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Six Recommendations

1. The Gaps by Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall’s The Gaps really caught my attention, and when I began to read, I struggled to put it down. Centred around a school in Australia, and dealing with some incredibly pertinent issues, such as poverty and homelessness, with both sensitivity and realism, I found The Gaps to be very far indeed from a typical young adult novel. The characters are incredibly realistic, and each has a distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading whatever Hall turns her attention to next.

2. A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

A Nail, A Rose is a fascinating collection of short stories, collected from across Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s writing life. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose style, and found that the translation has been handled wonderfully. I particularly admired the focus upon women, their inner lives, and outer mundanity of the day-to-day (something which I have been interested in for many years). Some of the stories here are truly excellent. I just wish this had been a lot longer!

3. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books of late which I have never heard of, but which catch my eye in my local library. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross is one such tome. At the age of 34, Gross, who worked for both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She passed away on Christmas morning, 2014, leaving behind her husband and young twin sons. Late Fragments is her searingly honest memoir, which deals with so many elements of her disease, as well as recapturing something of her earlier life. Gross’ writing is beautiful, and highly reflective, as one might expect.

4. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett’s second novel is smart, acerbic, and witty. The story centres around two married women, who live in Florida with their terror of a son. In With Teeth, Arnett focuses on the breakdown of relationships. Her observations are sharp and realistic, and she deals with several deep topics throughout. If you are looking to pick up a very focused character study, I would highly recommend seeking out this novel.

5. Fry’s Ties: The Life and Times of a Tie Collection by Stephen Fry

If you are going to pick up this rather niche book, all about British hero Stephen Fry’s extensive tie collection, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, narrated throughout in the author’s velvety tones. Before coming to this, I had no idea that anyone could make ties something akin to fascinating to a woman who has never worn one. Fry managed this feat, however. There is a lot about fashion history here, which I very much appreciated, and I found it entertaining from start to finish. Fry is excellent company for both hobbies and chores around the house, and I truly wish this book had been a longer listen!

6. Letter to My Rage: An Evolution by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Letter to My Rage is an incredibly short essay, which sings with both amusement and sardonic comments. I found Yuknavitch’s commentary incredibly current and to the point. She is also incredibly anti-Trump, which is always welcome to this reader. Highly pertinent, dark, and visceral, Letter to My Rage is revealing of its author. I also enjoyed it far more than her fiction.

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‘Under Storm’s Wing’ by Helen Thomas *****

Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.

Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.

As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.

As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’

Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’

Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’

The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’

Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’

Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.

Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.

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‘The Breaks’ by Julietta Singh ****

I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.

The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’

Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’

Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.

Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’

Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’

These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’

The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.

The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.

I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.

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‘The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature’ by Long Litt Woon ****

Malaysian anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature is a meditation on grief, and how nature helped her to regain some of the joy in life. The memoir centres around the sudden death of her Norwegian husband, Eiolf Olsen, in 2010. The pair had been married for thirty-two years, when she received the news that Eiolf had collapsed at work in his Oslo office, and could not be resuscitated. Long was understandably bereft, ‘disoriented, aimless, lost.’ It is only when she chooses to wander ‘deep into the woods and attunes herself to Nature’s chorus that she learns how the wild might restore us to hope, and to life after death.’

I love blends of memoir and the natural world, and was immediately drawn to this tome. I have found a lot of solace in nature myself, particularly during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. I was particularly interested in the way in which Long found solace in learning about mushrooms, with the help of various Norwegian associations. She first signed up to an introductory mushroom-picking course run by the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where she meets others from all walks of life: ‘Like all other communities, mushroom pickets represent a microcosm of society as a whole, although I didn’t see this to begin with.’ Something was sparked within her to continue on her journey of learning. She took the ‘inspector’s exam’, which has existed in Norway since 1952, and she is now a certified mycology professional. For Long, passing this exam was a ‘rite of passage’.

At the outset of her memoir, Long writes: ‘My new interest in mycology brought joy and meaning to my life at a time when everything looked very dark.’ She goes on to write that her concept for the book underwent many changes before publication: ‘… the link between my exploration of the world of fungi and my wandering through the wilderness of grief seemed to be the most interesting story here. So this book tells of two parallel journeys: an outer one, into the realm of mushrooms, and an inner one, through the landscape of mourning.’ She tells us that the study of fungi ‘offered my fresh perspectives and led me, little by little, to a new standpoint.’

Long’s prose is beautiful, particularly when she weaves in her descriptions of the natural world: ‘It is very easy, I find, to be lured deeper and deeper into the dark forest and suddenly find one’s self alone and surrounded by huge trees, with no obvious way back. At such times, it is not hard to imagine that you can hear the trees whispering to one another that they are going to catch this little mushroom gatherer with their long branches.’ I also really enjoyed the calm which she portrayed; when looking for mushrooms, you have to use all of your focus, ‘turn off your mobile phone… and simply be there – in the woods.’

Throughout, Long speaks of her grief, and her disbelief about Eiolf’s death, with raw honesty. She says: ‘I wanted to suffer every ounce of the torment… It was confirmation that he had lived, that he had been my husband. I did not want that to be gone as well.’ Later, she adds: ‘Life doesn’t end in a single moment, with one last gasp for breath. Death is made up of thousands of little moments, divine in their banality. They are so precious and I treasure every one of them.’ Following Eiolf’s funeral, she painfully remembers the following: ‘I went willingly into an inner exile. My sorrow swelled until it took over my life. I was swamped by grief: I woke in the morning, but had no desire to get up. I viewed the world through one single, solitary peephole, that of loss and pain… The end of a great era in my life was a fact.’ Her grief prompts Long to ask endless questions of herself, even whether she should stay in Norway, where she has lived for the majority of her life. She asks such things as: ‘Who am I now? I can’t live the life I once had, but I don’t know how my new life should be… I don’t really know what I’m looking for.’

Long describes, in detail, the many effects of her grief, from the complete numbing of her senses and loss of appetite, to insomnia. She no longer has interest in things which used to bring her joy, like reading, or music: ‘The shock of Eiolf’s death had plunged me into a deep well and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t kick off.’

Mushrooms are used for so much in the modern world: as the basis for drugs essential for organ transplantation and cancer treatment; as natural dyes for yarn; as a source of inspiration for nature photographers; as food. The world of fungi is vast, and it is difficult even for experts to pinpoint the numbers of different species around the world. In Norway, Long imparts, 44,000 species have been recorded: fungi make up almost 20% of this total, whereas only 0.2% are mammals. There are such differences between them, too. As Long writes: ‘… fungi present a riotous cornucopia: mushrooms come not only in brown and white, but in every imaginable, and unimaginable, shape and hue. They may be stubby and springy, lovely and graceful, delicate and transparent, or so spectacular and bizarre that they seem like something from another planet.’

Long is open about how her new interest soon became a passion, and the positive effects which it had upon her. She is keen to share her experiences, telling us: ‘With each new mushroom I learned to identify, every new site I visited, and every new mushroom buddy I made, I gradually became more integrated into the community. And, although I didn’t know it, each of these experiences represented another tiny mouse-step towards the end of the black tunnel of mourning.’

The Way Through the Woods was originally published in Norwegian, and has been flawlessly translated into English by Barbara J. Haveland. The book was longlisted for the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2019, and contains a ‘mushroom register’ in its appendix, along with an extensive bibliography and notes section. There are also charming illustrations scattered throughout the narrative, all of which were drawn by the author.

The narrative has been cleverly arranged, split into more measured sections which focus heavily upon mycology, and other, more emotional chapters about her relationship with Eiolf, and her place in the world after his death. Both are shown in different fonts. Ideas between the two inevitably overlap, but I did find this to be an interesting technique.

The Way Through the Woods is highly expansive, both in terms of the memories it relates, and its nature writing. I found Long to be an utterly charming narrator, and particularly loved the scene in which she describes a mushroom which she has been seeking for a long time: ‘This discovery seemed totally undeserved, like being allowed to lap up the vanilla custard filling without having to eat the rest of the bun first.’ Long is an excellent writer, blending serious subjects, and a real keenness for the world around her, with humour. She shares with us moments big and lifechanging, and small and comforting. The mycology here is very specific, but other themes – death, loss, grief, healing – are universal.

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Six Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2022…

… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.

  1. In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)

‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”

The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’

2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)

‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.

Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.

But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.

With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?

Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’

3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)

‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.

In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.

Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’

4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)

‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’

5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)

‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”

Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’

6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)

‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’

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‘The Still Point of the Turning World’ by Emily Rapp ****

I have wanted to read Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World for quite some time. I was reminded of Rapp’s memoir when reading Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl, which tells of her experiences with her daughter’s very rare condition, Wolf–Hirshhorn syndrome. Rapp’s book revolves around her young son, Ronan, who was diagnosed with a degenerative, and always fatal, disorder named Tay–Sachs disease when he was less than a year old. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp recounts her ‘journey through grief and beyond it’.

Ronan, the only child of Rapp and her husband, lived a happy early life in New Mexico. However, his parents became concerned that he was not meeting his developmental milestones. Ronan’s paediatrician believed that it might be a simple issue with his vision. During a trip to the ophthalmologist, ‘cherry-red spots on the back of his retinas’ were found; this is a red-flag for Tay–Sachs. His parents were given his diagnosis when he was nine months old, and were heartbreakingly told that there was no cure, and no treatment for his condition. The disease stops nerves from working properly, and those diagnosed rarely live past the age of four. There are many stages of the disease: ‘… paralysis, blindness, deafness, spasticity, seizures, death.’

Rapp describes, in vivid prose, her panic at this moment: ‘The situation didn’t fit; it wasn’t right. My brain was broken; my heart was stopped. How could I still be alive, in this room, having been given this knowledge? It was grotesque and absurd and could not be happening.’ Later, she recalls: ‘I stopped wailing, except at night, when I would cry myself into a pit and then sleep there, shallowly. When I woke up, I felt as if I’d spent the night in a cold, skinny ditch by the side of some lonely road. Every morning the sky was bright blue… the trees along the walking trail outside our house still bare, everything brown. The world blue-brown but black, like a bruise. We felt beat up, pressed down. The world had a wild, new, terrifying clarity.’

Rapp begins her memoir: ‘This is a love story, which, like all great love stories, is ultimately a story of loss.’ Prior to his diagnosis, she tells us, she had many expectations for her son, and what he would go on to achieve in his long and healthy life: ‘Like his father, he would complete crossword puzzles in record time. Like me he would be physically fearless and an adventurous eater. He’d be fun but levelheaded, loyal and fair and smart… Maybe he would invent something world changing or build space rockets or become a fashion designer who made clothes from recycled trash.’

Throughout, Rapp displays all of her vulnerabilities. She writes with such honesty and clarity, despite her immense pain: ‘My time with Ronan was short and beautiful and shot through with light, laughter and, above all, a kind of love that stripped me to the bone.’ She describes at length the impossibility of reconciling her happy baby with his lack of future. She reveals: ‘Even though I loved being with Ronan, it was also true that when I looked at him, I felt myself sliding into the place where crying would only dig a deeper, darker pit.’ The way in which she describes her son, and her grief following his diagnosis, is beautifully evoked: ‘I allowed myself to imagine Ronan in a landscape of light and continuous revelation, his life lived as a series of singular moments.’

Throughout, I really admired Rapp’s prose style. Her writing is open and honest, highly intelligent, philosophical, and raw. She describes her life as: ‘A constant tug of war: wanting to remember, wanting to forget; wanting this to be over, and of course never wanting Ronan’s life to end.’ Rapp also discusses at length the value and quality of life, and whether either can be truly quantified, as it all depends on circumstance and situation. ‘But what did that mean,’ she asks, ‘life is about living? What did it mean really? Was I saying that when my child could no longer think, that he was no longer a person? That, too, was a complicated question.’ She goes on: ‘Our family faced gruesome choices: how would we know when Ronan’s quality of life had diminished to the point where letting him go was the more humane option? Was it when he stopped swallowing and vocalizing, when he could no longer see us or experience our loving touch?’

Rapp discusses everything not just from a personal standpoint, as a mother trying to process the imminent death of her baby, but also from a wider, ethical one: ‘These decisions are made more emotionally complicated by the fact that the medical community in this country [the USA] has become expert at prolonging life to the point of being unwilling or unable to engage in any nuanced discussion about what it is they’re saving.’ She also touches upon religion, and the end-of-life stage.

Some of Rapp’s phrasing, whilst clearly relating to her own and her son’s situation, is applicable to our lives in the modern world, no matter what we may face: ‘We want will; we think relentless self-improvement will literally improve our lives, allowing us to literally control our happiness; we want to believe we have power over our own destinies. We, quite simply, do not have any control, not really, and this is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn.’ She is quick to emphasise, too, that this kind of shocking diagnosis can happen to anyone: ‘The geneticist told us that if we all had our DNA analysed, we’d freak out. We’d be horrified by the many possibilities…’. Later, she writes: ‘Grief, I realized, is watery and trembling and always exists beneath the surface of real life; just a gentle touch and it’s spilling everywhere.’

An element which I found very revealing in The Still Point of the Turning World was the way in which both friends and strangers would react to Ronan’s disease, and to her as his mother. She found those who had been excellent friends turning away from her, and forged strong relationships with support groups for families faced with Tay–Sachs diagnoses.

Lyrical, moving, and tender, The Still Point of the Turning World is a beautiful memorial to a son lost to a brutal disease.

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‘Love in a Dish and Other Pieces’ by M.F.K. Fisher ****

I was drawn to pick up prolific American food author M.F.K. Fisher’s Love in a Dish and Other Pieces following my reading of Laura Freeman’s memoir, The Reading Cure. Food and literature are two of my favourite things, and when they combine, magic can happen. That is entirely what I was expecting from my first taste of Fisher’s work.

Love in a Dish and Other Pieces brings together Fisher’s ‘intimate culinary essays [which] are well-loved American classics, combining recipes with her anecdotes, reminiscences, cultural observations and passionate storytelling.’ Pieces which span her career have been selected by Anne Zimmerman, and each is described as ‘a perfectly crafted work of art’. Love in a Dish and Other Pieces contains eleven essays in all, including the marvellously titled ‘I was Really Very Hungry’, and ‘Let the Sky Rain Potatoes’.

In 1929, Fisher travelled to Dijon, France, with her new husband. Here, she became enamoured with French cuisine, and ‘learned how to live and eat well and economically’. When she returned to the USA in 1932, a country at the mercy of the Great Depression, she began to write her essays. I thoroughly enjoyed the details which she shared about shopping when living in France, which is an experience in itself. She says that living in the country for an extended period allowed her to learn how to shop more efficiently: ‘Saturday mornings, there would always be a few crates of fresh vegetables. I could buy, for instance, little artichokes, new potatoes, carrots, courgettes, tomatoes, bananas; bread and butter and milk, of course, and some Gruyère cheese; a couple of soup sausages; and a copy of the weekly Mickey comics for the children. In the middle of the week, though, the stock at the store might consist of some dusty packages of noodles, a few big cubes of yellow laundry soap, and penny caramels for the twenty-eight children of the school district.’

Throughout, Fisher’s tone is chatty and warm. She clearly delights in revisiting her often amusing recollections. In ‘I was Really Very Hungry’, for instance, she writes: ‘Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.’ The title essay follows a similar theme, of lavish course after lavish course pressed upon her whilst in France; more food is pressed upon her than she can eat, all with the insistence of an exuberant waitress. She also imparts details about members of her family; her Victorian grandmother, for instance, who, with all of her ‘neuroses… found salads generally suspect, but would tolerate the occasional serving of some watery lettuce in a dish beside each plate.’

The content in Love in a Dish and Other Pieces is remarkably varied. Fisher tells of the history of potatoes, and how we came to eat them. There is an entire extended discussion on how to perfectly boil an egg. Throughout is her absolute devotion to culinary exploits. In ‘Once a Tramp, Always…’, she writes: ‘One does not need to be a king or mogul to indulge most, if not all, of his senses with the heady enjoyment of a dish – speaking in culinary terms, that is.’ Sating her senses is a true pleasure for Fisher, and she describes doing so in such evocative prose: ‘I can say just as surely that this minute, in a northern-California valley, I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace.’

The pieces here are all relatively short, but none feel brief; rather, their content has been so carefully considered, and as such, they feel like expansive, extended essays. Fisher is an impassioned author who has a lot to say, and much wisdom to impart. Each piece here is incredibly engaging, and I appreciated that she included so many easy-to-follow recipes.

Fisher is an excellent and entertaining writer, and I wish I had picked up her work years ago. What cheers me is that I have so many of her essays left to read; I am immensely keen to do so. Love in a Dish and Other Pieces is a wonderful blend of memoir and food writing, with the fondest of memories tied up with meals eaten and shared.

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‘The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite’ by Laura Freeman ****

I had had my eye on Laura Freeman’s memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, for quite some time before I borrowed it from my local library.  I, like many other readers, am consistently drawn to books about books, as well as those about health and medicine.  Freeman’s memoir, which discusses her long battle with anorexia nervosa, marries the two quite wonderfully.

When she was fourteen, Freeman was diagnosed with an eating disorder which made her daily life incredibly difficult.  Even when her recovery ‘seemed impossible, the one appetite she never lost was her love of reading’.  Reading was her salvation; with each book she immersed herself in, she began to rediscover how ‘to enjoy food – and life – through literature.’   

Freeman comments, early on, that her book differs from many other memoirs of anorexia, which ‘often stop at the first signs of recovery.  This book is about what comes next.  About the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness.  About Charles Dickens giving me the courage to try a spoonful of Christmas pudding.  About crumbling saffron buns on a walk with Laurie Lee… and picking teeth-staining mulberries with Elizabeth David. 

Following her diagnosis, her mother would take her to every appointment each week: ‘… once a week to the doctor, twice a week to a therapist, a specialist in anorexia, and once a week to the Daunt bookshop on Marylebone High Street.’  Freeman continues: ‘What else was there to do but read?  And so I did, piling books on the floor by my bedside table.  If words had been calories, I would have been gorged.  Reading was an escape when I was most desperate.  Later, it was medicine of a different sort.’ 

Freeman writes extensively about the books which she read, and the sheer variety of foodstuffs which each mentioned, which began to bestow a new perspective upon her – that food should be enjoyed.  At first, Freeman does not set out to read books about food, but as she gets further into her recovery, these are increasingly what she reaches for.  They give her the courage to try new foods, and reintroduce those which she has not eaten in years – like butter – or ever – such as cups of tea – into her life.  She talks about bad food, and good, in Dickens; then she moves on to memoirs written by several war poets, who remember things like bread and jam, and homemade pies, so fondly.  She tells us: ‘Reading Dickens had made me receptive to breakfasts, lunches and teas, and as I picked my way along the duck-boards with Sassoon, Blunden, Graves and Jones, I found myself noticing what they ate and what meals meant to them.’  Of Laurie Lee’s memoirs, which seem focused around his sheer delight for food, she writes: ‘What a thing to be ravenous, then to eat until bursting.  I only knew how to eat enough to take the edge off hunger, not to silence it completely.’  In short, the more Freeman read about food, and the process of eating, the more she was able to try. 

Of this period, she makes clear: ‘… nothing I had read had been strictly food writing.  When food came into a book, it was incidental, giving colour and savour to the story.  The meals I had read dropped like plums, unexpectedly, undesignedly, into my lap…  I was eating more widely, more easily, more cheerfully.’  She finds particular solace in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, which ‘struck a balance between not wanting to eat and knowing she must eat.  In her writing there is a spring-like pleasure, pinking and blossoming, cautious and gradual, in food and in her attempts, often haphazard, to cook.’ 

Throughout, Freeman’s writing is highly evocative, and filled to the brim with similes and comparisons.  In her introduction, she comments: ‘Let us call it by its proper name from the beginning.  Anorexia.  It is a difficult word.  It does not come easily.  Anorexia nervosa.  You cannot mumble it under your breath and hope no one has heard.  I do not like the length or uniformity of the word, its harsh X, like a pair of crossed femur bones.  You think of X-rays and skeletons.’  She then goes on to explain, in what was clearly an incredibly painful period in her life, the onset of her eating disorder in the summer of 2001.  She details the foods she gave up, the things she hid from others, and the hunger which was always present.  Freeman tells us: ‘Writing this does not come easily.  When I think of the worst of my illness, it still stirs something close to grief, mourning those years lost to hunger.’   

The Reading Cure is candid, and the author is always keen to share her experiences.  She expresses, with incredible honesty, how her disorder affected her selfhood: ‘I have called my illness a Jabberwock…  Anorexia is very like a Jabberwock.  You share your head with a monster whiffling malice and nonsense, burbling that you are fat, foul, snivelling, worthless.  In the library of your mind, it tears its claws through pages, stamps dirt across covers, lashes at pen pots and ink stands with its tail and beats its high-domed head and scaled shoulders against the door when you try to shut it out.  It is a shape-shifting illness.  Too many times I have pulled across the bolts, sunk to the floor, thought I had quieted it, only to find it slithering under the door like a flat-nosed snake.  I have watched as it has transformed itself back into a monster and seated itself, gloating, in my chair, in my book room, in my head.’ 

Freeman writes very openly about some of the fears surrounding food which she still harbours: ‘I may be nervous about cheeses, cakes, red meat, puddings, breads, and bagels, but I will eat them.  I can quiet my nerves, the more so if politeness – at a dinner, in company – demands it.’  She is still unable to eat chocolate, but can manage most other things.  This is not a book of failures, though; she writes at length about the struggles which she has overcome, and the courage which she has displayed time after time.  She says: ‘What I have found in reading isn’t a dictionary of foodstuffs – A is for apple amber, B is for beautiful soup, C is for cheese on toast – but a whole library of reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well.’ 

Although The Reading Cure was selected as part of various Books of the Year lists in 2018, I do not recall reading much about it, even at the time.  I pulled the following words from the many glittering reviews which can be found strewn about the paperback version: ‘miraculous’, ‘a tale of joy’, ‘enchanting and original’, and ‘healing, mouthwatering’.  I agree, and want to add that The Reading Cure is a book well worth picking up.  Freeman writes at length about why literature is so wonderful, and the ways in which it helped to save her life.  The books which she mentions are many and varied, and the chapters about children’s literature especially – The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh – are rather delightful.   

The Reading Cure is a truly engaging and considered memoir, which includes a lovely balance of warmth and honesty.  Freeman touchingly describes so many elements of her struggles and recovery, and those pieces of writing which have sustained and encouraged her.  The Reading Cure is a really lovely appreciation of so many things – books, the pleasure of eating, the company of others, the joy which can often be found in trying new things, or reuniting with an old favourite. 

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Six Recommendations

1. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec

During her 30s, Klinec decided to abandon her corporate job in order to pursue a career in the culinary arts, launching a cooking school from her London kitchen. This led her to travel to Iran, to learn how to cook traditional food in a Persian home. Vahid, the son of the woman she has been invited to stay with, seems prickly and standoffish at first, but they soon fall in love with one another. What ensues is much fascinating commentary on the melding of two very different cultures and customs, and I found it highly insightful.

2. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
This is rather an old-fashioned books in some respects, telling the story of a young ‘diddakoi’, or half gypsy girl. I have read quite a few of Godden’s books in the past, and plan to revisit them all at some point. It was lovely to be able to pick up something ‘new’, even though my library reservation came with rather a garish 1970s front cover. The Diddakoi is well plotted, and incredibly heartwarming.

3. The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee
I had not heard of Magda Hellinger’s story before spotting a copy in the library. Written by her daughter, Maya Lee, The Nazis Knew My Name tells the true story of an incredibly brave woman, who put herself in danger to help others around her when she was forcibly taken to various concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is a privilege to read Holocaust memoirs, and I found Hellinger’s memories incredibly moving.

4. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I am seemingly obsessed with swimming; I love to watch it at championships and Olympics when I get the chance, I love to swim myself, and I have already reviewed a couple of swimming-focused books in the past. I really admired the structure which Tsui adopts here, in a book which melds together history and memoir. Why We Swim is fascinating, readable, and I felt as though I learnt a great deal.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
The Light of the World is a memoir centered around the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. She is left with two young boys, not knowing how to go on without him, or whether to abandon any of the plans the pair made. Here, Alexander captures the essence of their loving relationship, from their early days, to their marriage of fifteen years, and the enormous task of trying to pick herself back up after his death. As The Light of the World has been penned by a poet, one should not be surprised that the prose is beautiful, and incredibly moving.

Assembly by Natasha Brown
At just over 100 pages long, one might be forgiven for thinking that Natasha Brown’s debut novella, Assembly, does not tackle much. Focusing on a young, Black, female protagonist working a high-level London job in the finance industry after graduating from a top University, Assembly explores so many issues around identity, the inner self, race, societal expectations, and trying to cope with living in our frantic world. I loved the structure, which is made up of many vignettes, and enjoyed Brown’s sharp descriptions. There is a real depth and intensity to Assembly. It is exciting modern fiction, and I very much look forward to what Brown writes in future.

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‘Wave’ by Sonali Deraniyagala ****

I’m sure that everyone remembers where they where when they first saw the terrifying footage of the tsunami which originated from an earthquake deep in the Indian Ocean, and struck several Asian countries on Boxing Day, 2004. Around 230,000 people are thought to have been killed as a result, and destruction was wreaked upon so many countries and communities. I chose to read a memoir which about the tragedy which is far more personal – Wave by Sri Lankan author Sonali Deraniyagala.

Deraniyagala had returned from her home in north London, to the coast of Sri Lanka, to visit her parents and siblings. She was staying at an upmarket resort next to a national park in Yala, with her husband, Steve, and two young sons, seven-year-old Vikram, and five-year-old Malli. Her parents were occupying the next bungalow, and her best friend was also staying at the resort with her own parents. This was supposed to be a restful end to their holiday, after spending some time in Colombo, where she grew up.

Deraniyagala’s narrative opens on the morning of the tsunami. She reflects: ‘I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.’ She goes on: ‘The foam turned into waves. Waves leaping over the ridge where the beach ended. This was not normal. The sea never came this far in. Waves not receding or dissolving. Closer now. Brown and gray. Brown or gray. Waves rushing past the conifers and coming closer to our room. All these waves now, charging, churning. Suddenly furious.’

What follows is heartbreaking. She gathers her husband and sons, and they manage to find escape in a Jeep owned by the hotel. Her parents are left behind in their room. The Jeep becomes quickly engulfed in water and overturns, and all are swept away. Deraniyagala recalls: ‘Then I saw Steve’s face. I’d never seen him like that before. A sudden look of terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape. He saw something behind me that I couldn’t see.’ She loses sight of her family immediately, and is rescued by some brave locals. There is no sign of her loved ones.

The author is honest about how scared she was feeling on that first night, and all of the uncertainties which existed around her: ‘In a few hours it will be light. It will be tomorrow. I don’t want it to be tomorrow. I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start.’ She is taken to stay with her cousin, and her extended family. At this point, she tells us: ‘They couldn’t have survived, I heard myself insist. I was prodding myself to say this, to think this. I must prepare for when I know it’s true, I thought.’ Later, she says: ‘In a stupor I began to teach myself the impossible. I had to learn it even by rote. We will not fly back to London. The boys will not be at school on Tuesday. Steve will not call me from work to ask if I took them in on time. Vik will not play tag outside his classroom again. Malli will not skip in a circle with some little girls… They will not peep into the oven to check if my apple crumble has cooked. My chant went on.’

It takes a lot of time to recover the bodies of her family. In this time, Deraniyagala is distraught. She tells those around her that she cannot live without her family, and that it will be only a matter of time before she takes her own life. She begins to turn to alcohol, and withdraws from life. She tells herself: ‘I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place. The more I remember, the greater my agony. These thoughts stuttered in my mind. So I stopped talking about them, I wouldn’t mouth my boys’ names, I shoved away stories of them. Let them, let our life, become as unreal as that wave.’

Wave is an incredibly powerful record, filled with vivid and visceral descriptions. Deraniyagala does not hide her pain; rather, she writes about it in raw, short sentences. Some oddly beautiful moments are captured, which seem quite at odds with what she is forced through. When she is swept away, for instance, she records: ‘I was floating on my back. A blue spotless sky. A flock of storks was flying above me, in formation, necks stretched out. These birds were flying in the same direction that the water was taking me. Painted storks, I thought. A flight of painted storks across a Yala sky, I’d seen this thousands of times. A sight so familiar, it took me out of the mad water.’

Deraniyagala lays her grief bare on every page. In painfully recounted scenes, she visits her childhood home, now completely empty after her parents’ death. She recalls the rage which she felt when the house was sold, and was occupied by another family, whom she spent a great deal of time terrorising. She also goes back to Yala, to the hotel in which everything changed. What she finds is completely destroyed: ‘There were no walls standing, it was as though they’d been sliced off the floors. Only those clay-tiled floors remained, large footprints of rooms, thin corridors stretching out in all directions.’ Whilst here, she finds her son’s t-shirt, in a scene which is particularly heartrending to read.

Deraniyagala is very honest about the myriad difficulties which she faced after the tragedy, as well as her strong, and often impulsive, reactions. Throughout, she grapples with the impossibility of never seeing her family again. She writes, in retrospect: ‘For three years I’ve tried to indelibly imprint they are dead on my consciousness, afraid of slipping up and forgetting, of thinking they are alive.’ Many things unmoor her, from going back to her London family home for the first time, almost four years later, to revisiting a bar which she and her husband used to frequent. She writes: ‘… I am relieved to reenter the warmth of our life, even though I know that reality will get me, later.’

Wave is a touching and beautiful memorial to a lost family. Deraniyagala writes with such truth, and such courage. She is open about the guilt and bewilderment she feels at surviving. Wave is not an easy read by any means, but it is an important one, and I would recommend it to everyone.