This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.
This one’s a surprising one for me. It has elements of the fantastical which is usually a literary no-no as far as I’m concerned but Elizabeth Knox carries it off beautifully in this nineteenth-century love story about a man and an angel. Yes, I know but trust me – it’s a captivating read.
Knox’s novel tells the tale of Sobran Jodeau and Xas, the angel into whose arms he quite literally falls one midsummer night. When the two decide to share a bottle of wine and exchange news on the anniversary of their first meeting, a relationship begins that will span fifty-five years, intensifying as each year passes. Life in Sobran’s village in Burgundy goes on, its small tragedies, marriages and affairs punctuated by the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. The murders of two young girls remain unsolved for many years until Sobran thinks he has found the key to the crimes. His family continues to burgeon and his wine to improve. His friendship with the mistress of the neighbouring château provides the villagers with fuel for speculation, as does his strange behaviour on a certain midsummer evening every year. But when one day Xas arrives unannounced and terribly injured, the relationship between angel and man changes irrevocably.
I’ve tried other Knox novels since reading (and rereading) this one but sadly none have hit the spot in the way The Vintner’s Luck did, possibly because they too explored the fantastical. There is, I gather, a sequel called The Angel’s Cut which takes Xas to 1930s Hollywood. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
So much has been said about Paul Kalanithi’s account of the twenty-two months from his diagnosis with lung cancer to his death at the age of thirty-six that I’m not sure what I can add of any value except to tell you emphatically to read it. This week sees its paperback publication in the UK. There will be piles displayed on tables in every bookshop you’re likely to enter. Don’t shy away from it because it’s winter, because you think it might be depressing and or because it feels like the world’s going to hell in a handcart: read it and be uplifted by Kalanithi’s eloquence, courage and the beauty of his writing.
Kalanithi’s account begins with his diagnosis then takes us back to his teenage years when he was convinced that he’d turn his back on the medicine much of his family practices and become a writer. Kalanithi was one of those rare people – equally at home studying the arts or sciences, only coming to medicine after taking a Master’s in literature. An epiphany led him to realise that only through medicine would he be able to come to an understanding of life and its meaning: he saw it as a calling not a job. He takes us through his training – the bone-deep exhaustion, the struggle between empathy and self-preservation and the difficulty of maintaining relationships while engaged in such emotionally, mentally and physically draining work. He and his wife, also a surgeon, are both open about the strains on their marriage. Half-way through the book, the doctor becomes a patient. Kalanithi describes the path his illness takes, the difficulty of being a patient and his wise oncologist’s insistence that he turn away from prognosis statistics and decide what meaning he wants to give to the life remaining to him. He and Lucy decide to go ahead with having a child – something they had planned to do in a few years – a decision which brings them both great joy. Kalanithi died on March 9th, 2015 when his beloved daughter Cady was just eight months old.
It’s not possible to write about Kalanithi’s book without remarking on the beauty and clarity of his writing, both in sentiment and description. When recounting dissecting his first cadaver he talks about the difficulty of separating its humanity from what he’s about to do then describes his first cut: ‘the scalpel is so sharp it doesn’t so much cut the skin as unzip it’. That struggle with empathy and the mechanics of what a surgeon must do is a dilemma Kalanithi returns to constantly, eventually electing to gently lead patients and their families towards the treatment that suits them, a world away from the scalpel-at-the-ready surgeons we see in TV hospital dramas. His priority is to find a meaning in life, to try to understand what that might be for each patient, then for himself when his own time comes. All this is amplified through anecdote, often expressed in lyrically beautiful prose: premature twins are born looking more like ‘preparatory sketches of children than children themselves’. Kalanithi’s humanity, compassion and courage shine out from every page, his concern for his patients palpable and his deeply probing thoughts about life and its quality enlightening. He was unable to finish the book he spent his last year writing but his wife has added an epilogue of equal thought and eloquence, tender yet clear-eyed. In it she says that Kalanithi was utterly determined to write a book which would engage his readers in understanding death and facing their mortality. That he has done, and done it with an admirable grace. Please read it.
Given that it’s the time of year when you just want to curl up with an absorbing, untaxing read every so often and forget about the weather, not to mention the ceaseless barrage of pre-electionioneering that’s already battering us here in the UK and will be for months to come, Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down seemed an appealing choice. Two things attracted me to it: one was its San Francisco location, the other was its structure, exploring the lives and relationships of two lovers before they got together.
Jack and Elsa meet in a London bar on New Year’s Eve. Within nine months, Jack has been offered his dream job working on a maintenance team on the Golden Gate Bridge and Elsa has thrown up everything to join him. A little rash, you might think, but they’re in love. Jack settles in, becoming part of the team and making friends with Alex but there’s one part of the job he finds hard: all the ironworkers are expected to volunteer to talk potential suicides down from the bridge. It’s tough, and Jack finds it particularly so. Meanwhile Elsa explores the city, riding the buses and seeing the sights only managing to make one friend: her next door neighbour Pearl who often looks after her granddaughter’s children. As Jack’s after work beers with Alex become more frequent and prolonged so Elsa becomes more depressed and lonely. Threaded through the San Francisco narrative are snapshots of Jack and Elsa’s past, gradually revealing how they’ve come to be the people they are.
Cloke’s descriptions of San Francisco are beguiling. It’s a city I love although it’s a long time since I visited it and she summoned it up beautifully for me. Jack and Elsa are sympathetically portrayed, both battered and bruised in some way or another but hoping for tenderness and a future together. Just one reservation: the structure which was one of its initial attractions proved to be somewhat fragmentary and a little over complicated. Short flashbacks to the years preceding Jack and Elsa’s relationship frequently interrupt the San Francisco sections, breaking the flow a little too much for me. That said it’s an absorbing, entertaining read: one that will see you nicely through a few long dark evenings.
Today is Blue Monday, the day when we’re all at our lowest here in the UK, apparently: the weather is grim, there are several months to get through before spring, the post-Christmas credit card bills are in, and the New Year’s resolutions are probably broken. Traditionally in the book trade it’s the time of year when a raft of self help books are unleashed on readers determined to beat the problem that stands between them and a happier, slimmer, more fulfilled life. They tend to being out the cynic in me but Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion, launched today, is a cut above the usual – twelve books, several published for some time, aimed at improving our mental and physical health. Obviously, it’s a marketing campaign and as such you might think it doesn’t deserve space on this blog but it’s a carefully chosen list and includes several books that I’ve read which seem altogether appropriate – Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Sarah Bakewell’s cleverly structured biography of Montaigne How to Live, Tim Parks’ experience of the link between mental and physical health Teach Us to Sit Still and Roger Deakin’s hymn to wild swimming Waterlog – all of which are uplifting in their way. Two others – Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, which kicks off the one-a-month promotion, and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree – were already on my TBR list. The only one I’d quibble with is Sebastian Faulks’ overlong Human Traces, a novel about the history of psychiatry which seemed to get lost in the author’s research.
If you like the idea but would prefer something of a less commercial persuasion there’s the Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative which has two strands – Reading Well Books on Prescription and Mood Boosting Books. It’s been running for several years and a second list of books chosen by readers was added to the Mood Boosting strand last year. I’m hoping to see my old favourite, The President’s Hat, on this year’s list should there be one. For me, it’s usually enough to lose myself in an absorbing piece of fiction, if I’m feeling down, something which in that good old-fashioned phrase takes me out of myself. Are there particular books that you turn to for consolation? Ones that have helped you through a difficult time?