Reading from my shelves: August

Books started: 5

Books finished: 4

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 4

My reading slowed down enormously in August as I spent three weeks on holiday with little time or inclination to pick up a book. At the beginning of the month, I went on a mammoth road trip to a cottage on the edge of Loch Broom, which is in the Highlands of Scotland, and the furthest point north on this little island I’ve ever ventured. We stopped for a few days en route in beautiful Ambleside in the Lake District, where we were blessed with unusually lovely weather that gave us breathtaking views on our rambles up and around the lakes and fells. Coronavirus had shut some favourite visiting places, but the great outdoors was still very much open for business, and it was such bliss to be amidst such beauty in one of my absolute favourite parts of the country.

Driving from the Lake District up to Loch Broom was such a treat; I’d struggle to find anywhere else, I think, where the landscape changes so dramatically and so quickly as you travel north and transition from rolling green countryside to bracken-browned moorland, dramatic mountain ranges, thick, pungent-scented pine forests and along the edges of huge, sparkling lochs dotted with crumbling castle ruins, every vista offering delight and wonder and awe. The area where we stayed, near Ullapool, was absolutely beautiful, filled with incredible mountains and coastline and lush forests of ferns and trickling waterfalls. We saw dolphins swimming in the distance at Cromarty, drove across the beautiful bridge to the stunning island of Skye, ate fish and chips caught fresh from the sea in Ullapool, and walked along the sandy, almost tropical looking beach at Dornoch. We had a wonderful time, and yet more joy was to come; we finished our epic tour of the North by heading to Whitby, passing through Edinburgh briefly for an all too quick lunch with my dear university friend Emma. We stayed in the picture-postcard moorland village of Lockton, about a twenty minute drive from Whitby, and we walked across the moors (getting horribly lost in the process), watched the sun set over Whitby Abbey, and walked along the cliff path above Robin Hood’s Bay, and stuffed ourselves with fish and chips. It was marvellous. On our way home, we stopped briefly in Scarborough so I could finally visit Anne Brontë’s grave – it’s beautifully situated in a churchyard overlooking the sea, and touchingly covered with recent flowers – as well as in York, so I could pop to Betty’s for some of my favourite biscuits! – before heading home. I must have driven at least 1000 miles over the course of our two week trip, and after a couple of days’ rest, I was on the road again with a different friend, this time heading south, to Devon.

Devon is my absolute favourite place in the whole world; I love its beaches, its countryside, and its relaxed pace of life. I spent every summer there as a child, and it is filled with happy memories for me. Though the heat wave we had all been enjoying had cooled off considerably by the time we made it to the coast, the damper weather didn’t ruin our trip. We stayed in a tiny, beautiful coastal village called Buck’s Mills, just next to the famous Clovelly, and near the Cornish border. We swam in the sea, we visited our favourite National Trust property, Killerton, and our favourite beach at Sandymouth, we went to Tintagel to see King Arthur, and we found a wonderful new place that we’ll go back to again and again – Hartland Abbey, which was used as the film set for Sense and Sensibility. Still a family home, it’s a wonderful place, with amazing grounds, its own fabulous beach, and a tea room to die for. They also have the friendliest staff I’ve ever met – it’s a must see if you’re in the area. We relaxed, we talked, we drank wine, we ate cake – it was blissful. Just what I needed before going back to school.

For back to school I now am, which partly explains the lack of reading, as my final week in August was spent at work, and switching my brain back on all day has been rather exhausting. But on holiday and in between holidays, I did manage four books; Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Summer by Ali Smith, English Climate: Wartime Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (a re-read for school purposes). I enjoyed them all, in very different ways; Corregidora I found a very visceral exploration of the scars of slavery and the burden carried in its descendants through the story of the protagonist, singer Ursa, whose turbulent and violent sexual relationships echo the abuse meted out on her grandmother and great-grandmother by their owner, Corregidora. I found it a painful, troubling and eye-opening read; not an easy one, but a necessary one. I would definitely be interested in reading more of Jones’ work, and would welcome any recommendations!

I picked up the newly released Summer from an independent bookshop in Ullapool, as I’ve been meaning to try Smith’s now quartet of seasonal novels for quite some time. Deliberately written and published incredibly quickly in order to reflect the current state and mood of society on its release, Summer is so current that it even explores the effect of coronavirus and the lockdown. A story about uncertainty, and change, and the ties that bind people together beyond blood, it’s told through the interconnected stories of various people whose lives randomly intersect over the first few months of 2020. I literally couldn’t put it down, and devoured it in a couple of sittings; I found it so powerful, and refreshing, and moving, and so exactly reflective of the confusion and fury and uncertainty I have been feeling over these last few turbulent months. I felt quite tearful with gratitude by the end, to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, and am absolutely in awe at Smith’s genius at being able to capture the zeitgeist so marvellously. I have since worked out that the previous books in the quartet use some of the same characters, though they can be read as stand alones, and I now can’t wait to read the rest. You mustn’t miss them.

Persephone’s new collection of Townsend Warner stories contains some real gems, that offer a rare glimpse of contemporary experiences of war, while the war was still ongoing. Taken mainly from Warner’s stories published in the New Yorker, the collection is a little uneven, and I have to say that I did find some of them quite dull, especially as I was expecting something a little more whimsical, along the lines of Lolly Willowes. Nonetheless, they were an enjoyable read, and as always from Persephone, a fascinating slice of social history. They’d be perfect to dip in and out of as the evenings lengthen.

What will September’s reading hold, as Autumn begins to descend and I feel inclined to reach for cosy rather than cerebral tomes? I am going to give myself some leeway to reach for old favourites as my mind recovers from its long lethargy, but I need to get back on the wagon of reading my unread books from my shelves. I made it as far as I in the alphabet of author’s surnames, so I have Jack Kerouac up next, before moving on to my apparently many unread Ls…

13 comments

  1. Thanks for taking us along on your holiday. Beautiful images, you have made me want to rush to read Summer, confident that it is wonderful and a stand alone Thankyou!

  2. As always a very interesting “blog “ a good start of the week making you want to travel up north and In Devon and of course read all your recommendations.
    I am just finishing “ The housekeeper and the professor “ which I found a bit long at times .
    A friend of mine recommended “ Images and shadows Part of a life “ by Iris Origo
    And also by Tom Mitchell “ The pengouin lessons “
    Wishing you all a very good week

  3. I loved reading this and having not been able to have a holiday this year felt a little as though I was travelling alongside you as you described it so well. Thank you. Summer sounds like the type of book I need to read at the moment too. I hope your new term goes well.

  4. Your holiday sounds wonderful, and just what you needed, I’m so glad you loved your time in Scotland. I’m tempted to look for the Ali Smith book, as I think it would make for a cathartic, if slightly surreal experience reading about Covid19 in a novel.

  5. What a wonderful blog! I think you should be writing for the English and Scottish tourist boards! Your photos are so lovely, makes me want to rush there at once. The Ali Smith sounds fascinating. So many good books coming out now. I’m reading “Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue, set in 1918 during the flu epidemic, very good. Have a good term!

  6. I love so much reading all your stories , it is so inspirational ! And als the beautiful photo’s ! Living in Amsterdam , I am very lucky to have the Waterstone right around the corner, what about that !!!! But also a huge temptation !

  7. Such a nice holiday and thanks for the sigh-inducing photos. You’re very lucky to have it all within driving distance, even if it was on the side of epic.
    I found a copy of Lolly Willowes while in Toronto last weekend. It’s a title that keeps popping up on blogs and podcasts causing a case of FOMO each time. A well-timed find for October, I think! And Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, you say….

  8. Since I haven’t ventured very far from home for months it was great to see your photos and travel with you. I never knew Anne Bronte was buried at Scarborough – must ask my aunt about that because she lives there.

  9. The Persephone collection of Townshend Warner’s short stories IS a little dull, I think, perhaps because they chose to restrict themselves to her wartime stories. All her others are available as e-books and are MUCH better.

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