In January 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to have a free bibliotherapy session at the School of Life in London with Ella Berthoud, one of the authors of The Novel Cure. I wrote about the experience in this post. I quickly got hold of all but a couple of my prescribed reads, but have been slower about actually reading them. Though I’ve read five now, I’ve only written up four, two of which I only managed to finish this week. (These 250-word reviews are in order of my reading.)
Heligoland by Shena Mackay (2002)
(CURE: moving house)
Heligoland is a Scottish island best known from the shipping forecast, but here it’s an almost mythical home. Rowena Snow was orphaned by her Indian/Scottish parents, and a second time by her aunt. Since then she’s drifted between caring and cleaning jobs. The Nautilus represents a fresh chance at life. This shell-shaped artists’ commune in South London houses just three survivors: Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place; poet Francis Campion; and antiques dealer Gus Crabb. Rowena will be the housekeeper/cook, but she struggles with self-esteem: does she deserve to live in a haven for upper-class creative types?
The omniscient perspective moves between the Nautilus residents but also on to lots of other minor hangers-on, whose stories are hard to keep track of. Mackay’s writing reminded me somewhat of Tessa Hadley’s and is lovely in places – especially when describing a buffet or a moment of light-filled epiphany in a garden. There’s not much to be said beyond what’s in the blurb: Mackay is attempting to give a picture of a drifter who finds an unconventional home; in the barest sense she does succeed, but I never felt a connection with any of the characters. In this ensemble cast there is no one to love and thus no one to root for. While I didn’t love this book, it did inspire me to pick up others by Mackay: since then I’ve read The Orchard on Fire, which I liked a lot more, and the first half of Dunedin.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
(CURE: worry over ageing parents)
Retired professor Nariman Vakeel, 79, has Parkinson’s disease and within the first few chapters has also fallen and broken his ankle. His grown stepchildren, Coomy and Jal, reluctant to care for him anyway, decide they can’t cope with the daily reality of bedpans, sponge baths and spoon feeding in their large Chateau Felicity apartment. He’ll simply have to recuperate at Pleasant Villa with his daughter Roxana and her husband and sons, even though their two-bedroom apartment is barely large enough for the family of four. You have to wince at the irony of the names for these two Bombay housing blocks, and at the bitter contrast between selfishness and duty.
Perhaps inevitably, Nariman starts to fade into the background. An increasingly speechless invalid, he only comes alive through his past: italicized sections, presented as his night-time ravings, tell of his love for Lucy, whom his parents refused to let him marry, and the untimely end of his arranged marriage. I enjoyed time spent in a vibrantly realized Indian city and appreciated a chance to learn about a lesser-known community: Nariman and family are Parsis (or Zoroastrians). There’s also a faint echo here of King Lear, with one faithful daughter set against two wicked children.
As to ageing parents, this is a pretty relentlessly bleak picture, but there are sparks of light: joy in life’s little celebrations, and unexpected kindnesses. Mistry’s epic has plenty of tender moments that bring it down to an intimate scale. I’m keen to read his other novels.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr (2013)
(A supplementary prescription because I love memoirs and didn’t experience Thatcher’s Britain.)
Like a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Toast, this recreates a fairly horrific upbringing from the child’s perspective. Barr was an intelligent, creative young man who early on knew that he was gay and, not just for that reason, often felt that there was no place for him: neither in working-class Scotland, where his father was a steelworker and his brain-damaged mother flitted from one violent boyfriend to another; nor in Maggie Thatcher’s 1980s Britain at large, in which money was the reward for achievement and the individual was responsible for his own moral standing and worldly advancement. “I don’t need to stand out any more,” he recalls, being “six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”
There are a lot of vivid scenes in this memoir, some of them distressing ones of abuse, and the present tense, dialect, and childish grammar and slang give it authenticity. However, I never quite bought in to the Thatcher connection as an overarching structure. Three pages at the start, five at the end, and a Thatcher quote as an epigraph for each chapter somehow weren’t enough to convince me that the framing device was necessary or apt. Still, I enjoyed this well enough as memoirs go, and I would certainly recommend it if you loved Nigel Slater’s memoir mentioned above. I also have Barr’s recent debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, on my Kindle.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
(A supplementary prescription for uncertainty about having children.)
I enjoyed this immensely, from the first line on: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Upton is back in her hometown, pregnant by her older, married archaeology professor after a summer of PhD fieldwork in Alaska. “I had come home to be a child again. I was sick, heartbroken, worn down.” She gives herself a few weeks back home to dig through her family history to find her father – whom Vi has never identified – and decide whether she’s ready to be a mother herself.
We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. Groff gives voice to everyone from a Mohican chief to a slave girl who catches her master’s eye. Willie and Vi are backed up by a wonderful set of secondary characters, past and present. Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. (If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the baseball museum; it’s not far from where my mother is from in upstate New York.) Templeton is “a slantwise version” of Cooperstown, Groff admits in an opening Author’s Note, and she owes something of a debt to its most famous citizen, James Fenimore Cooper. What a charming way to celebrate where you come from, with all its magic and mundanity. This terrific debut novel cemented my love of Groff’s work.
I also have Ella to thank for the inspiration to reread a childhood favorite, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, last year; the experiment formed the subject of my first piece for Literary Hub. I also worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, another of my prescriptions, over a number of months in 2018, but failed to keep up with the regular writing exercises so didn’t get the maximum benefit.
My husband and I made a start on reading a few books aloud to each other, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, but that fell by the wayside after a handful of weeks.
(Incidentally, I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat xenophobia.)
Still to read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (CURE: horror of ageing)
And one I still have to get hold of but haven’t been able to find cheap secondhand because it’s a Persephone classic: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a supplementary prescription because I love Victorian pastiches).
I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.
Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.
Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.
For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).
One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.
Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).
I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.
Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:
(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)
As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.
I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.