Week 116: The Pause Button

European-FlagsWe are living through a freeze-frame here, as Thursday 23rd June creeps towards us.  Some of us remember being asked, way back in 1975, whether we wanted to be part of Europe.  Yes, we said – especially we the young, voting for the first time in our lives.  We are the post-war generation: blessed with the astonishing gift our parents and grandparents gave us of being the first Britons in history to feel confident that we would not be at war with our fellow Europeans in our lifetimes.  We have children born as European citizens, part of a forward-looking, joyfully international community that looks back at a world shaped by mediaeval boundaries as a primitive past that we have matured out of.  Fragile, endangered and vulnerable though it is, we are the generations that are comfortable with our multiple identities.  We belong; to our families, our friendship groups, our communities, and also to the long histories written into our DNA that we choose to respond to – as Scots who have never been north of Watford, fifth-generation Latvians, descendants of Africans, Norsemen: we all know who we think we are.  And we have the right to feel part of the European family, too, not waifs pressing our noses to the glass from our off-shore island.  We can drop by, move in, invite others to pull up a chair: Europe is our home and we live here.

So you will appreciate that I was already living under a cloud of apprehension as this hateful, ridiculous referendum slouches ever nearer, and the rhetoric and the propaganda became ever more unhinged.  I think this must be a little like living through the summer of 1939, and it is horrible.  And then Jo Cox was murdered. rose

At times like this, when the world seems to teeter on its axis and faith in the essential wisdom and goodness of humans feels quite hard to hold onto, I need books to give me backbone and to give me solace.  This might be a very good moment to curl up into a little ball with The Wind in the Willows (the NorthernReader Ultimate Comfort Book) and stay there until it has all blown over.  Not long enough? How about all twelve Arthur Ransome novels? Or Winnie The Pooh with its extremely pertinent reminder that ‘everyone’s alright really’ (unfortunately I am not nearly as nice a person as Pooh and, even as I try reciting his helpful observation, my Inner Unpleasant Person – never very far beneath the skin – is thinking about one or two of the least savoury of the present campaigns and muttering ‘well not him, obviously’).

Perhaps I need the long view.  Norman Davies’ Europe: a History has much to commend it.  No-one could accuse Professor Davies of short-changing the reader – one thousand pages taking us from the Ice Age to the end of the twentieth century – a breadth that might encourage a sense of ‘this too will pass’.  Oxford and Cambridge University Presses both have their multi-volumed Histories, of course, and offer plenty of opportunity to specialise as well, with histories of Early Modern, Enlightenment and Modern Europe jostling for consideration.  But there is more to life than non-fiction, and there is useful perspective to be gained by a re-read of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty greeksDead, or Seamus Heaney’s marvellous Beowulf , both salutary reminders that we  come from a long line of marauding chaps who like fighting.  We tend to buy into the whole hero thing a teensy bit uncritically, it seems to me.  How much nicer the world might be if we lost no opportunity, when reading these tales out loud, to point out that heroes (and the gods of hero cultures) are a bunch of intellectually-challenged thugs who have neither the brains nor the courage to give debate, compromise and consensus a whirl.  Mothers, tell your children.

So much of European history has been a sorry narrative of fighting to the death over little indistinguishable bits of muddy ground.  The role of the Captain in Hamlet is barely a dozen short lines, and no actor yet besieged his agent to get him the part, but in his brief moment on the stage he captures all the hopeless futility of war between neighbours:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.

Hamlet predicts

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds

Hamlet was written four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare’s audience recognised the tragic idiocy of war as age-old then, and we still respond to the play today because we still live in that same world, in thrall to mediaeval notions of boundaries.

Once the Referendum votes have been cast and counted, one way or the other, the Pause button will be double-clicked.  Whatever the result, we must not let hatred and fear have any resting place.  We will play on.hands


Week 85: God

It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century
It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century


Unlike a previous Beloved Leader, who had Alistair Campbell strapping him into the jacket with the arms that go round the back and declaring ‘We don’t do God’, the Northern Reader is happy to tackle this one head-on. Fear not: this is not suddenly going to transmogrify into one of those rather earnest and evangelical blogs with which the aether is awash – sorry if you write one, and I’m sure it’s lovely, and I hope you find it jolly comforting, but never forget that I’m British, which means (praise the Lord) genetically incapable of discussing or even mentioning matters of faith without practically passing out with the terrible toe-curling embarrassment of it all. As it happens, I went to a convent school in infancy, which has left me with a somewhat generalised sense of God as a pleasant chap with a beard who models his appearance, and especially the beard, and his air of slightly anguished worry about us all and what will become of us on Dr Rowan Williams. It also left me with a conviction that the key to religious education is colouring. A non-Catholic, I was barred from the exciting-sounding Catechism classes (have you noticed how religions really enjoy banning, excluding and keeping all the buns for themselves?), and accordingly spent many a happy hour peacefully colouring pictures of the saints while our teacher read aloud to us. What she was reading – and I have checked on the internet to be sure that yes, this book really did exist and no, it is not some subtly satiric invention of mine – was Wopsy the Guardian

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Angel by Gerard Scriven. Wopsy – what a great name – was a trainee GA, I think, being inducted into his life’s work (I have no information on the longevity of angels and am not about to get into a discussion about it now, however much you beg), which was – and times have changed so much that I hesitate to tell you this – Saving Little Pagan Babies in Africa.

No, I think our bookshelf this week will be better off with Salley Vickers. Miss Garnet’s Angel was her first novel. She writes with immense subtlety and precision, on top of which the book is set in Venice, so I can’t think why you wouldn’t be rushing to find it if by some mischance you have not already come across it. And then there is her thoughtful and humorous Mr Golightly’s Holiday. I do not wish to give too much away to those of you who have reading this as a pleasure still to come, so let it suffice to say that its subject, and hero, fits with our theme this week. I loved it and I hope you do too.

Giovannino Guareschi makes it into the NorthernReader Hall of Fame for having been imprisoned in the cause of free speech. He also wrote the Little World of Don Camillo books (Mondo Piccolo: Don Camillo), which began to appear shortly after the Second World War and reflect the polarised world of post-war Italy, with the Catholic church wading in against the Communists. When the Communist Party was more or less wiped off the face of Italian politics in the 1948 elections, Guareschi turned his satirical pen on the newly-triumphant Christian Democrats instead (they were the party with leaders such as Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, who attracted international attention in ways that did not flatter their poor long-suffering country. The 2008 film, Il Divo, will tell you all you need to know about Andreotti, and is a must-watch). The Don Camillo books are simple to the point of being simplistic, but they have a cheerful rugged charm and a strangely credible voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in Don Camillo’s church. They also now have an historic interest as a reminder of the turmoil of post-war Europe and the dangerous possibilities of further fragmentation and violence. Worth reading now, then, if only to remind ourselves how fragile a peaceful Europe is and how suicidally half-witted we would be to flounce off.

tumblr_m9pphiFC0i1rnvzfwo1_r1_1280The God of Christianity doesn’t turn up all that often in fiction, presumably because he has more pressing matters in hand. Quentin Crisp, the author of The Naked Civil Servant, was an advocate for a little bit of humility in prayer, pointing out that God probably has more urgent things to deal with than whatever it is that you so desperately want tonight (lottery win? Your maths teacher to be taken ill before you have to hand your homework in?). But the gods of ancient Greece simply adored the limelight and were happy to be stars of stage and screen. High on the list of the joys of reading The Iliad and The Odyssey is the depiction of the Olympian gods and goddesses as a bunch of brawling, psychotic, sulking, sex-obsessed, petty and petulant spoilt brats for whom immortality means never having to grow up. You can see why the people who invented them went on to invent democracy: at worst, rule by the people for the people couldn’t be worse than the hereditary principle when applied to congenital drunks who never die. Adam Nicolson recommends the translation of the Iliad and Odyssey by Robert Fagles, and that’s good enough for me. Happily, Fagles’ is the current Penguin translation, and therefore affordable and readily available (from a good local independent bookshop, please: Cogito, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in this part of the forest).

Almost godlike in his creativity, Douglas Adams came up with well over a hundred minor characters who make fleeting appearances in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. Among them is the philosopher, Oolon Colluphid, author of Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This God Person Anyway? And Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Quite. But I still have some sense of my nice bearded chap, sitting there well-meaningly worrying about us all, and – and this is the important bit – giving us the chance to do the best we can. And, unlike a distressing number of believers of all faiths over the years, God himself/herself/itself is, in more of Douglas Adams’ well-chosen words, Mostly Harmless.

Happy Easter, dearest readers, and, as the Irish comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you. JS55020378

Week 80: Books for Journalists

Journalism-is4-e1373668581362As one of a dazzlingly-rare series of posts which follow on from each other, I thought I might carry on where I left off last week and think about journalists in books. This is not least because I rather yearn for those dear dead days when all a writer had to contend with was a pen or a typewriter: not a laptop which, as the more obsessionally observant among you will have noticed, takes the vows of matrimony very seriously indeed and posted a comment from Mr NorthernReader on last week’s blog as if it came from me, on the grounds that our computers as well as our hearts and minds turn out to be inextricably linked.   I am glad to report that he was right– as always, of course (just call me Katerina and go and enjoy The Taming of the Shrew) – to celebrate Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (whose journalist hero, William Boot, even gave us a blog title way back in Week 6), Wodehouse’s sublime Psmith, Journalist and Andrew Marr’s absorbing My Trade. No aspiring journalist should take another step without getting these three under the belt. And then what?

Well, fewer people have a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s Charlie Johnson in the Flames on their shelves, which I think is a pity. Ignatieff, an historian, philosopher and more recently a liberal politician in his native Canada, lived in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and was a frequent thoughtful contributor to television discussion programmes (this was in the now far-distant days when television did not solely cater to our inner spoilt and fretful six-year-old and occasionally treated us as sentient adults who could cope with the odd moment or two of serious debate). He is a fiercely articulate champion for human rights and especially the right not to feel frightened and threatened. Subtle and nuanced, his writing on international politics continues to adapt and respond as the world mood darkens. I urge you to read Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience: informed by his experiences in the Balkans and Kosovo, but also encompassing the horrors of Rwanda, it goes behind the particular to the essential moral questions. Put it on your shelf next to Adam Nicolson’s fabulous The Mighty Dead and consider the antiquity and perseverance of violence.

Ignatieff currently holds the Edward R Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. That’s quite some job title – I can only imagine his office door (possibly with a fold-out flap to accommodate it all) – but any reminder of Murrow is good enough for me. If you haven’t, settle down to watch Goodnight, and Good Luck, a film which explores the troubled relationship between press freedom and the state. Sounds a bit

This is entirely non-gratuitous

This is entirely non-gratuitous

worthy? Let me try again. Watch Goodnight, and Good Luck. It was written and directed by George Clooney who also stars in it (as Murrow’s co-producer: David Strathairn plays Murrow and jolly good he is too). Murrow was a seriously good thing in a naughty world. A passionate believer in the power and the responsibility of broadcast journalism, he became famous for his radio news broadcasts during World War II before moving into television, where he was at the forefront of the struggle to overcome Senator Joseph McCarthy and his deranged and destructive works. Murrow was a byword for honesty and integrity and a good candidate for patron saint of journalists. If you happen to be a journalist, print or broadcast, and your owners are requiring you to tell what you know not to be the truth or you consider not to be the best that you could do to inform and empower your audience, pause a moment and ask yourself, ‘what would Ed Morrow have done?’

Fearless, determined and questing for truth (although very rarely doing any actual reporting), the best-known journalist in fiction is probably Tintin. Together with his deeply adorable little dog (Milou originally, but Snowy in English-language versions), our young hero sent his first despatches from The Land of the Soviets in 1929. His creator, Georges Prosper Remi – known, of course, as Hergé – very properly tried to make Tintin the medium, not the message, and deliberately drew him as near to a blank as was possible, suggesting that the good journalist is without personality, biography or, indeed, personal interest to his reader: what matters, or what should matter, is the story he has to tell.

Anna_Politkovskaja_im_Gespräch_mit_Christhard_LäppleOr, of course, she. While in what we laughingly call real life some of the very greatest journalists have been women – Martha Gellhorn, Victoria Guerin, Anna Politkovskaya – fiction has served us less well. Lois Lane, anyone? Or Carrie-whatever-her-name-is in the deeply demeaning Sex and the City? (and if anyone ever told you that that little lot was somehow empowering and a bastion of feminism; darling, they were putting you down with their sniggering voyeuristic point of view). I’d rather re-read Monica Dickens’ My Turn to Make the Tea, not least for its chronicling of a vanished world of typewriters and local reporters.

Three more. The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins reminds us what a useful profession investigative journalism can be for the hero of your crime novel. On the Booker Prize shortlist in 2000, it’s a cracking read. And no journalists’ bookshelf should be without Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, even if only as a reminder of the sheer mind-numbing boredom of what you thought would be a glamorous profession. It says much that the book was published in America as Against Entropy. But today of all days, as we stand back and watch Vladimir Putin throw up his little hands in horror and wonder aloud how it could possibly be that Boris Nemtsov, the man who dared to speak out against him, has been gunned down; today is the day to read David Hare and Howard Brenton’s play, Pravda. It means ‘truth’, and is therefore, of course, a savage and despairing satire. Goodnight, and good luck, indeed.549213

Week 72: Books for Kings and Wise Men

epiphanyausIt seems unlikely that early Christians picked January 6th – Epiphany – solely to mark the day we can take the Christmas decorations down, but how jolly useful of them to have set up a date that can act as a watershed. Before it, celebrations marked by reds and golds, noise and laughter, feasts and cheerful over-doing it; after, a clearing-back to simplicity, calm and quiet. January is the time when even the most cluttered of us find ourselves drawn to a little minimalism, when we can enjoy the sight of a windowsill or chimneypiece untrammelled by cards. A single hyacinth growing in its glass is all the decoration we need as the days begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to lengthen. And now is the time for the lovely peacefulness of evenings by the fire, reading.

Magi_(1)Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t call them kings or wise men and doesn’t say how many of them there were (the most plausible translation, should you be interested, seems to be that they were Zoroastrians – giving rise to a pleasingly frivolous vision of Freddie Mercury pitching up at the stable), but the chaps who followed the star set a precedent for Good Guest behaviour by bringing presents. And, should your tastes or your budget not run to gold, frankincense and myrrh, be of good cheer, because books make the best presents (although if you hanker after frankincense, try a bottle of Tauer’s scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain). Now is the first time since Christmas when we have breathing space to sit down and properly read, rather than flick through, all those gorgeous books lovely people gave us. As well as a stocking-full of vintage Ladybird books, which are becoming a slight obsession of mine, I have the chance to get ahead on at least one anniversary being marked in 2015, thanks to a well-loved nephew and niece and their thoughtful choice of Dan Jones’s Magna Carta as a brilliant present. I am already absorbed in this clear study of how the Charter came about, what happened to it and why it is important. As a consequence, the New Year’s Resolution you will be most pleased to hear about is a determination not to emulate the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and stop one in three to share my newly-acquired fascinating insights (I’ll let you know how successful I am with keeping that resolution).

And I have Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow to enjoy through the year as well. Compellingly written and the perfect blend of discussion, reflection and instruction that puts Don in the same (premier) league as Christopher Lloyd. The catalogues for spring-planted bulbs have started to arrive as well, encouraging a lot of armchair gardening which is, as you know, so much less of a physical and financial drain than the other kind. Now might be a good moment for some more reading about gardens, though: Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History, of course, and Philippa Gregory’s two novels about the Tradescant father and son, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. I have not read Elizabeth Buchan’s Consider the Lily, but judging from the reviews that might well be my loss and one for the Books To Look Out For list. Oh, and we can have poetry too: Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, you are simply going to have to pop off and read, now that I tell you it seems not to be possible to mention it on the internet without adding the rather crushing phrase ‘one of the most famous poems’ (admittedly they tend to qualify this with ‘of the seventeenth century’, but still, you wouldn’t want to feel left out, would you?). And how about Thom Gunn’s ‘The Garden of the Gods’? And if that gets you reading all of Thom Gunn, well, hurray, and you can thank me later.

snowWhile we wait … and wait … for snow, I can at least re-read the splendid snowiness of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Or – pleasure of all pleasures – revisit Italo Calvino’s playful and mesmerising If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se Una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggatore, but I can’t read Italian, and am lucky to have William Weaver’s assured translation). And if you, like me, enjoy this, that’s 2015 sorted, because you simply must get round to reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You do not need me to remind you of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’ because it stays in the heart of everyone who comes across it, but there is a chance you haven’t read Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ or Thomas Campion’s ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’.

While you sit contentedly – oh, and how that lovely word reminds me that now is the time to re-read The Wind in the Willows – book in hand, by all means make resolutions, but make them things to read, not vile self-hating and dreary weight-loss goals. Here, as a New Year’s present to you, are three suggestions. Read something by Charles Dickens. It took me far too many years to realise that there is a reason why he is so famous, and the reason is the very simple one that he is an utterly fabulous writer. So there’s gold for you. Second: read something in translation from a different culture and tradition – the exoticism of frankincense, if you will. For me, that’s going to be Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. And finally, some myrrh. The Balm of Gilead is known for its soothing, healing properties and is beginning to look like the latest wonder-drug from cholesterol-busting to cancer-combatting. Quite a challenge; a book to soothe and console, cure and heal. That’ll be Shakespeare, then. Happy New Year.


Week 69: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Kate GreenawayOne of the many delights of living in the North East of England is that people here have far better things to do than start fossicking about Christmas immediately after the summer holidays have ended. But, with less than a fortnight to go, even we are beginning to hum ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like …’ as we go about the daily round. And yesterday, we had our first snow of the season. The Farmers’ Market is joined by the Christmas Market this weekend and there is a distinct air of mulled wine and cheerful expectancy: which is exactly what Advent ought to mean (the expectancy rather than the wine, especially if you are under eighteen). This is not, I suspect, the neck of the woods at which all those dreary advertisements imploring us to buy sofas and rather horrid dining tables in time for Christmas are aimed. Not for us the articles in magazines promoting geegaws and fripperies as – and I quote – ‘ideal stocking fillers under £100’: what planet do these people think we inhabit? There is a splendid amount of knitting, sewing, and sweet-and preserve-making going on around here and pleasingly little belief that friendship and love can be Kipper's Christmasmeasured by the amount carelessly spent at the till. ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’, as the King James Bible firmly decrees, and how right it is. No, this is the season when the long retreat into a wintry hibernation snaps out of itself and is transformed into warmth, friendship and good neighbourliness by parties. They began a few days ago, a little trickle of invitations to lunch, or tea, or drinks with friends, and now they stretch as an unbroken shining path of gentle pleasures, all the way to Christmas and beyond, to Old Year’s Night and Twelfth Night.

So, as hostess or as guest, where can I find my role models? Children’s books are full of parties, usually featuring as joyful occasions, flying in the face of most children’s experiences. If you are small and living in dread of the next birthday party, take comfort from the fact that you at least do not have to suffer the indignities and limitations imposed upon previous generations by a dress code that involved ties for boys and sticky-out dresses for girls. Photographs from my own childhood confirm that a blue net dress with a sash did not transform me into a sparkly fairy: a glum-looking cross-patch in a flowery frock is more like it. Dorothy Edwards’ lovable My Naughty Little Sister captures the real world of children’s parties, especially when our heroine and her best friend, Bad Harry, wander off from the games that the nice boys and girls are playing and find the party food

I've been to a MARVELLOUS party

I’ve been to a MARVELLOUS party

unguarded. Their business-like demolition job on the trifle would draw praise from the Weasels at Toad Hall, and makes me wonder whether adults’ parties would go with more of a swing if trifle was more heavily involved.

We can at least make every effort to avoid the sort of parties that Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things find themselves drawn to. Read Vile Bodies and be grateful that you do not get invited to that sort of thing (of course, it may be that you do: in which case, read it to the end, take heed and amend your ways). And while we’re on the look-out for Parties to Avoid, Ian McEwan’s haunting Atonement, Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway provide some useful guidelines. But if we are lucky we might find ourselves going to the sort of magical and dreamlike party that Augustin stumbles across in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Or how about Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st birthday party as chronicled in Stella Gibbon’s completely essential Cold Comfort Farm ? It sounds as if it was an enjoyable enough occasion even before the birthday boy livened it up no end by throwing a marriage proposal into the works.

Time for some less hectic gatherings, perhaps. In these days of seemingly endless bling, when we are exhorted to spend a fortune at Christmas decking ourselves out as gaudily as any Christmas tree, it is good to spend a few moments with Miss Fogarty (in the Thrush Green books by Miss Read), who worries whether her seed pearl necklace might be too showy for a village drinks party. All the Miss Read characters could walk into any social occasion in our part of the world with no questions asked, and it is their mastery of clothes that qualifies them. Like us, they cheerfully recognise each other’s party outfits as they clock up considerable mileage. What more robust and sensible judgment of clothes can there be than ‘there’s years of use in that yet’? Since moving here, I have come to realise Ballthat my two pairs of heels will see me out, as there is not much call for them when even an evening out involves hopping across a field or a farmyard: and I couldn’t be more thankful if I tried. There is no rural festivity that a silk shirt and a thermal vest cannot rise to. A far cry, indeed, from Kitty’s outfit for a ball in Anna Karenina: ravishing white net over pink silk, with little pink slippers to match – utterly darling, of course, but a tad impractical, one would have thought.

No, as friends come here to supper, or we go to drinks with neighbours, and a quiet excitement starts to hum, our build-up to Christmas will be modelling itself on Ratty, Mole and Badger, good country-dwellers all, who knew the importance at all times of year of living in great joy and contentment.

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

PS If you were to ask me for suggestions for books as presents this Christmas, my absolutely unhesitating first choice would be Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. You will not look at anything, ever, in the same way once you have read it.

Week 53: A Year of Books

Happy Birthday CupcakeMy childhood was littered with the beginnings of stories. I wrote them in exercise books from Woolworths – red shiny cover and useful information on the back (longest rivers, highest mountains, times tables, how many perches to a chain: all good vital stuff). None of them got past the first chapter. There were newspapers too, that hit the buffers of realisation that nothing much happens when you are ten. I’m not sure that the first sustained piece of writing that I ever achieved wasn’t my doctoral thesis; on, should you care, madhouses on the early modern stage (yes, I knew you’d be gripped). So it is with enormous pleasure that I bring you Week 53 of the Northern Reader blog, because keen mathematicians among you will have spotted that this means that I kept this going for a whole year. As I launch relentlessly into Year Two, I thought this felt like a good moment to consider some books of, about or for the year.

For good titles alone, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously would make it onto this week’s shelf. As it happens, they are both, in their very different ways, cracking good reads and to be recommended. The luminous Ms Didion has always been the lodestar of what makes The New York Review of Books great: I am not convinced she could write a lazy sentence even if her life depended on it. The Year of Magical Thinking might well stand for ever as the best, most clear-sighted and therefore most poignant testament to the loss of one’s beloved. Let me urge you also to read the collection of her work, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, not least because the title makes it onto the infinitesimally small list of sayings I would seriously consider as a a tattoo (see Week 5 for the others if you are fleetingly interested). The Year of Living Dangerously is an absorbing tale set in Indonesia in turbulent times, and as good a political novel as you will find (now there’s a challenge for another week).

During this NorthernReader year, numerous book prizes have come and gone. Eleanor Catton won the ManBooker with The Luminaries, proving me as inept at picking literary winners as I am at horses (see Week 4 for that one), and Kate Atkinson, hurray hurray, won the Costa Prize with Life After Life, which is totally wonderful (I realise that that might not strike everyone as the most helpful review ever written, but, you see, I want you to go and read it for yourself, not have me do it for you. I did that for long enough as a university lecturer and very tiring it was, politely maintaining the pretence that the poppets had champagnebothered to read the texts). You may or may not care to know that other prizes have been awarded to various probably utterly gripping books at the Sports Book Awards, the Specsavers Biography of the Year (sic) and –and I love the sound of this one, for reasons too obvious to go into – the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. I am hoping rather hard that (a) the winner comes away from a great evening clutching his or her choice of the stylishly bound black-and-white Everyman Library in its current incarnation, ditto of the Wodehouse canon and a very large bottle of champagne, and (b) that I win this one some day. Especially if (a) turns out to be true.

Annuals are by definition a yearly event, and many a Christmas was marked in childhood by Rupert. Such is the glitter that Christmas gives to everything that I was many years into adult life before I was prepared to admit, even to myself, that, goodness me, that is one dull little bear. Now my favourite sort of yearly publication – not being the sort of person in whom either Wisden or Old Moore’s Almanac finds a ready market – is the bulb and seed catalogue: free entry to the garden of your dreams. Bloms Bulbs, Seeds of Distinction and David Austin are the stars of this particular haul. A girl can dream, and dark November skies will call for teatimes by the fire with a piece of cake, a pile of catalogues, a marker pen and the ability to ignore the staggering cost of little shrivelled bulbs. Oh, go on, let’s have Deborah Moggach’s terrific Tulip Fever to remind us how these things can get out of hand.

Night-FlowerAnd what books am I reading as I swing into my second year as a weekly blogger? Two fabulous ones, as it happens. One is Sarah Stovell’s completely gripping The Night Flower. I wanted to like this book because I have met the author, who is lovely and local; and boy, The Night Flower does not disappoint. The characters are brought compellingly, vividly and utterly believably to life, and I am staying awake into the small hours to find out what happens next. I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough. My other is Adam Nicolson’s thought-provoking and absorbing contemplation of Homer, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. I would willingly read Nicolson’s shopping lists, as anything from him is guaranteed to be wonderfully written (if you haven’t already read it, add Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History to the first draft of your letter to Santa). Add to that the fact that in The Mighty Dead he is championing the theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey are jaw-droppingly old examples of our needs to tell stories about who we are and where we came from, and I for one am hooked. Oh look, we’re back to Joan Didion that We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

We humans have called ourselves many things in our attempts to see who we are and how we stand out in a multi-species crowd. Homo Faber – man the maker ­– as a unique distinguisher got blown out of the water when we noticed the amazingly deft things crows can do with bits of stick. Homo Sapiens seems a bit rich: Gaza, anyone? Syria? Maybe we are on more stable ground with Homo Fabulator. We are the story-telling animal. Never let anyone tell you that what we do, reading stories, telling tales, writing, is anything less than essential.

Well, at least he's reading ...

Well, at least he’s reading …