Thanks to the wonders of technology, we’re still able to gather as a community even from the confines of our homes in the middle of a pandemic. On the literary front, we at the Boston Book Festival have got you covered. Whether you’re struggling with adapting to self-isolation, feeling indecisive about what to read, or just looking for some new book or author to discover, our virtual There’s a Book for That: Bibliotherapy Event has something for everyone. On April 23rd, pick up your phone, tablet, or computer and join us on Zoom as bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud “prescribes” books for every quarantine qualm you can think of. Here’s what you need to know:
Get to know Ella!Ella Berthoudis a trusted bibliotherapist based in the UK who prescribes literary remedies for people’s ailments and issues. Author of The Novel Cure and other books, she has done live prescriptions at several literary festivals and also regularly conducts one-on-one sessions. Read our recent Q&A with Ella to learn more about how she became interested in bibliotherapy and what she’s been reading lately.
Come prepared to make quarantine cocktails with Nick Petrulakis, veteran bookseller at the Brookline Booksmith and the creator of Drinks With Nick. At our Bibliotherapy event, he’ll be mixing literary cocktails using common pantry staples. Check out our recent Q&A with Nick to learn more about how he came up with the concept of the literary cocktail and his favorite past creations.
Donate during our event to support the Boston Book Festival. This event, like most of our events, is free to attend, but we rely on the generosity of individuals to support our nonprofit organization and the programs we provide. Thank you to those of you who registered and added on a donation; if you’d like to support our work during or after this event, donate on our website or text the word BOOK to 617-300-0877 for a super easy-to-use mobile donations form.
Purchase all of Ella’s recommendations at our Bookshop links after the event to support your local bookstores in these troubling times.
Last but not least, save the dateto log onto Zoom for the event on April 23rd at 5:30 pm. Get cozy, bring snacks, invite your friends (virtually), and join us for a fun and relaxing evening sharing our love of books!
During these unprecedented and scary times, books can offer us wisdom, comfort, and other worlds to escape to, even for just a few hours. Ahead of our virtual There’s A Book For That: Bibliotherapy Event on April 23, we asked past Boston Book Festival presenters what books they turn to in times of trouble; here’s what they’ve been reaching for these past few weeks.
This one feels almost too obvious, but so it goes . . . there’s nothing like an Alice Munro story when I want to slip effortlessly out of my reality and into someone else’s. They’re so perfect, on a craft level, that even when they involve murder I find them somehow soothing. Plus you can read a Munro story backwards and upside down and it will still work, which makes for ideal reading during this peripatetic, time-bending time.
Tom’s most recent novel, Mrs. Fletcher, is a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into an HBO series in 2019.
One book I return to in unsettling times is The Periodic Tableby Primo Levi. It’s a memoir of Levi’s life as a chemist, and every page radiates humor, compassion, resilience, and a deep respect for scientific truth, all of which we could really use right now.
When it became clear that I was not going to be leaving my house much in the near future, I reached for Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988. From the opening sentence—“In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days”—I feel myself reliably transported to another world. The novel is set mostly in Moscow in 1913 and it succeeds in being both slyly funny and deeply mysterious. It reveals itself like one of those sets of Russian dolls—one mystery hiding another—and almost all of them eluding the novel’s protagonist Frank Reid, one of those decent, repressed Englishmen for whom Fitzgerald has a weakness and, I’ll confess, I do too. The novel feels, in the best way, like an escape from and a window into the world around me.
Jasmine’s newest novel, Party of Two, will be released June 23.
In difficult times, I often reach for books I loved and read over and over again as a child. The familiarity of the book soothes me, and invariably I discover something (either in the language, the situation, or the historical context of the book) when I reread it as an adult that I didn’t realize as a child. But even if you’ve never read them before, the Betsy-Tacy books are perfect for this moment–they’re about two little girls who become friends when they’re five, and the series takes them to their early twenties (and the outbreak of World War I). They are joyful, charming, and fun to read, and help me escape into another time, if only for a little while.
On a Sunbeam is a book-length queer teen space adventure graphic novel by my favorite independent comics artist: you can read it as a big physical book, which I recommend, or online if you’re up for a long online read. It features close working relationships, lesbian space teams who act like pirates but actually perform needed interstellar infrastructure maintenance, a story of lost and found love at a boarding school, gorgeous sweeping vistas (think Miyazaki), lots of adventure but very little violence, and they travel from planet to planet in giant flying fish. Oh, and there’s a non-speaking autistic-coded nonbinary character who has a robust social and romantic life and saves everyone’s bacon several times. Walden has said that she drew the space universe that she wanted to see: I’d like to see it again and again, and maybe to live there, too.
This rec would be too obvious to offer for an all-poetry, all-the-time-audience—it would be like telling music writers that Prince is great—but if you’re not already somebody who reads a lot of modern poems, you owe it to yourself and your socially distanced, tenuously hopeful self to pick up (or peruse on-screen) the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Be sure you’re reading the poems that she published in her lifetime, not the big stack of posthumously published drafts. Start with the first poem in her first book, “The Map” (“Land lies in water; it is shadowed green”) and zoom all the way to the last few poems she finished (“Caught—the bubble/ in the spirit-level;/ a creature divided”) and you’ll get the most careful, reliable observer—of her own moods, of apprehension and nostalgia and melancholy and occasional joy; of Nova Scotia; of New England; of Brazil—who has ever written modern verse in English. You’ll get someone who figured out how to find love and how to think about losing love—the art of losing, as you may have heard, isn’t hard to master. Warning: you’ll also get a poet who told one of her closest friends, “when you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
And if you’re looking for goofy older poetry, why not reread—I do—Lord Byron’s Don Juan? Snark about everything, joke after joke (especially against calcified power structures), and endless quadruple-barreled rhymes tell the story of a hapless young man who just can’t help finding himself in one, and then another, and then another, country lady’s bed. Published in salacious installments from 1819 through the early 1820s, the narrative poem was a massive hit at the time, and no wonder. There’s a lot of this long poem, more segments than you can or should read in one sitting—start with Canto I and see how it goes. Byron promises to “begin at the beginning,” as Juan (pronounced joo-an), his future as a ridiculous military anti-hero well before him, “learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery/ And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery.”
Check out the full list of recommended comfort reads–and support independent bookstores when you purchase–on our Bookshop list.
Nick Petrulakis has been a bookseller for more than twenty years, first in San Francisco and now in Boston at the Brookline Booksmith, and has been mixing his love of books with his appreciation for good drinks for ten of those years. His creations and more can be found at drinkswithnick.com. At our virtual Bibliotherapy Event on April 23, Nick will be creating literary cocktails based on bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud’s recommendations. We spoke with him about the origins of his literary cocktails and what books he’s been turning to during this tumultuous time.
Can you tell us how you first developed the concept of the literary cocktail and how you started making them?
I’ve been fortunate to have always been surrounded by books. My parents made sure that books—unlike toys—were not reserved for special occasions, so trips to the library were a common occurrence and they always allowed me to purchase Scholastic books. I can remember poring over those lists, trying to decide which book I should order. I don’t think I’ve ever looked as forward to something as I did to the arrival of Scholastic Day. With a last name like Petrulakis, you can guess that I’m Greek, and the rumors are true—we can make a celebration out of any occasion, so good drinks and good food have always been a constant. Because they are entwined with some of my happiest memories, combining my love of books with my appreciation for food and drink was a natural marriage. At first I just noticed drinks in a book—the Brandy Alexander used as a signal between James Bond and a CIA agent— and then I started recognizing ingredients in the books, so I thought, well, if I was going to make a drink for Celeste Ng and Everything I Never Told You, I wonder what I could make with the choices she’s given me? What alcohol does she mention? What tastes, what scents? And then I started to do my best Dr. Frankenstein impersonation to see what I could create. So here I am, selling books and mixing drinks.
What’s your favorite literary cocktail you’ve ever made?
I don’t have a favorite, of course! They’re all equal. But, to paraphrase Mr. Orwell, some drinks are more equal than others. Visually—because drinks should look and smell good in addition to tasting good—one drink I really like is Twain’s End for Lynn Cullen and her novel of the same name. At the time, I said that, after his words, the thing people remember most about Mark Twain is what he looked like: the white suit, the stern look, those eyebrows, that hair — that simply wonderful hair.
I wanted to make a drink that was as recognizable as Cullen’s subject. When someone said, “You’re drinking Twain’s End,” I wanted you to look at the cocktail in your hand and say, “Of course I am.” So I topped a whiskey cocktail with a lovely head of sarsaparilla flavored froth, and it looked ridiculous but fun. Tasted okay, too.
What have you been reading—and perhaps drinking—lately?
Thankfully, I have quite a few reading options at home—a peddler’s capital can often be measured in what they traffic in, so for me, I’m wealthy in books. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry—Robinson Jeffers is a favorite—and old-timey mysteries. Highsmith’s Ripley can always be counted on as a good diversion. A dash of Hammett, some Ruth Rendell. Karen Abbott adds some nonfiction hijinks. But ask me tomorrow and I’ll have a new list. As far as what I’m drinking—Diet Coke is a constant. But at night—as if it’s important to wait for five o’clock anymore—it’s hard to beat a good martini. I’ll drink those until the olives I panic-bought run out.
Register for our Bibliotherapy Event today and send Ella Berthoud your quarantine-related quandaries — who knows, she might pick yours to receive a literary prescription live! Purchase Nick’s recent reads at the Bookshop links and support your local bookstores during this difficult time.
Have you ever thought a book could solve all your problems—if you only knew which one to turn to? Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist based in the UK, has a talent for “prescribing” books to people based on their ailments. At the Boston Book Festival’s virtual Bibliotherapy Event on April 23, she’ll be providing literary remedies for any and all existential anxieties or quarantine-related concerns (register ahead of time to send Ella your own grievances!). We spoke with Ella about how she became a bibliotherapist, the power of books, and what she’s been reading in these uncertain times.
How did you first get into “prescribing” books to people?
It all began at Cambridge University when I lived in a room next to [now author] Susan Elderkin, and we started to give each other books to cure each other’s problems, such as heartbreak, intellectual burnout, sense of inferiority, worries about being a writer, ambition, etc. We practiced on each other and on friends and family, and talked a lot about the idea of prescribing books and being book doctors at that time. I then became an artist, and Suse became a writer. I listened to books on audio over many years while Suse wrote. We carried on prescribing during that time. Then, in 2007, we met [philosopher and author] Alain de Botton at a party when he was starting The School of Life. We suggested the idea of bibliotherapy sessions at what was to become The School of Life, and he thought it was a great idea. We set up the bibliotherapy service and it became what it is today—a one-to-one session that lasts about an hour. We also do group sessions and sessions in front of an audience with an interesting person. We have traveled all over the world doing bibliotherapy sessions and been to many festivals where we do them, too.
How do you think reading can help people during these frightening times?
Reading is one of the best ways of staying calm. The very act of reading is meditative and helps to prevent stress – just six minutes of reading can be as calming as one hour’s meditation. Reading helps you to escape to new places, to take you into other worlds and better times, and to distract you from your current worries. Some people in the present worrying times like to read about pandemics, dystopias, and extreme versions of what they are living through to help them to deal with what is happening right now and feel better prepared. Others would rather escape into the past, or read romantic novels or more escapist literature. Whatever you feel suits you, sitting down with a good book, turning off the Wi-fi, disconnecting from your phone, and reading for at least half an hour is really therapeutic. Reading aloud with a friend is also a great way to be distracted. And listening to audiobooks while doing chores is another great way to enjoy literature. I personally love audiobooks and am addicted to them. I often spend longer cleaning surfaces just so I can hear more of the story….
What books or authors have helped you through the most difficult moments in your life?
Tom Robbins—Jitterbug Perfumeis one of my all time favorites. King Alobar seeks eternal life in that book, and he finds the secret to immortality—but then, 800 years later, questions whether he wants to keep it. It’s a book full of joy and verve and seizing the day. I love it and refer to it often.
The Moomins—I love them. Moominland Midwinter and Comet in Moominlandare my favorites, but I also love Moominpapa at Sea. All the Moomin books are full of wisdom and quirky characters – they look at human behaviour and make it funny and forgivable, and they also take you back to a happy, cozy world at the end… they are genius. Tove Jansson generally is a goddess.
The Master and Margaritaby Mikhail Bulgakov got me through traveling in Thailand when I was 18 and a bit scared of the unknown, and I have frequently returned to it ever since.
Far From the Madding Crowdby Thomas Hardy—I love the way he writes about nature, and he is brilliant on love and romance too. I often go back to him and I love to just open a page at random, read it and meditate on each sentence.