Findings by Kathleen Jamie

This collection of essays was first published in 2005. I read it after finishing Surfacing, Jamie’s latest collection which came out at the end of last year. Jamie fuses writing and observation together and makes it seem so easy. That’s her job though and until recently she taught her creative writing students to do the same.

In Findings there are journeys around Scotland: watching raptors through her own attic window, up to Orkney for Solstice, over to the Hebrides and tales of bones, salmon and corncrakes.

There are family members woven into the book, reminders that life is not purely about chasing a good story. Peoples of the past feature in trying to decipher our history so we can work out what’s needed in the future, what things might change and thoughts on what we might do differently for the future.

Kathleen Jamie is of course also a poet. So here she is reading Mr & Mrs Scotland are Dead. Further information and her bibliography can be found here.

Join us on Zoom to read and enjoy Kathleen’s work.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks By Rebecca Skloot

This true story is a fascinating history of a family and how they unintentionally and unknowingly became involved in one of the most important science stories of the last century. Thanks to the publication of this book, Henrietta’s family have had some financial recompense and finally understand how their mother/grandmother has done so much for modern science and healthcare. We have all benefitted for research into HeLa cells and continue to do so. Science is currently trying to understand how to deal with COVID19 and HeLa cells are being used to do do. If you’ve never heard this story before you can find a summary here.

Yes, this is a book infused with science (don’t be put off by this), yet its also a human story about being poor and black in America, obtaining any kind of healthcare and trying to get your voice heard. It also raises issues of consent for research on human tissue and discusses the topic of when your tissue ceases to be part of you, who makes money on the back of ‘you’ and the journey of these topics through the courts. Here are two of Henrietta’s descendants delivering a TED talk.

A highly recommended slice of science history.

Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women by Sharon Blackie

Looking for choices for the Virtual Book Group, I wanted to select a variety of genres, so that the choices weren’t all full length novels or non-fiction that people might find difficult to get into. This book by Sharon Blackie is the perfect short story collection for the lengthening nights of autumn 2020 likely spent at home while the pubs and theatres wait for ‘normal service’ to resume.

The stories collected here are reimaginings of older tales or contain characters developed from these tales. At the back of the book there are outlines of the originals and where they came from, providing signposts to further reading for those interested. There are tales drawn from Scotland, Ireland, Croatia, Central Europe and Scandinavia.

In the book we find stories originally passed down in the oral tradition, changed and embellished as Sharon has done here in written form, as we no longer gather together to tell stories we must use books to pass on the magic. If we are lucky our parents read to us when we are small, then we are encouraged to ‘go it alone’ when we can read for ourselves and the sharing of reading in our lives becomes less common used only for speeches and sermons.

Within Foxfire, Wolfskin we meet the Cailleach, wolf-woman, the Snow Queen amongst others. There are ancient settings of woods and glens travelled on foot contrasting with the more modern spiritual retreat reached by minibus.

Who’s up for a Zoom reading of some of these stories? You don’t need the book, I’ll read to you. I’ll brush up on my Gaelic, or you can chuckle as I make a pig’s ear of it. It’ll be like Jackanory.

You can find out more about Sharon and her books here.

Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi

I came across this title in the summer while attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival from the comfort of my own armchair having driven precisely zero miles and with a cup of tea in my own mug. The event was free like lots of others this year, though I did support the festival by buying from the bookshop. I was able for the first time to attend events over different days and would welcome the opportunity to buy online tickets for events and festivals in the future. You can view the talk here. I believe it’s online until the end of 2020.

In the wake of so many events and crises that seem to be hitting the world at breakneck speed (many chickens coming home to roost at once, perhaps) and once again feeling powerless to do anything about any of them, I made a decision to look out black writers after the huge Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. The best mode of action is to educate yourself and change your way of thinking. I bought this book after watching the above talk and hearing Olufemi reading powerfully from the introduction.

A lot of the ideas it calls for are endpoints and are radical changes to society as we know it, such as free education and transport for all, the abolition of prisons, all having enough to eat, the collective bringing up of children, everyone having the means and environment to make art. The book is slim and Olufemi admits there are gaps to be filled, but as a starting point for a fairer society and for some frightening stats on racism and misogyny it is useful. There are quotes a plenty from older authors (Olufemi is only 26) Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, bell hooks and as ever the reading list grows longer.

This is a book to make you think. You can purchase from Pluto Press here.

Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers, edited by Kit De Waal

There are thirty-three writers contributing pieces to produce this book, so too many to list here, but they’re all in the cover photo shot. Your bound to know a couple of the names here. They are comprised of 16 previously published writers and 16 new writers. It begins with a poem by Tony Walsh, but the majority of the book is made up of short essays from all corners of the UK.

One of the early pieces is Working Class: An Escape Manual by Lisa McInerney, which covers the topic of social mobility. But say you manage it, whatever your ambition was, what happens then? It’s a fascinating topic the main theme of course in many films and books and very well done here too.

The book closes with some stats about the class differences in writing and publishing, for example 47% of writers in Britain are drawn from the most privileged starting points, while only 10% have parents with working class origins.

Thumbing through my copy for highlights I find there are too many, but stories emanate from the playground, to trips to town to buy uniform, early homes made in tower blocks and terraced houses, memories of parents on strike, first days at work and games of darts and pool. It’s always good to immerse yourself in writing you can identify with and not everyone will have experienced all the perspectives contained here. And if the working class is not your background, it’s good to open your eyes to a fresh set of stories.

Here is Kit de Waal eloquently explaining the ideas behind the book and more besides.

You can buy a copy from the publishers Unbound here. It was originally a crowdfunded project. Happy it made it to publication.

Hings By Chris McQueer

This is a short story collection by a 20-something writer from Glasgow. It came out in 2017 and there has followed a second collection called HWFG.

Chris has a skill for writing real life with the unique viewpoint of the young person. He has an eye for character and his stories are just downright funny and sometimes a little sad about folk we all have seen shades of in ourselves and those we know. Ok, there’s exaggeration here, but that’s part of the fun.

I first discovered Chris and his writing via the internet. His publisher (404 Ink) had recorded Chris performing his stories. He writes as he speaks, in Scots, and the language is colourful, so just to be aware if that’s not normally your thing, or hing, as Chris would say.

I gave both books to my teenage son who has fallen out of the habit of reading, even though English is still studied at school. He devoured both books, I suspect because of the language and viewpoint and, as he told me, he liked the short story format. There is no huge time investment required here, you can read a few pages here and a few there.

The stories are set in the playground, on the nightbus, include fitbaw and bowls, shiftswaps and trips to Blackpool.

BBC Scotland has featured Chris and you can watch him in a documentary clip here and performing his work (non BBC – too much swearing) here.

Hings and HWFG can be bought from the 404 ink shop.

If you’ve a mind join us to read some of Chris’s stories via Zoom get in touch and I’ll let you know when that might be.

The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú, translated by John F. West.

You know when someone lends you a book and you read it (or add it to the reading pile) and forget to give it back. Well that’s what happened with this title, except I have read it, but I’ve kept hold of it, so I could include here. And I will give it back. Honest.

I’ve always been fascinated by islands and the resilience of their communities and was reading about the Faroe Islands in a history book that had come into the bookshop. My brother remembered he had bought this translated novel to gain some insight into a trip he had planned. And it slipped onto my reading pile. The Old Man and His Sons gave life and depth to the factual history whose author had in fact translated the book from Faroese.

Faroese was never written down in standardized form until the late 19th century when a group of activists persisted in compiling dictionaries, pinning down orthography and etymology and writing down the oral ballads, poems and folk tales. Until then official business and children’s education was conducted in Danish.

There a Faroese version of a Selkie story (in English!) and an image of the statue inspired by the tale here.

This book by Heðin Brú was the first Farose novel to be translated into English. It was written in the 1940s, a time when there was British occupation during the second world war (the islands occupy a useful position in the North Atlantic). The stories in the book bridge a gap between the planet friendly centuries old way of life make do with whatever is to hand versus the lifestyle of his sons and their new families who build their lives on consumption and credit. There is also insight into the day to day lives of the Farose and their rituals and ceremonies.

The cover is whale themed, a nod to the indigenous whaling that still happens today. The first chapter describes the islanders participating in a whale drive. The Faroes whale for cultural reasons rather than sustenance. The last time they depended on whale meat for survival was during WW2 when nearly all of their fish was sold to Britain.

Here’s the landscape given the cinematic treatment. Enjoy.

From What Is To What If by Rob Hopkins

Ok, I’ve just looked at the news and decided to write this, so as not to dwell on what is or what might be about to happen. I’m new to Rob Hopkins, so there are plenty of others better qualified to write this blog, but all movements need new members and I’m trying to fly the flag here. I’m also saying I’ve five copies of this book to GIVE AWAY thanks to Book Week Scotland, so if you want one (after I’ve sold the idea to you) please do come and get one, or share with someone you know, or order your own copy here.

Here’s a quote from the flap of the dust jacket:

‘If there’s a consensus about anything in today’s fractured world, it’s that the future is going to be awful. Unprecedented levels of anxiety and loneliness, especially among young people, have metastasized into a severe mental health crisis of epidemic proportions. Extremist movements and governments are on the rise. Catastrophic climate change is underway. Biodiversity loss. Food insecurity. The fracturing of entire ecosystems beyond repair. The future to say nothing of the present – looks grim.’

Wow. But then the introduction begins:

‘What if things turned out ok?’

And this is what the book is about. The main themes are using the imagination as a starting point to change things, connecting with nature, telling better stories and asking better questions. Is it a manual to change the world? Possibly, but not by itself. People are required.

And of course there’s a book quote. From the chapter on reclaiming our attention:

‘…at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books. This might sound like a lot, except that it’s far less time than the average American spends on social media (608 hours) or watching TV (1642 hours). We don’t have to read 200 books a year. Reading even one book is a meaningful act of resistance- and enough to remind us how pleasurable, calming and nourishing it can be. Let us read more books.’

Rob Hopkins has a website that you can find here.

So, this tiny blog that I’m beavering away at, the books I’ve read and ordered to share for Book Week and the funding I applied for to enable this to happen is my small attempt to do something positive. To share the ideas I’ve found in these books. For example when things improve, after COVID imagine closing off your street to traffic, sharing food, playing music and street games. And not just to celebrate a coronation, a royal wedding or the end of a war. How about we celebrate ourselves?

In the meantime, imagine a shared reading via Zoom. I’ll let you know when it is.

The Camomile by Catherine Carswell

I first came across Catherine Carswell in top ten of favourite books by Scottish writers compiled by Janice Galloway. The title in the list wasn’t The Camomile, but The Life of Robert Burns which she had the audacity to write in 1930, which recognised his genius, but also described his affairs, illegitimate children and drunken exploits. The Burns Traditionalists were not happy and she received a bullet in the post with a note asking her to make the world a cleaner place. Hate mail and death threats were obviously more considered back then. A more detailed biography and a list of further publications can be found here.

The Camomile was published in 1920 and features Ellen Carstairs from Glasgow sending letters in journal form to her friend Ruby. It is considered to be semi-autobiographical and comparisons can be made with her own restricted opportunities because she is female and that of her brother Ronald and she searches for a room of one’s own in which to follow her passion: writing. I feel she is also outlining how women carry the baggage and fallout from their husband’s/lover’s life and in the biography mentioned above describes how Robert Burns manages to get away with it.

This novel is currently out of print and I can’t find a digital copy, so for the moment the only way to read it is the old fashioned library visit or secondhand bookshop (virtual if you are about to go into lockdown). I have three copies left from my book club bundle. Send me a message at gillian{at} and I’ll work out how to get one to you.

The Emma Press Anthology of Illness edited by Amy Mackelen and Dr Dylan Jaggard

Of course there had to be poetry. I love poetry. I write poetry. Not in an academic way, I am no academic, I accidentally re-discovered poetry in my late 30s as a result of an enterprise called World Book Night. So, why is this book included the Really Virtual Book Group? Because I have a poem within its pages! No, no that’s not true, well it is, but that’s not the reason. The book is brand new, published September 2020, rather timely in the middle of a pandemic when we’re all considering the effects of contracting or avoiding COVID 19.

Most of the poems describe chronic illnesses or disabilities. Mental illness also features. To quote from the introduction: ‘these poems explore the purgatory of illness, and the unexpected swerves a life can take while waiting for a doctor’s lips to move’.

Titles to whet your appetite include: ‘The Problem with Good Looking Oncologists’ by Sharon Black, ‘Shitting in a Bag’ by Mairi-Claire Traynor and ‘Vulnerable Adult’ by Holly Magill.

The book was put together pre-COVID, so none of that in here. The avalanche of COVID poetry and its echoes will be with us soon enough.

If you are interested in hearing the poets, you can dip in and out of this reading.

And if you’d like a copy of the book, I have 5 copies to give away via the book group, or you can visit the Emma Press Shop here.