Author: bookssnob

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…

Reading from my shelves: July

Books started: 12

Books finished: 11

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 8

 

The summer holidays are here and as I write, I’m sitting in a cabin perched above a loch in the far north west of Scotland.  There are more birds here than people (and definitely more midges!) and the world and its troubles seems very distant. Being amidst such a dramatic and timeless landscape helps to keep everything in a healthy perspective, and it is so refreshing to my spirit to at last have a proper change of scene, in a part of the world I’ve not explored before. Whilst I was at home in London throughout July, I struggled in a way I hadn’t really experienced throughout the lockdown period. Without the routine of my daily lessons and with limited opportunities to do much other than mooch around the now far too familiar streets of a miserably empty central London, I started to feel really quite trapped, and a despondency descended as each day dawned with so little to offer in terms of excitement or adventure. Reading helped, but it didn’t lift my mood entirely, and July, which I usually look forward to as the start of a lovely rest from the stress of summer term at school, filled with plenty of travel plans and reunions with far-off friends, became a mire of misery.  I indulged myself in this dark frame of mind by repeatedly thinking back to this time last year, when I was living it up in Washington D.C and New York with my much-loved and much-missed US friends, and kept googling pictures of Malawi, where I should have been right now, had coronavirus not arrived, teaching in a charity school for the summer. Not knowing when I can do anything again, or when things will change – the lack of control or agency I have over anything – has been, I think, the root of my struggles. So, spending some time amidst the still waters and magnificent mountainous horizons of Scotland is providing some much needed balm to my troubled soul, as I look up, around and beyond myself. I am lucky in so many ways, I know, with a secure job, income and home, and family and friends who have all, thankfully, so far remained well. I know I really don’t have anything to complain about. I’m hoping that a week of looking at so much natural beauty will sort me out, and have me back to my usual cheerful self!

In order to distract myself from the world around me, I read absolutely loads in July, and had a very successful run of excellent books that I thoroughly enjoyed, and in some cases, found wonderfully inspiring. I also got to some books I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and knew I probably wouldn’t like, but felt the need to get under my belt anyway. I read Henry James’ The Europeans and Washington Square; I’ve never liked James but wondered if I had just read him when I was too young to appreciate him. Lots of people advised these two shorter novels (or perhaps novellas?) as the best entry point, and I wondered whether I might find brilliance within, but sadly, I did not. I found them both incredibly dull, with very forgettable characters doing largely pointless things. Why is Henry James considered a literary great? I certainly can’t think of even one reason why. Both of those books went out onto my ‘please take: free books!’ box that I keep on my front step  – who doesn’t love free stuff? – and they were promptly picked up by someone who either enjoys James or is in for a disappointment. Let’s hope it’s the former. Another book I thought I probably wouldn’t like was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; I’ve seen the film so I knew the ‘twist’, and wondered whether, without that, I’d still find it a compelling read. I have to say that I didn’t. I enjoyed the writing and I was drawn into the story, but it lacked any real emotional gravitas for me and I finished it thinking that it was really rather forgettable, if well executed. It’s a shame, as The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourite books. This also went into the free box, and is now being enjoyed by someone else!

So what did I enjoy? Well, much to my surprise, I couldn’t put Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other down; I had thought it would be a bit too experimental to be my cup of tea, but I absolutely loved the almost free verse writing style and the lively, vibrant voices of each of the every different characters. Evaristo’s exploration of loosely connected groups of women’s lives over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is so thought provoking, challenging and eye-opening, and gave me a glimpse into experiences and realities of women from different cultural and racial backgrounds to me that has been a real, and much needed, education. I particularly loved how Evaristo pairs characters, so that you can see one characters’ perspective of an event, and then how that event was perceived by the other person in the encounter, and she shows through this how easily we can miscommunicate and misunderstand one another, missing out on so much potential for connection and community as a result. I’m now very keen to read more of Evaristo’s writing; she was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize – more so than the terrible The Testaments – and I’m only sorry I hadn’t heard of her before. If you’ve been on the fence about trying Girl, Woman, Other, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.

Non-fiction wise, I loved Rutger Bregnan’s newly published Humankind: A Hopeful History of Humanity, which debunks the myths about the selfishness of humanity through looking at a range of experiments and real-life scenarios to show how we are inherently good. It is quite broad in scope and Bregnan is certainly more of a philosopher than a historian or social scientist, so there is a fair amount of cherry-picking and generalisation, but I found it a lovely, uplifting and inspiring read nonetheless, with plenty of fascinating and thought-provoking nuggets and a wonderful positivity. If we all spent less time moaning on social media and more time volunteering and getting involved in making our communities better places, then the world would be a much better place, and I can’t agree more with this outlook. Armchair activism is one of my greatest bugbears – ‘liking’ something doesn’t mean you’re actually doing anything about it – and my favourite book of the month evidences this perfectly in the life of the remarkable Gloria Steinem, whose autobiography, My Life on the Road, is just brilliant. Famous for her feminist activism, this book is not a traditional autobiography, but more a collection of thematic thoughts and reflections on her life, what drives her and what experiences have changed her and formed her thinking. She refers to herself as an ‘organiser’, and I loved her humility, her wisdom, and willingness to be challenged and changed by her experiences. She has spent most of her life travelling around America, advocating for equality and human rights causes, and her tales of who she has met on her travels, the friendships she has made, and the things she has learned on the way, are just amazing. I loved reading about her experiences in the 1960s and 70s, in the midst of the fight for the ERA in the US, and when she founded Ms magazine; I’ve just watched the HBO series Mrs America (which Steinem is not happy about for many reasons, though it is a very good series, I thought!) and it was so interesting to actually read about what really happened from Steinem’s perspective, and how she got involved and how the experience changed her. She comes across as such a positive, kind, passionate person, with the true journalistic spirit of being genuinely interested in other people, and a heart full of compassion and openness. I am in absolute awe that in her eighties, she is still on the road, still speaking out against injustice, and still inspiring women all over the world to stand up against discrimination. She is an amazing woman, and her words on life should be required reading. I know I’ll come back to this again and again.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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Further to my previous post on Penguin cover designs, Penguin have been producing some very beautifully designed, themed collections of books over the past few years., often under their ‘Vintage Classics’ imprint. They make for a gorgeous and very tempting display in a bookshop, and entice readers to pick up something they might not otherwise consider. For me, a lovely book acts as a moth to a flame, and in my post-lockdown state of cultural starvation, I was drawn helplessly to a Waterstones display of Japanese Vintage Classics once the bookshops reopened. Ever keen to read books from outside of the Western canon, I was intrigued by all of the choices, but decided to go with The Housekeeper and the Professor, due to its fascinating central concept of a woman trying to build a meaningful connection with a man whose memory only lasts for eighty minutes. I’m so glad I did, because it truly is a beautiful, poignant and incredibly affecting read; I gulped it all down in one go and had a wonderfully cathartic cry at the end.

The novel is narrated by the Housekeeper, whose name we never find out. A young single mother, she works hard cleaning people’s houses, and takes pride in doing a good job. Her employer, knowing she is exceptionally reliable, sends her one day to a new job, for a notoriously difficult client. A former maths professor who received traumatic brain injuries in a car accident some thirty years before, he can only remember anything in the present for eighty minutes at a time, though he can remember everything that happened to him up to the moment of his accident. He lives in a tumbledown cottage in the grounds of his sister in law’s house, and spends his days puzzling over maths challenges published in various journals. Every day the Housekeeper will have to reintroduce herself, and she will have to learn to adapt to the professor’s idiosyncratic and temperamental ways. No housekeepers have yet been able to last more than a week or so, but as soon as the narrator arrives, she sees that she will be able to stay the course. Polite, mild-mannered, and in love with the beauty of numbers, the Professor has retreated into the world of mathematics as a protection from his otherwise bewildering existence. His clothes are covered in safety-pinned notes, reminding him of things he would otherwise forget, the most poignant being ‘my memory only lasts for eighty minutes’. The Housekeeper initially focuses on making the cottage more comfortable for the Professor, and making sure he eats properly, but when she mentions her son one day, the Professor is outraged that he is at home alone after school, and insists he comes to join her until she has finished work. The Professor nicknames the little boy Root, as he says his head is shaped like the square root symbol, and reveals a tender affection for children in his loving treatment of the child. He helps him with his homework, sets him puzzles to do, and they share a love of baseball. Root encourages him to get his radio fixed, so they can listen to baseball games together, and the Professor flourishes in the young boy’s company. Even though every day their relationship must start anew, the love and care shown to him by the Housekeeper and Root gives the Professor a joy in the everyday that he had lost.

Together, the Housekeeper and Root try to give the Professor new experiences, such as eating in a restaurant and going to a baseball game, and find ever ingenious ways to get around his lack of memory, and lack of awareness that the world around him has changed. Gradually, they become a family unit, and Root grows up quickly with his new responsibility for ensuring the Professor is never distressed by any information that might reveal to him all he has missed in the thirty years since his memory was taken from him. Love and affection allow the Professor to blossom and enjoy the limitations of his life, and the Professor’s humility, gentleness and gift for teaching how numbers help to explain the miracles of the world around us, inspires both the Housekeeper and Root to see the value in their lives in a whole new way. This lovely story of the power of love to form connections across all sorts of divides is so enchanting, and is also the first book to make me think that actually, maths is beautiful, and I wish I’d had someone teach it to me like the Professor teaches it to Root! I really can’t recommend this enough, and the translation is excellent; Stephen Snyder has done a wonderful job. If, like me, you are in need of something to pick you up and make you feel more positive about the world at the moment, then The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfect remedy.

Penguin by Design

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I’ve been enjoying looking through a few of my coffee table books lately; I’m very good at buying exhibition catalogues and art books, but as they’re not very portable and I rarely have much leisure to sit and peruse them at home, I’ve not cracked many of them open. Now I’m at home much more often than I used to be, it’s been a pleasure to while away an afternoon learning about something new and taking the time to look closely at the images they contain. One I have especially enjoyed is Penguin by Design by Phil Baines, which looks at the changing designs and typefaces of Penguin books since their inception in the 1930s. Most people know Penguin for their famous boldly coloured striped paperbacks, but as I discovered, there have been a huge range of imprints that have come and gone over the years, along with numerous attempts to rebrand and redesign under a changing leadership looking to move with the times. Some of these were more successful than others, and the 70s and 80s saw some particularly bad cover designs that moved away from the traditional simplicity of Penguin’s style in an attempt to keep up with the broadening competition in the paperback market. Baines’ selection of front cover illustrations shows some very cheesy 80s film tie-in covers as well as soft-focus photography that make some of their fiction aimed at women look like soft porn! It’s hard to tell from many of these later covers that they’re even Penguin books, and this dilution of the brand and corresponding drop in sales led to a return to its original roots in more recent years.

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I’ve always loved Penguin covers, and I have a large collection of Penguin paperbacks that cover a wide range of eras. I love to collect the older, orange and white and green and white striped fiction and crime fiction editions, but I also very much like the 1960s Penguin Modern Classics, with their whimsical line drawings and soft duck egg blue colour way. I hated the early 2000 change to shiny silver covers, and have replaced nearly all of mine with older editions where possible. More recently, they’ve returned to the softer palette and matte covers of the 1960s style Modern Classics, and they are beautiful; collector’s items of the future in the way their original predecessors have become. Even these recognisable covers, however, have had subtle changes over time, and I didn’t realise that in the early days of Penguin, the design and typeface wasn’t standardised and there could be many differences between editions. The Penguin symbol was neatened up over time, and experiments made with adding and taking away detail as new Design Directors came and went, eager to make their mark. After reading the section about the early days of Penguin, I went for a rummage amongst my shelves to see if I could find any examples of this more erratic approach, and I was surprised to find plenty. Take a look at these Penguins, pictured above, all published in 1946. The Penguin Books cartouche is the same on each one, but notice how the Penguin symbol changes shape, and how the one shilling price is italicised on two but not on the other. There is also inconsistent spacing between the letters in the titles and there is no standardisation of placement of the authors’ name and title within the central band; H.G.Wells’ name is far lower than Bowen’s and James’, for example.

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Now look at these three. Between the Acts and Tea with Mr Rochester both date from 1953; A Handful of Dust is dated to 1955. Can you spot the difference? Notice now that there’s a little orange line to separate the title and author, compared to the earlier editions above, but the size of the title and author’s name is still inconsistent. There is, however, a clear centrality to the author and title within the middle band compared to those earlier editions. But what changed between 1953 and 1955? Well, ‘Fiction’, in orange letters, is now gone from the sides of the white stripe, and the 2/- price has changed to 2/6. Subtle changes – and not ones I’d ever noticed before reading Penguin by Design!

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Moving on to the 1960s, look at these, arranged in publication order. The creation of the Penguin Modern Classics list led to a change in colour and design – and between 1964 and 1965, when Howards End and then Lord of the Flies were published, you can see how the design of the Modern Classic was simplified, with the title, author, Penguin branding and price all being moved to the top quarter of the page, and an image being allowed to dominate the lower half. I love how, in just the space of a year, the rather old-fashioned looking design of Howards End subtly changes into the sleek and modern design of Lord of the Flies, which is one of my absolute favourite Penguin covers. However, someone was busy in 1965, because the first cover in the image below, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was also published in that year, and the duck egg blue background has disappeared, and the image is now in full colour rather than black and white. Maybe to fund the cost of all this change, the price has gone up rather steeply! Three years later, in 1968, someone’s been tinkering with the design again with Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – we’ve returned to the blue, but we’re sticking with the coloured image. The Penguin logo has been redrawn, and the price is now on the back. By 1975, a more striking black has been chosen as the background colour for Huxley’s Brave New World, but the layout is broadly the same as in 1968. Decimalisation has also happened, and Penguin Modern Classics now cost just 55p. Those were the days!

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Can you track the history of Penguin in your own book collection? Why not take a look and see what you’ve got buried on your shelves!

Travel: Hastings

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When Samuel Johnson said ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ he obviously hadn’t lived through a pandemic when everything that makes London worth living in is shut. I am officially tired of London. Tired of walking the same streets, of seeing the same sights, of listening to every single one of my neighbours taking the opportunity to use drills and hammers and lawnmowers constantly because now is obviously the perfect time to get all those little home improvements done. At the weekend, I’d had enough. The sun was shining, I texted a friend, and before I knew it, we were happily sitting on a train that was whizzing us out of London to the coast. East Sussex has a wonderful string of coastal towns and some absolutely stunning countryside filled with undulating, verdant fields and picture postcard villages that seem to exist outside of time. Away from the bustling seaside city of Brighton, which I hate with a passion and which is most people’s only experience of East Sussex, there is so much to explore, and my seaside town of choice is always Hastings. An hour and 45 minutes away from London on the train, it’s very much a place of two halves; the rather seedy, run-down side by the station, which is filled with crumbling Victorian and Georgian architecture, and an uninspiring shopping centre, and the Old Town, which is a gorgeous maze of streets zig-zagging up the cliffs, where there are the most beautiful historic houses with breathtaking views down to the sea, and a marvellous array of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.

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Hastings was a very popular nineteenth century resort, evidenced in the beautiful, if crumbling, seafront promenades of Georgian and Victorian terraces with their charming wrought iron balconies and verandas, the original lifts that take you up to the top of the cliffs for bracing walks and the beautiful landscaped public parks filled with palm trees and colourful flowers. Much of the architecture has now seen better days due to the declining fortunes of the British holiday industry in the twentieth century, but there is still so much charm here to enjoy. The pebble beach is expansive and is towered over by the impressive cliffs that dominate England’s south coast. There is still a lively fishing industry here, and the original black-tarred nineteenth century fisherman’s huts still stand, and have been made protected monuments. Around a decade ago, Hastings Contemporary, a contemporary art gallery, was built on the seafront, and offers a fantastic cultural space to the community (sadly still closed). The Old Town has been transformed, with many independent shops and boutiques opening in recent years, selling locally made products, art work and all manner of lovely antiques and interior design goodies. Hastings has become increasingly popular with families and creative types priced out of London and looking for a better quality of life, and this has brought new life to the town. It’s an exciting place to be.

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It was such a joy to get out of London for the day and breathe in fresh, salty sea air. I felt the stress and worry I have been feeling melt away as I looked out at the sea and felt its refreshing cold water run between my toes. It was a wonderful holiday from reality to be able to wander through the beautiful, gaily painted, palm-treed little lanes of the Old Town, seeing little glimpses of the sea between gaps in the houses as we climbed ever higher. We stuffed ourselves with delicious fish and chips in Maggie’s at our table that overlooked the sea, enjoyed browsing the shops and treating ourselves to some little pick-me-up goodies (there is a wonderful independent book shop in the Old Town called Hare and Hawthorn, which is beautifully laid out, has an excellent selection of books for all ages and interests –  including a whole display of Persephones! – a must visit) and had yummy coffee and cake from Judges while we wandered along the seafront. We strolled through the pretty, expansive Alexandra Park and admired the many streets of lovely houses in the St Leonard’s area of the town. All in all, it was a marvellous day out, and we really had to tear ourselves away to get our train back to London. It was just what I needed – and as I write, with the background noise of drilling from my neighbour’s house slowly driving me mad,  I rather wish I had stayed for a few days!

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