October Reads

What a month. National Poetry Day. Bookshop Day. October is clearly a month dedicated to bookworms which is perhaps how I managed to devote so much time to reading when I appeared to have so little time on my hands.

Success Against the Odds by Brett Wigdortz

A rare recommendation from DH, he’s been championing this book since we first met. As a Teach First ambassador, he’s obliged to spread the good word but it turns out his recommendation was well-founded. I am very much NOT going to backtrack on all my intentions never to become a teacher but working for a charity this was relevant reading for me.

Funnily enough, reading about some of Wigdortz’s methods for team building and staff development, I recognised them from my earliest days at The Reader – clearly, our founder had been reading about Teach First around the time I joined the team. It made for interesting reading from a professional point of view – I don’t often read business books so it’s fairly new ground for me – particularly when it came to thinking about values and motivating team members.

When you work in the third sector, it’s often taken for granted that the only motivation you need is the charitable service you’re helping to make possible but incredible as it can be to have a positive impact on hundreds or thousands of lives, it isn’t always the right thing to get you out of bed on a rainy February morning. Motivating individuals, as well as a movement, is critical as is setting realistic expectations about what you’re going to achieve together.

It also highlighted for me something that DH has been championing for years, the importance of cross-pollination. Those who are drawn to the charity sector might gawk at the idea of selling out to a global corporation but ethically problematic as it might be, sometimes the best thing you can bring to a charity is the skills and experience gained from private sector experience. Wigdortz’s experience was a sound reminder that a career, and a life, can twist and turn beyond any expectation or goal you might have set yourself. Sometimes you have to take the road less travelled.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I love Sarah Moss. After discovering Bodies of Light in a Bramhall bookshop a few years ago, I’ve been making my way through her back catalogue, though I’m delighted that I still have a few more to indulge in. 

Ghost Wall lived up to the high expectations I’ve come to anticipate from Moss, and from Granta generally, and I absorbed it in an afternoon. It’s a slim little book but it packs a punch that goes straight to the gut. Set in the wilds of rural Northumberland, there is oddly, such a sense of claustrophobia surrounding Silvie and her family. Her father, an Iron Age fanatic who rules his family with a quick hand, casts a dark shadow over Silvie’s entire life. Even on the cusp of leaving school, possibly leaving home, she doesn’t seem to see any real means of escape, her world feels very small, even in the great outdoors where her father’s obsession has brought them on an exercise of Iron Age living with a group of archaeology students. 

The lives of the students, their voices which speak louder and clearer than Silvie’s, seem to open her world up ever so slightly. Here, bound within the restrictions of reenactment living, Silvie begins to push her own boundaries a little further, risking the all-too-familiar retribution of her father. And the abuse he reigns down on Silvie and her mother is not solely physical, the emotional battery and the psychological control he inflicts upon them is perhaps more shocking than the violence which creeps into this narrative.

At times throughout her blossoming friendship with Molly, a bold, ambitious student unafraid to stand up for herself and others, Silvie strives to defend her father and his actions:

“Maybe you’re jealous because your dad left you, because he doesn’t love you, because he doesn’t care enough to teach you a lesson. Haven’t you been listening, people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.”

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall

The idea of sacrifice, the threat of it, builds throughout the book as the group delve further and further into the tribal behaviour of the Iron Age life they’ve immersed themselves in. As the women continue to forage, cook and clean, the group of men grow more fascinated by the violence of hunting, the ancient knowledge of survival which pulls away at their grasp civilisation, drawing them back into the darkest, most disquieting rituals. 

The tension which builds throughout the final pages leaves the reader in utter chaos, as bewildered as Silvie herself must be in the darkness. This book simply can’t be put down until it’s done and even then, it will hang around your bones for weeks afterwards.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

I’d heard so many incredible things about Sally Rooney’s work over the past year or so, I was terrified it was all going to be hype. But thankfully not. Rooney’s reputation is founded in sheer brilliance.

Knowing a few people who study at Trinity College in Dublin, a place where my own early years were spent, I couldn’t put out of my mind how perfectly Rooney had captured the voices and conversations I’ve overheard in cafes and on buses in the city. 

I don’t really read Young Adult Fiction, which I think this book treads closely too at times, so it’s possible that others have also done the digital world justice in literature but this is the first story I’ve come across any book which so seamlessly encompasses the screens which dominate our daily lives now. And Rooney reflects the minutia of daily life in the same way that the online world does – simple actions, movements, moments of dialogue – the protagonist, Frances embodies an anxiety of the modern world which is present everywhere now. 

So many things in this book could have really frustrated me – layers of life which, thrown together in a work of fiction, can feel like cheap or gratuitous devices to further character or plot – but, done well, as Rooney does it, it all comes together. Characters who feel not-quite-fully-formed feel purposeful in their vacuousness because so many of the relationships are founded on unknowns -the trading of information and intimacies to elevate your own social standing, the creation of new personas, the light we see each other and ourselves in – it reveals more about ourselves than the people we’re looking at. 

“After a while, he told me that was the first time he had ever told the story of that year and what had happened. He said he had never actually heard the story from his own point of view before, because he was used to Melissa telling it, and of course their versions were different. It feels strange, he said, hearing myself talk about it like I was the main character. It almost feels like I’m lying, although I think everything I said was true. But Melissa would tell it differently.”

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends

I recognised the complicated intricacies of that so much – of not quite being sure of the truth of your own story, particularly in times of trauma, truth is a difficult thing to pin down in times of trauma, you rely so much on the tellings of friends and family. With so many of us telling our own versions of our shared stories online now, the complications thicken even further. 

Rooney didn’t just capture the voices or conversation you might hear on a bus, she captured the psyche of those friends, the relationship forged over years or decades. It’s rather brilliant.

Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard

Another excellent recommendation from DH – he’s on a roll! He bought me this one for Christmas last year after hearing the story on the news, and it really is an amazing story.

This wouldn’t be my usual pick. Real life stories, even those with cut dogs, rarely grab my attention, but I needed something straightforward… easy, if you will. 

Despite an initial dislike of the author and central character I warmed up to him as the story unfolded, and having had zero interest in long-distance running, I was surprised to find myself so invested in his endeavour. Of course, Gobi, the cute pooch central to the story, helped to tug my heartstrings and attention, but I also found Leonard’s navigation of cultures and international bureaucracy really interesting – it’s something I knew absolutely nothing about. Now, I know a little more. 

And as someone who works in communications and media, I found the growth of the story fascinating. It simply wouldn’t have happened a decade ago, not to the same degree. Seeing how a human story can infiltrate every national media market, how far agencies will go to get the story, how much power the media hold, for good and evil, I find it incredibly interesting.

If you’re partial to a real-life story or a little something different to read over the winter months, I recommend Finding Gobi.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Mari Kondo

I am going to say very little about this book for the simple reason that I don’t really have anything nice to say. 

I get that in other cultures and societies, attributing a spiritual purpose or identity to something as inert as a plastic bag may be perfectly normal, but I’m afraid for me it descended into nonsense very quickly. 

I get the message – clear out your shit, keep only the things that you love and cherish or need, don’t buy into the consumer-driven culture that has made us a throw-away society – but such an extreme minimalist, compartmental life, come on.. I’m sure the KonMari method works for many, many people, but I’m afraid it’s not for me. 

Marie Kondo lost me when she condoned ripping pages out of books to save a quote or passage you like and capping your collection at 30 books. Fuck that. 

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