10 Days in the USA and What I Read (Plus a Book Haul)
On October 29th, I went to an evening drinks party at a neighbour’s house around the corner. A friend asked me about whether the UK or the USA is “home” and I replied that the States feels less and less like home every time I go, that the culture and politics are ever more foreign to me and the UK’s more progressive society is where I belong. I even made an offhand comment to the effect of: once my mother passed, I didn’t think I’d fly back there often, if at all. I was thinking about 5–10 years into the future; instead, a few hours after I got home from the party, we were awoken by the middle-of-the-night phone call saying my mother had suffered a nonrecoverable brain bleed. The next day she was gone.
I haven’t reflected a lot on the irony of that timing, probably because it feels like too much, but it turns out I was completely wrong: in fact, I’m now returning to the States more often. With our mom gone and our dad not really in our lives, my sister and I have gotten closer. Since October I’ve flown back twice and she’s visited here once. There are 7.5 years between us and we’ve always been at different stages of life, with separate preoccupations and priorities; I was also lazy and let my mom be the go-between, passing family news back and forth. Now there’s a sense that we are all we have, and we have to stick together.
So it was doubly important for me to be there for my sister’s graduation from nursing school last week. If we follow each other on Facebook or Instagram, you will have already seen that she finished at the top of her cohort and was one of just two students recognized for academic excellence out of the college’s over 200 graduates – and all of this while raising four children and coping with the disruption of Mom’s death seven months ago. There were many times when she thought she would have to pause or give up her studies, but she persisted and will start work as a hospice nurse soon. We’re all as proud as could be, on our mom’s behalf, too.
The trip was a mixture of celebratory moments and sad duties. We started the process of going through our mom’s belongings and culling what we can, but the files, photos and mementoes are the real challenge and had to wait for another time. There were dozens of books I’d given her for birthdays and holidays, mostly by her favourite gentle writers – Gerald Durrell, Jan Karon, Gervase Phinn – invariably annotated with her name, the date and occasion. I looked back through them and then let them go.
Between my two suitcases I managed to bring back the rest of her first box of journals (there are 150 of them in total, spanning 1989 to 2022), and I’m halfway through #4 at the moment. We moved out of my first home when I was nine, and I don’t have a lot of vivid memories of those early years. But as I read her record of everyday life it’s like I’m right back in those rooms. I get new glimpses of myself, my dad, my sister, but especially of her – not as my mother, but as a whole person. As a child I never realized she was depressed: distressed about her job situation, worried over conflicts with her siblings and my sister, coping with ill health (she was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia) and resisting ageing. For as strong as her Christian faith was, she was really struggling in ways I couldn’t appreciate then.
I hope that later journals will introduce hindsight, now that she’s not around to give a more circumspect view. In any case, they’re an incredible legacy, a chance for me to relive much of my life that I otherwise would only remember in fragments through photographs, and perhaps have a preview of what I can expect from the course of our shared kidney disease.
What I Read
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay – A historical heist novel with shades of Downton Abbey, this comes out in July. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston – Terrific: stark, sexy stories about women who live out West and love cowboys and hunters (as well as dogs and horses). Ten of the stories are in the first person, voiced by women in their twenties and thirties who are looking for romance and adventure and anxiously pondering motherhood (“by the time you get to be thirty, freedom has circled back on itself to mean something totally different from what it did at twenty-one”). The remaining two are in the second person, which I always enjoy. The occasional Montana setting reminded me of stories I’ve read by Maile Meloy and Maggie Shipstead, while the relationship studies made me think of Amy Bloom’s work.
The Harpy by Megan Hunter – Read for Literary Wives club. Review coming up on Monday.
The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller – A solid set of narratives alternating between the POVs of four characters whose lives converge around a play inspired by the playwright’s loss of her boyfriend on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. Her mixed feelings about him towards the end of his life and about being shackled to his legacy as his ‘widow’ reverberate in other sections: one about the lead actor, whose wife has ALS; and one about a widower the playwright is being set up with on a date. Fitting for a book about a play, the scenes feel very visual. A little underpowered, but subtlety is to be expected from a Miller novel. She, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg write easy reads with substance, just the kind of book I want to take on an airplane, as indeed I did with this one. I read the first 2/3 on my travel day (although with the 9/11 theme this maybe wasn’t the best choice!).
For apposite plane reading, I also started Fly Girl by Ann Hood, her memoir of being a TWA flight attendant in the 1970s, the waning glory days of air travel. I’ve read 10 or so of Hood’s books before from various genres, but lost interest in the minutiae of her job applications and interviews. Another writer would probably have made a bigger deal of the inherent sexism of the profession, too. I read 30%.
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano – I knew I wanted to read this even before it was Oprah’s 100th book club pick. It’s a family story spanning three decades and focusing on the Padavanos, a working-class Italian American Chicago clan with four daughters: Julia, Sylvie, and twins Cecilia and Emeline. Julia meets melancholy basketball player William Waters while at Northwestern in the late 1970s and they marry and have a daughter; Sylvie, a budding librarian, makes out with boys in the stacks until her great romance comes along; Cecilia is an artist and Emeline loves babies and manages a nursery. More than once a character think of their collective story as a “soap opera,” and there’s plenty of melodrama here – an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, estrangements, a suicide attempt, a coming out, stealing another’s man – as well as far-fetched coincidences, including the two major deaths falling on the same day as a birth and a reconciliation.
There is such warmth and intensity to the telling, and brave reckoning with mental illness, prejudice and trauma, that I excused flaws such as dwelling overly much in characters’ heads through close third person narration, to the detriment of scenes and dialogue. I love sister stories in general, and the subtle echoes of Leaves of Grass and Little Women (the connections aren’t one to one and you’re kept guessing for most of the book who will be the Beth) add heft. I especially appreciated how a late parent is still remembered in daily life after 30 years have passed. This is, believe it or not, the second basketball novel I’ve loved this year, after Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.
I always try to choose thematically appropriate reads, so I also started:
Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon – A memoir she began after her nonagenarian mother’s death with dementia. Intriguingly, the structure is not chronological but topic by topic, built around key relationships: so far I’ve read “My Mother and Her Bosses” and “My Mother: Words and Music.”
Grave by Allison C. Meier – My sister and I made a day trip up to my mother’s grave for the first time since her burial. She has a beautiful spot in a rural cemetery dating back to the 1780s, but it’s in full sun and very dry, so we tried to cheer up the dusty plot with some extra topsoil and grass seed, marigolds, and a butterfly flag.
Meier is a cemetery tour guide in Brooklyn, where she lives. In the third of the e-book I’ve read so far, she looks at American burial customs, the lack of respect for Black and Native American burial sites, and the rise of garden cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve been reading death-themed books for over a decade and have delighted in exploring cemeteries (including Mount Auburn, as part of my New England honeymoon) for even longer, so this is right up my street and one of the better Object Lessons monographs.
What I Bought
I traded in most of my mother’s books at 2nd & Charles and Wonder Book and Video but, no surprise, promptly spent the store credit on more secondhand books. Thanks to clearance shelves at both stores, I only had to chip in another $12.25 for the below haul, which also covered two Dollar Tree purchases (I felt bad for Susan Minot having signed editions end up remaindered!). Some tried and true authors here, as well as novelties to test out, with a bunch of short stories and novellas to read later in the year.
Spring Reads, Part I: Violets and Rain
We had both rain and spring sunshine on a recent overnight trip to Bridport, Dorset – a return visit after enjoying it so much in 2019. Several elements were repeated: Dorset Nectar cider farm, dinner at Dorshi, and a bookshop and charity shop crawl of the main streets. While we didn’t revisit Thomas Hardy sites, I spent plenty of time at Max Gate by reading Elizabeth Lowry’s The Chosen. Beach walks plus one in the New Forest on the way back were splendid. This was my haul from Bridport Old Books. Stocking up on novellas and poetry, plus a novel by a Canadian author I’ve enjoyed work from before.
Now for a quick look at two tangentially spring-related books I’ve read recently: a short novel about two women’s wartime experiences of motherhood and an elegiac and allusive poetry collection.
Violets by Alex Hyde (2022)
I was intrigued by the sound of this debut novel, which juxtaposes the lives of two young British women named Violet at the close of the Second World War. One miscarries twins and, told she’ll not be able to bear children, has to rethink her whole future; another sails from Wales to Italy on ATS war service, hiding the fact that she’s pregnant by a departed foreign soldier. Hyde’s spare style – no speech marks; short paragraphs or solitary lines separated by spaces – alternates between their stories in brief numbered chapters, bringing them together in a perhaps predictable way that also forms a reimagining of her father’s life story. The narration at times addresses this future character in poems that I think are supposed to be fond and prophetic but I instead found strangely blunt and even taunting (as in the excerpt below). There’s inadequate time to get to know, or care about, either Violet.
Can you feel it, Pram Boy?
Can you march in time?
A change, a hardening,
the jarring of the solid ground as she treads,
gets her pockets picked.
And your Mama, Pram Boy,
yeasty in her private parts.
Granta sent a free copy. Violets came out in paperback in February.
Rain by Don Paterson (Faber, 2009)
I’d previously read Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, in 2015. This collection is in memoriam of the late poet Michael Donaghy, the subject of the late multi-part “Phantom.” There are a couple of poems in Scots and a sequence of seven nature-infused ones designated as being “after” poets from Li Po to Robert Desnos. Several appear to express concern for a son. There’s a haiku-like rhythm to the short stanzas of “Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths.” I didn’t understand why “Unfold i.m. Akira Yoshizawa” was a blank page until I looked him up and learned that he was a famous origamist. The title poem closes the collection:
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;
one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame
to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
I liked individual passages or images but didn’t find much of a connecting theme behind Paterson’s disparate interests. (University library)
Another favourite passage:
So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with the tear to make it bright.
This is why I sit up through the night.
(from “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?”)
And a DNF:
Corpse Beneath the Crocus by N.N. Nelson – I loved the title and the cover, and a widow’s bereavement memoir in poems seemed right up my street. I wish I’d realized Atmosphere is a vanity press, which would explain why these are among the worst poems I’ve read: cliché-riddled and full of obvious sentiments and metaphors as she explores specific moments but mostly overall emotions. Three excerpts:
All things die
In the flowering cycle
Of growth and life
Like sand in an hourglass
Feelings are changeful
Like the tide
Ebbing and flowing
“Love Letter,” a prose piece, held the most promise, which suggests Nelson would have been better off attempting memoir. I slogged (hate-read, really) my way through to the halfway point but could bear it no longer. (NetGalley)
I have a few more spring-themed books on the go: Hoping for a better set next time!
Any spring reads on your plate?
Tricking Myself into Reading My Own Books
I suspect many of us have this bibliophile problem: we get tremendously excited about a particular book and just have to have it, whether as a proof from the publisher, pre-ordering it new, or (for an older book) snapping it up secondhand the minute we hear about it. Then months or even years pass and we realize that the novel or memoir we were once so desperate to read has simply joined the ranks of hundreds of other half-forgotten books we still plan to get to on that legendary ‘one day’ but always pass by in favour of newer acquisitions.
I’ve long strived to read more backlist books from my own collection, as well as to catch up on the dozens of books I’ve been foolish enough to pause partway through and group together on two “set-aside” shelves in the lounge. (Many of these I obtained as review copies from publishers, so I do feel a sense of obligation to write at least a mini review for each.) As Marcie (Buried in Print) noted in her recent reading goals post, vague intentions go by the wayside, so it’s time to get specific about how to incorporate these into my reading stacks.
- For my review backlog of 2022 releases, I get a second chance. I’ve noted the paperback release dates for around 20 books and will aim to have catch-up review posts (here or for Shiny New Books) ready for that date, or at least within that month. Having a deadline to work towards is essential for a last-minute worker like me.
- There are some authors I own 3 or more unread works by. Usually this means I enjoyed a book of theirs so much I went on a secondhand binge … then got distracted and didn’t explore their back catalogue as I meant to. Via Margaret, I just found out about What Cathy Read Next’s Backlist Burrow challenge, where she’s picked six authors who piqued her interest and two books by each to read this year. I’m unlikely to manage two each, but I fancy doing this adjacent/modified challenge: where I own 2 or more unread books by an author, I must read at least 1 this year. I have these authors to choose from, but also others in my sights, e.g. Sarah Hall, whose Haweswater I’ll take on holiday to the Lake District in July.
- Challenges like that one are the best way to get me rifling through my own shelves. I started a few low-key, long-term projects of my own back in 2020 (Journey through the Day and 4 in a Row) and am still ostensibly working on them, as well as on thematic pairs and trios (my Three on a Theme series) as they arise, along with regular tie-ins to seasons, holidays, etc. Hosted challenges are somehow better, though, perhaps due to the built-in companionship and accountability. Nordic FINDS this month, Reading Indies in February, Reading Ireland in March, the 1940 Club in April, and so on. Because they’re so useful for getting me reading from my shelves, I will participate in at least 1 reading challenge per month.
- How to tackle the dreaded set-aside shelves? One book at a time. So, in addition to the ones I’ll review to coincide with the paperback release, I’ll also reintroduce 1 set-aside book to my reading pile each week.
- How to ensure that book hauls from shopping excursions and gift-receiving occasions don’t get neglected? By undertaking regular “overhauls” such as this and this, and checking there are no more than 3 unread books remaining from any 1 haul. If there are, start reading the stragglers right away. This will be particularly important because it looks like this year I might complete the triple crown of UK book towns, with trips planned to Wigtown in June and the Sedbergh area in July/August and Hay-on-Wye a perpetual temptation.
- How to make time for all those lovely random books (such as this stack) that I keep meaning to read but somehow never do? I’m going to allow myself to start at least 1 “just because” book per fortnight.
- Connected to all of these will be requesting fewer 2023 review books from publishers. Almost all my recent requests have gone completely ignored, in fact, which is probably for the best. Unless I’m reviewing something for pay, I’ll just plan to read it from the library or, if I can’t find it that way, will add it to my wish list in advance of my birthday and Christmas.
How do you trick yourself into reading your own books?
Birthday Outing and Book Haul
I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve made it a habit of posting something about each birthday I’ve celebrated since I started blogging. Maybe because, otherwise, the years pass so quickly that I can’t remember from one to another what I did, ate, or received as presents! So, to follow on from my 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 posts, here’s this year’s rundown. (Oh dear, I realize I’ve read just one of the books I received last year!)
On Thursday, I treated myself to a charity shop crawl around Newbury (it’s a great place for thrift shopping, as is nearby Thatcham) and got two jumpers plus this small stack of secondhand books.
Then yesterday, my actual birthday, we took time off and went to Kelmscott Manor in West Oxfordshire/the Cotswolds (right on the border with Gloucestershire), where Victorian designer William Morris lived. We’re a fan of Morris’s floral-based wallpaper and textile designs and he was a progressive thinker, too, embracing socialism and environmentalism – I’ll get his utopian novel, News from Nowhere, out from the university library to read soon. Despite a drizzly start to the day, the place was packed with visitors. The tea shop’s cakes incorporate fruit from the manor’s own trees. Naturally, I had to sample two of their offerings, and still had room for a chocolate beetroot cupcake (with the requisite candle) once we got home.
On the way back, we stopped in Wantage for some secondhand book shopping. I’d found out about Regent market from Simon’s blog and he’s right – it’s huge, with an excellent stock and good prices (£2 or £2.50 for nearly everything I looked at, vs. when we were in Inverness I didn’t buy a thing at Leakey’s because even poor-condition paperbacks started at £4). I would happily have spent much longer there and acquired twice as much, but one must be restrained when there are further book hauls to come. I was pleased to find several books I’ve been interested in reading for a while, as well as a couple by authors I’ve enjoyed before.
I requested a vegan Chinese feast, inspired by a recent cookbook I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness’s upcoming gift books feature, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che. My husband made a special trip to an Asian grocery superstore in Reading and the recipes were fairly involved, but the results – cabbage rolls, wontons and bao buns, most featuring tofu and mushrooms – were worth waiting for. We have leftovers for the weekend, along with a banoffee cheesecake from Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen still to come. (When are complicated dishes for if not for birthdays?)
Here are the books I received as birthday gifts, with more to come, I expect, plus a significant amount of birthday money that I may well spend on books. Some good options for #NovNov22 in here!
A Short Trip to Sedbergh, England’s Book Town
We’ve finally completed the ‘Triple Crown’ of British book towns: Hay-on-Wye in Wales is one of our favourite places and we’ve visited seven or more times over the years (the latest); inspired by Shaun Bythell’s memoirs, we then made the pilgrimage to Wigtown in Scotland in 2018. But we hadn’t made it to Sedbergh, England’s book town, until this past week. A short conference my husband was due to attend in the northwest of the country was the excuse we needed – though a medical emergency with our cat (fine now; just had to have an infected tooth out) shortened our trip and kept him from participating in the symposium at Lancaster.
Sedbergh is technically in Cumbria but falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The book town initiative was part of a drive to re-invigorate the local economy after the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak. It’s a very sleepy town, more so than Hay or Wigtown, and only has two dedicated bookshops. The flagship store is Westwood Books, which was based in Hay until 2006 and occupies a former cinema / factory building. It is indeed reminiscent of Hay’s Cinema Bookshop, and is similar in size and stock to the largest of the Hay shops.
The only other shop in town that only sells books is Clutterbooks charity bookshop, where we started our book hunting after we left the car at our Airbnb flat on the Wednesday. With everything priced at £1 or £1.50, it tempted me into my first six purchases. Next up was Westwood, which opens until 5, an hour later than some other places. I bought a couple more books (delighted with the pristine secondhand copy of Julian Hoffman’s first nature book) but also resold them a small box of antiquarian and signed books for more than I could ever have hoped for – covering all my book purchases for the trip, as well as our meals and snacks out. On the Thursday we had a quiet drink in a cosy local pub to toast Her Majesty’s memory.
Various main street eateries and shops have a shelf or two of books for sale. We perused these, and the Little Free Library in the old bus shelter, on the Wednesday afternoon and first thing Friday morning. I added one more purchase to my stack – a paperback copy of Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil for £1 – just before we left town. In general, there weren’t as many bookshops as expected, and lots of places opened later or closed earlier than advertised, presumably because it was off season and rather rainy. So, it was a little underwhelming as book town experiences go, and I can’t imagine Sedbergh ever drawing us back.
However, we enjoyed exploring the area in general, with stops at Little Moreton Hall, and Sizergh Castle and Chester, respectively, on the way up and back. As part of the conference, we joined in a walk from Grange to Cartmel that took in an interesting limestone pavement landscape. It was my first time in the Dales or Lake District in many a year, and a good chance to get back to that pocket of the world.
A Look Back at 2021’s Happenings, Including Recent USA Trip
I’m old-fashioned and still use a desk calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. I also add in notes after the fact to remember births, deaths, elections, and other nationally and internationally important events. A look back through my 2021 “The Reading Woman” calendar reminded me that last January held a bit of snow, a third UK lockdown, an attempted coup at the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Activities continued online for much of the year:
- 15 music gigs (most of them by The Bookshop Band)
- 11 literary events, including book launches and prize announcements
- 9 book club meetings
- 3 literary festivals
- 2 escape rooms
- 1 progressive dinner
We were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to them on daytrips.
As we entered the autumn, a few more things returned to in-person:
- 5 music gigs
- 2 book club meetings (not counting a few outdoor socials earlier in the year)
- 1 book launch
- 1 conference
I was also fortunate to get back to the States twice this year, once in May–June for my mother’s wedding and again in December for Christmas.
On this most recent trip I had some fun “life meeting books” moments (the photos of me are by Chris Foster):
- An overnight stay on Chincoteague Island, famous for its semi-wild ponies, prompted me to reread a childhood favorite, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- Driving from my sister’s house to my mother’s new place involves some time on Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, through Pennsylvania. Her town even has a tourist attraction called Lincoln Highway Experience that we may check out on a future trip. (The other claims to fame there: it was home to golfer Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers, and the birthplace of the banana split.)
- At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, we met the original “Dippy” the diplodocus, a book about whom I reviewed for Foreword in 2020.
- I also took along a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and snapped a photo of it in an appropriately mysterious corner of the museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first few chapters as this debut novel felt dated and verging on racist.
No matter, though, as I donated it at a Little Free Library.
We sought out a few LFLs on our trip, including that one in a log at Cromwell Valley Park in Maryland, where I picked up a Margot Livesey novel and a couple of travel books. My only other acquisition of the trip was a new paperback of Beneficence by Meredith Hall (author of one of the first books to turn me on to memoirs) from Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, my college town. No secondhand book shopping opportunities this time, alas; just lots of driving in our rental car to visit disparate friends and relatives. However, this was my early Christmas book haul from my husband before we set off:
Another fun stop during our trip was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where we admired wreaths made of mostly natural ingredients like fruit.
The big news from my household this winter is that we have bought our first home, right around the corner from where we rent now, and hope to move in within the next couple of months. Our aim is to do all the bare-minimum renovations in 2022, in time to put up a tree in the living room bay window and a homemade wreath on the door for next Christmas!
Despite these glimpses of travels and merriment, Covid still feels all too real. I appreciated these reminders I saw recently, one in Bath and the other at the museum in Pittsburgh (Covid Manifesto by Cauleen Smith, which originated on Instagram).
“We all deserve better than ‘back to normal’.”
Birthday Book Haul and More
This week I received some very good bookish news that I should be able to share in early November. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve made it a habit of posting something about each birthday I’ve celebrated since I started blogging. Maybe because, otherwise, the years pass so quickly that I can’t remember from one to another what I did, ate, or received as presents! So, to follow on from my posts from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, here’s this year’s rundown. (I haven’t read any more birthday acquisitions since last year’s overhaul. It’s a good thing books are patient.)
It was a lovely, warm autumn day yesterday. I took off work and spent some time reading (of course) and charity shopping for books and a cute new autumn-colours sweater (UK: jumper) before putting in my usual couple of hours volunteering at the library. I did my good deed for the day there by spotting that a copy of the new Sally Rooney novel had gone onto a display shelf instead of to one of the 26 people in the holds queue – oops!
Despite a busy termtime week at work, my husband made deep-dish pizzas and the very decadent Bananas Foster cupcakes from the American-in-London Hummingbird Bakery cookbook Life Is Sweet. Next weekend we have a concert by Nerina Pallot, one of our favourite singer-songwriters, and managed to get a Saturday lunchtime table at Henry and Joe’s, the closest our town has to fine dining, so I’ll consider those additional birthday treats. We’ll be spending this weekend down with our goddaughter and her parents – her second birthday (today) being much more important than my 38th – including a trip to the zoo.
Here’s my book haul thus far, with a few more to come, I expect. I also got some birthday money that I may well spend on books. After all, there are some novellas, poetry collections and recent releases that have been calling my name…
Northumberland Trip, Book Haul, and Reading & 20 Books #9 Emerald
We spent the first 11 days of July on holiday in Northumberland (via stays with friends in York on the way up and back) – our longest spell of vacation since 2016, and our longest UK break since 2013. The trip also happened to coincide with our 14th anniversary. It was a fantastic time of exploring England’s northeast corner, a region new to me. I loved the many different types of landscape, from sandy beaches and rocky coasts and islands to moorland and lovely towns. It’s the county for you if you like castles. We joined the National Trust so we could make stops at lots of stately homes and other historic sites. Some highlights were:
- Cherryburn, the off-the-beaten-track home of engraver Thomas Bewick.
- A cheap and delicious meal of authentic Mexican street food in Hexham, of all places (at Little Mexico).
- Walking along a tiny fraction of Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Roman Fort.
- Cragside, the over-the-top home of a Victorian inventor (and the first international arms dealer – whoops), nestled in a plantation of pines and rhododendrons.
- A boat trip to the Farne Islands with a landing on Inner Farne, giving close-up views of puffins, other seabirds, and grey seals. We also sailed past the lighthouse made famous by Grace Darling’s rescue of shipwreck victims in 1838. (Relevant song by Duke Special, by way of a Michael Longley poem.)
- Whiling away a rainy morning in Barter Books, one of Britain’s largest secondhand bookshops (located in an old Victorian railway station), and the charity shops of Alnwick.
- An adventurous (and very wet) walk along the coast to the Dunstanburgh Castle ruin.
- Searching the dunes for rare orchids on Holy Island, followed by a delicious and largely vegan lunch at Pilgrims Coffee House.
- Another seabird-filled boat trip, this one round Coquet Island. Sightings included roseate terns and the Duke of Northumberland.
- Our second Airbnb, The Lonnen (near Rothbury), was a rural idyll shared mostly with sheep and gray wagtails. We were spoiled by Ruth’s excellent interior décor and cooked breakfasts. You can get a feel for the place via her Instagram.
- Coffee and snacks at Corbridge Larder’s Heron Café – so good we made a second trip.
It was also, half unexpectedly, a week filled with book shopping. First up was Forum Books in Corbridge, a lovely independent bookshop. I don’t often buy new books, so enjoyed the splurge here. The Flyn and Taylor were two of my most anticipated releases of 2021. It felt appropriate to pick up a Bloodaxe poetry title as the publisher is based in nearby Hexham.
Next came a bounteous charity shop haul in Hexham.
On the Tuesday we holed up in Barter Books for hours while it rained – and the queue lengthened – outside. I was surprised and delighted that the nine antiquarian books I resold to Barter more than paid for my purchases, leaving me in credit to spend another time (online if, as seems likely, I don’t get back up in person anytime soon).
Alnwick also has a number of charity shops. I had the most luck at the Lions bookshop.
I seemed to keep finding books wherever I went. Kitchen came from a bookshelf in a shop/café on Holy Island. A secondhand/remainders shop near York Minster was the source of the other three.
What I Read:
The holiday involved significant car journeys as Northumberland is a big county with an hour or more between destinations. Alongside my navigating and DJ duties, I got a lot of reading done during the days, as well as in the evenings.
Finished second half or so of:
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird – An intriguing if somewhat scattered hybrid: a self-help memoir with nature themes. Many female-authored nature books I’ve read recently (Wintering, A Still Life, Rooted) have emphasized paying attention and courting a sense of wonder. To cope with recurring abdominal cancer, Baird turned to swimming at the Australian coast and to faith. Indeed, I was surprised by how deeply she delves into Christianity here. She was involved in the campaign for the ordination of women and supports LGBTQ rights.
Open House by Elizabeth Berg – When her husband leaves, Sam goes off the rails in minor and amusing ways: accepting a rotating cast of housemates, taking temp jobs at a laundromat and in telesales, and getting back onto the dating scene. I didn’t find Sam’s voice as fresh and funny as Berg probably thought it is, but this is as readable as any Oprah’s Book Club selection and kept me entertained on the plane ride back from America and the car trip up to York. It’s about finding joy in the everyday and not defining yourself by your relationships.
Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles – I have yet to review this for BookBrowse, but can briefly tell you that it’s a terrific linked short story collection set on the sagebrush steppe of Colorado and featuring several generations of strong women. Boyles explores environmental threats to the area, like fracking, polluted rivers and an endangered bird species, but never with a heavy hand. It’s a different picture than what we usually get of the American West, and the characters shine. The book reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer, MD and Dan Koeppel – The Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center serves an ethnically diverse community of the working poor. Between March and September 2020, it had 6,000 Covid-19 patients cross the threshold. Nearly 1,000 of them would die. Unfolding in real time, this is an emergency room doctor’s diary as compiled from interviews and correspondence by his journalist cousin. (Coming out on August 3rd. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Virga by Shin Yu Pai – Yoga and Zen Buddhism are major elements in this tenth collection by a Chinese American poet based in Washington. She reflects on her family history and a friend’s death as well as the process of making art, such as a project of crafting 108 clay reliquary boxes. “The uncarved block,” a standout, contrasts the artist’s vision with the impossibility of perfection. The title refers to a weather phenomenon in which rain never reaches the ground because the air is too hot. (Coming out on August 1st.)
Read most or all of:
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to read this buzzy book, so there’s no point recounting the plot, which initially is reminiscent of Luster by Raven Leilani but morphs into its own thing as Nella realizes her rivalry with Hazel, her new Black colleague at Wagner Books, is evidence of a wider social experiment. The prose is hip, bringing to mind Queenie and Such a Fun Age. It was a fun road trip read for me, but I could have done without the silliness of magical hair care products.
Heartstopper, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman – It’s well known at Truham boys’ school that Charlie is gay. Luckily, the bullying has stopped and the others accept him. Nick, who sits next to Charlie in homeroom, even invites him to join the rugby team. Charlie is smitten right away, but it takes longer for Nick, who’s only ever liked girls before, to sort out his feelings. This black-and-white YA graphic novel is pure sweetness, taking me right back to the days of high school crushes. I raced through and placed holds on the other three volumes.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub – Perfect summer reading; perfect holiday reading. Like Jami Attenberg, Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair. Franny’s gay best friend and his husband, soon to adopt a baby, come along. Amid tennis lessons, swims and gourmet meals, secrets and resentment simmer.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – A pair of poignant stories of loss and what gets you through. In the title novella, after the death of the grandmother who raised her, Mikage takes refuge with her friend Yuichi and his mother (once father), Eriko, a trans woman who runs a nightclub. Mikage becomes obsessed with cooking: kitchens are her safe place and food her love language. Moonlight Shadow, half the length, repeats the bereavement theme but has a magic realist air as Satsuki meets someone who lets her see her dead boyfriend again.
I also made a good start on a few of my other purchases from the trip: Islands of Abandonment, No Time to Spare, Filthy Animals, and Female Friends.
Alas, most of the in-demand library books I brought along with me – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Still Life by Sarah Winman – didn’t hit the spot, so I’ve returned them unread and will borrow them at another point later in the year (except Malibu Rising, which felt soapy and insubstantial).
It’s been a struggle getting back into the routines of work and writing since we got back, but I’ve managed to review one more of my 20 Books of Summer. This is #9, slipped in from my Forum Books pile, and I’m currently working on books #10–13.
Emerald by Ruth Padel (2018)
This was my 11th book from Padel; I’ve read a mixture of her poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry criticism. Emerald consists mostly of poems in memory of her mother, Hilda, who died in 2017 at the age of 97. The book pivots on her mother’s death, remembering the before (family stories, her little ways, moving her into sheltered accommodation when she was 91, sitting vigil at her deathbed) and the letdown of after. It made a good follow-on to one I reviewed last month, Kate Mosse’s An Extra Pair of Hands.
Emerald, the hue and the gemstone, recurs frequently in ornate imagery of verdant outdoor scenes and expensive art objects. Two favourites were travel-based: “Jaipur,” about the emerald-cutters of India, where Padel guiltily flew while her mother was ill; and “Salon Noir,” about a trip down into prehistoric caves of France the summer after Hilda’s death. Overall, I expected the book to resonate with me more than it did. The bereavement narrative never broke through to touch me; it remained behind a silk screen of manners and form.
Two favourite stanzas:
“Your voice is your breath.
The first thing that’s yours
and the last.” (from “Fragile as Breath”)
“that’s all of us
sifting the dark
in our anonymities and hope.” (from “Above is the Same as Below”)
Next books in progress: The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
USA Trip and Book Acquisitions
On Wednesday I got back from my first trip to the USA in two years. It was for the special occasion of my mother getting remarried, so was well worth the extra complications of pandemic travelling. While quarantining at my sister’s house for a week, I observed the chaos of a household with FIVE members in virtual schooling. When it all got too noisy for me, I’d retreat upstairs to read with Pierre the cat.
I also spent some time, as always, going through my boxes of mementoes and books in her basement. I later sold back several boxes’ worth of books that I’d weeded out, but of course I acquired more as well. Below are a super-belated Christmas 2019 gift, my Wonder Book haul, hand-me-downs from my stepfather, two Dollar Tree purchases, and my 2nd & Charles haul (mostly from the clearance shelves). Subtracting buyback credit, my total spend was $3.76!
Almost purchased, just for the title.
The wedding itself (and meeting my new stepfather and his daughters) went beautifully. We had hot but not unbearable weather, and bright sun for picture-taking. The below passage from Carol Shields’s The Box Garden, which I’d noted last year while buddy reading it with Buried in Print, felt particularly apt for the occasion.
I also acquired two new U.S. releases to review for BookBrowse.
I squeezed most of the new acquisitions, plus another 37 books from storage, into my suitcases. I focused on bringing back books I’m eyeing up for certain challenges, appealing memoirs, and books I want to reread (the far left stack below).
As for those mementoes, I made some amusing finds, including my childhood blankie; the “medical kit” I made at about age nine, inspired by a visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine and my love for the television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; and a few early writing attempts. “A Day in the Life of a Gangster” is a story I wrote at probably age seven. I love the old typewriter font, but my “About the Author” note was the funniest bit – I am so not a mystery reader anymore, and I doubt I’d been on a single proper hike at that point in my life. Newsboys: Take Me to Your Concert was my co-written entry for the Write-a-Book Contest in eighth grade, and What Is a Llama? I wrote and illustrated with my own photographs at age 14 as a county 4H project. I even won a ribbon and a cash prize in the random amount of $4.34.
Back in self-isolation here in the UK, I had seven review copies waiting for me, and another five have arrived in the last couple of days, so the cycle never ends: acquire books, read books, write about books, part with or figure out how to store and/or display books…
On with the summer reading!
Somerset Trip & Bookbarn Haul and Overhauls
Last week we managed a few days’ holiday in Somerset – our first trip away from home in over seven months (the last one was to Hay-on-Wye). Though only an hour and a half from where we live, it felt like a world away. We were very lucky with the weather, too. We wandered the quiet nature reserves of the Avalon Marshes, toured Glastonbury and Wells (the smallest cathedral city in the UK; alas, we missed the limited cathedral opening hours, but had a nice walk around the outside and saw a plaque marking where Elizabeth Goudge lived), and climbed Glastonbury Tor and Ebber Gorge. Not wanting to chance any pubs, we ate daytime meals outdoors at a few cafés and brought posh supermarket takeaways with us to heat up in the Airbnb kitchen for dinners.
(Photos by Chris Foster)
I read from lots of different books on the trip, but my most appropriate selection was Skylarks with Rosie, Stephen Moss’s diary of the coronavirus spring experienced in Somerset. By coincidence, my husband saw Moss (a mentor of his; we’ve met him a number of times before) filming at Ham Wall when he went back there early one morning!
On the last day, we drove back via Bookbarn International, a favourite secondhand bookshop of mine. Below is my book haul from the trip: the top five were from a Little Free Library we found in a bus shelter in the delightfully named town of Queen Camel and the bottom stack was from Bookbarn, which was looking well stocked after the lockdown. I was particularly pleased to find books by Amy Bloom, Sue Miller, and Jane Smiley, authors you don’t come across so often in the UK. Some of the LFL books have rather hideous covers, but it’s the inside that counts, yes?
Overhaul of Previous Trips’ Purchases
This was our seventh trip to Bookbarn since June 2013. I don’t seem to have any photos of that first visit, but for all the rest I have at least one book haul photo.
Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With his permission, I’m borrowing the title and format to look back at what I’ve bought at Bookbarn over the years and how much I still have left to read.
Date: July 2015
Number of books bought: 8 [the Allen and Cobbett are reference books for my husband]
- Read: 7
- No longer owned: 2 (I resold the Fitzgerald and Levy)
- Remaining unread: 1 (Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – so I took it with me on the Somerset trip and have read the first 50 pages so far.)
This is a very good showing for me! I suppose I did have nearly six years to get through them all. I’ve done less well on the other years’ hauls…
Date: July 2016
Number of books bought: 10
- Had read already: 1 (Rachman)
- Read since: 4
- No longer owned: 1 (Irving’s early work hasn’t been to my taste, so after my husband read The Water-Method Man, I donated it; its only virtue in my eyes is that the main character is called “Bogus Trumper”)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Chatwin, Coe, McCarthy, O’Hanlon)
Date: December 2016
Number of books bought: 13 (the two pictured at left were from another shop)
- Read: 6
- DNFed and gave away: 3 (Lurie, Smith, Wheen)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Barnes, Ellman biography, Godwin, Mantel)
Date: October 2017 (multiple photos in this post)
Number of books bought: 15
- Read: 5
- Skimmed: 1 (McCarthy)
- DNFed: 1 (McNeillie)
- Remaining unread: 8! (I have a bad habit of letting biographies sit around unread)
Date: February 2020
Number of books bought: 14
- Had read already: 2
- Skimmed: 2
- Started reading but set aside: 2, so…
- Remaining unread: 10!
To encourage myself to get to more of these previous acquisitions, I’ve added six of them to my bedside stack.