There are some fun memes popping up among book bloggers as 2022 ends, All you have to do is answer (almost certainly untruthfully) a questionnaire, using only the titles of books you have read this last year. I’ve chosen two.
2022 was the year of: The sweet indifference of the world (Peter Stamm)⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I wanted to be: That bonesetter’s woman (Frances Quinn) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I was: Taking stock (Roger Morgan-Grenville) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I gained: Small things like these (Claire Keegan) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I lost: Miss Benson’s Beetle (Rachel Joyce)⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I loved: My phantoms (Gwendoline Riley) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I hated: Red milk (Sjón) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I learned: To cook a bear (Mikael Niemi) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I was surprised by: Things that fall from the sky (Selja Ahava)⭐⭐
In 2022 I went to: The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 I missed out on: Midnight at Malabar House (Vaseem Khan)⭐⭐⭐⭐
In 2022 my family were: Between the assassinations (Aravind Adiga) ⭐⭐
In 2023 I hope (for): The romantic .. (William Boyd) … Silver shoals (Charles Rangeley-Wilson). Both ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Because all but four of these books were borrowed from North Yorkshire Libraries, which continues, even now, to buy a wide range of appetising new books, I dedicate this post to Bookish Beck’s Love your Library
One of the things I most enjoy about being a volunteer at my local library is the chance it gives to poke about on shelves I’d never normally look at. Without having had to shelve books after someone else had read and returned them, I’d never have found this:
I was entirely and unexpectedly engaged by this book, an exploration of our nation’s iconic fish: cod, carp, eels, salmon and herring. This is a story of the fish themselves; of fishermen; of the consequences of greed and the way back from it; of geology; meteorology; our nation’s social history as it relates to food and farming; of corruption and political will. Combining research and personal experiences, this book both absorbed and enthralled me. And I’d never have found it, because 799.1094 is not one of my Dewey numbers of choice. And it was the cover that did it for me.
And it’s the cover that often makes me pause and look. Just to show how random- yet satisfying – these choices can be, I’m picking some of the orange-covered books I’ve found – and read – from the library in response to the challenge ‘Hazy and Hot’ Friday Face Off, brought to my attention by Words and Peace. Yes, I know it’s no longer Friday. But I’m fewer than 9 hours late.
When I was a child, I’m sure you couldn’t have a library ticket until you were five. There would have been no point anyway. The great age of the pre-school picture book illustrated by the likes of Quentin Blake, Chris Riddell and Emily Gravett hadn’t yet arrived. Until we were old enough to enjoy hearing about Winnie the Poo and Milly Molly Mandy there was nothing for very small children on the shelves.
These days, pre-schoolers are welcome. Parents are urged to enroll their babies. There are story times and sing-along sessions, jigsaws, bright paper, coloured pencils – and cheerful rugs to sit on. So one very rainy day while fourteen month old Anaïs was staying, off to the library we went.
Walking down a busy main street in Valencia a few years ago, my eye was caught by a welcoming shady square. Through the palm trees I could glimpse a few columns – maybe Roman remains? and a steady stream of people drifting in and out of a handsome building.
Curious, I investigated. It was a library. The Central Public Library of Valencia. I went in.
How spacious, airy, beautiful and welcoming it was! Later, I discovered that this building had once been the first psychiatric hospital in Europe, founded in 1409 as the initiative of one Friar Juan Gilabert Jofre, to care for the mentally ill. It was called Hospital de Folls de Santa María dels Pobres Innocents – the Hospital of the Poor Innocents. This actual building was begun in 1493, and was and is in the form of a Greek cross, which housed the different wings of the hospital. It added general hospital facilities in the 16th century and also suffered a destructive fire.
During the 1960s, hospital facilities were moved elsewhere in the city, and the authorities began the site’s demolition: the church, the pharmacy and old medical school are gone. There was an immense public outcry. What was left was saved, and the building retained and developed as a library and archive service. Those columns I saw outside are not Roman, but surplus to requirements when the building was redeveloped.
It’s a fabulous place. Not only is it a welcoming, light-filled and serene space, it’s a busy one. It’s right by two of the city’s universities, so study areas are busy with students as well as the general public. The collections seem vast: the English section, for both adults and children was well-stocked, At one point I sat down in the section devoted to newspapers and periodicals and browsed through recent copies of the Times and Sunday Times and some more academic publications in English. Of course other European nations were represented too. There were book groups advertised, including a monthly one for children in English (obviously aimed at Spanish children, rather than any resident English ones); an ‘introduction to philosophy’ group for children; reading groups for dissidents; for theatre-goers; for students of Valencia’s social history, as well as the usual more general ones; photography and cookery workshops; lectures (‘Football now and as it used to be’). I was beyond impressed. Here’s a gallery of this library community at work on one ordinary weekday afternoon – before the pandemic – I don’t know how it will have changed.
Meanwhile, what have I been reading this last month? Reviews for most of them will appear over the next few Six Degrees of Separation posts.
Gabriel Chevallier: Fear.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Delphine de Vigan: Based on a True Story.⭐⭐⭐
Donna Leon: Beastly Things.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Patricia Lockwood: No One is Talking About This.⭐⭐(abandoned)
Sakaya Murata: Convenience Store Woman.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Jane Smiley: The Strays of Paris.⭐⭐ (skim-read)
Sarah Winman: Still Life.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Allan Ahlberg: The Bucket⭐⭐⭐
Charlie Gilmour: Featherhood.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ann Patty: Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.⭐⭐⭐
How times have changed. Back in 1966, I’d just left school, and was planning to work as an au pair in Italy before going off to university. For a bookish teenager, becoming a library assistant at Surbiton Library seemed just the job to allow me to save up for my trip. And it was – £10 a week was a fortune, allowing me to give my mother board money, save, and still have enough left over to have fun. It was of course a very different experience from the just-a-few-hours-a-week job I have now, as a volunteer assistant at Ripon Library.
Then, we stood behind a somewhat forbidding counter, rifling through neatly organised columns of book identity cards to release the library ticket(s) to the reader so they could go off and choose more books. When they’d made their choices, we’d open their books and date-stamp, with a satisfying ‘thunk‘, the page pasted in the flyleaf.
Now, readers (Oops, sorry, ‘customers’) have it all to do, checking books in and out themselves courtesy of a space age bar-code reader, which accepts fines and reservation payments too.
Still, then as now, we build relationships with regular readers, like the ones who lean over confidentially and ask you if there are any new nice romances in, by which they mean Mills & Boon. Or the ones who need their personal details changing because they’ve moved. Then? Write out new cardboard tickets. Now? Change their details on the database. Or the ones who need help using the catalogue. Then? A large chest filled with drawers and drawers of card-indexes. Now? Yes, the computer database. Then? Books. Now – books of course, but also DVDs, audio books, large-print editions, jigsaws and a range of services on line such as e-books and magazines.
Then, the library was largely a silent place, with necessary conversations carried out in a low murmur. A couple of hard chairs I seem to think, maybe a table or so, but otherwise, little furniture apart from the bookcases. Now, when you come into the library, there may be a children’s story time in progress, with a circle of children sitting on the carpet at the feet of a cheerful soul leading a spirited rendition of ‘Old MacDonald’. Or adults and teenagers occupying one of the many computers as they do their admin. or homework. Or a coding club. Or a book group. Lots of squashy chairs. A coffee machine.
Some things never change. All those returned books need to be replaced in the right place on the shelves. Then, we prided ourselves on ranging a neat line of 12 or more books along the length of our left arm, and plucking the one on top to shelve as we reached the right spot. Now (Health and Safety) we have trolleys to trundle the books round on.
One thing we never have to do in Ripon is prepare new books for issue. In Surbiton in 1966, the library closed every Thursday afternoon. Not so we could have time off, but so that we could all go to the work room, and encase the covers of new books in those paper-and plastic sleeves, enter their reference numbers, and paste date-stamp sheets and identity pockets on. Tatty books would be mended with the right kind of sticky tape, and any stains removed. We loved it. It was a chance to sit down and talk as we worked.
I don’t remember ever looking for books for inter-library loans, or returning books to other branches, but surely we must have done. I don’t remember ever being entrusted to do a display: marketing our stock to the reading public didn’t seem necessary. I don’t remember a book-delivery service for the housebound, or handing out community information such as a bus timetable or the phone number for Citizens’ Advice, all of which come as standard now.
And of course – staff. Then there was a qualified librarian, and a team of paid library assistants like me. Now the paid qualified staff have been most severely pruned, and the assistants are all volunteers prepared to offer a few hours a week. It’s a congenial voluntary occupation, and we’re well trained and supported. But how has local government come to this, that core services cannot continue without bands of volunteers? That other services, such as Home Care, have been squeezed and squeezed … I shan’t go on. This is neither the time nor the place.
What have I been reading this month?
Lana del Rey: Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass.⭐⭐
Lucy Newlyn:The Craft of Poetry.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Janice Hallett: The Appeal⭐⭐⭐
Frances Brody: A Murder Inside⭐⭐
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Mercè Rodoreda: In Diamond Square⭐⭐⭐
Javier Cercas: Lord of all the Dead⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ralf Rothman: To Die in Spring⭐⭐⭐⭐
Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine⭐⭐
Robin Ince: The Importance of Being Interested
Sophie Divry: Madam Bovary of the Suburbs
Mini-review service will be resumed next month, but at least four of these books will find themselves in my Six Degrees of Separation this month.
Bookish Beck is encouraging us to share why we Love our Libraries, and perhaps share some stories to show why. I’m a volunteer at our local library, though I dropped off for a while during the pandemic. This means that I have a constant supply of books which I end up bringing home to read rather than putting them back on the right shelf. And why not? I probably can’t plough through the number of books that I bring back – there aren’t enough hours in the day – but I can sample things I might not usually have considered. Some I win, some I lose, but it keeps the borrowing figures up, and that’s important when libraries battle with every council service for a share of the limited money-pot.
My post is just squeezed in for the October deadline.
Melissa Harrison: The Stubborn Light of Things. I really have only just started this, but it’s promising. This is a selection of Harrison’s Nature Diaries for The Times from the last few years . She’s living in London in the section of the book I’m reading now, and discovering that Nature can thrive in the most unpromising of circumstances.
What did I bring home this last month?
Alistair McIntosh: Poacher’s Pilgrimage – An Island Journey.⭐⭐⭐⭐ A powerful exploration of a sense of place. McIntosh returns to the Outer Hebrides of his youth, and undertakes a 12 day walk – a pilgrimage – from Harris to the Butt of Lewis. Not a place I know, but which I’d now like to explore, for its harshness, its Celtic roots, its community deeply rooted in its landscape and traditions. The book is part travelogue, part exploration of the island’s religious past, part exploration of ideas round war and pacifism. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but ultimately rewarding as an exploration both of a place, and one man’s mind.
The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic.⭐⭐⭐⭐In a world overwhelmed by a global pandemic, The New York Times approached authors to contribute a short story encompassing their take on this discomfiting period. It brings Lockdown galloping back into my mind, even though few stories tackle this directly. The strangeness of the world at that time is brought into focus by a visit to a Barcelona dog owner with John Wray, or Colm Toibin bicycling in Los Angeles. Not every story is a success. I wasn’t a fan of Margaret Atwood’s Impatient Griselda. But as a memorial to a moment in history, with fine writing as standard, this collection is unbeatable.
Nadifa Mohamed: The Fortune Men. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Mini review forthcoming in November’s Six Degrees of Separation
Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual.⭐⭐⭐⭐ Mini review forthcoming.
Alice Zeniter: The Art of Losing: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Mini review forthcoming.
Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐A readable and illuminating account of the famine years of the early 20th century in North Korea, as seen through the eyes of six escapees. Not all of these people had long been critical of the repressive, totalitarian regime under which they had been brought up. They accepted unquestioningly that there was nothing to envy beyond the country’s borders, despite the fact that education, career ambitions, love and home life were under constant surveillance and minor ‘offences’ could result in lifelong unpalatable consequences for themselves and their families. An eye opening look at a largely unknown world.
Peace Adzo Medie: His Only Wife. ⭐⭐⭐ Afi is a young seamstress from a not-at-all-well-off family. The chance of marriage to a wealthy man from Accra whose family disapprove of the woman who is the mother of his child changes all that. Her marriage takes place without the groom being present , and though he installs her in a luxury flat in Accra and makes sure she wants for nothing, it’s a while till she even meets him. When she does, she falls in love. But will that be enough to win him back from his other life with that other woman? I was only partly engaged in this tale. As someone who doesn’t know Africa at all, it seems to paint a believable picture of both bustling big city and small town life. But Afi seemed to me to achieve career success unbelievably easily, and I didn’t quite believe in her apparently deep love for Eli. I enjoyed the family relationships described, but on the whole, this was a book I was never fully committed to though I read it willingly enough.
Ian Stephen: A Book of Death and Fish: I haven’t anything like finished this book. But I can tell that it celebrates language, and the telling of a good tale. I’m not in the market for a long immersive read at the moment, but I know I will come back to this book.
Janice Galloway: The Trick Is To Keep Breathing. Goodness knows, I’ve tried to finish this book. I can’t. It’s just too painful. Claustrophobic, disturbing, this is a story about a woman’s inner collapse on the death of her lover. As the ‘other woman’, she can neither be acknowledged nor supported. I’ve only once had depression, of the post-natal variety, and I was well supported, unlike isolated Joy. But the contact with this unwelcome world where everything is just too damn’ difficult and exhausting was more than I could bear. I don’t even know if there is any kind of happy ending to this suffocating tale.
Afia Atakora: Conjure Women. I didn’t finished this book, but abandoned it at about page 50. I found the narrative hard to follow, and wasn’t invested in it sufficiently to try. Reading the reviews, I’ve missed out. Note to self. Try again later.
Borrowed, and waiting their turn
Ann Morgan: Reading the World.
Lana del Rey: Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass.
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