It’s been several months since I shared a reading post on here – mainly due to being occupied with my own book. I’ve written less on my blog this year than any other – a shifting of my attention away from the blogosphere and onto the other writing I want to send into the world. My appetite for reading hasn’t reduced, though, and I still find myself devouring a book every week to ten days (mostly thanks to our much-loved local library). People often ask me how I find time to read so much, but I think perhaps it’s less about finding time than making it. We all make time for the things that are important to us in life, and for me, going to bed at 9pm to read for an hour is a sacrifice I enjoy. Books are where I go to learn, to understand more about the world, to be entertained, amused and astonished. I also find reading physical books a relaxing, mindful activity that helps me get a good night’s sleep.
Which is just as well, really, as had I been suffering with a period of insomnia, Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep would have made for alarming reading. In the book, sleep expert Walker explains the nature and function of sleep, and armed with rigorous science, demonstrates why sleep is one of the key pillars of our health. There are fascinating insights into sleep in the animal world – and worrying insights into how early-start approaches to education and work could be hampering the well-being of young people (as well as compounding inequalities). For me, the biggest takeaway from the book was that missing out on sleep is bad news at every level, and ‘catching up’ at a later stage doesn’t undo the damage (having been both a sleep-deprived mother to toddlers, and an intermittent insomniac this particular element of the book made for unpleasant reading). Thankfully, there were also insights and advice on improving sleep quality going forward (circle back to my hour of reading before bed). Despite its go-to-sleep content, this book should probably be a wake-up call for our technology-ridden, hustle-driven society to take sleep a lot more seriously. At the very least, it should encourage all of us to enjoy (more than) the occasional early night.
A night-themed title was one of my next reads, JoJo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, a story inspired by the ‘packhorse librarians’ of Kentucky in the 1930s. When Alice leaves England for a new life in Baileyville with her American husband, she finds her unexpectedly stifling lifestyle difficult – until she meets Margery O’ Hare and joins a group of women delivering books on horseback through the local mountain trails. When things turn sour, though, the group must come together in defence of one of their own in a multi-layered tale of female friendship, poverty, race and inequality. I loved this book, and found it completely different to anything I’d ever read by Moyes before. One to devour and savour, The Giver of Stars is a beautifully written story, as well as a testament to the power of the written word.
Beautiful writing also abounds in Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence (a follow-up to The Salt Path, in which Raynor and her husband walked the 630-mile South West Coast Path after being evicted from their home and receiving a life-changing diagnosis). In her second book, Raynor struggles with grief, and adapting to life in a Cornish village after the adventure of their trek. The chance to help rewild a nearby farm and embark on another nature-infused adventure leads Raynor to healing and acceptance in this lyrical account of illness and adversity. The Wild Silence is a wonderfully restorative read, and a reminder of the connection to nature that can help us overcome.
Connection to nature was also the theme of my next read, George Monbiot’s Feral. In this 2013 overview of ‘rewilding the land, sea and human life’ the author takes us on a journey of (re-) discovering nature, and makes a powerful case for rewilding – which he describes as ‘resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.’ As a native of the Scottish Highlands I’m aware of a certain amount of controversy around rewilding, and the interplay with other issues such as land ownership and the potential beneficiaries of ecological restoration (see this article for more context). As such, I appreciated the author’s sensitivity to those who work the land and his assertion that rewilding should ‘never be used as an instrument of expropriation or dispossession’ (although I did at times feel a little uncomfortable with the much leaned-on suggestion of tourism as an alternative to land-based work). This was a nuanced and enlightening read on a subject I’m disinclined to say much about, as many of my peers are much better informed about it. From my own perspective, though, I agreed with the author’s assertion that rewilding should happen only with ‘consent and active engagement’ from communities, and – as with so many things of this nature – as part of a community-led approach.
The nature of community features heavily in The Way Home, Mark Boyle’s account of his first year without modern technology in a self-built cabin in rural Ireland (where ‘modern technology’ encompasses most of the things many of us take for granted, such as phones, internet, electricity, hot water, a washing machine, a car.) The book illuminates Boyle’s lifestyle through a series of vignettes punctuated with neighbourly interactions and a visit to the Great Blasket Island in an exploration of the ‘complexities of simplicity.’ I loved Boyles’ memoir, and its poetic, thought-provoking style. And although I’m not sure I could fully embrace Boyles’ lifestyle myself, his words gave me pause for thought about which end of the nature/technology continuum I want to spend my life living on. The Way Home is an honest, affirming and timely account of one man’s desire to live a simpler lifestyle – and a tribute to the communities and places we interact with on the way.
A sense of place pervades the late Neil M. Gunn’s The Well at the World’s End, which I also wrote about in this post. In this 1950s story, Caithnessian Gunn tells of a man who seeks out a mythical well while on holiday in the Highlands with his wife. Much of the book concerns protagonist Peter’s search for experiences beyond his everyday reality, and the novel is rich in Celtic notions of ‘thin places.’ The novel also speaks of author Gunn’s deep affection for the Highlands, and reminds us that every generation views the passing of time with some degree of sadness. As Peter comments:
You see what I mean? This gloom that hangs over us…It’s not that we’ve forgotten how to approach the well in the right way: we’ve forgotten the well itself.
Another Caithnessian writer with the surname Gunn is the very-much-alive George, whose poetry collection Chronicles of the First Light warmed my heart when I read it in September. Full of light and wonder, George’s words are immersed in Caithness – and Caithness is immersed in George’s words. This is a collection to pick up and read cover-to-cover, or to dip into, or both of these things – repeatedly. With lines like ‘….& you will fly wingless/to sharpen the weapons of the dead/to have them walk once more the beach of life/where tides of love move all the stars’ I just know that Chronicles of the First Light is going to be worth experiencing again (and again… and again).
OTHER BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED LATELY:
The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury – an excellent account of the author’s journeys following rivers to their source after her experience of personal trauma. Norbury’s travels were inspired by Neil M. Gunn’s The Well at the World’s End (see above) and also feature a visit to the Dunbeath Strath in Caithness.
Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young – boarding school drama meets The Handmaid’s Tale for young adults. With writing as sharp as its title, I found this offering (the first in a series) a hugely absorbing read.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi – a sensitive portrayal of the lives and losses of an Omani family over three generations.
American Royals by Katharine McGee – a light and easy read with a sequel available. Beverley Hills 90210 meets The Crown with a youthful twist.
As The Women Lay Sleeping by Donald S. Murray – a poignant drama based around the Iolaire disaster, in which 200 servicemen returning from World War One drowned when their vessel sank off Stornoway.
The Village Green Bookshop by Rachael Lucas – a sweet, romantic and engaging story with added bookshop-themed appeal.
Things I Learned From Falling by Claire Nelson – an excellent reflection on Nelson’s experience of spending several days alone in the Californian desert after a hiking accident shattered her pelvis.
The Girl Before You by Nicola Rayner – a gripping, well-paced thriller about a woman who becomes obsessed with her husband’s missing ex.
Wilding by Isabella Tree – an informative and uplifting account of the rewilding of a West Sussex farm, and a testament to the resilience of nature.
And if all that hasn’t given you a few ideas, might I also suggest young adult folklore tales Pieces of Sky and Stone and Castles of Steel and Thunder by yours truly?
See you soon for another seasonal haul of books!
I do envy the speed and quantity of your reading Gail. My reading is reserved for the few times I get which are quiet – I cannot concentrate when there are other things going on and I certainly cannot read more than one text at a time.
As I mentioned on SM, I prefer ‘story’ novels, although not always on lighthearted topics as I do like stories which explore concepts in different ways and give me something to think about.
Real life stories and issues come from news etc. and I have been known to even avoid that and take the ‘head in the sand approach’ of if it’s important enough it will feed through to me somewhere along the line – which I expect would be another person’s nightmare! As we’ve previously discussed, I do follow and take a stance on important issues, but there is so much going on at present it can be overwhelming and so I don’t want my pleasure reading to be about an issue, I don’t need it to be informative or about real people, I just want to be able to escape.
Absolutely understand your preference for escapist reading, Linda, and I agree that the news can be overwhelming. Although I read a lot of non fiction on issues that interest me, I tend to keep away from certain genres due to their emotional impact (it’s one of the reasons I don’t read a lot of crime writing – although I did have one such novel in my pile here, which is quite unusual for me). The great thing about reading is that there are so many options available depending on your preferences. Most of my reading is actually achieved in that one nightly hour before bed, but yes, I think I must actually be quite a fast reader too! x