When people ask me what bibliotherapy is, my stock, in-a-nutshell answer is this: You talk to me, and I tell you what I think you should read.
There’s obviously more to it than that, and I thought a blog post detailing a BiblioRemedy session would be helpful.
Before you and I meet (or chat on the phone), I send a questionnaire asking about your reading habits and tastes. While this isn’t strictly necessary, I do find that it helps me guide the conversation.
One of the questions on the questionnaire is, “Is there anything preoccupying you at the moment?” and I usually use this as a starting point to go deeper with you, the client. My goal is to coax out your feelings and thoughts about whatever you’re going through, and use that information to tailor the book list I come up with. Not everyone has “stuff,” however, and not everyone wants to get too personal with me. And that is fine too. You tell me as much or as little as you want. You still get 100% from me.
I spend at least 45 minutes listening to you. During this time, I take notes, and sometimes I relate my own experience to what you recount, but really, I’m there to listen. While I’m not a therapist and don’t pretend to be one, I’m a good listener. And whatever you tell me remains within the confines of our session and my notes.
After the session is over, I take some time to reflect on what you’ve said, and when I’m ready, I sit down with my notes and my laptop, and I start compiling a list of books. Sometimes the books come to me as I listen to you, and sometimes more research is required. If I haven’t read a book I plan to recommend, I definitely go deeper with my research. (I wish I could say I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS!, but alas, that’s physically impossible.)
Each session requires between two and three hours of work afterward, between the research and the preparation of the list. The list includes a description of each title, and why I’ve chosen the book for you. I email you this list in PDF form, typically within 48 hours of our session.
If you happen to have read any of the titles on the list, I will offer other titles that also correspond to your situation.
And there you have it! Bibliotherapy is much more than an algorithm or a set list of wonderful books. It’s an art that I’m honored to practice.
While graduation season ended in Kentucky a few weeks ago, I know that there are still students out there who are just finishing up their school year. That said, these books would be appropriate for anyone who’s about to embark on a new phase in life, or anyone who needs some inspiration.
Without further ado, five books that were originally commencement addresses:
Now Go Out There (and Get Curious) by Mary Karr
Memoirist Karr’s 2015 speech at Syracuse University, where she teaches, resonated with a wider audience than just the graduating seniors. To quote the description at Indiebound, “Being smart and rich are lucky, but being curious & compassionate will save your ass.”
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
This 2005 Kenyon College speech is long a classic. Wallace also talked about compassion during this address. Wise words from a writer who left us far too soon.
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman delivered this speech in 2012 to graduates of the Philadelphia University of the Arts. While intended for a “creative” audience, this book is encouragement for anyone to think outside the box.
Congratulations, by the Way by George Saunders
Another commencement address from Syracuse University, with a simple message. The transcript of this speech went viral back in 2013, so you may have already read it. Your favorite grad would probably appreciate a hard copy of it, though!
Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling
Rowling delivered this speech at Harvard University in 2008; it was published for the first time last year. From the Indiebound description, “How can we embrace failure? And how can we use our imagination to better both ourselves and others?” I mean, those questions are valid for anyone, not just recent graduates.
*Nothing against Dr. Seuss’s book, of course! I just tend to think of this Better Book Title when I see it.
I mentioned this novel to my friend Brooke, and I said, “this one ticks all of my middle-aged white lady boxes.”
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t read it if you’re not a middle-aged white lady.
Ultimately this novel is about love and sabotage and secrets and poetry and art and…it ticks all of my aforementioned boxes.
From the back-cover blurb: “Henry only knows one way to love a woman, and that is completely. Twenty-one years after they were driven apart, Henry and Margot reunite on a Manhattan street.”
From that random encounter—because it is random, and Henry and Margot don’t even speak to each other after 21 years—unfolds a story of young, forbidden love, and the omniscient narrator* makes sure the reader knows both sides of the story.
Other than the excellent writing, I was a fan of the back-and-forth points of view of Henry and Margot, circa 1991 and 2012.
Keep an eye out for this one. It’ll be available in June of this year, and it will make a great book club or vacation read!
*Yes, I did say “omniscient narrator.” No, I do not teach high school English.
This was a bargain-bin find for me, but it’s not a bargain-bin read. This was Rowling’s first novel as Galbraith, and it was so good that I want to read the others.
I’m a sucker for a good mystery/crime novel/political thriller, so the story of a wounded, indebted private investigator in London hit all the right notes for me. Cormoran Strike has a hard edge and a secret (other than his amputated leg, which he doesn’t like to talk about either). Joining Strike is temporary receptionist Robin Ellacott, whose pluck and initiative warm both Strike’s and the reader’s heart.
This novel’s conclusion was satisfying, and it’s one where I didn’t know the killer’s identity until the reveal: definitely a sign of a good story.
I’ve sat on this book for over a week after finishing it, wanting the time to reflect on it. The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a quiet book. The language is quiet despite all its beauty and strength and force. And as I was reading, I almost felt like I was reading a foreign novel that had been translated into English. This is not a criticism; it’s just a feeling I got as I was reading.
The novel’s foreignness comes honestly (for me, a cis/hetero/white American woman). It takes place in Bulgaria, a country I’ve never been to, and the protagonist is a gay American man who teaches English there. The only thing I have extensive knowledge of is teaching English in a European country, and there is only one classroom scene in the whole novel. Good thing, because that’s not why I chose to read it. (Although I will admit that the “American in a foreign country” scenario was attractive to me.)
No, I was reading this novel because it popped onto my book radar some time in late January, and then a friend posted about reading it on Facebook, and I decided that I *had* to get my hands on it. And then I took my time with it. It’s beautifully written.
I love novels that take me outside my own experience. And “What Belongs to You” certainly did. I highly recommend it; this is one of those books that makes you sit up and take notice and makes you think. And I know I said this about the last book I wrote about here, but this would make a great movie.
I had the good fortune of getting my grabby hands on an uncorrected proof of Morgan’s second novel, out May 3rd. Full disclosure: C.E. Morgan is a friend of mine (hence the grabby hands). Clearly, I’m biased, but I don’t believe that my blurb for IndieBound is inaccurate:
If you strip this novel of its beautiful writing, gorgeous descriptions, and lush geography, it is a tale of betrayal and redemption, pure and simple. Set in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, C.E. Morgan’s saga spans the histories of both a land-and-slave owning family (who were among the first to settle in Kentucky), and the descendants of escaped slaves whose “salvation” lay in the Queen City on the other side of the Ohio River. The backdrop of the thoroughbred horse industry brings the two families’ stories together. Morgan masterfully injects damning commentary about current social issues throughout the novel. This is a powerful narrative from a brilliant writer.
You’ll want to read this one, I promise. The build is slow, but so, so worth it. There was a moment where I put the book down and sobbed. There were moments that made me laugh out loud. I don’t often revisit a novel, but I plan to do so when The Sport of Kings is published, and I’ll tell you why: After finishing the novel, I randomly opened it and read a few lines. And what I read essentially predicted something else, later in the story (no spoilers!). I gave a whoop! and grinned. And cried again. C.E. Morgan is a genius. The Sport of Kings is one for the ages, and I would love to see it made into a film. You can pre-order it at the above link.
Sometimes a book falls in your hands and you don’t read it right away. An advance copy of this was given to me in late November, and I started it two nights ago. I was in one of those ruts where I had paused reading a different book and was having trouble picking it up again. So I decided to read this debut novel as a way to recharge my reading battery. (Yes, sometimes I need a nudge to read. I blame the Internet.)
Sometimes a book grabs you from the first sentence. Sometimes it takes hold of you slowly. This novel—the theme of which I knew nothing about, because the back cover blurbs are vague enough—was somewhere in between, at the last lines of chapter three, when our protagonist is putting her young son to bed: “He lifted his face. ‘Is my other mother coming soon?'”
It was one of those “Dun dun DUUUNNNN!” moments for me, and I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. That said, I couldn’t find out what was going on right away, because the book starts out with each chapter alternating between two different characters’ points of view. Mid-novel, our characters meet and their stories mesh. Later in the book, chapters are dedicated to more characters’ points of view as well, which helps round out this compelling story.
I’m hesitant to say too much more about The Forgetting Time, except that it is one that pushed all the right buttons for me. Its main premise will require a suspension of disbelief for many, but the way Guskin treats the subject matter is deft. I had no trouble believing, and I’ll continue to reflect on the secondary points the novel raises. Other than a seemingly too-long ending (although I changed my mind after I finished the epilogue), and one continuity error, this is an excellent debut that poses philosophical questions, and will delight readers. Book clubs, take note.
You can read an excerpt of this wonderful novel here. The Forgetting Time is available now.
My last entry here was about my friend and former co-worker Jay’s poetry collection. In it, and the entry before that, I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t been reading much at all, and I was hoping that reading poetry would allow me to slip back into fiction.
Guess what? It didn’t. I spent the month of December in a reading stupor. Starting this business during the holidays, then hosting guests three weekends in a row, meant that all my reading was of the short-attention-span kind: on the Internet. I read my RSS feeds (yeah, I still use RSS, what of it?), Facebook, and Reddit. I just didn’t have it in me to read anything of consequence.
Last week, however, with no clients in view and a cold to stave off, I read my figurative ass off. I read five novels, and they were all books I’d been sitting on for a year or more. Stacks of books To Be Read are a part of life, though. Here they are, in the order I read them:
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: This is one that I meant to read as soon as it came out, but I just never got around to it. Well, I can say that it does not disappoint. The premise, based on a Russian fairy tale, might seem preposterous, but it fits the landscape and time of the story. I loved the description of frontier Alaska, the flora and fauna, the light and dark, and the conditions of living back in the day. This is one that I’ll keep thinking about for a long time.
Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman: This is the second novel in Masterman’s Brigid Quinn series. I hadn’t read the first one, but it doesn’t matter. We get a good sense of Quinn and the personal obstacles she faces, with a few flashbacks that allude to her previous life. I do love a good thriller, and this didn’t disappoint. I will say that there was a secondary (or maybe it’s even tertiary) story line that didn’t reach fruition, but it doesn’t leave any loose ends, so I can overlook it.
A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash: Oh, my gosh, this. This novel. This was so beautifully written and so heartbreaking. It reminded me of some of the stories in Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange, but it may just be the North Carolina setting. The climax and its reciprocity with a previous event in the story gave me much to think about.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: This was my one allowance of (or to) my penchant for young adult literature (although where I used to work, we shelved this in intermediate kids’/middle grade fiction). My friend Gwenda gave this to me for Christmas in 2014, and I should be ashamed that it took me so long to read it. This is a story about dragons, and as Christopher Paolini blurbs on the front cover, “Beautifully written. These are some of the most interesting dragons I’ve read.” I really loved this, but then, I have a soft spot for YA lit…. I can’t wait to read the sequel.
Known to Evil by Walter Mosley: This was my first foray into Mosley’s work, and I loved it. This was the second book about Mosley’s character Leonid McGill, and like with the Becky Masterman/Brigid Quinn novel, I didn’t feel like I was missing much by not reading the first novel. Mosley gives the reader a glimpse into the seedy underbelly—to use a cliché—of New York City that past and present mayors would like us to forget.
Last night, I started reading Wolf Hall, which is another book I’ve had on the shelf for a looooooong time. A dated bookmark and a stain on the cover reminded me that I started this novel years ago, and didn’t get very far into it. Tonight I have a distraction as well: the first hundred or so pages of my friend C.E. Morgan’s forthcoming novel, The Sport of Kings, via the Winter Institute/Macmillan Reading Sample, thanks to Wyn, my former boss. Keep an eye out for my reactions to both of these novels.
In my last post, I lamented the fact that I haven’t been able to read much lately. This is as much a symptom of nerves as anything. My mind whirls; I can’t concentrate. In order to ease back into reading fiction like I usually do (read: devour it), I decided to try some poetry.
My friend and former co-worker Jay McCoy just had a chapbook published by Accents Publishing. It is a slim book, but the words inside offer such depth. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t “like” poetry, that I don’t “get it,” but the truth is, I like to listen to poetry. And as I read The Occupation, I imagined Jay speaking his powerful words to me. From page 17:
She must be new. I’ve never seen her
here before—a vision in white, all
business except when she smiles
her crooked/coy grin, says I have pretty
veins. Her hazel eyes hold steady
my gaze as the cold needle plunges
into raised blue lines traversing
the bend of my right arm. Now
just hold this tight.
There’s so much in these few lines. For me, this brought the previous poems into much sharper focus. The blood draw, the testing. The use of “positive/negative” in the first poem. Naïve of me, perhaps, but I went into this with the hope that I could merely read words on paper instead of on screen. I had no idea what was waiting for me in these pages when I opened the cover.
This book is full of deep longing, of harsh truths, of gentle eroticism. These poems evoke love and bitterness and grief. Jay’s voice, his queer voice, reminded me that my white, cisgendered, heterosexual, privileged life is not everyone’s reality. And I need reminding from time to time. Need to hear other voices, let them sink in, occupy my heart.
I invite you to listen to Jay’s voice. The Occupation is available now. I purchased my copy at the Morris book shop, but I saw it at Third Street Stuff in Lexington as well.
I’ll be honest: for the past
week month I haven’t read much of anything. I’m in one of those “reading two books at once” phases, and have been so head-spinny over getting this business off the ground that I can’t concentrate. I took a break from Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns (which I have owned for way too long without ever reading) to read George Saunders’* short story collection, The Tenth of December. Which has stories that are two pages long. And I can’t even deal with that.
*For some reason, “James’s” sounds okay, while “Saunders’s” doesn’t. Consistency? What consistency?
It was my intention to have this blog full of posts about all the great books I’ve read in the past six weeks or so, but it ain’t gonna happen. It’s got three posts. Well, four, including this one. And that’s okay. There’s a great quote that I read the other day: “Perfectionism is the enemy of done.” It was not attributed, but here’s the origin of the general sense. Nothing I do will be perfect, and I’m going to screw up, and if I only have four blog posts at launch (instead of six, or eight, or however many books I could read in a few weeks), it’s okay.
My website is live, and tomorrow I will tell the world about this bibliotherapy business. I’m scared pantsless, and excited beyond belief. Won’t you buy the ticket and take this ride with me?