book as is is already epic in both scope and size (t’s over 700 pages, so quite a chunkster). A very interesting book, and I really want to read some of her other work now too. The translation I thought read really well, so hats off to the translator, Bela Shayevich. 4.5/5.

Dana Stabenow is a well-known crime and thriller author, but she was also, for 5 years in the early 2000s, a columnist for ‘Alaska Magazine’. Alaska Traveler is a collection of her columns over that time, and details travels and events all over Alaska. It just sounds amazing there, I’d love to go! I loved her easy-going style, her obvious enjoyment, and her appreciation of everything she saw. 4/5.

Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self is a short little freebie ebook that I picked up last year. The instigator is the author Joanna Cannon – she wrote one of my favourite fiction books of a few years ago, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and this I think was a bit of a ‘magnet’ for her new book, Three Things About Elsie (which I’ve already got on my TBR). It consists of advice collected by Joanna Cannon from people in various walks of life that she looks up to (ranging from other authors, publishers, doctors, and even her mum), written to the authors’ younger selves. It was published I think on the day that A’level results came out in England, and most of them seemed to be variations on the themes of ‘don’t worry it’ll all be fine eventually’, ‘don’t spend ages worrying what other people think of you’, ‘your choices aren’t set in stone’, ‘it’s worth waiting’ etc etc. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but a nice way to while away 3/4 of an hour, and there’s an opening chapter from Three Things About Elsie included too. 3/5.

Comradely Greetings is a short collection of letters exchanged between philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, whilst the latter was serving her 2 year sentence in a Russian labour camp after their ‘punk protest’ against the Putin regime in the cathedral in Red Square in 2011. Initially the two discuss philosophy in the context of repressive politics, and then the final two letters are after Nadya is released, and she can be a bit more open about the situation and conditions in the labour camps, as well as her post-imprisonment activism. That was the bit I found most interesting. She included some interesting thoughts on the fate of Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who ended up living in Russia where he was unable to speak freely. Tolokonnikova (herself a philosophy graduate) is more than able to hold her own in discussions with Zizek. 4/5.

First Generations: The Stirling Area from Mesolithic to Roman Times is one of this month’s library books, and is written by Lorna Main, who at the time of publication (2001) was Stirling Council’s Archaeology Officer. The book details the various archaeological finds in the area, and how the area developed in terms of population, trade, farming etc etc. 3.5/5.