Firstly I’m going to pause to go ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ – I’ve read my 20 books with days to spare. I honestly didn’t think I’d make it, but judicious choice of some short books to finish has done the job – all 20 were books I’ve owned since 2020 and were all own copies from my TBR mountains, or unread review copies (ahem!). Since the beginning of June, I’ve actually read 37 books at time of writing, so add another 17 review copies etc to the 20 and I’ve had a great summer of reading for the most part. Here’s two more reviews from the 20 for you.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Published last summer, this little paperback contains six essays by Smith reflecting on things that caught her mind during the first lockdown, after reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as almost a form of self-help. She comments in the foreword:
I am no more a Stoic now than I was before I opened that ancient book. But I did come out with two invaluable intimations. Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.
In the first essay, Peonies, she offers an interesting challenge. On seeing some tulips in full bloom just before the lockdown, she wishes they were peonies and goes on to postulate that writing is less creative than a method of control – she can make them peonies, but you can’t create peonies from tulips. It sounds comprehensible put like that, but I had to think about it after she quotes Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir while reading.
I got on well with the third essay, Something to Do, in which she describes writing as…
the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away – as it is at the moment – seems to be the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do.
The fifth essay, Screengrabs, is a set of vignette snapshots, describing people she encounters during her normal day before the virus struck, from her masseur to a friend with her little dog, to a man on the No 98 bus. Their hopes and fears as she sees them, and then considering what will happen if, when the virus strikes.
The final essay, Debts and Lessons, is an extended thank you list to family and friends, colleagues, influences… acknowledging how they’ve helped and taught.
Although I’ve read articles and essays by Smith in various publications before, this collection, linked by the virus and lockdown, shows a diversity of style, from deadly serious to witty and chatty, written with an economy that gives the reader space to think for themselves about their subjects. She also has a humility that while it acknowledges privilege, never claims to be more than what she is, a writer first and foremost. An interesting little book. (7/10)
Source: Own copy. Penguin paperback, 96 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
The Light in the Dark by Horatio Clare
High summer possibly isn’t the usual time to read Clare’s winter journal, but I see it as early preparation as the nights begin to draw in! Clare lives in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire with his partner Rebecca, stepson Robin and five-year-old son Aubrey, and the book follows his life from mid October 2017 to the end of March 2018. Conceived partly as a nature diary, it chronicles the experience of living through the winter, but also as positive writing therapy against the winter blues of the darker months that Clare suffers from: to quote Zadie Smith above, ‘Something to do.’
Clare writes beautifully with candour and honesty, sharing walks on the moors, the birds and the coming of the first snowdrops, but also the horrors of badger-baiting on his mother’s hill farm in Wales, and happy flashbacks to Aubrey’s birth when he and Rebecca were living in Italy. I loved his descriptions of the world outside his windows in particular:
It is early hours of Sunday morning, rocked and thumped by Hurricane Brian. Why do they goad the winds with these comical names?
For the last three days there has been wind strong enough to snap thick branches and the leaves are falling in armies. I worry it is going too fast, this high autumn. Alarming bareness strings through the tress, between all the leaves of couple-colour. The raptors have been up; everything has been up. Pigeons riding the gales like fat darts; buzzards, kestrels, jackdaws or course, missile-tip starlings and gulls, gulls, gulls.
However Clare finds it hard to keep incipient depression at bay and he worries about how his mood affects his family. We’ve become immured to ‘Blue Monday’, officially the third Monday in January, as the saddest day of the year yet I was shocked and saddened when he writes in late February, as his train to London is delayed by a suicide on the line at Hitchin…
Depressive thoughts must be most common in winter, but suicide peaks in the spring. It is not clear why – it is thought the surge in the light and temperature bringing hope to the world exacerbates the victim’s isolation.
As my Shiny New Books friend Peter Reason found in his review of this book, the diary form does fragment the stories within, and doesn’t allow them to be followed through as in a conventional narrative. What the diary form does give though is a clear snapshot of the author’s frame of mind and concerns that day, which aren’t as subject to that narrative continuity. Clare’s determination to find ‘the Light in the Dark’ made this book a compelling and lyrical read with some exquisite nature writing and moving personal notes. It ends with positivity, but I know that in his most recent title, Heavy Light, things didn’t go so well for him; it chronicles a period of breakdown – subtitled ‘A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing’ which I feel I need to read having made his acquaintance through these pages.
Source: Review copy from ages ago – thank you! Elliot & Thompson paperback, 196 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.