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Monday 18 January 2021

These are historic times, I heard a comedian say this week, between quips, "but I'd rather not be living through them".

I'm sure many of us have been feeling the same, realising how much we should appreciate safe and comfortable lifestyles, and longing for 'slow' news days.

Some of you have mentioned that you've often selected historic fiction for your reading because stories of hardship, tragedy and suffering in different times help you to get through any of your own present difficulties.

I'm not sure I'm quite that resilient, but the books I've highlighted this week certainly look to the past and offer up other perspectives.

The children's title 'When the World Was Ours' shows us how three families were affected by the war in Europe. It's based on the author's family's experience so is disturbing and poignant but it also brings a story of courage, resilience, friendship and, overwhelmingly, hope.

The other book is 'The Bloomsbury Look'. This is a beautiful and fascinating insight into the lives of a group of intellectuals as they challenged societal norms and celebrated and experimented with creativity and individuality. They were unusual people but I have always found their lives intriguing and their designs, images and writings always stimulate, inspire and uplift me. Do scroll down for more details.

Whether we are on 'the frontline' of the crises today, are struggling with challenging personal circumstances, or are in the privileged position of knowing that all that is required of us is to 'stay home', I hope that you will find something helpful to draw on from your reading in the next week.

Sunday 10 January 2021

The need for clear and effective communication has never been more evident than in these past 12 months.

Not only do we need a single, straightforward message for a community to engage in a common goal, but it's also important to keep heads clear and emotions in tap when dealing with something threatening and unfamiliar.

There is a great skill in presenting complicated or difficult information in a palatable and accessible way and the two books I've selected this week help to highlight this. I hope you'll be able to take a look at the titles below.

This week I was also reminded of the power, comfort and pleasure to be found in the succinct, carefully chosen words crafted by the poet.

'Time to be slow' by the late Irish poet and thinker, John O'Donohue was sent to me by a friend, and has remained with me in the past few days.

It begins

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

You can listen to the poem being read by Fergal Keane here. He selected it last spring in a series on Radio 4's Today programme where well-known people shared their favourite poems of comfort and hope.

It has also been included in Poems on the Underground. You can read it here. Whenever I travelled across London on the Tube, it was always a huge delight to see a poem instead of an advert in the hoarding above our heads. Find out more about the initiative here. Buy the last collection here, or look at poems that have been selected specially to give us courage and hope for this new year here.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday 3 January 2021

The start of a new year is usually marked with an optimistic listing of opportunities and experiences to try, and a resolve to adopt better habits and get rid of bad practices.

Traditionally, it's accepted that these efforts are over-ambitious and rarely pursued for very long, but this year we can all be forgiven for not wanting to think further than the next meal time or getting to the end of the day.

Sometimes, though, it's helpful to have a focus and a goal - so long as we appreciate the journey as much as reaching the destination, and are not too hard on ourselves if we don't come up to the mark!

Of course our choice of activity or diversion is limited by the restrictions on our lives today. These exceptional times are noteworthy in themselves, though, so perhaps you keep a note of what happens day by day or propose to do so in 2021? Diaries of past lives in different times are certainly fascinating, as you can see from my recommended titles this week - Great Diaries and The Closest Thing to Flying.

But if keeping an account of our thoughts, feelings and challenges seems daunting, there are other means of acknowledging and celebrating each new day.

In your regular exercise outdoors, why not take stock of the natural environment like Alistair Campbell, in his appreciation of a Tree of the Day? Or learn to recognise birds by their song, like Melissa Harrison.

Or why not knit or sew a temperature scarf or blanket like the writer, Josie George? Each day she knits a couple of rows in a colour of yarn she's selected to reflect the weather, ultimately creating a scarf in stripes and blocks of colour recording the changing temperatures throughout the year. A fascinating idea!

For me, I'll continue with my book journal, recording the titles I'm reading through the year, though perhaps not being so concerned about exceeding any previous tally - I doubt I'll ever beat the number of books read in 2020!

I hope you will find a way of measuring the value of your days this year, and will join with me in delighting in the riches of books of all kinds.

I wish you health and happiness in 2021, and thank you for reading.

Sunday 27 December 2020

I don't know about you, but I heard this phrase spoken quite a bit in the past few days and weeks as we consoled each other that Christmas was going to be so very different this year.

Of course we were unable to celebrate together as we have come to expect but I hope that your Christmas was special nevertheless and that you were able to mark the day peacefully, warmly and safely, cherishing memories and cultivating hopes for the future.

Next time I write, we'll have embarked upon 2021...!

We'll all be longing for much better times but, if we've learned anything this year, it's to make the most of every day. So, while we are uncertain of what the future has in store, there's something to be said for taking things a day at a time. And rather like the Bear family (see my review for 'Just One of Those Days'), there'll be good days and bad days, so let's keep hopeful!

Never forgetting, of course, that we have books which invite us to step into other lives, times and places, enriching and equipping us, getting us through.

Happy new year, and thank you for reading.

Sunday 20 December 2020

So much has changed in the past few days. Even if our plans for Christmas haven't been affected by the recent government guidelines, we're all likely to be feeling rather uneasy and unsettled by the latest turn of events.  

I've been reminded of the rather surprising book choice by the castaway on last week's Desert Island Discs.

In addition to the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the president of the National Farmers' Union, Minette Batters decided to take 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'.

This classic and much-loved story by Michael Rosen, and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, had been a favourite bedtime story for her young children, but Minette Batters says its moral has also proved a mantra for her own life.

"We can't go over it, we can't go under it," is the refrain, she says, "so we'll have to go through it." The family in the story are pictured tramping through long grass, wading through the river and squelching through the mud as they search for the bear. In life, Minette says "there's not always a way over or under and you sometimes have just got to crack on and go through it."

While we might have liked our Christmas festivities to have been different this year, there's much we can be grateful for as we seek to remain safe, cosy and warm, and hopeful. 

If you are looking for ways - other than reading - to pass the time enjoyably in the next couple of weeks, there are some very creative ideas available online using materials that may already be close at hand...

...my particular favourite comes from Ordnance Survey, urging us to get crafty with maps. Garlands and bunting, cards and wrap, stars and baubles, even the tree can be made from maps in these easy-to-follow guides.

...or something that looks a little more involved, and mathematical, why not log on to a class in book art led by Emma at Haverhill Library, Suffolk. Looks amazing. I'd love to give it a try, but need to find an old book and some patience.

...and there are plenty of activities and story times for children on the Bookworms Bonanza site from Lavenham Literary Festival. Learn how to draw Fergal the Dragon or make Gaspard the Fox cupcakes, listen to story times from James Mayhew or Michael Morpurgo, and take part in the various quizzes.

However you will be spending Christmas this year, I wish you a safe, peaceful and creative time, and thank you for reading.

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