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Another Sunday, but at least we can laugh...


When I have a few too many books I have to read, I have a tendency to swerve sideways into other books that suddenly seem like essential reading. Is there a name for this? There should be. I've made some good discoveries this way – The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, for example. As I work my way through the books on the Women's Prize shortlist I suddenly found it essential to catch up with an old, and very funny, friend of a book – of which, more below.

Continuing the kindness theme from last week I had a couple of lovely emails from regular pod-listener Alison Parsons recommending Apeirogon to me and also The Greenhouse by the author of Miss Iceland with so many accents I always have to cut and paste it in from the browser (Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir). She's also sending me her copy of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous which means I will finally have to stop talking about reading it, and actually read it. I'm looking forward to being a person who has read that book, as opposed to one who keeps meaning to. It will be the beginning of a whole new chapter for me, and it will all be thanks to Alison.

In pod news Laura and I had fun recording with Anna Baillie-Karas of Australian podcast Books on the Go last night. The theme was book club books, and was the first time we've appeared on someone else's show rather than our own. I was so excited about being a 'guest'. We both love Anna's style, which is so poised and graceful it totally shows us up for the last-minute scramblers we both are. Anyway, hopefully it will all turn out ok and I'll keep you posted for when the episode comes out. In the meantime, back to my side-read of the week. New subscribers, welcome. 
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4 by Adrian Plass

Saturday December 14th
Feel led to keep a diary. A sort of spiritual log for the benefit of others in the future. Each new divine insight and experience will shine like a beacon in the darkness!
Can't think of anything to put in today.
Still, tomorrow's Sunday. Must be something on a Sunday, surely?

Maybe I’m a tough nut to crack, but it’s rare I find a book that makes me laugh out loud. Which is why it was with particular pleasure this week I came across a copy of The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4 that someone had donated to my local Little Free Library. Had I not known what a gem it was I might not have picked it up – the cover with a cartoon of some people with hymnbooks and a bearded man with a bandaged thumb doesn’t exactly scream ‘read me’ – but luckily I know this book of old. Back in the day I used to go to an evangelical church in the town of Harpenden where hymns were sung with endlessly repeated upbeat choruses accompanied by a live band on stage, where people held their hands up to let the spirit in, regularly broke into tongues at the least provocation and healing meetings and bible-study groups were the norm. For this former Church of England child it was all very exciting, and although I’ve long since let go of the beliefs (sadly, as a reader I was going to come to Richard Dawkins sooner or later, and indeed did), what I do retain are fond memories of a warm community that I was a part of for a while. Looking them up, I see they are still going, with a snazzy website now and weekly seminars on things like ‘Musings in the desert: Choosing the right diet’ and ‘Trusting God – Waiting? Why? What? How? When?’

The genius of the Sacred Diary is that Plass gently pokes fun at some of the absurdities of this world while at the same time celebrating all that is wonderful about it. The diary entries by Adrian’s fictional alter-ego describe his daily life as he balances work and his church life with his own struggles, doubts and trials and tribulations as he tries to put his ideas about how best to serve God into practice. It’s not just funny, it’s hysterically funny – although I concede perhaps it has an extra edge if you’re familiar with the scenarios. Do you have to be a Christian to enjoy it? I don’t think so. It’s a book about ordinary people trying to figure life out as they go along with the story of a small family, Adrian, his wife Anne and their teenage son Gerald, at its heart. People have problems, not everyone always gets along, Adrian is at war with one neighbour over his untrimmed hedge and another over his rabbit that keeps escaping and eating her vegetables, but generally issues are resolved with mutual tolerance, respect and support and it all made me wish rather wistfully that we could behave like this without having the imperative of Edwin the church leader to keep us on track. Well, lots of people do, of course, but not the man without a mask on who shouted abuse at an older woman who tried to tell him off about it in front of me at the Post Office the other day. 

Have you ever read any Adrian Plass. I’ve been puzzling over why I haven’t ever read anything else by him (he has another twenty-one books to his name). I think it’s because this book to me is as perfect as they come and I’d hate to spoil it with another that wasn’t as good. But maybe what I need, as Edwin would no doubt tell me, is a little more faith!

Buy The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass from Bookshop.org

Further reading: Ever since I read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession I keep coming across books that would make good companion reads. I think these two would sit very nicely alongside each other on the shelf. Also, take the religion away and you have the snort-with-laughter humour of Bill Bryson. Try Neither Here Nor There, Bryson's hilarious account of travelling round Europe with his friend Stephen Katz, who turned out to be the worst travelling companion imaginable. Notes from a Small Island, his tour round England, is also good. But my favourite Bill Bryson book – the one that just makes my jaw drop with amazement every time I dip into it because it is SO GOOD, is his science book A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's a brilliant feat of research that also manages to be incredibly entertaining. I think it should be required reading, not just in schools, but for everyone.

Three to Try

From the department of wishful thinking in time-to-read terms, here are three books that caught our my this week.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

If you were wondering which book won the 2021 Dublin International Literary Prize, it was this one, described by the Biblioteca Vila de Gràcia, Spain, as ‘a very original novel, with a so sophisticated narrative structure and talks about very important themes as migration troubles in EUA and his relationship with the past history of the country.’ [sic] (I'd correct it, but this sort of thing is what I love about this prize.)

The novel follows a family on a summer road trip to Arizona as the children try to understand both their parents’ conflict and the news of thousands of children lost at the U.S. border. The judges called it ‘a richly textured novel that reminds us that the novel is always capable of being pushed in new directions. As the title suggests, this is the novel as archive, as a repository of memory.'

I haven’t yet read it, but Anna Baillie Karas, friend-of-the-pod and former guest on our show explored it in this episode of her podcast Books on the Go.

 

Small Pleasures by Claire Chambers

As recommended by Chrissy Ryan of Bookbar, who says it was a book that kept her going at times throughout lockdown for its gentleness and wonderful characters. It’s set in 1957 in the suburbs of South East London. Our protagonist, Jean Swinney, is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young woman contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. I am definitely adding this to my TBR.

 

The Wild Laughter by Caolinn Hughes

'He was a bright young thing. My brother, Cormac. His mind was a luxury. The face was rationed, it must be said, but there's not a body with everything. Part t-rex, part pelican. Picture that menace of features!' 

Another prizewinner, this time 2021 RSL Encore Award (for a second novel). Judges Nikita Lalwani, Paul Muldoon and Sian Cain called it a ‘grand feat of comic ingenuity, mischievous and insightful, and full of resonance for the way we live now. The voice of Caoilinn’s doomed narrator, Doharty ‘Hart’ Black, is so original and vibrant, with a very particular poetic vernacular. This is a story of modern Ireland, set in the crash post Celtic Tiger, but it also feels timeless in many ways, with Biblical myth simmering under the surface. The Wild Laughter is a real page-turner, in spite of its literary heart, and a joy to read.’

What to Listen To


Don't miss our latest pod, episode #96, in which we catch up with Chrissy Ryan, proprietor of our dream bookshop and bar, Bookbar, that has serendipitously opened in my very own neighbourhood of Islington, North London. I loved meeting Chrissy, I don't think I've ever come across anyone with such an infectious enthusiasm for books. She launched her business via her website a little while back, but has only just recently been able to open her physical space and it was so exciting talking to her about her hopes and dreams for it. The day after our interview Mel Skyes and Simon Savidge were downstairs in the 'Book-cellar' recording an episode of their Sykes and Savidge book club. Mel Skyes was heard to laughingly complain about the impossibility of recording a programme in a space where all she wanted to do was pull down the titles and have a browse. Having been in the same position when I interviewed Chrissy, I could relate. Listen in as we do pull down some titles and go through her favourite reads right now and some to watch out for coming soon.
 

Who to follow


Alice Harmon is a children's author and long-time member of Laura's book club. She has a wonderful newsletter focused on children's books called 'What Book Now' that I confess I almost hesitate to recommend because the design is so beautiful, you're going to realise immediately all the deficiencies of my own entry-level mailchimp missives. But everything about it is so good, I can't not – if you have children of your own, nephews, nieces or friends and family with kids, you are going to love it. Every month she recommends titles for different age-ranges and this month, nicely fitting in with this week's theme, she's recommending funny books. It's a rare book that can stand up to repeated readings and still keep the grown-up involved amused I reckon – all the more reason to get some good advice. For my part, I'd recommend Sparky by Jenny Offill, a picture book about a girl and her pet sloth the gift of which keeps on giving – good for 5–7s.
 

What Kate is reading:

I’m realising I need to knuckle down to my Women’s Prize reading if I’m going to get through them all in time for our recording session. I’ve still got the Patricia Lockwood and Yaa Gyasi to go, plus I came back from Bookbar with a copy of Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters that may not have made the shortlist, but feels like it should be included in the conversation. But what I really want to read is Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, a book Chrissy and I talked about and which comes highly recommended by Ed Caesar, author of one of my favourite ever non-fiction reads, The Moth and the Mountain. If he says it's good, I want in.

 

What Laura is reading:


I've been catching up with Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, which was Kate's last book club book, and which we're discussing on the pod later this week. Unfortunately my daughter Rose delights in moving my books and it's currently nowhere to be found – if only I had a butler to keep things organised for me. Anyway, hopefully it will turn up in time. That episode is coming soon. Also I finished Graceling by Kristin Cashore that I mentioned last week, and loved it.



 

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