Boxing Heron – 2 September 2023

There are many pleasures to be had from one’s own bookshop, and prime among them is being able to survey the orderly shelves with each carefully chosen title in its place, ready to hand. I have never savoured this more than now when my own books are in boxes. We are preparing to move house and let’s just say we’ve been packing for a week and we haven’t made it past the fiction section.

This means that when one wakes in the night wanting to check exactly how the T. S. Eliot bit in Catch-22 goes or reaching for the precise phrase that Charles Ryder uses when it is time, now, finally, to talk of Julia in Brideshead Revisited, one is rather at a loss. Think of us as you pluck a tome from the shelf casually, no trouble at all, to check exactly why Cassandra is sitting in the kitchen sink as I Capture the Castle begins. We’re packing the poetry section last.

The shop, carefully organised, hourly tidied, is then a haven. And many of the books a place of calm and beauty. I cannot stop thinking about The Wren, The Wren, the latest novel by Anne Enright. Nell is in a new sexual entanglement: exciting and then scary. Her mother, Carmel, seems to have no way in to connect with her absent daughter. And Carmel’s father, a celebrated poet and a less than celebrated parent, looms over the next generations. His poetry is threaded through the novel. Carmel was his wren. Herons feature too. The style, the dialogue, the relationships, the cruelty – they all sing.

We are in a glorious age for short fiction – the art of leaving the reader full and overwhelmed in few pages is an exquisite form. So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan is the story of an uneventful day which should have been momentous, at least for the narrator. Each sentence builds perfectly towards the final realisation of what has been lost. I’ve read it several times already. There’s more to chew on with each reading. Cheri by Jo Ann Beard is also a tight and sharp description of an ending – the eponymous character has lived with cancer for years; now it is time to die. But not before she has understood something new about the brilliance of life. For those who spot a heron in this one too, I am honestly not doing this on purpose.

In case you need further novel recommendations, out in paperback are:

  • Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada: a tale of two friends meeting for dinner and seeking a solution to, well, a weasel infestation in the attic.
  • The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase: a dog, separated from his young owner after a devastating tsunami and earthquake, is adopted by a series of people while he searches for his lost boy.
  • Bournville by Jonathan Coe: four generations of one family in peaceful Bournville shine a light on the state of the nation. And on its feeling for chocolate.

In the ‘real’ world of non-fiction, it seems to be the time for exploring our roles in family and society. Historian Anna Funder takes her own feelings of being overshadowed and taken for granted as a wife and a mother and embarks on a study of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife, dutiful secretary and literary collaborator. Wifedom is her attempt to return Eileen to being a protagonist in her own right.

Newly out in paperback are:

  • A Heart that Works, comedian Rob Delaney’s account of trying to cope with the death of his infant son;
  • Hagitude, Sharon Blackie’s manifesto for restoring vitality and purpose to the modern image of the older woman.

If understanding our place in the wider world is more your thing, then Chris Miller’s Chip War and Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century are essential reading: the former explains the geopolitical struggle for microchip technology and its raw materials, and the latter is a frank look at the impact climate change will have on states and populations.

Monday’s book group saw us discuss the poet Lemn Sissay’s wise and moving memoir, My Name is Why, which documents his experiences in the care system as a child in the 1970s and 80s. Sissay has a new poetry collection coming out in September called Let the Light Pour In, consisting of the short poems he writes each morning to ‘exercise [his] mind’ and which also feature in his memoir. Doubtless, we could all do with more light right now.

For fans of stunning illustrated books, it is hard to choose from the many new additions to the shop but here goes:

  • Britta Teckentrup’s The Odd One Out offers a superb excuse to pore over her drawings even more than usual while you (and your pretextual children) try to spot the titular odd one out in each of the fabulous animal patterns.
  • The Squirrel and the Lost Treasure by Coralie Bickford-Smith is a gorgeous fable about a squirrel hunting for an acorn; a book bursting with colour and depicting the seasons with intricate detail.
  • Brilliant Black British History by Atinuke, illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi is a journey through the ages, from the first Britons to Black Romans, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians: a fascinating and celebratory book for all ages.

I am always looking for books that bridge the gap between 9-12 adventure fiction and, often dystopian, young-adult books. I had the pleasure of meeting Eve Wersocki Morris recently and chatting to her about her writing which fits the bill excellently. Her latest, The Wildstorm Curse, follows Kallie, a girl determined to become a playwright, refusing to be held back from that aim by her dyslexia. But at the Wildstorm Theatre Camp there are other forces at work that may distract from the performance they are putting on…

Wish me luck as I tackle the home Classics section. It spans several rooms.

I wish you a weekend free from weasels and full of Bournville.

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