Windswept – Why Women Walk ….. a review

Windswept (Why Women Walk) by Annabel Abbs

I was inspired to read this book after seeing it mentioned in a magazine article a while ago. The article mentioned the book in connection with Georgia O’Keefe, an artist who I have loved after seeing an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern a few years ago and as I also love walking, it seemed like the perfect choice for my next non-fiction read.

The book is a combination of memoir and biography as the author retraces the steps taken by a collection of notable women on their walks. The subjects include Gwen John, Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir and of course Georgia O’Keefe and all of the women broke with convention to go on solitary hikes into the wilderness. As Annabel Abbs walks in the steps of those women, she reflects on her own feelings and experiences and how they compare to those who have gone before her.

The book wasn’t quite what I expected as I didn’t realise that there would be so much of the author’s own experiences. At first, I found this a bit irritating as I wanted to learn more about the women she had researched. However, as I read on, I became just as interested in the author’s experiences as in her subjects.

Some of the chapters appealed more than others. I loved the chapters on Gwen John, Nan Shepherd and Georgia O’Keefe especially and was inspired to find out more about the life and work of Gwen John who I had heard of but knew very little about. All of the women found that they needed to escape and walk on their own to cope with their lives and find who they really were when not constrained by the roles expected of them. Each of them broke the normal rules of female behaviour by doing this. Walking, especially serious walking of 10 miles a day and more, for many years was the preserve of men. Women were expected to stay at home and by breaking these rules, all of the women exposed themselves to unwanted attentions. Walking alone exposed them to curiosity at best and sometimes outright danger. Sadly, one of the things that hasn’t changed in all this time is that women are still at risk when out walking as the recent murder of a primary school teacher on a canal path has shown.

Frieda von Richthofen in particular gave up everything in 1912, a home, husband and three children to go on an walking adventure with her lover, the author DH Lawrence. This is the first of the walks that the author covers as she retraces Frieda’s steps through Germany and over the Alps into Italy. We get more details about the author’s own experiences than Frieda’s as Frieda doesn’t give much information in her own memoirs but Annabel Abbs tries to recreate the routes taken and find some of the places where not only Frieda and Lawrence but each of her subjects stayed.  

As well as details about the historical walks and her own thoughts, we also get a fair amount of the Science behind walking and the benefits that walking in the countryside, along rivers or up in the mountains can bring to you. There are many mentions of the mental health benefits of walking in areas such as this compared to urban areas and all of the women in this book certainly found that the act of walking for miles and miles had a beneficial effect on them. There were one or two places where I felt that the heavy emphasis on finding yourself and inner harmony was a bit overwhelming but I’m sure that other people will find that more interesting.

The landscapes that the women chose to walk in are very varied. We travel from the great European rivers, over the alps and Scottish Munros to the Texan desert and each one of these presents its own challenges and has its own rewards. I loved the Georgia O’Keefe chapter most, partly because of how the desert inspired the artwork that I love but also because this was a landscape that is totally alien to me. I loved being transported to the empty expanse of the desert and trying to imagine what that emptiness would feel like.

I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out about these different women and where they walked. It has certainly inspired me to take my walking a bit more seriously and venture further afield than I presently do.

The Non Fiction Reader Challenge is hosted by ShelleyRae at Bookdout and details can be found here This is the fifth non fiction book that I have read in 2022 so I have definitely achieved my aim of reading more non fiction this year 😃

The White Ship – A review

Game of Thrones but in the real world” boasts the front cover in a quote by Anthony Horowitz. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare a non-fiction history book with a best selling fantasy series but there are definite points of contact. The behaviour of the Norman kings and their liege lords was every bit as cruel as that depicted by George Martin in his epic series. Henry 1 is shown as being almost a model king but even he was happy to order horrific punishments upon those who rebelled against him. There’s also a lot of political intrigue with alliances between rulers and powerful nobles constantly changing. However, don’t look to this book for any real characterisation.

The White Ship is the story of the sinking of The White Ship in November 1120. The ship was carrying many of the rich and powerful at the time including William, the heir to the throne. All but one passenger died and England was left without a clear heir to the throne. This disaster ushered in an age of turmoil after more than 30 years of relative peace so was a definite turning point in English history.

The book begins in dramatic fashion with an account of the ship sinking and William being carried to safety in a small boat before going right back to the events of 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. The first half of the book is concerned with the events from then up to 1120 focusing on who ruled England, Normandy and the surrounding areas in France. It’s quite a dry retelling with the emphasis totally on the rulers of both countries. At times it just becomes a list of names and titles with very little context about them.

The best parts of the book are the chapters about the actual sinking where the writing does convey some of the horror that would have been felt by the passengers on board at time when hardly anybody could swim. I enjoyed the inclusion of the different poetry extracts from the time which really helped provide atmosphere.

After that, the book races to the civil war that ensued when Henry’s nephew Stephen refused to accept the king’s daughter Matilda as queen and claimed the throne for himself. This was surely the most important effect of The White Ship but was dealt with in only a couple of chapters and very little detail given to what the effect of this war was upon England.

As a lover of historical fiction, I like my history to have a personal aspect and I realise that a properly researched non-fiction book by a historian may not have this focus. However, I do feel that the author could have done more to put some of the people into greater context and give us more of an idea of who they were.

This was an interesting book but I have to admit to skimming over some pages that just appeared to be lists of names of people at court or on the ship. I was certainly surprised by how popular the name  Matilda was for noble women. It seems that every other woman was named Matilda which certainly doesn’t help to keep the characters straight in your head.

This is my fourth non fiction so far in 2022 so I’m definitely fulfilling my aim of reading more non fiction this year as I take part in the Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Bookdout here.

Islands of Abandonment – a review

Blurb from Goodreads:
Investigative journalist Cal Flyn’s ISLANDS OF ABANDONMENT, an exploration of the world’s most desolate, abandoned places that have now been reclaimed by nature, from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to the “urban prairie” of Detroit to the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl, in an ultimately redemptive story about the power and promise of the natural world. 

I saw an article about this book in a newspaper and was intrigued by the idea. I love ruins and have spent many hours poking around ruined castles etc so a book about abandoned places really appealed. I’m so glad that I read it as it was truly excellent as well as being eye-opening.

The book is about those places that humans have touched and then for various reasons abandoned. One or two are actual islands but most are areas, some remote, that humans have largely given up on. Cal Flyn has visited 12 of these places around the world and looked at how nature has gradually reclaimed the land.

When she began the research for the book, Cal Flyn expected it to be a book of darkness where she visited the worst places in the world. However, she found something very different. “In fact, it is a story of redemption: how the most polluted spots on Earth can be rehabilitated through ecological processes.”

The book is split into four parts with a different focus in each one.

The first part which is the longest is centred on four sites in Europe where humans used to live and have now moved away. The author starts in her home country of Scotland but then moves to Northern Cyprus, Chernobyl and Estonia. I was astonished at her findings in this section especially in the section on the abandoned collective farms in the old Soviet Union. As the farms were abandoned when the Soviet Union fell, nature returned. Acres of land were reclaimed and the hypothesis is that this has created a huge carbon sink which is partly counter-balancing the loss of forests in Brazil and elsewhere.

The second is places which haven’t quite been abandoned completely and covers Detroit and Paterson New Jersey. Here people are still living although in much smaller numbers than previously and nature is again, taking back its territory.

In part three, she covers places where humans have left a huge impact on the land which still persists today. The chapter on the botanical garden in Tanzania was especially thought provoking.

The final section is called Endgame and looks at places where humans have practically destroyed the environment. This section is the bleakest as she looks at how badly we have polluted some areas beyond all hope of repair. But even here, nature is fighting back.

I was engrossed by this book and fascinated by the author’s findings. It was quite an easy read, there is some Scientific background but this is perfectly understandable by a non-scientist such as myself. The text is enhanced by photographs of most of the sites but in actual fact, her descriptions are so vivid that you could easily manage without them. The writing is often almost poetic as she wanders around those derelict and abandoned sites.

Climate change is a constant presence in the book but her findings are more optimistic than might have been expected.

“Time is, after all, the great healer. The question is: How long does it need?. Then, How long have we got’. It may not be long”

It is a book of hope that maybe not all is lost. Despite everything that we do to harm our world, Nature still fights back.

I am so glad that I read this book and recommend it to anyone with any interest in how we impact our environment.

This is the third book towards my Non Fiction reader challenge hosted by Shelley Rae at Book’dout

In Praise of Walking – a review

This is the second book that I have read as part of the 2022 NonFiction Reader Challenge hosted by ShelleyRae at Bookd Out . One of my aims for 2022 was to read more non-fiction. As it’s still only January and I’ve already read two non fiction books, I feel I’ve made a good start on this challenge.

2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge

Synopsis from cover:
Walking upright on two feet is a uniquely human skill.
It defines us as a species

It enabled us to walk out of Africa and to spread as far as Alaska and Australia. It freed our hands and freed our minds. We put one foot in front of the other thinking, yet how many of us know how we do that or appreciate the advantages that it gives us. In this hymn to walking, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara invites us to marvel at the benefits it confers on our bodies and minds and urges us to appreciate – and exercise – our miraculous ability.

I’m not really into exercise, I was never good at sport at school but I have always enjoyed walking. As a child, I always walked to and from school and when we were on holiday, our family always walked miles. Over recent years, I have to come appreciate walking even more and if I can’t go for a walk for more than a couple of days, I start to get edgy. I am hugely grateful that I have not had to self isolate due to Covid as I think I would have found it very difficult being confined to my house and garden for 10 days. When I saw this book on the library shelf, it seemed like the perfect non fiction choice.

The author is clear that walking is good for us on many different levels. Through walking we can improve our physical health and mental well being. We can strengthen our social and family ties as well as becoming more creative and better able to solve problems. The book contains chapters on how humans came to walk, how our bodies perform the act of walking as well as where and when we walk. He continually emphasises how important walking is for us and how town planners need to think about this need to walk when towns and cities are designed.

The book was a bit harder work than I was expecting as there was a lot more Science detail than I had anticipated. I have to admit that I skim read a couple of chapters as the scientific detail was quite heavy and I lost interest in the points that Shane O’Mara was making.

Mainly though I did enjoy it and found it an interesting and informative read. Some of the things he discussed such as the health benefits weren’t new to me as there have been calls for us to walk more for several years now. However, there were other parts that were new to me. I was really interested in the chapter where he discussed how walking can make people more creative and how the actual rhythm of walking can stimulate our creativity and help us solve problems.

I also liked the quotations that were scattered through the book from different writers who have also found enjoyment or inspiration while walking including T S Eliot and Wordsworth.

If you’re interested in reading a Science based book about walking, then this is definitely the book for you.

The Young H G Wells – Changing the World by Clare Tomalin

2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge

This is the first book that I have read as part of the 2022 NonFiction Reader Challenge hosted by ShelleyRae at Bookd Out I have previously read Clare Tomalin’s biographies of Dickens and Jane Austen and so when I saw this in the half price sale in Waterstones, it seemed like a good place to begin my non fiction journey this year.

The Synopsis from Goodreads:
Claire Tomalin’s remarkable and empathic biography, focusing on HG Wells’ early life, offers a new understanding of one of Britain’s most influential writers. From his impoverished childhood in a working-class English family, to his determination to educate himself at any cost, to the serious ill health that dominated his twenties and thirties, and the sudden success of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds which transformed his life and catapulted him to international fame – Claire Tomalin paints a fascinating portrait of a man, a misfit, a socialist, a futurist and a writer whose new and imaginative worlds continue to inspire today.

I knew nothing at all about H G Wells, having only read his most popular works and a couple of his short stories so I was intrigued by the title of this book. How did a writer I only knew from his very early Science Fiction writing change the world?

H G Wells was certainly a very complex character and in many ways, an extremely unpleasant one. He was also incredibly intelligent and hard working.
As always when I read biographies, the most interesting parts for me are the early lives of the subjects. H G Wells overcame many difficulties to become a writer, not the least of which was his mother’s insistence that he become a draper! I really enjoyed the first part of the biography showing how he overcame the difficulties caused by his family life and his ill health and was fascinated by his determination to achieve his ambitions. His capacity for work and learning seems to have been almost boundless.

He was also incredibly selfish and single minded at pursuing his aims and desires and Tomalin shows this side of him very clearly. He was a good son and brother and cared for his parents and supported his brother Frank. However, he appears to have been much less satisfactory as a husband and lover especially towards his wife Jane who even had her name changed by him. He was also a loyal friend and many of the greatest writers and thinkers of the time such as George Bernard Shaw were good friends with him. Tomalin also shows us how his friendships could very quickly go sour if his friends disagreed with him.

He was certainly a visionary and foresaw many of the developments of the twentieth century. His pamphlets and articles arguing for socialist ideals did influence other thinkers and politicians especially Churchill. Tomalin tells us in the final chapter that his work The Rights of Man published in 1940 was one of the sources for the 1948 Declaration of Human rights and it is clear that he was influential in changing society during the first half of the twentieth century.

This was an easy to read and enjoyable book and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in H G Wells.

2022 Non fiction Reader Challenge

One of my reading goals for 2022 is to read more non fiction. I always used to try and read at least a couple of non fiction books every year but lately that has slipped. As I now (theoretically anyway) have more time on my hands, I think it’s the right time to try and widen my reading and maybe even learn something.

I think I need to be involved in the challenge as otherwise, I will just forget and it will be something that I will aim to do in 2023. I bought a history book in November but haven’t opened it yet. Being part of a challenge hopefully will make me more likely to succeed as there will be a reminder to choose a non fiction book at the library or from Net Galley. I’m also looking forward to getting recommendations of non fiction books to look out for.

The challenge is run by Book’d out and the sign up page with full details is here The details of the challenge below have been copied from the sign up page.

HOW IT WORKS

You can select, read and review a book from the categories listed below during the year for a total of up to 12 books; OR select, read and review any nonfiction book. A book may be in print, electronic or audio format.

Choose a goal:

Nonfiction Nipper: Read & review 3 books, from any 3 listed categories

Nonfiction Nibbler: Read & review 6 books, from any 6 listed categories

Nonfiction Nosher: Read & review 12 books, one for each category

OR

Nonfiction Grazer: Read & review any nonfiction book. Set your own goal

Categories:

1. Social History

2. Popular Science

3. Language

4. Medical Memoir

5. Climate/Weather

6. Celebrity

7. Reference

8. Geography

9. Linked to a podcast

10. Wild Animals

11. Economics

12. Published in 2022


* You can choose your books as you go or create a list in advance. You may combine this challenge with others if you wish. Use your best good faith judgement as to whether a book fits the category or not.

I’m aiming to try and read a non fiction book every couple of months so that will make me a Nibbler. Hopefully trying to read from different categories will stop me from reading 6 biographies which would be the most likely outcome if I’m left with a completely free choice. That wouldn’t really fit my aim of trying to extend my reading so I’m definitely going to try and read from 6 different categories from the ones listed above.

I have 2 books to start off with. I bought The White Ship in November but have yet to open it. The biography of H G Wells was bought this morning in the Waterstones half price hardback sale. Sadly, neither of them really fit the category list of the challenge 😢

That’s two reading challenges that I’m aiming to take part in next year. What are your reading aims for 2022?