Do you have time to read?

A frequent preoccupation, I think about how my Summer of reading might pan out

I have mulled over how Mum’s get time to read before because it is a constant battle. Ultimately, though I love to write and journal, my deepest, longest love has been reading. Often it is escapism. I have been having a real Edwardian fad recently, listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Little Ottley’s books by Ada Levenson on Librivox. Along with my current vogue for the PG Wodehouse collections Stephen Fry is narrating on Audible, I have been experiencing a world of manners and often comic sensibilities. Even with House of Mirth which is frankly tragic I have found a soothing place to escape to. Though these books are not unproblematic, depicting views reflective of their time that are uncomfortable, most of the times we can be swept away by this historic and yet somehow modern era of feisty women, feckless men and ridiculous social mores that people break with mostly little consequence.

This has been a new part of my resolve to read more. To acknowledge that audiobooks count as reading. How strange that I have held myself to such a strict standard for so long. But then if you had told me at University when I stacked my beloved library desk with piles of books and photocopied chunks of essays, that I would have an electronic reader now, I would have been shocked and saddened. Declaring then that there was nothing like “real” books. I still find grand libraries heavenly, particularly where the stacks are filled with beautifully bound books, and you can browse for hours. It will never stop my heart from soaring, but this is not my everyday life. I graduated fifteen years ago and though I love a research trip, they are not often.

An ereader has been essential to reading more. I can flick between the Kindle app on my phone and my device. I always have a book with me and can pick up whenever I do get a chance. Generally this does involve my son playing on the iPad and I suppose I may never win the war of screen time if I am always on my phone – reading or not. In addition to having access to all my library, I can chop and change as I like. I have always been someone to read different books at one time. Now I acknowledge this about myself without guilt. It’s often about mood. Just as I have been seeking something soothing in recent tired times, there has been other times where I have wanted something deeper or heavier to read (looking at you Hilary Mantel). Switching is so easy now I carry my library around, I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this way.

And speaking of switching between books, the biggest freedom I given myself over the last few years is simple: I don’t always finish books. As a practice, it feels like giving up or failing. But what precious time I have I need to give to what grabs me. As I wrote in my post about books I didn’t finish, it is frequently about timing. Wintery books are for Winter, some time you’re too bone-tired to concentrate, other times you getting obsessed with a certain era. By not forcing myself to read something that hasn’t wrested my attention away from the world, I do read more. Maybe not of whole books but of a greater breadth, exploring more and letting my whims take me.

I still think that having a goal helps, as I reflected before, the Goodreads reward system helps keep me motivated. Odd to think I need to be motivated to do something I enjoy the most but such is my fickle, distractable brain. By thinking ahead to Summer reading and tracking my progress, I am giving myself the chance of prioritising some energy for escaping into a good book this Summer. Shortly, I will be picking my son up from school as the term ends so here are my Summer picks I aim to make time for this year.

How do you make time to read what you want?

Earliest Reading Memories

Do vivid images of the first novels you read haunt you?

Relistening to classic novels recently, I am struck by the fondness I have for certain books that I have returned to over the years. Through a myriad life experiences, I have come again to Jane Eyre – the first classic I ever read- and other favourites such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. And listening in the last few weeks it strikes me that the same images come straight to mind that I think I first had as a child.

I vividly remember the first time I envisioned Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. The greyed and dank room as oppressive to me as a child as it is now. Dickens writes that the…

…centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it…

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

No wonder I have had life long arachnophobia. The rotten core at the heart of respectability that Pip longs for fascinates us throughout the novel . Though the jilted bride hits differently now, I can’t help marvel that it still has the power to creep me out.

Jane Eyre as I have written about before remains one of my favourites so I struggle to say which scene remains most vivid. Her slap of John, the demise of poor Helen all have a life long resonance. I think probably the terror of the red room, – in my mind’s eye still not the rich red of velvet but more bloodred scarlet, – remains with me from my first reading.

Found here, a depiction of the red room that chimes with the red in my mind’s eye

Now I read this book very differently. Hardly surprising. Wild Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the perspective of Bertha, the essay The Mad Woman in the Attic, was written in the 1960 so this novel has long had a questionable commentary about race. As with Wuthering Heights I have discomfort now with some of the descriptions. Jane Eyre has a Bertha Mason described as “a clothed hyena” and she is wholly othered by the novel. In the novel the portrayal of her race and mental state seem to be connected. Heathcliff an “untamed creature” is described using epithets that describe his race ambiguously and problematically. And if course it’s depiction of domestic violence grows more uncomfortable with age, even as we celebrate our strong heroine.

But somehow, though I may analyse and wrestle with my thoughts about these novels (I am an English graduate, afterall,) I still return to them. It strikes me how important a powerful image is to hook the reader. And given my back catalogue of haunted houses, dark moors and madness, it’s hardly surprising I love gothic fiction best of all.

Certain scenes are truly like replaying a movie which I find at once both remarkable that these books impacted my life so much, and a comfort. Though it is right to interrogate this fiction, a re-read will always be a home-coming of sorts.

I would love to know what images remain from your childhood reading list? Do you think they influence you to this day?

Do audiobooks count as reading?

Sometimes I find it easier to listen than read but it still feels like cheating

I love a challenge to motivate me and so for the last few years I have had a Goodreads account annual challenge. In 2020 over half the books I read on there were manually added as they were audiobooks that I finished and don’t register automatically. It’s pretty obvious I have wanted to escape. And frankly be soothed by wonderful narrators like Stephen Fry.

In fact the audiobooks have had a unique place in my life during the pandemic. Spending so much time either inside (and trying not to hear youtube all the time – my son is obsessed) or walking around my neighbourhood, I have wanted things that are easy for me to do. And often I could not concentrate long enough to read, either because my anxious brain has been on overdrive or my fatigue has made concentration harder. Remember when I used to complain about not having a room of one’s own. The irony has deepened in the last year. The age of the headphones in our house.

I have read some amazing books in 2020. But I have also needed to forget myself in a book. Recently I listened again to The Discovery of Witches, having just watched the Sky series and being sure they missed important parts! It may be the familiarity of these books that helps bring some small measure of certainty. Phoebe Reads a Mystery was another favourite. Often mysteries in particular follow a formula to some extent, driving towards a usually satisfying conclusion. Offering an odd sort of stability to these odd times.

Part of me (probably the part that studied English,) thinks I am cheating on “real” books. But I find that I remember in much more depth what has happened in a book when I listen to it. Most of these books I had read the book first. I have a terrible habit of skipping over names when I read. And speed reading means I may miss the finer points. I probably am more of an aural learner, always finding lectures a good place to learn at University. I just wished it had occurred to me all that time ago that I could listen to books. Particularly those texts I found so arduous such as Paradise Lost (still haven’t finished it) and Shakespeare. For some reason though there is still this snobbery that reading a book is superior to listening to it. Odd when both these were written to read aloud.

In the Bored and Brilliant project which I tried earlier this year, Manoush Zomorodi explains how reading online all the time has changed our ability to concentrate and take in information. It may be that our brain takes in information differently from physical texts than scrolling. One reason is that you are even more likely to skim read online, apparently. So in comparison, it may be that I take much more in when I am listening to audiobooks.

There is something to be said that there was clearly at time in relative recent history where storytellers would learn swathes of texts or poems and recite them. In China, there would be a tradition of relaying a story and a complex commentary. Feats of memory we cannot imagine now. This though does suggest that there is something about how our memory is fired up when listening to a story.

I have set a challenge again for 2021 but I think it’s time I cut myself some slack and count listening as reading.

Do you prefer audiobooks, ebooks or the real thing?

REVIEW: The Eagle Tree

The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

The Eagle Tree is a heartening novel by Ned Hayes about opening your eyes more fully to the world around you. Peter March Wong is a teenager on the autistic spectrum with a deep passion for trees. He learns about a local ‘old growth’ tree, nicknamed “The Eagle Tree” and plans to climb the behemoth. As he gets closer to the tree and his goal, he learns this magnificent tree and its surrounds will be felled for housing. This is March’s story of trying to climb to the highest tree and reach new heights in many areas of his life.

Told from March’s perspective throughout, Ned Hayes does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of March’s distinct voice, obsessively observing the trees around him. What struck me was this author has really understood the depths to which these special interests, though often learnt by rote, preoccuopy the thoughts of the person. Though it may seem like a bundle of facts, as we see throughout this novel, a person’s passion can lead to deep connections. I loved this about this novel. We talk about repetitive behaviour and special interests often as if they are a problem to be solved, whereas they can be really be celebrated.

In this novel March’s obsessions allow him to make new relationships, and as he meets others who are interested too in saving the environment, we start to see how the world opens up for him. But also that he widens the world for others, both his vicar and therapist have moments where they show how much they have learnt from him. This positive note is so heartening, as a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum I do appreciate the hopeful message of the novel. It’s impossible not to think too of Greta Thurnberg when I read this novel and her amazing work. A young woman also on the spectrum, she has used her passion to ignite the world on these pressing environmental issues. Both this fictional character and real life person achieve so much because of their neurodiversity, rather than inspite of it which is more often the story told.

Although I really felt that this novel reaches to represent living on the autism spectrum well, there are moments of incredible sadness in the novel. Perhaps because we learn of them in drips of information via March, it is upsetting to see in some areas of his life, he is not helped to understand why his actions are dangerous or could harm him. In the final chapter, in particular, I was at once incredulous and frustrated by the jeopardy in the novel.

Overall I really feel this is a positive novel which will uplift and inform people. I am passionate about trees too and learnt so much from March that I can forgive some of the sensationalism near the end. I think this was the perfect book to end the year on. It is hopeful about human endeavour and speaks to the climate emergency which should preoccupy us all.

If you like this, I also recommend another book about a neurodiverse character Elvira Carr The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

The place for escapism

Often I hide how superficial I am but, no more, we all need to escape sometimes…

I have written before about the distractions I find on Hayu, mainly keeping up with ridiculous antics of Housewives, mouth open. I mean there’s something just truly satisfying about slobbing in your pajamas while you watch women in amazing clothes argue about the same thing for weeks on end. Unfortunately there are also Instagram accounts and Twitter feuds you can follow so that you can be embroiled in the stories for months before you see an episode. As I find myself this week trying to establish a timeline of exactly when RHOBH ladies went to Italy, I drew back a little. I had gone in too deep.

When your rubbish tv habits leads you down an internet rabbit hole, it’s time to put your phone down and pick up your kindle/book. Well that has been my solution. Here are some places I went in the last few weeks. A list of escapism fiction I would recommend if you are lucky enough to be away for a staycation or just staying at home.

Social Creature by Tara Burton Isabelle

A hit debut a few years ago this thoroughly nasty book about living your best life (online at least) is about two new friends Lavinia and Louise. Louise idolises her new friend, they live a lavish life around Manhattan, partying and drinking hard. The pure escapism comes in watching their friendship unfold with plenty of hashtags along the way. The tales twists darkly as Louise morphs her identity and eventually her life into the supremely narcisstic and fascinating Lavinia. This was a fast-paced novel that felt a bit like binge-watching You or Gossip Girl.

If you like this you would also like: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, I don’t why but I do enjoy a novel of hard partiers – vicarious living as a stay-at-home person, even in pre-pandemic times. This goes much deeper than Social Creatures and digs into female friendship in an equally fascinating way.

So Lucky by Dawn O’Porter

I was excited to read this novel having enjoyed The Cows by the same author. We follow the lives of three main characters. Women whose lives are entangled with the online world of a model Laura, about to get married to her millionaire boyfriend in an extravagent wedding. It is part farce, to watch various things go wrong in each woman’s life, but also part commentary about the shallowness of living life online. I think that O’Porter, who has herself a large following on Instagram and watched the destruction of her close friend, Caroline Flack, writes so well about the myriad of social issues caused by projecting our image all the time. It’s a novel that make you think, is of the present moment, but is also just really funny. I think the way she brings her characters together at the end speaks to a positive and uplifting womanhood.

If you like this, you’ll like: My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen. I loved the heart at the centre of this memoir about the star’s life of mistakes, lived outloud and online. I think the honesty of this book is what appealled to me.

I hope in some way you get a chance to escape this year, even if it is just in the pages of fiction.