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Quarterly Picks (Q1, 2022)

Late last year, I started a new full-time job, and I’ve now had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have as much time to write reviews as I would like. I’m conscious that I want all of the books which I’ve particularly enjoyed to receive attention on the blog, but I haven’t had the chance to write down all of my thoughts about them.

I therefore thought that for the timebeing, I would adopt a new strategy, named Quarterly Picks. At the end of each quarter, I intend to collect together around ten books which I have relished during the last three months, which I want to draw attention to. For each, I will be sharing the official blurbs, and adding a little extra information here and there.

  1. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (non-fiction; exercise; the great outdoors)

‘An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself.
 
We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world.

Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.’

2. Teeth in the Back of My Neck by Monika Radojevic (poetry; powerful; hard-hitting; social commentary)

‘Written with profound depth and insight, the poems in Teeth in the Back of My Neck explore the joys, the confusions and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe ­- and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not.

Bristling with tension and beautifully realised, Monika Radojevic’s impressive debut collection is an introduction to one of the most exciting and impressive poets of her generation.’

3. My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel Deloache Williams (non-fiction, memoir; true crime; scandal)

‘Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams’s new friend Anna Delvey, a self-proclaimed German heiress, was worldly and ambitious. She was also generous. When Anna proposed an all-expenses-paid trip to Marrakech, Rachel jumped at the chance. But when Anna’s credit cards mysteriously stopped working, the dream vacation quickly took a dark turn. Anna asked Rachel to begin fronting costs—first for flights, then meals and shopping, and, finally, for their $7,500-per-night private villa. Before Rachel knew it, more than $62,000 had been charged to her credit cards. Anna swore she would reimburse Rachel the moment they returned to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the repayment never materialized, and a shocking pattern of deception emerged. Rachel learned that Anna had left a trail of deceit—and unpaid bills—wherever she’d been. Mortified, Rachel contacted the district attorney, and in a stunning turn of events, found herself helping to bring down one of the city’s most notorious con artists.’

4. Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack (non-fiction, criticism; art; feminism; )

‘Women’s identity has long been stifled by a limited set of archetypes, found everywhere in pictures from art history’s classics to advertising, while women artists have been overlooked and held back from shaping more empowering roles.

In this impassioned book, art historian Catherine McCormack asks us to look again at what these images have told us to value, opening up our most loved images – from those of Titian and Botticelli to Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites. She also shows us how women artists – from Berthe Morisot to Beyoncé, Judy Chicago to Kara Walker – have offered us new ways of thinking about women’s identity, sexuality, race and power. 

Women in the Picture gives us new ways of seeing the art of the past and the familiar images of today so that we might free women from these restrictive roles and embrace the breadth of women’s vision.’

5. A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction; embroidery; strong women)

‘1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.’

6. Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence (non-fiction; investigative; eye-opening)

‘In 2004 Felicity Lawrence published her ground-breaking book, Not on the Label, where, in a series of undercover investigations she provided a shocking account of what really goes into the food we eat. She discovered why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a single lettuce might be sprayed six times with chemicals before it ends up in our salad, why bread is full of water. And she showed how obesity, the appalling conditions of migrant workers, ravaged fields in Europe and the supermarket on our high street are all intimately connected. Her discoveries would change the way we thought about the UK food industry for ever. And, when the horsemeat scandal hit the headlines in 2013, her book seemed extraordinarily prescient once again. Now, in this new edition of her seminal work, Felicity Lawrence delves deeply into that scandal and uncovers how the great British public ended up eating horses.’

7. Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel (non-fiction, memoir; race; womanhood; creativity)

‘In this sensational agenda-setting début, Michaela Coel, BAFTA-winning actor and writer of breakout series I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum, makes a compelling case for radical honesty.

Drawing on her unflinching Edinburgh Festival MacTaggart lecture, Misfits recounts deeply personal anecdotes from Coel’s life and work to argue for greater transparency. With insight and wit, it lays bare her journey to reclaiming her creativity and power, inviting readers to reflect on theirs.

Advocating for ‘misfits’ everywhere, this timely, necessary book is a rousing and bold case against fitting in.’

8. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (graphic novel, memoir; Russian culture in the United States; relationships)

‘A gripping and hilarious middle-grade summer camp memoir from the author of Anya’s Ghost.

All Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, and Victoria Jamieson, Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared is a funny and relatable middle-grade graphic novel about navigating your own culture, struggling to belong, and cherishing true friendship.’

9. The Gaps by Leanne Hall (fiction, mystery; race; class)

‘When sixteen-year-old Yin Mitchell is abducted, the news reverberates through the whole Year Ten class at Balmoral Ladies College. As the hours tick by, the girls know the chance of Yin being found alive is becoming smaller and smaller.

Police suspect the abduction is the work of a serial offender, with none in the community safe from suspicion. Everyone is affected by Yin’s disappearance—even scholarship student Chloe, who usually stays out of Balmoral drama, is drawn into the maelstrom. And when she begins to form an uneasy alliance with the queen of Year Ten, Natalia, things get even more complicated.

Looking over their shoulders at every turn, Chloe and Natalia must come together to cope with their fear and grief as best they can. A tribute to friendship in all its guises, The Gaps is a moving examination of vulnerability and strength, safety and danger, and the particular uncertainty of being a young woman in the world.’

10. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield (fiction; magical realism; relationships)

‘Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of salt slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.’

Have you read any of these books? Which are your top picks from the last quarter?

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Reading the World: Holland

I used to use my Reading the World project as a BookTube feature, but at present, I have very little time to film, and am very behind schedule with it.  I thought that instead of forcing myself to film and edit, it would be easier to transition the project over to the blog.

For each country or region which I write about, I will give at least five books as recommendations, along with the official blurbs.  I must apologise for the lack of personal details as to why I selected each book going forward, but I am up against time constraints due to my Master’s.  I hope you can understand, and enjoy the recommendations!

We kick off with Holland, or The Netherlands, dependent on what you call it.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43 by Etty Hillesum (1999)
‘Etty Hillesum (1914-43) lived in Amsterdam, like Anne Frank, and like her she kept a diary. ‘All the writings she left behind,’ writes Eva Hoffman in her Preface to this edition of her diaries and letters, ‘were composed in the shadow of the Holocaust, but they resist being read primarily in its dark light. Rather, their abiding interest lies in the light- filled mind that pervades them and in the astonishing internal journey they chart. Etty’s pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman – it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern… The private person who revealed herself in her diary was impassioned, erotically volatile, restless… Yet she had the kind of genius for introspection that converts symptoms into significance and joins self-examination to philosophical investigation… In the last stages of her amazing and moving journey, Etty seemed to attain that peace which passeth understanding… Finally, however, the violence and brutality she saw all around her overwhelmed even her capacity to understand… But by knowing and feeling so deeply and fully, an unknown young woman became one of the most exceptional and truest witnesses of the devastation through which she lived.”

2. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank 9780553586381
(2003)
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady s Life.”

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) (* Partially set in Holland)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
‘”The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”–Stephen King, “The New York Times Book Review” Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.’

  1. 9781847398222
    4. Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold (Simon & Schuster Ltd., 2009)
    ‘For the millions moved by Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, here is Miep Gies’s own astonishing story. For more than two years, Miep and her husband helped hide the Franks from the Nazis. Like thousands of unsung heroes of the Holocaust, they risked their lives every day to bring food, news, and emotional support to its victims. From her remarkable childhood as a World War I refugee to the moment she places a small, red-orange-checkered diary — Anne’s legacy — into Otto Frank’s hands, Miep Gies remembers her days with simple honesty and shattering clarity. Each page rings with courage and heartbreaking beauty.’5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins, 1999)
    ’17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond. Tracy Chevalier’s extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic perfect for fans of Sarah Dunant and Philippa Gregory.’

Purchase from The Book Depository