August reading challenge: a book with a summery cover

Last month I ticked off my July reading challenge pretty quickly, having skipped through Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it fairly quickly after a train journey.

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This month, mindful that we are in the middle of the holiday season, the challenge is to choose a book, the cover of which is reminiscent of summer. (Whilst I definitely do not judge a book by its cover, I’m afraid I’m a sucker for the book that jumps off the shelf and grabs my attention!) Between the Baileys Prize in June and the Man Booker longlist in July, I’ve bought quite a lot of books recently, so I thought I’d dig through my not insubstantial pile of unread books purchased over the years for inspiration.

2017-08-05 07.34.39I have chosen On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which was published in 2007. I suspect it has been languishing unread on my shelf for a number of years! The cover is, arguably, not particularly summery, showing a young woman walking along Chesil Beach in Dorset, at what looks like dawn, but could possibly be twilight. For those of you unfamiliar with Dorset, Chesil beach is a unique natural feature of the area. Geographically, it is known, I believe, as a tombolo. It is a 20 mile stretch of shingle beach that lies in a long, fairly straight line from Abbotsbury (near the swan sanctuary) to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Whilst it is connected to the land at each end, it sits apart from the main beach along its length, creating  a kind of lagoon which is a haven for bird life.

Dorset is one of my favourite counties of England. I wouldn’t say I have spent lots of time there, I have been maybe four or five times, but each time I’ve visited I have found it the most beautiful, fascinating and interesting place. It is also deeply connected with my literary life. I am a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and a few years ago, following a horrible relationship breakdown, I spent the most wondrous and life-affirming fortnight cycling around the county, visiting many of the towns, villages and monuments which appear in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other Hardy novels. Jane Austen also has connections with Dorset, and who could forget The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a wonderful book, set in Lyme Regis, possibly the loveliest seaside town in the world.

Dorset also has many fascinating geographical and historical features; you can go fossil-hunting in Charmouth, and there are of course, the incredible cliffs at West Bay, made famous as the site of the murder of Danny Latimer in the TV series Broadchurch. The beaches are spectacular, my favourite is the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped Lulworth Cove. As I write this, I am reminiscing about a wonderful week we had there with the children two of three years ago, and aching to go back, even though the weather was typically British!

So, I will look forward to reading this book, as I set off on a short trip to Dublin later today to visit my in-laws.

What books remind you of summer?

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Book review: “Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis

I love Evan Davis; I think he is probably the cleverest journalist on telly at the moment. I marvel at his ability to cut to the core of an issue and his mastery of material across a broad range of topics. His analytical ability, tenacity and eloquence made Newsnight unmissable during the UK election campaign earlier this year. I actually felt a bit sorry for some of the second and third-rate politicians he had to interview at times because he was clearly so much cleverer and in command of the brief than they were! He never goes for the jugular though, as Paxman used to, it’s just more like watching a grown-up talking to a child.

Post truthThis is actually my July reading challenge book, which was to borrow something from the library. I read it in virtually one sitting on a train journey to London. For a weighty non-fiction book it’s very readable and the writing is resonant of Evan’s relaxed and articulate presenting style. There were parts where I could almost hear him reading it out. There are many references to the help and support he has had in the acknowledgements, so I’m sure he had plenty of research assistance (how could he not – with Newsnight, The Bottom Line and Dragon’s Den he is a very busy fellow!), but the authorial voice is definitely authentic, and I would bet it isn’t ghost-written, which just makes me love him all the more!

The central premise of the book, and indeed which lends him his title, is the concept of “post-truth”, which was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2016 and is defined as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

For Westerners, key events which have lent prominence to this concept are, of course, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. More latterly, for those of us in the UK, the British election campaign is pertinent to the discussion, though the book was written before it was announced.

The book is divided into three sections: What, Why and How. In the first part “What” Evan (is it okay to call him that? I spend most weekday evenings with him, after all!) deconstructs his subject, looking at the various forms BS takes in our society today. His starting point is the professionalization of the information industry and the increasing desire to ‘sell’ rather than ‘tell’ in order to further a cause. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the unprecedented amount of information that we as citizens and consumers have access to, our weak ability to navigate it makes us vulnerable to those who would convince us that their particular interpretation of the facts is the one and only truth.

If you were unhappy with the UK European referendum campaign (regardless of which side you were on) or opposed the election of Donald Trump, there are times in the first section where you will be screaming “Yes, yes, yes”, but the second part is more sobering as it looks at the social forces that have enabled BS to become the new norm. Basically, we are all at least a little bit guilty. Haven’t we all, at some point, slightly misrepresented ourselves, or exaggerated our strengths in order to achieve something? Have you ever overstated an achievement on a CV, pushed up a price estimate of a job, in the knowledge you’ll be negotiated down by a percentage, been a willing accomplice in overpaying for desirable commercial goods (mobile phone, car, clothing, etc) simply to get a bit of the status that rubs off from owning it? We’re all at it. And as for those of us (irony alert) who might look down on the poor unfortunates misled into voting for the ‘wrong side’ Evan simply says the

“Disposition to accept bullshit probably derives from a sense of tribalism fuelled by feelings of grievance. The bullshit becomes more than just a signal of tribal allegiance; it becomes a way of strengthening a sense of membership of the tribe.”

In the final section of the book, Evan flags up a number of ways that we can all halt the rise of the post-truth tendency. He acknowledges that, basically, we get the BS we deserve, so the power lies with us to change it. Firstly, he says

“Where you have a craving for something to be true, apply a double dose of scepticism to anybody telling you that it is?”

We all have to do more research to ensure we are given the full facts and hold professional communicators to account rather than be complicit in the deception, what he refers to as “information hygiene”. (Using product X will prevent condition Y – show me the evidence?)

This book is quite an accomplishment which made me think very hard about the world we live in and what I am teaching my children. Undoubtedly, we all need to improve our skills when it comes to challenging what we are being told. A fascinating and engaging read on a very current issue.

July reading challenge – something from the library

You know summer is on its way when the local library announces the annual Summer Reading Challenge! Aimed at children of primary school age in the UK it is a great way of getting kids engaged in books (any books!) and giving them rewards for achieving certain reading goals. I love the way the organisers come up with different themes each year, and interesting activity packs that provide a surprising amount of diversion. This year the theme is Animal Agents and it’s being launched next week, so do look out for it if you have primary age children. I’ll be writing more about it once it’s launched so look out for a future blog on the topic.

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In the meantime, it’s the beginning of the month so it must be time for this month’s reading challenge! With the holiday season upon us, June’s challenge was to read a literary travel book. I chose On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy, and posted my review earlier this week, which you can read here.

This month’s challenge is to go to the local library and pick out a book (the challenge will be to keep it to just one!) and to read it before its due date. I have had a deep passion for libraries since I was a child (I was lucky that my mother took me regularly) and believe firmly that they provide an essential service. I am a compulsive book-buyer, but there is no doubt books can be expensive and what if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like the book? For the old and the young and for those on fixed or low incomes, libraries may be the only viable source of books. Not only that, but libraries provide a host of other services: librarians are information specialists and can help you find things out, they are often at the centre of a community providing reading groups, children’s book clubs, places to sit when it’s cold, places to study where it’s quiet, access to computers (not everyone has one at home) and of course reference books which you may not necessarily want to buy. Need I go on?

You will gain much from a visit to your local library. I came away with a whole bunch of leaflets about things to do over the summer, theatre guides, etc, a couple of guidebooks on Portugal (where I’ll be heading in August) as well as three books:

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, and caught my eye as I love Indian literature, and having just read about Devla Murphy’s travels in the south of the country, my interest was piqued anew. It’s set in Calcutta in the 1960s and ’70s and is about two brothers, very close as children, whose lives take dramatically different paths as historical events unfold around them. I was also drawn to The Art of Flight by Frederik Sjoberg which I think is a kind of memoir, structured as a number of short essays and prose pieces about the natural world. Sjoberg is a Swedish writer I’ve never heard of, but the book looks interesting. Finally, I had reserved a copy of Evan Davis’s newly-published book Post-truth: why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it, after spotting it in the bookshop recently. Evan Davis has for years been one of my favourite journalists because he is warm, watchable, connects well with the viewer and is fantastically clever. He has an ability to cut to the essence of an issue and frequently outsmarts even the most nimble interviewees, so I’m interested in his take on this cultural shift we seem to be experiencing in politics.

I want to read all of these now, so I’m not sure which I will take on for the July challenge. I’m off on a train journey to London tomorrow, so it might well be the one which weighs least!

Have you picked up anything interesting from the library recently?

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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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‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

I last read this book when I was doing my English degree at University. At that time, the classics were my ‘thing’, indeed I’d spent my teenage years devouring the classics and, such was my love of them, it’s mostly why I went on to study English. By the time I graduated, I was so full of books that I shunned reading anything for quite a long time. When I got back into the habit, I turned my attention more to contemporary fiction as I realised there was a huge gap in my knowledge. One of the satisfying things about favouring the classics is that they are a largely finite resource; in a few years of effort you could basically read most of them! With contemporary fiction, on the other hand, you never get caught up. So, almost all my reading in recent years has been a desperate endeavour to keep up with all the amazing books published today, and as a result I have not turned back to my beloved classics very much. So, April’s reading challenge was to re-read a classic.

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I’ve been wanting to read this novel again ever since I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and even more so after visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove last year. (If you haven’t been and you’re an admirer of the Victorian novel, you really must pay a visit). I have to confess I was a little intimidated to be picking up the book – my edition is innocuous-looking enough, but, oh my goodness, paper was thinner back then and the type face is miniscule! 530 pages of closely-written text. BUT, what a joy!!!  It took me a few chapters to get back into the style, and the Victorian atmosphere, but once I did, I got totally lost, and, truly, I re-entered the world I first discovered as a young girl. I can’t remember when I last got lost in a long book, became totally absorbed by the sense of place, or was able to step into the shoes of the characters and feel their pain, their happiness, their grief their longings. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read last year, has probably been the closest I have come in recent years.

In North and South, our central character, Margaret Hale, finds herself on an emotional and physical journey. When we first meet her she is living with her wealthy aunt and spoiled young cousin Edith in London; she was sent to them as a child to improve her chances in society. Margaret’s parents live humbly in rural Hampshire where her father is a country curate. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who lives as a fugitive abroad; he is wanted in England, accused of leading a mutiny whilst serving in the navy.

When Margaret’s cousin marries, she returns to her parents only to find that her father intends to resign his post due to his religious doubt. He decides to move the family north to the city of Milton in Darkshire (for which read Manchester). There he plans to make a living from tutoring and they will rent a house from an old Oxford acquaintance of Mr Hale’s. The move comes as devastating news to Margaret and her mother, for whom the move is the last straw in her social degradation.

When the family first moves to Milton the contrast between their old and new lives is stark – their physical surroundings are completely different, the people they meet are different, and the activities that absorb their time are different. As the months pass, Margaret accepts her new life and as she is forced to confront her prejudices, so it exposes the vacuous existence she enjoyed in London. Gaskell sets about using her characters, their conversations and their confrontations to reveal certain ‘truths’ and challenge certain preconceptions held by many of the protagonists, whether it is Mrs Hale’s bias towards the south, the gentry and all the things with which she is familiar and about which she is nostalgic, or factory owner Mr Thornton’s intolerance of his workers’ strike. All the characters in this novel are in some way flawed by their prejudice (even the lowly workers at the factory despise the Irish labourers brought in to do their work when they strike). To that extent, the novel still has great relevance today, over 150 years later, as the north-south divide in England continues to have social, political and economic consequences.

Some of the characters in the book are two-dimensional, for example, the lowly Bessy Higgins, with whom Margaret develops a rather implausible friendship. It has to be remembered that these characters are merely devices through which the author is seeking simply to illustrate a point, although Gaskell’s readers at the time probably thought this was actually how poor people lived and talked. Margaret, on the other hand, is, for me, a well-rounded, credible and fully-developed character. She goes through a transformation in this novel which is both sincere and believable.

The ending of the book is entirely predictable, of course, but this is fine because the joy of this book is in the journey. Although some may find the language a barrier, for me it was sublime. Again, it took me a little while to get back into it and it made reading a little slow at first, but it was beautiful and oh so clever!

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading North and South and I would definitely recommend picking up a classic from time to time.

Have you re-read any old favourites recently?

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2017 reading challenge

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April’s task (to revisit a classic) really was a challenge; I chose Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which has been an absolute joy, but  IT’S LONG! With school holidays and the break in my routine reading it has tipped over into May, but I’ll post my review here in the next week or two.

The challenge for May is to read a YA (Young Adult) novel. I’m looking forward to this; I read Emily Barr’s first YA novel The One Memory of Flora Banks, my first foray into this genre for some time, and thoroughly enjoyed it. You can read my thoughts here.

Everything Everything imgI picked up a book for my teenage daughter the other day, Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon, which was published in 2015, but has also been turned into a movie, released later this month. It’s the story of a young woman (18 year old Maddy) who suffers from an illness which means she must live in a sterile environment. She develops a friendship with the boy next door, Olly, communicating only through windows and via text. The blurb says that they develop a deep bond and risk “everything” to be together. I’m expecting young first love and possibly a few tears, along the lines of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars.

 

 

It will be nice to read it alongside my daughter and to share our opinions. That’s as good a reason as any to cross genres from time to time.

My ‘to read’ pile is shrinking!

Last week I posted a review on this blog of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I’d read as part of my 2017 reading challenge. The challenge for March was to select something from my ever-growing ‘to-read’ pile. I know you have one too! It felt very satisfying to finally get around to something that I’ve been wanting to read for some time but which never seemed to rise to the top of the pile. My ‘to read’ pile bothers me a lot, so much so that I have many “‘to read” piles’ around the house. I’m a compulsive book-buyer so I feel guilty about the money I spend (although it has to be said a great many of the books I buy on impulse are from charity shops or waiting rooms) and about the space taken up, especially since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying! Clutter, to me, feels like a powerful signal of under-achievement. I bet my tidy, high-achieving friends don’t have large ‘to read’ piles! The psychology of the ‘to read’ pile is clearly very deep.

2017-03-30-12-10-56.jpgSo, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I completed the March challenge and the pile is one volume smaller. I really enjoyed Just Kids and I’m pleased I finally got around to it. I’ve also given up book-buying for Lent so hopefully I will be better able to resist temptation in the future and tackle the unread books before buying new ones. Sometimes.

April’s challenge is to re-read a book I have enjoyed in the past. I’m not a big re-reader and yet I know this can be hugely rewarding, especially if you’re in a quiz or something and the name of the central character from that really famous book you read years ago is on the tip of your tongue! My husband is a good re-reader and he finds that he is able to get something new out of a book each time he goes back to it. I’ve decided to re-read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I read this many years ago, whilst studying English Literature at university and I’m afraid I remember very little about it, but I do know that I enjoyed it.

2017-03-30 11.25.47I am fortunate to live in Manchester, northern England, the setting of this book. It’s also where Gaskell spent much of her early life. You can visit Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove, Ardwick (and then stroll over to the Pankhurst Centre nestled in amongst the buildings of the Manchester Royal Infirmary) which I did last year. It’s still a work in progress, so well worth supporting, but has a fascinating collection of her possessions and is set out as it would have been when she and her family lived there. I moved to Manchester relatively recently and have become fascinated by the city’s history and culture. It will be interesting to read the book now, with that new knowledge and awareness.

My copy of North and South is a slim little thing, perfectly innocuous-looking, but the text is tiny and it has over 500 pages! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in 19th century northern industrial poverty. I also note that the Introduction to my edition is written by one of my former Professors, so it will be a trip down Memory Lane altogether.

Did you start a reading challenge this year? If so, how are you getting on?

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