Thoughts: Where Poppies Blow, by John Lewis-Stempel

The intersection between British (mostly) soldiers in World War I and nature seemed almost fanciful when I picked this one up. Like, there have been so many millions of words lavished on WWI from every possible angle, every conceivable breadth and depth thoroughly mined for recording, remembering, analysing, hypothesising, learning.

I really enjoyed this though, and it’s not really that much of a stretch to connect war and nature, especially a war in which animals were used and kept by the army itself – their ratting cats and terriers, their horses, mules, donkeys and camels, their messenger pigeons and dogs. This is only one small facet of the soldier’s experience of non-human life on the front though. Plant life, insect life, birds, vermin, nuisances, all existed around and among the armies, and they were reassured, comforted, bothered, sickened by it, perceiving it through their own personal lenses as humans are wont to do.

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Thoughts: Daughter of Empire, by Pamela Hicks

I want to continue my little exploration of Indian independence, and I thought Pamela Hicks’s memoir would be a good next stop, Pamela Hicks being the daughter of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India of whom Narendra Singh Sarila spoke so consistently highly.

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Thoughts: Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by Narendra Singh Sarila

I love how every non-fiction book title is [Snappy Title]: [Cumbersome Thesis Statement So You Know What The Book Is Actually About]. Every single one. I can’t not notice it anymore.

Anyway, I’ve by pure coincidence happened to read a surprising amount about Indian independence from the British Empire very recently, so I’m going to line those reviews up instead of going chronologically through my reading/backlog, the better to compare and contrast. I am of the bad habit of reading a single non-fiction book per subject and assuming I know some stuff afterwards, but honestly, the more I read about India the less I felt like I knew. Understatement of the year, but turns out it’s an extremely complex subject that is impossible to entirely contain in one book… and the whole world, and all of human history, is made up of uncountable events of similar complexity. Terrifying. Mind-bending. Things like ‘the size of the universe’ don’t really get to me, because they’re so far out of my comprehension that my brain just goes, “That’s nice,” and moves on. But show me how huge the Earth is and how fractally complex all human life is and I’ll blue-screen on the spot.

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Thoughts: The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

Uh looks like I entirely forgot to post this after I wrote it? Here you go!

Last book I started before giving birth, first book I finished afterwards. I read a couple of chapters to baby, in the hope that he will learn from the examples of the characters and make better choices with his own life.

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Thoughts: The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Bradley

Warning before we start – there’ll be mentions of real life crimes in this one, involving children.

Some explanations are in order. I know we’re all meant to be living in a Death of the Author world but some things don’t die. It’s one thing to pretend Kate Bush wasn’t a Theresa May fan, or that you didn’t see that one post describing Patrick Rothfuss’s unfortunate-looking fundraising shenanigans, and another thing to turn a blind eye to actual crimes – and not just lying about prostitutes. Marion Zimmer Bradley falls under the ‘actual crimes’ umbrella, and honestly I don’t have much time for the people I see in Facebook comments and similar yelling at anyone who mentions her crimes when her name comes up in recommendations, because “no author is perfect”. I think this is something people should be informed about before reading or purchasing Bradley’s work.

Yes, it would be lovely to read it without the knowledge at the back of your mind. Yes, it is unfair that we can no longer have the experience of a “pure” first reading. But that cat is well and truly out of the bag – Bradley herself, by her actions, has made it impossible to enjoy her work without a bad taste in your mouth.

As far as I can tell, you can’t have multiple cuts in WordPress (oh for the halcyon LiveJournal days!) so unfortunately I couldn’t separate out the bad stuff in a way that’s easily skippable.

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Thoughts: Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift

I have my soft spots, like anyone, and one of my guiltiest ones is life in stately homes and fancy old estates, despite my dislike of the British class system. I also like quiet stories where not much happens, but at the same time, everything happens. It took everything in me not to inhale Mothering Sunday in one gulp. Not that I have anything against swallowing a book whole, just that my son would probably have something to say about me being emotionally unavailable for so long, if he was old enough to talk.

Short thoughts for short book today, though not because I didn’t enjoy it or because there isn’t anything to say about it. Some books are just like that, compact in your mind.

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Thoughts: The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton

Another one off the backlog pile! Annoyingly it’s been so long since I read it that most of my very specific feelings have faded with time, but eh, we press on. Spoilers though. I deliberately didn’t read the Introduction till after I’d finished because even the publisher warns the first-time reader about revealed plot details. It was a good choice to wait, so if you want to read it, skip my thoughts.

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Thought: June Fourth Elegies, by Liu Xiaobo (translated by Jeffrey Yang)

More dissident poetry! It was a rough early June in 2017 when we lost Irina Ratushinskaya and Liu Xiaobo in quick succession. This one felt a little bit like the baddies won though, if I can use such simplistic/childish language. Whereas Ratushinskaya lived to see her freedom and the end of the Soviet Union, Liu died in detention, the first Nobel prizewinner to do so since 1935 (says the internet).

I’m going to try to keep the comparisons to a minimum, but humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and I haven’t read nearly enough poetry in translation to help myself. So no promises.

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Thoughts: Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich

Slightly embarrassing admission, I picked this one up as story research (for a story that I haven’t finished or touched in a while – indeed, the same story I read Gifts of the Crow for – but still).

The tempting thing is to compare it to Gifts of the Crow, and indeed the authors seem to have rubbed scientific shoulders before, which makes sense given that they’re in the same field, but let’s not, if only because it’s been a long time and having a baby has melted vast holes in my brain.

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Thoughts: Grey is the Colour of Hope, by Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by Alonya Kojevnikov (with poems translated by David McDuff, Richard McKane and Helen Szamuely)

Grey is the Colour of Hope is Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoir, written in 1987 after her release from the Small Zone in the Barashevo camp, but before the dissolution of the USSR. This gives it both a very particular angle on history, and strangely a sense of timelessness too. In the limbo in which it was written, it resonates with a more general ongoing repression – maybe if I’d read it before 2014 it wouldn’t pierce so deeply, but of course I didn’t, and Russia is once again up to its old tricks, the cast of characters barely changed.

Even more so now that even as I write this I find myself in one of those little limbos – Salman Rushdie has been stabbed, his fate unknown. By the time you read this, it too might be oddly specifically dated.

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