There's No Life Without Books

Reading and writing about books. For fun.

Books I read in 2018

Happy New Year! Books are the Best!

In 2018 I went to Japan, filled some bookshelves, and read more than the usual amount of literary biographies. In Japan, we navigated the bookstore in which Haruki Murakimi apparently bought his first fountain pen. While there, I bought copies of two of my favourite Japanese books: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, and Book 1 (of 6) of 1Q84.


Japanese books are very beautiful, and all very uniform. There were hundreds of book protectors on sale in every bookshop and stationery shop (we went to a lot of those – the Iroshizuku ink was soooo cheap!), I had to remind myself that books in the UK don’t fit into them to stop myself from bringing them all home. Now that I have at least one  Banana Yoshimoto book in Japanese, there’s more incentive than ever to try and learn the language. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how much is lost or gained in translation and what that does to a book depending on the language you read. This Little Art by Kate Briggs is a novel-length essay on exactly this topic, and I read it not long after The Idiot in which the protagonist has a crisis about language and how words can lose their meaning. They fit together very well in my head – both asked and tried to provide answers to questions about translation, like why even do it at all if meaning is going to be lost? Having read Murakami’s most recent book, Killing Commendatore, I’m still not sure if the absence of Jay Rubin as translator is responsible for my disappointment with it, or if it was just a bad book, or if Haruki Murakami has never been that great and it was all Jay Rubin all along.

This Little Art, The Idiot, Shirley and Romantic Outlaws are probably my favourites from this year. Also Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Breakthrough, from Don’t Look Now. Sinister, terrifying, haunting, all words that fall short of describing the atmosphere of that one short story.

I read Shirley after reading Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon. I had tried to read it before and had never been able to get past the first chapter, but something about Outsiders made me want to try again. Reading Outsiders made me realise in a way that I hadn’t before that books written in the last couple of centuries aren’t as far removed from us as I had thought. Previously, when reading books from different time periods, I had become as detached as if I was reading fantasy; I forgot that the stories being told were often very firmly set in social, political and cultural climates that had once existed. It helped me to find ways to empathise with the narrators and the characters, and make them much more human and relatable. While reading Shirley, instead of feeling like the characters and situations were a million miles away, I forced myself to remember that Charlotte Brontë was writing about events that were important to the people in the time she was writing about. Her father witnessed Luddite uprisings. The setting of Shirley with its discussions of workers’ rights and its attacks on mills was as real for Charlotte and her father as Brexit and Trump are for us now.

  • Turtles All The Way Down – John Green
  • My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Manderley Forever: Daphne du Maurier, A Life – Tatiana de Rosnay
  • Don’t Look Now & other short stories – Daphne du Maurier


  • Outsiders: Five Women Writers who Changed the World – Lyndall Gordon
  • Shirley – Charlotte Brontë

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The first time I tried to read Shirley, I struggled to get past the first three chapters. "This is not as good as Jane Eyre or Villette," I thought. And, of course, I was wrong. How did I come to change my mind and try again? It was because I read Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon. It was sometimes difficult to read; lots of what felt like fact-listing, and the events of the five lives studied are not always in chronological order, which would not be a problem if it was made clearer. This made it difficult to get through but did not affect my ability to be grateful for all the new information and the future reading list (I have a charity shop copy of Middlemarch now sitting on top of a book pile, and am searching for some Olive Schreiner). It also provided me with new reasons to persevere with Shirley. Though the Brontë sister included in this book is Emily, not Charlotte, it is impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. Especially when Charlotte included a characters based on Emily in a novel: Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. To read someone's fictionalised perception of her sisters' characters, I thought, would be a very strange experience. And it is, it sometimes feels weirdly voyeuristic. In the future we are all in on the secret. A huge theme throughout Outsiders is the rights of women and how their role has changed over time; Shirley is referred to as an incredibly feminist book. And it is. Jane Eyre has nothing on it. Still feminist, but this is in-your-face "what are we supposed to do all day, cook and sew??" "…yes. I hate womenites." So I decided to read it again but placing it as contemporary, rather than viewing it as a relic of the past which I should accept that I can't always understand or relate to. Putting these new perspectives on it has really helped me to get into the book. This is a huge post. Shirley is great. (Also the first time Shirley was used as a female name!) #bookstagram #Shirley #charlottebrontë #outsiders #lyndallgordon #brontë #nowreading

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  • In Search of Anne Brontë – Nick Holland
  • Moshi Moshi – Banana Yoshimoto
  • Asleep – Banana Yoshimoto
  • Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susan
  • Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell
  • Winter – Ali Smith
  • Banshee, Volumes 2 & 5
  • My Uncle Oswald – Roald Dahl
  • Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates
  • The White Book – Han Kang
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë


  • The Idiot – Elif Batuman
  • Emily Brontë Reappraised: A View from the 21st Century – Claire O’Callaghan
  • A Cup Of Sake Beneath The Cherry Trees – Yoshida Kenko
  • This Little Art – Kate Briggs


  • The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
  • The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell
  • Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami
  • A Cat, A Man and Two Women – Junichiro Tanazaki
  • N. P. – Banana Yoshimoto
  • Romantic Outlaws – Charlotte Gordon
  • The Pilgrims – Mary Shelley
  • Bartleby The Scrivener – Herman Melville
  • Behind A Wardrobe In Atlantis – Emma J. Lannie
  • The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayuka Murata
  • Demian – Herman Hesse
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena 20th Anniversary companion book
  • The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories – Edited by Jay Rubin, Introduction by Haruki Murakami


  • The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night – Jen Campbell
  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard – J.K. Rowling, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

We went to a talk given by Chris Riddell at Nottingham Trent University. He was answering questions about his work on the newly illustrated Beedle the Bard while drawing for us live. He signed my copy of The Edge Chronicles Maps, and was generally very lovely.

  • Ariel – Sylvia Plath
  • Charlotte Brontë Revisited: A View from the 21st Century – Sophie Franklin
  • Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami
  • By The Light of My Father’s Smile – Alice Walker
  • Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë
  • Rough Magic – Paul Alexander

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  • How To Be Invisible – Kate Bush

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Merry Kate-mas =D

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  • Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom – Sylvia Plath

This year I would like to write more about the books I am reading – this blog has been very neglected for the past couple of years! I’ve been occasionally taking part in the Are You Book Enough bookbinding challenge on instagram again. This time last year I was working on the January 2018 theme Darkness. I wrote and illustrated a story called The Black Ribbon. It was inspired by the Tatiana de Rosnay biography of Daphne du Maurier, in which de Rosnay refers to Daphne du Maurier’s depressive episodes as her “black ribbon.” It’s also a tribute to Edward Gorey. I thought his style of illustration would be best suited to the story I was telling, so I had a go at reproducing his style.

Another of the books I made this year was a book in a box for the theme Listen. I chose to bind a book of Kate Bush’s Fifty Words For Snow from her song and album of the same name.

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This is my contribution to the August #AreYouBookEnough bookbinding challenge, #listen . I love to listen to music, and Kate Bush is one of my favourites. Why choose Fifty Words For Snow when I could choose any of her songs? Why does it fit the theme best? The song is a list. It's Stephen Fry reciting fifty words for snow – some made up by Kate Bush, some real. She wanted him to be the narrator because people believe the words he says, he is intelligent and speaks with a quiet authority.  Hearing him speak her fictional words for snow makes them sound real. Snow itself deadens sound but has sounds of its own; one of the words is "creaky-creaky." I hope whoever looks at my book can hear the snow behind the words. This is the first time I've made this kind of box, and my measurements are a bit off (the lid is loose!) but overall I'm pleased and know what to do better next time! The paper is very fibrous, I wanted something that looked and felt like snow. Both the front cover of the book and the lid of the box are padded. The ink I used to write the fifty words is a mixture of two different inks – white calligraphy ink and a Grey Plum Kwiz ink. I'm going to have to find a way to photograph it properly because it is almost pearlescent! If you hold the paper a certain way it disappears. Hold it to the light and it looks like it is glowing. I'll try and get some video footage of it. #AreYouBookEnough #bookart #handmade #katebush #fiftywordsforsnow #50wordsforsnow #listen #books #snow #music

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I will leave you with a picture of the new bookcase. I hope you have an excellent 2019!



Books I read in 2017

I think this is the most non-fiction I’ve ever read in a year. All non-fiction about fiction and the people who wrote it, but still non-fiction. And I learned a lot about the books that I love through it. I have a tip for you, however: don’t read Sylvia Plath’s journals and Juliet Barker’s biography of The Brontës unless you want to be thoroughly depressed. Or you have Banana Yoshimoto to save you with her cosy Kitchen fiction.

I want to talk to people about these books.

  • The Vegetarian – Han Kang
  • A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf
  • Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

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Anne Brontë. Underappreciated and woefully misrepresented. Reading Samantha Ellis's book was at times like reading my own thoughts on Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Having been a lifelong devotee of Emily and a believer in the lie that Anne is the "boring Brontë", it came as a shock to discover that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is as well written, imaginative and literary as anything written by her siblings. Not only that, but it is as progressive (if not more so) than Jane Eyre. Just read main character Helen Graham's opinion about the education and up-bringing of boys and girls (shocker: she thinks they should be presented with equal opportunities). I failed to see any of the moralising and piousness that I had been led to expect from Anne, and instead discovered a thoughtful, self-questioning and reflective character who pushed herself to achieve something with the talents she was sensible enough to recognise and nurture in herself.

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  • Autumn – Ali Smith
  • The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge (illustrated by Chris Riddell)
  • The Dead – James Joyce
  • Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath – edited by Karen V Kukil

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Currently reading Sylvia Plath's journals on the bus to and from work every day. I haven't finished but I love her already, and am admiring the fact that she already had a magnificent and very individual writing style even at the age of eighteen. She seems to suffer from the same affliction as the narrator in Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca; though she tries hard not to be, she is always aware that the present has to come to an end. Before she has even really begun to enjoy the spring, for example, she has already written a poem about how spring tricks you into feeling younger than you are and disappears just as it has made you feel young and hopeful. She's the kind of person I'd want to be friends with, and have the approval of.

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  • Universal Harvester – John Darnielle
  • Moshi Moshi – Banana Yoshimoto

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Banana Yoshimoto is my new favourite. Amrita was the first of hers I read, then Moshi Moshi, and now, having just finished Kitchen, I have ordered as many of her books that have been translated into English as possible. It makes me want to learn Japanese so that I can experience her subtle writing in its original language. The plot sometimes skips around in time, nothing is ever fully revealed, not in a satisfactory way, but that's not the point of the story. I think she writes about life, and how it's great to be alive. There's a girl who lost her memory and her sister, a girl who lost her father and, through his death, discovered his secret life, and a girl who loses her soulmate. The loss is not what is important; it happens off-screen. What we do see is how the characters face it, and how they connect to the people around them. In anyone else's hands it might come across as morbid to say "you could die any time, embrace what you have", but Banana Yoshimoto manages to make it feel cozy and comfortable. There's always a well equipped kitchen somewhere in which you can make a wholesome meal for someone you love. #bananayoshimoto #amrita #moshimoshi #kitchen #books #bookstagram

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  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J. K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim Kay) (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J. K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim Kay) (re-read)
  • The Brontës – Juliet Barker
  • Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami
  • Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto
  • Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Book Of Tea – Kakuzo Okabura
  • The Postman’s Fiancé – Denis Thériault
  • Goodbye Tsugumi – Banana Yoshimoto
  • Scott Pilgrim vol. 1 to 6 – Bryan Lee O’Malley (re-read)
  • The Girl Who Is Getting Married – Aoko Matsuda
  • Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli (re-read)

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Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. I think I read it about once a year, and have done since my Nana first bought it for me when I was 12 or 13. What makes it so good? For me it is the prose. It is dream-like, and self contained; you're floating along in Leo Borlock's memories of being sixteen years old. It's full of observations about individuality and how that fits or doesn't fit into being part of something larger. His words have the maturity of reflection, which is what this is, a remembrance of Stargirl, his high school girlfriend. There are some very beautiful sentences in here. Some of my favourites are in the pictures. "Faces staring at faces staring at faces. Tens of millions of years of faces in a living room in a place called Arizona." This book gives you a strange sense of perspective, a comforting sense of being very small in a place where you have a direct connection to things that lived on the same planet millions of years ago. Just like looking up at the stars and thinking about how far away they are. #stargirl #jerryspinelli #bookstagram

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  • Revolutionary Girl Utena – Chiho Saito
  • Seconds – Bryan Lee O’Malley (re-read)
  • Such Small Hands – Andres Barba

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It's my birthday I'm allowed. #nevertoomanybooks

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  • Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami
  • Familiar Things – Hwang Sok Yong
  • All Over Creation – Ruth Ozeki
  • The Book of Dust: La Belle Suavage – Philip Pullman
  • Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling – Philip Pullman
  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt

This year was mostly about The Brontës (again), but possibly even more so about Banana Yoshimoto. After reading Moshi Moshi, I moved on to Kitchen (a Christmas present from my dad last year), and after reading Kitchen I bought as many of her books as possible that had been translated into English. I still have two left to read, Asleep and Lizard. My favourites so far are Amrita (it is long and sprawly and hard to follow but satisfying) and Goodbye Tsugumi, just because I wish I could write like that and fill readers with a nostalgia that isn’t theirs but which makes them feel like they were there anyway.

There were a few books I was looking forward to, but which were disappointing. Not devastatingly so, but they didn’t match up to the hype I associate with those authors, just because everything else they’ve done has been incredible. Men Without Women by Murakami read a lot like All That Man Is by David Szalay. I couldn’t tell if the one dimensional women were on purpose because it’s Murakami and (almost) all of the male protagonists were narrow in their views of women, or if he just isn’t very good at giving female characters depth. My favourite story in the collection, Kino, was terrifying towards the end, and felt like the only one that slipped into his usual realm of magical realism. The others were Norse Mythology and Universal Harvester. Maybe I’ll read them again one day and maybe change my mind.

Reading my Shakespeare and Co. copy of The Dead has made me want to read all of Dubliners, because it was wonderful and bleak and full of the things that made me enjoy Ulysses, just in a smaller story. And I enjoyed Daemon Voices even more than The Book of Dust, which was 17 years in the waiting. Both came out at the same time. Philip Pullman Christmas!

If anyone wants to get in touch and tell me what made them like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, please let me know. I didn’t get it.

Read Banana Yoshimoto.

(Books are the best.)

Books read in 2016

Hello. Since April, I’ve spent 2 hours on buses every weekday. There have also been a few train journeys to visit family and friends, meaning that this year, there has been A LOT OF READING TIME. What else are you supposed to do on the bus? You can’t talk to the driver, it says you’re not allowed. My book journal is also still in use, and I’m still attempting to be a more active reader. It’s a lot of fun to think about what you’re reading while you’re reading it, and to think about how it relates to other things you’ve read. When I was a teenager I used to write essays about the Harry Potter books for fun. Maybe I should start again but with books that I read in 2017.

Here are the books I read this year! in order of when they were read:

  • Sandman Overture – Neil Gaiman
  • Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Phoebe Gloeckner
  • The Unknown Unknown – Mark Forsyth
  • Down The Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos
  • Night Fisher – R. Kikuo Johnson
  • Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa
  • The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
  • Hansel and Gretel – Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Eddie Campbell
  • The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë – Daphne DuMaurier
  • Matilda – Mary Shelley
  • Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle (The same John Darnielle as The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle)
  • After The Quake – Haruki Murakami
  • Ulysses – James Joyce
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (including Pearl and Sir Orfeo) – J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Object Lessons: Glass – John Garrison
  • Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
  • The Encyclopedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton (illustrated edition with introduction by Philip Pullman)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Notes From Underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Villette – Charlotte Brontë
  • A Nervous Breakdown – Anton Chekhov
  • There A Petal Silently Falls – Ch’oe Yun
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
  • Room – Emma Donaghue
  • How Literature Saved My Life – David Shields
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
  • Why We Broke Up – Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
  • To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  • Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli (re-read)
  • Love, Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli (re-read)
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • The Parasites – Daphne DuMaurier
  • A Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (re-read)
  • The Nakano Thrift Store – Hiromi Kawakami
  • The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Odd and the Frost Giants – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddel
  • Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne DuMaurier
  • Love – Angela Carter
  • Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – Max Porter
  • A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
  • All That Man Is – David Szalay
  • A Book of Dreams – Peter Reich (re-read)
  • Walk Through Walls: A Memoir – Marina Abramovic
  • The End Of Mr Y – Scarlett Thomas
  • Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
  • Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffeneger
  • Amrita – Banana Yoshimoto

There are also a couple of comics I’ve been keeping up with: Giant Days by John Allison and Snot Girl by Bryan Lee O’Malley. John Allison is great and everyone should read his webcomics.

There were lots of firsts for me this year, and lots of things that I wouldn’t normally read, some of which were very rewarding. Her Fearful Symmetry and The End of Mr Y were two books I never expected to read, having not enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife and being uninspired by the blurb of the latter. After having them recommended to me by a good book recommender, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed both. The End Of Mr Y was followed by Hard Boiled Wonderland, which was a fun coincidence as both books have large portions of the story told from within the subconscious of one of the main characters.

What were the best things I read this year? Definitely Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. It made me thankful to live with someone, as it meant that I didn’t have to sleep downstairs with the light on. Normally I don’t enjoy being scared; I’m not a fan of jumpy things, or gory things, or ghost stories in general. The stories in this book were none of these things, but there was a general unease to them, very similar to the unease you get when reading some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. It was very much like reading Daphne DuMaurier’s The Doll; there might not be anything strange happening, but it still feels very uncanny. Villette, There A Petal Silently Falls, Hotel Iris, and Love were some other great books that I’ll probably re-read eventually. I had enough fun with Ulysses to write a blog post about it. And Daphne DuMaurier’s biography of Branwell Brontë was amazing. Lots of interesting insights and facts I hadn’t known before mixed with some really bizarre suppositions on DuMaurier’s part  (her descriptions of Aunt Branwell and ruminations on her character are a great example of her strange assumptions – I won’t spoil it though!).

At Christmas I received A LOT of books, plus some book vouchers, which means that I have a lot more Virginia Woolf to read (To The Lighthouse was also one of the best books this year!), plus The Tale Of Genji and a very nice pocket-size copy of The Story of Art.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (Books are great.)

Kate Bush Made Me Read It: James Joyce’s Ulysses



My copies of Ulysses and The Sensual World.

As has been established in a previous blog entry on Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams, I have a severe Kate Bush problem. One of the ways in which this love manifests is a desire to read the books she has written songs about. I had already read Wuthering Heights and it is one of my favourite books, so I concluded from this that I would love all the other books she loves enough to write songs about. I’ve read The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, which inspired the film (The Innocents) which inspired the song (Infant Kiss), and also A Book Of Dreams. That left only the book which inspired the Sensual World: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For those who haven’t experienced the Sensual World, you are in for a treat:

On her album Director’s Cut, released in 2011, Kate Bush completely changed the track. Here is an excerpt from a Guardian article explaining the change:

The Sensual World is perhaps the most changed of these tracks – it has not even retained its original title. Now called Flower of the Mountain, the original lyrics have been replaced by a passage from James Joyce’s 1922 novel. “Originally when I wrote the song The Sensual World I had used text from the end of Ulysses,” Bush said. “When I asked for permission to use the text I was refused, which was disappointing. I then wrote my own lyrics for the song, although I felt that the original idea had been more interesting. Well, I’m not James Joyce am I? When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes … I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfill the original concept.”

(An Aside: I am now a bookbinder, and as part of my training I have had to learn how to use a hot foil blocking press on different materials. I set A LOT of Kate Bush lyrics, including some lyrics from The Sensual World on some material that looks very much like the dress she wears in the music video. Here it is: img_4819

End of the aside!)

I have owned this copy of Ulysses since around 2010/2011. My housemate at the time took me to the Oxfam bookshop in Headingley, in Leeds, because we lived close to it and she had learned fairly early on that I love books. She does too. She has an amazing talent; by feeling the pages of an old book, she can tell you what kind of printing press it was printed on. We were once asked how an arts person makes friends with someone with a physics background: cake. And books. We went to the Oxfam bookshop one day, and because it is a beautiful copy and only cost £10, I bought it. Here is a better view of it, including the spine. I have no idea why there is a bow on it.


My copy of Ulysses. Why is there a bow on the spine? I do not know.

Having owned it for five(ish) years now, I decided to finally read it. To get to and from work, I take a bus, and during the lunch break, almost everyone is quiet and reads. I get a lot of reading time during the day, and it is wonderful. Ulysses came on the bus with me, and we had a good time together.

I approached this book almost completely blind. Here are the things I knew about it in advance:

  • It is based on the Greek story of Odysseus (whose Latin name is Ulysses), of which I know nothing.
  • James Joyce wrote obscurely on purpose to make sure that scholars would still be studying it in a hundred years? (I don’t even know if this is correct.)
  • All the action takes place over the course of one day.
  • Bloom’s Day is a thing that happens every year in Dublin.
  • Every section has a corresponding body part.
  • Kate Bush wrote The Sensual World based on the final part of the book, Molly Bloom’s internal monologue, a single sentence that lasts for around 100 pages. Therefore, to greater appreciate the song and Kate Bush’s intentions, I would need to see the whole thing through to the end; no cheating and skipping ahead.
  • It’s a difficult book to read.

And that was literally it. I decided not to use any resources while I read, to hold onto this blindness. I didn’t want to have any expectations about what I should be reading into it. Any questions I had could be answered after reading (if I could find the answers). The copy that I have does not have any of the extra material that newer editions have. For example, the Everyman’s Library copy has a table in the back which looks a bit like this:


Ulysses Cheat Sheet in the back of the Everyman’s Library edition (I live in a house in which there are two copies of Ulysses. PRETENTIONS are okay sometimes).

This table splits up the sections of Ulysses into the corresponding sections of The Odyssey, gives the hour of the scene, along with some of the important symbolic references present in the different sections. (After reading the book, and discovering this table, I found out that I had got Kidney, Genitals and Ear correct. I was very proud of myself.)

Previous to this reading, I had tried once before, and hadn’t even made it to the introduction of Leopold Bloom. This time I found it much easier; that was the first instance of realising that a second read is probably necessary. As is forgetting that this is supposed to be a difficult book! Once I had got used to the initial style of the writing, I began to really enjoy it. There were some really wonderful sentences that I held on to long after finishing the book. Here are two of my favourites, from the first section of the book, which follows Stephen Dedalus through his morning:

On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.

He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly before his voice spoke.

Why did I enjoy these sentences so much? Sometimes, descriptions are so vivid that the images you get in your head is like looking at a photograph, and that’s what these sentences said. The first sentence is describing the light as it falls through the trees and lands on Stephen’s shoulders. You could say “spots of light moved across his shoulders as he walked beneath the trees” and you would understand the image, but James Joyce has written the sentence almost entirely using metaphors. The spots of light are “sun flung spangles”; his motion is described in terms of the movement of the spots of light, the “dancing coins”, rather than in terms of Stephen’s movement.

What about the second sentence? “Beating the air oldly”; again, this could be said in an entirely different, more straightforward (and much more boring?) way. He has avoided using the clichéd phrase usually used in this situation, in which a figure with more authority “shakes their forefinger” at the (typically younger) less experienced character. And I think that is the thing I really loved most about this book. Cliché has been avoided (apart from where it has been used in a satirical sense, as in the section where he parodies romance novels as Gerty MacDowell fantasises about love). In both of these sentences that I picked out, the action has been described from a point that we aren’t usually familiar with (movement of the light instead of movement of the person; beating the air as opposed to shaking a finger). Having never read anything like that before, it made me think a bit more about what I was reading; if the author had been lazy and used lazy clichés it wouldn’t have made such an impression.

The last two sections of the book are definitely my favourite sections. The second to last is structured in a question and answer style. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus have been out with friends/acquaintances and are fairly drunk and tired. Bloom feels a fatherly protection for Stephen and wants to make sure that he is okay; he tries to offer him a place to stay for the night, and really wants to be the kind of person that Stephen can admire. At first, the way it is structured makes it seem like it will be very dry, but the questions are such that you want to know the answer. The answers are often full of deadpan humour:

Did Bloom accept the invitation to dinner given then by the son and afterwards seconded by the father?

Very gratefully, with grateful appreciation, with sincere appreciative gratitude, in appreciatively grateful sincerity of regret, he declined.

These two men, one old enough to be the father of the other, have stumbled back to the house of Bloom. It’s about 1am and they have been drinking. This question and answer made it very clear to me that they are both very tired and very drunk. In the stages of being overly polite and familiar, and genuine, and friendly. And he does all that with just two sentences. The whole book was a joy.

There were a lot of parts that went completely over my  head too; I have very little idea about what happened in the chapter in which Bloom is at the maternity hospital and meets up with Stephen and his friends before they head out. An article about the most worthwhile parts of Ulysses describes this particular section  much better than I can:

I do love the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, in which Joyce writes chronologically successive rafts of prose that replicate the stylistic evolution of English writing from Chaucer to the present. It’s skillful and funny and offers a tapestrylike illustration of the progress of language and rhetoric, style as content.

Completely baffling to read, especially as it gets into the heavy slang at the end of the chapter. But just as you start to struggle with or get bored with a style, it switches to a completely different one. And you have to go through the process of getting comfortable with the style again, which I really enjoyed every time.

What did I think of the final part of the book? The part that Kate Bush wanted to turn into a song? This was the final part of the books, and one of my favourites, along with the question and answer style section. The whole chapter is from Molly Bloom’s point of view, who, it seems to the reader, has not left her bed all day. She started there when we first joined Leopold when he took her breakfast in bed, and she was still there when he got into bed at the end of the evening. She has spent a large portion of the day in that room, and also presumably with Boylan, the man who is managing her current singing tour and whom Leopold is suspicious of being his wife’s lover.

After spending a book with boys and men who are concerned with hamlet, advertising, medical school, death and lovers-from-a-distance, the change to Molly’s abruptness and directness throws you off-balance at first. She seems much more decisive and sure of herself and of her husband than Bloom or Stephen are of anything. Where Leopold is indecisive and almost unwilling to think about it when it comes to his wife’s potential admirers and lovers, Molly thinks she knows about the nature of Leopold’s affairs. She assumes that he has had meetings with the woman who writes to him (Leopold thinks he has very cleverly kept these letters secret), and also assumes that he has affairs all over the place. Having followed him for the day through the book, the reader knows that each instance of Bloom being attracted to or noticing another woman leads to him thinking of Molly, or being disappointed. He watches these women from a distance.

Both of them project something of themselves onto each other. But the creativity of the language and the way in which it is used to tell the story elevate the book from being a simple story about a day in the life of a man in advertising who is worried about his wife’s fidelity into something about how well you can ever know another person. You spend most of the book in Leopold’s head. You spend some if it in Stephen’s, you spend some of it observing how others observe and feel about Bloom. And at the end of it you get the opinion of his wife. How does how Bloom sees himself compare to all these different perspectives? How do they fit together to build one person?  How would the reader feel about him if they didn’t get Molly’s opinion at the end? These are the things the book made me think about, and I don’t really have any answers yet! Not ones that I could write about coherently and interestingly anyway.

As soon as I had finished reading I wanted to read it again, and it was very heartening to discover that I could open the book to any page, read what I had previously considered to be impenetrable text, and read it with ease. I felt like I could read anything. I’ve read Ulysses, so why not? No book is impenetrable now! And I have Kate Bush to thank for that.

In 2013, I went to Paris. I was there for five days, for a workshop. The evenings were spent wandering around and getting lost, and accidentally getting the queue for the Arc de Triomphe. One thing I knew that I had to do, however, was visit Shakespeare and Company, a famous Paris bookshop that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it. Please give me a second while I retrieve the journal I was writing in at the time!


This journal came with me to find Shakespeare and Company. It is the same green as my copy of Ulysses. Coincidence???

Tuesday 17th October 2013


I’m sitting on some stairs outside Notre Dame, and I just saw a man do poi with fireworks. I couldn’t find the bookshop, and then I got lost (how do you lose a cathedral after just seeing it?). But I found it. The night show is just a film about the history of Notre Dame, and you had to pay. I can’t get back too late either, so I just had a look inside.

Later, after losing a cathedral, I find Shakespeare and Company:


I found it, and I am IN in it. They have a library upstairs where you can sit and read books that aren’t even for buying. There is a piano to the right with a Bishop on it. There’s a girl on the bed to my right, listening to music and writing. There’s a woman opposite me, reading a book of horror stories. In the room next door is a book group. There’s a typewriter in a dark little cubby hole, and a place for children to sit and read books. There is a wall of messages. I might write one.

Someone just sat next to me, and is playing the slightly out of tune piano. I have no idea what he is playing. I don’t think he does either. He has gone from jazz to … silent movie style music, to something else entirely. I wonder if he comes here a lot. If this was the UK, nobody would dare sit at the piano, even though it is there to be played. They’d be scared of annoying the people around them.

I’m a little scared of going through the creaky gate to the poetry section. It is separated from the rest of the shop by an iron gate (piano man is now playing the Pink Panther theme). This place is open til 11, by the way, That’s amazing.

Why talk about Shakespeare and Company? After finishing Ulysses I read a bit about it, to put the book in context, learn where it had come from, how something like that had ever been published at the time. And it was first published by James Joyce’s friend, Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris who founded Shakespeare and Company in 1919! Without knowing it, I had visited a historical literary destination; it was a very satisfying discovery! And the shop continues to publish and sell things that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention. While I was there, I bought a copy of the Belville Park Pages, which contains some amazing prose and poetry that I never would have been exposed to if I hadn’t gone into that bookshop.


The copy of Belville Park Pages no. 9, purchased from Shakespeare and Company.

Making connections is one of the best things about reading, and it turns out that there are tons to be made from Ulysses; with places, other authors, other books. Other styles of writing! It’s the kind of book I will be able to read and re-read and take something new away from each time. Well, that happens with almost every re-read, but Ulysses is so dense with information and connections that I can’t imagine ever feeling like I know everything about the book.

As I wrote earlier, I felt like reading Ulysses had made it possible for me to read anything else that I wanted to. So I decided to have another go at The Lighthouse by Virginia Wo0lf after being told that her writing style also resembles thought processes and that she writes very much from inside characters’ heads. Those are both things I enjoyed about Ulysses, so approached The Lighthouse this time round with the belief that, no matter how difficult the book would be to get into, it would be worth it and, more importantly, I would be able to do it.

As I found when I went back to re-read passages of Ulysses once I finished it, the text made much more sense to me now. And I want to read everything she has written. The book is written as if you are an observer in the characters’ heads, and often you aren’t given much warning about when the perspective is going to shift. But it isn’t difficult to follow, and it never feels crowded or claustrophobic.


Here is one of my favourite passages from the novel. One of the guests invited to the holiday home, Lily Briscoe, tried to paint the mother of the large family, Mrs Ramsey, while she sat with her son earlier in the day. A tree in the painting is causing her some trouble. Lily is at dinner with the family and all their guests, feeling slightly patronised by one of the male guests there, who believes that women cannot paint and cannot write:

He has his work, Lily said to herself. She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash, she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the three further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

The conventional way to describe a character would be to illustrate how they interact with other characters, their facial expressions, what they look like. Here, we learn that Lily is very dedicated to her own work, and often finds it difficult to remember that her own work and her own opinions are just as valid as those of the people around her. The action of moving the salt cellar to a different place on the table did the same thing to my mental images as those two sentences from Ulysses; I was there at the table, I was in Lily Briscoe’s head as she zoned out of the dining table conversation for a few seconds to observe the patterns in the table-cloth and think about her painting.

The salt cellar comes back later in the scene, and this time it reminds her that she must hold on to her belief in the importance of her work:

Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort? She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else. Could she not hold fast to that, she asked herself, and not lose her temper, and not argue; and if she wanted a little revenge take it by laughing at him?

The salt cellar makes another appearance, in a later section of the book set a long time after this dinner. Lily goes back to the house with some of the family members and previous guests, and remembers her painting and the table-cloth. It is very hard to describe the power of memory in a story, and Virginia Woolf does it in a way that is very easy to relate to, because it is something that everyone does. For some reason, it is rarely included, because who wants to read about the way a character remembers something? But just like James Joyce avoided clichés to describe even the act of walking under a tree in a new way, Virginia Woolf used the simple act in which a character associates a significance to the placing of a salt-cellar to illustrate how memory works. The word “elegant” is overused, but I think in this case it really is the only word to use.

Another book I read that I never would have attempted to read if I had not made it though Ulysses and enjoyed it: A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.


The whole book is written in fragmented sentences, as if you are reading exactly what the protagonist is thinking as soon as she thinks it, before she has even formed it into sentences for herself. It took a while to get used to reading in the style that your subconscious puts thoughts together, but it is impressive that Eimear McBride has managed to capture that. I can relate to it, anyway, and all the people who have praised it so much and given it awards must have been able to also.

If you’re going to read Ulysses because you want to, because you feel like you have to, or because you need to for academic reasons, I urge you to go in blind. Avoid reading about it. Don’t read any reviews (though if you’ve already read this – sorry!), and prepare to read something entirely different to what you were expected. Prepare to be surprised by how progressive some of his ideas were for the time. Put the effort in to stick with it and try to follow some of the weirder sentences because it is worth it. There’s more humour than I thought there would be; it is a fun book. It feels like James Joyce set himself massive challenges while writing, and it is just a lot of fun to read the results of those challenges.

And best of all, you’ll come away feeling like you can read absolutely anything. After you’ve finished re-reading Ulysses. (You will definitely want to re-read it!)

June Book Photo Challenge Day 17

All The Feels

From Lyra’s Oxford, by Philip Pullman. 

“Will – Will – be like Will -“

June Book Photo Challenge Day 16

Book Stack

 My temporary bookshelves are one giant book stack right now. 

June Book Photo Challenge Day 15

Makes Me Happy

There are lots of books that make me happy, and I have written blog posts about a lot of them. One I haven’t written about before is Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. All of the artwork is by Brian Froud, and the text has been written by Terry Jones (the Monty Python Terry Jones!). 

Here is my miniature version:

When I was about twelve years old, my mum’s friend brought this round to the house and let me read it. I read it all in one go, and she let me hold onto it for a while. Goodness only knows how many times I read this. It was the inspiration for many short stories that I wrote as a young teenager too. 

Angelica Cottington is the only child of Lord and Lady Cottington, and instead of pressing flowers, she presses fairies. The book follows her from her first fairy at age four right up until her last, with wonderful accounts of her life and her relationship with fairies throughout. The premise of the book is that it is being represented as an historical find, having been uncovered by squatters and protestors trying to protect what was once the Cottington family home from being demolished in favour of a “Prestige Office Block in an unspoilt country setting.”

At age 12, the fact that the whole thing was written by Terry Jones went completely over my head. For a while, I believed that the impressions left by the fairies were real and that someone had hired Brian Froud to render artist’s impressions of the fairies themselves. This was encouraged by my mum and her friend, and started off a lifelong obsession with Brian Froud’s drawings and also the work done by his wife, Wendy Froud.   

This miniature copy was bought for me by my mum’s friend; I think she felt bad asking for her copy back! I also have the wonderful 10 3/4 anniversary edition, containing a DVD with instructions on how to press fairies, given in a rare interview with an elderly Lady Angelica Cottington (Terry Jones in a dress). 

There were three sequels/companion books; Strange Stains and Mysterious Smells, Lady Cottington’s Photo Album, and Lady Cottngton’s Pressed Fairy Letters. It is a wonderful fantasy world to be engulfed by, and if you read them all in one go you’ll only be in there for a few hours. You’ll come out feeling like you’ve just been to a really great concert, or to see a film or play that temporarily affects the way you look at the outside.   

(These books are also where my desire to learn calligraphy started! I wanted to write like Angelica Cottington. It is very beautiful handwriting.)

June Book Photo Challenge Day 14

Me (via text): Hello. I need some help. I’m in a bookshop and I have £57 worth of books in my hands. Please help me choose which ones to put down. 

Friend: You just got paid. What else do you need to buy?

Me: Birthday presents. And I need to save. 

Friend: The books might not be there next time…

Me: I have a big to-read pile …


That weekend I came back from Manchester and my dad’s house with seven books. The Master and Margarita by Milhail Bulgakov, Glass by John Garrison (part of the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury), Villette by Charlotte Brontë, and then His Dark Materials and Gormenghast, which were both at my dad’s and I miss them so they came with me. 


June Book Photo Challenge Day 13

In The Shadows

As soon as I read the prompt for today’s photograph, a character instantly popped into my head: Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Every description of Steerpike that can be found outside of the book makes use of the word “Machiavellian”. In fact, have never read The Prince, Steerpike is where my understanding of that word comes from. 

Understandably, he is fed up of his lowly position within the castle, and spends the story slowly working his way up through the social heirarchy. By any means possible. This is a boy who is very much capable of guiltless murder, while remaining a charming underdog. You know he is doing wrong, but you want him to win, you want him to get what he wants but at the same time you want him to realise what he is doing to those around him and reform. While still getting what he wants. 

His actions are completely unjustifiable, but instead of hating him, you find yourself thinking “oh no, Steerpike, you didn’t have to do it this way. You’re clever enough to know that there’s a better way of doing things!” 
There are two things that I particularly love about this character. The first is the fact that he stands in a courtyard all night to try and figure out what is wrong with him when he suddenly feels bad about the fact that his only next progressional step is to kill Fuschia. To the reader it is obvious that at least some of his feelings for her are real, while Steerpike himself, having never received affection before, cannot even recognise it in himself. 

The second thing I love is how the reader perception of his ultimate goal shifts from the first to the end of the second book. In the beginning he is a threat with an impressive goal; he wants to have power, he wants the most power in Gormenghast. He wants to take it away from Titus Groan, the heir of Gormenghast and the next Lord Groan. By the end of the second book, Titus doesn’t want any of that.  Gormenghast to him is old and small; he wants to go out into the world. Suddenly Steerpike and his ultimate goal seem small and juvenile. But not to Steerpike. 

The Gormenghast trilogy is possible my favourite story. Possibly. And every character is as interesting as Steerpike. Is that possible?? Yes. It is. And Mervyn Peake did it. 

June Book Photo Challenge Day 12


Science Fiction. Some science fiction I cannot read; huge space operas and very technical sci-fi don’t interest me very much. Today’s prompt made me think about the kind of science fiction that I do like, and why. Below, in the picture, are books I have read but which are not mine (lots of my books are still in storage). I like these books, especially Cat’s Cradle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. If I had all of my books with me I would have included these also (at least): Valis, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, The Man In The High Castle. And now I realise that most of the science fiction I have read and loved is Philip K Dick. Who DOESN’T love him, really. I’ll never forget the typo that turned out to not be a typo in Ubik but was instead a giant plot hinge. That was incredible. 

What makes these science fiction books enjoyable to me?

They are futuristic. The technology is a huge mash up of outdated technology of the time and where they thought it would go. There are completely new worlds, new religions, new species. Fairly standard science fiction fare. What makes me love a science fiction story is when there are identifiable characters, sympathetic characters, who are interacting with their surroundings in an interesting how and relatable way. The story hasn’t been written to focus on a world or a government system; it has been written to show the way in which people like us might interact with it, and the advantages and dangers of such a situation. 

What I love about Philip K Dick is that there are always bigger things within the stories that can be explored, like the politics of the world in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep for example. But instead, he focuses on the morality of destroying human-like androids, and what that can do to the people responsible for that task. 

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is similar. It is essentially a story about a revolution that happens to be set on the Earth and Moon of the future. Science fiction is most enjoyable to me when it is about familiar people in unfamiliar situations. Which is probably why I enjoyed the Night Vale novel so much too.