Catching Up on Review Books: Antlers, Arnett, E. Williams, Yamboliev

Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.


Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie

This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.

Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.

Favorite lines:

“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)

inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)

My rating:

My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.


Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”

After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.

This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.

Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.

My rating:

My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.


The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.

Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.

A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”

Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

My rating:

My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.


Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev

When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.

I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.

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.

My rating:

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


What recent releases can you recommend?

23 responses

  1. Antlers of Water sounds like a really interesting collection. I also loved Middlesex but it’s so long since I read it; I wonder how it would hold up today. There’s been so much writing on trans and non-binary identities since it was published, but to my knowledge, still not very much on being intersex.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I seem to have read a lot about Orkney and Shetland lately; it’s really making me want to go back!

      The only other intersex novel I’ve read is Annabel by Kathleen Winter — it was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011 and was also pretty interesting (I thought I’d rated it 4 stars, but it was actually only 3). I picked up Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin the other day, which is more of a YA take, but swiftly gave up as the Mum and kid voices were a little creaky and there was a pretty brutal scene early on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I actually started Annabel when it was on the Orange Prize longlist, but didn’t get on with it!

        I still haven’t managed to get to Orkney and Shetland – I’ve been keen since my trip to the Outer Hebrides three years ago.


    2. I went in 2006. The island groups feel very unique, and very different to each other. I’m also keen to get to Lewis and Harris.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the Williams. Being something of a word nerd, it was right up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I very nearly used the phrase “word nerd” in my review 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really wanted to read Antlers of Water but didn’t get sent one sadly


    1. That’s too bad, Paul. I’d be happy to send it on to you once Chris has read it!


  4. Hah. ” It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky..” Indeed.

    I’ve just finished Farzana Doctor’s Seven, which I quite enjoyed. (I’ll include the link here, because I think it might appeal to your interest in health-related issues.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, fiction that deals with medical issues is always of interest! Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also discovered that the American rights were sold too and I think the book is being published there this week (it was early September here). I think her publisher uses Edelweiss, IIRC.


    2. It looks like it’s already archived on NetGalley, and not available for request on Edelweiss, alas. Some day!


  5. Middlesex has to be one of my favourite books of all time. And thank you for reminding me about The Liar’s Dictionary; I want to get a copy for a lexicographer friend and the title had slipped my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, perfect for a lexicographer!


  6. I have The Liar’s Dictionary at the back of my mind though trying so hard not to acquire more stuff off my own bat (as opposed to lovely review books) at the moment. As you’re made of sterner stuff than me, I can recommend Unofficial Britain by Gareth E Rees. At least he and his editor liked my review even though the book freaked me out a bit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be happy to pass my proof copy on to you. (I have a few books set aside for you. I’ll send a parcel your way by birthday/Christmas.)

      After seeing your review and Paul’s, I am certainly interested in Unofficial Britain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that would be lovely, thank you! Would you like any more Wendy Perriams? Or anything I’ve reviewed recently as I’m trying not to hang on to tooooooo much.


    2. I have a couple of Perriams on the shelf that I found at Bookbarn and in Hay, so I’m probably good for those at the moment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. 1. I love the cover of the first book, as well as that last quote by Strang.
    2. Too bad about Mostly Dead Things, because it sounds like a riot. I thoroughly enjoyed your review of it.
    3. A recent release I think you’d like: If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger


    1. Yes, her poem about walking made me think of your recent post. It was what I needed to hear — don’t wait, just get out there and take a walk!

      Ooh, medical and grief themes, definitely one for me. I’ve added it to my wish list.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This whole series of of monographs sounds fascinating! I’ve enjoyed your reviews and hope to pick up several of these 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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