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It's our first newsletter, and if you're reading it you are one of our early adopters. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Do give us your feedback and let's make this the best newsletter ever. (I know what you're going to say – 'be more succinct'. I will try, I promise.) But for now, here's a couple of highlights from the books that have been keeping us busy this week. Do you ever feel slightly overwhelmed by the amount of books there are to read? For me it's a series of toppling piles, all equally worthy of her attention, but luckily Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud had some good advice for tackling them. Meanwhile Laura is diving back into an unread series by a favourite author. 

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I came to this having read and loved The Library Book (2018), Orlean's investigation of the 1986 LA Central Library fire. I loved the way the book combined so many fascinating threads, from the fire itself, an investigation of the possible arsonist, Harry Peak, the history of the building, biographies of librarians past (all fabulously eccentric) and finally Orlean's own connection with books, formed during trips with her mother to her local library as a child. I loved it – a total gem of a book – and so was a little wary of reading this one. Would it be as good? But I needn't have worried, and actually, I think I might have liked The Orchid Thief even more. Books, you see, aren't intrinsically in themselves the most interesting of objects. Orchids, now, there's a plant! 

'Orchids are considered the most highly evolved flowering plants on earth. They are unusual in form, uncommonly beautiful in colour, often powerfully fragrant, intricate in structure and different from any other family of plants. Orchids have diverse, unflowerlike looks. One species looks just like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey. One looks dead. ...There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples and drunken old men. The genus Dracula is blackish-red and looks like a vampire bat.'


Orlean befriends a man called John Laroche, arrested along with three Indian tribesmen who had stolen more than two-hundred rare orchids from a Florida swamp called the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche becomes the figure around which the book is anchored, and he fits in perfectly as an embodiment of the shady world of orchid collecting and dealing. My favourite chapter in the book dealt with Victorian orchid hunters, who underwent enormous and comical (although not to them) levels of hardship in order to bring back specimens. 'The English plant hunter Joseph Hooker spent two years trekking through the Himalayas outfitted in nothing more protective than his spectacles and a tartan shooting jacket. He had no mountaineering equipment at all, although the wife of a friend gave him some woolly stockings and a little antiglare sunshade she made for him out of one of her veils. One his climbs Hooker had biscuits and tea and fine brandy, carried a solid-oak travelling desk and brass-bound ditty boxes, and slept with a copy of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow. He rarely had a good night's sleep because the yaks he used as pack animals were insomniacs and so inquisitive they would stick their heads into Hooker's tent and snort on him until he woke up.’
 

I loved the way this book made me appreciate this extraordinary plant in a new way, and it satisfied my lockdown reading interest in gardening and growing things nicely. It taught me a lot about Florida and about human nature (people get obsessed by orchids, obsessed!). Orlean managed to resist the tempation to purchase any orchids herself during the course of her writing and research. I, however, had no such will power and now have a beautiful one that sits on my desk, nodding at me as I type. Everyone tells me I must watch the film Adaptation, which I will.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W. E. Bowman

This gem was flagged up for my by the good folks at The Book Hive bookshop in Norwich. I had never heard of it, and according to Bill Bryson, who writes the excellent introduction, I’m not alone. ‘For most people,’ he notes, ‘Rum Doodle is the funniest book they’ve never heard of.’ It's possible you may need to be a fan of mountaineering memoirs – which I do admittedly have a fondness for – to fully appreciate this book, but I think anyone would enjoy it to be honest. It's a delightful parody of tales of epic adventure and manly derring do by the likes of Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary, and follows a group of seven British men as they attempt 'the assault' of Rum Doodle – 'To climb Mont Blanc by the Grépon route is one thing; to climb Rum Doodle is, as Totter once said, quite another', as expedition leader Binder notes on page one. He is accompanied by 'Dr Prone (constantly ill), Jungle the route finder (constantly lost), Constant the diplomat (constantly arguing) Wish, the scientist – only interested in boiling things at high altitudes – Shute, the filmmaker, who never quite manages to get himself and his cameras into place, Major Burley, 'strong man', and 3,000 Yogistani porters. 

It's a hard book to describe because no excerpt really works out of context. The parody is brilliantly sustained but what is really delightful about this book is the way you do actually come to like the characters and root for them, despite the fact that the whole thing is so absurd. Having read it once for the plot I now quite want to go back and read it again for all the little details I missed the first time around. It's not a long read. In Bowman's lifetime the book achieved modest success, but it was only towards the end of his life Bowman discovered it had achieved cult status amongst mountaineers. Bill Bryson writes: 'In 1981, almost exactly a quarter of a century after Rum Doodle's publication, Bowman discovered to his surprise that in the late 1950s members of the Australian Antarctic Expedition had affectionately attached names from his book to certain geographical features, and that some of these had been incorporated into Antarctic maps. Since 1966, Mount Rumdoodle '(pop. 153, elev. 153)' has been an official designation.' Bryson concludes that Bowman did have the satisfaction of knowing he had written a comic classic and that The Ascent of Rum Doodle had achieved a certain immortality. I'm certainly adding it to my list of books to recommend.

The Art of Mindful Reading by Ella Berthoud
This week I interviewed bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud (and for anyone who doesn't know what a bibliotherapist is here is an excellent New Yorker article on the subject) about her new book The Art of Mindful Reading. Ella has spent her life reading and making book recommendations and I was really inspired by her conviction that books, and fiction in particular, speak to us on a deep level and can have a transformative effect on our psychological make up. Important then, to read the right books at the right time. When I asked her for tips in tackling my enormous TBR pile, and how to combat book-overload from all the things I'm constantly seeing online, she suggested taking things back to basics. 'Think about what's going on in your life right now', she suggests. 'Take time to think what do I need from a book, what am I going to get from this', and use this to help you be discerning in picking your next read. It was such a joy to get to talk to her – that episode is out in a couple of weeks, but first we've got my book club on Monique Roffey's Women's Prize-winner The Mermaid of Black Conch. That episode will be out next weekend.

What to listen to:


Don't miss our latest episode with Kate Young. We talk all things cooking and reading thanks to her Little Library cookbooks, which brilliantly combine the two. We learn what to cook in an apocalypse, her childhood reading favourites, and her current reading recommendations plus we come up with a perfect pick for book club.

This week I loved this interview with Kazuo Ishiguro on Adam Buxton's podcast (and thanks to Vicki @theantipodeanbookclub on Instagram for flagging it up). I still haven't managed to read Klara and the Sun and funnily enough, if anything listening to this made me want to read The Remains of the Day. I tried to order it at the library but with all this Ishiguro-fever the wait-list was long. Anyway, loved hearing Ishiguro – who seems in my mind like a remote and unapproachable figure – sounding so jolly and down-to-earth. A great listen.
 

What Kate is reading:


Next up for me is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, which is my next book club read. We're meeting on Wednesday and as usual I've left it till the last minute, but I'm confident it will be a page-turner and experience has taught me that if I read things too far in advance I then forget them by the time of the discussion. I'm looking forward to hearing what the others thought of it..


What Laura is reading:


'Kate Pullinger is a Canadian British author and my parents are raving about her latest novel, Forest Green. The story charts Arthur Lunn’s life from the golden hills of the Okanagan to the battlefields of WWII to the men-only logging camps of BC (which my dad as a forester says are absolutely spot on) before falling into homelessness in Vancouver. An empathetic, moving portrait that manages never to be bleak. I'm also enjoying The Western Shore trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. No one wrote fantasy like Le Guin. Her worlds arrive utterly complete and believable, every aspect of culture, race, gender and hate defined and convincing. So to discover a whole new world and trilogy from her, distinct from Earthsea, has been my reading highlight of 2021.' For more, listen to our discussion of Le Guin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness on episode 3.

Thanks so much for subscribing and hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at thebookclubreview@gmail.com 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. 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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