Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

night-flightDid you know that the author of The Little Prince wrote about dangerous flights in South America? Well – now you do! My review of Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is over at Shiny New Books, and the beginning of it is here:

If the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry means anything to you, it probably only means one thing: The Little Prince. It was this contrast between legacy and his 1931 novel Night Flight that intrigued me to pick up a copy when Alma Classics printed it with a new translation by David Carter – and what an intriguing little book it is.

The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels

mens-clubA nice issue of Shiny New Books is coming out later this week, and I’ve still got a couple reviews I’ve not sent you towards. So you’ll get a couple in quick succession – tiding me over while my wrist recovers (which also accounts for how few reviews I have in Issue 13, sadly). Firstly, here’s a very strange, somehow also very good, book from 1978: The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels. The whole review is here, and here’s the beginning of it:

There have been quite a few reprints, in recent years, from the interwar period and thereabouts. We are familiar with Golden Age detective fiction coming back into print, or the likes of Persephone, Virago Modern Classics, and others looking to the 1920s and 1930s for forgotten gems. Less often do reprints emerge from the 1970s – and so it was intriguing that Daunt Books have looked to Leonard Michaels and The Men’s Clubfor their latest offering (originally published in 1978 according to the inner flap, and 1981 according to Wikipedia – who knows?).

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (guest review)

My RSI has come back so my one-handed typing is being restricted as much as possible – perfect timing for my housemate Melissa to write a review I can use over here – this time of a much-loved classic. As always, do make her welcome! Over to you, Melissa…

thefirstfouryearsIn my family home, the Little House on the Prairie books are a massive deal. They’re legendary. They’re practically Scripture. (Not actually Scripture though. In my family we take actual Scripture very seriously indeed, and it most definitely does not get confused with other stuff.) From the time I could first read to when I left home, I must have read the entire series every couple of years at least, which adds up to an impressive number of times.

The Little House books take the reader on a journey through the challenges of a little pioneering family venturing into the uncharted American West in the late 1800s. They’re told through the eyes of little Laura, for the most part based on the author’s life, and the books grow with her. Not only does her perspective change, but the language becomes more complex, the number of pictures gradually reduces, and even the font gets smaller from one book to the next. What I love about these books is the delicious level of detail. If I could handle an axe, I could quite happily build my own log cabin based purely on the description of Pa building one. Alternatively, I could make hats from loose straw, or cure venison, or sew a rag rug (that last one is actually on my list of projects this winter).

The First Four Years, though, is a bit of an oddity. Look up the box set of Little House books online, and you’ll see it tacked on the end, less than half the size of any of the others in the series. Unlike the rest, it was not published in Laura’s lifetime, nor even finished; although it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s really just an early draft of a book that was never completed. As a child who had loved the earlier books, I read it and disliked it. It reads clumsily, spoils scenes from the previous book by repeating them less well, inexplicably uses a different name for one of the main characters. As for the story, which picks up where the last one left off with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder, it feels just like a long list of disasters. The neat closure of the previous book is destroyed and all in all it leaves a bit of a bad taste.

But I’m not here to diss the book. In fact, quite the opposite. Over the last week I’ve reread the entire series, and thoroughly enjoyed the who thing, but this last book stood out as by far the most interesting read, for the very same reasons I didn’t enjoy it as a child.

Like I just said, the book reads like a long list of disasters. The fact is, however, that the other books also tell of many hardships. The entire plot line of The Long Winter, for instance, is simply one blizzard following another while the whole town gradually runs out of coal and then food – not exactly cheery. The difference is mainly that the other books are more detailed; a higher proportion of the pages are given up to descriptions of the wild prairies, family gatherings round a cosy fire, and how to make a fish trap. There’s also a much thicker coat of perspective. Laura’s approach to life, learnt from her parents, is built around simple faith, strict codes of behaviour and a solid work ethic. There is no time for questioning the way things are, no option but to work hard and trust that all will come well in the end. This may sound harsh to modern ears, but it is the only way to survive in an untamed world. And within this clear-cut structure there is room for love and happiness to flourish; there is joy to be found in hard work and accomplishment, in good food and beautiful surroundings, in music and laughter, in the harmony of a caring family where each one is valued and needed by each of the others.

In The First Four Years, much of this veneer is stripped away, leaving the bare bones of the story obvious. It’s a reminder that life was simply very hard and what we would now see as abject poverty was the norm. To me, it was a humbling reminder of how little most of us have to contend with these days, with our indoor plumbing and central heating and effective healthcare; and, quite frankly, what a bad job we often make of it. I know it takes considerably less than a grasshopper plague destroying my year’s work to reduce me to a shivering wreck of anxiety.

I have a feeling that the difference is something to do with how solid our worldviews are; in a pluralistic world, my generation has learnt to question everything and to build our own truth, which can make the simplest things in life incredibly complicated and exhausting. It makes me question the value of questioning things. It almost makes me jealous, although I don’t fancy the food insecurity. Finally, it’s yet another reminder that difficult circumstances absolutely do not have to define your life, if you believe in something that runs deeper.

The other thing that made this read interesting was the insight into how Laura wrote. The story may be complete, but the book is unfinished. Descriptions and reflections are present, but they don’t flow. The characters aren’t really developed; we know Laura well, and Almanzo less well, from the rest of the series, but we don’t get the chance to really meet anyone else. It seems that Laura’s approach was simply to get the story down on paper first, then add the flourishes later. I think I could learn from her here – my first attempt at the NaNoWriMo challenge has yielded a paltry 1,866 words, partly because I spend so long fussing over getting each sentence right rather than getting on with the story.

As a wannabee writer (like literally every other arts graduate I know), I also found it encouraging that the book was, frankly, not great. In case you didn’t catch this at the beginning, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote some of my very favourite books, and the rest of the world seems to rather like them too, but it seems her drafts didn’t cut it. If even the best have to start by producing something unimpressive, then I needn’t balk at my own poor attempts. This leaves me with no excuse not to try. I like that.

Maybe I’ll see if I can hit that 2000 word mark tomorrow.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

purple-hibiscusI’m still playing catch-up with Shiny New Books reviews – and so onto my review of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Definitely my most coveted books of 2016 are these reprints. And the book was excellent too, of course! The full review is here, and below is the opening of it…

It might seem strange to include a novel in the reprints section that is only 13 years old – but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently had all of her books to date reprinted by 4th Estate with beautiful African prints for the covers, and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to acquaint myself with her first novel: Purple Hibiscus.

Everybody else got on the Adichie train years ago, but I only encountered her earlier in 2016 while reading Americanah. While her most recent novel is more ambitious and broader in scope than Purple Hibiscus, there are many of the same hallmarks in her debut – perhaps primarily the confident, sensitive storytelling.

Tea or Books? #29: short stories (yes or no?) and Bricks and Mortar vs Princes in the Land

Two more Persephones in this episode – Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton and Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan – along with a discussion of short stories: which writers we like and don’t like, and whether or not we’d race towards short stories in a bookshop.

 

Tea or Books logoAs always, we’d love to know your choices – and any topics or books you’d like us to cover in future episodes.

Listen to us above, or via a podcast app, or (if you’re feeling daring) at our iTunes page. Our ratings button there has stalled at ‘not enough ratings to display an average’ since day one, so cheer us up and give us a rating. Unless it’s one star, then amuse yourself elsewhere.

Here are the (many!) books and authors we discuss in this episode:

H.G. Wells and His Family (as I have known them) by M.M. Meyer
Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir by Cicely Greig
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton
The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
The Golden Age by Martin Edwards
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
Edgar Allan Poe
Agatha Christie
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Katherine Mansfield – ‘At the Bay’, ‘Prelude’, ‘Miss Brill’, ‘Bliss’, ‘The Garden Party’
The Closed Door and other stories by Dorothy Whipple
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Elizabeth Taylor
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
Richard Yates
William Maxwell
‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl
‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
‘After You, My Dear Alphonse’ by Shirley Jackson
Daphne du Maurier
A Table Near the Band and other stories by A.A. Milne
The Birthday Party and other stories by A.A. Milne
A.L. Kennedy
The Montana Stories
Tea With Mr Rochester
by Frances Towers
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge
The Woman Novelist and other stories by Diana Gardner
Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
High Table by Joanna Cannan
Parson Austen’s Daughter by Helen Ashton
Return to Cheltenham by Helen Ashton
Greengates by R.C. Sherriff
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

Yellow books in Piccadilly

I was in London on Saturday, seeing various different friends for much-overdue catch-ups. The first thing I did, actually, was go to a private gallery for the first time in my life. I love Raoul Dufy so didn’t want to miss an exhibition of his work at Connaught Brown – and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings came along with me. We had a lovely time, though decided, on the whole, not to pay £30,000 for a painting. A difficult decision to make, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But just before that, actually, I spent a birthday book token from my friend Malie – and I did it in Waterstones Piccadilly, which has an excellent section devoted to independent publishers. It’s next to the ‘Black writing’ shelves, which is why a non-independent-publisher snuck into my pile. (Also, query, Eudora Welty was under ‘Black writing’… she was white, wasn’t she?)

Here are the books I bought with my book token, clutched in what my friend Lucy refers to as my ‘serial killer gloves’:

 

yellow-books

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Yes, secondhand copies of this are ten a penny, but I am so in love with the covers to these 4th Estate reprints. Three down, one to go!

The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis
I spent quite a while going through the NYRB Classics, trying to decide which I wanted, and chose this novella in the end. It sounds quite dark (about a grandmother murdering her grandchild) but also potentially really interesting. And maybe my first Greek novel?

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig
I read Confusion in the same style reprint from Pushkin, and couldn’t resist a matching edition.

Only when I took the photo did I realise that I’d apparently been drawn to yellow books particularly… Have you read any of these?

Pulitzer Prizewinners (do I like them?)

I’m currently wading through Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See for my book group – 400 pages out of 520 odd – and sick to death of it. It’s not necessarily that I think it’s bad (though others almost instinctively have); it’s more that I can’t really see the point of it. And it’s so long. Almost no novels need to be that long.

But it is emblazoned with a ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Price for Fiction 2015’ sticker – well, a sticker built into the cover. Which made me realise that I’ve never paid all that much attention to the Pulitzer. I know some awards are more likely to put me off a book (Man Booker) and some have traditionally been successes for me (James Tait Black) – so, what of the Pulitzer?

It has been awarded since 1917 (though, brilliantly, they decided not to award it to anything in its inaugural year) and you can read all the recipients here. Let’s see which I’ve read, and what I thought of them, because why not.

1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Found this one a bit of a disappointment. Much like the Doerr – just not bothered. More here.

1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Really loved this one – indeed, it made it onto my 50 Books list.

1961: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Love it. Obviously.

1973: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

This was one of the very best books I read in 2014.

1981: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Loved this one too – also for my book group. Unexpectedly adored it.

1999: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

One of my favourites too – a really spectacular novel that I have re-read and loved (and that doesn’t happen all that often).

2005: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Surely everybody knows by now how much I love and rate this novel. Robinson is extraordinary.

And that’s it. What I had not appreciated, until I read the Wikipedia page, is that it’s only awarded to American writers who depict American life. Which, given my relatively poor reading of American literary history, is probably why I’ve come up with so few titles.

But, of those, I loved almost all of them. And the ones I hadn’t read were nearly all familiar – they’ve certainly picked books and authors with longevity (which may or may not be self-fulfilling). By contrast, look up the Orange Prize and good luck if you know any of them.

How do you rate the Pulitzer Prize? Will it put you off and make you read? And – most importantly – will I ever, ever finish the final hundred pages of Doerr’s book before book group tomorrow?

I bought books. So many books.

It’s been a couple of years since I went to Hay on Wye, and on Saturday I went back. No matter how many times I go, I can never quite get over the joy of so many bookshops in one place – though there are fewer each time I visit, which is slightly sad. Still, I came away with quite a few gems, including some quirky titles I wouldn’t have heard about except through browsing.

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And Even Now by Max Beerbohm
Yet Again by Max Beerbohm
Every time I do a book haul, I seem to have bought more books by Beerbohm. To date, I have only read two. But… well, those two were great.

Zuleika in Cambridge by S.C. Roberts
I read about this riposte in the introduction to Zuleika Dobson (tying in to the Beerbohm titles above), and it was fun to stumble across it in Addyman Books.

Our Heritage of Liberty by Stephen Leacock
READ MORE LEACOCK SIMON. I have so many unread. But I’ve never heard of this. And I’m intrigued to hear about what Canada’s heritage of liberty is.

Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley
I thought I already owned this Persephone book, but LibraryThing tells me I don’t. I haven’t yet checked my Persephone shelf to make sure…

Essays in Satire by Ronald Knox
After a quick flick through, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of satire in this collection – but it looks like an entertaining read, and a really pretty book too.

The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills
I haven’t read a Mills book for ages, and I keep stocking up on them – are you sensing a theme in this haul post? (Sidenote: it’s relatively seldom that I buy a novel by an author I know nothing at all about.)

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
This was the first VSW novel I read, back in around 2002, and didn’t much like it. But since then I’ve come to really love her, so… maybe now I’d like it? If not, a pretty Virago with a nice cover (painting by Kees van Dongen) ain’t a bad thing.

Corduroy by Adrian Bell
Yes, OK, I did already have a copy of this – but this is a Slightly Foxed Edition. Yum.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays
I read a few of these Pandora titles back in the day (18th-century novels by women), and have long intended to read more. Mary Brunton was a great discovery back then.

The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts
This green Penguin is beyond tatty, but I’m up for reading more FWC after finding him through the British Library reprints.

Guy and Pauline by Compton Mackenzie
After reading Poor Relations while I was in Edinburgh, I wanted to read some more by Mackenzie. Only £1 for this one, though I know nothing at all about it.

Tomorrow Will Be Better by Betty Smith
I haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn yet, despite meaning to for years, but this one leapt off the shelf into my hands.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
This has been on my wishlist for many years, though I can’t actually remember why. Somebody presumably reviewed or recommended it? Anybody?

Simple People by Archibald Marshall
Seems to be witty essays about people’s professions, maybe? I love a witty essay. And the name rings a bell for some reason.

Friendship and Happiness by Arnold Bennett
A little volume about Christmas, I think, and how its meaning has changed. Bennett seems to have put pen to paper with every thought that crossed his mind, publishing them as little hardbacks, and I am not mad at it.

Fiction as She is Wrote by ‘Evoe’
Evoe is, I believe, E.V. Knox – and this collection of spoofs looks at different types of popular fiction in the 1920s. I just love this sort of thing. And I love the reference to archetypal English as She is Spoke.

Intimate Things by Karel Capek
I need to read more of the Capek books I’ve been piling up, and this collection of essays is probably where I’ll start. I think it’s quite similar, in conception, to Delight by J.B. Priestley.

The Novel and Our Time by Alex Comfort
This little book looks at different trends in fiction of its time – the time being 1948 – though a post-buy flick through suggests it might be more connected with Russian literature than I recollected.

Lives for Sale ed. by Mark Bostridge
A collection of biographers writing about their biographical experiences, which sounds fantastic. Names include Lyndall Gordon, Claire Harman, Hermione Lee, Frances Spaling, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Jenny Uglow – basically everybody you could hope for. And will (fingers crossed) answer all the questions that come to mind when I read a biography.

Bestseller by Claud Cockburn
I read bits of this in the Bodleian during my DPhil – looking at the bestselling books of the first half of the 20th century – so it’s nice to get an affordable copy for my shelves.

First Editions of To-day and How to Tell Them by H.S. Boutell
I’m not that interested in finding first editions (or first impressions, as the note assures me is meant) – this 1920-something book is just an intriguing curiosity. Every publishing house of the day is listed, with descriptions of how you can be sure you’re getting a first impression – so it’s mostly interesting for an overview of the publishing industry at my favourite time for books.

Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain
I love personal, anecdotey memoirs of famous authors.

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger
Chaos and Night by Henry de Montherlant
A whole bunch of NYRB Classics – which I can almost never resist.

Right! There we are. So many books!

Tea or Books? #28: scary vs not scary, and The Home-Maker vs The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Two Persephone titles will help solace us in these bizarre post-election days.


 

Tea or Books logoWe’ve been away for a while because I lost my voice – sorry! – but Rachel (Book Snob) and I are back, talking about The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Before that, we chat scary books, because we haven’t recorded since Hallowe’en.

The world is a scary place right now. I have not come to terms with Trump being President-Elect at all. The idea that somebody could wage a campaign in that way and win… it’s just inconceivable. So let’s turn to books, at least for a moment or two.

We’d love to hear what you’d pick in each of these categories, and any ideas for future episodes. Listen above, via your podcast app of choice, or at our iTunes page. Why not even rate and review us?

Here are the books and authors we mention in this episode…

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (I think I forgot to say the title of any of hers…)
The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Private Demons: the Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Agatha Christie
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Edgar Allan Poe
Mist and other stories by Richmal Crompton
Ghost stories by Edith Wharton
Casting the Runes by M. R. James
Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Don’t Look Now and other stories by Daphne du Maurier
Goosebumps
Point Horror
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski
Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski

To The River by Olivia Laing

to-the-riverSomehow it took me months and months to read To The River (2011) by Olivia Laing, having it on the go alongside lots of other books I was reading – and yet it is likely to be on my best books of the year. I think I was enjoying it so much, and realising what an unusually perfect book for me it was, that I didn’t want to read any of it unless I was in exactly the right mood.

I discovered that To The River existed when reading reviews of The Shelf, I think (just in case you’ve missed how much I loved Phyllis Rose’s book, have yourself a merry little read of this) – I quickly ordered a copy, but waited until it felt like the right time to read it. Why was I so excited about it? Well, I have two words: Virginia. Woolf.

To The River plays on the title To The Lighthouse, and it’s inspired by Virginia Woolf – at least partly. The loose structure of the memoir (for such I suppose it is) is that Laing is walking the length of the Ouse – the river in which Woolf drowned herself in 1941, but also (unsurprisingly) one which has a long and varied history before that. Laing mixes the personal and the investigative as she walks along this route – an area she knows fairly well already, but with plenty left to explore and unearth… and all while Woolf comes in and out of the narrative, always a reference point, if not quite the subject of the book.

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.

I’ve kinda already spoiled which river that is (mea culpa) – and it was a form of grief that took Laing there this time: the break-up of a relationship, which she mentions throughout the book (though not in an Eat, Pray, Love sort of way – more as a series of memories threaded throughout). (FYI, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love and have no idea what it’s really like.)

Like Laing, I am very fond of rivers. I grew up in a village called Eckington, in Worcestershire, which is in a bend of the River Avon. That meant that it flooded every year, and two of the three roads that led out of the village would generally be impassable, but it also gave me a lifelong love of rivers – you could walk all the way around the village by river, or you could stroll down to one of the two locks. You could even follow the river for miles in either direction, if you so chose. And in Oxford I have usually lived relatively close to a river – it’s five minutes’ walk from my house now – and it’s where I instinctively go when I’m sad. This week, in fact, I was pretty miserable for a couple of days – and, in the first burst of it, I went and stood by the river, staring into it. Not in a Virginia-Woolf-throw-myself-in, I should add, but because I find rivers calming and beautiful, and somehow reassuringly constant.

Anyway, Laing walks along the river – or as near as she can get to it; a lot of the riverbank is privately owned – and it’s greatly enjoyable just to read about the places she stays, the people she bumps into, and her reflections on her surroundings. I love reading all this sort of thing:

I walked back through fields of sleeping cows as the dusk fell down about me. I was staying that night in an old farmhouse near Isfield church, in a room at the end of a long corridor separated from the rest of the house by a velvet curtain. It smelled smoky and sweet, as if apple wood or cherry had been burning for generations. I’d been lent a torch when I went out, and now, tiptoeing back in, I was given a flask of hot milk and a homemade truffle to take up to bed. It was nice to be coddled. I wrapped the duvet round me and ate my feast while flicking through a book I’d found hidden beneath a stack of Country Life.

But To The River is much more than a travel diary: along the way, Laing discusses all manner of things that happened near her route, or which she is reminded of. And I mean ‘all manner of things’. There is a brief history of the discovery of dinosaurs and the rivalries it entailed; the life of Simon de Montfort; Piltdown man; folklore about dancing nymphs – it’s really all there. And, weaving in and out of all of them: Virginia Woolf. The places she visited, the inspiration she gathered for her novels, and the way she would have experienced the area. To be truthful, I would have loved a bit more about Woolf and about Laing’s history of reading her books – but I can’t fault the exemplary way that Laing brings together all the disparate histories she discusses with the trip she is taking. It’s quite extraordinary. It somehow doesn’t feel disjointed at all – as each thought comes to the surface, naturally, she gives a brief and engaging summary of the topic. It’s conversational and (here comes the river metaphor) flowing.

It was a pleasure to spend time in To The River. Such an unusual premise for a book makes me applaud the good people of Canongate for being willing to publish it – and wonder what other books of this ilk might be out there. Thank you, Olivia Laing, for taking this trip – for being both a brilliant researcher and a vulnerable self-analyser, and for bringing the two elements together so beautifully.