BOOKS WE LOVE
Whenever I can (which is less often than I'd like), I will share thoughts about what my children and I are reading, and indulge in my ultimate fantasy job (well, other than being a florist or a costume designer): a book reviewer with no editorial boundaries! I will talk about new releases but also old favourites, such as those you see here: beloved, battered and by no means a complete selection.
WHAT I'M READING
Circe by Madeline Miller
The best of the many lovely things I read this summer was the stunningly beautiful Circe. Madeline Miller’s prose is lavish and lush and as spell-binding as the sorceress whose story she tells. Miller first wrote the stunning Song of Achilles, but the beauty of telling Circe’s lesser known, less widely chronicled tale is that there is — to paraphrase Anne of Green Gables — more scope for a writer’s imagination, and Miller fills in the gaps with an astonishing and compelling narrative that kept me up late into the nights, utterly enraptured.
Told from the perspective of the goddess-witch, the story is as bewitching as its heroine. From unwanted, much-mocked daughter to powerful conjurer, Circe’s journey is shaped by the wanton cruelty of the Greek gods of Olympus and their older, lesser-known Titan enemies. Trapped in their violent web of power plays, Circe soon learns to outwit them, transforming her captivity into a freedom of sorts. Realising that by evading their omniscient gaze she can enjoy an existence on her own terms, she casts spells that are both brilliant and dangerous, eventually incurring the wrath of that harshest and coldest of goddesses, Athena.
From Circe’s lonely childhood to her new womanhood to her wiser, later years, eons pass and generations of men fade from the earth. Between her initial discovery of her powers and her final reckoning with her nemesis lie many great adventures, of the epic and magnificent scale one would expect in a world inhabited by both monsters and men. On her journey — both external and internal — Circe crosses paths and swords and hearts with many familiar characters from Greek mythology, from humans such as Dedalus and Odysseus, to gods and monsters like Hermes and Scylla. Circe’s fascination with humans brings her close to her own destruction, before she learns to bewitch and control these mortals, but in choosing to wield her powers she also creates powerful enemies whom she must constantly outwit, both to survive and to protect those whom she loves.
Ultimately, she loses her heart to more than one great character in Greek mythology and history — both gods and men — but her greatest love is for her half-human son. In order to raise him safely, she must make painful sacrifices and take terrible risks, and as she does she grows in wisdom, yet unlike that of the vengeful Athena, Circe’s knowledge is tempered by her goodness. As she battles her demons — both imagined and real — she grapples with choices about loyalty and love, cruelty and kindness, mortality and morality. What she finally decides propels her into the unknown, towards an imagined future full of hope and joy.
Miller seems to possess the same powers of enchantment as Circe herself: her prose is luminous and alluring, at once beautiful and cruel. Both Miller and Circe are sometimes unsparing and merciless, sometimes generous and supremely benevolent. Fraught with an exquisite tension between Circe’s heartbreak and her happiness, this is a retelling that belongs to the ages. Circe’s beauty and magic will haunt the reader long after this tale — written with a beauty and magic of its own — comes to its extraordinary end.
WHAT WE'RE READING
We’re Different, We’re The Same
by Bobbi Jane Kates, illustrated by Joe Mathieu
In another tale of a world peopled by both humans and monsters, We’re Different, We’re The Same offers another sort of illumination, for readers of the smaller sort. When the rest of the world is in chaos, coming home to Sesame Street is always the right answer. So who best to give us the comfort and clarity we need during the painful and long overdue racial reckoning that is taking place in America than Big Bird, Grover and the rest of their furry friends? Of course this book was published almost thirty ago, because Sesame Street has always gone right to the heart of the difficult questions that children ask and attempted to answer them with a succinct and simple truth-telling that is sorely lacking elsewhere in our society, and its understanding of the importance of building bridges early is embodied in this deeply important book.
Using absurdity and profundity in equal measure, the genius of Jim Henson was to create a world full of characters who had different colours of skin and fur, different backgrounds, and different personalities, who all learned to find a way to get along, in spite of their differences. This, of course, is exactly what the world needs more of, and this brilliant book lays out the heart of Henson’s vision clearly and plainly, entirely without artifice. The Muppets and monsters tell it like it is, as always: the human children and our favourite Sesame Street friends take turns examining their physical and emotional differences and similarities. Each feature and feeling becomes a mirror in which we can see and understand ourselves and also a lens through which we can see and understand others.
This book should be part of every school’s curriculum and every family’s library. Now, more than ever, its message is absolutely vital to reconciling the deep rifts that exist between so many different factions in the not-so-United States. And who better to begin to heal the world than children? As the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Or, as this very necessary book tells us:
We’re the same.
That’s what makes the world such fun.
Many kinds of people, not just one!
A rainbow would be boring
If it were only green or blue.
What makes a rainbow beautiful
Is that it has every hue.
So aren’t you glad you look like you?
We’re the same.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
The very best comfort food is nourishing to both the body and the soul: it imparts nutritional value as well as lifting the spirits. My favourites are shrimp and grits (really, grits in any form, with anything on the side or even nothing but a bit of butter, salt and pepper), plain pasta or risotto with a bit of butter, olive oil (it’s very important to have both; a bit of butter goes a long way in my book) and freshly grated Parmesan (as in proper, imported Parmigiano Reggiano; nothing less will do), and red Thai curry. Mostly stodge, a bit of spice, all soothingly delicious.
Anne Tyler is to my bookshelf what grits are to my plate: pure comfort. Which is something we need these days more than ever. Like a bowl of perfectly cooked pasta, you know what you are getting, every time. Which is not to say it (or she) is ever bland. It is, in fact, the very plainness of the noodles that allows the salty nuttiness of the cheese to shine through; each piece of pasta matters, not least as a vehicle for the very best olive oil, glistening on every contour. The grits only work because each tiny grain is performing its job as part of a whole; the butter and salt and pepper serve to highlight but not overwhelm.
So it is with Anne Tyler’s writing. Every little grit of a word counts. Sometimes actually gritty, but always well cooked and never raw, these plain, unassuming grains come together to make something that is far greater than the sum of their parts. Understated, sometimes nutty and salty, occasionally quietly explosive (that’s the pepper, bursting on your tongue), the words that make up the sum of her stories are small, apparently mere and still and certainly humble, and yet simmering with flavour and possibility. And these days that is just what I am seeking: nothing too difficult or dark, nothing too fluffy or light. It needs to matter, it needs to heal me and uplift me and remind me of the small instances of beauty and truth that exist quietly in this world, just waiting to be noticed. Like Goldilocks, I want something that is just right, and Anne Tyler is exactly what I need, now more than ever.
She captures the everyday, the myriad quotidian details and seemingly minor moments of which a life is composed, and brings them together to create perfection, every time. And so — of course — it was with Redhead by the Side of the Road, just as it has been with every novel she has written, all of which are on my shelf and many of which I have read more than once. Her antiheroic heroes are so human, so frail, so lost in the minutiae of their lives — aren’t we all? They then encounter a person, sometimes a romantic interest, sometimes not, who upends their world and changes their lives, in ways both big and small. Micah controls his world and the emotions that frighten him by embracing rules and order; we might recognise in him our own, similar attempts, but he is much better at regimenting his inner chaos than most. So when echoes of his past come quite literally knocking at his door, the rupture in his present upends his orderly existence more dramatically than it might for most.
Micah’s struggles with the disruption are, in Tyler’s beautifully understated way, funny and tender and true. He is quite unlikeable in so many ways, and yet Tyler makes us love him, in spite of and because of his coldness, his awkwardness, his flaws. His myopia — both literal and figurative — drives the narrative, and we journey with him from blindness towards the light. Tyler is a master of subtlety, understatement, nuance and detail, taking a seemingly ordinary moment and transforming it into something extraordinary, carefully teasing out small miracles from mundanity, weaving her narratives with threads so gossamer fine you hardly notice they are there until you step back to see the finished tapestry; each gesture, each word, each little grain in the bowl contributes to the delicious whole. As so often happens in her books, Tyler lets her characters wander right to the brink of a grave error and you are silently begging them to turn around and make the right choice. Then, with gestures that are often so small you could miss them if you blinked, she brings her characters back to where you are willing them to go: towards love, towards life, towards hope.
It is this dose of hopefulness that made this book the most perfectly uplifting thing I could have wished for. Tyler doesn’t tie up her ends neatly; she knows her characters will go on living past the final page with all their messy, ongoing mistakes and stumbles, but she leaves us with the quiet, vague promise that things will soon be less bad than they are now, that the future might possibly be brighter than the present. Everything she writes, without exception, is illuminating, shimmering with quiet possibility, redemptive and real.
I’ll have a plate of that, please.
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
While we continue our nightly journey across the prairies, from the banks of Plum Creek to the shores of Silver Lake, we also continue to brighten our days and evenings with picture books — so, so many picture books. We need these moments of goodness and light now more than ever, and Pink and Say offered us a great ray of illumination in these dark days, when we are forced to have so many — too many — difficult conversations about terrible things that my children are perhaps too young to know about, but from which we cannot turn away.
Handed down from Patricia Polacco’s great-great-grandfather, this is the true story of how simple acts of bravery can transform our lives and alter our destinies. When Pinkus Aylee saves the life of Sheldon “Say” Curtis on a battlefield in Georgia during the American Civil War, the two teenage boys begin a rare and precious friendship. Pink is African-American, a slave fighting for his freedom, initially not even allowed to carry a gun in his own fight; Say is an Ohio farmer’s son fighting with the Union Army. Pink carries the injured Say a long, difficult way home to Pink’s mother, who lives on a plantation where the main house has been burned down and everyone has fled and who has been fending off marauders on her own. Pink and his mother nurse Say back to health, revealing some unexpected truths and a great well of generosity and love along the way. We learn that bravery takes all kinds of different forms, that action matters, that reaching across even deep divides can change the future, that kindness can be contagious and transformative.
With the loose, rangy energy of her signature line-and-wash style, Polacco’s story takes on the feel of a sketchbook from behind the battle lines, portraying their friendship with an elegance that is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Heartbreaking, because in that time and place, danger is everywhere. In that time and place, the danger of being a young black man is grave and real.
In that time and place — and in this one. As we wonder how it is possible that that can still be true 150 years later, we find comfort in the words of Pinkus’ mother: “They’s worse things than death, child,” she tells Say, as she bolsters his courage to keep fighting. She reminds us all that there is always hope: “Look at that mornin’ that’s comin’”.
At the end of the book — which my older daughter had to finish for me because I was unable to speak, my voice choked with grief — the author asks us to say Pinkus Aylee’s name aloud, to remember the man whose actions and choices saved the boy who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln and whose children and grandchildren passed that handshake on to each new generation, a gesture of pride and honour and memory.
“Pinkus Aylee,” we say together.
“And George Floyd."
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
When we lived in the British Midlands, in the days before we had children and our weekends looked very different, we used to love going walking — or hiking as Americans say, a slight difference in terminology that speaks volumes about the cultural disparities. Hiking is so perky! It’s a formal activity with a capital H! Brits just… walk. Having done both hiking and walking, I can share that (whisper it) they are exactly the same thing. We still giggle over our younger daughter’s question, when we were walking in Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs, one of her first American experiences of the action where you put one foot in front of the other and move forward through nature: she asked in a tone of hushed awe, “Is this what hiking feels like?”
One of our favourite places to ramble (there’s another British word, and I love the aimless, meandering quality of it) was the Peak District. There, nestled in the wild, open moors of the Derbyshire Peaks, is a village called Eyam. Although I spent many a happy Sunday rambling nearby, it was not until the other week that I learned about the most fascinating chapter in its history. In 1666, when the bubonic plague, or Black Death, was stalking Europe once more and killing its victims within hours of infection, Eyam too fell prey to its horrors. The local rector, Oxford-educated and far-seeing, convinced the villagers — rather incredibly, given their almost total lack of knowledge about how disease was transmitted — to agree to an unprecedented response: they locked down their village and placed themselves in total quarantine, shutting off the outside world entirely in order to stop the spread of the dreaded disease. Although two-thirds of the villagers — including the rector’s wife — succumbed to the plague, none of the surrounding villages were affected. Lockdown, as we know all too well these days, really works.
In her stunning novel, Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks imagines this dreadful time through the eyes of Anna, an apparently ordinary woman who reveals herself over the course of a year of devastating loss to be anything but. This book had been on my reading list for a long time, but as our own world has fallen apart over the last months, my mother sent me a copy, for which I am deeply grateful. I felt as I finished reading this as I did when I finished Atonement and All The Light We Cannot See: I lay there with the book on my chest, speechless, illuminated and transformed.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning Brooks gives us a quiet gem of a book, itself a true wonder: it is a haunting and beautiful reflection on how tragedy shapes us and changes us, and how during trying times humans reveal both the best and worst of their natures. From abusive alcoholics to wise women to innocent children, the plague does not care whose lives it destroys: it simply does what disease does, spreading inexorably and implacably, leaving a trail of horror in its wake.
Full of unexpected truths and surprises that are both crushing and uplifting, we see how a group of people can turn on their own, how those who are different can become scapegoats, how blame and suspicion and ignorance can be more destructive than the disease itself. But we also witness moments of bravery, of sacrifice, of selflessness, of friendship, of enlightenment, of love. It is how we respond to such devastation that shows who we truly are, and Anna emerges from the year of quarantine shaped by heartbreak and full of wonder. Her steely resolve and her determination not just to survive but to grow and expand and change ultimately transform her in ways that we might all hope to emulate when we eventually emerge from our own year(ish), which has the potential and power to become full of wonder itself — if we just allow it.
On The Banks Of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Usually at bedtime, each child chooses a picture book and then I read to them from a novel. Right now, that novel is (for its second run-through for them, my umpteenth) On The Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder of course. There is something very comforting about the familiar words and adventures of the Ingalls family which puts into perspective our current travails. They endured so much: almost constant poverty (the deep, grinding quality of which I did not fully appreciate until I was an adult), hunger, plagues of locusts, blizzards in which they only nearly escaped death, illness (from malaria to the scarlet fever that would leave Mary blind), and the death of their baby brother and son, Charles Frederick.
And yet, Laura’s words are somehow always uplifting, a testament to the bleak beauty of the prairies and, more importantly, the love that binds them together in the face of adversity. It is also true that those elements — the healing quality of nature and the love of family — are pulling our own little family of four through these difficult times, adrift as we are in our own covered wagon, amidst the prairie-like isolation of sheltering-in-place. The drama and deprivation the Ingalls faced helps us to put our own experience in perspective, and we hope that their extraordinary spirit will inspire us to better face our own challenges.
Anno's Journey by Mitsumasa Anno
You Choose by Pippa Goodhart & Nick Sharratt
Juxtaposed against the wordiness of their novel choices, I am fascinated to see how often both girls are choosing wordless picture books these days. My theory is that it’s because in these times when their world is spinning out of control, they like being able to create their own narrative. This gives them an agency that is both empowering and comforting. Though there are many that we love, the two titles they turn to most often are Anno’s Journey and You Choose.
Mitsumasa Anno is a picture book genius. One of my all-time childhood favourites, his surreal and slightly mysterious journey through a mishmash of northern European countries and time periods is both unsettling and utterly engaging — two hallmarks of great art. Just as I did, my children can pore over this for hours; this is of course another reason they choose these wordless picture books, because they can draw out bedtime far beyond the confines of a limited word count, and they know I can’t say no to this opportunity for storytelling and engaging with a book, as we become the authors together. And there is so much to say as we travel with Anno. His references are as far-ranging as Degas and the Muppets, as he recreates fairy tales and famous paintings, burying the strands of their stories in the rich, detailed and multi-layered visual narrative he offers his reader-lookers. Finding Anno on each page is just the tip of the iceberg, as we follow other characters — from fictional favourites to new friends — through this incredible offering, in which we participate as onlookers, investigators, and as creators of story and meaning.
Although its aesthetic is vastly different, You Choose is another firm favourite for bedtime entertainment: funny, friendly and enjoyable for all ages. I am fortunate enough to have met both Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt in my publishing days, and they are both as creative and kind as you might imagine them to be. Much of the magic of You Choose is that every single time you read it you create a new story, by choosing different combinations of homes, families, food, clothes and more, which means that there are (and I’m not mathematically inclined enough to bother working out all the permutations, so I’m just going to spitball this here) 3,748,952 different versions of this brilliant book. Already battered when Pippa sweetly signed it for my girls, our copy is now held together by vast quantities of book tape, having been practically torn apart by equal or greater amounts of love. We all have our favourites and our preferred approaches — from a carefully curated, themed array of choices to utter ridiculousness which makes us fall about laughing — but the extra magic of this book is that every single time we read it (thousands, by now) we find a new piece of artwork that has materialised on its pages since our last reading. Every. Single. Time. Magic!