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In the dark, with an owl!

Welcome any newcomers to our weekly bookish round-up, and hello old friends from previous issues. It's starting to feel like a nice crowd but we'd love the party to get even bigger, so please do forward on to any friends you think might like to sign-up. This week I'm feeling more than usually overwhelmed with the amount of things I want to read and the lack of time I have to read them – and it's no good opening The Novel Cure to see if Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin cover the problem (they do – being too busy to read – they recommend The 39 Steps by John Buchan, and remind me that my world is unlikely to combust if I don't get my jobs done) because almost every line of that book makes me want to read something else. It's a nice problem to have, though, I think. We should try to come up with a word for it.

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght
In keeping with my fondness for reading accounts of manly derring-do, preferably in inhospitable locations, plus general warm feelings about owls, I was keen to read Owls of the Eastern Ice, flagged up by a reader in the Sunday Times First Edition facebook group, always a good source for book recommendations.

It takes place in a remote, densely forested area of Russia called Primorye, right on the far eastern side of the country, where it meets the Sea of Japan and borders China. Slaght spent three years there working for the Peace Corps, becoming increasingly interested in birds.

'I'd known about fish owls for almost as long as I'd known about Primorye. For me, fish owls were like a beautiful thought I couldn't quite articulate. They evoked the same wondrous longing as some distant place I'd always wanted to visit but didn't know much about. I pondered fish owls and felt cool from the canopy shadows they hid in and smelled moss clinging to riverside stones.'

And so Slaght decides to specialise in fish owls for his PhD project, and five years of work and this book was the result (plus also presumably a doctorate, although he never mentions it).

It's quite a read! You quickly start to feel at home in this world of tiny hunting settlements and isolated cabins, and the social codes that prevail which usually involve shared bottles of vodka or when that can't be found, ethanol. Slaght speaks fluent Russian and you get a rare outsider's view into this inaccessible society. There are huge challenges to be overcome in reaching the sites where the birds nest, through snow-filled woods and crossing treacherous icy rivers. Fish owls turn out to be quite difficult to catch (Slaght needs to tag them and fit trackers) and you feel all the boredom and frustration in the early part of the book when Slaght and his Russian colleagues are trying to ensnare the birds. Then later on, once they've got the hang of it, a whole new set of challenges arises in retrieving the data they have gathered. It's fascinating and I loved the quiet, unassuming way this was written – Slaght could have made it a big macho story about man and the elements, but instead it's a quietly important book about birds and the natural world. It's written in an open and frank way that almost allows you to become part of the story – I certainly felt incredibly invested in the success of the project by the end, and I loved the way that through walking in someone else's shoes I got real insight into the world of conservation. Mainly I just felt humbled that people like Slaght exist who are willing to go to such lengths to try to preserve such creatures and their habitat. Not for him cozy evenings on the sofa watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram!

It would be great for book club. It's very readable and there's lots to discuss plus it has that element of exoticism and discovery that made reading it a genuine thrill.

Buy Owls of the Eastern Ice from
The Art of Mindful Reading by Ella Berthoud
I once had a bibliotherapy session at London's School of Life. Mine was with Susan Elderkin, who co-wrote The Novel Cure with Ella Berthoud. If you're not familiar with bibliotherapy the way it works is you have an hour-long chat with them about reading, and then you get a prescription with tailored book-recommendations. This was 10-years ago and I have read all-but one of my suggestions, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset, a 1200-page tome that was prescribed to see me through the long winter. 'Set in the 14th-century', my prescription reads, 'it's full of brutish Vikings but features feisty females who can more than hold their own.' It sounds amazing, actually, I'm tempted to drop everything and dive in. But I've got two book-club books to read! Anyway, I digress – when describing the session to friends I said 'it's like the best conversation you will ever have with anyone about books' – but in our latest episode I got to have another one, this time with bibliotherapist and author Ella Berthoud – and you can hear it too. 

We talk about The Novel Cure, the book I assume is on every book-lover's shelf, but if for some reason you don't know it, it's basically the manual they wrote for bibliotherapy, with book remedies for everything from the trivial (not knowing what novels to take on holiday, itchy teeth [Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow], internet addiction [Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys]) to the serious, menopause [The Summer Before Dark by Doris Lessing], midlife crisis [The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna], death of a loved one [After You'd Gone, Maggie O'Farrell]) Every time I open it I find something to inspire me and more often than not it's books I don't know (all of the ones I just listed!) So I loved hearing the behind-the-scenes of how Ella and Susan wrote The Novel Cure while living on different continents and both bringing up small children – it really is an extraordinary feat.

For Ella's latest book she turned her attention to the idea of mindfulness, and how it can be brought to bear on reading. This is a very practical book and you can tell Ella had a lot of fun coming up with different exercises for everything from working out what kind of reader you are, to holding a book-sharing party (and surely it won't be too long before we're able to have book-sharing parties again!). She has some excellent suggestions for thinking over a book after you've finished it. She suggests taking a moment to jot down 'three major points of the book / three questions you would ask the author / three ways it relates to you / three ways it relates to people you know'. And then 'tell the next person you meet about the book, whoever they are – a shopkeeper, a railway passenger next to you, your mother or a telemarketing salesman who is trying to sell you solar panels. Putting your thoughts into words will help distill your feelings about the book.'

Luckily I have Laura and a podcast in which I can air my feelings about the books I read, so I don't have to bother the postman. But as with all Ella's other suggestions, I love these ideas and always feel new inspiration for the ways in which I engage with the books I read. Have a listen and let us know what you think! 

 Buy The Art of Mindful Reading from

What to listen to:

Of course, our latest episode, see above.

Ella and I talked about where she gets her reading recommendations. One of her go-tos is the BBC4 books programme A Good Read. She loves it, she says, because you hear about books that you wouldn't normally hear about. Pick an episode and dive in here.


Things to watch

A little while ago there was a free online literature festival called the Big Book Weekend. Ella Berthoud did a bibliotherapy session with Greg Davies and if you want to see her in action you can catch up with it here.


Things to read

Why do we keep sharing our reading lists? 'What compels us to keep book lists in the first place? Is it simply showing off, or does it tell us something deeper about who we are?' – I'm not the person to ask about this as I seem to be incapable of keeping any kind of written list. I think it's because deep-down I quite want to forget the books, so I can read them again. Anyway these days I have the podcast, that's my list. (With thanks to Laura's mum for the link.)


Accounts to follow

One of our favourite interviews was with Seb Emina, editor of Penguin's Happy Reader, their book club in magazine form. If you haven't managed to catch up with the magazine you can subscribe to their monthly newsletter, Happy Readings, each of which takes inspiration from a Penguin Classic and leads you on an enjoyable journey through tangents. Next month they're doing Call for the Dead, the first novel by John le Carré.

What Kate is reading:

I just finished Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. I wasn't sure about it for quite a while. I love the way Neil Gaiman writes, but at the same time sometimes I feel a little frustrated that the characters aren't really developed, they tend to feel like archetypes, something for him to pin his sentences on. But what do I know, because the more I read of this the more I liked it. He weaves stories of the west-African God Anansi into a contemporary tale about an ordinary Londoner known as 'Fat Charlie' who discoveres his parent was a God and he has a secret twin-brother who is better looking, more charismatic and also magic. I watched an RSL talk with Neil Gaiman the other day in which he said 'All myths are incredibly useful for understanding humans, the humans of a particular place and by the same token the closest we'll ever get to any of these myths is a retelling or a retelling of a retelling' – and I loved the way Anansi Boys felt like an expression of this. I'm closing in on American Gods, next. 

What Laura is reading:

I'm speed-reading Mrs Death Misses Death by Selena Godden for my book club tomorrow.

Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn't met Death in person - a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.

Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death's scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity. As the two reflect on the losses they have experienced - or, in the case of Mrs Death, facilitated - their friendship grows into a surprising affirmation of hope, resilience and love. All the while, despite her world-weariness, Death must continue to hold humans' fates in her hands, appearing in our lives when we least expect her . . .

No time to write more, I've got to get back to it! And then we'll be discussing it on our next book club episode, coming soon.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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