(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.
Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)
Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.
A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”
This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May
(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)
These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).
Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).
What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)
Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.
The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.
I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)
Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.
The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.
Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.
The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus…
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)
With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.
Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?
I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.
If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.
Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.
The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:
The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)
Death is better far than birth,
You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)
Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.
Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
(I also reviewed Mann’s poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, earlier in the year.)
For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.
A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:
“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”
(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)
“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”
(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)
A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,
Gimcracks in the shops,
Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,
Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops
And as if through coloured glasses
We remember our childhood’s thrill
… And the feeling that Christmas Day
Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus
But where we can never stay.
(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)
I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.
Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?
I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two novels in which a character attempts to glimpse famous mountains out of a train window but it’s so rainy they can barely be seen: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann.
- Ex-husbands move from England to California and remarry younger women in The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam and Heat Wave by Penelope Lively.
- References to Edgar Allan Poe in both Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma.
- An account of Percy Shelley’s funeral pyre in both The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.
- Mentions of barn owls being killed by eating poisoned rats in Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and Homesick by Catrina Davies.
- Miriam Rothschild is mentioned in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell.
- Gorse is thrown on bonfires in Homesick by Catrina Davies and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- A character has a nice cup of Ovaltine in Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- I started two books with “Bloom” in the title on the same day.
- Two books I finished about the same time conclude by quoting or referring to the T. S. Eliot lines about coming back to the place where you started and knowing it for the first time (Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and This Is Not a Drill, the Extinction Rebellion handbook).
- Three books in which the narrator wonders whether to tell the truth slant (quoting Emily Dickinson, consciously or not): The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood.
- On the same day, I saw mentions of crullers in both On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- There are descriptions of starling murmurations over Brighton Pier in both Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and Expectation by Anna Hope. (Always brings this wonderful Bell X1 song to mind!)
- I was reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston and soon after found an excerpt from it in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman; later I started The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland, whose title is a deliberate tip of the hat to Beston.
- At a fertility clinic, the author describes a pair of transferred embryos as “two sequins of light” (in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming) and “two points of light” (in Expectation by Anna Hope).
- Mentions of azolla ferns in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Bloom (aka Slime) by Ruth Kassinger.
- Incorporation of a mother’s brief memoir in the author’s own memoir in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay.
- Artist mothers in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay, and Expectation by Anna Hope.
- Missionary fathers in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada.
- Twins, one who’s disabled from a birth defect and doesn’t speak much, in Golden Child by Claire Adam and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
- An Irish-American family in a major East Coast city where the teenage boy does construction work during the summers in Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- SPOILERS: A woman with terminal cancer refuses treatment so she can die on her own terms and is carried out into her garden in Expectation by Anna Hope and A Reckoning by May Sarton.
- A 27-year-old professor has a student tearfully confide in her in Crow Lake by Mary Lawson and The Small Room by May Sarton.
- Reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom at the same time as The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- “I was nineteen years old and an idiot” (City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert); “I was fifteen and generally an idiot” (The Dutch House, Ann Patchett).
- Mentions of a conjuring tricks book in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
- A teen fleeces their place of employment in Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.
- A talking parrot with a religious owner in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
- Pictorial book serendipity: three books I was reading, and another waiting in the wings, had a red, black and white color scheme.
- Kripalu (a Massachusetts retreat center) is mentioned in Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene.
- The character of Netty Quelch in Robertson Davies’s The Manticore reminds me of Fluffy in Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House.
- The artist Chardin is mentioned in How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness by Lucy Ellmann.
- A Czech grand/father who works in a plant nursery in the opening story of Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter.
- The author was in Eva Le Gallienne’s NYC theatre company (Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention and various works by May Sarton, also including a biography of her).
- Gillian Rose’s book Love’s Work is mentioned in both Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth and My Year Off by Robert McCrum. (I will clearly have to read the Rose!)
- Sarah Baartman (displayed in Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”) is mentioned in Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt and Hull by Xandria Phillips.
After five years away, we finally made it back to Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer arts festival held on the grounds of Boughton House, on the Bank Holiday. The festival is a mixture of talks, music, performances and more, and given how much we’d paid and how far we’d traveled just for the one day, we tried to pack in as much as possible.
We started the day with “Beyond Forgiveness,” a presentation by Jo Berry and Pat Magee. Berry’s father, a Tory MP, was killed when the IRA bombed the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Magee spent 14 years in prison for his role in the bombing. When he got out of jail, he met Berry at her request and they talked and listened to each other for several hours. For the first time, Magee said, he could see her father as a real person and realized that the IRA had been just as guilty of dehumanizing and misrepresenting people as the English were. Berry, too, felt that “I’d met my enemy and seen his humanity.” The two have now shared a stage more than 200 times, speaking about the value of empathy in healing broken relationships while also addressing imbalances of power that lead to violence.
To my surprise, cookery displays and musical comedy seemed to be the order of the day. A model kitchen is a new addition to the festival, giving celebrity chefs hour-long sessions to demonstrate a particular dish. Jack Monroe, promoting her new book Cooking on a Bootstrap, cooked a sausage lasagna. She made us all laugh with her idea of “the inverse sausage fallacy” – the cheaper a sausage is, the better it tastes because of all the salt, sugar and spices added to cheaper bits of meat. She started writing recipes when she was a single mother on the dole, and so she encouraged audience members to donate nice things you would like to eat, as well as everyday hygiene products, to food banks. For a “What Vegans Eat” session, Brett Cobley (aka EpiVegan) made a pea and asparagus risotto and answered questions about protein sources, egg replacements, plant milks and harder-to-find ingredients.
Uproarious musical comedy came in the form of Harry & Chris, who made up impromptu raps about New Year’s Day, the Teletubbies and phobias, and Flo & Joan, who sang about divorce statistics, unnecessary inventions for women, and sex robots (the show was fairly crude and came with an 18+ warning). The overall musical highlight of the day was Duke Special, a Greenbelt favorite we’ve seen play quite a number of times now. His pop combines his smooth Belfast tenor with music hall and Big Band stylings, and his songs are often drawn from poetry and 1920s–40s songbooks. His latest project, Hallow, is a beautiful set of Michael Longley poems set to music. He played “Another Wren” and “Emily Dickinson” from that album, various covers (including two bizarre ditties by Ivor Cutler), and crowd favorites “Last Night I Nearly Died,” “Freewheel” and “Our Love Goes Deeper than This.” We also sampled performances by Martyn Joseph, Wallis Bird and CC Smugglers.
Duke Special was a good bridge between music and literature. From the literature program I also saw Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg speak on “Things My Dog Has Taught Me about Being a Better Human,” the title of his recent book. (His dog Mitzpah had a special dispensation to join him on stage; no animals are allowed on site otherwise!) The rabbi spoke about lessons in listening, attention, trust and seizing the moment. Mitzi and his previous dog Safi have also given him a connection with the rest of creation. Although he lives in the London suburbs and has an inner-city synagogue, they have accompanied him on long walks in Scotland and Germany. Wittenberg was a warm and witty speaker and I very much liked the sound of his book. It could make a good follow-up to The Power of Dog.
My other festival highlight was Rebecca Stott, in conversation with Radio 4 presenter Malcolm Doney. I read her Costa Prize-winning memoir In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult in April and it’s been one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. The book conveys a huge amount of information about the Exclusive Brethren and Stott’s family history but never loses sight of what is most important: what it was like to be in a cult and have your life defined by its rules and its paranoia about the outside world. Stott remembers 6 a.m. Sunday communion services and her constant terror of being left behind in the Rapture.
Unfortunately, the talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading her book. The interviewer, catering to those who haven’t read the book yet, led her through her whole story bit by bit, and because I’d read it fairly recently it was all familiar. However, Stott spoke wonderfully and was full of wry compassion for her younger self. I was most interested to hear about the book’s aftermath: she’s received 300 letters from ex-Brethren that her daughter is transcribing to send to a Brethren Church archive in Manchester. When asked during a Q&A where she sees cult tendencies today, she mentioned Trump supporters!
Whereas I read In the Days of Rain from the library, I happen to own two Stott books I haven’t read yet, so I cheekily brought along my paperback of Ghostwalk for signing. She was intrigued to see the older cover design and told me she thinks the prose style in her debut novel is much richer than in Rain, and she hopes I’ll like it. I thanked her for the talk, told her how much I’d enjoyed her memoir, and recommended her two books vaguely about cults: Educated by Tara Westover, which she already knew well, having done some events with Westover, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, which was new to her (my blog tour review is coming up on Monday). I caught myself using the word “brilliant” three times in speaking about Stott’s work and these other books – nuance and vocabulary alike clearly go out the window when nervously speaking to admired authors!
Some readers of this blog would have been delighted by the event I rushed to straight after Stott’s talk: Jon McGregor giving readings from Reservoir 13, with Sigur Rós-esque backing and interlude music from Haiku Salut. I heard about the police reconstruction with actors from Manchester, and collecting bilberries on the heath in August. Unfortunately, I found it just as dull read aloud as I did when I tried the book last year, and I left early.
During bits of down time I pulled out a Katherine Mansfield story collection I found in a charity shop last week and read “Bank Holiday” and “The Garden Party.” The former is a very short piece whose carnival atmosphere rises to a note of indeterminate striving:
“And up, up the hill come the people, with ticklers and golliwogs, and roses and feathers. Up, up they thrust into the light and heat, shouting, laughing, squealing, as though they were being pushed by something, far below, and by the sun, far ahead of them – drawn up into the full, bright, dazzling radiance to…what?”
It was my first time reading the famous “The Garden Party,” which likewise moves from a blithe holiday mood into something weightier. The Sheridans are making preparations for a lavish garden party dripping with flowers and food. Daughter Laura is dismayed when news comes that a man from the cottages has been thrown from his horse and killed, and thinks they should cancel the event. Everyone tells her not to be silly; of course it will go on as planned. The story ends when, after visiting his widow to hand over leftover party food, she unwittingly sees the man’s body and experiences an epiphany about the simultaneous beauty and terror of life. “Don’t cry,” her brother says. “Was it awful?” “No,” she replies. “It was simply marvellous.” Mansfield is especially good at first and last paragraphs. I’ll read more by her someday.
How did you all spend your Bank Holiday? / How do you plan to spend Labor Day?
Did any reading get done?
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and there could be no better primer for reluctant poetry readers than William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy. Consider it the verse equivalent of Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: an accessible and inspirational guide that suggests the right piece at the right time to help heal a particular emotional condition.
Sieghart, a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, founded the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and National Poetry Day itself in 1994. He’s active in supporting public libraries and charities, but he’s also dedicated to giving personal poetry prescriptions, and has taken his Poetry Pharmacy idea to literary festivals, newspapers and radio programs.
Under five broad headings, this short book covers everything from Anxiety and Convalescence to Heartbreak and Regret. I most appreciated the discussion of slightly more existential states, such as Feelings of Unreality, for which Sieghart prescribes a passage from John Burnside’s “Of Gravity and Light,” about the grounding Buddhist monks find in menial tasks. Pay attention to life’s everyday duties, the poem teaches, and higher insights will come.
I also particularly enjoyed Julia Darling’s “Chemotherapy”—
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
and “Although the wind” by Izumi Shikibu:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Sieghart has chosen a great variety of poems in terms of time period and register. Rumi and Hafez share space with Wendy Cope and Maya Angelou. Of the 56 poems, I’d estimate that at least three-quarters are from the twentieth century or later. At times the selections are fairly obvious or clichéd (especially “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” for Bereavement), and the choice of short poems or excerpts seems to pander to short attention spans. So populist is the approach that Sieghart warns Keats is the hardest of all. I also thought there should have been a strict one poem per poet rule; several get two or even three entries.
If put in the right hands, though, this book will be an ideal introduction to the breadth of poetry out there. It would be a perfect Christmas present for the person in your life who always says they wish they could appreciate poetry but just don’t know where to start or how to understand it. Readers of a certain age may get the most out of the book, as a frequently recurring message is that it’s never too late to change one’s life and grow in positive ways.
“What people need more than comfort is to be given a different perspective on their inner turmoil. They need to reframe their narrative in a way that leaves room for happiness and gratitude,” Sieghart writes. Poetry is a perfect way to look slantwise at truth (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) and change your perceptions about life. If you’re new to poetry, pick this up at once; if you’re an old hand, maybe buy it for someone else and have a quick glance through to discover a new poet or two.
My thanks to Particular Books for the free copy for review.
Do you turn to poetry when you’re struggling with life? Does it help?
Books I’ve read and enjoyed:
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
Currently reading: Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
On the TBR:
- Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky
- How to Read a Poem by Molly Peacock
I toyed with the wild idea of only reading short stories as my fiction for the month of September, but it was never really going to happen: I just don’t find short stories compelling enough, and in some ways they feel like hard work – every few pages, it seems, you have to adjust to a new scene and set of characters. In the end I made it through one anthology of flash fiction this month, and read parts of three other story collections. Mini reviews below…
Best Small Fictions 2017, edited by Amy Hempel
Now in its third year, the Best Small Fictions anthology collects the year’s best short stories under 1000 words. (I reviewed the two previous volumes for BookTrib and the Small Press Book Review.) Starting with a zinger of a first line is one strategy for making a short-short story stand out, and there are certainly some excellent opening sentences here. Symbols and similes are also crucial to conveying shorthand meaning. Two stand-outs are “States of Matter,” Tara Laskowski’s deliciously creepy story of revenge aided by a gravedigger; and Matthew Baker’s “The President’s Doubles,” in which an island nation becomes so protective of its imperiled leader that he ends up a prisoner. They’ve saved the best for last in this collection, though: the late Brian Doyle’s “My Devils,” in which an Irish-American boy learns how to interpret the adult world by deciphering what people say versus what they mean. It’s remarkable how concisely a coming of age and loss of blind faith are conveyed. Although there are fewer overall highlights than in the first volume, this is an excellent snapshot of contemporary super-short story writing, recommended for story lovers and newbies alike. (See my full review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
How can you not want to read a book with that title? Unfortunately, “The Story about a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” is the first story and probably the best, so it’s all a slight downhill journey from there. That story stars a bus driver who’s weighing justice versus mercy in his response to one lovelorn passenger, and retribution is a recurring element in the remainder of the book. Most stories are just three to five pages long. Important characters include an angel who can’t fly, visitors from the mouth of Hell in Uzbekistan, and an Israeli ex-military type with the ironic surname of Goodman who’s hired to assassinate a Texas minister for $30,000. You can never predict what decisions people will make, Keret seems to be emphasizing, or how they’ll choose to justify themselves; “Everything in life is just luck.”
Aside from the title story, I particularly liked “Pipes,” in which the narrator makes himself a giant pipe through which to escape to Heaven, a place for misfits who’ve never found a way to be happy on Earth. Twisted biblical allusions like this are rife, including “Plague of the Firstborn.” A few stories have a folktale-like ambiance. It felt like there were too many first-person narrators, though, and too many repeating plots: “Good Intentions” takes up the same contract killing theme as “Goodman,” while both “Katzenstein” and “Jetlag” involve ejection from a plane. I read everything bar the 86-page novella Kneller’s Happy Campers; after so much flash fiction I wasn’t prepared to change pace so dramatically. So I’ve marked this as unfinished even though I read 110 pages in total. (Read in translation from the Hebrew.)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
I don’t know what it is with me lately, but I seem to lack staying power with story collections. I read the first 40% of Pearlman’s most recent book on my Kindle and then just felt no need to continue. You could consider that a virtue of story collections: you can read as much or as little at a time as you want and pick and choose what bits interest you, in a way that you can’t with novels. Or you could say an author must be doing something wrong if a reader doesn’t long to keep turning the pages.
At any rate, I enjoyed Pearlman’s stories well enough. They all apparently take place in suburban Boston and many consider unlikely romances. My favorite was “Castle 4,” set in an old hospital. Zephyr, an anesthetist, falls in love with a cancer patient, while a Filipino widower who works as a security guard forms a tender relationship with the gift shop lady who sells his disabled daughter’s wood carvings. I also liked “Tenderfoot,” in which a pedicurist helps an art historian see that his heart is just as hard as his feet and that may be why he has an estranged wife. “Blessed Harry” amused me because the setup is a bogus e-mail requesting that a Latin teacher come speak at King’s College London (where I used to work). Two stories in a row (four in total, I’m told) center around Rennie’s antique shop – a little too Mitford quaint for me.
Favorite lines: “Happiness lengthens time. Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature. Every week a lifetime, a muted lifetime, a lifetime in which sadness, always wedged under her breast like a doorstop, lost some of its bite.” (from “Stone”)
Even though I didn’t finish either of these books, I’d gladly try something else by the authors. Can you recommend something to me?
Currently reading: After enjoying Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break so much, I picked up one of his short story collections (along with Keret’s) from Book-Cycle in Exeter earlier this month. So far I’ve read the first two stories in The Great Profundo, one about a struggling artist and a lonely widow who connect over an Emily Dickinson passage, and another about a cardinal whose father confesses he lost his faith years ago.
Upcoming: I have collections by Andrea Barrett, T.C. Boyle, Tessa Hadley and Alice Munro on the shelf. I also have far too many languishing on my Kindle, including For a Little While by Rick Bass, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai and 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. The ones I’m most likely to get to fairly soon, I think, are Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
Trio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.
[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.
April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d try my hand at some book spine poetry. Thanks to Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Cathy at 746 Books for the fun idea! I have taken the liberty of adding punctuation between some lines, but the book titles themselves appear exactly as on the spines. This has been a fun project to do a bit at a time over the last couple of weeks – it’s always a nice break from my editing and more analytical writing.
Peruse your own shelves or the local library’s and have a go. It’s an easy way to get creative!
The years go by so fast…
A time of gifts
A week in December
Snow in May
A year on the wing
A morbid little number, with a riff on Stevie Smith:
All at sea
In fond remembrance of me
How to read a graveyard:
A tour of bones,
Last night on earth?
Nothing to be frightened of.
Thanks to my husband, we have a ton of bird-themed books. The concluding line from Emily Dickinson makes this one a bit of a cheat.
Adventures among birds
To see every bird on earth:
The secret lives of puffins,
Last of the curlews,
The life of the skies.
Rare encounters with ordinary birds:
An eye on the sparrow,
The armchair birder
Feeding the eagles,
Chasing the wild goose.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
An attempt to lay the groundwork for some progressive theology:
How (not) to speak of God
Jesus among other gods:
Everything is illuminated?
The nice and the good
Crossing to safety?
A new kind of Christianity
The story we find ourselves in.
An unquiet mind
Until I find you.
No man is an island;
We make the road by walking.
This one’s my favorite – a tribute to my peaceful days spent working from home.
The house tells the story:
A room with a view
A slanting of the sun
The shadow hour
A circle of quiet.
So many books, so little time;
Leave me alone, I’m reading.
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.