~This review contains plot spoilers.~
Sue Monk Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Church tradition has always insisted that he remained unmarried, but she felt that, given the cultural norms of the Middle East at that time, it would have been highly unusual for him not to marry. Musing on the motivation for airbrushing a spouse out of the picture, on the last page of the novel Kidd asks, “Did [early Christians] believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual?” Or “Was it because women were so often invisible?” Although The Book of Longings retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century CE and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality.
Fourteen-year-old Ana is a headstrong young woman with a forthright voice and a determination to choose her own life. Privilege and luck are on her side: her father is the head scribe to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee; and the repulsive widower to whom she’s been betrothed dies, freeing her to marry Jesus, a travelling craftsman who caught her eye at the market. Ana’s aunt, Yaltha from Alexandria, is a major influence in her life. She had a rare chance at education and encourages her niece in her writing. Ana knows several ancient languages and fills every papyrus scroll she can get her hands on with stories of the women in the Bible. Yaltha also gives her an incantation bowl in which to write her deeply held prayers.
If you’re familiar with Kidd’s other work (such as The Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates), you know that she often explores the divine feminine and matriarchal units. Historically, Christianity has a poor record of acknowledging its patriarchal tendencies and redressing the balance. But Kidd imagines that, right at the beginning, Jesus valued women and was open to them having a life beyond domestic chores and childrearing. He involves Ana in his discussions about God and the nature of the Kingdom; they both see and take compassion on people’s suffering; together they are baptized by John the Baptist. And when Ana tells Jesus she doesn’t believe she is meant to be a mother – her mother and aunt took herbal potions and have passed on their contraceptive knowledge to her – he accepts her choice, even though childlessness could bring shame on both of them.
I appreciated this picture of a woman who opts for writing and the spiritual life over motherhood. However, Kidd portrays a whole range of women’s experiences: Jesus’s mother and sister-in-law submit to the drudgery of keeping a household going; Ana’s friend is raped and has her tongue cut out in an attempt to silence her, yet finds new ways to express herself; and another major character is a servant involved in the healing rituals at a temple to Isis. A practicing Jew, Ana finds meaning in other religious traditions rather than dismissing them as idolatry. She also participates in wider intellectual life, such as by reading The Odyssey.
Some descriptions make this novel sound like alternative history. If you’re expecting Ana to save the day and change the course of history, you will be disappointed. Ana is simply an observer of the events documented in the Bible. While she recounts the inspirations for some parables and healing incidents, during two years in exile with her aunt she only hears secondhand accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Her brother, a Zealot, disagrees with Jesus on how to usher in the Kingdom of God. By the time Ana returns to Jerusalem, the events leading to the crucifixion have already been set in motion; she can only bear witness. For her, life will continue after Jesus’s death, in a women-led spiritual community. From avoiding motherhood to choosing a monastic-type life, Ana has a lot of freedom. Some readers may be skeptical about how realistic this life course is, but the key, I think, is to consider Ana as an outlier.
Kidd has made wise decisions here: for the most part she makes her story line parallel or tangential to the biblical record, rather than repeating material many will find overly familiar. She takes Jewish teaching as a starting point but builds a picture of a more all-encompassing spirituality drawn from multiple traditions. Her Jesus is recognizable and deeply human; Ana calls him “a peacemaker and a provocateur in equal measures” and remembers him telling her what it was like growing up with the stigma of his illegitimate birth. The novel is rooted in historical detail but the research into the time and place never takes over. Engrossing and convincing, this is a story of women’s intuition and yearning, and of the parts of history that often get overlooked. It wouldn’t be out of place on next year’s Women’s Prize longlist.
The Book of Longings was released on Tuesday the 21st. My thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
I’m the last stop on a small blog tour for the audiobook release: if you’re interested in listening to the first hour of The Book of Longings, visit the blogs below and follow the links. Each one is hosting a 10-minute excerpt. The final one is available here.
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)
Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.
Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.
This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)
At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.
Page count: 602
A few favorite passages:
“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.
When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins
With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder
Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]
Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”
My luck ran out just east of Eden
Oh, I proved you right
I’m a danger […]
I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure
May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]
At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.
How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann
[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]
The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]
In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]
Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman
[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]
Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]
This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.
What May books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
In January lots of us tend to think about self-improvement for the New Year. Books can help! I’m resurrecting a post I first wrote as part of a series for Bookkaholic in April 2013 in hopes that those new to the concept of bibliotherapy will find it interesting.
I happen to believe – and I’m not the only one, not by a long shot – that a relationship with books can increase wellbeing. The right book at the right time can be a powerful thing, not just amusing and teaching, but also reassuring and even healing. Indeed, an ancient Greek library at Thebes bore an inscription on the lintel naming it a “Healing-Place for the Soul.”
The term “bibliotherapy,” from the Greek biblion (books) + therapeia (healing), was coined in 1916 by Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927). Crothers, a Unitarian minister and essayist, introduced the word in an Atlantic Monthly piece called “A Literary Clinic.” The use of books as a therapeutic tool then came to the forefront in America during the two world wars, when librarians received training in how to suggest helpful books to veterans recuperating in military hospitals. Massachusetts General Hospital had founded one of the first patients’ libraries, in 1844, and many other state institutions – particularly mental hospitals – had followed suit by the time of the First World War. Belief in the healing powers of reading was becoming more widespread; whereas once it had been assumed that only religious texts could edify, now it was clear that there could be benefits to secular reading too.
Read this for what ails you
Clinical bibliotherapy is still a popular strategy, often used in combination with other medical approaches to treat mental illness. Especially in the UK, where bibliotherapy is offered through official National Health Service (NHS) channels, library and health services work together to give readers access to books that may aid the healing process. Over half of England’s public library systems offer bibliotherapy programs, with a total of around 80 schemes documented as of 2006. NHS doctors will often write patients a ‘prescription’ for a recommended book to borrow at a local library. These books will usually fall under the umbrella of “self-help,” with a medical or mental health leaning: guides to overcoming depression, building self-confidence, dealing with stress, and so on.
Books can serve as one component of cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to modify behavior through the identification of irrational thoughts and emotions. Bibliotherapy has also been shown to be an effective method of helping children and teenagers cope with problems: everything from parents’ divorce to the difficulties of growing up and resisting peer pressure. Overall, bibliotherapy is an appealing strategy for medical professionals to use with patients because it is low-cost and low-risk but disproportionately effective.
In addition to clinical bibliotherapy, libraries also support what is known as “creative bibliotherapy” – mining fiction and poetry for their healing powers. Library pamphlets and displays advertise their bibliotherapy services under names such as “Read Yourself Well” or “Reading and You,” with eclectic, unpredictable lists of those novels and poems that have proved to be inspiring or consoling. With all of these initiatives, the message is clear: books have the power to change lives by reminding ordinary, fragile people that they are not alone in their struggles.
The School of Life
London’s School of Life, founded by Alain de Botton, offers classes, psychotherapy sessions, secular ‘sermons,’ and a library of recommended reading tackle subjects such as job satisfaction, creativity, parenting, ethics, finances, and facing death with dignity. In addition, the School offers bibliotherapy sessions (one-on-one, for adults or children, or, alternatively, for couples) that can take place in person or online. A prospective reader fills out a reading history questionnaire before meeting the bibliotherapist, and can expect to walk away from the session with one instant book prescription. A full prescription of another 5-10 books arrives within a few days.
In 2011 The Guardian sent six of its writers on School of Life bibliotherapy sessions; their consensus seemed to be that, although the sessions produced some intriguing book recommendations, at £80 (or $123) each they were an unnecessarily expensive way of deciding what to read next – especially compared to asking a friend or skimming newspapers’ reviews of new books. Nonetheless, it is good to see bibliotherapy being taken seriously in a modern, non-medical context.
A consoling canon
You don’t need a doctor’s or bibliotherapist’s prescription to convince you that reading makes you feel better. It cheers you up, makes you take yourself less seriously, and gives you a peaceful space for thought. Even if there is no prospect of changing your situation, getting lost in a book at least allows you to temporarily forget your woes. In Comfort Found in Good Old Books (1911), a touching work he began writing just 10 days after his son’s sudden death, George Hamlin Fitch declared “it has been my constant aim to preach the doctrine of the importance of cultivating the habit of reading good books, as the chief resource in time of trouble and sickness.”
Indeed, as Rick Gekoski noted last year in an article entitled “Some of my worst friends are books,” literary types have always turned to reading to help them through grief. He cites the examples of Joan Didion coming to grips with her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking, or John Sutherland facing up to his alcoholism in The Boy Who Loved Books. Gekoski admits to being “struck and surprised, both envious and a little chagrined, by how literary their frame of reference is. In the midst of the crisis…a major reflex is to turn, for consolation and understanding, to favorite and esteemed authors.” Literary critic Harold Bloom confirms that books can provide comfort; in The Western Canon he especially recommends William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson as “great poets one can read when one is exhausted or even distraught, because in the best sense they console.”
Just as in a lifetime of reading you will develop your own set of personal classics, you are also likely to build up a canon of favorite books to consult in a crisis – books that you turn to again and again for hope, reassurance, or just some good laughs. For instance, in More Book Lust Nancy Pearl swears by Bill Bryson’s good-natured 1995 travel book about England, Notes from a Small Island: “This is the single best book I know of to give someone who is depressed, or in the hospital.” (With one caveat: beware, your hospitalized reader may well suffer a rupture or burst stitches from laughing.)
Just what you needed
There’s something magical about that serendipitous moment when a reader comes across just the right book at just the right time. Charlie D’Ambrosio confides that he approaches books with a quiet wish: “I hope in my secret heart someone, somewhere, mysteriously influenced and moved, has written exactly what I need” (his essay “Stray Influences” is collected in The Most Wonderful Books). Yet this is not the same as superstitiously expecting to open a book and find personalized advice. Believe it or not, this has been an accepted practice at various points in history. “Bibliomancy” means consulting a book at random to find prophetic help – usually the Bible, as in the case of St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis’s first biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote that “he humbly prayed that he might be shown, at his first opening the book, what would be most fitting for him to do” (in his First Life of St Francis of Assisi).
Perhaps meeting the right book is less like a logical formula and more like falling in love. You can’t really explain how it happened, but there’s no denying that it’s a perfect match. Nick Hornby likens this affair of the mind to a dietary prescription – echoing that medical tone bibliotherapy can often have: “sometimes your mind knows what it needs, just as your body knows when it’s time for some iron, or some protein” (in More Baths, Less Talking).
Entirely by happenstance, a book that recently meant a lot to me is one of the six inaugural School of Life titles, How to Stay Sane by psychotherapist Philippa Perry. Clearly and practically written, with helpful advice on how to develop wellbeing through self-observation, healthy relationships, optimism, and exercise, Perry’s book turned out to offer just what I needed.
I’ve been busy visiting family in the States but I’ll be back soon with a review of The Novel Cure from School of Life bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.
Unlike Christmas, Easter is a holiday that might not lend itself so easily to reading lists. December is the perfect time to be reading cozy books with wintry scenes of snow and hearth, or old-time favorites like Charles Dickens. Christmas-themed books and short stories are a whole industry, it seems. Lent and Advent both prize special foods, traditions and symbols, but beyond devotional reading there doesn’t seem to be an Easter book scene. Nonetheless, I have a handful of books I’d like to recommend for the run-up to Easter, whether for this year or the future.
I hadn’t heard of Michael Arditti until I reviewed his novel The Breath of Night – a taut, Heart of Darkness-inspired thriller about a young man searching for a missing priest in the Philippines – for Third Way magazine in late 2013. He deserves to be better known. Easter (2000), his third novel, earned him comparisons to Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym. His nuanced picture of modern Christianity, especially the Anglican Church, is spot-on.
I’ve just finished Part One, which traces the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in a fictional London parish, St Mary-in-the-Vale, Hampstead. Structured around the services of Holy Week and punctuated with bits of liturgy, the novel moves between the close third-person perspectives of various clergy and parishioners. Huxley Grieve, the vicar, is – rather inconveniently – experiencing serious doubts in this week of all weeks. And this at a time when the new Bishop of London, Ted Bishop (“Bishop by name, bishop by calling,” he quips), has announced his mission to root out the poison of liberalism from the Church.
So far I’m reminded of a cross between Susan Howatch and David Lodge (especially in How Far Can You Go?), with a dash of the BBC comedy Rev thrown in. Reverend Grieve’s sermons may be achingly earnest, but the novel is also very funny indeed. Here’s a passage, almost like a set of stage directions, from the Palm Sunday service: “The procession moves up the nave. The Curate leads the donkey around the church. It takes fright at the cloud of incense and defecates by the font.”
In this peculiar novel-cum-biography, Beard attempts to piece together everything that has ever been said, written and thought about the biblical character of Lazarus. The best sections have Beard ferreting out the many diseases from which Lazarus may have been suffering, and imagining what his stench – both in life and in death – must have been like. (“He stinketh,” as the Book of John pithily puts it.)
Alongside these reasonable conjectures is a strange, invented backstory for Jesus and Lazarus: when they were children Jesus failed to save Lazarus’ younger brother from drowning and Lazarus has borne a lifelong grudge. A Roman official is able to temporarily convince Lazarus that he needs to take up the mantle of the Messiah because he came back to life: he has the miracle to prove the position, whether he wants it or not. The end of the novel follows the strand of the Passion Week, though in a disconnected and halfhearted fashion.
Beard’s interest is not that of a religious devotee or a scriptural scholar, but of a skeptical postmodern reader. Lazarus is a vehicle for questions of textual accuracy, imagination, and the creation of a narrative of life and death. His unprecedented second life must make him irresistible to experimental novelists. Beard’s follow-up novel, Acts of the Assassins, is also Bible-themed; it’s a thriller that imagines the Roman Empire still in charge today.
No matter your current thoughts on the death penalty, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. I read it in the run-up to Easter 2007, and would recommend it as perfect reading for the season. As I truly engaged with themes of guilt and retribution, I felt the reality of death row was brought home to me for the first time. Many of the men Prejean deals with in this book we would tend to dismiss as monsters, yet Jesus is the God who comes for the lost and the discounted, the God who faces execution himself.
The film version, which conflates some of the characters and events of the book, is equally affecting. I saw it first, but it does not ruin the reading experience in any way.
Marcus Borg, who just died on January 21st, has been one of the most important theologians in my continuing journey with Christianity. His Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity are essential reading for anyone who’s about to give up on the faith. In this day-by-day account, mostly referencing the Gospel of Mark, Borg and Crossan convey all that is known about the historical Jesus’ last week and death. They collaborated on a second book, The First Christmas, which does the same for Jesus’ birth.
And now for two more unusual, secular selections…
Call me morbid, but I love English graveyards. My most enduring Easter memory is of dawn services at the country church in my husband’s hometown. In the weak half-light, with churchyard rooks croaking a near-deafening chorus, the overwhelming sense was of rampant wildness. The congregation huddled around a bonfire while a black-cloaked vicar intoned the story of scripture, from creation to the coming of Christ, as loudly as possible over the rooks – trying to win mastery over the night, and score a point for civilization in the meantime.
This anecdote goes some way toward explaining why I rather enjoyed Bellman and Black – but why many others won’t. Setterfield’s second novel is a peculiar beast, a bit like a classic suspense story but also an English country fable. Protagonist William Bellman is part Job and part Faustus. At age ten, he makes a catapult that kills a rook. Thereafter, his life is plagued by death, despite his successful career as an entrepreneur at a cloth mill. Can he make a deal with the Devil – or, rather, the sinister Mr. Black – that will stop the cycle of deaths?
Bellman’s daughter Dora is a wonderful character, and because I love birds anyway and have strong, visceral memories involving rooks in particular, I enjoyed Setterfield’s symbolic use of them. However, many will be bored to tears by details of cloth-making and dyeing in early nineteenth-century England. Setterfield evokes her time period cannily, but in such a painstaking manner that the setting does not feel entirely natural. Here’s hoping for a return to form with Setterfield’s third novel.
This was the first book I ever borrowed from the Adult Fiction section of the public library, when I was eight years old. It quickly became a favorite, and though I didn’t reread it over and over like I did the Chronicles of Narnia, it still has a strong place in my childhood memories. Why have I chosen it for this list? Well, it’s about rabbits: a warren comes under threat from English countryside development and human interference.
I loved a little story Rachel Joyce inserts in her novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Taking over from another nun, a young, air-headed nurse at Queenie’s hospice resumes reading Watership Down to a patient. At the end the patient cries, “Oh, it’s so sad, those poor rabbits” and the nurse replies, “What rabbits?” (You’d think the cover might have given it away!) It’s a good laugh, but also reflects how carefully Adams characterizes – one might say anthropomorphizes – each rabbit; you might forget they’re actually animals.
Do you have any favorite books to read or reread at particular holidays?
Happy spring reading!