Archive for ‘Non fiction’

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Serpent’s Tail, £17.99, out now        

Wayward Lives book cover

This is an extraordinary and moving book, finding women’s hidden histories in the archives.  Hartman makes the invisible visible, in many cases literally with vivid images that will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.  Photos, newspaper clippings, and contemporary documents let you see for yourself the stories of women refusing to live like slaves, and striving for freedom and joy.

Focussing on young black women in America in the early twentieth century, Hartman uses a vast range of archival material, and draws out the words and voices of those women wherever she can.  Her approach is creative and hugely engaging, and you can tell it’s going to be something different from the cast of characters listed at the start of the book.  Included are “Mabel Hampton: Chorine, lesbian, working-class intellectual, and aspiring concert singer” and “The Chorus: All the unnamed young women of the city trying to find a way to live and in search of beauty”.  Some of the content is inevitably quite distressing. There is deprivation and glamour, imprisonment and rebellion, servitude and love.

The book’s subtitle is Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and the lives of the women we encounter reveal the personal cost of social injustice and change.  In an interview about writing the book, Hartman said she asked herself: “What is it like to imagine a radically different world, or to try to make a beautiful life in a situation of brutal constraint?” (https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/). It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.  The closest thing I’ve found (and also excellent) for revealing hidden women in the archive is Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes (https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15502.html).  

Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow, rightly calls Wayward Lives “… a startling, dazzling act of resurrection”.  This is exactly what it is.  Stunning.

Review by Bethan

September 19, 2020

Bestsellers this week

by Team Riverside

Our bestsellers this week:

board showing bestsellers

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race

Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing

Phoebe Stuckes – Platinum Blonde

Zadie Smith – Intimations

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

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September 7, 2020

Recollections Of My Non-Existence

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Rebecca Solnit’s latest work is a slim volume of memoir recounting her experience of living alone in San Francisco. Through the lens of her own journeys and interactions, Solnit takes us through subjects such as the art world, environmentalism, gendered violence, gentrification, and the writer’s own struggle to have her voice heard.

In some ways Solnit treads similar ground to her previous works, such as Wanderlust and Men Explain Things To Me, however her personal insight into these subjects is invaluable. I found her perspective on the changing landscape of San Francisco particularly interesting.

As always, Solnit’s prose is measured, although the main focus of the book is on how women are silenced, Solnit arms her reader with information and hope. She writes often of her friends, and how these connections have sustained her personally and professionally. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in feminism, writing and activism.  

Review by Phoebe

August 24, 2020

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sort Of Books, £9.99, out nowKathleen Jamie SURFACING.png

My favourite in this collection of essays is ‘In Quinhagak’, where Scottish nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie travels to a small village by the Bering Sea, mainly home to Yup’ik people.  She makes genuine connections with people she spends time with there, noticing different ways of experiencing time, and alternative ways of relating to history and land.  She finds the Yup’ik people’s ownership of their land, and care for it, intriguing, contrasting it with the almost total private ownership of land in Scotland (p. 89).

In ‘Links of Noltland 1’, working alongside archaeologists on remote Orkney, Jamie gets to see Neolithic treasures near their original sites, including the famous Westray Wife (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westray_Wife).  She is invited for dinner with a group at a colleague’s house.  After dinner, “…the others were sprawled on their orange sofas watching some old Quentin Tarantino film on Netflix.  They looked like the seals hauled out on the weedy shore.  If seals could watch Netflix, they would” (p. 154).  The humour throughout the book reminded me how much I loved her raucous poem The Queen of Sheba (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/queen-sheba).

Inevitably, the climate emergency shadows everything.  Jamie is thoughtful about it, and is not defeated.  She notes impacts observed by people living on land they have been familiar with for generations.  “We all know it.  We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death.  Maybe that’s why the folk here don’t embrace their Neolithic site much.  It’s all too close to the knuckle.” (p. 156).  Early trips to Tibet, and memories of her mother and grandmother, make this a wide-ranging and always interesting collection.

As a huge fan of her previous collections Sightlines and Findings, I had asked for this for my birthday and was delighted to get it.  Reflective, enjoyable, and enlightening.

Review by Bethan

July 21, 2020

Re-opening bestsellers

by Team Riverside

bestsellers 210720.jpg.jpegOur bestselling books, from 7 July to today 21 July:

1. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

2. Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

3. My Name is Why – Lemn Sissay

4. Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

5. Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

6. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

7. Black and British – David Olusoga

8. Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

9. Normal People – Sally Rooney

10. City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert

11. Humankind: a Hopeful History – Rutger Bregman

12. Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

13. Too Much and Never Enough – Mary L. Trump

14. Swimming in the Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski

15. Mouth Full of Blood – Toni Morrison

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July 14, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now Robin Wall Kimmerer BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.jpg

“Even a wounded world is feeding us.  Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.  I choose joy over despair.  Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift” (p. 327).  I came across Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and popular science and nature writer, through references to her earlier work Gathering Moss.  She is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.  Gathering Moss has been mentioned in literary reviews, in nature writing, in science writing, and on the thoughtful blog Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/13/gathering-moss-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Anything so niche, which appeals across such broad spectrum of readers, intrigued me.

I still haven’t managed to read Gathering Moss, mainly as it’s hard to find in the UK, but I am completely bowled over by her latest work, Braiding Sweetgrass.  Wall Kimmerer shares her vast knowledge and wisdom about plants and the natural world and introduces a completely new (and yet also ancient) way of thinking about nature.  She draws on her many roles: as a Native American, a mother, an observer, a scientist and a joyful activist.

She provides a refreshing and vital alternative approach to thinking about human and non-human life.  Language is key here: for her, and the indigenous cultures she describes, every living thing is a who, not a what.

Her writing about specific engagements with nature is as engrossing as her big picture analysis, and often the two meet. As she and other volunteers gather to help salamanders across a busy road, so they will not be killed by passing cars, the second Gulf War begins.  “Somewhere another woman looks out her window, but the formation of dark shapes in her sky is not a skein of spring geese returning” (p.349).

There is nothing fluffy or foolish about her coherent and radical ecology.  “… it seems to me we humans have gifts in addition to gratitude that we might offer in return.  The philosophy of reciprocity is beautiful in the abstract, but the practical is harder” (p. 238).  She is ready to engage with the practical questions of how we live now, as a planet, as a species, as nations and as individuals.

Review by Bethan

February 11, 2020

The Missing – The True Story of My Family by Michael Rosen

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Walker, £8.99, out nowMichael Rosen THE MISSING

Great-Uncle Oscar, Great-Aunt Rachel, Great-Uncle Martin and other family members were missing from Michael Rosen’s post-war childhood.  Although those who had disappeared were spoken of, there was mystery around what had happened to them.  (A poem for Oscar and Rachel is available at https://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.com/2019/01/clockmender-oscar-rosen-and-his-wife.html).  For Rosen, some of the mysteries were not resolved until he was doing the research which formed this book.

This outstanding short book is written for children aged about ten and up, as well as adults.  It is a useful and appropriate way to start talking about the Holocaust with children.  He tells his family story through accessible and moving prose interspersed with his poems.  In a moving interview in the Guardian, he talks about the long impact of the silence about those who were missing (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/dec/28/michael-rosen-family-history-jewish-culture).  As the article notes: “Unusually, the book is aimed at children aged 10 and over, as well as adults. Rosen decided to write it that way after visiting a school where a pupil denied the Holocaust to his face. “This young man put up his hand and said: ‘It didn’t happen, did it?’” As the teacher panicked, Rosen remembers counting to three and patiently saying: ‘Well, no, it did happen.’”

Rosen shares original family letters, postcards and photos which make the stories even more compelling, and show readers that you can do your own research about things that are important to you.  You don’t need to be a specialist.

Fans of Rosen’s work will meet people they remember: his memorable childhood friend Harrybo; his beloved father; and his grandfather (who turns out to be the inspiration for this excellent poem from You Tell Me http://bepalmer.blogspot.com/2012/05/).  I had this book as a child.  I can remember so many of those poems now.

One of the things that makes the book truly exceptional is the framing of the stories as being absolutely similar to stories of current refugees.  “This story is about things that happened to my family a long time ago, back when photos and films were in black and white.  But when I think about it, my relatives were refugees – a lot like the people you may have seen on the news recently…  So I hope this book becomes part of a bigger conversation about the refugee crisis.  About how to find fair and decent ways of helping people like my relatives” (p. 5).   Deep humanity emerges from the book which contrasts with the inhumanity that caused the deaths of all these much-missed people.  This makes The Missing both beautiful and essential reading right now.

Review by Bethan

February 2, 2020

January Bestsellers

by Team Riverside

1. Nora Ephron – I Feel Bad About My NeckNora Ephron I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK

2. Greta Thunberg – No-one is Too Small to Make a Difference

3. Josh Cohen – Not Working

4. Charlie Mackesy – The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

5. David Wallace-Wells – The Uninhabitable Earth

6. Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

6 = Emily Maitlis – Airhead

8. Bridget Collins – The Binding

8 = Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

8 = Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

8 = Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer

12. Lucy Foley – The Hunting Party

13. Nathan Filer – This Book will Change Your Mind About Mental Health

13 = Deborah Orr – Motherwell

13 = David Nott – War Doctor

13 = Laura Shepherd-Robinson – Blood and Sugar

13 = Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

13 = Taylor Jenkins Reid – Daisy Jones and the Six

19. Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers

19 = ed. Alain de Botton – The School of Life

19 = Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends

19 = Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt

19 = Richard Powers – The Overstory

24. Stephane Garnier – How to Live Like Your Cat

24 = Elizabeth Strout – Olive, Again

24 = Sara Collins – The Confessions of Frannie Langton

24 = Andrew Sean Greer – Less

24 = Okechukwu Nzelu – The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney

24 = Candice Carty-Williams – Queenie

24 = Ian McEwan – The Cockroach

24 = Shoshana Zuboff – The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

24 = Lemn Sissay – My Name is Why

24 = Carmen Maria Machado – In the Dream House

24 = Various – Dog Poems

24 = Esi Edugyan – Washington Black

24 = Lillian Li – Number One Chinese Restaurant

February 1, 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

by Team Riverside

Francesca Wade SQUARE HAUNTING

Faber, Hardback, £20.00, out now

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is an incredible achievement, informative and detailed yet thrilling and poetic. It is a shared biography of five fascinating women: H.D., a poet, Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist, Jane Ellen Harrison, a classicist and translator, Eileen Power, a historian and broadcaster and Virginia Woolf, a writer and publisher. The book is based around Mecklenburgh Square, a square on the fringes of Bloomsbury where, coincidentally, all of these accomplished women resided at one time or another. This book is not just a history of these women and their work but also of a time where women were starting to live and work independently.

The subject matter itself is fascinating but Wade’s prose is what elevates this beyond the realm of academic biography. The stories of these women’s lives while residing in Mecklenburgh Square are told with astonishing sympathy, I felt a great affinity for these women while reading about their lives, loves, and their striving to have their work recognised.

Wade has rightly gained a great deal of praise for this stunning work of biography; I would recommend it to anyone who has ever wanted A Room of One’s Own.

Review by Phoebe

January 21, 2020

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

by Team Riverside

Serpent’s Tail, Hardback, £14.99, out nowCarmen Marie Machado IN THE DREAM HOUSE

Carmen Maria Machado’s astonishing follow up to her debut collection of stories Her Body and Other Parties is a memoir detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of an ex-girlfriend. Machado recounts the story of the relationship through the lens of different literary tropes and genres: ‘The Dream House as Pulp Novel’, ‘The Dream House as Soap Opera’.

The story is fragmented but the prose is clear-eyed and sharp. Machado mixes the personal and political effortlessly, both confiding in the reader about her own experience of abuse and contextualising her experience as part of a wider problem, that of the silence around abuse in LGBTQ relationships: ‘we are in the muck like everyone else’, she states. The book is an incredible feat of writing by Machado, the most terrifying section of all is, somehow, a ‘choose your own adventure’ section, and the ending is a surprising, uplifting twist.

Machado is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the great prose stylists of our time, this book is further proof of her extraordinary ability as a writer. As Machado states in her preface: ‘If you need this book, it is for you.’

Review by Phoebe

December 3, 2019

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Press, £9.99, out nowChristiane Ritter A WOMAN IN THE POLAR NIGHT

I fell upon this book at The Book Hive in Norwich, and read it immediately.  This beautiful new edition of a 1934 is a fresh and joyous account of a woman wintering over in the Arctic. She says everyone should spend a year in the Arctic to get their priorities right.

Christiane Ritter, a visual artist from Austria, spent the winter in an extremely isolated small hut with her husband and another hunter in Spitsbergen/Svalbard.  She was often alone, and her writing about this is some of my favourite in the book.  At one point, she spends nine days on her own trying to stop the hut being entirely buried under snow and ice.  After the storm is over, peace reigns.  “But it is as though things up here have acquired a light of their own, as though they themselves emitted rays of the most beautiful and mysterious hues.  All the mountains, tremendous in the foreground and sharply edged in the distance, are glassy-bright with rigid ice, glass bright the foreland and glass bright the cliffs along the shore that, transfigured by frost and surf into high, round domes of ice, drop steeply into the sea”.

Her experience of loss of self and sense of connection to all other living things at this point reminded me strongly of a beautiful moment in Alan Lightman’s book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, where he feels a connection to “all of nature, and to the entire cosmos” (see https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/03/27/alan-lightman-searching-for-stars-on-an-island-in-maine/).

The three hunt, clean and repair the hut, and undertake perilous journeys.  To have a woman’s perspective is intriguing, including on how she is treated by the men, and how she observes her own responses to extreme conditions.  Her particular version of rar (Arctic insanity) involves trying to clean the hut’s floor. It turns into an ice rink.

The hut is not a pure escape from the world.  Some chilly blasts of news from rare visitors remind us that this is the 1930s and a worrying time: one of them asks, is there a war yet?  More cheerfully, when the group visit their neighbour Sven (who is in fact very far away), they are impressed by his two charming dogs.  Whenever the people are talking, the dogs wag their tails.  Christiane realises that as it’s usually just Sven and the dogs, they are used to him talking just to them – so they assume this is what he is doing now, and reply.

There is a brilliant sharp foreword from Sara Wheeler, another author who writes beautifully about cold places (see the excellent Terra Incognita).  A real treat.

Review by Bethan

December 3, 2019

New signed copies in!

by Team Riverside

Toni Adeyemi – Children of Virtue and VengeanceTomi Adeyemi CHILDREN OF VIRTUE AND VENGEANCE

Alain de Botton (editor) – School of Life

John le Carré – Agent Running in the Field

Jung Chang – Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

Richard Dawkins – Outgrowing God

Carol Ann Duffy – Frost Fair

Emily Gravett – Meerkat Christmas

Frances Hardinge – Deeplight

Simon Jenkins – A Short History of London

Jay Rayner – My Last Supper

Lemn Sissay – My Name is Why

Nigel Slater – Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter

Zadie Smith – Grand Union

Rick Stein – Rick Stein’s Secret France

 

November 2, 2019

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Sort Of Books, £20, out nowTove Jansson LETTERS FROM TOVE

These letters spanning more than fifty years give a compelling inside into the full and important life of a great writer and visual artist.  Tove Jansson is best known in the UK as the author of the Moomins, and The Summer Book, although she was also a painter (and much of her work featured in a recent exhibition in London – https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2017/october/tove-jansson/).

Born in Finland in 1914 to a graphic artist and a sculptor, Jansson was a committed and honest letter-writer, reflecting on the times and places she lived as well as personal relationships.  For anyone who loves the island where The Summer Book is set, these letters provide insights over years into how Jansson and her family and friends lived and worked there.  Her late 1930s travels to Italy and France transport the reader to a sun-drenched but uneasy southern Europe.

Helpful editing from Boel Westin and Helen Svensson provides good context on what is happening in Jansson’s life and the world more generally, without being intrusive.  Westin wrote Jansson’s authorise biography, Life Art Words, and knows her subject inside out (see also https://www.moomin.com/en/blog/an-artist-a-friend-a-lover-a-new-book-compiled-from-tove-janssons-private-letters-reveals-new-sides-of-the-moomin-creator/#d660ea76 for how the letters were selected).  The letters are grouped by correspondent.  You get a rounded picture of the individual as she writes to very close friends, to her mother, her partner, her publisher.

Some of my favourites are her wartime letters to her closest friend, Eva Konikoff, who escaped from Finland to the US before the war began.  She talks about the divisions and pressures of war, even within her own family: “Under the pressure of being obliged to keep quiet, anxious about their own little circle, everyone hunches more deeply into their shell.  The great events unfolding around us, rather than widening our horizons, have shrunk them into petty stubbornness, we get manically hooked on the phraseology of misdirected nationalism, on slogans, boundaries grow less and less flexible, logic goes out of the window.  But the old prejudices and principles continue to be defended.”  (p. 138).  Her experiences living through the Second World War, where one of her brothers is fighting and she does some agricultural war service, are formative.

Fans of her Moomin strips and novels will also find that many of the themes of those works draw on events and characters from Jansson’s life.  At one point she considers dedicating Moominpappa at Sea to her father, with whom she had a very strained relationship, but thinks better of it as the character is based on him.

It is a real privilege to be admitted to the intimate thoughts of a favoured writer, and this collection is as compelling as any of her writings.  A complete treat.

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2019

Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison

by Team Riverside

Hardcover, Chatto and Windus, £20, out nowToni Morrison MOUTH FULL OF BLOOD

This is an outstanding and highly relevant selection of essays from the great American novelist and intellectual.  She reflects on writing and literature, on prejudice and racism, and on politics and technology (among other things).

She gives highly personal tributes to friends and inspirations, including beautiful pieces on James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe and their influences on her own writing.  On James Baldwin, she writes: “I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me were nevertheless unmistakeable if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form; that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy; that ‘the world is before [me] and [I] need not take it or leave it as it was when [I] came in’.” (p. 229). I have just read some of Achebe’s essays (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2018/08/26/penguin-modern-series/).  Morrison’s explanation of the importance of his work in enlarging the horizons of writers who came after makes me determined to read his novels.

I did not intend to read Mouth Full of Blood straight through but rather to savour it, but ended up devouring it over a couple of weeks.  Morrison has great clarity of mind and expression, and is unafraid of dealing with difficult and painful subjects.  She remains deeply humane, and often funny too.

Despite the age of some of the pieces, the collection remains fresh and engaging.  Some themes are timeless.  On racism and fascism, and and how to recognise them, she writes: “Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third.  The move towards a final solution is not a jump.  It takes one step, then another, then another” (p. 14).

Review by Bethan

August 26, 2019

Dinner with Edward – The Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Pushkin Press (One imprint), £12.99, out nowIsabel Vincent DINNER WITH EDWARD

This is an engaging true story of a New York friendship between Edward, an elderly widower, and Isabel, a Canadian journalist recently moved to the city.

Over several exquisite home cooked meals Edward and Isabel talk about the large and important things in life – love, food, loss.  Isabel has been covering the Bosnian war, where she met her Serbian husband, and has a new job.  Her marriage is failing, and she has a young daughter.  Edward is the father of her friend, and he is recently widowed after having been married to the love of his life for many years.  He had worked as a tailor, a welder, and in a factory.  He and his wife wrote plays as well as raising their children.

The food and drink in the book are mouth-watering.  I must try his way of making a bourbon and pastis cocktail, which can be adapted with absinthe to make green fairies (p. 54).  I sometimes want books which are consoling or comforting without losing their edge, and this definitely met this criterion.  It was a helpful distraction in a stressful week.  It also reminded me of the very great sensual pleasures of eating and drinking thoughtfully.

Dinner with Edward is not rose tinted: Edward’s daughter warns Isabel that her father can be quite controlling, and this manifests in him insisting that Isabel try dressing or making up in a particular way (p.71).  However, it is clearly only ever done on Isabel’s own terms, and does inject a little Cinderella feeling into a bleak time in her life.  Sometimes you just do need some great clothes that you can’t afford.

The book is very New York – I had never heard of Roosevelt Island (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roosevelt_Island) – and the thrills of hunting down delicacies in little shops and markets feature strongly.  I loved the glimpse of a life open to new friends and acquaintances.  In the age of online friends, we can make unexpected ones if we approach things with an open heart.  Edward continually finds people interesting, and takes emotional risks despite having had several terrible heartbreaks in his life.  The joys can that can be found in hard times leap out, as does the importance of being open to possibilities and saying yes to things.  A little gem.

Review by Bethan

August 20, 2019

The Way to the Sea – the Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary by Caroline Crampton

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out nowCaroline Crampton THE WAY TO THE SEA

The Isle of Grain, Deadman’s Island, Bedlam’s Bottom, Shivering Sands.  There are strange and evocative names scattered over this liminal place, the Thames Estuary.  The Way to the Sea is a readable and engaging tour of this diverse and often mysterious landscape.

Starting at the head of the river, Crampton travels the length of the river telling both her own story and the river’s as she goes.  Her parents sailed to Britain from South Africa.  They moored in St Katherine’s Docks, just over the river from the Riverside Bookshop, and then settled in the UK.  As a child it was normal for the family to travel from Kent in the own boat, docking upriver for a weekend away.  She captures the sensory experiences of the river, its distinctive smells, its mud and sudden fogs.  Some of the mystery of the estuary comes from communities that seem to be outside the mainstream of British life, either by choice or circumstance.

Some of the stories she tells are relatively well known, like the highly explosive wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery which sunk in 1944. Monitored remotely by river authorities, if it were to explode it would cause widespread damage.  Lesser known stories also pop up, including the RSPB takeover of former Ministry of Defence land at Rainham Marshes.  Easily accessible by train from central London, visitors can now see rare birds (and if you are lucky, a weasel) amid the ruined shooting ranges and pylons (https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/rainham-marshes/).

Crampton is excellent at pulling interesting fiction and non-fiction references into her narrative.  It was a pleasure to be reminded of Thames fiction including Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, and Richard Jefferies’ After London.  Joseph Conrad is often cited uncritically in discussions of the Thames Estuary, and it is excellent that Crampton gives proper space to Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture ‘An Image of Africa’ which, as Crampton writes, “skewers the racist assumptions that pepper Conrad’s writings” (p.94).  The Way to the Sea is a useful companion piece to Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary, which takes a more artistic but equally interesting approach.  Lichtenstein’s book references Robert Macfarlane’s excellent film, the Wild Places of Essex, which is another useful watch to complement this book (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qsxy5).

The personal and historic photos which break up the text help make this a quick and interesting read.  If you have an interest in the Thames, past or present, this is a satisfying addition to your library.

Review by Bethan

June 8, 2019

Everything in its Place – First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £20, out nowOliver Sacks EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

This collection of essays from great science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, is a real treat for anyone who loved his previous works.

As with his other books, the essays are readable, beautifully written and engaging.  Known for his books The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and Migraine among others, he also wrote about his own life.  His insatiable curiosity shines through, and it’s clear that this carried on throughout his long and interesting life.  He covers a wide range of topics, from the joy of swimming to his love of libraries, to a piece about ferns, and the life of Humphrey Davy.

He addresses the ethics of writing about people who are or have been unwell in a clear and helpful way.  His book review of Michael Greenberg’s A Summer of Madness raises the question, as Greenberg is writing about his teenage daughter Sally’s first experience of mania.  Writing the book “… was not a quick or easy decision for either Sally or her father.  Greenberg did not grab a pen and start writing during his daughter’s psychosis in 1996 – he waited, he pondered, he let the experience sink deep into him.  He had long, searching discussions with Sally, and only more than a decade later did he feel that he might have the balance, the perspective, the tone that Hurry Down Sunshine would need.  Sally, too, had come to feel this, and urged him not only to write her story but to use her real name, without camouflage.  It was a courageous decision, given the stigma and misunderstanding that still surround mental illness of any kind” (p. 182).

My favourite essay is Travels with Lowell, an account of a road trip he takes with photojournalist Lowell Handler to find out more about Tourette’s.  In the course of the trip, they visit La Crete, a Canadian town where many of the population have Tourette’s and town life accommodates this.  I loved his observation after visiting: “There is, among Orthodox Jews, a blessing to be said on witnessing the strange: one blesses God for the diversity of his creation, and one gives thanks for the wonder of the strange.  This, it seemed to me, was the attitude of the people of La Crete to the Tourette’s in their midst.  They accepted it not as something annoying or insignificant, to be reacted to or overlooked, but as a deep strangeness, a wonder, an example of the absolute mysteriousness of Providence” (p. 106).

This is a deeply humane and engrossing collection.  Read this and then read Gratitude, a book for all time (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/06/19/gratitude-by-oliver-sacks/).

Review by Bethan

May 4, 2019

Underland – A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £20, out nowRobert Macfarlane UNDERLAND

Underland is an exploration of the subterranean world, and Macfarlane interprets this widely.  He ranges from a glacier in the middle of a warm mountain range to the tunnels under Paris, from mines under Yorkshire to London Bridge (which is hollow and can be climbed through by those in the know).  He does not shy away from difficult subjects, dealing with war crimes and human rights violations in European caves and crevasses, as well as the Anthropocene and climate change.

It is always a pleasure to read a new Robert Macfarlane book.  Here at the Riverside Bookshop we loved The Lost Words (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/the-lost-words-by-robert-macfarlane-and-jackie-morris/).  He writes beautifully and manages to include very diverse fields of knowledge without alienating the reader or appearing like a dilettante.  His account of visiting an underground lab exploring dark matter gave me the first explanation of this phenomenon I felt even vaguely able to understand (p. 56).  He can make mysterious landscapes vivid, as when walking in the Julian Alps: “Holes in the trunks of the beeches hold micro-gardens of moss and ferns.  Dwarf pines spread between the boulders of the streambank.  Harebells, gentians and edelweiss star the understorey.  Little trout flick as quick shadows in the bigger stream-pools.  Towering above us are scree-slopes and bone-white summits jagging several hundred feet up from the ridge line” (p. 231).

Happily for me, Underland also includes much ice and snow.  There are reflections on physical culture and the impact of global warming: “There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings – to its vastness and vulnerability.  The ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy” (p. 363).  This reminded me of some of the things I liked about the Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/the-library-of-ice-by-nancy-campbell/).

The book is as much about challenging our experiences of time and space as anything else. How do we find language that will be understood for certain thousands of years from now, in order to warn those in the far future of our sealed tombs of nuclear waste?  Do we carve warnings into rock in English?  Macfarlane notes that only about 1,000 people read Cuneiform on Earth now, where once it communicated powerful proclamations across vast spaces – how do we know English will still be understood?  Should there be ceramic tiles with pictograms?  Showing what?  He asks us to expand our thinking: “…a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us” (p. 15).

Fans of Macfarlane’s writing on mountains, lost ways and obscure words have a treat in store with Underland.  A bonus for the curious and engaged.

Review by Bethan

April 23, 2019

Heiða, a Shepherd at the End of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir

by Team Riverside

Hardback, John Murray, £16.99, out nowSteinunn Sigurdardottir HEIDA

Heiða details a year in the life of a solo woman sheep farmer hard by the highlands of Iceland.  Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir took over her family farm at Ljótarstaðir in her early 20s, when her father became ill.  She is an environmental activist and poet as well, and during the year considers standing for Parliament for the Left-Green Movement (she is already a local councillor).  From the farm, she can see highland pastures, a glacier, mountains.  This is an engrossing quick dispatch from an unusual life.

Volcanic eruptions as well as extreme cold and snow on her remote farm make for hard work.  Her commitment to her 500 sheep and other animals is evident, and leads to both her extreme work ethic and her worries when things go wrong.  She is clear about the essential role farmers like her can play in conservation: “Icelandic agriculture is very close to my heart, no less than environmental conservation.  As I see it, the two are totally intertwined since the farmer is entirely dependent on nature for his survival and has a duty, in my view more than in any other profession, to defend it by any means possible” (p. 161).  Sometimes she works co-operatively with other farmers and family members, and you begin to understand how such working is essential to survival in extraordinary places.

She is resisting construction of a power plant near her farm, which would involve flooding part of her land.  She resists despite the anxiety it causes her: “In these kinds of circumstance, I feel as if a knife has been thrust between my ribs – almost as if I’m having a heart attack” (p. 128).  She also talks usefully about surviving depression: “now I also began to come to better terms with the things that I couldn’t fix, and to forgive myself for making mistakes…” (p. 273).

She notes that the farm has been worked since the 12th century.  Refreshingly, she expresses her commitment to the land alongside her stance against discrimination: “I can’t bear prejudice based on skin colour, race, sexual orientation, nationality” (p. 249).

When Heiða gets to relax, it sounds heavenly, but you are clear it is hard won: “A winter’s night with a book is the best.  Surrounded by stillness in my own mountain palace, lit up by stars and the moon;  and maybe by the world’s most spectacular display of Northern Lights” (p. 205).  There are memorable animals, including her cat Huggan (Solace) who can’t stand the smell of sheep and herds mice into the house.  Also her excellent German Shepherd puppy Fífill (Dandelion).

The book is likely to be popular – Heiða has been interviewed in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/14/heida-asgeirsdottir-icelandic-shepherd-new-biography) and will appear at the Hay Festival.  I wish they had done an illustrated version of this book, as the places and people are so intriguing.  This will appeal to lovers of nature writing, to those who love to read about completely different lives, to anyone who wants a story of women doing it for themselves and to other activists who find themselves at the forefront when they already have vastly too much to do…

Review by Bethan

April 13, 2019

The Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £20, out now

Joy DivisionWhat more is there is there to say about Joy Division? It’s a fair question, given the memoirs of Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Deborah Curtis, the band-biographies by Paul Morley, Lindsay Reade and Mick Middles, all those books on Factory Records and its various alumni… It’s a name that must crop up in print as much as that of any band of the 20th century.

Well, never mind all that because it turns out there’s quite a lot more; and surely no greater person to say it – or rather, compile lots and lots of interviews of other people saying it – than John Savage, preeminent punk chronicler and author of England’s Dreaming, probably the best book about punk ever written. Here are three decade’s worth of interviews with not just the major players, but anyone who ever passed the band in the street (or so it feels like), all neatly intercut to create a simultaneously encyclopaedic and free-flowing narrative of their life and times.

Of particular interest to the Joy Division and New Order fanatic are the comments of the elusive Stephen Morris, the only surviving member of the original group not to have published a memoir (although not to worry, it’s coming out next month) and a man generally painted as a bit impenetrable in both of his erstwhile bandmates’ tomes. Reading that the inspiration for his uniquely sparse drumming began with imagining if “[Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band drummer] John French [had] lived in Germany for a long time and listened to a lot of krautrock” was enlightening, as are his thoughts on recording the band’s monumental duo of albums with famously difficult producing wunderkind Martin Hannett.

Hidden depths are also revealed in Rob Gretton, indomitable manager of the group. Although he gets a lot of ink in the other books, here we get excerpts from the journals he religiously kept showing his attitudes towards, amongst other things, nascent Joy Division classics (“Transmission – very good – maybe screams too much?”). There’s also a telling anecdote related by former New Manchester Review journalist Bob Dickinson in which the young reporter, on assignment to interview the band, has to deal with Gretton bursting in mid-interview with a pile of proto-electro and hip-hip records imported from America. These, he urges the group, are the kind of rhythms they should be adopting: “synthesised drumming, dance-floor.”

That’s a big deal, and it’s not, as far as I’m aware, been touched on that heavily in previous commentaries; even before New Order’s wholesale embrace of electronica, a big chunk of Joy Division’s appeal was its chilly, anti-rockist rhythm section, a flavour that was, in Dickinson’s words, “unearthly and not-quite-human”… That Gretton’s influence could have affected that (not to mention their later dance-heavy direction) was fascinating to me, and it’s the abundance of moments like these – small but eye-opening vignettes, as recounted by someone not previously given airtime in the Joy Division canon – that make this book special. Well worth a read even if you’ve heard it all before, there’s guaranteed to be some insightful nuggets for you in this utterly comprehensive work.

Review by Tom

March 9, 2019

Words in Pain – Letters on Life and Death by Olga Jacoby edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Skyscraper, £15, out nowOlga Jacoby WORDS IN PAIN

First published in 1919, Words in Pain is a collection of letters written from a woman to her doctor and other friends and family following her diagnosis with a terminal illness.  Olga Jacoby, young mother of several adopted children, writes with clarity and verve of her love of life and nature, of her rationalist and humanist beliefs, and of her dislike of organised religion.

Jacoby’s doctor was Christian and many of the often kind and humorous letters aim to provide him with a different perspective on life’s meaning.  Jacoby can also be sharp and angry however, and so we have a rounded perspective on a woman applying her rational mind to her extraordinary situation.  She is always courageous and often conciliatory: “death does not frighten me now.  I think it is like taking chloroform; don’t struggle against it, hold the hand of a friend, and it is not half bad with its promise of rest for me and Heaven for you” (p. 5).

The book will be useful to anyone interested in the history of adoption.  All her children know they were adopted, and her work to prepare them for her death is impressive.  Her love for their individuality is clear: “Charles, the farmer-to-be… has been planning… how he can arrange to make farming pay, without killing ducks, chicken or even field-mice.  I do not think he has yet found a satisfactory solution” (p. 25).

It is an intriguing book to read from a disability and chronic illness perspective, too.  Her attitudes vary and are sometimes (to a modern reader) very dated, in this and other matters.  At one point she demands of her friend: “Do not give in and say ‘I am disabled’.  As long as you do not feel disabled you cannot be so” (p. 75).  Later, as she becomes more unwell, she welcomes the use of a wheelchair as a way to conserve her energy.  She always has absolute ownership of her own life and experiences.  She talks about rationing limited energies in a way very reminiscent of the useful spoon theory (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_theory): “I have had to draw on a stock that a year’s incessant struggle had left small.  No wonder that I deal out each ration now with minute carefulness and some fear that capital (this most valuable capital of all) may fail me at last” (p. 168).

The new edition has a helpful update on what happened to the family after Olga’s death from her great-granddaughter Jocelyn Catty, and useful notes from Trevor Moore providing context to the references.  Jacoby remains in control and engaged till the last, reading, writing, thinking and debating.  A remarkable record of a remarkable woman.

Review by Bethan

March 3, 2019

The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now

Science of MeditationIf the sheer breadth of mindfulness, meditation, wellbeing and guidance books is really stressing you out, let us recommend The Science of Meditation, by science journalist Daniel Goleman and professor of psychology and psychiatry Richard J. Davidson.

This impressive work’s greatest strength is its ability to operate on many levels at once. On the one hand it’s an interrogative history of the scientific study of meditation, detailing the (more often than not, flawed) ways in which the results of this esoteric practice on the mind and body have been tested and evaluated. This technical content, while extensive, is never too dense, and always clearly laid out – so whether you’re learning about the neural profiles consistent with different meditative states, or how a sense of purpose in life can release an enzyme capable of protecting the strands of your DNA, you’re always taken through complex ideas one step at a time. it’s comprehensive but never woolly – in their own words, our guides aim to “keep it simple”.

On the other hand, it is an argument for the wide-ranging benefits of meditation. When Goleman and Davidson aren’t merrily shooting down vast swathes of studies into mindfulness practices for potentially biasing their test-subjects and making specious assumptions, they’re digging deep into sturdier research that shows the myriad ways in which these techniques can help a person. Lieutenant colonels diminish the symptoms of PTSD, zen students show improved resistance to pain, Tibetan monks (with PhDs in science) cultivate enhanced levels of compassion… The upshot, argue the authors, both long-time meditators, is that depending on your needs these practices can do a whole lot more than a) calm you down and b) bring you closer to oneness with the universe.

Which brings us to the book’s final function: that of a very useful guide on how to utilise different forms of meditation (it turns out there are quite a few) in your own life, depending on what you want to achieve from them. And – of course – they have the science to back up why each form may be the right one for you and your joint pain, or your anxiety, or your self-criticism.

Clear-headed, rigorous and insightful, this is the book for you if you want neuroscientific certainties with your spiritual enlightenment, and as a study of what we can say for sure about meditation and its psychological and physiological potential at this time it certainly feels damn near definitive.

Review by Tom

 

January 15, 2019

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Oneworld Publications, £9.99, out nowmiranda kaufmann black tudors

How refreshing to get a completely different take on a period that can seem so familiar!  Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, this is an outstanding history which tells the stories of ten African lives in Britain, and usefully sets each in context.

There is a strong local connection to the Riverside Bookshop.  Reasonable Blackman, an independent silk weaver, lived here in Tooley Street in the parish of St Olave’s.  Two of his children died during the plague and he and his wife and remaining child were shut up in their house with a red X marked on the door.  They were not permitted to leave, to prevent the further spread of infection.  An independent skilled craftsman, he supported a family of five with his fine goods.  Tooley Street then was known as a rough and ready area, with many alehouses – Kaufmann quotes Christopher Hudson writing in 1631: “alehouses are nests of Satan where the owls of impiety lurk and where all evil is hatched…” (p. 117).

If you enjoyed David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History, you must definitely read this (I loved Olusoga’s book, as it completely transformed both my knowledge of and my attitude towards British history).  Black Tudors would also be perfect for those who like readable social history, focussing as it does on everyday lives.  It includes the stories of a countrywoman, a rural worker, a sailor, and many more diverse and intriguing people besides.

Kaufmann is clear about the relevance of her work in the current political and social climate: “As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past” (p. 262).

Entertaining and enlightening, this would be a perfect non-fiction holiday read.

Review by Bethan

December 2, 2018

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Scribner, £14.99, out nowNancy Campbell THE LIBRARY OF ICE

The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to make me keen to read it.  Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…

Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir.  It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice.  She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.

The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories.  I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.

Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies.  In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.

Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/climate-justice-hope-resilience-and-the-fight-for-a-sustainable-future-by-mary-robinson/).

If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.

Review by Bethan

October 17, 2018

Eve was Shamed – How British Justice is Failing Women by Helena Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto & Windus, £20, published 11 October 2018Helena Kennedy EVE WAS SHAMED

Eve was Shamed is a timely and comprehensive update on women as they engage with the UK’s criminal justice system, from a legendary feminist human rights lawyer.  The depth of her experience over years of legal practice and activism makes this a must-read. You don’t have to agree with everything she says to benefit from her thoughtful and erudite commentary.

17 years after I first read her classic book on women and the law Eve was Framed, Eve was Shamed shows where we have made progress and where so much remains to be done.  Her account includes experiences of women lawyers, survivors of domestic or sexual violence, prisoners, judges, and others.  She finds that “despite the dramatic changes which have taken place in women’s lives over the last four decades, women are still facing iniquitous judgements and injustice within the legal system.  All the legal reforms have produced only marginal advances”.  (p. 317)

Kennedy’s dual commitment to feminism and to human rights is particularly interesting.  Her values inform her approach to her work, including her analysis of difficult or controversial situations in public life.  She recounts occasions when this has led to conflict with people she has been allies with, and it is evident that she values the process of discussion and exchange that leads to resolution, even where this is uncomfortable or challenging.  She notes: “feminism is about justice if it is about anything, and that means for men as well as women.  Justice for women is not secured by reducing justice for men.” (p. 324)

She has lost none of her passion or commitment on the things that matter to her, making her a useful model for how to survive and remain effective during bleak times.  Her considered solutions to problems are offered throughout, and this means that despite the subject matter you feel that real change is possible.  Jacky Fleming’s inspirational cartoon remains helpful (see https://www.jackyfleming.co.uk/product/never-give-up/).

Review by Bethan

October 8, 2018

Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £16.99, out nowMary Robinson CLIMATE JUSTICE

I wanted a book to remind me that climate change can be tackled, and to inspire me to engage with this massive problem without leaving me doom laden and depressed.  This useful book by former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson does just that.  Taking a rights and justice approach is natural for her.  “This injustice – that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden – made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without our paying attention to the world’s changing climate”.

Robinson places the stories of people on the frontline of climate change at the heart of this short book, and sees her job as getting their voices heard.  It was the stories of these activists, mainly women, which I found most useful.

Constance Okollet is a small scale farmer from Uganda who has organised women in her community to challenge climate change, has given evidence internationally on the direct impact on her region of extreme weather: “in eastern Uganda, there are no seasons any more”.

Through activism, Okollet met Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi Mississippi (founder of Coastal Women for Change) and other climate witnesses.  Hanshaw, a former beauty salon owner who saw her community devastated by hurricane Katrina, said: “Connecting with women who were facing similar issues across the globe, and standing up and working for solutions, was inspiring.  It is women who bear the brunt of climate change”.  (Read more of Hanshaw’s story here: https://lithub.com/climate-change-needs-to-be-about-economic-justice/)

The price some of the activists pay for their work is heavy.  Robinson describes a tearful Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Republic of Chad speaking of reporting back to the elders of her region: “I tell them that I will have a solution soon…  They think I am finding a solution, but I know how slowly the fight against climate change is going and that a solution is not coming tomorrow.  The solution for this problem will not be for them.  It will not be for now.”

There has been some criticism of the book for failing to focus sufficiently on failures of states in addressing climate change (see for example Cara Augustenborg in the Irish Times – https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/climate-justice-review-irish-sins-cloud-inspiring-stories-1.3643596).  Others may notice that Robinson does not for example address population control, or the issue of whether nuclear power should be part of the renewable energy that replaces energy from fossil fuels.  But the book is not intended as a primer on climate change (though it can be read with no specialist knowledge).  It is a call to positive action against despair, and is best summed up by the advice of Hanshaw, citing her civil rights activist father: “pray and believe, and always believe in what you can do instead of can’t do”.

Review by Bethan

October 3, 2018

The Borough Market Cookbook by Borough Market with Ed Smith

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hodder and Stoughton, £25, out now

This gorgeous cookbook marries tempting recipes with luscious photos of both the dishes and the market.  The recipes are unusual but achievable, and unsurprisingly give star billing to the exceptional ingredients for which the market is famous.Borough Market Cookbook display

I immediately wanted to make (or more accurately, eat) the barbeced courgettes, burnt lemon and za’atar.  Suzanne fancies Autumn Panzanella and Cat would like rhubarb and ricotta on toast.  We could all do with a Gooseberry Syrup Gin Cocktail right about now as well.

The book is arranged by season, and includes helpful lists of what’s best at each time of year.  It manages to capture some of the sensory delights of the market – Turnips greengrocer Fred Foster writes: “I like to think of our produce displays as live art.  They draw people in and provide a backdrop to the Market… The seasons are crucial because ultimately they affect what the displays are made from.  As the seasons change, the displays change.  It’s continual.  You can define the time of year by the colours you see”. (p. 205)

The first mention of the market by London Bridge was in a Norse chronicle in 1014 – a thousand years of tasty snacks, feast preparations, and irresistible tasters.

As London Bridge’s local independent bookshop, we are big fans of our local market and have been known to head over there for emergency baklava to provide instant mood lifts for our hardworking booksellers.  For a poetic take on the market, see also Michael Shann’s recent poetry collection To London (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/to-london-poems-by-michael-shann/).

Review by Bethan

September 9, 2018

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Avery Hill Publishing Limited, £9.99, out now

This beautiful graphic novel tells the story of South London’s great north wood.  Remnants of the wood can be found in the names and places of Norwood, Sydenham, Forest Hill, Honor Oak Park, Crystal Palace, Gipsy Hill and others.Tim Bird THE GREAT NORTH WOOD

Using a local fox to guide us from prehistory to today, The Great North Wood shows how important the forest was to the development of South London and celebrates its continuity to today.  On the way we learn some excellent facts.  I was intrigued to find out that Pear Tree House block of flats in SE19 was built to be “a control centre in the event of a nuclear attack on London”, and the book even includes a floorplan of the reinforced concrete basement.  Sharp modern realities exist alongside ancient magic in this enchanting account.

As so many of our regular customers head home from London Bridge to these areas, I am sure that they will recognise the depictions of bus stops and chicken shops.  The gorgeous colour palette helps make this a book to return to again and again.

Many South Londoners will be getting this for Christmas from me.  Hopefully they aren’t reading this.

Review by Bethan

August 26, 2018

Penguin Modern series

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £1 each, out nowPenguin modern display 180826

This is a superb series of mini books featuring extracts from works by twentieth century authors published by Penguin.  The list is excellent and it is almost impossible to resist grabbing a fistful and bunking off work.

Several of the books are an easy way in to authors I have been meaning to read for ages.  The short collection of essays by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, boosted me into reading her full collected essays, Sister Outsider.  In an hour’s reading, I had my brain shaken up and challenged by Lorde’s intersectional ideas and beautiful prose.

Other favourites so far include Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  The great Nigerian novelist gives us a series of short essays, and describes a visit to Northern Rhodesia in 1960 made while he was living as an exile in the US.  He boards a bus and sits in the front, next to the driver’s seat.  “When finally I turned around, probably because of a certain unnatural silence, I saw with horror that everyone around me was white.  As I had turned around they had averted their stony gazes, whose hostility I had felt so palpably at the back of my head.  What had become of all the black people at the bus stop?  Why had no one told me?  I looked back again and only then took in detail of a partition and a door”.  He does not move, and when asked by the ticket collector why he is sitting there says: “… I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus”.  He stays in his seat until he reaches his destination, and disembarks to cheers from the black passengers.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail feels timely and useful.  “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity”.

There are options for pure entertainment and for risky reading.  Whether you need an emergency back up book in case you finish your current one on the tube, or whether you want to treat yourself to a pick and mix of striking ideas and great writing, this series is irresistible.  For the full list see http://www.penguinmodern.com/.  We love our display, too.

May 20, 2018

Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £18.99, out now

Mark Cocker OUR PLACEThe answer given by nature writer and environmentalist Mark Cocker is ‘maybe’.  This unusual book gives a brief history of attempts to protect nature in Britain over the last 150 years, told through the stories of some of the organisations and individuals involved.  It is framed by the catastrophic findings of the 2013 State of Nature report, which found that 60% of native species in the UK had declined over the last 50 years, 31% badly, and that over 600 species were under threat of extinction.  Cocker notes that the figures “don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow.  It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change”.

Cocker is critical of the largest of the environmental organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, finding them sometimes overly concerned with competing for members and also unsuccessful in critical campaigning.  He finds that failures to work together mean that whole-ecology approaches are being undermined by separate projects.  But he allows that their difficulties may reflect something of the British public’s own ambivalence towards nature.  He quotes a letter to the Daily Mail from a National Trust member apparently responding to the Trust’s campaign on climate change: “Thanks to Dame Helen Ghosh’s political agenda outside the true objectives of the National Trust, that’s £100 membership saved this year.”

He also gives due credit to individuals both within and without these groups who have been effective in seeking to protect nature, or who remind us to pay attention.  I loved the example of his friend and colleague Tony Hare, who on looking at “a square foot of turf dotted with miniscule scarlet fungi and prostrate lichens” reminded his friend that “what was happening here was the same as any rainforest”.

The approach taken is not straightforward polemic.  Cocker successfully mixes history with accounts of several localities as informal case studies showing how particular types of areas are faring.  As a result, Our Place is readable and interesting.

Where the book has limitations they are deliberate and mostly acknowledged.  There is not much about international frameworks or organisations working for the natural environment in my view, and marine protection is almost entirely missing.  But as a personal rallying call for a different attitude to nature protection in the UK, it works, and shows that any of us can choose to pay attention to this critical concern.  I echo his praise for those amateurs and professionals who study and protect even the unpopular or obscure bits of our natural world, and especially those who make this possible for children and young people.

Review by Bethan