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Christmas Recommended Reads: For the person who stands by when things get tough

Written by Maisie Jeynes, 13th December 2021

Looking for something extra special? We've chosen a selection of books especially for someone who cares, and stands close by when things get tough.

A Little Aloud: An anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone you care for edited by Angela Macmillan

 

The last couple of years have been tough, but we hope for every person who has been struggling, there has been someone nearby who has made some action, little or great, to help or ease the trouble. Sometimes it is hard to know how to help someone who is enduring a hard time, but in most cases, companionship can be enough. Sometimes it is hard to know what to say, in which case we recommend reading aloud. A Little Aloud was created by The Reader for Shared Reading groups, but also ‘for reading aloud to someone you care for.’ So if you are able to visit a hospital bed, or calling someone regularly for a chat, or stopping by for a cup of tea now and then – or if someone is doing those things for you – try reading a poem or a story together. As unfamiliar as it might feel at first, spending time together in this way, sharing a piece of literature, does bring respite. A Little Aloud for Children or A Little Aloud with Love make equally perfect gifts.

 

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, recommended by Jamie

 

‘With her arms outstretched and her hands covering one of his, her silence grew out into the kind of delicate pause that is called for when the other person is in deep mourning and minor gestures are meant to offer some portion of unattainable solace’ 

This is a line from a book called The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. It’s about a lawyer from New York called Tim, who lives with his wife Jane and their teenage daughter. Tim has a very unusual affliction where he goes through periods of time in which he can’t stop walking. He could be defending a client in court or having dinner with his family, and without warning he will suddenly get up and begin walking, often for miles and miles in no particular direction and with no idea how to stop it. Tim has tried everything he can think of, has had many medical examinations, but no doctors are able to explain his affliction, or more importantly, find a cure for it. One day, Tim sets out on a walk that lasts for months and that jeopardises his family, his career and even brings severe risk to his own life as he frequently passes out from exhaustion and succumbs to harsh weather conditions. The mental and emotional strain of course also extend to his worried family, waiting at home for him to return, or to receive a phone-call to inform them of some terrible news. The thing that struck me most in this book was the many ways in which Tim’s family and friends try to take care of him and protect him from himself. Jane especially exhausts every single possible way to help and to not let Tim give up on himself. It really is an unimaginable place to be in, but still spoke to me of the power and strength that can be found when looking after someone in a desperate situation. So I would recommend this as a gift to give to that person in your life who cares and stands close by when things get tough as this book truly demonstrates how doing just that can be the most difficult and overwhelming thing in the world, and that its okay to feel a multitude of emotions whilst doing it, and we can’t always be strong and resilient, sometimes the people caring need that bit as respite as well, and I think this book showed me that in a way I never expected.

Gilead by Marylinne Robinson, recommended by Katie Clarke

 

‘There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.’

I love this book so much that whenever I see a copy in a charity shop I have to buy it to pass on to a friend. (Also, my copy is signed so I’m embarrassed to say I don’t really like lending it out.)

Gilead begins with the Reverend John Ames, towards the end of his life, beginning a letter to his young son. A letter that he intends for him to read when he is a grown man.

‘You might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.’

There is a sort of meandering quality to the passages as one idea triggers a memory, and the memory sparks reflection. But I think that feeling also comes from the way that reading it helps us travel through time over the course of a life and beyond, across generations of the same family, and in some senses, ahead also, to ‘the next life’ which feels so close to Ames. A ‘wide angle’ view if you like, taking in a great expanse. But then suddenly it feels like we are zooming right in, to the intricate details of everyday life that can so easily pass us by without consideration.  Joy, regret, beauty and sadness are all here. And time. Time to pause for a moment and explore ‘under the surface of life’.

As much as Ames begins with the intention of telling his son all about his own life, his story quickly becomes bound up with the people he loves, and we find ourselves drawn into their stories too. Most powerfully (and perhaps unexpectedly) with that of Jack Boughton, his best friend’s son, his own Godson, professional black sheep, source of both heart wrenching grief and deep-rooted love.

‘This morning I saw Jack Boughton walking up toward the bus stop, looking too thin for his clothes, carrying a suitcase that seemed to weigh almost nothing. Looking a good deal past his youth. Looking like someone you wouldn’t much want your daughter to marry. Looking somehow elegant and brave.’

For me, the moments of heart-stopping ‘that’s so true!’ kind of recognition in this book lie in the relationship between these characters. It’s so hard to explain because it encompasses all the complex, broken shards of a relationship that has been badly fractured and cannot be simply fixed. But there is startling beauty in the struggle to understand and love someone who is so different from you, even in the moments where it feels easier to simply give up. I think it is one of the best pictures of what it means for us to be human, with all our best intentions and our stumbles.

I could say so much more, but I’d much rather you spent your time reading the real deal. And if you enjoy Gilead, the great news is that it is part of a series of four books, all set in the same town and around the same time, but told from different perspectives. Here’s a link to my colleague Esther Harsh talking about the third book in the series, Lila.

 

Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova, recommended by The Storybarn team in Issue 74 in The Reader magazine 

Age range: 4-8 years

 

Follow Leila into her Naani’s house and enter a home full of vibrant colours, delicious smells and the warmth of a family meal. Lelia uses all of her senses as she discovers the different things she likes about herself, and with the support and love of her family she connects those discoveries to find out who she really is.  This book shines as an example of embracing yourself, your heritage and your loved ones.

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