August Bookshelf: Modern Rest and Relaxation

“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

John Donne, ‘The Autumnal’

August has been an odd month, chez Glover. I’ve hardly been home, and I don’t read a lot when I travel. Between a weekend at the hospitality of Stendhal festival (where I did read quite a bit, in fact, but it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar to an audience of rapt five-year-olds) and my annual retreat to the cinema for five days at Arrow Video Frightfest, I’m afraid I’ve been more of a square-eyes than a bookworm. But autumn approaches, and with it comes rainy nights, hot tea, and piles and piles of books.

Isn’t it lovely that every season presents its own unique reading possibilities? We want salacious romances on the beach in the summer, serious classics wrapped in wool in the autumn. Winter is for ghost stories, of course, and in the spring one treats oneself to an old favourite; you have to honour the old to make way for the new, after all. Here’s how I closed out summer 2018.

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When a celebrity dies, the reaction often feels hollow to me. I feel there’s a lot of performative grief out there and we’re all becoming quite practiced at the perfect RIP tweet. Anthony Bourdain was a special case. The outpouring of bereft commentary suggested that his was a unique and beloved light. I had read bits and pieces of his writing in magazines, chiefly the New Yorker, but it seemed as good a time as any to pick myself up his classic Kitchen Confidential and get to know the world’s most beloved misanthrope. I am so glad I did. As a vegetarian, one might think I’d have cause to take against Bourdain and while it’s true that he appeared impatient and quick to judge, he also had a deep empathy rooted in the uniting power of food. I found a lot of common ground with him, despite our starkly different lives and perspectives. That, to me, is a writer; one who can use words to bridge gaps. And, as we know, I’m sure to love any book that makes me hungry. Incidentally, the other book pictured here is Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, which made me a better cook in my own home. Both highly recommended for the culinary reader.

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Picture nicked from GoodReads as I forgot to photograph my own copy – oops.

There is a really lovely secondhand bookshop in Derry called Foyle Books. It’s one of those great little stores that surprises you with things you didn’t know you want to read – biographies of Charles II and onomastic studies of the Roe Valley. And classic American short story collections. Frank O’Connor called the short story the national art form of America. I find it hard to disagree. Grace Paley’s short stories speak to the compacted experience of female life in a way which feels universal, but also so specific and localised. I feel I could find these people on a map. The phrase “well behaved women seldom make history” is often taken to mean that women should kick up a huge fuss in order to be noticed, but it also means that the quiet daily work of women is tragically overlooked. This collection has a toe in both ponds. I’m excited to read more Paley – her writing makes me feel very much how Doris Lessing’s did when I discovered her a few years ago.

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My library pick of the month was less successful. Nick Laird’s Modern Gods came highly recommended by a colleague – or else I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it. Telling the twin stories of sisters – one of whom is a BBC reporter investigating religion in an Oceanic island colonised by religious Ulstermen, one of whom discovers that her new husband was responsible for violent atrocities during the Troubles – Modern Gods was pessimistic in the extreme. I found this a thoroughly unpleasant read with unsympathetic character sketches spoiling the unique storytelling contexts that the book presented. It took me a fortnight to get through it. I kept finding other things to read. On the plus side, my magazine subscriptions have never been put to better use.

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Saving the best for last, the most interesting book I read this month – and possibly even this year, so far – was Ottessa Moshfegh’s fascinating My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The protagonist goes to bed for a year, medicated to the gills, and only rises in mystery fugue states during which she spends money lavishly, calls ex-boyfriends, and accidentally supports a friend through a bereavement. It’s a truly weird book. I’d expect nothing less from the author of Eileen, which I read on my honeymoon (!!!) in 2016. I’m really getting into female protagonists with dirt under their nails recently. Moshfegh’s characters have not only dirt, but crushed xanax, bodily expulsions, pizza grease. She’s fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers. I’m definitely going to pick up her short story collection Homesick for Another World – though one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, when a title speaks to your soul like that, how could you not?

Another month over. I’ve already started re-reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Maybe I’ll do the whole trilogy over this season. My to-read pile is getting unwieldy again but, as usual, get in touch with your recommendations.

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