Spring is here! Time for nature books

At last, spring seems to have arrived here in the north of England and it has felt like a long time coming. I love my garden but I could certainly not describe myself as a ‘keen’ gardener, nor have I a great knowledge about the subject. I like it to look nice though, and I like being in it. So, for the last few weeks, as the weather has got noticeably warmer and less damp, I have spent a lot of time in my garden, mainly cutting things back as it was already well-planted when we moved in and the shrubs just seem to grow and grow every year. I have barely touched the garden all winter, but as soon as buds start to appear on things, or spring blooms emerge, I am filled with a renewed gardening energy!

Nature more generally is rather different for me; I love being outside all year round and I find great beauty in bare trees in the winter months, when you can see the wonderful shapes and the intricate patterns of their branches more clearly. It can appear to some that everything is ‘dead’, but while much of it is indeed dormant, there is still a great deal going on if you care to look. Nevertheless, in the spring, so much of the work of nature is visible that it’s a good time of the year to think about nature books. I’ve picked out a few below, fiction and non-fiction, both classic and contemporary, that you might like to indulge in.

Classics on nature

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I read this while at university for a module on American literature, and I’m afraid my 20 year-old self found it very boring! It is, however, a classic of the genre. Written in the 1840s, when the author was in his late 20s, it is his account of living in the wilderness (for two years), beside Walden pond in Massachussetts, observing the changes in the natural world around him and contemplating the virtues of the simple life versus a more materialistic one. I would like to come back to this book sometime soon, to see if I feel any differently about it!

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

This is a book I’d never heard of until fairly recently. It is now regarded as one of the early warnings on climate change. Carson was a research biologist and became increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides in particular, and how they then infiltrated the food chain, and more generally about the way man was exploiting nature in a way that would have disastrous long-term (although short and medium term, as it turns out) consequences.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The classic man versus nature novel. The whale represents existential threat to man’s self-perceived mastery and throws its protagonist into psychological turmoil. Spoiler: the whale wins.

Nature in contemporary fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite classics, and The Overstory is one of the best books I have read in the last ten or more years. It will become a classic. The secret life of trees is explored in awesome detail, woven into a plot about climate activism and the lengths that some people will go to to save nature. It draws on the classics of nature writing as well as new research. Powerful and brilliantly written.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Like Carson’s Silent Spring, this 2020 Booker Prize shortlisted novel envisions a future where humans have prevailed and pushed nature to a point where life as we know it cannot be sustained. Dystopian fiction at its finest and most frightening, because much of it feels very close and entirely possible. If this does not spur you to action then nothing will.

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

I recommended this in a post a few weeks ago, when I was looking at books out for young people. This book was the overall winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book prize this year and is at the top of my TBR list. Unlike many of the other books mentioned in this post where the subject is man versus nature, Hannah Gold’s book explores the special empathy that children have with animals and nature. A force for good which should surely be harnessed.

Nature in contemporary non-fiction

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A brilliant book that has spawned a number of imitators. Published in 2014, it is a memoir of grief, but also a powerful evocation of the relationship between man and nature, again, this time in the form of a goshawk. The author’s father was a keen falconer and photographer who died suddenly. In an effort to reconnect with her memories of her father she acquires a young goshawk which she seeks to train. The landscapes she describes provide a perfect metaphor for grief.

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes

A beautiful and brilliant book by an English author who observes and recounts the epic migratory journey of these magnificent birds from the southern United States to the Arctic. Not a book about man versus nature, rather one about what we can learn about ourselves and human nature by observing animals.

Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree

Published in 2019 to critical acclaim and hugely popular to boot, Wilding is an account filled with hope of one couple’s decision to surrender their uneconomic 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex to nature, by introducing free-roaming breeds of animals and ceasing to manage the environment. In a few short years an extraordinary natural balance was restored. I have this book but have not yet read it, but I did listed to an adaptation on the radio which was inspiring.

I hope you approve of my selection. I would love to hear your reading suggestions for this verdant time of the year.

Book progress

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about the terrible flood events of January 1953 that devastated parts of the east coast of England and the Netherlands. In England over 300 people lost their lives in one terrifying night and in the Netherlands the death toll exceeded 1,800. This event is rarely talked about in England and I am not sure why as events which have caused much less loss of life and less destruction and which also took place a generation or more ago, command much greater pubic attention. Perhaps it is the ‘no-fault’ nature of the disaster – it was a natural event, not caused by negligence, corruption or malicious intent, unlike say the bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 deaths) or the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966 (144 deaths). I do not wish to ‘rank’ these events in terms only of death toll – the Aberfan disaster killing as it did mostly schoolchildren is particularly horrific – but I am simply somewhat surprised that it seems to have slipped from memory.

The morning after – Canvey Island after the devastating floods on 31 January 1953

The loss of life associated with the 1953 storms could not be said to be entirely ‘no fault’. Enquiries found a woeful lack of a meaningful communication system, and the fact that the events took place over the weekend (meaning that officials were not working) certainly contributed to the death toll. Perhaps it was the proximity of these events to the second world war that has contributed in part to the amnesia; tens of thousands of civillians died in the war that had ended only eight years earlier. It is also likely that the lack of investment in maintaining civil defences both during and after the weather contributed to the ease with which flood barriers were breached.

So, as you can see, I’ve been doing research! I’ve read pretty much all the main sources on the subject, and watched quite a lot of newsreel footage from the time. I’d like to tell you about one of the books I read, which had a section on the 1953 floods but which was about the tides more generally. Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, written by Hugh Aldersley-Williams, a scholar of natural sciences, and published in 2017 is a brilliant read. I borrowed it from my local library, intending to read only the section relevant to my research, but I ended up working through the whole book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author is an intelligent and witty writer whose knowledge and authority on his subject is slightly concealed by his humour and deft use of language. It is scholarly work dressed up as an entertaining read, and there aren’t many serious works of non-fiction you can say that about.

The author looks at the link between the sea on earth and our moon, something I had never before understood fully. He also explores the cultural impact of the tides, particularly on nations like the United Kingdom which has such a long coastline relative to its size. Before clocks were invented, “measuring time” was meaningless. People lived their lives by natural phenomena such as the position of the sun, the phase of the moon, the behaviour of wildlife, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Clocks have largely inured us to these movements.

“The coast of the British Isles is one of the most tidally lubricated coasts anywhere in the world.”

Hugh Aldersley-Williams

Hugh Aldersley-Williams writes in detail about historical events that have been influenced by tidal flows, such as the cholera epidemic in London in the 1880s (construction of a sewerage system in the west end of the city meant that the tides of the Thames forced river water into the drinking water in the east of the city). The success of the D-Day landings in northern France in 1944 depended heavily on the accurate prediction of the tides. The author also travelled widely to investigate tidal phenomena all over the world and writes finally (and inevitably) about rising sea levels and the impact of the tides on low-lying coastal communities. Devastating flooding in Europe this last winter has given us a foretaste of this.

This book was an absolutely brilliant read and I recommend it highly.

Another book I read as part of my research and which I did not enjoy was Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke. I read it because it is set in Canvey Island, the location of my own book. However, I found that this book did not keep my interest – the plot was thin and the premise weak. I hope my own book portrays Canvey Island in a more positive light than Vulgar Things. I don’t like criticising books so I won’t say any more.

I recently attended an online writing class with Kate Mosse and Maggie O’Farrell. As writers of historical fiction they said that a book should wear its research thinly. We have all, I am sure, read books where the author is just dying to tell you everything they have found out about their topic! As a novice writer I need to be very careful about this. So, it’s the school Easter holidays and I am using this time to take a break between completing the research phase and beginning the writing phase of my book. Writing starts next week! I have cleared my diary for the next month or two and have high expectations of myself. There is danger to this of course; I could hit creative blocks, or plot problems, and will get myself in a panic about not hitting my daily word count! We will see.

Wish me luck!

Non-fiction reading challenge – “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg

I like to set myself an annual reading challenge – it’s a great way of expanding your reading horizons and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections I’ve made over the last few years that I’ve been doing it. This year, I decided to do something a little different and set myself the goal of reading twelve non-fiction books. Non-fiction is a genre I neglected a bit last year and yet I come across so many books that look so fascinating.

Tiny Habits
First book of my non-fiction reading challenge complete!

For January, I set myself a relatively easy book, Stanford academic BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy. I picked up on this when I was thinking about why so many of us find new year resolutions so difficult to keep. I generally make a conscious choice to not set myself any, in the firm belief that I’m setting myself up to fail! The opening of a new calendar or diary has the powerful effect of making me want to do or change something, however! Instead of resolutions I thought about some new habits I would like to adopt into my life. Nothing too earth-shattering, mainly things like drinking more water, practicing piano daily or writing something (anything!) each day. Small, incremental changes that don’t look that hard to do, but which I have singularly failed to implement in my life to date.

I liked the sound of this book. I like the idea of starting small – this seemed achievable. There is a website to accompany the book, https://tinyhabits.com/, which includes some free resources and, as you might expect, options to join mailing lists and paid-for courses.

The basic premise of the tiny habits approach is based on the science of psychology: first it’s about finding the motivational sweet spot of a habit (too many of us seem to set ourselves habits that we don’t really want to do, like go to the gym every day); second, it’s about designing behaviour changes that we are actually able to implement (within our means, doable in our daily lives); thirdly, it’s about finding ways to remember to do the things we want to do. I can really identify with this last one – I really want to drink more water, but I just forget! There is an underpinning equation to all of this: B = M A P (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Prompt).

This is not a book to be read straight through. It’s more of a workbook, and it is intended that you should implement some changes as you go along. There are lots of exercises at the end of each chapter and appendices with ideas and further resources. My copy now has lots of post-it notes sticking out of it. It’s quite a long book (270 pages, but very small typeface). It’s written in the typical self-help style with lots of anecdotes and a fair bit of repetition. I find most of these kinds of books could be shortened by at least a third!

As with most lasting change, there is no quick-fix method here, although I have to say that this book has helped me to implement some small desirable changes, for example, drinking more water, doing daily stretches, flossing my teeth and reducing my sugar consumption a little. The big take-away for me has been the concept of the ‘Anchor’ – ie pegging a desired new habit to something you already do very reliably like brushing your teeth. This has worked very well for me for the small things; the jury remains out on whether this is going to ‘scale up’ as BJ Fogg promises, into bigger changes. So, for example, if you set yourself the ‘tiny habit’ of one press-up per day, this can in time, evolve into a full-blown exercise regime, and therefore greater health and well-being, because you will be buoyed-up by your success in achieving the single press-up habitually. Fogg is also big on ‘celebrating’, for example, making sure you give yourself some sort of fist pump or similar when you achieve even the tiniest habit. This does not quite suit my English character, but I’m trying!

This is definitely a book I have learned from and one I feel sure I will dip in and out of. If you want to make some major changes overnight this is not going to work, but I am in agreement with the author’s basic premise that small changes have the greatest chance of success and that you can probably build on them over time.

Lebanon
Book two of my 2022 non-fiction reading challenge

Book number two in my non-fiction reading challenge is a very big one: Lebanon: A country in fragments by Andrew Arsan. Lebanon is a country that fascinates me and I had the very good fortune to spend some time there in the late 1990s. I’m looking forward to this one, though it may take me some time!

Interested in self-help books? Here are some others that I have reviewed:

WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear Elizabeth Gilbert

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

The life-changing magic of tidying by Marie Kondo

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim

My 2022 reading challenge

I’ve been setting myself a reading challenge for a few years now. I love following the challenges that other bloggers have set for themselves. Sometimes this is about quantity, no bad thing, especially if you want to get back into a reading groove if perhaps life has taken over a bit and reading has dropped off the list of priorities. I can certainly empathise with this at the moment! Earlier this month I did my monthly ‘in pictures’ post. I hardly took any photos in December so the few that I did have (mostly photos of a research trip to Essex) all looked very pleasant and serene. In reality, things felt much more chaotic! Not just the usual pre-Christmas stuff, but also putting my house back together after the huge disruption of a kitchen refurbishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful now and I’m very happy, but it took several weeks to be fully finished, thanks to Covid and supply chain issues (Brexit: the gift that keeps on giving).

So, I feel like I also need to get back into my reading groove and my annual reading challenge might be just the thing. I’m going to do it slightly differently this year. Normally I pick a theme or a genre for each month, but this year, I’m going full non-fiction! Looking back on my 2021 list of books read, only two were non-fiction titles – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the pacific Crest Trail (which made me want to go and do a long distance walk immediately!) and Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, which it might have been better to read as an aid to calm when I was in the middle of kitchen chaos! I got so much out of those two books as I almost always do from non-fiction, so I really want to make the effort to read more this year.

So, it’s a non-fiction book per month for me. I don’t think I’m going to set myself any themes, rather I’m going to try and go where the mood takes me. This month’s book seems like an apt one: Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy by B J Fogg. I haven’t exactly made new year’s resolutions for 2022, but I am trying to make sure I do certain things on a daily basis, such as piano practice and writing! I am hoping that this book will help me with a few tips and secrets on how to stick to my plans.

When I first started doing my reading challenges I set up a Facebook group which worked well at first. But I have become increasingly disillusioned with social media, and with that platform in particular, so I’m not going to do that this year. I’d be interested to know what platforms other bloggers find helpful in sharing their work, apart from through WordPress of course.

So, I’ll be looking out for others’ reading challenges with interest. I always get good ideas from other people’s reviews. Until next time, happy reading!

Autumn is officially here

As I write this, the sun is setting for the day and the moon (a waning one now, since it was also a full one just two days ago) will soon be visible. We are at the precise mid-point between the summer and winter solstices when the sun is positioned directly above the equator, giving equal time to darkness and light. In the northern hemisphere, our nights will now start to grow longer, while in the southern hemisphere it is the day that is lengthening as the spring turns into summer.

Not the view from my window! Rather, beautiful photography from Ingo Jakubke on Pixabay

It is an important time of the year in the literary world too; as we begin to spend more time on home-based pursuits we inevitably read more. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced last week and a number of literary festivals traditionally take place in the autumn – I am looking forward to the Manchester Literary Festival in October. And like it or not, some of us will be starting to think about Christmas shopping and publishers are competing to attract our attention in the hope that one of their new releases will make it into your shopping basket as the perfect gift. So, it’s a bumper time of year for new books to be published. I posted on here last week about the furore surrounding the publication of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You? It is surely one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year.

But the noise surrounding that book has obscured somewhat the many other big publications of the season. Here are some of those that have caught my eye and which I very much hope to add to my TBR list over the coming weeks.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers maintains his Booker-nominated streak with his new novel. The Overstory was shortlisted in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years. Bewilderment is a good deal shorter but continues with similar themes of the environmental damage wrought by humanity. The main characters are a widowed father and his troubled 9 year-old son seeking connection in the face of global, national and personal tragedy. I can’t wait to read this.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Another author whose last work was one of my absolute favourites of recent years (All the Light We Cannot See, 2015). Doerr’s latest novel is a complex interweaving of five characters and three parallel storylines set in the past (the 15th century siege of Constantinople), the present (during an attack on a public library in Idaho) and the future (a community under threat). They might all be separated by centuries, but the author explores the things that connect them.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

Lost for 75 years, this novel was not published in de Beauvoir’s lifetime as its themes were not considered appropriate. It concerns the friendship between two young girls and how it unravels as they grow up. It is based on a friendship de Beauvoir herself had. The novel’s discovery has caused a frenzy and you can read an extract from The Guardian here.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I am always wishing I’d read more Toibin, but I never seem to manage it and have only read Brooklyn (after I’d seen the film!). So, I’m determined to read this one as its subject is the great German author Thomas Mann, a favourite from my German A level days.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I watched a discussion between Burkeman and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams a couple of weeks ago about this book. I have enjoyed Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine for some years and like his take on life. This is not a traditional book about producitivity, apparently, despite what the title might suggest, it sounds more like an ‘anti-producitivity’ book, encouraging the reader to focus on what is really meaningful in life.

Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker

I make it my business to read plenty of children’s literature. It helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading that I felt as a child. I loved Pax, Pennypacker’s first novel, and this is a follow-up. I am keen to find out what happened to the young fox and his human companion Peter.

And yet more…

There are a number of other books out which readers might like to note: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is the second in his Thursday Murder Club series, and looks to be an equally big success. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out – will it continue her run of best sellers, following Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers? I expect so! And in a similar vein, Paula Hawkins’s A Slow Fire Burning looks set to bring the author more success. I probably would not pick up this kind of novel, but I loved The Girl on the Train so I might give it a go. Michaela Coel is everywhere at the moment, deservedly so after the phenomenal success of her television series I May Destroy You. She is an incredible role model and continues to campaign on the issues the series raised. She has now written Misfits: A pesonal manifesto which promises to be a powerful read. Finally, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, the follow-up to her 2019 success The Silence of the Girls. I found that book difficult to get into, but it was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for The Women’s Prize.

So, plenty to get my teeth into there. Not sure how many of these I’ll actually manage, given that my present TBR pile is toppling, but I am ever the optimist!

What are you reading this autumn? Do enjoy this beautiful time of the year, before the winter kicks in.

Reading challenge – September

September is may favourite time of the year. I just cannot escape that ‘back to school’ feeling and I am always filled with hope and optimism, that something is beginning. I am writing this in my garden and the weather is particularly lovely today, the kind of day that gives you both joy and energy. I have had a very energetic day in fact, having this morning completed my very first official 10k run – Yay! I completed it in almost exactly one hour, which is a very good time for me and I did it without any walking so I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

My daughters are back to school tomorrow and I will miss them being around the house. We normally take our holidays in August, but this year we went in July, so the last month has been spent mainly at home, which has been very grounding. Tomorrow also means a return to some semblance of work – I work part-time for a charity – and also trying to get back to a writing habit. I’m starting work on a new book (while also trying to get my first one submitted!) I also need to get back into a regular reading habit as that has fallen a bit by the wayside.

It is just as well that my Facebook reading challenge choice for last month was a fairly easy one (theme: a book to rest with) and lent itself to being read in small bits of time snatched here and there. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim is a collection of thoughts and wisdom from the international best-selling Korean Buddhist monk. It provides guidance on how to focus more on the important things in life, the things that give our existence substance, such as love, friendship, spirituality and commitment. It is divided into eight chapters, which begin with a short discourse, and then a couple of sub-chapters with several short paragraphs of wisdom. It was an easy read and one I can see myself keeping at my bedside and going back to time and again. Definitely one for slow absorption.

This month’s theme for my reading challenge is a YA novel. I love the YA genre and always wish I read more! The book I have chosen has the intriguing title Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It was first published in 2013 and has been described by Time magazine as the best YA book of all time – quite a recommendation! The audiobook is read by Lin Manuel Miranda, which is very tempting indeed, but I have been listening to a lot of audio recently (while training for the 10k) and I long to have a paperback novel in my hands again!

Many awards won…

Aristotle and Dante are two loners who meet at a swimming pool and seem to have very little in common. Aristotle is described as an ‘angry teen’ whose brother is in prison; Dante is a ‘know it all’. They seem unlikely companions but find they have some shared interests and develop a firm bond as they discover important truths about themselves and about life.

So, if that sounds like something you could get your teeth into, I would love for you to join me this month in the reading challenge.

I hope your September is fruitful, happy and fulfilling.

Book review: “Wild: A journey from lost to found” by Cheryl Strayed

When we first meet Cheryl, the author and narrator, she is lost. At the tender age of 26 she finds herself in a dark place, at the bottom of a downward spiral that began when she lost her 46 year-old mother to cancer four years earlier. Cheryl is one of three siblings, brought up mostly in a single parent family, the mother having left the children’s violent alcoholic father when they were still very young. The mother later married Eddie, a calm and steady influence, and they lived a humble, fairly rural and, most importantly, stable existence. With her mother’s death, however, Cheryl’s life begins to collapse in on her. She and her siblings seem unable to bond in their grief, Eddie drifts away and soon finds another partner and step-children who quickly take over the family home, and Cheryl sets off on a path of toxic behaviour (infidelity, drug-taking and serial unemployment) that will drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Thus the scene is set. When she has reached rock-bottom, Cheryl decides that they only thing she can possibly do is set out on a 1,100 mile solo hike on one of the toughest trails in north America. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border in the south, to the Canadian border in the north, through California, Oregon and Washington. The trail is, over 2,600 miles in total so the author covers only part of it, in a trip that will take her around three months. That’s enough! The terrain is inhospitable, the landscapes change from desert to snowy mountain top, which means that, since she carries almost all of what she needs with her, she requires clothing and equipment for a wide range of climatic conditions. The year that she chooses to travel happens to be one of the worst for snowfall in the mountains. The journey is treacherous enough so Cheryl decides, like all but the most intrepid of hikers, to bypass the worst affected part of the trail and rejoin lower down.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl’s constant companion on her hike is ‘Monster’, the name she gives her enormous backpack. It is monstrously heavy and carrying it gives her constant pain, from the agonies of bearing the weight, to the blisters and open wounds it wears on her hips. Her other source of pain is her boots, bought in good faith, but which turn out to be too small for a hike of this type and which lead to various foot problems, including blackened and lost toenails. But these burdens, the pains, the wounds, are a metaphor for the emotional pain that she is enduring, and as she grows fitter and stronger, and as she learns to beat her immense discomfort, so she learns to live with her grief and to make peace with her suffering. This journey is a meditation on pain. It is therapy.

The book would not be as interesting if it were a trail diary alone. Rather, it is part memoir, as the author gives us the background to her life, to the decline and fall that brought her to the momentous decision to undertake such an enormous mental and physical challenge. It is also a lesson in how sometimes the toughest things can be the most important. The author meets people on the trail with whom she develops lasting bonds and learns that she has depths of resourcefulness that she did not know she had. There are also moments of peril – when her pre-packed supply box does not arrive at the ranger station on time, when she loses a boot over the side of a mountain and has to hike for several days in her camp sandals, attached to her feet by duck tape, when she meets two suspicious characters, ostensibly out to hike and fish, but who seem to take an unnatural interest in the fact she is alone, and then ruin her water purifier to boot.

This is a fascinating story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was on holiday when I read it and began fantasising about long-distance walking trails! Perhaps just the Trans-Pennine for me though – I don’t think I need anything on this scale!

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – July choice

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.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.

What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.

I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!

I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.

Happy reading!

Book review – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.

Henrietta LacksThis may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.

 

Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.

Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.

This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.

I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!

Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.

Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?

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