This is an article published in the Summer 2018 newsletter ….
As often before, some of our best reads over the past year have been non-fiction:
‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebanks is an unsentimental account of the working year of a sheep farmer in the Lake District. Not for him a place of spectacular scenery or hearty walking holidays but the land where he and his forefathers have lived and worked in harmony with the seasons for generations. His lyrical descriptions of the changing seasons and his undoubted love for his animals bring into sharp focus the tough conditions of his working life. And yet, there is another side to his story: in his 20s, Rebanks, having idled away his schooldays, attended Oxford University, gaining a double first in history. His love for the shepherd’s way of life drew him back and today, to make ends meet, he combines this with a post for UNESCO advising on tourism.
‘Singled Out’ by Virginia Nicholson looks at the lives of “surplus” women who, after the terrible depredations of WW1, were left without hope of marrying or raising a family. For many this meant a lifetime of scrimping and getting by on near-starvation wages – mens’ needs always came before those of a single woman with no dependants. Others blossomed, taking on and making a success of roles that would never have been open to them had the men survived. Defying convention and prejudice, these women excelled in traditionally male roles of medicine, marine and electrical engineering, stockbroking, Egyptology and many more, paving the way for the generations who came after. One problem we encountered with this book was that the typeface is too small and faint: several of us had to use magnifiers.
‘Blood River’ by Tim Butcher recounts his 2004 journey along the Congo river, retracing the steps of his fellow Telegraph reporter Stanley who first mapped this region in the 1870s. He skilfully blends history with present day experience in this war-torn country, exposing the brutality and exploitation of colonial days and the cruelty, corruption, and venality of leaders and warring tribes following independence. He lays bare the shocking contrast between the “civilised” society of the colonial era and the broken-down remnants of it today. Butcher’s mother visited by rail in the 1950s; Katherine Hepburn stayed in a comfortable hotel while filming “The African Queen”. Yet today, in this resource-rich country, buildings are rubble, and no railways or roads remain. How did Butcher manage to make his journey against all the odds? How did he stand the relentless heat, the limited diet and the constant fear of marauding rebel fighters? A meticulously planned and executed trip.
We were, however, disappointed with Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen which we read to mark the 200th anniversary of the great author’s death. Little substantive Austen material remains (her family burnt most of her letters, for example). Tomalin was obliged to include a wealth of detail about friends and relatives of the Austens, which we found confusing and boring (too many Janes and Elizabeths!)
Other books we have enjoyed include Rosemary Lupton’s “The Quality of Silence” in which a mother sets out with her 10 year old profoundly deaf daughter along the Alaskan Dalton Highhway to search for her husband, refusing to accept that he has died in an accident. The pace and tension as the pair wrestle with the constant darkness and extreme cold of an Alaskan winter while pursued by villains, are well-drawn. ‘The Muse’, Jessie Burton’s second book following her successful debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’, is every bit as enthralling a tale. Set in two time periods, the late 60s and pre-civil-war Spain, it involves secret love affairs, hidden identities, and a mysterious painting which links the two eras.