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What makes us pick up a book?

Independent thoughts blog

Ever since visiting Three Lives bookshop in Greenwich Village, NYC, over twenty years ago, I have made a point of returning each time I am in the city.

The first time I visited its idiosyncratic shelves it gave me as big a thrill as seeing where E.E. Cummings had lived – in a muted mews house round the corner – or visiting the Frick Collection and imagining myself in an Edith Wharton novel. Inside Three Lives I felt I had arrived somewhere that contained just a little of what I had always expected from adulthood but had discovered wasn’t actually that easy to access. Great company, great style, an air of independence, promise of exploration, interesting men proffering paperbacks, great female writers …

Last month I returned and browsed tables again. Sometimes English language bookshops all feel the same. Not this one. Curious covers and unfamiliar titles. I picked up a collection of essays by the Australian Helen Garner. I don’t know why exactly (one of the great mysteries of bookselling is it’s not always beauty and it’s not always plot promise that drives purchasers to pick up). I was drawn to this large paperback because it looked unusually plain perhaps – a blocky red title font and a photo of a middle-aged woman on a street in a nice navy trouser suit.

I began tentatively but raced through with greed and pleasure and now count myself as a proper fan – so intimate and gripping was her text. Getting to know her was like making a new friend. I have since read The Spare Room (uncomfortably brilliant) and I have others on order … But the short, sweet, harsh truths of Everywhere I Look were particularly moving.

If you like unflinching but heart-filled female writers seek her out.

After a year of evenings reading Pullman with my son, I was longing to share with him something gritty and real. We settled on A Kestrel for A Knave by Barry Hines, which I knew from the film Kes. I had no idea how very very good a novel it is. Slim and precise and bawdy. My eleven-year-old loves the boisterousness of the characters and the intensity of the relationship between the boy and hawk. I am revelling in the quality of the nature writing on its pages. Just as rereading Cider with Rosie felt like a joyful intoxication and James Baldwin like a bodily challenge, this is an incredibly physical book. Delving backwards into writers can often feel more exciting than reading the latest bestsellers … perhaps because they feel like more independent choices.

On the same day that Waterstones revealed they literally forgot about the independents (threatening to open a store in competition with Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh) I read with amazement about the incredible influx of ice cream parlours. We’ve seen them of course – and enjoyed them – but I had no idea what a movement was behind the surge. This is the only retail sector in the high street in growth and their success is down to the fact that they are safe, non-alcoholic, women and child friendly, late opening, social spaces.

The description of all the benefits of the ice cream parlour reminded me however of my favourite public library – The Library at Deptford Lounge, south-east London, which is a warm, safe, friendly place to read, do homework or chat quietly in the cafe. It is properly mixed with multiple generations, ethnicities and demographics. There was a low level buzz of kids reading aloud and a coffee machine. It is packed and welcoming on a Tuesday afternoon, in the way that spacier branches of Waterstones often aren’t.

A spacious Waterstones can feel gloomy however brilliant the manager. And many new Waterstones are small and trying to masquerade as individually owned stores. Yet independent bookshops are run by enthusiasts, on slim margins, often in small spaces. They are not a populist or a commercial solution for the industry. The indie should not be our sole bricks-and-mortar strategy for supplying books. I wonder what the strategy for the larger Waterstones branches will be now they are under new ownership … I hope they have other tactics than closure, for all our sakes.

As libraries and Sure Start centres disappear, as Waterstones pretends not to be a chain and non-alcoholic, characterful, instagrammable ice cream cafes and dessert parlours grow on the high street, one wonders whether there isn’t an opportunity for the book industry here. Can we provide attractive, family friendly and alcohol-free hang outs too?

We could put aside the traditional categories of library, retailer, indie, publisher aside. For example, Foyles are now working as a concession to spread their presence. Taschen have long sold their books in their own stores. I can see Penguin stores working for both book and other product sales. Meanwhile, publishing is an industry not known for blowing its own trumpet. We have a (un)healthy but necessary dose of outsiders and observers in our talent DNA. But do we give up hope of industry-wide initiatives? Councils may no longer have enough money to fund libraries (or buses) but they have space and have trained a generation of staff. If the publishing industry as a whole opened twenty Book Lounges across the UK and Scotland and committed to stocking them with new books for ten years, it would take the push for diversity in region, culture and ethnicity to a whole new – much deeper, much younger – level.

Hannah MacDonald




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What will you confess?

What times have you feared for your life? Who do you most love to make laugh, and why? When, if ever, has it been necessary to take revenge?

The Confession Album is a gorgeous guided journal, perfect for connecting with loved ones – and yourself! – or for writers looking to get their creative juices flowing.

Published today, The Confession Album is a thoughtful gift and a timeless keepsake, designed to share and store one’s deepest confessions.

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Twelve tips for permanent weight loss

In Grace Kitto’s memoir of weight loss, Saving Grace, she outlines 12 points to permanent weight loss. They are:

  1. Do the mental work

The biggest help you can give yourself is to be your own detective. Work through your history and your present to see what drives you. Be truthful about it but also be forgiving. Learn to be flexible and accept solutions which are far from perfect. Train yourself to succeed.

  1. Do it slowly

At least at the beginning. It’s easier for you to carry out. It’s likely to be more permanent. It’s less of a shock to your system. It gives your skin a chance to recover and shrink in line with your weight loss, leaving no sagging folds of loose flesh. If you want to speed up in the later stages, so be it.

  1. Keep it balanced

We are omnivores and should eat like omnivores, a little of everything, nothing forbidden. Rules that are too strict are hard to keep.

  1. Keep it varied

If a diet stops working, change it. We are not cult members. Just because we joined one diet programme, it is not our failure if it stops working. Feel free to move on.

  1. Set a realistic timeframe for changing your diet, but no timetable for your weight loss

It will take as long as it takes. A year is a good place to start. Once that time is over, the second year is easy to commit to. If you have a lot to lose, you will be very lucky to shed as much as a pound a week long term, whatever the magazines tell you.

  1. Practise patience

This is a long slow process. Calm your thinking and ease yourself into it. This will help when weight is slow to shift, or when inevitable plateaus hit.

  1. Practise restraint

Teach yourself to wait a while between desire and consumption. Stretch the waiting time. It’s a habit you can learn. You are not helpless over your own behaviour.

  1. Sleep

Recognise that lack of sleep is associated with obesity and commit to resting for eight hours a night, and getting as much sleep as possible in that time.

  1. Treat diet products cautiously

Eat normal food and use portion control to restrict calories. A few judiciously chosen diet products may be helpful. But be aware that there is often very little calorie difference between a diet product and the non-diet version. ‘Low fat’ versions often have added carbs or sugars to make them more palatable.

  1. Chart your progress

Measure success in the long term, not daily or weekly. Half a pound off a week sounds like a minimal result, but half a stone in three months sounds great. They’re the same thing. Commit for the long term.

  1. Give yourself recovery time

At the end of your diet you will need to allow at least half as much time again to regularise your calorie intake and adjust to your new weight. Factor it in right from the start so that you don’t trip up at the end.

  1. Learn to say yes

It’s as important to say yes as to say no to our own desires. Don’t make this process a torment. Sometimes consciously decide to relax the diet regime in a positive way – not a lapse, but a decision. Eat mindfully. Enjoy this moment to the full, and then practise restraint afterwards.

Julie Myerson has called Saving Grace ‘a grippingly intelligent and likeable feminist memoir of weight loss’. If you want to read more, you can order it from any good bookshop and here.

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Out now! Times Like These

Happy publication day to David Ziggy Greene for Times Like These, his collection of graphic reportage from his Scene & Heard column in Private Eye.

The comics community is loving the book, with fantastic coverage from Forbidden Planet International (including a Director’s Commentary by David) and Bleeding Cool. Orbital Comics made it a staff pick!

‘Scene and Heard does the opposite of that soul-crushing dehumanisation that much of the modern media creates … Times Like These is a beautiful example of the power of the comics medium.’ Forbidden Planet International

‘[Times Like These] is a ride through humanity. Which, yes, is often hideous but the details are fascinating. Greene’s pen-line makes sure of that.’ Bleeding Cool

Super-fans can pick up a copy with an exclusive signed bookplate from Gosh Comics.

David Ziggy Greene’s reports will be on display during an exhibition at Orbital Comics from May 11th-31st, with a special signing and Q&A taking place on May 26th.

David will appear at a special V&A members’ event on May 24th.

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‘A fascinating series of snapshots of society’

With David Ziggy Greene’s reportage from Private Eye‘s Scene & Heard column, Times Like These, out next week, we have had some wonderful advance publicity.

‘Scene and Heard does the opposite of that soul-crushing dehumanisation that much of the modern media creates … Times Like These is a beautiful example of the power of the comics medium to be used in different ways … Above all Times Like These is very, warmly human, and personal … It’s a fascinating series of snapshots of society, drawn – literally – from all walks of life.’  

Forbidden Planet International 

‘[Times Like These] is a ride through humanity. Which, yes, is often hideous but the details are fascinating. Greene’s pen-line makes sure of that.’  

Bleeding Cool 


Out 1 May. Or preorder now.