The Postman Always Rings Twice James M Cain
Although it can manifest as physical sluggishness – like its heavy-limbed cousin, lethargy – apathy is essentially a mental condition, characterised by an attitude of indifference towards outcomes, both for oneself and the world at large. Its cure, however, is best tackled by addressing the physical sluggishness first, thus further distinguishing it from its other near relations, pessimism and existential angst, which require an overhaul of the mind. This is because apathy is also characterised by a suppression of positive emotions and to re-engage them, and re-kindle the desire for things to turn out well, one has to stir up the sediment at the bottom of the too-sedentary soul.

It’s not that it all ends well for Frank Chambers, the itinerant chancer and jailbreaker in James M Cain’s 1934 masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice. Indeed if one was to adopt his philosophy of life, you’d end up (as he does) with a price on your head and several angry women in hot pursuit. But the novel is written with such rattling exuberance that it’s impossible to read without becoming physically buzzed. By the end, you’ll be up and about with a bounce in your step, throwing caution to the wind in your determination to have a hand in fate, setting you on a more spontaneous and proactive – if slightly reckless – new tack.

From the moment Frank Chambers is thrown off the hay truck, the story is up and running. Within three pages he’s swindled the honest owner of the Twin Oaks Tavern into fixing him a colossal breakfast (orange juice, cornflakes, fried eggs, bacon, enchilada, flapjacks and coffee, if you’re interested), got himself hired as a mechanic, and set covetous won’t-take-no-for-an-answer eyes on Cora, the tavernowner’s sullenly sexy wife. One thing leads to another – and then another – and Cain does a splendid job of keeping up with Frank, capturing his immoral inability to say no in short, snappy sentences laced with slang. The combination of story and style hits you like a triple espresso, and at only a little over a hundred pages, it’s also a very quick fix. Rip through it in an afternoon, then jack your apathy onto your back and chuck it out on the street as you go. You’ll be inspired by Frank’s irrepressible interest in each new moment – even when things aren’t going so well – and determined not to blow, as he does, the opportunities that arise.
See also: ambition, too little, bed, inability to get out of , lethargy, pessimism, pointlessness, zestlessness


Broke, being
The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald
Money Martin Amis
Young Hearts Crying Richard Yates
So you’re skint. That’s half the problem. Maybe you’re out of work (see: unemployment; and depression, economic) or maybe you’re spending more than you earn (see: extravagance). Either way, you’re convinced that if only you had a bit more money in the bank, all your problems would be solved. That’s the other half of the problem. We’ll deal with that half first.

James Gatz – aka Jay Gatsby – had the same stupid idea: that money would bring him what he most longed for, in this case, Daisy Buchanan. In ill-begotten ways, he amassed a fortune, bought the flashiest house on West Egg, then hurled his hundreds on stupendously extravagant parties to lure the lovely Daisy back into his arms, like a moth to an enchanted flame.

Gatsby is one of literature’s most powerful dreamers (hence the ‘great’), and his passion and longing for Daisy is as gorgeous to behold as the little green light at the end of her dock. But the fact is, having more money than we need to cover the essentials in life (food, clothes, shelter and, of course, books) causes more problems than it solves. Not only does it fail to bring Gatsby lasting happiness with Daisy, but the making of it causes him to abandon and defile his true self. What does he think he’s doing calling everyone ‘old sport’ in a fake English accent, owning more shirts than he can possibly wear, and holding parties that he doesn’t enjoy? And what did he expect Daisy to do when she discovers how he earned it all? When the flame sputters, and Gatsby goes out, he has no-one to blame but himself.

As for being broke, our cure comes in three parts. First, read Money by Martin Amis to remind yourself of the horrible ways in which money can taint and corrupt. Then read Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates to see how an inherited fortune can obscure the path to a life of purpose and a sense of self-worth. Finally, return to The Great Gatsby and do what James Gatz should have done: inhabit and accept your impoverished self and find someone who loves you as you are. Then quit wasting money on lottery tickets, downsize, and learn to budget. If your job still doesn’t bring in enough for the basics, get another one. If it does, stop whingeing and get on with living happily ever after within your modest means.
See also: tax return, fear of doing


The Little Prince Antoine de Saint -Exupéry
If you lived on a planet as small as the Little Prince’s planet, Asteroid B-612 – so small that if you took a herd of elephants there you’d have to pile them on top of one another; that you’d have to take great care, after you’d finished washing and dressing each morning, to dig out any baobab shoots that had appeared overnight lest they take over your planet; and that one day you watched the sunset forty-four times, just by moving your chair; you’d be living a simple life that would inculcate in you the habit of carefulness. You would water the one flower that grew on your planet every day, and never forget. You would take the trouble, before you went away on a trip, to rake out your volcanoes, even the extinct one. Because you would know that it’s the time and care you spend on things that makes them important. And that if you didn’t take this care, you’d wake up one day to find yourself surrounded by things that were sad, feeling their unimportance themselves.
Whatever the size of your planet when you begin reading The Little Prince, we guarantee it will have shrunk and become much more like Asteroid B-612 by the end. And that afterwards you will live your life with more care.
See also: risks, taking too many, selfishness


Death, fear of
White Noise Don DeLillo
One Hundred Years of
Solitude Gabriel García Márquez
Do you ever wonder how anybody manages to function knowing they may be wiped out at any moment? Do you ever wake in the night in a cold sweat, pinned to your bed by the terrible knowledge that a looming eternity of nonexistence awaits you?

You’re not alone. An awareness of death is what sets us apart from animals. And how we choose to deal with it – whether we opt to believe in God and an afterlife, reconcile ourselves to non-existence, or simply repress all thoughts of it – is something that sets us apart from one another.

Jack Gladney, chair of Hitler Studies in a Midwestern college, suffers constantly from an acute fear of death. Jack obsesses about when he will die, about whether he or his wife Babette will die first (he secretly hopes that she will), and about the size of ‘holes, abysses and gaps’. One day he discovers that Babette fears death as much as he does. Until then, his blonde and ample wife had stood between him and his fear, representing ‘daylight and dense life’. The discovery shakes his soul – and the foundations of their otherwise happy marriage.
Jack explores all manner of arguments and philosophies to overcome his fear of death, from placing himself within the protective realm of a crowd, to reincarnation. (‘How do you plan to spend your resurrection?’ asks a friendly Jehovah’s Witness, as though asking about a long weekend.) His most successful method for soothing (and distracting) himself is to sit and watch his children sleep, an activity which makes him feel ‘devout, part of a spiritual system’. For those lucky enough to have sleeping children at hand, this is a balm we heartily condone not just for fear of death, but fears of all kinds.

Maybe one of Jack’s mental arguments will work for you. If not, at least White Noise will give you an association between thoughts of death and laughter. DeLillo is a funny writer, and his description of Jack attempting to pronounce German words gets our vote for one of the funniest passages in literature. Reach for it in the night when your death terror hits, and witness the metamorphosis of fear into laughter.

The other cure to keep by your bed is One Hundred Years of Solitude. This novel about the Buendia family of Macondo can be read over and over, as the events occur in a sort of eternal cycle, and it’s so densely written that you’ll find new gems and revelations every time. Spanning a century as it does, death occurs often and matter-of-factly and the characters accept their part in the natural order of things – an attitude which, in time, may rub off on you.
If it doesn’t, keep reading. Over and over again. And one night, perhaps, as you wearily reach the last page and begin again, you’ll start to see the need for all good things to, eventually, come to an end.
See also: angst, existential


Empathy, lack of
Johnny Got His Gun Dalton Trumbo
The first thing he realises is that he is deaf. Not just a little bit deaf. Not halfway deaf. But stone deaf. He can’t even hear the beat of his own heart.
And then he realises his left arm isn’t there. He thinks he can feel the heel of his hand, but it’s up high, where his shoulder is. They’ve cut his left arm off. And then he realises it’s not just his left arm that’s missing. His right is too. They’ve cut off both his arms.

The thing is, this is only the start of it. The horror of being Joe Bonham as he emerges into flickering consciousness in an unknown hospital in an unknown town is beyond the realms of anything even Edgar Allan Poe dreamt up. For Joe Bonham is an ordinary boy from Shale City, Colorado, caught up in World War I, a war that was none of his business. In fact he never really knew what the fight was all about anyway.

Johnny Got His Gun is the ultimate anti-war novel and pacifist’s tract, a story of deep suffering like no other. Take the most unempathetic heart you know, even one that has lived its life in a freezer. Then give it this novel, this achingly beautiful, devastating novel, and watch the heart take its first steps towards compassion.
See also: emotions, inability to express, selfishness


The Road Cormac McCarthy
I’m the King of the Castle Susan Hill
At its best, being a dad is a chance to be a kid all over again – while precipitating you into a new phase of maturity, both as a father and as a partner. It gives you the opportunity to pass on your passions and all that you’ve learned. But it brings with it enormous responsibilities and can change your relationship with your partner in ways you don’t like – and sometimes this resentment gets let out on the child. If the mantle of fatherhood does not sit on your shoulders easily, or you wish to strengthen a father-child bond that has perhaps been blemished by this sort of emotional transferal, we offer you the fictional equivalent of a father-son how-to manual, Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing, but astonishing, The Road.

Its premise is grimmer than the reality of any of our lives – we hope – will ever be. Following a cataclysmic event, the exact nature of which the survivors can only guess at, America – and perhaps the wider world – has been devastated. Ash blocks out the sun. The cities have burned, and trees have died. Through this ‘barren, silent, godless’ land, a man and his son (known to us only as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, as befits a world without colour and scant humanity) follow the road south where they hope to find warmth and increase their chances of survival. Along the way they try to sleep through nights that are long and dark and ‘cold beyond anything they’d yet encountered’, scavenge what food they can – from wild mushrooms to occasional cans – and are under constant threat from the ‘bad guys’, filthy, terrifying men who travel in packs wearing masks and hazard suits, carrying clubs and lengths of pipe, plundering and killing like animals.
It’s as shorn of beauty as a world can get. The boy is frequently so sick with fear that he can’t run when his father commands it. He’s half-starved, he yearns for his mother, and the possibility of playmates, let alone any of the normal pleasures of childhood – toys, sports, green grass, cake – are unknown to him. At one point, the father finds a can of Coca Cola in a soft drinks machine that’s been opened with a crowbar and tells the boy to drink it all, and slowly. ‘It’s because I won’t ever get to drink another one, isn’t it?’ says the boy. And so, through a can of Coca Cola, we feel the full thud of the loss of a world that will never return.

But in emotional terms, it’s rich. For here, with everything else taken away, is revealed in its purest, most primal form, the extraordinary love that exists between a father and a son, where the only thing that matters is making sure the boy is ‘all right’. If the boy dies, the man knows that he will want to die too. For what is the essence of fatherhood if not the hope for the next generation?
The novel leaves us on a note of hope; an essential ingredient for living (see: hope, loss of). Celebrate your fatherhood, then, and along the way, pick up the habit of absolute honesty that exists between these two. Observe the trust between them, the son’s need to see that his father will never break a promise, never leave him, will always tell him the truth if he asks – except, perhaps, if they’re dying. His need for reassurance that they’re the ‘good guys’, that they ‘carry the fire’. If honesty is there, and love, a firm set of moral principles and a dependable presence, you can’t go wrong.
And if you do – well, you can’t go as horribly wrong as Joseph Hooper does when he brings Helena Kingshaw and her son Charles to live in his house. We smell a parenting rat straight away, as Joseph never loved the ugly house he inherited from his own father, along with the collection of moths that made the old man a celebrity in his dusty field. And he clearly has not earned the respect of his son, Edmund, either. If only he were older, Joseph muses, and he could blame adolescence for the boy’s recalcitrance – but he had left all the child-rearing up to his late wife. It is a mark of his desperation that he has asked Helena Kingshaw to come to live with them as housekeeper. Her son Charles is almost the same age as Edmund, and both adults assume the boys will grow up to love one another as brothers.

They do not count on the deep-rooted dagger of ice that has already established itself in Edmund’s chest. From the moment ‘Kingshaw’ steps foot in his house, Edmund does his absolute best to cow him, scaring him with ghost stories, and undermining him in every way he can. When the boys spend a night lost together in the woods, the tables seem to turn, as Kingshaw is more at home in the natural element – able to light a fire and reassure Edmund when he is scared of the dark. Edmund seems appreciative of this undeserved consideration, but the moment they are rescued, he reverts to type. ‘It was Kingshaw, it was Kingshaw, he pushed me in the water,’ he accuses. Kingshaw defends himself, but his mother takes her host’s side; she has marital designs on Mr Hooper and doesn’t want to jeopardise things by suggesting his son’s a liar.

Mrs Kingshaw, unforgivably, lacks motherly intuition and indeed wisdom of any sort – failing even to notice when her son is locked in a concrete shed for several hours. But we lay the ultimate blame for the chilling events that follow at Joseph’s door. By neglecting his son after the death of his wife, he has created the monster that Edmund, by sheer lack of love and attention, has become; and we hereby hold Joseph Hooper up as one of the worst fathers in literature. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in possession of such a father – or indeed a mother like Mrs Kingshaw – should see the cure for abandonment as a matter of urgency.

As this agonising novel speeds towards its terrible finale, let it teach you not to be too hard on yourself. The path of parenthood is already strewn with guilt: don’t let self-criticism trip you up in addition. Women are often reassured that there’s ‘perfect’ and ‘good enough’ – and ‘good enough’ is often preferable. It’s time men heard the message too. Even if you occasionally burn the beans, forget the gym kit, or catch your child experimenting with the contents of the bathroom cabinet, allow yourself a pat on the back every so often for not being a Mr Hooper, and remember that how-to manual, The Road. Keep it simple: love and honest communication are all you need.
See also: children requiring attention, too many, single parent, being a, trapped by children


The Dice Man Luke Rhinehart
Take a dice. Write down six actions you could take today.
Think sublime. Think ridiculous. For example:
1. Shave off all your body hair
2. Invite to dinner the next person that walks past you, regardless of age, sex or species
3. Stick a pin in a world map and go wherever it lands
4. Send this book to your boss, highlighting all the ailments from which he or she suffers
5. Take a bucket and spade and walk all the way to the sea
6. Read The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart, to cure you of your addiction to gambling
Make a solemn promise that you will do whatever the dice tells you.
Now, you know what to do.
See also: broke, being, risks, taking too many


High blood pressure
Known to reduce anxiety, reading is a great habit to acquire if you’ve got high blood pressure; especially if you do it with a small furry animal curled up on your knee. Be careful what you choose though, something too racy, or nail-biting, and you’ll be pumping the blood even harder than before. To slow you down, reduce anxiety, and encourage you to live in the moment, take your pick from our list of calming reads: novels that do not rush towards their resolutions, but luxuriate in non-event and the virtues of the placid life. What they lack in pace they more than make up for in beauty and their ability to promote thought.

The Mezzanine Nicholson Baker
Villette Charlotte Brontë
A Closed Eye Anita Brookner
The City of Your Final Destination Peter Cameron
Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto Maile Chapman
The Hours Michael Cunningham
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
Glaciers Alexis M Smith
Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner
The Waves Virginia Woolf
See also: stress, workaholism


The House of Sleep Jonathan Coe
The Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa
Everyone suffers from it occasionally. But if you suffer from it nightly, it can wreak havoc with your relationship, your career and your ability to get through the day. If you’re afflicted with this sort of insomnia you probably feel trapped in a vicious circle. Because as your level of exasperation rises with your accumulating fatigue, the problem feeds on itself: nothing is more likely to stop you sleeping than the anxiety that you might not be able to sleep.
Insomniacs often turn to reading as a way to endure those lonely, wee hours. We heartily agree that there is no better way to spend this otherwise wasted time – as long as you’re not disturbing anyone else as you turn the pages – but it has to be the right novel.* For instance, Jonathan Coe’s novel The House of Sleep is an invaluable tool for exploring your sleeplessness but it should not be read at night unless you are prepared to accept that you will be up until dawn – despite its title, the novel is far from peaceful in its contents. Pick it up during the day when you are wide awake and prepared for a thorough analysis of why the hell you can’t get to sleep.
The novel is divided into six parts, each representing the various stages of sleep, and follows four loosely connected characters who each have a different issue with sleep. Sarah is a narcoleptic whose dreams are so vivid that she can’t tell the difference between them and real life. Terry, a budding film critic, sleeps a minimum of fourteen hours a day because he is addicted to dreams of such ‘near-paradisal loveliness’.
Gregory, Sarah’s boyfriend, becomes a psychiatrist at a sleep clinic and begins self-experimenting with sleeplessness for scientific purposes, believing it to be a disease that must be conquered. Robert is – seemingly – the most normal of the four, but he becomes so obsessed with Sarah that he puts himself through a dramatic transformation in order to inveigle his way into her life, and bed.
Full of lustrous technical detail which will fascinate the sleep-deprived, this novel will trigger an analysis of your own hypnagogic hallucinations and entice you to look curiously into your mirrored narcoleptic eyes – as well as suggesting a litany of practical cures, amongst which you may find one that works for you. But we repeat: do not read it at night. It’s so good you’ll force your eyes to stay open rather than put it down.
Instead the novel to reach for in those restless hours is The Book of Disquiet – a novel without a plot, and which, while not sending you to sleep exactly (though it may; we’ll come to that) allows you to reside in that heavy, pre-sleep state which you need to inhabit before gaining entry to full slumber. The Book of Disquiet is the journal of Soares, assistant- accountant at Vasques & Co on the Rua dos Douradores – a job which is ‘about as demanding as an afternoon nap’. Soares both despairs and celebrates the monotony of his humdrum life because he recognises that everything he thinks and feels exists only as a ‘negation of and flight from’ his job. And what thoughts and feelings they are! Because Soares, a man in possession of a face so bland that it causes him terrible dismay when he sees it in an office photograph, is a dreamer, his attention always divided by what is actually going on and the flights of fancy in his head.
For his disappointment in himself, his dreaminess, his constantly breaking heart, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Soares. Quiet, unobtrusive, plaintive; a man who is constantly drowsy; who, though prone to nostalgia and bouts of desolation, is not immune to joy; he is the perfect nighttime companion. Soares will sit up with you hour after hour to ponder whether, for instance, life is in fact ‘the waking insomnia of [our] dreams’ and sleep our real existence. Because Soares thinks a lot about sleep. In fact, he barely discriminates between the states of sleeping and wakefulness because he dreams while he lives and while he sleeps, and sleep is, as he points out, still living.
And besides all this, nowhere in literature are the rhythms of prose more attuned to the lovely, lumbering gait of the sleepless hours. If your eyelids start to droop as you read, no matter. Soares won’t mind. You can pick up the conversation with him tomorrow night, wherever you left off. He’ll be waiting, ready to pose the next existential question.

* Of course, if someone is sharing your bed, they may be the culprit in the first place – whether by the resonance of their airways (see: snoring), or perhaps by something they said to you before they went to sleep (see: adultery; guilt; irritability; grumpiness).
See also: depression, general, exhaustion, irritability, stress, tired and emotional, being


Judgemental, being
The Reader Bernhard Schlink
Pobby and Dingan Ben Rice
To stamp out your judgemental tendencies, we recommend you immerse yourself in the complex tale of Nazi guilt, personal shame and retrospective horror that is Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, a novel that explores the question of how post-war generations should approach the Holocaust and those implicated in its tarry atrocities. Michael Berg is just fifteen when he begins a relationship with thirty-six-year-old tram conductress, Hanna. Their assignations, which often involve bathing together – a hint at a Lady Macbeth-style need to scrub away past sins – also revolve around books, for Hanna likes Michael to read to her (The Odyssey in Greek, War and Peace), something of which we wholeheartedly approve (see: loneliness, reading-induced; and non-reading partner, having a). Only later, when Michael is a law student sitting in on a war crimes trial, does he recognise one of the faces in the dock. His first love was once an SS guard, complicit in the deaths of hundreds of women. And she has another secret of which she is even more ashamed.
Michael spends his whole life struggling to come to terms with what Hanna did – and what she has done to him. And while she suffers remorse, and even allows herself to be judged for shouldering more responsibility than she actually had, Michael’s decision not to reply to her letters from prison causes her pain. Thus Schlink brings the reader into the ethical fray. Do you allow yourself to be moved by Hanna’s suffering or continue to condemn her along with her crime? Herein lies your test. May this novel show you that holding strong opinions and being non-judgemental do not by necessity cancel one another out.
If you lack the stomach for such heavy ethics, a gentler cure is available. If ever a novel – or novella – could trick you into dousing your judgemental fire, Ben Rice’s slim debut Pobby and Dingan is it. Kellyanne, little sister to narrator Ashmol, has two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan. As one would expect from any self-respecting older brother – especially one raised in the hard-bitten opal-mining community of Lightning Ridge, Australia – Ashmol has no time for such childish things. Would you, after years of being instructed to set places for Pobby and Dingan at the table and being told you can’t come to the pool because, with Pobby and Dingan in the back seat, there’s no space for you in the ute?
By the end of the novel, yes. Because when Kellyanne announces that Pobby and Dingan have died, and is made so ill by her grief that she winds up in hospital, Ashmol does a wonderful thing: he goes round town putting up signs offering a reward to anybody who can find his sister’s friends (‘Description: imaginary. Quiet.’). And from this moment you, too, will want to be on the side of those who buy in to the little girl’s fantasy, not those who sniff and sneer.
Remain open. There is good, bad, mad and sad in everyone, and you don’t have to condone or believe in every element to be kind to the whole package. This also applies to yourself. If, when you struggle with a new skill, you tend to write yourself off as hopeless at everything (see: self-esteem, low), start by practising a non-judgemental attitude towards yourself.

* They are right about the last one.
See also: antisocial, being


Killjoy, being a
Roxana Daniel Defoe
If you happen to stumble on a party – or hear one going on next door – what do you tend to do? Grab a glass, concoct a cocktail and leap into the fray? Or do you recoil in horror from the overly loud music, complain about the folly of letting off fireworks, and frown at the mess and alcohol consumption? Are you, in short, a party-pooper, a sour puss, a spoilsport – one of life’s killjoys?
If so, it’s time to awaken your inner Roxana, and learn to be the life and soul of the party. Daniel Defoe’s most controversial and psychologically complex novel follows the fortunes of a young woman who falls on hard times when her husband absconds with the family’s accumulated wealth, leaving her with five children to feed. What, in those days, could a poor girl do but make use of her natural assets? Foxy, fluent in French, and a nimble dancer, Roxana has plenty of offers and – parting from her children ‘to avoid having to watch them perish’ – becomes a paid mistress to various men. She soon becomes adept at seducing not only new lovers, but entire seventeenth-century ballrooms. Her moment of glory occurs when she appears in full Turkish dress at a ball, dazzling the masked guests so effectively that she’s showered with money, attracts the attention of the King, and earns herself the exotic name by which we know her.
Roxana may be forced into her role of party girl; but her ability to bring a buzz to proceedings even when her chips are down makes her an ideal mentor. You don’t have to be in a party mood to begin with; just be willing to plug in and give it your all. The mood will come. Like Roxana, you’ll bring smiles to the faces of others – and may even catch the eye of some interesting new friends in high places.
See also: antisocial, being, goody-goody, being a, humourlessness, misanthropy, nobody likes you, teetotaller, being a


The Price of Salt Patricia Highsmith
In the Middle Ages, literary heroes and heroines regularly pined away from lovesickness. Palamon in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale is a prime example, having caught sight of fair Emileye through the window of the tower where he is imprisoned, then nearly wasting away from the effects of seeing but not having her. It is only in our less romantic era that psychiatrists tend to be called in and drugs prescribed. Lovesickness is caused by the absence of the loved one, whether it is through enforced separation, rejection by the love-object (see: love, unrequited), or death of the loved one. Symptoms can be remarkably palpable, including fainting, wasting away, withdrawal from life and addiction to chocolate. All of these afflictions can be most tiresome for one’s friends and family (and they should see: family, coping with). Our drug-free cure is a bracing dose of love requited.*

Highsmith’s second novel was inspired by an incident in her own life when she was working in a department store selling children’s dolls, just like Therese in The Price of Salt. She was so bowled over by a customer who seemed to ‘give off light’ and made her feel that she had seen a vision, that she went home and wrote the bones of the story in two hours. The tale told is one of unexpected passion between two women: Carol, in her thirties, with a daughter and a husband she’s in the process of leaving, and Therese, nineteen, drifting from job to job but with a flair for set design. It is Therese, the shop-girl, who initiates their affair. 

At first Therese is openly besotted, and Carol remains playfully aloof. Therese’s boyfriend is disconcerted; she has made no attempt to hide her obsession from him. ‘It’s worse than being lovesick’, he tells her, ‘because it’s so completely unreasonable,’ failing to believe in the possibility
of same-sex love. But what is true love but the triumph of emotion over reason? When Carol and Therese take off on a road trip across the States, Carol opens up to Therese and they become fully entwined. Their sensual romance is exquisitely described: ‘The dusky and faintly sweet smell of her perfume came to Therese again, a smell suggestive of dark green silk that was hers alone . . . She wanted to thrust the table aside and spring into her arms, to bury her nose in the green and gold scarf that was tied close about her neck.’
During a period when the two are apart (they believe forever), Therese experiences extreme lovesickness: total lassitude and despair in good old medieval style. ‘How would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?’ Only Carol can save her from her lovesick state. And she does. Whatever your sexual persuasion, Therese’s endurance of her lovesickness will give you strength. If you have a Carol in your life, pursue her. The salt will soon come back.
If you give up hope, see: love, doomed; love, unrequited; and broken heart.

* We apologise for giving the game away, but this is a novel that is not spoilt by knowing that the girl gets the girl in the end.
See also: appetite, loss of, broken heart, concentrate, inability to, death of a loved one, dizziness, infatuation, insomnia, lust, nausea, obsession, romantic, hopeless, sentimental, being, tired and emotional, being, yearning, general


Married, being
The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim
Being married? An ailment? If that was your first thought when you happened upon this entry, don’t read on. You’ve won life’s biggest lottery and found yourself a mate you can live with effortlessly, peaceably and productively. Congratulations.

If, on the other hand, you find that marriage sometimes involves a struggle to maintain your sense of self in the face of constant compromise; if your feel your marriage is stuck in a rut; or if the passing of the years has somehow served to push you and your spouse apart rather than bring you closer, take a burst of luminous inspiration from The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.

A neglected period piece from the 1920s, the novel tells the story of Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, two married women who have become jaded and faded by their broken relationships. Both happen to spot the same advertisement in The Times: ‘To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sun-shine’, it reads. ‘Small mediaeval Italian Castle, on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.’ It calls to them both, and in a desperate bid for a gasp of happiness, the two women, though strangers, decide to take the castle together. They invite along a couple of feistier examples of their sex, who yet have relationship issues of their own – the impossibly proper Mrs Fisher and the ethereally beautiful Lady Caroline, who is so sick of drooling attention from both men and women that she has become liberal with the icy put-downs.

Within the purity of San Salvatore’s bare white walls and stone floors, the women recover, and slowly begin to re-discover their sensuality and capacity for joy. With the help of juicy oranges, meadows of spring flowers and the ever-helpful gardener Domenico, alchemical transformations occur. Faces puckered by fear and worry smooth out, hearts and minds that have been closed for years break open like buds in full sun. Love floods back in. ‘I was a stingy beast at home’, declares Lottie (Mrs Wilkins), ‘and used to measure and count . . . I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back, exactly as much, absolute fairness. Did you ever. And as he didn’t, neither did I, and the aridity of that house! The aridity . . .’

We expect the women to find only themselves in their splendid isolation. But they end up . . . well, let’s just say that the husbands don’t get forgotten. Marriages are saved and great loves are re-ignited. If your marriage isn’t what you hoped it could be, buy The Enchanted April. Then book a villa in Italy and read it on the journey out.
See also: children, under pressure to have, jump ship, desire to, orgasms, not enough, querulousness, sex, too little, sex, too much, snoring


True Grit Charles Portis
Are you always asking for help? Unable to do anything on your own? Wanting someone to hold your hand at all times? Asking for help is of course a good thing, but complete dependence is not. There comes a time when you need to learn independence and rely on yourself and yourself alone. As with a slushy road, a dose of grit is your cure.

Set in America just after the Civil War, Charles Portis’s novel True Grit describes the steely determination of Mattie, a fifteen-year-old girl seeking to bring her father’s killer to justice. The killer is Tom Chaney, an employee of her father’s, who pulled a gun on him in a fit of drunken pique. Mattie has come to Fort Smith ostensibly to fetch her father’s body but, unknown to her family back home, she has her own agenda.

The first thing Mattie has to do is recoup some money owed to her father, then persuade the grittiest ranger she can find to track Chaney down and bring him to justice. Rooster Cogburn is gritty as they come, but she is grittier and wins him round. Next she has to persuade him to take her with him. Cogburn tries to give her the slip, but she won’t be left behind; as they plunge into the snowy landscape of Arkansas, Mattie endures hunger, gun-fights and the bitter cold without complaining even once.

Mattie’s Presbyterian good sense verges on the pious. But her estimable pluck in the face of outlaws, knives, bul-lets, snakes and corpses wins our admiration every time, and will encourage an immediate assumption of independence as you read. And although she uses the people around her to help her to achieve her goals, she relies on herself to see her plan through to its conclusion. It is an older Mattie, looking back on this formative chapter in her life, who tells this tale; and her adult self is very much the product of all this hard-ship and loss. Steel yourself, reader. Say farewell to mush, and welcome a handful of grit into your soul.
See also: coward, being a, seize the day, failure to, self-esteem, low


A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark
Pereira Maintains Antonio Tabucchi
The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency Alexander McCall Smith
For a beautifully simple cure for obesity, follow the advice of Mrs Hawkins, the double-chinned heroine of Muriel Spark’s mischievous satire of the publishing industry in post-war London. Mrs Hawkins is liberal with her advice and doles it out on such far-ranging topics as finding a job, writing a book, improving your concentration, getting married, how to say ‘no’, where to go if you’ve had a lot of trouble,* and how to deal with too much casual correspondence. But her tip for losing weight is the best: eat half of what you would normally eat. ‘I offer this advice without fee,’ she says, ‘it is included in the price of this book.’ We bought her novel, and are now including the advice free in the price of ours.†

Obesity often has a psychological cause, however, and no amount of dieting will help if the psychological cause re-mains untreated. So it is with Dr Pereira, the portly, widowed editor of the culture page of the Lisboa, Lisbon’s evening rag, in Pereira Maintains. It’s 1938 and, under the shadow of Fascist Spain, Lisbon ‘reeks of death’. Nobody has the courage to print the real news, and Pereira fills his page with translations of nineteenth-century French literature instead. Each day he cheers himself up by talking to a photo of his dead wife and tucking into an omelette aux fines herbes and several glasses of lemonade at the Café Orquídea, washed down with coffee and a cigar.

That the omelettes are having a deleterious effect on his waistline is clear to Pereira, but he finds himself unable to resist. It’s only when he meets Dr Cardoso at an out-of-town spa that he begins to understand his need for fatty foods and sugary drinks. Franco is making a mockery of his job, and therefore of him. Salvation arrives in the form of a young couple he meets at the Café Orquídea, who, Pereira eventually realises, are involved with illegal underground activities. Here is a way to fight Franco, and recover the ‘chieftan-ship’ of his soul. It’s not long before he’s ordering seafood salads and mineral water instead.

If you’re overweight because you’re unhappy, don’t pad-lock the fridge or put yourself on a rigid diet; the diet will fail and you’ll only make yourself unhappier still. Try to discover why you are seeking consolation – this book may give you some ideas (try: stuck in a rut; or career, being in the wrong, for starters). Once you’ve ironed out your relationship with yourself, your relationship with food will self-correct.

If you’re large and you like it, embrace the big-is-beautiful world of ‘traditionally built’ (size twenty-two to be precise) Mma Precious Ramotswe, star of Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detective series set in Botswana, best read in order and beginning with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Precious Ramotswe will show you how to be bold and break the rules, to carry your weight with dignity and aplomb, and win the heart of a good man (if you want one) just by being your witty and wise, abundant self.

* Paris.
†  The novel also contains a more complicated cure for obesity, though this isn’t included in the price of our book. You will have to read it and work it out for yourself.
See also: gluttony, high blood pressure, lethargy, self-esteem, low, snoring, sweating


The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro
Why do today what can be left undone until tomorrow? Because every day that you leave a task undone, it grows bigger, and the motivation for doing it gets smaller.

Procrastination, or the art of avoidance, has nothing whatsoever to do with laziness, or even busyness. Its causes are emotional. Quite simply (and, one could argue, quite sensibly), the procrastinator avoids those tasks which, consciously or subconsciously, he or she associates with uncomfortable emotions, such as boredom (see: boredom), anxiety (see: anxiety) or fear of failure. The problem with allowing an uncomfortable emotion to stand in your way is that, once avoided, tasks that were probably quite achievable to begin with grow larger both in our imaginations and (often) in actuality – until they loom over us in such an oppressive way that they become worth procrastinating about. And while we’re busy procrastinating and avoiding those uncomfortable emotions, untold opportunities for happiness and suc-cess – whole lives, in fact – pass by. It is this sense of a life half-lived, and the intense regret that follows, that we should be trying to avoid; not a few unpleasant emotions that will in any case quickly pass. What procrastinators need, therefore, is a lesson on the catastrophic consequences of running away whenever an unpleasant emotion threatens to ruffle our ponds. And who better to provide us with this than the very English, buttoned-up butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

Mr Stevens is an arch avoider of emotions – all emotions. As such, he has the perfect job. Because he believes that what separates a great butler from a merely competent butler is the ability to repress one’s real self and inhabit a purely professional front at all times – holding up as an example the butler who ‘failed to panic’ on discovering a tiger under the dining table (see: stiff upper lip, having a). His repression thus justified and protected, he spends his life focussing only on being the best butler he can be – even when it is clear that his boss, Lord Darlington, is a Nazi sympathiser, and even when his own father is dying. So it is that when his father wants to say his Ԁnal goodbye, all Mr Stevens can think of is hurrying back upstairs to serve the port. And when Miss Kenton, the house-keeper, tries to show her interest in him, he rebuffs her with coolness and distance from behind the fortress of his butler self.


Death and the Penguin Andrey Kurkov
There are plenty of things to complain about in life. If you agree with this statement, you’re one of them. Because you are one of those annoying people who suffer from querulousness, or a constant urge to grumble and complain, which is not only self-perpetuating – a determination to see the world in black and white being the surest way to bleach it of colour – but it also precludes you from noticing life’s bounty in the first place.

Viktor, the would-be novelist in Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin – written with the deadpan concision of an obituary itself – has plenty of things to complain about. His girlfriend left him a year ago, he’s trapped in ‘a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose’, he has just come home to a power cut, and his only friend is his pet penguin, Misha – who is himself depressed. And yet Viktor doesn’t complain. He receives his lot with a sort of dumb acceptance that makes it unlikely that anything will ever get better.

But then it does. The editor-in-chief of Capital News offers him $300 a month for creating an index of ‘obelisk jobs’, or obituaries, while the subjects are still alive. Viktor’s first reaction is alarm – it sounds like real work. But once he begins, he Ԁnds he enjoys it. Soon, however, he becomes aware of the downside: that after a hundred obelisks, he hasn’t yet had the pleasure of seeing his work in print. His subjects are all, stubbornly, still alive. When a contact of the editor’s – a man who shares the name of Viktor’s penguin, Misha, and so becomes known as Misha-non-penguin – pays him a visit, the urge to moan about this gets the better of him: ‘Here I am, writing and writing, but nobody sees what I write,’ he can’t help protesting out loud.

That’s when the VIPs start to die.

Don’t grumble to anyone else. You might receive the wrong sort of help – and you’ll certainly bring others down with you. But also, don’t grumble to yourself. Once people start dying around him, Viktor’s life improves in many ways, but by then the habit of accepting what life has given him is gone, and he’s querulous about the good things instead. Those who catch the habit of querulousness and Ԁnd themselves constantly peeved about life may, like Viktor, fail to spot happiness even when it’s delivered to them on a plate.
See also: dissatisfaction, irritability


Cry, the Beloved Country Alan Paton
Rage consumes. It’s the hottest, fieriest emotion there is. Your vision turns red and you cannot think logically. You become a tsunami, wreaking havoc on everything around you. You don’t care what you destroy.

The problem with giving vent to your rage is that you not only might hurt yourself or someone else, or break something valuable to you (in the event of which, see: broken china), but your rage will frighten those who witness it, and may make those who love you feel unsafe around you. Moreover, rage is deeply exhausting and wounding to the soul. Repeated outbursts will deplete you, leaving you a little more broken, a little less noble in heart, than before. It should be nipped in the bud at its first appearance, and before it becomes a habit.

Our cure, Cry, the Beloved Country, is a novel about a man who has more reason to rage against the world than almost any in literature, told in language that soothes and calms. It shows by example that even when confronted with the most appalling calamity, it is possible to contain your rage and choose a different way. ‘There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it . . .’ So, with beguiling lyricism inspired by the language patterns of Zulu, begins this deeply moving account of a country parson’s search for his errant son, Absalom, in Johannesburg. It is 1946, and Johannesburg is a frightening place for Stephen Kumalo. Unlike in his native village, Ndotsheni, where ‘every bus is the right bus’, there are countless ways to lose oneself, both morally and physically. Following one word-of-mouth sighting after another, the gentle umfundisi (parson) and his wise friend and colleague Msimangu, discover that Absalom, like countless other vulnerable black, discriminated-against young men in South Africa during Apartheid, has been swallowed up in a criminal underworld, and by the time they find him, it is too late. The boy has shot and killed a white man – a man who, to complicate matters, had devoted his life to campaigning for the rights of the black underclass. The umfundisi is forced to watch his only son stand trial for the murder of a widely admired and respected man, and we in turn must watch Kumalo become more and more bowed and frail as his heart breaks under the enormity of his grief.

There is no happy ending for Kumalo. Instead, what Alan Paton gives us is an extraordinary evocation of one man’s endurance through suffering. Kumalo thinks and acts slowly, in the ‘slow tribal rhythm’ into which he was born, and Paton monitors the old man’s emotions as he struggles against his rage and grief with each new assault. Sometimes his rage wins out – for Paton’s characters are nothing if not human – and Kumalo submits to the desire to wound with words. But he is always quick to remove himself, and later to go back and apologise.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel about having the courage to say what needs to be said, about apologising when rage wins out, and about how hard and bitter words do not lead to a resolution but to more anger and hurt. Kumalo’s sufferings will put your own in perspective. Paton’s language will quiet your raging soul. And the wisdom of Paton and his cast of suffering characters will show you how it is possible to live with your pain – and, even, to laugh again.
See also: anger, broken china, road rage, turmoil, vengeance, seeking, violence, fear of


Self Esteem, Low
The Shipping News Annie Proulx
A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
Rebecca Daphne du Maurier
It’s not surprising that Quoyle, the hero of The Shipping News, has low self-esteem. He spends his childhood being told he’s a failure by his dad, his favoured older brother Dick beats him up, he’s fat and has a freakishly enormous chin, his wife can’t stand him and sleeps around, he’s underpaid by his employers, his parents get cancer and kill themselves, his wife leaves him, taking their two daughters (who, by the way, are called Bunny and Sunshine, which can’t help), he gets the sack, his wife is killed in a car crash – oh, hang on, that’s a positive bit. Anyway, you get the gist. Number of reasons to feel good about himself by the end of the first few chapters (yes, this all happens at the beginning, so we haven’t spoiled anything): frankly, zero.

And so, ‘brimming with grief and thwarted love’, Quoyle decides to follow his aunt’s advice and start a new life in the somewhat unpromising environs of Newfoundland, where his father was born. This he does, with the aunt and two req-uisitioned, delinquent daughters in tow, and what follows is surely one of the most remarkable comebacks in literature. Those low in self-esteem should read this novel not just as a literary and curative experience in and of itself, but as a how-to manual. Do as Quoyle does, step by step. If you do not possess the relevant passport or visa requirements to live in Newfoundland, substitute with another inhospitable and inaccessible location such as Iceland, the Outer Hebrides or Northern Siberia. After acquiring a generous life insurance policy, arrange for the death in a car crash of the partner who torments you and —

Just kidding. But we do suggest that you at least go and stay for a while in the place your family comes from, however much you hate it, or them. While you’re there, research your ancestors. You may, like Quoyle, uncover less than pretty facts about your lousy forebears – the crimes and wounds that, passed down from one generation to another, did for your own self-esteem in the first place. With luck you’ll be able to break the hereditary cycle, as Quoyle does, and move on.

Of course, it’s not always the fault of dead relatives. Some-times it’s the fault of relatives who are still, unfortunately, alive. In what remains one of the most devastating social critiques of its generation (1968), A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines shines an unflinching light on the way a community can demoralise and stunt a youthful spirit by depriving him of love, trust, stability, encouragement and praise. Not to mention breakfast.

Growing up in a bleak, depressed Yorkshire mining town, Billy has to fight his elder brother Jud for everything from space in the bed to their mother’s scant affection. No-one sees any promise in him – except Mr Farthing at school who hears Billy talk about the kestrel he keeps in the garden shed. Through Kes, Billy discovers a quality that no-one else has shown him, for the beautiful, still-wild hawk ‘just seems proud to be itself’. Kes means everything to Billy, and when he takes the hawk out to fly it – using a lure to control its sweeps and loops, watching it eat a sparrow, receiving the bird’s weight on his gauntlet when it lands – Billy becomes transformed from a boy with no future except to go ‘down the pit’ like his brother, into an eloquent, confident lad full of passion and potential.

But the promise is only there as long as the hawk. The lesson for anyone also needing to escape the limitations of their upbringing or the poor expectations of others, is to find your equivalent of a kestrel and become an expert. It doesn’t matter what you are an expert in. Just to have knowledge that no-one around you has will boost your self-esteem and draw you to the attention of others – like Mr Farthing – who are in a position to help you to a better life.

Sometimes, of course, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself. If you subject yourself to constant criticism, under-mining your belief in yourself and your own opinions, you’ll recognise a kindred spirit in the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – who, by the way, remains nameless, under-scoring her lack of belief in her own right to exist. From the minute she assumes her role as the second Mrs de Winter, mistress of Manderley – the beautiful country estate owned by her older and more sophisticated husband Maxim – she becomes gauche in the extreme, forever dropping her gloves, knocking over glasses and stepping on dogs, blushing and apologising and biting her nails as she tiptoes around. Inadequately dressed and coiffed and knowing it, she has no idea how to run a big house with servants and does nothing to help herself learn, naïvely handing over her authority to the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – a spiteful spectre of a woman who ‘adored’ the first Mrs de Winter and is only too happy to encourage the young woman’s self-sabotage. ‘Second-rate’, ‘odd’, ‘unsatisfactory’ – these are all ways in which, directly or indirectly, she describes herself. Unsurprisingly, when Mrs Danvers suggests she throw herself from the bedroom window, she very nearly agrees to do it.

The heroine of Rebecca is an orphan – so, once again, we could blame her dead relatives for her lack of self-esteem. But watching her put herself down, compare herself unfavourably to the elegant, clever, beautiful Rebecca, her husband’s first wife, becomes hard to stomach after a while, so clearly does she make things worse for herself. Anyone with the same tendency to cripple themselves with self-criticism will blush in guilty recognition on reading this novel, and swear to put an end to such self-destructive behaviour once and for all.
See also: failure, feeling like a, neediness, shyness


Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
If you’re suffering the exquisite pain of toothache – an ache all the worse for being inside one’s head – you will empathise with Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘He could hardly speak for the throbbing ache in his strong teeth, that were like rows of ivory in his mouth. He was silent, and his eyes rested on the wheels of the tender, slowly and smoothly rolling along the rails.’

What cures Vronsky, in the very next moment, is the displacement of the physical pain by a searing emotional pain; – a memory that sets his ‘whole being in anguish’ and makes him forget his toothache completely. Looking at the rails, he suddenly recalls her, or at least ‘what was left of her’, when he had found her sprawled on the table in the railway station cloak room, among strangers, her body bloody and limp, the head lolling back with its weight of hair, the eyes awful in their stillness and openness, the mouth still seeming to emit the ‘fearful phrase’ that she had said when they had quarrelled: that he would be sorry.

If this image of Anna’s broken body hasn’t done the job, think of another shocking tableau from the pages of literature (for our own favourites, see the cure for hiccups). Then meditate on it while you put a call through to your dentist.
See also: pain, being in


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
Those out of work should make sure to read some quintessential Murakami. Because Murakami, the most popular Japanese novelist to be translated into English, and the most experimental, specialises in passive protagonists (generally male, though gender is irrelevant here), with a lot of time on their hands and a tendency to get themselves mixed up in a series of adventures which may or may not be dreams, hallucinations, or a futuristic cyberpunk mystery plot. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins with Toru Okada, who has left his legal job for no particular reason, doing the sort of things one does when unemployed in suburban Tokyo; cooking spaghetti at ten o’clock in the morning, listening to a radio broadcast of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, and fending off his wife Kumiko, who calls to tell him about jobs for which he’s unsuited and wouldn’t enjoy. He goes out to look for their lost cat, Noboru Wataya, named after Kumiko’s brother, with whom he shares the same ‘blank stare’ (and whom Toru hates, believing him to have sold out to the working world).

The search for the cat leads Toru to two strange women, down a dried-up well, and into the arms of a third strange woman. But none of these things really matter – at least for the purposes of this cure. What matters is Toru’s response. Because however bizarre and unconnected the events that happen to Toru, he accepts them with neither surprise nor comment – as we too become trained by the novel to do. And though the meaning of everything eludes him (and us), so what? Perhaps it’ll make sense later on (we hope so too).*

Our cure will divide its readers into two camps. If you identify with Toru, delighting in the bizarreness and liberation of the journey, then you are made in the mould of a Murakami hero, and being unemployed suits you well. Enjoy the spaghetti, the Rossini, the dried-up well. Good luck with the search for the cat. Luckily, you have a partner who’s employed and can keep you both (though be sure to give her/him some attention or she/he may, like Kumiko, go the way of the cat). But if Toru’s unquestioning passivity winds you up like the bird of the title, and you want to know what you’re doing down a well and what it all means, then dust yourself down, bid the world of Murakami goodbye, and go back with renewed determination to the ‘wanted’ ads. Like Noboru Wataya, you’re made for the world of work – but take note of what happens to him, and don’t sell out (see: selling your soul).

* It doesn’t.
See also: ambition, too little, bed, inability to get out of, boredom, broke, being, job, losing your, procrastination , seize the day, failure to


Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
The Picture of Dorian Grey Oscar Wilde
The problem with being vain is it makes you selfish and stupid. Scarlett O’Hara, the Southern belle at the heart of Gone with the Wind, is so aware of her green-eyed beauty that all she can think of is pretty gowns and winning the heart of not just the man she wants to marry, Ashley Wilkes, but of every young man in the vicinity (much to the annoyance of every other young woman). When she hears that Ashley has become engaged to his cousin Melanie – an undeniably plain girl – she can’t believe it. Obsessed as she is with outward beauty, she doesn’t rate Melanie’s other qualities – or see the need to nurture them in herself. And so she remains stuck as a spoiled, petulant teenager, continuing to use her looks to get what she wants. And, as oblivious to the importance of kindness as she is to the deeply entrenched racial attitudes she sees around her (a quality she seems to share, unfortunately, with the author, and indeed the sympathetic portrayal of slavery is something the reader has to take a big breath and stride over if he/she* is to enjoy this otherwise wonderful novel), she runs roughshod over everyone, including her husband Rhett, before the truth finally dawns. Her friend, the flawless Melanie, has retrospectively won her admiration, respect and love for the same reasons she won Ashley’s all those years ago. And it has nothing to do with looks.

Vanity also makes you ugly in the end. When the incandescently beautiful Dorian Gray starts to realise that every-body loves him for his looks, he becomes so worried about losing them that he pledges his soul for eternal youth (see: selling your soul), arranging that the handsome portrait painted of him by Sir Basil Hallward deteriorates instead. He then embarks on a life of heedless hedonism under the tutelage of Lord Henry Wotton, and when a young actress whose heart he breaks commits suicide, an ugly sneer appears on the portrait. For our face bears testimony not just to the passing of the years, but to the evolving character of the person behind it – and as Dorian’s disregard for others leaves more and more human detritus in its wake, his portrait becomes correspondingly hideous.

The inescapable truth is that beauty is on the inside. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself, and you’ll keep blooming into your nineties.

* Let’s not kid ourselves. She.
See also: arrogance, well-read, desire to seem


Writer’s Block
I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith
The remedy for writer’s block infliicted upon the novelist-father in I Capture the Castle is nothing short of genius. But – darn it – to tell it would be to give away one of the plot twists in this unutterably charming novel. Mortmain, as he is known by his second wife Topaz, achieved great critical success with an experimental novel called Jacob Wrestling. But he has not been able to put pen to paper since an unfortunate incident involving a next-door-neighbour who foolishly intervened when Mortmain brandished a cake-knife at his first wife while they were having tea in the garden. He ended up spending three months behind bars, writer’s block set in, and the family has been penniless ever since.

While Topaz and the three children struggle to feed and clothe themselves and their ruined castle crumbles around them, Mortmain drifts around reading detective novels and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and staring into space. He’s ditched all his friends and more or less stopped talking to his family. Eventually Rose, the elder daughter, can stand it no more and decides to marry her way out of poverty. But the younger, wiser narrator-daughter Cassandra soon realises it’s time to force their father’s writing hand. Her plan – which involves a Freudian regression to the moment at which the block began – works to a T.

Sufferers of this unfortunate condition should not necessarily attempt to copy Cassandra’s cure. It is somewhat extreme and in any case would not work with your own consent. But read between the lines of this book and a fuller, more complete picture of how Mortmain’s block disperses will emerge. As you read, gather the things you need around you: a person of like mind, someone to do the cooking and, yes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Feedback on the success rate of of this remedy would be greatly appreciated.


If you find yourself fearing or even loathing those from countries other than your own, bathe in these books from foreign parts. Written by authors native to the settings, they reveal the essential sameness of us all beneath the skin, and will remind you of the humanity common to us all.

Once Upon a River Bonnie Jo Campbell
See Under: Love David Grossman
The Blind Owl Sadegh Hedayat
Waltenberg Hédi Kaddour
Cities of Salt Abdelrahman Munif
Q&A Vikas Swarup
Harp of Burma Michio Takeyama
House of Day, House of Night Olga Tokarczuk
Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese
The Garlic Ballads Mo Yan


Yearning, General
Silk Alessandro Baricco
To long – painfully, endlessly, fruitlessly – for something which you believe will satisfy a need in you that won’t go away, is a painful, endless, fruitless way to spend your life, and irritating to all who have to witness it. Life is too short for such things. Luckily, we have a cure so short that we needn’t spend much time prescribing it, and you won’t spend much time administering it.

It is not that Hervé Joncour doesn’t appreciate his loving wife Héléne, who waits for him patiently when he makes his annual, hazardous trip by land and sea to the Japanese village of Shirakawa to smuggle back silkworm eggs – an illegal trade at the time. It is just that were it not for the yearning he feels for the young concubine who captures his heart in Shirakawa – and with whom he exchanges only missives written in Japanese – he would have appreciated her even more. Do not prize what you do not know above what you know. Love your real life companion (see: married, being, if that feels hard) rather than your distant, impossible dream.
See also: dissatisfaction


Ragtime El Doctorow
Zestlessness is a notoriously diffcult ailment to diagnose. Easily confused with boredom (which is really a failure of the imagination, see: boredom) and apathy (which manifests as physical sluggishness though it too has an emotional cause, see: apathy), zestlessness can appear, to the untrained eye, to be simply a case of having a dull personality. Left untreated, it can ruin entire lives – and we’re not just talking your own. To live without zest is to live without an appetite for new experiences; to miss out on the spice, the juice, the edge that makes life thrilling. It is to live with deadened, flattened senses, with your passions unaroused and your curiosity untapped. It is to depress the hell out of those around you – and, frankly, us too. Do us all a favour. Read this novel and switch yourself on.

Ragtime takes as its subject the dawn of the twentieth century in America – a time when the entire nation was in the exhilarated grip of commotion, invention and change. Sparkling new railroads sprung up across the country. Model T Fords spilled off the assembly lines. Twenty-five-storey buildings shot people skywards, and aircraft zoomed them away. Telephones and the press were abuzz with new ways of communicating. Skyrockets and cherry bombs exploded in the skies. In ordinary homes, sneezing powder and squirting plastic roses tickled people’s noses and made them laugh.

In amongst all this is the story of a well-to-do family in New Rochelle, New York. The son (known simply as ‘the little boy’), is fixing his gaze on a bluebottle crossing a fly screen one day when Harry Houdini crashes his car outside and is invited in for tea. Soon after, Mother discovers a black baby in the garden, and takes the child in – so breaking the first of several cultural and gender taboos. When Father returns from an expedition to the Arctic to find her running his fireworks business, he becomes increasingly alienated from the domestic scene, and the family begins to fall apart.

By turning his lens from vivid close-up to great, sweeping vista and allowing real and fictional characters to meet at the junctions of a vast, complex cobweb, EL Doctorow injects the novel – and the reader – with enormous zest. As immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, such as Tateh and his beautiful daughter, pour into squalid tenements on the Lower East Side, the financier JP Morgan sets new standards of wealth and power, and Houdini defies death with more and more terrifying feats. Freud puts America on the couch, and the boy’s uncle, known as Mother’s Younger Brother, stalks the country’s first sex goddess, Evelyn Nesbit.

As you read, notice how Mother and the little boy say ‘yes’ to progress and change. Watch how Father, conversely, says ‘no’, refusing to move with the times. Like Tateh, let the tumult and tumble of Doctorow’s startling sentences remove you from what is familiar and failing. Board the train to a new life. Take with you the boy’s curiosity for recent inventions. Appropriate Grandad’s joy at the sight of spring (though take care, if you’re over seventy, that you don’t slip and break your pelvis, as he does, doing a spontaneous jig). Be in a place where change is a given, and feel the zest stood back in.
See also: disenchantment