Review Books Roundup: Blackburn, Bryson, Pocock, Setterwall, Wilson

I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.

 

The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn

Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”

In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)

My rating:


With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.

 

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.

Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.

My rating:


With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.

 

Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock

Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.

It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.

This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.

My rating:


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

 

Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall

[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]

Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.

Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.

My rating:


With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.

 

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.

You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.

My rating:


With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.

  

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

20 responses

  1. Great roundup! 😀
    I am mostly intrigued by Let’s Hope for the Best, I think mainly because of how it is told. It seems like the two story lines would make the whole book more heart-wrenching, especially if it resembles true events from the author’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad one of these caught your interest! For me it unfolded slowly, but it was undoubtedly moving. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Bryson’s The Body. Definitely.

      Like

      1. It was fascinating! And, though maybe not as funny as his travel books, very entertaining. ________________________________

        Like

  2. I’ve been circling Let’s Hope for the Best, expecting a wrenching read which must have been all the more so for you, Rebecca, given your sister’s experience. Malmquist’s book was excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It didn’t quite live up to that one for me, but my interest in the subject matter was enough to keep me going.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t say the Bryson attracted me at all, but I’m intrigued by your very positive review. I thought it would be too generalist, but I know how extensively you’ve read in this area and so trust your judgment! The one I’m probably most drawn to, though, is the Pocock.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It may depend on whether you like his style; I’ve read almost everything he’s written. I think he gives just enough information on everything.

      The Pocock is very interesting and I hope will find the readership it deserves. I worry that the plain packaging won’t draw people in (the U.S. cover at least has a subtitle and photo on it).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I heard chunks of the Bryson on the radio, and found it accessible and interesting. So maybe that goes top of the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Accessible and interesting are just the words for it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was pondering the Kevin Wilson just yesterday, having loved his debut, The Family Fang. Not sure about the Bryson, but then again, I’m sure I’d learn loads from it.

    Like

    1. I’m not tempted to read any more by Wilson after this one.

      If you’re a Bryson fan, you can’t go wrong; if not, you could always try a sample.

      Like

  6. Surrender is the most interesting to me. I didn’t like Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid but I did really enjoy that one he did about houses so I’ll probably end up reading that one at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked At Home as well. I still have his big history-of-everything style science book to read. Judging by this one, I will really love it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d love to read The Body. Too bad the Wellcome Prize isn’t running next year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pretty much anything Bryson writes is guaranteed to be amusing.

      Yes, I’m sad the Prize is on hiatus this year, but I will try to take the opportunity to catch up on some previous years’ winners and shortlisted titles.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. […]

    Like

  9. […] Wolves and rewilding in the American West also come into the memoir-in-essays Surrender by Joanna Pocock, about the two years of loss and change she spent in Missoula, Montana and her […]

    Like

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