January reading round up

Hello and how is 2023 treating you? I must say I found it very easy to transition to writing 2023 which I can only assume meant that I’d had quite enough of last year.

It’s not been a bad start to the year’s reading, including three books about books. Let’s start there:

An English Library Journey – John Bevis

This is an odd book. At its heart, the book is a quest – to collect a library card for every library authority in England (with a couple from Wales and Northern Ireland as Bevis happens to be there). The quest takes him several years and as he collects the cards and visits the libraries, austerity under the Tories takes full effect and hits local authorities hard. Bevis charts some of this in his travels but the main point for him is the card collection which, to this reader at least, is much less important than the libraries themselves. Sometimes he notes developments taking place in library provision – the rise of community led libraries, self service options, combining libraries with other services – but overall the book could have been a decent exploration of what we really need from a library service in modern times, the impact of closures and cuts, and it doesn’t quite get there. One of the main problems is that Bevis waits for 130 pages before confessing he doesn’t usually use libraries and didn’t grow up using them. He buys a lot of books. So do I, now. But libraries are where I got my first diet of books from and where I cultivated a love of reading and I wonder if this detachment affects how he regards the library card quest as more important than the impact and legacy of libraries themselves.

Bibliomaniac – Robin Ince

You may know Robin Ince from his Infinite Monkey Cage series with Prof Brian Cox and he’s also a massive book fan. I’ve seen pictures of his book collection and it’s insane, piles all over the place in a higgeldy-piggledy heap. This book charts his tour of independent bookshops, which took place just after the pandemic where he tries to see as many as possible and write about them. A recent report said that we have more new indie bookshops opening than ever before, so a book-fan visiting an increased service is the very opposite of what John Bevis seemed to be doing. But even so, there’s still something missing for me. It’s lovely to hear about the people running the indie bookshops, including a couple of my old colleagues and friends, and he lists a lot of his purchases as he goes – quite eclectic tastes – but on the whole the purpose of the tour isn’t clear, except for him to accumulate more books. What is it with men and collecting things? So the result is more of an enjoyable amble without a goal. It does have lovely pen and ink illustrations though. So far, the best book about touring in a literary way remains Gig by Simon Armitage.

Diary of a Tuscan Bookseller – Alba Donati

This, then, is my favourite of the three book books this month. Alba Donati opened a bookshop in her small Italian town, with romantic ideas rather than any firm expectations that it would do really well. Then it burned down. Having rebuilt it through crowdfunded efforts and lots of love, the Covid pandemic struck. This book is her diary of the events of herself, the shop and her friends and family who all contribute or form part of the landscape. The books she stocks and sells are part of the characters make up, and are described with much love and affection. The bookshop has become semi-famous in its own way and attracts visitors from all over these days. Also, she likes the kind of books I like so I’m sure we would be friends. One day I’ll make it to Tuscany to visit. The book itself looks beautiful – a real treat to buy it with it cloth-bound spine and gilding on the cover.

Emily of New Moon – LM Montgomery

Emily is Montgomery’s lesser known heroine, after Anne of Green Gables, and I was interested to see what she was like. Some people prefer her to Anne but I knew no matter how great she was, she wouldn’t supplant Anne in my affection. They have similarities – both orphans, both writers and imaginative, both have gruff guardians who grow to love them – but Emily is more a told tale where Anne is shown. As such, perhaps we get fewer details of the surrounding cast of characters in Emily than in Anne and it makes it less engaging. While Emily makes mistakes, she doesn’t make pranks or dared stupidity like Anne – she’d never have dyed her hair green, or walked a ridge pole roof, for instance – and so I didn’t love her in the same way. However, she is a lovely character and there are also darker incidents in this first book that distinguish it from Anne. I enjoyed it and I will look out for the next two books in the series out of interest. But my heart remains in Green Gables.

Possession – AS Byatt

I said I would do some re-reads this year and this is the first. I read this years ago and left it sitting on the shelf, vowing I’d get to it again at some point. This time, I said, I’d read the Victorian poetry which is a part of the story and characterisation. Ha. I didn’t read the poetry this time either. What a different reading experience this is to books that are published these days. It’s terribly wordy and rather full of itself. I did enjoy it the second time round but I do wonder if there was an easier way to tell it that wasn’t so ruddy pretentious.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

This was the reading group choice this month and I will confess to you that I didn’t finish it. I didn’t get very far at all, just the first chapter, which is about 70 pages of quite small font. This is regarded as a classic of true crime journalism and I’m sure it has its uses. I dislike true crime on the whole and this made me feel very uncomfortable. It covers the brutal killing of a family in the mid-west, all shot in their home one night, and it looks at the actions and subsequent trial and conviction of the killers. He clearly did a lot of research but there was such a level of detail involved that I felt it was quite voyeuristic and distasteful. I didn’t want to start the year like this and I read enough to make me feel sure I wasn’t missing anything. Liberal squeamishness, perhaps, but I stick to it.

Women Talking – Miriam Toews

Interestingly, this novel is based on a true story of a terrible crime but is written in a completely different way that I didn’t feel distasteful at all reading it. Furious, yes, but not like a voyeur. Women Talking is about a settlement of Mennonite women in Bolivia who, over a period of several years, were attacked at night but couldn’t remember anything about the attacks. The crimes were blamed on devils, when it turned out that the menfolk of the colony were drugging the women and some of the children with a spray each night and raping them. The patriarchal set up of the colony meant that the women could not read or write, had no rights, and were going to be asked to forgive the men who had raped them – the men were currently out of town after one of the women tried to kill them, and they were taken away for their own good. The novel is about the women trying to decide what to do – should they stay and forgive, stay and fight the injustice or leave? It’s strange only that despite being called Women Talking, it’s narrated by a man, a ‘lesser man’ who had once been outcast from the colony himself – it is this man, August, who can read and write and who writes down the women’s discussions. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this, aside from historical accuracy, but it’s nothing that a third person narrator couldn’t do. At times, the discussion between the women meanders, and is broadly about the nature of being alive and truth and belief, rather than any plot, so can be frustrating. But it’s an interesting book, and has so many parallels with today – the low conviction rate, the lack of agency for women, the willingness of society to overlook such a terrible crime. This has just been made into a film so I’ll be interested to see what it’s like.

The Tick and Tock of the Crocodile Clock – Kenny Boyle

This is a Glaswegian caper of two girls, trying to do something with their lives, written by a chap who had five minutes of fame on Twitter with a thread he wrote about his teacher. I rather enjoyed it, especially the opening, where one of the girls gets fired from her deadly call centre job and manages to stage a walk out with other members of staff coming with her. She, and the other girl, become fast friends and encourage each other in their calling – one to be a poet, the other a painter. There is an air of sadness about it though you don’t know why until the end when all becomes clear. It also has a load of chapters where the narrator makes up a load of storyline to tell you – for fun – mainly to describe why her parents left, but other reasons too. It brings home the idea about us telling stories to make sense of our lives which I enjoyed. And it’s a good book about female friendship.

A Complicated Matter – Anne Youngson

I enjoyed Anne’s debut Meet Me at the Museum, and this is different in a way, with perhaps some similar themes? This is the story of Rose Dunbar and her family, women and children, who are evacuated from Gibraltar at the beginning of the Second World War and shipped about from a camp to lodgings to a hotel in England. I found the whole story about the refugee journey to be fascinating, the part about them living through the Blitz in London enjoyable and then the final third dragged a bit as Rose gets a job in the countryside with an irascible blind writer. But perhaps I’m quibbling. This is published in March and is an intelligent look at how we used to treat refugees. If nothing else, read it and be ashamed at current practice.

Loved and Missed – Susie Boyt

I didn’t get on with Boyt’s memoir when I tried it, though I wanted to like it (it’s about being a Judy Garland fan). This, though, is a novel and I found it absolutely terrific. It’s the story of Ruth, single mother to Eleanor who is a drug addict and who then becomes a single mother herself. Ruth and Eleanor became, not exactly estranged but had a difficult relationship from Eleanor’s teens, so Ruth looks after the baby, Lily, in an attempt to try again and this time get everything right. There is minimal plot, perhaps, but it’s written with such compassion and insight and so well that I was immediately hooked. When I’d done, I wondered if Boyt’s love for Judy G influenced how she’d portrayed the addiction side, which was much more nuanced than many tedious addiction stories. Whatever it was, it was done so very well. A poignant but intelligent read.

The Year of Miracles – Ella Risbridger

Ella Risbridger’s debut cookbook, Midnight Chicken, was a fascinating amble through cooking to find a sense of self and charted her own fragile mental health and how she was helped by falling for The Tall Man. I remember reading the book and suddenly linking it with a column in now defunct mag The Pool where Ella was writing about caring for her partner who had terminal cancer – and so I knew how the cookbook would end. In this second cookbook, Ella has had to move out of her shared flat after The Tall Man has died, and has to pick up the pieces of her life. And then the pandemic. Structured around a year and divided into monthly chapters, the follow up story reads like it took place over a single year when in reality it was longer. Regular readers of this blog will know I like cookbooks you can read and this is very much in this camp, with an air of manic pixie girl perhaps, which I imagine could grate if you wanted. I’ve tried a couple of the recipes too and there’s a slightly bonkers edge to them which I very much enjoyed.

Moments of Pleasure

There is much hangover of Christmas food this month, and a pile of craft and practical hobbies to complete that I have felt quite productive sewing and knitting and making Lego structures and models. I have also sat and written some stories so I feel like there is space in my head for all manner of creative things.

I enjoyed watching Our Flag Means Death on BBC2, the gay pirate comedy that has inspired such fan devotion. While not side splittingly hilarious, it was just the right amount of silly, with an endearing air to it that felt perfect in this strife-filled cold dark month. If you’ve not watched it, give it a look on iplayer – and while you’re there, catch up on Mayflies too. It’s a two-part adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s excellent novel about male friendship and they really captured the best of the book, while not glossing over the tough bits. Keep your tissues ready.

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