Novellas in November – catching up with a last few reads


I seem to have managed to run out of days in November, what with all the challenges I’ve been doing. So here are short reviews of the last few Novellas in November I fitted in this month. I’ve really enjoyed this challenge, as ever – from picking out a grid of possible reads to working my way through them. I got up to ten this month, eight from the grid of possibility, one that I was sent to review and read and reviewed within the month and one that I inexplicably didn’t include on the grid, so not bad going, and it’s been fun reading everyone else’s reviews, too.

Tessa Wardley – “Mindful Thoughts for Runners”

(25 December 2021, from Meg)

A nice little book looking in quite a lot of depth at mindfulness for runners, covering starting running, enjoying different weather, communities, injury time, etc. I particularly liked that the images through the book were really diverse, and there are lots of details of things you can do like not taking the headphones, noticing different kinds of trees and plants and taking note of the feel of the ground beneath your feet. There’s an environmental element, too – treading lightly, reusing water bottles and the like, which was nice, and a useful chapter on approaching running as you age.

Maya Angelou – “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now”

(21 January 2022, from Ali)

A book of essays first published in 1993 without any real explanatory matter around them: there’s an Acknowledgements page which mentions two magazine editors who encouraged Angelou to put down her thoughts, but nothing with each piece. But anyway, they’re good, succinct essays with Angelou’s usual direct style and straight talking, encouraging us to do the right thing and be authentic, in summary. Slotting in gaps in her autobiographies, the collection is notable for having quite a lot about her faith, which I don’t remember as a huge part of those works, including the moment she was brought to humility by reading and re-reading a passage about God’s love. I can only presume this is why the book was marked by Virago “Autobiography/Spirituality” on the back of the book: it’s not the main part of it by any means, though. Funny and moving stories mix with exhortations on various subjects: the pieces are short and easy to read and it was an enjoyable collection: I’m looking forward to reading the other two I have TBR.

Hans Siwik – “Iceland: People, Sagas, Landscapes”

(20 May 2022)

I found out about this book in Paul HalfManHalfBook’s April 2022 roundup, where he listed books recently acquired. Intrigued by the title, I managed to hunt a copy down on Abe Books quite soon afterwards. I don’t know if he’s read it yet as I couldn’t find a review.

After a potted history of Iceland, Sigurdur A. Magnusson, who wrote this and presumably chose/edited the other texts, explains that “

No direct correspondence was sought between the texts and the photographs of this book. Word and image may be said to create fruitful tension that should expand rather than confine the central theme, which is the interplay of man and nature … (Foreword, n.p.)

and indeed if you look for a clear correspondence, you won’t find one. There are some longish selections from 1950s and 1960s translations of the sagas interspersed with blocks of very fine colour plates of photographs of landscape and the odd person. The saga selections include my (and probably everyone’s) favourites: Gudrun being asked which husband she loved best in Laxdaela Saga and Gunnar’s death from Njal’s Saga with other bits from Egil’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga.

One for the Iceland/sagas completist maybe, and it was a bit disappointing that there was no list stating where the photographs were of. But a nice book to while away a few hours with.

So that rounds up my go at Novellas in November. More non-fiction than fiction as usual – Matthew did suggest it should be called “Not-Many-Pages November” as even the official page includes non-fiction (though he concedes Novellas in November is the better name!)

These were Books 8 – 10 for Novellas in November, all three from the original selection of 15. They are also Books 9 – 11 for NonFiction November.

Book review – Dr Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas – “This is What it Sounds Like”


I have been reading my NetGalley books behind the scenes, filling in September, October and November’s publications, and have saved up some reviews for next week but this is a good solid non-fiction title that fits in with Nonfiction November. Yes, it’s a music/neuroscience book by a Rogers but is very different from Jude Rogers’ “The Sound of Being Human” (links to review on Shiny New Books) and the two books complement each other nicely.

Dr Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas – “This is What it Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You”

(25 October 2022, NetGalley)

Music’s features do not predict love – music listening does. Two people can listen to the exact same song and report dramatically different accounts of “This is what it sound like … to me.”

Rogers is a sound engineer who worked for such luminaries as Prince: she went back into education mid-life in order to study psychology and came out with a PhD and as a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Ogi Ogas is more in the background, providing neuroscience detail and notes on research and being credited as co-author.

Rogers’ central thesis is that there are seven dimensions of music listening, and by paying attention to these we can work out why we love a particular piece of music / song / record and even learn something about ourselves in the process (I wasn’t entirely convinced by this: does my love of the timbre of an American slightly whiny man’s voice (They Might Be Giants, REM, Weezer, et al.) really say much about my own personality?). The dimensions themselves are useful pegs to hang decisions about music on: authenticity, melody, realism, rhythm, etc. and the suggestions for tracks to listen to that feature various aspects of these were useful and interesting and enlivened a few dinner times.

There’s lots of detail, especially in the later chapters, about what our brain is doing when we hear familiar music or music we score highly when we first hear it.

Woven through the book are details of Rogers’ life in music, the developments in the technology of recording and how they changed what music sounded like, her reaction to various songs, records and musicians, and even a chapter on how the facets introduced in this book relate to music production. There are also short pieces from a range of her students and associates on their favourite piece of music and why they love it, so the text stays lively and varied throughout. The notes are great and there’s also a website, a playlist and the like to allow you to explore the text and its concepts further.

A really interesting and well done book, never boring or too technical.

Thank you to Random House for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “This is What it Sounds Like” was published on 6 October 2022.

This was Book 8 for Nonfiction November.

Book reviews – Sam Selvon – “The Housing Lark” and Caleb Femi – “Poor”


Two books read for Novellas in November which detail Black men’s lives in London 55 years apart but with many similarities as well as differences. Of course the men in Sam Selvon’s novel, Selvon himself, have fairly recently arrived in London from Caribbean countries, while poet Caleb Femi was born in Nigeria. South London features heavily in both – Brixton and Peckham, respectively; I don’t know Brixton that well but I lived in Peckham for a year in the mid-1990s, well before the gentrification I’ve been reading about in later novels and at the time of the North Peckham Estate, which Femi records in detail in his poems and photographs. Both men detail simple wishes for safety, companionship, some money, some way to advance in life. Both have friends laughing at friends who wouldn’t know what to do with the women they are chasing if they caught them, and both feature strong, uncompromising women.

I bought “The Housing Lark” in November 2021 after it was mentioned on Ten Million Hardbacks’ blog; out of the eight print books purchased that month, I’ve read two so far, but that is only still a year ago. “Poor” came in Bookish Beck’s parcel-before-last in December 2021 and I’ve actually read four out of the ten making up the pile I gathered before Christmas that year!

Sam Selvon – “The Housing Lark”

(04 November 2021)

Is so life was, you had to take chances, and one day your luck might turn. And if you yourself ain’t have anything to offer, it good to stick with fellars like Harry, and Alfy and Syl and the rest of the boys. All of we can’t be blight, Bat think, out of six seven fellars, one bound to be lucky, something good bound to happen to one of we. Bat ain’t care who it happen to, as long as he around to share in the good fortune. (p. 34)

I can’t remember if the characters in this short novel appeared in “The Lonely Londoners” but we’re back in familiar territory with a disparate group of men struggling to survive in a mainly unfriendly and difficult post-war London. We open with Battersby regarding his rented room, hoping the lamps on the wallpaper might issue a genie, wishing for simple things, food, company, money. The plot revolves around the resolve of a group of friends to club together to buy a house – the only way they can see of getting secure accommodation and their own agency.

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to make Battersby the treasurer, as the money seems to fritter itself away … He does run a coach trip to Hampton Court which gives us a hilarious interlude as the participants eat and laugh their way around, observed with some alarm by their White counterparts, and of course it’s the women, Battersby’s sister Jean, her room-mate Mathilda and Teena, unfortunate enough to be married to one of the men, who take the scheme in hand and make it work. Written in dialect like “The Lonely Londoners”, like that novel, too, it’s both funny and tragic, the characters making the best of their situation, destitution only one step away.

Interestingly, it has a very modern comment to make about education:

‘I must say you boys surprise me with your historical knowledge. It’s a bit mixed up, I think, but it’s English history.’ ‘We don’t know any other kind. That’s all they used to teach we in school.’ ‘That’s because OUR PEOPLE ain’t have no history. But what I wonder is, when we have, you think they going to learn the children that in the English schools?’ (pp. 100-101).

A touching and lively novel and an important record of first-generation immigrants’ lives.

Caleb Femi – “Poor”

(11 December 2021 – from Bookish Beck)

This will not be enough for them

so they’ll force us to put it into words

& we will say: When hipsters take selfies

on the corners where our

friends died, the rent goes up. (“On Magic / Violence”, p. 39)

I have read more poetry this year than I have for a long time; I still favour the very clear and direct and I got a bit lost in the allusions in this one (I was mainly OK with the language and dialect terms) but could see my way through a good proportion of them. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the word as most of them are very hard-hitting and full of pain and distress, but it’s an important and strongly beautiful collection of both words and images.

With poems about the concrete landscape and the miles of walkways connecting the spaces of the North Peckham Estate, the poetry is going to be unyielding and strong, but there’s a lot of feeling, emotion and care in the book, from the unconventional signs of spring (young boys play on the grass, people get the new trainers) to the moving eulogies for Damilola Taylor, Mark Duggan and the Grenfell Tower residents. It’s worth looking at the notes, which explain which poems are memorialising which lost people.

There’s anger and understanding of anger, with some very powerful poems about the “riots”/uprisings and their meanings, and there’s bewilderment at the start of the gentrification which has now hit the South London suburb (I have most notably read about this in “Yinka, Where is your Huzband?“). The images of people and tower blocks work perfectly with the poems, couplets and prose pieces and the work is technically complex and adept, pulling at the heartstrings, raising a smile, documenting how it feels to feel you are every Black man who is shown mistreated on the TV. I hope this reached a variety of audiences, including those people who are portrayed in it and will see themselves in a poetry book published by a mainstream publisher, for once. Rebecca’s review which originally attracted me to the book is here.

These were Books 6 and 7 for Novellas in November, both from the original selection of 15.

Book review – Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”


Back to AusReading Month and I’m continuing my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and it gave me a short history of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; this book charts the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and “Another Day in the Colony” which I am starting now, will fill in a lot more gaps hopefully (I don’t think I’ll get to “Lies Damned Lies” but can save that for next AusReading Month of course). This is another of the books that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and we largely agree on the pieces that most struck us, interestingly.

Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

… this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration, demonstrating the will to survive and the capacity to thrive against the odds. Growing up Aboriginal in Australia paints a landscape of a country that has created leaders who form strong communities, with a generous heart and passion for change. That is why this anthology matters. The goal is to break down stereotypes – many of which are identified with these pages – and to create a new dialogue with and about Aboriginal Australians. (Introduction, p. 2)

This excellent book takes 50 submissions from Aboriginal people living in Australia which (sometimes loosely) follow the theme of growing up. Some of them relate in a straightforward manner what it was like to be a child in Australia, some take the idea that they are still “growing up” and some just fill us in on what life continued to be like. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the contributors, but some are well-known writers, academics, musicians and sports players and some are ordinary people. The ages of the contributors range from 13 to people who must be in their 80s and this gives an excellent perspective as some are from the Stolen Generations (Aboriginal people, especially those with lighter skins, who were taken from their families and ‘raised’ on missions and in special schools to ‘protect’ them from taint by their darker-skinned relatives) or are children of people who were stolen, or look back to a fractured family line because of this vile policy: we really see how that has reverberated through the generations.

I learnt a lot reading this. Many of the contributors described their anguish at being lighter-skinned, asked to prove their Aboringinality, told they could and should ‘pass’ for non-Aboriginal, were questioned on what proportion of their heritage was Aboriginal and found they were too light-skinned for some of their family group or activists but too dark-skinned for European-origin Australians (this chimed with the works I’m reading on people with dual heritages elsewhere in the world, but with special horrors to do with their geography). I also hadn’t realised that Aboriginal people were only accepted as actual PEOPLE in the 1960s when there was a referendum about ‘allowing’ them to appear on the census and vote – before that, they were counted as sort of part of the flora and fauna [Edited to add: this is actually a myth, please see the comments and links by my Australian blogger friends below]. And I was completely unaware that people were captured and removed from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other islands and used for labour.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there’s a lot of humour, a lot of anger and pushing back, and a lot of people finding their Aboriginal heritage and connecting with it, learning the traditional ways and cultures of the different Aboriginal groups and becoming workers or activists or educators in their communities and beyond. Interestingly, although I re-read his review after I’d finished the book and put down some thoughts, I liked similar essays to the ones Bill chose: for example, “Two tiddas” by Susie and Alice Anderson, who record a dialogue about their feelings about being Aboriginal, and Dom Benrose’s powerfully sarcastic apology to “Dear Australia” for basically existing or pushing back: “I am sorry I can’t tot paint, play football or run really fast” (p. 17). There’s a lot of intersectionality, too, looking at race, class, gender and/or sexuality, with Celeste Liddle in “Black bum” unable to separate her experiences of being Aboriginal from those of being female.

One tiny criticism I had is that I struggled to find a pattern or structure in the book, so while it showcased diversity in ages, backgrounds and experiences, you sort of dotted from one to another without a clear pathway through it. The introduction by the editor only explains they came from 120 submissions and notes on why the anthology matters, which is great, but I’d have liked to understand the selection and organisation principle. This is a minor point, though: the thing that matters is the diversity, own voices and chances for people to express themselves and readers to find themselves mirrored or to learn.

At the end of his review, Bill notes that many people of his generation and younger don’t understand/accept that racism existed and still exists in Australia and adds his hope that school children are all reading this book: I add to that hope and also think it’s very important to know about these issues outside Australia, hence being very glad to have had the opportunity to read this powerful, fascinating and moving book and share about it here.

This was Book 2 for AusReading Month and Book 7 for Nonfiction November.

Book review – Howard Sturgis – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice”


Publisher Michael Walmer kindly sent me a review copy of his reprint of Howard Sturgis’ “On the Pottlecomble Cornice” (see it on his website here) which was originally printed in the Fortnightly Review in 1908 and hasn’t been in print since, until it’s appeared in this rather handsome hardback copy. It landed on my doormat on 4 November, just before I went on holiday, so here we are having read it, and of course it fits beautifully into the Novellas in November challenge, being a slim volume. Sturgis is best known for his novel, “Belchamber” (which I haven’t read, but would!) and I think this was his last work. Kaggsy of the Bookish Ramblings has reviewed it here.

Howard Sturgis – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice”

(04 November 2022, from the publisher)

Day after day and week after week did those two human souls advance, and meet, and pass, and retreat from one another, in this long leisurely country dance, without any thought of becoming acquainted. Probably, in no country but England could such things be. (p. 12)

This quietly devastating novella / long short story (Walmer calls it a novella so so shall I) reminds me of Elizabeth Fair’s “The Marble Staircase” or an Elizabeth Taylor short story.

The seaside small town setting is attractive and we first see how it’s grown into a middle-class establishment, complete with an arty gothic house on the hill and a new road, the Cornice of the title (which the locals regard with amazement, a word for a bit of a ceiling getting pronounced in cod-Italian), and coming with those things, lodgers and home owners looking for some sea air.

Major Mark Hankisson lives in two rooms and takes a walk in one of three coats, rain or shine, along the road every day. He encounters a small woman, dressed in grey, walking in the opposite direction, most days, but pays her no attention until one windy day when he’s concerned she’s going to get blown away.

Once his chivalrous intentions are aroused, there’s no stopping him – but this is turn of the century England so he watches for where she sits and lives and asks his landlady who lives in that house. It’s only when she disappears once … twice that he’s forced to take action and actually speak to someone.

I’m not going to spoil the story, but it’s so sweet and eventually sad, a tale of a last (or first?) chance not taken, and I’m very glad to have read it.

Thank you to Michael Walmer for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

This was Book 5 for Novellas in November, and not one of the original 15 possibles!

Book review – Janet Pywell – “Someone Else’s Child”


Because I’d read and reviewed Janet Pywell’s “Someone Else’s Dream” last year, she got in touch with me and kindly offered me a review copy of this, the second in the Westbay Romance series. I’d liked the diversity as well as the seaside community setting (a favourite of mine) in the first book and had finished my review by saying I’d read more in the series, so I accepted and downloaded it when I got back from our recent holiday.

Janet Pywell – “Someone Else’s Child”

(14 November 2022)

Everyone has a story and when everything else is stripped away, it’s kindness that’s the most important thing.

Femi, a dual-heritage, single woman living in the seaside town of Westbay, had a difficult childhood including time in a foster family, and she was determined to offer that kind of support to some children herself. Someone who likes to help, she also works shifts in a medical centre and is an RNLI volunteer, with some exciting rescues featured in the book. As we meet her, she’s looking after 17 year old Ricky, who’s just starting to become a bit more independent, and 13 year old Albert, who’s quiet a lot of the time and yearning for his dad to be the hero he knows he’s really not, both of them British and having suffered early neglect. Into the house comes Ahmed, a Syrian refugee placed with them as an emergency, and Femi must negotiate the new home dynamics and try to settle him in while making sure her other two boys are OK and juggling a whole suite of social workers.

There are a lot of issues in this book, from abuse to living as a refugee, and fractured families, but all treated well and sensitively, with the author obviously having done her research, but refraining from shoving it all into the book. The various social workers around the family are explained carefully and the status of a fostered child made clear, so we can understand Femi’s take on things and decisions, too. She’s a lovely, strong (physically and emotionally) character with bravery in both aspects; the only thing I was a bit unsure of was that she describes herself as needing to lose weight time and again, and although that’s a hook to hang different characters’ reactions on, it could have been done without.

Anyway, Femi is also on her own journey of accepting her past and also has the possibility of a new friendship – or more – once she overcomes her very understandable reservations. A crowd of supporters around them, some from the previous book and some new ones, makes the sense of community palpable and believable, and the book is never scared to address issues like the different experiences two refugees only two years apart will have.

Thank you to Janet Pywell for offering me a review copy in return for an honest review. “Someone Else’s Child” is published today, 22 November 2022!

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers


Week 4: (November 21-25) – Worldview Changers: One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in? (Rebekah @ She Seeks Nonfiction)

I found it tricky to find books for this week as I wanted to do this on books I’ve read since 1 November last year. However, some of my books for the second question I read before last November.

What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way?

I came up with Symeon Brown’s “Get Rich or Lie Trying“, which is an exposé of the world of internet influencers, or rather those who try desperately to monetise their lives for various reasons, including hauling themselves out of poverty, and who are used and abused by companies who know their desperation.

Damian Hall’s “In it for the Long Run” opened my eyes to the actual environmental costs of the hobby of running – I have only travelled far to race once, and combined it with a holiday, but it made me think, and it made me pre-order his new book, as yet unread, “We Can’t Run Away from This” (pictured here), which covers the issue in more depth.

Finally, Sabeena Akhtar’s “Cut from the Same Cloth?” opened my eyes to the anti-Black prejudices which exist in the Muslim community in the UK, as well as showcasing the huge variety among hijabi women here, which I already knew a little more about.

Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

A book that profoundly changed my worldview last year was Shon Faye’s “The Transgender Issue“. I hadn’t really understood that in order to gain medical acceptance and treatment, trans folk had to follow a pathway, a narrative, which was very restrictive and limited how they were ‘allowed’ to experience the world. Once I’d gathered that, I was able to understand the issues a lot better and fit in a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle for myself.

With all the opprobrium, misunderstanding and vileness that gets thrown at refugees and asylum-seekers across the world, I’d love people to read one of these two important volumes I read this year. “American Refuge” looks at people who have come from all over the world to one town, and “Refugee Wales” tells the stories of Syrian people who have come to South Wales. Equally important would be “The Good Immigrant” and “The Good Immigrant USA

Finally, for people in the UK to understand that people who look the same as them or people who look different to them, depending on the reader, have been here since prehistory, I’d recommend two big books, David Olusoga’s “Black and British” and Hakim Adi’s “African and Caribbean People in Britain“. Olusoga does have a shorter version aimed at younger people which is comprehensive, too, and there was an interesting TV series.

Three books that opened my eyes in different ways and one and a selection to change everyone’s world. What did you pick for your week and what books have opened your eyes this year?

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “Some Can Whistle”


The fifth (loosely) of the Houston Series (this one is partly set there) which forms the last section of my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project. In this one, we find that McMurtry cannot leave Danny Deck, last seen or heard of drowning his second novel, and possibly himself, alone, for here he is again.

I acquired this copy in October 2004 via BookCrossing (I swapped it with someone in Georgia for a Barbara Kingsolver) and sent it to Canada for a journey before it came home again. Amusingly, it was away while I moved to my current house, as I mentioned I had saved a space for it on my new bookshelves. No review on here but I do have my review from my BookCrossing journal entry: “

This was brilliant – classic, vintage McMurtry. I particularly liked the way that they went into Thalia a few times, Cadillac Jack and Duane from the Last Picture Show trilogy popped up in the story incidentally, and Emma Horton was mentioned too – makes it all seem more real!”

Larry McMurtry – “Some Can Whistle”

(15 October 2004, BookCrossing)

But my daughter, an evidently healthy young woman who had two small children and worked at a Mr. Burger, might well not see it that way. To her I might just seem like an aging freak, slopping around my house in caftans, not leaving my hill for months on end, watching horrible European policier videos half the night, and talking on the phone hour after hour to a kind of aural harem of beautiful women scattered all over the world, most of whom i only saw for maybe an hour or two a year. (p. 32)

This one lacked the preface others have had and I missed getting McMurtry’s thoughts on it. However, he obviously couldn’t leave Danny Deck along and here he is with a whole book of his own. It opens strongly with a woman calling Deck at his California designer adobe residence, shared with the fairly disgusting old English professor, Godwin, and his housekeeper, Gladys and asking if he’s her father. And there T.R. is, 22, with two small children, bursting into his life with a crowd of extras and turning it upside-down. Previously, Deck had lived a quiet life with only a series of phone calls and voice mails with several women friends to keep him occupied. He’s made his fortune writing a wildly popular sitcom, and indeed one of his women friends starred in it: after deciding he didn’t want to drown himself in the Rio Grande, he worked his way into the TV industry, although he’s always looking for the perfect first line for another novel.

T.R. is enchanting and frustrating and roars through the novel. But the father of her oldest child is a constant background threat, and although Deck hires a bodyguard for her, you get the feeling her fate might come for her. But surely not to such a whirlwind of power and fearlessness? Times around the pool with a set of family and chosen family remind us of the Duane novels, and indeed Duane makes a short appearance, as does Cadillac Jack from his eponymous novel (I feel like I’m not finished with McMurtry and might polish off some standalones early next year), which is lovely. Less lovely is hearing about Jill Peel’s sad fate, Joe having died at the end of the last novel, and what happened to her after that. This does set the stage for McMurtry making you care about his characters and then turning the screw at the end (this has happened in a couple of reads recently, also notably Jonathan Coe’s very different novel, “Bournville”.

The novel also has a lot to say about the fate of women in the TV and film industry as they age, with incisive commentaries from the narrator, Deck, about the career trajectories of his friends. His harem of women friends remind me of Charles Arrowby in “The Sea, The Sea,” and indeed there is a mention of Iris Murdoch appearing at the end of Deck’s graduate studies in English (this book was published a decade after “The Sea, The Sea” and I really must research IM’s influence on LM!

The lives of happy people ar dense with their own doings – crowded, active, thick – urban, I would almost say.

But the sorrowing are nomads, on a plain with few landmarks and no boundaries; sorrow’s horizons are vague and its demands few. Jeanie and I had not become strangers; it was just that she lived in the city and I lived on the plains. (p. 368)

Funny but ultimately touching and a meditation on sorrow and grief, the work of a master hidden in the covers of a potboiler!

Are you doing the project with me? Are you planning to read this one / this series? If you’re doing “Lonesome Dove” or any of the others, how are you getting along?

Book review – Mariama Ba (trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) – “So Long a Letter”


A last review from my holiday last week: I read this one on the plane on the way home (I like to have a print book to hand for flights in case I’m told to turn my Kindle off, although in fact I was very absorbed in Jonathan Coe’s “Bournville” as we landed in Birmingham!).

I received this book in my Birmingham BookCrossers’ Not So Secret Santa parcel last December from the lovely Sam (alongside a Christmas book I read on Christmas Day and another book I haven’t read yet). It would have fallen under the Novellas in Translation themed week for Novellas in November had I reviewed it last week but I’m not really doing the themed weeks so it’s all OK!

Mariama Ba (trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) – “So Long a Letter”

(16 December 2021, from Sam)

Waiting! But waiting for what? I was not divorced … I was abandoned; a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up, as my grandmother would have said. (p. 56)

I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Senegal yet, though I might be wrong, and I’m very glad I’ve read this classic of women’s writing. It was originally written in French and Ba obviously has a quite different attitude to colonialism that people who came after her, as her (apparently fairly autobiographical) main character loves her French-administered school and relishes the education she receives there. I’ll note I’m not being clever and percptive about attitudes to colonialism here: as this is an edition published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, there’s an excellent and fairly academic introduction. Kenneth Harrow also points out this is an early example of African feminist writing and I can really see that in the deep commitment to female friendship that is shown throughout the novel.

We meet Ramatouolaye at her husband’s funeral. She’s writing it all in a letter to her best friend, and we get the immediate present first, all the rituals and family stuff going on, all rooted in her Muslim faith. Unobtrusive footnotes help us through the details, as there’s a lot about payments, clothing, etc., but underlying it all is the fact that now she is widowed, she’s going to have to tread carefully to retain her own agency and life. Added to all the confusion is that there’s a second, much younger, wife involved – and this also happened to her friend, although in that case, it was down to manipulation by her mother in law and she has walked out of her marriage, all the way to America. We learn these details gradually, but we’re basically shown very cleverly two different ways that a woman can get into this kind of situation and react to it. Always, their strong friendship binds them and keeps them going.

Ramatouolaye must negotiate several suitors and these are very amusing points in the book where she gives at lesat two of them what for and engages in interesting political discussions with the last She also has a neighbour who is able to predict the future and also has very strong opinions on the right thing to do. She acts as a kind of Greek chorus, not always welcome, but another strong female figure. Added to these figures is her grandmother, whose precepts and advice she remembers more and more as she travels through her own life.

Ramatouolaye must also negotiate the changes in her children’s lives as they grow and push the boundaries, from the older children smoking to the youngest boy playing football in the street, a risky business, and then one of her daughters finds herself in the oldest predicament of all. Will she do the right thing or the kindest thing? We leave the book on a positive note, a reunion with her dearest friend on the cards. What a lovely book, funny and perceptive and empowering and so much packed into under 200 pages. Highly recommended.

This was Book 4 for Novellas in November.

Book review – Mo Wilde – “The Wilderness Cure”


Another book coming off my NetGalley TBR and this one was published in October (I have two from September, three more from October and two from November to read; I included “Black Voices on Britain” in my October and November TBR pictures in error and have talked about it in my last post. So we’re getting there, right? (helped by holiday reading last week!).

Mo Wilde – “The Wilderness Cure: Ancient Wisdom in a Modern World”

(12 May 2022, NetGalley)

The ‘tough guys’ are the first plants to arrive on broken land: nettles, thistles, docks and willowherbs, as well as the opportunists: mustards and cresses. As if they somehow knew that desecration of the land marks the poverty of people, all these plants also provide a rich food bank of nutritional values and medicinal powers. Nettle tops, thistle roots and stems, willowherb shoots, bittercress rosettes: these are foods for the hungry and there for the taking. Free for all.

Wilde is a foraging teacher and has been for 15 years so she knows her stuff. Quite suddenly, and unprepared, she decides she’s going to live only on what she can forage for a year, starting on Black Friday, which appears to her so hideous and wasteful that she needs to go back to the land. She’s also doing it in Scotland, starting in late November, and has to make a complicated arrangement with herself about nuts as she’s not harvested them/had some nut flour go bad. Added issue: it’s the Covid lockdowns as she does her project which affects where she can go and who she can see: it’s interesting to see this working its way into the books I read now.

I’ve read a few of these sort of off-grid, back to the land books now and I have to say that Wilde is not nearly as annoying as the men whose books I’ve read. She happily acknowledges both swaps and gifts from neighbours and others in her network and the support of one of her two independent living housemates, who goes into the project with her (the other continues life as normal but does supply honeysuckle mead and other important drinks). Wilde starts the book with a history of how we’ve eaten in the past, explaining how foraging has been important through history, and she includes information on various plants and practices during the book, as well as pleas to look at climate change, respect nature and understand that plants can have an equal intelligence to animals (it’s all that joined up mushrooms and tree roots stuff again). So it’s not just a back to the earth story but it’s more than a polemic, and I think the two sides work well together. Her rules are a bit complicated (I never understood the egg swap business) and she gets very upset when she breaks them (once, when she’s just delivered her neighbour’s baby somewhat unexpectedly and someone gives her a slice of cake!). It was interesting to read about there being seasons for carbs as well as fruits and veg, something I’d not really thought about.

I liked the practical aspects of the book, though the spiritual aspects were integrated well and not too “woo” for me (she thanked both animals she was given and trees she harvested sap from for giving up their resources to her, and she made a distinction between animals culled for ecological purposes and those killed for sport which made sense). At the end of the project, she planted 365 trees, and there’s an appendix giving more information on how to get into foraging.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for giving me access to this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Wilderness Cure” was published on 05 October 2022. This was Book 6 for Nonfiction November.

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