It’s been a long time since my last blog post and I have been dimly aware of it fading to nothing in the background of my life. Looking back over my posts, it is hard to believe that I began writing Karen Martin Reads just over 5 years ago. Instead of simply letting it peter out, I decided to write a swan song round-up of 2019 in books, together with a mini life-update.
2020 feels like it may be a seminal year. Child One finishes her in-work training placement and her MSc, striding out to start her career as a qualified medical physicist. She will celebrate her second year of marriage. Child Two completed his law degree and Press Association diploma in 2019 and is now in the throes of job applications. He writes with knowledge and flair about all things football, and is on the cusp of his own adventure; you can read his work at jamesmartinblogs. Together with hubby, they have been really supportive of my slightly crazy decision to leave teaching and give writing a chance. Watching your children become adult and independent is a weird life stage, but it is an exciting one for all of us.
As far as reading went, 2019 saw me read 39 books and leave a further 2 unfinished. Not the one-a-week I aspired to, but a good haul nonetheless. I also read hundreds of academic papers on memory, dementia, neurology and trauma. This latter list was inspired by two excellent tutors at Warwick University, Profs Andrew Williams and Alison Ribeiro de Menezes. Opting for a non-fiction unit in the first term set me on a path that I could never have envisaged when I tentatively pressed the “send” button on my Warwick application the previous year.
Before embarking on my MA, I had written nothing longer than a short story. Now I’ve completed the first draft of a piece of creative non-fiction and am being further encouraged by an additional Warwick Professor, Maureen Freely. I am indebted to these people for their critical advice and enthusiasm.
With the dawn of 2020, my MA is behind me and my library card now stamped with “Alumni.” Graduation is in the diary for late January and I’m looking forward to catching up with fellow writers. So what of the schoolteacher now? Do I go back to school and resume where I left off? My heart says no. My goal is to rewrite the first draft of my creative venture and see if there is any mileage in it. If there isn’t, it hasn’t been a wasted year. I have learnt so much and met fascinating people. I have been made a little bit braver.
It has made me realise that this blog was part of a journey to discover writing. I have loved doing it, but I don’t see myself carving a career in it. That requires far more social media savviness than I have or desire. I will continue to record what I read and may even feel inclined to pop up in your inbox from time to time with burning recommendations, but for now, I am going to say thank you for reading me and focus my writing on finishing my “book.”
Before I do so, I want to give you a round-up of a reading year that began with The Tattooist of Aushwitz and ended with The Salt Path. I read a hefty amount from different genres because of my course, so I’ll give highlights from fiction and non-fiction.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
I have turned the final page of this book today. It is uplifting, inspiring and utterly beautiful. It captures what it means to live well. Having lost their home and income source, Raynoor and her husband Moth also have to face his diagnosis of terminal illness. They decide to walk the 630 miles of the South-West Coastal Path, and in the process find out what resilience and love really mean. I want everyone to buy this book and savour each page.
Somebody I Used To Know by Wendy Mitchell
Another book that inspires. Wendy Mitchell shows how it is possible to live with Alzheimer’s rather than be cowed by fear. She writes honestly about how dementia changed her life, giving her opportunities as well as deficits. She does not shy away from addressing fears and frustrations, but the overwhelming message is that being human is not dependent on your ability to remember.
Patient H.M by Luke Dittrich
When Henry Molaison had his hippocampus removed by surgeon William Beecher Scoville, the medical fraternity learnt something fundamental about memory. From the date of his operation, Patient HM as he was known until his death, was unable to make any new memories. This book, written by the surgeon’s grandson, explores the pioneering surgery and consequent discoveries. It is compelling in its evaluation of the psychology of a surgeon, the morals of experimentation and the insight into the human brain.
The Diary of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
An altogether lighter read, this was a bibliophile’s delight. Creating a real sense of a bookish town, readers are welcomed into the shop to meet customers and booksellers, to experience the quirky heating system and realise the hard slog behind the seemingly quaint second-hand book trade. I’m going to spend my Christmas book tokens on the sequel so that I can curl up like the resident shop cat and indulge my own bookshop fancies.
Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
A personal memoir of life’s difficult bits. At times, the raw honesty of this book will make you laugh, but at others you will weep. Utterly without self-pity, this is a brave account of resilience and relationship.
HHhH by Laurent Binet
Fiction or non-fiction? This one straddles the genres and comes with a health warning. This book will make you question everything you ever thought you might have known about anything. A retelling of the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, this book is a discussion of evidence and a thriller of a read. It is pretty out-there in terms of narrative construct so won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I loved it!
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
An acclaimed writer and for good reason. Dunmore creates beauty with words, expressing character and plot with fluency and conviction. Set in Bristol, central character Lizzie finds herself married to a man whose fortune is dependent on a property boom that fails to materialise after political uncertainties created by the French Revolution. Evocative and mysterious, this is historical fiction with page-turning compulsion.
I also read a Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and was equally entranced. This one conveys the innocence of childhood lost to a taboo relationship. Its outworking defines the coming of age of the protagonist, Cathy.
Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
These were my most exciting discovery in fiction in 2019. A set of two novels which easily stand alone (I read mine in the wrong order not realising), Sarah Moss writes fiction in a way that I can only dream of. She is elegant and yet spare, never indulging in too much description. Every word resonates. Up there with Maggie O’Farrell for me, two amazing writers who recreate human relationships with utter credibility.
I also thoroughly enjoyed An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Children of Men by P D James.
These were just selected highlights. Below you can see my year of reading. I haven't included the more technical books, in case any of you are tempted to let me know that there are fewer than 39 books pictured! Thanks to my niece for inspiring me to use images, and to Child Two for working out how to fit my convoluted method of producing them to this blog format!
I hope you have enjoyed my blogging. I have certainly enjoyed sharing my reading and little slices of life with you. And you never know, I may be back, but for now, the bravery found by leaving my job, and gaining an MA is leading me elsewhere. There may even be a For Sale sign at the front of our house soon. This nearly-50 year old has decided that being brave might just be the way forward…