The Independent Bookshop Week Tag

Obviously, this is meant for YouTubers, but I want to do it. (What I actually wanted to do was go to my local independent bookshop, Five Leaves in Nottingham city centre, and write about it and do a bit of a haul, but I don’t plan ahead so I haven’t been and it’s only open when I’m at work on weekdays so I won’t have the chance.)

1. What book(s) are currently in your bag?
Currently in there is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I started on the train to work a couple of days ago and haven’t really got going with yet. I think most of what I’ve read so far is kind of set up, so I don’t have an awful lot to say yet.

2. What’s the last great book you read?
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which I will never stop talking about. It’s beautiful and lyrical and moving and important. I may buy a copy for everyone I know.

3. What book have you gifted the most?
I don’t think there’s one book that I’ve gifted a lot, because I tend to tailor my book giving to the people I’m giving to. I think the book I would give to the most different people in my life, although I don’t think I’ve ever actually given to anyone, other than maybe lending it to a couple of people, is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I deeply love and I think is incredibly beautiful. I think it has a pretty wide appeal, because it’s very literary in style, and is fascinating for anyone who’s into the work of any of the people who feature, or New York of that era.

4. What’s your favourite independent bookshop?
Sadly we only have the one independent bookshop in Nottingham, Five Leaves, but it’s fantastic. It’s down an alley off Market Square, a little bit hidden away, and it specialises in poetry and left wing politics and counterculture. There’s a pretty wide range to suit anyone though, somewhat chaotically arranged, as in any good indie bookshop. I particularly love the beat section and the theatre section, those being two of my great literary loves. It’s a bookshop that totally makes sense for Nottingham. Also, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, the actual greatest bookshop in the world, which I miss desperately. It’s a wonderland of books, beautifully curated and a haven for any reader or writer.  A particular mention goes to the glorious cave of a poetry section, and to the second hand shelves outside. If you’re in Paris, go. It’s better than you think.

5. What’s been your favourite book recommended by a bookseller?
I don’t get a lot of bookseller recommendations because I generally avoid talking to people, but the one that comes to mind is the book currently sitting on my bedside table is Dart by Alice Oswald, which is a long form poem about the river Dart, featuring a lot of different voices of the people who live and work on the Dart, all presented kind of as the murmurings of the river. I’m really liking it so far, and it was recommended by a bookseller in the Nottingham Waterstones.

6. What’s your favourite bookshop memory?
There’s not one specific memory, but over the last couple of years book shopping has become a kind of social activity with a couple of friends. In particular, one friend and I like to go to the Oxfam Bookshop in Beeston, for its great foreign language section, and then get Bubble Tea down the road.

7. What do bookshops mean to you? What do you love about them?
Bookshops are the most comforting thing in the world to me. When I was homesick in Paris, I went to Shakespeare and Co. When final year threatened to overwhelm me, I went to Five Leaves, or even just the campus Blackwells. They’re my constant safe space, and I very rarely buy books online because there’s nothing like a bookshop.

8. What are the books that made you? Which books have most affected or influenced you?
Well that’s a fucking massive question. Harry Potter, first and foremost. My entire childhood, and still a huge part of my life. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, my favourite book ever. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Waiting for Godot, among other Samuel Beckett plays. A Clockwork Orange. I could go on forever and ever about books that have influenced me, but those are the first that come to mind.

9. What book do you recommend readers gift for Father’s Day?
So Father’s Day has been and gone, but I find the best gifts for my dad to be beautifully designed coffee table books on the music and culture that he loves. But as I said, I try to buy books for specific people, so I’d struggle to give a generic dad recommendation.

10. What book is currently at the top of your TBR pile?
Kate Tempest’s The Bricks That Built The Houses, which is trying to distract me from everything I’m reading at the moment. More on that here.


A bookish wishlist

I have a private amazon wishlist called “Books” which currently stands at 160 items. It’s all the things that I want to bookmark for myself to buy and reader later, at some undefined point in the future, when I have the money or time or have read all of the books I already own (which will be never). So here are just a few, with a brief summary of why I want to read it.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang – I’d heard a lot about this book already, as it was all over BookTube a few months ago, but then it won the Man Booker international prize and it was absolutely everywhere. I have a particular fascination with translated literature, and I feel like not enough credit is given to the translators a lot of the time, which actually hasn’t been the case here – Deborah Smith has been included in much of the press coverage. It’s about a woman who becomes a vegetarian, which is an act of rebellion in her society. Any novel with a feminist theme – I’m there.

Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World by Jon Gnarr – Jon Gnarr is the comedian who stood for election to satirise existing parties, and then actually won. On winning, he proceeded to do a bloody good job, as far as I can tell. This should be a funny, interesting look at politics and at Gnarr’s experience as mayor. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t buy it immediately is that at the time, only the hardback was available, but the paperback was released last year and I still haven’t gotten around to it.

The Actual One: How I Tried, and Failed, to Remain Twenty-Something Forever by Isy Suttie – Issy Suttie is hilarious, and in all honesty I don’t know much more about this book than you could guess from this title, but I still want to read it. I think I did ask for it for my birthday, but I didn’t get it, and haven’t got my hands on it since. I think I’d have picked it up if I’d spotted it in a bookshop, but I haven’t. I’ll probably end up listening to it on audiobook, because I’m pretty sure it’s narrated by Isy Suttie herself and that’s often the best way to go with audiobooks.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – I remember nothing about this book other than that Barack Obama recommended it. I think it’s about a relationship?

I Met Lucky People: The Story of the Romani Gypsies by Yaron Matras – I’m pretty sure I put this on my list after Leena of justkissmyfrog mentioned it (a lot of my book list comes from BookTube). I have been a lifelong fiction lover, but I’m getting more and more into non-fiction and this is a topic about which I know absolutely nothing. I will rectify that, eventually.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon – I read and loved The Wrong Knickers, Bryony Gordon’s first book, last year, and this one looks to be very interesting, more so perhaps than her first. It’s about her struggles with mental illness, but honestly I’m waiting for the paperback, which is months and months away. Hardbacks annoy me because I carry my current book with me pretty much everywhere, and I prefer real books to my kindle if I can stand to wait.

Girl Up by Laura Bates

Girl Up has been presented as a guide for teenage girls – which is accurate, that’s exactly what it’s written to be – so I wasn’t bothered. I’m not a teenager, I know about feminism, blah blah blah. So I wasn’t going to buy it. But I was in Waterstones and I accidentally bought it, still kind of sceptical but I do always enjoy a book on feminism. Basically, I wasn’t expecting it to have that much of an effect on me.

Wrong. I bought it and immediately started it, sat in a coffee shop, and proceeded to cry in public. Twice.

The thing that made me cry was the chapter on body confidence. It just rang painfully true. The parts that weren’t true for me personally were true of women I know, and it got to me. Normally, writing on women’s relationships with their bodies falls quite flat for me, because I can know as much as I want about how I ought to have a positive relationship with my body and how there’s all this pressure on women to look a certain way but the reality is I still hate my stomach. And no, this book didn’t finally make me stop hating my stomach, but it did strike a chord in terms of the way I think about my own body.

As for the rest of the book, I don’t have much to say either way. It’s funny, and if you’re a few years younger than me, or buying for a teenage girl, it’s definitely a fantastic choice. As the quote from Emma Watson that’s in the front says, anything that helps you navigate the minefield of being a teenage girl is brilliant and needed and important. But I have basically navigated it. I’m 22, and while I’ve got a lot of growing up left to do, I don’t really need tips for staying safe online or an explanation of sexual consent.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it but my snap judgement was basically correct. It didn’t blow my mind, basically, but it’s funny enough to be worth it. And that chapter on body confidence – well, shit.

Top 10 Podcasts

I listen to too many podcasts. Like an impractical number of podcasts. To the point that I am stressed out by looking at my podcast app because there are too many unlistened and I feel overwhelmed and guilty about that. (Let’s not question what that says about my mind.) So, in no particular order, here are the top ten things I listen to while waiting on cold station platforms when it’s far too early for a reasonable person to be awake. (8am. I mean 8am. Not being a student is hard.)

1. Answer Me This
This was the first podcast I ever listened to. My boyfriend of the time was obsessed with it, so I eventually caved and gave it a listen. That was six years ago, and I still listen to the new episode immediately every time it comes out. Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann are consistently funny, often clever (often not) and they continue to make me laugh out loud in public. (This will become a theme. Someone start an instagram called people laughing at podcasts on buses.)

2. Pop Rocket
This is another that I listen to immediately, and it tends to be over an hour, which I love. It’s a round table pop culture discussion, and it’s basically how I find out if anything is worth watching or not. Thanks to Pop Rocket I’ve watched and listened to so many wonderful things, and I’ve understood things that I’ve already engaged with on a new level. Basically, it’s just four people who are cleverer than me talking about the things I like. And being funny, and passionate, and analytical and critical.

3. Witch, Please
Speaking of people who are cleverer than me talking about the things that I like, here are two women who are way, way cleverer than me talking about the thing in pop culture that I like more than anything else. Including a lot of people who I actually know in real life. I am talking, of course, about Harry Potter. Marcelle and Hannah are academics who essentially critically analyse the Harry Potter books and films. By critically, I mean in the sense of literary criticism. Like to the standard you would do it in a university essay. While being hilarious. I love it so much. I listened to all of it in about three weeks. I suggest you do the same.

4. The Guilty Feminist
Sophie Hagen and Deborah Francis-White are comedians, and the podcast is them talking through their experiences of different things women face, like women’s magazines, body confidence, femininity and so on and so forth. They do challenges each week related to theme, perform brief stand up sets and chat with another funny woman about the theme. Basically it’s just a really relatable chat about feminism, where they talk about their successes as feminists and their not-so-successful moments. I’m literally listening to it as I write this.

5. The Allusionist
Helen Zaltzman makes another appearance on this list with her Radiotopia show. The Allusionist is fifteen minutes of brilliance every two weeks. Helen chooses an aspect of language to focus on, from puns to dictionaries to manners, and is witty and insightful in her discussion of it, talking to experts. I’ve always loved the language questions on Answer Me This, and this is basically entirely devoted to those.

6. The Empire Film Podcast
I got into the Empire Podcast when I was living in Paris and my work hours were very minimal, so I was going to the cinema a lot more often than I would in the UK (it’s totally normal to go to the cinema alone in France, which is great), so I needed the recommendations. The Empire team are funny and silly, but they also talk about films in much the same way that I talk about films with my friends, which helps in knowing which I actually want to see. My boyfriend and I listen to different film review podcasts (he listens to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo) and it is a genuine source of friction in our relationship when they disagree.

7. Pappy’s Flatshare Slamdown
This show is straight up stupid. It’s a comedy panel show based around the idea that the losers have to do a chore in the flat that the three members of Pappy’s supposedly live in. It is 90% puns and it makes no sense, it’s chaotic and ridiculous and it genuinely makes me cry with laughter.

8. Books on the Nightstand
This is a slightly wasted recommendation because BOTNS is coming to an end in a couple of episodes’ time, but it’s great. Ann and Michael consistently have fantastic recommendations – my TBR is twice as long as it would be without them – and talk insightfully and engagingly about books and the publishing industry. Well worth listening to the back catalogue.

9. Bullseye with Jesse Thorn
Bullseye is an NPR show about pop culture, based around a couple of interviews an episode and a recommendation from Jesse. It’s a pretty simple formula but it works because Jesse is such a wonderful interviewer. I know him better from his comedy podcast, Jordan Jesse Go, which is a rambling, often stupid conversational show, so this is quite the contrast. Every now and then, Jesse asks a question so insightful that the creator he’s interviewing pauses, and you can tell that he’s made them re-examine their own work, which is a pretty incredible thing to do.

10. Oh No Ross and Carrie
Ross and Carrie investigate all the things that you hear and go “that is literally ridiculous how does anyone believe that”, whether it’s fringe science, strange religious groups or the paranormal. They go in with open minds and a sense of humour, and then they just talk about their experiences. They laugh about what’s ridiculous, but they also look for what’s good, and discuss how and if these things might be dangerous in any way. Anyone who’s been down the rabbit hole of reading articles about Scientology should listen to their last few episodes.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book is incredible. Like incredible. Sometimes when something is published posthumously by an unknown author, I feel like the way people rave about it is coloured by the author’s death, like no one really wants to critique a dead person. Not the case here. Paul Kalanithi was a genuinely wonderful writer, and would have absolutely gone on to produce great things had he lived.

If you haven’t heard anything about this book, it’s about a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just as he finished his training. He was a man who sought throughout his life to understand death and life and meaning, and grapples a lot in the book with the question of literature versus science.

His writing is very lyrical, in places it’s near poetry. I read it with a pen all the way through, underlining sometimes as much as an entire page. Even in the way he writes about medicine, science, and death, it’s obvious that he viewed these things with the mind of a writer. It’s a deeply philosophical look at medicine. It’s a beautiful book, and a heartbreaking one (to quote Atul Gawande and the quote which features on the cover) – but it’s not sad. I did cry reading this, but only reading the afterword from his wife. This book is not about oh woe is me I have this terrible disease (although you could absolutely forgive anyone in his position for writing something like that), it’s about trying to understand life and death.

I read a lot of books about cancer. It’s probably an unhealthy habit, but I do. I lost my grandma to cancer in 2012 and I think that since then, I’ve been struggling to understand how I feel about that, to find a way to understand it. This book, more than any other I’ve read in the last three years, has helped me make sense of that loss, and of my anger about the disease that took her. It’s not that the book offers an explanation, it just shows a man looking for the same answers, as both a doctor working with terminal patients, and as a patient suffering from a terminal disease. I couldn’t tell you what exactly I learnt from this book, but I came away from it feeling less like I needed answers.

It’s a special book. Read it.

Studying languages at university.

This is not a book post, I’m taking a break from that to get this rant off my chest. For context, just two weeks ago I completed a degree in French and Russian at the University of Nottingham, and I’m about to start working as a sales rep for a publishing house.
So, OCR are planning to stop examining French, Spanish and German. This comes on the heels of announcements from a number of universities, including my alma mater, Nottingham, that they will be making significant cuts to their languages departments. At Nottingham, that means redundancies for staff members who’ve been wonderful teachers and mentors to my peers and me for four years, which is deeply frustrating because as a languages student, the main thing that is important is high quality teaching. We don’t need high tech equipment or fancy facilities, we just need someone who knows their subject inside out to engage us in their teaching.
But the point of this post is not all of the outrageous bullshit that my old department is being subjected to, as angry as I am about that. The point is that none of it makes any sense.
We live in an increasingly globalised world, but the British seem to be burying their heads in the sand about that fact. We don’t need the EU! We don’t need to be able to communicate with people outside this tiny little island! The majority of British businesses need speakers of foreign languages, and yet every time I was asked what I wanted to do after I graduated, my options were presented as translation or teaching. Nope! A languages degree actually opens more doors to you than a lot of more “employable” degrees. I got my job in large part because I speak Russian, so no, I don’t think I should have done English if I wanted to pursue a career in publishing.
A couple of years ago, my mum read an article saying that the Foreign Office needed Russian linguists, that there was a serious lack of native speakers of English with knowledge of Russian, so I looked into how the application process would work. I’d be good at that kind of work, I know I would, but I can’t do it, because to get a job in the Foreign Office, you have to sit a maths test. Of course you have a lack of linguists, if you’re making them sit a maths test! I am bad at maths, and do you know why that is? Because for the last several years, I have been very focused on getting bloody good at French and Russian. Are you making applicants for the Treasury sit a Russian grammar test? I didn’t think so!
We shouldn’t be cutting MFL, we should be pushing more people towards them, reminding university applicants that they can combine a language with another subject, that studying a language at university is as much, if not more, about the study of culture as it is about grammar, that you get to live abroad as part of your degree, that you can pick up a language other than the ones offered at most schools, that it opens up a wider range of career options than you can imagine.
Languages make you more confident, hell, they made me fearless. If I can move to Russia barely able to string a sentence together and come back with friends who don’t speak English, I can do anything. Languages improve your social skills. Languages help you understand the world around you on a deeper level than any travel in a country where you are unable to communicate ever could.
I’m not saying that everyone should be doing languages, or that other degrees are less valuable. What I am saying is that deciding to study languages at university is hands down the best decision I have ever made, and it breaks my heart to see that exam boards, universities and the government don’t see the value in it.

A Graduate’s TBR

So I finished my degree. That’s a big thing that’s happened recently. A massive thing. It’s also terrifying, but that’s not the point here. One of the things I’ve been really looking forward to is actually having time to read! For pleasure! Not books about feminism in post-colonial Senegal! (Kidding, I loved reading that book about feminism in post-colonial Senegal.) As of next week, I’ll be commuting half an hour or so on the train every morning and evening when I start my job (more on that later), which gives me a little under an hour a day to sit and read, which is a very exciting possibility. So, here are the ten books which I’m most looking forward to reading now I’m free. (It’s probably worth mentioning that I actually own all of these already because my book buying habits are out of control and I really should be banned from the Nottingham Waterstones.)

How to Be Both – Ali Smith
I have owned this book for about a year without reading it (a common problem for me), and I’m looking forward to finally getting on with it. I’ve only read one other Ali Smith book, Boy Meets Girl, which I love love love, and How to Be Both won basically all the awards when it came out. It’s set in two times, the 1460’s and the 1980’s (ish, I’m not entirely sure when the second setting is). Honestly, after reading a few reviews, I’m not really sure of what it’s about, but it’s so highly lauded that I can’t wait to read it anyway.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I’ve never read any Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know. Call myself a book lover. Well, I’ve read We Should All Be Feminists, but I don’t really feel like that counts. But this year I’ve been studying African literature and learning about what it means for African women to be writing their own stories, for African people to be writing at all. It’s a love story, I think, but it’s also about globalisation, Nigerian politics and immigration.

The Bricks That Built The Houses – Kate Tempest
I truly madly deeply love Kate Tempest. I’ve read both her poetry collections, obsessively watched videos of her performing, listened to her albums on repeat, all of it. Last month, she did a Q&A at Rough Trade Nottingham to promote her first novel The Bricks That Built The Houses, so of course I went along. She’s fantastic to hear speak, passionate and thrilling and fucking brilliant, and she made me want to write in a way that I haven’t wanted to in years. The book opens with three teenagers driving away from London, with a suitcase full of money, and I don’t know much more than that. I read the first fifty pages or so the night that I bought it, but I haven’t touched it since, so I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

Moranifesto – Caitlin Moran
Another one that I know I’ll love, and a birthday present from my excellent uni mates. Caitlin Moran is brilliant and funny and wonderful. This is the follow up to Moranthology, so it’s a collection of her columns, as well as a few pieces that are new for the book, mostly about politics. This probably won’t be something I read all in one go, it being lots of short pieces rather than one overarching idea means that I’ll probably pick it up, read a couple and put it down. Also, I have the hardback so I can’t be bothered to lug it around with me.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
Ahh yes, light summer reading about death. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and this book is a reflection on death, from the perspective of both doctor and patient. Every review I’ve heard (particularly Michael Kindness’s on Books on the Nightstand) has made me want to read it more, as it’s apparently full of beautiful writing, which makes it clear that Paul Kalanithi is a real loss to the literary world.

Unspeakable Things – Laurie Penny
I’d been seeing this book in my uni branch of Blackwell’s for a couple of months before I bit the bullet and bought it. This book is about the need for outspoken, brave feminism, about being unafraid to be who you are and about social justice in the modern world. So basically everything I care about. I’m psyched.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is a super important book. It’s written as a letter to Coates’s teenaged son about the realities of being black in America. I really want to inform myself more about racial issues, because I have the privilege of being white and I really don’t know enough about these issues, even though they continue to be so pressing. I’m not expecting it to be an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea – Teffi
Now we get into the subsection of this post which is books about Russia. I might have finished my Russian degree, but I’m still bloody obsessed with Russia, and I’m going back sooner than expected. Teffi was a hugely popular writer in pre-Revolution Russia, until she was forced to flee, and this is the story of her final journey through Russia to exile, which has only just been translated into English.

I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives – Marc Bennetts
Putin is almost always the first thing people ask about when I say that I study (studied, rather) Russian. Which is natural, because he is terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. The title of this book comes from a remark Putin allegedly made about the protestors on the day of his inauguration for his third term as president, a remark which he seems to have followed up on, and the book is an examination of how the Russian protest movement was destroyed.

Chernobyl Prayer – Svetlana Alexeivich
Last year’s Nobel Prize winner, this is another piece of required reading. This is an oral history of the Chernobyl catastrophe, and a warning for the future. I know almost nothing about it but it’s another massively important read, and another piece of translated literature (I’m fascinated by literature in translation, and I’m also too lazy to read things in the original Russian).