Welcome back to the Goldberry Books newsletter! Before we share some of our favorite bookish things, we’d like to tell you about Withywindle, the new podcast we’re producing for kids.
It’s a whimsical interactive show for kiddos who love stories, words, and groan-worthy jokes and it features several (a slew? a plethora? a bunch?) wonderful authors and illustrators. Part book club, part game show it's your weekly adventure through the wild world of wordplay. The first three episodes of our eight-episode first season are up now and are perfect for summer road trips, long walks, bedtime, chore time, garden time, or even just kill-some-time time.
In episode one we chatted with S.D. Smith, the author of the Green Ember series. In episode two we talked to Andrew Peterson—he of the Wingfeather Saga fame. And then in episode three, we interviewed Karina Yan Glaser, the creative mind behind the NYT best-selling Vanderbeeker series. Each of these authors provided insight into their creative process, answered questions from young readers, and gave advice for aspiring writers. And that's just the beginning. In the coming weeks, you will hear from Glen McCarty, Maryrose Wood, Jennifer Trafton, and others!
It’s a lot of fun and full of nonsense, but it’s also thoughtful and intentional. You can listen now wherever you get podcasts.
FEATURED BOOK COVER
The conceit of this book is fascinating enough—a biography of Napoleon “through his engagement with the natural world”—but that cover is wonderful. The farmer subordinating the military figure, the hat on his head and the hat in his hand, the shovel and the hand pointing in opposite directions, the garden and the horse. Really great stuff here. Can’t wait to read this one. Here’s the Bookshop.org link if you want to grab a copy.
For this edition’s featured book, we turn to a title which has been out for a while now, but which was recently released on paperback. Reviewed by Dorian Stuber.
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession
The Irish writer Rónán Hession’s debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in ages. Imagine Anita Brookner’s shrewdness without her cruelty, and you might have something like its opening sentence:
Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.
So many of the novel’s important qualities are collected here: the strange syntactical prominence of the word “alone” offered as a state of being as much to cherish as to overcome; the reference to cheerfulness, a value in itself rather than a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the latter gets its due, too; and, not least, the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that makes us laugh without demeaning a terrible reality. Indeed, for a moment, I wondered if the father had died during his own childbirth.
Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-thirties who get together to play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. They are older, human versions of the delightful protagonists of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, those childhood classics of introversion. Leonard writes children’s encyclopedias that appear under the moniker of a self-aggrandizing academic. Hungry Paul works as a substitute postman on Monday mornings when the regulars call in sick with hangovers or ennui. Hungry Paul’s sister Grace is getting married to Andrew, who softens her eldest child’s tendency to organize everyone. Hungry Paul and Grace’s mother, Helen, still works a couple of days a week in the schools—ostensibly she is waiting for her full pension, but actually she is scared of being at home with her husband, Peter, all the time. Peter is a retired economist who loves to watch quiz shows at which he shouts out answers in rapid-fire bursts, mostly incorrectly. He is writing a speech for the wedding reception and wants it to be terrific.
During the day, Leonard works in an open-plan office, and like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. But one day he is pulled out of his work by a red-headed girl in a green sweater named Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal who is overseeing a fire drill. She is an art school dropout with vague plans to return eventually, an eight-year-old boy who is her everything, and curlicue handwriting that Leonard admires. In a different book, Leonard would abandon Hungry Paul for Shelley, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own successes.
Hession is a social worker and Leonard and Hungry Paul showcases the best elements of social work: its mindset is not to pigeonhole but to show people how they are who they are. We see that refusal to judge most clearly in the novel’s attitude to speeches, which symbolize everything tiresome about the world. Speeches are noise incarnate: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. The Chamber of Commerce people panic when Hungry Paul, asked to speak about his contest entry, stands contentedly silent before the crowd. Predictably, they rush to fill the void. “Speeches,” in this novel, are understood in the broadest sense, including those joking clichés that people, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster” (shudder), use so that they are spared having to think.
Surprisingly, then, the novel ends with two outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others: Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. But these cri de coueurs aren’t, in fact, speeches; they are spontaneous, offered to inform rather than to score points. This, they say, is who I am. Hungry Paul, in particular, is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he must do things his own way, and that the things he does are in fact things, even though to the busy world they might not look like it.
You’ll notice I’ve often used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, but these words omit the steeliness essential to the book. Gentle people are quiet and kind; they aren’t pushovers. Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but it never flattered me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we live in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should meet it on our own terms. By the end, Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—has been modestly challenged.
Mostly Leonard and Hungry Paul made me laugh. Particularly excellent is a hilarious set piece in which Hungry Paul tries to complain to the supermarket about a tin of expired candy—the scene builds for pages and still manages to surprise at the end. But there are just as many little jokes, slid in, as it were, unsuspectingly.
Happily, the novel abounds with this Wodehouse-level stuff. Leonard and Hungry Paul is a balm for the soul and smart as a whip too. (Now look who’s using clichés!) It is the most joyful book I have read in a long time. —Dorian Stuber
AROUND THE BOOKISH WEB
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is one of the most memorable (and anthologized) poems of the twentieth-century and Dwight Garner and Parul Sehgal explained why in The Times’ “Close Read” column.
For her, it was the exquisite compression and technical precision of poetry that appealed. Bishop had enormous verbal ingenuity, and she was a master of focus, diction and tone . . . She turned to the villanelle, a highly formal verse structure, for “One Art.” . . . There’s something magical about villanelles. They can’t be made to sound conversational. Because of the repetitions they contain, they have an incantatory quality — at times obsessional and haunted . . .
Near the end of Olivia Manning’s Friends and Heroes (1963), Guy and Harriet Pringle worry that “the war could devour their lives”. Their anxiety is oddly belated. Friends and Heroes is the final volume of Manning’s Second World War saga The Balkan Trilogy. By this point in the series the Pringles are refugees, displaced from their Bucharest home by the German occupation of Romania, resettled precariously in Athens while hoping Greece can avoid a similar fate. Just a few chapters later, with invasion imminent, they are crammed with a motley array of other British expats on to a ship bound for Egypt. It is characteristic of the Pringles, though, and also of Manning’s particular and peculiar genius, that in the midst of all this upheaval, it is the persistence of their daily lives that they feel most acutely. World historical events loom ominously on the horizon, but the Pringles (and thus we) are most concerned with what, in the circumstances, seem like trivialities.
“I hate the word process, I just can’t bear it,” Prose said in an interview. “People say, ‘What’s your process?’ My process is allowing my soul to leave my body and enter into the body of another human being. So try that!”
Her latest novel, “The Vixen,” which will be published on Tuesday by Harper, is a good example. It is about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the C.I.A. and book publishing. And it is often hilarious.
“We have to entertain ourselves somehow,” she said.
Meanwhile . . .
The contributors to TLS offered their favorite summer reads. It’s a seriously diverse and interesting array of titles.
In the NYT, Jonathan Miles reviewed Philip D’Anieri’s biography of the Appalachian Trail—a great choice for the summer adventurer.
In The Millions, Brenda Peynado, wrote about ten “genre bending story collections.” I am particularly fond of the Karen Russell collection mentioned.
Ted Gioia wrote about his pandemic reading and there are a lot of great titles on this very diverse and unique list.
That’s all for this issue. Until next time . . .
— Your Friends at Goldberry Books