“All to Do with the Moon”: Four Books with Moon in the Title

I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.

 

The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)

This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.

 

The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)

This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).

Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.

 

To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)

My special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.

I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.

Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.

I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.

Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”

“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”

“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”

A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.

 

Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:

Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

22 responses

  1. I’d agree with your comparisons for Elizabeth Berg. I came across her on my first visit to the US in the Boston Waterstones branch where I was thrilled to find I had staff discount. Thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

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    1. Her others that I’ve read are The Dream Lover (historical fiction about George Sand — not so good) and Talk before Sleep, which I loved. I also have a copy of Open House waiting for me in a box in the States and look forward to it. Perfect plane reading or the like.

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  2. Moon Tiger is a pretty incredible book, and that cover is so disappointing! The current Penguin Modern Classics one is a bit better (though still rather…languid): https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/41wzMG6EnWL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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    1. I don’t know why I assumed Moon Tiger would be dated or slight. It is indeed incredible! I do prefer that cover, but I really think they could have avoided having a supine woman altogether 😉

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      1. Good point – al the designs seem to have one!

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  3. Wow, Moon Tiger sounds wonderful. Weird that with my maiden name being Moon I’ve somehow missed all these!

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    1. Let’s see … others I’ve read: Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery, Full Moon at Noontide by Ann Putnam, The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold, The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton, and Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink.

      I guess I assumed Moon was your middle name 🙂 We have a book club member named Rebecca Bird.

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  4. Moon Tiger was wonderful. I can’t judge whether it’s Lively’s best book since I’ve read so little by her but it’s one of my favourite Booker prize winners.
    There’s a sentence in the book which explains “The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes…” The coil lies between Claudia and Gordon on their last night together….

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    1. A green coil … hard to picture! But yes, I understood from the context that it was an insect repellent. I wondered what it was meant to evoke as a title.

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  5. Oh, The Pull of the Moon looks like just my kind of thing! I’ve read Moon Tiger but (haha) many moons ago – I remember being impressed by it packing such a lot into a slim volume, though.

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    1. I think you’d get on well with Berg’s books.

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  6. Elizabeth Berg sounds like an author to watch out for. I can’t believe, I’ve never read Moon Tiger, although I own it having bought a copy for Shiny’s Booker extravaganza last year.

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    1. Berg is one of those ridiculously prolific authors — though not to quite the same extent as Alice Hoffman and Joyce Carol Oates.

      Moon Tiger would be a quick win towards a Booker reading project!

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  7. I’ve only ever read Lively’s Consequences, which I loved. But I just might have a copy of Moon Tiger somewhere!
    I’ve also read a couple of Berg’s books, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember which ones. There are so many!

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    1. They’ve both been pretty prolific; I’ll enjoy delving into their back catalogues 🙂

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  8. My favourite of Berg’s has been the cycle of stories (three, I believe) which are a girl’s coming-of-age chronicle. This one you’ve recently discovered wasn’t one of my favourites but I did enjoy it enough to find more of her books and although I haven’t read the most recent ones, I understand she’s proven reliable all the way along. I don’t mind the cover of the Lively novel in that it is likely to attract a broader audience than the ’80s cover I have, but they could have focussed on her working life, for instance, and that would’ve been a refreshing change (but maybe they wanted it to seem more contemporary? *shrug*) Enjoy any other celestial reading you have in the wings!

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    1. That must be the Katie Nash books? You know I’m not big on series, but I would at least try the first of the trilogy and see if I wanted to continue.

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      1. They don’t really feel like series reading, maybe because nothing really happens? I remember reading each of the books in a single session – skinny, wide margins, and very character-driven stuff – perhaps if readers then had been more accepting of narratives with gaps of time, it’d’ve come out in a single volume as linked stories/novellas?

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  9. Ooh, I love the quotes you shared from Moon Tiger. They feel like clever, universal observations and I really appreciate a book that can contribute to the way I think about a larger topic – in this case, it seems, how history is constructed.

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    1. I think historians, or just anyone interested in history, would enjoy Moon Tiger for that reason.

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  10. […] books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This […]

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  11. […] – which, of course, has now become past and further past – in a powerful way, similar to Moon Tiger, my favorite fiction read of last year. I’ll be exploring more of Hartley’s […]

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