My first few wintry reads for the season included a modern children’s classic, a wonderful poetry collection, and a so-so Advent-set novella. For my pre-Christmas reads, I have a couple of story-length classics and two recent novellas.
Winter Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
My favourite of the series so far (just Spring still to go) for how nostalgic it is for winter traditions.
“Tobogganing tomorrow,” said Wilfred.
“Snow pancakes for tea,” said Clover.
“We’ll make a snow mouse,” said Catkin.
The mice host a Snow Ball at the Ice Hall, with outfits and dances out of Austen and victuals out of Dickens. As always, the tree-trunk interiors are lit up like doll’s house tableaux with cosy rooms and well-stocked larders. Nothing much happens in this one, but that was fine with me: no need for a conflict and its resolution when you’ve got such a lovely, lucky life. (Public library)
The Winter Orchards by Nina Bogin (2001)
After enjoying Thousandfold in 2019, I was keen to catch up on Bogin’s previous poetry. Themes I’d noted in her latest work, nature and family, are key here, too. There is an overall wistful tone to the book, as in the passages below:
I didn’t like lungwort at first,
its spotted leaves, its furred
flowers, and I didn’t like its name.
But now I want to gather lungwort again,
now that I can’t return
to the brook meadow I picked it in (from “Lungwort”)
I’ll love the fallow and forgotten fields
because I have no choice, and woods
whose paths have been erased. (from “Landscape”)
The losses responded to are sometimes personal – saying Kaddish for her father – and sometimes more broadly representative, as when she writes about a dead bird found on the road or conflicts like the Gulf War and former Yugoslavia. Alongside beautiful nature poetry featuring birds and plants are vignettes from travels in France, Sweden, and upstate New York. (New purchase)
An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay (1978)
I smugly started this on the first day of Advent, and initially enjoyed Mackay’s macabre habit of taking elements of the Nativity scene or a traditional Christmas and giving them a seedy North London twist. So we open on a butcher’s shop and a young man wearing “bloody swabbing cloths” rather than swaddling clothes, having lost a finger to the meat mincer (and later we see “a misty Christmas postman with his billowy sack come out of the abattoir’s gates”). In this way, John Wood becomes an unwitting cannibal after taking a parcel home from the butcher’s that day, and can’t forget about it as he moves his temporarily homeless family into his old uncle’s house and continues halfheartedly in his job as a cleaner. His wife has an affair; so does a teenage girl at the school where his sister works. No one is happy and everything is sordid. “Scouring powder snowed” and the animal at this perverse manger scene is the uncle’s neglected goat. This novella is soon read, but soon forgotten. (Secondhand purchase)
And so to Christmas…
“The Christmas Dinner” by Washington Irving (1820)
An evocative portrait of an English Christmas meal, hosted by a squire in the great hall of his manor, originally published in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A boar’s head, a mummers’ play, the Lord of Misrule: you couldn’t get much more traditional. “Master Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though giggling, Dame Mince Pie.” Irving’s narrator knows this little tale isn’t profound or intellectually satisfying, but hopes it will raise a smile. He also has a sense that he is recording something that might soon pass away:
I felt also an interest in the scene, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion. … There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry, that gave it a peculiar zest; it was suited to the time and place; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.
A pleasant one-sitting read; so much better than a Christmas card!
This Renard Press pamphlet is in support of Three Peas, a charity providing food and medical care to refugees in Europe. Thanks to Annabel for my gifted copy!
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)
Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.
This was our second most popular read during last month’s Novellas in November challenge. I’d read a lot about it in fellow bloggers’ posts and newspaper reviews so knew to expect a meticulously chiselled and heartwarming story about a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland who comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. Born out of wedlock himself nearly 40 years ago, he is grateful that his mother received kindness and wishes he could do more to help the desperate girls he meets when he makes deliveries to the convent.
I found this a fairly predictable narrative, and the nuns are cartoonishly villainous. So I wasn’t as enthusiastic as many others have been, but still enjoyed having this as one of my reads on my travel day to the USA. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a touching reminder to be grateful for what you have while helping those less fortunate. A perfect message for Christmas. (NetGalley)
Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye (2018)
Lafaye was a local-ish author to me, an American expat living in Marlborough. When she died of breast cancer in 2018, she left this A Christmas Carol prequel unfinished, and fellow historical novelist Rebecca Mascull completed it for her. Clara and Jacob Marley come from money but end up on the streets, stealing from the rich to get by. Jacob sets himself up as a moneylender to the poor and then, after serving an apprenticeship alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, goes into business with him. They are a bad influence on each other, reinforcing each other’s greed and hard hearts. Jacob is determined never to be poor again. Because he’s forgotten what it’s like, he has no compassion when Clara falls in love with a luckless Scottish tea merchant. Like Scrooge, Jacob is offered one final chance to mend his ways. This was easy and pleasant reading, but I did wonder if there was a point to reading this when one could just reread Dickens’s original. (Secondhand purchase)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (1952)
(Illus. Edward Ardizzone, 1978)
It’s a wonder I’d never managed to read this short story before. I was prepared for something slightly twee; instead, it is sprightly and imaginative, full of unexpected images and wordplay. In the Wales of his childhood, there were wolves and bears and hippos. Young boys could get up to all sorts of mischief, but knew that a warm house packed with relatives and a cosy bed awaited at the end of a momentous day. Reflective and magical in equal measure; a lovely wee volume that I am sure to reread year after year. (Little Free Library)
A favourite passage:
Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
If there’s been one adjective linking most of these books, it’s been “nostalgic.” There’s something about winter in general, and the holiday season in particular, that lends itself to thinking back to the past and trying to preserve traditions, isn’t there?
What’s on your holiday reading pile this year?
Friendship is a fairly common theme in my reading and, like sisterhood, it’s an element I can rarely resist. When I picked up a secondhand copy of Female Friends (below) in a charity shop in Hexham over the summer, I spied a chance for another thematic roundup. I limited myself to novels I’d read recently and to groups of women friends.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel (2017)
I found out about this one from Susan’s review at A life in books (and she included it in her own thematic roundup of novels on friendship). “The Old Friends” have known each other for decades, since elementary school. Anna, Caroline, Helen, Ming and Molly. Their lives have gone in different directions – painter, psychiatrist, singer in a rock band and so on – but in March 2013 they’re huddling together because Anna is terminally ill. Over the years she’s had four remissions, but it’s clear the lymphoma won’t go away this time. Some of Anna’s friends and family want her to keep fighting, but the core group of pals is going to have to learn to let her die on her own terms. Before that, though, they aim for one more adventure.
Through the short, titled sections, some of them pages in length but others only a sentence or two, you piece together the friends’ history and separate struggles. Here’s an example of one such fragment, striking for the frankness and intimacy; how coyly those bald numbers conceal such joyful and wrenching moments:
Actually, for What It’s Worth
Between them there were twelve delivered babies. Three six- to eight-week abortions. Three miscarriages. One post-amniocentesis selective abortion. That’s just for the record.
While I didn’t like this quite as much as Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg, which is similar in setup, it’s a must-read on the theme. It’s sweet and sombre by turns, and has bite. I also appreciated how Redel contrasts the love between old friends with marital love and the companionship of new neighbourly friends. I hadn’t heard of Redel before, but she’s published another four novels and three poetry collections. It’d be worth finding more by her. The cover image is inspired by a moment late in a book when they find a photograph of the five of them doing handstands in a sprinkler the summer before seventh grade. (Public library)
Female Friends by Fay Weldon (1974)
Like a cross between The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer; this is the darkly funny story of Marjorie, Chloe and Grace: three Londoners who have stayed friends ever since their turbulent childhood during the Second World War, when Marjorie was sent to live with Grace and her mother. They have a nebulous brood of children between them, some fathered by a shared lover (a slovenly painter named Patrick). Chloe’s husband is trying to make her jealous with his sexual attentions to their French nanny. Marjorie, who works for the BBC, is the only one without children; she has a gynaecological condition and is engaged in a desultory search for her father.
The book is mostly in the third person, but some chapters are voiced by Chloe and occasional dialogues are set out like a film script. I enjoyed the glimpses I got into women’s lives in the mid-20th century via the three protagonists and their mothers. All are more beholden to men than they’d like to be. But there’s an overall grimness to this short novel that left me wincing. I’d expected more nostalgia (“they are nostalgic, all the same, for those days of innocence and growth and noise. The post-war world is drab and grey and middle-aged. No excitement, only shortages and work”) and warmth, but this friendship trio is characterized by jealousy and resentment. (Secondhand copy)
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (2019)
“It was exhausting, being friends. Had they ever been able to tell each other the truth?”
It’s the day before Christmas Eve as seventysomethings Jude, Wendy and Adele gather to clear out their late friend’s Sylvie’s house in a fictional coastal town in New South Wales. This being Australia, that means blazing hot weather and a beach barbecue rather than a cosy winter scene. Jude is a bristly former restaurateur who has been the mistress of a married man for many years. Wendy is a widowed academic who brings her decrepit dog, Finn, along with her. Adele is a washed-up actress who carefully maintains her appearance but still can’t find meaningful work.
They know each other so well, faults and all. Things they think they’ve hidden are beyond obvious to the others. And for as much as they miss Sylvie, they are angry at her, too. But there is also a fierce affection in the mix that I didn’t sense in the Weldon: “[Adele] remembered them from long ago, two girls alive with purpose and beauty. Her love for them was inexplicable. It was almost bodily.” Yet Wendy compares their tenuous friendship to the Great Barrier Reef coral, at risk of being bleached.
It’s rare to see so concerted a look at women in later life, as the characters think back and wonder if they’ve made the right choices. There are plenty of secrets and self-esteem struggles, but it’s all encased in an acerbic wit that reminded me of Emma Straub and Elizabeth Strout. Terrific stuff. (Twitter giveaway win)
Some favourite lines:
“The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future.”
“Was this what getting old was made of? Routines and evasions, boring yourself to death with your own rigid judgements?”
On this theme, I have also read: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames, Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy), My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Expectation by Anna Hope, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.
If you read just one … The Weekend was the best of this bunch for me.
Have you read much on this topic?
Blogging, and especially hosting Novellas in November – which was a roaring success, for which I am grateful! – has felt like a full-time job at points over the past month.
It was a record-breaking month in terms of my reading total, and I also wrote 24 blog posts. What with all the novellas, a focus on nonfiction review books, and a few rereads, I was able to contribute to several challenges in addition to #NovNov, such as Nonfiction November, German Literature Month, and Margaret Atwood Reading Month.
November was extra stressful for me because of trying to buy a house, starting my McKitterick Prize judging, and my mother being in and out of hospital since September. I know I’m not the only one feeling burnt out after a busy month. I now need to focus on paid work so I can take my upcoming two weeks in the USA off.
So, for December’s reading, the plan is mostly to finish a good number of 2021 releases and review copies currently on the go. Here’s my planned set:
I will also likely slip in a few novella-length Christmas or winter books; my first is An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay.
Meanwhile, the books keep coming in. This was my belated birthday and early Christmas haul from a holiday get-together with family over here:
I actually contemplated taking a complete break from blogging in December, but I still have a number of review copies I owe feedback on, as well as other ideas for themed posts that I want to fit in. Plus drawing up the Best-of lists and statistics is my favourite task of the blogging year, so I wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun. But I will definitely be scaling back this month, especially during our time in the States.
In other news, today it’s off to London for my first time since December 2019 (and only my second time on a train since then). We will have a nice chilly walk along the river from Richmond to Ham House and then grab a meal at a vegan diner before at last getting to go to our several-times-delayed Bell X1 gig at Union Chapel.
Lots of other good stuff coming up in the next week and a half, too, including a few Christmas concerts, a book club get-together, and the Barbellion Prize longlist, which is due out on the 13th.
Happy December reading!
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
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).
Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is 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 serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
- A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)
- Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)
- Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.
- Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
- References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)
- The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
- Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night … and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This
- Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
- Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
- Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
- Two novels featuring drug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)
- The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
- Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.
Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.
Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!
Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.
Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.
Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.
In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.
Today’s book shopping: THE BOOK SHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.
The Book Shop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.
We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)
Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.
Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.
At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Book Shop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.
Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.
Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts
Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!
What I read:
Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.
Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”
An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries. (Releases May 17th.)
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.
I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.
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.