Archive for ‘Non fiction’

November 27, 2021

Bestsellers 20th – 27th November

by Team Riverside

Frank Herbert – Dune

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

Jessica Harrison eds – The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Sarah Moss – The Fell

Noor Murad, Yotam Ottolenghi – Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Elena Ferrante – The Lying Life of Adults

John Le Carre – Silverview

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Amor Towles – The Lincoln Highway

Matt Haig – The Midnight Library

November 21, 2021

Bestsellers 14th November – 21st November

by Team Riverside

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Elizabeth Strout – Oh William!

John Banville – Snow

Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi – Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

John Le Carre – Silverview

Frank Herbert – Dune

Nora Ephron – Heartburn

Rutger Bregman – Humankind: A Hopeful History

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

Charlie Macksey – The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

November 15, 2021

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght

by Team Riverside
Owls of the Eastern Ice book cover

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out now

Ice, snow, owls: sold.

Naturalist and PhD student Slaght goes to Primorye in remotest Russia in 2006 to research and protect the world’s largest owl, the Blakiston’s fish owl (see excellent pictures in Helen Macdonald’s rave review, here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/22/owls-of-the-eastern-ice-by-jonathan-c-slaght-review-an-extraordinary-quest).  Slaght describes it: “Backlit by the hazy gray of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree.” 

This is an account of work at the sharp edge of conservation and research.  Slaght is working at a time when local economies are changing rapidly.  Logging and free market ventures are expanding into areas of remote and limited fish owl habitat, and it becomes imperative that conservationists work out what the threats are, and what opportunities exist to protect the owl.

This is travel writing as much as nature writing.  Slaght conveys how quickly the ancient forest and surrounding environment can change, from conditions that are beautiful and wild to extreme and life-threatening.  There are rivers and pools warmed by radon, Amur tigers hunting, hermits and wilderness.  Endurance is required to get through the hardships he and his colleagues face in finding, tagging and relocating the owls over several years.

Literally toxic masculinity features, as hunters and others working in the area sometimes engage in extreme drinking to forge trust with strangers like Slaght, who not only is an outsider but also an American and an ornithologist.  Several times he’s part of a party that must not break up until the vodka bottle is empty, and sometimes the ‘vodka’ is ethanol.  But he gets to work alongside committed lifelong conservationists and assistants, and finds that people will often help him and his colleagues when they need it most.

The owls are known locally as “the owls who ask for a fur coat”.  In Russian when a pair sing to each other, it sounds like each is saying “I want a fur coat”.  Owls of the Eastern Ice is a truly engrossing and transporting book.

Review by Bethan

October 15, 2021

Bestsellers 9th – 15th October

by Team Riverside

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Yotam Ottolenghi, Noor Murad – Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Bob Mortimer – And Away…

Marion Billet – Busy London

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Notes on Greif

Suzanna Clarke – Piranesi

Frank Herbert – Dune

Florence Given – Women Don’t Owe You Pretty

Judith Kerr – Mog the Forgetful Cat

Jeremy Paxman – Black Gold

Jonathon Franzen – Crossroads

October 13, 2021

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Particular Books, £20, out now

Rebecca Hall Wake

This new graphic novel and memoir charts historian Rebecca Hall’s search for women rebel slave leaders in archives in the UK and US.  It is gripping, moving, and compelling.

Formerly a social justice lawyer, Hall’s work starts in New York in 1999, and Hugo Martínez’s illustrations show the slaving past literally reflected in the city as Hall walks through it.  It’s a brilliant way of showing how the past is inescapable in the present.  The graphic novel format lends itself to this so well, literally illustrating the similarities in some behaviour and surroundings between then and now. A smartly dressed white man barges into Hall without seeing her, and in a window reflection a white man in a tricorn hat pushes past another Black woman.

There are newly found stories of women-led revolts here, showing that her exhaustive work has paid off, and they are told with deep humanity.

As with Saidiya Hartman’s work on transforming and disrupting the archive, Hall does the work of interrogating why archives are as they are (anyone who loved Wayward Lives and Lose Your Mother will find this essential reading – see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/09/23/wayward-lives-beautiful-experiments-by-saidiya-hartman/).  The realisation that current racism and sexism have some of their roots in slavery is manifest. The historian as human is very present – “This work I’m doing is hard, and it hurts.”

Wake gives a vivid account of the difficulty of finding people in official archives when their voices are not recorded, being considered of no importance, or when their only seeming presence is as property.  She is also explicit about the UK archives which barred her from access, and those which felt they held nothing about slavery.

Hall describes herself as being haunted by slavery.  This really is a haunting book, necessarily violent and painful, showing that hard and committed work by historians can be revolutionary. 

Review by Bethan

October 12, 2021

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

by Team Riverside
Index, A History of the

Hardback, Allen Lane, £20, out now

I did not expect to laugh out loud while reading a proper scholarly history of the index.  But I did, several times. And I now know that the little pointing hand in the margin is a manicule: ☞ (see also https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/manicules).

I did not realise that an index might be more than a handy tool.  In the course of Duncan’s account, we find out than an index can be so many other things.  For example, a means of revenge, a strange addition to fiction, or a way to satirise an author.  We get information on the first things organised by alphabet, the first page numbers, and all kinds of natty anecdotes.  One of my favourite bits is 19th century historian J. Horace Round’s extensive diss-fest index entry on his nemesis Professor Edward Freeman, which includes “his ‘certain’ history”, “misconstrues his Latin”, “his failure” and “his special weakness” (p. 14-15).

I am a fan of a good index.  They can drive you nuts if they are absent or shoddy.  Why would anyone make a travel book without at least a location index?  Am I supposed to memorise the location of every café that makes the best bath buns or Black Forest gateaux?  One of the most enjoyable I’ve seen recently is the one for Rob Halford’s Confess, in which the Judas Priest frontman’s life is summarised under the entry for Halford, Rob.  But this leads to another topic covered in the History, namely the suggestion that students might cheat (gasp) by reading only the index instead of the actual book. Another favourite is in Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (volume 3 from 1973). He references “royalties, use of”, and this refers to the purchase of his dream pipe organ (see https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/organ.html).

Index, A History of the has been added to my list of relaxing and entertaining non-fiction that I have found helpful during the pandemic.  During the first lockdown, I realised that the most engaging reading I was doing was well written non-fiction on topics about which I knew nothing (lots of scope here, obviously).  Top hits for me were Born to Kvetch, Gathering Moss, and Entangled Life.

Make time to work your way through this book’s own index.  It is enormous fun and had me cackling.  This is what I’ll be getting for my bookish people for Christmas this year.

Review by Bethan

October 9, 2021

Bestsellers 2nd – 9th October

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice

Karina Lickorish Quinn – The Dust Never Settles

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

William Boyd – Trio

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Bob Mortimer – And Away…

October 2, 2021

Bestsellers 25th September to 2nd October

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice

Tom Chivers – London Clay

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

Suzannah Clarke – Piranesi

Frank Herbert – Dune

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Notes on Grief

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Bob Mortimer – And Away…

Marion Billet – Busy London

September 24, 2021

Bestsellers 17th-24th September

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Suzannah Clarke – Piranesi

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Bernadine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Frank Herbert – Dune

John Cooper Clarke – I Wanna Be Yours

Monique Roffey – The Mermaid of Black Conch

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Colm Toibin – The Magician

Nadifa Mohamed – The Fortune Men

Sally Rooney – Normal People

Eoin McLaughlin – The Hug

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and The Sun

September 12, 2021

Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba

by Team Riverside
Ethel Rosenberg cover

Hardback, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20.00, out now

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for treason in 1953.  A married couple, and the parents of two young children, their case became a cause célèbre as a miscarriage of justice, a cultural reference point, and a symbol of US domestic attitudes during the Cold War.  Amid all of this, the human story of Ethel Rosenberg has been lost, and this is what Anne Sebba’s engrossing biography corrects.

With access to new information from Ethel’s sons and others who knew her, as well as scrupulous archive research, Sebba meticulously reconstructs the life of this ordinary and extraordinary woman.  We find out about her upbringing in a New York Jewish family facing hard times.  We are left with the impression of an intelligent, talented and hardworking woman from a difficult family background, who was determined to make her way in life – in education, in singing, as a trade unionist, and as a wife and mother.

The book offers a vivid account of how some Americans came to communism in the 1930s, and how ordinary people started spying for the Soviet Union.  Sebba unpicks what Ethel Rosenberg did and didn’t know about the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and gives a detailed analysis of her trial.  She conveys the swirl of McCarthyism and anti-communist fever, and the impact of ingrained anti-Semitism.

Sebba spares us nothing, so it can be a tough read at times, but it is so worthwhile.  It is no wonder that the biography has been praised by Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Philippe Sands, among others.  Among the moments of light in the frequently grim story that Ethel’s two young children live through, are the moments of solidarity and care shown to them from unexpected quarters (including at one point W. E. B. Du Bois).  Outstanding.

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2021

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

by Team Riverside
Small Bodies of Water book cover

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

I have just had my first swim in a year and a half.  It was a completely joyous experience, and I was reminded how important swimming is for me.  Many memories of places and people are bound up with it.

Nina Mingya Powles’s essays, collected in Small Bodies of Water, were the perfect thing for me to read just after this memorable swim.  She combines memoir with nature writing, weaving strands about family, identity and home through the work.  Swimming features, as do sensory delights of food and travel.  Her essay on cold water swimming, Ache, was one of my favourites.  She is a generous writer, sharing experiences with us, even painful things like personal and shocking experiences of racism. 

Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, spending time in China and now living in London, the author’s experiences and interests coalesce in her writing: “Mum collects mandarin peels and cut lemon skins and places them in the dish after cooking, so that as the oven cools, it gives off a bittersweet, hot-sugar scent.  The rinds begin to dry out and curl in the warmth while the dog sleeps at our feet.  Not far away, we can hear waves roaring in a southerly gale.  Our skin smells of salt and oranges.” (p. 124)

A poet who won the Nan Shepherd prize for nature writing, Nina Mingya Powles writes as beautifully as you’d expect, and wears her thoughtfulness and reading lightly.  References to some of Riverside’s favourite books kept popping up.  Braiding Sweetgrass, Crying in H Mart, Mixed Race Superman, Wayward Lives and The Living Mountain all feature, and gave me the pleasurable feeling of having a very intelligent friend talking about things I had just read.  Her discussion of old family objects and writings as a sort of enduring but complicated archive usefully echoes Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. 

I know I will read this again, and I have already lined up two people to lend it to.  It feels like a gift someone has given you, and that you want to share with others.

Review by Bethan

August 8, 2021

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Team Riverside

Picador, Hardback, £16.99, out now

Michelle Zauner is perhaps best known for her music, produced under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, but this memoir proves that her talent stretches across multiple mediums. Zauner was in her 25th year and a struggling artist when her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She upended her life and returned to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon to take care of her as her illness became terminal. The memoir is told as a kind of non-linear narrative, moving through Zauner’s reminiscences about her relationship with her mother which was extremely close yet often challenging, a familial relationship knotted with cultural differences (Zauner’s father is white and she was raised in America) and deep love.

Food becomes a touchstone throughout the book, Korean food particularly became a way for Zauner to connect with her mother, Chongmi, and other members of her mother’s family even after their deaths: ‘When I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck: I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.’

The result is a touching and sensual book. I felt Zauner’s profound love for her mother radiating off the page at every turn, but particularly in her depictions of her mother’s small acts of care. When Zauner tells her mother she wants some cowboy boots, Chongmi not only buys her some but carefully wears them in first. I thoroughly recommend Crying in H Mart for fans of creative non-fiction and contemporary food writing.

Review by Phoebe

July 12, 2021

London Green Spaces by Harry Adès

by Team Riverside
London Green Spaces

Paperback, Hoxton Mini Press, £9.95, out now

After a year of intermittent lockdowns, when I was lucky enough to have a lively local park near me and to be able to visit it, I am very ready to try out some new London green spots. London Green Spaces is one of a gorgeous new series of small London guidebooks, and this book makes it fun to start a day-out wishlist.  Even looking at the photos cheered me up.

I thought I knew most of the cool parks and green bits in London, but there were several in here I’d never heard of.  London Green Spaces offers an enticing reminder of the big places too, the ones that you know about but haven’t visited for a while, like Richmond Park or Epping Forest.  Useful cover maps and suggested walks would help make a day of it.

The Red Cross Garden in London Bridge features, and I can vouch for its sanctuary-like feel as a respite from the Borough Market crowds at the weekend (https://www.bost.org.uk/).  The book is good on these small places as well as the grand sweeping ones.  I’d add the Crossbones Graveyard, just round the corner from the Red Cross Garden, though you always need to check the opening hours (https://crossbones.org.uk/).

Other craveable titles in the series include Vegan London, London Pubs, and Independent London.  You’re in London (maybe)… it’s summer (sort of)… if you’re able to get out and about these books will help you lively up your plans. 

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2021

How to Listen by Katie Colombus

by Team Riverside
How to Listen

Paperback, Kyle Books, £12.99, out now

This is the most instantly useful book I have read this year.  The subtitle shows exactly what it is for: “Tools for opening up conversations when it matters most”.

Produced with the Samaritans and drawing on the experiences of their volunteers and service users, whose useful and detailed insights appear throughout the book, this is a straightforward guide to active listening.  It is very easy to read and no special skills are needed.

The Samaritans use the helpful acronym SHUSH for active listening: Show you care, Have patience, Use open questions, Say it back, and Have courage (https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/if-youre-worried-about-someone-else/how-support-someone-youre-worried-about/what-do-if-you-think-someone-struggling/).

“Have Courage” is very relevant.  Often we would like to ask how someone is, but we are worried that we might make things worse or not be able to deal with that person’s distress.  Samaritans service user James says: “It’s really not about being a specialist or having particular knowledge.  It’s about being a compassionate human being.  I wish people had the confidence to realise they are able to offer real help just by listening”.

How to Listen warns against giving advice or relaying your own experiences, suggesting instead that listeners prioritise giving people the space to express and explore their own problems and to come to their own solutions.  This has been a revelation for me.  It provides useful advice on spotting people who may be in distress and helps you listen to them properly without distractions.  One thing to do the next time you’re talking to someone: put your phone away and really pay attention.

Review by Bethan

June 23, 2021

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

by Team Riverside
The Gospel of the Eels

Paperback, Picador, £9.99, out now

I was speaking a couple of years ago with someone who was helping with a citizen science project which was monitoring eels in London rivers. They would empty a trap set for the eels, measure them, and release them.  They were told by the research lead that they did not need to take a photo of the eels each time.  “There are lots of things we don’t know about eels, but what they look like isn’t one of them”.

The Gospel of the Eels goes after these mysterious animals, explaining that there are large parts of the eels’ lives that remain unknown to science, including exactly where and how they breed.  What is clearer is that European eels are in danger of becoming extinct, and that urgently solving some of their puzzles might help protect them even though something might be lost with their mystery.  Svensson quotes Rachel Carson: “And as they passed through the surf and out to the sea, so they also passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge”.

Svensson is interesting on eels’ impact on modern life. Sigmund Freud spent time early in his career studying eels, and Svensson makes a good case for this influencing his later theories (‘Sigmund Freud and the eels of Trieste’ is possibly one of my favourite chapter titles ever).  He spots eels in literature, including work by Graham Swift and E.T.A. Hoffman.

Among the natural history and current science, Svensson recalls eel fishing with his father as a child.  Some of the fishing detail is frankly revolting to a non-fishing person, but the experiences become a place to explore his relationship with his father. Svensson notes that life for working class families like his in Sweden changed hugely during the last half of the twentieth century: “… it had become possible for a road paver and day care worker mum, my parents, to live a life that was different in every way from the lives previous generations of the working class had known”.  He finds that attending to eels leads him to pay better mind: this reminded me of some of the arguments made by Julia Bell in Radical Attention (https://peninsulapress.co.uk/product/radical-attention).

The premise of The Gospel of the Eels sounds strange, but it is not strained or annoying.  It’s well-translated popular science with memoir, and a pleasure to read.  Why gospel though?  When science lacks answers, faith can fill the gap.  Perhaps if we can fix things for the eels, we can start to fix things for ourselves. 

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2021

Current bestsellers

by Team Riverside
The Vanishing Half

Our bestsellers from 24 to 30 May:

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Nick Bradley – The Cat and the City

Julia Donaldson and Sharon King-Chai – Animalphabet

Anna Jones – One: Pot, Pan, Planet

Rob Biddulph – Show and Tell

Emily M Danforth – Plain Bad Heroines

Ece Temelkuran – Together

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

Raynor Winn – The Wild Silence

Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Orange

Siobhan Dowd – The London Eye Mystery

Andrew Sean Greer – Less

Jackie Kay – Bessie Smith

Seth Rogen – Yearbook

Nora Ephron – I Feel Bad About My Neck

Diane Cook – The New Wilderness

Audre Lorde – Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Jon Klassen – I Want My Hat Back

Madeline Miller – Circe

May 24, 2021

Current bestsellers

by Team Riverside
Francesca Wade Square Haunting

Bestsellers from 17 to 23 May…

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Matt Haig – The Midnight Library

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Francesca Wade – Square Haunting

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun

Rutger Bregman – Humankind

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

Clare Chambers – Small Pleasures

Nick Bradley – The Cat and the City

K L Kettle – The Boy I Am

Monique Roffey – The Mermaid of Black Conch

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light

Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R Sunstein – Noise

David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count

Deborah Levy – Real Estate

The Puffin Book of Funny Stories

John le Carré – Agent Running in the Field

Cressida Cowell – How to Train Your Dragon

Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth

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May 15, 2021

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by Team Riverside
Notes on Grief

Hardback, 4th Estate, £10, out now

“I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity. I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present”.

Adichie’s much-loved father died in June 2020, and this tender and anguished short book contains her reflections on her grief. Best known for her modern classic novels, including Half of a Yellow Sun, and essays including We Should All Be Feminists, this is written in her usual fluid style despite the pain it conveys.

The pandemic complicates everything. Family members are on different continents and flights are cancelled. Arrangements have to be made on Zoom, where weeks before routine family chats including her father had been filled with laughter and everyday chat.

It is about loss, but it is also about the deep love she has for her father. Many people have been hit with unexpected and devastating bereavement over the last year. This relatable and timely book might end up being a life raft for some.

Review by Bethan

May 5, 2021

This is Your Time by Ruby Bridges

by Team Riverside
Ruby Bridges This is Your Time

Paperback, One (Pushkin Press), £8.99, out now              

This is Your Time is a stunning new book by Ruby Bridges, who as a six-year-old in 1960 was the first black child to attend an all-white primary school in New Orleans.

The book is small in size but huge in meaning.  Bridges talks about the hate she faced outside her school gates every day from white adults who wanted to keep segregation.  There is a black and white photograph on every other page, including some truly shocking images.  A tiny Ruby is escorted into school by four federal marshals; racist protesters hold up a black doll in a coffin; and images of police targeting civil rights demonstrators in 1963 and 2020.

But there are also hope and joy, friendship and solidarity, and great faith in young people.  Bridges writes to young readers: “I am so inspired by you and by everyone out there making change happen.  I know, and you must remember… what can inspire tomorrow often lies in our past”.  She knows this because of her lifetime of work telling young people her story.

The cover is a detail from Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live with, which I had never seen, and which is extraordinary (https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/visual-arts/norman-rockwell–the-problem-we-all-live-with/).

Ruby Bridges’ message of courage and friendship is essential for all people.  A gift to the future from one whose courage helped shape the best of the present.

Review by Bethan

December 7, 2020

The Stubborn Light of Things: a Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of The Stubborn Light of Things

A kingfisher sat on a riverside branch, so close that I could see blackblue feathers in the early morning light.  I was in a London park, near where I live, last weekend.  I was alone, with no special equipment or expertise, but I was paying attention to the river.  The kingfisher hunched, and tidied itself up, and after a few minutes flew off when a runner came along.

If you have found yourself noticing nature more during this year, this book of essays by Melissa Harrison is for you.  Compiled from her columns in the Times, in the early pieces Harrison is living in South London and gives great descriptions of the nature and wildlife of Tooting Bec Common.  Who knew you could see a hobby flying over Lambeth?  “There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural: paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting” (p. 44).

Half way through the book, Harrison relocates to rural Suffolk, and a different kind of natural life.  “There are baby rabbits everywhere right now, and sitting in my oak I watched an alert doe shepherd four kits out from the warren by the path to feed…  The evening sun picks them out as they play, gold-edged and painterly: humble but quite lovely in the low, warm light” (p. 174).  One of the things I love about The Stubborn Light of Things is that Harrison doesn’t say that it is easier or better to be a nature watcher in one place or the other.  Her curious gaze finds things to wonder at in both places, a reminder that we only ever need to start where we are.

As readers of her gripping novels At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley will know, she is not afraid of addressing difficult things, and here she references the climate emergency and local campaigns to protect wildlife (for a review of one of her novels, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2015/05/24/at-hawthorn-time-melissa-harrison/).

After reading this, I found similar ideas in On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz (which I am half way through).  Horowitz walks round her Manhattan city block with several different people who are expert at different things, and finds out how little we notice in the normal run of things (one of the people is expert at being a toddler and another is expert at being a dog – see https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/12/on-looking-eleven-walks-with-expert-eyes/). 

Harrison’s popular lockdown podcast encouraged us to pay attention, and this book helps us do just that.  Joanna Lisowiec’s exquisite illustrations and gorgeous cover art elevate a good read into a beautiful item.

Review by Bethan

November 3, 2020

An update from us 03/11/2020

by Team Riverside

Dear loyal customers of Riverside Bookshop,

unfortunately, in line with government guidelines, we will be closed from Thursday the 5th of November until further notice. If you wish to order from us in the meantime we can be found via our profile on bookshop.org here: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/theriversidebookshop

Thank you for your continued support during this difficult time and we hope to be back with you soon!

Love from,

The Team at Riverside Bookshop

October 26, 2020

Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sceptre, £9.99, out now

cover of Threads of Life

The book’s subtitle is A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle.  It is not grandiose or heavy, but rather an entertainingly written with focus sharply on those who have sewn textile art to tell stories.

Some stories were familiar and some completely unknown.  Sewing features as part of war, propaganda, survival, protest.

The emotional connections between makers and their work emerge strongly.  Particularly moving is the story of the Changi quilt, which Hunter visits at the Red Cross archive with a descendant of one of the makers.  She notes that it was made by women prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore during the Second World War, to communicate with their men (who were held separately – see also https://changi.redcross.org.uk/). 

Hunter is interesting on her own making, and is a “banner-maker, community textile artist and textile curator”.  The book is partly memoir.  Her frequent focus on activism in the text is a bonus.

I had not heard of the stories of women in Chile, who used the sewing of arpilleras (embroidery on burlap) to protest against the Pinochet dictatorship.  “The arpilleras depicted domestic scenes of loss: a woman standing by herself in the doorway of her home, a family mealtime with one empty place.  There were also exterior scenes: a marketplace with no food on its stalls, unemployed youngsters scavenging for cardboard to sell, policemen making an arrest, a tree with pictures of lost relatives instead of leaves all backgrounded by the Andes mountains and a shining sun or bright moon” (p. 155 – see also https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/09/history-of-quilting-arpilleras-made-by-chilean-women-to-protest-pinochet.html).

Threads of Life will send you off on a bunch of reading jags, and also make you search for images of the works discussed.  An illustrated version of the book with colour plates would be wonderful, but in the absence of that get ready to be introduced to the stories behind intriguing sewn art from all over the world.

Review by Bethan

October 24, 2020

Bestsellers This Week

by Team Riverside

Our bestsellers this week:

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osmon

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

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