This was a rare case of reading a novel almost entirely because of its famous first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was familiar with the quote from the Bookshop Band song “Once Upon a Time” (video on bottom right here), which is made up of first lines from books, but had never read anything by the late Iain Banks, so when a copy of The Crow Road turned up in the free bookshop where I volunteered weekly in happier times, I snapped it up.
There’s a prosaic explanation for that magical-sounding opening: Grandma Margot had a pacemaker that the doctor forgot to remove before her cremation. Talk about going out with a bang! To go “away the crow road” is a Scottish saying for death, and on multiple occasions a sudden or unexplained death draws the McHoan clan together. As the book starts, Prentice McHoan, a slothful student of history at the university in Glasgow, is back in Gallanach (on the west coast of Scotland, near Oban), site of the family glassworks, for Margot’s funeral. He’ll be summoned several more times before the story is through.
Amid clashes over religion with his father Kenneth, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, plenty of carousing and whiskey-drinking, and a spot of heartbreak when his brother steals his love interest, Prentice gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to Uncle Rory, a travel writer who disappeared years ago. The bulk of the book is narrated by Prentice, but shifts into the third person indicate flashbacks. Many of these vignettes recount funny mishaps from Kenneth or Prentice’s growing-up years, but others – especially those in italics – reveal darker matters. As Prentice explores Uncle Rory’s files from a project called “Crow Road,” he stumbles on a secret that completely changes how he perceives his family history.
This reminded me of John Irving at his 1970s‒80s peak: a sprawling coming-of-age story, full of quirky people and events, that blends humor and pathos. In all honesty, I didn’t need the mystery element on top of the character study, but it adds direction to what is otherwise a pleasant if lengthy meander through the decades with the McHoans. I particularly appreciated how Prentice’s view of death evolves: at first he’s with Uncle Hamish, believing there has to be something beyond death – otherwise, what makes human life worthwhile? But Kenneth’s atheism seeps in thanks to the string of family deaths and the start of the Gulf War. “They were here, and then they weren’t, and that was all there was,” Prentice concludes; the dead live on only in memory, or in the children and work they leave behind. I can’t resist quoting this whole paragraph, my favorite passage from the novel:
Telling us straight or through his stories, my father taught us that there was, generally, a fire at the core of things, and that change was the only constant, and that we – like everybody else – were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn’t been told the whole story, but that sometimes people did behave badly, usually because some idea had taken hold of them and given them an excuse to regard other people as expendable (or bad), and that was part of who we were too, as a species, and it wasn’t always possible to know that you were right and they were wrong, but the important thing was to keep trying to find out, and always to face the truth. Because truth mattered.
That seems like a solid philosophy to me. I’ll try more by Banks. I also nabbed a free copy of The Wasp Factory, which I take it is very different in tone. Any recommendations after that? Could I even cope with his science fiction (published under the name Iain M. Banks)?
Page count: 501
(This was meant to be one entry in a roundup of mini-reviews, but I found that I had far too much to say about it. On Sunday I’ll feature three more May releases I’ve read.)
1997. Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. At 31, she lives in a tiny studio apartment off of her brother’s friend’s house and cycles everywhere. Between shifts waitressing at Iris, a trendy restaurant above a Harvard social club, she chips away at the Cuba-set novel she’s been writing for six years.
Through her writer friend Muriel she meets two love interests at a book launch for Oscar Kolton, a former Boston University professor and novelist who’s been leading a fiction workshop since his wife’s death a few years ago. One is the fortysomething Oscar himself; the other, who initially seems more promising, is Silas, a would-be writer from the workshop. But before they have a chance to see if this will go somewhere, Silas is off. He leaves Casey a voicemail saying he needs to get away for a while. Oh well; just another flake, she thinks.
After he and his adorable young sons come in to the restaurant for brunch one day, her interest is squarely in Oscar. Or, that is, until Silas comes back and she finds herself dating two men at the same time. A museum trip with Silas here, a dinner out with Oscar there. As if her love life isn’t complication enough, before long she finds herself looking for a new job, a place to live, a literary agent, and reassurance that she’ll be okay when she takes advantage of her short-lived health insurance to get some minor medical issues checked out.
I almost passed on reading this one because I’d gotten it in my head that it was nothing more than a romantic comedy with a love triangle. I’m so glad that Kate’s review convinced me to give it a try after all. On the face of it this could hardly be more different from King’s previous novel, Euphoria, about anthropologists doing field work in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, but King’s attention to the intricacies of human relationships links the two. When I read Euphoria in late 2014, I noted the natives’ practice of cutting off a finger for every close relative lost. Here you also get the sense that everyone has lost someone, and that these losses are as visible as physical traits. Casey is only on her second conversation with Silas when she thinks, “I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”
There are so many things to love about this novel, including the wonderful/terrible scenes where she rattles off her mother’s story to two doctors and her awful father and stepmother show up for lunch. Count the rest: The Boston-area setting, the restaurant bustle, that feeling we’ve all had of wasting our talents while stuck in the wrong job and the wrong living situation. Casey’s confiding first-person, present-tense narration, the little observations on writers (when John Updike comes into the restaurant she touches his loafer for luck; she nearly swoons when Jayne Anne Phillips is at one of her tables—“Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me”; she thinks she’s blown a high school English teacher interview when she states a dislike for Cormac McCarthy—“he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner”), and even the choice between Silas and Oscar (“Fireworks or coffee in bed”). She doesn’t make the ‘right’ choice I was expecting, but if you’ve been following the clues closely you’ll realize it’s the only one she could have made.
What I loved most, though, was that we see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. “There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.” I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her as I did for Ana in Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Those who have tried writing a book will probably get even more out of this than I did, but it will resonate for anyone who’s ever felt lost and uncertain about life’s direction. “Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation?” Casey hears at a writing festival.
Think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
A real standout and one of my few early favorites from 2020.
With thanks to Picador for the unsolicited copy for review.
I’d never read any P.G. Wodehouse before, but of course I was familiar with his two most famous creations, empty-headed aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant, Jeeves. Many people are turning to cheerful, witty reads during lockdown, so this seemed like a perfect time to give one of the books a try. The bio in my secondhand paperback calls this the first set of Jeeves and Wooster tales, while Goodreads lists it as the third book in a 14-strong series. I didn’t realize when I bought this or picked it up to read that it was a collection of 10 short stories, but that makes sense – these are such silly, inconsequential plots that they couldn’t possibly be sustained for more than about 20 pages each.
It doesn’t take long to get the hang of a Jeeves and Wooster story. Bertie or one of his rich, vapid pals will get into a spot of trouble, usually because of an aunt’s expectations, and a madcap plan – swapping places, impersonation, kidnapping or the like – is required to get out of it and/or get the girl. Jeeves has a brilliant idea and saves the day, all while commenting disapprovingly on Bertie’s fashion choices. Most of the stories are set in London and its environs, but a few also have the pair transplanted to New York City, where Bertie seems to have nothing better to do than lend his chums money. The first nine tales are narrated by Bertie, while the final one has Jeeves as narrator – on a visit to a girls’ school he plays a rather wicked prank to disabuse Bertie of the notion that he might like to adopt a daughter.
These stories were amusing enough, yet quickly blended into one. Pretty much as soon as I finished a story, I forgot what it was about. Looking back, not even the story titles can spark a memory. I made the mistake of not taking notes, so I’ve retained only general impressions. I enjoyed Bertie’s voice and the period slang as well as the dynamic between master and servant – it’s clear who’s really in charge here. “[T]his was obviously a cove of rare intelligence, and it would be a comfort in a lot of ways to have him doing the thinking for me,” Bertie says. “It’s a rummy thing, but when you come down to it Jeeves is always right.” Though I’ve never seen the adaptations, I couldn’t get the faces of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry out of my head. That’s no problem, though, as the casting couldn’t be more perfect.
I’m not sure if I’ll bother picking up another Wodehouse book, as I expect that his work is all of a piece. However, you could certainly do worse if you’re after a lighthearted read.
The libraries I use have extended their closure until at least the end of July, and my stockpile is dwindling. Will I have cleared the decks before we get too far into the summer? Stay tuned to find out…
Meanwhile, we took advantage of the fine weather by having a jaunt to the Sandleford Warren site where Watership Down opens. This circular countryside walk of nearly 8 miles, via Greenham Common and back, took me further from home yesterday than I’ve been in about 10 weeks. We didn’t see any rabbits, but we did see this gorgeous hare.
My husband keeps baking – what a shame! We were meant to be spending a few days in France with my mother last week, so we had some Breton treats anyway (savory crêpes and Far Breton, a custard and prune tart), and yesterday while I was napping he for no reason produced a blackberry frangipane tart.
The Hay Festival went digital this year, so I’ve been able to ‘attend’ for the first time ever. On Friday I had my first of three events: Steve Silberman interviewing Dara McAnulty about his Diary of a Young Naturalist, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. He’s autistic, and an inspiring 16-year-old Greta Thunberg type. Next week I’ll see John Troyer on Thursday and Roman Krznaric on Saturday. All the talks are FREE, so see if anything catches your eye on the schedule link above.
In general, I’ve been spoiled with live events recently. Each week we watch the Bookshop Band’s Friday night lockdown concert on Facebook (there have actually been seven now); they’ve played a lot of old favorites as well as newer material that hasn’t been recorded or that I’ve never heard before. We’ve also been to a few live gigs from Edgelarks and Megson – helpfully, these three folk acts are all couples, so they can still perform together.
Today we’ll be watching the second installment of the Folk on Foot Front Room Festival (also through Facebook). We had a great time watching most of the first one on Easter Monday, and an encore has quickly been arranged. Last month’s show was a real who’s-who of British folk music. There are a few more acts we’re keen to see today. Again, it’s free, though they welcome donations to be split among the artists and charity. It runs 2‒10 p.m. (BST) today, which is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. if you’re on the east coast of North America, so you have time to join in if you are stuck at home for the holiday.
Back to the library books…
What have you been reading from your local libraries? Feel free to use the image above and leave a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part, and/or tag me on Twitter (@bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout).
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
- Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
- Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch
- Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Reading with Patrick: A teacher, a student and the life-changing power of books by Michelle Kuo [set aside temporarily]
- Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle [set aside temporarily]
- Property by Valerie Martin
- My Own Country by Abraham Verghese
CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ
- The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
- Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
- The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway
- When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
- Becoming a Man by Paul Monette
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
- Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP
- The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
- Can You Hear Me? A Paramedic’s Encounters with Life and Death by Jake Jones
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
- Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni
- The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss
- Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Have you run out of library books yet?
How have you been passing these May days?
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
It’s only one week since we announced the Not the Wellcome Prize winner, the culmination of a month-long project that was months more in the planning. I don’t think I’ll be coordinating another blog tour anytime soon, as it was a lot of work finding participants, working out a schedule and keeping on top of the publicizing via social media. Still, it was a lot of fun, and already I’m missing the buzz and ready to get stuck into more projects.
I’d love it if you joined me for one or more of these. Some could be combined with your 20 Books of Summer or other challenges, too.
Ongoing buddy reads
It would have been Richard Adams’s 100th birthday on the 9th. That night I started rereading his classic tale of rabbits in peril, Watership Down, which was my favorite book from childhood even though I only read it the once at age nine. I’m 80 pages in and enjoying all the local place names. Who would ever have predicted that that mousy tomboy from Silver Spring, Maryland would one day live just 6.5 miles from the real Watership Down?!
My husband is joining me for the Watership Down read (he’s not sure he ever read it before), and we’re also doing a buddy read of Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. In that case, we ended up with two free copies, one from the bookshop where I volunteer and the other from The Book Thing of Baltimore, so we each have a copy on the go. Lopez’s style, like Peter Matthiessen’s, lends itself to slower, reflective reading, so I’m only two chapters in. It’s novel to journey to the Arctic, especially as we approach the summer.
I plan to take my time over these two, so tell me if you have a copy of either and feel like picking it up at any point over the next few months.
The other day I got out my copy of The Novel Cure by School of Life bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin and browsed through the categories for some prescriptions that might feel relevant to the current situation. I found four books I own that fit the bill:
From the list of “The Ten Best Novels to Lower Your Blood Pressure”: Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman & The Waves by Virginia Woolf (and I’ve read another three of them, including, recently, Crossing to Safety).
One of several prescriptions for Loneliness: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
The cure for Zestlessness: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow.
If you have access to one of these, or have a copy of The Novel Cure and are keen on following up on another of the prescriptions, let me know.
And now for two memes that I (think I) have created. Although I’m sure something similar has been done in the past, I couldn’t find any specific blogs about them. I don’t know about you, but I always need encouragement to pick up books from my own shelves – even though libraries are currently closed, I’m still working my way through a library stack, and I’m tempted to make another order of new books from Hungerford Bookshop. It’s great to support libraries and independent bookstores, of course, but there could be no better time to mine your own bookshelves for treasures you bought ages ago but still have never read.
Journey through the Day with Books
I enjoyed picking out 18 books from my shelves that refer to particular times of day or meals or activities associated therewith. Four of these are books I’ve already read and four are ones I’m currently reading. You can piggyback on my selections if you wish, or find your own set.
Here’s my full list:
Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński
Eventide by Kent Haruf
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
The Four in a Row Challenge
I’ve been contemplating this one for quite a while. It’s inspired by Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf –from LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (one of Simon’s favourite books – see his review), for which she picked a shelf of the New York Society Library, eliminated duplicates and repeat entries from the same author, and read the remainder – whether she’d heard of them or not; whether they were awful or not. (“Hands down the worst book on the shelf is Le Queux’s Three Knots, a mystery that reads as if it were written by an eight-year-old on Percocet.”)
This is a variation in that you’re looking at your own TBR shelves and picking a set of four books in a row. For many, that will be four novels whose authors’ surnames all start with the same letter. But if you organize your books differently (especially within nonfiction), you may find that the set of four is more arbitrary. You never know what they might have in common, though (book serendipity!).
I’m no strict challenge host, so if you want to engineer your shelf order, or if you decide to swap a book in later on, that is no problem at all. My one firm rule is only one book per author.
I’ve picked out a few appealing sets, all from my fiction shelves. F, G, L and M had particularly rich pickings. I’ll report back as I finish each set, while the “Journey through a Day” may well take me the whole rest of the year.
Still ongoing (more here): Projects to read as many Bellwether Prize, Wellcome Book Prize and Women’s Prize winners as possible, as well as Wellcome long- and shortlistees.
Can I tempt you to take part in any of these reading projects?
[Journey through the Day: Sunrise in Pieniny, Poland (Pudelek / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)) / Sunset (Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))
Four in a Row: Four pelicans in a row (Sheba_Also 43,000 photos / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)) / Phone boxes, Market Place, Ripon (Tim Green from Bradford / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0))]
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.
Have you been reading anything springlike this year?
I’m delighted to be on the blog tour for The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times by Paul Anthony Jones, which will be published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday the 14th. Jones has a Master’s degree in linguistics and writes about etymology and obscure words. This is his seventh book of English-language trivia.
I was also on the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words and enjoyed having that as my daily bedside book for a whole year. The short essays in his books are perfect for reading one or two at a time just before bed. (One of my current bedside reads is Jones’s 2016 book The Accidental Dictionary: The remarkable twists and turns of English words. As soon as I finish that, I’ll launch into the new one.)
The book’s publication, and the blog tour, neatly coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (18–24 May). Here’s a bit more information about the book, from the press release: “For almost a decade, Paul Anthony Jones has written about the oddities and origins of the English language, amassing a vast collection of some of its more unusual words. Last year, doubly bereaved and struggling to regain his spirits, he turned to words – words that could be applied to difficult, challenging times and found solace. The Cabinet of Calm is the result.
“Paul has unearthed fifty-one linguistic remedies to offer reassurance, inspiration and hope in the face of such feelings as grief and despair, homesickness and exhaustion, missing our friends and a loss of hope. Written with a trademark lightness of touch, The Cabinet of Calm shows us that we’re not alone. From MELORISM, when you’re worried about the future of the world[,] and AGATHISM, when you’re feeling disillusionment or struggling to remain positive[,] to … STOUND, for when you’re grieving, someone else has felt like this before, and so there’s a word to help, whatever the challenge.”
I was assigned at random this exclusive extract from The Cabinet of Calm; how delightful to find that it references one of my favourite books!
“Like so many of the English language’s best and most inventive words, growlery is a word we owe to one of our best and most inventive writers. In 1853, Charles Dickens used the word growlery in his novel Bleak House. As the kindly benefactor Mr Jarndyce welcomes one of the novel’s key narrators, Esther Summerson, to his eponymous home, he shows her into ‘a small room next to his bed-chamber’, containing ‘a little library of books and papers, and in part quite a little museum of his boots and shoes and hat-boxes’…
Although the word growlery itself had first appeared in the language somewhat earlier (as a term for the sound of grumbling or complaining) Mr Jarndyce’s growlery is essentially the Dickensian equivalent of what we in our less poetic, twenty-first-century language might call a ‘safe space’. It is a calming, comfortable, solitary room, filled with familiar and enlightening things, in which a bad mood can be privately vented, mused on and assuaged.
We might not all have the luxury of a bespoke room in a rambling country retreat in which to give vent to our problems, but there’s no reason why our own particular growleries have to match Mr Jarndyce’s … Wherever – or, for that matter, whatever – your particular growlery is, it’s undoubtedly a word and a place well worth knowing whenever you need to lighten your spirits.”
If you are in the UK and interested in purchasing a copy, please try to support an independent bookshop nearby. For instance, my local, Hungerford Bookshop, is still delivering. Or have a look for another shop on Twitter using the hashtags #ChooseBookshops and #shopindie.
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson
This book best met the criteria of the Wellcome Book Prize: “At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”
Jackie says (in her blog tour review): “Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. … The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. … The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion.”
Annabel says: “Gleeson’s beautifully written essays on her life, her health, pain and illness, motherhood, and being a woman in Ireland are deeply personal, yet speak volumes. Richly varied in style and closing with a poem written to her daughter, the collection explores her themes in elegant prose with not a word wasted. She questions, explains, understands, writing through pain, but also shows her joie de vivre. Superb!” (See more in her 5-star review.)
From my review (December 2018): “Gleeson turns pain into art. … She marvels at all that the body can withstand, but realizes that medical interventions leave permanent marks, physical or emotional. She also remarks on the essential loneliness of illness, and the likelihood of women’s pain not being believed in or acknowledged. This book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies.”
Some favourite quotes from Constellations:
“Our bodies are sacred, certainly, but they are often not ours alone. Our hospital body, all rivers of scars; the day-to-day form that we present to the world … we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep one that is just for us.”
“Joints can be replaced, organs transplanted, blood transfused, but the story of our lives is still the story of one body. From ill health to heartbreak, we live inside the same skin, aware of its fragility, grappling with our mortality.”
“Illness is an outpost: lunar, Arctic, difficult to reach.”
(Honorable mention goes to The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman for winning the popular vote on Twitter. I was so pleased that we got 354 votes! We arrived at a winner, as we have in the past few years, through each member of the shadow panel doling out 21 points, assigning each book a point value from 1 to 6. The Twitter scores were assigned in the same way and added in, and the winner was the book with the most points in total.)
Thank you to the rest of the shadow panel (Annabel of Annabookbel, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall and Paul of Halfman, Halfbook) and to all the bloggers who took part in the blog tour for helping to showcase some of the best health-themed literature published in 2019.
Here’s hoping that this time next year some of us can be meeting up in person to celebrate the awarding of the 2021 Wellcome Book Prize.
I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty