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Lockdown Reading: Recommendations from the Scottish PEN team

The staff and Trustees of Scottish PEN have shared the books and online events that expanded their horizons during the COVID-19 lockdown.

June 16, 2020

Like many others, the Scottish PEN team has been turning to the comfort and escape of books during the COVID-19 lockdown. From inspiring poetry to translated works of fiction from around the world, the staff and Trustees of Scottish PEN have shared the books that expanded their horizons during this period of restriction. We hope you will find some inspiration for your next read and consider supporting writers and small publishers as they face increased financial instability.

Carl MacDougall

‘I’ve been reading more than usual. A Narrow Street by Elliot Paul is the story of a single Paris street where Paul lived for around 10 years in the 1920 and 30’s.  Rue de la Huchette runs towards the river from Place St Michel and today is a warren of mainly Greek restaurants and le selfs. Paul was an American journalist who brings a stranger’s eye for detail to the lives of ordinary Parisians at a time when Stein, Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were biding in other parts of the city. His narrative darkens with the rise of fascism, but he refuses to protect the guilty and his scrutiny is all the more powerful in the light of what was to come.’

Good Behaviour by the wonderful Donald Westlake  (who as Richard Stark wrote the Parker novels) and two novels by William Trevor Love and Summer and Death in Summer have one way or another kept me entertained during May.’    

‘I’m about half way through Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.  On May 27, 1784, Mozart stopped in the Graben to pull up his stockings.  He was startled to hear a caged starling almost whistle the main theme from the first movement of his new Piano Concerto, the 17th in G minor.  How the bird learned the melody no one knows, but Mozart bought the bird, christened it Star and apparently they whistled tunes to each other for the next three years.  I’m beginning to lose interest as Mozart and Star retreat and Lyanda’s own caged starling, Carmen, takes centre stage: “She sits on my shoulder as I write”.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and Ancient Light by John Banville are next.

Carl MacDougall

Caroline Whitham

Trumpet, Meridian and My Sister the Serial Killer book covers

Ricky Monahan Brown

‘I’ve been reading quite a lot of academic work and contemporary journalism about nineteenth century Scotland, and taking a run-up to reading Sir Tom Devine’s landmark history of The Scottish ClearancesAnd in a very different vein, my son and I have been enjoying James Robertson’s translations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s children’s books into Scots, especially The Reiver Rat‘.

‘All that said, missing bookshops and readings and festivals and people, the bookish highlight of my lockdown has been getting to watch Liverpool’s Writing On The Wall Festival, in association with The Big Book Weekend, presenting AL Kennedy talking about her latest short story collection, We Are Attempting To Survive Our Time‘. 

‘I’m very excited to read it, and – particularly pertinently – she talks about the obligation of the writer who is fortunate enough to be granted a platform not to censor themselves when attempting to tell the truth, when someone like Ahmet Altan has to find a way to get his work out of prison in Turkey. Scottish PEN encourages people to keep Ahmet Altan at the front of their minds’.

Ricky Monahan Brown
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We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time

Lisa Clark

I am also a dedicated listener of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast and The Writer’s Voice podcast – those are definitely worth checking out!

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, The Adventures of China Iron

David Manderson

Jenni Calder

‘I’m reading — at long last — Lorna Moon’s novel Dark Star (thanks to Sara Sheridan, fellow Scottish PEN member, for giving me her copy!), first published in 1929. It bears favourable comparison with Sunset SongSet in Moon’s native north-east Scotland it describes, to quote Richard De Mille’s foreword in Black & White’s reprint of 2002, the ‘private habits, base deeds, noble acts and farclcal pretences’ of a small community. I’m also reading Val McDermid’s My Scotland with wonderful photographs by Alan McCredie, a lovely read in itself but especially for McDermid fans as it gives an insight into the Scottish genesis of much of her fiction. I’ve just finished In Touch with Language, a collection of Edwin Morgan’s articles and reviews, inspiring in its humanity and incredible linguistic dexterity. It’s quite rare for my reading to be totally Scottish – Scandi noir awaits’. 

Jenni Calder

Fiona Graham

‘I’ve been rereading a lot of poetry from books on my shelves and especailly: Janet Morely’s anthology of ‘Poems of the Heart’: Love Set You Going which includes works from Coleridge and George Herbert to contemporary poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Christine de Luca’

Bashabi Fraser

Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire – which form the Ibis Trilogy.

Drew Campbell

‘I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, but listened to the five hour reading on Radio 4 and it was so bloody good it made me want to spit!  Every bit as immersive as its predecessors and utterly unputdownable (or whatever the auditory equivalent is)’.

I got a sore wrist reading 4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster, a doorstep of a Christmas present I might not have got round to but for lockdown.  Amongst other things it has good insights into the political storms and US race riots of the late 60’s, and it happens I finished it the night before George Floyd was murdered.  Plus ca change, and all that’.

‘I went through a period of reading poetry from the Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times anthology but it got a bit depressing.  The poem I kept coming back to was in another collection: The Second Coming, by Yeats.  Also depressing, but the language is terrifying as it is exquisite’.

I ordered two Joan Didion books off the back of that –  Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which took its title from the same Yeats poem, and The White Album, which takes its name from the Beatles’ LP.  On a lighter note – kind of – I’m rereading Betty Blue, in part about a writer finding his way out of lethargy, but also a sensuous love story with some good dirty bits.
And, finally, I’ve been dipping in and out of Murakami’s Birthday Stories which my son bought me for my birthday’.

Drew Campbell

Mario Relich

‘Regarding my own lockdown reading list, I found ‘Hitler’s First War‘, by Thomas Webber, who teaches European and International History at the University of Aberdeen, extremely interesting. It demolishes certain myths Hitler himself propagated about his own role, and that of ordinary German soldiers, in World War I. The book may not be light reading, but it is deeply researched and very well and clearly written, totally accessible to the general reader. Otherwise, Simenon’s Maigret crime novels, John Mortimer’s ‘Rumpole‘ stories and George Gunn’s fine novel ‘The Great Edge‘, keep me distracted’.

Mario Relich

Lady Joyce Caplan

Links and resources

Access a list of Scottish publishers, from 404 Ink to to Zertex Media, here.

Find out more about the work of the Scottish BAME Writers Network here.

Read a blog from Zero Tolerance Scotland about what to read and watch to support Black Lives Matter here.

Join Scottish PEN as a reader member for only £15 per year here.