Shelf Indulgence – September 2019

Better late than never, here are my reads for September, another good reading month!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – a good TV travel (and wildlife) show tie-in book is one of my not-so-secret guilty pleasures. And this one was another absolute delight. Last month I read Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, which was the book of a series of trips with zoologist Mark Carwardine which became a radio series in the late 1980s. For this book, Last Chance to See: In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine returns 20 years later to several of the places that he and Douglas Adams had visited (and a couple of others), this time with Douglas Adams’ good friend Stephen Fry, and a TV crew in tow. This book accompanies the resulting TV series, and I loved it. Mark Carwardine is actually a pretty good writer himself, and the book is only enhanced by al the beautiful photographs throughout. Like the first book, this is pretty sobering though – despite the many valiant efforts being made across the world, we seem as a species to be generally making a right old mess of conserving what’s left. Two of the animals that they had visited in the 80s (the northern white rhino, and the Yangtze river dolphin) were extinct by the time they returned for the TV show, and although some populations (such as the kakapo in New Zealand) were making valiant efforts at increasing their numbers, they’re still very fragile populations. And 10 years on from when this show was made, I expect there will be further species which are now extinct, or close to it. 4.5/5.

Mohammed Omer is a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza, and this book, Shell-Shocked, is a collection of all his reports during the 51 days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, their assault on Gaza in 2014. Most of the reports are for Middle East Eye, but there are some for Al Jazeera too. They detail the impact of the war on Gaza’s civilian life, and the whole book is pretty harrowing. The main feeling that I had – similar to when I see other injustices such as the effects of austerity in the UK – is of the pointless cruelty of it all. Very highly recommended, but far from an easy read. 4.5/5.

One of my excellent birthday presents this year from my excellent husband was a subscription to Elementum journal. It’s a literary journal which features nature writing, art and photography, and each edition is an absolute work of art. As well as the subscription for this year, he also bought me last year’s back copies, and so I’ve just been reading through one of those, Elementum Journal: 3: Roots. It features writing from some of my favourite writers – Jim Crumley, Robert Macfarlane, Annie Worsley, Kathleen Jamie – and some I wasn’t so familiar with. One of the pieces was from a volunteer in Mauritius who had worked with the people that Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine met in the two Last Chance to See books. The whole thing was beautiful, and I can’t wait to read the others now. 4.5/5.

The Daily Struggles of Archie Adams (Aged 2 1/4) is the second book by Hurrah for Gin’s Katie Kirby. This time, rather than discussing babyhood and parenting, she turns her attention to the challenges and joys that having a toddler in the family brings. The familiar sweary stick figures are joined by Archie’s diary as he makes sense of life, parental choices, and a new sibling, amongst other things. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Hurrah for Gin!, but bits of it did really make me snigger with recognition, so it’s still a solid 3.5/5.

Whenever I start a new reading year, I always wonder if (and hope that) I’ll be blown away by a book that’s just wonderful in every way. This year was no exception, and unless the reading gods have something else in store for me, I’m pretty sure that my book of the year this year will be Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy by Chitra Ramaswamy. She writes so beautifully and powerfully about her pregnancy – I so wish this book had been around when I was pregnant. This is no ordinary pregnancy book – usually they are full of ‘at this stage the baby is x cm long and the size of a {insert relevantly-sized piece of fruit here}’. This one though is full of all the raw emotion and paradoxes and general weirdness of pregnancy that none of the books tell you about, and she weaves it in effortlessly with her wider life, alongside bereavements, journeys, chance encounters, work, place, and daily life. Absolutely fantastic, and I’ll be buying this for everyone I know the second I find out they’re pregnant! 5/5.

After thoroughly enjoying Elementum Journal: 3: Roots, I was excited to carry on with the 4th journal, Elementum Journal: 4: Shape. If anything, I think I liked this one even more – every single article was beautifully written and illustrated. I particularly liked the ones where the writers explained the link between the nature they saw and their creative process. The final piece, by lacemaker Jane Atkinson, about how she tries to render the patterns in the water of her local coastal marshland in lace, was fascinating. 5/5.

I’m now caught up with my Elementum reading, with Elementum Journal: 5: Hearth which came out earlier this year. I already can’t wait for edition 6, which comes out towards the end of the year (there are two editions a year, and my birthday present was last year’s back issues plus a subscription for this year). This was just as good as the previous ones – I think my favourite article was by Nicola Davies, about how she uses sketching to exercise her creativity as she looks to connect with landscape and write about it, I related a lot to that and I really want to get back to sketching to try and connect with my inner creativity. Not that I have any talent whatsoever, but it’s just an hour or so that I can completely immerse myself in creating something and it gives me enormous pleasure, and I think sparks my imagination and creativity at a very deep level. I was also really surprised to see an article by Colin Taylor, who is better known as the author of The Life of a Scilly Sergeant. 5/5.

When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir by one of Black Lives Matter’s co-founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors (co-written with asha bendele). Most of the book is actually a memoir of her life and her family before the founding of BLM, and is a blistering account of everyday institutional and structural racism. Heartbreaking, hopeful, angry. A must-read. 4.5/5.

A Study in Scarlet is Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery. It’s also the first Sherlock Holmes book I’ve ever read. I quite enjoyed it, although it’s not really my thing. His sarcasm towards the bumbling detectives in the first half of the book did make me smile. 3/5.

Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. By day (and much of the night as well, it seems) he was the Editor of The Guardian, but is also a keen amateur pianist, and he challenged himself to learn in a year Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. As the blurb puts it, “His timing could have been better”. As well as trying to carve out 20 minutes a day to practice, and meeting and interviewing professional pianists, neuroscientists, and well-known amateurs (including Condoleezza Rice), he also has to deal with two massive stories that year – the News of the World hacking scandal, and WikiLeaks – as well as assorted other major news stories, including one of their own journalists being kidnapped in Libya. As a (very very very out of practice) amateur musician myself, who like him was a pretty decent player at school but has not really gone beyond that, I found this account absolutely fascinating, and I really admired his efforts. He didn’t choose any old piece – as his annotated score at the back of the book shows (and the many professional pianists he speaks with attest), this piece is absolutely fiendish. To even have considered it he must be a pretty decent player already, but that doesn’t diminish the achievement, as he documents the highs and lows, the errors and agonising over fingerings and techniques, the nerves and the frustrations and the occasional triumphs. There were aspects that I was less able to relate to (not least his second country home with a specially built music room in the garden, and being able to splash out several thousand pounds more than his original budget on a second hand Steinway grand piano for that music room), but even still, this is a very very readable account of a bonkers challenge taking place during a bonkers year. 4.5/5.


Shelf Indulgence – August 2019

I just realised I didn’t post my August reading. It was another good month – there are some excellent books in the world!

Vegetables: A Biography by Evelyne Bloch-Dano (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) is a short book which covers the history of various vegetables – where they came from, where their names come from, how they ended up where they are now. It includes some recipes and extracts from historical literature. An interesting book, but it felt a bit unsatisfying. 3/5.

Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island is a middle grade (ie younger-than-YA) chapter book which I got from the library, but it was so wonderful I’ll definitely be getting my own copy and I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough that we can read it together. I’ll also definitely be looking out for the sequel which is out any time now. Late primary/early secondary school me would have been all over this book 40 years ago – it has magic, mystery, foreboding, humour, adventure – I loved it. 5/5

This is the blurb:

When Fionn Boyle sets foot on Arranmore Island, it begins to stir beneath his feet…

Once in a generation, Arranmore Island chooses a new Storm Keeper to wield its power and keep its magic safe from enemies. The time has come for Fionn’s grandfather, a secretive and eccentric old man, to step down. Soon, a new Keeper will rise.

But, deep underground, someone has been waiting for Fionn. As the battle to become the island’s next champion rages, a more sinister magic is waking up, intent on rekindling an ancient war.

Jane Brown’s Tales of the Rose Tree was one of the books I bought recently as part of my research for something I’m planning on writing soon. It (this book, not what I’m going to write!) is a history of the rhododendron, and details the various plant collectors, gardeners, explorers and financiers involved in the spread of the rhododendron and its various hybrids as a popular ornamental plant around the world. It was a bit plummy and breathless in tone, but somehow that was really fitting for the subject. There were so many different characters that it was sometimes hard to keep up, but it was interesting and there are a few things in it which have changed (or deepened) my thinking about what I plan to write myself. I thought the penultimate chapter, on ecology, was the most interesting. 3.5/5.

Cheer Up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate by Scottish comedian Susan Calman was a frank but fun look at mental health. I had already heard her podcast series “Mrs Brightside”, where she discusses mental health with eight different comedians, and in a way this was more of the same, but as I absolutely loved “Mrs Brightside” (and am happy to hear there’s likely to be a second series in the pipeline), that’s no bad thing – I really enjoyed this, if that’s not a weird thing to say about a book about depression. 4.5/5.

Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners (subtitled Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession) is the account of a group of gardeners, plant collectors and botanists who led the search for more and more exotic and far-flung plants to fill the gardens and estates of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. As expected, a number of the men included in Tales of the Rose Tree feature here, such as Bartram and Collinson, with a really detailed account of their friendships, rivalries, arguments, journeys, and finds, all among the backdrop of the growth of the British Empire. Really interesting, and very readable. My only very mild complaint was that the formatting of the glossary was off in my epub version – not that I would have read every word of a humungous glossary, but I would have flicked through it if I could. 4/5.

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine was a wonderful read – yet another reminder of the deep loss to the world when Adams died so suddenly and so young. Back in the late 1980s Adams joined Carwardine (who is a zoologist) and a BBC sound recordist on a number of trips to various countries around the world trying to track down some super-rare animals and make a radio documentary about the trips, and this is the book of that project. They go to Madagascar, Zaire (as it was then), New Zealand, China, Komodo, and Mauritius, and Adams’ writing is just a joy. He manages to perfectly portray the difficulties inherent in conservation of such endangered species, the interesting characters involved in conservation, and the bureaucracy facing them at every turn. The scene near the beginning where they visit an Australian academic who’s the world expert on poisonous snakes had me howling with laughter (for Brits of a certain age who remember “The Fast Show”, this was straight out of a “That’s Amazing” sketch). Some years after Adams’ death, Mark Carwardine did a TV documentary series with Stephen Fry visiting some of the same places, and I have the book of that series lined up for reading next month.

I ended up leaving this book with the friend we were staying with at the time – he was absolutely bemused that there was a Douglas Adams book that he hadn’t heard of, so I thought it was the least I could do! 4.5/5.

Anne Janzer’s The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear covers some of the cognitive and behavioural science behind writing, and suggests how to have more of an idea what’s going on through the process of writing. She contrasts the Scribe and the Muse, which I found a helpful way of picturing the different but complementary tasks of researching and getting the words down on the page with the incubating ideas and getting inspiration (I tend to spend a *lot* of time in the incubation stage!). 4/5.

Another great book from the library – hooray for local libraries! – Alistair Moffat’s The Hidden Ways: Scotland’s Forgotten Roads is his account of walking ten of the now largely forgotten but previously important roads within Scotland, including Roman roads, drove roads, and abandoned railways. This is just my cup of tea – armchair travel at its finest. As well as writing about what he sees, he includes a lot about the history, and I learnt loads. Also: what a gorgeous cover! 4.5/5.

I received Jewish Communal Service in Romania and Poland 1986-2006 by Zvi Feine from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer programme – thank you to the author and publishers for providing me with the chance to review the book.

I requested this because I have worked in various positions related to civil society/non-governmental organisations in Romania over the past 20 years, but have little knowledge of Jewish organisations there (although I did have the chance to be shown round the beautiful Sibiu synagogue during a ‘Doors Open Day’ in 2007 and loved meeting some of the community during that).

This book details the 20+ years the author spent working with the American JDC as Country Director for Romania (plus around 7 years concurrently as Country Director for Poland); the programmes that were supported and established both pre- and post- the 1989 fall of communism in both countries (including what worked well and in some cases less well); and the various people and communities involved. The work in Romania was covered more extensively, probably due to the author’s greater experience and knowledge there, although I did find the information on the Polish community very interesting and would have liked to have read more about that.

I found the structure of the book a bit clunky – it sometimes looked at specific issues and used examples from both countries, but then towards the end had sections specifically and separately about the work in Romania and then Poland. This meant there was some repetition, and I found it sometimes hard to put my finger on the nub of the work that was being described. This was a feeling I had throughout the book, but particularly in the opening chapters – whilst the author describes in some detail issues he had to overcome, people he had to negotiate with, skills he needed to do his job, I just didn’t always feel like I fully understood what the programmes involved. I would have appreciated a further concluding chapter where the achievements of the work undertaken by Dr Fiene and his organisation were concisely presented; that would have helped me to have more of a handle on the wide range of projects undertaken.

That said, Dr Feine is clearly an accomplished negotiator and manager, and the work he was involved in clearly improved the lives of both individuals and the Jewish community in the two countries more widely. 3.5/5.

Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics is a fairly old book (late 90s) by one of Scotland’s premier thinkers. He used to be Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the premise of the book is that invoking ‘God’ in moral debate is problematic and meaningless in a pluralistic society, and we need an approach that is more human-centred in considering contemporary morality. He then goes on to talk about various ethical issues – sex, homosexuality, addiction, abortion, euthanasia, and assisted reproduction.

I broadly agree with him about these issues, but I’m not entirely sure that this book succeeded in its aim of proposing a morality without God/religion. It was a very good broad overview of the ethical issues, and in places he showed how religious opinions on them can be problematic, but I didn’t find that consistently throughout the book. This is a very accessible and readable introduction though to some thorny ethical subjects, and I’ll happily read more of his work. 3.5/5.

The Politics of the Body by Alison Phipps is one of many academic books I bought full of enthusiasm in my PhD/post-PhD days and then have struggled to find the time to get round to reading. I’m glad I finally made it to this one, it was very much my bag! She covers issues such as sexual violence (using the cases of Julian Assange, Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn as case studies), gender and Islam, sex work, and reproduction (specifically ‘normal birth’ and breastfeeding campaigns) and looks at them from a political sociology perspective, looking at their various links with neoliberalism and neoconservatism. I particularly liked the reproduction chapter and its focus on the values- and class-based assumptions of many supposedly morally neutral interventions (something which I picked up in my PhD study too). 4.5/5.

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.

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 – 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.