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photo credit: Tony Soluri

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

credit: Kierszbaum Interieurs

I have no words for that lamp shade.  Who doesn’t want to bring the tiki bar into their music room/library?

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

My library has decided to kick off the New Year with a return to normality.  The extra long loan periods we’ve been enjoying and moratorium on late fees are now a thing of the past.  Ah well, they were good while they lasted (though I never got to test the late fee exception – I’m too well trained to break rules even with approval to do so).  Our usual loan period here is 3 weeks, with the option to renew books up to 2 times if there isn’t a hold queue, so there’s still plenty of time available to read everything.

I don’t read mysteries but made an exception after hearing so much praise for The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan.  It is superb and, after quickly passing it on to my mother to read, I immediately placed holds on the next three books in the series: The Language of Secrets, Among the Ruins, and A Dangerous Crossing (published as No Place of Refuge in the UK).  I am now rationing them out so I don’t speed through the series too fast.

For something completely different, I also picked up:

Just Enough Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse – a collection of the best Jeeves novels: Right Ho, Jeeves, Joy in the Morning, and Very Good, Jeeves.

Off the Road by Jack Hitt – I was running errands on the weekend and dropped by a library branch I don’t usually visit.  I found this during my brief browsing and was delighted.  You know by now that I can never resist a travel memoir about a walk (though I wouldn’t complain if people wrote about journeys other than the Camino de Santiago).

Map of Another Town by M.F.K. Fisher – Food-writer Fisher’s memoir of her move to Aix-en-Provence after the Second World War.

What did you pick up this week?

photo credit: Andrew Beasley (via House and Garden UK)

This may be the dreamiest of dream libraries for me.  I love its lightness and simplicity, without sacrificing colour or cosiness.  It’s a narrow room (as can be seen from the photo below) and I think this is the perfect use of it.

photo credit: Andrew Beasley (via House and Garden UK)

designer: Robert Kime

As we (quietly) launch into this new year, I offer up this retreat.  Not only does it provide plenty of shelving for your books, cosy seating, and an excellent variety of lighting options, it also appears to have…swords and daggers on the table?  Good to be prepared for anything, I suppose.

2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

In a year full of comfort reads, Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean made quite a change.  It’s about as far from comforting as you can get and is as urgent and important as it is upsetting.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, MacLean set out across the newly opened East.  Thirty years later, he follows his journey in reverse, from Russia through the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to the UK, trying to make sense of how the hope and optimism he saw on his original journey has led to the corruption, authoritarianism, and exploitation rampant in Eastern Europe today.

Russia is, of course, at the heart of it all.  MacLean begins his journey there and his writing on it is superb, though the anecdotes he shares would hardly be credible were they from any other country.  With oligarchs, illegal immigrants, and hackers, he glimpses the new Russia, which looks disarmingly familiar to the old.  Its simplistic narratives about its history help fuel Putin’s mythologized version of the 20th Century, and kitschy celebrations are held for the glorious victories of the Second World War:

Beyond the billboard was the Night Watch festival ground.  Here every summer the notorious motorcycle gang re-enacted the Second World War.  In pyrotechnic fantasies and high-octane motorcycle stunts, ‘heroic’ Red Army bikers battled ‘heartless’ Wehrmacht BMW riders before taking on goose-stepping ‘pro-Western’ demonstrators.  In last year’s performance the Statue of Liberty even made an appearance, spewing a fiery retch of dollars ‘to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples.’

The flip side of this is the pointed erasure of Soviet crimes from the history books.  While other nations have worked to face their pasts, Russia has chosen to ignore it.  As MacLean says, “few Russians accept that past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed for the psychic health of a society”.    Attempts are made by volunteers to raise awareness, in the belief that these events must be acknowledged so that future generations can learn from them – but that seems to be exactly what Putin wants to avoid.  How much easier to focus on a proud history as a nation of victors.

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed and not too naïve about current affairs, but at times I feel like I could not keep up with all of the threats posed by Russia.  The most chilling – perhaps because it was the one I was least aware of – was Russia’s ability to use human trafficking as a weapon against the EU:

Russia’s 1,300-mile-long northern frontier with Norway and Finland is among the country’s most strategic, guarded by the army, the KGB and the Border Service.  Along its length nothing happens without Moscow’s approval.  They Kremlin alone decides which roads to open and close in the heavily militarized region.

…No proof existed of the involvement of the Russian state, yet – immediately after Helsinki had voiced support for NATO – some 1,500 refugees were dispatched across its border as a warning.  The Kremlin wanted to remind the Finns that over eleven million foreigners lived on Russian territory, a vast pool of potential migrants who could be used to flood Europe.

Moving to Hungary, MacLean finds a sadder land.  Russia may be sinister but it is bold and confident and powerful.  Hungary, so hopeful in its new independence on MacLean’s original journey, has walked a darker path.  The country struggled to adjust to capitalism and while some succeeded, many were left behind to struggle:

In the communist years everyone had a job.  Everyone had a roof over their head.  ‘Workers pretended to work and the authorities pretended to pay them’ was a well-worn cliché, meant as a joke, yet it contained a grain of truth.  But the joke vanished with the Wall.  In the early 1990s workers’ hostels were closed, along with redundant factories, throwing tens of thousands onto the street.  Many tried their luck at small start-ups, opening video-rental shops, nail parlours or a corner grocery, losing everything when their enterprises failed.  They left their villages and towns in shame, escaping bad debts, joining the exodus to the capital.

It is no wonder that these people, left with nothing and with no support, long for certainty while trusting no one.  Which is how they ended up with their current authoritarian government, to the distress of MacLean’s old liberal friends:

‘Remember what I told you: Hungary placed its faith in the losers of every war since the sixteenth century.  This twenty-first century will be no exception.’  Alajos said in toast: ‘To a once hopeful Hungary.  Long may we mourn her death.’

Things are no better in Poland, where MacLean finds himself losing patience during a conversation with several thirty-something men who work in the country’s increasingly state-controlled media:

‘Do you fear Poland becoming a one-party state?’ I asked them.

‘The real question is, do we need an opposition?’ replied the American, almost impressive in his complete sincerity.  ‘There are such diverse opinions in the PiS.’

‘And what about the party’s tolerance of the far right?’ I said…

‘Our strength keeps them out of power.’

‘As in Berlin in 1933?’

Across all of these countries, MacLean sees lies being presented at the truth, myths obscuring more complicated realities, the complicated being passed by in favour of the simplistic.  How easy it is to guide countries once their people are motivated only by fear and pride.  But he returns home sadder still to see signs of the same behaviour at home: “How could the English – a people raised in a stable, peaceful and prosperous society with centuries of democracy and freedom – have swallowed the vapid promises of restored glory?  How could they – we – have allowed ourselves to be played like puppets?”

How indeed?

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

We have almost made it to the end of 2020!  That came up fast – so fast in fact that I didn’t realise how many library holds I had paused until the end of December until they suddenly arrived this week in an avalanche.  But it’s the best and least lethal form of avalanche and I have every hope of being able to dig my way out while enjoying the process.

We Germans by Alexander Starritt – I’m very intrigued by this slim novel, which takes the form of a letter written by a German veteran of the Second World War to his British grandson.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman – I read the epic Stalingrad a few months ago and this companion is praised as even more engaging and the best of Grossman’s works.

How to be an Epicurean by Catherine Wilson – the stoics have had their recent revival and here philosopher Wilson does her part to reestablish the Epicureans’ recipe for happiness: “a philosophy that promoted reason, respect for the natural world, and reverence for our fellow humans”.

Sarah’s Cottage by D.E. Stevenson – the sequel to Sarah Morris Remembers, which I recently reread.  I remember this being weak and unimpressive and yet I wasn’t ready to be done with Sarah after finishing the first book.

The Nymph and the Lamp by Thomas H. Raddall – During the 1956 Club back in October, Naomi at Consumed by Ink reviewed another book by Raddall, which intrigued me.  She also mentioned that this was her favourite title by him so I made it the first one I tracked down.

From Here to There by Michael Bond – I find the navigating instinct fascinating and so it’s no surprise that this volume, subtitled “the art and science of finding and losing our way“, appeals.

Rain by Melissa Harrison – There are many joys to be had from walking in the rain, which is good is it’s the only possible type of walking available here for much of the year.  Here Harrison takes the reader along on four walks taken in the rain throughout the year around England

A Promise of Ankles by Alexander McCall Smith – The most recent instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series.

All About Us by Tom Ellen – a light and fluffy filler.

Islamic Empires by Justin Marozzi – portraits of 15 different Islamic cities across history, focusing on each at the height of its powers.  I love the premise of this, though it did get a brutal review in the Guardian.

Masha by Mary Kay – I recently saw a review of The Youngest Lady in Waiting over at Shiny New Books and immediately placed a hold on this earlier book.

Noble Savages by Sarah Watling – Finally!  This was in every bookstore when I visited London last year but limited luggage space kept me from buying this biography of four fascinating sisters.  I’m delighted that my patience has finally been rewarded.

What did you pick up this week?