If you’re like me and author Tom Mole, the first thing you do in any new acquaintance’s house is to scrutinize their bookshelves, whether openly or surreptitiously. You can learn all kinds of surprising things about what someone is interested in, and holds dear, from the books on display. (And if they don’t have any books around, should you really be friends?)
Mole runs the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor of English Literature and Book History. His specialist discipline and this book’s subtitle – “Why They Mean More than Words” – are clues that here he’s concerned with books more as physical and cultural objects than as containers of knowledge and stories:
“reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.”
From the papyrus scroll to the early codex, from a leather-bound first edition to a mass-market paperback, and from the Kindle to the smartphone reading app, Mole asks how what we think of as a “book” has changed and what our different ways of accessing and possessing books say about us. He examines the book as a basis of personal identity and relationships with other people. His learned and digressive history of the book contains many pleasing pieces of trivia about authors, libraries and bookshops, making it a perfect gift for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the three “interludes,” in which he explores three paintings that feature books.
There are a lot of talking points here for book lovers. Here are a few:
- Are you a true collector, or merely an “accumulator” of books? (Mole is the latter, as am I. “I have a few modest antiquarian volumes, but most of my books are paperbacks … I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and I suspect the books on my shelves reassure me that I really have learned something along the way.”)
- In Anne Fadiman’s scheme, are you a “courtly” or a “carnal” reader? The former keeps a book pristine, while the latter has no qualms about cracking spines or dog-earing pages. (I’m a courtly reader, with the exception that I correct all errors in pencil.)
- Is a book a commercial product or a creative artifact? (“This is why authors quite often cross out the printed version of their name when they sign. Their action negates the book’s existence as a product of industry or commerce and reclaims it as the product of their own artistic effort.”)
- How is the experience of reading an e-book, or listening to an audiobook, different from reading a print book? (There is evidence that we remember less when we read on a screen, because we don’t have the physical cues of a book in our hand, plus “most people could in theory fit a lifetime’s reading on a single e-reader.”)
I would particularly recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Alberto Manguel’s various books on libraries, and Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From.
A personal note: I was delighted to come across a mention of one of the visiting professors on my Master’s course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, Matthew Rubery. In the autumn term of 2005, he taught one of my seminars, “The Reading Revolution in the Victorian Period,” which had a Book History slant and included topics like serial publication, anonymity and the rise of the media. A few years ago Rubery published an academic study of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which Mole draws on for his discussion.
Two more favorite passages:
“when I’m reading, I’m not just spending time with a book, but investing time in cultivating a more learned version of myself.”
“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”
The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday 19th September. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.
Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.
When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”
The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.
Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Wellcome Book Prize 2010
Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks
Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.
Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.
See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.
The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.
Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.
One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).
The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.
Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
Girl at War by Sara Nović [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The careful structure is what keeps it from becoming just another ordinary, chronological war story. The recreation of a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is stunning. In fact, I can barely think of a negative thing to say about this concise novel. It strikes a perfect balance between past and present, tragic and hopeful.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: With settings ranging from a Coney Island theater to an opium den and a mental asylum, this is a gritty look at late-nineteenth-century outsiders. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts. A very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel.
Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh (& interview): In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the secrets harbored by two English sisters, one of them settled in Granada, will come out into the open and affect the entire family. Lamplugh does a great job of unveiling a little at a time – but still maintaining tension until the surprise of the final revelation. The novel shifts easily between the central narrative and Deb’s diary entries, and between Alice’s and Mark’s perspectives. A strong debut novel.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass: An unusual mixture of historical, contemporary and dystopian short stories. A number of the first-person narratives feel like vague interior monologues, though there are some universal sentiments. When Greengrass picks one genre (but which will it be?) and sticks with it for the length of a whole book, she should have the time and space for the deep characterizations I thought were missing here. (But you can’t beat this book’s title, can you?)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: This was one of the key books of my American childhood. All these years later, phrases were still familiar to me, such as Jamie’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, boloney!” I clearly remembered the delicious overall sense of adventure and secrecy. Konigsburg captures school group chatter and brother/sister banter perfectly. The museum and archive settings are a great way to get children interested in art, history and library research. This was the original Night at the Museum before that franchise was ever dreamed up.
The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling: From Victorian animal collecting to present-day poaching, Girling surveys the contradictory human instincts toward exploitation and preservation of mammals. The book is rather scattered, with too little about the actual quest for the mole, but the message about species extinction is powerful. (The Somali golden mole has never been seen in the wild, except as a few bones in an owl pellet found by an Italian zoologist in 1964. For some reason, it captured Girling’s imagination, becoming a symbol of rarity and fragility.)
Road Ends by Mary Lawson: Contrasting rural Canada and London in the 1960s, Lawson’s third novel is a powerful story about how people deal with a way of life ending. She creates a perfect balance between her two plot strands, and the evocation of both locations is flawless, perhaps because they have autobiographical worth for her – she grew up on a farm in Ontario but moved to England in 1968. One remarkable thing about the novel is how she traces every decision back to a traumatic event in a character’s past.
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall: Rachel Caine has run Idaho’s Chief Joseph wolf preserve for nearly a decade, but her roots are in England’s Lake District. Her two worlds unexpectedly collide when an earl asks for her help reintroducing wolves near the Scottish border. Alongside the story of the wolves’ release runs Rachel’s decision to become a mother. The twin plot strands – one environmental and the other personal – ask what can be salvaged from the past.
Italian Ways by Tim Parks: Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in northern Italy for over 30 years. To start with he saw his train travel as an everyday source of woes about ticket queues, late running, officious staff, and so on, but as years passed he decided to interrogate Italy’s rail system as a metaphor for the country itself. He structures this book around seven train journeys. It’s better suited to train spotters than to armchair travelers: there is quite a lot about train schedules and not enough about the countryside itself.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee: A thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvelously detailed biography from Lee. Fitzgerald is, like Diana Athill, a reassuring examples of an author who did not find success until well into middle age. Although she always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her work wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. The approach is largely chronological, though Lee pauses at key moments to investigate the biographical origins of each of Fitzgerald’s books.
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a real ticket-taker at The Venice movie theatre, barely gets a footnote in history. Here we see all sides of this bold, brassy broad through Attenberg’s fragmented, epistolary narrative. The novel intersperses Mazie’s fictional diary entries (1907 to 1939) with excerpts from her unpublished autobiography and interviews with people who knew her. This is historical fiction – but not as we’re accustomed to it. Attenberg shows how fragile and incomplete the documentary record can be. A hard-nosed heroine with a heart of gold, Mazie will leave her mark on you.
A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson: As Goulson did in his book about bees, A Sting in the Tale, he treats readers like friends he is taking on a gentle tour to have everyday encounters with nature. The low-key, humorous anecdotes are reminiscent of the writings of Gerald Durrell, but – like Durrell – Goulson has a serious environmental agenda. Some of the most amusing chapters are about the sexual habits of insects and plants. This is less focused than his previous book, though, and repeats some of the material. The main draw, as always, is Goulson’s infectious enthusiasm and excellent explanations of science.
We Love This Book
War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite: In this postmodern satire, two Seattle hipsters must face reality when one of them leaves to fight in the Iraq War. From now on they keep in touch by updating their pretentious Wikipedia article. While Hal applies literary criticism to Star Wars and tries to make amends to his ex-girlfriend, Mickey is in life-and-death situations, looking for car bombs and overseeing local elections. Robinson and Kovite (an Iraq War veteran) alternate their settings in a fairly seamless whole.
The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: Food lovers and armchair travelers alike will savor this tour through the world’s regional cuisines and trademark dishes. In her first book, the editor of the Guardian’s Cook supplement introduces 39 cuisines with larder lists, a rundown of crucial flavors, and one to four recipes. Maps show which spices and chilies are used in different areas, while sidebars present key ingredients. The book strives for a balance of common imports and unknown dishes, prioritizing authenticity and reproducibility at home.
Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado: Twenty-five-year-old Dorotea Giglio slit her wrists in the bathtub in July 2011 and expired in “a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood.” Over the next four years she chronicles her physical decomposition as well as her spirit’s enduring search for love. In alternately clinical and whimsical language, with fresh metaphors that have survived translation from Italian admirably, di Grado’s second novel examines the secret sadness passed down through families.
Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story by Nancy Sprowell Geise: This eye-opening account of a Polish Jew’s life before, during, and after Auschwitz deposits readers right into concentration camp horrors. Instead of presenting this as a third-person biography, Geise writes as Rubinstein, using extensive interviews and documentary research to recreate his perspective. While the story is necessarily a bit less dramatic after the chapters on the Holocaust, the fact that Rubinstein survived and later became a successful shoe designer in New York is inspiring.
The Contaminants by Devin K. Smyth: Two teens aboard a spacecraft hold out hope for new life on post-apocalyptic Earth in this believable YA science fiction novel. Composed of two solid first-person narratives and based around two father-child relationships, this is a novel that prizes emotions as much as it does technology. The novel is on the thin side; it could have done with another subplot or two to add some complexity. However, the subtle eugenics theme will give teen readers plenty to think about while they follow the fast-paced story.
The Loneliness Cure by Kory Floyd: A professor of communication tackles the loneliness epidemic with stories and science. Floyd explains the problems associated with chronic affection deprivation and suggests practical strategies for getting more of the human contact we naturally crave. Two-thirds of the text goes to preliminaries, but the subtitle’s six strategies are worth waiting for. Like the best self-help books, this convinces readers that “it pays to reach out for help when you need it” and gives the confidence and tactics to do so.
In this article I give a more in-depth preview of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, her fictionalized biography of Beryl Markham.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Insomnia by Linda Pastan: Excellent free verse poems infused with images of weather, heavenly bodies, the night sky, art history, and travels. No rhymes to speak of, but plenty of alliteration and repetition – like in “Necklace,” where nearly every line ends with “pearl” or “pearls.” Historical and mythological references are frequent and highbrow. Especially in Part 3, the main theme is facing old age and illness. Linda Pastan has been writing poetry for nearly half a century; I’ll be sure to seek out more of her collections. Releases October 26th.
The Kindness by Polly Samson: This very subtle novel reminds me of works by Tessa Hadley and Lucy Caldwell. It takes one seemingly perfect couple – Julia and Julian – and parses out what went wrong between them and the aftermath. The book is so elegantly structured; characters drift in and out of flashbacks with none of the customary warnings. Instead Samson leaves it to readers to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of how they met and raised their daughter, Mira, and then how everything fell apart.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressive debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. She juggles her storylines and moves through decades with ease. Less mawkish than One Day; less gimmicky than Life After Life – though there are shades of both. The message seems to be: there is no one perfect person, no one perfect story. Unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (My full review will appear in the July 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. He highlights ramsons, pawpaw, elk (leaner and richer than beef), squirrel, hickory nuts and black walnuts, sumac, spicebush berry, sassafras, and persimmons. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with an imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast.
Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City by Elizabeth Minchilli: Minchilli’s parents moved the family from America to Rome when she was 12. Over the years she kept going back to Italy: to Florence as a graduate student, and then to stay when she married Domenico. Here, through recipes and personal stories, she shares her enthusiasm for Italian food and for Rome in particular. She finishes each chapter with a list of favorite eateries, so this is a practical guide anyone would benefit from taking along on a trip to Rome.
Some Churches by Tasha Cotter: I loved the first two poems but felt a number of the rest were lacking in artistry. Almost all are written in complete sentences, some in paragraph blocks, and alliteration isn’t always enough to differentiate them from prose. Favorite lines (from “Blood Orange”): “People think that either the red or the orange should go, because to blend the two / alienates some readers. / … I, too, am having an identity crisis, / just like the blood orange. Now that we’ve peeled back / the artifice, you’re inviting me in anyway”.
South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby: This tour through Southern literature is a great introduction for someone whose familiarity with Southern authors is minimal. Starting off in her home state of Mississippi, Eby travels through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and back to Mississippi in a roughly circular road trip. My favorite chapter was on Flannery O’Connor, but I was also interested to learn about Harry Crews, who I’d never heard of before – it certainly sounds like he was a character. Releases September 8th.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: I could relate to much of Riley’s story. She was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but now even setting foot in a church made her feel nauseous. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” Aged 29, Riley had the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before 30. She writes in a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, as if you’ve joined her book club for a glass of pinot grigio.