Reading for a Corona Summer

One of my favourite things to come unexpectedly from this Coronatide we are seemingly stuck in has been the time to read. To read books, magazines, articles, Instagram captions. You name it. I’ve been enjoying more time to read it.

Now that I don’t even have work to occupy me, I have yet more time for reading. In the summer ahead I am excited to spend time enjoying books and digging for literary gold on the internet.

So to aid all my fellow readers out there, I’m going to try and share some of the articles and other things I’ve enjoyed recently. It really is true that this pandemic has provided fuel for many a writer, I hope that in reading these excellent pieces of work, it can inspire you too.

Most of these links are available for free, but a few might be hidden behind a pay wall. I can’t thank all the people who recommended these to me (because I forget), but I am grateful and am always ready to accept recommendations from others. Share away!

The Republican Choice by Clare Malone

The Republican Choice

A fascinating and in depth examination of ‘how the Republican party became white.’ Five Thirty Eight is my go to place for all my nerdy American political analysis. Their podcast is also excellent.

Consider the Greenland Shark by Katherine Rundell

Who knew that sharks alive at the time of Shakespeare are still living today? A beautiful and brief examination of the strange poetry of these sad sharks. They can’t even reproduce until they’re 150…what are we rushing about for?

Jessie Ware has long been both a musical favourite of mine and a highlight of my podcast listening with her wonderful ‘Table Manners’. I highly recommend looking up her back catalogue and her new album is out on Friday. This profile is both excellently written and has beautiful photography. I can agree wholeheartedly that the power of food is not to be underestimated.

We Need to Talk About Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom… by Saffron Maeve

We need to talk about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…

Little White Lies is another place I look to satisfy by nerdy impulses – this time my inner film buff. This article made me reconsider the ‘black sheep’ of the Indiana Jones trilogy (we’ll ignore the Crystal Skull shall we…) and the broad and racist stereotypes it uses for South Asians, as well as how this fits into Hollywood’s general mistreatment of Indian and South Asian culture.

What Black America Means to Europe by Gary Younge

This fascinating and saddening article bears reading by everyone, especially people who’d consider themselves good European liberals (like me). Also available as a Guardian long read podcast, this article confronted me very bluntly with the hypocrisy of the way Europeans love to empathise with and support the struggle of African Americans while ignoring our own racist history. Not to mention the entrenched racism experienced by our neighbours of colour in Europe. Highly recommended and hopefully a starting point for facing up to some of these things.

Hollywood Cool and Bradford Salt, an essay on David Hockney by Raven Smith

Quite simply one of my favourite writers of the moment who regularly makes me laugh out loud, before hitting my heart up with some truth, Raven Smith writes this human and warm love letter to one of his favourite artists.

Here’s a taste –

“He is the patron saint of salty nonchalance and, like gruel at the workhouse, you just want more.”

Yes I do. I want more.


My Bookshelf

It’s been a long time since I shared some of the books I’ve read and loved. For the last few years, I’ve made a point of noting down, just on my phone’s notes app, the books I’ve read with a brief review.

There have been too many times when people ask me – what are you reading? Any recommendations? My response used to be a stunned silence while I was racking my brain for the names and authors, but now I can share my ideas and tips with confidence. I’d recommend you give it a go! I’ve also been noting down films, theatre and gigs but I’ll save those for another post.

So here are a few recommended titles for your perusal.

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

Like many this year, I watched and enjoyed the TV series about the Chernobyl disaster. Diving much more deeply into the event itself, the people involved, and the short and long-term effects, this absorbing read comes highly recommended. A Ukrainian who lived in Minsk at the time of the accident, Plokhy makes a more or less chronological account of the events both technically accurate and gripping. I couldn’t finish quickly enough.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

Another TV series I have enjoyed over the last few years (as have many people…) is the epic Game of Thrones saga. I decided to finally read the original books this summer, hoping for an engrossing holiday read. I was not disappointed. I read the first four volumes over the course of my summer travels and loved every moment. The depth, complexity and thematic richness of Martin’s text is remarkable. Also, I enjoyed how the violence and other naughtiness was much less distracting when in book form. You just know the ending is going to be better in the book…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

I read the original Handmaid’s Tale some years ago and was in equal parts riveted and disturbed by the dystopian classic. I was therefore eager to read the newly Booker Prize winning follow-up. I enjoyed how the story was an unashamedly hopeful fable, a gripping escape tale, and a family saga. Highly recommended, though make sure you read the original first.

Dreamers – Snigdha Poonam

I was lucky enough to visit my sister in India earlier this year. I was recommended this fascinating read to help me understand something of the quandaries facing young Indians – the world’s largest generation. Poonam captures their hopes, fears and frustrations effectively through this non-fiction account of various lives across India. I would encourage anyone to read this to understand India today, including the rise of Hindu nationalism and Modi. Yet it is also a very human story of individuals, making their personal struggles very real.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I’m an unashamed Haig fan, enjoying both his fiction and non-fiction work (and his social media presence). This book of short essays, poems and thoughts is a wonderful book to read and to share. Talking about anxiety is so needed in our lives and Haig does a great job of making clear things we’ve all experienced, as well as offering wise and common sense advice.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling

Another book looking to counter some of the anxiety we’re facing as a society at the moment is Rosling’s fascinating non-fiction book ‘Factfulness’. Rosling breaks down many of the negative and counter-productive assumptions we make about human progress and development, showing us we have reasons to be hopeful about the future. The book is excellent at making clear where the big problems still are and what progress has been made. A must read!

(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.


10 Books

So I was nominated to do this. Yet I thought rather than post it on Facebook, I would put it here. Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’m proud…but hey, it got me thinking!

I have been enjoying reading significantly more in the last few years, after the burn out of studying a history degree wore off, so this post is perhaps timely.

Here are ten books which have had a lasting impact on me (whatever that quite means). Basically, ten books I’ve loved.

1. Harry Potter (them all) by J. K. Rowling – I am definitely a child of Potter, having grown up with these wonderful books. I still come back to them time and again.

2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – I recently re-read my own annotated copy from GCSE days. A real shame if this wonderful novella is removed from the curriculum. I suffered through and came out loving it.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Rarely have I been so moved by a book. Simply wonderful. Catch the film too.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This classic is slow-paced but so very atmospheric.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – Truly gripping. Thank goodness I read them after they were all available!

6. Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill – More niche this one. A wonderful account of various Christians’ struggles with same-sex attraction. I found it profoundly touching and timely for the church today.

7. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – Another classic worth looking up. Immersive and thought-provoking.

8. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – The most clever and devious murder mystery you’ll ever read. There isn’t even a detective in it.

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl – A world of pure imagination indeed. Who could fail to love a book with a chocolate river in it?

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – Simultaneously affecting and frustrating. A really interesting read.

The (Late) Breakfast Club

Were you a horrid teenager? You know the drill – grunting, drinking, mono-syllabic moaning, messing up your room, generally being a stereotype. Well, I think I missed most of these things in my teenage years (maybe my parents disagree?) but I have had a growing appreciation of the delights of being a teenager recently. Maybe this is further evidence of my refusal to actually grow up and I’m sure it’s rather rose-tinted as well, yet I have been enjoying nostalgically dipping my toes into being a ‘teenager’ again.

I hope you have had the joy of watching classic ‘teen movies.’ Not sparkly-vampire infested ones, but classic, quotable, bad-hair featuring ones. Movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Juno and Clueless. There’s something about the boundless opportunity and optimism of the characters, even when they are forced to spend a whole Saturday in detention, that seems to me to be the thing I miss about teenager-hood. The feeling that the world really is your oyster and that any kind of creative, random, unexpected thing could happen. Too often, this feeling is drowned out in me by jaded, perfunctory, grown-up-ness.

My renewed youth has also been fed by teen-fiction. Yes, that’s right. Sounds terrible doesn’t it. But when I think that I was eagerly awaiting the last Harry Potter book or two well into my twenties it’s not all that surprising. I was totally gripped by The Hunger Games trilogy, loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, damn it, was holding back tears reading The Fault in our Stars. There’s something about the intensity of feeling, the ‘universe is centred around me and how I feel right now’ perspective of these characters, as well as the ‘this friendship will never be the same again’ sadness, that makes these books so appealing in many ways. Or maybe just easier to read.

As I think about the future and the possibilities before me, are they really less vast than those I imagined (or not) when I was an actual teenager? Is it not a positive thing to seek to enjoy every moment, eager to await each surprise, rather than dreading the next hiccup? If nothing else, this teenage flashback has reminded me that God has been faithful to me up to now, so much more than I could have expected. Whatever is to come, I look forward to enjoying his goodness and the gifts, whether as big as a new job or a child, or as small as a sunny day and an ice lolly, that he generously gives. And when it’s hard, it will be OK, because time goes on and he is faithful.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller




Welcome to Moomin Valley

I was lucky enough to see the brilliantly wacky Moominland Midwinter with my family at the theatre this Christmas. Having not thought twice about the Moomins since childhood, I was struck once again by their utter randomness, complete nonsensicalness, and gentle cheerfulness (lots of nesses…).

In what other world could Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden go on a walk through the snow to see Too-Ticky and the invisible shrews? Or Little My and Snufkin run into Mrs Fillyjonk or a Hemulen?

I have to say, the names make me giggle, but in a very affectionate way. There’s little better than a silly name to bring a smile to my face. Simple things, eh.

Having sought out some of the wonderful Tove Jansson comic strips, I have enjoyed reading the gentle adventures of the residents of Moomin Valley. Perfect bedtime reading. The tone is like a Scandinavian Winnie the Pooh; colder, but no less warm somehow. Imagine the Hundred Acre Wood transplanted to Finland, with a bit of extra whimsy.

Anyhow, I’d recommend you take a look and ponder with me that age old question, ‘What is a Moonmintroll really?’

Albino hippopotamus? Giant-headed dwarf polar bear? Your guess is as good as mine….!

But it doesn’t really matter. And that’s the point I guess. Which makes me smile. Again. 🙂