Recommended March Releases: Broder, Fuller, Lamott, Polzin

Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.

 

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.

If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”

With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.

During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.

Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.

With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.

One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).

Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”

The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”

I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin

Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.

I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

24 responses

  1. I had heard of Milk Fed but didn’t know much about it, however you’ve made it sound really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Broder is a Marmite author for sure: I’d advise trialling her style through an excerpt before you commit to reading! I’ve really liked both of her novels and wouldn’t have been surprised to see this on the Women’s Prize longlist along with the Fuller.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to know, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with you about Unsettled Ground. Four novels in quick succession yet Fuller seems to excel herself with each one. I like the sound of Dusk Night Dawn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This happens to be my least favourite of the four, but Fuller’s work is so high quality that that’s not really a criticism.

      Lamott still isn’t particularly well known in the UK, apart from for Bird by Bird, her book on writing. Gently religious self-help seems much more of a thing in the States, but she deserves a larger following here.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I MUST read more Anne Lamott. Our lives are so different, but she’s so insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s great when authors can reach out from their particular circumstances to make a connection! I wasn’t sure if you were interested in the spiritual themes so much, but I’d say this new collection is less overtly religious than a few of her others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not religious myself but I’m really happy to read about religion, if it’s intelligent writing, and I know she’ll deliver that!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Someone at work was just recommending Lamott to me yesterday – this one and her one on writing. So, they’ve both been added to my list, along with Brood which sounds good to me. I like the chickens on the cover!
    I hope to read Unsettled Ground (I was just reading Susan’s review of it) – I read her first two books but then she got away from me. Four books in six years is impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy all three 🙂 I cheated by including the UK cover of Brood; I technically read the US edition for Kindle and the cover just has feathers on it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bird by Bird is a practically a classic writing resource that I’ve enjoyed rereading too (I’ve reviewed it on my writing website as well). She can be quite funny!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That one’s high on my stack of planned re-reads (which has not diminished much so far this year!).

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  5. Wonderful to hear your positive review of the new Lamott. I really enjoy her essays so I’m excited for this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d been a little disappointed with her past few books, but this one felt like a return to form.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t get to read many new releases (hard backs … pricey … or long queue in library), but I finished Unsettled Ground today, and agree with your review. It’s even making one of my choices for ‘Six Degrees’ … this month.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You read that quickly! Glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure the Little Ripon event will be great.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t seem to have any recommended March releases – well, Guvna B’s book Unspoken was pretty good but didn’t seem destined to catch the right audience …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries, there’s always next month. (And you tend to read backlist more than I do.)

      Like

  8. Can’t wait to start the new Fuller (yay, I got an ARC).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your mention of how dreadful the news can seem (and Lamott’s responses) reminds me of a bit that I read in another book I meant to recommend to you, by a father and son team of Perlmutters, Brain Wash. I’m not sure how much the book as a whole would suit, but the sections on how social media has impacted users’ capacity for empathy and, also, the mistaken belief many hold, that the world is more unsafe and more troubled than in past generations (some studies demonstrate that that’s not the case in specific instances, like violent death, etc.), would likely interest you. (Spoiler: He’s not anti-tech; he’s pro mindful-usage. Hee hee. You can’t have spoilers for that kind of book, can you? :))

    Like

    1. All of his/their books look interesting, but of a sort that I would skim from a library, looking for useful nuggets. (Looks like my library only has The Grain Brain Whole Life Plan, though.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions. […]

    Like

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