Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.


It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

Seeing the old year out with the memory of books

I promised one more old post. This one is also from BiblioBuffet. It was published 10 October, 2011. I thought it matched last week’s post and also it gives you some hints of the kinds of directions I might follow with my new series. Also, it’s very, very hard to go wrong with lists of ten.

Next week is a new year and a new post. This new year is entirely unpredictable, as we’re all sadly aware. The only certainty in it is that it will contain books. I hope, for all of you, that it also contains joy. Health, income, all the things would be terrific, too.


Lists of ten – again

I love lists. Today I have a list that’s ten items long. It could have been five, or a hundred, or even a thousand. I want to tell you ten things I love about books and illustrate them using some of my recent reading. Some of the recent reading is hot off the press, and some is less so. I’ve chosen books from the speculative fiction end of the reading spectrum. This might be because they reflect my reading recently. It’s just possible. Let me admit, up front, that I know some of these writers. I wish I knew them all, but I know just a couple. Once there is something in someone’s writing that you love, the likelihood is quite high that when you meet the person in question, that you will get on. I’ve only given examples from writers whose books struck me for these precise reasons before I ever met the writer in question.

My ten things:

1. I love exploring someone else’s politics through their fiction, especially when that fiction is very fine. My book for this is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It’s all about freedom and the life of the mind and the limitations that we humans place upon ourselves. A lot of political books written in the 1970s have become dated, for life has changed since the seventies, but this one hasn’t become dated at all. It’s still vibrant and forceful.

2. Lyrical writing couched secretly inside a genre novel. It takes me by surprise and gives me a sense of the world being right, every time. So many of my favourite writers have this flavour in their writing: Hope Mirrlees, Alma Alexander, Mervyn Peake. My example for today, however, is Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains because he manages to take a non-Western universe and make it feel particular and its own, while still maintaining that lyricism.

3. Sometimes language and concept and personality infuse a writer’s work. Cordwainer Smith and Roger Zelazny are two writers who don’t seem to be able to write a word of fiction without that word somehow defining the universe anew. My example book for Zelazny is probably the least of all the writings of either author: The Last Defender of Camelot. It is, however, the one I re-read most recently. When I get some time, I intend to re-read the whole Amber cycle, plus Smith’s Norstrilia books. Which means, of course, that my example for Smith is Norstrilia itself. Time is the limiting factor. Their worlds and their words haunt me even when I don’t go near the writing for years on end.

4. The historian deep inside me (well, maybe not so deep, in fact maybe just the one who shares the same skin as the rest of me) loves a book that explores another world that breaks with what we accept as normal reality and that does so in such a way that the reader accepts things that are unacceptable or understands things that are usually conceptually too difficult to grasp. Not that I want to accept the unacceptable, but that I really like writing that’s strong backing world building that’s even stronger. Aliette de Bodard’s Harbinger of the Storm is today’s example of that. An Aztec society, with gods and belief systems and treatment of women that are very uncomfortable for me, and yet I must read and continue reading for she makes it real. Lord of the Flies was the same but more so ‑ hate the world, but must believe it can exist.

5. There is happiness in small things. Grumpy fairy tales and twisted minds. When I was a child I read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O. They rang truer for me than most other children’s literature at that time. The other book that I fell in love with (and have a lion’s head doorknocker right now, to prove that doorknockers are crucial to grumpy magical existence) is William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring. The bizarre fairytale is still my favourite book by Thackeray, and this despite me having read Vanity Fair at least four times.

6. There are warped and twisted books for adults, also. There is Shriek. An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer and there is almost anything by James Enge. I was reading Enge’s The Wolf Age and I finally realised that it’s not the sharpness of these books or even their views on society that make them so delightful, it’s their inventiveness. Enge’s imagination is always one step beyond my mind’s reasoning ‑ he manages to think of places I’ve never thought of and make fantasy worlds look fresh and new.

7. There are trilogies. There are sets of trilogies. What there are, too, are occasional authors who manage to write one big book that has been broken up into parts that make coherent narrative sense but that are nevertheless mere aspects of one big book. I always find one of these near my desk, for I have a weakness for them. Right now there are two books by Joe Abercrombie, and there is Ravensoul, part four of James Barclay’s Legends of the Raven.

8. I love it when the people of two worlds meet. There’s always a book in my vicinity that shows the clash of cultures or someone who was brought up in two worlds or is touched by two worlds and has difficult choices ahead. The most recent book that touched on this (and leaves it unresolved ‑ I must read the next book!) is Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Lure.

9. Steampunk! Right now, for me, steampunk is alone enough to make me look twice at something. From the reasonably standard romantic approach to machines and villains and changing worlds expressed in Andrew P Mayer’s The Falling Machine to the steampunk romance of Katie MacAlister, but the best encapsulation right now, for me, personally, is in the work of Cherie Priest.

10. New approaches to something that I thought I knew. Eye-opening and making the whole world new. This is the most exciting writing of all. My example is Kafakaesque, and I shall write about it properly in due course. Some books demand attention of their own, and this is one. The editors’ genius in placing Carol Emshwiller, Kate Wilhelm and Theodora Goss in the same volume make it something that shifts what thought I knew about short stories. This is my current reading, and it’s wonderful.

Where Gillian is Peeved

Every time I am invited to a Christmas party, I have to decide whether I should go. If it’s a friend asking me to share their celebration of their Christmas, I accept with joy. If it’s a public or professional event that’s called a “Christmas Party”, one of the implications is that if I don’t accept Christmas as a part of my life, then I am not really acceptable as I am, with my own views and culture, in that environment.

Not that the organisers articulate it in this way. Recently, when I asked a professional group what they meant by “Christmas” they explained that it was secular. While this was perfectly acceptable for them, they demonstrated that a secularised version of a religious celebration was seen as acceptable for all shapes of religion and belief because they explained to me (and they know I’m Jewish) that it was secular for me, too. This tells those of us without Christian backgrounds that there is a certain way we should live our lives.

How the lead-up to Christmas is depicted in Australia is related to this. There is an “Advent” book box being advertised right now. It takes the word “Advent” (which refers to a very particular coming birthday) and one can open one wrapped book a day from 1 December until Christmas Day. I’m told it is, also, not religious. But there are never any book boxes for the festivals of other religions. Instead, we are all asked to accept the redefined religious words for Christianity.

Whether these explanations work for me, for you, for someone else, depends on our background.

For me, it creates a disjuncture between the home and the outside world. The values in my home are Jewish, and my parents taught me that I should not celebrate others’ festivals for myself. Why? It’s an acceptance that their religion takes precedence over my own. In their homes, that’s a sign of respect. In my home, why don’t my own traditions and belief take precedence? In public events and shared places, explaining that a thing is secular not only sets the Christian festival as something that is shared by everyone (when it, frankly, is not) but it also rubs it in that my views do not matter.

The fact that someone explaining Christmas to me as secular shows how they set their own atheism in a cultural context. It also demonstrates that they’re not listening to people who have different contexts.

Cultural respect and religious respect involve understanding how the person we’re talking to sees the subject we’re talking about. This entails accepting multiple interpretations of an event. Do you leave someone out of a group because they can’t eat peanuts? Or do you make sure that there is shared food everyone can eat?

This is my annual rant on the subject. Shorter than usual because it’s 1 am here and bed beckons.

I shall skip the Christmas party, because I’m not convinced the person organising knows much about Christianity. Also, I won’t buy the books. Instead, on the day of the party, I shall tell anyone who wants to hear my two favourite miracles for St Nicolas (the children and the bones, for anyone who has had to suffer my tale-telling) for the party is on his holy day and he’s the bloke who became Santa Claus. I need to practise what I preach, in other words. If you who want to hear about the pickled children and how they are Santa’s backstory, please ask.

On the book-front, I’m doing my own thing. I will send book parcels on behalf of anyone who wants to give presents to friends and family in Australia. This is actually not my response to the religion issue. It’s my response to books being a bit difficult to buy and to international mail being a lost cause. If you know anyone wants to give presents to anyone in Australia over the next few weeks, check here:

I have nothing against presents (I adore presents), after all. My objection is to people who insist that my own background doesn’t matter a jot.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.


  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.