A plume with a hue

Archive for the month “January, 2021”

The best book I read last year

I’m going to cheat here with more than one. I rarely award five stars to a book. Of the 61 books I read last year, I only classified three as five stars. These were:

The Great GatsbyF Scott Fitzgerald. I first read this many, many years ago but felt quite ambivalent to it. I reread it last year and discovered it to be far better than I expected. In my opinion, many novels, even the best of them, fall short with the ending: they rush to bring everything to a conclusion in a forced and frustrating manner. Fitzgerald, however, maintains the strength of his writing to the very end with a moving power. I found it a truly sad yet beautiful novel with some lovely lines: ‘So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.’

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng. This is the second of Ng’s novels that I’ve read and I’ve awarded five stars to both of them (the other was Everything I Never Told You). I found myself interested in the characters and fully engaged in the story. I cannot put her novels down!

My top pick for last year

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez. I loved this novel of ideas: it’s touching, thought-provoking and beautifully written, being a sympathetic portrayal of the grieving process, a heart-wrenching exploration of a relationship between a dog and it’s ‘owner’, and a musing on the act of writing. For me, it feels like a novel I could return to again and again and never tire of. I’m so glad I discovered it – it’s wonderful.

My reading: week 4/52

Currently reading: I’ve just started What’s Left of Me is Yours, the debut novel by Stephanie Scott. It was an inspiration to another writer, Clarissa Goenawan, and as I enjoyed Goenawan’s novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, I thought I would read it. It is about a wakaresaseya agent (‘a person hired by one spouse to seduce the other in order to gain the advantage in divorce proceedings’), which sounds intriguing.

I’m also continuing with Intimations by Zadie Smith and Things I Learnt on the 6.28 by Stig Abell.

Recently finished: This week I finished Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea. I had my doubts about this one, after having read the reviews. However, I enjoyed it for its entertainment value and the fact that I think it probably gives a realistic portrayal of the difficulties faced by young people living within a strict cultural and societal tradition yet with access to the modern Western world, which offers an alternative way of living. The lives of the ‘girls’ are interesting, focusing on the expected concerns of young adults: friendships, love relationships, appearances, studies/careers, and their futures. Their individual character traits and quirks meant I was easily able to differentiate between them, and it was a quick and easy read.

I also read Daisy Miller, my first foray into Henry James. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this novella but I found it intriguing for several reasons. The inner conflict Winterbourne experiences regarding Daisy is interesting to observe, and I liked her carefree nature, flying in the face of societal expectations. I enjoy a rebellious character. The narrative style was also used in an effective way. It is third person but as we see events through Winterbourne’s eyes, it could almost have been written in first person. Not being able to get to know Daisy’s inner world, we can only judge her through Winterbourne and the comments of the other characters, as it is hard to know whether, when speaking, she is revealing her true self. This is both frustrating but also puts the reader in Winterbourne’s position, thus experiencing the same conflicting opinions about the ‘real’ Daisy.

My final book this week was Liberty Walks Naked, a collection of poetry by the Syrian writer, Maram al-Masri. It is a deeply powerful exploration of the pain and suffering experienced during the civil war in Syria.

Reading next: I think my next novel will be the somewhat morbid sounding Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov, which is on the reading list for a course I’m taking in April (the course explores some of the novels referred to in Reading Lolita in Tehran). It will be my first time reading Nabokov and strangely I’m quite looking forward to it.

My quotation this week is from Girls of Riyadh:

We let everyone else control us and lead us through this life. We can never do anything without the fear of being judged holding us back.

30 day book challenge

I found this 30 day book challenge at (it’s from a few years ago!) and thought the prompts sounded interesting. I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

Day 01 – Best book you read last year

Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than 3 times

Day 03 – Your favourite series

Day 04 – A guilty pleasure book

Day 05 – A book that makes you happy

Day 06 – A book that makes you sad

Day 07 – Most underrated book

Day 08 – Most overrated book

Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

Day 10 – Favourite classic book

Day 11 – A book you hated

Day 12 – The first novel you remember reading

Day 13 – Your favorite writer

Day 14 – Favourite book of your favourite writer

Day 15 – Book that should be on hs/college required reading list

Day 16 – A book you would recommend to an ignorant/close-minded/racist person

Day 17 – Favourite quote from your favorite book

Day 18 – A book that disappointed you

Day 19 – Favourite book turned into a movie

Day 20 – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated

Day 21 – Favourite book from your childhood

Day 22 – The book that made you fall in love with reading

Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read

Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most

Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something

Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending

Day 28 – Favourite title

Day 29 – A book that makes you cry

Day 30 – Your favourite book of all time

Review: first week of 21 for 2021

I compiled my 21 for 2021 list last weekend; now seems like a good time to review my first week.

  1. Choose a word for the year. I’ve decided on the word clarity. I want to declutter my mind and also my physical space to allow me to gain greater clarity.
  2. Complete the 52 Book Club 2021 challenge. I’m well on my way with this one, having read six books so far.
  3. Take a writing course. I’ve signed up for a course on personal essay writing with City Lit for next weekend.
  4. Blog regularly. Good so far.
  5. Visit different places to walk. I have a beautiful local park that’s very convenient to walk my dog in; last week I ventured to a place I have never particularly explored.
  6. Practise yoga five times a week. I completed eight yoga sessions last week. I enjoy a flow in the morning to stretch my body and wake it up, and a yin or restorative session in the evening to help me wind down for sleep.
  7. Fill my art journal. I’ve completed a couple of spreads.
  8. Tidy the study and keep it that way. This has been on my to do list for the past two years. I’ve made a small start as I think it’s a job that’s better tackled in small steps; being too ambitious will result in failure, as I’ve learnt from past experience.
  9. Complete six pieces of writing (short story, poem, essay). Nothing done on this one yet.
  10. Watch The Merchant of Venice. I had a quick look for a version to watch. There was a film starring Al Pacino and a production from many years ago starring Laurence Olivier. I’d rather watch a more recent Globe theatre production!
  11. Complete Stephanie Bennett Vogt’s A Year to Clear programme. I read through the day’s suggestion each morning – it’s a year-long project, which I started towards the end of last year, and I’m on day 34.
  12. Meditate. I do this as part of yoga but want to try a stand-alone meditation.
  13. Attend a mindfulness workshop. I need to source one of these.
  14. Visit London. I’m not sure when I’ll do this, perhaps spring.
  15. Try new recipes. I’ve recently subscribed to Gousto. I choose four recipes a week (usually ones I wouldn’t normally cook), and they deliver the ingredients already measured out. It’s been a very good experience so far.
  16. Have a wardrobe cull. I’ve removed five unworn items this week; this is going to be a longer term process for the same reasons as they study.
  17. Implement a cleaning schedule. I used to use the ‘Errands’ app but I’ve been neglectful of late so I’m going to get this up and running properly again.
  18. Attend a literature course. I’m currently participating in a course on Middle Eastern Literature, and have just signed up for another where we read and discuss the novels that are read and discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.
  19. Visit the sea. I’m waiting for warmer weather for this one.
  20. Try something new. This is obviously limited at the moment but who knows what I’ll find.
  21. Each week, take one positive step to improve my mood. Last week, I had a social media and news embargo and feel so much better for it.

I’m quite pleased with the way I’ve started working on this; now I need to keep up the momentum.

My reading week

Currently reading: I started two non-fiction books this week, which I will read over a longer period of time interspersed with my fiction reading.

The first is Intimations, a collection of six essays by Zadie Smith. I was drawn to this for two reasons: firstly, because they are written during the early days of lockdown and reflect on how this has impacted us, and secondly, because I am doing an essay writing course next weekend and want to explore how someone such as Smith addresses this form.

The other is Things I Learned on the 6.28: a guide to daily reading by Stig Abell, in which he reads a different genre each month on his daily commute. As a book lover who delights in exploring ideas, this appeals to me tremendously. I’m also starting to write, prompted by the ideas that spring out of the pages of a book, so it’s interesting to see someone else’s approach – so far it seems quite different to mine.

Recently finished: This week I finished 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak. In Istanbul, there is the Cemetery of the Companionless, where those without known family, considered to be outsiders in society, are buried and their grave marked by a mere number. Shafak gives voice to one of these ‘unknown’ citizens, Leila. I enjoyed its portrayal of the seedier side of Istanbul life, its depiction of the strength and importance of friendship, and its consideration of attitudes towards death. I found the division into parts interesting: looking back on moments from a life, interspersed with the short stories of Leila’s friends, and then moving forward from the opening scene. The fact that the protagonist is a corpse provides a different slant.

I also reread the classic novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, my first reading being over twenty years ago. The intervening years meant I viewed it differently this time around and increased my rating from 3 to 4 stars. I particularly enjoyed the different perspective on time, with the idea that past, present and future can exist simultaneously. Vonnegut’s use of language is a joy, being both simple and effective: the (anti-)hero, Billy Pilgrim, is described as looking like ‘a filthy flamingo’ and gangreneous feet become ‘blood puddings’. Vonnegut challenges our assumptions about the novel by using a framing narrative and makes it impossible to define the genre: is it (anti-)war, sci-fi, or a portrayal of somebody suffering from PTSD, or is it all of these – or none of them? I would benefit from reading this again to consider the issues raised in further detail.

Reading next: I’ve now completed all the reading for my Middle Eastern Literature course but have enjoyed this geographic focus immensely so have decided to continue by reading Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen this one in the past so am intrigued as to how I’ll respond to it.

My quotation this week is about the vagaries of memory and comes from 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World:

But human memory resembles a late-night reveller who has had a few too many drinks: hard as it tries, it just cannot follow a straight line.

My 21 for 2021

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin, here is my list of 21 intentions for 2021. I wasn’t going to bother this year as I am feeling so out of sorts but perhaps this is the year when I need to do this more than ever.

  1. Choose a word for the year.
  2. Complete the 52 Book Club 2021 challenge.
  3. Take a writing course.
  4. Blog regularly.
  5. Visit different places to walk.
  6. Practise yoga five times a week.
  7. Fill my art journal.
  8. Tidy the study and keep it that way.
  9. Complete six pieces of writing (short story, poem, essay).
  10. Watch The Merchant of Venice.
  11. Complete Stephanie Bennett Vogt’s A Year to Clear programme.
  12. Meditate.
  13. Attend a mindfulness workshop.
  14. Visit London.
  15. Try new recipes.
  16. Have a wardrobe cull.
  17. Implement a cleaning schedule.
  18. Attend a literature course.
  19. Visit the sea.
  20. Try something new.
  21. Each week, take one positive step to improve my mood.

There is no reason why I can’t succeed in these intentions and my focus this year has been to give myself projects to concentrate on, which will lift my mood. I have never felt so low in spirits and lacking in motivation. Everything that feeds my soul and inspires me by opening up new opportunities has been taken away with no hint of ever returning. I need to find a way to preserve myself; hopefully this will help.

What a joke! A review of my 20 for 2020

One thing I’ve enjoyed in recent years is producing a 19 for 2019 and a 20 for 2020 list of intentions (based on Gretchen Rubin’s idea). Last year, I abandoned it – for obvious reasons – even though I got off to a reasonable start. Out of interest, I thought I would cast an eye over my pre-Covid-madness aspirations. Here’s the list with my comments.

  1. Create a vision board with my word of the year. My word was perception and I made an art background to this Bridget Riley quotation: ‘Looking is, I feel, a vital aspect of existence. Perception constitutes our awareness of what it is to be human, indeed what it is to be alive.’
  2. Visit the Freud museum in London. I didn’t get to do this before London closed down.
  3. Swim in Hampton Lido. I didn’t get to do this either.
  4. Visit one museum or art gallery each month. My memory is sketchy as I seem to have lost all track of time over the past year, but I think I visited the Tate Modern in either January or February. I did, however, do an online art course on modern art run by MOMA.
  5. Go to the dentist. This didn’t happen as dentists closed for fillings for a while and are so reduced that it’s impossible to get an appointment.
  6. Do every Wanderlust and JOT session (online art courses). I started off well but ongoing events destroyed my creativity. I’m now trying to get back into making art more regularly and can pick these up in due course.
  7. Walk for 20 minutes every day (when possible). Although I didn’t make a conscious effort to walk every day, I did do a lot of walking, it being one of the few activities permitted in the UK. When I got a dog in November, the walking increased dramatically.
  8. Tidy the study and keep it that way. A miserable fail on this one and there’s no excuse.
  9. Go to the optician. This didn’t happen either as they closed and then trying to arrange an appointment seemed problematic.
  10. Learn ballroom and Latin dance steps to get round the floor. This was going so well until lockdown put an end to it. I can’t imagine them ever being able to open up again, which is sad as dancing was such a crucial part of my life.
  11. Earn some income from another source. My daughter and I had the first bookings for our party business scheduled for March, the first weekend of lockdown, so this one was thwarted.
  12. Attend a workshop. A success at last. I managed to fit in two workshops with City Lit in London at the beginning of the year, one a general introduction to literature, the other on the Gothic novel. The quality was excellent.
  13. Go on a guided walk in London. I think we know what happened to this one.
  14. Exercise three times a week (gym/yoga/dancing). Forget the gym, forget the dancing, but what a success with yoga. I do it almost every day having found an amazing studio running online sessions. When they briefly opened up in the summer, I even managed a couple of visits. I can’t thank Bamboo Wellness enough: life has been and still is a struggle but they are doing their bit to keep me sane.
  15. Go on a weekend break. Gosh, how did I manage it? I went on a dance weekend in February and had an amazing time: classes by day and freestyle by night.
  16. Go for a walk every month. I wanted to get into the country for a longer walk each month. I haven’t logged my walks but I did manage some. I even managed a few days of walking in the New Forest with my daughter in August.
  17. Complete the reading challenge (52 books in 52 categories). I read 61 books but I gave up linking them to the categories as that proved difficult with the categories they had.
  18. Write twice per week. I write every day in my journal but I wanted to do some other forms of writing as well. I did a bit but nowhere near twice per week.
  19. Read six Brainpickings’ recommendations from 2019. I read one, Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith. I’ve got another one on my TBR, which I’ll read this year.
  20. Try something new. I went to Cape Verde in February for some winter sun, something I never do. I also did some online classes with the WEA, and set up a book club for my friends. Oh, and I learnt about Zoom and switched my business online. I flew out to Sardinia on my own. And I began living under a totalitarian regime – although that is not quite the ‘new’ I had in mind.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with what I managed to achieve, given the difficult circumstances. I wasn’t going to bother with a 21 for 2021 but perhaps I will. Coming soon…

Reading through the darkness

All I want to do at the moment is read; it’s my way of escaping the challenges of the current world and disappearing into a different reality.

Currently reading: I’ve just started 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. I began it last year but stopped reading as it’s a text on a Middle Eastern Literature workshop I’m participating in and I wanted to read it closer to the discussion date. It’s an intriguing idea and has a structure that appeals to me, and I was originally drawn by its unusual title. I’m enjoying it so far.

Recently finished: I’ve read one memoir, two novels and a play so far this year.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir) was a re-read from a fair number of years ago (also for the ME Literature workshop). It is thought-provoking in that it questions the relationship between fiction and reality, memory, and how literature can help us tell the stories of our lives.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is another from the ME Literature workshop. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before. I was particularly interested in the way in which the story of two women and their developing friendship is set against the backdrop of the changing political scene. The depiction of their strength through times of brutal suffering, whilst harrowing, is also inspiring.

Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespeare play and I read it for a workshop that was held on…twelfth night! I also watched the Globe Theatre production starring Mark Rylance; I don’t think a production could be any better than this one.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri is a novel that I have seen recommended in numerous places. I picked it for my January book club choice. Wow! I rarely give a novel five stars so it’s great to be able to do that so early in the year. Its quietly-understated, sympathetic depiction of suffering, trauma, grief and love is a truly moving experience.

Reading next: I think my choice will be Daisy Miller by Henry James. It is one of the novels that appears in Reading Lolita in Tehran and as I haven’t read any James, I will try this as a starter.

I’m going to conclude with a quotation from Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s hard to pick one as there are so many that seem relevant to me:

art and literature…were not a luxury but a necessity

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