The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies

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9780857864215: The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies

Novel Cure

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About the Author:

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost. Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and writes travel pieces and book reviews for various newspapers. In 2008 they set up a bibliotherapy service through The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to clients all over the world. The Novel Cure is their first book together. www.thenovelcure.co.uk

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for The Novel Cure

“Astute and often amusing . . . [A] charming addition to any library. Time spent leafing through its pages is inspiring—even therapeutic.”

The Economist

“We’re hooked.”

Psychologies Magazine (UK)

“The tone throughout is witty and self-aware, but the authors’ advice is sensible too. . . . If you’re looking for a book full of intriguing recommendations, it’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Sunday Business Post (Dublin)

“Elderkin and Berthoud handle their varied subject matter deftly. The Novel Cure remains serious without taking itself too seriously, gives advice without preaching and advocates, with warmth and humor, the importance of literature as a therapeutic medium. . . . A note of caution, however, if reading The Novel Cure on public transport: it will make you laugh. Very loudly.”

The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

“A delightful reference guide . . . [Berthoud and Elderkin] tackle serious and not-so-serious ailments with equal verve. . . . Elegant prose and discussions that span the history of two thousand years of literature will surely make readers seek out these books. Taking two novellas and calling the bibliotherapists in the morning sounds welcome indeed.”

Publishers Weekly

“A fine remedy for bibliophiles.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This appealing and helpful read is guaranteed to double the length of a to-read list.”

Library Journal

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin started giving novels to each other when they met as English students at Cambridge twenty-five years ago. An artist and art teacher, Berthoud lives in Sussex, England, with her husband and three girls and paints while absorbing audiobooks intravenously. A novelist, travel writer, writing teacher, and fiction reviewer for the Financial Times, Elderkin now lives with her husband and son in Connecticut, where she regularly kayaks with a novel in hand. The authors have run a bibliotherapy service out of the School of Life in London since 2008, prescribing books to clients around the world.

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

penguin.com

First published in the United States of America by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2013

Published in Penguin Books 2014

Copyright © 2013 by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:

Berthoud, Ella.

The novel cure : from abandonment to zestlessness: 751 books to cure what ails you / Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

pages cm

Includes index.

eISBN 978-1-101-63875-0

1. Fiction—History and criticism—Theory, etc. 2. Reading, Psychology of. 3. Bibliotherapy. 4. Best books. I. Elderkin, Susan. II. Title.

PN3352.P7B47 2013

809.3’9353—dc23 2013017177

Cover design and illustration: Janet Hansen

To Carl and Ash

and in memory of Marguerite Berthoud and David Elderkin,

who taught us to love books—and build the bookshelves

One sheds one’s sicknesses in books—repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.

—D. H. LAWRENCE
(The Letters of D. H. Lawrence)

Praise

About the Authors

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Introduction

AILMENTS A TO Z

Acknowledgments

Reading Ailments Index

Ten-Best Lists Index

Author Index

Novel Title Index

INTRODUCTION

bib·lio·ther·a·py noun

\bi-ble---'ther--pe-, -'the-r-py

: the prescribing of fiction for life’s ailments

—Berthoud and Elderkin, 2013

This is a medical handbook—with a difference.

First of all, it does not discriminate between emotional pain and physical pain—you’re as likely to find a cure within these pages for a broken heart as a broken leg. It also includes common predicaments you might find yourself in, such as moving house, looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right, or having a midlife crisis. Life’s bigger challenges, such as losing a loved one or becoming a single parent, are in here too. Whether you’ve got the hiccups or a hangover, a fear of commitment or a sense of humor failure, we consider it an ailment that deserves a remedy.

But there’s another difference too. Our medicines are not something you’ll find at the drugstore, but at the bookshop, in the library, or downloaded onto your electronic reading device. We are bibliotherapists, and the tools of our trade are books. Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust. To create it, we have trawled two thousand years of literature for the most brilliant minds and restorative reads, from Apuleius, second-century author of The Golden Ass, to the contemporary tonics of Ali Smith and Jonathan Franzen.

Bibliotherapy has been popular in the form of the nonfiction self-help book for several decades now. But lovers of literature have been using novels as salves—either consciously or subconsciously—for centuries. Next time you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up or require assistance with an emotional tangle, reach for a novel. Our belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest and best form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with patients and bolstered by an avalanche of anecdotal evidence. Sometimes it’s the story that charms; other times it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you to another existence and see the world from a different point of view. When you’re engrossed in a novel, unable to tear yourself from the page, you are seeing what a character sees, touching what a character touches, learning what a character learns. You may think you’re sitting on the sofa in your living room, but the important parts of you—your thoughts, your senses, your spirit—are somewhere else entirely. “To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company,” said André Gide. No one comes back from such a journey quite the same.

Whatever your ailment, our prescriptions are simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer the temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport. Sometimes the remedy is best taken as an audiobook, or read aloud with a friend. As with all medicines, the full course of treatment should always be taken for best results. Along with the cures, we offer advice on particular reading issues, such as being too busy to read or what to read when you can’t sleep, along with the ten best books to read in each decade of life; and the best literary accompaniments for important rituals or rites of passage, such as being on vacation—or on your deathbed.*

We wish you every delight in our fictional plasters and poultices. You will be healthier, happier, and wiser for them.

A

ABANDONMENT

Plainsong

KENT HARUF

If inflicted early, the effects of physical or emotional abandonment—whether you were left by too busy parents to bring yourself up, told to take your tears and tantrums elsewhere, or off-loaded onto another set of parents completely (see: Adoption)—can be hard to shrug. If you’re not careful, you might spend the rest of your life expecting to be let down. As a first step to recovery, it is often helpful to realize that those who abandon you were most likely abandoned themselves. And rather than wishing they’d buck up and give you the support or attention you yearn for, put your energy into finding someone else to lean on who’s better equipped for the job.

Abandonment is rife in Plainsong, Kent Haruf’s account of small-town life in Holt, Colorado. Local schoolteacher Guthrie has been abandoned by his depressed wife, Ella, who feigns sleep when he tries to talk to her and looks at the door with “outsized eyes” when he leaves. Their two young sons, Ike and Bobby, are left bewildered by her unexplained absence from their lives. Old Mrs. Stearns has been abandoned by her relatives, either through death or neglect. And Victoria, seventeen years old and four months’ pregnant, is abandoned first by her boyfriend and then by her mother, who, in a backhanded punishment to the man who’d abandoned them both many years before, tells her, “You got yourself into this, you can just get out of it,” and kicks her out of the house.

Gradually, and seemingly organically—although in fact it is mostly orchestrated by Maggie Jones, a young woman with a gift for communication—other people step into the breach. Most astonishing are the McPheron brothers, a pair of “crotchety and ignorant” cattle-farming bachelors who agree to take the pregnant Victoria in: “They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.” The next thing we know they are running around shopping for cribs, and the rush of love for the pair felt by Victoria, as well as the reader, transforms them overnight. As we watch the community quicken to its role as extended family—frail Mrs. Stearns teaching Ike and Bobby to make cookies, the McPherons watching over Victoria with all the tender, clumsy tenacity they normally reserve for their cows—we see how support can come from very surprising places.

If you have been abandoned, don’t be afraid to reach out to the wider community around you—however little you know its inhabitants as individuals. They’ll thank you for it one day.

ACCUSED, BEING

True History of the Kelly Gang

PETER CAREY

If you’re accused of something and you know you’re guilty, accept your punishment with good grace. If you’re accused and you didn’t do it, fight to clear your name. And if you’re accused and you know you did it but you don’t think what you did was wrong, what then?

Australia’s Robin Hood, Ned Kelly—as portrayed by Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang—commits his first crime at ten years old when he kills a neighbor’s heifer so his family can eat. The next thing he knows, he’s been apprenticed (by his own mother) to the bushranger, Harry Power. When Harry robs the Buckland Coach, Ned is the “nameless person” who blocked the road with a tree and held the horses so “Harry could go about his trade.” And thus Ned’s fate is sealed: He’s an outlaw forever. He makes something glorious of it.

In his telling of the story—which he has written down in his own words for his baby daughter to read one day, knowing he won’t be around to tell her himself—Ned seduces us completely with his rough-hewn, punctuation-free prose that bounds and dives over the page. But what really warms us to this Robin Hood of a boy/man is his strong sense of right and wrong: Ned is guided at all times by a fierce loyalty and a set of principles that happen not to coincide with those of the law. When his ma needs gold, he brings her gold; when both his ma and his sister are deserted by their faithless men, he’ll “break the 6th Commandment” for their sakes. And even though Harry and his own uncles use him “poorly,” he never betrays them. How can we not love this murdering bushranger with his big heart? It is the world that’s corrupt, not him, and we cheer and whoop from the sidelines as pistols flash and his Enfield answers. And so the novel makes outlaws of its readers.

Ned Kelly is a valuable reminder that just because someone has fallen foul of society’s laws, he’s not necessarily bad. It’s up to each one of us to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong in life. Draw up your personal constitution, then live by it. If you step out of line, be the first to give yourself a reprimand. Then see: Guilt.

ADDICTION TO ALCOHOL

See: Alcoholism

ADDICTION TO COFFEE

See: Coffee, can’t find a decent cup of

ADDICTION TO DRUGS

See: Drugs, doing too many

ADDICTION TO GAMBLING

See: Gambling

ADDICTION TO SEX

See: Sex, too much

ADDICTION TO SHOPPING

See: Shopaholism

ADDICTION TO THE INTERNET

See: Internet addiction

ADDICTION TO TOBACCO

See: Smoking, giving up

ADOLESCENCE

The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. SALINGER

·   ·   ·

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

LORRIE MOORE

·   ·   ·

In Youth Is Pleasure

DENTON WELCH

Hormones rage. Hair sprouts where previously all was smooth. Adam’s apples bulge and voices crack. Acne erupts. Bosoms bloom. And hearts—and loins—catch fire with the slightest provocation.

First, stop thinking you’re the only one it’s happened to. Whatever you’re going through, Holden Caulfield got there first. If you think everything is “lousy,” if you can’t be bothered to talk about it, if your parents would have “two hemorrhages apiece” if they knew what you were doing right now, if you’ve ever been expelled from school, if you think all adults are phonies, if you drink/smoke/try to pick up people much older than you, if your so-called friends are always walking out on you, if your teachers tell you you’re letting yourself down, if the only person who understands you is your ten-year-old sister, if you protect yourself from the world with your swagger, your bad language, your seeming indifference to whatever happens to you next—if any of these is true for you, The Catcher in the Rye will carry you through.

Adolescence can’t be cured, but there are ways to make the most of it. Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is full of the usual horrors. The narrator, Berie, is a late developer who hides her embarrassment by mocking her “fried eggs” and “tin cans run over by a car,” and she and her best friend, Sils, roll about laughing when they remember how Sils once tried to shave off her pimples with a razor. In fact, laughing is something they do a lot of together—and they do it “violently, convulsively,” with no sound coming out. They also sing songs together—anything...

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