The act of mindfulness is about observance and awareness. It’s a meditative practice that attunes us to our body and our surroundings and helps to ground us in the present moment. You can practice mindfulness by sitting still and watching your breath, or by taking time to notice little things in your world, how a garden is growing, how sunlight reflects off the tele, or how steam whispers out of a teacup. This slowed down, compassionate approach to human thought is championed as a key combatant against mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Nowadays, there are thousands upon thousands of self-help books that preach mindfulness and provide comprehensive guides for how to pursue it, but no text seems to completely embody the concept as much as Patricia Highsmith’s spellbinding queer romance novel, Carol, even though it does so by quite wonderful accident.
Terence McKenna put it best when he described how we in the West spend so much time turning over rocks in search of great mysteries, always looking down darkened byways of knowledge for the bizarre, the peculiar, the outré. For centuries the search for alchemical gold carved out huge chunks of the lives of learned people. Shamanism, on the other hand, long ago stopped searching for the Philosopher’s Stone; it has already found it. Carlos Castaneda, in the early 1960s, met according to him a man named Don Juan who, over the course of several years, inducted him into the practise. What Castaneda describes, if it is to be believed, proves McKenna’s claim. There is power at work in the world, wieldable by human beings, a ‘quality of experience besides which scientific inexactitude stands in peril of paling into insignificance’, said Theodore Roszak.
Generally speaking, I don’t like short stories. I’ve never been able to get into them. I’ve struggled through countless collections full of quaint tales of small happenings and chance encounters, but the fundamental problem has always been that I can’t bring myself to get invested in a setting and in characters that I know will be gone in under thirty pages. When I picked up George Saunders’ critically acclaimed collection Tenth of December, I went in telling myself that if I didn’t like it then this would be the last straw. I would renounce the short story for good and stick to good ol’ fashioned novels. But life, like good stories, finds ways of surprising us, and it transpired that I not only enjoyed Tenth of December, but I would also actively recommend it to other fellow sceptics of short fiction.
This deeply moving book illuminates refugee journeys with a rich narrative. Taking the case of a couple and their romance, they are torn from a relatively harmonious life in Aleppo. They must face each other’s relationship and the challenges of a relationship across continents. The story starts off with a serene depiction of their life. Nuri is a beekeeper and Arfa is an artist, who becomes blind and so Nuri has to take on the main responsibility. They furthermore take on the care of a young boy called Mohamed, furthering their woes. Nuri emerges as a hero type figure.
The graphic novel section of any large bookshop is one of my favourite places to explore. There’s such a diverse selection of tomes, vibrant colours, strange and vague titles. But I have to admit, I never end up buying one - I already have too many to read at home, and never get round to them anyway. I’ve had the same copy of Watchmen on my bookcase for roughly 8 years, and that copy wasn’t originally mine (I’m sorry, friend that lent me Watchmen back in high school). There’s just something stopping me from sitting down with a good graphic novel and devouring its images, perhaps a latent habit from university days where it was Shakespeare or bust. However, when I was given a favoured graphic novel from a friend for a birthday gift, the pressure of the gift led me to reading The Motherless Oven, and having finished the series last year, I feel like I must recommend them to everyone.
Sometimes, a book can really catch you off guard. Sometimes, a little story you thought would be a light, silly, throwaway read ends up packing a devastating emotional punch that forces you to sit in silence for a long while after. This is what happened to me with Morris Gletizman’s Boy Overboard. The cover, a dated mish-mash of early 2000s clip-art that resembled a product more likely from Fisher Price than Penguin Publishing, did not exactly prepare me for the turmoil that lay inside the pages. Yes, I know. This is a very literal case of me judging a book by its cover. And I’ve learned my lesson. Because this goofy, garish little book with a toy box ‘Ages 9+’ sticker on it very nearly broke my heart in two.
Well-written children’s fiction can have wonderfully soothing powers to it. There’s a lot of comfort to be found in the simplicity of the storytelling, the fun and quirky characters and the wholesome messages they support which a lot of us still need reminding of as we get older. When we turn to a children’s book, we want to feel like we’re being read to and we want to feel like everything will be alright in the end. In this regard, Kelly Barnhill’s magical novel The Girl Who Drank The Moon provides us with that gentle, smiling escapism that we crave.
Moshin Hamid takes the pressing issue of the refugee crisis head-on, with a highly readable and engaging script. The novel explores the lives of a couple who flee their war-torn state in search of a new life. The narrative evolves around Nadia and Saeed, who are besotted with each other. They have a deep entwining relationship and share ideas and resources with each other. Both coming from a cultured background, they have shared interests in art and literature. Their comfortable existence in a metropolitan suburb is shattered by a brutal civil conflict. The tragedy of family loss is also discussed.
David Lynch has said that of all the films he has directed during his career, his 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune was the only one he truly didn’t like. By the end, he says, he had lost creative control, and did not get the say on the final cut. The film itself is, well, fine. It’s a competent adaptation. It falls far short of what it could have been. During the 1970s, many tried to get their own vision for a Dune adaptation off the ground-- most famously Alejandro Jodoroswky’s version scored by Pink Floyd. So far, no definitive film adaptation exists, but Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming “industrial” version, as Jodorowsky called it, looks set to be the film version of Dune. My reading in 2020 was dominated by Dune; I was a long-time fan of the original but had never explored the sequels. Reflecting on the enduring popularity of Dune, the true greatness of the original novel became clearer than ever.
The world of graphic novels nowadays is more expansive and innovative than ever. Outside the big hitters from the likes of Marvel and Doctor Who, there is a whole myriad of quirky and fascinating work that seems to be getting more and more niche by the minute, so much so that it can be difficult for someone new to the genre to know what’s worth reading. However, with the new American and Canadian ice hockey season just getting underway, one series that deserves spotlighting is Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please!, a nostalgic and heartwarming story about a university hockey team, pies, growing up, and above all, friendship.