Herons Go Birding – 5 May 2024

Single word titles are currently dominating: Beastly; Elderflora; Wavewalker; Rosewater; Enlightenment; Kairos; Bellies

Out with pronouncements plus explanatory subtitles; down with novels that jolt one’s vaguest memories of GCSE physics; curtail those lines of poetry; no more titles that require but lack punctuation, please (it’s OK – her next one is called Intermezzo). The minimalists are here. It’s a busy world out there. I don’t make the rules.*  

At an event on Tuesday evening – Jackie Kay’s warm, generous poetry and insights enveloping a packed room for a marvellous hour – I found myself next to a customer whom I knew to be a Paul Auster fan. We discussed the fact that we hadn’t yet read Auster’s most recent novel, Baumgartner, since we were fearful that it might be his last and thus ought to be savoured.

The next day came the news of Auster’s death. I read the obituaries, including the moving tribute from Jonathan Lethem. I read Auster’s New Yorker piece on the importance of carrying a pencil. I read Baumgartner. Against my usual advocacy of slow reading, I tore through it with chaotic joy.  

The eponymous character is growing forgetful, careless of sartorial exigencies and rather clumsy. Yet he is also finishing a monograph on Kierkegaard, is kind, even to the man who arrives hours late to take the meter reading, and finding love and lust, years on from the death of his beloved wife, Anna.

The indecencies of ageing are depicted, often comically, but the book is more nuanced than that: Baumgartner is a man one would hope to impress, an academic with an adventurous wit and certainly the person I would want to sit next to at a dinner party, even while one raises an eyebrow at his daily online shopping habit indulged purely so that he can see the young delivery woman…

Vastly different in tone yet also layered with philosophical arguments and literary references, I have been taking my time over reading Committed by Suzanne Scanlon. Scanlon ‘lived’ in New York State Psychiatric Institute for almost three years (she discusses which verb best describes her time there) and needed many more years to recover from the experience that was supposed to help her.

While her story – unexplored grief, a breakdown, haphazard pharmaceuticals administered by constantly changing doctors – forms the basis of the memoir, this is a book about reading. It’s about, among others, the literature of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Janet Frame and Gayl Jones and thus about the treatment of illness in women. It is about connecting with stories, sometimes the same story at different ages. It explores the way a book can enter us and from it, consciously or not, we purloin ideas to shape our own narratives.

Other mono-verbal title recommendations:
Fiction
Wellness by Nathan Hill
I missed the news that Hill had published a second novel, following his brilliant The Nix so I am a few months late to what should have been a more publicised party. Wellness too is set in Chicago, spans decades with ease and incorporates love, family and an examination of modern technology. Jack and Elizabeth, once living a classic romance story find themselves years later in more of a, well, marriage story. Wellness is the name of Elizabeth’s ‘health consultancy’ trading entirely in placebos and, of course, a comment on the state of the characters and of America.
Birding by Rose Ruane
I’ve been enthusing about this novel for a while and it is finally here! Birding follows a woman who was a nineties pop star and is reassessing her experiences and a woman of the same age who has never left home and dresses identically with her mother. We are so looking forward to Birding taking flight on Friday alongside Dead Animals by Phoebe Stuckes. Get your tickets here or in the shop.
Coming soon, two novellas published in one handy package: Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg
We are obsessed with Ginzburg, as you may know. And who wouldn’t be? Postwar Italy, dark marriages, quiet family struggles, detailed interrogation of the meaning of shoes…

Non-fiction
Moederland by Cato Pedder
Pedder offers a history of South Africa starting from the 17th century and told through nine of her own female ancestors. She has conducted in-depth research into each of them, from Krotoa, a translator for the Dutch East India Company later banished to Robben Island, to Margaretha, a farmer who resisted the abolition of slavery, to Isie, wife of Jan Smuts who was central to the creation of apartheid – a complex history that asks uncomfortable questions of herself and her research.
Knife by Salman Rushdie
I hardly know how to describe Rushdie’s account of the horrific attempt on his life. The book has been so widely covered that it is easy to feel one knows what it contains and I was unsure whether I wanted to read it. In fact, nothing prepared me for the experience of being immersed in Rushdie’s anger, his reckoning and his love for his wife.

Poetry
Ahead of his reading in July, I have been thoroughly enjoying Gen by Jonathan Edwards. The title poem is one of the funniest poems about those young people – you know them, the young people – in the form of an absurd list. I would mention our May reading on 18th with Rory Waterman but the extravagant title prevents me.

Children’s
I am delighted that Christopher Nibble – we just call him Cnibble, honestly – has returned with another excellent picturebook. Following the success of the first epic, in which he saved all dandelions, he must now investigate what’s happened to his pet caterpillars who have suddenly disappeared…
Foxlight by Katya Balen
Fen and Ray are young twin sisters, found in the wildlands, curled up with foxes. They are taken to a home and cared for but they need answers about their mother and realise they must search for them in nature.

We hope to see you in the shop soon – I am happy to discuss book titles of any length – and at one or several of these:
Friday 10th May, 6.30: launch of Birding and Dead Animals
Saturday 18th May, 6.00: Poetry in Herons launches Come Here to this Gate
Saturday 15th June – Saturday 22nd June: many Independent Bookshop Week celebrations
Our usual book groups continue and we would like to hear from you if you are interested in joining a day time short fiction and/or poetry group; do reply to this email if so.  
Flash fiction competition: send us your 400-word story. Titles can have more than one word. But don’t go too wild.

May your Sunday contain inspiration; make sure you’re carrying a pencil,
Lizzie

*Please, no Tweets pointing out that a book with a sixteen-word title also came out this week. Indulge me.

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