Archive for ‘Non fiction’

May 20, 2018

Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £18.99, out now

Mark Cocker OUR PLACEThe answer given by nature writer and environmentalist Mark Cocker is ‘maybe’.  This unusual book gives a brief history of attempts to protect nature in Britain over the last 150 years, told through the stories of some of the organisations and individuals involved.  It is framed by the catastrophic findings of the 2013 State of Nature report, which found that 60% of native species in the UK had declined over the last 50 years, 31% badly, and that over 600 species were under threat of extinction.  Cocker notes that the figures “don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow.  It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change”.

Cocker is critical of the largest of the environmental organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, finding them sometimes overly concerned with competing for members and also unsuccessful in critical campaigning.  He finds that failures to work together mean that whole-ecology approaches are being undermined by separate projects.  But he allows that their difficulties may reflect something of the British public’s own ambivalence towards nature.  He quotes a letter to the Daily Mail from a National Trust member apparently responding to the Trust’s campaign on climate change: “Thanks to Dame Helen Ghosh’s political agenda outside the true objectives of the National Trust, that’s £100 membership saved this year.”

He also gives due credit to individuals both within and without these groups who have been effective in seeking to protect nature, or who remind us to pay attention.  I loved the example of his friend and colleague Tony Hare, who on looking at “a square foot of turf dotted with miniscule scarlet fungi and prostrate lichens” reminded his friend that “what was happening here was the same as any rainforest”.

The approach taken is not straightforward polemic.  Cocker successfully mixes history with accounts of several localities as informal case studies showing how particular types of areas are faring.  As a result, Our Place is readable and interesting.

Where the book has limitations they are deliberate and mostly acknowledged.  There is not much about international frameworks or organisations working for the natural environment in my view, and marine protection is almost entirely missing.  But as a personal rallying call for a different attitude to nature protection in the UK, it works, and shows that any of us can choose to pay attention to this critical concern.  I echo his praise for those amateurs and professionals who study and protect even the unpopular or obscure bits of our natural world, and especially those who make this possible for children and young people.

Review by Bethan

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May 15, 2018

Loving our new display today

by Team Riverside

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May 7, 2018

Rosie – Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin, £14.99, out now

This is a brutally honest autobiography covering the childhood of the author of superb Rose Tremain ROSIEfiction including The Gustav Sonanta, Sacred Country and Restoration.  Her account of her 1950s childhood spans an idyllic family farm, a middle class London house, a freezing cold boarding school, and a Swiss finishing school.  It seems clear that her parents and grandparents did not love her very much, if at all.

It is essential reading for any fan of her work, not least as she helpfully indicates where stories from her life have found their way into her fiction. In her novel Trespass, someone’s mother ruins their birthday by getting trapped in a swimsuit and making everyone else feel dreadful.  This is a real event, and the effects have been lifelong, meaning Tremain struggles to celebrate her birthday.  “… In my heart, I’m looking out for darkening skies, for the sound of the sea, for the thing that will sabotage the day – the thing that nobody else has seen”.

One saving grace is her nanny, Nan, who showed her how to love and be loved.  During a revelatory conversation with a colleague she discloses to another person for the first time the loveless nature of much of her upbringing.  The colleague replies: “… listen to me: you were lucky.  You could have been a depressive mess by now, or you could be dead from drugs or drink, but you’re not.  Nan saved you.  She was your angel”.

Her mother is shown as very cold, but Tremain is fair in describing how she too was unloved by her parents, or at least loved less than her brothers.  Her mother was also sent away from home at a very young age, which affected her for the rest of her life.  Tremain’s even handed description of a horrifying event which happens to her mother while Rosie is a teenager feels both fair and sympathetic.  Her father, as in her life, feels essentially absent from this book.  He is a not-very-successful playwright and he seems sometimes to go beyond merely disengaged to being actively hurtful and hostile.

Her determination to write is a joy in the book, as are her discoveries of reading and music.  Her friendships are vital to her and we see the beginnings of lifelong ones here.  She writes of her friends with affection and crispness.  Rosie renames herself Rose as she ends her childhood.  She makes her young adulthood all her own.  What might seem a mean time restriction on an autobiography works very well, and you could not ask for a more candid author.  Recommended.

Review by Bethan

March 11, 2018

My Life as a Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Emmanuel Carrere My Life Russian Novel

Linda Coverdale’s superlative translations of the work of French powerhouse Emmanuel Carrère continue to delight us at Riverside – this latest sees the writer and filmmaker tell the story of a love affair, a family history and a possibly-doomed documentary in a “non-fiction novel” heavy on sex and introspection.

At the book’s beginning Carrère is ostensibly investigating the curious tale of a Hungarian soldier who, during World War 2, was imprisoned by the Russians, transferred to a psychiatric institution and somehow forgotten about, only being released in the noughties. A fascinating story; but also a feint, as we soon discover it’s not the anecdote itself that interests Carrère but its passing similarity to the life of his Nazi-collaborator grandfather, a similarly disturbed figure who was “disappeared” after the end of the occupation. It’s this buried history that hangs over the Carrères like a dark cloud, and one which this book sees him trying to purge in one way or another.

The unexpected lyricism that made his wonderful The Adversary so effective is well served here by a narrative that interrogates love, betrayal, and ennui, flitting effortlessly from travelogue to existential rumination, erotic fantasy to historical reportage. But what’s really interesting is that Carrère often doesn’t come across at all well; a slave to his neuroses and passions, irrational and impulsive, he embarks on a poorly thought-out film project in a Russian town in tandem with a poorly thought-out relationship with a woman whose non-bohemian existence he can’t help but feel ashamed of. In both cases, as apparently in all things, he seems driven not so much by constructive sentiments as demons from his past, and having an author bare all on the page in such a borderline masochistic way is both shocking and powerful.

Props must go once again to Coverdale also; as with the best translators, the continuity of the author’s voice across the works she has interpreted is evident – which is perhaps not easy when her subject is so mercurial – and her word choices paint a vibrant picture of a narrator who is at once urbane aesthete and helpless obsessive. In short, exactly the kind of person you want to read about.

Review by Tom

March 6, 2018

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes

by Team Riverside

Kate Figes ON SMALLER DOGSHardback, Virago, £14.99, out now

A wonderful book featuring our occasional shop dog Zeus, seen here running Riverside on Christmas Eve https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/happy-christmas-from-team-riverside/.

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions has already received very positive reviews (see Alison Burns’ review here: http://bookoxygen.com/?p=7761) and Kate Figes appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss it (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09smh89).

We are delighted to have this book at Riverside and send good wishes to our friends Kate and Zeus.

January 31, 2018

The Last Wilderness: a Journey into Silence by Neil Ansell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Tinder Press, £18.99, out nowNeil Ansell THE LAST WILDERNESS

Neil Ansell wrote Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, a transporting account of living alone in a remote hut in Wales, which has become a modern classic of nature writing.  It was beautifully written, dealing with the choice and personal consequences of human silence and solitude.  His descriptions of the nature that surrounded him (and particularly the birdlife) were vivid.

The Last Wilderness addresses many of the same themes.  Ansell visits a truly wild area of Scotland in a series of solo trips over a year, and also recalls his journeys all over the world.  The silence in this book is not optional.  He is losing his hearing.  He notices over the year that he can no longer hear the songs of different birds.

He still delights in birds: “I might catch a glimpse of a water rail emerging shyly from among the reeds, or a jewel of a kingfisher driven to the coast by bad weather inland.”  His recollections of childhood encounters with nature can also be very funny.  A crow lands on his head and he feels very proud, “… and then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull, as if it was trying to crack a nut”.  He sometimes reminds me of Chris Packham when he’s talking about this period of his life.  Ansell remains engaged with the present, and he reflects as he wanders on the likely impact of climate change on the places he visits.  The area explored is around Knoydart, and is remote and wild enough to appeal to anyone with a love of nature and solitude.

Review by Bethan

January 8, 2018

The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson

by Team Riverside

The Red Parts by Maggie NelsonmaggieNelsontheredparts

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Before Maggie Nelson was born her mother’s sister was murdered in a shockingly violent way, an unsolved crime which overshadows the family in the subsequent decades and which Nelson has previously explored in her collection of poetry Jane: A Murder. In 2005 the case is unexpectedly re-opened, The Red Parts, as described in its subtitle, is an autobiography of the trial that follows.

Nelson’s previous book, The Argonauts is a combination of theory and memoir, The Red Parts has these features too, but also mixes in the generic conventions of true crime.

This true crime element is the driving force behind the story, and its tropes seem reassuringly familiar, the hardworking cop, the witness who first discovered the body, the gory description of the aftermath of violence done to a woman’s body. Although of course in the wise hands of Nelson these ideas are not presented without emotionally thoughtful analysis.

When asking her mother why she didn’t tell Maggie that she had had a minor accident, her mother questions what would be the point in doing so.  Maggie replies that, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.” (p31)  Indeed Red Parts questions the ethics over who has the right to tell a story, does she have the right to write about Jane when she never met her, for example? Nelson also discusses whose stories get told at all, by anyone, is Jane’s murder still receiving attention from TV channels interested such as 48 Hours Mystery, and crime bloggers because she was pretty, white and middle-class?

Although she never met her aunt, her violent end shapes her mother’s way of bringing up two daughters, as well as the way her mother reacts to Maggie’s father’s death years later. Nelson is thorough in her analysis of what it means to live under the daily perceived threat of masculine violence, present because of her aunt’s murder, but also just because she’s a woman, so of course it’s there anyway. She is reminded in the gruesome true crime documentaries of course but also in most mainstream culture, Taxi Driver is a particularly difficult film for her and her mother to see, and she reads James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, a book about Ellroy’s murdered mother and his, “subsequent sexual and literary obsession with vivisected women.”(p69), alongside her investigations.

Nelson’s prose deals with the book’s difficult questions with a deftness that, of course, doesn’t ever answer anything, but makes The Red Parts a special and effecting read.

Review by Cat

November 26, 2017

Icebreaker – a Voyage Far North by Horatio Clare

by Team Riverside

Hardcover, Chatto and Windus, £14.99, out nowHoratio Clare ICEBREAKER

An ice cold exploration of Finland and ships, told with style and wit by the author of Down to the Sea in Ships.  Clare travels on the icebreaker Otso, which is clearing a path through the Arctic Circle.

Reflecting on climate change, Clare discusses A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams who wrote of how changes in the sea ice will impact human life profoundly over the coming years (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/273799/a-farewell-to-ice/).   He also introduces us to the characters of those who do the dangerous work of icebreaking.  There is something very appealing about reading about a whole area of work and life about which you know nothing.  In this way it is similar to Mark Vanhoenacker’s joyous book about being a modern pilot, Skyfaring.

There are pleasing nuggets of information, as you find in the best travel books.  I am looking forward to using the Finnish word kalsarikännit, which is “The feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear – with no intention of going out.”  I am already familiar with hygge but this is a useful addition to my vocabulary.

Another pleasure of this book was the reminders to read or reread other eclectic Arctic literature, of which Clare is a fan.  He reminded me to reread Arto Paasilinna’s Year of the Hare (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/06/books/a-skewed-and-skewering-look-at-finland.html).

This would be a great present for any armchair (or actual) traveller who favours ice, snow and the Arctic.  Clare’s turn of phrase is vivid: “The ice stretches to opaque horizons.  As the lines of the forest fall away behind us, all bearings seem lost”.

Review by Bethan

October 23, 2017

Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Maclehose Press, £12.99, out now

Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe is a book of extraordinary and moving first hand Bartolo and Tilotta LAMPEDUSAtestimony from Dr Pietro Bartolo who runs the medical services for refugees landing on (or shipwrecked near) the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean.  Those he treats are often in profound states of suffering after terrifying flights from their home countries.  He is also deals with the bodies of those who have died on the journey.  Often, the living and the dead arrive together.

Dr Bartolo interweaves the story of his own life, and particularly how he came to be doctor on the island where he was born, with accounts of individual refugees he has met over the last 25 years.  His father was a fisherman, and his family are shown as hard working people with a deep respect for the sea.  He writes: “There is an unwritten rule that you might only understand if you were born on an isolated island like ours: leaving another human being at the mercy of the waves, no matter who they are, is unacceptable – unthinkable, in fact.  This is a law of the sea.  It is taken so seriously that when the Italian government prohibited taking migrants on board a boat, fishermen often defied the law and ended up in court” (p. 87).  He recounts one maritime disaster after another, relentless deaths and terrible injuries, which continue to this day.

He tells the story of the miraculous revival of one young refugee, Kebrat, who has been given up for dead when she is landed on the pier during the catastrophe of 3 October 2013, in which at least 368 people lost their lives.  After 20 minutes of emergency work, her heartbeat is re-established: “I had experienced the greatest surge of emotion in my twenty-five years of first aid work” (p. 190).

The author and his team were seen in the film Fire at Sea (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/09/fire-at-sea-review-masterly-and-moving-look-at-the-migrant-crisis).  Newly translated from the Italian, the book is recommended by Philip Gourevitch, who wrote the extraordinary story of the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families.

My personal view, shared by many others I am sure, is that when the histories of our period are written, future generations will be incredulous that we allowed so many to die while they were fleeing death at home.

The nightmare in the Mediterranean is not over.  Bartolo is frustrated by the variation in media coverage, which is sometimes at saturation point and sometimes completely absent.  This book stands as a lasting corrective to that.  It is an instant classic of refugee and migration writing, and an overwhelming indictment of the human actions that make this happen.

Review by Bethan

October 20, 2017

Ruth and Martin’s Album Club

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Unbound, £14.99, out now

Ruth Martin Album Club.jpgA really interesting conceit here, and well executed; Ruth and Martin’s Album Club is a compendium of record reviews – the twist being that each one is being judged by a celebrity who is hearing it for the first time. For those who agree with Frank Zappa’s famous maxim that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture” and like their reportage on the subject to come with just a bit extra, look no further.

It’s reminiscent of the 33/3 series of books, in which writers delve into the minutiae of a beloved LP of their choosing, but this has an enjoyable casualness to it which makes each entry a joy. Every album has a prologue written about it by the incredibly well-informed Martin Fitzgerald, and these are pleasingly illuminating. He’s got a loose prose style that feels punchy and good-humoured, the compere before the main event – which consists of folks like J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Chris Addison and Bonnie Greer laying out their pre-and-post-conceptions of a classic album they’re hearing for the first time.

This format allows for little windows into the lives of our writers (Martin’s question, put to all participants, of why the hell they haven’t listened to what they’ll be reviewing before turns up some curious answers) just as much as it does fresh perspectives on timeless records. It’s particularly invigorating to hear contributors admitting to not enjoying the kind of hallowed LPs that no one is ever allowed to confess a dislike of, and while I’d disagree with every iota of Times journalist Danny Finkelstein’s distinctly unimpressed review of The Velvet Underground and Nico, it feels delightfully subversive to see it being described in print as merely “OK”.

You also get to hear what Tim Farron thinks about N.W.A, which is information you didn’t know you needed, but most assuredly do. Perfect Christmas fodder for the musically-minded if you’re efficient enough to be looking for presents this early.

Review by Tom

October 17, 2017

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Canongate, £9.99, out nowOlivia Laing TO THE RIVER

This fresh and interesting account of Laing’s midsummer exploration of the Ouse river is now available in a good new edition of the excellent Canons series.

Originally published in 2011, this is nature writing partly in the vein of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun.  Exploring East Sussex in part to get away after a horrible relationship break up, Laing brings a sharp eye to the natural world in what may feel like a very familiar area: “It is astonishing what wood and earth together will yield, given a spark and a puff of air.  A windowpane, say, bubbling and settling into cool green sheets, like ice on a winter’s day” (p. 31).  She preserves a genuine sense of wonder at the natural world, while never prettifying what she experiences.

There are excellent literary stories throughout the book, particularly about Virginia and Leonard Woolf who are strongly associated with this area.  I am a fan but didn’t know that after their house in London was bombed, “the Woolfs went down to salvage what they could from amidst the dust and rubble: diaries, Darwin, glasses, her sister’s painted china.  A melancholy business, but she says she likes the loss of possessions, the liberation” (p. 207).

The steamy heat Laing walks through rises off the page, and we are reminded that midsummer is still something magical, even in the midst of modern life.

Review by Bethan

September 17, 2017

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Virago, £9.99, out now

Darling DaysA cracker of a memoir this, Darling Days tell the story of author and activist iO Tillett Wright’s distinctly off-the-wall upbringing in the squalor of downtown New York.

With its depiction of an exhilarating if hand-to-mouth existence in the East Village of the 1980s, the punk and new wave subcultures spawned there and the drugs that desolated its communities, Darling Days follows in the footsteps of autobiographies like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Richard Hell’s I dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp – both by poets and novelists who share not just glittery New York-based life stories but also a way with strong, beautiful prose. Tough acts to follow, but Tillett Wright more than holds his own on both counts.

He’s certainly had an interesting life straight out of the gate, born to a mother who was equal parts Amazonian warrior and Playboy centrefold, a model, hard drinker, addict and widow (her former husband having been shot by police in dubious circumstances). The pair’s adventures, clashes and anecdotes make for compelling, bewildering and sobering reading; there are several sections in the book, after the young iO has done something like rush to find a cop to protect her mother from an abusive boyfriend, when you find yourself saying, he’s how ­young at this point?

But all these wild experiences can make for sub-par reading at best if the author can’t bring them to life on the page. Thankfully, Tillett Wright’s writing is frankly brilliant; he has a fantastic way with imagery, razor-sharp descriptions of locales and characters bursting fully-formed into your mind’s eye. Angular faces, voluptuous bodies, mean streets and crumbling blocks are drawn in brilliant chiaroscuro style… and, as with Smith and Hell, there is something intangibly New York about it. At times his keen eye for this slum of a city and its crooked inhabitants is almost Dickensian.

The vivacity of Tillett Wright’s storytelling and style really can’t be emphasised enough, and his tale is a captivating one. For a living, breathing slice of a fascinating period of American life, look no further.

Review by Tom

 

 

August 14, 2017

In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

by Team Riverside

Hardback, HarperCollins, £16.99, out nowRebecca Stott IN THE DAYS OF RAIN

In the Days of Rain is an engrossing and deeply personal account of a childhood in a fundamentalist Christian sect.  What happens after you leave?  How do you get answers about your own life when silence prevails and some of the people you might ask are dying or dead?  This complex and moving book is a daughter’s story of being brought up within the Exclusive Brethren, in which her father and grandfather were preachers.

The sect ordered followers to retreat from the world, and many commonplace things were banned.  Stott’s nuclear family left when author was six but the break was never really discussed afterwards, and much of her extended family are still members of the Brethren.

The book opens with the adult children gathering in East Anglia as their father is dying.  He asks his daughter to help write his memoir of life in the sect, including the parts he has previously found impossible to discuss, about the sect’s turbulent period in the 1960s.  What results is Stott’s own account, including not only chunks of social religious history but also reflections on how it affects family relationships.  This includes Stott’s own children, born well after her relationship with the sect ended.  Best known as a writer on Darwin, Stott’s explanation of how she both discovered Darwin’s work and then wrote about it is particularly effective.  An engaging story, well told and strangely hopeful.

Review by Bethan                                

July 23, 2017

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, Out now

A bona-fide stranger-than-fiction story, the twists and turns of re-released true crime sensation The Adversary will have you exclaiming “I don’t believe it!” to no one in particular as you read.Adversary

Beginning with an account of the 1993 murder of a wife and two children by their husband and father, Jean Claude Romand, the narrative then spirals rapidly out of control as the killer – a respected French doctor and member of the World Health Organisation – is revealed to have been living a double life of colossal proportions.

As a tale it’s utterly astonishing; but it’s the moments where author Emmanuel Carrère pauses to reflect on the proceedings – whether he’s tracing Romand’s footsteps while trying to get into his headspace or drawing comparisons between the murderer’s deceased family and his own – that truly affected me. Unexpectedly lyrical and philosophical, his interjections are just as engrossing as the plot, and make sure that the book never feels ghoulish or lurid despite its fixation on a horrific crime. This isn’t writing to titillate – it is measured, respectful and questioning, and all the more powerful for it.

In short, Carrère has crafted nothing less than a modern In Cold Blood. Genuinely unputdownable.

Review by Tom

July 17, 2017

Dr James Barry: a Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

by Team Riverside

This excellent new biography charts the rollercoaster life of Margaret Anne Bulkeley, Du Preez DR JAMES BARRYborn in Cork into genteel chaotic poverty, who became Dr James Barry – leading and innovative army surgeon in the nineteenth century.

An almost unbelievable yarn, Margaret’s remarkable life takes in Edinburgh, Cape Town, Canada, and many other places en route.   A believably flawed character, several times I found myself gasping at the audacity of her behaviour.  Some serious new archival research has been undertaken for this book, but the learning is worn lightly and the book zips along with much action, adventure, and drama.  No wonder it was BBC Radio 2’s Fact not Fiction book choice.

This is a great addition to the literature of the history of medicine and surgery, but is equally important as women’s history.  Advice: if you don’t already know the story of this life, don’t read a summary beforehand – let the book unfold and you’ll be treated to a truly vivid narrative.

The authors are very good at identifying the current names of locations so the reader can place the action.  Some of it happens in London, and in particular Southwark, and so this is another great read for Riverside Bookshop locals.  This was a perfect holiday read for me.

Review by Bethan

June 14, 2017

Calm by Tim Parks

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £3.50, out nowvintage-minis-window-170614.jpg

“Don’t think, Tim.  Do not think!  Do not give yourself commands not to think!  Silence!”

In this short delicious extract from his book Teach us to Sit Still, Parks is a very funny and very honest guide to the world of meditation.  In response to serious health issues including chronic pain, he decides to learn to meditate, in a relatively extreme way, by attending a silent Vipassana retreat for multiple days.

He struggles with many things that will be familiar to meditators.  His legs feel like they are on fire from the unfamiliar poses.  He is enraged by catering trollies outside the meditation room.  He is suspicious of some of the ideas promulgated and often tries, unsuccessfully, to suspend critical judgement: “I remembered something I had translated once from a book on pre-Vedic philosophy: ‘so as not to be hurt, before coming near the fire, the wise man wraps himself in the meters’. The arcane instruction had impressed, I remembered it, and I had a vague idea it might now be appropriate in some way, but it also sounded like something from Indiana Jones”.

Alongside the funnies there is a serious endeavour to learn something new and take a different approach to suffering, which makes for engaging reading.  If you fancy giving mindfulness and meditation a go yourself, you can always try London teacher Tessa Watt’s excellent Mindfulness book.

This is part of a brand new series of extracts called Vintage Minis, out now for only £3.50 a pop.  Read Nigella Lawson on Eating, Joseph Heller on Work and Roger Deakin on Swimming.  Full list here, or see how many you can spot in the attached photo of our lovely shop window! (https://www.penguin.co.uk/vintage/vintageminis/)

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2017

Rural London – Discover the City’s Country Side, by Kate Hodges

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, £9.99, out nowKate Hodges RURAL LONDON

This beautiful gift book is small enough to be shoved in your backpack as you head off to get your nature fix in London.  Enticing photos and good directions make this one of those guides that is as good to fall into on the tube as it is to work out where to find a wildlife friendly pond to picnic next to (Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park).

Some of the places listed I can vouch for myself.  I like the crazy little triangular castle at Severndroog which has amazing views over London; Spitalfields City Farm, home of the Oxford v Cambridge Goat race; and Bunhill Fields, the city oasis that’s also the burial place of William Blake.  But I was really impressed with how many of the places listed I’d never heard of – what about seeing herons at the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology park, or learning woodworking at the Green Wood Guild in Stepney?

There are useful suggestions of relaxing pubs and outdoor activities, and also a list of festivals such as the Marylebone Summer Fayre and the Cultivate Festival in Waltham Forest.  Many of the things listed are free, and also easily accessed by public transport.  If you’re hot in the city just now, this book will help you get a bit of country escapism without having to go too far.

A great local tip for next time you’re in the bookshop – it’s not too far to the fabulous Red Cross Garden, free and friendly for Bankside.  http://www.bost.org.uk/open-places/red-cross-garden/

Review by Bethan

May 22, 2017

Night Trains – the Rise and Fall of the Sleeper, by Andrew Martin

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Profile Books, £14.99, out nowAndrew Martin NIGHT TRAINS

This entertaining new book from railway expert Andrew Martin might be entitled ‘beyond the Orient Express’.  Martin rides the remaining night (or sleeper) trains of Western Europe at a time of great change for the railways, with several of the historic night routes and trains going out of commission.  He is partly doing the journey in memory of his railwayman father, who took him and his sister on holidays organised by the British Railwaymen’s Touring Club.

Martin is an amusing guide, and the book is stuffed with good anecdotes and facts.  There are mentions of books, films and paintings involving sleeper trains that make you want to chase down the references immediately.  Discussing a painting by Caillebotte called Le Pont d’Europe, he notes: “It shows a man looking down on the station from the bridge.  There is a strolling flâneur, perhaps a depiction of Caillebotte himself.  He is possibly eyeing up the man looking down on the station.  The woman walking alongside the flâneur has been interpreted as a prostitute.  It’s unlikely that both interpretations could be true.  A dog is heading purposefully over the bridge in the opposite direction, and doubtless it, too, is going off to have sex” (p. 29).

He finds that night trains are not always glamorous and are sometimes exciting in the wrong way (he gets robbed and also wakes to find a stranger in his cabin).  His journeys are sometimes interrupted by the refugee crisis as borders are closed, and lines disrupted.  He touches briefly on this, but it’s not a primary theme of the book.

This would make a good original gift for train fans, and for anyone who (like me) loves travelling overnight on trains.  I had never heard of the Nordland Railway but this made me want to go next winter: “the Nordland begins by skirting a fjord.  There is the same thrilling proximity of rail and sea that you get on the Cornish main line at Dawlish, but that’s over after five minutes, whereas this lasts for a hundred miles”.

Review by Bethan                

January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

josef-wittlin-and-philippe-sands-city-of-lions

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here, https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/east-west-street-on-the-origins-of-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-by-philippe-sands/).  It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine.  Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War.  Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.

The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg.  Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again.  Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout.  Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942 (http://www.pushkinpress.com/book/the-world-of-yesterday/).

Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging.  Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this?  That’s Lwów for you.  Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet.  Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49).  Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).

These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue.  But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more.  We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).

Review by Bethan

December 14, 2016

New signed copies now in!

by Team Riverside

Going fast, here they are:Philippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

Philippe Sands – East West Street

Alexandra Shulman – Inside Vogue

Alan Johnson – The Long and Winding Road

Sebastian Barry – Days Without End

Yuval Noah Hariri – Homo Deus

Thomas Hocknell – Life Assistance Agency

November 7, 2016

Cats, by Jane Bown

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Guardian/Faber and Faber, £14.99, out nowjane-bown-cats

In this beautiful photography book, all of portrait photographer Jane Bown’s trademark skills are on display.  The cats she has photographed over five decades, mainly in black and white but sometimes in colour, stand out as a series of complex individuals.

Bown, who died in 2014, worked for the Guardian/Observer for decades, and many of her works now hang in the National Portrait Gallery (see http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp07814/jane-bown?role=art).  Her photographs of Samuel Beckett and Mick Jagger, as well as others, are regarded as classics.  Why should a great artist not turn her attention to cats?  Her own cats feature prominently, but there are also market cats and kittens, show cats and stragglers.  You can get a taste of what’s inside here:  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/oct/01/cat-snaps-jane-bowns-feline-photographs-cats

In a handy medium sized format, this would be the perfect gift for someone who loves excellent photography, or cats – but ideally both!

Review by Bethan

November 1, 2016

New signed copies in!

by Team Riverside

New in – catch them before they go:

Susan Hill, The Travelling Bag

Eimear McBride, The Bohemians

Sebastian Barry, Days without End

Yuval Noah Hariri, Homo Deus

Paddy Ashdown, Game of Spies

Alan Johnson, The Long and Winding Road

Johnny Marr, Set the Boy Free

Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down

October 16, 2016

The Return – Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by Hisham Matar

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin:Viking, £14.99, out nowhisham-matar-the-return

Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail.  After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him.  This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate.  Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.

The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life.  Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared.  In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa.  At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance.   After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe.  Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel.  A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man.  It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174).  While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.

I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it.  While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.

Review by Bethan

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

June 19, 2016

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £9.99, out nowOliver Sacks GRATITUDE

Gratitude is a final gift from the excellent neurologist and writer of popular science, Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015.  These short but beautiful pieces encapsulate all that is best about his writing.  Humane, kind, interesting and funny, they offer his reflections on a life well lived from one who knew its end would come shortly.  Shortly after finding out his cancer was back and inoperable, he wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.  This does not mean I am finished with life.  On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight”.

Probably best known for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks’ own life has not been without bumps, as his two volumes of autobiography show.  Here, we learn more about his deeply personal love of science.  How excellent that as an 11 year old fan of the periodic table, he was delighted to be able to say “I am Sodium” and remained equally pleased at 79 to say “I am gold”.  His reflections on his different experiences of Jewish family life, in London and beyond, are intriguing.  A book to read, and read over.

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2016

East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Orion Books, £20, out nowPhilippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

International human rights barrister Philippe Sands opens his remarkable new book with a quote from Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”.  Sands tries to fill some of these gaps in the stories of both his family and two lawyers who developed the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity that featured for the first time in the Nuremberg tribunal – Hersch Lauerpacht and Rafael Lemkin.  Remarkably, there turn out to be connections between all of these people and the (now Ukrainian) city of Lviv, a site of mass murder of Jewish residents during the Second World War.

The best thing I’ve read this year, East West Street is both personal and international in scope.  Sands undertakes remarkable archival and other research and succeeds in uncovering surprising and illuminating stories, which help to explain both how international law developed as it did and why it was important that it did so.  In this he echoes the approach of Hartley Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who in his closing trial address used a single devastating case study to force home the inhumanity of Nazi war crimes (Sands recounts this at p. 346-7).  It takes a skilful and confident writer to manage the risks involved in bringing the huge themes of history back, over and over again, to real individuals.  He does so seamlessly, creating a book that reads as compulsively as a detective story.  The photos of people and original documents scattered throughout the text make it even more engaging.  The related film, My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did, is also well worth watching (http://www.wildgazefilms.co.uk/my-nazi-legacy-2015/) .

Sands’ perspective as a lawyer involved with the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia makes the work highly relevant when thinking about human rights now.  70 years after Nuremberg, how do we deal with crimes against humanity?  Do we have the courage required to remember that real individuals are caught up in these huge convulsions, and the greater courage not to look away?

Review by Bethan

April 1, 2016

Being a Beast, Charles Foster

by Team Riverside

BeingaBeastcover

Hardback, Profile Books, £14.99, out now

If the belated but welcome Spring sunshine has you feeling newly mindful of our wildlife and hankering for all things natural then I couldn’t recommend anything better than Charles Foster’s latest book, Being a Beast ( – short of actually departing for the country and taking up residence in a badger set, that is; which Foster has helpfully done for us), which is a breath of fresh, heady – and slightly crazed – air. Foster, amongst many other things (he is a vet, philosopher, anthropologist, acupuncturist, academic, Oxford Fellow…the list apparently continues), is an ardent natural historian; he used to hunt animals for sport, he confesses, but is now intent on hunting them in an entirely different way: placing himself, as much as a human being can, in their skins in an attempt to know what it is like to ‘be’ them. To that end, and for prolonged periods, he lived in their physical environments, deprived of human comforts, reporting his intimate and thought-provoking experiences back to us. In Being a Beast he takes on the challenge of finding out what it is like to be a badger, an otter, a city fox, red deer and swift, combining neuroscience, psychology, natural history and memoir in a quest which takes him the length, breadth and depth of the British Isles.

As well as being a dauntless explorer (could you lie in a freezing highland stream for hours or sit in a river in Namibia watching leeches looping up your ankles en route to your groin?) Foster is also an erudite, witty, humble and entertaining writer. Take this passage, for instance, in which he reminisces about the days when shamanic ritual could transport performers into other states of consciousness:

‘You had to dance to the drum around a fire until you were so dehydrated that blood spouted out of your ruptured nasal capillaries, or stand in an icy river and chant until you could feel your soul rising like vomit into your mouth, or eat fly agaric mushrooms and watch yourself floating into the forest canopy. Then you could pass through the thin membrane that separates this world from others, and your species from other species. As you pushed through, in an epiphanic labour, the membrane enveloped you, like the amniotic sac in which you issued from your mother.’

Foster’s attempts to experience animals’ consciousness by immersing himself in their phenomenal worlds stem from a similarly impassioned desire to ‘be’ a beast (apparently he has been obsessed with birds and animals since he was a child), involves a similarly intense ‘labour’, as well as the odd moment or two that really could be described as epiphanic.

Even for those usually uninterested in nature writing Being a Beast is a winner: who can resist discovering what earthworms taste like, for instance (the terroir varies, apparently, according to region, like wine)? This is vital, dynamic, exhilarating writing that uncovers deadened senses, invokes empathy, fosters compassion and the all-important feeling of oneness. In delving into the ‘being’ of various ‘beasts’, Foster does something else too: he allows us to see ourselves more clearly – human or otherwise.

Review by Emily

February 10, 2016

London Fog: the Biography, by Christine L. Corton

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Harvard University Press, £22.95, out nowChristine L Corton LONDON FOG

This very readable history of London fog was a surprise hit this winter. Beautifully illustrated, with colour pictures well integrated into the text, Corton provides not only a good summary of why fogs happened and why they stopped but also gives an erudite account of how they affected people’s lives (and deaths).

Cultural responses to the phenomenon are explored in detail. It’s no surprise to find Whistler, Turner and Dickens here, but I was delighted to be introduced to Rose Maynard Barton and Yoshio Markino.

The book is stuffed with good London anecdotes and unusual images, which make it an excellent London gift. One of my favourites is the photo of a goalie struggling to see the pitch – let alone the ball – at a Spurs match in 1945, when opponents Moscow Dynamo were accused of fielding 12 men while the visibility was poor. They had also chosen the referee, apparently, and he refused to stop the match…

If you are already thinking about climate change, and how human behaviour can influence weather for the good or bad, this is a useful and not too heavy addition to your reading list. It is one of the several excellent new books on weather and nature this year (for more examples, come and see our display table on the top floor – we particularly like Thunder and Lightning too).

Review by Bethan

February 5, 2016

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

The Outrun

The Outrun

A young woman flies back into Orkney with her newborn baby – pausing at the airport to introduce the baby to her husband, who is being flown out, in a straitjacket, to a psychiatric hospital. Amy Liptrot, the author of this engaging addition to the nature/memoir selection, was the baby in question.

The rest of the book is as candid and compelling as the opening. Liptrot is open and graphic about her alcoholism, which becomes particularly brutal while she is working in London in her twenties. Her account of her recovery, from several failed attempts at rehab to a successful intense course and a return to Orkney, is illuminating. This isn’t a ‘nature as healer’ book, and it is resolutely unsentimental about island life. It interleaves the events of Liptrot’s life with beautiful passages of nature writing.

Her account of searching for the rare corncrake at 3am in the ‘simmer dim’ half light of an Orkney summer night is vivid, and I found I picked up lots of unexpected information about the life and wildlife of the islands. It is pleasing to learn that an Orkney wild swimming club is called the ‘Polar Bears’, and that until 1977 sheep were individually winched on and off a particular rock on one of the islands. Her unexpected joy in the natural world is well expressed: “There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy”. This was a pleasure to read, despite its sometimes bleak subject matter, and I recommend it.

Review by Bethan

November 18, 2015

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

by Team Riverside

Hardback £20, Canongate, out now

“There is so much in this world to make me happy. Small things such as cats, a good meal, one’s garden, trees in spring and autumn, clouds, colours, fabrics, clothes, companionship, books and music and films, a driSimon Garfield A NOTABLE WOMANnk in the friendly atmosphere of an English pub, a ride in a bus, a letter from a friend, staying in bed when one is tired, firelight, starlight, waves breaking against rocks, evening sunlight on a flight of bombers”.

Jean Lucey Pratt writes this in 1944, aged 34, a woman living alone and working in Slough as the bombs fall around her. She takes much joy in life, as this extract shows, and is not afraid of giving her own views on the remarkable times she’s living through. In these edited journals, started when she was 16 and continuing into old age, she is painfully honest about her romantic life (I was absolutely willing her to find someone half decent to get off with). Like all the best published diaries, we feel that we are getting a view into someone’s secret inner life, but she also illuminates the uncertainties of living through a time of great international and domestic turbulance.

Jean is anything but fluffy, despite the excellent cats that march through these pages. Her diary is a real page turner, and well edited by Simon Garfield (who has previously published some of her contributions to the Mass Observation study). I enjoyed spending time with her enormously, and only wish she could have seen this delicious volume published during her lifetime.

Review by Bethan