Peter Matthiesen

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before. Matthiesen’s narrative follows his expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home. These he puts away to read once safely down. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘Good news too would be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present…’ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference and his musings on commonalities would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. A description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect its head while ramming other males ends with this observation: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….'(Matthiesen, 2010, p.229)

Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature that he craves to see during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching. Humour, often at his own expense, is frequent. Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London


Alice Sebold

This is the first of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems and authors I’ve loved. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Find them!


‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ So begins Alice Sebold’s novel  The Almost Moon.

Known for her more famous book, The Lovely Bones, Sebold writes from the dark side. We know it because we’ve been there too, even if we push it away, under the rug. It lurks and she gives it a voice that we understand. Suburbia, neighbourhood watch, dogs. Dementia, suicide, fear.

And life goes on amid the desperation. It’s all so normal. Consequences are weighed and considered by the characters as they enter, stage right through the domestic sets of bathrooms, carpeted stairs, basements. Burger King carparks, Life Drawing Classes at the Senior Center. We’ve been there.

I read recently that most women go through life trying to live up to their mother’s expectations. Who can say whether they’re real, or deluded? The expectations and the attempts, or lack of. ‘You’re throwing your life away, you know that? Pissing it down your leg.’


It’s one of those books which crowds your head as you read, each sentence and page turned clamping down a little tighter on the options. How is this going to end? It’s not a thriller, not a whodunit. It’s being painted into a corner.

Her book Lucky is the real account of her rape in her first year at college and living through the days and weeks and months that followed. She’s lucky that she’s not dead, like another girl, killed in that same tunnel. Her life did not end among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.

Her recounting the events over and over stays with me. When her father, many months afterwards realises that the rapist had dropped his knife, Alice can see him thinking ‘Why couldn’t she get away…?’ So simply, she evokes the burden felt again and again of lifting away that weight, the dead weight of her not struggling hard enough, of granting a permission of sorts.

Other people’s fear or sympathy, or pity, worse by far, were harder that the clinical policing, the courtroom proceedings with their rules and patterns. People knew their roles and played their parts, there.

Don’t be put off by Sebold’s grim landscapes. Her voice is clear and her prose fluent. Like an origami artist, she folds her story deftly, one crease after another, edges sharp, until it becomes the crane, standing upright.

Why go there? Ask yourself that the next time you read a crime story, or watch a murder, or a rape on some screen. Saturated with violence already, this lucid recounting of its impact is a gift.

And if you missed these when they came out….

I used to have a diet of new releases. I’d follow the Booker shortlist, section myself in the front third of a bookshop, note down reviews. It all seemed too hard to do it any other way. How could you begin to choose something from the closely packed shelves? So many writers. I didn’t need a degree in maths to tell me that the probability of picking something I’d love was low.

And then I had children. The contradictions of living with babies include both slowing you down and speeding things up. In the weirdest way, the day’s allocation of minutes and hours remained the same but everything resized. Leaving the house could take up to an hour. Clothes shopping for me took five minutes.

Reading became a refuge and the greatest pleasure; nobody had told me it was the perfect complement to childrearing. One demands, constantly. The other gives, with no conditions. It provides adult company and imparts lessons in the human condition when you most need them.

Storytime at the local library brought a revelation. Papery dry, cool, unhurried. Free. I could fill a bag with novels by random authors, take them home and read over three weeks. Then take them back and get more. Who first thought of this? Extraordinary! No longer relentlessly contemporary, my reading expanded, in all directions.

But my memory was crammed with the minutiae of daily routines and I could forget, within minutes of closing it, a book’s name. I began to keep a list. No dates or comments (a passing judgement is of no interest to me). Just titles and authors.

Years later, it’s given me a feast of data. I know the authors to hunt down for more of their work. And I am always ready with referrals of those I’ve loved.


This is the beginning of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems, exploring a few books at a time through themes. In the vast crush of information today, what is the longevity of a novel? There are so many that deserve to be remembered. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Bring these ideas to your book clubs. Indulge. You’ll be rewarded.


For my friends in book clubs, looking for ideas…

I went to a party on Saturday night and got talking with friends about bookclubs. I’m a fan of anything that gets people reading, books circulating and authors rewarded. While reading is essentially a private activity for me, I love sharing suggestions and my lovely friends in book clubs asked me for my top ten. Some are well known, some less so. I can recommend them all.

Lydia Millet (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Mermaids in Paradise)
Ann Patchett (Run, State of Wonder, Truth and Beauty)
Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face; companion to Truth and Beauty, above)
Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Olive Kitteridge)
Mark Poirier (Modern Ranch Living)
Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries)
Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)
Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being)
Valerie Martin (Property)

Megan Abbott, (The End of Everything)
Elizabeth Gilbert (The Signature of All Things)
John Green (any – I think he’s a genius in getting into young adult heads)
And that’s more than ten! I could go on. 1234963
Happy reading.

3 resources for mental strength – and all from women!

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Three books crossed my path recently that share a message, albeit in different ways. They are about the power of resilience and the value of looking inwards for answers.

In 1995, grieving her mother, not knowing what she was doing in life, dabbling in heroin, loving the wrong men, losing the right ones, Cheryl Strayed made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She walked 1,100 miles through California and Oregon, mostly alone, carrying a pack she called Monster.

Her book, Wild, subtitled A journey from lost to found, recounts her resourcefulness in going on, increasing the miles she walked each day, finding water and feeding herself, making camp each night. She earned back her own respect through doing something that was hard, that took courage. She fought off a bear, survived her solitude—she saw no one for her first six days—and ran out of water. She lost most of her toenails, and then lost her boots, mid-hike.  She became alive to her own strengths and witnessed her capacity to bring herself to each day.

When we’re adults, we don’t have our parents to push us anymore. Sometimes we have a mentor or a friend who will but it’s rare. We pussyfoot around each other, careful not to overstep boundaries. Giving advice on life and choices can be construed as ‘interfering’. We’re supposed to be able to do this ourselves. But often we can’t. In a world of the ‘individual’, we have to call on our own resources, our mental strength.

Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do identifies behaviours that control you. Strayed’s experience is an exemplar of realising, identifying and responding to those behaviours.

For instance, number 3- ‘[Mentally strong people] don’t shy away from change’. Strayed’s realisation that she had to change her life is there, on page 1. ‘My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning of [preparation].’ (Strayed, 2007). Morin says that mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results or give up after the first failure. Forty minutes into her hike, ‘the voice inside my head was screaming, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Mentally strong people don’t focus on things they can’t control and they don’t dwell on the past. Walking the trail meant living only for that day and ‘each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.’ When she loses her boot, and throws its useless companion over the escarpment to join its mate, she knew there was only one option—to keep walking.

Perhaps, most especially pertinent, mentally strong people don’t fear time alone. ‘They can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence.’ (Morin 2016).

And this is what makes me think of another contributor to this discussion who enters from a different angle.

Susan Cain’s message is about the power of introverts. When we prize extroversion, performance, collaboration, we devalue the contributions of the quiet.  She begs us to ‘stop the madness for group work’ which makes me applaud.  I loathe teamwork. I used to wriggle out of the inevitable interview question with some embroidered half-truths. I’m not a borderline sociopath. I get along with people in the office fine but when left alone, I produce my best work.

Susan says that we need to value the privacy, the autonomy and freedom of working alone: ‘we need to have our own revelations; we need to go to the wilderness.’ Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed and mental strength.

More please.

Click here for beauty

Trying to get noticed?

Want to get people to see YOU? To pause their feverish scrolling? The interweb is overrun with how to guarantee clicks!  Wanna go viral? Here’s how! Just this morning ‘7 insane headline ideas that will give you more traffic’ floated into my in-box.

The advice follows a recurring theme—success, speed, effortlessness, winning.

How do we do something or do it better?

How can we become something?

How can we get somewhere (without sacrifice)?

How can we multiply the benefits?

How can we do it fast?

Tell us what to do

Tell us what to do. Tell us how the experts do it, or how the boss does it.  Or at least how a famous person does it. It’s a quest and the holy grail is out there. How can it not be? You just have to find the right titbit.

There’s a place for all this self-improvement. I’m sure it’s valuable sometimes, to some people. There may be a few useful things within. But I’m over it. I’m tired of this rabble of life coaches talking up my insecurities while pretending to be my friend, entreating me to rummage through their tawdry showbags looking for the prize.

The ‘killer headline’ is reducing our gorgeously complex, infinitely magnificent age of information to a tabloid rag.  Crying wolf until we’d rather tune out altogether.

What makes  you pause?

I’d rather read something beautiful, evocative, dream-like. Something that lifts me into the light and hope of a new day than presses me more deeply into the mire of life’s shortcomings and fix-its.

The killer headline for me is different. It’s the opening line in a book that is the perfect pick-up, that meets your eyes and smiles crookedly. That lays itself down and asks for your commitment. That knows you’d follow it anywhere.

I read one recently in The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein. “In the moment after Robert Mason’s condom broke he rolled off me, propped himself on his elbow, and said, “What you do doesn’t help anybody.”

The opening of Run by Ann Patchett still takes my breath away.  ‘Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back.”

I want to read them. I want you to post your favourite first sentences of novels or stories. Let’s have some new headlines.

Click here for beauty.