Review Blog

Sep 13 2013

The novel cure: An A-Z of literary remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elberkin

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Text, 2013. ISBN 9781922079350.
This book is written in praise of literature as a cure for physical and psychological ailments. It is organised under 'ailments', which are arranged alphabetically and include topics both serious and comical. The authors claim that Abandonment, their first condition, can be remediated if not cured by reading Kent Haruf's Plainsong, which shows how characters with losses have their needs filled by surprising contributions from their community. The last condition, Zestlessness, it is suggested can be cured by reading Doctorow's Ragtime, an energetic capturing of life in New York in the early twentieth century. Some of the discussions inbetween deal with equally serious subjects, Insomnia, Happiness, Hatred, while others are tongue-in-cheek, for example Itchy teeth (apparently a condition described in Saul Bellow's Henderson the rain king and which needs to be consulted for the cure) and Idiot, feeling like an (read Dostoyevsky's The idiot!). The headings are beautifully organised, with cross-references that work, and concludes with an index of authors and titles. There are also lists of recommended reading , under the heading of 'The ten best...' These include recommendations for audio books, novellas, 'big fat tomes', for 'drowning out snoring', for 'reading on the loo', and for each decade from the teenage years to the over one hundreds. The recommendations are widely based, and include classics, little known works of the twentieth century and very up-to-date publications. Dickens is here, Austen too, and Cervantes, and so are Suzanne Collins, John Green, Mark Dunn and Sam Lipsyte. The writing is lively and entertaining, and following up the cross-referencing is enjoyable. The discussions of the texts and sometimes the ailments are usually insightful, though classics teachers would disagree with the characterisation of Odysseus as having 'itchy feet'. This is an energetic and entertaining approach to reading for adults, but is appropriate for senior students and should be very useful for teacher-librarians and teachers of literature. It is also great fun too for a casual browse.
Jenny Hamilton

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