I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
We fancied a short break before term starts (my husband is a teaching associate in university-level biology), so booked a cheap Airbnb room in Bridport for a couple of nights and headed to Dorset on Wednesday, stopping at the Thomas Hardy birthplace cottage on the way down and returning on Friday via Max Gate, the home he designed on the outskirts of Dorchester.
I’d been to both before, but over 15 years ago. In the summer of 2004, at the end of my study abroad year, I used a travel grant from my college to spend a week in Dorset and Nottinghamshire, researching the sense of place in the works of Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I marvel at my bravery now: barely out of my teens, there I was traveling alone by train and bus to places I’d never been before, finding my own B&B accommodation, and taking long countryside walks to arrive at many sites on foot.
I found that much had changed in 15 years. The main difference is that both properties have now been given the full National Trust treatment, with an offsite visitor centre and café down the lane from Hardy’s Cottage, and the upper floors of Max Gate now open to the public after the end of private tenancies in 2011.* This could be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing: Everything is more commercial and geared towards tourists, yes, but also better looked after and more inviting thanks to visitor income and knowledgeable volunteers. Fifteen years ago I remember the two sites being virtually deserted, with the cottage’s garden under black plastic and awaiting a complete replanting. Now it’s flourishing with flowers and vegetables.
*In 2004 only a few ground-floor rooms were open to the public. I happened to spot in the visitor’s book that novelist Vikram Seth had signed in just before me. When I made the caretakers aware of this, they expressed admiration for his work and offered him an exclusive look at the study where Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I got to tag along! The story is less impressive since it’s been a standard part of the house tour for eight years now, but I still consider it a minor claim to fame.
The thatched cottage doesn’t possess anything that belonged to the Hardy family, but is decorated in a period style that’s true to its mid-1800s origin. Hardy was born here and remained until his early thirties, completing an architecture apprenticeship and writing his first few books, including Under the Greenwood Tree. Even if you’re not particularly familiar with or fond of Hardy’s work, I’d recommend an afternoon at the cottage for a glimpse of how simple folk lived in that time. With wood smoke spooling out of the chimney and live music emanating from the door – there are two old fiddles in the sitting room that guests are invited to play – it was a perfectly atmospheric visit.
Afterwards, we headed to Portland, an isthmus extending from the south coast near Weymouth and known for its stone. It’s the setting of The Well-Beloved, which Hardy issued in serial form in 1892 and revised in 1897 for its book publication. Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor whose fame is growing in London, returns to “the Isle of Slingers” (Hardy gave all his English locales made-up names) for a visit and runs into Avice Caro, a childhood friend. On a whim, he asks her to marry him. Before long, though, following a steamy (for Victorian literature, anyway) scene under an upturned boat during a storm, he transfers his affections to Miss Bencomb, the daughter of his father’s rival stone merchant. The fickle young man soon issues a second marriage proposal. I read the first 30 pages, but that was enough for me.
[I failed on classics or doorstoppers this month, alas, so look out for these monthly features to return in October. I did start The Warden by Anthony Trollope, my first of his works since Phineas Finn in 2005, with the best of intentions, and initially enjoyed the style – partway between Dickens and Hardy, and much less verbose than Trollope usually is. However, I got bogged down in the financial details of Septimus Harding’s supposed ripping-off of the 12 old peasants who live in the local hospital (as in a rest center for the aged and infirm, like the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester). He never should have had his comfortable £800 a year, it seems. His son-in-law, the archdeacon Dr. Grantly, and his would-be son-in-law, gadfly John Bold, take opposing sides as Harding looks to the legal and religious authorities for advice. I read the first 125 pages but only briefly skimmed the rest. Given how much longer the other five volumes are, I doubt I’ll ever read the rest of the Barchester Chronicles.]
My other appropriate reading of the trip was Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, in which Claudia Hampton, a popular historian now on her deathbed, excavates the layers of her personal past and dwells on the subjectivity of history and memory. She grew up in Dorset and mentions ammonites and rock strata, which we encountered on our beach walks.
Bridport isn’t so well known, but we thought it a lovely place, full of pleasant cafés, pubs and charity shops. It also has an independent bookshop and two secondhand ones, and we had an excellent meal of dumplings and noodle bowls at the English/Asian fusion restaurant Dorshi. It’s tucked away down an alley, but well worth a special trip. Our other special experience of the trip was a tour of Dorset Nectar, a small, family-run organic cider farm just outside of Bridport, which included a tasting of their 10+ delicious ciders. We had splendid late-summer weather for our three days away, too – we really couldn’t have asked for better.
We’re relieved to be back in the balmy UK after a sweltering week in northern Italy. Though our sixth-floor Airbnb apartment in Milan suited our needs perfectly, it was a challenge to keep it minimally comfortable. Eventually we worked out that it was essential to get up by 6:30 a.m. to close the balcony doors and shutter. The bedroom happened to be shaded, so I could set up my laptop in there and work until noon, when it was time to close out the heat of the day on that side. In the afternoons I read and napped on the divan, and then sometime between 6 and 10 p.m., depending on how sunny it had been during the day, we could fling the windows and doors wide open again. Fans helped, but we still passed some horribly muggy nights.
My husband was at his conference for four of the days, so we only braved the city centre itself on Monday morning, touring the Duomo and climbing the steps to the roof. This was well worth doing for views over the city. Afterwards we walked through the associated museum (mostly underground, and blissfully cool with air conditioning) and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a luxurious nineteenth-century shopping arcade filled with designer fashions.
Two day trips by train got us out of the city and into slightly cooler temperatures: on Wednesday we explored Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como, and on Saturday we took a bus and cable car from Lecco into the mountains at Piani d’Erna. We took full advantage of one-euro espressos and glasses of wine, and ate lots of pizza, pasta and gelato.
After much deliberation, this is the book stack I actually packed for our trip. I got through the first half of the Orwell, an excellent account of working as a dishwasher in Paris hotels and having to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. I’ll be writing it up as my Classic of the Month in a couple of weeks. I also read Sunburn by Laura Lippman, which I’ll hold in reserve for a summer-themed post, and (on Kindle) So Many Rooms by Laura Scott, a debut poetry collection coming out in October that I’ll review here at a later date.
Two of my other Kindle reads ended up being perfect for the setting:
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke: This was the perfect book for me to read during the week in Italy. Not only is it set largely in Sicily, but it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my reading interests: food, travel, bereavement, and the challenges of being an American overseas. During a semester abroad in Florence, Locke (an actress I was previously unfamiliar with) met and fell in love with Saro Gullo, an Italian chef. His parents could hardly accept him marrying someone from outside of Sicily, let alone a black woman from Texas, and refused to attend their wedding. But as the years passed they softened towards Locke, who gradually became accepted in Saro’s hometown of Aliminusa.
In fact, after Saro’s death from bone cancer in 2012, she became like a second daughter to Saro’s mother. The book focuses on the three summers in a row when she and her adopted daughter Zoela traveled to the family home in Sicily to stay with Nonna. I particularly appreciated the exploration of what it’s like to live between countries and cultures. This is one of three Reese Witherspoon book club books I’ve read so far (along with Where the Crawdads Sing and Daisy Jones and the Six), and all have been great – Reese’s recommendations are proving as reliable as Oprah’s.
A mudslide blocked the route we should have taken back from Milan to Paris, so we rebooked onto trains via Switzerland. This plus the sub-Alpine setting for our next-to-last day made the perfect context for racing through Where the Hornbeam Grows: A Journey in Search of a Garden by Beth Lynch in just two days. Lynch moved from England to Switzerland when her husband took a job in Zurich. Suddenly she had to navigate daily life, including frosty locals and convoluted bureaucracy, in a second language. The sense of displacement was exacerbated by her lack of access to a garden. Gardening had always been a whole-family passion, and after her parents’ death their Sussex garden was lost to her. Two years later she and her husband moved to a cottage in western Switzerland and cultivated a garden idyll, but it wasn’t enough to neutralize their loneliness.
Much of what Lynch has to say about trying to find genuine connections as an expatriate rang true for me. Paradise Lost provides an unexpected frame of reference as Lynch asks what it means for a person or a plant to be transplanted somewhere new, and what it takes to thrive. Her elegant writing reminded me of Diana Athill’s and Penelope Lively’s, and the exploration of the self through gardens is reminiscent of Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29.
Other successful reads:
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: This picks up right where The Diary of a Bookseller left off and carries through the whole of 2015. Again it’s built on the daily routines of buying and selling books, including customers’ and colleagues’ quirks, and of being out and about in a small town. I wished I was in Wigtown instead of Milan! Because of where I was reading the book, I got particular enjoyment out of the characterization of Emanuela (soon known as “Granny” for her poor eyesight and myriad aches and gripes), who comes over from Italy to volunteer in the bookshop for the summer. Bythell’s break-up with “Anna” is a recurring theme in this volume, I suspect because his editor/publisher insisted on an injection of emotional drama.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s a fun, saucy feel to this novel set mostly in 1940s New York City. Twenty-year-old Vivian Morris comes to sew costumes for her Aunt Peg’s rundown theatre and falls in with a disreputable lot of actors and showgirls. When she does something bad enough to get her in the tabloids and jeopardize her future, she retreats in disgrace to her parents’ – but soon the war starts and she’s called back to help with Peg’s lunchtime propaganda shows at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The quirky coming-of-age narrative reminded me a lot of classic John Irving, while the specifics of the setting made me think of Wise Children, All the Beautiful Girls and Manhattan Beach. The novel takes us to 2010, when Vivian is 90 and still brazenly independent. I was somewhat underwhelmed – while it’s a fairly touching story of how to absorb losses and make an unconventional family, I wondered if it had all meant much. I’ll be expanding this into a Shiny New Books review.
Judgment Day by Sandra M. Gilbert: English majors will know Gilbert best for her landmark work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (co-written with Susan Gubar). I had no idea that she writes poetry. This latest collection has a lot of interesting reflections on religion, food and art, as well as elegies to those she’s lost. Raised Catholic, Gilbert married a Jew, and the traditions of Judaism still hold meaning for her after husband’s death even though she’s effectively an atheist. “Pompeii and After,” a series of poems describing food scenes in paintings, from da Vinci to Hopper, is particularly memorable.
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain: Dreadful! I would say: avoid this sappy time-travel novel at all costs. I thought the setup promised a gentle dose of fantasy, and liked the fact that the characters could meet their ancestors and Paris celebrities during their temporary stay in 1954. But the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and the plot is far-fetched and silly. I know many others have found this delightful, so consider me in the minority…
As well as a few DNFs…
What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read the first 32 pages, up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned, and I couldn’t imagine getting through another nearly 350 pages of it.
Out of the Woods by Luke Turner: Attempts to fuse nature and sexuality in a way that’s reminiscent of Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler. The writing didn’t draw me in at all. (5%)
“Centre of fashion, business and finance,” “muggy and mosquito-ridden in summer” – from the guidebook descriptions it could hardly sound less like our kind of place, and yet Milan is where we’re off to tomorrow. While it wouldn’t be our first-choice destination, my husband is attending a landscape ecology conference there and presenting a paper; I’m going along for the week to have a holiday. It’s Italy. Why not?! I doubt the northern plain will be as much to our taste as Tuscany, which we explored on a wonderfully memorable trip in April 2014 (on which I first drank coffee), but there will still be history and culture around every corner, and we plan on eating very well and getting out of the city to see some of the Lakes region, too.
We’re traveling the slow way: a train to London; the Eurostar to Paris, where we’ll stay for one night; and a seven-hour train ride to Milan the following day. If the weather remains as hot as it has been in Continental Europe (e.g. 40°C / 105°F in Paris this week – ugh!), I’m not sure I’ll be up for a lot of solo sightseeing. I’ll put in a much-reduced work load for the week, but for much of the rest of the time when my husband is at the conference I may just lounge around our Airbnb, with a stack of print books, in front of the USB-powered fan I’ve ordered.
So of course I’ve been having great fun thinking about what reading material I might pack. I’ve assembled a main stack, and a subsidiary stack, of books that seem appropriate for one or more reasons.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell – To read on the Eurostar between London and Paris. Orwell’s first book and my first try with his nonfiction: an account of the living conditions of the poor in two world cities.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Classic of the month
Vintage 1954, Antoine Laurain – For a Nudge review; to read en route to and in Paris. Drinking a 1954 Beaujolais transports a Parisian and his neighbors – including an Airbnb guest – back to the 1950s. Sounds like good fun.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux – To read on the long train ride to Milan. Theroux travels from London to Tokyo on trains, then returns via the Trans-Siberian Express. I’ve always meant to try his work.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Travel classics
Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb – A Hungarian novel set on an Italian honeymoon. Try to resist these first lines: “On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.”
Bonus goals it fulfills: Lit in translation; 20 Books of Summer substitute (horse on the cover)
The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera – Promises to be a cozy, fluffy novel about what happens when librarian Prudencia Prim arrives in a small village. I had the feeling it was set in Italy, but maybe it’s actually Spain? I’ll find out.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante – I’ve tried two Ferrante novels and not been too impressed, yet still I keep trying. This one’s set during a heat wave. Maybe I’ll get on with it better than I did with My Brilliant Friend or The Lost Daughter?
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The extra stack:
Heat Wave, Penelope Lively – The title says it all.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Reading with the seasons
Barnacle Love, Anthony De Sa – An extra animal book for 20 Books of Summer.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – A novel I’ve meant to read for years. I’ve earmarked it for our super-long day of travel back to the UK.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Doorstopper of the Month
Considering getting from the library:
The Last Supper, Rachel Cusk – I’ve only made it through one of the three Cusk books I’ve attempted, but perhaps a travel memoir is a more surefire selection?
On my Kindle:
The Fourth Shore, Virginia Baily – There’s an Italian flavor to this WWII novel, as there was to Baily’s previous one, Early One Morning. However, I’ve heard that this is mostly set in Tripoli, so I won’t make it a priority.
From Scratch, Tembi Locke – An actress’s memoir of falling in love with an Italian chef and her trips to his family home in Sicily with their adopted daughter. (Foodie and bereavement themes!)
I’ll read the first few pages of lots of these to make sure they ‘take’ and will try to pack a sensible number. (Which probably means all but one or two!) We’ll be packing light in general, since there’s only so many clothes one can wear in such heat, so I don’t mind carrying a backpack full of books – I’m used to it from weekly treks to the library and flights to America, and I know that I don’t find reading on Kindle as satisfying, though it certainly is convenient for when you’re on the go.
If you’d like to put in a good word for any of the above options, or want to dissuade me from a book I might not find worthwhile, let me know.
Meanwhile, I’ve been slow out of the gate with my 20 Books of Summer, but I finally have a first set of mini-reviews coming up tomorrow.
Other summer-themed books that I have on hand or will get from the library soon include One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and Sunburn by Laura Lippman.
How’s your summer reading going?
Will you do any reading ‘on location’ this year?
After going to Wigtown in April, I never expected I’d be back in Scotland this year. This was a fairly last-minute trip we booked so that my husband could attend a short rewilding workshop for PhD students. They all met up in Edinburgh and proceeded by bus into the Cairngorms to see sites of habitat restoration and potential future wildlife releases. I stayed behind at our Airbnb flat and kept up a reduced work load while enjoying the city break.
Day 1, Wednesday the 19th: A travel day. Our journey – two train rides plus a short walk at either end – should have taken just over 7 hours. Instead, it took 14. Recent storms had taken down wires at Durham and left debris on the line, so our original train was terminated at York. We managed to get a connection to Newcastle, queued outside for two hours for rail replacement buses that never came, and finally got a very delayed train through to Edinburgh. Our poor Airbnb hostess’s parents had to wait up for us until 12:40 a.m.
Day 2, Thursday the 20th: After just a few hours of sleep, we were up early so that Chris could leave by 7:15 for his meet-up on the Edinburgh campus. The props and sketches scattered about suggest that the flat owner is a theatre costume and set designer. The view overlooking Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat is spectacular – a great place to put in a few hours of proofreading before heading out to town after lunch.
On Clare’s recommendation I started with the Surgeons’ Hall Museums on the Royal College of Surgeons campus. They have several collections covering the history of surgery, dentistry, and pathology specimens. Many of the names and developments were familiar to me from Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art. Joseph Lister’s frock coat is on display, and in one corner rare video footage plays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was initially a practicing physician) explaining how he based Sherlock Holmes on his university mentor, Joseph Bell.
It’s not a place for the squeamish as there are mummified skeletons, details about Burke and Hare’s grave-robbing, surgical tools, and tumors and other anatomical deformities in jars everywhere. I found it all fascinating and spent a good two hours poking around. My favorite bits were the case full of foreign bodies removed from noses, stomachs and intestines and the temporary exhibition, “A Quest for Healing” by Zhang Yanzi, who had a residency at the museums in the summer of 2017. Her pieces included a 2D mountain made of pill packets, a cotton and gauze sculpture bristling with acupuncture needles, a matching hanging sculpture of capillaries, two surgical beds, and various silk screen panels.
The pathology museum, spread across two floors, was a little overwhelming and almost distressingly faceless – so many human beings reduced to the conditions that had defined and perhaps killed them. The most striking specimen for me, then, was one that actually included a face. I think it was a First World War soldier whose nose had been sewn back together, and what was so remarkable was that you could see his ginger whiskers and eyebrows, and his eyes were closed as if he was just taking a nap. (For ever. In a museum case.)
There are only explanatory panels about a select few samples, so it can be hard to spot just what’s wrong with the organs unless you have specialist medical knowledge. I appreciated the few places where notes have been added along the lines of “see your doctor if…” There were four polycystic kidneys on display in various cases, so including mine there were at least six present in the building that day. “More lives would be saved if more people carried kidney donor cards,” one caption read. Amen.
Clare also recommended the university area for its charity shops. I had a good trawl around Nicolson Street and bought one book, but a lot of the shops are geared towards vintage and High Street fashion. I had better luck at the Salvation Army store on Forrest Road (near the National Museum), where I found three books and two classical CDs.
On to the Writers’ Museum, which commemorates Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I was most interested in the Stevenson material, including memorabilia from his later life on Samoa, especially as I’m currently reading a novel about his relationship with the American divorcee Fanny Osbourne. By now I was museum-ed out and headed back to the flat for a leftovers dinner and some reading before an early bedtime.
Day 3, Friday the 21st: Another morning of work followed by an afternoon of wandering on foot between free attractions and charity shops and avoiding the drizzle. I visited the unusual Scottish Parliament building (which cost a cool £414 million) and saw inside the debating chamber. Four books from the Lothian Cat Rescue charity shop; quick jaunts around the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk, the Music Museum, and the Central Library. When it came to it I couldn’t be bothered to pay £14 to go around Holyrood Palace, but I enjoyed a reasonably priced cappuccino and carrot cake at their café. Chris was back in the evening for a dinner of frozen pizza with local beer and cider.
Day 4, Saturday the 22nd: Our one full day in the City together. We weren’t feeling up to the Arthur’s Seat walk, so we did a gentle stroll up the Salisbury Crags and back instead. Then we caught a bus out to the Stockbridge area for more charity shopping (two more books) and a scrumptious brunch at The Pantry. This was a recommendation on chef David Lebovitz’s food blog and it more than lived up to expectations. It’s no wonder we had to wait half an hour for a table. I could have eaten anything on the menu, but in the end I had smoked salmon eggs Benedict followed by a cherry and Nutella brownie.
After a brief browse at Golden Hare Books, we went on along the Water of Leith to the lovely Royal Botanic Garden. It’s free to walk around, but we also paid to tour the Glasshouses, which recreate the flora of 10 different climates. The RBG is also home to the National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors, a peaceful circular space set back in the woods and marked out by a few benches and stone monuments. As I have organ donors to thank for the continued life and health of my mother and several other relatives, it was well worth a visit.
Back into town for gelato (I had a delicious poached plum and cinnamon sorbet) at Mary’s Milk Bar, which is on Grassmarket across from the Castle and was another Lebovitz recommendation. A quick circuit of the animal hall at the National Museum before it closed, a stroll along the Royal Mile, and a rest with tea and books back at the flat before going back out for a veggie curry.
Day 5, Sunday the 23rd: Return travel day. No major issues, but still enough of a delay to apply for compensation – refunds from LNER and my husband’s work will have made the journey very cheap indeed.
I was sad to leave Edinburgh this time. I loved our Airbnb flat and felt very at home in it. If I had a bicycle to get into town a little faster, I could easily live there. The tourists would probably drive me mad, but Edinburgh is a wonderful place with so much to see and do and such incredible scenery within a short drive.
Thank you to everyone who offered suggestions of what to see and do. I managed to fit in most of what you recommended!
What I read:
The bulk of Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s bold new novel about distrust and displacement in America then (the 1870s) and now (during the rise of Trump), and Come to Me by Amy Bloom, a wonderful story collection about people who love who they shouldn’t love. More about this one in my upcoming round-up of short stories I’ve read this month.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is a delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view – first Erich Ackerman, whose Nazi-era history provides the basis for Maurice’s first novel; then Gore Vidal, to whose Italian home Maurice pays a visit with his new mentor; and finally Maurice’s wife Edith, a celebrated author in her own right – before getting Maurice’s own perspective. By this point we know enough about him to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is. My one criticism is that I would have binned the whole subplot about Edith’s sister and brother-in-law. (A nice touch: at one point Maurice buys a reprint copy of Maude Avery’s Like to the Lark, which should ring a bell from The Heart’s Invisible Furies.)
I also read over half of Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, a memoir about two long train journeys she took across America in the late 1990s that also incorporates memories from a troubled adolescence – she started smoking at 14 and was in and out of mental hospitals at 15 – in which she loved nothing more than to read while riding the Circle line all day long. I’m a quarter of the way through both Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Stevenson and his wife, and Peter Hill’s Stargazing, a memoir about dropping out of art school to become a Scottish lighthouse keeper in 1973; he started on Pladda, a tiny island off of Arran. And on my Nook I read a good bit of All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir about being raised by adoptive white parents in Oregon and meeting members of her Korean family in her mid-twenties, just as she became a mother herself.
So you think you’d like to run a bookshop? Here’s a book to tempt and deter you in equal measure. In 2001 Shaun Bythell acquired The Book Shop, the flagship bookstore in Wigtown, the Book Town in Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. Here he gives a one-year snapshot of life at the shop, from February 2014 to February 2015. At the start you can feel the winter chill in the old granite building, and as months pass you sense mounting excitement at preparations for the annual Book Festival (going on now) and the Scottish referendum. It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year at the shop. This would make a great bedside book for a bookish type to parcel out 5–10 pages at a time (another Christmas gift idea?).
Bythell frequently ventures out to buy book collections in auctions and from estates, and occasionally goes fishing with his father or friends. But mostly we see what daily life is like for a bookshop owner. He can’t afford full-time staff, so gets sporadic help from university-age gals; his most “reliable” part-timer is Nicky, a ski suit-wearing, Dumpster-diving Jehovah’s Witness who blithely ignores much of what he asks her to do.
Every entry opens and closes with statistics on the day’s takings and online orders. Profits range from £5 to £500 a day, rising in the summer and peaking around £1200 during the festival. Also listed is the number of customers who make purchases, which represents only one-fifth of daily footfall. Nowadays most bookstores sell online too, and The Book Shop reluctantly partners with Amazon as a marketplace seller. There’s also ABE and eBay; as a last-ditch option, some outfits take books in bulk, even if just to recycle them. Alongside online sales, it’s essential for bookstores to have sidelines. Bythell does video production and sells furniture, antiques and walking sticks carved by “Sandy, the tattooed pagan.”
As with Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, especially the serendipitous moments of coming across real treasures, like a book signed by Sir Walter Scott and a 1679 edition of the Decameron with an interesting provenance. The book is also full of quirky customer behavior, the kind of stuff that fills The Book Shop’s Facebook feed. Bythell cultivates a curmudgeonly persona – he once shot a broken Kindle and mounted it on the bookshop wall – and maintains a tone that’s somewhere between George Orwell (excerpts from whose “Bookshop Memories” serve as monthly epigraphs) and Jen Campbell (Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops et al.). Here’s a few of the best encounters:
a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.
A man smelling of TCP [antiseptic] was the only customer in the shop for the first hour of opening, during which time I attempted to put out fresh stock. He had an uncanny ability to be standing in front of every shelf to which I needed access, regardless of the subject or where in the shop the relevant shelves were.
While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E. L. James and M. R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she gets home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.
I’ve been to Hay-on-Wye six times now but haven’t made it to Wigtown yet. It’s high on my bookish wish list. I had two additional reasons for wanting to read this particular book: I’d read Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, a memoir by Bythell’s former partner, the American Jessica Fox (here known as “Anna”; in her book he’s “Ewan”), about coming to Scotland on a whim and falling in love with a bookshop owner; and I’m awfully fond of The Bookshop Band, a folky husband–wife musical duo who this year relocated from Bath to Wigtown. It was such fun to read about their first time playing in Wigtown and their stay as the inaugural guests/temporary store managers via The Open Book Airbnb project.I’ve written that the bookseller’s life is both appealing and daunting. When Bythell is lugging heavy boxes from a house clearance into his van and sorting through them only to find he’s acquired mostly rubbish, or when he comes across a browser who’s brazenly looking up books on Amazon on her laptop to see if she can get them cheaper, you wonder who’d do this for a living. But then there are times when he’s sitting by the fire with an excellent book recommended by a customer, or the town is bustling with festival events, or he’s watching spring come to rural Scotland, and you think: what could be better? In one of his last entries Bythell writes, “whatever is required to keep the ship afloat will be done. This life is infinitely preferable to working for someone else.” I wish him well, and hope to visit soon.
The Book Shop trivia:
- December is by far the quietest month. (“The few people who give second-hand books as gifts for Christmas are usually eccentric” – count me as one of them!)
- Railway books sell best.
- Terry Pratchett, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson books are also perennial best sellers.
- You’ll be amazed at how many customers try to haggle over prices. It’s a shop, not a rummage sale, for goodness’ sake! I can’t imagine ever having the cheek to offer less than the advertised price.
The Diary of a Bookseller was released in the UK on September 28th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free review copy.
We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.
On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.
The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.
At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.
- This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:
- The American Book Center in Amsterdam:
What I read:
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous.
- The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me.
- Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end.
Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):
- Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
- The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
- Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
- The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
- Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
- A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington
What have you been reading recently?
Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?
We’ve been back from our European trip for over a week already, but I haven’t been up to writing until now. Partially this is because I’ve had a mild stomach bug that has left me feeling yucky and like I don’t want to spend any more time at a computer than is absolutely necessary for my work; partially it’s because I’ve just been a bit blue. Granted, it’s nice to be back where all the signs and announcements are in English and I don’t have to worry about making myself understood. Still, gloom over Brexit has combined with the usual letdown of coming back from an amazing vacation and resuming normal life to make this a ho-hum sort of week. Nonetheless, I want to get back into the rhythm of blogging and give a quick rundown of the books I read while I was away.
But first, some of the highlights of the trip:
- the grand architecture of the center of Brussels; live jazz emanating from a side street café
- cycling to the zoo in Freiburg with our friends and their kids
- ascending into the mountains by cable car and then on foot to circle Switzerland’s Lake Oeschinensee
- traipsing through meadows of Alpine flowers
- exploring the Engadine Valley of southeast Switzerland, an off-the-beaten track, Romansh-speaking area where the stone buildings are covered in engravings, paintings and sayings
- our one big splurge of the trip (Switzerland is ridiculously expensive; we had to live off of supermarket food): a Swiss dessert buffet followed by a horse carriage ride
- spotting ibex and chamois at Oeschinensee and marmots in the Swiss National Park
- miming “The Hills Are Alive” in fields near our accommodation in Austria (very close to where scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed)
- the sun coming out for our afternoon in Salzburg
- daily coffee and cake in Austrian coffeehouses
- riding the underground and trams of Vienna’s public transport network
- finding famous musicians’ graves in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery
- discovering tasty vegan food at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Vienna that makes its own noodles
- going to Slovakia for the afternoon on a whim (its capital, Bratislava, is only 1 hour from Vienna by train – why not?!)
We went to such a variety of places and had so many different experiences. Weather and language were hugely variable, too: it rained nine days in a row; some mornings in Switzerland I wore my winter coat and hat; in Bratislava it was 95 °F. Even in the ostensibly German-speaking countries of the trip, we found that greetings and farewells changed everywhere we went (doubly true in the Romansh-speaking Engadine). Most of the time we had no idea what shopkeepers were saying to us. Just smile and nod. It was more difficult at the farm where we stayed in Austria. Thanks to Google Translate, we had no idea that the owner spoke no English; her e-mails were all in unusual but serviceable English. We speak virtually no German, so fellow farm guests, including a Dutch couple, had to translate between us. (The rest of Europe puts us to shame with their knowledge of languages!)
Train travel was, for the most part, easy and stress-free. Especially enjoyable were the small lines through the Engadine, which include the highest regular-service station in Europe (Ospizia Bernina, where we found fresh snowfall). The little town where we stayed in an Airbnb cabin, Lavin, was a request stop on the line, meaning you always had to press a button to get the train to stop and then walk across the tracks (!) to board. Contrary to expectations, we found that nearly all of our European trains were running late. However, they were noticeably more comfortable than British trains, especially the German ones. Thanks to train rides of an hour or more on most days, I ended up getting a ton of reading done.
On the journey out I finished The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. This is the first “classic” Tyler I’ve read, after her three most recent novels, and although I kept being plagued by odd feelings of ‘reverse déjà vu’, I really enjoyed it. This story of staid, reluctant traveler Macon Leary and how his life is turned upside down by a flighty dog trainer is all about the patterns of behavior we get stuck in. Tyler suggests that occasionally journeying into someone else’s unpredictable life might change ours for the good.
Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome was just what I expected: a very silly book about the travails of international travel. It’s much more about the luckless journey and the endurance of national stereotypes than it is about the Passion Play the travelers see once they get to Germany. It was amusing to see the ways in which some things have hardly changed in 125 years.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a novella set in the Austrian Alps, is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.
The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood releases on August 9th. A new book club helps Ava cope with her divorce, her daughter Maggie’s rebelliousness, and tragic events from her past. Each month one club member picks the book that has mattered most to them in life. I thought the choices were all pretty clichéd and Ava was unrealistically passive. Although what happens to her in Paris is rather melodramatic, I most enjoyed Maggie’s sections.
Me and Kaminski was my second novel from Daniel Kehlmann. Know-nothing art critic Sebastian Zöllner interviews reclusive artist Manuel Kaminski and then accompanies the older man on a road trip to find his lost sweetheart. Zöllner is an amusingly odious narrator, but I found the plot a bit thin. This is a rare case where I would argue the book needs to be 100 pages longer.
About midway through the trip I finished another I’d started earlier in the month, This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. The average American moves 11.7 times in their life. I’m long past that already. The book collects an interesting set of ideas about how to feel at home wherever you are: things like learning the place on foot, shopping and eating locally, and getting to know your neighbors. I am bad about integrating into a new community every time we move, so I picked up some good tips. Warnick uses examples from all over (though mostly U.S. locations), but also makes it specific to her home of Blacksburg, Virginia.
“A cabinet of fantasies, a source of knowledge, a collection of lore from past and present, a place to dream… A bookshop can be so many things.” In A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, Valerie takes over Ringelnatz & Co. bookshop when the owner, her Aunt Charlotte, disappears. She has the entrepreneurial skills to run a business and gradually develops a love of books, too. The title book is a magical tome with blank pages that reveal the reader’s destination when the time is right. Twee but enjoyable; a quick read.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens is a taut thriller set during one woman’s experience of childbirth in New York City in 2004. Flashbacks to how the patient and her Caribbean nurse got where they are now add emotional depth. Another very quick read.
Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig is a psychologically astute novella in which a 12-year-old tries to interpret what’s happening between his mother and a fellow hotel guest, a baron he looks up to. For this naïve boy, many things come as a shock, including the threat of sex and the possibility of deception. This reminded me most of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (On a hill above Salzburg we discovered a strange disembodied bust of Stefan Zweig, along with a plaque and a road sign.)
Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood (releases August 9th) was great fun. Thinking of the six-figure education debt weighing on her shoulders, she surveys various cases of people who faked their own death or simply tried to disappear. Death fraud/“pseudocide” is not as easy to get away with as you might think. Fake drownings are especially suspect. I found most ironic the case of a man who lived successfully for 20 years under an assumed name but was caught when police stopped him for having a license plate light out. I particularly liked the chapter in which Greenwood travels to the Philippines, a great place to fake your death, and comes back with a copy of her own death certificate.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson (releases July 12th) is a historical novel loosely based on the story of the author’s great-aunt. Born in Mississippi in 1915, she had malformed genitals, which led to lifelong incontinence. Jane is a wonderfully plucky protagonist, and her friendship with her doctor, Ed Thompson, is particularly touching. “You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries.” This reminded me most of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins, an excellent novel about living a full life and finding romance in spite of disability.
I also left two novels unfinished (that’ll be for another post) and made progress in two other nonfiction titles. All in all, a great set of reading!
I’m supposed to be making my way through just the books we already own for the rest of the summer, but when I got back of course I couldn’t resist volunteering for a few new books available through Nudge and The Bookbag. Apart from a few blog reviews I’m bound to, my summer plan will be to give the occasional quick roundup of what I’ve read of late.