The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
Why, when we are distressed, may the angst-ridden music of Mahler or Shostakovich be consoling? Why does music mean so much to so many people, when its meaning defies explanation? These questions are at the heart of Stephen Johnson's How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (Notting Hill Editions). The book mixes biography, musicology and memoir, and finds an ideal balance between the three. Johnson introduces just enough biography to provide the context for Shostakovich's great works; he discusses them in language that a layperson can understand; and he tells us, without solipsism, how the works spoke to him at times of depressive illness.
I'm at last catching up with Where the Crawdads Sing, a debut novel by wildlife scientist Delia Owens published in 2018 by Corsair to general acclaim. I'm listening to the audiobook, which is particularly helpful as I’m hopeless at 'reading' in an accent - in this case a South Carolina one. Kya is abandoned as a child by her family and learns to survive on her own while becoming an expert on the marshy regions she lives in - until two very different young men find themselves fascinated by her wild beauty and her 'otherness'. When one of them is found dead, this becomes a mystery story too, but it's really the tale of her coming of age and her growing connection with the wilderness that makes this such a compelling read.
I've almost finished You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane (Avon), and I don't want it to end. She is such a brilliantly funny writer - I am reading painfully slowly so I don't miss out on any of her witty lines. But aside from the humour, there's so much humanity and so much depth of feeling in her books - I only have one left after this, and I will be saving it for a day that I really need to read something I know I'll love. This one is about Rachel and Ben, who were best friends at university and have re-met ten years later: the only problem is that Ben is now married, and Rachel has recently split from her fiancé. It goes back and forth between the past and present, balancing both times perfectly. I knew from the start roughly how the story would unfold and it's been such a pleasure getting there.
Escapism only takes you so far, so time to turn back to today's reality and the emerging genre of the medical memoir. No doubt soon there will be a glut of grim accounts from the coronavirus front line, but until then I am easing myself in with The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson (Chatto). It is a 2018 proof copy, safely distant from today's horrors, and presents a more upbeat portrait of the NHS than any contemporary account would, although there are unbearable sad moments. Another key point is that Watson was an accomplished novelist a decade before she wrote this, giving her writing a polish that is immediately apparent. One hopes today's crisis will produce an equally skilled chronicler.
My revelation book of the year so far is Jenny Offill's Weather, so I have been determined to work my way round to reading her previous book, Dept. of Speculation (Granta). The format that so beguiled me is there again and it pulled me into its web and the sticky relationship angst and personal insights that were trapped within it. For a brief second I whispered to myself the question of whether Jenny Offill was perhaps a little bit of a one-trick pony? The answer is not at all, but who would care if it was the case? If the pony's one trick was that it could soar above, sprinkling genius and awe amongst us all, that would be pretty bloody good. I will be giving children her books as well as adults at every opportunity.