Boston Book Festival has launched a community writing project to capture this moment in history. We asked residents to send us stories of their experiences during the pandemic, from the acts of kindness by neighbors to the challenges in our biggest hospitals. We wanted to hear it all from all corners of the city. The following is the first selection of stories selected to be featured in the Boston Globe, our media partner in this project. Submissions will be accepted through June 30, 2020.
By Jane deLima Thomas, who is a palliative care doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
My father had a massive stroke on April 13th. My mother called me and said, “If you want to see him, you should come now.” Without thinking about COVID or my mother’s fragile immune system, I leaped into the car and drove to their home. I looked down at the man who had raised me and I scanned his face and hands, committing them to memory. I told him I loved him and I believe he mumbled that he loved me, too.
I am a palliative care doctor, and during the pandemic I’ve had to call families and tell them they couldn’t come to the hospital to see their dying loved ones. I have withstood their anger, tears, and begging, knowing it was safest for everyone – patients, staff, and families themselves – if they stayed away. I did my best to be compassionate, but it wasn’t until I felt the primal need to see my father one last time that I truly understood the terrible loss families experience when they are denied the same. And now I feel the heaviness of it deep in my chest every time I reach for the phone to make another call.
By Shahrin Islam, who is an AmeriCorps member serving as a Case Manager with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
The last hour of a Ramadan fast goes by the slowest. I always find myself watching the clock more closely in this last hour but today, I am extra vigilant. My 12-hour shift at a facility for people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID19, will start at 7:00 PM.
At 6:50 PM, I enter the donning station, ready to gear up in personal protective equipment (PPE). I hesitate. And I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Shortly, I must take off this PPE to break my fast when the sun sets. Using a set of PPE for only 30 minutes seems wasteful.
We usually take a break half way through our shift to conserve our limited supply of PPE. The other choice is to break my fast early. Again, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. But I swallow my guilt along with a swig of water and finish donning my PPE by 6:59 PM.
Before I go in, I pray that my fast, though incomplete, is still valid. I pray for a cure, a vaccine, the government to make decisions with the safety and health of people in mind and for all of this to be over.
By Kate H Schlesinger,
Katie’s video wasn’t working on Zoom, so I couldn’t see her face for our last class. Juliana didn’t make it to class at all. I had taught them in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, watching them grow as thinkers, writers, and people, and this was the end. I never imagined that my students would become floating heads on a screen for brief weekly sessions rather than the living, breathing teenagers who burst into my classroom for class or help with an essay or because their friends were there or just because. I never imagined seeing students – athletes, artists, historians, mathematicians, noisy, thoughtful, quirky, determined, anxious, dancing, laughing, flirting, falling, thriving – flattened to two dimensions.
I never imagined that in our last history class students would only be faces in boxes as they analyzed documents, focusing on screens or books, never quite looking me in the eye. I never imagined that, not wanting to try to be inspirational to a screen, I would cut short my goodbye speech and let them go, my finger hovering over the “end” button as they said goodbye and left, knowing that without awards ceremonies or graduation, I may never see their faces again.
By Amrapali Maitra, a resident physician in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an anthropologist.
I often revisit the scene in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where Ammu and Velutha meet at the riverbank. The Big Things are overwhelming—the caste differences that forbid their love—so they focus on Small Things. An insect has built a home out of rubbish and leaves. They tend to minutiae like life depends on it.
The pandemic is a study in Small Things. On a walk, I hear a blue jay’s liquid screech. Enjoy fuchsia eruptions of rhododendrons in the Arboretum. Inhale ash from my neighbor’s backyard, conjuring nights of s’mores and songs. Spy a family of squirrels relocate to the rain gutter
COVID has transformed my identity as a doctor. In March, I cared for cancer patients. But while pregnant, every moment in the hospital became a negotiation between duty to others and obligation to the life inside me. So, I transitioned to virtual care.
Sitting at my dining table, I begin each phonecall, “This is Dr. Maitra! How are you coping?” The words are chalky in my mouth. I swallow the guilt. Sheltering in place, I’m no hero. Then I feel my daughter’s forceful kicks and realize, I’m exactly where I need to be.
By Daina Wynot, a quintessential millennial who occasionally pretends she can write.
My grandmother called me over to her apartment complex to pick up a leftover meatball sub. She didn’t want it to go to waste and wasn’t taking no for an answer — I don’t think any grandmas will accept a “no” from their grandkids, especially when it comes to overfeeding them.
I donned the mask I made of leftover fabric from my attempt at crafting dog bandanas and set out to retrieve the package.
Grandma was standing outside when I arrived — folks who don’t live there aren’t allowed in — and I approached her with my phone facing outward. My 7-month-old nephew, her great-grandson, was on the screen, babbling away with a bottle in his mouth.
“Can he see me?” she asked, absolutely thrilled to learn that he could. “Oh, no wonder he’s shouting so much! Look at me, a crazy lady in a mask.”
After ending the call I was informed I would be taking her to get “one of those things” as soon as stores reopen.
“I can’t take my money with me,” Grandma said, and using it to buy a magic machine that lets her see her great-grandkids whenever she wants is a pretty good deal.
By Deborah Vatcher is a retired physician and oboist.
When was the sky ever so saturated, so clear, so blue? Absent that smoky haze? These cerulean depths—a Côte d’Azur overhead—invite a daring swim in a sky of pure color, as the Cooper’s Hawk dives for prey; and standing outside now, watching him, I feel giddy, caught in the undertow of these waves of clarity.
When was it ever a two-hour walk to the turtle pond and back? Before this pernicious twist of coronavirus slipped into circulation, it was a thirty-minute outing with DixieDudeDog at most. These days, I just never know. Between pauses to stare at the sky, mute, and in awe, I meet the neighbors, all home now, out in their yards, with tools and trimmers—busy with projects long-planned, and now, at last, well underway. Bill and his kids are planting a garden, and we spend some time talking about all that. And when I’m nearly back home, two women stop me, ask directions, and seem in no rush to move on. I’ll visit the egg farm on Hancock Street later this afternoon, walking there, of course, and pet the gray barn cat; and when was this cat ever so friendly, before?
By Jennifer Serafyn, a lawyer who lives in Dorchester with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Barkley.
It’s mid-March and our dog doesn’t realize that we’re all home in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. A school day. A work day. She doesn’t mind that when we go for our usual walk in Dorchester Park, we see no one. Not the guy who also has a beagle or the lady who doles out treats from her pocket.
It’s Easter and our dog doesn’t understand that no one is coming over for dinner. She doesn’t know about being over 70 and having lung disease. Instead, our dog jumps onto my lap as we Zoom with family to celebrate virtually. Safely.
It’s mid-May and our dog doesn’t notice that the bike path along the Neponset River is more crowded than usual. She wags her tail and sniffs the grass as runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers pass by. She doesn’t care that most of them are wearing masks.
Soon it will be June. My sons will turn 9 and 11. School will end. Our dog will continue to meander through the days, unaware. That’s all we can be sure of.
By Chris Kelly, a public relations consultant and walker of Buddy.
My son and I were walking our dog when we saw someone walking toward us on the same side of the street. The person was wearing a long coat, a baseball hat, and over the bottom half of their face, a bandanna. “Let’s cross,” I said, steering us to the other side of the empty street.
As we passed, the person called out. “Hi! Windy day, huh?”
“Yes!” I agreed as we walked past. A block further, my brain connected the voice and the covered-up form with our neighbor. Not only had we crossed the street to avoid her, but we’d barely acknowledged her greeting.
Often, we walk our dog another route, past a home built in the 1600s. It’s been there through wars and assassinations, a Great Depression, 9/11, hurricanes and blizzards. So many different events with one thing in common: people gathering to support each other through them.
But now, we can’t gather, and “social distancing” means that when we see someone approaching, we cross the street or trespass someone’s yard or dart into traffic; anything to avoid contact. Today, hurriedly moving away is a way to take care of one another.
By Megan O’Connor, a physician assistant in a Boston hospital and now a long-distance mom
It’s 7:30 p.m. and I’m leaving work. The phone rings. Bedtime is a little later these days so that we can have dinner together.
“Mumumumumum!” It’s my one year old, who is now living two hours from me at my mother’s house, along with my wife, so I don’t infect them. Over FaceTime, I watch as he learns to eat with a spoon. He feeds me through the video and then slobbers a goodnight kiss on the screen.
It’s been an exhausting day and I’m longing for my pillow. Each day holds a different struggle. Today, I had Zoom meetings with family members who can’t see their loved ones and want updates from a face rather than a voice. Over the phone, I attempt to coach a young man on making crucial medical decisions as well as how to cope as a child who is losing his mother.
Before I curl under the blanket, the phone buzzes with a text from my partner: our sonogram’s fuzzy outline provides solace. I press on with renewed energy to take on one more day.
Photo: FaceTime dinner dates between mother and son.
We talked with Carlin Carr, Boston Book Festival’s new Director of Operations and Outreach, about her experience working with the TATA Mumbai International Literature Festival in India for many years, what she looks forward to about working with BBF volunteers, and what’s been inspiring to her about her own volunteer experiences.
How did you first get involved with the Boston Book Festival?
When I moved back from India in 2018, one of the first things I did was to reach out to BBF. I had worked on the festival in Mumbai and loved it and wanted to be involved with something similar here. I ended up spending six months launching the Roxbury edition that year, which has now become an integral part of the festival weekend. It was an amazing experience working with the Roxbury community to get it started, and I’m so happy to see how it’s grown. I’m just thrilled to be back working in both Roxbury and Copley.
What are the similarities and differences between producing a book festival in Mumbai and one in Boston?
Well, the biggest similarity is the insane number of details that goes into planning a large-scale event. But planning for traffic in Mumbai is definitely on a different scale. We would have to alot 2.5 hours for authors to get to our other venue, which was only about 15 miles away!
Also, the Mumbai Lit Fest goes for four days, so there’s a lot of stamina involved. We would start early morning and end with festive dinners each night, but there was always such good energy from writers from all around the world, so it was easy to keep going.
At the Mumbai festival, you encountered a lot of international authors. Who’s an author who’s well-known elsewhere in the world and you wish was better known here?
If I had to choose one, I would say it would have to be an Indian author, since I am so grateful for all the literature that helped me better understand the country I was living in for so long. I was really happy that we gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to a Mumbai-based author, Kiran Nagarkar, who unfortunately passed away last year. He was well-known in India, but I don’t think many people would know his name here. He was the most delightful human who cared about people’s stories from all walks of life, and I loved that about his books, too, especially Ravan and Eddie, which was about two boys from a chawl, traditional housing for the poor in the city.
What do you miss most about living in India? What did you miss about the US when you were living there?
I miss tons about India! I love that so much of life happens on the streets. I miss magical sunsets on the Arabian Sea. And I miss the warmth of the people–from the street vendors to the person who would come collect the trash at home every day to people who took me in and made me feel like family. The city is so massive but it often feels like a village.
Now that I’m back home, I realize how much I missed really simple things, like trees and fresh air. I definitely like to just be outside in nature, which was much harder in Mumbai.
What do you most look forward to about working with BBF’s volunteer team?
I’m really looking forward to seeing all the festival love they bring to the visitors who come. In Mumbai, whenever we would ask our authors what made their experience so special, they would inevitably say the wonderful volunteers. I know it’s the same at BBF, and I’m looking forward to getting to know all our volunteers who make the festival come alive for our audience members.
What’s a memorable experience you’ve had while volunteering for an organization or project?
In 2008, when I first landed in Mumbai, I started volunteering at a shelter for street children (that’s me with one of my kids in the photo above!). It was just a public bathroom block on the beach where kids slept at night after it closed. I started teaching them under a plastic tarp to protect us from the blazing sun. I ended up spending the next 10 years with them–they are amazingly resilient and joyful despite how little they have materially, and taught me so much about life. The shelter has transformed a lot, and some of the kids have since left and gone on to forge their own lives in the city. I miss them like crazy, but I go back once or twice a year to see them.
What are you reading right now?
I just got two shipments of books, so I’m restocked! I followed some of Ella’s advice from our bibliotherapy session, so I’m reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I also ordered a couple books from Frugal Books, which were featured on its homepage: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. After so many years of reading about cities and Asia, I find myself picking up books to catch me up on U.S. issues or to just escape into nature. Are you starting to get how much I missed trees!
With the crisis that has hit our world this year, we are more motivated than ever to ensure every child has access to well-stocked book shelves.
That’s why Boston Book Festival is once again calling on the Greater Boston community to help implement our annual Shelf Help book drive, which will reach two schools in need again this year.
Many area schools lack the resources to fully stock their school libraries with contemporary, high-quality books. Our Shelp Help partnership aims to expand the library book collections at two local schools, and then work with Wondermore, a local organization dedicated to inspiring young readers, to coordinate a children’s or YA author or illustrator school visit to share the wonders of book creation with young readers! And if in-person visits are not possible this fall, we have lots of other ideas for connecting students with an author or illustrator.
Highlights from last year’s winners
Our 2019 Shelf Help winners, Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Roxbury for grades K–8 and TechBoston Academy in Dorchester for grades 6–12, were treated to fantastic visits by celebrated BBF authors Charlotte Nicole Davis and Brendan Wenzel. We teamed up with Wondermore to create lively school visits to excite kids about reading.
We are grateful to KPMG as well as to the many publishers and individual donors who helped us to fill the library shelves at Orchard Gardens and TechBoston!
Applications are open for 2020!
In 2020, Shelf Help will partner again with two school libraries! We will choose one K–8 school library and one 9–12 school library, providing a donation of new books near the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. We will be collecting donations at the twelfth annual Boston Book Festival on October 24-25.
If you know a library professional at a school that needs some Shelf Help, please forward them this Request for Proposals, which has links to a short online or downloadable application. All proposals are due by May 31, 2020.
Everyone can help put books on school shelves
You can also lend direct Shelf Help to the Boston community! If you would like to help us curate contemporary collections for selected schools, please bring book donations to our information booth at the Boston Book Festival on October 24 (in Copley) or October 25 (in Roxbury), or you can donate through our online book wish list. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a link to the “Shelf Help” donation site once it’s live later this summer.
If you would prefer to make a cash donation, please visit our donate page. Upon checking out, select “Make this a gift” and designate “Shelf Help” as the gift recipient in the appropriate box.
Inspiring young readers for life
With Shelf Help, we aim to support students’ discovery and expression of their voices through access to an increased selection of books within their school environment. Words have power to motivate and provoke all readers to discover themselves and their place in the world, and we hope that Shelf Help will encourage students to view themselves as literary explorers!
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.
We hope you’ve cleared your calendar, because for the first time ever, we’re taking over a full weekend in Boston’s fall calendar, this Saturday and Sunday, October 19 and 20! Read on for some essential tips to help you make the most of your day, er, weekend at the BBF!
Two days, two locations. BBF Saturday is in the same Copley Square neighborhood where we’ve been since Year 1. This year’s brand-new BBF Sunday is just a short drive, bus ride, or healthy walk away (why not? It’s going to be a beautiful weekend!) in Dudley Square, Roxbury. We have programming in several venues, but our base of operations in Dudley is the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building—stop there first for information or to visit our exhibitors! If you stop by Copley on Sunday, you won’t find us—only a bunch of rowing fans who’ve wandered over from the Head of the Charles Regatta (more on that later). Instead, head on down to Dudley Square, where you’ll find 70+ presenters, including four keynotes!
Getting to know the neighborhood. Maybe you’re a resident of or regular visitor to Roxbury’s Dudley Square. If so, thanks for letting us throw a book party in your back yard! If you’re new to the neighborhood, though, we have plenty of tips on getting to Dudley Square on our website. Parking is free in Boston on Sundays, and Dudley Square is home to one of the MBTA’s most well-served bus terminals. It’s also the home of the wonderful independently owned Frugal Bookstore, which is the exclusive bookseller for our events in Dudley Square. Looking to make a day of it and grab lunch while you’re there? No problem! We’ve included a list of Dudley eateries with Sunday hours in our printed program guide–just flip to p. 35 for all the details.
No ticket? No problem! Admission and seating at all BBF events this year is first-come, first-served, so we recommend you arrive early for sessions that are especially important to you! Need help navigating our online schedule? Visit this brief tutorial.
Plan ahead if you plan to drive. Again this year, we’re partnering with ParkWhiz to help BBF attendees find and book the best deals on parking near the festival. You do need to book parking in advance in order to take advantage of the ParkWhiz deals, however, so take a few minutes and have one less thing to worry about as you head into the city. With Head of the Charles Regatta, Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, and the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival all happening at the same time, it’s going to be one bustling weekend in Boston, so avoid disappointment and plan ahead!
T rider? Leave extra time. Shuttle buses will replace MBTA Orange Line trains between Sullivan and Tufts this weekend, so allow extra time if you’re traveling to the BBF by train. Shuttle bus replacement may also affect parts of the Green Line “C” branch as well. And in general, it’s going to be a busy weekend in Boston (see above), so be prepared for busy commutes (may we suggest you bring a book to pass the time?).
Love the BBF? Help keep it free to all. If you love the BBF and want to help us grow sustainably, help support it! The BBF is run by an independent nonprofit, and we rely on donations from individuals to help keep the festival thriving and free to all. Donations in any amount are appreciated, but membership benefits start at $50; more substantial donations of $500+ can get you priority seating, party invitations, and more! You can contribute to the BBF online anytime or at the membership table at the big BBF tent on the day of the festival. Even better, you can donate to the BBF without putting down your phone: just text BOOK to 617-300-0877 for a super-easy mobile donations link. Thank you for your support as we embark on our second decade!
Most importantly? Have fun! We hope you enjoy this free celebration of books and literary culture and that you’re as excited as we are to spend the weekend with countless other book lovers. Tag us on Twitter and Instagram and use the hashtag #BBF2019—we can’t wait to see how you spend your day!
There might be a zillion summer reading lists out there, but there’s only one brought to you by Team BBF! We spend all day, every day surrounded by books (more so every day, as copies of books by BBF 2019 authors start rolling in), so you’d better believe our staff’s TBR pile is never depleted. Whether your upcoming travels take you to the mountains, the beach, or just the local park or pool, we’ve compiled some of our favorite reading recommendations to round out your summer adventures—happy summer, and happy reading!
Norah Piehl, Executive Director
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a gift that keeps on giving, especially lately, as several recent novels have transformed and updated Austen’s classic as a way to comment on present-day issues of race, class, and religion. Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin, sets the classic romance in Toronto’s Muslim community, offering a thoroughly twenty-first century take on the novel of manners.
I’ve long admired Taffy Brodesser-Akner‘s journalistic profiles of people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Justin Bieber, so I was excited to read her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble. Suffice it to say that this funny, achingly wise novel does not disappoint–and if you start reading it and think you know what to expect, keep turning pages, because you almost certainly won’t anticipate Brodesser-Akner’s thoroughly surprising storytelling twists.
Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell‘s YA graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a sympathetic portrait of a sensitive young woman who falls in love with the wrong girl–over and over again.
Finally, I haven’t read it yet, but I am eager to crack open my copy of Colson Whitehead‘s The Nickel Boys. I’ve been a huge fan of his work even before he was the BBF’s 2016 fiction keynote, and I can’t wait to read his latest, about growing up black in the segregated South.
Jennifer Jean, Community Engagement Manager
I’m reading a ton of poetry, notably:
Jennifer Martelli‘s My Tarantella is raw, intense, fantastic poetry about the perils of womanhood. Several poems revisit the murder of Kitty Genovese and Martelli’s Italian American childhood in Revere, Massachusetts.
The English translation of Dunya Mikhail‘s Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, by Elizabeth Winslow and Dunya Mikhail–is amazing! Mikhail’s genre-bending, long prose-poem explores her experiences in and around war in Iraq.
As for fiction:
Folks should be reading Emily Pease‘s short story collection Let Me Out Here, which was the 2018 winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize. Pease’s writing is darkly funny and proves she is a razor-sharp observer of human foibles.
A must-read, totally absorbing novella is Olivia Cerrone‘s excellent The Hunger Saint, which is historical fiction about post–WWII Italian miners.
Katelynn Jasper, Lit Crawl Intern
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls–A lonely housewife, a monster on the loose, and avocados…lots of avocados come together to create the perfect recipe for a great summer read. If you like dry, cynical humor and meaningful connections that remind us it’s what within us that counts then this book is for you! Bonus: Rachel Ingalls was a local author!
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman–Put down that romance novel for a moment and pick up this one. Goldman gives the reader a rare glimpse into his beautiful life of grief, true love, secrets, laughter, family drama, and his wife Aura that will leave you holding your loved ones even closer. This moving and poetic book will have you saying its name to everyone once you are done.
Otherwood by Pete Hautman–Hautman masterfully weaves a tale of time travel, friendship, change, and accepting other’s differences as beautiful things. This is definitely one of my favorite coming-of-age novels and I flew through it quickly thanks to such a captivating plot and characters. I know that that both kids and adults will enjoy reading it, especially together!
Ximena Delgado, BBF 2019 Intern
One Hundred Years of Solitude/Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez (originally written in Spanish): I’ve had this book on my reading list for a while now. Last month I finally went out and got it and I am so excited to start reading it. Not only is Gabriel García Márquez an important figure of Latin American literature, he is also the type of writer I aspire to be. I have previously read some of his short stories and his writing has never disappointed me. This novel is a multi-generational story that follows the Buendia family in the town of Macondo. One Hundred Years of Solitude helped originate the magical realism genre and won García Márquez the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Released on June 4th, 2019! With the release of his first novel, poet Ocean Vuong brings his beautiful writing to life. I first began reading Vuong after a friend’s recommendation and now I am extremely excited to see how he will encompass a full storyline with his words. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous unravels the history and secrets of a family through the use of letters. I cannot wait to start reading and see how this novel turns out.
Kyle Labe, BBF 2019 Intern
If you’re as much a geek for Greek mythology as I am, then Madeline Miller‘s latest novel is more than a treat. A modern epic in every sense of the word, Circe is a moving rumination on family, history, and womanhood, and lives up to the hype created by Miller’s brilliant debut, The Song of Achilles. It’s peculiar that, since this story follows the timeline of Homer’s Odyssey, we know everything that will happen in the book, but somehow this novel can’t be put down once opened.
When the star daughter of the Lee family’s body is found at the bottom of a lake, the entire family crumbles apart. Celeste Ng‘s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is both a portrait of the modern American family experience and an intriguing analysis of race, gender, and immigration, all the while remaining an intensely fascinating read. I hope to get around to Ng’s latest novel, Little Fires Everywhere, soon, but this is a great book for a road trip, beach day, or stay-cation.
Megan Michaud, BBF 2019 Intern
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I have heard so many great things about this book over the years, and even more since Amazon released their show for it (which I refuse to watch until I’ve read the book!). A combination of angels, demons, and a misplaced Antichrist all coming together for the end of the world? What could be better?
Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas
I absolutely adore Sarah J. Maas! Kingdom of Ash, the conclusion to the Throne of Glass series, was released last fall and I’ve been dying to read it. If you love young adult fantasy that is filled with assassins, magic, and lots of twists and turns, I highly recommend it.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
If you, like me, have been mourning the loss of Game of Thrones, it’s time to read the series that started it all. Even if you haven’t seen the show on HBO (which is probably better), the books are intricately detailed and beautifully written. It’s the perfect fantasy read for those who like political intrigue, swordfights, and magic. Best part is that since the books are still being (slowly) finished, there will be plenty more to come!