I would never have thought to have described myself as a fan of non-fiction, but here I am recommending my second work of non-fiction to you in the book club. That book is The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It’s part memoir, part art history investigation, and part philosophical investigation into loneliness. As someone who moved to a big, lonely city not that long ago it was a wonderful introspective companion.

In her mid-30s Laing moved to New York for a relationship, which fell apart just as she crossed the ocean. In a new city, half away across the world from friends and loved ones and feeling the acute space left behind by losing a partner, this moment of intense loneliness sparks Laing’s investigation into the feeling. She documents her own experience of loneliness and her growing understanding of works of art she had seen a million times before.

This investigation into art and loneliness begins when Laing realises she could cast herself as a figure in a Hopper painting. The Lonely City is broken up into four artist studies: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. Each study really delves into the life of each artist and touches on how their loneliness is present in their works. Laing doesn’t limit herself to simply discussing the artist in question, in each section she investigates parallels in other works and the characters who surrounded them.

I learned so much in these sections. Like Laing, I had never really paid much attention to Warhol or Hopper despite, or perhaps because of, their popularity. But when I heard more about their lives and their loneliness images I had seen time and time again took on a new depth and humanity. While I feel like that happens whenever you learn more about an artist, there’s something so private about a person’s loneliness that Laing’s depictions really cut to the bone in a way that was at once beautiful, fascinating, and a little intrusive.

The only thing I would have wished of this book is that Laing’s personal moments of loneliness were given greater weight and better interwoven into the artist’s stories she tells. The art history moments feel at once like interludes where you wait for the author to return and also Laing’s focus. Laing investigates the stories of other artists’ but seems to forget at moments that perhaps the most compelling story she could tell is her own. But then again, maybe Laing is simply distancing herself in the same way that she describes Warhol and others doing.

That imbalance didn’t detract from my fascination with gaining a greater understanding of the people behind some of the most famous names in art. There is something wonderful about realising, and re-realising, you aren’t alone in feeling alone. However, fleeting that comfort might be it is the true power of literature.

Laing’s dedication to The Lonely City reads: “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” I think that’s my recommendation if you’ve ever felt lonely or lost in a city, isolated in a sea of people, then this book is for you. You’ll see and understand yourself in some of its pages but you’ll also feel a little less lonely whether that’s in comparison or companionship with the lonely characters she describes.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Try looking up the artworks for one chapter as you go. Or, if you’re naturally a look-er up-per, try just imagining for a chapter. How does having the images, or not, in front of you change the reading experience?
  • What would you say the tone of the book is?
  • Did you end up mapping your own experiences onto the book? If so where?
  • Are there any other artworks, or images, which conjure loneliness for you?
  • How does knowing the story of an artist change how you view their works? Does it make them more personal? Less lonely? More lonely?
  • After reading it, do you see the feeling of being lonely as a positive or a negative one, or something else?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Lonely City themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Lonely City, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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After hearing Ariel Bissett, who is one of my absolute favourite booktubers, rave about All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, I knew I had to read it. I ordered a copy almost immediately after hearing her review, but it took me a while to work my way through my pile of books to get to it.

“Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”

That’s how All We Shall Know begins. That first confession sets up the premise and the tone of the rest of the novel. Melody Shee is pregnant. It is not her husband’s child. It is her Traveller student’s. This story is her confession and her penitence. She is blunt.

Ryan’s fourth novel is set in a claustrophobically small town in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone’s business and where Melody can’t escape the glares of her community. A failed attempt to revisit the father of her child leads to her finding a friend and a perfect foil in the form of Traveller Mary Crothery. From the moment they meet, their stories become intertwined tales of women ostracised by childless marriages.

Melody’s story is broken into the weeks of her pregnancy. As that biological clock drives the plot forward towards an inevitable end, Melody looks back and recounts how her marriage fell apart, how she betrayed her best school friend and her relationship with her mother.

She narrates how she perceives her failures as a wife, a friend and as a daughter. But she sees this new baby as a potential redemption, just as she sees her relationship with Mary as an opportunity to right the wrongs of her past. She never takes full accountability for her mistakes, but, instead, ruminates on them. She isn’t a victim but she never sees herself as a free actor. On one hand, for me, this made her a deeply unlikeable character. But on the other, this is one of the greatest qualities of Ryan’s writing. Melody is a flawed anti-hero of her own story, she’s human. Nowhere is that more visible than in the descriptions of her arguments with her husband Pat. Their relationship is caustic and abusive but seeing it through Melody’s eyes you can see how it came to that point, you can understand it.

All We Shall Know is the first book I’ve really raced through this year. One part of that is that it’s a compact little novel. But the other is that it’s a compulsive read. It’s short chapters, it’s sense of time counting down, Ryan’s bitterly angry language and its interspersed snippets of plot all come together to keep you turning the pages. However, I will say that this book didn’t blow my mind in the way I thought it would. I found the traveller plot a little ham-fisted and stereotyped and Melody’s sudden outbursts often incongruous and shoe-horned. Those factors didn’t detract from my enjoyment but I want these reviews to be honest. If you’ve read All We Shall Know, I’d love to know your thoughts and discuss them!

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • How does knowing the novel has a set timeframe, the 9 months of a pregnancy, affect your reading experience?
  • Do you warm to Melody as a character, do you feel sympathy towards her? Why?
  • How does Ryan create the sense of a claustrophobic town where everyone knows your business?
  • What impact do the socio-economic and cultural differences of Melody and Mary have in your understanding of their relationship?
  • The novel is centred on women and their relationships as mothers, as friends, as wives what difference do you think it makes that these very female interactions are written by a man?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use the All We Shall Know themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read All We Shall Know, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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I picked up a copy of The Shepherd’s Life as an impulse purchase. I liked the cover. I’ve spent my summer, and often winter, holidays in the Lake District since I was very small and the image of a green fellside conjured up some of that nostalgia as I walked past a table in Waterstones.

I’m so glad that cover spoke to me. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, is a truly glorious book. A memoir of both Rebanks life and fells he has spent that life farming is a captivating read about a captivating landscape, that’s at once personal and pastoral.

The Shepherd’s Life isn’t told chronologically. Instead, Rebanks shares his memories in fragments that are loosely sorted into seasons. These fragments jump between his childhood, adolescence and present-day adulthood and cover everything from his memories of his grandfather to the ins and outs of shearing a sheep.

As someone who has walked many of the fells mentioned in its pages, it was so interesting to read about them from the perspective of someone who has worked them for a lifetime. Rebanks’ is a story I had only ever briefly considered when asking my mum as a child how the dry-stone walls were built, when counting all of the different markings on the sheep we spotted, when marvelling at the intelligence of the dogs I saw working the hills. Getting to read such an in-depth account of a way of life I had only ever glimpsed at by proxy was such a treat.

That said, I don’t think The Shepherd’s Life is only for those who already love the Lakes. You don’t need to have visited the Lakes to imagine them, or to imagine Rebanks rural life because he puts it all on the page. One of the major reasons people say they read is to get an insight into someone else’s way of life, their way of thinking, and that’s exactly what The Shepherd’s Life offers. I think what struck me the most about The Shepherd’s Life is the way that it made me reflect on my own life, and how my own environment had shaped me. Not to over-egg this review but I genuinely think this book changed my life a little bit, or at least how I think about it.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • What do you think about how the book flows? How do you feel about its fragmentary structure?
  • Rebanks’ account of his understanding of his home and his work is inextricably tied to his understanding of his family. Reflecting on those unbreakable links, how has your own environment and family shaped you?
  • The book almost starts off in opposition to the reader, how do you find the constant distinctions of ‘them and us’ affect your reading experience?
  • If you’ve ever been to the Lake District, or anywhere similar, as a tourist, how does reading the account of someone who works the land change your opinion on the place you visited?
  • The Shepherd’s Life tells a story that isn’t often heard, as Rebanks often reminds us, what lives and stories have gone unnoticed in your own environment? Is there any way you can find out more about them?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

  • There’s a lovely review in the FT by Melissa Harrison
  • Author of On The Crofter’s Trail, David Craig has also penned a great review if you want a better sense of the book, this one for The Guardian
  • I really enjoyed reading The Durham Book Group’s thoughts on the memoir
  • But I think the best piece of further reading I’ve found is the interview Stephen Moss of The Guardian did with James Rebanks, it really gives you an extra insight into the author and his way of life from an alternative perspective.

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

 

Why not use the Shepherd’s Life bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? It even features the topology of a section of the Lakes Rebanks discusses. You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Shepherd’s Life, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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It’s rare I want to read a book again before I have even finished it, but that’s the feeling I had when I was reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Set on All Souls’ Day, a day when the dead are said to return, Solar Bones is Marcus Conway’s elegy to himself. It’s his recollection of the events that took him away and then brought him back to his family’s home in Mayo. It’s a story of a series of ordinary events that come together as something extraordinary when viewed together with their ripples and their lyricism.

Solar Bones is one novel length sentence, broken up by line breaks and other bits of punctuation, like a very long prose poem. Its single sentence runs like a thread looping out to touch relationships, politics, philosophy, religion Ireland, Europe, the world, the solar system, the universe, but always coming back to a family home in Mayo. I love the sheer distance this novel covers in a series of infinte links that is just so clever in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s showing off at all.

McCormack’s choice to write in a single sentence has led to him being compared with the likes of, other great Irish writers, Joyce and Beckett. I can’t deny that it feels like McCormack has taken up something of the great Irish modernist mantle. However, I don’t want comparisons to some of the most difficult writers in the canon to put a large swathe of this novel’s potential audience off, because it is infinitely readable.

While Solar Bones certainly isn’t a thriller, it is a completely compelling read. Once you start reading you’ll find it hard to put down, in part because of its structure and in part because of its engrossing subject matter.

The only problem I had with this novel is that its single sentence structure made it hard to pick up and put down, there are no natural breaks. But that’s more of a complaint about not being able to sit down 6 hours in order to devour it in one go. Perhaps, I’ll try and do that on my inevitable second reading.

If you hadn’t guessed already, Solar Bones comes highly recommended by me. It also highly recommended by some people with a lot more literary know-how, as it won the Goldsmith’s prize last year.

When (not if) you pick up a copy from Tramp Press, Canongate Books, or anywhere else you’d buy books. Here’s my mini guide.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • How did the single sentence structure of the novel affect your reading experience? Did you change how you read practically? Did you notice the lack of punctuation as you read, if so why?
  • McCormack’s choice to write in a single sentence has been seen as distinctively Irish. How would a similar novel written in England, or America have differed? How did you feel the novel’s Irishness coming through?
  • Solar Bones is a quiet novel of a man’s life, how did that, seemingly unexciting, subject matter grip you as you read?
  • Marcus is an Engineer; how does his profession reflect in his prose?
  • As well as a novel about a man and his family, Solar Bones is concerned with religion and politics, how did you feel they were sewn into the novel? Did you enjoy those interludes?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

  • The Culture Trip’s analysis of why Solar Bones won the Goldsmith’s prize
  • A lovely review of the novel from Ian Sansom in the Guardian
  • Stephanie Boland on Solar Bones and Irish modernism, and its potential resurrection, for The New Statesman
  • An interview with Mick McCormack in the Irish Times which focuses on Solar Bones but reaches out more widely to cover some of his other thoughts on writing

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use the Solar Bones bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Solar Bones, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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I know I’m late to reading this one. Fates and Furies had its moment in 2015. It was hyped. Then it was Obama’s favourite novel of the year. Then it was hyped even more. But somehow, probably in a stupor of Early Modern essays I missed it.

2 years on, it’s still fantastic. Fates and Furies is a tale of halves, in terms of both content and structure, a marriage. Groff has been applauded for her honest take on her subject matter, and while I’ve never been married I would wholeheartedly agree that her portrayal of the tensions of relationships in real, every day, life is completely, and believably, human.

Groff’s choice to write her novel in two halves isn’t revolutionary but it is rarely done so well. As you read, it just makes sense. The second point of view adds so much to the novel and to the richness of the characters. By the time you reach the half way point, you are so invested in Matilde and Lotto, you’re so close to their story, it doesn’t feel like a radical shift or turn but just a step deeper into their relationship.

At the time of its release, Fates and Furies was frequently set alongside Gone Girl. Both are tales of complicated marriages, both are populated by flawed occasionally caustic characters, both are real page turners. But Fates and Furies isn’t really a thriller, it couldn’t be made into the same kind of box office smash as its bedfellow. It’s just that bit more domestic, that bit more internal.

I will say, however, that some of it’s literary-ness felt a little forced to me. Certain sections (without spoiling it) felt structurally shoehorned in to look clever and some passages of prose felt overblown past the point of being the good kind of rich description. Those sections didn’t mar my enjoyment of the novel, but this wouldn’t have been an honest review without my noting them.

Fates and Furies was in equal parts devastating and enthralling. There’s just something about the way Groff’s characters feel like they’ve grown rather than been crafted and the way that she makes you question the subjectivity of truth in all things, but especially relationships.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • What effect do the narratorial asides have on your reading experience?
  • Do you ultimately side with one half of the marriage over the other?
  • How do you think the story would have unfolded differently if Matilde had told her half of the story first? Where do you think your sympathies would lie?
  • Did you enjoy the play sections of the novel? If so why and what did they add?
  • Certain images are repeated throughout the novel, which ones can you remember? Did you find that those repeated images helped tie the two halves of the novel together at all?


IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

If you need something to mark your place when you read Fates and Furies, you can download and print the bookmark above for free.

Read the first Book Club for Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

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