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Sorrow and Bliss, the book-of-the-moment that kept Kate up into the small hours, and Bear, by Marian Engel, a book that has been quietly shocking its readers for decades. Plus this week's Three to Try, a tussle over a book in our 100th podcast episode and our current reads.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The story in Sorrow and Bliss is told by Martha, funny, brilliant, mixed-up and troubled. At 40 she has no job, lives in a house she hates and her husband Patrick has left her. We learn she has experienced mental health problems since her late teens – ricocheting from happiness to despair with symptoms that also have physical manifestations making it difficult for her to function. 

Her family are also somewhat dysfunctional, a loving father who has spent his lifetime trying to write poetry and suffering abuse from Martha’s mother, a sculptor who drinks heavily, wraps herself up in her work and prefers to be left alone by her family, and Martha’s beloved sister Ingrid who adores her, but who is consumed by the demands of her own growing family.

Inside Martha’s head is not an easy place to be but what makes it bearable is the humour that shoots through every line. Even in the middle of describing a deeply upsetting experience Martha will probably manage to make you laugh, and this book does that brilliant thing of putting into words things you know but have never seen written down before.

I found the degree to which I rooted for Martha almost unbearable and when she eventually receives a diagnosis for her condition and the right form of treatment I couldn’t stop reading to find out if things were going to be ok. Intriguingly in the book you never actually find out what the diagnosis is and a note at the end clarifies that the symptoms Martha suffers are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. I thought this was really interesting – it leads you to reflect on mental health more generally and how misunderstood and misdiagnosed it can be with anti-depressants seemingly the default option. And as the book shows so gracefully the lives ruined are not just the sufferers but their family and friends. The bookclubber in me might also flag it up as a source of potential exasperation. The other thought that occurred to me was that having read so many 'auto fiction' novels – novels that draw heavily on the author's real life experiences – I actually thought it was really refreshing to read a novel with a statement at the end that basically said 'this is fiction, I made it up'. And I liked it for that.

A brilliant, thoughtful, moving read that will stay with you long after finishing and with lots of talking points for discussion. Believe what everyone says, this book is great.

Further reading: I haven't actually read it yet, but I just picked up The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath in the charity shop the other day which feels, from what I know of it, like it might be a good follow on – possibly the sorrow without any of the bliss, I will report back. I also wondered about The Vegetarian by Han Kang, a haunting Korean novel which won the Booker international a couple of years back. We did it for my book club and covered it on the podcast, episode 2. I loved it, and ended up reading it a couple of times. It's about a woman who decides to take a stand and stop eating meat, but, as becomes clear, this act of self-determination places her far outside of what society, and her husband, expects of her. It's beautiful and strange as she descends into a kind of madness. I also thought of the non-fiction memoir Born to be Mild by Rob Temple, which relates a year spent focusing on small everyday challenges in order to try to overcome his issues with anxiety. It's hilarious, but also sweet and moving, I really enjoyed it.

Bear by Marian Engel

'"Bear," she said, rubbing her foot in his fur, suddenly lonely. The fire was too hot, and the fur rug had edged towards her. Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it was years since she'd had human contact. she had always been bad at finding it. It was as if men knew that her soul was gangrenous. Ideas were all very well, and she could hide in her work, forgetting for a while the real meaning of the Insitute, where the Director f**ked her weekly on her desk while both of them pretended they were shocking the Government and she knew in her heart that what he wanted was not her waning flesh but elegant eighteenth-century keyholes, of which there is a shortage in Ontario.'

Bear tells the story of an archivist, Lou, who is called to a remote Canadian island to inventory the contents of a library. She is alone except a tame bear, who ends up being a much closer companion than she could ever have imagined. It's a strange little book. The trouble is because you know Lou's relationship with the bear is going to become physically intimate (and even if you knew absolutely nothing about this book in advance the cover gives it away) you do spend a lot of time wondering as you read it when, and how, this is going to happen.

When it does, it's written about in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way. So much so that one of the things that intrigued me most was that I kept expecting the bear to be some kind of metaphor, or something conjured from Lou's imagination, or something incorporating local folklore but in fact the bear is very much just a bear. A wild animal who has been tamed by humans and through some unconscious natural instinct responds to this woman's needs. And that makes it more interesting the way our protagonist changes, shifting away from human social codes and learning to love the bear's smell, its taste, its rough tongue.

I think it would be a great one for book club. I didn't love it, but I did find it engaging and I think it would definitely be a fun one to discuss. More interesting, perhaps, is to look into Englel herself and why she might have written such a book, and the cultural impact it had. Thanks to @londonflaneuse on Instagram who pointed me to this CBS article with an archive clip of Engel being interviewed about Bear: ‘The questions are more interesting than the answers,' she says, 'and one writes books out of questions.’

Further reading: I'm not sure anyone else has ever written successfully about sexual relationships between humans and animals in mainstream fiction (email me if I'm wrong) so I'm coming up a little short on follow-on reads (although Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman is a brilliant children's picture book about a young girl who gets carried off by a tiger and because it's Gaiman I think it's fair to say there is a certain adult quality to this relationship). But there are of course lots of books where people have significant relationships with animals. In Yann Martel's Booker winning Life of Pi a boy spends a lot of time in a boat with a tiger (no hanky panky, though), while We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a brilliant novel where the narrator turns out not to be human and I don't want to say more than that for fear of spoiling it. A wonderful read that I highly recommend.

Three to Try


Sea State by Tabitha Lasley

Flagged up for us by Ed Caesar, whose book The Moth and the Mountain I absolutely loved. Having had the manuscript of a novel she had spent four years working on stolen from her apartment, Lasley decided to make a break and headed to Aberdeen to fulfil a long held interest in writing about the men who live and work on North Sea oil rigs. This book is the result, a mixture of journalism and memoir of her time living on the fringes of her own life. In the Irish Times Lucy Sweeney Byrne writes 'Sea State is contemporary writing at its finest, without any hint of effort, egoism or pretentiousness on Lasley’s part. She is an astoundingly good writer, and this is an astoundingly good book.' I love a good non-fiction and as Ed correctly surmises, this is right up my street.

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

Browsing the shelves of my local bookshop with Marian Engel's book in my mind this title leapt out at me. It was included on The Sunday Times list of Books of the Year and has been shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award. It is, apparently, a fantastic tale set in the far north of Sweden in 1852 following a runaway Sami boy and his mentor, the famous pastor Laestadius, as they investigate a murder in their village along with the mysteries of life.

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Wasl

Fans of The Hare With Amber Eyes who have been hesitating over this one, I can report back that Sally in my book club has read it and absolutely loved it. Count Moïse de Camondo lived a few doors away from Edmund de Waal's forebears, the Ephrussi. Camondo created a spectacular house and filled it with the greatest private collection of French eighteenth-century art for his son to inherit. But when Nissim was killed in the First World War, it became a memorial and, on the Count's death, was bequeathed to France. The Musée Nissim de Camondo has remained unchanged since 1936. Edmund de Waal explores the lavish rooms and detailed archives and uncovers new layers to the family story. In a haunting series of letters addressed to the Count, he tells us what happened next. I recently discovered De Waal is on Instagram, where fans of his writing can enjoy his regular posts that have all of the magic of his longer books.

What to Listen To

Our latest episode is our 100th and for once Laura and I get personal and answer bookish questions from our listeners. We had a lot of fun making it – listen in if you're curious as to the books that shaped our childhoods, our favourites from the pod and a slightly shocking disagreement over a book Kate loves – but this is book club and nothing is sacred. Which book was it? Listen in to find out.

I was delighted to hear Alice Slater and Bethany Rutter thoroughly hash out the whole Cat Person where-should-authors-draw-the-line debate on their What Page Are You On pod. Read the article by Alexis Nowicki that kicked things off here.

If you only have time to scroll

If you're pining for your next Sally Rooney fix look no further than the July 12th and 19th editions of The New Yorker which featured a new story called Unread Messages. It follows the seemingly inconsequential details of a woman's life and relationships, but this is Sally Rooney so you have the sense that every word has been carefully weighed and I found it a surprisingly tense read. Something to tide you over until the next book comes out.

Read this article by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, What Do We Hope to Find When We Look for a Snow Leopard and then listen to our episode 7 where we discussed Petter Matthiessen's classic book in which the physical search for the snow leopard is paralleled by an equally elusive search for inner peace.

What Kate is reading:

I'm just finished Happy All the Time by Laurie Colvin, which has been an absolute delight and definitely a great tip for summer reading. Now I am knuckling down to catch up with Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan for Laura's bookclub – described on the cover as a Turkish War and Peace – and proving a surprisingly sensual read so far. I'm llooking forward to recording with one of our our favourite guests Phil Chaffee later this week. 

What Laura is reading

Laura has fallen into a reading rut with a backlog of book club books she doesn’t fancy and the disappointing A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson sitting on her bedside table. Have you heard of A Theatre of Dreamers readers? It seems like the perfect summer reading: 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra, our teenage heroine observes a literary and artistic milieu that includes Leonard Cohen, Charmian Clift and Axel Jensen. But so far that’s all she does: observe. And we’re told Cohen is charismatic, and that Clift is glamorous, but none of that comes through in the flat characterisation. Also, the relentless use of the present tense is becoming tedious. But hey, Nigella Lawson calls the novel ‘delicious’, and Vanity Fair ‘spellbinding’, so what does Laura know?

Browse our bookshop. We've had fun putting together a shop window of this week's recommendations. If you're thinking of investing in any of them, buying through supports independent bookshops and you'll also be supporting us at the pod.

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of 100 episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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