Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This is one of those books I’d heard high praise about from America but never thought I’d be able to get hold of in the UK. I looked into borrowing it from the public library on my last trip to the States, but even nearly a year after its publication the reservation list was still a mile long. So I was delighted to hear that Hillbilly Elegy was being released in paperback in the UK last month. For British readers, it will provide a welcome window onto a working-class world that is easily caricatured but harder to understand in a nuanced way.

J.D. Vance knows hillbilly America from the inside but also has the necessary distance to be able to draw helpful conclusions about it: born in the “Rust Belt” of Ohio to parents who didn’t complete high school, he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and became a successful investor with a venture capital firm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t give into lower-middle-class despair and widespread vices like alcoholism and hard drugs, even though his mother was an addict and installed a “revolving door of father figures” in his life after his father abandoned them.

Vance attributes his success to the stability provided by his grandparents, his beloved Mamaw and Papaw. They were part of a large wave of migration from Kentucky to Ohio, where they moved so Papaw could work in the Armco Steel mill. Prejudice assaulted the couple from both sides: Kentucky folk thought they’d grown too big for their britches, while in Ohio they were maligned as dirty hillbillies. Mamaw, in particular, is a wonderful character so eccentric you couldn’t make her up, with her fierce love backed up by a pistol.

The book is powerful because it gives concrete, personal examples of social movements: it’s no dry history of how the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia switched allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican after Richard Nixon, though Vance does fill in these broad brushstrokes, but a family memoir that situates Mamaw and Papaw’s experience, and later his own, in the context of the history of the region and the whole country.

I most appreciated the author’s determined use of the first-person plural, especially later in the book: he includes himself in the hillbilly “we” such that he’s not some newly gentrified snob denouncing welfare queens: he knows these people and this lifestyle and recognizes its contradictions; he also knows that but for the grace of God he could have slipped into the same bad habits.

Jackson [Kentucky] is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.

At Yale Law School Vance felt out of place for the first time in his life. One of the most important things he learned from professors like Amy Chua was the value of social capital: in his new world of lawyers, senators and judges it really was all about who you know. At law firm interviews, he had no idea what cutlery to use in restaurants and had to text his girlfriend for help. For as much as he’s adapted to non-hillbilly life in the intervening years, he still notices in himself the hallmarks of a stressful, impoverished upbringing: a fight or flight approach to conflict and an honor culture that makes him prone to nurturing feuds.

Although I enjoyed it simply as a memoir, I can see this book especially appealing to people who are interested in the politics and psychology of the lower middle class (perhaps an American equivalent to Owen Jones’s Chavs, a book I never got through). British readers will, I think, be surprised to learn that Vance is on the conservative end of the spectrum and has political aspirations. Essentially, he doesn’t think the government can fix things for struggling country folk, though certain social policies might help. He seems to think it’s more a question of personal responsibility – and also that churches have a major role to play.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.

(These strike me as alien ideas in the UK, apart from short-lived strategies like David Cameron’s “Big Society” – except, perhaps, if one goes all the way back to Thatcherism.)

Much has been made in the British press about this book’s ability to explain the rise of Donald Trump. This is an overstatement, and perhaps even misleading, when you consider the author’s conservatism; he never mentions Trump, and never engages in any specific political discussions. But what it is helpful for is exposing a mindset of rugged, defiant individualism that often shades into hopelessness. I have my own share of redneck relatives, and though I feel far removed from the world Vance depicts, I can see its traces in my family tree. I’m glad he had the guts to draw on his experience and write this hard-hitting book.

My rating:


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was first published in the UK by William Collins in September 2016. My thanks to Katherine Patrick for sending a free paperback for review.

 Note: Ron Howard is to direct and produce a movie version of the book.

Bloggers’ Opinions Must Not Be Bought: A Cautionary Tale

I’m leery of accepting self-published work for review. If this is prejudice on my part, it’s not unjustified: I’ve reviewed hundreds of self-published books during my four years of freelance work for Kirkus, Foreword, BlueInk, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookbag, and although I do find the very occasional gem that could hold its own in a traditional market, the overall quality is poor. When self-published authors get in touch via my blog, I usually delete their enquiries immediately. But for some reason I decided to give a second look to a request I received through Goodreads earlier this year. (All identifying details have been removed.)

I’ll admit it: the flattery probably helped:

This was for a historical novel that had 4-star reviews from two Goodreads friends whose judgment I trust, so I agreed to have the author send a copy to my parents’ house in the States so that it would be waiting for me there when I arrived for my recent trip. When I opened the box, two alarm bells rang at once. First there was this. Uh oh.

Second of all: the author had taken the trouble of looking up restaurants in my parents’ area and ordered a $60 gift card from one of them to send along with the book parcel. Double uh oh.

I spent weeks wondering what in the world I was going to do about this ethical quandary. I even contacted a Goodreads friend who’d reviewed the book and asked what their experience with the author had been like. The reply was very telling:

I still feel unsettled over my interaction with [name redacted]. I’ve always made it a point not to review unsolicited books. But over a period of several weeks, [they] sent me a number of emails that ranged from flattering to fawning – and always polite and charming. Eventually, I, too, received a $60 gift card to a favorite restaurant that was within blocks of my home. I ended up, I believe, 4 starring [the] book, although the truth is that it was more of a 3-star read. Since reviewing, I have valued my independence – and honesty – and since then, have had the uncomfortable feeling of being “bought”, and for a low price at that.

I cannot tell you what to do. Obviously, I feel as if my own values were compromised. For me, it wasn’t worth what I still believe is a blot on my integrity. If you do decide to review, I’d simply encourage you to be honest because (I learned the hard way) the aftermath isn’t a good feeling.

Well, I’d promised to review the book, so I forced myself to open it, pencil in hand. After I’d corrected 10 problems of punctuation and grammar within the first six pages, I commenced skimming. There were some decent folksy metaphors and a not-half-bad dual narrative of a young woman’s odyssey and a small town’s feuds. But there were also dreadful sex scenes, melodramatic plot turns, and dialogue and slang that didn’t ring true for the time period. If I squinted pretty darn hard, I could see my way to likening the novel to the works of Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. But it wasn’t by any means a book I could genuinely recommend.

So when the author checked up a couple of months later to see whether I had gotten the book and what I thought of it, here’s what I replied:

I received the following abject apology, but no helpful information.

To my brief follow-up –

– I received this:

Note the phrase “self-promoted” and the meaningless repetition of “couldn’t put it down!”

And then they went on to disparage me for my age?!

I don’t believe for a minute that this person was ignorant of what they were doing in sending the gift cards. What’s saddest to me is that they have zero interest in getting an honest opinion of the work or hearing constructive criticism that could help them improve. They clearly don’t respect professionals’ estimation, either, or they’d be brave enough to pay for a review from Kirkus or another independent body. Instead, they’ve presumably been ‘paying’ $60 a pop to get fawning but utterly false 5-star reviews. Just imagine how much money they’ve spent on shipping and ‘thank-you gifts’ – easily many thousands of dollars.

And could I really have been the first in 180+ people to express misgivings about what was going on here? How worrying.

I was tempted to be generous and give the novel the briefest of 3-star reviews, perhaps as an addendum to another review on my blog, just so that I could feel justified in keeping the gift card and not have to face a confrontation with the author. But it didn’t feel right. If I want my reviews to have integrity, they have to reflect my honest opinions. As it stands, I have the gift card in an envelope, ready to be returned to the author when I’m in the States for my sister’s wedding next month; the book will most likely get dropped off at a Little Free Library.

If I was a vindictive person, I’d be going on Goodreads and Amazon and giving the book a 1-star review: as a necessary corrective to the bogus 5-star ones, and as a way of exposing this dodgy self-promotional activity. But that would in turn expose all of this person’s readers, including a valued Goodreads friend. And who knows how the author would try to retaliate.

So there you have it. My cautionary tale of a self-published author trying to buy my good opinion. What have I learned? Mostly to be even more wary of self-published work; possibly not to make any promises to review a book until I’ve seen a sample of it. But also to listen to my conscience and, when something is wrong, have the courage to speak out right away.


I’m curious: what would you have done?

Review: How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.

What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.

This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:

Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.

 

Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.

 

– What are sins?

– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.

It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

My rating:


How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice

Ruth Fitzmaurice’s husband, a filmmaker named Simon, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008. Like Stephen Hawking, he is wheelchair-bound and motionless, communicating only through the mechanical voice of an eye gaze computer.

My husband is a wonder to me but he is hard to find. I search for him in our home. He breathes through a pipe in his throat. He feels everything but cannot move a muscle. I lie on his chest counting mechanical breaths. I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left. I won’t stop searching.

Between their five children under the age of 10 (including twins conceived after Simon’s diagnosis), an aggressive basset hound, and Simon’s army of nurses coming and going 24 hours a day, this is one chaotic household. The recurring challenge is to find pockets of stillness – daydreaming, staring at trees outside her window – and to learn what things can bring her back from the brink of despair, again and again.

Often these are outdoor experiences: a last hurrah of a six-month holiday in Australia, running, and especially plunging into the Irish Sea with her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club” – a group that includes her friend Michelle, whose husband is also in a wheelchair after a motorbike crash, and her favorite of Simon’s nurses, Marian, who has a serious car accident.

Rather than a straight chronological narrative, this is a set of brief thematic essays with titles like “Dancing,” “Fear,” “Twins” and “Holidays.” Fitzmaurice’s story is one you piece together through vivid vignettes from her home life. Her prose is generally composed of short, simple phrases; as with Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, you can tell there is deep emotion pulsing under the measured sentences. With such huge questions in play – How much can one person take? What would losing one’s mind look like? – there’s no need for added drama, after all. Instead, the author turns to whimsy, toying with the superhero cliché for caregivers and wondering what magic might be at work in her situation.

I was particularly impressed by how Fitzmaurice holds the past and present in her mind, and by how she uses an outsider’s perspective to imagine herself out of her circumstances. At times she uses the third person for these visions of herself as a younger woman newly in love:

The young wife at her kitchen table knows about deep magic. But I know her future. Life is going to push and pull her like a wave. She doesn’t have a choice and neither do I. Come with me, dear girl, sit at my tablecloth. The journey is upon us and to survive it, you can’t just ride the wave, you have to become one. Can we do this? Let’s go. Becoming a wave just might be the deepest magic of them all.

There are so many poignant moments in this book: memories of their determinedly vegetarian wedding; pulling out all the stops for Simon’s fortieth birthday with customized art installations to brighten his view; leaving the marital bed – now a “hospital contraption” – after six years of MND being a part of their lives; a full moon swim with the Tragic Wives on her and Simon’s anniversary. But all the quiet, everyday stuff has power too, especially her interactions with her precocious children, who are confused about why Dadda is like this.

If I had one tiny complaint, it’s that Simon feels like something of a shadowy figure. In flashbacks we get a real sense of his forceful personality, but this new, silent Simon in the wheelchair is a mystery. Only once or twice does she record words he ‘says’ to her via his computer. Perhaps this is inevitable given how locked into himself he’s become. However, he was still capable of becoming the first person with MND to direct a feature film, on location in County Wicklow (My Name Is Emily). He has told his own story elsewhere; in his wife’s telling, their ventures now seem so separate that they rarely appear as equal partners.

It’s my tenth wedding anniversary tomorrow; as I was reading this I kept thinking that, for as much as I complain (to myself) about how hard marriage is, I’ve had it so easy. The stresses a couple face when caregiving of one partner is involved are immense. Fitzmaurice has found herself part of a tribe she probably never wanted to join: the walking wounded, with pain behind their eyes and worry never far from their minds. But in the midst of it she’s also found the band of family and friends who help her pull through each time. Her lovely book – wry, wise, and realistic – will strike a chord with anyone who has faced illness and family tragedy.

My rating:


I Found My Tribe is published in the UK today, July 6th, by Chatto & Windus. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

 Note: Fitzmaurice got her book deal on the strength of a series of pieces she wrote for the Irish Times. You can read an extract from the book here. Film rights to her story have been sold to Element Pictures; more details are here. A documentary about Simon’s life, It’s Not Yet Dark, based on his memoir of the same title, has recently been released. For more information see here (this article also showcases multiple family photos).

Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2017

Back in December I previewed some of the books set to be released in 2017 that I was most excited about. Out of those 30 titles, here’s how I fared:

  • Read: 16 [Disappointments: 2]
  • Currently reading: 1
  • Abandoned partway through: 2
  • Lost interest in: 4
  • Haven’t managed to find yet: 2
  • Languishing on my Kindle; I still have vague intentions to read: 5

The latter half of the year promises plenty of big-name releases, such as long-awaited novels from Nicole Krauss and Jennifer Egan and a memoir by Maggie O’Farrell. Here are 24 books that happen to be on my radar for the coming months; this is by no means a full picture.

The descriptions below are adapted from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Amazon. Some of these books I already have access to in print or galley form; others I’ll be looking to get hold of. (In chronological order, generally by first publication date.)

 

July

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus [July 13, Harvill Secker]: “Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. This vivacious and deeply moving novel portrays adult breakdown through the eyes of a child and celebrates the power of stories to shape, nourish and even save us.”

Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen [July 20, Fitzcarraldo Editions]: “Two young Israeli soldiers travel to New York after fighting in the Gaza War and find work as eviction movers. It’s a story of the housing and eviction crisis in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that also shines new light on the world’s oldest conflict in the Middle East.” (print ARC)

 

August

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang [Aug. 1, Lenny]: “Centered on a community of immigrants who have traded their endangered lives as artists in China and Taiwan for the constant struggle of life at the poverty line in 1990s New York City, Zhang’s exhilarating collection examines the many ways that family and history can weigh us down and also lift us up.”

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson [Aug. 15, Scribner]: “An account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.”

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson [Aug. 22, Little, Brown and Company]: “A memoir of friendship and literature chronicling a search for meaning and comfort in great books, and a beautiful path out of grief.” (currently reading via NetGalley)

Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty [Aug. 22, W. W. Norton]: “A retired couple fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a long weekend. … [A] tender, intimate, heart-rending story … a profound examination of human love and how we live together, a chamber piece of real resonance and power.” (to review for BookBrowse)

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell [Aug. 22, Tinder Press]: “A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labor in an understaffed hospital … 17 encounters at different ages, in different locations, reveal to us a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.”

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah [Aug. 24, Tinder Press]: “A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.” (print ARC to review for Shiny New Books)

Madness Is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman [Aug. 24, Sceptre]: “In 1938, rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it to New York. … Showcasing the anarchic humor and boundless imagination of one of the finest writers of his generation.”

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss [Aug. 24, Harper/Bloomsbury]: “A man in his later years and a woman novelist, each drawn to the Levant on a journey of self-discovery. Bursting with life and humor, this is a profound, mesmerizing novel of metamorphosis and self-realization – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite.” (currently reading via NetGalley)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent [Aug. 29, Riverhead Books/4th Estate] “A brilliant and immersive, all-consuming read about one fourteen-year-old girl’s heart-stopping fight for her own soul. … Shot through with striking language in a fierce natural setting.” (e-ARC to review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

September

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander [Sept. 5, Knopf]: “[A] political thriller that unfolds in the highly charged territory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pivots on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. … Englander has woven a powerful, intensely suspenseful portrait of a nation riven by insoluble conflict.”

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl [Sept. 5, Touchstone]: “[A]n emotionally riveting debut novel about an unlikely marriage at a crossroads. … With pitch-perfect prose and compassion and humor to spare, George and Lizzie is an intimate story of new and past loves, the scars of childhood, and an imperfect marriage at its defining moments.”

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng [Sept. 7, Little, Brown]: “In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned. … [E]xplores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.”

Afterglow (A Dog Memoir) by Eileen Myles [Sept. 12, Grove Press]: “A probing investigation into the dynamics between pet and pet-owner. Through this lens, we examine Myles’s experiences with intimacy and spirituality, celebrity and politics, alcoholism and recovery, fathers and family history.”

 

October

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty [Oct. 3, W. W. Norton]: “Fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty set out to discover how other cultures care for their dead. Featuring Gorey-esque illustrations by artist Landis Blair.”

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan [Oct. 3, Scribner/Corsair]: “The pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime … Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America, and the world.”

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn [Oct. 3, Hogarth Shakespeare]: “Henry Dunbar, once all-powerful head of a family firm, has handed it over to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan. Relations quickly soured. Now imprisoned in a Lake District care home with only an alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape.” (print ARC)

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell [Oct. 5, Profile Books]: “Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. … These wry and hilarious diaries provide an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff.”

In Shock by Rana Awdish [Oct. 17, St. Martin’s]: “Dr. Awdish spent months fighting for her life, enduring consecutive major surgeries and experiencing multiple overlapping organ failures. At each step of the recovery process, she was faced with repeated cavalier behavior from her fellow physicians. … A brave road map for anyone navigating illness.”

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee [Oct. 17, Crown]: “[I]n recent decades, conservationists have brought wolves back to the Rockies, igniting a battle over the very soul of the West. With novelistic detail, Nate Blakeslee tells the gripping story of one of these wolves, alpha female O-Six.” (print ARC)

 

November

The White Book by Han Kang [Nov. 2, Portobello Books]: “Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things … the most autobiographical and experimental book to date from [the] South Korean master.”

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben [Nov. 7, Blue Rider Press]: “Follows a band of Vermont patriots who decide that their state might be better off as its own republic. … McKibben imagines an eccentric group of activists who carry out their own version of guerrilla warfare … a fictional response to the burgeoning resistance movement.”

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich [Nov. 14, Harper]: “Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. … A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient … a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.”

 

December

(Nothing as of yet…)

 


Which of these tempt you? What other books from the latter half of 2017 are you most looking forward to?

Three Recommended July Releases

Here are three enjoyable reads due out next month that I was lucky enough to get a hold of early. These are all first books by women authors, with subjects ranging from twentieth-century artists to a parent’s dementia. I’ve pulled 200–250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.

 

The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

(Coming on July 11th from She Writes Press)

The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This lovely debut novel is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness. The main thread of the novel is set on one day in 1944, and the first-person narration alternates between Margery and Pamela, who through memory and imagination drift back through vivid scenes from their lives in Turin, London, Wales, and New York City.

Themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in this highly visual book full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill. I love reading fictional biographies of writers and other creative types, and this one gives such an interesting window onto lesser-known twentieth-century figures. I especially appreciated Huber’s endnotes explaining what was fact (almost everything) and what was fiction here, and her discussion of the letters and archives she used.

As The Velveteen Rabbit teaches, we truly come to life when we are loved, and you can see how for Pamela it was a lifelong struggle to be loved for who she was. The artist’s tortured journey and the mother’s tender worry are equally strong. Had I finished it a few days earlier I would have included this in my write-up of the best books of 2017 so far. It would be a great choice for book clubs, too – a set of questions is even included at the end of the novel.

A favorite line (Pamela describes her mother): “Mam’s eyes are vast almond-shaped seas, liquid navy, flowing with an endless depth of understanding and compassion.”

Readalike: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

My thanks to publicist Caitlin Hamilton Summie for granting me early access via NetGalley.

My rating:

 

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

(Coming on July 11th from Henry Holt and Co. [USA]; already available from Scribner UK)

Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. She tries feeding Howard every half-cracked dementia health cure (cruciferous vegetables are a biggie) and, with his teaching assistant, Theo, maintains the illusion that her father is still fit to teach by gathering graduate students for a non-credit History of California class that meets in empty classrooms and occasionally off-campus – wherever they can be away from the watchful eye of Dean Levin.

As these strategies fail and Howard’s behavior becomes ever more erratic, Ruth realizes the best thing she can do is be a recorder of daily memories, just as Howard was for her when she was a little girl: “Here I am, in lieu of you, collecting the moments” – “Today you…”

This is a delightfully quirky little book, in the same vein as Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. I marked out a bunch of funny metaphors:

This morning’s [hangover] is a rodent: pesky but manageable.

It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship. Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.

The moon, tonight, looks like a cut zucchini coin.

But you may well read this with a lump in your throat, too. From one Christmas to the next, we see how much changes for this family – a reminder that even though the good times are still worth celebrating, they’re gone before you know it.

Readalike: Not Working by Lisa Owens

My rating:

 

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite

(Coming on July 11th from Plume Books [USA] and Prentice Hall Press [UK])

Jen Waite had been in New York City pursuing her dream of becoming an actress for two years when she started working at a restaurant for extra cash. It was here that she met Marco Medina, a handsome Argentinian bar manager, and they fell head-over-heels in love. All the clichés: a green card, a successful business venture, a baby on the way, an idyllic wedding on the beach in Maine. And then the whole thing fell apart. “Marco was always an illusion; the best magic trick I’ve ever seen,” Waite marvels.

She’s written her story up like a thriller, full of gradual revelations and the desire to get even. Chapters alternate between “Before,” when she still had what she thought was the perfect existence, and “After,” when she started to suspect that Marco had a secret life. I use the term “thriller” as a compliment: the dialogue is spot-on and this is a remarkably gripping book given that the title and blurb pretty much give the whole game away. More than that, it’s a fascinating psychological study of the personality of a sociopath and pathological liar. Surviving to tell her story and perhaps train to become a therapist for women who have been in her situation is Waite’s apt revenge.

Readalike: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating:

 

Have you read any July releases that you would recommend?

The Best Books from the First Half of 2017

Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.

 

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.

 

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

 

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.

 

My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.

 

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

 

Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.

 


And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?