First Encounter: Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I’d heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. As of early June, Vintage has made some of her backlist, including The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial and Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.

 

I read The Red Parts for The Bookbag. Here’s an excerpt from my full review:

Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt’s death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.

My rating: 

 

Bluets is a fragmentary record of Nelson’s arbitrary obsession with the color blue. It’s composed of 240 short numbered essays of about a paragraph each; some are just one or two sentences. At one point Nelson refers to these as “propositions,” but really they are more like metaphorical musings. Blue takes on so many meanings: with the connotation of “depressed”, it applies to her loneliness and sense of loss after the breakdown of a relationship (she continues addressing her former partner as “you” here) and a friend’s serious accident:

Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?

Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

Then there’s blues music (Billie Holiday), seedy sex (“blue movies”), Joan Mitchell’s 1973 abstract painting Les Bluets, Novalis’ blue flower (which gives the title to a Penelope Fitzgerald novel), and so on. Nelson likens herself to a male bowerbird lining her nest with blue – sometimes literally, as with the collection of “blue amulets” that she keeps on a windowsill so sunlight can pass through the glass and illuminate the stones. I recalled that Sarah Perry lists Bluets as one inspiration for The Essex Serpent, in which the character Stella is fascinated with the color blue and keeps a similar trove of trinkets.

Bluets is a difficult work to characterize, but it seems closest in style to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is also built on loosely linked aphorisms. The problem with books like these is that individual lines may stand out as profound but don’t contribute to an overall story line or argument. Moreover, Nelson’s forthrightness about sex, which edges towards crassness and feels out of place in this dreamily academic text, took me some getting used to.

The plant genus that includes cornflowers is sometimes called “bluets.” Photographed by David Wright (Flickr: Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Two more favorite lines:

I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.

If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.

My rating:

Many thanks to Cat Mitchell of Penguin Random House for the free review copy.

 

The Red Parts was the more straightforward and satisfying read of this pair, but Bluets is certainly an original and artful bedside book. I would certainly read more by Nelson; I’m particularly interested in The Argonauts (2015), a memoir about forming her unconventional family – her partner, Harry Dodge, is transgender.

Have you read anything by Maggie Nelson? Do her books appeal?

Chastleton House (It Even Has a Bookshop)

I’ve been off my blogging game ever since we got back from America, but I hope to remedy that soon. I have a blog post planned for every day of the coming week, including some reviews, my monthly Library Checkout, a few recommendations for July releases, and a look back at the best books from the first half of the year.

Today I’m easing myself back into blogging with a mini profile of the National Trust historic manor we visited yesterday, Chastleton House in Oxfordshire (but it’s nearer the Gloucestershire border – very much Cotswolds country).

Photo by Chris Foster.

My brother-in-law sent us a voucher for free entry into any NT property, but my eye was drawn to this one in particular because I saw that there’s a secondhand bookshop in the stables. Compared to other historic houses, this one feels a lot less fusty. It’s been preserved as it was when the NT acquired it in 1991, so instead of reconstructed seventeenth-century rooms you get them as they were last used by later tenants. There are cracks in the plasterwork, cobwebs in the corners, and lots of stuff everywhere. But as a result, it seems less like part of the corporate fold; even the “Do Not Touch” signs are handwritten.

Chastleton has a literary claim to fame of which I was unaware before our visit: it was a filming location for the 2015 BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. (Never mind that it was built in 1607–12, well after the Tudor history that novel is meant to portray.) Another interesting historical nugget: this is where the rules of croquet were codified in the 1860s, and there are still croquet lawns there today. Our visit happened to coincide with a special lawn games weekend, so we learned how to play croquet properly and my husband proceeded to trounce me.

Of course, I availed myself of a few bargain books from the secondhand stall.

We also had tea and cake from a charity sale in the next-door churchyard. After dinner back home, in the evening we decided to walk 10 minutes down the road to our local event space for a folk concert featuring The Willows, with Gareth Lee and Annie Baylis supporting. We’ve been to three gigs at this former village hall so far this year; with tickets just £10 each and the venue so close, why not?! Each time we have heard absolutely excellent live folk music, with tinges of everything from Americana to electronica.

The Willows in performance. Photo by Chris Foster.

All together, a smashing day out.

America Reading & Book Haul, Etc.

On Wednesday we got back from two weeks in the States. We were so busy catching up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half or more that my reading really slowed down: aside from the three books I took on the plane and finished within my first week, I only read another two books (not counting two during the trip back). Alas, I seem to be in a bit of a rut: everything I read was 3 stars. I haven’t finished anything I’d rate higher than that since late May. I do hope I can break that pattern before June ends!

 

What I Read:

In Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Bennie Ford writes an extended letter during an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago, ostensibly to demand his $392.68 back, but really to tell his life story. His daughter is getting married in California tomorrow; it’s Bennie’s chance to make things right after years of estrangement. Will he make it to the wedding or not? The structure of the book means it doesn’t particularly matter, and I stopped caring a little bit as it went on. The sections of a novel Bennie is translating from the Polish felt irrelevant to me. Still, amusing, and a good one to read in the airport and on a plane.

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym: I’m completely unmusical, so I enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be a violin virtuoso and a child prodigy, and what it means to fall in love with an instrument. Kym also puts things into the context of being a Korean immigrant to London. The central event of the book is having her Stradivarius, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, stolen from a train station café in late 2010. It’s a brief and fairly immersive story, but the style is melodramatic and choppy at times.

Back When We Were Grown-ups was my fifth Anne Tyler novel. Rebecca is in her fifties and the pillar of the large Davitch family, even though she only married into it six years before her husband’s sudden death. The Davitches are always renting out their home for their party business, and Rebecca has over the years developed a joyous persona that she’s not sure is really her true self. What would life have been like if she hadn’t become a stepmother to Joe’s three girls but instead married her college sweetheart, Will? While this is funny and warm, and a cozy read in the best possible way, it didn’t really stand out for me.

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1954, tells of his animal collecting in Guiana, South America. The highlight is pipa toad reproduction and birth.

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin is a very atmospheric read, set on a South Carolina island with a haunted cottage where a family was swept away by a hurricane. However, I thought the rhythm of the young narrator’s languid summer days caring for his great-aunt became tedious, and I struggled to buy how self-aware he was meant to be of his fragile mental state at the age of 11. It’s reminiscent of John Irving (quirky secondary characters and so on) but without the same spark. I was sent a review copy for BookBrowse but found I couldn’t recommend it with 4 stars or higher.

To my surprise, I completely went off Kindle reading on this trip until the flight back, when I raced through Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks, a sweet but inconsequential graphic novel about the salmon’s life cycle. I also started the poetry collection Fast by Jorie Graham but left it unfinished.

Two more DNFs from the trip were The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I may try again with both in the future. Alas, library reading was a total wash: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro didn’t arrive in time, I abandoned the Coates, and I didn’t feel in the mood for advice letters so ended up not even starting Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

My enjoyable read on the long journey back was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen gave the Mennonite tradition she’d forsaken a second look after her life fell apart in her early forties: her husband left her for Bob, whom he met on a gay dating site; and she was in a serious car accident. It’s more in the form of linked autobiographical essays than a straight memoir, so she keeps cycling round to some of the same themes, and it gets less laugh-out-loud funny as it goes on. Still, I was impressed by how the author has managed to pull what’s good from experiences most would consider disastrous. (I also read the first third of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.)

Now that I’m home I’ve started a huge pile of review books and library books and instead of the 1–3 books at a time I was reading while we were away I’m back up to my more usual 14.

 

What I Bought:

Day 2: A stop at my parents’ local Dollar Tree to stock up on greetings cards for the year’s events (2 for $1!) also brought some unexpectedly good book finds. [Not pictured: a paperback of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, our favorite of his novels.] Total spend: $3.18.

Day 4: The obligatory visit to Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, one of my happy places.

Day 5: A trip to bookstore chain 2nd & Charles in Hagerstown, MD. Total spend (minus my trade-in of various books and CDs): $5.19.

Day 6: A book of Mary Oliver poems from the Goodwill store in Westminster, MD.

Day 14: Some bargains from a thrift store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where we met up with my friend and her family while they were on holiday. Total spend: $4.50.

 

What I Otherwise Acquired:

Review books / gifts waiting for me when I arrived:

A couple of Crown ARCs I managed to snag (not out until October):

The state of my closet back in the States (most of those boxes contain books):

 

Other Bookish Sightings:

 A Little Free Library at my parents’ local organic supermarket. I dropped off a few proof copies before I left.

The Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A trip to Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, Virginia (overpriced – no purchases), where I spotted an amusing cover on Anne Tyler’s first novel – she still has the same haircut!

Ephemera in two of my purchases.

 

Other highlights of the trip:

  • Meeting my sister’s fiancé (!) and his kids.
  • Going to an alpaca farm with my sister and nephews.
  • Surprising my mom with her early 70th birthday gift: a mother–daughters trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for dinner and a showing of Shear Madness, a long-running improvisational murder mystery with audience participation.
  • Exploring Williamsburg (and Jamestown Island) for the first time since I was a kid.
  • A day trip to Cape May, New Jersey – a place to go back to, methinks.
  • Plus all our meet-ups, however brief, with friends.
  • Not forgetting the total of seven cats and two dogs we got to spend time with.
  • Two weeks of doing absolutely no work. I didn’t miss it for a second.

One last book haul photo: These were the review copies (top two) and giveaway books awaiting me when I got back to the UK. (I won the Schaub from Liz’s blog; I’m on a great run with Goodreads giveaways at the moment: along with these Sedaris and Whittal titles, I have new books by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anne de Courcy on the way.)


How has your summer reading been going?

Classic of the Month: Anna of the Five Towns

This was my first experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction; I’d previously read his Literary Taste. (He is not to be confused, as I’ve done in the past, with novelist and playwright Alan Bennett (An Uncommon Reader, etc.)!) Bennett (1867–1931) was from the Potteries region of Staffordshire and moved to London in his early twenties to work in a law office. Anna of the Five Towns (1902) was his second novel and first moderate success, but it was The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910–16) that truly made his name.

Bennett was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy (though Hardy had given up on novels by that point), and Anna reminds me of each of these authors to an extent – but particularly of Lawrence, what with his working-class Midlands roots. I also frequently thought of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (religious angst) and Far from the Madding Crowd (a heroine who faces romantic entanglements and financial responsibility for the first time).

Twenty-year-old Anna Tellwright is a Methodist Sunday school teacher and lives with her twelve-year-old sister, Agnes, and their ill-tempered father, Ephraim, in “Bursley” (Bennett’s name for Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent). The family is well off thanks to Ephraim’s canny property investments and inheritances he and his late wife received. Yet Anna is still dumbfounded to learn, on her twenty-first birthday, that she’s worth £50,000. Ephraim, generally referred to as “the miser” – there’s no nuance here; he’s typecast and never rises above the label – is happy to turn over certain aspects of the business to Anna, like hounding their tenants the Prices for late rent, but doesn’t give her autonomy over her daily spending. She must meekly approach her father each time she wants to purchase something for herself.

Anna has a suitor, Henry Mynors, whose business Ephraim supports as a sleeping partner. She loves the idea of being loved – and the suspicion that she has unwittingly wrenched a desirable prospect away from pretty Beatrice Sutton. But she doesn’t seem to be truly in love with Henry, just like her heart isn’t fully committed to the local revival put on by the Methodists. After all, she hasn’t had the emotional conversion experience that would prove irrefutably that she is saved. Much as she beats herself up over her so-called sins, the desired transformation never arrives. Instead, the closest thing she has to an epiphany comes when she’s standing atop a hill on the Isle of Man on her first-ever holiday:

She perceived that the monotony, the austerity, the melancholy of her existence had been sweet and beautiful of its kind, and she recalled, with a sort of rapture, hours of companionship with the beloved Agnes, when her father was equable and pacific. Nothing was ugly nor mean. Beauty was everywhere, in everything.

The Prices take on unforeseen significance in the novel, and in her dealings with them Anna is caught between a wish to be Christlike in her compassion and the drive to act as the shrewd businesswoman her father expects. Though she is eventually able to wrest back something like financial independence, she remains bound by the social convention of marrying well.

Arnold Bennett.

Anna is more timid and introspective than your average heroine; I felt great sympathy for her not in spite of but because of those character traits. I recently took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and wondered if Anna could be an ISTJ like me – she dreads having to visit her pupils’ homes and make small talk with the parents, comes across as curt when nervous, and can’t seem to turn her brain off and just feel instead. (Kate Scott of Parchment Girl runs a blog series about characters who exemplify the different Myers-Briggs personality types.)

There’s a lack of subtlety to Bennett’s writing, something I particularly noted in the physical descriptions (“She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity”) and some heavy-handed foreshadowing (“It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer”). But I can let him off considering that this was published 115 years ago. It’s an excellent example of regional literature (can you think of another book set in Staffordshire?), with Anna’s visit to Henry’s pottery works a particular highlight. Bennett takes an unpromising setting and rather humble people and becomes their bard:

Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here—

Several miles away, the blast-furnaces of Cauldron Bar Ironworks shot up vast wreaths of yellow flame with canopies of tinted smoke. Still more distant were a thousand other lights crowning chimney and kiln, and nearer, on the waste lands west of Bleakridge, long fields of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.

The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire—a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table … was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were … hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, currant-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed.

I enjoyed this for the pacey plot, the religious theme, the sympathetic protagonist, and the loving look at an industrial area. I’ll certainly be looking out for copies of Bennett’s other novels in secondhand bookshops; meanwhile, Project Gutenberg also has a good selection of his writings. (My copy was withdrawn from Lambeth Libraries stock and sold for 10 pence.)

My rating:

How People Found My Blog Recently

I’m always interested to find out how people who aren’t regular followers catch wind of my blog. The web searches documented in my WordPress statistics are often bizarre, but do point to what have been some of my most enduringly popular posts: reviews of The First Bad Man, The Girl Who Slept with God, and The Essex Serpent; and write-ups of events with Diana Athill and Michel Faber. I also get a fair number of searches for Ann Kidd Taylor, whose two books I’ve featured at different points.

Here are some of the more interesting results from the last six months or so. My favorite search of all may well be “underwhelmed by ferrante”! (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout.)


October 19: the undiscovered islands malachy tallack, the first bad man, ann kidd taylor wedding

October 21: prose/poetry about autumn

November 2: ann kidd taylor, irmina barbara yelin, the first bad man summary, diana athill on molly keane

November 6: michel faber poems, essex serpent as byatt, book summary of the girl who slept with gid byval brelinski

November 17: book cycle, james lasdun, novel the girl who slept with god

November 25: john bradshaw the lion in the living room, bibliotherapy open courses the school of life, barbara yelin irmina, 2016 best prose poem extracts

December 5: seal morning, paul evans field notes from the edge, at the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with jean-paul sartre, simone de beauvoir, albert camus, marti, read how many books at once

December 23: midwinter novel melrose, underwhelmed by ferrante

January 6: charlotte bronte handwriting, hundred year old man and john irving

January 12: memorable prose on looking forward, felicity Trotman

January 24: patient memoirs, poirot graphic novel, first bad man review, he came beck why? love poems

January 26: reading discussion essex serpent, elena ferrante my brilliant friend dislike

February 3: what are chimamanda’s novels transkated to films, ann kidd taylor, shannon leone fowler, i read war and peace and liked it

February 15: “how to make a french family” “review”, book that literally changed my life, the essex serpent summary

March 13: my darling detective howard norman, the essex serpent book club questions, the first bad man summary

March 22: the doll’s alphabet, joslin linder genetic disorders

March 31: detor, louisa young michel faber

May 7: the essex serpent plot, rebecca foster writer, book about cats, gauguin the other world dori fabrizio

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (Peirene)

Larry Tremblay is a Francophone writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal. In addition to three novels, he has published a short story collection and many books of poetry and plays. The Orange Grove (2013), which was longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin (formerly IMPAC) literary award, is the fable-like story of one family in the war-torn Middle East and the way notions of justice and sacrifice drive them to make extreme choices.

Tamara and Zahed live with their twin sons, nine-year-old Aziz and Ahmed, alongside an orange grove planted by Zahed’s father. Soulayed, a militant elder from the next village, describes it thus:

Your father, Mounir, worked his whole life on this arid soil. It was desert here. With God’s help your father worked a miracle. Made oranges grow where there had been only sand and stones.

When Mounir and his wife Shahina are killed in a bombing, Soulayed stands among the ruins and counsels Zahed to seek revenge against their enemies by sending one of his sons to be a suicide bomber. There’s no doubt Soulayed is manipulating this grief-stricken family to his own ends, but he isn’t solely to blame when their culture at large romanticizes martyrdom.

Zahed makes his choice, but Tamara won’t accept it. In a clever reprise of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, she helps the boys to make a switch right under their father’s nose. The last third of the book, like a coda, zooms ahead 11 years to show us the surviving brother, coming to the end of a four-year theatre training program in Montreal. He’s given a starring role in his teacher’s wartime play but the story line cuts a little too close to the bone, and for the first time he tells a stranger the story of two brothers: one who died and one who lived.

 

Peirene Press issues novellas in trios. This is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die for the crimes of the many. The Orange Grove has a simple style that edges towards flatness but is saved by the occasional striking metaphor (e.g. “Minutes stretched out as if made of dough”). A book about suicide bombing could easily turn mawkish, but the restrained narration reins it in to create a tight and fairly engrossing tale of family ties and religious motivations.

[The third book in the series, Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Orange Grove was published in the UK on May 1st. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

Personal Inscriptions, Etc. in Books

A couple of months ago we finally rescued the last boxes (we think) of our possessions out of my in-laws’ attic and storage cupboard…only five years after we moved out! As I was sorting through a box of my husband’s childhood books, I found a couple that he had won through school prizes – both of which seem to prefigure his love of British wildlife, and badgers in particular.

We also found another book he accidentally inherited from his school when the library burned down – along with the Gerald Durrell memoir and a paperback copy of Animal Farm, that makes three books that never made it back to the school even after they rebuilt. Oops!

I gave some thought to the other personal inscriptions in our book collection. Although we don’t have all that many examples in total, my mother (whom I generally call “Marm”) is the queen of inscriptions: you can count on her to write the date, the occasion, and a heartfelt message inside the front cover of any book she gives as a gift. It’s terribly sweet.

I got the Betty Crocker cookbook as a birthday present just as I was setting off for my Master’s year in Leeds – the first time I ever had to cook for myself. Over the last 11.5 years it’s gotten a lot of use, as the missing fragments of the ring binder show.

Another cookbook with some sentimental value to us is Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course – a classic of English cuisine that we got as a wedding present. It’s extra special as the giver, my husband’s Auntie Joan (not actually an aunt, but a first cousin once removed or something like that), passed away earlier this year.


Do you like writing and/or receiving personal inscriptions in books?