Working in a bookshop every day, seeing much-anticipated new releases being freshly unpacked and incredible vintage paperbacks that have wound their ways onto our shelves, it’s almost impossible not to slip a book into my pocket on the way out each evening.
Once home, the competition begins. Do I continue with last night’s novel, Feeding Time by fellow Parisian Adam Biles, a dazzling work on the dismal decay, and humour, of old age? “Everyone lied, and everyone knew they were being lied to, and yet lying and being lied to was preferable to the truth.” Or shall it be Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, an engrossing exploration of neuroscience? “That memories, dreams, and reflections should consist of jelly is simply too strange to understand.” Marsh’s book was recommended to me by the featured writer at last night’s shop event, the charming Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, a compelling journey into the origins of the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” all told alongside his own fascinating family history.
There’s a pile next to my bed of the books I’ve recently finished and been recommending to friends. Animal by Sara Pascoe is a hilarious, enlightening account on what it is to be a woman today. Jo Marchant’s Cure explores the use of hypnosis to avoid pain — I was especially intrigued to learn we’re now relying more than ever on medical pain relievers that are, reportedly, starting to work less effectively on us. I gave a copy to my doctor who often seems amused by my recommendations. Tribe by Sebastian Junger, a timely exploration, convincingly argues for unison rather than division in society, underscoring our shared humanity: “Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” and yet “Intact communities are far more likely to survive than fragmented ones.” Janine Di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came for Us is also essential reading for this tumultuous time, offering important insight into Syria: “What you yearn for more than anything is for the ordinary to return. The simple pleasure of going to a shop to buy apples.”
A day without poetry is a sad one so, in the morning, I pick a page at random from the rather erotic Dirty Pretty Things by Michael Faudet, which a friend told me had marked her significantly: “two drowning lovers lost at sea, my lips adrift in yours.” One of the booksellers I work with is a huge Elena Ferrante fan (who isn’t, really?) and lent me the slim and shocking The Lost Daughter. Just seeing its spine here on the shelf reminds me of the story’s cold ending, a slap in the face. It sits next to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in a lovely vintage edition, which I thought wouldn’t keep me up all night, but did. It haunts me still.
I finish the last pages of Flâneuse before leaving to flâne around Paris with its author, Lauren Elkin, hats slid down over our foreheads Jean Rhys-style: “Traces of the past city are, somehow, traces of the selves we might once have been.” I’m looking forward also to finishing Zadie Smith’s addictive Swing Time and Ali Smith’s Autumn, which sits on my dresser, a leaf stuck between its pages: “How many worlds can you hold in a hand. In a handful of sand.” After, I plan to reread a chapter from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, an engrossing book on artists and loneliness: ”What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
My continual search for intelligent writing on motherhood was most recently satisfied by Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors:
I had imagined that I was going to meet, at birth, a very sophisticated form of plant life, a form that I would daily deliver to an offsite greenhouse; I would look forward to getting to know the life-form properly later, when she had moved into a sentient kingdom, maybe around age three. But instead, within hours of being born, the being—perhaps through chemicals the emotional-vision equivalent of smoke machines — appeared to me not like a plant at all, but instead like something much more powerfully moving than just another human being, she had appeared as an animal, a previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic.
In the evening, the chill from the walk home still on my fingertips, I smell the mulled wine brewing in the kitchen as I prepare to nestle in with Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.”
Tomorrow there will be more titles in which to indulge my curiosity, to expand into other worlds, to seek for answers, to delve into the imagination.
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The shopping season, er, holiday season is upon us! The Millions is here for you, once again, with a gift guide catered to the readers, writers, and literary folks in your life. Enjoy!
This “fresh, woodsy scent”, actually called “Book”, is for both men and women. According to its perfumer, Book is meant “to recapture the experience of yesterday; turning the pages and breathing in the smell of dry paper mingling in with the open fresh air.” (There are also perfumes inspired by Whiskey, Gin, and Tea, some other things popular with writers.) If perfume is too risky, another option is this “Book” candle, inspired by the “mellow, comforting fragrance of aged paper, ink and leather.”
A Literary Map of the United States
This clever map places authors in the regions they write from, and will undoubtedly inspire you to check out some new writers. Discerning readers may quibble with the placement of writers, but that’s part of the fun of it.
A Postcard From a Favorite Author
The literary magazine The Common is hosting their annual author postcard auction, where you can bid for a chance to win a postcard from a favorite author, handwritten to a person of your choice. This year’s authors include Millions favorites Samantha Hunt, Lauren Groff, Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Ann Patchett, and George Saunders, among many others. Please note, the auction closes Dec. 9, so you have to act fast for this one.
Writers Tears Whiskey
This is the booze to have on hand when you’re watching the inauguration, weeping over the cruel irony of having one of our country’s most literary presidents followed by a president who has, at best, “an unusually light appetite for reading.” Politics aside, this Irish whiskey, “gently spiced with a burst of ginger and butterscotch,” is perfect for those dark nights of the soul, when the words won’t come, or the rejection notes just won’t stop coming.
Decorative laptop covers and decals remind me of the beginning-of-the-school-year ritual of covering your textbooks. (Do the kids still do that?) Like bumper stickers or temporary tattoos, they are a low-risk decoration, and an easy way to rejuvenate an old laptop or personalize a new one.
Millions staffer Claire Cameron sent this gift idea to me with the wise observation, “I’ve come to believe that ear muffs are the greatest gift for writers and anyone who values sanity.” They’re also good gifts for friends who work from home and live in neighborhoods that are besieged by noisy construction projects, not that I’m speaking from personal experience.
When you get to a certain age, you need reading glasses. Around that same age, you start forgetting where you put everything. So really, you need three pairs of reading glasses: the pair you wear, the pair you keep on hand for when you can’t find the pair you wear, and the pair to keep on hand for when you can’t remember where you put the back-up pair.
Short Story Advent Calendar
We’re big fans of literary subscriptions here at The Millions, and in the past we’ve recommended e-book-of-the-month services like Emily Books, and the perennially useful Journal of the Month, which sends its subscribers a different literary magazine each month. Like those services, The Short Story Advent Calendar provides a curated reading experience: one short story every day until Christmas. Each day’s story is a surprise, and is printed in a sealed chapbook. This year’s contributors include Sheila Heti and Katie Coyle, to name just a few.
For those who like the idea of an advent calendar, but want stories that are explicitly about Christmas, look no further than A Very Russian Christmas, which collects the Christmas stories of classic Russian writers like Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as lesser-known authors whose works are translated into English for the first time. There’s also Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Tales: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days, a brand new collection of stories, inspired by Winterson’s annual tradition of writing a new story every Christmas for friends and family. This book includes her 12 favorites, as well as a personal essay about her own Christmas memories.
I’ve recommended this in past, but since affordable childcare remains a pie-in-the-sky feminist dream (at least in America), I’ll say once more that a few hours of childcare is a dream for working writers. You can’t read Marcel Proust with a four-year-old in the vicinity (unless you turn on Octonauts) and you definitely can’t write essays, even silly listicles like this one. So this year, instead of getting your writer/critic/bookish parent-friend a gift certificate for a massage, offer to pick up her kid after school, or take the kids to a park on a weekend afternoon. You can also purchase gift certificates from websites like urbansitter.com and care.com.
A Home Printer
It’s hard to edit without printing a hard copy and yet many writers go without home printers, either making do with public printers or by simply not printing very often. A quality printer is a great, practical gift, especially for a student.
Subscription to an Audiobooks Service
Even the most devoted reader has trouble finding time to read. Audiobooks are a simple way to incorporate a little more reading into your life. You can listen while you commute to work, when you’re folding laundry, or when you’re just too tired to focus on a page. There are a variety of competing subscription services, among them audible.com, audiobooks.com, Downpour, and Simply Audiobooks.
An Open-ended Plane Ticket
Take it from one of the greatest travelers of all time, Ibn Battuta: “Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” If you have deep pockets, this would be an amazing gift. For those who fear flying, try an open-ended Amtrak ticket.
There’s nothing like reading the right book at the right time — it’s the drug that all devoted readers seek as they scan library and bookstore shelves, hoping to intuit what book will speak directly to their current state of mind. Bibliotherapy aims to provide readers with the most personalized of book lists, and to connect readers with the books that will speak to their particular situation. Most therapists specialize in fiction, but will also recommend poetry, philosophy, and creative nonfiction to inspire and enrich. You can buy gift vouchers for a session with a Bibliotherapist from The School of Life. (Need a little more info on Bibliotherapy? Check out our recent essay HERE.)
A Donation to a Public Library
Public libraries are under threat and needed more than ever before — more than 30 percent of percent of American households don’t have Internet access at home, and use library computers to apply for jobs and educational opportunities, print documents, and prepare taxes. Many libraries also provide free after-school programs, story hours, and research help. Make a donation in your friend’s name to their local library. Please also consider donating to prison libraries, which are always in need of fresh reading material. Try charities like Books Through Bars, NYC Books Through Bars, and the Prison Book Program.
Image Credit: Flickr/JD Hancock.