Among the many books I have read recently are these three that remained in a pile – clearly awaiting further attention before being put away. All three are worthy paying closer attention to.
Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon is possibly one of the most delightful gifts I have received for a long time. I have always enjoyed words and find it fascinating to delve into the etymology of interesting words, so the idea of exploring the ‘lost words’ of the English language holds great appeal – so great an appeal that I couldn’t keep them to myself and ended up reading this book to my husband!
The day’s jaunt begins at 6 a.m. waking to an alarm clock and then checks in every hour of the day until midnight, when we make too much noise upon returning home before finally falling asleep. Why oh why have we lost words such as splashing our faces with a gowpen (a double handful) of water in the morning? Then there is the hour between one and two, called the amell, when we take time off from our labours to enjoy lunch. Once the sky obnubilates (darkens) we turn our minds to plans for the evening, which might include having supper, drinking, wooing and so on before stumbling home. If you enjoy words, this is an absorbing, light-hearted, and very informative read.
Having thoroughly enjoyed skipping through a day while discovering new words every hour, I needed no persuasion to borrow A Short History of Drunkenness by the same author.
What a treat! From the prehistory of drinking, we visit Sumerian bars, peep at Ancient Egypt, attend a Greek Symposium and drink with the Ancient Chinese. We explore the Bible, find out about the Roman Convivium, make our way through the Dark Ages, and go drinking in the Middle East. We then find out what the Viking Sumbl is and visit a Medieval Alehouse. Mark Forsyth tells us about the Aztecs, the Gin Craze, Australia, and takes us to a Wild West Saloon. We also visit Russia and learn about the Prohibition. This is another marvellous romp through the history of how people have over-imbibed from the Stone Age to the present – with plenty of read-aloud passages to entertain.
In a completely different vein comes the end of your life bookclub by Will Schwalbe.
This is a second-hand book which has languished near the bottom of my to-be-read basket since before Covid-19 reared its head and ruined our social lives. Even the bright golden affirmation that it is a The New York Times Bestseller didn’t move me for all of those months. I picked it up and returned it, turned my back on it – shunned it completely. Who wants to read about someone dying of pancreatic cancer when our entire world as we knew it was being turned upside down – or so I thought! Some books, I find, simply wait patiently until I am in the right frame of mind.
Of course it’s not about his mother dying – rather this simply forms the background to the focus of the book which is on the many books Schwalbe and his mother read and discussed during the period before she dies. It is a fascinating account of what they read, their differing views of books, and how each of these discussions led onto talking about some of the more difficult issues in their lives. As he puts it, he and his mother formed a sort of two-member book club during this time – and what a lively book club it turns out to be!
Apart from the books, both fiction and non-fiction, they read, there is an inspiring thread of the dignity with which his mother faced her illness: Mom’s appointments [for treatment sessions] were usually first thing in the morning – she liked to get them over and done with so she could get on with her day. Even when she was feeling “really not great”, Mom always took care with her appearance.
They argue about books, have different opinions about issues and deal with her having exhausted all the traditional chemotherapies – enough you might think to turn you off. Not a chance with these two: he points out that Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe we can all do better. The Appendix lists their reading material – it is satisfying to go through it to see what you might have read and to note from it what you would still like to read.
So, no fiction this time but three uplifting non-fiction choices to blow away any Covid-variation blues.