August Releases: Fiction Advocate, Kingsolver Poetry, Sarah Moss & More

My five new releases for August include two critical responses to contemporary classics; two poetry books, one a debut collection from Carcanet Press and the other by an author better known for fiction; and a circadian novel by one of my favorite authors.

 

I start with two of the latest releases from Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series. The tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the idea is that “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.” (I reviewed the monographs on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post.)

 

Dear Knausgaard: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle by Kim Adrian

Karl Ove Knausgaard turned his pretty ordinary life into thousands of pages of autofiction that many readers have found addictive. Adrian valiantly grapples with his six-volume exploration of identity, examining the treatment of time and the dichotomies of intellect versus emotions, self versus other, and life versus fiction. She marvels at the ego that could sustain such a project, and at the seemingly rude decision to use all real names (whereas in her own family memoir she assigned aliases to most major figures). At many points she finds the character of “Karl Ove” insufferable, especially when he’s a teenager in Book 4, and the books’ prose dull. Knausgaard’s focus on male novelists and his stereotypical treatment of feminine qualities, here and in his other work, frequently madden her.

So why is My Struggle compelling nonetheless? It occupies her mind and her conversations for years. Is it something about the way that Knausgaard extracts meaning from seemingly inconsequential details? About how he stretches and compresses time in a Proustian manner to create a personal highlights reel? She frames her ambivalent musings as a series of letters written as if to Knausgaard himself (or “KOK,” as she affectionately dubs him) between February and September 2019. Cleverly, she mimics his style in both the critical enquiry and the glimpses into her own life, including all its minutiae – the weather, daily encounters, what she sees out the window and what she thinks about it all. It’s bold, playful and funny, and, all told, I enjoyed it more than Knausgaard’s own writing.

(I myself have only read Book 1, A Death in the Family, and wasn’t planning on continuing with My Struggle, but I think I will make an exception for Book 3 because of my recent fascination with childhood memoirs. I had better luck with Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet, of which I’ve read all but Spring. I’ve reviewed Summer and Winter.)

My rating:

My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.

 

The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir by Alden Jones

Hiking is boring, yet Cheryl Strayed turned it into a beloved memoir. Jones explores how Wild works: how Strayed the author creates “Cheryl,” likeable despite her drug use and promiscuity; how the fixation on the boots and the backpack that carry her through her quest reflect the obsession over the loss of her mother; how the flashbacks break up the narrative and keep you guessing about whether she’ll reach her literal and emotional destinations.

Jones also considers the precedents of wilderness literature and the 1990s memoir boom that paved the way for Wild. I most enjoyed this middle section, which, like Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, surveys some of the key publications from a burgeoning genre. Another key point of reference is Vivian Gornick, who draws a distinction between “the situation” (the particulars or context) and “the story” (the message) – sometimes the map or message comes first, and sometimes you only discover it as you go along.

I was a bit less interested in Jones’s reminiscences of her own three-month wilderness experience during college, when, with Outward Bound, she went to North Carolina and Mexico and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail and a volcano. This was the trip on which she faced up to her sexuality and had a short-lived relationship with a fellow camper, Melissa. But working out that she was bisexual and marrying a woman were both, as presented here, false endings. The real ending was her decision to leave her marriage – even though they had three children; even though the relationship was often fine. She attributes her courage to go, believing something better was possible, to Strayed’s work. And that’s the point of this series: rereading a contemporary classic until it becomes part of your own story.

My rating:

My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.

 

Two poetry releases:

Growlery by Katherine Horrex

As in Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts, released by Carcanet in June, I noted the juxtaposition of natural and industrial scenes. Horrex’s “Four Muses” include a power plant and a steelworks, and she writes about pottery workers and the Manchester area, but she also explores Goat Fell on foot. Two of my favorite poems were nature-based: “Omen,” about corpse flowers, and “Wood Frog.” Alliteration, metaphors and smells are particularly effective in the former. Though I quailed at the sight of an entry called “Brexit,” it’s a subtle offering that depicts mistrust and closed minds – “People personable as tents zipped shut”. By contrast, “House of Other Tongues” revels in the variety of languages and foods in an international student dorm. A few poems circle around fertility and pregnancy. The linking themes aren’t very strong across the book, but there are a few gems.

My rating:

My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver may not be well known for her poetry, but this is actually her second collection of verse after the bilingual Another America/Otra America (1992). The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of travel poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four shorter remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. As with The Undying by Michel Faber, the book’s themes are stronger than its poetic techniques, but Kingsolver builds striking natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.

Two favorite passages to whet your appetite:

How to drink water when there is wine— / Once I knew all these brick-shaped things, / took them for the currency of survival. / Now I have lived long and I know better.

Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse / asleep in the shade of your future. / Pay at the window. You’ll be surprised: you / can pass off hope like a bad check. You still / have time, that’s the thing. To make it good.

(To be reviewed in full, in conjunction with other recent/upcoming poetry releases, including Dearly by Margaret Atwood, for Shiny New Books.)

My rating:

I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss. (I’m unsure of the line breaks above because of the formatting.)

 

And finally, a much-anticipated release – bonus points for it having “Summer” in the title!

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

This is nearly as compact as Moss’s previous novella, Ghost Wall, yet contains a riot of voices. Set on one long day at a Scottish holiday park, it moves between the minds of 12 vacationers disappointed by the constant rain – “not that you come to Scotland expecting sun but this is a really a bit much, day after day of it, torrential” – and fed up with the loud music and partying that’s come from the Eastern Europeans’ chalet several nights this week. In the wake of Brexit, the casual xenophobia espoused by several characters is not surprising, but still sobering, and paves the way for a climactic finale that was not what I expected after some heavy foreshadowing involving a teenage girl going off to the pub through the woods.

The day starts at 5 a.m. with Justine going for a run, despite a recent heart health scare, and spends time with retirees, an engaged couple spending most of their time in bed, a 16-year-old kayaker, a woman with dementia, and more. We see different aspects of family dynamics as we revisit a previous character’s child, spouse or sibling. I had to laugh at Milly picturing Don Draper during sex with Josh, and at Claire getting an hour to herself without the kids and having no idea what to do with it beyond clean up and make a cup of tea. Moss gets each stream-of-consciousness internal monologue just right, from a frantic mum to a sarcastic teen.

Yet I had to wonder what it all added up to; this feels like a creative writing student exercise, with the ending not worth waiting for. Cosmic/nature interludes are pretentious à la Reservoir 13. It’s not the first time this year that I’ve been disappointed by the latest from a favorite author (see also Hamnet). But my previous advice stands: If you haven’t read Sarah Moss, do so immediately.

My rating:

My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

What August releases can you recommend?

28 responses

  1. I had a very different reaction to the “cosmic/nature interludes” in Summerwater. For me, they were what brought the whole book together, emphasising, as they did, the importance of ingrained habits in our behaviour, some of which are so deep that they can only be seen as genetic memory. Isn’t this what provokes the final scene? Actually a deeply disturbing message about human nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, you got more out of those snippets than I did.

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  2. I haven’t read Moss yet, but plan to read this one.
    I disliked the premise of Knausgaard’s work and after reading a long tedious, far too self-involved essay, couldn’t bring myself to indulge a writer who has a more than sufficient following.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d class this among her weakest books, but if it appeals to you do give it a go — and know that you have lots of wonderful stuff to discover from her!

      I have had mixed experiences with autofiction. Some I love and some I do indeed find indulgent. I preferred Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet to the first volume of My Struggle because the autobiographical writing is diffused into essays on all kinds of topics.

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  3. 100% agree about the interludes in Summerwater, and about Reservoir 13! I also found the ending too abrupt.

    I really liked Abi Andrews’ The Word for Woman is Wilderness as a deconstructed take on the nature-writing/wilderness literature genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like the sound of The Word for Woman is Wilderness. I think I possibly have it on my Kindle from NetGalley ages ago? I’ll check.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well I’ve bought myself the Sarah Moss – so read it I shall. I can’t get along with McGregor, but hope the Moss will work for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reservoir 13 was a DNF for me. Luckily she doesn’t follow McGregor’s pattern slavishly here, though the tone was reminiscent. I hope you’ll enjoy more than I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We’ll have to agree to disagree about both Mcgregor and Summerwater.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. No arguments from me about Moss’s talent in general, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m about to start Summerwater and have read other comparisons to Resevoir 13 (which I loved).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Then I think you are likely to love this, too!

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  7. I can’t help but notice that readers who love Reservoir 13 also seem to love Summerwater, and those who don’t, don’t like either. Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seems like a scientifically proven correlation to me!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Speaking of summer, I’ve always meant to read KOK’s seasonal quartet. However, I just picked up Tove Jansson’s THE SUMMER BOOK–in anticipation of the film TOVE coming out this fall. And, my current WIP is half set in Finland, so I’m hoping to be inspired!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I didn’t know about the film! I’ve read her Winter Book but not Summer — that’ll be one for me to get from the library next summer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The film, a biopic, looks good–such an interesting personality!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. “this feels like a creative writing student exercise” – aha – this is what I feared this book would be and you have confirmed it, thank you. I’ve read her Names for the Sea and got v cross with her attitude given the amazing treat I’d kill for, to live in Iceland for a year, never fancied her fiction. I’ve not read my August releases on NetGalley but I can highly recommend The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes and the reissue of Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of her other fiction is exquisite — my favourite is the historical Signs for Lost Children — so I certainly wouldn’t dissuade you from trying something different by her. I’ve read all but her more academic-style books.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Ahh, I liked Summerwater a lot more than you did. (And what exactly happens to the little girl on the tyre swing?! We never actually find out and it really chilled me, especially the attitude of the teenage girl in that section…) I didn’t think it achieved the same claustrophobia as Ghost Wall, but her ability to move in and out of minds is brilliant. And I didn’t mind the nature interludes quite so much either!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kept waiting for the fab vignettes to build/add up to something more… I think I need to go back and reread the first few books I read by her, especially Night Waking.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh I’ve never read Night Waking before and I’ve been told it’s phenomenal

        Like

    2. It was my first from her and I didn’t really appreciate it; hoping I would more now.

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  11. I’ m so curious about the Dear Knausgaard book; I wonder how it works legally, whether you have to get the author’s permission to publish a work which so clearly depends on another author’s published (and revenue-rich, presumably) work? Even though I’ve not read the series, I’d still be interested in this, loving books about reading so much.

    I’m also curious, what makes the passages in Sarah Moss’ book, the ones about nature, pretentious? Is it her use of language? or something else entirely? I’ve only read one of her books, and I found it very accomplished and thoroughly layered and complex. She’s someone I’d definitely like to explore more, but her books have not been as readily available here and I got behind and now it seems like a rather daunting project (simply in terms of numbers and time and attention).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about the legal issues. She quotes pretty extensively from his work as well. I would definitely recommend the entire Fiction Advocate series to you. You’ve probably read all the books the monographs are based on. I only requested review copies of the ones about books I’ve already read. I have the one on Middlesex coming up next.

      Pretentious for me there was over-freighted with meaning and foreboding, when actually all she was doing was describing the woods for a paragraph. (Others got more out of these passages than I did, though.) She doesn’t have all that many books and they are all well worth reading despite my few quibbles. Most are contemporary, but the historical ones happen to be my favourites.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oohhhh, you are so right. Not that I’ve read all the books (but they are all books I’ve meant to read) but that the entire imprint is of interest. It reminds me of the Ig Publishing series about memorable/popular books/writers–another favourite. Thanks for the nudge! (Also, Middlesex is such a satisfying read. An old-fashioned family saga without being old-fashioned!)

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    2. I planned to reread Middlesex but have ended up doing just a skim back through before I read the Afterwords response.

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  12. […] This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one. […]

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