Books Magazine

Advent Activities

By Booksnob

Advent Activities

One of the joys of getting older is getting to know yourself more. Last year I had the realisation that the horrible, crushing sadness and restlessness I feel every winter is nothing to do with my life being rubbish and in need of an overhaul, but is simply my body’s reaction to reduced daylight. In previous years, I’ve pushed through the fog by signing myself up for all sorts of things to make positive changes to my life, and only ended up making myself more exhausted and no less miserable. This year, I’ve recognised it for what it is, and am being kind to myself. I am, as the self-help books would say, listening to my body. I’m going to bed earlier, staying in to curl up on the sofa and read, eating lots of vegetables, and watching terrible Netflix Christmas movies. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying hibernating, and avoiding the chaotic crush of Christmas shoppers.

By making sure I make time to do nothing, I conserve my energy for the things I really want to do at Christmas time. The theater is magical all year round, of course, but in the winter, I love being cocooned inside its womb-like darkness to watch a story unfold before my eyes. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen Lungs at the Old Vic, Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre and The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the National, all of which have been fantastic, and I’m off to see Master Harold and the Boys at the National this week, which I’m really looking forward to. The William Blake exhibition at the Tate is so utterly magnificent I’ve already been twice and will go back again before it closes; there’s nothing better on a grey, rainy Saturday morning than being closeted with beautiful, otherworldly images that you have all the time in the world to gaze at, followed by a lovely cup of tea and a slice of cake, is there?

Yesterday I had a lovely evening walk around London, going to look at the Christmas lights. I also wanted to look at some of the streets in Westminster that are still lit by gas; I had no idea that there were whole swathes of the city that retain gaslight until I read an article about it in Country Life magazine (article not available online, though this different one is, and it’s very good!). Once I read about it, I was determined to go and investigate whether there really is a pronounced difference compared to electric light, and now I know that there certainly is! Carlton Gardens is a wonderful example; just off the Mall, and home to the Royal Society, it’s a beautiful corner of stucco houses that, as soon as dusk settles, glows gently through the gloom in a haze of soft gaslit luminescence. However, just around the corner, the darkness is illuminated with the harsh, garish splendour of Christmas lights festooning a neighbouring street of shops. Turn back, and it is as if you have crossed a fault line into the past; on the gaslit pavement, you can almost hear the horses’ hooves and the squeaking of carriage wheels. It was enough to give me the shivers!

Reading wise, I’ve been doing my best to motor through the piles of books I’ve bought and not read over the last few months. I devoured Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Olive, Again, in one sitting; she is such a revelation. What makes her characters so compelling is their utter ordinariness, and in their ordinariness is revealed the extraordinary nature of all our lives. Behind every door are quiet tragedies, gnawing disappointments, aching regrets – but also the glorious joys of unlooked for love, of receiving forgiveness, of an awareness of the freedom that comes with accepting who you are. It’s a glorious, life-affirming book – a true celebration of what it is to be human. You must read it. I’ve also finally finished Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s wonderfully strange novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is my first foray into modern Polish fiction, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. A murder mystery with a brilliant, eccentric main character and plenty of twists and turns along the way, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I must also say, the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, deserves considerable praise; this is a superbly written translation. If, like me, you love a good vintage mystery to get stuck into during these cold winter evenings, then the British Library Crime Classics’ compilation of short detective stories that take place on or around railways, Blood on the Tracks, is fantastic. I was particularly delighted to find a lesser known Dorothy L Sayers story inside, as well as a wonderful short story by F Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, is a spectacular account of the real-life Thompson-Bywaters case. Non-fiction wise, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds, a doorstopper I’ve been meaning to read for years; the story of the fortunes and tragedies of the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family and their enormous house, Wentworth Woodhouse, that was built on the money made from their coal empire, reads like a novel, it’s that eventful. From heirs being born in Canadian log cabins to tragic deaths in plane crashes (alongside Kick Kennedy, JFK’s sister), this family had enough skeletons in their closets to pad out several volumes. Thankfully, since the book has been written, Wentworth Woodhouse has been saved from ruin, and can now be visited; I shall definitely be dropping by next time I go up north! The only disappointment I’ve had in my reading over the last few weeks was Salley Vickers’ new novel, Grandmothers; I shouldn’t have been seduced by the beautiful binding. Rather pedestrian, I was bored by the half way point and struggled onto the end. Such a shame!

Over the holidays, I’m going to be thinking about how to take this blog forward. It’s been ten years (!) since I started, the blogging world has changed enormously, my life has changed enormously, and the way in which I use the blog and what I want to write about are entirely different to when I began. I don’t plan on going anywhere – but I do plan on making some considerable changes. Any suggestions welcome. If I don’t have time to post again before Christmas, I wish all of you – old and new readers alike – a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.

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