Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

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 9, 2020

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £6.99, out now

This is a cheerful picture book about a small girl’s mission to share her love of space.  Rocket is a stargazer who lives in a town, and is determined that folks where she lives should come to the park to watch the meteor shower.

Rocket’s brother Jamal is lovely but he’s always looking down at his phone… like everyone else, he needs to look up!

With a shout out to the legendary Mae Jemison, Look Up! is a great way to show primary children how exciting space can be, and that it’s available to everyone.  The enthusiasm in the book is infectious, helped by the lively and fun illustrations.  I particularly liked the astronaut cat who appears on every page.  I’ve already bought three copies as presents, and I’m pretty sure these won’t be the last.     

Review by Bethan

September 2, 2020

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

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An unsettling new vision from the author of The Water Cure. On the day every woman gets their first period they are assigned either a blue or a white ticket, the first signalling that they will not have children, the second indicating that they must. Calla is given a blue ticket, but later in her life she develops an intense, forbidden longing for a child. When she acts on this urge she is thrown into conflict with a mysterious and threatening regime that pushes her onto a journey into exile.

Blue Ticket takes its place in the pantheon of feminist dystopian novels, the women are central to the narrative, their dissent is not just prohibited, it is dangerous. Mackintosh deftly explores the boundaries between natural urges and the systems that constrain them. Although Mackintosh’s prose is heavy with description and poetry, I could see and touch all that she described, Blue Ticket is also surprisingly fast-paced. I found myself holding my breath towards the end, waiting to discover Calla’s fate.

Whilst the questions of the book are weighty, Mackintosh avoids addressing these to the reader directly, Blue Ticket is above all an intensely poetic exploration of freedom, choice and desire.

Review by Phoebe

August 26, 2020

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

Ben Lerner TOPEKA SCHOOLHardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Poet, author and essayist Ben Lerner’s latest novel, soon to be out in paperback, is as absorbing, dryly humourous and intellectually incisive as ever.

Lerner’s work is often described as autofictional, and in this instance the coming-of-age story of Adam Gordon, a gifted high-school student in Topeka Kansas during the ‘90s (like Lerner) and budding poet (like Lerner) whose parents are psychologists (like Lerner’s) seems to hew close to his lived experience. As in his excellent previous novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, his general approach involves laying a forensic bedrock of reality, from the references to and even cameos by historical figures like Bob Dole, Paul Manaforte, Fred Phelps and Tupac to discussions of real works of art and films, institutions and global events. In this recognisably concrete world, Adam’s encounters with his violent “bro” friends, figures of the nascent alt-right movement, Westboro Baptist Church and developing field of psychology are weighted with the reality of an anthropological study, or longform reportage.

Disquietingly convincing, too, are his investigations into the persuasive power of words. The journeys of he and his parents enfold psychoanalysis, poetry, rap, political debate and constant internecine argument, and the weaponising of rhetoric – the verbal deftness of the point made often trumping the veracity of what’s said, in a queasy presaging of modern political discourse – tends to be the order of the day. In this way, young Adam Gordon’s micro-level experiences reflect the coming world of alternative facts and virulent division towards which he, and his country, are being pulled.

Which is all interesting and vital enough, but Lerner adds to this an occasional grain of the surreal which harks straight back to his poetic beginnings. There are slippages between time periods and points of view, and visual motifs – paintings, hospital rooms – that return at odd, flashing moments, as if the novel is beset by glitches. This feels like a very modern form of surrealism, less dreamlike flight of fancy than the kind of punch-drunk informational overload brought on by a heavy internet binge. In this way, the abstract and concrete sit comfortably and beguilingly together, in a work which is just as adept at communicating bursts of feeling as it is at adroitly analysing. Essential modern reading.

Review by Tom

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

August 19, 2020

Weather by Jenny Offill

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out nowJenny Offill WEATHER.jpg

How does a person who cares (possibly too much) for others respond to their woes, and to the all-time-great woe of the climate emergency?  Serious subjects are addressed with joy and great style in this funny and kind short novel from the author of The Department of Speculation.

Lizzie lives in New York with her husband and son.  But this is regular Brooklyn, not glitzy, and her snapshots of ordinary life are a treat. She chats to Mohan, who’s working at the bodega.  “I admire his new cat, but he tells me it just wandered in.  He will keep it though because his wife no longer loves him”.

She’s a librarian with an academic background, and her old tutor (now hosting a podcast on climate change) hires her to answer podcast correspondence.  The listeners’ emails are revealingly fraught or apocalyptic.  A podcast guest “…signs off with a small borrowed witticism.  ‘Many of us subscribe to the same sentiment as our colleague Sherwood Rowland.  He remarked to his wife one night after coming home: “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.””

The perils of taking too much responsibility for others are teased out: Lizzie ends up taking a car service (taxi) she can’t really afford too often, as the driver’s business is failing and she doesn’t want him to suffer.  How she eventually ends this entanglement is striking.

Offill has spoken candidly about trying to address a huge issue in a short novel.  Being in relative denial about the impacts of the climate emergency is a fact of everyday life, so as a reader it’s interesting to watch Lizzie move away from ignoring it and towards acceptance of the situation.  I agree with the Guardian interviewer who concluded: “At its core, the story asks: what happens after we start to pay attention?”.  (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/08/jenny-offill-interview – it was this interview that made me want to read the book, and also prompted me to finally read Stan Cohen’s States of Denial).

Enjoyable and relatable, but also very serious and relevant.  A great short read with wisdom and heart.

Review by Bethan

August 5, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Macmillan, £14.99, out nowEmily St John Mandel THE GLASS HOTEL.jpg

If you like your novels to take you to a series of elsewheres, and give you characters to get obsessed with, The Glass Hotel may be your perfect book.

It moves through striking settings: skyscraper Manhattan, a deluxe glass hotel in the Canadian wilderness, and a ship that the young and beautiful woman Vincent falls from as the novel opens.  But who is Vincent, and why does she disappear?  And why has someone etched in acid on the hotel lobby window “why don’t you swallow broken glass”?

Mandel has said that she wanted to write about the collapse of a too good to be true investment scheme, and those affected by it (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/04/emily-st-john-mandel-i-admire-novelists-who-are-pushing-the-form-forward-in-some-some).  But the book is about our ability to delude ourselves more generally, to be able to carry on living with some level of knowledge of what is going on, but to be in denial about the true meaning of our actions until everything collapses.  I had read Stan Cohen’s classic States of Denial just before reading this, and his themes of knowing and not knowing at the same time were echoed over and over in The Glass Hotel.

The Glass Hotel reflects the very different worlds an individual can occupy and move between.  From poverty to wealth, abundance to ruin, work to permanent leisure.  Vincent comments on the similarity between wealthy urban areas around the world after visiting Singapore and London, noting that they are a culture or nation of their own – “the kingdom of money”.  One character, a former businessman, notices the world of shadows – people living in the margins compared to his more mainstream life.  He sees people in Las Vegas holding up signs advertising ‘girls to your room in 20 mins’ (p.247).  “He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it”.

It is also about how the people from your past might come back to haunt you, literally or figuratively.

The possibility of finding joy in difficult situations, and the value of resilience, recurs.  Vincent’s brother Paul, meeting her after some time apart, notes: “He studied Vincent closely for signs of trouble, but she seemed like a reserved, put-together person, someone who’d conducted herself carefully and avoided the land mines.  How did she get to be like that, and Paul like this?”.

I fell into this novel and didn’t want to stop till I’d finished.

Review by Bethan

July 25, 2020

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, out now

This might be the best mysterRiku Onda THE AOSAWA MURDERS.jpgy I’ve ever read.  I immediately reread it and liked it even better second time around.

A prominent local family host a party at their smart villa in a seaside town in 1970s Japan.  Seventeen people are poisoned and only one member of the family survives: teenage Hisako, a blind girl.  Hisako claims that all she can remember is a blue room, and a flower.

Convinced that she is guilty of murder, a local police inspector tries for years to prove it.  But an easier suspect takes his own life, and people start to move on.  A gathering together of multiple forms of testimony helps to find an answer at last.

The Aosawa Murders is made up of witness accounts, stories and other ‘found’ testimony.  You read along, almost as an investigator yourself, and the process is extraordinarily engrossing.  It reminded me of the things I liked best about Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, but ultimately it’s not really like anything else (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2016/09/07/his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnet/).

Riku Onda’s writing is beautiful and the translation seamless.  The setting is so vivid it becomes a character in itself: “But the ocean here isn’t refreshing at all.  Gazing at it doesn’t give you any sense of freedom or relief.  And the horizon is always close, as if waiting for an opportunity to force its way onto land.  It feels like you’re being watched, and if you dare look away for just a moment the sea might descend upon you.” (p. 14)

The need to reread immediately is a reflection of the intricate and satisfying plot.  I suspected I could make more connections by having a second pass of the evidence, and I did.

The book literally gave me chills.  There were a couple of moments where I gasped aloud.  It’s both understated and electrifying and I’m still not sure how the author achieves this.  The Aosawa Murders has opened up a whole world of Japanese crime writing for me.  I went straight on to read The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada.  I will never forget The Aosawa Murders.

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 18, 2020

Actress by Anne Enright

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out 20 February Anne Enright ACTRESS

Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and her daughter Norah tells her story.  From the Irish theatre of the 1940s to London’s West End and the early days of Hollywood, famous Katherine’s life is exciting and often turbulent.  But no-one could predict that she would shoot someone.  Why did this happen?

Norah notes: “I was twenty-eight and the time of the assault.  I struggled on for the next year or more, but there came a day when I could not make it in to work.  I was writing a book, I said.  And then that became true.  I wrote, not one, but many books.  But I never wrote the one I needed to write, the one that was shouting out to be written, the story of my mother and Boyd O’Neill’s wound”.

From the Booker winning author of The Gathering and The Green Road, all of the things Anne Enright is known for are present here.  There is family drama, mothers and daughters, snappy lines and a story that seizes you and doesn’t let you go.

Norah begins to feel able to tell her mother’s story after Katherine’s death, prompted in part by irritation with how the story is being co-opted by others.  But how can she get to the truth?  Can she tell her own story too?

My colleague read this first, and rightly said this was a must-read for fans of fiction about theatre.  The dry wit reminded me of another all-time great theatre book, Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s.

Review by Bethan

February 12, 2020

We Love You, Mr Panda by Steve Antony

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Hodder Children’s Books, £6.99, out nowSteve Antony WE LOVE YOU MR PANDA

The legendary Mr Panda returns.

As ever he is long on kindness and manners, and short on rudeness and entitled behaviour.

This time he is offering free hugs (after checking first with each potential recipient).  He is all ready to hug a smelly skunk and a potentially bitey crocodile.  But everyone would seem to prefer to hug someone else.  It is a difficult moment when you realise that perhaps no-one wants to hug you.  But maybe someone will offer Mr Panda a hug instead?

Engaging bright pictures and a relatable character make this a great addition to a winning series.  This perfect Valentine’s gift is guaranteed to raise a smile.

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2020

The Wolf the Duck and the Mouse written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Walker Books, £6.99, out nowBarnett and Klassen THE WOLF THE DUCK AND THE MOUSE

This is a very funny picture book, suitable for all humans.  The wolf eats the mouse, who quickly discovers that a duck (a previous wolf-dinner) is already living a very nice life inside the wolf.  They become fast friends and enjoy dinners and dancing in their new home.  This internal party time is less fun for the wolf, however…

It’s worth reading this book for the expressions on the animals’ faces alone.  There are many dramatic developments and they are delivered with great style.

This team have produced several excellent books, but this is my favourite so far.  Here at Riverside we are also massive fans of Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2016/11/30/we-found-a-hat-by-jon-klassen/).          Read this book and feel your life improve immediately.

Review by Bethan

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 13, 2019

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Andersen Press, £6.99, out nowMatthew Cordell WOLF IN THE SNOW

Wolf in the Snow is an adventurous and heart-warming winter story.  Told through pictures, with almost all of the words being the sounds made by the human and non-human animals, this is an instantly engaging story.

A little girl in a red coat leaves her school just as a blizzard is starting.  As the snow becomes heavier, she finds a wolf cub who has accidentally become separated from their pack.  She tries to get the cub back to the pack, and will not abandon it.  But when she becomes lost, will anyone be able to find her and bring her home?

Like all the best children’s books, this is appropriate for every age.  I’m not surprised that it won the Caldecott medal.  I love that the author’s note at the beginning includes: “thanks to Kira Cassidy of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for taking the time to answer my questions about wolves and wolf behaviour”.  The wolves and humans manage to be equally relatable, which is a remarkable achievement.  It also has lovely messages about connection, taking risks to help others, love and friendship.  A perfect gift book for winter, if you can bear to give it away.

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

October 5, 2019

Corregidora by Gayl Jones

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Virago, £9.99, out now Gayl Jones CORREGIDORA

The first paragraph hooked me right away: “It was 1947 when Mutt and I married.  I was singing in Happy’s Café around on Delaware Street.  He didn’t like for me to sing after we were married because he said that’s why he married me so he could support me.  I said I didn’t just sing to be supported.  I said I sang because it was something I had to do, but he would never understand that.”

A long overdue new edition of this important American novel has just been published by Virago.  Praised by James Baldwin and Tayari Jones, and helped into print in the 1970s by Toni Morrison, Corregidora has lost none of its impact over the last 40 years.

It is 1947, and Ursa is singing the blues.  Her husband wants her to stop her nightclub work now that she is married.  He beats her up, leaving her unable to have children.  Her recovery and relationships after her hospitalisation are at the heart of the book.  But Ursa is also haunted by her family’s history, and particularly the horrific abuse suffered at the hands of the slave owner Corregidora.

I had never heard of this author before finding her in Toni Morrison’s recent collected essay, Mouth Full of Blood (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2019/09/07/mouth-full-of-blood-by-toni-morrison/).  This brutal novel grips right from the start, and there are no holds barred when Jones deals with women’s lives, sexuality, and the racism which infects Ursa’s past and present.  I read it in a single sitting, unable to put it down.

Review by Bethan

September 8, 2019

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Granta, £8.99, out nowSarah Moss GHOST WALL

I finished this slight novel in a corner of Oxford Circus tube station so that I wouldn’t be disturbed by commuters in the concluding moments of Silvie’s story.  This is a book that crept up on me as I read it and then has been ringing between my ears ever since. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie (whose name is short for Sulevia, chosen by her father, after an ancient British goddess) is a funny, brave and beguiling narrator.  Sylvie has been taken by her Father and Mother to an iron age re-enactment week in rural Northumberland.  They are joined by an Experimental Archaeology professor and some of his students. What transpires is a masterly exploration by Moss of class, sexual and regional oppressions and the dangers of idealising the rituals of the past.

If Ghost Wall were a film it would be a Best British Bafta winning Andrea Arnold film.  The descriptions of an oppressive summer and Sylvie’s burgeoning sexuality are glorious. “Her belly was rounder than mine, a pale curve dented by her belly button. I suddenly wanted to touch. I looked away. She splashed past me. Dan and Pete looked unconcerned, as if they saw women half naked in public every day, but I saw Pete glancing away and then back and then away again. Molly, up to her waist, reached round to unhook her bra from behind in a way I’d seen on TV though not, for example, in the girls changing room.” (p.56).

Moss vividly transports the reader to a stiflingly hot, uncomfortable summer.  We experience Sylvie’s tastes of exhilarating freedom and crushing debasements with her, as she comes of age in a brutal and brilliant climax.  I feel this is an important piece of fiction about female friendship and what it means to be a victim.  Silvie is an inspired heroine and no typical victim.  Moss isn’t afraid to look at toxic masculinity in both its blatantly violent and also subtle, middle class, well-educated forms.  The result is a quick read that leaves you gasping for breath and willing Sulevia to take hold of the goddess-like qualities she can just about touch with her fingertips.

Review by Eleanor

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 19, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, DoubleDay, £20, out nowKate Atkinson BIG SKY

“Nadja Wilk and her sister, Katja.  They came from Gdansk, where they had worked in a hotel.  Real people with real lives, not just ciphers for the tabloid newspapers”.  Big Sky, the latest instalment of Atkinson’s series featuring private detective Jackson Brodie, starts with Nadja and Katja.  Ready to leave their hotel jobs for better chances in the UK, they Skype with impressive businessman Mark Price who promises good placements and offers to pay for their travel.  But: “The office was a fake.  Anderson Price associates was a fake, Mark Price was a fake.  Only the Rolex was real”.  As always, Atkinson nails the nature of violence against women in this funny, smart and devastating book.  She deals with hard subjects brilliantly, giving characters who elsewhere might simply be exploited victims both relatable features and agency.

We find Jackson looking after with his 13-year-old son while taking various low rent private eye jobs.  Jackson is still for justice, though not always in a strictly legal way.  He remains focussed on the unwanted and uncared-about.  The book’s epigraph is revealing.  Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.  I’m for justice, no matter who is for or against it”.

Many memorable characters from previous books turn up, which felt to me like a huge treat.  Skilfully plotted, this gripping mystery sees many strands and lives woven together.  A woman is murdered in her garden; a young girl hitch-hikes a lift from a lonely sea front; an interesting teenage boy looks after his young half-sister in between shifts at a ghost train and failing seaside theatre.  Jackson remains an engaging commentator on the meaning of unexpected events.  Watching a mother beat the living daylights out of someone who may have a clue about her missing child: “Jackson glanced around to see how the rest of the café’s denizens were reacting to this, but they all seemed to have quietly disappeared.  Jackson didn’t blame them.  Wives and mothers, he thought, you never wanted to get on the wrong side of them.  Madonnas on steroids”.

Atkinson’s sentences are both completely precise and deceptively easy to read.  I think it must take a great deal of work to produce something that seems so effortless.

There are two good dogs in this book.

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 6, 2019

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Head of Zeus, £14.99, out nowMichelle Paver WAKENHYRST

This excellent supernatural horror mystery opens in 1913 with a 16-year-old girl in rural Suffolk seeing her father leaving the house with an ice pick and hammer.  Maud runs after him shouting for help.  Too late, she witnesses her father brutally murder someone in the lane outside.  But was she really just a witness?  And how did she know to shout for help before the attack?

Flash forward 50 years.  The press have decided to dig deeper into the story, partly inspired by her father’s paintings.  Now cult classics in the 1960s, he painted them in while in a secure hospital following the murder.  At least one journalist thinks Maud may have committed the murder herself.

Something about Suffolk lends itself to gothic murder stories, and Wakenhyrst draws effectively on East Anglian myths.  Mysterious nature surrounds the isolated gentleman’s residence where Maud and her father live, with the Fens as present in the book as any other character (including Chatterpie the magpie who is the cover star).

Paver explores the lives of women and girls in this remote setting, from maids to ladies of the house.  While class separates individuals, women’s solid societal position as less clever, less important, less human than men prevails.  Wakenhyrst is psychologically convincing, examining the ground between madness and possible supernatural influences.  How people interpret events is interesting, as is the value given to each interpretation: “The rules governed every moment of Maud’s day and there were two different kinds.  One sort belonged to the lower orders: it was called superstition and Father detested it, which meant that the servants observed their rules behind his back…  The other rules were Father’s – and much stronger, as he had God on his side”.

The tale is creepy and chilling, but thought-provoking.  It would lend itself to a firelit room with creaky floorboards, though I enjoyed it on a sunny day outdoors.  It’s not cosy crime, with some of the plot being truly horrifying.  We have one signed copy left of this physically beautiful book, so get it while it’s hot.

Review by Bethan

May 4, 2019

Underland – A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 23, 2019

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 2, 2019

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowSamantha Harvey WESTERN WIND

It is a time of change in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham.  Four days before Lent 1491, the wealthy landlord appears to have been swept away by the flooded river.  But was he murdered?  Did he take his own life?  Is he, in fact, dead at all?

The parish priest, young John Reve, narrates the story of the four days, starting with day four and working backwards.  Revelations come satisfyingly fast, as the scheming local Dean investigates and queasy secrets are revealed in the confessional and elsewhere… But there is more to this story.

Tensions have risen in the village over whether a recently built (and recently collapsed) bridge, intended to end Oakham’s isolation, should be replaced.  Oakham is wedded to its own traditions, some of which are clearly pagan, but is unable to ignore the world outside.  Not least as the Bishop has been imprisoned, and the local monastery is angling to seize village lands.

The missing landlord had recently returned from a pilgrimage in Europe, and described in sensuous terms the banquet of commodities on offer: “Spanish olive oil, as golden-green as those young grain fields; silk from Sicily; Indian pepper, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg; dried rhubarb and galingale from eastern China; aloes from the lands around the Red Sea; cloves that are violent on the tongue; brocades and great noble tapestries; Syrian ash in Venetian glass and scented soap; Asian elephant tusks and unicorn horns that change hands in Alexandria and go to Paris  for carving; Indian emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, lapis lazuli from the Oxus, Persian pearls and turquoise”.  The contrast with the literally stagnating muddy pariochial village, whose crops are failing this year, is painful.  It feels like Harvey may be asking us to draw parallels with the deep and raw debates happening now about the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The Western Wind is a gripping historical crime mystery, evocative and psychologically convincing, and would appeal to fans of C J Sansom, Ellis Peters, and Hilary Mantel.  Harvey shows us what can happen when change affects faith, the climate, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Review by Bethan

March 19, 2019

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99, out nowMargaret Millar VANISH IN AN INSTANT

A young woman covered in blood walks down a snowy small town street, and a man’s body is found with stab wounds nearby.  Minor league lawyer Meecham tries to get the woman released from jail, and there seems to be much more to the story than is evident…

Reprinted in a smart new paperback edition, this 1952 American mystery classic has introduced me to Margaret Millar (who is possibly my new addiction – I have already been trying to find out which of her other books I can get hold of).  An excellent Noir style thriller, Vanish in an Instant is more than just a great page turner.  The psychological aspects of the work ring true, and the style is fresh and engrossing.  “On the observation ramp above the airfield she could see the faces of people waiting to board a plane or to meet someone or simply waiting and watching, because if they couldn’t go anywhere themselves, the next best thing was to watch someone else going.  Under the glaring lights their faces appeared as similar as the rows of wax vegetables in the windows of the markets back home”.

I would recommend this for fans of well written crime, particularly to anyone who enjoys Patricia Highsmith or Raymond Chandler. Val McDermid finds Margaret Millar “stunningly original” in her review of Beast in View (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/books/review/women-crime-writers-eight-suspense-novels-of-the-1940s-and-1950s.html).

The Pushkin Vertigo stuff is always worth a go – I completely loved Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Suspicion (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/suspicion-by-friedrich-durrenmatt/) .  I hope they will publish more of Millar’s work on this showing.  I am ready to feed my new addiction.

Review by Bethan

March 12, 2019

Hair, it’s a Family Affair! by Mylo Freeman and The Mega Magic Hair Swap! by Rochelle Humes and Rachel Suzanne

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Cassava Republic, £6.99 out now; Paperback, Studio Press, £6.99, out nowMega Magic Hair Swap and Hair it's a Family Affair

These are two gorgeous picture books for young children celebrating how different hair can be.

Hair, it’s a Family Affair! is from Princess Arabella author Mylo Freeman, and has the same style of bright and joyous illustrations fans will recognise from those books (we are particular fans of Princess Arabella’s Birthday).  We get to see Grandma’s amazing Afro from the past, and cousin Kiki’s hair that is sometimes purple and sometimes pink.  Even Dad’s hair is feted, though he doesn’t really have any…

In The Mega Magic Hair Swap! two friends get their wish to exchange their hair.  It’s very relatable for any curly haired person who has envied the straight swooshy hair of friends.  But the baby no longer recognises his sister and even Tiger the dog runs away.  Will the magic coconut grant the girls’ wish to go back to how they were before?

Two bright and lively books showing how our different hairstyles help make us who we are.

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

March 3, 2019

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

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom