Posts tagged ‘Non Fiction’

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 9, 2021

Bestsellers 2nd to the 9th of September

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and The Sun

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Emily St. John Mandel – The Glass Hotel

Caitlin Moran – More Than a Woman

Fran Lebowitz – The Fran Lebowitz Reader

Bernadine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Rutger Bregman – Humankind

Clare Chambers – Small Pleasures

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

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Sebastian Faulks – Snow Country

Elena Ferrante – The Lying Life of Adults

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 26, 2021

Summer Reading Promotion

by Team Riverside

Our Summer Reading Promotion is now on in store, get 4 books for the price of 3 (with the cheapest book free). We have titles available across Children’s, Fiction and Non-Fiction, see our full list of titles for purchase in the 4 for 3 promotion below:

Fiction
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Troy by Stephen Fry

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas

V For Victory by Lisa Evans

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Us Three by Ruth Jones

Actress by Anne Enright

V2 by Robert Harris

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

Summer by Ali Smith

Non-Fiction
The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Phillippa Perry

Agent Sonia by Ben Macintyre

Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar

Sicily ’43 by James Holland

Childrens
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charles Mackesy

The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke

Worst Holiday Ever by Charlie Higson

Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure by Jeff Kinney

The Puffin Keeper by Michael Morpurgo

Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay

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

July 4, 2021

Current Bestsellers

by Team Riverside

Our Bestsellers from 28th June to the 4th of July:

Brit Bennett- The Vanishing Half

Delia Owens- Where The Crawdads Sing

Maggie O’Farrell- Hamnet

Natalie Haynes- Pandora’s Jar

Jonathon Lee- The Great Mistake

Elena Ferrante- The Lying Life of Adults

Various Authors- Murder Takes A Holiday

James Hawes- The Shortest History of England

Peter Ackroyd- London: The Biography

Elif Shafak- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Richard Osman- The Thursday Murder Club

Sasha Swire- Diary of An MP’s Wife

Irvin and Marilyn Yalom- A Matter of Death and Life

Kazuo Ishiguro- Klara and The Sun

Kenneth Cukier- Framers

Clare Chambers- Small Pleasures

Susanna Clarke- Piranesi

Xialou Guo- A Lover’s Discourse

Meriel Schindler- The Lost Cafe Schindler

Tim Marshall- The Power of Geography

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 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

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

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 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 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

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

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

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

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