generous inspiration

Inspiring books have come into my life these past few months; they arrived in various ways but all with generosity and warmth.  I wanted to share them.

The first is by Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum: On Not Knowing: How Artists Think. It’s a chewy book, when slow re-reading and digesting is essential for me. It has chapters like ‘Tactics for Not Knowing’ and ‘Unteachable and Unlearnable’ and ‘Pedagogy of the Not Known’. I am loving it, chewing it and allowing myself to relax a little more into my own puzzles and artistic endeavours.

The second is by Kate Davies: Handywoman.  Paralysed by a stroke at the age of 39, Kate’s world turned upside down. Forced to change direction, she took a radical new creative path. Handywoman is not a book about triumph over adversity, rather it is her account of the ordinary activities and everyday objects that stroke and disability made her see differently. Part memoir, part personal celebration of the power of making, it redefines disability as in itself a form of practical creativity.

© sue orton 2018



women writers 3

In February I decided to seek out women writers who I did not know and  who’s books had been shortlisted for prizes in the last few years. What a treat I have had.

StateofWonderA State of Wonder by Ann Patchett I found just brilliant. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure and I never saw what was round the corners. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012 and described here:
There were people on the banks of the river. Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’ colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

BurntShadowsKamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows effected me deeply; I re-realise that the dark days of the second world war has left many trails into this century. It’s a brilliant book described here:
In a prison cell in the US, a man stands trembling, naked, fearfully waiting to be shipped to Guantanamo Bay. How did it come to this? he wonders. August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes with the sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi two years later. There she walks into the lives of Konrad’s half-sister, Elizabeth, her husband James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu. As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts.

TheLowlandFinally The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I finished this last week and have been unable to get this tale of family ties, the bond of brothers and the breaking of family traditions across continents out of my head and my dreams. Described here:
From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him.

Tempted, you can buy them through Wordery an independent bookshop which has free delivery. Link at the top of the blog.

© sue orton


our precious world

As Paris is the focus for discussions about the world response to climate change this week, two books I have read and am re-reading come to mind.

landmarksLandmarks crafted and compiled by Robert Macfarlane is a most beautiful meditation, reflection, verging on poetry, in praise of landscape. It seems we are letting the language of the countryside slip through our fingers and minds, so thank goodness Robert Macfarlane is on the case to help. Gathered over many years from many sources this book is brilliant and we need to keep searching and recording!  Here are some gems:
stoach: to churn up waterlogged land as cattle do in winter Kent, Sussex. There’s a lot of this about around here just now.
yark: cold, wild stormy weather, Exmoor.
And a personal favourite which I can’t stop looking out for: smeuse: the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of small animals, Sussex dialect.

If the effects of climate change seem too huge to get a handle on then Adventures in the Anthropocene might illuminate things.  Gaia Vince a journalist and broadcaster specialising in science and the environment, wanted to discover the effects of climate change from different communities in the world, so she gave up her job and travelled the world finding out. I am finding it very powerful and inspiring. There’s a guy making small glaciers every year in Nepal to store drinking water for the crops in Spring because the large glaciers have disappeared in his lifetime. Wi-fi is helping local farmers share market prices of their goods before they walk for several days to find it’s not worth it! This book weaves stories from individuals into a astonishing global story and presents a surprisingly positive picture of the world. The book won Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2015.
© sue orton

women writers 2

At last some winter cold; more reason to tuck up with a book when you can. Two books by women writers new to me have been woven around the Indian subcontinent throughout the last 200 years. I have family links into India with relatives in the Indian Army right through the last century. Despite many stories, there is rarely any mention of the experience of the women of my family; when time allows I intend to rectify this.  So to the books.  The research, the detail and sense of place in both were wonderful. I was drawn into the physical and emotional lives of characters.  Women’s roles were especially vivid for me, showing how ’empire’ expectations, cultural norms and harsh restrictions affected their lives, their mental health and their choices.

GodineverystoneKamila Shamsie | A God in Every Stone
Summer of 1914. Young Englishwoman Vivien Rose Spencer is in an ancient land about to discover the Temple of Zeus, the call of adventure and love. Thousands of miles away a 20 year old Pathan, Qayyum Gul, is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian army. Vivien has been separated from the man she loves; Qayyum has lost an eye at Ypres. They meet on a train in Peshawar unaware that a connection is about to be forged between them – which will be revealed fifteen years later.  © Bloomsbury


umi sinha | belonging
From the darkest days of the British Raj to the aftermath of the First World War, Belonging tells the interwoven story of three generations and their struggles to understand and free themselves from a troubled history steeped in colonial violence and prejudice.  © Myriad Editions

Buy both books through Wordery.

© sue orton

women writers 1

While puzzling what to read over the summer I made a list of women writers who had won literary prizes (or been short listed) over the last few years. I decided I would share my explorations so far. Happy reading.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Told from the perspective of an elderly women who is intent upon clinging onto clues and hunches of a mystery despite her failing memory and faculties. It’s wonderful, although an unsettling glimpse into our futures.

The Bees by Laline PaullBees
Flora bee 717 survives to live a life amongst and between
the strict hierarchy of the hive, subverting and challenging
‘normality’ as she goes; Flora is a feisty survivor.
An amazing imaginative book which I found hard to put down.

© sue orton