Review Book Catch-Up: Bamforth, McGrath, Mertz

Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.

 

Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)

A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.

“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”

“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”


With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.

 

The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)

I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.

In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.

The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.

Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.

Some favourite passages:

“he walks at the same time everyday             summer and winter

early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)

 

“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)


With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.

 

Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)

“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.

One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!


Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.

 

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

And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.

15 responses

  1. The Carole Mertz poem makes me think of spine poetry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, it is kind of like that! Did you get all the references? There were two I had to look up…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There are only 8 I know for sure, though I can guess at some of the others! I don’t have your encyclopaedic Anne Tyler knowledge, but I did spot Maggie Nelson’s Bluets 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I got all the Tylers easily, but there were books by Neil Gaiman and Alexander McCall Smith that I had to look up.

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  2. I love the poem. And someone sent me Bernie saying Happy Birthday, which was both cheering and fast!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! My husband has been busily inserting Bernie into all sorts of photos. Which day was your birthday? Hope you had a great day!

      Like

  3. Now that is proper Spine Poetry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! Makes more sense than some of my efforts 😉 Then again, I didn’t allow myself additional connecting words.

      Like

  4. […] formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the […]

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  5. I also have the trilogy by McGrath in my pile of books. It sounds wonderful… I can’t wait to get to it!
    The poem is book spine poetry at its best! It kind of makes it fun that you have to search for the titles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could have read print copies of the Santa Rosa trilogy instead of e-books. I think the experience would have been more immersive.

      It’s fun, isn’t it?! It makes me think that my book spine poems would be better if I let myself add in some extra words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You should try it!

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  6. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking for some new podcasts (in the same way I look for more books to add to the TBR, in order words, I don’t need any new ones) and saw one that I thought you might like: https://maximumfun.org/podcasts/sawbones/ (I’ve enjoyed other Maximum Fun podcasts-maybe you have too?)

    Here’s a link to some Toronto contributions to the Bernie meme, although I’d say that my favourite was of him “sitting” in front of Another Story Bookshop, which must have been on their Instagram and now I can’t find it: https://www.blogto.com/city/2021/01/toronto-takes-viral-bernie-sanders-mittens-meme/

    Thank you for linking to my post about Wendy McGrath’s books; I’m so glad that you enjoyed them too. Also, I see that you did not include one specific plot element which would have been spoilery, but it occurred to me that that situation would also have been an instance of bookish synchronicity for you too, with a couple memoirs you’d read around the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah no, I’ve never listened to a podcast so I miss out on things like that!

      Those are great fun! My sister belatedly added him in to her family Christmas card and the fit was one of the best I’ve seen. But of course, now we’ve moved on to another three (or more?) memes already: Hamworth council, Tik Tok sea shanties, and the lawyer who is not a cat. Have I missed any?

      I took my cue from you, as you avoided the element from that opening scene that would have been a spoiler. I came to agree that it wouldn’t be right to talk about, though it added in a neat loop and connections.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I routinely forget that. Maybe it’ll stick in my mind this time.

        Haha, it seems like there must have been something since the “I am not a cat”!

        Maybe it’s the sign of a good book, that there are layers that leave you, at the end, wanting to scream “Did you NOTICE…?” but, at the same time, you don’t want to risk ruining that bit of satisfaction for other readers.

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