Have you found yourself yet?

I Am, I Am, I AmHave you found yourself yet? And if so, how?

Maggie O’Farrell, author of seven very successful novels, has worked out who she is using her seventeen (that is correct) brushes with death, and has put it all together for us in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am.  And it is very good.

O’Farrell has had a truly amazing life. Seventeen times she very nearly died (think attacks on lone walks, aeroplane near misses, medical blunders and and and and), but seventeen times she came back to live another day. These experiences have taught her a lot about herself, and she has assembled each episode into this uniquely structured memoir. After reading this book, it is almost impossible not to compare, to think back on one’s own life to times of danger or to those fleeting moments when guiding forces seem to have  intervened and prevented something truly awful from happening. I have not had a life like O’Farrell’s. And I come from Africa.

The ImmortalistsBut what if you did know the exact day when you were destined to die? Is this something you would want to know? And how might it affect your life?  The Immortalists explores this option after four young siblings consult a travelling fortune teller who predicts the exact death date of each of them. Half way through this novel I wouldn’t have minded if all four Gold siblings had died at the same time, like immediately, but it is worth it to hang in there as it’s a book that gets better in the second half.

Could it be instead that some of us live lives that have been shaped by the small, by a huge number of minor chords, by repetitive everyday attrition, by little tests that slowly reveal who we are?  Personally, I love to be told about myself by answering a gazillion questions (think the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs). I also suspect my birth date has subliminally influenced me. And this has been all well and good, until the library poster for the Lunar Year of the Dog arrived at work. To my dismay I see I am an Ox: steady, loyal, determined, blah blah blah. Just say “plodding” and be done with it why don’t you? I love my western Astrology sign of Sagittarius, but I am not a happy Ox.

Then I happened to glance at the top of this draft page and saw that this is my 200th library blog post.

I am indeed doggedly bullish. But I like to think of myself as an Ox armed with a Sagittarian bow and arrow with which to optimistically shoot my ideas all over the place. Maybe this is how I have found myself. Maybe it is with this kind of action I prove to myself: I Am, I Am, I Am!

The Beautiful Librarians

The Beautiful LibrariansI get a little frisson of excitement when I am reading a novel and one of the characters turns out to have had superior career guidance and is a librarian. And September was my month of librarian-related reads. It all started with The Beautiful Librarians, a 2015 poetry collection by Sean O’Brien:

The beautiful librarians are dead,

The fairly recent graduates who sat

Like Francoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters

With cardigans across their shoulders

On quiet evenings at the issue desk,

Stamping books and never looking up

At where I stood in adoration.

This Must be the PlaceThen I started to see patterns, and books with library characters jumped off the shelves at me. Like Teresa in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel: This Must be the Place. Teresa meets a young man when she is helping tourniquet his nephew’s wound. He asks if she is a nurse and she replies:

“No, a librarian” she said, adding, “but we do a first-aid course as part of our training.”

Well, let’s just say that he was lucky he got her and not me. But he tracks her down, visiting all the libraries in Brooklyn. Although this really is Love At First Sight (good luck with that all you first-aidy library types), they absolutely do not live happily ever after.

The Quiet SpectacularAnd you might not identify with this particular librarian, but the choice of library characters is wide, and there will be one for you:

Take Loretta, who is a school librarian in Laurence Fearnley’s 2016 novel The Quiet Spectacular and who has embarked on compiling The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women while waiting to collect her son from after-school activities. Hesitant in her dealings with semi-feral packs of teenagers in the school library, she forms a bond with one of them – Chance. No one falls in love with Loretta at first sight, but there is more to library life than that. There’s involvement in even one person’s life that helps to turn it around. Agree?

The Book of SpeculationAnd not all the books I discovered are about lady librarians. The Book of Speculation has a young male librarian – Simon Watson. Simon is a loner who is about to lose his library job.  If the words “crumbling” “mysterious package” and “antiquarian bookseller” are a turn-on for you, then you will love this book. It also has a stunningly beautiful cover.

All these books are recent additions to the library collection. All are well worth reading.  All involve librarians. So all you librarians out there, remember these books as you hand out your gazillionth computer pass, download your umpteenth document and wrestle with the wonders of 3D printing yet again. Know that you still have allure, that your library mystique is still there. And that, at least in the minds-eye of these four authors, you remain A Beautiful Librarian!

Men who run away from home

Cover: The hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared Keep an eye on your menfolk.

In the space of five months I have read five books on runaway men. It all started with The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and that should have been it.

But books on runaway men just keep on coming:

Like The hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. This Swedish novel plaits together two strands of a centenarian’s escape from his retirement home: his memories of his colourful (and incendiary) past and his current adventures as a one hundred year old escapee. In typically Scandinavian style, some seriously weird events take place, and at one point all that kept me reading was curiosity as to how the author would pull the whole thing together, which he does.

Cover: Instructions for a heatwavwHot on its heels (as it were) is the latest Maggie O’Farrell, Instructions for a heatwave. O’Farrell has quite a following among book club ladies, after her very successful The hand that first held mine. In this novel, the man who runs away is offstage the whole time. It’s really about the effect of his defection on his wife and children.

I’m quite partial to this sort of “figure-ground” writing, it’s like that gestalt picture where you can see both a vase or two profiles, depending on your focus at the time. There is a bit of a mystery in O’Farrell’s book as well, but its strength lies in its superb characterizations. However, let us not get sidetracked here. It is still a book about a man who goes walkabout.

I have only read one novel in my life where a female character just ups and offs. It is Delia in Ladder of years by Anne Tyler. Surely there must be others, or are women just slow off the starters’ block in the runaway game?