This is a new monthly post where I aim to do very little writing (!!!) and tap into some visual creativity (which I always feel I don’t really have). So, this was September for me, in a few pictures and very few words.
I am just back from my holidays; that is a rarer thing to type than I could ever have imagined. My family and I usually get away a couple of times a year and have at least a couple of trips a year to Ireland to see my husband’s family. Like so many around the world, separated from loved ones, we had not seen them for eighteen months, since Christmas 2019. Even up to the last minute it was not certain we would be able to go, due to travel restrictions. My two daughters were both at school right up until two days before we left, and there was a lot of Covid around , so we might at any moment have been ‘pinged’ or the girls told they had to isolate. A neighbour of mine was ‘pinged’ within an hour of setting off for her holiday and had to turn back. We were on tenterhooks.
I am delighted to report that we did get away, and it felt very exciting indeed to drive onto the ferry and then finally to arrive in Dublin. My association with the city goes back a quarter of a century now and it feels like my second home. We wondered how we might fill a whole fortnight there – we don’t usually stay quite so long – but the time sped by and when we drove back onto the return ferry yesterday, it seemed like we had only disembarked the day before! Time with family felt precious indeed.
I’ll write more about my trip later in the week, but for now, since it is the 2nd of August, it is time for this month’s reading challenge. Lat month the theme was ‘a book to travel with’ and I chose Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This book is a an account of the author’s epic 1,100 mile solo hike on the notoriously challenging Pacific Crest Trail which begins at the border with Mexico and winds through California, Oregon and Washington. I read this book on my holiday and it is highly compelling. Look out for my review later in the week.
This month’s theme is quite different – ‘a book to rest with’. I had a couple of choices, including a book by popular broadcasting psychologist Claudia Hammond called The Art of Rest: How to find respite in the modern age, which I might get anyway. But I have decided to go with something less science-y and more spiritual – The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim. If the last year has taught me anything it is the value to my own personal wellbeing of being less busy, spending more time in nature really noticing the world around me, instead of rushing through it. It has been painful being disconnected from friends and family and I know that for many people the isolation has been terrible, but for me I can honestly say that the slower pace of life has had its upsides. I would like to use the opportunity of reading this book to find the balance that works for me going forward.
I am rejoicing that my diary is quite literally empty for the entire month or August. I am looking forward to continuing the air of serenity that I have brought back with me from my holiday, and to spending the month reading, writing, walking and being a little more spontaneous than life usually allows.
I would love for you to join me on my reading challenge this month.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I posted a couple of months ago about our cat Ziggy who went missing in April. After blitzing the neighbourhood with posters and flyers we had lots of calls from people who said they were familiar with him and would look out for him. It was lovely that people reached out when we were so anxious and everyone I spoke to said what a charming cat he was. Very sadly, we received confirmation last week that he had been found, long since passed away. As we suspected, he was not very far from home and had somehow got into an outhouse (locked and unused), probably through a hole in the roof. We are absolutely gutted. The person who found him was brave enough to come and tell us and to return him to us – many people would not have done – and so we at least have him home and have buried him in the garden, where he spent so much of his time.
I am surprised at how upset I have been. My kids are all older teens now, so they are able to put it in perspective. They also have more knowledge and experience and have lost a person or two. Part of me feels bad to be upset about a pet when so many have lost so much in the last year. A loved pet is part of the family, however, I think most pet owners will agree, and I miss him terribly. He was only about twelve so I just felt he would be with us for many more years yet. It has all come as a bit of a shock.
Of course, I keep asking myself if I could have done more – knocked on neghbours’ doors and asked if I can personally check their sheds, perhaps? It is easy to blame myself, but it doesn’t bring him back. Cats will be cats, and the old adage is true, curiosity is often their downfall.
So we mourn our beloved Ziggy, our sweet handsome boy, and are thankful that we had him for so many happy years.
Last month’s reading challenge book, Murder in Midsummer, a collection of short stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ruth Rendell, was the perfect bit of light-hearted escapism for me. Nothing too challenging, great entertainment. Look out for my review next week.
This month is going to be completely different! The theme is “a book to travel with”. Since travel as we know it, is pretty much off the agenda at the moment (the UK government’s new list of green and amber countries was announced last week, and, guess what, most of us are going nowhere!) we are all having to think a little laterally at the moment. Perhaps you booked your caravan in Torquay months ago, in which case congratulations, but those less organised among us, waited. I thought we were being organised by booking the ferry to Ireland back in March, assuming we would be out of this pandemic by the summer, but alas, it does not look as if Ireland will have us and our potential Delta variant, not for the moment at least, without stringent quarantine restrictions that make the trip impractical. So, it’s back to the drawing board for us and yet more months before we see family again. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat.
What does it mean to ‘travel’ anyway? Many of us will have at least a few far-flung destinations on our bucket lists, but if we look back, the trips that mean most to us are usually the ones which involved some sort of mental or emotional journey, or spiritual transformation too. So, rather than choose a book about A N Other’s fantastic trip to Paradise, that makes me too jealous to read, I’ve chosen a book which is about travel as catharsis or recovery. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published in 2012 by American writer Cheryl Strayed and was the first choice of Oprah’s book club when it was launched the same year.
Strayed wrote this memoir during a particularly difficult time in her life; her mother had died prematurely, when Cheryl was only 22, she and her husband divorced and she became a drug user. She undertook the punishing 1100 mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington as a form of therapy.
Okay, so it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, maybe even triggering for some, but I think it is possibly a journey worth taking. And I get the sense that it is ultimately uplifting.
So, I would love for you to join me in the challenge in July. Hop on over to the Facebook group and join if you would like.
Happy reading everyone, however and wherever you will be travelling this month.
I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.
Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.
I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.
So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.
I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.
So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!
Hello, happy new year, happy Epiphany! I am late to the new year party this year. 2020 caused many of us to look at our lives somewhat afresh and ask what on earth we are doing and what is really important. One of the smallish things that I identified was an attachment to making Christmas something a bit more meaningful, in the absence of a religious faith, and I found myself taking an interest in some of the ancient secular traditions of the season. I tried not to do anything that looked too much like work between the winter solstice on the 20th/21st December (I watched the live sunset over Stonehenge broadcast on the English Heritage Facebook page and it was amazing) and twelfth night on 5th January (yes, I know many say it’s the 6th- depends when you start counting).
It was an odd period this time around for so many people. I was lucky; I collected my son from university in mid-December and with my husband and two daughters the five of us hunkered down, watched films, cooked, ate, walked, relaxed and generally had one of the nicest Christmasses ever. I’m not trying to be smug, especially if, denied the company and contact of loved ones, yours was s**t (and I know plenty of people for whom it was), I suppose all I’m saying is that we felt freer than usual of many of the normal Christmas pressures. And it was really very nice.
Our tree will come down today after a sterling four weeks of service. I switched off my Christmas lights for the last time yesterday night and I will miss them. I switched them on every morning when I came down to breakfast, still in the dark, and they were enormously cheering. I’ll need to find an alternative I think until the mornings are light again. I also lit candles in my front window every evening at dusk. That was nice too and I’m going to keep doing that until the evenings get a bit lighter.
So, today it’s back to work. My son scooted back to university at the weekend, relieved I think to have made the break for the border before Lockdown 3.o and the new travel restrictions came into force. My teenage daughters have diligently embraced the opportunities of online home learning – no more battling on public transport every day, no going out in the cold and dark, no school uniform and no classroom distractions from the handful of kids whose learning loss over the past few months has been so grave that they have forgotten how to behave in a classroom or towards their teachers. Sad, distressing and deeply worrying. Teachers, you have my utmost utmost respect for what you have done, achieved and had to put up with in 2020. I am lucky to have motivated children, old enough not to need supervision, able enough not to need much support and a household with enough tech and enough broadband to support a family of four online for most of the day. I am very very aware of my good fortune. It is a scandal that so many do not enjoy the last two things in order to cope with the first three.
I spent a lot of time reading over the Christmas break (goodness is it really four weeks since I last posted?!), but not my usual fare. I read a load of short stories; I bought most of my Christmas gifts in my local bookshops, one of which is a chain with a loyalty scheme. I built up quite a nice bunch of points so on Christmas Eve I treated myself to the following books:
I’ve been working my way through these and it was a joy to dip in and out. More on these soon.
Now it is time to look forward, and 2021 promises much. The vaccine, oh the vaccine. Surely the scientific miracle of our age. Let us hope governments deliver. The inauguration of a new President in the United States, whom we hope will, alongside his stellar Vice-President-elect, lead the world, as only his country can do, in paying long overdue serious attention to climate change, and addressing social injustice in all its forms. Only fourteen more days to go. I think the rest of the world is counting.
Plus of course, there are the dozens of wonderful books we are due, and lots of cultural events coming up. And, on a more parochial note, there is of course my 2021 Facebook Reading Challenge! It’s been tough this time, coming up with themes (I’ve done the genres and I’ve done countries and continents), so I’m just doing a hybrid of previous years and re-using most of the themes in a different order or with a twist! Why not? It has thrown up some really wonderful reading choices that I would not otherwise have made so what is not to like?
My first book of the year, on the theme of an American classic, is a re-read for me, and not too long, since we are already nearly a week into the month – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I would love for you to join me on my Facebook Reading Challenge this year. You can print out and keep my reading challenge pro forma below (:D) if you’d like to get involved, and join my Facebook group.
Happy reading everyone!
As I write this, it looks very much as if Greater Manchester, where I live, will be placed in the highest, Tier 3, level of restrictions in the coming days. There’s a lot of politics about, but let me tell you there is also a lot of frustration and anger about too. There is also a lot of division, differing perspectives, conflicting interpretations of data and statistics. But around me the human cost is evident – businesses are closing, I know people who have lost work, people under strain from not seeing their loved ones, and others paralysed by fear of the virus. One person’s asymptomatic response is another’s death sentence. We find ourselves at a difficult moment and we all have to find our way through this conundrum as best we can.
In the midst of all this confusion and anxiety, I took myself back in time last week to one of my favourite places in Manchester, but one which I have not visited for some time – the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell in Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester. It is close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, The University of Manchester, and the Pankhurst Centre, a little house, in the middle of the hospital campus, that was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement (also now a museum).
Elizabeth Gaskell’s house is a fairly modest property that has had a chequered history. Elizabeth’s unmarried daughters Meta and Julia lived there until they died, and after Meta’s death in 1913, an attempt to preserve it as a memorial to the author was unsuccessful and it was sold and its contents dispersed. It continued to be occupied as a family home until it was bought by Manchester University in 1968 who used it as accommodation for overseas students. It fell into some disrepair (though thankfully not too much irreversible ‘renovation’ was done) but was finally purchased by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust in 2004 and a project was set up to restore it as a museum to Elizabeth Gaskell.
It is still a work in progress and it is really only the ground floor rooms that have been set up as they would have been in Gaskell’s time. While I was there, I was shown work underway to restore what is believed to have been Elizabeth’s bedroom, but other rooms have been given over to research, educational spaces and meeting rooms. There is currently a very interesting exhibition about John Ruskin on display until the end of the year. The rooms have been painstakingly restored and furniture and artefacts either belonged to the family or are the Trusts’s best guess at what they would have had around them.
I was looking for some peace, tranquility and inspiration there and I found it. I was the only visitor that afternoon, and whilst it saddens me that so few people are going out to see the many interesting and beautiful places that remain open to visitors and safe, I had to admit that having the place to myself felt like a treat. Numbers are controlled and all the volunteer guides are well protected with PPE. You have to book your slot online and the £5.50 admission price gives you access for a full year. There is a tea room and a huge selection of secondhand books for sale.
Most of all there is a sense of dedication, to the memory of the author and her remarkable achievements (she died suddenly at the age of 55).
I recommend a visit to this wonderful house. The arts and culture are suffering terribly at this difficult time with opening restrictions, the cost of being Covid-safe, and reduced (or in many cases zero) numbers. Book a visit, you won’t regret it.
My last live cultural experience before lockdown was introduced in the UK was on February 11th. I saw Isabel Allende in conversation with Jeanette Winterson at The Dancehouse in Manchester as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The evenings were still dark and the weather was cold. The excited spectators queued on the stairs, we sat next to strangers and laughed out loud, a microphone was passed around the audience. Nobody was wearing a face mask nor using hand sanitiser and the Coronavirus seemed like a thing that was happening far away and not at all like a real threat. A few weeks later and it would have been cancelled. Isabel Allende probably would not even have embarked on an international promotional tour. Only 6 months ago, and yet it feels like a lifetime.
A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende’s twentieth novel and, as with many of her works, is based on the true story of a close friend of hers. It concerns refugees from the Spanish Civil War who escape the fascist regime in September 1939 and flee to Chile via France on a ship called the Winnipeg, in an operation organised by the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who felt his nation had a duty to support those fleeing the terror in Spain.
Victor Dalmau is one of these refugees, a young medic who escapes the country with his heavily pregnant sister-in-law Roser, a pianist who was engaged to be married to Victor’s brother Guillem. Guillem was a fighter, a passionate revolutionary, and lost his life to the cause. Victor and Roser are forced to leave behind Victor’s elderly mother, Carme Dalmau. She says she is too old for the journey and wishes to die in her country. Victor persuades Roser to marry him, believing it will be safest for them both and give them the best chance of being accepted into Chile.
The couple settle in Chile and Roser gives birth to a son, Marcel, whom Victor cares for as if he were his own child. Although theirs is a marriage of convenience, Victor and Roser grow fond of one another and whilst, initially, they intend to return to Spain one day, it becomes clear, as the years pass, and world war two rages in Europe, that this is unlikely to happen. They therefore set about making a decent life for themselves: they set up a business, a small bar, Victor completes his studies and qualifies as a doctor, eventually becoming one of the leading cardiac surgeons in the country (a fact which will later save his own life). Roser, meanwhile, develops her own career; she was a pianist in Spain (she was rescued by Victor’s parents who spotted her talent and rescued her from a life of poverty) and begins teaching music.
They seem to be thriving, until the military coup in 1973, when General Pinochet led the overthrow of the president Salvador Allende. This, of course, is closely linked to the author’s own story, President Allende having been her father’s cousin. Here, Victor’s past catches up with him; he is known as a former anti-fascist activist and had become a friend of the President, playing chess with him regularly. The couple’s fortunes take a turn for the worse.
I won’t give away any more of the details as it is a cracking story which doesn’t end quite as you’d expect. In the talk I attended, Isabel Allende described this book as a straight love story, and indeed it is, a tale of the kinds of lives on which the world turns. It is what Allende does best, story-telling and this book will keep you gripped. There is no shortage of action or plot and I suspect she has stayed very close to the facts of the original true story. If you are an Allende fan you will love it, as it would be hard not to love anything she has written. It is not The House of the Spirits though, nor does it have the breadth or power of a story such as Portrait in Sepia. I think the canvas here is a bit smaller and I suspect the author has constrained her imagination a little in order to be loyal to the real-life story. That said, it is clearly a book full of love for its characters and their story and it feels very authentic.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an annual Facebook Reading Challenge, a little group where I try to push my reading boundaries. Each month I have a different theme; last month, in the spirit of the new decade, the theme was one of the biggest books from the last decade. I chose Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – I’ll be posting about THAT in the next couple of days. Phew! What a page-turner!
This month the theme is non-fiction and I was planning to take up a suggestion from a fellow Group member, when I happened to be in the bookshop and this title jumped off the shelf at me – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. It is described on the blurb as one of the classics to emerge from the Holocaust, a tribute to the triumph of hope. If, like me, you were deeply moved by the speeches delivered by Holocaust survivors at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, this does seem like a fitting time to read such a book.
And at the moment I feel I need some encouragement that hope triumphs, given the problems we are all facing. I’m afraid the departure of the UK from the European Union, and in particular the division it has wrought upon this nation, troubles me. There does not seem to be anyone on the planet at the moment capable of leading the world out of the climate crisis, except Sir David Attenborough, and he is 93 years old. As for politics, well across the world the post-truth era seems to have well and truly embedded itself.
So, I’m hoping that Dr Frankl will help me to see the bigger picture and give me some hope back!
It’s a fairly short book, for a fairly short month, so if you’d care to join me, you would be very welcome!
We learned last week of the death of Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Although he was a renowned Oxford scholar of Old and Middle English, the obituaries that I read, and the tributes I heard on the radio, tended to focus on his rather more famous father, JRR Tolkien. Not unreasonable; he was, after all, chief custodian, curator and champion of his father’s literary archive after his death in 1973 and from all accounts he was pretty well-adjusted, not seeming to have suffered any lack of self-confidence or self-esteem as a result of his eminent parent.
The same cannot be said of other children of famous or high-achieving parents: the two children of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes seem to have experienced great unhappiness – Nicholas hanged himself in 2009 and their daughter, Frieda, a poet and painter, moved far from her UK birthplace to become an Australian citizen and is three times divorced. I reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a couple of weeks ago and learned that Muriel and her only son became estranged, her having left her husband and child not long after she married in 1937, and Doris Lessing also left her husband and two young children to pursue her literary career. In Lessing’s case, I am not aware of what impact the separation had on the children longer term, and, I hasten to add, I make no judgement. It cannot be easy, though, growing up in the shadow of a famous, high-achieving literary parent.
It got me thinking about parent-child relationships explored in literature and I decided to write a list! Here are my top picks (in no particular order):
- Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – based on the author’s own difficult northern childhood
- Educated by Tara Westover – a memoir from the child of religious zealots
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – harrowing novel shows us how a lack of nurturing in childhood leaves its main protagonist deeply damaged
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – an awful meddling mother and impotent father cause chaos in their daughters’ lives
- Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – most of Dickens’ novels focus on family relationships but this for me is one of the darkest
- Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – an unhealthy relationship between mother and son blights a young man’s future
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a woman suffering in the shadow of a toxic parent
- Hot Milk by Deborah Levy – a brilliant study of a young woman trying to escape the straitjacket of life with a domineering and emotionally manipulative parent
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – among his many other misdemeanours, Heathcliff would surely be found guilty of child cruelty today!
I’ll no doubt think of a few more in the coming days!
What are your favourites?
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