Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)
Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, this collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m old-fashioned and still use a desk calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. I also add in notes after the fact to remember births, deaths, elections, and other nationally and internationally important events. A look back through my 2021 “The Reading Woman” calendar reminded me that last January held a bit of snow, a third UK lockdown, an attempted coup at the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Activities continued online for much of the year:
- 15 music gigs (most of them by The Bookshop Band)
- 11 literary events, including book launches and prize announcements
- 9 book club meetings
- 3 literary festivals
- 2 escape rooms
- 1 progressive dinner
We were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to them on daytrips.
As we entered the autumn, a few more things returned to in-person:
- 5 music gigs
- 2 book club meetings (not counting a few outdoor socials earlier in the year)
- 1 book launch
- 1 conference
I was also fortunate to get back to the States twice this year, once in May–June for my mother’s wedding and again in December for Christmas.
On this most recent trip I had some fun “life meeting books” moments (the photos of me are by Chris Foster):
- An overnight stay on Chincoteague Island, famous for its semi-wild ponies, prompted me to reread a childhood favorite, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- Driving from my sister’s house to my mother’s new place involves some time on Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, through Pennsylvania. Her town even has a tourist attraction called Lincoln Highway Experience that we may check out on a future trip. (The other claims to fame there: it was home to golfer Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers, and the birthplace of the banana split.)
- At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, we met the original “Dippy” the diplodocus, a book about whom I reviewed for Foreword in 2020.
- I also took along a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and snapped a photo of it in an appropriately mysterious corner of the museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first few chapters as this debut novel felt dated and verging on racist.
No matter, though, as I donated it at a Little Free Library.
We sought out a few LFLs on our trip, including that one in a log at Cromwell Valley Park in Maryland, where I picked up a Margot Livesey novel and a couple of travel books. My only other acquisition of the trip was a new paperback of Beneficence by Meredith Hall (author of one of the first books to turn me on to memoirs) from Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, my college town. No secondhand book shopping opportunities this time, alas; just lots of driving in our rental car to visit disparate friends and relatives. However, this was my early Christmas book haul from my husband before we set off:
Another fun stop during our trip was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where we admired wreaths made of mostly natural ingredients like fruit.
The big news from my household this winter is that we have bought our first home, right around the corner from where we rent now, and hope to move in within the next couple of months. Our aim is to do all the bare-minimum renovations in 2022, in time to put up a tree in the living room bay window and a homemade wreath on the door for next Christmas!
Despite these glimpses of travels and merriment, Covid still feels all too real. I appreciated these reminders I saw recently, one in Bath and the other at the museum in Pittsburgh (Covid Manifesto by Cauleen Smith, which originated on Instagram).
“We all deserve better than ‘back to normal’.”
Reviews of books about cats have been a regular element on my blog over the years, though not for quite a while. I happen to have amassed a number of illustrated novelty cat books recently, all of them under 150 pages, so Novellas in November is my excuse to feature them together. All six were enjoyable and a nice break from heavier reads on my stacks: .
The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery; illus. Maria Guitart (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson; 80 pages]
I could have included this in a translated literature post, but decided to go by theme instead; I also considered reviewing it during nonfiction week as I thought it was a brief memoir. As it turns out, it’s a whimsical tale I’d be more likely to classify under fiction. Barbery has four Chartreux cats – two pairs of siblings: Ocha and Mizu, and Kirin and Petrus. Kirin, one of the younger pair, narrates the book, giving the cats’ view of the writer (and the musician she lives with). They diagnose her as being afflicted with restlessness, doubt and denial, and decide to learn to read so that they can act as literary advisors and comment on her work in progress. Naturally, they’d like to receive royalties for this service. “Yes, we are – in all modesty – decorative, protective deities watching over her rigid little aesthetic world”. Barbery is a Japanophile, so Guitart’s illustrations mix Japanese minimalism with Parisian chic and use as a palette the grey and orange colouring of the cats themselves. This was cute! (Also reviewed by Annabel and Davida.) A favourite illustration:
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
Four Garfield comics anthologies by Jim Davis:
Two’s Company (#5, 1984), We Love You Too (#10, 1985), Here We Go Again (#11, 1986), Flying High (#16, 1988)
[Each: 128 pages]
When these came into our temporary Little Free Library at the end of the summer I snapped them up, remembering happy times reading the syndicated comic in the Washington Post and watching the animated TV show on weekends growing up. I could even hear the actor who voices Garfield in my head on some lines.
In a sense, if you’ve read one of these volumes you’ve read them all, because the same sorts of set pieces repeat. Garfield’s gluttony and laziness know no bounds, so in between naps, he’ll snatch lasagnes and whatever other people food he can get. He’ll mock owner Jon, bait Odie the dog, ignore the mice in the house, terrorize Nermal the cute kitten, and flirt with Arlene. For the most part, the plots don’t leave the house, though in Two’s Company Jon and Garfield fly to Hawaii on vacation.
Garfield was the original grumpy cat, with smugness the only other emotion you’ll regularly see on his face. His ways will remind you of your own feline acquaintances (except he also drinks coffee and hates Mondays). The sense of humour is sarcasm par excellence. A favourite page from Flying High:
The Calculating Cat Returns by Nancy Prevo; illus. Eric Gurney (1978)
A tongue-in-cheek book mostly composed of black-and-white cartoons. The “calculating cat” is a bit like Terry Pratchett’s “real cat” from The Unadulterated Cat, but comes in a few varieties (or “CAT-egories,” as they’re called here): Pampered Cats, Working Cats, and Tramp cats. My cat was apparently the third type, living on the streets, for a short time, though you’d never know it to look at him now. During his 10th summer he tried working as a hunter, but quickly retired. He’s now solidly of the pampered class.
There are chapters here on playtime, eating habits, sleep, travel, and mating (not something many of us cat owners have to worry about these days). This remains reasonably undated because cats don’t change; it’s the human fashions that evolve and would look different in a book published today. (Free bookshop)
A favourite drawing:
Any cat (or dog) books among your recent reading?
The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)
This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.
Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)
Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)
A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.
Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.
This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)
Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)
Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.
Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”
To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)
(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.
Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.
Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”
“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”
Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.
Read any of these? Interested?
Last week we managed a few days’ holiday in Somerset – our first trip away from home in over seven months (the last one was to Hay-on-Wye). Though only an hour and a half from where we live, it felt like a world away. We were very lucky with the weather, too. We wandered the quiet nature reserves of the Avalon Marshes, toured Glastonbury and Wells (the smallest cathedral city in the UK; alas, we missed the limited cathedral opening hours, but had a nice walk around the outside and saw a plaque marking where Elizabeth Goudge lived), and climbed Glastonbury Tor and Ebber Gorge. Not wanting to chance any pubs, we ate daytime meals outdoors at a few cafés and brought posh supermarket takeaways with us to heat up in the Airbnb kitchen for dinners.
(Photos by Chris Foster)
I read from lots of different books on the trip, but my most appropriate selection was Skylarks with Rosie, Stephen Moss’s diary of the coronavirus spring experienced in Somerset. By coincidence, my husband saw Moss (a mentor of his; we’ve met him a number of times before) filming at Ham Wall when he went back there early one morning!
On the last day, we drove back via Bookbarn International, a favourite secondhand bookshop of mine. Below is my book haul from the trip: the top five were from a Little Free Library we found in a bus shelter in the delightfully named town of Queen Camel and the bottom stack was from Bookbarn, which was looking well stocked after the lockdown. I was particularly pleased to find books by Amy Bloom, Sue Miller, and Jane Smiley, authors you don’t come across so often in the UK. Some of the LFL books have rather hideous covers, but it’s the inside that counts, yes?
Overhaul of Previous Trips’ Purchases
This was our seventh trip to Bookbarn since June 2013. I don’t seem to have any photos of that first visit, but for all the rest I have at least one book haul photo.
Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With his permission, I’m borrowing the title and format to look back at what I’ve bought at Bookbarn over the years and how much I still have left to read.
Date: July 2015
Number of books bought: 8 [the Allen and Cobbett are reference books for my husband]
- Read: 7
- No longer owned: 2 (I resold the Fitzgerald and Levy)
- Remaining unread: 1 (Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – so I took it with me on the Somerset trip and have read the first 50 pages so far.)
This is a very good showing for me! I suppose I did have nearly six years to get through them all. I’ve done less well on the other years’ hauls…
Date: July 2016
Number of books bought: 10
- Had read already: 1 (Rachman)
- Read since: 4
- No longer owned: 1 (Irving’s early work hasn’t been to my taste, so after my husband read The Water-Method Man, I donated it; its only virtue in my eyes is that the main character is called “Bogus Trumper”)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Chatwin, Coe, McCarthy, O’Hanlon)
Date: December 2016
Number of books bought: 13 (the two pictured at left were from another shop)
- Read: 6
- DNFed and gave away: 3 (Lurie, Smith, Wheen)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Barnes, Ellman biography, Godwin, Mantel)
Date: October 2017 (multiple photos in this post)
Number of books bought: 15
- Read: 5
- Skimmed: 1 (McCarthy)
- DNFed: 1 (McNeillie)
- Remaining unread: 8! (I have a bad habit of letting biographies sit around unread)
Date: February 2020
Number of books bought: 14
- Had read already: 2
- Skimmed: 2
- Started reading but set aside: 2, so…
- Remaining unread: 10!
To encourage myself to get to more of these previous acquisitions, I’ve added six of them to my bedside stack.
This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.
#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”
#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.
#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.
#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.
#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”
A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
A rainy and blustery Halloween here in southern England, with a second lockdown looming later in the week. I haven’t done anything special to mark Halloween since I was in college, though this year a children’s book inspired me to have some fun with our veg box vegetables for this photo shoot. Just call us Christopher Pumpkin and Rebecca Red Cabbage.
It’s my third year participating in R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril). In each of those three years I’ve reviewed a novel by Michelle Paver. First it was Thin Air, then Dark Matter – two 1930s ghost stories of men undertaking an adventure in a bleak setting (the Himalayas and the Arctic, respectively). I found a copy of her latest in the temporary Little Free Library I started to keep the neighborhood going while the public library was closed during the first lockdown.
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (2019)
There’s a Gothic flavor to this story of a mentally unstable artist and his teenage daughter. Edmund Stearne is obsessed with the writings of Medieval mystic Alice Pyett (based on Margery Kempe) and with a Bosch-like Doom painting recently uncovered at the local church. Serving as his secretary after her mother’s death, Maud reads his journals to follow his thinking – but also uncovers unpleasant truths about his sister’s death and his relationship with the servant girl. As Maud tries to prevent her father from acting on his hallucinations of demons and witches rising from the Suffolk Fens, she falls in love with someone beneath her class. Only in the 1960s framing story, which has a journalist and scholar digging into what really happened at Wake’s End in 1913, does it become clear how much Maud gave up.
There are a lot of appealing elements in this novel, including Maud’s pet magpie, the travails of her constantly pregnant mother (based on the author’s Belgian great-grandmother), the information on early lobotomies, and the mixture of real (eels!) and imagined threats encountered at the fen. The focus on a female character is refreshing after her two male-dominated ghost stories. But as atmospheric and readable as Paver’s writing always is, here the plot sags, taking too much time over each section and filtering too much through Stearne’s journal. After three average ratings in a row, I doubt I’ll pick up another of her books in the future.
My top R.I.P. read this year was Sisters by Daisy Johnson, followed by 666 Charing Cross by Paul Magrs (both reviewed here).
Have you been reading anything spooky for Halloween?
Ella Berthoud is one of the bibliotherapists at the School of Life in London and co-author of The Novel Cure. (I wrote about my bibliotherapy session with her in this post.) For her contribution to a Leaping Hare Press series on mindfulness – whose titles range from The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming to Mindfulness and the Journey of Bereavement – she’s thought deeply about how reading can be an active, deliberate practice rather than a time of passive receiving or entertainment. Through handy exercises and quirky tips she encourages readers to take stock of how they read and to become more aware of each word on the page.
To start with, a close reading exercise using a passage from Alice in Wonderland invites you to find out whether you’re an auditory, visual or kinesthetic reader. I learned that I’m a cross between auditory and visual: I hear every word aloud in my head, but I also picture the scenes, usually unfolding in black and white in settings that are familiar to me (my childhood best friend’s home used to be a common backdrop, for instance). The book then discusses ways to incorporate reading into daily life, from breakfast to bedtime and from a favorite chair to the crook of a tree, and how to combine it with other activities. I will certainly be trying out the reading yoga poses!
As I discovered at my bibliotherapy appointment, Ella is passionate about getting people reading in as many different ways as possible. That can include listening to audiobooks, reading aloud with a partner, or reading silently but in company with other people. She also surveys the many ways there are of sharing an enthusiasm for books nowadays, such as Book Crossing, book clubs and Little Free Libraries.
Although she acknowledges the place of e-readers and smartphones, Ella generally describes reading as a tactile experience, and insists on the importance of keeping a print reading journal as well as a ‘Golden Treasury’ of favorite passages, two strategies that will combat the tendency to forget a book as soon as you’ve finished it.
Some of her suggestions of what to do with physical books are beyond the pale for me – such as using a knife to slice a daunting doorstopper into more manageable chunks, or beating up a much-hyped book to “rob [it] of its glamour and gloss, and bring it down from its pedestal to a more humble state, a place where you can read it in comfort” – but there are ideas here to suit every kind of reader. Take a quick break between novels and use this book to think about how you read and in what ways you could improve or intensify the experience.
“As a bibliotherapist, I believe that every novel you read shapes the person that you are, speaking to you on a deep, unconscious level, and altering your very nature with the ideas that it shows you.”
“I often find that people imagine reading fiction is a self-indulgent thing to do, and that they ought to be doing something else. Much research has been conducted into the benefits of reading fiction, which deepens your empathy and emotional intelligence, helps with making important life decisions and allows your brain to rest. Research has shown that reading provides as much relaxation as meditation”
With thanks to Leaping Hare Press for the free copy for review.