Sunday, 28 June 2020

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old

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After taking a year off from diary writing, Hendrik Groen is back with his amusing observations and deeply felt musings on some of life’s big questions. The Old-But-Not Dead Club are still going strong, although they have to come to terms with the need to recruit new members as their number inevitably dwindles. Hendrik stoically makes the best of his twilight years while also planning for his end.

He continues to mock the behaviour of certain of his fellow residents while admitting to finding himself falling into some of the same traps. There have been changes to the criteria for taking in new residents, meaning a steady increase in the average age and infirmity, making life more depressing for those still wanting to exercise their minds. Despite the emotional difficulty of the experience he continues to visit a dear friend in the closed ward. Grietje herself is always in good spirits but the other patients make for a sorry sight. ‘I can’t bear having to see the humiliation of it, and the helplessness.’ He perseveres nonetheless, proving himself to be a good friend.

Along with dwindling resident numbers they also have to contend with a change in director, who quickly proves to be no more amenable than their predecessor. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club pull off a political coup in dominating membership of the Residents’ Committee but have a fight on their hands when attempts are made to sideline their responsibility exclusively to social events. Hendrik offers some insightful thoughts on the running of the home, observing that many of the residents behave like children because they are treated as such. When considering why the garden is kept locked in winter and surmising that it’s probably because they don’t want responsibility for any residents freezing to death he offers this gem of wisdom – ‘There’s a big difference between wanting to be in charge, and wanting the responsibility.’ The book is littered with these moments of clarity amidst the humour and daily updates.

Toward the end of the year he begins to struggle to keep his spirits up and highlights the importance of good friends lifting you up when needed, refusing to allow the lethargy to set in. Determined to keep trying new things and not let inaction settle in their lives, the Old-But-Not-Dead Club make life worth living.

This sequel maintains the humour and entertaining characters from the first book but allows a little more space for dwelling on the challenges of life. This is balanced by yet more ambitious Club outings and hilarious accounts of their adventures. A wonderful book about growing older but with messages that are relevant at any age.

Pick up a copy: Foyles Waterstones

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks

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Sacks’ interesting book on language use by deaf people was published in 1989, and although some of the realities have shifted since its publication, many of the misconceptions around sign language remain. The book is comprised of three articles edited into a book, meaning that there is some overlap between sections. It does nonetheless help to build your knowledge throughout so you always feel equipped for each section. The first section gives a brief history of the treatment of deaf people and the way attitudes have changed (and sometimes regressed) over time. The second is the most scientific, discussing the neurological changes that occur in native sign language speakers, and the importance of language acquisition at a young age. The final section is the easiest to get into for the general reader, discussing the protests at Gallaudet College to get a deaf president in post. It is the section where deaf culture is discussed the most and the discussion becomes less about science and more about people.

There have been debates throughout the past few centuries about the best way for deaf people to communicate. Prior to the eighteenth century deaf people we dismissed as ‘deaf and dumb’ and remained isolated. Abbé Sicard began to question why this was and Abbé de l’Epée became fascinated by the sign language used on the streets of Paris. He began to understand that there was more to it than mere pantomime, and this change in attitude paved the way for better understanding and opportunities. It came to be seen that using sign language rather than enforcing speech allowed for greater success and integration. Unfortunately, a lot of this progress was lost at the Milan Convention of 1880 when oralism was voted in as the best method. This meant deaf pupils were prohibited from using sign language, which hampered the development of students who had been born deaf especially. Since then it’s been a long and slow process to have the importance and validity of sign language acknowledged.

Research by the likes of William Stockoe, Ursula Bellugi, and Helen Neville have demonstrated that sign language meets all the criteria of language as well as being processed as such by the brain. Recognition of sign as a language helps in arguments against oralism and for the teaching of it in schools. Sacks also discusses the unique visual skills associated with those fluent in sign language and the naturalness of it to a developing child.

Gallaudet College is mentioned early in the book as a haven for deaf students to flourish. It comes as a surprise therefore to read of the less than ideal governance and exclusion of deaf people from the role of president. In 1988 there were week-long rallies against the appointment of a new, hearing, president. Sacks witnessed these rallies first hand and reports the peacefulness of the experience. He also discusses his own sense of otherness as everybody around him conversed in sign language, of which he knew none. His experiences that week made him appreciate the beauty and fluidity of sign language and inspired him to learn some himself.

This is an interesting read, but focuses more heavily on language acquisition than deaf culture. Despite some parts now being outdated, it is nonetheless a useful reminder of the struggles deaf people have been through to have their languages recognized and to be allowed to use them. It is shocking how recently some of these breakthroughs came. Sacks admits that he enjoys going off on tangents and has included these as endnotes – they are numerous and lengthy, which can distract from the main narrative. I found it easier to go back at the end and read them in isolation as there’s much to be gained. I would recommend this book but perhaps also to combine it with something focused more on deaf culture and some supplementary reading for a more up-to-date position.

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Sunday, 14 June 2020

Crossing in Time, D. L. Orton

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thanks to the publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a review copy of the audiobook.

Isabel and Diego’s relationship takes centre stage in this light sci-fi novel. They live through a time of huge global difficulty, nuclear war threatens and a deadly disease is spreading fast. It becomes clear that going back in time to mend their broken relationship is the only way to save humanity, even if it means risking their own lives. With both characters unreachable in different times and places, will they be able to save the day and find their way back to each other?

From the first time we see them together, in a chance meeting after years apart, we see how their relationship crumbled. Isabel blames Diego for letting her go after she had an affair, taking little responsibility for her own mistakes. When she goes back in time and meets a younger Diego who hasn’t met her yet, she spends her time lecturing him on how to put up with her own problems and inconsistencies, putting all the emphasis on his behaviour. In many ways she doesn’t come across as particularly likeable but the experience does at least teach her to see their past in a new light. Despite their problems, there is an undeniable attraction between them that always draws them together, whether it works out or not.

A recurring theme throughout is Isabel’s relation to men and their attempts at dominance and violence against her. From the opening, a dystopian world in which people are trading laptops for food and in which she has reluctantly come to realise she needs a gun, the men she interacts with all seem to have one thing on their mind, and they are a threat to her. Later, when she is alone and vulnerable, an anonymous attacker attempts to rape her, and, in a different way, her ex-husband tries to maintain dominion over her. He uses his position to force her hand in terms of her work and manoeuvres the situation so that she has to hand over all her research. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why she is so demanding of Diego, she sees it as a relationship she has some control over.

A sci-fi novel might seem like a good source of escapism at the moment, but there are certain parallels that are a bit too close to the real world at the moment. There are some brief mentions of climate change and the need to act, but more so is the pandemic rapidly spreading and the desperate hunt for a vaccine that hasn’t been corrupted. There are throwaway remarks about the possibility of shortages of supplies such as flour and toilet roll, the weak and incompetent leaders delivering the response, and the impact this will have on international relations as well as civil unrest. Everyone is also told to stay home yet many ignore the advice. This was an unexpected aspect of the book and it was strange seeing our own world mirrored so closely in fiction.

Overall, an average read - the plot doesn’t entirely make sense the whole time and the characters aren’t ones you particularly root for. Isabel is blind to her own faults and Diego speaks largely in platitudes and puns. There’s a lot of work around developing their relationship so if you’re after a fast-paced sci-fi adventure then this is probably not the book for you. The most successful aspects are the most human – the grief, the reaction to a broken relationship you can’t move on from, and the little quirks only one who loves you would notice add a sense of reality to the characters. The first in a series, there’s still a lot more to be uncovered.

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Sunday, 7 June 2020

Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore

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Published in 1869 and set in the seventeenth century, Lorna Doone is Blackmore’s most famous book, and the only of his once popular novels that is still readily available. It tells the story of John Ridd, an Exmoor yeoman, and his love for Lorna Doone. The name Doone is met with fear and disgust by the locals, having been terrorized by them for years, they even killed John’s father. Lorna however, rejects their way of life and wishes for the freedom to be with John despite other plans being firmly in place to keep her within the Doone family.

John narrates the tale, although does at one point pass the narrative over to Lorna. He speaks directly to the reader at times, giving glimpses of what his future looks like as well as little asides on his views and opinions which are not always endearing to the modern reader. He is however largely portrayed as kindly if a little vain and you do find yourself hoping that things turn out well for him.

It may be Lorna’s name on the title page but she is not often part of the action, being in large part the greatest dream of John’s heart, who is utterly enchanted from their first meeting. Some readers accuse her of being weak and overly compliant yet there are glimmers of strength within. For example, she tells John that the Doones are ashamed of their villainy in front of her. She must therefore have expressed her distaste for their behaviour, to hold some kind of power over her manipulative and uncaring relatives is no small feat. She is also resilient, growing up in violent surroundings with very little love shown to her, and then trying to fit into the Ridd family when there is a certain level of distance due to her social standing.

The novel is rich in descriptive detail and the landscape is brought to life in much the same way you find in a Hardy novel. Indeed, one of the reasons the local community turn against the Doones, aside from their violence and thievery, is the way they misuse their land. In many ways this is a moral tale, but one in which people are easily forgiven if they exhibit signs of kindness. ‘Everybody cursed the Doones, who lived apart disdainfully. But all good people like Mr Faggus – when he had not robbed them – and many a poor sick man or woman blessed him for other people’s money…’ Mr Faggus is a highwayman, but his involvement in the community and the occasional kind action allow him to be embraced by the very people who may well be his next victim.

This is a long book that could likely have been cut down while still retaining its appeal. For the moments where it drags however there are many more where you become completely absorbed in the story and the writing, which at times feels almost poetic. The Doones are brilliantly drawn villains and never fail to live up to their reputation. There are moments when the tale seems to go off on a tangent and you’re left wondering quite how you got there. Nonetheless, this is a great read with a dramatic, violent climax.

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Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Cookbooks Galore

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We’re now two months into lockdown, the supermarket shelves are generally full once more, and we’ve all been doing a lot of home cooking. I thought this would be a good time to share some of my favourite cookbooks.

I picked up this book over a decade ago before heading off to University and fending for myself for the first time. It’s a great book designed for cooks with limited equipment and money in mind. The spicy risotto and chocolate pudding were firm favourites but there’s so much more on offer. All recipes are rated on difficulty so you can choose your food according to how ambitious you’re feeling.

I feel like almost everyone I know has a copy of this book on their shelves, and it’s a good’un. Full of great ideas for getting more veg into your diet. Personal favourites are the beetroot hummus and a newly discovered peanut noodle salad (even after years of use it’s got some great treasures to discover).

A great book for anyone wanting to take a tentative step into the world of vegetarianism (or those already firmly committed). It offers suggestions for every meal of the day, seasonal ingredients, and even some yummy desserts to round off the day. My most made recipes are the giant wholeweat cousous and sweet potato, and the porcini risotto. The blueberry pancakes are also great as a treat to start the day.

A brilliant book for any health conscious cook, this book is packed full of healthy meal ideas (and healthier desserts), with details about what nutrients each recipe supplies and more general advice about making sure you get enough of what you need. The walnut burgers are great, as are many of the salads and the smoothies. This is probably the book I’ve made the most variety of recipes from, they generally don’t take more than about half an hour to make so it’s perfect for mid-week meals.

A wonderful book full of wholesome, nutritious meal ideas. There’s rarely a week that passes where I don’t make one of her recipes. She has a great website so you can try out some of her recipes before buying the book. They’re often fairly lengthy recipes so make great weekend meals, and the leftovers are perfect for packed lunches during the week.

I’ve had this book on my shelves since it first came out and it’s probably my most used baking book. Lots of tasty, homely recipes, both savoury and sweet, it will inspire you to bake more often. A few of my favourites are the custard creams, chocolate chip cookies, and the blueberry muffin loaf.

Paris Boulangerie Patisserie: Recipes from Thirteen Outstanding French Bakeries by Linda Dannenberg
The first time I went to Paris I fell completely in love with the delicious treats on offer in its boulangeries. It completely ruined the British equivalents for me and I came back determined to learn how to make them myself. This book is a wonderful way to do so. It gives details about some of the author’s most loved Paris boulangeries and offers some recipes from each. The recipes are generally very labour intensive but absolutely worth the effort.

This is a fairly new addition to my baking bookshelf but every recipe looks delicious. There’s a great range of bakes and so far they’ve turned out just as tasty as they promised. Currently munching my way through the white chocolate and coconut semifreddo.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The Bookshops of Hay-on-Wye

The Hay Castle Bookshop

It’s that time of year again, when book lovers would usually be descending on the small town of Hay-on-Wye for its famous literary festival. Unfortunately, the physical festival has had to be cancelled this year, but they’re still offering an impressive array of virtual events for us all to enjoy. The local bookshops will be suffering the financial hit of losing out on their biggest period of sales for the year and so I thought I’d do a run-down of some of my favourite bookshops there and how to support them during this time. I’d also highly recommend visiting when things are open again as it’s a wonderful place to visit at any time of year. The surrounding areas are stunning and Shepherds Ice Cream parlour is the perfect place to refuel in between all that book shopping.

Murder and Mayhem
Addyman Books own three bookish spots across the town – Murder and Mayhem, devoted to detective fiction, Addyman Books, and the Addyman Annexe. Their shops are full of quirky nooks and a great selection of books. You can support them online here.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop is a large converted cinema which is now filled with seemingly endless rows of books. They keep some of their stock outside so you can browse in the sunshine before heading in to lose a few hours browsing. They can be found online here.

Pemberton’s Bookshop is a great spot for those who prefer their books brand new. They offer a great range at good prices and also stock a range of greetings cards and similar. Find them online here.

Richard Booth’s bookshop carries the name of the man who was instrumental in giving Hay its book town status. It’s a wonderful, spacious spot that offers a huge range of both new and second hand books, and there’s even a nice café and cinema. Check them out here.

The upper floor of Richard Booth's bookshop
This is just a small taste of the bookshops in this wonderful little town. Many of the shops specialize in particular subjects whether it be children’s books, music, poetry, or natural history, there’s bound to be something for every reader. Check out the full list.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Detour de France, Michael Simkins

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Simkins takes himself on a three month jaunt around France to broaden his horizons and learn more about the reality of French life. What ensues is a series of amusing encounters that don’t always go to plan but demonstrate his commitment to trying new things and breaking old habits. This can be as simple as taking a dip in the sea, playing a game of petanque, or letting go of his inhibitions and spending a day in a naturist resort. He visits a few popular tourist sprts such as Arles but rarely for the reasons many visit, always searching for a taste of the real France. Despite his hesitation on embracing some of the experiences, he comes to appreciate the time taken over a good meal, the climate, and the importance of doing things properly.

At one point he plays cricket with a group of British immigrants, who despite their moaning about both their home country and their new, all admit to being pleased with their choice despite the sacrifices involved. By the end he is himself quite enamoured by the country but can see its flaws, especially in its infamous bureaucracy and ardent nationalism.

This is an easy to read account of a sometimes ill-fated exploration of a great country with its mystifying rituals and effortless chic. He is able to laugh at both himself and the situations he finds himself in. The humour is occasionally cringey but often genuine and self-deprecating, and you get an insight into what France has to offer the curious tourist determined to step outside his comfort zone.

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Thursday, 7 May 2020

Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas

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The novel gets off to a dramatic start with a car being pushed into a river in an attempt to avoid being caught in infidelity. This first section presents us with an array of unhappy relationships that will develop throughout. Meg, our protagonist, is a ghostwriter for popular genre fiction and aspiring literary author. She is stuck in a damp cottage with a partner she no longer loves, who contributes nothing financially, and causes her a lot of anxiety with his temperamental ways. She reviews books for a local paper and when an unusual non-fiction with strange ideas about the universe and the afterlife lands on her desk she finds her world beginning to shift. What follows is a gently paced tale of very ordinary lives interspersed with musings on the construction of stories, sock knitting, and the role of New Age theories.

These side topics can be frustrating or interesting depending on your taste. The gently littered references to various hobbies can feel natural whereas the longer segues in to conversations about high level theories often feel unnecessarily lengthy and halt the narrative. Thomas makes it clear how these thoughts fit into the overarching purpose of the novel but they can still present a block to enjoyment.

Meg's character is contradictory, but often in ways that tickle the reader. She has very clear ideas about what a genre novel should be and how none of the components can fit into her ‘real’ novel, revealing the pointlessness of snobbery about books. She deletes more words than she replaces and yet believes it is a lack of time that prevents her writing, finding lots of little obstacles, yet she makes use of every spare second when writing her genre fiction, admitting to writing on her phone in supermarket queues. It seems clear that she is setting herself so may tight restrictions to achieve her ‘real’ novel and therefore stunts her imagination, enjoyment of the writing, and therefore probably also that of the reader, should she ever finish it.

Her constant excuses and imagined barriers are also reflected in the inability to escape unhappy relationships in both herself and her friends. She does eventually realise that there’ll always be reasons why now is not a good time but that they’re not worth wasting your life for. This revelation is a relief to readers as the picture built up of her relationship is so claustrophobic and unhealthy that you’re desperate for her to escape.

This is a gentle read with believable characters living very ordinary lives and for the inquisitive mind there’s much beyond the narrative to get stuck in to. The relationships depicted feel real and Thomas doesn’t present us with all the answers for a happily ever after.

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Thursday, 30 April 2020

Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Vincent van Gogh is today one of the world’s most beloved artists. His distinctive style is instantly recognizable and the legend that has built up around his life and death promote the idea of him as a tortured genius. This epic biography paints a more balanced picture, focusing not just on the final few dramatic years of his life in which he painted many of his most iconic pictures. Instead, the reader is taken through a detailed account of his whole life – his struggles and failures, obsessions and hopes. At times it is difficult to read the harsh realities of a troubled life.

From his early years he longed for close familial relations, something that remained largely absent throughout his life. His strained relationship with his parents and the circumstances around his father’s death meant an icy reception for their wayward son. His brother Theo often took the role of peacemaker. His relationship with Theo was arguably the most significant of his life but was also fraught with difficulty. Theo financially supported his brother for most of his adult life and suffered social exclusion when he came to live with him in Paris. Vincent seems to have swung between a sense of entitlement and deep feelings of guilt for the burden he knew he was to his brother. The passages describing some of their interactions show behaviour that is nothing short of abusive and is incredibly hard to read. Despite their difficulties, Theo continued to champion Vincent and hope for success in his endeavours.

Vincent emerges as unlikable at times but often as childishly innocent, longing for acceptance and a family home. He travelled around a fair amount and would dream of Theo joining him. His preparations of the Yellow House for Gauguin’s arrival are endearing but the reader is left with a sense of dread knowing his hopes will once more be dashed with disappointment.

He was an outcast wherever he went, people finding his intense painting style alarming and his disheveled appearance a point of mockery. It is this rejection by society that defined his life. He enrolled in art school on a number of occasions but inevitably dropped out due to his unwillingness or inability to follow instruction. His first taste of potential success appeared mere months before his death thanks to the championing of Albert Aurier, a young art critic, but he was sadly not well enough to enjoy it.

Naifeh and Smith rarely speculate throughout, relying on documentary evidence to trace the tumultuous life of Van Gogh. They do not attempt to diagnosis his ailments but merely report on his medical record, explaining the context and medical developments that were happening at the time of his treatment. One point on which they do object however, is the myth of his untimely death. In an appendix that details the evidence that led to their conclusion and the flaws in sources for the alternative, they offer a reasoned debate. This part of the book did not go down well with many in the art world however, and they were accused of having included it purely for the publicity it inevitably created around publication.

A comprehensive, well researched biography that is easy to read thanks to its lively and smooth prose. The wider artistic and cultural conditions of the day are brought to life, situating Van Gogh very much in his time. If you want to know more about the man behind the legend then this is a great place to start.

Further resources can be found at and scans and transcripts of Van Gogh’s letters can be viewed on

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Novel Houses: Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings, Christina Hardyment

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In this journey through literature from Horace Walpole to J. K. Rowling, Hardyment attempts to demonstrate the central importance of houses in literature. She explores the influences and inspiration of some of the best loved fictional dwellings and considers how these buildings sometimes become characters in their own right. The twenty chosen novels are dealt with chronologically, allowing the reader to understand the progression of ideas and how the authors could be influenced by each other. Each chapter lasts on average only ten pages but there feels a great difference in the depth of analysis between them.

The likes of Walter Scott and Horace Walpole were interested in the medieval period and this is reflected not just in their writing (in which Hardyment points out their aims and preoccupations relevant to their contemporary political and social situations) but also in their own homes. Later authors are attributed to having particular obsessions with the idea of home or of one particular house that they mentally held on to throughout their lives. These claims occasionally feel a bit loosely evidenced with only a couple of quotes thrown in to add seeming authenticity.

Some chapters offer interesting analysis of the text, explaining how buildings were personified or used to explore certain character traits, reversing expectations. Others seem to be largely padded out with a synopsis of the story, unnecessarily revealing plot points with little relevance to Hardyment’s arguments. I’d previously read about half the books discussed and this allowed for a good mix in enjoyment. If familiar with all twenty I’m not sure you’d get much from this book.

A beautiful book with moments of insight but not overall adding much to the conversation. It did, however, pique my interest in a number of the books I’ve yet to read and is a gentle, bookish read.

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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

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James’s most famous ghost story is set in a remote house with a small cast of characters. A young governess has recently joined the household and although at first believes it to be an idyllic post, she soon finds herself entangled in a terrible tale. She begins to see ghostly figures around the estate that resemble previous employees who are recently deceased. The two children in her care are well behaved and beautiful but she soon comes to believe they are in league with the ghosts, leading to a tragic attempt to protect them.

The novel is told in first person narrative by the governess (except for the opening which merely introduces the account that follows). We see in her a woman who takes on far more than she can manage in a futile attempt to please her employer, who remains absent throughout. Seeing events unfold through her eyes we are led to understand how she came to her conclusions yet critics have been divided over whether or not the ghosts are real or if she is descending into madness. James’s careful ambiguity has allowed this debate to rage for decades and it is ultimately a question that will remain forever unanswered. Whichever way you read it, it is clear that you cannot take the narrative as absolute truth.

The first appearance of the ghost peering in through the window is truly unsettling and as the story progresses the governess fabricates an internal life for them, imagining their purpose and beliefs despite them never speaking a word or indicating any intention to do harm. Is she allowing her paranoia and imagination to run away from her? Rumours of the actions of both the previous employees hang over the governess and contribute to her belief that their presence will end in harm.

The children have moments of playing up which she believes is a result of ghostly interference, causing a strong reaction in her. The children are unsurprisingly unnerved by the seemingly erratic, extreme responses of their governess. Is she acting in selfless defence of her charges, wishing to be the hero of their story, or are her own delusions causing their strange behaviour?

An atmospheric read that will send shivers down your spine. Whether character study or ghost story, it is an intriguing tale and a sinister one at that. A book that stands up well to a re-read, especially when considering the opposing interpretations.

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Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The Moth: Occasional Magic, ed. Catherine Burns

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Founded by George Dawes Green, The Moth had its first event in 1997. The venues and audiences may have grown but the essence is the same – a microphone and a selection of speakers sharing their stories with a room of strangers. The Moth now has a large following with millions of podcast subscribers, regular radio slots, and sell-out shows across the world, it reminds us of the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Occasional Magic is the latest book to come out of the project and it makes for emotional reading. You’ll find yourself completely immersed and invested in the fifty tales within its pages. The stories are varied - from finding out a parent isn’t quite what you thought to losing a loved one, trekking across Antarctica, or confronting an inappropriate street performer. The storytellers come from all walks of life, offering an insight into experiences so different from our own and yet reminding us of our shared humanity.

The stories are all fairly short but you’ll struggle to put the book down as you alternate between laughing and crying, with moments where you need to sit with what you’ve just read. This is a brilliant read that reminds you there is hope in even the darkest of times and that every life has some occasional magic in it.

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