In part three of our Bookish Delights series, we’re thrilled to introduce you to the Emergency Poet, dispenser of verse for troubled souls. This is such a lovely idea. Billed as the world’s first and only mobile poetic first aid service, Deborah Alma, aka The Emergency Poet, originally travelled around in her 1970’s ambulance, offering consultations and prescriptions for ‘areas of emotional need’, such as love, ageing or grief.
With poetry increasingly being hailed by psychologists as a healing tool, the aim is to be inviting and not intimidating, to match the poem to the individual. The latest exciting development for Deborah’s project is the purchase of a permanent poetry pharmacy on the site of an old ironmongers in Shropshire. Laid out as a walk-in pharmacy, there will be a cafe and performance space too.
Line up for your spoonful of poetic medicine and follow this visionary project @emergencypoet.
Been dumped by the boyfriend? Done something stupid? Lost someone you love? Or just in need of some quick TLC? Can reading heal? I believe so and have written about some quick-literary fixes for the Wildsmith Papers. Curious? Then read more here: The Literary Cure
I often get the question ‘Which is your favourite book?’; an impossible question to answer for me. I’m simply incapable of picking one book out of all the books I’ve read. I like books for different reasons and can enjoy an exuberant story-driven historical fiction or a well-researched non-fiction book as much as a quietly contemplative cerebral novel. I don’t seem to have one single favourite author either, rather, I have several authors I keep going back to. SO, rather than picking one book, I’ve chosen my 10 favourite books (I’ve not included famous literary classics on this list, that will come in a separate post) reviewed on Bookstoker, and even that seemed like a Herculean task.
In no particular order:
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser – A Dickensian mystery set in early nineteenth century England. The Quincunx ( a 1200 page tome, but don’t let that scare you away) is brimming with everything you’d expect to find in Victorian London: mansions and graveyards, a nightmarish insane asylum and a cruel boys school. Beggars, prostitutes and villains appear alongside a suffocatingly rigid class system. If all novels were this good, I would never leave the house.
A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell – It’s not so much the writing as the incredible story which made this book so memorable to me. The book charts the true-life escapades of the libertine Lady Jane Digby as she slept her way through Europe during the 19th century, ending up as the wife of a bedouin sheik twenty years her junior. Why this book still hasn’t been made into a film is a mystery to me.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell – I’ve been recommending this book to my friends ad nauseam over the years and this captivating story of the young clerk Jacob de Zoet travelling to isolationist Japan on a Dutch merchant ship in the late 18th century, still is one of my favourites.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler – A contemplative little gem of a novel which had me in tears despite its lack of obvious sentimentality. It’s the story of Austrian ‘mountain goat’ Andreas Egger, a salt-of-the-earth type of character whose lonely, harsh alpine village life turns out surprisingly fulfilling.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – Less famous than the seminal The Handmaids Tale, but no less addictive. It’s based on a chilling true-life murder story but Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in 19th century society.
Circe by Madeline Miller – A spellbinding retelling of the story of the witch from classical mythology. Scratch the surface of these famous myths and you will find abuse, murder, rape and abandonment. Madeline Miller’s language wraps itself around the reader like an enchantment, managing to convey a classical timbre as well as a modern pulse of truth. This is one of those books that I guarantee will stay with you for a long time.
Being Mortal – Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande – It’s not often I read books that I’d call life changing but this is one. Gawande is an Indian/American surgeon and health-care researcher with an interest in choices about assisted living and care for terminally ill people. It’s Gawande’s talent as a story-teller and comforting, gentle tone that makes this harrowing topic so readable. Being Mortal is a strange combination of unbearably sad and inspirational, and one we should all read before it’s too late.
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald – A genius of a writer, appreciated by countless authors but less known by the public. Set in 18th century Germany, we follow a philosopher’s romantic obsession with a young girl. If you value faultless, contemplative writing, this will be for you. Her lightness of touch and deceptively style writing makes it look easy but, alas, it’s not.
The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan – Pardo Bazan, a Spanish author whom I’m guessing you have never heard of before (I certainly hadn’t), wrote this progressive, raunchy and hilarious book in 1886. We meet the gentle, devout chaplain Julián who’s been asked by Don Manuel, a prominent noble, to clean up the sinful House of Ulloa, the country estate of his unruly nephew, Don Pedro. Things don’t exactly go according to plan.
The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar -This Prix Concourt winner was the best-selling novel in France in the 20th century. Apart from being a darkly funny portrait of an orphaned immigrant boy and the underbelly of Paris, The Life Before Us is a scathing criticism of France’s treatment of immigrants, the poor and the old. It is a book that is gut wrenching and heart-warming at the same time; an unusual, funny and moving read.
In part 2 of our occasional bookish delights series, we’d love to shine a light on the fantastic work of the Little Free Library movement. It’s now almost a decade since Todd Bol created the very first Little Free Library, in honour of his late book-loving mother.
He built a model of a schoolhouse outside his home, filled it with books and invited passers-by to take one, and return later with a replacement. Take a book, share a book. Such a simple idea, fostering community spirit and an abiding love of reading. Little Free Library is now up and running in 88 countries worldwide, and we often Instagram our favourite designs, from a brightly painted fridge to a model of a filling station (complete with miniature pump). Tell us about any you know of, share your photos, and best of all, think about starting your own! Here are some of our favourites. Send us yours!
…Milkman by Anna Burns, the 2018 Man Booker Prize winner. First of all, don’t get turned off by the subject matter – the conflict in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Sure, it’s serious stuff, but the way it’s presented here, makes it far from dreary. In fact, it’s one of the funniest books I read over the past year. It requires a bit of effort this book – it’s written in a stream-of-conciousness style, with no names – but is all the more rewarding for it. This book made me laugh of loud and admire some truly original, inspiring fiction writing. Go for it!
Writing about lived experience is nothing new, and yet there has been a recent surge of books that blend aspects of the memoir with elements borrowed from fiction. Examples of such literature, coined ‘autofiction’ by the French writer Serge Dubrovsky, have proved to be highly readable, genre-bending accounts of lived experience. Autofiction can also be used to describe autobiographical fiction, a fictionalised narrative that draws on the author’s life and experience, and fictionalised autobiography, which is modelled more closely on real life with some compressed or fictionalised events or characters.
Where biography or memoir is concerned with a truthful and linear account of a famous or otherwise ‘important’ life, the most successful autofictional accounts of recent years have been largely concerned with everyday life. Fictionalised autobiography can borrow from ‘traditional’ fiction in that it does not have to include a straightforward narrative, but can instead contain snippets of everything from personal essays to reportage, poetry or nature writing, and merges passages of philosophy, history, biography, science or literary theory with accounts of the author’s life.
Fiction writers have always drawn on their own experiences in their work – the literary canon is positively littered with thinly veiled self-portraits. However, autofiction as we discuss it today exploded around 2013, when the first volume of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s controversial literary project My Struggle was published in English. Through Don Bartlett’s translation, the English-speaking world was exposed to the ‘story’ of Knausgaard’s internal and external life, filled with authentic names, places and events.
Half his family quickly disowned him, and his uncle threatened to sue both the publishers and Knausgaard himself over his damning descriptions of his own father. While hailed as a literary sensation, My Struggle also sparked debate around the ethics of fictionalised autobiography. Is there such a thing as a one-to-one relationship between the real world and the world of fiction? How far should you be able to go as a writer in your description of easily identifiable people? Should the ‘characters’ in such narratives have their say?
In my native Norway there has been an interesting examples of the latter: When Vigdis Hjorth published her novel Arv og miljø, (which will be published in English as Wills and testaments in September) a novel that some critics interpreted to be an accusation of incest directed towards her real father, her sister Helga wrote a ‘revenge novel’ about a woman who is made into a character in a book written by her sister.
Some critics argue that it is the rather extreme and often confusing 21st century that has sparked the need for such an introverted and fragmented literary form, giving way to contemporary writers such as Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Chris Kraus, Helen Macdonald, Edouard Louis, Edward St Aubyn, Olivia Laing, Linn Ullmann and Maggie Nelson to name a few. Regardless of why these authors direct their writerly gaze inwards, the results are extraordinary yet controversial – not necessarily truthful, but almost always honest.