The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a

double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation.”

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Hala Alyan writes novels about the effect of displacement on families, the intergenerational trauma passed on as a result of losing a homeland and how it manifests in subsequent generations. She focuses on the minutae of their lives, the clash of cultures and personalities within a family, their rootlessness and their attempts to find their place in a new world that cares little for them.

Her debut novel Salt Houses followed the female line of a family forced to abandon Palestine, after a daughter visited family in Kuwait in 1967, then found herself unable to return, giving rising to successive generations born outside of their home country. Alyan is Palestinian American and spent her own childhood moving between the Middle East and the US, studying in Beirut, finding inspiration for her future characters.

“I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work,” Alyan reveals. “I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is.” Hala Alyan

The  Arsonist’s City

Palestinian American poet novelist Lebanon SyriaThis latest novel begins with a short chapter on the last day of a young man’s life. His name is Zakaria and he lives in one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut. His death is part of a cycle of revenge, one that causes people in many countries to seek asylum elsewhere, people caught in the wrong pace at the wrong time, lives changed in a moment.

The civil war had left the country riven – Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge.

Zakaria’s role in the story is small, but the impact his death has on his friends Mazna, a theatre actress and Idris, a medical student, is life-changing. It is a shocking opening and leaves the reader wanting to know more about these three friends and how they are all implicated in what happened. It plants a seed of fear that never quite leaves the narrative, an absence of the feeling of safety and security that pursues those who flee.

He sighs. “We all come from tribes, Damascus. Whether we want to admit it or not.It’s just that in a tiny place like Beirut, like Lebanon, you can’t help but notice differences. One family sees another has a bigger olive tree. One village wants the other’s water supply. Wars have been started over less.”

The Second Generation

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe LimaPexels.com

The novel is very character lead and something of an immersive family saga.

After the opening chapter, the narrative jumps forward to the near present, focusing on Mazna’s three American born children, Ava, mother of two, a biologist married to Nate, whose marriage has hit a rocky patch; Marwan (Mimi), a 30 something musician, who can’t quite let go of the dream of becoming a rock star, his band now in its fifth incarnation since he graduated; and Naj, the youngest, also a musician and singer who returned to Beirut, to further her ambitions.

Much as they liked to bemoan Ava’s siblings’ careers, her mother and father understand them more than they do hers. They understand ambition, the hunger for the spotlight. Visibility.

The three children, now young adults, have all been invited to spend the summer at their Grandfather’s home in Beirut, to attend his one year memorial. Their father has announced he intends to sell and wants them all present for this last summer.

The Road to Damascus

Having got to know each of these characters, the timeline moves back to the past, before Zakaria’s death, to Mazna’s adolescence in her hometown of Damascus, her venturing into theatre and acting, the catalyst for meeting Idris and his friends, and secret outings to Beirut.

Her failed attempts to pursue her career in America. Her shame. Her reluctance. Her giving in. Her anger. Her rage. Her silence. An atonement.

You soften in the end because they’re all you have. It’s not right and it’s not what you wanted, but here you are…this is her debt and her repayment, the life she has made for herself.

Beirut corniche The Arsonists City Hala Alyan

Photo by Jo KassisPexels.com

The return to Idris’s birth city will uncover secrets and combust lies, revealing fractures and deceptions that could make or break relationships. He will be challenged on his decision and the family, brought together under one roof for the first time in years, will be confronted with aspects of their past and present that can no longer be ignored.

None of the children know anything about their parents’ childhood friend, but old photos and the appearance of his mother outside their grandfather’s house prompt questions no one wants to answer. When they see the young man in an old video, their mother’s reaction speaks volumes:

“Your father is selling a house that isn’t his!” She starts stomping out of the room. “You three are poking through things that aren’t yours! Everyone in this country is a vulture!” They hear a door slam.

“I guess she knew him,” Naj says.

It’s a hotbed of drama, of disappointments, of temptations and regrets.

An enjoyable if overly long-winded read with an abundance of detail and dialogue that felt like a melodramatic soap opera at times. In that respect, while it touched on many issues, they’re dealt with at a superficial level, a lost opportunity given the author’s background as a psychologist.

My main disappointment was how peripheral the family of Zakaria were and some of the decisions the author took about the connections (or lack of) between the two families. Opening the narrative with this family was an invitation to the reader, one that was never quite fulfilled.

The novel was however shortlisted for the Aspen Literary Award 2022 and they had this to say:

“The Arsonist’s City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the aftermath of violence, displacement and upheaval.  Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognisable.” 2022 Literary Prize Jury

A Sense of Place, A City Like No Other

olive treeThough I have never visited Damascus, I have been to Beirut a couple of times and I found that the novel evoked many memories of being in that city (over 20 years ago) and the surrounding countryside, the presence of the Syrian army, checkpoints, traffic lights that were recently installed but not compulsory, a generation of youth that had spent their childhoods in bunkers who just wanted to listen to music and party all night long.

As I read, I could hear the sound of that music and see how it became an escape for youth who wanted to escape their constraint, to take risks to feel free and belong to something outside themselves. 

“People get older, they forget how brutal youth is. How dangerous it can be.”

Further Reading

New York Times A Family Reunites in Beirut, Where the Past Is Never Past by Maya Salam

Thoughts From A Page Interview via Podcast by Cindy Burnett: the character she enjoyed writing the most, wanting to provide a deeper understanding of Lebanon to her readers, how and why intergenerational conflict and secrets provide great fodder for writers, and more. 

National News: Arts & Culture : ‘The Arsonists’ City’: Why Hala Alyan’s second novel is a love letter to Lebanon by Malcolm Forbes

“Home for me is a combination of where you have nested.” But, she says: “I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that’s the legacy of what I’ve experienced.” Hala Alyan

N.B. I read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) e-book version thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now Mariner Books) via NetGalley.  The book was published in the US in March 2021.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @ Pexels.com

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us better off?’

‘Because’, answered Pierre, ‘ by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

relationshipsAfter seeing this title on a few end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2022, this was one of the first books I chose, to get back into the reading rhythm. Perhaps for that reason, it took a little while to get into, but once it reached the first significant turning point, the plot became more interesting and surprising and the choices the author made, much more thought provoking. It would make an excellent book club choice.

In essence, 40 year old Phyllis – who was living a conventional life as a housewife with two children, her husband Roger working at the Foreign Office – steps out of the submissive role she has been wed to, when a friends’ son comes to visit. Prior to this moment she hadn’t appeared to be frustrated with her life.

“In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

The encounter leads to numerous consequences, increasingly dramatic, that will affect everyone in the family. Our housewife leaves her middle class, manicured English lawn suburb for a rundown, seedy apartment building in Ladbroke Grove, teeming with diversity, creativity, and people living in the moment.

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

Free Love Tessa Hadley Sixties fashion UtopiaIn the initial chapters, it was difficult to believe. Every reader will bring to their reading of the story, their own imagining of how this mother could abandon all for something that feels like it will be fleeting.

But then you slowly accept it, recalling the era in which it was set, knowing there was a whole other way of living and being in the 1960’s, a revolution against convention and authority, a risk taking utopian fever spreading its tentacles among the young and not so young. A time bomb, but still.

Colette, Not Yet Colette

The teenage daughter Colette is the more tortured soul, an astute observer, a lonely intellectual who read everything, though refused to read the novelist her mother said she was named after.

“Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.”

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

While we may feel sorry for the children – the son was always going to be sent away to boarding school, an interesting juxtaposition, to set side by side, twin forms of abandonment – it is interesting to see how the relationship between mother and daughter evolves under the new circumstance of their lives.

Colette starts skipping school.

“When she got to London Bridge she put her satchel and uniform in a left-luggage locker. All she did in the city was walk around in the crowds, pretending to be absorbed and purposeful like everyone else. She went to browse in certain bookshops, in Carnaby Street she bought tinted sunglasses, underground magazines and cones of incense from stuffy little shops, also henna to dye her hair at home. Sometimes she screwed up her courage to ask for a glass of barley wine in a pub, then sat alone defiantly to drink, reading.”

Honesty versus Secrecy

It was interesting to imagine a conventional housewife having such courage or impulsivity to do what she did. The choices Phyllis makes are surprising and daring, and just when we think she is the only one capable of making such counter conventional choices, there is another twist in the story.

It becomes a story about consequences, those that are dared lived out in the open, versus those that have been hidden. Then it gets really interesting. It makes you wonder, should those secrets be kept or shared? One can never predict the consequences of either route, but this story attempts to pit one against the other.

It reminded me of the experience of reading Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Coming Full Circle

The ending is more poignant than conclusive, it reiterates the messiness of real lives and the power of forgiveness, the benefit of setting aside judgement, of being true to oneself without having to reject the other.

“Phyllis had been braced to defend herself against her husband. On her way to meet him, she’d summoned an idea of his authority, implacable and punitive, mixed up with his role in the world of Establishment power. Now she was taken aback by how he bent his head before her, opening himself so easily; his kindness drew one sob out of everything loosened and raw inside her.”

An enjoyable and thought provoking read ad an author I’d be happy to read more of. Have you read any of Tessa Hadley’s novels?

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

Further Reading

NPR review –A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley’s novel ‘Free Love’ by Heller McAlpin

Guardian review: sexual revolution in 60s suburbia by Michael Donkor

Interview with Lisa Allardice: Tessa Hadley: ‘Long marriages are interesting. You either hang on or you don’t’

Guardian Short Story, Dec 18, 2022 : Juana the Mad – A chance encounter at a Christmas party churns up buried memories in this exclusive tale by the prize-winning novelist.

Tessa Hadley, Author

Free Love London based fiction A9Tessa Hadley is a British author of 8 novels, short stories and nonfiction. Born in Bristol in 1956, she was 46 when she published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, which she wrote while bringing up her 3 sons and studying for a PhD.

Her writing focuses on women, families and relationships – what she has called “the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren – the web people create for themselves”.

She reviews regularly for the London Review of Books and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta. Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I love the irresponsibility of short stories. Writing short, you create with a free hand. Each new development you imagine can be drawn in to the story without consequences, with all the lightning-bolt effect of a first thought, no requirement to elaborate a hinterland. A quickly scribbled indication of background can stand in for a whole city, a whole past. And yet I can’t stop wanting to write novels too. Novels see things through. The reader is in for the long term; the writer is in for a sizeable stretch of her life. In a novel there’s not only the dazzle of the moment, but also the slow blooming of the moment’s aftermath in time, its transformation over and over into new forms. I love to write about the present, and the past that’s recent enough for me to remember. The fiction writer’s ambition is modest and overweening: to take the imprint of the passing moment, capture it in the right words, keep it for the future to read.” Tessa Hadley, Author Statement

Why Woo Woo Works by David R. Hamilton PhD

The Surprising Science Behind Meditation, Reiki, Crystals and Other Alternative Practices

Why Woo Woo Works David Hamilton“The Oxford University Press’s definition of woo-woo is ‘Unconventional beliefs regarded as having little or no scientific basis, especially those related to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine. The term is believed to have been coined in the 1980’s, possibly in imitation of the wailing sound associated with ghosts and the supernatural.”

I first came across the author David Hamilton (a former R&D scientist who developed drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer) in conversation with Colette Baron Reid on her podcast Inside the Wooniverse in the episode entitled “Why Woo Woo Works”

Inspired by the placebo effect and how some people’s conditions would improve because they believed a placebo was a real drug, he left the pharmaceutical industry to pursue the subject of how the mind and emotions can can improve mental and physical health. 

“Meditation is an example of how a mystical practice becomes mainstream once the science is known and enough people are doing it.”

In addition to reducing stress, meditation can result in higher levels of the telomerase enzyme, which can slow the rate of ageing at a genetic level.

An advocate for kindness, Hamilton suggests that the opposite of stress is not calm (one of the effects of the absence of stress), but kindness. You can read some of his favourite kindness quotes here:

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” HH the Dalai Lama

The Power of Imagination

“To a large extent, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary, and this underpins some aspects of the placebo effect. When you imagine that something is happening, it really is happening as far as your brain is concerned, and it releases the chemical substances necessary to confirm that what you’re imagining is indeed real.”

plants in vases

Photo Elle Hughes @Pexels.com

In his book, Hamilton discusses the many aspects of different spiritual practices and a few alternative therapies. He shares the most recent science behind why they work.

Some of the subjects covered are Mind Over Matter, Meditation, Trapped and Released Emotions, Nature, Reiki, Crystals, How Perception Changes Your Reality, Consciousness, Telepathy, Distant Healing and Prayer,The Right Conditions and The Law of Attraction.

A few things I knew intuitively that I hadn’t seen proven by science was the power of intention (of the healer), the effect of empathy by a medical practitioner and the difference it makes to pain thresholds having plants in a (waiting) room, or in any room.

“As airy-fairy as it sounds,we might find that on occasion, we could swap a couple of ibuprofen for a peace lily or a rubber plant.”

I really enjoyed the book which I ordered immediately after listening to him in the podcast, it’s an excellent summary of a few topics that are making significant improvements in the health and well-being of people,  it’s very accessible to read or listen to.

Further Reading

A Prescription of Kindness by David Hamilton, Dec 4, 2022

Interview with David Hamilton at The Mind Solution Podcast

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Literary fiction that manages to be utterly compelling, thought provoking, intense and revelatory. Set in 1970’s East London. It was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2011 and nominated for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2013.

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats during October with Didi’s Read Soul Lit ReadAlong group on Goodreads.

A Visitation

Booker longlisted Black british literary fictionIt is 14 years since Jinx’s mother died and the knock on her door by a friend of her mother’s she hasn’t seen since then, initiates this weekend like no other, which will bring back all the emotion, rage, resentment, passion and sorrow that has been pushed down so deep for years.

It is an intense and provocative beginning that reveals just enough to pique interest and make the reader begin to ask questions, that we hope the story will reveal. Who was responsible for what happened back then and what part did each of them play?

When Lemon arrives at her door, his first words are “he’s out”.

There were changes around his face; the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were wider fanned, the bags beneath them full and heavy, and his old skin bore new lines. His eyes were red-rimmed, the whites yellowed, the expression intense as he looked at me, already asking questions, talking of things that should be whispered even when alone, and it was me that looked away, looked down, wondering if my own eyes were as eloquent as his, afraid that they might be speaking volumes, scared of the things they might have already said.

Jinx’s five year old son Ben arrives for the weekend, a shared custody arrangement; it goes badly, she is reactive, he is upset.

Effect of Unconscious Trauma

There is a sense of suppressed trauma that impacts her ability to mother. The son tries to reach out to her and is unable to connect. Her perceptions and behaviour are inexplicable. When she views her son interacting with Lemon, she can’t grasp the ease they demonstrate.

I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took from his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we learn about the lives of Jinx and her mother, widowed at a young age having married a much older man.

The one thing my mother always said about Mr Jackson was that he was a decent man, that he took proper care of things, including this mortgage-free house that he left to her, which she then left to me when I was sixteen and she was dead. Decent enough to ask no more of her than that she occupy it and dedicate her life to raising me, forsaking all other men till I had grown up. ‘Grown up’ she interpreted to mean when I was sixteen. It was ironic that I actually had grown up then. Sixteen and overnight my childhood was over.

Will We Ever Understand Domestic Violence?

rain weather London Black British literary fiction

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

We learn about the beginning of her mum’s relationship with Berris. Of his moving in and taking over, Jinx’s growing resentment and jealousy. His volatile nature and her mother’s acceptance of it, of those coats he gives her as apologies.

There are many different kinds of rain, and England is famous for all of them. There are showers that start with a light drizzle, then build up to a steady pour. Then there’s rain that begins drip, drip, gets heavy, then stops then starts and stops and starts again. Then there’s sudden rain that falls quickly when it’s sunny, like its only ambition is to make a rainbow and once it’s done that, it stops. If I had to describe Berris as rain, he was none of those, and the words ‘You won’t even know he’s here’ turned out to be the understatement of the year.

Friendship

A Cupboard Full of Coats Yvvette Edwards

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

When the narrative moves back to her sixteenth year, Jinx is her final year at school, sitting O levels. We meet her best friend Sam and observe that she too is going through a transition, two girls that used to do everything together, begin to diverge.

Their relationship begins to change when after a few days of absence the teacher no longer calls Sam’s name in roll call.

It’s like the beginning of the application of a moral code, something stronger than friendship, when womanhood approaches and white lies creep in between friends, as they navigate the shifting status on that precipice between girl and woman, when boys and men begin to enter their lives.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured in alternate chapters of the past and the present, so as the weekend progresses, with Lemon’s visit, there is a gradual thawing out and opening up, on both their parts, as Jinx listens and begins to open up, remembering, recalling, each filling in the gaps of the other’s perception of what happened around the time of her mother’s death.

The past concentrates on those month’s leading up to her mother’s death, building suspense as the story closes in on that final day, that until now, no one really had the complete picture of what occurred.

Reading it, we ask ourselves, can healing take place over a weekend? What will Lemon’s visit reveal? What is Jinx hiding?

A Cupboard Full of Coats explores relationships, jealousy, independence, co-dependence and the transitions that happen as a girl becomes a woman, a mother a lover and the vulnerability of women.

The atmosphere she creates, the intensity, the adept characterisation, the confessions and revelations make for a compelling read. Though I read it over a week when I was busy, each time I picked it up, it gripped me and I highlighted thought provoking passages all the way through. The conversation the group had about the book was dynamic, there was a lot of outrage expressed against the characters, the live discussion was a rewarding way to end the book.

Highly Recommended. I’ll definitely be reading her next novel and hope to see more from this talented British author.

Yvvette Edwards, Author

Black British literary fictionYvvette Edwards is a British East Londoner of Montserratian origin and author of two novels, A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa, and broadcast on radio.

Her work has been nominated for a number of literary awards including the Booker Prize. She is particularly interested in writing that challenges the single narrative, giving voice to characters who are absent or under-represented in contemporary fiction.

She was a judge for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour and the George Floyd Short Story Competition. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Further Information

OneWorld Publications: Yvvette Edwards discusses A Cupboard Full of Coats

The Independent: A Matter of Black and White

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

I came across this author by chance having seen another of her books reviewed and after a period of not reading, her novel(s) sounded like something I’d quite enjoy as a way back in to reading. There were comparisons made to Anne Tyler, of whom I’ve read and reviewed a couple of novels here Ladder of Years and A Blue Spool of Thread, however having now finished I would say this offers much more beneath the surface of plot.

Booker Prize 2021 Mary Lawson CanadaWhat I wasn’t expecting was to then see this novel long listed for the Booker Prize a short while after I requested it. Doubly intrigued, as this is the only book on that list I have, I began to read.

I loved it.

Not only was it the good choice I had expected for my own personal reasons, it exceeded my expectations in so many ways.

The title is both intriguing and promising and the cover, the way it zooms in on the house in a way that shows little else around it, is such an apt metaphor for the three lives it focuses on, those three windows into their worlds, and the three time sequences it immerses in to portray them.

A character driven mystery that explores boundaries and trust, the characters and their voices are superbly portrayed, they are like closeups, snapshots of little action, complex inner worlds, all of whom have been tilted in some way and are in the process of finding their upright, their wings even; yet there is a clear, interlinked story that ties them together keeping the reader engaged and the plot moving forward at a good pace.

I came to think of these three characters, Mrs Orchard (Elisabeth), the grown up child and previous neighbour of Mrs Orchard, now adult (Liam), and 8 year old current neighbour of Mrs Orchard (Clara), as depicting narratives of past, present and future, that overlap.

When the story begins we meet Clara standing at the window of her house, watching obsessively, waiting for her sister Rose (16) who has run away from home. She is waiting for any sign of her return and is disturbed to see a strange man carrying boxes into Mrs Orchards home next door.

The Inner Journey (Anti-hero)

Rose having gone missing may appear to some as the central drama, however each of the three characters are embarking on their own inner quest that this drama brings to light. Rose and her parents are not central characters, and the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is not allowed to take over the narrative.

This may prove to frustrate some, so tuned in are we to the more dramatic story pushing in to take centre stage. Here, the larger than life character, though involved in the more dangerous narrative, is made into a secondary character, kept at a distant. It’s the Penelope versus Odyseuss dynamic again, as recently depicted in Brenda Lozano’s excellent Loop.

More than disturbed, Clara is anxious because she has the keys to the house to enable her to feed the cat Moses while Mrs Orchard is in hospital. She’d promised she wouldn’t be gone long. Through Clara’s perspective we observe how confusing childhood can be when adults put so much effort into lying and withholding truth from them. In reality, they are extra sensitive to everything outside of and beyond words, cues that enable them to feel truths, therefore making them mistrust adults, whose words deny their truth.

But she had been away long, she’d been away weeks and weeks. Clara had run out of cat food several times and had to ask her mother for money so that she could go and buy some more. (This was before Rose disappeared, when everything was normal and Clara could go wherever she liked.) She’d expected Mrs Orchard to be more reliable, and was disappointed in her. Adults in general were less reliable than they should be, in Clara’s opinion, but she’d thought Mrs Orchard was an exception.

The Lying Life of Adults

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Clara doesn’t know this yet, but Liam remembers what it was like to be that child and he is the one adult who doesn’t lie to her. But in order to gain her trust, he will be required to step outside his own comfort zone and finds himself getting involved in a community and the lives of people he had no intention of knowing. In the midst of his own mid-life crisis, this unexpected event had given him a welcome distraction, however he had planned to stay 2 weeks and leave.

By six in the evening, nightmarish northern roads notwithstanding, he was walking up the steps of Mrs Orchard’s porch, with Toronto, his career and his marriage behind him.
And now, not much more than twelve hours later, somewhat dazed and very short of sleep, he was sitting in a strange house, which he happened to own, trying to explain it all to a cop.

In an entertaining subplot to his story, his effort to fix a leaking pipe under a sink miraculously leads to him to become the builder’s labourer, in on of those familiar scenarios of “well in order to fix that, first we’re going to have to fix the roof and unfortunately…”

‘How much is all this going to cost?’

‘Materials and labour. Biggest cost is labour, but with you working for free I’ll knock a third off that.’

Liam’s narrative happens ahead of Mrs Orchard’s and Clara’s narrative occurs ahead of Liam’s. It is so subtle and yet so clever as it creates a kind of mystery within the individual story of each character. So we sometimes read of the same event later from a different perspective.

Angelic Attendants

Elisabeth is in hospital (in the past because in the present we know she has already passed away) and her narrative uses the second person (You) as she is speaking to her dead husband (of many years now), who is very present for her, a sign to the reader of how close to her own passing is likely to be. As she speaks to her husband, she is recalling a period many years ago when the boy Liam lived next door with his family. Little clues drop indicating that something happened, something only Elisabeth now remembers.

Times without number I have asked myself how it could have come to that. Now, from a distance thirty years I can see the answer clearly: little by little.

The writing is superb and atmospheric, the structure is sophisticated and yet flows with ease you could read this and be completely unaware of it. The individual voices of the characters are pitch perfect and atmosphere created, remarkable. The drama is understated yet palpable and the mundane slowly gets filled with intrigue and curiosity was the layers are revealed. And it made me laugh out loud – often, little surprises and a fabulous last laugh for the closing scene.

I don’t know if this will make the shortlist but I totally understand why it has been nominated. I’m excited to read more of her work, because this was brilliant.

Highly Recommended.

Mary Lawson, Author

Mary LawsonMary Lawson was born and brought up in a small farming community in southwestern Ontario and moved to England after graduating from McGill University with a degree in psychology.

She is the author of three previous nationally and internationally bestselling novels, Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends. Crow Lake was a New York Times bestseller and was chosen as a Book of the Year by The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Further Reading/Listening

Q & A Interview: In conversation with novelist Mary Lawson by Kobo

Video Interview: Reader Meets Writer, Wiley Cash interviews Mary Lawson on A Town Called Solace

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Random House UK for providing a copy for review via Netgalley.

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Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé (2021) tr. Richard Philcox

This story (originally published in French in 2010 as En attendant la montée des eaux) follows the character of Babakar, a Doctor from Segu, Mali who delivers babies. In the opening chapter while it pours with rain outside, he is called to attend a birth of a young woman he does not know but recognises, who does not survive the birth. Understanding that the man who accompanies her Movar, is not the father, he claims the baby as his own, seeing it as a sign, a return.

It does occasionally trouble him, what he has done and sure enough, one day Movar returns and tells him of the promise made to the young mother, to return her child to her family in Haiti, from where she had fled. The novel begins in Guadeloupe and moves to Haiti, while also travelling to other places through the backstories of the adjacent characters.

Waiting For the Waters to Rise Maryse CondeThough the story follows Babakar, each time we encounter a new character, there is this digression into their backstory(s), so we learn of all these male characters stories, Babakar (in Mali and the often present apparition of his mother Thécla Minerve), Movar, (in Haiti) Fouad (in Lebanon, though being Palestinian he dreams of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwich) who all come together in Haiti, and underlying the visit, this search to find family and learn why the young mother had fled.

Although the story is about the search for Anais’s (the baby) family, for all that this is an employed man raising a young baby on his own, she was remarkably absent, as were her carers, creating a bit of a disconnect, considering the entire motivation for this grand journey was supposedly her well-being, or the pursuit of this promise. The baby seemed to pose no great inconvenience, which seemed strange, the story centred solely on the male characters.

With so much of the novel told in backstory, there was a lot of ‘telling’ and I found myself reading over parts of those narratives quite quickly as they didn’t seem to progress or relate to the story itself. Perhaps there was something universal in the stories of the three main men, in the collapse of their earlier lives that found them seeking solace in each others company, but it didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.

The family that Anais came from had its own complicated history and political associations, but was less in the foreground.

It was interesting, having just read Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, to be back in Haiti and to understand more of the references and pick up on the atmosphere of the location, the unpredictability and quasi-fear around certain people, never quite knowing if they are safe or not and that metaphor of the title, suggesting disaster not far off.

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As the novel came to a close, those waters began to rise and there is yet another opportunity to enter into an interesting story as the two characters make a plot direction changing decision and enter into an aspect of the story we will never know. And what about the baby, I wonder, not for the first time?

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean author writing in French, the author of many novels including the historical fiction masterpiece Segu and I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.

She remains a favourite author and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, last year’s Crossing the Mangrove was just brilliant as were her childhood essays in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood.

Love Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet tr. Rose Myriam-Réjouis, Val Vinokur

A Haitian Trilogy – Introduction by Edwidge Danticat

Love Anger Madness Marie Vieux ChauvetOriginally published in French as Amour, colère et folie, this trilogy of novellas was originally suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968. Seen as a scathing response to the struggles of race, class and sex that had occurred in Haiti, this major work became an underground classic, would send its author into exile and would finally be released in an authorised edition in France in 2005 (this English version in 2009).

Considered by Edwidge Danticat as the cornerstone of Haitian literature, she opens her introduction telling us that “Fewer than a handful of Haitian writers have, both while alive and dead, inspired as much adulation, analysis, and discussion as Marie Vieux-Chauvet.”

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a member of the “occupation generation”, that is, born a year after the United States invaded Haiti, an occupation that would last 19 years. She would use the turmoil of that rebellion as the back-story for Love, the first novella of the trilogy.

“We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence,” she writes of the country we Haitians like to remind the world was the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, home to the only slave revolt that succeeded in producing a nation. What we would rather not say, and what Claire Clamont and Marie Vieux-Chauvet are brave enough to say, is that this same country has continued to fail at reaching its full potential, in part because of foreign interference and domination, but also because of internal strife and power struggles.

In three distinct novellas it unflinchingly manages to condemn totalitarianism and tyranny, with little care of the consequences, an act of courageousness or recklessness, but one that would make a significant and permanent mark in the chronicles of Haitian literature.

Love

The narrator of Love, Claire Clamont, is the eldest of three daughters, of a landowning upper-class family. She is the son her father never had and he wishes her to runs things as he would have them done. However, he hasn’t reckoned on her stubbornness and refusal to affiliate with some of the old ways he indulges, having raised her to think of them as superstitious. As a result she is neither feared nor respected by the workers, whom he had sold parcels of land to fund his political campaigns, a futile effort that has left the family near penniless.

The three sisters of this aristocratic family live together, all coveting the same man, Felicia’s husband. Annette succeeds in seducing him, Claire silently, voyeuristically encouraging her.

Meanwhile, a man sent to reform Haiti is known to use violent, torturous means to get his message across, preying on the innocent.

The love this elder daughter practices is tinged with jealousy, revenge and resentment, laying blame at the feet of an ancestor with dark skin. She resents this ancestor who made her so, resents her father for trying to turn her into the son he never had, resents one sister for marrying a man she loves and the other for having seduced him.

Anger

Anger centres around a family and the day a group of black uniformed paramilitary seize their land, putting stakes in the ground, the grandfather and the young disabled grandson are indignant, the son and his wife wary and afraid, their older daughter Rose is practical, the young adult son Paul going crazy, desires revenge.

Men arrive and plant stakes in the ground of land belonging to a family, they wear black uniforms and invoke fear. Each of the family inside react. Then the concrete arrives. They’re seizing the land and building a wall.

The family is observed, tries to address the injustice, is compromised.

The mother got up slowly, put down her needlework, walked over to the old man and spoke into his ear.

“Look at him, Grandfather,” she whispered, “just look at him.”

The child was clenching his fists and grinding his teeth.

“Who will flog those who have taken our land?” he said without paying any attention to the mother. “Is there no longer a steward who can do it?”

“Alas, no!” the grandfather answered.

“Why not?”

“Because there are ups and downs in the life of a people. As the arrow rises, it gives birth to heroes; when it falls, only cowards come into the world. No steward would agree to stand up to those who have taken our land.”

He told himself that his crippled and sickly grandson was the faint beginning of the next era of heroes and that the arrow had begun its slow ascent only eight years ago. Hundreds more must have come into the world the same time he did, he thought, and with feet and legs as well as a brave soul. A day will come when they will grow up and the birds of prey will have to account for their deeds to every last one of them.

Madness

Madness is narrated by René, a lower class mulatto poet hiding inside his shack, paranoid about what’s going on outside his door and inside his mind, finding solace in a bottle, in rituals to do with voodoo beliefs that most of his life he has rejected and the poet friends he fearfully opens his door to, to offer them refuge. Unclear, what is real and what is the projection of a man’s fearful mind, we read on, aware that under oppression anything is possible.

A thought provoking read that invites the reader to understand more about the historical and present situation in Haiti.

Marie Vieux ChauvetMarie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright, the author of five novels including Dance on the Volcano, Fonds des Negres, Fille d’Haiti and Les Rapaces.

Her works focus on class, color, race, gender, family structure and the upheaval of Haitian political, economic and social society during the United States occupation of Haiti and the dictatorship of François Duvalier. She died in New York in 1973.

Further Reading

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Sea People by Christina Thompson

In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.

Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the PacificA Polynesian Connection and Resonance

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.

My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.

As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a  worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.

I loved it.

Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

map-polynesia-frontThe Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.

Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.

There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.

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Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.

The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.

Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted  a “state of nature”.

Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.

Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.

The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.

And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.

A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.

It will lead very nicely on to my next read, appropriately, the inside view from Dr Hinemoa Elder in her book of Maori wisdom, Aroha.

Sea People Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.

Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Further Reading/Listening

NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad

Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson

Breath by James Nestor

The New Science of a Lost Art

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, in a conversation with a client about the importance of the breath to regulate health. I’d been practicing a version of the Lion’s Breath to balance a throat chakra (energy centre) issue and I had become aware of the power of the breath and mantra combined.

Another client had shared after being able to resume swimming training, “Do you know what the best thing about getting back in the pool and training is? The deep breath.” Upon hearing this anecdote, the first client returned with this book.

science of breathing nasal breathing pranayamaThe book is written by the American journalist and author James Nestor, who also wrote the nonfiction science and adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (2014) exploring the abilities of those who have trained themselves to be able to stay underwater for 4 or 5 minutes without oxygen.

Breath takes that research even further and is a book he researched and wrote over a period of ten years, as he explored the hypotheses that the human species had lost the ability to breath properly, causing not only changes in the structure of the face and respiratory apparatus, but hastening health problems.

Over the millenia, these cultures developed hundreds – thousands – of methods to maintain a steady  flow of prana. They created acupuncture to open up prana channels and yoga postures to awaken and distribute the energy.

But the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe.

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His obsession with the breath took him from the Himalayas to Brazil, into the homes and offices of people equally dedicated to pursuing the art of the breath for improving health and discovered miraculous findings that western science seemed to have ignored until very recently.

Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kevala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonising Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.

I’ve been reading it over the past two weeks and I certainly agree that upon reading this, you’ll never breathe the same again, to have one’s awareness raised in this way about the health promoting effects of certain types of breathing and the detriment to the health of the other.

As a result of some of the experiments James Nestor and Anders Olsson put themselves through, another two-year study was being put together with 500 subjects to research the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea.

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The overall summary of helpful breathing techniques and resources at the end of the book is excellent and the journey to get there is interesting and entertaining, if occasionally somewhat tiresome, as the level of eccentricity of the author in pursuing so many of these guru-types begins to make what should be a simple technique, into something akin to scaling a mountain.

Thankfully, the reader doesn’t need to go to any of the lengths the author did, from the summary of techniques (see the NY Times link below), it’s enough to find the one that resonates and try it out, or if it’s snoring that ails you, try out the mouth tape!

Breathing is a missing pillar of health.

Further Reading

James Nestor Responds: How is it possible for humans to have evolved this way? 

New York Times: Breathe Better With These Nine Exercises by James Nestor

The Observer: How One Hour of Breathing Changed My Life, 26 July 2020, by James Nestor

“You can’t be truly healthy unless you’re breathing correctly.”