chestnut book blog

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Book Benches

I’ve just found about a new public art, literacy and charity initiative that I thought you might be interested in – book benches! Aren’t they beautiful, practical and fun?!

Wind in the Willows Book Bench Courtesy of Books About Town

Wind in the Willows Book Bench
Courtesy of Books About Town


You can see these fifty benches around London throughout July. They will then be auctioned to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust, an amazing cause.

I’m now back from a wonderful holiday and will be writing a few posts about it shortly. I hope you are all having a lovely start to your summers.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I was saddened last night to learn of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many better obituaries than I could write are being published, a selection of which are below. However, what I would say, is that the world has never looked quite the same for me since finishing Love in the Time of Cholera and that is the mark of a truly great novelist in my opinion.

BBC tribute to Marquez

The Guardian’s tribute to Marquez

The Huffington Post’s tribute to Marquez


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Remembrance Day

Poppy, courtesy of wikicommons

Poppy, courtesy of wikicommons

It is Remembrance Day here in the UK and at 11am, I will be stopping whatever I am doing to take two minute’s silence and remember all those who have given their lives in wars. I wear my poppy with pride every year and, as we all step off our treadmills for those minutes, I never fail to be moved. I will think about my own family’s experiences in WWI and WWII; I will think about all the waste of young lives lost, even now; and I will also think about war poetry.

In honour of this day, I thought I’d share one of the most heart-stoppingly tragic poems about war I have ever read. I grew up knowing about Wilfred Owen, as it was a favourite local tale that he wrote this poem whilst stationed at my home town’s  WW1 army camp. This may or may not be true, but what I do know is that he died one week before the end of the war. It is indescribably sad. I then studied the war poets in depth for my G.C.S.E’s, including this poem, and shed many a tear over them whilst revising. Because of these things, I feel like these final lines are scratched into my heart, particularly on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 – March, 1918

We will remember them.

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The passing of a poet

The news of Seamus Heaney’s death recently has put me in the frame of mind to think about poetry.

For every one of us, living in this world

means waiting for our end. Let whoever can

win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,

that will be his best and only bulwark.

Beowulf: A new verse translation

Seamus Heaney

I think that quote from his great translation of Beowulf is a fitting way to mark the passing of a great poet. To be honest though, with the exception of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney is not a poet I particularly engaged with. His interests were not mine and his writing felt distant. However, he has, along with Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, made British and Northern Irish poetry relevant in the twenty-first century.

Because of this news, I’ve been thinking about what poetry means to me and what place it has in my reading life. In the year or so that I have been writing the Chestnut Book Blog, I don’t think I have written a single post about poetry, if you ignore Shakespeare (difficult for me, but let’s do it on this occasion!). Until last night, I also hadn’t read any poetry for a long time (unless you count the poems on the tube!), but at about 9pm I pulled down my more modern favourites and took a trip down memory lane. I remembered that I have poems that evoke specific times in my life very strongly. Some people have songs that do that I suppose, but I have more poems!

The first modern poet I fell in love with was Carol Ann Duffy, and specifically her Mean Time collection. I was in my mid to late teens when I first read these poems and their use of childhood memories and life’s complexities really spoke to me at the time. The rage of Havisham, the sadness of Mean Time and the nostalgia of Before You Were Mine all showed me that poetry could express things in a way no other medium could. They taught me that each word should work hard for its place in a piece and that brevity is an art. I suppose in the simplest way, they taught me that my emotions could be linked to evocative words, rather than just being mute – I think until then I was a bit of a brooder!

Most importantly, it was Duffy’s Away and See that told me to be brave and own my choices as I left home and went to university. This is a poem that is forever linked to that time in my life for me and I hope Duffy wouldn’t mind me reproducing it here for you.

Away and See

Away and see an ocean suck at a boiled sun

and say to someone things I’d blush even to dream.

Slip off your dress in a high room over the harbour.

Write to me soon.

New fruits sing on the flip side of night in a market

of language, light, a tune from the chapel nearby

stopping you dead, the peach in your hand respiring.

Taste it for me.

Away and see the things that words give name to, the flight

of syllables, wingspan stretching to a noun. Test words

wherever they live; listen, touch, smell, believe.

Spell them with love.

Skedaddle. Somebody chaps at the door at the year’s end,


Away and see who it is. Let in the new, the vivid,

horror and pity, passion, the stranger holding the future.

Ask him his name.

Nothing’s the same as anything else. Away and see

for yourself. Walk. Fly. Take a boat till land reappears,

altered forever, ringing its bells, alive. Go on, G’on, Gon.

Away and see.

I suppose this poem felt like past women (like me) talking (to me). I have so many opportunities that were denied to them and I am thankful for that. I went to university and have had a wonderful education. I can have a fulfilling job. I can vote and live an independent life full of my own choices. This poem says to me that I should go and experience my life fully in honour of them and for myself.

Do you have poems that remind you of particular times in your life?

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4th of July Reads

Sketch of the American Flag

Happy Independence Day to my friends and readers in the US! To tie into the spirit of the day, I thought I’d share some of my favourite American books, both by Americans and about America.

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

I love a bit of Bill Bryson. His corresponding book Notes from a Small Island had me in stitches as the community he was writing about in the main was close to where I grew up. It was so refreshing to read about quirks and behaviours I recognised in myself and my community from the perspective of a sympathetic American. I read Notes from a Big Country for the first time after a short trip to San Francisco and found that it helped me understand this fascinating, bewildering and diverse country a little more than I did before.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I probably don’t need to say too much about this after my recent rave reviews. I love this book.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I read this book several years ago and am considering rereading it before I get Curtis Sittenfeld’s most recent release. I thought this was an elegant and absorbing tale about a fictional first lady’s journey to the White House. Controversially, it is thought that Alice Blackwell in the novel is a thinly veiled Laura Bush. As someone who finds the Republican party’s views baffling at best most of the time, I was prepared to find this book angered me, but quite the opposite. I found it thought-provoking and very well-written. I’m looking forward to reading more of Sittenfeld’s work.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I chose to write about this for my Master’s dissertation I loved it so much. A classic.

Eat Love Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert

I discovered Elizabeth Gilbert through her famous TED talk and I knew I had to read her books.

Eat Love Pray was the first and I found it so much more than I ever thought a ‘finding yourself’ book could ever be (my Yorkshire common sense showing through!). It was well written, thoughtful and funny. I do still think running off around the world to escape your problems is a little self-indulgent to be honest, although if you have the money and time why not I suppose, but Gilbert is a writer I warmed to and I found this book wise. I read her Committed just before I got married and I found that was also really interesting. It helped frame and order my own thoughts about marriage before I jumped in at the tender age of 25!

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I have a feeling this book may be a future classic. It so perfectly captures a time, attitude and place that when I think about the 80’s, this book is irrevocably linked in my mind. I think it is a funny, clear-eyed and honest look at greed, arrogance and excess in late 80’s New York.

And two plays… I like reading plays. I like seeing them more, but I do like reading them as well and these two are masterpieces in my opinion.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

A wonderful double. On the surface a play exploring the Salem Witch trails in New England and the hysteria that ensued. Below, a commentary on the Communist Witch Hunts of the McCarthy era.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I think Tennessee Williams is my favourite playwright after Shakespeare. His explorations of disappointment, faded dreams and hope are heart-breaking. I could have chosen any of his plays but went for A Streetcar Named Desire because I walked out of a theatre about four years ago after seeing this play and the world looked a little different. One of the most powerful, moving stories in the world in my opinion, but perhaps not one for happy days!

Do you have favourite Independence Day reads?


Mantel’s Royal Bodies

Lovely readers, if there are still many of you out there, I am so sorry it has been such a long time since I have posted. Normal service will resume now and hopefully I can win you back! Over the last few months there have been some computer melt-downs, some dissertation angst and Christmas getting in the way of my blogging. However, an event I attended a couple of weeks ago has convinced me to get back in the swing.

You may have heard about the furore caused by Hilary Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books in early February. If not, I almost envy you as it has been everywhere! (see here for a sample of one of the more favourable) Well I, readers, was lucky enough to be there in person, close enough to see the twinkle in her eye in fact! Thanks to my lovely father-in-law, we had managed to get tickets and were treated to a warm, witty and eloquent speech. So much so that I was surprised there was such a fuss about it approximately a week later…but perhaps I am naive.

Before I go on, let me just say that I am actually not a critic of the Duchess of Cambridge: anyone who can rock such perfect black eyeliner is ok by me! My admiration for her was a little dampened by the ‘waity katie’ stage and the lack of gainful employment / direction. However, on the whole, I think she is doing a good job in her new role.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mantel was being a little provocative, but the media have taken the speech out of context in my opinion. The full text is here so you can make up your own mind, but my overall impression was of Mantel warning us not to let history repeat itself. Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn, Diana: they were all Queens or Princesses who came to sorry ends. Their dress and bodies were all scrutinised by an insatiable public and vicious media. ‘We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them…’ Mantel said and we should rewrite the story so perfect Kate is not next.

I left the lecture theatre feeling privileged to have heard such a thought provoking, clever and inspirational woman talk. Mantel’s turn of phrase was immaculate. My particular favourites were: ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ and ‘When we call him (Henry VIII) paranoid, we must acknowledge that he was right to think his enemies were everywhere, though he was increasingly bad at working out who they were. As for depression, he had a great deal to be depressed about…’ Wonderful! I will be putting a print out of the speech in one of my memory boxes to enjoy for years to come.

Shakespeare trip

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After a few months of pledging to get to know Shakespeare better, I decided it was time to visit Stratford-upon-Avon for the first time. So, despite the torrential rain, we took a few days off work and headed up the M40.

Here are some of the places we visited:

Shakespeare's birthplace

Shakespeare’s birthplace


Ann Hathaway's cottage

Ann Hathaway’s cottage

The highlight of the trip was a wonderful version of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC. I have to admit that I don’t usually find Shakespeare’s comedies very funny (a bad experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school is perhaps responsible!), however this was hilarious and just the tonic after a challenging few weeks at work. It really was a very good adaption; the casting was superb and we had a fantastic night! As we walked back to our hotel, we discussed that, even though it is not one of the traditional great Shakespeare plays, it is so endearingly warm and witty and it deserves more recognition for its sheer timelessness. It, just like Fearny did, showed me that humans really haven’t changed very much in the last four hundred years, which I find comforting! The behaviour, relationships and jokes were all recognisable. I also thought the production worked really well in modern dress – I had a little titter to myself when Mistress Page walked on complete in Boden skirt, Mulberry-esque handbag and a take-away coffee!  Middle-class stereotypes abounded! If you are in Stratford-upon-Avon between now and January, I’d really recommend a trip for a lovely evening full of laughter.

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks: Part 1

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Sebastian Faulks and Rowan Pelling: 25th Septeber 2012

Sebastian Faulks and Rowan Pelling: 25th September 2012

Despite feeling a bit of a heathen (I’m not sure photographs were strictly allowed!) I did mange to grab a shot of Sebastian himself, although it is not amazing I’m afraid. I had an absolutely wonderful time at the Sebastian Faulks event in Cambridge last night. I think this will be a series of posts, rather than the one I originally intended, as there were so many fascinating ideas discussed.

Faulks had been invited to talk about his new book A Possible Life, and was interviewed by Rowan Pelling in front of a large crowd packed into the Cambridge Concert Hall. He was a consummate interviewee – eloquent and charming – and I can’t wait to read A Possible Life  now as it sounded so interesting!

Faulks explained that, in theory, he starts with an idea or a theme for each of his books (although not for On Green Dolphin Street, which made that a difficult book for him to write). The main theme of A Possible Life is ‘selfhood – are we individuals in any meaningful way?’ He explained that ‘self’ is a very unstable entity and finds in fascinating that as an adult, you share almost no cells with the child that you were. When quizzed on this in more detail he explained that before he has come to the event, he had sat in The Eagle Pub on Benet Street, just has he has done as a student in the 70s and found it ‘invigorating’ to feel he had nothing in common with the 19-year-old he was when he last sat there, in the same chair. He thinks that the notion that people do not change is rubbish, although they may have a ‘default’ mode, which becomes more pronounced as they age.

Over the years, I have read that some authors start with a ‘big idea’ like Sebastian, but others prefer to start with characters or a plot. Faulks was very clear that his characters were servants of the plot, which in turn was a servant of the theme. He also explained that he writes, and has always written, exactly what he wanted to and does not compromise – ‘a 650 page novel about the early years of psychiatry is not everyone’s cup of tea!’ he said when talking about Human Traces, his self-confessed favourite novel. However, he is also aware of his reader as he writes. He described liking to push the reader as much as possible without alienating them ‘ ‘I like to think of a reader thinking “I’m glad I hung on there when it got tough as the rewards were more than worth it!”‘ The effort to go to Cambridge on a very blustery September evening was certainly worth it for me – I left, clutching my signed book, feeling that it was an evening very well spent.

p.s. To Melanie, I’m not quite sure how I managed it but I’ve written down your email address incorrectly so please get in touch if you are reading this so I can send you the photographs!


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I am so excited! I have just won something for the first time ever – a copy of James Long’s Ferney, thanks to the lovely Cornflower Books. I’ve heard many wonderful things about this story, but have never read it and so I can’t wait for the ‘thwack’ of it on my mat! I will let you know my thoughts on it in due course, but in the meantime, do have a look at Karen’s summary on it here.

To complete the wonderful start to my week, tomorrow night I am going to be in Cambridge for Sebastian Faulks’ talk about his new book, A Possible Life, organised by Cambridge Wordfest. I will be trotting along with my notebook and camera and so will be able to share my experience with you shortly.

Sebastian Faulks at Cambridge Wordfest

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I’ve just nabbed myself a ticket to see Sebastian Faulks discussing his soon-to-be released book A Possible Life at Cambridge Wordfest in September. The details are here for anyone else wanted a ticket:

I can’t wait!