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Other books I finished reading in May


They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.



*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.


Some books I finished reading in May


They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

I travelled throughout May. This meant I was back to my ebook reader where I had started reading a wonderful series of short stories by Gabriel García Márquez some time before, and a series of short travel exploits* which happen to be the perfect size to fit between train stops.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

These stories were strange and all in their own way represented a search to satisfy some unsatisfiable need. In the prologue at the very beginning, García Márquez discusses the origin of the story collection.

“This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained, if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be.”

These twelve stories of South American travellers are not suitable for children, and I feel in this sentence, García Márquez isn’t speaking about young, half grown humans, but children as in the children of the craft. He’s talking about me.

Stories come into mind over time, and García Márquez seems to have collected them like how one sees grubby men collecting fag ends from beneath park benches. Compelled because it had become part of him. After accidentally losing his notebook, containing the key elements of the stories, he reconstructed those that remained strongest in his mind. The whole process took eighteen years, sixty-four stories became twelve, but he wrote the current result in ‘eight feverish months’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Listened to the audiobook, borrowed from the library.

I am sadly susceptible to travel sickness. Not ideal for a traveller. Long coach journeys, bus rides and boats are my nemesis, for whilst on a train or plane I can quite comfortably read, but on these other forms of transport it proves icky. Audiobooks in the circumstances are a wonderful alternative.

The Silk Roads is non-fiction epic history. In its paper form, it’s a chunky book. In audio, it’s over 24 hours long. That’s some serious listening time. It’s also a huge amount of information. I liked it, because it provided a perspective on history that was different. It wasn’t that is wasn’t focused on the west (in parts it definitely was) but it gave an overall broader impression of the connected nature of the world, going from way back. It felt more complete than any understanding of world history that I’ve had prior to this.

Now I can’t remember most of the book, for which I’m blaming my ears. I’m every type of learner other than auditory. And in the bits I do remember, I’m not sure where they happened or who was involved. But I do recall thinking that I would have to, at some point, get a paper copy of this book and begin all over again. From what I do remember, it will be worth it.

My Life With Ewa by Tim Pratt

This is a love story between a young American boy, Tim, and a girl, Ewa, from communist Poland. It’s a story about visas, popes, speeding school buses, hitchhiking, love letters and a truly long-distance romance. It’s a delightful tale, in which tense arguments regarding guns at the border between east and west Berlin mix with the delightful account of the everyday. Moments like learning to queue, Polish style, or when your girlfriend’s mother asks how serious your intentions are towards her daughter.

But this story, candid and humorous, had a poignant twist for me. I borrowed my copy off Ewa’s bookshelf, in the room where I slept at night.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care if you’re rolling your eyes you mathematical logical geniuses, I love this book. And I will keep on loving this book. I first read it seven years ago, borrowed from the Grump’s mother. This time I read the Mother’s copy, which I’d bought her, and which I’d lent to Jesse and then collected again on my detour through Germany. I read it laying on a bed in Poland, whilst hiding from having to speak to anyone.

Looking back, I’ve no idea why I liked it so much before. Back then my heart was whole and scratch-free. My Italian road trip hadn’t yet happened. I didn’t speak any Italian. I hadn’t taken up meditation properly. There was certainly no feeling smug when Gilbert explains the intensity and difficulty of Vipassana, as I’d never heard of it. Reading it again now, I must get so much more out of it. Reminds me there are other books I ought to re-read.

Gaining Visibility by Pamela Hearon

This book was a free gift from Kobo and everything you would expect from a terribly light romance set between America and Italy. I read it in a morning, whilst I was feeling exhausted and in need of casually sitting in a sunny park letting the world pass by. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but sometimes it’s nice to have something light and quick to munch.


Do you have any recommendations of short story collections ideal for the traveller?

*In part two…


Books I finished reading in April


They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

No Matter The Wreckage: Poems by Sarah Kay

Borrowed from the Midget.

Sarah Kay writes and speaks poetry. I read her poems, sometimes in my head, sometimes in a whisper, occasionally aloud, before falling asleep in the evenings. They’re playful, but sometimes melancholic. The words twist and dance. They’re not following rules and there’s no rhyming scheme I understand. But all the same, they’re picture painting.

My favourite is one called ‘Dragons’. I don’t know why.

I’d read more of her work. It’s comforting.

Contagious: Why things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Library book.

A very general kind of book about what causes us to share ideas. It’s marketing in a breezy conversation with psychology. Between them they’ve agreed on some concepts and come up with some ideas.

The premise is if you want someone to think about something, you’ve got to show them the idea in the first place, and then you’ve got to continue to trigger it, again and again. The idea must appear to have worth to the individual – it makes them look good or allows them to provide genuine help to someone whose opinion they care about (makes them look good). The best packaging for a message, surprise surprise, is a story. Fairy tales and religious texts have been selling their morals and lessons for ages. But it also helps if the message is specific and individual. It has more power if it feels exclusive, unique, important, special… Exclusivity, ‘sale’, this week only…

Just a bit of light reading. Not particularly recommendable, but not a worthless read either.

One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It’s not mine, but nor I don’t know whose it is…

This is a good book, a well-written book. An easy to consume, eye-opening, descriptive but constantly on the move book. It’s an account of one day of one prisoner’s labour camp jail sentence based on the author’s own experiences. The details bring it alive.

It’s not a depressing though as I imagined.

It’s a book that makes you question your own materialism. Solzhenitsyn makes you pause before you next eat. You find yourself looking a little closer at the plate in front of you, piled high and hot. This book has a horrible backdrop, but explores the uncomfortable setting through the delights of a puff on a cigarette, or an extra 20 grams of bread. For the protagonist to dwell on the horror of the circumstances he’s in, would be overwhelming. It goes unwritten, and is saved for the reader to feel when they step back and compare the comfort of one day in their own life to the hardship of one day like that.

Would recommend.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Borrowed from the Mother, who apparently bought it in a jumble sale, before she was married, according to the name inscribed in the front, but who has never read it.

It’s not my first Evelyn Waugh book. I read and enjoyed Scoop some years ago. Knowing I liked the author’s writing and having heard the name of the book a few times, I thought Brideshead Revisited would be a good read for me.

Now, I can’t disagree that it’s a good book, but I can’t claim to like it. In a way, I think the emotional journey through it was too close to my own emotions and my own frustrations, even if the actual story and characters are nothing like my life. Maybe that’s the mark of good literature, that it gives a different way of looking and feeling something that’s inherently the same.

But, frustratingly, nor do I dislike the book. I just don’t like the feelings it induces in me. There’s a hollowness it conveys, which is uncomfortable. And the reasoning, like so much of my own reasoning, is circular and blown out of perspective. It doesn’t make sense. But I know how it feels to have life not making sense around you. Damn frustrating.


Books I finished reading in March


They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Ok, this is a lie. I finished The Consolations of Philosophy on the 1st of April, on the drive home. The first time I’ve listened to an audiobook in the car. Otherwise my March reading has been conducted as if on a constant caffeine high. A stack of books sit on my shelves, half finished. And going to Portugal meant I switched back to the books on my e-reader, none of which I finished as I leapt from book to book. To have multiple books on the go is normal for me, but not quite so many.

Do you read one book at once or dip into many?

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Audiobook borrowed from the library.

I’m almost annoyed that I listened to this book, because I haven’t taken any notes and have no quotes to refer to. It was a book full of beautiful quotable passages.

My knowledge of philosophy is limited. There’s a vast amount of terminology which as combinations of letters I feel a familiarity to. But as concepts, these are alien. I have recently given up on a weighty introductory volume to a variety of different philosophers deciding it was inaccessible (I’d rather blame the writers than myself). Philosophy I figure is one of those topics, like politics, which will open to me when I am ancient. By which point it will be too late.

However, Alain de Botton gives me hope. I understand his sentences, and the images and examples he uses are relatable. Having read the consolations, and heard a little about the variety of tragic lives the philosophers themselves lead, I’ve developed an itch to read more. Particularly, Epicurus (I’m curious about his ideas of the necessity of community in achieving happiness) and Nietzsche (who is of the opinion that you can’t feel pleasure without being willing to feel pain).

“…no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.”

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I keep returning to mindfulness and meditation. And then, because I’m human, things get out of shape. My mind straps itself in on the nearest rollercoaster ride and I forget who’s driving the machinery. Me.

Reading over the concepts, again and again helps. When reading about mindfulness, I calm down and become focused. It makes me think, yes, maybe I should sit down, cross-legged and do the whole following your breath thing. Even though my breath is following my thoughts and my thoughts are galloping off like a child who’s eaten a whole packet of jelly babies without sharing. I know being mindful is good for me (and for the people who put up with me). It’s just hard to do.

“At the same time, the work of cultivating mindfulness is also play. It is far too serious to be taken seriously – and I say this in all seriousness – if for no other reason that it’s really about our entire life.”

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

For the charity shop box.

It had a slow start, got a little better when some characters did something more than sit around waiting to have a conversation and, for a moment, it looked like it was going to go somewhere… which turned out to be a long and irrelevant tangent which appeared to have absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story. Disappointing.

It ended on the massacre of an army of 16,000. By this point my investiture in the characters was empty (especially the women). The ones who remained alive seemed ridiculous. It was like it was written by someone who had learnt about loss in the dictionary.

That said, some of the writing was pretty. If it had been given a plot, not just a series of historical events, it might have been a good book.

What’ve you been reading?


Books I finished reading in February

Stained Glass Colour

It’s not Chartres cathedral, which inspired Victoria Finlay, but the glass work in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is pretty impressive.

Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay

This is a history book, a science book, an artist’s aid and a travel log. It’s a magical book.

It was a gift from Tall Aunty, who was the first person I remember being jealous of for being able to draw better than me, and whom I made it my goal to draw like. Tall Aunty drew me little cartoon babies sitting I believe at our kitchen table when I was aged something so small that my colouring between the lines was worthy of remark.

If ever a book was written for me, then Colour is that book. It is a travelogue, a gathering of stories about one woman’s mission to discover the origins of traditional paints. There are nine chapters: black, white and the seven colours of the rainbow chosen by Isaac Newton. The Chinese rainbow has only five colours. That this book mentions Newton, as well as Roman emperors, Egyptian make-up and Mexican skirts should tell you a lot about the variation of stories it includes.

Victoria Finlay is an impressive character. There may be some hero worship going on here. Her hunt for Lapis Lazuli (in an Afghanistan mine to which none of the miners recalled any woman ever visiting, 2001) and Iranian saffron demonstrate a mind-set which is remarkably enlightened.

She has a book on Jewels. I don’t yet have a fascination with jewels, but I think I might develop one just to read more of her work.

Thank you Tall Aunty.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

The Mathematical Genius leant me this book some time ago. Previously he’s leant me things like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Bertrand Russell’s Power. These books I love, but they take some brain work to get through. They are what you might call intimidating. Russell’s language defies my dictionary and I have absolutely no idea what Kafka on the Shore was about, although I felt I enjoyed it.

Anyway, you can imagine how I felt whenever I looked up at the bookshelf and saw another of the Mathematical Genius’ books staring back at me. A bit like you feel in that moment before you go for a run. You know, once you’re out there, you’re going to enjoy it. Yet there seems so many reasons not to start.

True to type, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was not written for ease of reading. This didn’t mean it was difficult to read – it wasn’t – but that the author didn’t keep to short sentences and simple structures. The style of writing, whilst initially off-putting with its page long sentences, was, by the end of the first third, proving delightful. At times, the sentence structures were so riveting that I became distracted by them. I found myself envious of Marías’ confidence, and his playful attitude. He wrote like someone who loves language and its form. I was bewitched.

And then too, there was his mastery of theme. I never clicked as to the power of theme until reading this book. I tried to articulate back to the Mathematical Genius exactly how much I was enjoying how these reoccurring images and ideas were so beautifully woven into the protagonist’s thoughts. He gave me an understanding grin.

I shan’t spoil the story, except to say that to be in a house with someone else’s small child and the dead body of the married woman you were about to begin an affair with, is quite bad luck.

I’d have no hesitation about reading more by Javier Marías.

A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Lord Byron’s Daughter Started the Computer Age by James Essenger

Borrowed from the Father who taught me I could code before most people I knew could use a computer.

Ada Lovelace, in the mid-1800s, realised that machines would, one day, be able to write music.

This makes her remarkable. She possessed considerable mathematical talent (it was thought that she could think like a man). As she was a lady born of a good family (where good should be read titled), she had time on her hands. And in developing her mathematical talent she had the wonderful support of her mother who believed that for Ada’s sake, rationality and logic were desperate necessities and that serious study of mathematics and a restricted social schedule were the best ways of forcing these necessities upon her.

Ada’s mother feared that her Byron blood would bring Ada to ruin. Her father Lord Byron was a romantic poet, with a tendency to spend money he didn’t have and indulge in sexual practices that horrified his wife.

James Essinger certainly chose a fascinating life to cover. I’m certainly curious to read more about Ada, Babbage and the Analytical Machine, but not by James Essinger. Whilst the subject matter was great. The writing style was lacking.

But maybe I’m just getting pompous?

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

“A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.”

No comment on the quote.

I tend to underestimate how much I am going to enjoy a Jane Austen book. I think this is partly because she is so well known, but also because of the number of film and TV adaptions I’ve seen which are enjoyable, but miss the depths of the books.

In my memory, characters such as Mrs Bennet and Mr Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, feel sometimes almost as caricatures. Maybe it’s me who’s changed? It could be so because I’ve been reading the book as part of a course on Literature and Mental Health. Therefore, I haven’t just been reading, I’ve been contemplating the mental wellbeing of the characters as they fall and bruise throughout the story. I’ve been interested in more than just what happens next.

If you’re interested in my further thoughts on Sense and Sensibility I wrote a blog post on heartbreak in response to the Literature and Mental Health course.

A Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

The blurb on the back of my copy of A Heart of Darkness, describes the book as ‘a chilling tale of horror’. The narrator is a seaman called Marlow who goes to the Congo to work on a steamer in the period when colonisation was taking place with an inhumane madness fuelled by the desire for power and ivory. The story is semi-biographical, as it was written on Conrad’s return from the Congo.

Unlike Sense and Sensibility which was an intriguing read from the perspective of mental health, I’m not sure I’d dare go anywhere near A Heart of Darkness with such a curiosity. The power addicted, obsessed Kurtz who is the fascination of the story, is the sort of insane mentally ill that feels impossible to relate to. The idea that I could have any empathy with such a character disgusts me. And yet I’m reminded that I am only moral as much as my upbringing has taught me good morals, and if born into different circumstances, I might have been something else entirely.

This little glimmer though, of the odd Russian chap who Marlow meets on his journey amused me.

“If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it was this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.”

I love that line, the ‘pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure’.


Do you have any books you’d recommend I read next?


Literature and Mental Health: Heartbreak

Heartbreak Moor

Long walks on heather strewn moors a literary cliché?

Heartbreak was the subject of week two in my Literature and Mental Health course. The reading reminded me of a TED talk I watched a little while back about the language of love.

The metaphor of a broken heart feels eternal and the course started by talking about people who have been together for a life-time and then one of them dies. Perhaps the metaphor if more apt than I’d supposed. It turns out that there is a medical condition, named after a Japanese octopus trap, which occurs after the sudden intense emotional stress of losing a loved one. It’s also known as broken heart syndrome and does in fact, temporarily in most cases, break one’s heart.

The misshapen heart looks like an octopus trap.

Heartbreak through the eyes of Jane Austen

In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, a freshly heartbroken Marianne reads to fuel her misery:

In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

I can totally imagine it. The reliving of the memories again and again. The constant looking backwards instead of forwards. I keep my diaries out of reaching distance for they are as harmful as they are helpful.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the heroine Anne Elliot counsels long time heartbroken, wallowing Captain Benwick to read prose in addition to his much beloved melancholy poetry.

…he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

Apparently, there was a phase in English society between 1750-1798, where acting openly emotional was seen as the best way to live. Sense and Sensibility is set in the last decade of the 18th century but was published a little later in 1811. Marianne is in part a stereotype of this overly emotional, gushing, unrestrained character of the Age of Sensibility, whereas her sister, by contrast, is reserved and closed. Elinor is terrified of the effect that exhibiting how she feels will have on her family and social standing, but also, to me, she seems to feel that because her love was unofficial and in hindsight impossible, that it lacks the validation that Marianne’s open love affair has.

Of course, since this is Jane Austen, Elinor, Marianne, Anne and Benwick all end up happily married.

Heartbreak Moor

There are stone books scattered on my moor in homage to the Brontë sisters. I haven’t read any of their books.

Romantic novels

Unfortunately, there are too many bad novels out there – by which one means, novels that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us unprepared to deal adequately with the difficulties of being in a couple. In moments of acute distress in relationships, our grief is too often complicated by a sense that things have become, for us alone, unusually and perversely difficult. Not only are we suffering, but it seems that our suffering has no equivalent in the lives of other more or less sane people.

Alain De Botton, (in this amusing article)

It’s this sense of being alone which Jack Lankester talks about in his interview within the course. The way, he says, that he eventually stopped feeling alone, was by reading the poetry of Philip Sidney who was writing about the same grief of being broken-hearted as Lankester was feeling.

I believe that poetry can snap you into a new perspective. My moment of realising I wasn’t alone, after a horrible break-up some years ago, came through the song Paint It Black, which was sung, beginning to end, by someone who seemed to see me completely.

Not-so-romantic novels

Romantic novels have never played a significant role on my bookshelf. Much less than several friends seem to believe. Some of the historical fiction I’ve read has romantic aspects, characters that are infatuated, but I think I prefer books where there’s more at stake than a break-up.

This doesn’t seem to have protected me from delusional fantasies of what love can achieve.

I don’t want to read about perfect love, because I can’t believe in it.

Instead, the failures of relationships so often depicted in novels seem more real. For some reason, I find myself thinking of An Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, in which the heroine becomes more and more aware of the sensation that her life with her fiancé is following an unswerving pattern of consumerism. A way of living which she’s quietly manipulated into by the expectations of society. Trapped in the status quo. And it’s a consumerism, which in her role in at an advertising agency, she herself reinforces.

Perhaps I’m just disenchanted.


Do you think romantic literature can give us harmful ideals?