From page facing title page of A Croft in the Hills by Katherine Stewart.
This book is a wonderful read – reminds me very much of why we came to Uist, 15 years ago. There’ll be more nuggets from this when I’ve read it.
We’ve returned from a shopping and lunch trip to the nearby island of Benbecula (we’re joined together by causeway … that’s the islands, not … ) with an armful of books (and a few DVDs) from the thrift shop in Baile a Mhanaich [Balivanich].
A Thousand Years of the English Parish – Anthea Jones
Jonathan > This was my top selection today. Published in 2000, and apparently a first impression, yet clearly unread. Page layout, typography – the very format of the book, reminds me of quality non-fiction books from the 1980s, of which we have many on our selves – many of those authored by the then renowned and learned experts in their fields. A coffe-table book it is not! I’m not expecting a page-turning wide-eyed addicted read, but to learn, to think, to wonder – and to synthesize into the part of my brain dedicated to creating and maintaining mental maps. In this case, a mental atlas of national identity and values – covering geography, history, arts, science, social and economic change … I’ve quite a reading pile building up (more on which later), so I have reluctantly slipped this onto the bookshelves – between WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, and The Industrial Archaeology of Shropshire by Barrie Trinder.
Denise > I suppose it’s the cover picture that caught my eye. Also that the paperback was in nice clean condition – the pages not yet browning. And of course there’s the blurb on the back. It made me think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but set half a century later – at the brink of the Russian Revolution. In the course of three novels and seventeen years, Montefiore’s writing progressed from ridicule to acclaim. That background may well explain the upwards-and-onwards trajectory: formerly he was a BBC war correpsondent covering the break-up of the Soviet Union, and since then has mastered the art of making history interesting, both on TV and in print. Novels too, it seems.
And Quiet Flows The Don – Mikhail Sholokhov
Jonathan > Now that is a coincidence! D was surprised when I pointed out that Sashenka is set in exactly the same period and events as the book I’ve been reading since early January. Russia – the Revolution. What’s more this book too is reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel – in this case War and Peace (but set a full century later). It’s not just me: Solokhov was for many years accused of plagiarism in writing this book, an accusation that, apparently, was eventually rejected on the basis of detailed literary and forensic analysis. This book is not as long as War & Peace, and frankly (though I do read Tolstoy gladly) it’s a great deal easier to read. Nonetheless, it is a long book, and is (quite literally) one part peace to two parts war. To be honest I’ve found the narrative of War and Revolution difficult to follow – and the host of tertiary characters impossible to keep tabs on. Yet Sholokhov made such a good job, in Part One – Peace, bringing to life the principal characters and their homeland, that I’ve been carried through all their tribulations with concern and hope for their well-being – indeed their very survival, right up to the end.
The recent conflicts in eastern Ukraine have not endeared me to the people of the Donbass regions, but as this book reveals, they are for the most part not those who inhabited those lands a hundred years ago. This book has endeared me to those – the Don Cossacks – who lost this land to the Communist homegony. That this book brings to life the people and a way of life based on farming the interminable steppe and fishing the waters of the Don itself, that it does that so vividly, is surely due the fact that Sholokhov was himself brought up in a village on the left bank of the Don,. Sholokhov was born into a family and amongst neighbours just as like those he puts at the heart of this novel. And Quiet Flows The Don was celebrated in both the Soviet Union and the West almost as soon as it was published, and never out of print since, even in English-language editions. It’s been adapted for the big screen too, again in both East and West. Sholokhov won the Nobel prize in 1961. But have you ever heard of him, or of this novel?
Denise > I’m sorry, J – I didn’t know the length of our reviews – or our sentences would be proportionate to the length of the book! This’ll be shorter … !
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
This, too, has just been added to the reading pile. My reading pile. J says he’ll read it too. He’ll have to wait!
Just in case the front cover doesn’t lay out the context clearly enough, there’s the back-cover blurb: The Help is about black maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. I suppose there’s a parallel there with the two Russia-themed books!
J now says he thinks he’s seen ten minutes or so of a film that may have been based on this book … and yes, a quick check on the internet reveals there was indeed a film. He says it made him feel uncomfortable with the simmering conflict, and annoyed with the apparent attribution exclusively to race what should at least in part be attributed to class. So, J, maybe you don’t want to read this after all? No? Then if you don’t mind, leave me to draw my own conclusions!
Tuk Tuk to the Roads – Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Joanna Huxster
Jonathan and Denise > Now this is a book that neither of us know anything about – nor the amazing journey it’s about. Two young women travel overland from Bangkok to Brighton – by Tuk-Tuk. Yes, really, Thailand to England on three wheels, powered by a motorcycle engine, across 12 countries, raising money for mental health charities. Just three countries – China, Uzbekistan and Russia – account for more than half the distance. Fun, funny and fascinating. What’s not to like? Denise has finders-first rights, but this is definitely one we’re both going to love!
Oh, and by the way, a great deal of the journey is through Russia.
On the Go
Jonathan > I’m nearing the end of And Quiet Flows The Don.
Denise > A Street Cat Named Bob. Bought at GLA on my way back from Lanzarote. A stray ginger cat changes the life of James Bowen, a homeless London street musician and recovering drug addict. Ghost-written. ‘Now a Major Film’. Hmmm. Let me think. It’s okay. [J > I just love that expression ‘damned by faint praise’!] D > No to be fair it is well written, and an eye-opener regarding life on the streets.
Er, um … And Quiet Flows The Don. And for so long now, I can’t remember what I was reading before it! Oh yes – Labrador – Ben Fogle 2005. Yes, that’s Ben Fogle as in numerous BBC TV programmes. I like Ben. Mr Nice Guy! More than just a TV presenter. And both Denise and I love Labrador dogs – and of course we love Tilly! So The Story of The World’s Favourite Dog was a book I loved to read? Hmm. No. No, you really can have too much of a good thing. Even two good things.
Two Degrees West – Nicholas Crane 1999. That’s Nick Crane of BBC Coast fame. Berwick on Tweed to the Triassic Coast – on foot. A fantastic prospect. A dreary read. Stick to the TV presenting, Nick!
Next Up ?
Jonathan > St Kilda, Island on the Edge of the World – Charles MacLean 1972. A bit like The Life and Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel. But hopefully not too like. That’s the trouble with books on St Kilda.
Denise > Not sure yet. Tuk-Tuk Or perhaps The Help ? Or maybe …
Denise: These days we seem to have more time for reading. Or may be we make it? J’s now ‘retired’ from Civil Engineering. (He always rolls his eyes when he says retired. And he insists that Civil Engineering be capitalized!) He does now have more discretion over what he does and when. If he wants to roll eyes and capitalize he’s got the time and liberty to do so. Or read books. That goes for me too: the succession of operations over recent years, and the need for more rest, has gfited me the time and rekindled the inclination to read – and look forward to doing so.
Before we started crofting, before we started our holiday letting business, before we started the Hebridean Woolshed, before we started our own civil engineering consultancy, back in those days when J (and at times both of us) had paid employment and a workplace to go to, we were both avid readers. We had fixed hours of work, and outside those hours time was our own. From when we first met in Portsmouth in the 70s, we’d always be reading something. Sometimes together – one reading a chapter aloud, then swapping over. Fiction and non-fiction alike. Current affairs, biographies, classics. These days, with both of us now with a pile of books by our chairs or on our bedside cabinets, we’re more likely of an evening to dismiss the TV option and sit in front of the fire reading – and talking.
We’ve found our tastes have changed. Just as our taste in domestic architecture has shifted away from traditional to modern, from pine to plain, so too has our taste in reading. We’re now more likely to read modern literature as the classics. We’re now much more interested in real-life stories – particularly of alternative living, or moving to a foreign country. We’re more interested in today and tomorrow, and both the problems and the promise of each. Our reading is extremely varied. Viz …
Recently I read two of three books I’ve bought, all by Marlena de Blasi –
I bought the first of these a couple of months ago in Stornoway, on my way to hospital. I wasn’t there long, but had plenty of time to get deeply into a book. I became immersed in the author’s world, one of daily life at a gentle pace, centred on food: and where better to be centred for such a subject, than Italy? She’s a very good writer, certainly for the genre, and I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t wait to finish it before ordering the other two on Amazon. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed to discover that Marlena de Blasi is in fact a prolific writer, and I do suspect that if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. I’ve read two of the three: I’ve just the Thursday Night Supper Club to read – some time when the mood takes me.
A Croft in the Hills, by Katherine Stewart
This was first published in 1960, instantly became a ‘classic’ and has scarcely been out of print since. Mine’s a 1962 Country Book Club edition, unfortunately missing the colourful dust jacket of the first edition, but nice condition.
This book makes me think of The Fat of The Land by John Seymour, published a year later. Both are of the same Back to the Land genre, and both have a joyful innocence about them – one which belies the never-ending hard work of the life they espoused, and certainly belie the undeniable fact that the tide of economics was sweeping away small-scale family farms, and only the young idealists, some hippies, some not, some joining together in communes, some going it alone, would forge a new take on small-scale living on the land under the banner of ‘self-sufficiency’. This is a lovely book, very much of its time. Thanks Jacalyn for the recommendation!
Jonathan’s recent reading seems to follow the principle of ‘pot luck’: I’ll hand over to him to finish this post.
It was me that ordered A Croft in the Hills, but Denise snaffled it: when she’s finished (and if it’s not too shrivelled up from her sucking all the goodness out of it) it’ll be back in my reading pile! Not so sure about the Marlena de Blasi books: they look suspiciously like those paperbacks with overtly girly covers, but for more mature women of more sophisticated interests.
The Best of From Our Own Correspondent. BBC – Edited by Geoff Spink.
Denise and I are both fans of BBC Radio Four’s long-running programme From Our Own Correspondent. So when I came across this book, ex public library but in excellent condition, in an island ‘thrift shop’, I snapped it up!
I won’t attempt to describe the programme, other than it is Journalism, capitalized [Denise: like Civil Engineering!?]. The best of it too. And that makes this book the best of the best!! This is Volume 4 in a series of five or six published in the early 1990s. These days this would be published only as a podcast – and indeed that’s exactly how I normally ‘consume’ present-day editions of the programme. Reading a book like this is a bit like coming across a stash of old newspapers: not just a pile kept by for lighting fires, but selected editions bearing banner headlines of major world events. There’s a freshness from the writing that transports you to those times, enabling you to picture events with a vividness that comes only from first-hand reporting, and that’s what Journalism (capitalized) is! Perhaps there’s also an appeal in old news that’s ‘safe news’: no need to get anxious over world events of nearly 25 years ago! This book covers the period 1992-1993, when the world’s attention was focussed on the Balkan wars (the Journalists write of Srebrenica ominously, but who could have foreseen the horrors that followed?) ; of Armenia ruined by earthquakes and armies ; of Georgia at war with itself and with Russia ; of the then-current cadre of petty despots across Africa, and of an eastern Europe emerging from behind the iron curtain, but blinded by the bright lights of freedom. It’s been good to rediscover the early 1990s, and find how much things have changed in the past quarter century, and at the same time how little has changed – especially in the West Bank. What goes around comes around. I found this book by chance. I’ve enjoyed reading it, but I won’t be looking out for any others in the series (they can be got cheaply enough on ebay). It’s more than enough to keep up with the podcasts!
Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn
This featured on one of Hogglestock‘s ‘shelf-by-shelf’ posts. His description of it immediately made me think of Anita Brookner, another English authoress and of the same era – both productive in the mid 20thC. Thomas of Hogglestock is certainly a fan of both, and as I’d read several of Brookner’s novels, about 15-20 years ago, I thought I ought to give this one – particularly recommended by Thomas – a read. I ordered it on Amazon, and dived in as soon as I got it. What surprised me about this book was that, despite it featuring only four characters, all weak – and none of them prominent, and there being no plot as such, just a witnessing of the day-by-day progress through the last months of their working lives, and first of retirement, and with no dramatic events, ‘no news’, and everything so gently and kindly portrayed – not a harsh word by or about any one or anything … what surprised me was that this was a real page-turner. Difficult to explain why – but you really do start to care about these four people, who – truth be told – are the very people about whom society does not seem to care, and perhaps does not even notice. And that, indeed, is why the book was thought so highly of that it was nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize.