Five Early March Releases: Jami Attenberg, Tayari Jones and More

Last week was one of the biggest weeks in the UK’s publishing year. Even though I’ve cut down drastically on the number of review books I’m receiving in 2020, I still had six on my shelf with release dates last week. Of course, THE biggest title out on the 5th was The Mirror and the Light, the final volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I’m eagerly awaiting from the library – I’m #3 in a holds queue of 34 people, but there are three copies, all showing as “Received at HQ,” so mine should come in any day now.

But for those who are immune to Mantel fever, or just seeking other material, there’s plenty to keep you busy. I give short reviews of five books today: a couple of dysfunctional family stories, two very different graphic novels and some feminist nonfiction.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

(Published by Serpent’s Tail on the 5th; came out in the USA from Houghton Mifflin in October)

Most of the action in Attenberg’s seventh book takes place on one day, as 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, struck down by a heart attack, lies on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. There’s more than a whiff of Trump about Victor, who has a shadowy mobster past and was recently hit with 11 sexual harassment charges. Forced to face the music for the first time, he fled Connecticut with his wife Barbra, citing the excuse of wanting to live closer to their son Gary in Louisiana. Victor had been abusive to Barbra throughout their marriage, and was just as violent in his speech: he could crush their daughter Alex with one remark on her weight.

So no one is particularly sad to see Victor dying. Alex goes through the motions of saying goodbye and telling her father she forgives him, knowing she doesn’t mean a word. Meanwhile, Gary is AWOL on a work trip to California, leaving his wife Twyla to take his place at Victor’s bedside. Twyla’s newfound piety is her penance for a dark secret that puts her at the heart of the family’s breakdown.

Attenberg spends time with each family member on this long day supplemented by flashbacks, following Alex from bar to bar in downtown New Orleans as she tries to drown her sorrows and exploring other forms of addiction through Barbra (redecorating; not eating or ageing) and Twyla – in a particularly memorable scene, she heaps a shopping cart full of makeup at CVS and makes it all the way to the checkout before she snaps out of it. There’s also an interesting pattern of giving brief glimpses into the lives of the incidental characters whose paths cross with the family’s, including the EMT who took Victor to the hospital.

This is a timely tragicomedy, realistic and compassionate but also marked by a sardonic tone. Although readers only ever see Victor through other characters’ eyes, any smug sense of triumph they may feel about seeing the misbehaving, entitled male brought low is tempered by the extreme sadness of what happens to him after his death. I didn’t love this quite as much as The Middlesteins, but for me it’s a close second out of the four Attenberg novels I’ve read. She’s a real master of the dysfunctional family novel.


My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)

(Published for the first time in the UK by Oneworld on the 5th)

Speaking of messed-up families … Growing up in 1980s Atlanta, Dana and Chaurisse both call James Witherspoon their father – but Chaurisse’s mother doesn’t even know that Dana exists. Dana’s mother, however, has always been aware of her husband’s other family. That didn’t stop her from agreeing to a quick marriage over the state line. Jones establishes James’s bigamy in the first line; the rest of the novel is mostly in two long sections, the first narrated by Dana and the second by Chaurisse. Both girls recount how their parents met, as well as giving a tour through their everyday life of high school and boyfriends.

I was eager to read this after enjoying Jones’s Women’s Prize winner, An American Marriage, so much. Initially I liked Dana’s narration as she elaborates on her hurt at being in a secret family. The scene where she unexpectedly runs into Chaurisse at a science fair and discovers their father bought them matching fur coats is a highlight. But by the midpoint the book starts to drag, and Chaurisse’s voice isn’t distinct enough for her narration to add much to the picture. A subtle, character-driven novel about jealousy and class differences, this failed to hold my interest. Alternating chapters from the two girls might have worked better?


My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

New graphic novels from SelfMadeHero:

 

The Mystic Lamb: Admired and Stolen by Harry De Paepe and Jan Van Der Veken

[Translated by Albert Gomperts]

I’ve been to Ghent, Belgium twice. Any visitor will know that one of the city’s not-to-be-missed sights is the 15th-century altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. On our first trip we bought timed tickets to see this imposing and vibrantly colored multi-paneled artwork, which depicts various figures and events from the Bible as transplanted into a typically Dutch landscape. De Paepe gives a comprehensive account of the work’s nearly six-century history.

Ghent altarpiece (Jan van Eyck / Public domain)

It’s been hidden during times of conflict or taken away as military spoils; it’s been split into parts and sold or stolen; it narrowly escaped a devastating fire. Overall, there was much more detail here than I needed, and far fewer illustrations than I expected. If you have a special interest in art history, you may well enjoy this. Just bear in mind that, although marketed as a graphic novel, it is mostly text.

 

Thoreau and Me by Cédric Taling

[Translated by Edward Gauvin]

I can’t seem to get away from Henry David Thoreau in my recent reading. Last year I reviewed for the TLS two memoirs that consciously appropriated the 19th-century environmentalist’s philosophy and language; the other night I found mentions of Thoreau in a Wallace Stegner novel, a new nature book by Lucy Jones, and travel books by Nancy Campbell and Charlie English. So I knew I had to read this debut graphic novel (but is it a memoir or autofiction?) about a Paris painter who is plagued by eco-anxiety and plans to build his own off-grid home in the woods.

Cédric and his middle-class friends are assailed by “white hipster guilt.” A brilliant sequence has a dinner party discussion descend into a cacophony of voices as they list the ethical minefields they face. Though Cédric wishes he were a prepared alpha male with advanced survival skills that could save his family, his main strategy seems to be panic buying cold-weather gear. Thoreau, depicted sometimes as a wolf or faun and always with a thin, tubular mosquito’s nose (like a Socratic gadfly?), comes to him as an invisible friend and guru, with quotes from Walden and his journal appearing in jagged speech bubbles. This was a good follow-up to Jenny Offill’s Weather with its themes of climate-related angst and perceived helplessness. I enjoyed the story even though I found the drawing style slightly grotesque.

 

My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.

 

And one extra:

 

The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time to Come Clean about Who Does the Dishes by Sally Howard

(Published by Atlantic Books on the 5th)

I only gave this feminist book about the domestic labor gap a quick skim as, unfortunately, it repeats a lot of the examples and statistics that were familiar to me from works like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez (e.g. the Iceland women’s strike in the 1970s) and Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. The only chapter that stood out for me somewhat was about the “yummy mummy” stereotype perpetuated by the likes of Jools Oliver and Gwyneth Paltrow.


My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

20 responses

  1. James Ashley Shea | Reply

    Rebecca, you read more than I do — far more. But I am an old man. Right now I’m a bit more than halfway through Death Comes for the Archbishop, for the first time, and loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a wonderful novel, probably my favorite that I’ve read by Cather. I read it around the same time as a trip to Santa Fe, which made it even more special. Do read My Antonia as well.

      Like

  2. I’m looking forward to the Attenberg and will be reviewing the Jones on Friday. I think I liked it more than you. I’m off to Ghent next week so will be adding The Mystic Lamb to my list. Thanks for the heads up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, enjoy Ghent! Fingers crossed that your travels go smoothly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Silver Sparrow now and it’s really dragging – there just isn’t enough there to justify its length. It’s a shame, as I’ve read all Jones’s other novels and they’ve zipped along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m relieved that you’re having the same reaction and it’s not just me. It’s made me wary of the rest of her back catalogue — but you think it’s worth reading?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I loved Leaving Atlanta but I didn’t think that The Untelling was anything special, although it was much pacier than Silver Sparrow.

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    2. Cool, I’ll keep Leaving Atlanta on the TBR.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m particularly looking forward to reading the Attenberg – I have enjoyed all of her previous books. She seems to get the balance between humour and the bigger emotional themes just right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that she gets the tone just right. This is very much in Middlesteins territory again. I was not a fan of All Grown Up, but have enjoyed the other three of hers I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn’t care for An American Marraige so will skip the new Jones novel. The Attenberg sounds far more interesting.. As for Mantel…. I’m reading it now and it’s wonderful though you do need strong arms to hold it while reading. It’s huge….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps I’ll rig up some lap cushions for holding the Mantel — though that means the poor cat would be turfed off…

      If you didn’t enjoy Jones’s work previously, I would definitely advise giving this ‘new’ (old) one a miss.

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      1. The cushions sounds like a good strategy

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  6. Obviously Mantel is on the list. Tayari Jones, not so much. I didn’t not enjoy her first book, but I’m in no hurry to read any more. We may get to Ghent this summer, so if can get hold of The Mystic Lamb, I will. Our library service is not so good on graphic novels, apart from Manga.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you struggle with the thought of graphic novels, so this one may be a good halfway house for you in that it’s mostly text with perhaps 15 pages of comics illustrations and a final section giving fairly good-quality reproductions of the altar panels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I can source it. Honestly, you’d convinced me to give graphic novels a go, but without the library’s help (and on balance, I really can’t complain about the quality and breadth of the stock) I can’t even get started.

        Like

    2. I do understand that. My current library system’s graphic novel holdings are small, whereas when I worked in London and used the Lambeth system there were loads to choose from. That’s when I started really exploring the genre.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s a shame about the Jones – I have it on my wishlist but might wait till I see a secondhand copy come through. I am interested in it being set in Atlanta again as it’s a city I very much enjoyed visiting and have explored by myself.

    “A Bite of the Apple” by Lennie Goodings which is just out is the story of her life at Virago Books and is excellent so far. And “A History of Pictures” by David Hockney and Martin Gayford is exceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very interested in A Bite of the Apple.

      My dad is from Georgia, but in all the years we went to visit extended family down there I don’t think we went into Atlanta itself. I’d be happy to pass on my limited-edition proof copy of Silver Sparrow to you — here’s hoping we get to meet up sometime soon! The Anne Tyler event I was meant to go to next week was cancelled, but they hope to rebook her for later in the year.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no, re the Anne Tyler (I worked out I could go, using Bank of Matthew funds (husb gives me money for Birthday and Christmas on a spreadsheet then I use it through the year) but then I chose to go to the book launch instead). I would love to have your proof copy if you don’t mind, one month down the line when people can physically see each other again, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

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