Fox&Songbird

Books that are truly worth reading

Rebecca

I have been writing poetry for some years now, as well as steadily working on being a curator/artist. I am a fan of puppets, puns and citrus fruits. Recommend something that isn’t a book. I love the musician Mitski.

What’s your favourite album? Gulag Orkestar by Beirut.

What’s the best place you’ve ever lived in or visited? Ahhh such a scary question. I love the sea. I guess maybe Collioure. I stayed in a great campsite that looked like the set of the TV show ‘Camping Paradis‘.

What are you passionate about? I really love podcasts.

Who would you most like to have dinner with? Regina Spektor.

What do you believe that most people don’t? That my knitted monkey has real opinions.

What’s your favourite food? Potatoes.

The Magic Toyshop

By Angela Carter

‘The Magic Toyshop’ opens with the most dreamlike but realistic description of teenaged womanhood that I have yet to read. Melanie, the book’s protagonist, is perched on the edge of adulthood, and more-or-less without supervision in the family house for the summer. She frets about her beauty going to waste – because nobody has ever kissed her – then imagines having sex for the first time, dresses up in a stolen wedding dress and falls out of a tree. This sequence of events somewhat illustrates Carter’s skill in weaving the mundane with very human sentiments, and then heaping big helpings of fantasy on top.

I love this novel, if I’m being honest, purely because it is so strange. Reading it I feel released from the constraints of real life, despite the dark happenings that await Melanie in her uncle’s Magic Toyshop. I can allow myself to imagine that puppets might come alive, that prophecies are real, that you can save people with dramatic gestures of love. I can believe this for as long as Melanie believes it. Then, when Melanie is unsure, I can follow her back down that path to familiar daily life, and put thoughts of the supernatural to one side. This, in my view, is Carter’s genius. She grounds the magical happenings of the book in enough doubt, turmoil and adolescent uncertainty to allow us to question them. She puts us back in the shoes we wore as children stumbling through the world, learning everything for the first time. I re-learn the world by reading this book. I give magic one more chance to really exist, to be hidden in the dark spaces that I can’t see into – such as other people’s minds. I hope that you too will give this book its chance to enchant you, and leave you feeling suddenly unsure about the world and unclear if you’re happy about that or not.

Everything Is Illuminated

By Jonathan Safran Foer

It was Foer’s second novel, ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’, which got a huge amount of attention for its film adaptation, but this book too was made into a film – starring Elijah Wood. As a teenager I had a pretty big crush on Elijah Wood, and without that I would never have heard of this book or asked for it for my thirteenth birthday. While I’m aware that you won’t have the same route to this novel (who knows), I think that it’s a) impressive enough that Safran Foer wrote and published this by the time he was 24, a year younger than I am now, writing to you with no book under my belt and b) the greatest book that exists on the planet. I have never read a better book. I admit that I read it in the summer, in the sunshine, on the week of my thirteenth birthday. I accept that hormonal giddiness may have been doing something to ramp up the intensity of my reading experience. I will never, though, admit to the existence of a better novel. Which is at least partly why I am having such trouble writing one at all. A novel that is, not a better one, because we know that will never exist.

So to get on with what we’re here for – ‘Everything is Illuminated’ tells the story of a young Jewish American man (also named Jonathan) and his quest to discover more about the history of his family, and what happened to them and their village during the Holocaust. Alongside this story are other narratives – told through letters from the fictional Jonathan’s guide and translator, whose grasp of English is excellent and somehow always wrong, or as the history of Trachimbrod, the shetl (village) that Jonathan has come to seek out. I’ve read that Safran Foer calls the collective narratives a ‘collage’. They fit together, and are counterpoints to one another. A chapter on the painful realities of life in the village ends and suddenly the translator-guide is telling a bad joke which is funny for other, stranger reasons resonating with his own story. There are so many layers to this book. It merits reading and re-reading, it contains so many different lives and worlds that are vacuum-packed down into a short novel and just waiting to be read, pondered on, carried with you. It’s difficult, ultimately, to recommend something I have loved so much for almost thirteen years (in other words half my life) and which has shaped my approach to reading since then. I know that I have over-hyped and set you up for disappointment. So to finish – this book is awful and you should never read it, and certainly don’t read it twice. Enjoy.

Cold Comfort Farm

By Stella Gibbons

The first reason to read this book is that you can skip a lot of it, because Stella Gibbons has highlighted the best passages with a handy symbol that she points out at the beginning. This book has a few great selling points:

1) the main character doesn’t take any nonsense and will leave you feeling that you don’t need to take any either

2) it takes place on a farm that is definitely more depressing than your flatshare/family home/retirement community, leaving you to feel good about your life

3) it tells us that visiting old buildings is as good a psychological cure as any – which seems cheap, and wholesome, hence good to know

4) it doesn’t make the countryside seem very pleasant, which takes off all the pressure to enjoy yourself when you go there.

So, there we are. A great parody of novels which idealise rural life (think ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ in the 19th century), this book is an antidote to all that grass-is-greener thinking. It’s still escapist and fun. Why not read it in a park?

Bad Feminist

By Roxane Gay

I love so many things about this collection of essays from Roxane Gay. I love her love of the colour pink (which I have recently also reconciled with). I love her initially skeptical slide into playing scrabble competitively. I love her enjoyment of the Sweet Valley franchise. Most of all, I love her openness to nuance. I’ll admit that I’m not all the way through yet, but this is enjoyable reading as well as useful, wisdom-filled musing from someone who acknowledges early on that she isn’t looking to be the source of absolute knowledge on any topic she’s about to introduce. That kind of humility is rare, and maybe even surprising from someone with such talent – goshdarnit she’s a gem and I love her.

Live!

By René Ghosh

I would like to admit upfront that I know the person who wrote this book – but I had a difficult decision to make between including a book of poetry (Cecilia Llompart? Edwin Morgan? Who to choose?) or another novel. I’ve gone the third way and picked this collection of comic semi-fictional, occasionally all-too-real essays that are short enough to have been read onstage and yet somehow stay in your imagination a lot longer than you would like them to, a bit like the taste of old fish that you thought seemed fine before you put it in your mouth. I can say with an honest heart that I love reading (and hearing) these – I just wouldn’t have had the chance to know about them if I hadn’t been going to the same open mics as René Ghosh for the past year. These short pieces, with titles such as ‘Self Eulogy’ are witty, sad and biting. Often they are about going to work – which is incidentally where I used to bump into René, on the commuter train. There’s often a twist in the tale. Maybe Jesus doesn’t want the drawing a pretty girl at a bar did for him. Maybe your co-workers will call you out on your theft of stationery after you die tragically. Maybe we’ll find out how the author lost a piece of his hand. Or maybe we can just distract ourselves from the numbing sameness of daily existence with this wonderful little black book. It’s pocket-sized. Take it on your commute.

Published March 2017