Four Recent Review Books: Ernaux, Nunez, Rubin & Scharer

Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.

Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.


Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)

[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]

“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…

This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.

My rating:

With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.



The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)

“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.

This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)

My rating:

With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.



Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)

What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.

Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.

My rating:

With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.



The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)

This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.

Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.

My rating:

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.



Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

35 thoughts on “Four Recent Review Books: Ernaux, Nunez, Rubin & Scharer

  1. There’s always that sense of dread when a dog appears in a novel, isn’t there. My theory is that we feel pain for animals, both in fiction and in life, because if we allowed ourselves to feel it for humans we’d be unable to continue.

    Very pleased that the Scharer makes the grade. There’s been so much hype around it I thought it might not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there’s also something about the helplessness of an animal, especially one that’s placed itself into your hands and trusts you implicitly. I have encountered a few scenes of wanton violence towards animals in current reads (Lanny and Things in Jars) and it is pretty distressing.


  2. I totally agree with your assessment of The Friend – I was impressed by the sheer amount of intertextuality but also by how deep she was able to dig into the themes she introduced in such a short little book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I could do with some more practical advice than deciding whether kitchen utensils “spark joy” so the Rubin book could be a great help. Does she ‘wake up the books’ before removing them like Kondo did in one of her programmes on Netflix???

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an inspiring set of reviews! I would love to read The Friend and am glad all ended ok for the Great Dane. Funny that you should mention how upsetting bad things happening to animals in books is – last night I was reading Mouthful of Birds – Samantha Scwheblin – and there is an upsetting story about a dog which I had to skip over, just horrid. We have a Great Dane locally, who is notorious – so huge, and has had my dog in his mouth before now, very worrying. Last time I saw him he was riding in the back of his owner’s open top sports car and looked so funny, as his head was towering above everyone else’s. I am also interested in the book about Lee Miller – she was so beautiful and interesting, and I have enjoyed other books about women behind famous meme – Mrs Hemingway, and White Houses for example. BTW, I read the Ackerley book about his dog, what a curious book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s tough to come across stories of cruelty to animals or animal suffering. Maybe such books need to come with trigger warnings! I agree that My Dog Tulip was a most peculiar memoir. I skimmed Ackerley’s My Father and Myself recently and the same goes for that one — he is strangely forthright about sexual matters given the conventions of the time.

      I generally love ‘famous wives’ books (though in this case Miller and Ray were never married). Mrs Hemingway is a great example.


  5. Thanks for the rundown, Rebecca. I was put off The Friend when I first came across it because it sounded like fairly hard going, but four stars means it’s definitely worth a try. I’ve added it to my TBR. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s got a great cover.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, thank you from us all for reassuring us about the dog! I would fancy the Rubin as I sit here in my clutter. I’m reading one about Life Admin at the moment for Shiny but it only has two terrible reviews on Amazon and so far it seems to have told me that admin is a category the author has found that will shed light on her whole lives, whereas I think most of us know what life admin is. But it’s early days.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The only one I’ve read is the Scharer but the one in which I’m most interested in is the Nunez. I’ve had it from the library and just couldn’t squeeze it in before the duedate.

    To add to our conversation on the Scharer on my post, I would be inclined to agree that some editing could have changed the shape of the story to satisfy more readers, but I’m glad she didn’t simply shorten the story and that she does show the decline of their relationship. Often people focus on the beginnings of things and look away from the difficult parts of, but that dissolving relationship seemed to have impacted her even more than it influenced her when it was flourishing. So I felt it was important to witness its fading. (Although I’m in no position to judge because all I know of LM’s life is what’s in this book, so everything I know about the failure of the relationship, I only know from Scharer’s perspective!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like the Nunez would be just your sort of thing.

      I agree the crash and burn (or, rather, slow disintegration) was important to show. It was hard to believe that they were only together for a year, so much happened. But my interest definitely waned around the 2/3 point. One aspect I didn’t even touch on but perhaps found most intriguing was Miller’s childhood trauma and her relationship with her father, including his excruciating visit to Paris.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s true. But – and this isn’t to minimize her experience in that very instance – but I kinda feel like I could pull out a few details like that — but they’re all stemming to a biographical interest in her as a person — not to the way in which the event was depicted in the novel but the fact that it happened. So if part of her goal was simply to raise interest in her as a person, curiosity about her life, well, yes, it did accomplish that. But I’m still unlikely to follow up with a bio (although I love the resource sections in books like these). I found that short Candid Camera film strangely mesmerizing though!


    2. Like Susan said on your post, you’d be a good developmental editor! (Is that something you do already?)

      Imagine my surprise to find the other day, in Clive James’s book Injury Time, a poem entitled “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub”!


    1. I would say don’t let that put you off — it made me want to read the authors I haven’t read. But you could always do an Amazon ‘Look inside’ and see if the style draws you in or not.


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