Poetry Shelf connections: 20 New Zealanders pick a comfort book

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Julia Marshall was on RNZ’s Morning Report this week talking about the Covid impact on our book communities with the closure of bookshops. Book sales of all genres, local and international, unsurprisingly have taken a hit. Some books have been moved to a new publication date, some launches dropped, some launches have gone online.

The best thing New Zealanders can do, Julia recommended, is to keep local bookshops open by buying local.

I started this book-list series because the world was spinning and I couldn’t settle or sleep; books, writing, cooking and gardening gave me the utmost comfort. Not everyone wanted to read or cook or garden, but I wanted Poetry Shelf to be an Open House – a place to make connections for readers and writers. A book list seemed like a good idea. I used the word solace. I used the word comfort. I used the words much loved. So many people have contributed over the past six weeks and for this I am grateful.

We are about to move into Level 2. Bookshops will be open, launches can be held, but things will still be different as we face daily challenges and changes.

Poetry Shelf will continue to be highly active – to offer connections that just might offer diversion, delight, and even at times, comfort.

This week I have been reading a stack of children’s books recently published because I am going to post a Gecko Books reading diary on Poetry Box today (Penguin next week). This was my favourite:

 

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Delphine Perrit’s A Bear Named Bjorn resonated because it is sweetly written. I agree with Bernice Mene that opening sentences can be such a hook. Even this simple: ‘Bjorn lives in a cave. The walls are very smooth. The floor is pretty comfortable.’ Turn over and you discover this bear, who loves mail-order catalogues, has won a red, three-seater sofa. It is the perfect book to read now – as couriers deliver avocados, paper and wine – and as we rediscover what fits in our lives and what doesn’t. Friendship and kindness are highly valued.

I am going to keep the comfort book lists going for a bit longer as way of supporting all aspects of our book industry.

A warm ‘thank you’ to everyone who contributed to this list because I know doing things has been much harder than usual. Kia kaha.

 

The Booklist

 

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Gretchen Albrecht (Artist)

I seem to have had a great surge in reading this year and one standout for me was a novel I started in summer at the beach and finished just on cusp of lock-down: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Extraordinarily beautiful evocation of place and a deeply satisfying read. I loved it.

Since then I have ploughed through The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, and a re-read of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and her latest, The Mirror and the Light. Mantel has a achieved something pretty amazing with these three, they seem to have a painterly eye, a poets ear for phrases and images and an ability to inhabit her characters in 16thC England. Bring up the Bodies remains the most satisfying for me in its completeness and tight focus around Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall.

However, to answer your question re comfort (at any point)…..

Two Books that remain personally comforting whenever I miss my parents – although they died decades ago (!) there are occasions when I wish I was a child again and they were alive and loving me – are:

Patrimony by Philip Roth and Between them by Richard Ford. They speak of the relationship – child and parent(s) – that universal source that sweeps us along, helpless in the its powerful undertow.

 

 

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Mary Biggs (Operations manager, Featherston Booktown Festival)

Over the sometimes anxious lockdown period, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and been absorbed by The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. It’s a story about Mary Bennet, the middle sister of the five Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Often overlooked and mercilessly teased for being plain and serious, Mary comes of age from a gauche, awkward, diligent teenager looking for escape from an unhappy home life (probably through marriage) to a young woman who eventually finds self-love, and then married love by realizing in the words of Mr Collins, ”our happiness depends on ourselves”.

She learnt to choose to be happy after watching and sharing in the contented family life at her uncle’s, Mr Gardiner’s, home in London. The author knows her Austen and there are plenty of references to Jane’s other books as well as a sharp wit and clever story telling.

 

 

 

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Toby Buck (Landfall Essay Prize Joint-Winner 2019, Sales and Marketing Manager at Te Mata Estate Winery)

Always been a fan of a short book and these titles are a bit of chocolate-box collection of sorts. Each one is a treat that I’ve been saving to read or re-read. I’ve also been enjoying the audiobook of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Flannery O’Connors Everything That Rises Must Converge. Great listening while making bread and cleaning, then re-cleaning until it’s time to make bread again.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays by Martin McDonagh
Let The Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera
Christmas With Dull People by Saki
A Good Man is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Brain of Katherine Mansfield by Bill Manhire

The Nimrod Flip-Out by Etgar Keret
A Forgotten Kingdom by Mike Nelson
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso
Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabakov
Seven Days in Mykonos by Anne French

 

 

 

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Chanel Clarke (Curator Māori, Auckland Museum)

Before Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand, I had already been one week into mandatory self-isolation having returned from South Africa on a work trip. Halfway through my isolation, I realised that the whole country was very soon going to join me all working from home. I gleefully began to imagine the half started writing projects that could finally get done and kicked out the door without the constant work interruptions. Alas, this has not been the case and as the business of museums and indeed the entire world transitions to online the pace of work just ramped up tenfold. As an on-again-off-again PhD student, and a historian, I’m a non-fiction reader through and through. On top of that, I’m a slow reader, so the thought of adding fiction to the list while tempting is probably not going to happen.

I could relate to Karyn Hays’ post though on the previous list and must also shamefully admit that my small collection of self-help books have probably all been purchased from airport book shops while waiting for planes. And so it is to the self-help shelf on the bookcase that I have turned at this time. I’ve been reading snippets of Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a book I came across a couple of years ago as a PhD student. A computer science professor at Georgetown University, Cal writes about the intersection of digital technology and culture and in particular our struggle to deploy these tools in ways that support instead of subverting the things we care about in both our personal and professional lives.

Cal has been developing several ideas in his books over the past decade, including his Deep Work Hypothesis, and Digital Minimalism. He has argued that our ability to focus without distraction is becoming increasingly rare (due, primarily, to distracting technology), at the same time that it’s becoming increasingly valuable (as the knowledge economy becomes more cognitively demanding). As a result, those individuals and organisations who cultivate their ability to perform “deep work” will enjoy a major competitive advantage.

Similarly, he has argued that the services delivered through our devices have become so alluring and addictive that they can significantly erode the quality of our lives and our sense of autonomy. He calls for us to embrace digital minimalism by radically reducing the time we spend online, focusing on a small number of activities chosen because they support things we deeply value, and then happily miss out on everything else. Somehow I don’t think my teenage daughter will appreciate this philosophy. During this once in a lifetime experience that is Covid-19, as we take one week, and one day at a time, I have found myself returning to Cal’s rules for deep work. I have tried to choose just one task, finish it well, pat myself on the back, and carry on. When you are wading in the shallows of emails and yet another zoom meeting Cal provides a road map to help you through and to work smarter not harder.

 

 

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Giselle Clarkson (Cartoonist)

 

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John Cranna (Director, Creative Hub)

During the lockdown I have been returning to a beautiful book that I have read several times, Solitude and Loneliness by Alastair Sarvananda Jessiman (Windhorse)

Jessiman is a playwright whose work is regularly broadcast by the BBC. In this book he looks at the tension between these two forces – and how loneliness, if embraced, can ‘season us’, can invite us into the innermost hidden parts of our lives, and allow us to emerge reinvigorated and renewed. The fire to our Phoenix.

With reference to Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth and Alan Bennet, he notes that contemporary life is continually drawing us away to superficial stimulation, but that through contemplation of the inner life, with great artists as our guides, we can live much more fully and richly in the present.

Paradoxically, then, the lockdown starts to seem like a gift – an opportunity to go deeper into the places that really matter.

He is particularly good on solitary retreats in the wilderness – where we can also attune ourselves to nature’s rhythm, and revitalise our sense of the miraculous possibilities of language.”

 

 

 

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Barbara Ewing (Actor)

I’m locked down for an extended time in New Zealand, instead of London, a quirk of fate caused by the plans we had made for having my new book published here. I am at the moment without very many things that give me comfort, including my books. But I do have a huge range of NZ books in London that I definitely get pleasure and comfort from all year round – and I am always grabbing people by the lapels and saying: “Do you realise how good New Zealand writing is?” and reading to them!

Three of these books are:

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry by Vivienne Plumb that includes the poem “On Using People You Love in Your Poems”” that makes me laugh.

Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither, which includes the poem “The Heart Heals Itself Between Beats,” which makes me cry.

Shame Joy by Julie Hill whose eccentricity I love: a collection of short stories including the truly brilliant New Zealand short story “The Pavlova Debacle.”

 

 

 

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Jordan Hamel (Poet, co- editor Stasis Journal)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
The debut novel from one of the best poets alive. The coming-of-age story of the son of Vietnamese immigrant parents in the US, as seen through letters to his mother. Its so easy to get lost in Vuong’s playful and lush lyricism, this book is just great An absolute fucking treat.

Oyster – Michael Pederson
I bought this poetry collection from Vic Books when we moved to level 3, it came with a free bag of coffee beans, both the book and the beans have now been devoured. I love how Michael’s poems know when to string you a long, when to pull the rug from under you, when to hold you and when to let you go. Its bittersweet seeing the late Scott Hutchison’s illustrations alongside Michael’s poems but overall I can still hear Michael’s voice rise from the page as clearly as it did on stage at Verb Festival last year and I get all gross and nostalgic for a time when we could have lit events and listen to live poetry in a bar.

Baby – Annaleese Jochems
I love Annaleese’s writing, I love this weird story so much, isolation dominates the main character’s journey in so many different ways, the claustrophobic, manic, repressed, horny energy of this book is such a vibe for right now. Just buy it, read it and support great local writers like Annaleese please.

 

 

 

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Miranda Harcourt (Actor, coach)

I used to be a fiction reader but for some reason non-fiction really appeals to me now. Maybe because I spend my work-time immersed in making fiction… or maybe because these days fact seems stranger than anything that could occur in a book. Quantum Physics is my favourite. At school I was not at all interested in the sciences so I don’t have the requisite background knowledge but when I read something like Brian Greene’s UNTIL THE END OF TIME I find myself in strange and amazing new worlds.

Actually, alongside my dear friend Deb Smith, I love mid-20th-century children’s books, and when I think about it, it is the books that had something to do with time and space that appealed to me even then. CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES by Penelope Farmer, THE CHANGEOVER by Margaret Mahy and A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle all grabbed me, as well as the works of Ursula LeGuin.

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to delve more deeply into THE CHANGEOVER than most people as Stuart McKenzie and I made it into a film starring Timothy Spall. It is a magical book, mixing social realism with the supernatural.

So the book I am recommending as one that gives me comfort and solace is the first book I read by Brian Greene, THE HIDDEN REALITY, which appears in THE CHANGEOVER as the book being read by the mysterious Sorensen Carlisle!

 

 

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Sara Hughes (Artist)

Lockdown has been full of reading to and listening to my two sons read. One of my favourite books to read them when they were preschoolers was Margaret Mahy’s Down the Back of the Chair. What joy I got when my 6 year old rediscovered it on the bookshelf and started reading it aloud to himself. He has wanted to read it daily since, the glee of the words rolling off his tongue … humour and rhyme mixed with imaginative narrative … all tangled up with a scarlet sash. Like all the best children’s books it is beautifully illustrated and Polly Dunbar bring the words to life with visuals of a Lion with curls and a Smiling snake … the words and pictures keep giving and it never fails to bring a smile even when read a hundred times.

 

 

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Courtney Johnston (CE Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

 

I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith.

My forever and always comfort read.

It’s the early 1930s in rural England. The Mortmain family lives in genteel (verging on desperate) poverty in a mouldering castle. James Mortmain had a major success with an avant-garde book published shortly before Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – but after a rather strange altercation with a neighbour, is imprisoned for three months and then abruptly moves his family to Suffolk. He hasn’t written since: he spends all day and most of the night in the gatehouse, reading detective novels, avoiding his family and his obligations.

Our narrator is the aspiring writer Cassandra (“I am seventeen, look younger, feel older. I am no beauty but have a neatish face”). The iconic opening line of the book (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”) is inscribed in Cassandra’s own sixpenny book, in which she is has just begun recording her family’s life, partly to practice her speedwriting, and partly to teach herself how to write a novel. Poised between startling insight and blithe teenage blindness, Cassandra draws a touching, often acerbic, picture of a family that has been forced into its own kind of self-isolation. When she begins the book, the family has very little to look forward too except, if the hens are willing, an egg to go with their bread for tea. And then, just as with Pride & Prejudice, two eligible brothers appear at the local stately home, and the campaign to marry the eldest Mortmain daughter off to the heir begins.

This risks making the book sound rather twee, and maybe it is a little; it shares the sparkling, knowing, romantic tone of Evelyn Waugh and Stella Gibbons and Nancy Mitford, and if you don’t like that, then you won’t like this. But oh – has anyone ever captured first love like Dodie Smith does here? Cassandra feels everything, and describes everything for us, and with her, we grow up. I re-read this book every few years, and every time I relate to it differently. It is, in my opinion, one of the best coming of age novels ever written.

 

 

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Mary Kisler (Art historian)

There is something rich and immensely satisfying about Ann Patchett’s prose that draws the reader in to each of the character in turn. The Dutch House is tantalisingly written – I got to the end, and felt that I could describe aspects of the house – the tiled fireplace, the Dutch portraits above it, the curtained window alcove in Maeve’s bedroom – yet I still don’t see the house in its external architectural entirety. The driveway, the linden trees that protect the house from the street, these are clear in my mind. But the house is like the people in the novel – her descriptive powers are so evocative that you feel you empathy for each character in turn, even those like Andrea, the ‘second wife’, and all that that might connote – to a husband, his children, and the wife who walked away, yet Patchett turns that trope on its head. The ending, which must not be revealed for those who haven’t read it, is a parable of forgiveness, and where that is not possible, of the need for acceptance. I find my mind going back to the text again and again, as if I can feel it on my skin.

 

 

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Finlay Macdonald  (Journalist, editor)

 

Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

Philip Larkin

 

Clive James turned me on to Philip Larkin. I suppose I might have put Clive’s Unreliable Memoirs series in here too. The first of those brilliant little books got me all the way home from England to Auckland in 1984 in one long read. The others just brightened me up when they intermittently landed. Clive’s love of Larkin seeps through them all, and plenty of his other collections of essays and collections, until it eventually seeped into me.

Then I read Clive’s very last little collection of writings, Latest Readings, published just before he died in which he praised the definitive Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett. So, perhaps presciently, I asked for it for Christmas. Little did I know it would sit on my bedside table throughout this strange ordeal, unintendedly perfect.

I picked the poem ‘Home is so Sad’, from The Whitsun Weddings, because I’d just re-read it, not because it describes life right now in any literal sense. Home, for the most part, hasn’t been sad at all. But its ten lines are also just right – quiet, reflective, musical, taut, a little ominous, completely real. And yes, oddly comforting.

 

 

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Don McGlashan (Musician)

I’ve been reading a lot. First CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, a set of short stories by George Saunders, where grotesque but vivid characters scratch out lives in the wastelands and theme-parks of a post-apocalyptic America. I love how funny and bleak Saunders can be at the same time, and sometimes he just floors you with a piece of imagining so true and strong you have to put down the book and breathe deeply for a bit. Like that, for me, was a story called “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz”, about a man who is forced to sell memories to get by; first other peoples, then finally his own.

Then I read Sea People – by Christina Thompson, an utterly engrossing investigation into the history of Pacific peoples, and their voyages of discovery. Thompson, a US/Australian who teaches writing at Harvard, examines what we know, through the work of greats like Dame Anne Salmond and Te Rangi Hiroa; what we are only just now learning, like the re-vitalisation of ancient navigational knowledge by such scholar-voyagers as Nainoa Thompson – and what we still don’t know, like what happened to the Lapita and Rapa Nui civilisations who left such striking footprints and little else. “Sea People” uses multiple lenses: Polynesian oral history, linguistics, archeology, anthropology, the uniquely Western knack of suggesting radical (and wrong) theories rather than ask the locals – and Thompson has skin in the game, too: she writes from the heart because she’s married to a Maori man, and their children carry Polynesian DNA. I picked it up because I wanted to understand more about the Pacific and its people, but after a while, I found that the timeless fog already brought on by the lock-down became even more hazy, as I missed appointments, meals and sleep so I could cram in another chapter.

 

 

 

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Thomasin McKenzie (Actor)

Over the past couple of years my love for books has become uncontrollable. Some days all I can think about is what book I’m engrossed in at that moment and what amazing worlds I’ll be able to dive into next. But last week I had to have surgery to get rid of a pesky Pterygium on my eye, and was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to read during my recovery. That was when I discovered audio books. The second I returned from the hospital, still a bit woozy from the general anaesthetic, I collapsed onto the sofa and for the rest of the evening and all the next day listened to Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I was entranced by Kya’s love for nature and passion for learning.

When I first considered the idea of audiobooks I was adamantly against them, determined that the only way to experience a book was by having a solid copy in my hand. Now my mind is changed and these days my favourite pastime is to turn on an audio book (right now it’s Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng) and colour in while I’m listening. It’s my new approach to mindfulness during these crazy times.

 

 

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Bernice Mene (Former NZ netballer player)

Reading is and has always been an escape for me. The sign of a me unwinding or proper “time out” is a pile of books next to my bed.

I am a big believer in the opening being a good litmus test for the pages to come. Boy Swallow Universe by Trent Dalton starts out, “Your end is a dead blue wren” which piqued my curiosity and reeled me in.

Set in Brisbane, the characters were vivid, entertaining and easy to imagine. Over the course of the book, Dalton evoked a spectrum of emotions. He is a clever storyteller, spinning a unique tale of a brotherly bond, unlikely friendships, love, tough times, and betrayal.

I was gutted when I came to the end of the book however am excited to see Trent has a new book released in 2020.

 

 

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Claire Murdoch (Head of Publishing, Penguin Random House)

Comfort is the diminishing stack of New Yorkers that were still wrapped in their little sleeves and dating deep into the ’19s at the start of lockdown. It doesn’t matter that they’re from the time before we knew.

It’s the slow re-opening of all the little taped-up streetside libraries where you can leave and take books, honestly one of the greatest things about Auckland.

Above all, it’s Helen Garner. This from Helen Garner:

“I am a forty-three year-old woman, a mother, healthy, reasonable-looking. I am in my own city; I am able to make a living; I am sometimes sad or frightened, and recently I have been hurt … the Mighty Force has not come lately to me in the form I was expecting; but it does not abandon people, and it won’t abandon me.”

It comes from The Yellow Notebook, which is the very, very handsome Text edition of Garner’s Monkey Grip-era diaries, Vol I, 1978-1987, not to be confused with the excellent True Stories and Stories in the same beautiful series which it is also very good to own and read and re-read.

Hooray for the Mighty Force.

 

 

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David Parker (Attorney-General, Minster of Environment, Minister Trade & Export Growth)

I’ve been rereading Between Debt and the Devil published in 2016 post the GFC by Lord Adair Turner. As the title suggests, this book critiques quantitative easing (a.k.a. printing money) after the global financial crisis by overseas reserve banks. It considers the effects on the collapse of conventional monetary policy, rising inequality, asset price inflation, and other social ills. It has important lessons for the post Covid-19 economic choices all countries face

My light reading has been one of the Bernie Gunther anti-hero detective tales by Philip Kerr. This one is called A Quiet Flame and is set in post WWII Argentina. Always a good yarn.

Just before Covid I’d started The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, a history of the plundering of India by The East India Company for 250 years from about 1600 to the mid 1800s. Its very well written, but it will take me a while to finish.

 

 

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Gaylene Preston (Filmmaker)

Electric City and other stories by Patricia Grace

I don’t have a favourite Patricia Grace book.  There are too many I like.  I like the characters, I like the settings, I like the authentic strong clear eye that permeates ordinary things – onion grass, the weather, the measured steps of men coming home from war, devastated.  I love her deft portraits of the Maori world.

I wish I could write with such poetic simplicity.  The characters shine.  They dance across the page. There are many humble heroes, but the big hero is the people. Whanau, Hapu and Iwi.  Every kitchen table, every cup of tea is linked to the big struggle of an ancient people disrupted finding their way in an alien age, keeping staunch to their old ways while adapting to the new.

I’d curl up by the fire and read POTIKI any day, and TU and CHAPPY.  I’ve chosen ELECTRIC CITY because it is the first Graceful Patricia book I read and it’s short stories for the lock down when our anxiety levels are up and our concentration is short. Deceptively humble stories about big things.  Land theft, what is now called ‘casual racism,’ written with beautiful simplicity.  Is that a tear she is describing or a raindrop on the window pane?

You can pull out THE KUIA and THE SPIDER with illustrations by Robin Kahukiwa and read it in English or Te Reo to your favourite little people if you have a copy lying around – and most homes do.  Aren’t we lucky to have such writers amongst us.

 

 

 

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Tom Sainsbury (Comedian)

Whenever I need some literary comfort I always turn to the books of Finnish writer, Tove Jansson, and her charming tales of the Moomintrolls. I love them all, but Moominpappa and the Sea would have to be my favourite.

For those that aren’t officiated into the wonderful world of Moomins I want you to picture a bipedal white hippo/troll with lovely eyes and a vibrant spirit. It’s a family of these creatures that the series follows. The books were obviously written for children but there is that extra layer of social commentary and observations of human nature that only adults can pick up on.

The Moomin family is a great inspiration for all. This is mainly because they happily welcome all sorts of critters into their lives and around the dinner table. There is also a constant sense in the books that life is haphazard and chaos reigns, and all you can really do is take the next step forward with warmth and grace. And finally there is that whiff of Scandanavian melancholy. Moominpappa and the Sea is a beautifully melancholy book. That might sound off-putting but when book expresses difficult emotion (such as melancholia) is dealt with beautifully it makes me stop avoiding it and simply embrace it as a part of the human experience.

 

 

 

 

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