I will be taking a short break from blogging in December while I sort out moving to my new flat but I have been to two great book events this month to take my mind off some of the stress. Rebecca at Bookish Beck has been on a roll winning free tickets on Twitter recently and after our trip to see Wise Children at the theatre last month, we went to see Barbara Kingsolver in conversation with Samira Ahmed at the Royal Festival Hall in London a couple of weeks ago where we also met up with Laura from our Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel.
I have recently read Kingsolver’s fifth novel ‘Prodigal Summer’ which interweaves the stories of Deanna Wolfe, a biologist who begins a relationship with Eddie Bondo, Lusa Landowski whose husband Cole has recently died, and Garnett Walker who hopes to restore the American chestnut tree from extinction and feuds with his neighbours over pesticides. It’s been over five years since I read Flight Behaviour and from what I remember, the Appalachian setting and ecological themes of ‘Prodigal Summer’ are quite similar, so it was interesting to hear Kingsolver say at the event that she always starts with a theme rather than character or setting when starting a new book as this is certainly reflected in the books I have read by her so far. The downside of this is that Garnett’s strand of the story occasionally leaned towards too much exposition at times but for the most part, the ideas, opinions and conflicts Kingsolver introduces are weaved into an intriguing and immersive narrative.
Most of the discussion at the event centred on Kingsolver’s latest novel ‘Unsheltered’ which was published last month and is set in Vineland, New Jersey. The story oscillates between the present day where middle-aged Willa Knox is caught in the middle caring for both her older and younger relatives and their various financial struggles and the 1870s in which science teacher Thatcher Greenwood becomes embroiled in a feud with the town’s founder regarding Charles Darwin’s newfangled theories of evolution. Needless to say, there are some obvious parallels between the current political discourse and the scepticism with which some viewed Darwin’s ideas at the time they were proposed even though Kingsolver started writing the novel long before Trump’s victory at the 2016 presidential election unfolded.
It was fascinating to hear Kingsolver talk about her writing. She is very engaging in person and I am looking forward to reading ‘Unsheltered’, hopefully once I have acquired some more bookshelves…
I really enjoyed being on the shadow panel of the Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award last year and it’s great to see yet another strong shortlist this year, all four of which are debuts. I read the two shortlisted novels Elmet by Fiona Mozley and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar in January and at the bloggers event in London last weekend I also picked up copies of the two non-fiction titles. These are ‘The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite’ by Laura Freeman which I read this week and ‘Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey’ which is Adam Weymouth’s travel memoir about his 2,000 mile journey by canoe from Canada to Alaska.
Diagnosed with anorexia in her teens and now a freelance journalist, Freeman wrote an article for the Telegraph in which she describes how books helped her build resilience and change her attitude towards food. This article has now been expanded into ‘The Reading Cure’ – a bibliomemoir about the central role of food in literature and Freeman’s recovery from her eating disorder. From reading the entire works of Charles Dickens to the travels of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee to the comfort eating prevalent in so much children’s literature, descriptions of lavish meals being eaten with relish gradually inspired Freeman to diversify her eating habits. She uses a library with all of its bookshelves smashed as an analogy for her state of mind at her lowest points and brilliantly articulates the widely held misconceptions about eating disorders: “There is a misunderstanding that anorexia is a disease of vanity. That the anorexic aspires to the maypole body of the catwalk model or the red-carpet Amazon. Not at all. It is not prettification of self that drives the illness, but annihilation of self. It is the scraping-back of flesh from bone, it is punishment, will to destruction. It is the belief that you are not worthy of food, nourishment, life. Vanity, beauty? They have nothing to do with it.” (p.24)
Some readers may wish Freeman had written more about herself in ‘The Reading Cure’ than the books she read during her recovery (she said this was the feedback she received during the editing process). However, I think she got the balance right here and it is entirely understandable that she would not want to be any more soul-bearing than she already has been about her experience. Even though she has no plans to write another memoir, she revealed at the event that she is now working on a biography on another topic.
Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend the award ceremony this year, but the three shortlisted books I have read are all excellent and I have heard very good things about ‘Kings of the Yukon’ too. Which book would you like to see win the Young Writer of the Year Award?