We stayed in the South Downs this summer, which isn't so very far away from where we actually live, but somehow offers a dramatically different landscape: big skies, vast open spaces, hours of walking uninterrupted by roads. Most days we did little else other than planning out a walk (normally with a cake or a pub at its heart) and walking for seven or eight miles. The landscape with either lush green or sparkling gold, as the wheat had only just been cut.
So here are the books that I've enjoyed:
Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed: Last summer, I recommended a book, The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz, which I know many of you bought and loved because I've had so many lovely emails since, saying how much it resonated with you too! (If you missed it the first time, I talk about it at the end of this post). A year later, it's still one of the books that I think back to most often and which is on my to-read-again list. Anyway, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a continuation in that vein of reading, not least because Cheryl relates to people with the same kindness and empathy that's apparent throughout Stephen Grosz' book (although her language is less formally based in the world of psychiatry and psychology and her writing style more personal and unconventional). Like The Examined Life, Tiny Beautiful Things is not a self-help book, more a study of what it is to be human and why we do the things that we do. It's a collection of readers' letters and the beautifully written, insightful, and empathetic replies that Cheryl wrote during her time as an 'agony aunt' writing the Dear Sugar advice column at The Rumpus. The terms 'agony aunt' and 'advice column' do a complete disservice to the scope of these letters and answers, making the concept of the book seem trite or gratuitous - it's far from it. Sugar walks around a problem and looks at it from angles that at first don't appear relevant but that ultimately make sense of it and give the letter writer a different way of looking at a problem, understanding themselves or the people around them…and as a reader, you're somehow given a better sense and understanding of the world at large, because her replies normally take in some of the bigger picture.
I've always loved psychology books (I did a sociology degree, with some modules of psychology mixed in and have always regretted not doing a pure psychology degree…or just something textile related...). For me, Cheryl Strayed and Sephen Grosz' books feel like a continuation of some of the texts that I read at that time, but with a more commercial, easy-to-read bent. But more so, I find that the more I can understand people and their motivations, the more compassion I'm capable of - it's a way of making sense of the world. I know that many people draw on god or spiritual guidance to find compassion, my own route is through psychology and literature.
Onwards. Do you remember that a few years ago, I recommended R J Palacio's 'Wonder'? A number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List, it's a book that's had incredible success and seems to touch everyone - both young and old - who reads it. There's now a follow-up to it called The Julian Chapter, which tells the story from the point-of-view of the bully, Julian. As it's relatively short, it's only available as a download, so you'll need a Kindle or similar to read it. My daughter and I have both read it now, and agreed that it's just as strong as Wonder.
I've continued to devour what's classified as 'young adults fiction' this summer. I read an article recently that was discussing how many adults are now seeking out YA fiction over and above adults fiction, because it's just so incredibly well written, perhaps because teenagers are a tougher audience to please: whereas adults will often persevere with a novel because of who it's written by or in an attempt to see its literary merit or just because it's meant to be 'good', teenagers are apparently far more likely to just refuse to read it if it's not absolutely compelling. I don't know whether I entirely agree with this, but I do know that I no longer really differentiate between Young Adults and Adult fiction - I'm equally happy reading either, although I do often find the characters in YA fiction to have a more refreshingly honest feel to them. Either way, Out of My Mind, by Sharon M Draper was truly wonderful and the moment I finished it, I passed it straight over to my daughter, who loved it just as much as I did. Out of My Mind is about a girl called Melody, who has Cerebral Palsy, and tells the story of what happens when, aged 10, she is finally given the ability to communicate with others via a computer, shattering their assumptions about how much she really understands. It's about her family and their struggle to get Melody what she needs; her school as they begin a program of 'inclusion classes' for the children with special needs who had previously been unintegrated; and her classmates who, to varying degrees, struggle to accept Melody. Which all perhaps sounds rather earnest and hard work for a fiction book, but although it's a book that takes in all of those things (- wonderfully - and makes them not seem earnest or hard work for a fiction book), ultimately it's a book about Melody herself - a character so fascinating, compelling and likable that it was a book that I really didn't want to end.
Next, I read Nina Stibbe's 'Love, Nina', which, in contrast to any of the other books I've mentioned here, is very light-hearted. It's a series of letters sent by Nina to her sister during her time working as a Nanny to the children of Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books. It's published with Mary-Kay Wilmer's consent and is just incredibly funny. I read it during our holiday and my husband's most-asked question that week seemed to be 'Have you finished that book yet?' because I so frequently woke him up shuddering with laughter in the middle of the night as I read. In her letters, Nina frequently recorded the dinner table conversations that she'd had with Mary-Kay, her sons, and their regular dinner guest, Alan Bennett, and there's something delightful about her relationship with Mary-Kay particularly. They clearly adored one another, but neither seems to have very many fluffy edges to their personality, so their exchanges tend to have a very amusing formality to them as they discuss all manner of random, but fascinating, subjects.
While we were on holiday I also read the wonderful classic, 'The Peppermint Pig', by Nina Bawden, to my children - we've still got to find time to finish it now that we're home. I remember my own mother reading this to me and my sister when we were children - it's lovely to revisit it.
I also read and enjoyed We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Shneider; Butter, by Erin Lange (I didn't love the latter quite as much as the others somehow, but it was still very readable).
I'm currently part way through Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' and Heather Ross' 'How to Catch a Frog' and when I feel like looking at something with more pictures, I'm dipping in and out of Carolyn Friedlander's 'Savor Each Stitch', which is wonderful and very inspiring (even though I'm struggling a bit with the fact that the title hasn't been anglicised for the UK market - I don't normally mind this with the word colour…I think it's because I didn't know that the word savour was actually spelt differently in the US, so it just looks like a glaring misspelling to my unaccustomed eyes). Which brings me onto a conversation we had on Instagram last week when I posted this photo of Nell in a cornfield.
'That's not a cornfield!' a chorus of commenters said: 'That's a wheat field!'. After an Instagram consultation with a real live farmer's wife (who asked her husband for official clarification), we discovered that farmers in England use 'cornfield' as a generic term to describe wheat, barely and oat crops, whereas American farmers would call a wheat field a wheat field. And they'd say that a cornfield contains only maize (corn-on-the-cob), while we call a corn-on-the-cob crop, maize (topically, the children and I went to a maize maze yesterday with friends - it was lovely by either name - cornfield or maize). I love discovering these strange international differences that exist that you have no idea of until you inadvertently use the 'wrong' word. These differences always make me think of my lovely Australian friend, Rhiannon. When I was four, Rhiannon and her family came to live with us in England for a few months (we would later move to live near them in Australia for a few years when my father's job took us there). When Rhiannon and I put our minds together we just seemed to come up with badness. Over the years, together we sprayed our hair green without permission and then wept in the shower together while undertaking vigorous hair washing following parental fury (aged 7), inexplicably painted bookshelves in a mixture of talcum powder and orange juice to 'clean' them (aged 4); broke a neighbour's toilet seat when we climbed out of a bathroom window together (aged 6), plotted against our older sisters who were so incredibly good and lovely; and did all manner of other awful deeds. But as much as we were partners in crime, we were also frequently at war with one another and a pretend game of 'shops' could suddenly cause a full-scale living-room war, when whoever was the shop keeper referred to the pretend money in the till as 'pounds', rather than 'dollars' or vice-versa. When our parents eventually came into the room we would then vehemently hurl our respective country's words of 'Dobber!' and 'Tell-tale!' at one another. We really were beastly and it's incredibly fortunate that we were separated by a vast expanse of ocean for the entirety of our teenage years. I'm pleased to report that whenever we've been reunited as adults, we've found that we're no longer afflicted by badness, although my children do love hearing tales of it.
I'd love to hear your recommendations or your thoughts if you've read any of the books that I've mentioned here. What did you read on holiday?
Ps. None of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links (although there are a few elsewhere on my site), so you may click away freely if you're someone who prefers that bloggers don't share in Amazon's profits. And just in case you're wondering why they're not affiliate links, it's because they take longer to produce and install on my blog and it's the summer holidays, so I don't have time to create them! x