Handywoman (December Reflections 5)

Today’s December Reflections prompt is: Best Book of 2019

Without doubt, the best book that I read this year was The Handmaid’s Tale. There are few better books. However, this was a re-read before tackling The Testaments and I am not sure that re-reads are within the spirit of the prompt.

It is worth commenting that, despite its Booker Prize, I do not consider The Testaments to be anything close to as good as The Handmaid’s Tale.

In fact, good as it is, The Handmaid’s Tale is not my favourite Atwood. My first Atwood, Cat’s Eye, remains my favourite followed by, I think, Alias Grace.

I need to confess that my reading habit is not what it was. The loss of my books when we sold up in Orkney to go travelling full-time was a deep blow. I had been collecting books for many years, intending to read them in my retirement. I reached retirement and what did I find? For the first time in my life, I have little time for reading!

In recent months I have made real effort to make time and space for reading, but mostly on Kindle. I miss my books!

One notable book that I read this year was Felicity Cloake’s “One More Croissant for the Road”, in which she cycles around France trying some classic French dishes (giving recipes) and taste-testing croissants (with scores out of ten.)

I enjoy Ms Cloake’s columns in The Guardian and I find her recipes appeal to my own approach to food. She is my kind of girl. What with living in France and travelling so much, the book really appealed to me. Felicity writes very well and the book is highly accessible. I recommend it.

However, it did not quite make the grade as my book of the year.

Wool, by Hugh Howey was almost my book of the year. I read it last week and then swiftly purchased the following two volumes in the trilogy, which I completed last night. I look forward to reading more of Mr Howey.

A future dystopian world and a whodunnit all in one. Written well and with strong female characters (!). Ignore the “Hunger Games” hype, this work stands on its own and is well worth the time taken to read the somewhat chunky volume. Having read the whole trilogy I do believe that Wool is the best of the three volumes. I felt perhaps a little let down by vols 2 and 3. There is clearly more waiting to be read as I do not believe the full story to be yet resolved.

The Handmaid’s Tale was chilling when I first read it in the 1980s but the re-reading proved to be more chilling. It chimes and resonates in our current political environment. Wool has something in common and perhaps presents a scenario both more readily believable and therefore is even more horrific.

Woolgatherer’s Book of 2019 is non-fiction but has something in common with all the the books mentioned so far – it’s exceptional quality of writing. I admit it: I am a bit of a literary snob. I cannot enjoy a poorly-written book. Good writing is essential to my enjoyment.

My book of the year is Handywoman by Kate Davies.

Paralysed by a stroke at the age of 36, Kate Davies’ world turned upside-down. Forced to change direction, Kate took a radical new creative path. Handywoman tells this story.

This is not a book about Kate’s triumph over adversity. Rather, it is her account of the ordinary activities and everyday objects that stroke and disability made her see differently. From braiding hair for the first time to learning how to knit again; from the lessons of a working-class creative childhood to the support of the contemporary craft community; from the transformative effects of good design to developing a new identity as a disabled walker; in this engaging series of essays, Kate describes how the experience of brain injury allowed her to build a new kind of handmade life. Part memoir, part personal celebration of the power of making, in Handywoman Kate reclaims disability as in itself a form of practical creativity. 

Kate Davies is an award-winning knitwear designer and author writing on many topics from disability and design to textile history and women’s history. She’s published eight books about hand-knitting, lives on the edge of the Scottish Highlands and is inspired by her local landscape every day. 


Prior to her stroke, Kate was an Academic. She writes very well indeed and much of her output is scholarly.

I was reading Kate’s blog “Needled” prior to her stroke and I was knitting her designs. She maintained her blog almost from the first day that she had her stroke – typing with one hand, chronicling her day to day struggles and progress towards recovery. I feel as though I was with her every inch of the way… applauding her success in learning to knit again and in plaiting her own hair, thrilling for her as she found mobility with her tricycle, and watching Bruce the Labrador grow up.

What I have learned in reading Handywoman is that the blog did not tell the full story. My understanding had been that it was the debility caused by the stroke that led her to leave her academic employment. The book reveals that all was not well at work and that stress might have been a contributing factor to her stroke (due to a congenital heart defect.) It seems from my reading that it was a relief to have a reason to quit – though I accept that my interpretation is most likely coloured by my own experiences in Higher Education. I well recall my own relief the day that I walked from my own University, not turning hy head to look back, and striding out into a brave new non-working (i.e, impoverished) life in Scotland!

The book is less a narrative of Kate’s progress and more a series of essays – each of which is completely absorbing.

Kate is intelligent,creative and indomitable – a complete inspiration in so many ways, I commend this book as an excellent read to anybody who enjoys reading and the written word but it will have particular resonance to anyone with a creative bent or to anybody who has themselves suffered a stroke or who is close to somebody who has.

One Comment

  1. December 6, 2019

    No ‘thank you’ for the parcel necessary my friend- but that does look an excellent book- and would be resonant with me right now. I’ll email you! (This is a wholly interesting post, BTW!) xx

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