“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
I’ve been thinking a lot about reading as therapy recently. Bibliotherapy is what I do for a living, but even in our day to do lives, outside of a specifically therapeutic contexts, reading is healing. Why is that? What is it about getting out of our own skin for a few hours that allows us to come back refreshed and ready?
I find myself in a position of flux, hungry for change, noticing – perhaps overidentifying with – the way characters adapt to or resist changes presented to them in the narrative. Conflict, development, adjustment. They’re the perfect circumstances for growth, and for harm. You’ve got to lean into them. There is no point pushing, like Sisyphus, agains the rock that is rolling towards your head. Not when you could just roll with it. Even if it does give you a nasty bump at first.
But enough about me.
Anna Burns’ Milkman, the 2018 Man Booker Prize winner, is as narratively rich and complex as you’ve heard, but two things come as a pleasant surprise. Firstly, this book is far funnier than one would expect a novel about sexual surveillance during a civil war would be. Secondly, speaking as a person with extremely limited knowledge of Northern Irish history, this book and its protagonist feel refreshingly real and contemporary, so that a reading devoid of context is a satisfying and endearing experience (though, of course, the context adds a depth of value that makes the world of this book worth exploring). Purposefully oblivious to the world around her, often with her nose literally in a book, Milkman’s teen narrator is compelled to think hard about things that either terrify or marginalise her. She is me having to contend with Brexit, the #metoo movement, school shootings. “This would be a 19th-century book,” she writes of her escapist walks, book in hand, “because I did not like the 20th century.” Quite.
Speaking of the 20th century, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman is a weird little parable about fitting in for so long that you begin to stick out. I do not know what it is like to be content and unambitious as the novel’s narrator, Keiko, but I do know how it feels to be problematic by one’s very nature; to have characteristics which are, limitingly, read as flaws by some, when in fact they come to be a source of pride and advantage when we are allowed to set our own parameters. This novel is odd and deadpan, with a strange beauty and a tolerable level of consumer fetishism. I enjoyed it tremendously.
We all know by now how I feel about food writing. Give me a book where the plates are laid high with sausages, where the sugar glistens on the doughnut like snow on the alps, with lavish feasts and lashings of ginger beer. When it comes to real life, however, it’s a little more complicated than that. I’m busy, and too much of my daily scran is hastily packed in tupperware to be microwaved later, or whatever vegetarian bite I can find near the train station. I have food intolerances and ethical demands to cater to. Add to that an atmosphere of moralising around food and it’s a miracle I ever eat anything but tangerines and Ryvita. Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up is a delicious antidote to contemporary food guilt, be it anxious calorie counting, stressing over nutritional value, or desperately scanning food labels to make sure these peppers are organic, non-GMO, and boycott complaint. This is particularly germane in the tough month of January, when the sponsored ads are united agaainst your gastronomic sanity. What’s more, she’s a thoughtful writer who (often deliberately and self-consciously) evokes a millennial Nora Ephron. A wonderful voice in modern food writing; put it on your list.
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is another nourishing read that encourages us to honour our pain, as vital a part of our story as our joy. With more than a hint of southern gothic, this novel’s song is the intergenerational trauma of a family, anchored by Jojo, a boy teetering on adulthood. There are a lot of peripheries in this novel: Jojo’s mother is almost able to be a parent; his grandmother is almost dead; everyone sees ghosts who haven’t crossed over. It follows Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and, more abstractly, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo in narratives of American history reclaimed by those who have to live in its shadow. I think this would reward patient rereadings. In its tenderest moments it borders on saccharine, but it’s hard to begrudge a little sweetness in a novel contending with so much trauma. Plus it was one of President Obama’s favourite books of the year, and what endorsement could be more apropos than that? (I also read Michelle Obama’s Becoming this month, but I haven’t much to say about it other than she has had a fascinating and in many ways unique life).
One book I unfortunately cannot endorse is Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, a dense, philosophical and florid novel about loneliness and guilt. I found this book tiresome and unmemorable; the thing that has really stuck with me about it is how forcefully it asked that I contend with my own guilt, which I truthfully found a bit much for reading on my commute (!). Perhaps this will find fans in readers more theologically minded than I.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series has changed my life. The concluding two books, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child not only bring to a close Lina and Lenu’s friendship epic in a satisfyingly unsatisfying manner, it’s a discourse on personal responsibility and humanism that belies the series’ beach-read reputation. It is so easy to denigrate women’s literature – particularly women writing about women – as peripheral or not serious. Ferrante shows that domestic social fiction is anything but. I will reread the Neapolitan novels time and time again, and I am completely certain that as a different Danni approaches them, so too will a different Lina and Lenu reveal themselves. This series has given me the further treat of several gushing conversations with friends who are reading along with me, finding the series equally compelling and vital. The turbulent friendship of the novel’s heroines (or, depending on how I felt chapter to chapter, anti-heroines) is an eternal story perpetuated within the pages of the book and outwith them. I can’t wait to read again, honestly.
That was the month that January was. 2019 promises big changes chez Glover, and I’m ready for them! The great American writer Lemony Snicket tells us “Reading is a form of escape. Running away is another.” I plan to do both. Stay tuned.