Review Book Catch-Up: Fox, Le Riche, Nunez, and Thammavongsa

Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.

 

The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)

The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.

The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.

With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.

 

Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)

Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.

For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”

I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.

With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.

 

A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)

My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.

Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.

Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.

The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.

First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.

 

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)

Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.

The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.

Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

 

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

24 responses

  1. I’d love to read the Nunez, another fan here. Also the Cooking Alone appeals, I like the idea of its vague recipes, and handy hints from the 1950s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a sweet little book for that reason. I think vagueness in recipes was much more common before our time. The older they are, the vaguer — “add enough sugar and cook it until it is done” sort of thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really liked The Friend by Nunez, and bought Salvation City on the strength of it – but was sadly disappointed. I posted on them in Sept last year and Jan this year respectively. This one sounds ok.

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    1. Feather was 5* for me (very rare). I’ve heard mixed reviews of Salvation City and one of the others, but I’ll still likely give them all a try. She has a limited enough body of work that that would be manageable.

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  3. I’m so pleased you enjoyed How to Pronounce Knife. My first Nunez – The Friend – is working its way up my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt like one of the last people on Earth to read it, but I’m very glad I did. It seems like the kind of short story collection that just about anyone would enjoy.

      I hope you enjoy The Friend. I thought it was lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very keen to read both the Nunez and the Thammavongsa .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely in the Sigrid Nunez. I read The Friend and want to read more of her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to find more fellow fans.

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  6. I loved the Thammavongsa. There is a cohesiveness to the collection in its focus on the lives of Lao immigrants in Canada, but I was so impressed by her range – I felt like it covered a lot more ground than most short story collections, which can get a bit repetitive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it hard to pinpoint why so few of the stories stood out in my memory. It may just be that I didn’t take any notes (which I usually do for a book I’m reviewing).

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  7. Cooking Alone looks very sweet, I love books like that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was. I think someone who lives alone might still find some valuable tips in it.

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  8. The Sigrid Nunez book attracts me I must admit, as much as for the subject matter as for your positive comments. And I have a lot of time for Kate Fox, having met her at a conference on autism, heard her stand-up performance and read some of her poems in a previous collection, Chronotopia.

    She was also Loughborough team captain for a fairly recent University Challenge series on college alumni, answered most of the questions for her team and gave a (sometimes unintended) entertaining performance as they progressed to the semi-final.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw that her Twitter photo is of her on a quiz show. That’s neat that you met her! I have an interest in autism and have read a fair bit about it and by autistic authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve more than an interest as I’m self-diagnosed, my partner is diagnosed (and an author of a book on it to boot!) while our eldest is also officially diagnosed, so you can guess why I have a lot of time for Kate Fox!

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      2. That explains it! I have some friends and acquaintances with ASD.

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  9. A few years back, a coworker was reading an older Nunez (about a group of women friends) and she would tell me about it daily when she was passing my desk for lunch (nobody else in the office read books) and I decided, then, that I would love Nunez. And, apparently, that was good enough for me…because I’ve never read one, but I persist in believing that I would/will love all her stuff. Thammavongsa is so clear and direct, the prose spare but not stark. Like you, I think she would appeal to all readers, not only short story readers. If you can find it, her poetry is also very beautiful and polished.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like The Last of Her Kind — my priority to find and read next.

      I worked in a library, so there were lots of fellow readers! But a very wide range of tastes. My first book club was an after-work one with five or so colleagues. We read everything from Philip K. Dick to Ali Smith.

      I doubt her poetry would be easy to find over here. A neat coincidence I noticed was that I was also reading another prose work by a writer who’d previously published four poetry collections (Doireann Ní Ghríofa).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s it! She loved it. I still remember her clutching it to her as she shuffled reluctantly back to her desk, not wanting to stop reading. You’re lucky: I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a group of people who loved to read. Although I’ve mostly been able to find one or two people who did, along the way!

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  10. We share the same favourites from How to Pronounce Knife! Wasn’t it heartbreaking to see the husband trying to hard to please his wife in Randy Travis?

    I’ve never read Nunez, but I would like to. I keep seeing reviews of her books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A worthy Giller Prize winner! I’m so glad I finally got the chance to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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