November Reads

A busy few weeks of flights, hotels and long bus journeys which thankfully means lots of time for reading! And oddly, I’ve just realised, mostly non-fiction.

Home by Salman Rushdie

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A Vintage Mini I picked up in London some weeks ago, this is the first Salman Rushdie I’ve read so it was great to get a series of snippets from a few different books, a mix of fiction and non.

Although Rushdie writes about the pull of his Indian birthright and his new life in England, it was impossible not to read it with my own Irish roots tugging at my heart. The idea of straddling two cultures, of feeling connected to two opposing states, I can understand that. I am not English, I don’t even identify as British, but having lived in Liverpool for over a decade now, it has stolen my heart. It’s a city with a rich Irish heritage and being less than an hour away by plane, it is the closest to home I could stay while not actually being there, but at times it still feels like a million miles away, like another world.

Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.

That sense of belonging, the yearning to belong, threads through every page of this beautiful little collection, and sadly the upshot of it seems to be that belonging isn’t really possible when you call two different places home.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

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This book. My goodness this book.

I picked this up in Dublin during our too-short visit this month and it completely floored me. In each chapter, titled by a physical point of vulnerability, O’Farrell recollects the near-death experiences that have punctuated her life.

The opening story, of a carefree walk through a foreign land which could so easily have been her last, shook me to my core because it is universal. So many friends have told me the same story, of an insignificant stroll which became suddenly dangerous because of a man lurking somewhere on the periphery, slowing down to fall into step or pulling over on the roadside you’ve been walking alone. Most women know that threat, have lived it, and O’Farrell’s experience reminds us why it is real, why we feel it in our bone.

Throughout the book, the moments on which O’Farrell’s life teeters are just as familiar – a drunken escapade of bravado which goes a step too far, swimming out a little too far, being caught by an unexpected wave, awaiting a diagnosis which could change your world beyond recognition. There are others which feel personal though I myself have not experienced them, the dangers which weigh down on you purely because of the internal organs which determine your sex – the womb, ovaries, organs which exist to bring forth new life but seem a constant threat to your own, as though they might self-implode at any moment. I have not given birth, nor miscarried, but I felt O’Farrell’s words in my gut, as though they were cutting into old scar tissue, ancestral perhaps.

I have no child, and yet the final chapter broke my heart in the nearest, most intense way a book ever has, so much so that I had to express an extra word of forewarning to a colleague, a mother, when I recommended the book to her. On the back cover, I was told that this book would leave me “conscious of your own vulnerability and determined to make every heartbeat count” and in a terrifying way it did. This book made me cry on several occasions – in a hotel room on O’Connell Street, waiting at a pedestrian crossing, at a bus stop, quietly sitting behind my boyfriend and my sister playing Nintendo Switch on a coach northward bound. And for weeks afterwards, every moment of pause – waiting for the kettle to boil at work, standing in line at Aldi, brushing my teeth before bed – the book flooded my mind, raised my pulse once again and made me reach out to those who mattered most, just in case.

Not all the chapters feel as close to death as others, but the sense of threat, of danger, violence or tragedy are still present, lurking between the lines. To have lived through seventeen brushes with death might seem unrealistic, but the apparent ordinariness of some of these moments does make you think back to the little experiences that have peppered your own life – walking home alone in a new city, night swimming in unfamiliar waters, using unregistered taxis – we never believe that danger is that close but hindsight can change that perspective even if it won’t alter your future behaviour.

“We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” 

Despite all this, I Am, I Am, I Am really was invigorating. Inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. I would recommend it to anyone.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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When I opened this book earlier this month I knew that I had done so before, for university most likely. I knew this because the first few pages were so familiar and because the margins were full of scribbles, pencil marks in my own hand – I had clearly once started this book full of intent.

As it went on, the more pages I turned, the more I discovered underlined sentences, words I had read before, more scribbles in the sidelines. I had gotten further than I’d expected, and yet I still can’t remember where or when I began this book the first time round.

Whenever it was, second time round I adored it. I love Virginia Woolf anyway and in this book she broaches a subject which I have always felt passionate about – the freedom to write. Where and when I first awoke to the fact I’m unsure, but looking back I can see the moments where it might have happened – as a child Saturdays were clearly defined for my parents, both of whom worked full-time throughout the week, Mum cleaned and Dad played football, or after his knees gave in, went to the pub to watch the football. Throughout school we learned about men – philosophers, scientists, authors, politicians – but very little about women who either left their own mark on history or made it possible for their husbands, fathers, sons, masters to do so by cooking, cleaning, bringing parchment and ink. Reading Frankenstein in school I was struck by the narrow terms in which women were defined – mother or madonna, there could be no other.

And later, living with a boyfriend for the first time, skint and taking all the hours the bars and restaurants we worked in could give, I noticed that while he came home at night and relaxed, or at most washed and ironed the shirts he needed for work, it was me who cooked, me who cleaned the bathroom, bought in the shampoo and washing powder we both used, me who washed the majority of our clothes, bed sheets, towels. I didn’t just do more of the work, I paid for more of the joint costs. Here I was in 2010, living out a philosophy of life which Virginia Woolf had delivered in lectures over eighty years before. I am happy to say the relationship did not last much longer beyond that realisation.

Of course men have shaped our global history, our cultures and languages – women were not party to the same god-given rights of education or leisure time, they were not given the same platform to share theories or stories. Women wrote under pseudonyms, the crafts and media they did engage with – novels, embroidery, craft – were dismissed as unimportant, domestic, insignificant in the male world. In the male world women do not create, they inspire – they do not write, they are written about, as mothers, lovers, symbols of beauty and innocence and purity. They are not allowed to be otherly, to be complicated, to achieve anything other than beauty, winning the affections of men, or they are witches, hags who bring misfortune and ill tidings. Fuck that shit, or as Woolf so well put it:

“Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” 

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (again)

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A final, brief note here on a book which I finished this month for the umpteenth time. I first read To Kill a Mocking Bird for GCSE and fell in love with it in a way few others books have compared.

Since then I have read it again once alone, and twice now in a Shared Reading group at work – weekly groups where everything is read aloud in the session, discussed and talked about in a way that is not academic, but personal. To Kill a Mocking Bird is such an incredible book for this type of group because there is such a wealth of real life in there – so many characters who populate the narrative, so many challenges, big and small, to the accepted way of life, moments of bravery and personal struggle – the things we live every day and often don’t give the significance they deserve.

In my weekly Monday morning group, we have been reading this book since January and I’ve loved every moment of it, reliving every page with others who know it just as well or are uncovering the story for the first time. For those of us who knew the story, we heard the verdict of the central court case as Atticus does, with the realist edge of experience. But for those reading this book for the first time with the benefit of a modern, liberal justice system, they felt the betrayal as keenly as Jem. I will happily read this book with another group someday in the future, it will never stop giving and I will never tire of it.

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