I realise that this seemingly has nought to do with my drawing, but I thought I might start doing a little round-up every now again of books I've been reading that I think are worth shouting about (and reading, obviously). Literature is a big passion of mine and my artwork is greatly influenced by the stories I consume and the lives I discover between the pages. In fact, several of my portraits have been directly inspired by something I've read - sometimes in a book about the subject themselves or in a passing reference to a woman I've never heard of, but whose fascinating life story and achievements come into sharp focus when I start digging a little (and in some cases, a lot) deeper.
So, humour me a tad? Obviously, if literature isn't your bag please feel free to give this a miss, but if you're a bookworm like me and would like to see what I'm reading and where some of my inspiration comes from, read on! And please do drop any recommendations of your own in the comments for us all to see!
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
I call myself a feminist and yet I feel my knowledge of pioneering, influential women is still severely lacking. I am ashamed to to admit I had previously heard of only two of the women championed in this fantastic book (and only read a couple of works by one of those two). So I am indebted to Francesca Wade for having invited me to this party, introduced me to these fascinating women and broadened my understanding of women’s history that bit further.
The five women in question are: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, modernist poet), Dorothy L Sayers (detective novelist), Jane Ellen Harrison (classicist & translator), Eileen Power (historian, broadcaster & pacifist) and Virginia Woolf (writer & publisher).
I was most familiar with Sayers’ detective novels - her character Harriet Vane being a truly modern woman armed with smarts that demand respect from both her peers and her suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey - and thoroughly enjoyed learning more about her life, literary influences and attitude to creative endeavours. But the woman I had the most pleasure meeting was Eileen Power; her ideas & beliefs, pro-active personality, work ethic and ability to wow the male establishment & create change without them really being aware of it. I do not consider myself even half as clever as she, but there’s something about her that makes me feel as though, had we ever met, we could have been good friends.
All the women in this book were both ordinary and truly extraordinary and, in the words of Power herself, “I feel stupid… because I’ve been associating with such brilliant people.” And so I continue with my education and add these extraordinary women to my 'To Draw' list.
Wilding by Isabella Tree
This is both an ode to wildlife and a call to arms. Isabella and her husband, Charlie Burrell, are owners of the Knepp Wildland Project which they started up on the Knepp estate after making the decision to cease agricultural farming on their land in 2000. Their land was in a bad way; crop yields were down and the future of the farm was bleak. So they gave returned the land to Mother Nature.
Twenty years on and Knepp is home to a record-breaking number of species both big and small, many of which had come close to extinction in the last 50 years. Under the guidance and advice of leading industry experts, Isabella and Charlie used free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife, re-wilded the Adur, the river that runs through the estate, in order to reduce flooding (among other things) and prepared extensive data and advice for the British government in an attempt to persuade serious action to be taken across the UK.
I like to think that I’m an environmentally aware person, but this book is truly eyeopening. It’s given me a better understanding of the complex happenings that go on beneath my feet and has really caused me to stop and think about my place in the land. I urge everyone to read this book and renew your respect for Mother Nature. She’s depending on us to sort out the mess we’ve made of her planet.
The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
Adunni and her family are poor. However, Adunni measures her wealth not in naira, but in the love of her mother and younger brother, her friends and, perhaps most importantly, her education, as she dreams of becoming a teacher and living a life of independence.
But her dreams are brutally ripped away from her when her mother dies and with her the money needed to keep Adunni in school. Despite promising his dying wife to do all he can to continue their daughter’s education, Adunni’s father believes a girl child is a wasted waste and, in need of money for rent and food, sells his only daughter into marriage with the local taxi driver, a man in his fifties with a face like a he-goat.
Adunni must leave her family home, her village and her school and take on a life of miserable drudgery, physical abuse and mental onslaught. As the third wife she is expected to cook, clean, keep quiet and bear sons. But Adunni does not want to be a quiet subservient ghost of a human. Before she died, Adunni’s mother told her that her schooling was her ticket to another life, that it was her voice and would speak for her even when she didn’t open her mouth. And Adunni doesn’t want just any kind of voice. She wants a louding voice.
An important book with an important message. It is difficult to read in places, uncomfortable and rightly so; Adunni’s lot is not a happy one, but she never gives up. The brutality she faces took my breath away at times, but her determination is infectious.
Expect to see Nigeria join the Costumes of the World collection sometime soon.
The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes
I don’t often read books set in Victorian England (they tend to rile me such that I find it hard to look past my frustrations with, and anger at, the sensibilities and social constructs of the period to the literature itself), but something in the description of this novel intrigued me; a terrible crime, a town full of suspects and all based on a true story - a murder that has never been solved.
Haynes, a former police intelligence analyst, writes with great skill, effortlessly weaving together different characters’ accounts (both public and private) to create a tapestry of tales that proves nothing is ever as it seems. That people are weighed down by secrets, big or small - some they choose to keep hidden, others that are forced upon them and others still that they are not even aware they carry, hidden deep in the subconscious. And these secrets lead us to lie, to distort or omit the truth, to fabricate or make excuses that only serve to increase the weight of the secret.
This is a great read, a real page-turner, populated by a myriad of memorable, flawed, human characters, many of them real - the words of their testimonials at the inquest(s) taken from the official documents of the time. Haynes has created a gripping whodunnit and a very satisfying fictional conclusion that nevertheless will have you turning the evidence over and over in your mind even after you’ve turned the final page.
If you've read any of these, I'd love to know what you thought! Or if you have any similar books to recommend, please let me know in the comments below.