Book Blogger Appreciation Week

OK, so I’m slightly late to the party with this one, as it’s already the end of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, rather than the beginning! But I’ve been ill for a large part of the week and before that had a particularly daft few days at work, so this is the first time I’ve had the space and inclination to take part. As usual with all things blog related, it was my good friend Billy-Bob over Stuck-in-a-Book who alerted me to this lovely initiative within the book blogging community.

For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an annual celebration of, well, people who blog about books, started by My Friend Amy 2008. In 2012 Amy bowed out of #BBAW (of course it has its own hashtag) and it is now run by the good ladies (Ana, Jenny, Heather, and Andi) over at Estella Society.  Each day during #BBAW there is a different theme or question for Book Bloggers to respond to, and there are also virtual book parties to join in with.

This is the first year I’ve been involved, and because I’m starting so late I thought I’d just combine the elements of #BBAW into one mega-post, rather than five smaller ones. Here goes…

Task 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

1) Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2015)

Food AND travel? Two of my greatest passions are mesmerically combined in Helena Attlee’s beautiful prose which tells the history of Italian lemons with particular reference to the part they play in Mediterraenean culture and cuisine. I read this book in Sardinia, the perfect setting for a narrative which is soaked in sunshine and citrus. I reviewed it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/where-lemons-

2) Hannah Hauxwell: The Complete Story (1991)

As readers of this blog know well, I love life-writing which tells the stories ordinary lives, particularly those in rural settings. This combined auto/biography, which includes verbatim extracts from interviews with Hannah as well as Barry Cockroft’s own prose, first seduced me from the shelf of a charity shop in Shropshire and introduced me to Hannah Hauxwell’s remarkable (by 21st century standards; less so by 18th century ones) life in a remote Yorkshire dale. You can read more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/hannah-hauxwell/

I love wool on a cover, so I do3) Names the for Sea, Sarah Moss (2013)

As readers of my other blog Nordic Narratives will know, I have a long-running love affair with all things Nordic. Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea describes her family’s move from Britain to Iceland in 2009 – 2010, and fuels my fantasties for living in Scandinavia one day. You can find out more about my response to it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/longing-to-name-the-

4) The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar (2012)

I love foraging but don’t often get the chance to do it now I live in the city. However, even here I’ve managed to make elderberry cordial, just one of many delicious, healthy and easy recipes included in Adele Nozedar’s modern classic. An absolute must-have for anyone who likes picking berries, gathering nuts (in May or any other more suitable month), and generally being outdoors. Find out more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/reading-on-the-hoof/

5) The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016)

2016-01-27 23.09.59Nature writing combined with a tale of recovery from breakdown – two of my very favourite genres combined into a truly beautiful memoir of life in and between Orkney and London. Liptrot has been lauded as a new voice in the nature writing tradition, and I think her work has striking similarities to both Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. It’s only just come out (January 2016) so if you can lay your hands on a copy then do, you really won’t be disappointed. You can read my review of it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-outrun-return-to-orkney

Task 2: Interview a Book Blogger.

Well this is going to be somewhat tricky, as I have left it later-than-late, so you’ll have to make do with 5 questions that I’ve asked myself. Solipsistic, moi?

Question 1) Where does your blog name come from?

The expression ‘discriminating brevity’ comes Sidney Lee’s In Principles of Biography (1911): Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.” – I’m probably far too sentimental and/or verbose to be truly discriminating or very brief, but I still really like the phrase. Discriminatingbrevity is actually this blog’s second incarnation: at first it was called Learning to Love Literature and was supposed to be a series of introductions to classic literature. Then I realised I wasn’t reading enough classic literature to write much about any of it, but I was reading a lot of biography, autobiography and life-writing. And so this blog came into being.

Question 2) What do you like best about blogging?

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

There are three things: connecting with other people, giving myself a reason to write more and a structure through which to do this, and getting feedback on my writing. The first has been completely magical and has largely been facilitated through Twitter: I had a great exchange with Amy Liptrot once I’d reviewed her book, and even went to meet her in person to get by book signed by her (this is by far and away the most starstruck thing I’ve ever done). In summer 2015 I reviewed Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden and was amazed to find he’d retweeted the link to my post, resulting in a record 345 views of that particular page. We also had a little chat about whether or not he was ever in a punk band – he wasn’t. Getting feedback on my writing: that part has been completely unexpected, and most often takes the form of my mother rinding me up to debate some aspect of my childhood memories..!

Question 3) What would you like to change about your blog?

I’d like to blog more often (and experiment more with memes, competitions and different styles of posts), connect more with other literary bloggers, and get better at coding so I can make it look prettier and not have occassional gaps and oddities popping up in peculiar places.

Question 4) How did you become a voracious reader? Did somebody inspire you?

Farm Cottage as we knew it

Our family home

Not particularly – both my parents always encouraged us to read, and took us to the library every Saturday to get new books, but neither of them reads obsessively. In fact, my Dad has only read a handful of fiction books in his life – the only ficiton book I can ever remember him enthusing about was Walter by David Cook. He has, however, read plenty of magazines and motorbike handbooks! My mother is a pretty omnivorous reader and the house always had a fairly eclectic stock of books, from Alexander McCall Smith to Jane Eyre and Asterix to Little House on the Prairie, though it was a bit light on the classics. When I got to univeresity and realised that some of my friends actually owned yards and yards of bookshelves double-stacked with Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Defoe I realised I had some serious catching up to do.

Question 5) Do you abandon books if they don’t please you?

Absolutely – I really struggle to make myself read something if I’m not enjoying it. However, I’m quite good about returning to a book that I haven’t been able to ‘get in to’ and giving it another chance. Case in point: Harry Potter, James Robertson, Laurence Durrell…

Task 3 – Blame a Blogger

‘Have you ever read a book because of a book blogger? Be it a good book or bad, bloggers recommend books every day of the year. Tell us all about the book or books you’ve read because of a book blogger and be sure to sure to spread the blame around.’

Tove JanssonThe main culprit for this for me is Stuck-in-a-Book. Not only does he recommend me books, he also posts them to me (this is because he is a real-world as a well as a virtual friend, he also runs book-giveaway competitions so you could receive one of his parcels of literary love too!) Although he didn’t introduce me to Tove Jansson, he has been someone with whom I can share my love of her, and he also furnished me with this rather nice copy of her biography. He is currently trying to tempt me with Katherine Mansfield, having brought me a book about someone writing about KM, and some original KM to start the new year. I will read some, but I have to say I’ve not started yet…

The Outrun – return to Orkney

Back at the end of the old year I received a sneaky proof copy of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I love getting my paws on proof copies (I have three to date) with their banner forbidding resale, knowing that I’m one of only a handful of people who get to see a book this new. It’s a bit like seeing my god-daughter when she was only a few weeks old, or another friend’s baby at two days’ newly hatched, before anyone else has told me about what they are like and I can find out for myself entirely.

2016-01-27 23.09.59But now the book is out in the world and so I can talk about it. On paper it sounds like a bit of a misery memoir: girl comes back home to Orkney follow stint in rehab for alcoholism, trying to heal herself through writing and being close to nature. But Liptrot’s story is anything but miserable: she finds that her life is full of resonances that for years she was too busy to hear, but now echo to her from unexpected corners and reverberate through her new self. If this sounds rather dippy-hippy and saccharine, Liptrot’s writing isn’t that either, it’s bright and clear and incisive, like the clean blade of a knife. There’s an inherent danger to her story too. It is the tale of one living closer to the edge of the normal world than might be safe or comfortable.

The story begins when she meets her parents for the first time. Her father’s manic depression shapes the family’s life with its violence: he smashes windows, believes he can control the weather, and is periodically sectioned, as he is on the day Amy arrives into this world three weeks earlier than anticipated. The opening chapter describes the scene acted out beneath the whirring blades of an Orkney helicopter, a baby cradled in her mother’s arms in one wheelchair as her straight-jacketed father is brought out in another on his way to a mainland asylum. Liptrot’s prose gives nothing away and it is only in the closing words of the chapter that we realise that the two wheelchair-bound adults are her own parents, and this is the first of many dramatic and extreme events in her life.

As a teenager Liptrot longs to get away from something she sees falsely described as an island paradise, and in her 20s she moves to London. The city’s ‘hot pulse’ seems so far away from Orkney’s windswept emptiness that the two places feel like polar opposites: for the first half of the book the two appear in defiant contrast to each other. Liptrot goes clubbing several times a week, drinking heavily and ‘searching headlong for a good time’. But after Liptrot has reached her nadir, gone to rehab and returned to Orkney, similarities between the two creep into Liptrot’s writing. The noise of the waves crashing into the island reminds her of the roar of London’s traffic; the sea’s luminescence is like the neon of a night club. Her two worlds are deeply intertwined and represent not the two extremes of living that she thought they did, but different ways of engaging with the same reality.

The book’s title comes from an Orcadian field name, the outrun being the largest field at the top of farm where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer and where the Highland cattle overwinter. But to ‘out run’ something means to race away from it, to reach a safe place by being fleeter of foot than one’s pursuer. And there is a chase at the heart of the book, but perhaps not the one you’d expect.

2016-01-27 23.09.25The narratives of chased and chasing are familiar to me from another autobiography of alcoholism and depression, Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. Both describe the out-of-control searching for something at the bottom of a bottle, the desperate efforts to escape from or to a place by being the drunken sailor on a tipsy ocean. But where as Lewis’ drinking is an attempt to outrun her own depression (and her mother’s), Liptrot’s seems to be an attempt to catch up with the violent mood swings of her father, to mimic the highest highs and terrible lows that shaped her childhood. She’s almost drinking to outrun him, not herself, to go higher and faster and giddier with each bottle.

I completely understand this drinking and behaving recklessly to make your moods match what you think they should be. Like Lewis and Liptrot, I too had a period of mental illness in my twenties – I was sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric hospital when I was 22, spending weeks living in the men’s ward there because the women’s ward was full. I couldn’t be trusted to fly back to Britain alone, but I wasn’t safe enough to look after myself. When I got home my parents were kind and concerned, encouraging me to visit old friends and work in small easy jobs like gardening. But for months I felt worse instead of better, drawn to the edge of station platforms and feeling like an enormous hole had opened up where my heart had once been. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to make me feel so bad, and so I tried to give myself reasons for feeling awful, so that there was some understandable correlation between my extreme emotions and my reality. I smashed up my mother’s bedroom, stole money from my parents, ran away from a kind friend’s family who offered to let me live with them in London whilst I did a journalism course, and stayed in hotels knowing that I had no money to pay for the room, leaving early before the receptionist took up her guard post by the front door. I would disappear overnight, travelling without train tickets to places I had no wish to go. After a few months of this, I felt like I had enough reasons to feel justifiably awful, and agreed to go to see a psychotherapist to talk about what had happened. It was only then that my life started to swim back into focus, and my feelings started to line up more closely with what was really happening to me.

In Lewis’ words, which I read obsessively during my own rehabilitation, I was ‘coming back to my senses’. This realisation that sanity lies close to one’s physical senses is shared with Liptrot, and I loved hearing about how her new sober world expanded beneath her finger tips, under her toes when she swims in the sea, above her ears and her eyes as the birds and the weather freewheel above her. She becomes fiercely observing of the natural world, working for the RSPB counting corncrakes and inhabiting a tiny pink cottage on the even remoter island of Papa Westray during the winter. Her senses are sharp and raw, but she can trust them, and she uses them to inch herself to her life. Her writing seems like an extension of those sensory experiences: natural, fascinating, and utterly keen.

 

Want to hear another opinion? Try Cathy Rentzenbrink over at The Pool, the Guardian’s review by Katharine Norbury, and the Scotman’s by Stuart Kelly. If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the book, you can listen to it being read by Tracy Wiles on BBC 4 Extra until the end of February. As well as reading the book, on 2nd February I’m going to hear Liptrot read from and talk about her book at Waterstone’s on Edinburgh’s Princes Street – she’s doing a tour up and down the country, so why not try and catch her if you can?