Shiny 11 is out!

Yes, a new edition of Shiny is always a cause for celebration, so, pop your slippers on, get into a comfy chair with snacks to hand and turn your mobile off. The palace of bookish delights awaits you!

SNB-logoClearly, I am in a frivolous mood today.

Okay, so I wrote quite a few reviews for this edition, so let me give you a guiding hand towards a selection of them:

A novel about the sort of topic I might usually avoid as not being ‘my thing’, but which went straight onto my best of the year list.

A brand new heroine of cozy crime, the widow of an Archdeacon, who offers the utmost discretion to her clients in a wonderfully redolent Victorian setting.

The long-withheld novel by a properly famous American cookery writer that has now been published posthumously.

A debut author whose completely gripping novel is set in a Hopperish 60s America and is based on a true story.

A charming, thoughtful, clever novel translated from the German about the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

A memoir that won the National Book Critics’ Circle award this year about a life spent as part of the black Chicago elite in the 1950s.

We had a lot of fun with our latest ‘Eds Discuss….’ piece, this time thinking about the books we’d read by European authors.

And finally, I put together a Brexit reading list, covering all sorts of fiction and non-fiction that sheds a little light on our current situation.


Hope very much you enjoy!




A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.


A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

Eat, Pray, Love

eat pray loveI have so many books in the queue to review that I must try and get through some of them by the end of the year, maybe with shorter reviews than usual. At least when it comes to Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t need to describe the book in any great detail, given I must be one of the last people on the planet to read it. What a strange, hybrid book it is, not in content, I suppose, as Elizabeth Gilbert spends four healing months in each of three different places: Italy, learning the language and eating, India, strengthening her spirit at an ashram and Bali, falling madly in love. No, it’s more the spirit itself that is oddly divided, the subtext that runs through her metaphysical and literal journeys. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting and encouraging book, testimony to the reassuring belief that you can improve your own life with willpower and a bit of luck, and on the other it’s like the worst round robin Christmas letter you ever got, a subtle but powerful piece of competitive achievement-listing, garnished with some implausible self-depreciation. I have no idea how Gilbert managed this, but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.

So, where we begin is on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with Liz having a meltdown because her husband wants children and she doesn’t. This is going to lead to a very unpleasant divorce and, running alongside it, a doomed affair of the kind that is fiercely compulsive but bad for all concerned. Which does indeed sound like a lot of unfortunate events all coming together. However, even on the bathroom floor, Liz finds she has a quiet inner voice of helpful pragmatism that is a kind of outsourcing of everyday divine wisdom. I think that Gilbert doesn’t want to bore us with her suffering – which is admirable of her, I’m sure. I think she doesn’t want her readers to worry about the extent to which we can all lose it magnificently in bad times. She wants to take those readers on a voyage of self-discovery that is essentially positive. But she does keep on plucking herself away from the precipice every time she nears it; she keep rescuing herself one way or another. And so it’s hard to get a clear idea of how bad her bad times have been, and how much is at stake in her decision to devote a year to sorting herself out. I understand that she wants us to know her pain but not to suffer it, but it muddies the water a bit.

Off she goes to Italy, to learn the language and to make new friends, because that is something she does splendidly well (good for her), and the food in Italy is so delicious that it’s enough to get her off medication. Let’s just say that this is not a book I’d recommend for anyone who was actually in the throes of a depression. It’s a most unconventional route back to health. I think maybe she means that some sort of loving self-indulgence, an embrace of things that make you genuinely happy and being generous to yourself with them, is a good antidote for the times when fate has had your back to the wall for what feels like forever. I think?

Then to the ashram where she discovers –  someone who describes herself as bad at meditation – a great capacity for fabulous experiences with the divine. I mean, Liz Gilbert is often very funny at her own expense about the way she tries to avoid all the things she doesn’t enjoy at the ashram, and her descriptions of her spiritual experiences are very well done, very uplifting. I suppose it matters a great deal where you stand spiritually when you come to this section of the book. I tend to be with old Zizek (and Kafka, come to that) that there is a basic need for a Big Other – which might be God, or it might be a parent, or it might be an explanatory system, like science or literature – some major authority to give the appearance that there could be a meaning to life and it isn’t as much of a chaotic mess as it seems on the face of it. All conspiracy theories are essentially a belief in the Big Other, a conviction that someone is in charge and responsible, even though anyone who has worked in an office must surely know the reality of misinformation and total obliviousness that exists between all layers of an organization. Anyway, I digress. I come from a psychological angle, and am sure that after many hours spent in meditation, it is possible to reach new and intriguing states in the brain. Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in any such entity as a god, though I would not for the world wish to offend anyone who did. For whatever reason, Liz leaves the ashram in pretty fine fettle, and the need for balance in life that she had assigned as her task in Bali looks somewhat redundant by now.

Bali is not a place that I want to visit.

It has been estimated that a typical Balinese woman spends one-third of her waking hours either preparing for a ceremony, participating in a ceremony or cleaning up after a ceremony. Life here is a constant cycle of offerings and rituals. You must perform them all, in the correct order and with the correct intention, or the entire universe will fall out of balance.’

Way too much responsibility! Gilbert is enchanted with Bali and wonderfully respectful of its ideology, whereas I wondered how it was possible for a whole island to raise OCD to the level of a religion. Gilbert talks about the charming spiritual beliefs the Balinese hold, like the fact you have four spiritual brothers who are there to keep your back at all times. I have a brother. We are very civilized now, but I remember our childhood, and I think one brother seems quite sufficient for me. I would have nightmares if I thought there were four of them behind my back, and I’ll bet they require a host of ceremonies too. Anyhow, none of this matters anyway as the point of Bali is Felipe, Gilbert’s great romance, and I really can’t be bothered to say anything about that.

No, it’s passages like this that tended to catch my eye:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.’

I’m feeling exhausted already. Happiness, as a form of ultra-demanding work. I’m not sure that I need happiness to that extent. And I have this horrible feeling that bad things happen; they just do. Not because we didn’t work enough at it, or perform enough ceremonies with the correct intent. And I think that sometimes, however hard we try, we don’t master inner peace or find the answers we are looking for. These things are incredibly difficult to do; for most of us, we’ll need a lifetime to reach even a temporary resolution. For those of us with children, which I can understand Gilbert wanting to avoid, given her personal ideology, we just have these hostages to fortune, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I am surprised at the extent to which this book is marketed as a women’s book, something you give your best friend. Well, if you want to send her the message that she’s been a bit grumpy lately and she should get off her backside and do something strenuous about it, I guess you do. But I would be hesitant to put this in someone’s  hands who had suffered a series of misfortunes, as it says, essentially, that grief,  mourning, re-grouping, life-changing development, all that is just a matter of putting your back into it! Well, ouch. If only it were.

And yet, Liz Gilbert seems to have proved to her own satisfaction that it is. And I do think she means terrifically well in her intentions to hand women back control over their misshapen, misguided lives. Seriously, it terrifies me, how determined she is that we all get back on track and find our personal nirvanas right here on earth. Given that I can’t even manage to write a short blog post when I intend to, I think I might not be the sort of disciple this book calls out for.

A Woman on the Edge of Time

AWomenOnTheEdgeIn 1965, shortly before Christmas, a young, ambitious mother of two children on the brink of publishing her first book of sociology let herself into a friend’s house in Primrose Hill, London, turned on the oven and gassed herself. It was an act with uncanny echoes of Sylvia Plath’s demise, which had taken place just two years earlier and two streets away. Her family was dumbfounded; on the face of it, Hannah had everything she could wish for – a loving husband in a successful career, two young boys, a promising academic career, good looks, money, friends. Only the title of her book, The Captive Wife, gave a possible hint at a darker truth, and only the friend whose house she had used knew that she ‘had been depressed in the days before her death.’ But life goes on and the devastated family kicked over Hannah’s traces, her suicide becoming the great ‘unsaid’. Until, that is, her younger son, Jeremy Gavron, decided he had to find out the real motivations for his mother’s act. A Woman on the Edge of Time is the story he uncovered and it is absolutely hypnotic.

How you tell a story – what gets left out, what gets distorted, where the emphasis is placed – is the theme that runs quietly through this memoir. The stories Jeremy Gavron had been told of his mother portrayed a ‘golden girl’. A friend described how ‘She was young, attractive, confident, bright, able; she brought an extra jolt to life. To succeed in those days women had to give up something – children, work, femininity – whereas Hannah wanted and appeared able to have everything.’ In family stories she featured as a force of nature: at eight she won a poetry contest, at twelve she was a champion show-jumper, at sixteen she left her progressive boarding school to become an actress at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and then after her early marriage at eighteen, she returned to her studies, researching a Ph.D while bringing up her sons. She was working as a professional reviewer, teaching at a fashionable London college and adapting her doctoral thesis into her first book in the final months of her life. What a strange story Hannah’s life became with her final tragic act; what an outrageous and inexplicable ending to an otherwise glittering Bildungsroman.

Jeremy Gavron began digging. He found his grandfather’s diaries; he questioned family and friends, everyone he could reach who had known his mother; he read her book and the letters she sent to friends. And gradually he pieced together a very different tale. His Hannah is indeed a courageous and headstrong young woman, wild at times, acting as if ‘the normal codes of behaviour weren’t for her’. She had a precocious and wilful sexuality that flourished in an affair she had with the headmaster of her boarding school. An affair that Gavron calculates, with a sickened heart, that she must have begun at 14. There was an almost desperate urge to get married, as if it was a troubling void that had to be filled. Hannah wrote to a friend ‘One of the awful things Frensham [their boarding school] has left us with is the feeling that if one is not in love with anyone in particular, life is very dreary.’ Acting never took off. The marriage soured and Hannah fell in love with someone else, someone she was working with, a man who unfortunately turned out to be homosexual though by this point she seems determined to act like that didn’t matter.

The most disturbing part of Hannah’s history surrounds her academic career in sociology. Hannah had researched and written her book about the stultification of domestic life, interviewing a number of women with young children and drawing on her own experience. Here was a woman with a lot of spirit and verve, way too much for the rigid constraints of the 50s and early 60s, and she was a pioneer before her time, without the sisterhood that feminism would offer working women later in the decade. Then she became aware that her applications for university positions were being stymied by the men she had to rely on for references out of pure misogyny. When Gavron takes the evidence he has gathered to a neighbour who is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, she points out that “The fact that Hannah was a strong personality wouldn’t necessarily have helped, she says; ‘the whole of that terrific force gets turned against herself.’”

Once I began this book, I absolutely could not put it down. It is beautifully written, with a limpid, open simplicity that is still full of nuance. Jeremy Gavron structures his researches terrifically well, so that even though I had the outlines of his mother’s life given to me in the earliest pages, I was full of curiosity to find out the devilish details of the other side and to see how he would interpret the results. And even when he believes he understands his mother’s act and can create a narrative of sorts, Gavron is still finding out new revelations that make him wonder whether he has the story right. It’s a brilliant investigation into the unsaid that forms a part of every family (if not quite so dramatically as in Gavron’s case) and into the slipperiness of storytelling. We need those stories if we are to have any chance of understanding experience, but stories seep over gaps and seal up perspectives that might need to be wrenched open again. It is also a valuable piece of social history in the way it creates shocking insight into the reality of life for women in the 1950s, when you really did need a man by your side if you were to have any self-esteem at all. And finally, I felt it was a moving tribute to a mother who had been loved without being known, and who was now known in all her flaws and failures, all the things she could not deal with and which led to her suicide, and who was loved even more now for being understood. The real tragedy of Hannah Gavron’s life is that she did not live to experience the sweet reparation her son could have given her.

Straight onto my best books of the year list.