January Books, Podcasts, and Movies

january books

What have you read lately? Here are the books, podcasts, and movies I read, listened to, and watched in January. The stars indicate the ones I especially recommend.

January Books

The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson (audiobook). This book was interesting. It’s about a single woman who owns and runs a bookstore with her best friend. But when she sleeps, she starts dreaming a whole other, very different life, one in which she has a terrific husband, great kids, and a lovely home. They are detailed dreams that pick up again each night. It’s intriguing. I thought I had it figured out and came up with a great explanation for what was going on – and I was wrong! If you read this book, talk to me afterward because I would love to discuss my theory, which I thought was sort of brilliant. I liked this book a lot.

Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (paperback). I’m glad I read this. It’s such an interesting premise – a collection of (fictional) dreams Einstein had in 1905 when he worked in a patent office in Switzerland. Each very short chapter portrays a world in which time operates differently. In the opening chapter, for instance, time is circular, and although we don’t know it, the same actions just keep going around and around again. Another chapter is interesting for its take on people getting “stuck” in time. “A life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.” I find time fascinating.

Although I haven’t picked it up yet, I also recently read about Wyl Menmuir’s book The Many, and it’s on my list. The Guardian describes it as being set in “a remote unidentified village on the north Cornwall coast, out of season, and disturbingly out of time.” I love that: “Out of time.”

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro. Yes yes yes. This one is right up my alley (I’m all about genealogy and DNA). When Shapiro took an Ancestry DNA test, she learned her beloved dad was not her biological father, and that the Jewish heritage she thought they shared was not her heritage. Both her parents had passed away, so she underwent a full-on investigation to figure it all out. No spoilers here, but I will say that it’s a fascinating topic and she is a wonderful, introspective writer who did it beautifully. What a book. You should read it.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land. While we’re talking about amazing memoirs, both written by women I’ve vaguely known in online writers’ groups for years, I also read Maid. “My baby took her first steps in a homeless shelter,” the book opens. Stephanie Land was about to start college when she unexpectedly became pregnant. Her boyfriend became abusive, so she left, and with little family support and a baby to care for she struggled. Although she worked very, very hard, and accepted government help, she still barely survived. Earning more one month, even just $50, meant she no longer qualified for the childcare she needed to try to get back on her feet. It’s a good work of journalism about cleaning up after other people, how hard it is to escape poverty even with the strongest determination and work ethic, and resilience. Really well done. What a great book.

The Master Quilter, by Jennifer Chiaverini. I read a lot in January about how novels are structured, and someone mentioned that this book tells the same story in each chapter but from a different person’s point of view in each. That intrigued me, and I wanted to see how it turned out. This type of book isn’t really my style, and I don’t especially recommend it, but it was an interesting writing technique.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck (audiobook). I tried to listen to this audiobook but had to skip over parts. Forty minutes into it I decided that everything I’d heard so far could comprise one paragraph. I didn’t need all that explanation. Although, really, what it is is that I don’t especially care for self-help books. I liked her general idea, though. She talks about people having either a growth mindset or a fixed one: “People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed. Mindset reveals how great parents, teachers, managers, and athletes can put this idea to use to foster outstanding accomplishment.” That’s really about all I needed to hear about it right there. You might love it though.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty. I read the hardcover book, which my mom gave me for Christmas (she knows that books are my favorite gifts ever).  But I also kept hearing an ad for the audiobook in which the announcer was pronouncing the author’s name “Leon.” Exactly as you would say the boy’s name. Does Liane pronounce her name Leon? That seems very odd to me, but maybe I’m the one who is wrong. The book is about nine guests, all at difficult junctures of their life, who gather at a health spa and find more than they expected. The characters were interesting, and the book had an unexpected twist.

January Podcast

Dispatches to a Friend (podcast). After I listened to the latest episode, I went back and binge-listened to them all. It’s the most charming thing ever, a podcast by two good friends in Australia who write each other letters. They describe it as “A podcast for lovers of food, books, gardening, travel, and, above all, friendship.” They read their letters aloud on the podcast, and it’s like 19th-century friends corresponding about 21st-century topics. Anabelle lives on a pecan farm and is a photographer and writer. Gillian travels the world making really epic wedding cakes “with stories of their own” for people. They are such interesting people and their letters and discussions—about books, travels, enjoying the small things, deeper thoughts—are charming. I don’t know how to explain how lovely they are. I appreciate people like those two, doing interesting work that they love, noticing the small good things, and telling their stories. Truly I cannot recommend this podcast enough.

January Movies

Edwardian Farm, an older BBC documentary series I eventually hunted down on YouTube. I am researching Devon and Cornwall for a novel I’m writing, and someone recommended this series to me. I am so glad they did. So far I have just watched Episode 5, which talks about tin mining in Devon, but I plan to watch them all. Here’s what it is: Two archaeologists and a historian lived on a rural farm in Devon’s Morwellham Quay for a year. They lived as though they were in the Edwardian period (1901-1910) and boy do I love things like that. Throughout the 12 episodes, they raise livestock and plow the fields for crops without modern-day tractors. They also learn about fishing, mining, market gardening and the industrial advances of the Edwardian age. I cannot wait to watch the rest. It’s great for learning about old Devon.

✪  Green Book (movie). What a good movie. Mahershala Ali is a world-class Black pianist. He hires the tough Italian-American bouncer Viggo Mortenson to drive him on a concert tour of the South in 1962. They couldn’t be more different but they form a real bond. It’s an interesting, funny, good movie based on a true story. The notes at the end say the two unlikely friends remained close until they died. I’m so glad I saw this movie.

Okay, that’s it for January. And now I have to go read.

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Literary Devon: How to Enjoy Time Travel From Your Cozy Couch

I sat down at the computer this morning to check my to-do list. But instead, I became delightfully lost in mid- to late-19th century Devon, England. Literary Devon beckoned to me. The poet John Keats, who lived and wrote in the Devon town of Teignmouth, once called the place a “splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county.”

Literary Devon

I’m researching what it was like in that southwestern county of England in the Victorian era because I’m writing a book that dips into that place and time. Although research wasn’t on my calendar for this morning, I can’t stop. I wish I could time-travel back and spend a few days then and there.

Literary Devon
Croyde, North Devon / Photo by Red Morley Heritt on Unsplash

This morning, I ended up focusing on the many books and movies set in Devon. They let one see, feel, experience what older Devon might have been like. As a result, I want to order them all, put on the kettle, and binge-read and -watch until I’m done. If only life allowed that kind of time!

What I learned

Agatha Christie used to roller skate with her friends in the seaside, South Devon town of Torquay, where she was born in 1890. That’s also where you’ll find the International Agatha Christie Festival every year (the next one is in September 2019). Many of Christie’s books take place in Devon, and how fun to reread/rewatch and check out the settings. Miss Marple lived in Devon, and in The ABC Murders, Hercules Poirot lives in Churston, Devon. ITV’s crime drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot filmed its episode “Dead Man’s Folly” in Devon, as well.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, used the Devon town of Dartmoor as his setting. Doyle’s story may be based on the legend of the squire Richard Cabell of Buckfastleigh: When Cabell died in the 1670s, black dogs raced across Dartmoor, howling and breathing fire. Yikes. You can imagine what the sheep would have thought of that.

Literary Devon
Dartmoor National Park / Photo by Oli Metcalfe on Unsplash

Stepping into the movies

My tumble down the old Devon rabbit hole inspires me to rewatch the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. Director Ang Lee’s set many of the scenes in Devon, including those at “Barton House,” where the girls lived. Mr. Willoughby’s estate was actually Devon’s Compton Castle, which also appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon.

Similarly, literary Devon points to the book and movie War Horse, based on Iddesleigh.

The BBC1 also set its series The Coroner in several South Devon towns, as well, including Totnes, Dartmouth, Hope Cove, and Brixham.

Literary Devon
St. Mary’s parish church, Totnes / Photo by Wigulf, CC by 2.5

Literary Devon in Other Great Books

Many other books show us what the county was like. Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmore, and many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, are set in Devon.

Also, The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert (which was written in 2006 and dramatized by the BBC in 2012), is set in the fictional village of Hollow Bay, based on Lynmouth in Exmoor National Park in Devon.

Literary Devon
Lynmouth / Photo by John Mark Strange on Unsplash

Have you read the nature story Tarka The Otter, written by Henry Williamson in 1927? It hasn’t gone out of print since then and now I really want to check it out. The story takes place on the Taw and Torridge Rivers of North Devon.

Literary Devon
Westward Ho! Beach, looking north toward the Taw and Torridge estuaries / Photo by Arpingstone

Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! takes place in Devon. Now there’s a real village with this name, named after Kingsley’s book, which took place in nearby Bideford, Devon. Several places in the village are also named for similar places in the novel.

Ted Hughes, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1984 until he died in 1998, is often called one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as well as other much less kind things. He was born in Yorkshire but most people associate him with Devon. And some of his poems describe parts of the county in great detail.

Literary Devon
Irsha Street in Appledore, North Devon / Photo by Fee Billen on Unsplash

I’m not the only reader, or writer, thinking about literary Devon. The Guardian article Devon Sent: Why Writers Can’t Resist the County made me want to forget about the 19th Century and go to Devon right now:

Devon is irresistible, the sort of place you imagine retiring to, in good health, with a little capital, and the prospect of writing that book you always meant to write, and perhaps establishing an English country garden. (The great Irish novelist William Trevor has done exactly that: wisely moving to Devon in the 1950s, he has since produced works of genius and an English country garden.) Having won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, Hilary Mantel was finally able to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to live in Budleigh Salterton. 

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