It seems that mushrooms are having a moment. The fascination with fungi is evidenced through countless recent books on foraging, cooking, and use of psychedelics. Perhaps it is their ephemeral, spectral nature, the way they appear to rise from nothing on a damp day, that piques our interest. Or maybe it’s the fact that they can heal or kill, depending on variety and use. Or the knowledge that their underground networks spread for literally miles, serving as conduits for plant communication. Whatever the allure, fiction writers are not immune to it.
An Yu opens her transcendent novel Ghost Music with an epigraph by composer/mycologist John Cage: “The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them. Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is — its own centre.” This sets the stage for a hallucinatory story that sits lightly on a three-legged stool made of music, mushrooms, and magic.
Song Yan is a former concert pianist who gave up her career to teach. She is married to Bowen, a cold, distant man whom she comes to realize that she doesn’t actually know, made obvious by the discovery of a previous marriage. She yearns for a child, but he is adamantly against it, even when his mother moves in with them and pressures the couple for a grandchild. The reason for Bowen’s reluctance is revealed late in the book.
She receives a package in the mail, sent to her address, but with someone else’s name on it. It is from her mother-in-law’s province and contains mushrooms. Though Song Yan and her mother-in-law are often at odds, the two bond over cooking the mushrooms, which begin arriving every week.
The sender of the mushrooms reveals himself in a letter to Song Yan. He is Bai Yu, a renowned pianist who mysteriously disappeared years ago. He has lost his ability to play and has summoned Song Yan to help him find it again. “The more time I spend at the piano,” he tells her,”the more it seemed like my hands didn’t belong to me…. there wasn’t a ‘me’ at all….I want you the help me find the sound of being alive.” It is unclear to Song Yan whether Bai Yu is merely an eccentric recluse, or if he is an actual ghost.
The stress of her home situation and the strangeness of her sessions with Bai Yu bring on bouts of insomnia for Song Yan, which she attempts to quench with alcohol. While in this mentally fraught state, she is visited by an orange mushroom that speaks to her in enigmatic statements. She hallucinates (or dreams, or actually experiences - it is left to the reader to decide) being in a room with no doors or windows, with mushrooms sprouting from the corners. Meanwhile, a strange orange dust is spreading across the countryside, originating in the province where Bowen’s ex-wife lives. That the mushrooms and the dust seem to rise from areas of Bowen’s enigmatic past causes Song Yan to question everything about her marriage.
These overlapping layers of nightmare, music, and the mundanity of everyday life are placed lightly on top of each other like sheets of silk. Song Yan’s relationships with Bowen, Bai Yu, her mother-in-law, her best friend, and her students shift and evolve under these sheets. It is only when she loses almost everything and everyone that she grasps her deep love for Bai Yu and absorbs his most important lesson - “He made me see the simple fact that we are not tied down to this world; we are in pursuit of it.”
Can't get enough of the fungi? Here's a brief list for the aspiring mycologist, from fiction to field guides to picture books - there's something for everyone!
Tales of the Mushroom Folk by Signe Aspelin
This charming picture book was originally published in Swedish in 1909 as Småttingarnus Svampbok. Anthropomorphized mushroom families work and play in idyllic, warmly-hued landscapes. It could not be cuter!
Mycelium Wassonii by Brian Blomerth
This trippy graphic novel relates the lives and work of mycologists Gordon and Tina Wasson, pioneers in the study of the health benefits of psilocybin mushrooms. With saturated, eye-popping colors and mind-bending images, the book is a breezy tribute to a remarkable yet complicated couple.
A Mycological Foray by John Cage
This elegant keepsake set, packaged in a simple, moss-toned slipcase, is must-have for fans of Cage and mushroom enthusiasts alike. Volume I is a book with an essay on mushrooms by Cage, an account by Kingston Trinder of the composer’s emergence as a mycologist accompanied by lush photographs, and a transcript of Cage’s 1983 text composition Mushrooms et Variations. Volume II is a portfolio of Cage’s 1972 Mushroom Book, created in collaboration with artist Lois Long and botanist Alexander H. Smith. Vellum sheets with Cage’s text overlay sumptuous lithographs of mushrooms by Long.
Fungi edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This genre-spanning collection includes stories by Jeff VanderMeer, Camille Alexa, Paul Tremblay and many others. Ranging from horror to humor to personal essay, these wildly divergent selections will transform how you look at mushrooms.
The Psilocybin Mushroom Bible: The Definitive Guide to Growing and Using Magic Mushrooms by Virginia Haze and Dr. K. Mandrake, PhD
This book is just what the title promises - a comprehensive instruction book on safely cultivating psilocybin mushrooms. It offers detailed instructions on various methods of growth, processing, and consumption, with hundreds of clear, full-color photographs showing step-by-step procedures for all the stages in your mushroom journey.
How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying by Frank Hyman
This valuable little beginner’s guide is a must-read for anyone who is new to foraging. Tips on identification, storage, and cooking are presented with a directness and humor that makes this book an inviting field guide. Gorgeous full-color photos of 29 species adorn the pages.
The Mycocultural Revolution: Transforming Our World with Mushrooms, Lichens, and Other Fungi by Peter McCoy
This little gem is packed with valuable information about mushrooms, from foraging to species identification to home growing to cooking to healing benefits. Based in solid science yet passionate in its advocacy of mushrooms as an element in changing the world, it belongs on the shelf of any aspiring mycologist.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Take Jane Eyre, put her in a secluded mansion in the wilds of 1950’s Mexico, add a heap mushroom-induced body horror, and you have Mexican Gothic. Plucky heroine Noemi is summoned by her cousin to help her escape the clutches of her new husband’s weird and menacing family. Fungal terror ensues. (Added bonus for fashionistas - the descriptions of ’50’s couture are delicious!)
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
Sheldrake writes with a sense of wonder about the power and mystery of mushrooms, yet packs in a trove of scientific information about these wondrous organisms. He has done his homework, as the 44-page bibliography demonstrates.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Sola, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
The book is a rare, beautiful work of magical realism. Every chapter is narrated by a different person, animal, or act of nature. In the opening chapter, a young poet and father, Domenec, is gathering chanterelles near his home in the Pyrenees when he is killed by a bolt of lightning. The echoes of this event are heard in shifting points of view, leaving the reader to decide who is the most reliable narrator. Is it Domenic’s widow or is it the thundercloud that killed him? Is it the witches who stole Domenec’s mushrooms or the mushrooms themselves? When I Sing, Mountains Dance is a feral howl of a book, a tempestuous hymn to the natural world.
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World by Paul Stamets
This book is packed with science and hope. Stamets outlines how mushrooms can be important factors in not just healing our bodies, but saving our planet. From neutralizing toxic waste to reforestation to boosting crop yields, mushrooms have the capacity to combat the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today. The book is copiously researched and enhanced by tons of colorful photographs.
Mushroom Rain by Laura K. Zimmerman, illustrated by Jamie Green
This warmly illustrated picture book uses spare, poetic text to introduce children to the wonders of mushrooms. An informative appendix goes deeper into the science behind mushrooms, as well as suggestions for some fun(gal) activities.
Bree has a new collection of poetry out! Here is a selection from This Blue August (Green Panda Press, 2023)
A Part in the Sky
I resist the urge to pick up on whatever it is
nuthatches argue about down the gorge.
It makes the bluntest sound in me when a
hawk lands by the creek sun never reaches.
the language used by American robins
is over our heads. and you speak to me
about larval host plants from personal
experience. I rock back and forth on your
knees where elderberry breaks dormancy.
there's a twisty meaning in each jagged leaf;
I kiss the sweet creases your eyes make
until you close them. a fleet of house finches
winter faded don't think much about us. they
advance where the shade grass is sodden,
where what sticks out are shorn pages of
mushrooms the color of cheddar cheese.
chicken of the woods, you inform me
a white-throated sparrow drawls. you
trace a line on my thigh with its open beak
makes a part of the sky real yellow.
Coming in April -
We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan
Writer and activist Hasan has written a compelling Cassandra cry against the soft colonialism of NGOs. The action takes place in a small village in an unnamed presumably African country. Maya (dubbed Bigabosse by the locals) runs an orphanage in a country where child soldiers roam the landscape. When one of her longtime staffers is accused of rape by a local girl, the fragile strands of trust that bind the organization to the villagers in this militarized country threaten to snap. Meanwhile, Maya is watching her marriage falling apart during video calls to her spouse in California. Maya’s growing dismay at the hypocracies and materialism of industrialized nations is conveyed in machine-gun prose. It all ratchets up to a pulse-pounding ending that leaves the reader teetering on the edge of the last sentence.
Instructions for the Drowning by Steven Heighton
In this engrossing collection of stories, Heighton examines how humans grapple with fear and unease. A man struggles to recall his father’s advice on saving a drowning person when faced with the situation in real life. An act of kindness backfires on a couple who are on the brink of having a child. A gay man and his conservative father have difficulty comprehending each other’s grief. From recluses in suburban homes to soldiers in war zones, to a speculative tale about the man who killed Houdini, Heighton surgically dissects the depths of his characters’ psyches, making us care about every one of them.
For further reading, Women's History Month edition -
Click here to read about how Hildegard of Bingen shaped early music history.
Click here to read about the enduring appeal of one of my favorite YA novels, Harriet the Spy.
Click here to read a lively conversation between Rebecca Makkai and Lauren Groff
Click here to read Meg Madden's article about the myriad uses for mushrooms.