Sunday, 22 May 2016


For the last two weeks I've been working the night shift. Not very hard work, but tiring and inconvenient, for while I can just about invert my lifestyle it's not possible to put all your friends and family onto the same timetable. So they tend to phone me when I'm sleeping and expect me to visit them during daylight hours. Also bright, sunny weather doesn't understand that I'm supposed to be resting and keeps beckoning me outside.

But the endless night time hours do give me a chance to do some reading. I do most of my reading on a Kindle e-book these days which means that I can skip back to things I've read in the past with little difficulty. Here are a few favourites.....

Meadowland (The Private Life Of An English Field) by John Lewis Sempel

A field-study in the most literal sense of the phrase, following the fortunes of a meadow on the English-Welsh border. This could all become a bit tedious and claustrophobic but for two things:

Firstly John Lewis Sempel is a gifted writer, more of a writer than a farmer I might suggest. The prose reads with all the rhythm and beauty of poetry and the author's learning and knowledge take us off on all kinds of journeys into history, literature and the natural world.

Secondly the visitors to the meadow - foxes, red kites, rabbits and voles - are irresistible characters whose stories and struggles draw you into a very real drama.

If you thought that a meadow was just a field full of grass then this book is for you. For if any meadowland is to survive, and it's by no means certain that it will, we all have to learn their unique charm and value.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The uncommon reader of the title turns out to be none other than HRH The Queen herself. In Bennett's imaginative fantasy she's lured by a naughty corgi into the mobile library van which visits the Palace. She feels obliged to borrow a book and here her life changes.

You see there's never been time in the Queen's busy schedule for reading. In fact it's been positively discouraged; it wouldn't do for her to cultivate too many opinions after all. But she becomes an enthusiastic reader, much to the concern of her advisers. Instead of asking everyone "have you come far?" she starts enquiring about their reading habits, much to the embarrassment  and bafflement of her subjects.

The ensuing action raised many a smile and a few out loud chuckles - look out for a grumpy Prince Philip waving "viciously" to the crowds and a splendidly written caricature of the Prime Minister who, if not anyone in particular, could be any of 'em.

Like all the best humour it's brief and concise; I read it all in one delightful sitting.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a soaring, impassioned novel about civilians and soldiers during the Second World War. The cast of characters is varied and eccentric - a blind French girl, her locksmith father, a reclusive and brilliant uncle, a young German orphan boy who has a gift for working with radios, a schoolboy giant who later turns up as a Nazi soldier....You can see from the start that the blind girl and the German orphan are going to meet up at some stage and the wait for this to happen brings a kind of odd suspense to the story.

The brilliance of the writing is maintained over the 500+ pages and transports you to another time and place which is both magical and frightening. This is achieved despite the story occupying an uncomfortable place - part history, part fiction, part fantasy, part parable. It didn't ought to work but you soon become so involved in the story and care so much about the characters that you become part of this strange but terrifyingly real world.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Young woman trains a Goshawk - end of story.
No, not at all. 

Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train being highly strung, unpredictable, timid, dangerous, grumpy and exasperatingly rebellious. In short they are real characters so it's hardly surprising that Mabel the goshawk rather steals the show from the author who is herself trying to come to terms with the recent death of her father.

T H White, the author of The Once And Future King, also features prominently. White also attempted to train a goshawk and recounted the story in his book Goshawk. The struggles of this sensitive but damaged man forms another thread to the story.

The book reads like a psychological thriller as the battle of wills between bird and human plays itself out.

The Green Road Into The Trees (A Walk Through England) by Hugh Thompson

Another prize winning book I see. This one apparently relegated Robert Macfarlane's majestic The Old Ways to the also rans in the Wainwright Prize. And, like one of Macfarlane's "ways", it concerns walking through modern England on its oldest track, the Icknield Way. If you read this blog regularly you'll know that I often venture along parts of it myself.

As a walking companion Hugh Thompson is opinionated, but also learned and, most importantly, funny. I'd like to bump into him on my travels.

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie

And finally a book of immense charm and lightly-imparted wisdom. A bedraggled kitten becomes the pet of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and observes the life of the great man, his household and his visitors.

HHC (His Holiness's Cat,of course) also ventures out into the wider world, especially the local cafe, where he enjoys lots of free hand-outs as well as observing the comings and goings of the clientele. Throughout these adventures the cat gains useful knowledge on how to live a fulfilling life. As you might expect it's a fairly short book - after all cats are not the most industrious creatures.

If, like me, you shy away from self-help books and were put off all religion by Religious Instruction classes at school, then this may be the puuuurrrrrfect book for you!

Take care.


  1. I'm delighted to see that you are the third of the bloggers I follow to recommend 'Meadowland" by John Lewis-Stemple. My copy arrived last week and is perched on top of the tipple at the edge of my desk--also his biography of young James Herriot.
    A clone of the cat pictured on the cover of 'The Dalai Lama's Cat' has resided with us for a number of years. I hope the storied cat was less addle-pated than ours!

  2. I worked the night shift at one time so I can relate to what your are saying. As for the books, I think I'll check out The Dalai Lama's Cat. Sounds like a good little read. Have a good week!

  3. These are not books I would normally read but I will give them a try.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations! I'm always looking for a good book to read.

  5. Very interesting selection of books. Sorry about those night ahifts.

  6. All the Light We Cannot See is one of the best books I read this year. I have recommended it to several book friends. And I ordered The Green Road into the Trees from Amazon. I imagine reading it will be like taking a walk with you except without the photographs. Thanks for the recommendations!

  7. I have read H is for Hawk and All the Light we cannot See, but am particularly interested in Meadowland as I have two sons (and a DIL) who live on a meadow in the Chilcotin and many times each week I am treated to a recount of their adventures with the four legged critters with whom they share the grasslands and
    surrounding forest. My youngest son cuts down a tree each evening for the beaver who lives in a dam on the creek to discourage him from invading the aspen and alder they want to save...... His nightly Skype calls are a delight.

  8. This is an interesting selection of books almost all of which appeal to me. I've had Meadowland since it was first published and love it. The Uncommon Reader, The Green Road Into The Trees and The Dalai Lama's Cat are going straight onto my Kindle list. Brilliant post John.

  9. Meadowland looks like a wonderful book, I must seek it out at the library:)

  10. Hi John - great selection of books ... and I've noted them to read at some stage ... but the interesting one is "All the Light we Cannot See" - by Anthony Doerr .. the second suggestion today.

    Thanks - excellent choices by the look of them ... cheers Hilary

  11. An interesting collection! I keep wondering if I should read H is for Hawk but am unsure about it! I might borrow it from the library at some point.

  12. oooh I like the sound of all of these. I have added them to my "must read" list.

  13. That cat book has solved a birthday present problem for me, so thanks for that John.

  14. I loved The Dalai Lama's Cat and have put s few of the others on my "to read" list. Thanks for the reviews.

  15. Years ago I read a book called The Biography of a Tree by James Jackson. It followed the hundred-year life of a white oak tree in Missouri (USA). I found it fascinating, much like I suspect Meadowland is.

  16. I love reading and reading about other peoples'reading :)
    There's a couple of books there I must have.

  17. Thank you for the recommendations! These books look most interesting. I would probably start from Bennett and Michie.
    However, I'm a little bit surprised you read (mainly) e-books. :)
    Your posts are always very enjoyable... and so are your comments. Hope the weekend will be sunny there.

  18. Well, your night shifts have paid big dividends to your readers! My daughter has been recommending "All the Light...." for awhile now. I will download it today! I'm finishing Sally Mann's memoir, "Hold Still." Talk about your beautiful writing -- gaw!!!

  19. I definitely plan to read Uncommon Reader and The Green Road. That sounds difficult to adjust to night shifts, good for you for doing it.


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