Book review – Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven” #amreading #20BooksOfSummer

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Well I’m under way finally with my 20 Books of Summer, and this one with its close print and historical narratives certainly didn’t give me a quick entry into the project this year! I was inspired to read this book by Bookish Beck’s review back in February 2018 – I ordered it quickly and then of course it sat on the TBR. But I’m very glad I picked it up and it was a very rewarding read about a place to which, like BB, I have no desire to go, but which I do like reading about! Oh, and I’ve realised my 20 Books list is a little more diverse than I thought, as this book is absolutely rooted in the lived experience of Greenlandic and other Inuit people, spending time with them, honouring their customs and sharing, rather than imposing on, their way of life.

Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”

(10 March 2018)

A narrative of her seven years spent in Greenland for at least part of the time, a summer here, a dark, dark winter there, right up in the Inuit communities, living communally (very much so, with open toilets in hallways, naked drumming and a very basic life on the sleds), going on hunting expeditions and always conscious of and examining the pull between a modern and rapidly vanishing traditional culture, where those seeking to maintain the old ways have to present their case in the modern world and in some cases push back hard against it. The development of her friend Olejorgen, who has left Denmark to come to Greenland and learn to be a hunter describes a fascinating arc through the book: will he lose his professorial ways and become what he seeks to be?

As you’d kind of expect, quite a lot of dogs die (although this is not dwelt on in detail and some of the deaths are from preventable epidemics, showing another side to life in Greenland), and there’s a fairly upsetting scene with polar bear hunting later on in the book. However, even this doesn’t feel gratuitous if you accept that maintaining a way of life where you have to battle with the elements, one mistake can kill you very easily, and you and (first) the dogs are going to live off the meat while you make yourself a new pair of polar bear trousers is important and that this pretty small community should be allowed to survive as it wishes. It’s a difficult call to make and the author shows herself to be sympathetic while not glossing over the bad points of the culture and retaining self-reflection and critical thinking (she does get her head turned a bit by a hunky museum curator, however).

There are lots of passages describing the early 20th century explorer and ethnographer Knut Rasmusson – indeed, the impetus for her travels was reading his journals and she lugs the books around with her when all the rest of her luggage is lost. I didn’t personally find these as interesting as the passages about her own life and friendships, and I was glad when they petered out towards the end, however they did give a lot of interesting information, especially on the habit of picking up an Inuit wife for a journey, having a baby or two and then wondering what to do. I was fascinated by her reactions to the constant night and constant day of the two opposite seasons, written in perfect beautiful language, and then on a more practical level, I appreciated the epilogue from 2001 updating us on the various people we meet along the way, and I’m really glad I read this.


Now it’s on to my Iris Murdoch of the month, and I need to spend some solid time with that over the weekend! How are your 20BooksOfSummer (winter) coming along?

Book reviews – Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki” and David Coles – “Chromatopia” plus book confessions @ShinyNewBooks @ThamesandHudson #amreading

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First off I need to tell you about “Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour” by David Coles, which publishers Thames & Hudson were kind enough to send me to review for Shiny New Books.

This truly spectacular book would grace any coffee table with ease, but it’s more than just a pretty face, with fascinating facts in abundance and offers a good read to anyone interested in art, colour or indeed chemistry.

Read my full review over at Shiny. I’ve just had a look at Thames & Hudson’s autumn catalogue and there are some smashers in it, although I have a couple more from May and June to read and review before I can start frolicking amongst those!

Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki”

(23 November 2018)

I bought this one because the lovely Annabookbel sent me the sequel, “The Testament of Loki” (which she didn’t finish, see her review here) and I am just unable to read the second part of a series first, it seems.

This is a really nicely done retelling of the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki. His voice is great, and the little details of swapping a Chaotic life in the form of a flame for a corporeal aspect that can feel all the senses give a depth to it that makes it not all just about stories. His motivation is laid out for us to see, and plausible, and he’s got a modern way with words while being firmly rooted in his context (a bit like the Marvel films, and of course it’s now hard to visualise the characters without seeing the film characters). He has to experience emotions, too, adding another layer. All the familiar tales are here, so there’s lots of nice recognition if you’ve basically been a bit obsessed by this stuff since you were 8 or so, but it’s all from his side of the story, so retains the interest. The mystery of who actually wants Ragnarok to start is a bit of a twist too far, perhaps, but it’s both competent and fun.

Incoming

Oh dear. You’ve seen the state of the TBR and noted that I can’t have cleared much from it if I’m reviewing my second book of the month. But then this happened.

Somehow Jon Bloomfield’s “Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham” got itself published without me hearing about it. How did that happen? When I heard about it, I just had to have it right away. It’s got at least one person I know in it, and looks just so well done and fascinating. It also adds to the diversity of my TBR, which I’ve been a bit concerned about.

More diversity with Japanese novel “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, about a woman struggling to keep the way of life and work she wants while being buffeted by expectations from her family and employers. This was one Meg was given for Christmas and I apparently expressed a need to read it, so there it was when I met her for her birthday!

And then Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Ali had a du Maurier reading week recently to celebrate their joint birthdays. She had a competition to win a copy of “Rebecca” and one other book, and as I’ve managed never to read this novel, I entered, along with a few other people. And then, to everyone’s slight embarrassment, I won. Ali shared with me at the weekend that she drew me with the first random number generator run, and was horrified, so ran it again … and I won again, at which point she decided the fates wanted me to read it. Fortunately she’s said I can do it for DDM Reading Week NEXT year!

Currently reading

Once I’ve shoehorned these onto the shelf, I’ll get back to reading the first of my 20 Books of Summer, “This Cold Heaven” by Gretel Erlich, a fascinating book about her long-term love affair with Greenland. It’s very absorbing so far, although I have the thought of getting to my next Iris Murdoch before too long hovering gently in the background …

Happy reading everyone! How are your 20Books going?

State of the TBR June 2019 and #20booksofsummer pile #amreading #bookconfessions #WolfsonHistoryPrize

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Well I read seven books in May (not all reviewed yet) and a look at the Book Confessions tag will show you that just a few came in. There is a gap at the end of the front shelf but only the size of one book (and next time I see Ali, I’ll be presented with the copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” that I somewhat embarrassingly won in her competition). And inconceivably stupidly, I’m sure, I’ve not included any of my review books or my Iris Murdochs in my 20 Books of Summer pile for this year. I think this might be the year I fail!

A small confession

First off, new books in I haven’t told you about yet.

Gill had read “Narrowboat Dreams” by Steve Haywood recently and very wickedly brought it along to our regular Sunday coffee. So there it is. Then Kaggsysbookishramblings had recently read Vijay Menon’s “A Brown Man in Russia” (her review here) and very kindly sent it on to me (more about these below as they are in my 20 Books pile).

Then I was very flattered to be asked to be part of the blogging panel for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 shortlist (see the full shortlist here). I’ve been lucky enough to receive Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”, which is an exploration of the role of birds in Roman and Greek society and culture. I was aware of fortune telling using, um, birds, as such, but I am enjoying reading all the painstaking research that has gone into this entertaining book. The author wrote a seminal work on birdwatching and our modern relationship with birds, “Birdscapes” which went straight on my wishlist as soon as I heard about it.

My review is scheduled for 6 June and I’m also going to be reviewing it for Shiny New Books. The other reviewers are a great bunch and I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts on their books, too (there’s only one of us reading each book, so not so much a shadow panel or a book tour but yet another way of going about things!).

Now and next

So what am I reading now and next? I’m currently in the middle of Joanne M. Harris’ very entertaining “The Gospel of Loki” which retells the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki. She’s got his trickster ways and egocentricity down to a T, and I love all the little details like what it feels like to change from being a creature of chaos to being embodied. Although there are a few fights and bits and bobs, this is one that doesn’t mind where it’s read, so useful for mealtimes etc.

Then I’m also onto Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds of the Ancient World” we’ve talked about above, and it’s being prioritised of course!

Next up I have my Iris Murdoch of the month, “Nuns and Soldiers” and you can read more about that in my preview post here. I can’t quite believe I’m on Book 20 of my re-reading project, but I’m heartily enjoying it. I’ve chosen what I’m going to do for my next project already, but I’m not ready to share on here QUITE yet.

And then we’re on to the next review book, Michael J. Benton’s “The Dinosaurs Rediscovered” which is about the strides forward in science that have been made in the last 20 years, not just the renaming but finding out what colours they were and what coatings they had. It looks fascinating and appeals to the grown-up non-fiction reader and the little girl who loved dinosaurs in me!

 

 

20 Books of Summer 2019

I’m excited to be taking part in 20 Books of Summer 2019! I’ve done it since 2016 and have a dedicated page for it here with a pic of the books and links to all I’ve read (I’m adding that next so if you’re super keen and clicky you won’t see the updated version!). Here’s the pile …

and yes, there are 19: one of them is an omnibus! Here’s a bit about each one. As usual, I’m including my All Virago (and Persephone) / All August challenge in there, so it’s weighted towards those (also I should have finished my review books by August!).

I’m horribly aware that this pile isn’t very diverse. The weighting to Viragoes and Persephones makes it woman-centric but not that much on people of colour, LGBTQ people, etc. and I am sorry for that. I do have two books about or by people of colour in there, but then I also have two books on Norse and far-northern culture. Not sure about the LGBTQ quotient until I’ve read some of them. My NetGalley list is more diverse and I will continue reading from that amongst these and working to broaden things further.

Here are the non-Viragoes:

Gretel Erlich – “This Cold Heaven” – seven seasons in Greenland. A dense book but came recommended and I do like reading about Greenland.

Lynne Murphy – “The Prodigal Tongue” – she writes a blog about US and UK English and here’s the book, talking about the differences, similarities and histories.

Neil Gaiman – “Norse Mythology” – his retelling of the tales, can’t wait to read this.

Clair Wills – “Lovers and Strangers” – a history of post-war immigration to the UK

Harriet Harman – “A Woman’s Work” – her autobiography

Cathy Kelly – “The House on Willow Street” – her usual multi-character-stranded work, set in a seaside village outside Dublin this time.

Paul Newman – “Lost Gods of Albion: Chalk Hill Figures of Britain” – needs to be read before I run past the White Horse of Uffington (of which I am oddly afraid) when I do my ultramarathon in July.

Joe Harkness – “Bird Therapy” – an Unbound title I supported, about the value of birdwatching to one’s mental health.

Steve Haywood – “Narrowboat Dreams” – man amusingly travels the canals of Britain – maybe our ones!

Vijay Menon – “A Brown Man in Russia” – author from India does the Trans-Siberian Express.

And the Viragoes and Persephones:

Margery Sharp – “The Eye of Love” – you can’t beat Margery Sharp and this promises to be a great novel.

Ellen Wilkinson – “Clash” – the story of a political activist set against the General Strike of 1926

Henry Handel Richardson – “The Getting of Wisdom” – coming-of-age novel by this (female) Australian novelist

Henry Handel Richardson – “Maurice Guest” – a doomed Australian-English love set over 500 pages (this might be the one I swap out but Kaggsy gave it to me so that’s a good sign)

Angela Thirkell – “Before Lunch” – more Barsetshire fun. I have about six of hers TBR so have confined myself to just one for the moment.

Dorothy Whipple – “Young Anne” – her first novel and the last to be republished by Persephone and another coming-of-age novel

Ada Leverson – “Tenterhooks” and “Love at Second Sight” – I read “Love’s Shadow” a couple of years ago and picked up the omnibus also containing the other two.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill – “The Call” – a woman scientist abandons her career to be a suffragette.

Nicholas Mosley – “Julian Grenfell” – acclaimed biography of the First World War poet.

So there you go – 3 June to 3 September, 20 books, 15 by women, 9 non-fiction, will I read them all?

 

Book review – Gurjinder Basran – “Everything Was Good-Bye” #20BooksOfSummer #Amreading

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I’ve finished the 20 Books of Summer Challenge! It finishes today, I finished the last book today and here I am reviewing it. Hooray! What fun as always. Cathy has done a round-up post of her own experience with it here.

Gurjinder Basran – “Everything Was Good-Bye”

(25 October 2017)

Everything in Meena’s life can be viewed in two ways. There are six daughters in her family but only five of them are mentioned after Harj ran away. Aunties watch your every move and the family unit is protected, but domestic violence is witnessed and ignored. Meena wants to be a writer but her writing is used against her. Unconventional, arty Liam says he’ll wait for her and doesn’t.

Set in the Canadian Sikh community from 1990 through into the 2000s, it’s threaded through with pop culture – mostly music – references that will resonate with anyone but imbued with a special sense of what it is to be embedded in a community within a community – and with a precarious position within that inner community. When Meena is criticised for this, you wonder what her other choice would be. Very difficult, whatever the reason.

It’s very well done, especially as I think it’s a first novel, and we’re pulled into caring for Meena as she tries to negotiate life without much support, navigating the arranged marriage to another bad boy that she’s accepted, her only real ally – even when Liam reappears in her life – her childhood friend Kal. And he’s her husband’s cousin, so which side is he supposed to be on?

I guessed one of the plot points but it’s a really good, engaging read.

This was Book 20 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and rounds off the project.


A couple of quick confessions. I nipped up to ASDA and went past a few charity shops. How could I resist this terrible, lurid 1971 Iris Murdoch cover (the book is reviewed here, it’s not exactly as described!)

It’s a 1971 Avon Bard Books imprint book and it looks like they did a few titles in the US. I didn’t want to start collecting weird IM editions but I couldn’t help myself with this one!

This is more conventional: a history of running by a Norwegian, published in the early 2000s so not completely up to date but it does look interesting – Thor Gotaas – “Running: A Global History”.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer and finish it? What’s the next challenge? I’m reading Bart Yassos’ “My Life on the Run” at the moment but it’s quite … visceral, so I need something else to read at the table. Probably the next Iris Murdoch …

Book review – Joanna Cannan – “Princes in the Land” #20BooksOfSummer #Amreading @PersephoneBooks

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My last Persephone read in August (I note there is a Persephone Reading Week in October so might be able to slot “Long Live Great Bardfield” in then. I enjoyed the other Joanna Cannan I’ve read, “High Table“, though found it a little dated: although this is set in interwar England, the sentiments and experiences are fresh and relevant today.

Joanna Cannan – “Princes in the Land”

(25 December 2017 – from Ali, who reviewed it here)

A quietly desperate book which is beautifully done but raises the question very forcefully about how valid it is to pour all your love and care and concern and friendship into raising children when they will apparently throw it all off at seemingly the first opportunity. And we’re not talking a smothering mother here but a fair, friendly and liberal one who offers opportunities for free and frank discussion and growth. Or thinks she does. Kind of the opposite of the mother in “Guard Your Daughters”.

In this smallish book told in episodes that jump forward a few years to a decade or so in time (very clearly delineated), we first meet Patricia and Angela and their controlling, anxious mother Blanche on their way to (have to) live with their paternal grandfather after their father’s death. The forbidding old man takes a liking to fiery, unfeminine Patricia, who rides unsuitable horses and hunts (sorry, not one for the non-lovers of hunting, although there are no actual Unpleasant Scenes, just mentions), while bored by compliant Angela and Blanche, who never forgets they are there on sufferance and keeps a tight-lipped, passive-aggressive lid on herself. Living honestly is the key here.

Patricia meets a spiky working class man as she rushes around impulsively making friends on trains (the very idea!) and then we watch them transform – and I’m struggling to think of another book I’ve read recently that portrays so well how the cocoon of marriage and parenthood transforms lively young things into, here, a watchful, resourceful and domesticated mother and a complacent Oxford don, consoled by the fact that everything that happens has happened before in history.

The narrative is quite unconventional and experimental in parts, sometimes mentioning Patricia in the present tense, as though the narrator/author is a friend of hers, and memorably including a paragraph detailing the thoughts of the family horse. But it’s not so experimental that it’s tiring to read, if you know what I mean, just a little quirky.

One by one, Patricia’s children betray her and her careful raising of them, submitting to the cheaper lure of suburbia, getting embarrassingly religious or proving to shockingly NOT be horsy, and as she ages (to my exact age – oh no! She is missing some teeth but not as decrepit as the heroine of “A Lady and Her Husband“) she despairs. Will anything jolt Patricia out of her malaise?

A devastating, quiet portrait of the change that family life brings to especially women (husband Hugh’s family and catalyst appears to be the university, although he claims to have deep feelings about the family). Poor Patricia is blind to both the interior, independent lives of her children and the disdain her academic neighbours have for her old-money, upper-class ways, but she tries so hard and we long for a resurgence of her old life and vigour.

This was Book 19 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and the last book in All Virago and Persephone / All August.

 

Book review – Stella Gibbons – “Starlight” #20BooksofSummer #amreading

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This is the book I started reading accidentally a week or so ago, mistaking it for a Virago somehow. But hooray – Virago published Stella Gibbons’ “Nightingale Wood” so she counts as a Virago author and I’m counting her therefore in my All Virago / All August total. I am saving the Persephone “Long Live Great Bardfield” for the time after #20BooksOfSummer when I’m just working my way through my TBR again.

So the picture to the left does not represent this book but is the pile of books I put together initially for my 20BooksOfSummer. I haven’t done one of these where I haven’t swipped and swapped, so it’s all good! And I’m excited that I only have three books to finish by 3 September, they’re all reasonably short, and I’ve even started Book 18 already!

Stella Gibbons – “Starlight”

(25 December 2017 – from Verity)

Well, I have to say this is a Very Strange Book, and I’m not entirely sure how it got published. The heroines are a pair of elderly and dotty sisters, Gladys and Annie, who live a precarious existence in a falling-down “cottage” in Highgate, London, with an elderly even-more-eccentric upstairs and a family downstairs … until the building is sold to what they identify as “the rackman”, Mr Pearson (after the notorious slum landlord), and he installs his beautiful, ailing wife there. Meanwhile, their daughter Peggy is a sort of assistant to a wealthy woman and her dogs, while her son sniffs around, trying to grab a squeeze and a kiss. A pair of clergymen in a fairly desolate vicarage, an odd German teenager who has been somehow sprung from an itinerant life by Mr Pearson, and a parishioner and friend of Gladys who is tempted by esoteric religion and wants her fortune told by Mrs Pearson and her accompanying spirit, make up the rest of the curiously unattractive cast.

It is an interesting read, as Gladys and Annie become more worried about Mrs Pearson and her odd “fits” and Peggy sits and waits for her life to begin, instigates it beginning and is slapped back down. Some kind and honest characters get a good fate, others really don’t, and it builds very slowly then suddenly all the cards fall and there’s a pretty melodramatic ending, including an exorcism, before suburban and rural life grab hold again and everything sort of smooths out.

The descriptions of Hampstead Heath are lovely and reminded me a bit of passages in “Old Baggage”. The perilous life of the unconnected poor and the attempt to subsume Erika the German girl into English life are shown in detail and convincingly. Details are beautifully done – when the Vicar, Mr Geddes, is being thoroughly frightened by the decidedly un-English Mr Pearson about his wife’s possible possession,

… as he spoke, he was very aware of the stout old cupboard that contained the choir surplices. Its glossy bulk was comforting. (p. 243)

and his mother’s arrival and adoption of the vicarage cat as well as the relationship between Mrs Corbett and her dogs and son are very nicely done, too.

But it’s an odd book, and I can’t deny that.

This was Book 17 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and also falls into All Virago / All August. Read Ali’s review here.


I’m currently reading Enid Bagnold’s “The Loved and Envied” and getting mixed up and confused by all the French and Scottish characters, but I’m sure it will come good.

One small confession: I ordered myself a second-hand copy of Charles Thomas’ “Exploration of a Drowned Landscape: The Archaeology and History of the Isles of Scilly” as we’ll be going there in the autumn and I wanted to read up on the Iron Age etc. sites. My friend Liz recommended this one by a friend of hers, I picked it up at an OK price from Abe Books (I don’t want everyone rushing to look on Amazon and seeing how much it goes for there!) and it looks amazing. I did like the stamps on the package, too, the Brownie and Guide one dating from 1982!

 

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Brandons” plus book confessions #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #ViragoBooks

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I’ve continued my reading for 20BooksOfSummer with Angela Thirkell’s “The Brandons”, which also counts for both All Virago / All August and the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author for this month. Go me! I’ve swapped out that great big Tirzah Garwood’s “Long Live Great Bardfield” (the largest of those three Persephones) for Stella Gibbons’ “Starlight” – although my copy isn’t a Virago, Gibbons is a Virago author thanks to “Nightingale Wood” so, as I’d started it after “Summer Half” by mistake, I’m finishing that and leaving the Garwood for a more leisurely read in the next few months.

In book confessions news, I’ve had an old friend newly actually met visiting: she brought me several books and then we managed to buy some more, pics and details below the review …

Angela Thirkell – “The Brandons”

(25 December 2017 from Verity’s marvellous parcel)

I’ve read “Pomfret Towers” a while ago, which seems to come between this one and “Summer Half” so I’m all out of order and will need to do a proper re-read when I’ve collected the set. But this was great fun and near enough to my read of “Summer Half” that it was a joy to come across some of the same characters.

This is the story of the Brandon family: fragrant widow Lavinia, on whom everybody inevitably gets a crush, tall, handsome son Francis and daughter the deliciously bloodthirsty girl with a heart of gold, Delia, and their cousin (ish), Hilary Grant and his hilariously dreadful mother. The plot hinges around the decline, death and legacy for the monstrous aunt-by-marriage, Miss Brandon, and the Vicar and Miss Brandon’s companion, Miss Morris, who turn out (of course they do) to be sworn enemies, play important roles, too.

The Keiths from “Summer Half” and Laura and Tony Moreland (an older, wiser and more attractive and self-aware character again) also make notable appearances: Lydia Keith has been to Paris but it doesn’t seem to have taken the edge off, and we can admire her marvellousness as much as ever. Will she end up with Tony or Noel, I wonder? And of course, there being a Vicar, there’s a summer fete, leading up to and at which much of the action takes place.

There’s some patronising of the lower classes but thankfully no Eastern Europeans and Hilary’s Italy-obsessed mother is a type that is very amusing indeed. Nurse and Rose, doyennes of the Brandon household, are celebrated for their mastery over all who come into their orbit.

Mrs Brandon’s little mischievous moments and attempts to introduce drama into the proceedings are seen through by her son and her old friend Sir Edmund, although she still manages to invite confusions and confidences, and there’s a very funny scene where Sir Edmund feels moved to protect her from the Vicar.

I love Miss Morris’ dream, the dream of many characters in the gentle but sharp novels I love to sink into, Thirkell, Pym et al:

A parish, every detail of which was under her hand and eye. (p. 272)

Will her dream be fulfilled? I love how it’s respected, even if being gently smiled at, but pretension, controlling and calf love are pricked and deflated.

This was Book 16 in my 20BooksOfSummer project.


My friend Cari has been visiting – I’ve known her for years and years through BookCrossing and, later, running, having been cheering her on from across the ocean as she’s learned to run and learned to love running. When she was coming to London for a week, it was possible to arrange for her to come to see us, so she has had a whistle-stop tour of Birmingham (yesterday) and Stratford-upon-Avon (today). Being a BookCrosser, she brought me some books; being us, we then bought some more in Stratford (even though we didn’t comb through all the charity and second-hand bookshops).

Top two from Stratford, the rest from New York!

Sarah Henshaw – “The Bookshop that Floated Away” – the story of the famous British Book Barge

George Eggleston – “Tahiti” – a 1950s travel book with lovely hand-drawn maps

Lisa Tamati – “Running Hot” – female ultra runner takes on the Badwater Ultra

Craig Childs – “Finders Keepers” – investigating the ethics of where archaeological artefacts get to be kept

Bart Yasso – “My Life on the Run” – famous road runner shares wisdom and insights

Sarah Reinertsen with Alan Goldsher – “In a Single Bound” – para-athlete and triathlete’s life story

Cy A. Adler – “Walking the Hudson” – guide to walking the Hudson River

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