Book review – Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits” plus some unseasonal confessions

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Having committed to a slightly unusual way of reading my TBR, I picked off the NEWEST book that had come in at the time to read next.* This was one given to me at the county cross-country championships by my friend Kate from the running club, after I’d asked to read the copy she was offering to people.

I also had a walk up the high street in the week which ended up with me somehow buying three Christmas books. But they’re set somewhere lovely, so that’s fine, right? Read on to find out about those …

Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits”

(05 January 2019, from Kate)

Several people have touted this as the best running/sport book they’ve read (it’s actually a triathlon book, and she came to the sport from the swimming side, but there’s plenty about running in it). Unfortunately, I can’t quite agree – I really didn’t find her relatable, although there’s a huge amount about her to admire of course, and I had difficulty reading about some of the issues she faced.

It’s clear that Wellington has always been incredibly driven, and this is why she managed to excel in a sport she only took up relatively late.  She’s stubborn and she admits she rushes into things, leading her to injure herself often and not get on well with her teammates in her first professional set-up. More importantly for me, in the early part of the book she details falling into two different eating disorders, with rather too much information about how this happened: I find it difficult to read about such things and although she does explain how she climbed out of them and acknowledges the help she had, it does feel rather that she swapped one compulsion for another, having previously enjoyed sport for the social side and then become driven to the point of, for example, swimming with a broken wrist inadequately waterproofed and getting an infection.

The book does open well with a description of her first Ironman World Championships with some visceral writing. A good word there: runners are usually very open about their toileting issues, etc., among themselves, and I’ve certainly read some other very “open” accounts, but she takes the discussion of GI issues and antics to a whole new level, which shocked even me (and I’ve been to the (staff) toilet in a tile shop during a DIY marathon, so very little shocks me!). This sentence, although a bit different from her other experiences, sums up the book for me:

The big day dawned, and I was encouraged by an unusual steadiness in my bowels. (p. 253)

Okaaaaay! I liked her race reports and enjoyment of racing with amateurs (she even has a chapter dealing with various charity fundraising, adversity overcoming and brave amateurs she admires). She mentions her mum taking an exam in swimming timekeeping and judging, which is the first mention of this kind of thing I’ve seen in a book (though she fires a gun to start a race in the book so must have done some exams herself!).

An unusual and late-developing talent is still torn down then built up again by a first coach who is very harsh indeed, and while this was interesting to read about, it was so alien to my experience or anything I’d want to experience that it was very hard to read (I know people have different ways and we can’t all be the same, but it was just alienating to read it).

So a decent and interesting book but not the best book on sport I’ve ever read. I was glad to have the chance to read it, though!


Those naughty books – so we have “Confetti at the Cornish Cafe” by Phillipa Ashley, about a cafe holding a wedding (no, you don’t say); “Christmas at the Little Wedding Shop” by Jane Linfoot, and “Christmas on the Little Cornish Isles” by Phillipa Ashley again – this one set on the Isles of Scilly! I rather suspect these are all some way through series, as they were all out on The Works’ Christmas themed shelves (and now reduced to £1 each) so I might be forced to look for the others or might save them for my next trip to Cornwall or Christmas and read them all then. Anyone familiar with the series?

And how do you read YOUR books?

Next up, Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince”. I’m a bit late starting it already …

* Because Grab the Lapels does something similar but not exactly the same, she has asked me to share her link about her way of doing it, which I share gladly here.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl” #amreading

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I pulled this off the TBR a little out of order because it was the first smaller book on the shelf which would bear rattling around in my rucksack for a day out officiating at cross-country: I knew I’d have a bit of reading time while my friend Dave zipped round parkrun on the way. My lovely friend Laura bought this for me when we met up last year as a birthday present – how lovely to march round the charity shops of Stafford demanding books!

I have a new plan for reading my TBR which might happen and might not: the oldest, the newest and one from the Kindle, in rotation (apart from my Murdoch a month and any review books that are in). Might work, and will let me get to my latest acquisition sooner (see more on that below).

Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl”

(15 February 2018 – from Laura)

Not a standard Anne Tyler (and I thought it would be her last when I got it, as she’d announced that she would stop writing: I will be getting the paperback of her new one as soon as it comes out …) as it’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. Now, while I remember the main characters and their characteristics, and the vague outline of the story, I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow comparison. I love Tyler and I found myself just reading it for that aspect, as a novel by a favourite author. The retelling is in there, though, and cleverly done, although her characters are always quirky and you can’t think that just any woman would behave as Kate does.

So it worked as a novel on its own and was entertaining and a good read. Kate was believably mardy, as she is supposed to be, but her home set-up with her dad and his systems and her very different sister was completely Tylerian. The family and their relationships, including with aunts and uncles, are as beautifully done as you would expect, and the overseas characters are drawn carefully and their accents got across through their grammar, which we’re however reminded is not the only thing about them, but is used to show Kate’s thinking and noticing (I’ve just been reading a blog post from Louise Harnby about how to express accents in fiction (here) which is why this struck me, I think). A good read.


I did mention this on my running round-up post on Sunday, but for anyone who skips those, a new acquisition. I have to mention that only I could be officiating at a county cross-country match and STILL manage to acquire a book – my friend Kate from running club had offered to pass it to me but we’d not coincided until now, so she managed to get it to me in a gap between a race starting and me timing it through at the finish, after her own race. Good work! “A Life Without Limits” is meant to be one of the best sporting autobiographies ever and I can’t wait to dive into it: I know I really enjoyed her book on how to do triathlons even though I have absolutely zero interest in doing a triathlon!

 

Book review – Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors” plus a book confession or three

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Well, my Christmas Cold seems finally to be subsiding, but I’ve been keeping wrapped up warm and out of the damp air and continuing to hack my way through my TBR – the only Christmas book left on the shelf now is “Long Live Great Bardfield” which I will at least start tomorrow. So I’m all the way through that left-hand end in the pic, including the big yellow one but not including the large grey one. I’m also quite excited that for the first time in a good few years, I’ll have read more non-fiction than fiction this year. Anyway, on to my most recent read, plus a few that arrived yesterday in the post …

Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors”

(25 December 2017 – from Meg)

A natural book for me to receive as a present – on my wish list then off again. Amusingly, I think I was alerted to its existence by Simon Stuck-in-a-Book’s review, published exactly a year ago today!

An interesting book listing 99 books that Fowler, working on a column for the Independent and with a focus group of which half had to have not heard of the author, has decided are forgotten. Being alphabetical, it was a bit odd to start with Margery Allingham, who I’ve very much heard of: then again, I’m a big reader in my middle years who had a propensity for the mid-century book, so maybe fewer of them would be forgotten to me. There are also longer essays on the most prolific authors, writers who deserve to be forgotten, etc.

I did take exception to a few of them, not just Allingham. Georgette Heyer is constantly in print and found in The Works among other shops, and Delafield, Comyns and Watson have been republished by Virago and Persephone or other imprints and talked about … but maybe only in my immediate “bubble” I suppose. There were plenty of people I hadn’t heard of, although lots seemed to be crime and mystery writers, so this book wasn’t as hard on my wish list as I’d feared (this is a Good Thing, though!). It was exciting to see Frank Baker’s “Miss Hargreaves” mentioned, as that’s one Simon has always highlighted, and the personal touches were nice and entertaining – Fowler re-buying his own copy of a childhood favourite and getting a mention in the dedication of a republished novel by one of his finds, as well as his use of an Arthur Mee technique for slicing bananas.

An ideal Twixmas read for dipping into.


So it had become time to think about buying some more of the Vintage Classics red-spined Iris Murdoch reissues with their interesting introductions, as I’ve only got one left and they can take a while to come. Imagine my horror when I discovered Vintage are reissuing them AGAIN, this time with flowery covers, presumably for IM’s centenary in 2019. I couldn’t face having my “newer paperbacks” run (this is as compared to my UK first editions run and my “my original paperbacks” mix of Triad Granadas and Penguins, plus my incomplete sets of “early Penguins” and “horrific 70s covers”, hope you’re keeping up at the back!). What does a girl do when presented with this horror? Buys the last 11 (make that 9) all in one go.

Amazon never seem to quite promise to have the right ones, so I ended up buying those that are available with the red spines from Foyles and the rest that aren’t even available in that edition (but do have introductions, apart from the ones that don’t). And Vintage (which is an imprint of Penguin) never did reissues of “The Green Knight” or “Jackson’s Dilemma” so I will have to stick with my older copies of those, leaving me to have 24/26ths of the books in the new editions. The confusing editions are here and I really don’t trust them to do them all, so I’ll stay with what I have (also, where’s there a Swiss Cheese Plant in “The Sea, The Sea”??).

Anyway, here are the first two (non-red-spined ones) to arrive, plus a copy of Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys”, which I bought for Ali for her LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa gift then decided I wanted, too (I will pass along my copy of “Love’s Shadow” the first in the set, and that means this one doesn’t count as I will only need to read 2/3 of it, right??

Book review – Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap” #amreading @bookstorewendy

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I picked up a fairly mild but annoying cold on Christmas Eve, and although it’s hampered my attempts to have a Christmas dinner and get some running and yoga in, it has allowed me to get a good way into my reading. So here’s a review of a book I finished yesterday, and tomorrow we’ll have a book I finished today, with any luck. Also read on for some pre-Christmas acquisitions I made, fairly safe in the knowledge no one would have got them for me for Christmas (and I was correct in that assumption: phew!).

Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap”

(25 December 2017 from my LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa, Lisa)

I was attracted by the Big Stone Gap in the title of this book as I loved Adriana Trigiani’s novels set in this small town, but more than that, this turned out to be one of my top reads of 2018 (the reason why I save my Best Of list until 1 Jan: a really good book often creeps into Twixmas).

American Wendy and her Scottish husband Jack decide, on a bit of a whim, to buy a rambling Edwardian house in a small town and set up a bookshop. They cheerfully admit they know nothing and they have no budget and are determined not to get into debt – while carefully checking their privilege as they go and reminding themselves and us that by no means everyone is as fortunate as they are in being able to make these choices – so they have a lovely DIY attitude and rely on their own skills and on slotting into their community (making sure the support flows both ways), easier said than done and with some mistakes and setbacks along the way.

I love the way Welch explains exactly how they went about it (once they’d worked it out for themselves!) including such details as pricing books, arranging swap credits for donations before they’d even opened and working out what to do with bestseller hardbacks that dip in attractiveness almost immediately. She also explains that salient point that you have to love people almost more than you love books (something that some other booksellers approach from a different angle (see, Shaun Bythell’s “Diary of a Bookseller“; I have to say I prefer their attitude) as they, perhaps more than most, become a meeting point for the community and a listening ear for bereaved and hurting people who come in looking for or selling on books.

The sense of community is lovely, from Adriana Trigiani opening the store for them to the day a man comes in needing help and they tap into their network and find it for him almost immediately. They give back to their community of booksellers by touring local states and establishing a network of second-hand bookshops, and there are many thoughtful words about the value of reading and bookstores. Talking of words, there’s a delightful strand running through the book explaining various British words and phrases which is very amusing.

Much consideration is also shown to the town and area they live in. While it’s hard to get a way in sometimes, and local cliques can dominate, they understand the attitude of this poor region which often seems left behind in terms of funding initiatives and has a self-deprecating air: if you’re good and you’re here then you can’t be that good because you’re here, and also anyone who comes in and tries to start something will be treated with suspicion that they’re not in it for the long haul, and is likely to be talked about. They negotiate these issues with care and are honest about their mistakes, and this gives a depth to the book that adds to its bookshop opening genre.

There are lovely animals which are not harmed in the telling of this book – always a worry; in fact, when there’s peril for one creature, it’s actually multiplied rather than lost! An excellent read.


And so to two books bought from Any Amount of Books’ ever-reliable outside racks when I was in London with Emma earlier in the month. Laura Thompson’s “The Last Landlady” is a memoir about an English pub and the loss of such institutions, and by N.D. Isaacs and Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo‘s “Tolkien and the Critics” is a collected volume from 1970 that was hard to resist. I do try not to buy books near to the Christmas-Birthday season but it proved OK.

Book review – K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” #amreading #iceland

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I have promoted this up the TBR because I couldn’t wait until next October to read it. I’ve been excited about this book ever since Katherine Findlay, who I’m lucky enough to count as a friend and who I’ve had a coffee with in Iceland but never met up with in the UK (yet) started talking about the manuscript she’d come across detailing the adventures of a Devonian fish trader in Iceland.  And then, in October, here it was, and I rushed to buy it but then a few other reading things got in the way (sorry!). I really loved it, as I knew I would.

K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward”

(02 October 2018)

The edited 1906 diaries of a Devon fish merchant who instigated such trade with Iceland that he ended up being awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. It’s a fascinating look at the country in its very much less developed days, something I imagine like the Iceland of Halldor Laxness’ novels.

The first and most important thing to say about the book is how beautifully it’s edited. Katherine provides an excellent introduction to both the background of Ward’s work and a potted history of Iceland that has just enough detail to let the reader understand what’s going on and what led up to the events described in the book. There’s a great epilogue which details what happened next to both Ward (a house in Teignmouth called Valhalla and full of Icelandic artefacts!!) and the Icelanders he writes about, as well as some intriguing mysteries. There’s also a good map, reproductions of the actual photographs Ward mentions taking (and on proper plates, not just printed on the paper) and useful but not intrusive footnotes, making this an excellent example of an edited manuscript. And this wasn’t an easy job, as the note on the text explains. The references are extensive and there’s a thank you to my friend Chris in the acknowledgements which weaves the Icelandophiles of my circle neatly together.

Having mentioned how the stories of Iceland and Britain were intertwined in the early Middle Ages, we see how the two countries are drawn closer through Ward’s endeavours and those of other pioneers. He comes across quite a few British folk, some managing in the country more successfully than others. I love how his fish are called Wardsfiskur and his bay and farm Wardsvik; it’s also very endearing when he compares the majestic scenery of Iceland to the somewhat quieter views around his native Devon.

As someone who knows Iceland a bit, it was lovely to read about it a century or so ago. Some things are very different, for example the small bay where the quiet village of Keflavik is found (now the site of the international airport), and reactions to a sculpture by a now-revered artist. In the middle is the beginnings of the city of Reykjavik as we know it, as well as details of towns that are all still here today, but very different. And some things remain the same: there’s still a famous lighthouse at Reykjanes, Icelandic horses have a sturdy will of their own and surprise you by when exactly they want to speed up, and Icelanders have a somewhat eccentric and relaxed attitude to playing by the rules (this meant I wasn’t too worried about missing the cut-off in the Reykjavik marathon by a minute or so …).

A really lovely book and a great and entertaining read for anyone who loves Iceland or a good travel narrative (or both).


I’m currently reading the very lovely “Spring Magic” by D.E. Stevenson, very kindly sent to me by Dean Street Press as one of their new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming out in January. Gentle but absorbing, the story of a woman finding herself after a live of servitude to her aunt in a Scottish village in WW2 is unputdownable. A review soon!

State of the TBR – December 2018 (and a small confession)

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Well I’d been doing very well with my reading, having read all my paper books for review that were previously reclining on top of the TBR shelf and eight books in total (and took one off that I didn’t want to read). And actually the problem I  have of more TBR is a lovely problem, because dear Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has just sent me a Lovely Parcel (see below).

So here’s the current state of the TBR.

I mean, I’ve still got room for the pile, right, so it can’t be that bad.

This is the reason for it all moving around a bit:

So we have Margery Sharp’s “The Eye of Love,” Ellen Wilkinson’s (her of the Jarrow March) “Clash”, and two Henry Handel Richardsons: “Maurice Guest” and “The Getting of Wisdom”. All lovely Viragoes, too!

Reading at the moment and coming up shortly, I’m very much enjoying Samantha Ellis’ “How to be a Heroine” and would have finished it already were it not for my strange hobby of standing in muddy fields pointing the way or writing down numbers. Next up is “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward,” edited by the lovely Katherine Findlay, and then it will be the next Iris Murdoch Readalong read, “An Accidental Man” (14th out of 26 of her books, so I feel we’re already sliding towards the end!).

I’m aware I haven’t addressed the horrendousness of the Kindle TBR recently and I know there are some books on there I won from NetGalley and need to work on. I’m also behind on reading everyone’s blog posts (sorreeee!) and as I’ve got heaps and heaps of work on at the moment, I think I’m just going to have to give up on watching TV in December or something to get everything read!

Then the next books on the shelf, which still include some from Christmas last year, include “The Little Bookshop of Big Stone Gap”, “The book for Forgotten Authors” and “Long Live Great Bardfield (the great big Persephone) as well as Stella Gibbons; “Westwood”, kindly sent to me by Verity. Then we have two I picked up between Christmas and my birthday before we start on the birthday books.

What are you reading this month? Do you have any special December reading rituals?

Book review – Hal Higdon – “Run Fast” #amreading #running

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I am so lucky to have my friend Cari to swap books with – once it was just travel narratives and other interesting non-fiction; now it tends towards the running books! I didn’t find an amazing amount of new information but, a few annoying assumptions aside, it is a good manual explaining various types of running speed work people might like to try. Oh, and I note I am exactly one calendar year behind myself with this one (see when it arrived). Oops! One book confession below, too …

Hal Higdon – “Run Fast”

(04 November 2017 – BookCrossing)

Hal Higdon has a wealth of running and editorial experience and he pulls together loads of research in this updated version of his book. It’s still a little out of date in that he celebrates being able to print off your running records from your computer, where everyone keeps them on Strava or some such now, don’t they? But the principles are still sound.

So, the assumptions. As is often the case in running how-to books, and especially older ones when, to be fair, the field of running was less broad, running at 10-minute mile pace is seen as being the slowest thing in the world. Now I can run at 10-minute mile pace … for a mile. Just about. With a tail wind. It’s OK, because we all know there are a lot of fast people out there, but it feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth, even for someone who has run races at all distances up to marathons and has come to peace with her pace. There’s a kind of assumption that only beginners run that slowly and it’s something to progress away from.

The standard, non-named runner is always a he, as far as I noticed, although to be fair women at both the sharp and beginner ends are mentioned and celebrated when individuals are being discussed. There are some slightly odd comments about how women are more intimidated by running on running tracks than men are (I’m personally seen equal numbers worrying about this!) and venturing into the gyms now, managing to cope with the testosterone-laden and muscly atmosphere (I’ve been happily gym-going from before this book’s publication in 2000 and haven’t found this) and apparently “the guys have become accustomed to having a gal pumping iron at the next bench”. Hm. And there’s one awful sentence explaining that women can benefit more from strength-training than men … “as long as the extra strength does not equal extra weight, or what some beauty-conscious women might consider ‘ugly muscle'” (p. 188). I’m sorry?? It’s such a shame, as he finishes that paragraph pointing out that strength training can help prevent osteoporosis, a good point undermined.

But apart from that, this is a good, practical guide to building speedwork sessions into your running training. It goes through the different kinds and explains how to do the sessions and what they help with, all quoting research on the topic. Fartlek, surges, tempo runs, they’re all in here, explained and discussed, with plenty of examples from Higdon’s own running career.

As well as the speed sessions, he covers good running form (hard without images, though) and some weight-training exercises (these are quite complicated and again, are not illustrated: I wouldn’t actually want to try the barbell lifts he describes without visual aids!). Very importantly, he stresses the importance of introducing all of these new things carefully and slowly, conservatively, even, which is very good news.

So a good book in general, but a little outdated in a few aspects.


Book Confession: how could I not order this lovely (direct from the publisher? “Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women who Dared to Dream” is a collection describing a crowd-sourced selection of Birmingham women through the ages who have excelled, achieved and changed people’s lives. From Dame Elizabeth Cadbury to less-well-known names, it’s written by a friend of a friend, and features as one of the women, Imandeep Kaur, who I know through the running community. Published by local independent publisher Emma Press, you can find a direct link to the book here. Buy it for anyone from a young teen upwards, and especially to share our lovely city at home and further afield.

 

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