June reading challenge – a literary travel book

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We have just booked our family summer holiday and so I’m delighted that June’s reading challenge is to read a travel book, not a guidebook, but a literary travel book. I’m certain there will be plenty of titles to choose from in your local charity bookshop, if you’d care to join me.

2017-06-14-13-19-11.jpgI’ve decided to pick a long-neglected title from my well-populated ‘not yet read’ bookcase – On A Shoestring To Coorg: an experience of Southern India by Dervla Murphy. I bought it as part of a set of three some years ago, and of the trio I only read Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by bicycle. I loved that book: Murphy cycled across Europe to India, through countries like Afghanistan and Iran, before they were devastated by conflict. Sadly, these wonderful and fascinating places will probably not now be visited by travellers for many years so this book provides a vicarious experience that most of us will never be able to have.

Last summer, I watched a wonderful documentary about Murphy on a long-haul flight to New York, where we spent our holiday last year, and I was fascinated once again. Murphy is a complete one-off, somewhat eccentric, perhaps, but undoubtedly fearless and someone who has always pushed the boundaries. She is now 85 and still lives in Co. Waterford in Ireland. On her last trip in 2011 she visited the Gaza Strip.

Murphy has one daughter and On A Shoestring is about a trip she took with her then 5 year-old child. This would no doubt have been been considered a very reckless act in 1973! I wonder if she did it during term-time…?

Everything Everything imgMay’s reading challenge was fairly straightforward, to read a YA novel, and I expected to zip through Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. Alas, half term and ferrying my eldest to and from GCSE exams has rather cut into my reading time this last few weeks, so I was still reading it a few days into June. However, I have now completed it and will post my review here next week. I thorougly enjoyed it and recommend it highly for YAs and OAs (older adults?!) alike. Look out for my review and let me know your thoughts if you or any teenagers you know have read it.

 

 

I would love for you to join me in my reading challenge this month. What literary travel books do you fancy reading?

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‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands

I’m going a bit highbrow this week – any lawyers in the room? I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, so a few months ago I set myself the task of reading a couple of books from the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards in the world. I read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which I really enjoyed and reviewed here back in February. East West Street actually won the prize; I enjoyed this a little less than Negroland, I have to say, but it is a remarkable work and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

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These days we take for granted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; they are used fairly frequently, especially since the Balkan war in the 1990s, and fairly interchangeably, it seems to me. But did you know that these were only established as legal terms at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War? The gravity and scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis is largely undisputed, but when it came to actually bringing individuals to justice at the court of law in Nuremberg in the post-war atmosphere, charges had to be specified and evidence had to be considered. In many ways, it seems to me, it was a piece of theatre, but the legal minds at the time were severely exercised. And I guess if you are on the winning side, both militarily and morally, the pressure to maintain the moral high-ground is immense. The victors had to be seen to be following a path of rectitude and adherence to international standards of law.

“Jackson [presiding judge at the Nuremberg trial] crafted each word with care, signalling its significance. He spoke of the victors’ generosity and the responsibility of the vanquished, of the calculated, malignant, devastating wrongs that were to be condemned and punished. Civilization would not tolerate their being ignored, and they must not be repeated. ‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengenace and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.'”

(p.288, quote from Judge Robert H. Jackson, opening the Nuremberg trial)

This book provides a historical account of the intellectual tussle between two of the finest legal minds of the time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht fought for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ whereas Lemkin wanted ‘genocide’. To most of us the differences between the two might seem inconsequential, but the differences are in fact, as is discussed in the book, fundamental to the basis of international law. This is not the place for me to rehearse the arguments (even if I could!). I did struggle with the legal minutiae of the book, though I was able to grasp the broad concepts and it certainly made me think about an issue which I can honestly say I have never thought about before. And it was interesting, honestly!

So far I have probably made the book seem dry and dull to the average reader (though perhaps sexy to any of you legal eagles!), but prizes are not won by being dry and uninteresting and the author is far more successful than that; by far the more engaging aspects of this book are the human stories. East West Street is a thoroughfare in the city of Lviv, in modern day Ukraine, but which has previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Poland. It is also a town with which both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were linked. Lviv plays a central role in the book because it provides a snapshot of the Nazis’ ambitions and methods.

The heart of this book, however, is the author’s own quest to find out about his grandparents, Leon and Malke Buchholz, a young Jewish couple from Lviv who were forced to leave their home with their baby daughter Ruth, the author’s mother. Leon and Malke have revealed little about their early life and the author has many unanswered questions. Now dead, he sets about researching his grandfather’s early life, the circumstances of his marriage and how it was he came to be in England with Malke and Ruth. The author becomes a detective investigating his own family history and confronts some difficult truths, as is often the case. He conducts this search alongside his research into the legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and finds links and parallels.

The book is broken up into distinct parts: for example, the opening chapter is about Leon and his early life and then there are similar chapters on Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These were the chapters I found most engaging and most moving. Towards the end is a very long chapter about Nuremberg itself which was fascinating as it was not something I knew very much about before. Some parts of the book were for me overly detailed and I skimmed through some of these.

Unquestionably, however, there lies at the heart of this book a deep and terrible tragedy about which it is always worth being reminded: how prejudice, ideology, lies and propaganda, stupefied a nation, and, combined with power and determination, saw the murder of millions of people and displaced or traumatised many millions more and the consequences are still being felt down the generations today.

This is a powerful book which I recommend if you have an interest in history or the law, or if you just like to read about uncovering family stories. It looks daunting but it’s actually a quicker read than you might think.

Have you read any non-fiction books that recently that you recommend?

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Just Kids

JUst kids imgI’ve been an admirer of Patti Smith for a number of years now. I’m a bit young to have been a fan of hers when she first broke onto the music scene in the mid-1970s. I became aware of her much later when I picked up a sale copy of her debut album Horses. I was also aware of Robert Mapplethorpe, the late artist-photographer who was her lover and then close friend when they were both very young. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 and it must have been in the 1990s that I saw an exhibition of his work in London (I had an interest in photography at the time). Later on again I learned about the connection between the two and how Patti had been, if you like, Mapplethorpe’s ‘muse’ when he was first discovering his art.

I’d known about this book for a while, having heard Patti Smith talking about it in a radio interview, but I picked this up, ironically, in New York, when I was there on holiday last summer, from the famous Strand Bookstore. I’d hoped to read it whilst there (and perhaps visit some of the places she mentions in the book) but that didn’t happen. I decided to read it as part of my 2017 reading challenge; March’s challenge is to read something from my ‘to read’ pile, which, as I have written here recently, is substantial! And it has been a real pleasure to read.

The book is an account of her and Mapplethorpe’s early artistic development. They found each other by accident in New York City in the late 1960s when they had both arrived there in search of a more meaningful life. Their early life together was marked by poverty and the struggle to be recognised. In many ways their life was pretty ordinary, were it not for all the incredible people they meet and hang out with – Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs – and if you are familiar with New York City, particularly the lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village areas, you will enjoy the mentions of different places, particularly the infamous Chelsea Hotel where many a star has risen and fallen.

But the book is so much more than that; it is an account of how artists find their voice and their medium, but it is also a love story. Patti writes tenderly and affectionately of her love for Mapplethorpe and the profound mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship. You don’t need to be admirers of them to appreciate this. It is also an account of how love changes; Mapplethorpe loved Patti deeply but he eventually came out as homosexual. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and this was a long and difficult process for him. Patti later married a musician Fred Smith, and they lived a happy humdrum family life together in Michigan with their children until he died at the age of 45 in 1994. To that extent the book is also about what happens when love moves on, and how former lovers can evolve their relationship and grow as a result.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly the escape into bohemian New York in the 1970s. Some books you read of this nature can make you feel your own life is rather dull and insignificant, but at the centre of this book is not glamour and sensationalism, but the day to day human love that we all need and hopefully most of us experience at some point in our lives. To that extent it is a story we could all identify with.

Books for Spring

What do you think of when you think of Spring? I think of birth, renewal, reinvigoration, green shoots, hope, beginnings, fresh air, clean, the colour yellow, eggs, baby animals and life. There is a little more light each day, and it’s getting ever so slightly warmer. I want to be outdoors and I want to let the outside in by throwing open the windows. It’s also a time when people start to think about putting into effect changes they’d like in their lives, whether that be losing weight, decluttering or pursuing a new venture, because it’s easier to motivate yourself when the sun is shining and you have more energy.

With all those things in mind, I have come up with a list of books for Spring, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, hopefully covering a broad range of topics and interests.+

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  1. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo – for those of you determined to do some spring decluttering. I read it last year and you can read my review here. It is a great talking point even if you don’t follow the Kon-Mari method for clearing your home and unblocking your life to the letter.
  2. My Mother My Self by Nancy Friday – 26th March is Mothering Sunday in the UK and I think this book is essential reading for all women. I learned so much about myself when I first read this some years ago, reflected a great deal on my mother and my relationship with her, and thought about the kind of mother I wish to be to my daughters.It covers all sorts of issues from how we talk about our bodies, sex,
  3. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel – I am a huge fan of Gillian Anderson and I am dying to read this book. She is a very interesting and uncompromising woman who is open about her lifelong struggles with mental health. Jennifer Nadel is apparently a writer friend of hers.
  4. Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ by Giulia Enders – the microbiome is getting a lot of publicity at the moment as we realise how little we have still to learn about the body and the influences on our health prognosis. This is a fascinating book, not just a handbook on how you can improve your overall health through what you eat, but, for those of us who like our advice to come backed up by a little more evidence, has plenty of science in it too.
  5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – published just last week, I’m very keen to read this. Globalisation and migration will be the defining issues of our time, I suspect, and this book is a novel about two young lovers who leave their home in the ‘east’, as civil war is about to break out, and plan their escape to an idealised ‘west’. The seemingly impossible clash between the desire of those who want a better life and those who are anxious about the pace of change is explored.
  6. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo – Chimamanda Nogozi Adiche, possibly one of Nigeria’s finest literary figures, has been in the news a lot recently, as her views and publications on feminism have been getting some profile. Her work has certainly roused my interest in African women writers (I’ll be writing more about this in a future blog) and this novel by Adebayo stood out for me when the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced last week. It is the story of a young woman whose husband and family are desperate for her to have a child, yet she seems unable to conceive. It is set in 1980s Nigeria and explores the social and cultural pressures faced by Yejide, the main character.
  7. Tweet of the Day: a year of Britain’s birds by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss – I have a bit of a phobia about birds, but I love them and am fascinated by them at the same time. This is a really gorgeous book that I want to look at when I see all the young birds landing on my neighbour’s bird feeder (we have a cat, so a bird feeder is not an option for us!)
  8. A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen – the story of a farmer in a remote Yorkshire location. She has eight children, so plenty of birth and renewal here. Also, the very outdoor nature of her and her family’s life may inspire you if you want to get your family off the sofa.
  9. The Detox Kitchen Bible by Lily Simpson and Rob Hobson – Spring is a good time for a health detox, I find. I have my own little detox method, which I’ve used for years, but if you’re looking for one for yourself this book, published at the end of 2016, has had some excellent reviews.
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – you don’t need an excuse to revisit this classic, but if you want one, Charlotte was born in the Spring (21st April 1816) and she died in the Spring (31st March 1855).

 

What are your recommendations for Spring reading?

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I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

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The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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