Author: Rebecca Foster

Blog Tour Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s exceptional debut novel, The Leavers, was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction in the States, and is now the launch title for Little, Brown UK’s new imprint, Dialogue Books, which will feature “stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream,” specifically those “for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities.” I highly recommend it to fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past.

Eleven-year-old Deming Guo and his mother Peilan (nicknamed “Polly”), an undocumented immigrant, live in New York City with another Fuzhounese family: Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, works in a slaughterhouse, and they share an apartment with his sister Vivian and her son Michael. Deming gets back from school one day to find that his mother never came home from her job at a nail salon. She’d been talking about moving to Florida to work in a restaurant, but how could she just leave him behind with no warning?

Ten years later, Deming is Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and raised in upstate New York by a pair of white professors, Peter and Kay. He’s made a mess of his life with drinking and an addiction to online poker, and has been expelled from college. Now the guitar is his life, but even his best friend and bandmate Roland Fuentes isn’t willing to cut him any slack when he doesn’t show up for rehearsals and performances. Peter and Kay are pulling strings to get Daniel accepted into their college, but he keeps screwing up every chance he’s given. He can only hope his efforts to reconnect with his birth mother will be more successful.

The novel shifts fluidly between a third-person account of our protagonist then (Deming) and now (Daniel) and a first-person confession as Polly explains all: her upbringing in poverty in China, her pregnancy out of wedlock, her illegal entry to the United States, and why she had to leave Deming so suddenly. Polly and Deming/Daniel are vibrant characters, and I ached for their struggles. Both have the sense of being split between lives, of “juggling selves.” Their collective story is about figuring out who you are, what can be made right, and what to leave behind as you move forward in life. It’s such a beautiful novel, and an impressive debut from Lisa Ko.

My rating:

 


The Leavers will be published in paperback by Dialogue Books on April 26th. My thanks to Little, Brown for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews are appearing today.

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Blog Tour: The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore

The Man on the Middle Floor, Elizabeth S. Moore’s debut novel, was released by RedDoor Publishing on April 12. I was sent a copy in an appealing parcel way back in December!

I enjoyed the first-person voice of Nick, a young man in London who is on the autism spectrum and relies on careful weekly schedules and lists of rules of how the world works to fit in. His downstairs neighbor is Tam, a bitter ex-policeman; his upstairs neighbor is Dr. Karen Watson, a mother of three and epidemiologist obsessed with the possible causes of autism. Before long we have a murder mystery on our hands.

 

Today as part of the blog tour I have an extract from the book’s prologue, to give you a taste of Nick’s voice:

 

Tomorrow, my laundry will come. I know that because it always comes, every week, on a Tuesday. Hanging on the door, no creases. No metal hangers, only wooden. In my cupboard I have seven pairs of beige trousers and I have seven white T-shirts, four white buttoned shirts, ten pairs of socks and ten pairs of underpants. Every week I wear them and then they are all put in the laundry basket and I leave it outside my door to be taken away when the clean ones come back, but my jacket and my coat stay here because they are dark and only go over clean clothes so they only get washed every two weeks, but I have a spare for each of those too. My shoes are in the cupboard. My mother told me you should never wash shoes. I keep them here safe. I once heard some people on a bus laughing because one of them had a husband who got drunk and urinated into her shoes. In a cupboard. People are disgusting. I get new ones if mine get smelly. I don’t want smelly shoes and even if you have three showers your feet have to be on the ground for you to go anywhere and there is nothing you can do about it. The ground is covered with dirt and germs and spit. I shiver right up my back when I think about the stuff on the pavement.

On the back of my door, stuck with Blu Tack right in the middle facing me, I have a list. It’s a list of all the things people do if they are functioning normally. I have made it myself by watching other people and by getting advice from my mother and some instructions from my grandpa. I read it before I go out and try to stick to it and if it goes wrong I just get into bed and wait for the next day to come and I make a new start. I used a new pad and very neat writing, all capitals. From the top it says:

WHEN SOMEONE GIVES ME SOMETHING, SAY THANK YOU AND SMILE. WHEN SOMEONE SAYS HELLO TO ME OR ASKS ME A QUESTION, REPLY POLITELY AND TRY TO MAKE EYE CONTACT OR JUST LOOK NEAR TO WHERE THEY ARE.

WASH OFTEN. BE CLEAN, SMELL NICE. WASH MY HANDS AND FEET AND PRIVATE PARTS MOST.

MAKE MY BED NEATLY AFTER BREAKFAST.

TAKE SHOES OFF OUTSIDE FLAT AND CARRY THEM INSIDE.

SPEND NO LONGER THAN TWO HOURS ON THE COMPUTER IN ONE SESSION (OR NO MORE THAN FOUR HOURS IN ONE DAY).

EXERCISE WITH MY DUMBBELLS. A HEALTHY BODY MAKES A HEALTHY MIND.

LAY THE TABLE BEFORE I EAT, TO PRACTISE MY TABLE MANNERS.

There are a lot of rules if you want to look like a functioning adult and I need to concentrate on that all the time. It’s a BIG responsibility living by yourself and if I want to be independent this is the way I can do that. I hate living in shared accommodation and I can’t live with my mother any more, with her watching me, looking worried, and everything dirty and untidy. I like to be alone, and I like to decide what I should do with my days. I will follow all the rules if it makes sure I can live here.

Book Triage

I feel like I have more books staring at me than ever before. I could blame free library reservations and a trip to Wigtown, but there’s one more major reason for the books stacking up: an utter lack of restraint when it comes to requesting or accepting books for review. I’ve had loads of books coming through the door in the past month or so. Some were offered to me by authors or publishers via Goodreads, Twitter or my blog’s contact form. Others I sent e-mails to request after I saw tempting reviews in the Guardian or previews on Susan’s blog.

Of course I want to read all of these books. I really want to read most of them. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of requesting, borrowing or buying them. But even so, there’s only so much time. It’s not just a simple matter of picking up the book(s) from the stack that I most feel like reading at a given moment anymore. No, it’s become a triage process whereby I have to assess them by order of urgency.

So, what are my priorities? Here’s a baker’s dozen, in photos.

 

  1. Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reading. I’m on the last of six now; this is for the blog tour coming up next week.

  1. Library books that are due in early May and requested after me.

  1. Books I’ve requested for a blog review, in release date order. I feel so behind that you can expect some doubled-up reviews or mini-reviews in roundup form.

  1. Books I’ve agreed to review for another outlet, even if that’s just Goodreads.

  1. My first-ever buddy read: Small Island with Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink, arranged months ago. Join us!

  1. Month- or season-specific reads.

  1. Public library books with no current renewal issues.

  1. Booker Prize winners for the 50th anniversary this summer – I’ll at least review the Coetzee for Shiny New Books, and perhaps a few more on the blog if I get the time.

  1. Three more Iris Murdoch novels to read as part of Liz’s #IMReadalong later on in the year, starting in June.

  1. Bibliotherapy prescriptions.

  1. Books I’ve set aside temporarily, generally because I have enthusiastically started too many at once and had to put some down to pick up more time-sensitive review books. Many of these I was enjoying very much and could see turning out to be 4- or even 5-star reads (especially Brooks, Frame and Matthiessen); others I might end up abandoning.

  1. University library books, which can be renewed pretty much indefinitely.

  1. Every other book I own, even if I had it eyed up for a particular challenge. My vague resolution to read lots of travel books and biographies has pretty much gone by the wayside so far. I also have barely managed a single classic. Sigh! There’s still two-thirds of the year left, but I certainly won’t be managing the one a month from these genres that I proposed.

What’s your book triage situation like?

Two Memoirs: Border Control and Breast Cancer

The Line Becomes a River

Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey. Once captured, the would-be immigrants were detained, processed and deported. Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs, cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions. Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job, he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses. Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a more stressful career than he ever realized. Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?

Impressionistic rather than journalistic, the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks, so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection, memories and stories. Cantú inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. He was often called upon to translate for those in custody. I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic, it was good to have someone compassionate in his job.

The final third of the book represents a change of gears: Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker, José Martínez from Oaxaca. When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate, he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers. Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be, helped his wife to gather character witness letters, and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial. There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himself.

I love these endpapers.

It is as if, for the first time, Cantú could see the human scale of U.S. immigration policy, what his mother, a former national park ranger, had described as “an institution with little regard for people.” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are. It was also, he recognized, an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent. “All these years,” he said to his mother, “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.” As he quotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does. In giving faces to an abstract struggle, it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.

My rating:


The Line Becomes a River was published in the UK by Bodley Head on March 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions

It was hard to resist such a great title, especially with my penchant for cancer memoirs. In nine chapters that are almost like linked essays, Kate Figes reflects on the changes that a diagnosis of triple-negative, metastasized breast cancer has wrought in her life. However, like Vesna Goldsworthy’s Chernobyl Strawberries, the book sets the cancer experience within a wider life story of trauma and displacement. In the first essay, as Figes, a freelance nonfiction writer, approached age 60, she delighted in Zeus, their miniature wire-haired dachshund puppy, but also resented the sense of obligation. Cancer quickly changed her perspective.

I appreciated the lack of bitterness; the book’s focus is generally on resilience and on the liberation of knowing that little is now expected of her: “when there is no need to rush just to be able to get through everything I had to achieve each day, there is a glorious sense of freedom, of empty space.” Two chapters go in-depth into Figes’s “arsenal” of cancer-fighting tools, everything from hyperbaric oxygen treatments to yoga. She gave up sugar and swears by cannabis oil, filtered water, supplements and fresh juices. Her embrace of complementary medicine and discussion of her limitations – it takes her an hour and a half to get dressed and have breakfast – will probably mean the most to others with a chronic illness.

As to the other essays, “Tennis” is an ode to a favorite hobby she had to give up; “Mediation” is about training as a family mediator. The psychological understanding she gained through this and through researching her books helped her work through childhood hurt over her parents’ divorce. “The Beach Hut” remembers recent ‘escapes’ to the seaside and contrasts them with her Jewish mother’s* escape from 1930s Germany. “Home,” my favorite essay, is about clearing out her mother’s flat and the memories and comfort a home retains, even decades later. “That’s the power I will leave behind too, the essence of having been really known. It will pervade every piece of crockery I have eaten off, … every chair I have sat on.”

Unfortunately, Figes frequently uses clichéd language – “Cancer can feel isolating” and “battle is the right word” – and seems to give credence to the damaging idea that unresolved emotional trauma caused her cancer. What with the typos and the slight repetition across the essays, this feels like a book that was put together in a hurry. A bit more time and editing could have made it more cohesive and fresh. But perhaps Figes does not have that time. Fellow cancer patients may well appreciate her dispatches from what she calls “Planet Cancer,” but it’s not a book that will particularly stand out for me in this crowded genre.

*Her mother was Eva Figes, an author in her own right.

My rating:


On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions was published by Virago on February 28th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

I Spy TBR Challenge

I spotted this recently on Ex Urbanis and it was too fun to pass up. (I believe the meme started on YouTube, but I’ve been unable to trace the chain back to the very beginning.) There are 20 categories; for each one choose at least one title or cover that fits in some way.

I decided to limit myself to books on my to-read shelves, but had to cheat for two categories and pick books I’ve already read. Some were so easy I could have picked out at least 5–10 books that fit the bill, while others were quite a challenge.

The idea is to gather up all the books within five minutes, but because I had to go up and down the stairs and survey shelves in multiple rooms it took me just over 15! See how fast you can find something for each prompt.

 

Food

Transport

Weapon – This one was really tough, since I don’t read crime fiction. But I finally managed to find a surgeon’s memoir with a scalpel on the cover.

Animal – I could easily have found 15+ for this one, thanks to my husband’s nature books, but I stuck with fiction.

Number

Something You Read

Body of Water

Product of Fire – Another really difficult one, so I cheated with this May Sarton memoir I’ve already read.

Royalty

Architecture

Clothing – Another cheat of sorts: all I could find was the cover of Bill Bryson’s memoir, which I’ve already read.

Family Member

Time of Day

Music

Paranormal Being

Occupation

Season

Color – Another one I could have amassed tons for. (Partially cut off is Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa.)

Celestial Body

Something that Grows

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.

Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.

  • This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.

Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.

  • That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.

Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.

  • O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.

The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.

  • To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.

O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.

You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.

It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.

The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.

Favorite lines:

“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”

My rating:

 

See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:

Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”

Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”

Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”

Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”

 

My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.

 

Shortlist strategy:

  • I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
  • I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.

Meeting Mrs. Malaprop

I’d been aware for perhaps a few years that malapropisms are named after a character who’s prone to verbal gaffes. Last night I met Mrs. Malaprop herself at a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) at nearby Watermill Theatre. This was our second trip to the Watermill, after The Picture of Dorian Gray last September. It’s a small and intimate venue and the production was somewhat in the round, so we were in a row to the left-hand side of the stage. It felt like we were right inside the action, though occasionally one actor would block another such that we couldn’t see the looks passing between them.

It was a small cast of eight actors, four of whom did double duty as servants. We meet two young couples—Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, with whom she’s fallen in love while he’s in disguise as penniless “Ensign Beverley” – they plan to elope; and Julia Melville and Faulkland, who saved her from drowning and has been her betrothed for years—along with two guardian figures, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop, and two hapless suitors played for laughs, country bumpkin Bob Acres and over-the-top-Irish Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The characters’ paths cross in amusing ways while they are all in Bath.

One of the key words in the play is “caprice” – a term you don’t encounter so often these days. (The adjectival form, capricious, is common enough, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the noun.) Several of the characters could be described as capricious, but especially Faulkland, who torments Julia with his doubts about the constancy of her love, and Lydia, who rather loses interest in Captain Jack once she realizes that their guardians approve of their match and she won’t have to undertake a romantic elopement instead.

What with the disguises, misunderstandings, and general farcical atmosphere, The Rivals is reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, though the language is easier to follow. Here in Beth Flintoff’s adaptation, much of the humor comes through in accents and exaggerated facial expressions, though Sir Anthony’s growled insults to his son and Bob Acres’ attempts to pass himself off as a gentleman are also highlights. The whole cast (see this full list) was terrific, including several actors familiar from British television and bit parts in films.

And, of course, there’s Mrs. Malaprop and her wondrous malapropisms. Sheridan would have taken her name from malapropos, a synonym for “inappropriate” first recorded in 1630, and an adaptation of the French term mal à propos (“poorly placed”). The first recorded use of “malaprop” for the wrong use of words was by Lord Byron in 1814. Some of the malapropisms in the play fell flat because both the spoken and intended words are too obscure nowadays. I think the director probably left out certain ones, and added at least one anachronistically modern one: “calamari” for calamity. But there were still some excellent ones. Here are a few of my favorites (see also this complete list):

“promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”

“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”

“she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”

 

[I even spotted a malapropism (can I use that term for written rather than spoken words?) on my cornflakes box this morning:

Do you spot it too?]

 

Great acting, costumes and hairstyles; laughs aplenty; and a rhyming prologue and epilogue that made reference to the modern day (“I’m not going to hex it with jokes about … anything unpleasant!” and “eat less baked beans and drink more champagne”): Altogether a splendid evening out at the theatre.

My rating: