Shelf Indulgence – November 2019

I read some more very good books in November!

Silence and Honey Cakes, by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, is a slim volume containing a series of lectures he gave about the 4th and 5th century desert fathers and mothers (men and women who lived out their monastic calling in the desert of Egypt), considering their wisdom and insight for life today. Plenty to think about, and (for a man who was often – unfairly in my view – considered overly academic and waffly) readable and accessible. 4/5.

As a card-carrying literary wimp, there is normally no way that I would let a Stephen King book (or film) anywhere near me. On Writing though is an exception – subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft”, it’s all about how he writes and what he’s found helpful. It’s not so much a how-to book though – there aren’t millions of exercises or formulae – but it’s largely a memoir of his life, to show how aspects of his life have made him the writer he is today. I thought it was absolutely terrific, and will be dipping in and out of this often. 5/5.

The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favourite films, and Cary Elwes, co-author (with Joe Layden) of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the making of The Princess Bride was, of course, the actor who played Westley in that wonderful film. This is his recollections from initial audition and first read-through to all the filming and then beyond after the film was released, and as well as his narrative it also features comments from many of the other actors throughout the book. To start with I thought it was going to be a bit “luvvie”, but within a couple of chapters I was completely charmed – what comes across here is just how much fun everyone involved with the film had, and how much they genuinely liked and respected each other. Utterly delightful. 4.5/5.

This month’s library book was the wonderful The Nature of Spring by one of my favourite Scottish nature writers, Jim Crumley. It’s part of a tetralogy of books (he’s previously published books on the nature of autumn and winter), and I now want to own all of them so will be adding all 3 to my wishlist before Christmas. This is just beautiful writing which always transports me to wherever he is writing about, and it means I’ve also added a couple of locations to my bucket list (particularly after this book the Isle of May, off the Fife coast). This book covers the area near where he lives, in Highland Stirlingshire, and a number of Scottish islands, but also this one includes a chapter on Lindisfarne in northern England. Highly recommended, as always (and also: another gorgeous cover!). 4.5/5.

Cunk on Everything features the wonderful comedy creation Philomena Cunk. For those who don’t know her, she’s basically a spoof journalist/documentary presenter, and her recent TV series was hilarious, sending up a very particular type of British documentary which always takes itself far too seriously. This book is in the form of a dictionary, with alphabetical entries and Philomena’s, um, unique explanations. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find this anywhere near as funny as the TV series (I think it needs her deadpan presentation), but there were a few places where I did laugh, and I think this would be a great toilet book. It was a bit much reading from start to finish, but randomly dipping in and reading a couple of entries would keep it much fresher. The entry on ‘Nigel Farridge’ was great, and the entry on Doctor Who was savage, but very clever. And the deliberate over-use of ‘it was very much the internet of its day’ was also pretty funny. 3.5/5.

Nick Griffiths’ Who Goes There? (50th anniversary edition) is the tale of a Dr Who nerd visiting various locations where both classic and new Who episodes were filmed, and discovering weird and random places in southern England and Wales. It took me a couple of chapters to warm to him (he was a bit ‘grumpy old man’ to start with, despite only being a couple of years older than me), but the more I read the more I was won over. The book was accompanied by a website with all his photos, but I can’t find that however much I google, so that’s a bit frustrating as I’d love to see the pictures. Other than that though this is well worth a read, and it’s not just for the diehard Who fans. 4/5.

David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions is a hefty tome which has taken me some time to get through, but it was well well worth the effort. It’s not a new book (published late 1990s), but is still highly contemporary in its concerns. In it he traces the academic, theoretical and practical conservation story of understanding evolution, extinction, and conservation through looking specifically at flora and fauna of island groups around the world (including ‘islands’ on the mainland, eg mountain habitats cut off from other populations). He travels all over the world, interviews the major players from the 1960s onwards, carefully considers the impact and legacy of those who went before (eg Darwin and Wallace), and has produced an absolutely brilliant book. As well as bringing the wildlife and habitats to literary life, he also manages to make academic spats, discussions, debates and agonisings into a fascinating story. I can’t remember who read and reviewed this and hit me with a BB (book bullet), but I’m so grateful – this is an absolutely terrific read, and I highly recommend it. 5/5.

I read Anne Janzer’s The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear a couple of months ago and liked it, so decided to try another one of her writing how-to’s, Writing to be Understood: What Works and Why. If anything I think I liked this one even more – it is aimed at non-fiction writers, and looks a lot at the psychology and physiology of how readers react to certain types of writing. I’ll be dipping in and out of this one quite a lot, I suspect. 4.5/5.

Shelf Indulgence – October 2019

Here’s what I read in October (another good reading month!):

These beautiful books, Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook, and The Golden Mean, by Nick Bantock, have been on my shelves for a LONG time. Precisely, since July 1995, when I remember buying them in a bookshop in Vancouver during a fantastic holiday to Canada. The trilogy (which hasn’t finished – now I really want to get the next installments after the cliffhanger of the 3rd book) is of the correspondence between lonely artist Griffin in London and Pacific Islander artist Sabine, who sees Griffin’s drawings as he draws them, although they’ve never met and they live across the world from each other. It takes the forms of postcards and letters that you remove from the envelope and read as though you’re reading the actual correspondence, beautifully illustrated. It’s never entirely clear what is reality and what is imagination – is Sabine merely a fevered imaginary lover to assuage Griffin’s loneliness and growing madness, or is there a more concrete mystery going on? Needless to say, in each book (including the final one) just when you think you might get an answer the plot thickens and the mystery grows. Weird and beautiful. 4.5/5 for all three of them.

Silk Flower Goodbye is a collection of poetry just published by one of my online writing friends, Sage Gordon-Davis. I pre-ordered it and read it in its entirety for National Poetry Day (3rd Oct). Short poems about life, love and loss, I really liked these. I’m not a big poetry fan, but these were profound without being poncey, and didn’t make me feel like I was thick for not understanding what on earth is happening, which is how I feel about a lot of poetry. A couple of the poems on loss really hit me with their simple beauty. 4.5/5.

How to Draw Absolutely Anything is an activity book by the artist Ilya. It doesn’t go into detail on every possible thing you could draw, but does look at techniques, equipment, stuff to think about and then encourages you to get sketching and drawing every day. I think the ebook version missed a bit of an opportunity because I found the formatting quite annoying – especially the different font sizes – and I found his chatty style didn’t always work for me. That said, there were some useful sections on things like shading and use of different width drawing implements to get different effects, and I will try those out. 3/5.

Matt Lucas, the comedian probably best known as one half of Little Britain, and as George Dawes in Shooting Stars, presents his memoir Little Me in A-Z form, and this is a surprisingly effective way to cover many aspects of his life. He’s known triumph, tragedy, absurdity and great success, and I found this a really readable and entertaining account. It’s both funny and sad, and (considering I’m not a gay Jewish actor-comedian) very relatable. As well as the highs of his career, he very sensitively talks about his split from, and the subsequent death of, his partner Kevin, and the profound effect that had on him. This isn’t my usual kind of read, but a friend of mine who is even more of an unlikely audience for this book than me read it recently and said how much she’d enjoyed it. It’s certainly worth a read if celebrity memoirs are your thing. 3.5/5.

Scotland’s Islands by photographer Allan Wright is a beautiful book I got from the library this month. It’s mostly just photos, with minimal captions by journalist Marianne Taylor. Unashamedly going for the coffee table market, I’d quite happily get my own copy and leave it around for browsing. 4/5.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a book I got related to a module of my current creative non-fiction writing course. It’s based on the 1970s documentary series of the same name, where Berger discussed paintings and other art and how to ‘read’ them. Sadly because I was reading this in an ebook version, the pictures were really difficult to make out, but other than that an interesting read. 3.5/5.

Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes?, edited by Katherine Twamley and Rachel Rosen, is an academic book which draws (as the title suggests) on both feminist scholarship and childhood studies to explore how the two disciplines might more productively work together and mutually support, rather than antagonise, each other. Some of the chapters were by academics, others by practitioners from organisations around the world. I found the chapters on domestic violence and international commercial surrogacy particularly interesting. I did get really cross with one of the essays (about schools) though – it felt like the author was criticising education in schools despite their own educational privilege. 3.5/5.

I bought Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E Turner’s Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab recently with great expectation following someone I know’s enthusiastic endorsement, as I thought it sounded like it would have a lot to add to stuff I’m thinking about in my own writing. I’m pretty sure it does have a lot to add to stuff I’m thinking about, but unfortunately the writing was so couched in academese that I found it really hard to penetrate. There was enough there to make me think that now I’ve read it, once I’ve had a bit of a break I might go back to it and maybe I’ll see a bit more clearly what they’re saying. But I’m a bit disappointed at how inaccessible it felt. 3.5/5.

Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy is a book I’ve had on my shelf for well over a decade, and I’m so glad I finally got round to reading it. He writes about his Christian faith, why he believes what he believes, how his beliefs have been shaped by many different denominations and ways of thinking, and the implications of all of this for living his faith. I know many conservative Christians think he’s a dangerous heretic, personally I felt this was all pretty mainstream (probably because I agreed with a lot of what he wrote). This was published in 2004, and I think particularly his thoughts on the environment and climate change were very prescient. 4.5/5.

The Moon Stallion by Brian Hayles is a real blast from my past! It is the novelisation of a TV series for children which was shown on British TV in (gulp) 1978. I remember watching it at the time (I would have been 9) and being absolutely gripped by it, and then a few years later finding this book in the library and getting it out several times over the subsequent years to read. I don’t know what made me think of it again but I got a 2nd hand copy of the book a few years ago (the cover states on the back ‘UK price 60p’ which makes me feel really old!). I’m always a bit apprehensive reading books I loved as a child, in case they don’t have the same magic, but this was just as good as I remember. Considering I was only 9 when it came out, both TV show and book are quite creepy, but it’s not gratuitous and it never gave me nightmares!

It’s based in the early years of the 20th century, around the bit of the Ridgeway that includes Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse at Uffington. A mysterious and untamed white stallion is coveted by a rich landowner and his surly stablemaster, for different reasons, and the stallion appears frequently to Diana, a blind girl who is staying with her father who is employed by the landowner to do historical and archaeological investigations into the King Arthur myth. The stallion links past, present and future, the realm of the Moon Goddess, and pagan myth, and it is Diana who holds the key to the cosmic battle that will play out at the pagan festival of Beltane.

Great literature it isn’t, and the ending was really quite rushed, but this is a cracking story which holds up well. Plus a piece of trivia for the Dr Who nerds out there – as well as writing The Moon Stallion, Brian Hayles also wrote a number of Dr Who episodes, and Sarah Sutton, the actress who played Diana, also appeared in Dr Who as Nyssa (companion first to Tom Baker and then to Peter Davison). 4.5/5.

Given the tumultuous (or ridiculous, depending on viewpoint) political shenanigans currently going on in the UK, I felt an urge to read something vaguely current about Brexit. Dreams of Leaving and Remaining by journalist James Meek sees him going to various parts of the country and looking at why people voted as they did, what they expect, and how things are playing out. So he visits high Leave vote areas like Grimsby (former fish workers, potential new hub for offshore wind) and Norfolk (to talk to farmers), plus looks at the NHS in Leicestershire, and the area of the West Midlands where Cadbury closed its factory in 2010 to move to Poland. Initially I found myself a bit irritated because he seemed to be saying ‘England’ when he meant the UK (I’m English, but have been in Scotland long enough to find this tendency very frustrating!). However, once I’d accepted that this is basically an account of Brexit from an English rather than UK perspective, I was able to settle in and found this very interesting (and very sad). I liked his point that by appropriating the St George and the Dragon myth, the Leave campaign was able to tap into a narrative that resonated with voters in a way that the Remain campaigns simply weren’t. This isn’t going to convince anyone to change their minds (arguably it’s too late for that anyway), but I did find it a useful, albeit thoroughly depressing, addition to the debate. 4/5.

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.