Last week I invited a gathering of poets to pick a poetry book that has given solace. This week I turned to Aotearoa fiction writers. A raft of fiction writers.
Last week we could go to bookshops and order online, and I had started my phone an independent bookshop to get NZ picks and buy a book or two. That is on hold.
And now today we are in our wee bubbles for at least a month. It feels like books are rafts upon which we can float and drift. Lloyd Jones used the word comfort. Perfect word. We can find comfort in all manner of reading experiences.
I woke up at 4 am, having had six hours sleep in a row, which felt like a miracle after two hours the night before. It is as though we have body worry, this strange time when we reach out in new ways. Ah but it gave me great comfort assembling this in the early hours of this morning. I have made a list of books from this I am itching to read.
Over on Poetry Box I am posting something every day by me or other children’s authors. Today I am reading a book of mine most special to me Aunt Concertina and her Niece Evalina and laying a challenge for children.
I feel like I have 65 years worth (minus a few months) of books inside me that have comforted me. Here are three books that in their astonishingness gave me top-level book comfort: The Milkman Anna Burns, The Absolute Book Elizabeth Knox, The Burning River Lawrence Patchett.
More lists in the pipeline!
Karori Confidential: Selected Columns by Leah McFall (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2018)
When I looked at my shelves in search of books that might give people especial pleasure at this time, I saw Karori Confidential by Leah McFall and immediately had my candidate, even though it isn’t fiction. What it is though is a guarantee of enormous enjoyment – each page has truths drawn from the flow of everyday living that are either funny or moving or both.
True, funny, moving – what more could one want? And, just now, the everyday world Leah captures with such attentive affection has the added preciousness of being out of reach for us all. Just now, for a limited time only, it comes with an extra poignancy. Just now, it is almost fiction.
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, published by Text.
I read this because I’d read her recently published diaries. She’s wonderful. Monkey Grip is set in the 70’s in Melbourne. They’re always going out to gigs and going on spontaneous adventures to Tasmania. Hippies, I guess. Fucking and getting stoned. It’s grim at times and Nora – the female lead – suffers from love sickness, but against what’s happening in the world now it’s light and airy and full of goodness.
The Summer Book Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, foreword by Esther Freud, Sort of Books, 2003.
My mother died not long ago, during the last week of January. She had a stroke on her 84th birthday and was dead a week later. I spent that week with her, at Christchurch hospital, and every day I drove beside the estuary and stopped to walk and watch the godwits. I guess, without being dramatic about it, I was thinking about the incredible flight the godwits would soon begin and, opposite that, the gentle-drift of my mother from consciousness to death. The two elements connected in such a way to bring about a sense of peace. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson was written in 1972, not long after her own mother died. The novel is set on a small island in the Gulf of Finland and the story is carried by the grandmother – think of a Helen Garner type – and her six year old granddaughter. The child is motherless, and her father is absent. The spirit of death flows though the book, notably in the conversations between the girl and her granny but there is often a sharp glint of light, almost as if reflected off the waves. The book is an observation of the tiny island, and the people seem no greater nor smaller than crabs or seabirds. In this microcosm of life, there is a sense of lightness and belonging.
What I’d like to read when seeking solace: Boy Overboard by Peter Wells, because that man knew how to work magic with words, and who doesn’t want to read something beautiful at a time like this? But I’m not going to quote from this book, because I don’t own my own copy.
What I’m more likely to read when seeking solace: Turbulent Priests by Colin Bateman. Before, she’d have laughed heartily at the suggestion that she might get involved with the sort of women who spent their time discussing the social history of linen or how to create flower arrangements depicting a five-point fall in the Dow-Jones Index. Maybe giving birth changes you. Maybe having a six-pound ginger bap fighting his way sideways out of your birth canal for eight hours fucks up your mental faculties.
What I’m actually reading (and I don’t know about the solace bit): Management review input checklist for ISO 15189:2012 Internal auditing . . .
What I’ve enjoyed reading most in the last 24 hours, though I don’t know if it provided solace. However, my partner and I nearly wet our britches we were laughing so much: Reddit conversation about preparing your dead cat’s skull as an ornament that went something like this: When my old cat dies I want his (clean) skull to put on my mantle or desk. I’ve tried looking into taxidermy in the area but they seem to either be mostly fishing trophy places or booked up with big game projects.
My pick is Adrienne Jansen’s The Score, published by Escalator Press. It’s filled with a diverse cast of likeable characters, warm-hearted and gently prods at our attitudes to refugees and immigrants.
Here is an extract from Annie Ernaux’s The Years – a memoir where the world grows into character – ‘[In the mid-60s] The table talk revolved around the arrival of a supermarket, the building of a public pool, the Renault 4L, and the Citroen Ami 6. Those who had televisions held forth on the physical attributes of ministers and talk show hostesses, discussing celebrity as if they lived next door. The fact of having watching Raymond Olivier prepare pepper steak flambe, a medical programme with Dr Ignore Barerre appeared to grant them a superior right to speak. Before the stiffness and indifference of those who did not have televisions…’ Any page of this riveting ‘memoir’ delivers something or other that we recognize or remember from our own lives. Especially those who popped up in the world between 1941 and 2006, this being the period that The Years covers.
But a novel…one offering ‘solace in our troubled times…?’ Solace. I don’t read for comfort. I prefer something that rattles my cage. Shifts me in such a way to reconsider the ground I stand on.
But if by solace we mean a big baggy comfort-read, how about Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin? A novel written at breakneck speed in the closing years of the war, Fallada’s working class heroes are politicised into taking action against the Fuhrer after their son is killed in France. Otto Quangel works in a furniture factory soon to turn out coffins. On Sundays, after lunch, he and his wife sit down to write an anti-regime message on the back of a postcard, they then wander into a city to look for a place to leave the postcard. The German title translates as ‘Each dies only for himself’ which somewhat gives the game away. Over two years the Quangels will drop several hundred postcards across the city. Most of them will fall into the hands of the Gestapo before they are read, but taking action is what counts.
And, for a bit of social dislocation in the nineteenth century how about the unhappy marriage in rural France of a country doctor to a young and attractive woman of a different social class. Madame Bovary is stuck between expectations and desire. I have been taking turns in reading the novel aloud during skype sessions with my partner trapped in Australia (I think she would say the same about me being trapped in NZ). Her Madame Bovary translated in 1938 feels weirdly more current than my Picador translation from just a few years ago. In broad outline the two Madame Bovary’s are the same book, but the language is strikingly different. I thought mine was almost inept until I read the Translator’s note, and he says he deliberately set out not to offer a translation but to produce an English version of Flaubert’s sentence structure. Fortunately that ambition doesn’t get the way of a great novel. Madame Bovary is a dreadful woman, but dreadful in the way we all are – irritable, impatient, short, selfish, but determined to make amends, try better, try again. To put up some sort of social defence against the raw energy of desire.
If you are locked down with your partner, this is the novel for you.
Finally, a beguiling and surprising love story in a minor key. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. The female narrator runs into her old art teacher at her local sushi bar, and that’s pretty much it. They drink a lot, eat, talk, drink, and an unlikely love affair fires up.
The book I’ve chosen is Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. While I believe all reading for pleasure is some kind of solace, Yoshimoto’s writing excels. She generates so much sentimentality in her writing while promising the reader that it will never turn into corniness. And this is all done in a very sharp, non-hostile, non-FOMO manner, if that makes sense.
I picked Kitchen for the katsudon scene. I won’t spoil the scene, but as someone whose birthday meal growing up from mum was homemade katsudon, seeing katsudon written about with a real understanding of its value, with seriousness, as the central feature in a moving, literary scene was the best surprise. There is real solace is knowing that the things that are meaningful to you are meaningful to others, which is what I find in Yoshimoto’s books and Kitchen in particular.
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
I have chosen this book because of the way it instantly pulls me into the story so that I feel like I am living the life of the main character. Right now, I want to be lost in a parallel world. The characters in this novel are professional musicians and the thread of classical music that runs through the book enhance the themes of love, longing and human relationships.
I have found my fictional solace in a book that is not quite fiction, but a memoir.
Renee’s These Two Hands (Mākaro Press) has fictional elements. Such as ‘Patch 40: Leafy Greens: a fairy tale’. ‘Leafy Greens’ is a short tale almost halfway through the award-winning writer’s memoir. The story is about an old (a description the memoir will educate you on) woman, leafy greens and peanut brownies without the peanuts. The simple tale is funny and uplifting, like much of the memoir is.
The book includes hard times, of course. Renee is a 90 year old woman, and has the memories to show for it. What broke my heart was reading of Renee, as a 12 year old girl needing to leave school and find a job. What uplifted me was that this never seems to have broken the writer’s spirit. Not for a minute. The memoir includes poems, excerpts of plays including from the acclaimed Wednesday to Come, and pieces – snapshots – of this incredible woman’s life.
She generously includes a recipe for meatloaf (meatloaf!), which I have since tried, and loved. This is like a first aid book for lockdown. It is told in patches, which not only makes it feel manageable with today’s current distraction, but makes it feel like a quilt. As the book’s first sentences says its purpose is “To warm, to comfort, to read under or to read like a book. to shelter, to wear when there’s a flood, to grab when there’s an earthquake…”
If you are missing some of the wisdom and no bullshit of some of the older people in your life ( and I say this with the wisdom of the book’s ‘Patch 68’, a poem called ‘Old People Are…’) then this book might help you through. Like a quilt it is a “practical solution to an eternal problem – how to keep warm at night.”
Pastoralia by George Saunders
One thing that draws me to George Saunders work is how it invites empathy to people who otherwise are usually left out. His characters and narrators are often flawed, they’re not always nice to each other and they don’t always make life easier for others but they all have something endearing about them. Most the stories have a post-apocalyptic feel, either disaster or economic related. They are full of people worn down by circumstance and trying their best to keep going. It sounds intense but its also hilarious and entertaining. It makes you feel like the world is bleak but people are strong.
I’m recommending Alice McDermott’s Someone. It’s one of those deceptively quiet books which sneak up on you and envelop you in their warmth and light. Someone is ostensibly about the life of a woman living in Brooklyn, NYC in the twentieth century. She doesn’t leave the country, or really Brooklyn during the novel. She observes the street and the people around her, including her family, and family are often the most mysterious of people. It’s moving, but not manipulative, it’s slow and fast and does weird things with time. And Alice McDermott is funny as. Witness the scene where she goes upstairs in the funeral parlour where she works and observes the women talking around subjects — certain nods for certain unspeakable subjects. I’m not sure why McDermott isn’t better known. I read an interview with her in The Paris Review, and my boss lent me his copy of Someone. I’ve since bought it for two people and now, having given my boss’s copy back to him, I shall order a copy of my own.
Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press). This book gripped me by the heart, then tore it out. Beautiful and savage by turns; I felt as if I were living this story, which made it a tough but essential read. I defy anyone to read this and deny that there are cycles of poverty and violence in our society. Reminiscent of The Bone People and Once Were Warriors.
Kelly Ana Morey
Gillian Slovo Ice Road. Fabulous chunky novel about the Siege of Leningrad which Slovo published in 2004. It was a brutal period in modern history, a time when having the neighbours over for dinner had sinister implications. Just a bit of perspective in these very strange days.
I recommend The Heavens by Sandra Newman. The premise on its own is tremendous and the writing is stunning, but hopefully without giving too much away, the ending with a community (in the real sense of the word) coming together with support and shared resources is both beautiful and relevant for where we are at right now.
Right now I need to disconnect and enter another world entirely so my ideal solace reading has a fantastical element and I’m recommending The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by HG Parry. It’s set in Wellington and is about a battle that ensues when a bunch of literary characters break out from the pages of their books and come to life. It’s entertaining, funny and gripping, filled with characters you’ll know from years of reading and it may well send you off on a tangent re-exploring some old classics.
The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
I’ve never read a book so slowly. For months, I kept it by the bed – not, perhaps, the wisest place for something entitled The Book of Disquiet. But often it lulled me into deeper and more peaceful sleeps than I’d had before – or have had since.
The Portuguese poet Pessoa wrote this over 23 years, jotting down often undated fragments on loose scraps of paper that were pieced together after his death. Set in 1930s Lisbon, it’s the fictional diary of a perfectly ‘ordinary’ middle-aged clerk – but reading it is an extraordinary experience. It’s alternately intensely melancholic and beautifully uplifting.
Pessoa offers sharp, lyrical observations on interior and exterior life – from the fall in one’s spirits when the sun disappears behind cloud, to the alarm of hearing about not-so-distant wars.
The ‘modern’ world, according to Pessoa’s protagonist, belongs to the ‘stupid, the insensitive, and the disturbed’. It’s strangely comforting to realise that, nearly a hundred years ago, he was feeling the same sense of disquiet we’re all feeling now.
Diaries are great reading in chaotic, troubled times. They keep you company through long nights and too-early mornings. And they bestow a feeling of order on ‘real’ life that’s either saturated with reportage or goes mostly undocumented. I’ll be stepping back into Pessoa’s dreamlike Lisbon during these worrying times, and gaining solace through his quietly expressed hopes and dreams for a better future.
I would actually recommend my own newly-released novel for people to read: Ephemera. Because it is incredibly topical!
We were probably doomed from the moment the virus hit the airport.
Several years after a global meltdown, New Zealand, along with the rest of the world, is still in chaos. No electricity, no broadband, and people are in survival mode – at least until somebody turns the lights on again.
Ruth has always led a sheltered life. Pre-Crash, she worked as an Ephemera Librarian, now she is managing a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. But her sister is dying from tuberculosis and her love for Juliana propels Ruth to undertake a perilous journey.
She intrepidly sets off from Auckland to find the man known as Nelson and his rumoured stockpile of pharmaceutical drugs. Word has it he is based at the old Huka Lodge. Along with the handsome Lance Hinckley and enigmatic Adebowale Ackers, Ruth travels by steamboat up the Waikato River – the only practical way. The group journeys through settlements that have sprung up along the river as people try to re-establish their lives in this precarious time. With society itself broken, will Ruth manage to keep her commitment to her sister without compromising her own values?
ASPIRING by Damien Wilkins. He has this special knack of giving us all this gorgeous insignificant detail, all these tiny insignificant moments in people’s lives in a small town. Why? I keep asking myself. Then I realise: Oh, you’re making them significant. A gentle, calm lifting of all the things that might otherwise fall through our fingers.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Surely the most tender novel in the English language. I’ve read it dozens of times; sometimes opening it at random. I’m always rewarded by its insights, its humanity, and the wisdom of Jane. The excellent Musgroves, the insufferably snobby Sir Walter and his devious heir, and my bookish favourite, Captain Berwick, whom I imagine travelling, smiling to himself after his proposal for Louisa’s hand is accepted. Berwick might be bookish and too fond of poetry but he knows how to kill rats. And Anne Elliot, speeding along the streets of Bath so happy she could fly. As always, Jane Austen undercuts what might be considered sentimental: the sick are more often irritable than heroic, and paying court to others is not nearly as rewarding as self-knowledge.
Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (2014)
Because the prose is beautiful. Because life is complicated and we can’t eliminate suffering or difficulty, and yet, despite our differences, our limited understanding and uncertainty, there is still tenderness, kindness and hope.