Over the Christmas and New Year break, I have been enjoying a bit of leisure to catch up with my reading. All writers read – it’s just a part of life, like breathing, and since I was very young I have not been able to imagine not having several books on the go at any given time. This time of year is especially exciting as kind people tend to give books as Christmas presents!
As I like seeing other people’s #shelfies, I thought that today I would share mine with you.
Starting from the bottom: Masquerade, by Kit Williams. Published in 1979 and long out of print, I was recently recommended this and managed to track down a secondhand copy. The first of the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ genre, the frankly trippy illustrations and accompanying story of Jack Hare – written like a fairy tale with riddles twining through it – created a clue book. The author buried a piece of jewellery, in the form of a bejewelled 18 carat gold hare necklace, and waited for it to be found by the first person to solve the riddle of the book. It was claimed a couple of years later, amid some scandal, and the whole affair was chronicled by Bamber Gascoigne (who witnessed the burial of the treasure) in his book The Quest for the Golden Hare. My interest in the book is, of course, primarily because of the hare who is the hero, and the hares secreted in every illustration – but also in the concept of a picture book for adults, where each image repays close observation, and where the image and text have a dialogue. Regular readers of this blog will recall my recent review of The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde, which does something like this.
For more on the story of Masquerade, have a look at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-47671776.
There are more hares in my next book – over 400 of them! A Christmas present from my partner, this is one of a series of beautiful coffee table books by Alan Marshall, which feature the work of British printmakers. This is The Artful Hare, and it’s gorgeous. 89 printmakers interpret the hare, in a variety of styles and techniques which both show the rich diversity of this art form, and also illustrate aspects of the life and mythology of the hare. This will keep me very happy for a long time – if I treat myself to just one print a day, it will take me well into 2021!
The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, is more by way of work – I like to keep up to date with short form writing, both fiction and non-fiction. So far I am still on Hensher’s excellent introduction, so I can’t comment yet on the stories themselves.
Another Christmas present is From Bears to Bishops: Norfolk’s Medieval Church Carvings by Paul Harley. In over 130 stunning black and white photographs, this catalogues wood and stone carvings from Norfolk’s 659 medieval churches. Several of these I’ve seen in person (for example, the Green Man at King’s Lynn Minster, the woodwoses on the font at Acle, and the cat on the font at Castle Rising), and I am keen to explore in search of more.
Regular readers will remember that I recently attended an event for writers at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. The highlight for me was meeting Edward Parnell, who spoke about his move from fiction to non-fiction, and the recent publication of his book Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Edward kindly signed my copy! Beginning with the ghost stories of M.R. James (which I re-discovered last year), Edward’s book is an intriguing exploration of place, haunting, and writers, interlaced with his own memoir. I am less than a quarter through the book, and it’s fascinating – and it’s also inspiring me to go in search of authors I hadn’t previously encountered.
Social history is a major interest of mine, and I am also a textiles geek, so The Button Box by Lynn Knight was always going to find its way onto my bookshelf. Using heirloom items from the family button box as the hooks on which to hang her narrative, Knight explores the intimate, domestic side of women’s lives through the stories of their clothes. This is a book to be relished slowly – I am dipping into it a chapter at a time.
Completely different – and straddling the space between work-related reading and reading for leisure – is The Ritual of Writing: writing as spiritual practice by Andrew Anderson. Purchased on a recent visit to Glastonbury, it covers topics such as responding to the spirit of place, working with old tales, and using the wheel of the year. Again, a book to be read slowly – with time to reflect on each chapter before embarking on the next.
I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before – I am half Dutch. The older I get, the more pronounced my Dutch traits seem to be becoming (or so I am told!). I was therefore attracted to Why the Dutch are Different: a Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands. The Author, Ben Coates, is a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands for many years. In this book, he explores the legacy of Dutch history on the culture, attitudes and behaviours of the Dutch – writing as an outsider observing from the inside, which is rather how I feel sometimes in Britain. I am enjoying the book immensely – learning a great deal that I didn’t know about Dutch history and geography, and also recognising so much of the national psyche in myself.
Finally – did I mention I’m a textiles geek?! Some time ago I spotted The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair on the shelves of Waterstones, and promised myself I’d buy it when I had made a few more inroads into my ‘to read’ pile. I was delighted, then, to find it amongst my Christmas presents! A friend had also spotted it and thought it was my kind of thing. St Clair tells the story of fabric , starting from prehistory, through the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, silk and the Silk Road, the sails of Viking longships, medieval wool wealth, cotton and slavery, to the clothing of arctic explorers, artificial fibres, space suits and modern sports fabrics. This is yet another book to be dipped into and savoured – a rich tapestry of history, laced with literary quotations, which encourages us to look more closely at the fantastic textile creations we use every day, and so often take for granted.
Links to books cited are generally to Amazon UK, although where possible I give my custom to my local bookshop, or use Hive.co.uk and Abebooks.co.uk to buy new and used books online. If you are in the UK, many of these titles may also be available through your county library service.