Category: Reviews

First Encounter: Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I’d heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. As of early June, Vintage has made some of her backlist, including The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial and Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.

 

I read The Red Parts for The Bookbag. Here’s an excerpt from my full review:

Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt’s death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.

My rating: 

 

Bluets is a fragmentary record of Nelson’s arbitrary obsession with the color blue. It’s composed of 240 short numbered essays of about a paragraph each; some are just one or two sentences. At one point Nelson refers to these as “propositions,” but really they are more like metaphorical musings. Blue takes on so many meanings: with the connotation of “depressed”, it applies to her loneliness and sense of loss after the breakdown of a relationship (she continues addressing her former partner as “you” here) and a friend’s serious accident:

Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?

Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

Then there’s blues music (Billie Holiday), seedy sex (“blue movies”), Joan Mitchell’s 1973 abstract painting Les Bluets, Novalis’ blue flower (which gives the title to a Penelope Fitzgerald novel), and so on. Nelson likens herself to a male bowerbird lining her nest with blue – sometimes literally, as with the collection of “blue amulets” that she keeps on a windowsill so sunlight can pass through the glass and illuminate the stones. I recalled that Sarah Perry lists Bluets as one inspiration for The Essex Serpent, in which the character Stella is fascinated with the color blue and keeps a similar trove of trinkets.

Bluets is a difficult work to characterize, but it seems closest in style to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is also built on loosely linked aphorisms. The problem with books like these is that individual lines may stand out as profound but don’t contribute to an overall story line or argument. Moreover, Nelson’s forthrightness about sex, which edges towards crassness and feels out of place in this dreamily academic text, took me some getting used to.

The plant genus that includes cornflowers is sometimes called “bluets.” Photographed by David Wright (Flickr: Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Two more favorite lines:

I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.

If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.

My rating:

Many thanks to Cat Mitchell of Penguin Random House for the free review copy.

 

The Red Parts was the more straightforward and satisfying read of this pair, but Bluets is certainly an original and artful bedside book. I would certainly read more by Nelson; I’m particularly interested in The Argonauts (2015), a memoir about forming her unconventional family – her partner, Harry Dodge, is transgender.

Have you read anything by Maggie Nelson? Do her books appeal?

Classic of the Month: Anna of the Five Towns

This was my first experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction; I’d previously read his Literary Taste. (He is not to be confused, as I’ve done in the past, with novelist and playwright Alan Bennett (An Uncommon Reader, etc.)!) Bennett (1867–1931) was from the Potteries region of Staffordshire and moved to London in his early twenties to work in a law office. Anna of the Five Towns (1902) was his second novel and first moderate success, but it was The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910–16) that truly made his name.

Bennett was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy (though Hardy had given up on novels by that point), and Anna reminds me of each of these authors to an extent – but particularly of Lawrence, what with his working-class Midlands roots. I also frequently thought of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (religious angst) and Far from the Madding Crowd (a heroine who faces romantic entanglements and financial responsibility for the first time).

Twenty-year-old Anna Tellwright is a Methodist Sunday school teacher and lives with her twelve-year-old sister, Agnes, and their ill-tempered father, Ephraim, in “Bursley” (Bennett’s name for Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent). The family is well off thanks to Ephraim’s canny property investments and inheritances he and his late wife received. Yet Anna is still dumbfounded to learn, on her twenty-first birthday, that she’s worth £50,000. Ephraim, generally referred to as “the miser” – there’s no nuance here; he’s typecast and never rises above the label – is happy to turn over certain aspects of the business to Anna, like hounding their tenants the Prices for late rent, but doesn’t give her autonomy over her daily spending. She must meekly approach her father each time she wants to purchase something for herself.

Anna has a suitor, Henry Mynors, whose business Ephraim supports as a sleeping partner. She loves the idea of being loved – and the suspicion that she has unwittingly wrenched a desirable prospect away from pretty Beatrice Sutton. But she doesn’t seem to be truly in love with Henry, just like her heart isn’t fully committed to the local revival put on by the Methodists. After all, she hasn’t had the emotional conversion experience that would prove irrefutably that she is saved. Much as she beats herself up over her so-called sins, the desired transformation never arrives. Instead, the closest thing she has to an epiphany comes when she’s standing atop a hill on the Isle of Man on her first-ever holiday:

She perceived that the monotony, the austerity, the melancholy of her existence had been sweet and beautiful of its kind, and she recalled, with a sort of rapture, hours of companionship with the beloved Agnes, when her father was equable and pacific. Nothing was ugly nor mean. Beauty was everywhere, in everything.

The Prices take on unforeseen significance in the novel, and in her dealings with them Anna is caught between a wish to be Christlike in her compassion and the drive to act as the shrewd businesswoman her father expects. Though she is eventually able to wrest back something like financial independence, she remains bound by the social convention of marrying well.

Arnold Bennett.

Anna is more timid and introspective than your average heroine; I felt great sympathy for her not in spite of but because of those character traits. I recently took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and wondered if Anna could be an ISTJ like me – she dreads having to visit her pupils’ homes and make small talk with the parents, comes across as curt when nervous, and can’t seem to turn her brain off and just feel instead. (Kate Scott of Parchment Girl runs a blog series about characters who exemplify the different Myers-Briggs personality types.)

There’s a lack of subtlety to Bennett’s writing, something I particularly noted in the physical descriptions (“She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity”) and some heavy-handed foreshadowing (“It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer”). But I can let him off considering that this was published 115 years ago. It’s an excellent example of regional literature (can you think of another book set in Staffordshire?), with Anna’s visit to Henry’s pottery works a particular highlight. Bennett takes an unpromising setting and rather humble people and becomes their bard:

Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here—

Several miles away, the blast-furnaces of Cauldron Bar Ironworks shot up vast wreaths of yellow flame with canopies of tinted smoke. Still more distant were a thousand other lights crowning chimney and kiln, and nearer, on the waste lands west of Bleakridge, long fields of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.

The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire—a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table … was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were … hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, currant-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed.

I enjoyed this for the pacey plot, the religious theme, the sympathetic protagonist, and the loving look at an industrial area. I’ll certainly be looking out for copies of Bennett’s other novels in secondhand bookshops; meanwhile, Project Gutenberg also has a good selection of his writings. (My copy was withdrawn from Lambeth Libraries stock and sold for 10 pence.)

My rating:

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (Peirene)

Larry Tremblay is a Francophone writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal. In addition to three novels, he has published a short story collection and many books of poetry and plays. The Orange Grove (2013), which was longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin (formerly IMPAC) literary award, is the fable-like story of one family in the war-torn Middle East and the way notions of justice and sacrifice drive them to make extreme choices.

Tamara and Zahed live with their twin sons, nine-year-old Aziz and Ahmed, alongside an orange grove planted by Zahed’s father. Soulayed, a militant elder from the next village, describes it thus:

Your father, Mounir, worked his whole life on this arid soil. It was desert here. With God’s help your father worked a miracle. Made oranges grow where there had been only sand and stones.

When Mounir and his wife Shahina are killed in a bombing, Soulayed stands among the ruins and counsels Zahed to seek revenge against their enemies by sending one of his sons to be a suicide bomber. There’s no doubt Soulayed is manipulating this grief-stricken family to his own ends, but he isn’t solely to blame when their culture at large romanticizes martyrdom.

Zahed makes his choice, but Tamara won’t accept it. In a clever reprise of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, she helps the boys to make a switch right under their father’s nose. The last third of the book, like a coda, zooms ahead 11 years to show us the surviving brother, coming to the end of a four-year theatre training program in Montreal. He’s given a starring role in his teacher’s wartime play but the story line cuts a little too close to the bone, and for the first time he tells a stranger the story of two brothers: one who died and one who lived.

 

Peirene Press issues novellas in trios. This is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die for the crimes of the many. The Orange Grove has a simple style that edges towards flatness but is saved by the occasional striking metaphor (e.g. “Minutes stretched out as if made of dough”). A book about suicide bombing could easily turn mawkish, but the restrained narration reins it in to create a tight and fairly engrossing tale of family ties and religious motivations.

[The third book in the series, Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Orange Grove was published in the UK on May 1st. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

Four Recommended June Releases

Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read in advance. The first is the sophomore novel from an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before, the second is a highly anticipated memoir from an author new to me, and the third and fourth – both among my favorite books of 2017 so far – strike me as 2018 Wellcome Book Prize hopefuls: one is a highly autobiographical novel about bereavement, and the other is a courageous memoir about facing terminal cancer. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

(Coming from St. Martin’s Press on June 6th)

It’s the summer of 1992 and a plague of gypsy moth caterpillars has hit Avalon Island, a community built around Grudder Aviation. The creatures are just one of many threats to this would-be fairy tale world. For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, it’s no simple Sweet Sixteen time of testing out drugs and sex at parties. Her grandfather, Grudder’s president, is back in town with her grandmother, Veronica, and they’re eager to hide the fact that he’s losing his marbles. Also recently returned is Leslie Day Marshall, daughter of the previous Grudder president; she’s inherited “The Castle” and shocked everyone with the family she brought back: Jules, an African-American landscape architect, and their two mixed-race children.

Depending on when you were born, you might not think of the 1990s as “history,” but this novel does what the best historical fiction does: expertly evoke a time period. Moving between the perspectives of six major characters, the novel captures all the promise and peril of life, especially for those who love the ‘wrong’ people. I especially loved small meetings of worlds, like Maddie and Veronica getting together for tea and Oprah.

My main criticism would be that there is a lot going on here – racism, domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, cancer, teen sex (a whole lotta sex in general) – and that can make things feel melodramatic. But in general I loved the atmosphere: a sultry summer of Gatsby-esque glittering parties and garden mazes, a time dripping with secrets, sex and caterpillar poop.

[It felt like I kept seeing references to gypsy moths in the run-up to reading this book, like a passage from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and a random secondhand book I spotted in Hay-on-Wye (though in that case it’s actually the name of a ship and is a record of a sea voyage).]

Read-alike: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

My rating:

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

(Coming from HarperCollins on June 13th [USA] and from Corsair on August 3rd [UK])

I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay before, but somehow already knew the basics of her story: the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the American Midwest, she was gang raped at age 12, and to some extent everything she’s done and become since then has been influenced by that one horrific experience. Not least her compulsive overeating: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,”she writes. At her heaviest Gay was super morbidly obese according to her BMI, a term that “frames fat people like we are the walking dead.”

Though presented as a memoir, this is more like a collection of short autobiographical essays (88 of them, in six sections). The portions that could together be dubbed her life story take up about a third of the book, and the rest is riffs around a cluster of related topics: weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact (e.g. “My body is a cage of my own making”), which means she never comes across as self-pitying. I appreciate how she holds opposing notions in tension: she doesn’t know how she developed such an “unruly” body; she knows exactly how it happened.

The structure of the book made it a little repetitive for me, but I think what Gay has written will be of tremendous value, not just to rape victims or those whose BMI is classed as obese, but to anyone who has struggled with body image – so pretty much everyone, especially women.

Read-alike: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

My rating:

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist

(Coming on from Sceptre on June 1st [UK] and from Melville House on February 6, 2018 [USA])

In this autobiographical novel from a Swedish poet, Tom faces the loss of his partner and his father in quick succession. The novel opens in medias res at Söder hospital, where Tom’s long-time girlfriend, Karin, has been rushed for breathing problems. Doctors initially suspect pneumonia or a blood clot, but a huge increase in her white blood cells confirms leukemia. This might seem manageable if it weren’t for Karin, 33, being pregnant with their first child. The next morning she’s transferred to another hospital for a Cesarean section and, before he can catch his breath, Tom is effectively a single parent to Livia, delivered six weeks early.

Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting Tom’s bewilderment. He records word for word what busy doctors and jobsworth nurses have to say, but because there are no speech marks their monologues merge with Tom’s thoughts, conversations and descriptions of the disorienting hospital atmosphere to produce a seamless narrative of frightened confusion. There is an especially effective contrast set up between Karin’s frantic emergency room treatment and the peaceful neonatal ward where Livia is being cared for.

While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one.With its frank look at medical crises, this is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

Read-alike: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

My rating:

 

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

(Coming on June 6th from Simon & Schuster [USA] and from Text Publishing on August 3rd [UK])

You’re going to hear a lot about this one. It’s been likened to When Breath Becomes Air, an apt comparison given the beauty of the prose and the literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. It’s a wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

It started with a tiny spot of cancer in the breast. “No one dies from one small spot,” Nina Riggs and her husband told themselves. Until it wasn’t just a spot but a larger tumor that required a mastectomy. And then there was the severe back pain that alerted them to metastases in her spine, and later in her lungs. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective.

Riggs started out as a poet, and you can tell. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. Usually these moments are experienced with family: her tough mother, who died after nine years with multiple myeloma, providing her with a kind of “morbid test drive” for her own death; and her husband and their two precocious sons. Whether she’s choosing an expensive couch, bringing home a puppy, or surprising her sons with a trip to Universal Studios, she’s always engaged in life. You never get a sense of resignation or despair.

Some of my favorite lines:

“inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band”

“my pubic hair all falls out at once in the shower and shows up like a drowned muskrat in the drain.”

“My wig smells toxic and makes me feel like a bank robber. But maybe it is just a cloak for riding out into suspicious country.”

“‘Merry Christmas,’ says a nurse who is measuring my urine into a jug in the bathroom. ‘Do you want some pain meds? Do you want another stool softener?’”

(Nina Riggs died at age 39 on February 23, 2017.)

Read-alike: A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth Williams

 My rating:


What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence

This was indeed the perfect follow-up to Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin, the SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed earlier in the month. W. Somerset Maugham’s short novel functioned like a prequel for me because, whereas Dori focuses on Gauguin’s later life in the South Pacific, Maugham concentrates on his character Charles Strickland’s attempt to make a living as a painter in Paris.

The Moon and Sixpencethe unusual title comes from the TLS reviewer’s description of the protagonist in Of Human Bondage as so absorbed in reaching for the moon that he doesn’t notice the sixpence at his feet – is narrated by an unnamed author drawn into Strickland’s orbit through his wife Amy Strickland’s attendance at London literary soirées. He hasn’t gotten to know the couple very well at all when he hears that Charles, a stockbroker, has abandoned his family and left for Paris to pursue painting – a hobby for which he’s never previously shown any aptitude.

Amy sends the narrator off to Paris to talk sense into her husband, but Charles never shows the least remorse. The narrator marvels at his insouciance and utter conviction that he is meant to be an artist.

He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.

Tucker Collection, New York Public Library Archives (Public Domain).

I noted familiar themes from Of Human Bondage (published in 1915, four years prior to The Moon and Sixpence), especially the artist’s struggle, nomadism and the threat of poverty. Dirk Stroeve, the talentless Dutch painter who becomes friendly with the narrator in Paris and recognizes Strickland’s brilliance even as he lets the man walk all over him, reminded me of the happy-go-lucky Thorpe Athelny in Bondage.

At less than a third of the length of that earlier novel, though, The Moon and Sixpence struck me as a condensed parable about genius and sacrifice.

 

Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. … It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets. … There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to … mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.

This is a fascinating character study, whether or not you’re aware of Gauguin’s life as the inspiration, and would be a great introduction to Maugham’s work if you’ve not read him before. (Secondhand copy from Bookbarn International.)

My rating:

Brain vs. Heart Surgery: Admissions and Fragile Lives

It’s never too early to start thinking about which books might make it onto next year’s Wellcome Book Prize nominees list, open to any medical-themed books published in the UK in calendar year 2017. I’ve already read some cracking contenders, including these two memoirs from British surgeons.


Brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s first book, Do No Harm, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. In short, enthrallingly detailed chapters named after conditions he had treated or observed, he reflected on life as a surgeon, expressing sorrow over botched operations and marveling at the God-like power he wields over people’s quality of life. That first memoir saw him approaching retirement age and nearing the end of his tether with NHS bureaucracy.

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery serves as a sort of sequel, recording Marsh’s last few weeks at his London hospital and the projects that have driven him during his first years of retirement: woodworking, renovating a derelict lock-keeper’s cottage by the canal in Oxford, and yet more neurosurgery on medical missions to Nepal and the Ukraine. But he also ranges widely over his past, recalling cases from his early years in medicine as well as from recent memory, and describing his schooling and his parents. If I were being unkind, I might say that this feels like a collection of leftover incidents from the previous book project.

However, the life of a brain surgeon is so undeniably exciting that, even if these stories are the scraps, they are delicious ones. The title has a double meaning, of course, referring not only to the patients who are admitted to the hospital but also to a surgeon’s confessions. And there are certainly many cases Marsh regrets, including operating on the wrong side in a trapped nerve patient, failing to spot that a patient was on the verge of a diabetic coma before surgery, and a young woman going blind after an operation in the Ukraine. Often there is no clear right decision, though; operating or not operating could lead to equal damage.

Once again I was struck by Marsh’s trenchant humor: he recognizes the absurdities as well as the injustices of life. In Houston he taught on a neurosurgery workshop in which students created and then treated aneurysms in live pigs. When asked “Professor, can you give us some surgical pearls?” he “thought a little apologetically of the swine in the nearby bay undergoing surgery.” A year or so later, discussing the case of a twenty-two-year-old with a fractured spine, he bitterly says, “Christopher Reeve was a millionaire and lived in America and he eventually died from complications, so what chance a poor peasant in Nepal?”

Although some slightly odd structural decisions have gone into this book – the narrative keeps jumping back to Nepal and the Ukraine, and a late chapter called “Memory” is particularly scattered in focus – I still thoroughly enjoyed reading more of Marsh’s anecdotes. The final chapter is suitably melancholy, with its sense of winding down capturing not just the somewhat slower pace of his retired life but also his awareness of the inevitable approach of death. Recalling two particularly hideous deaths he observed in his first years as a doctor, he lends theoretical approval for euthanasia as a way of maintaining dignity until the end.

What I most admire about Marsh’s writing is how he blends realism and wonder. “When my brain dies, ‘I’ will die. ‘I’ am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information,” he recognizes. But that doesn’t deter him from producing lyrical passages like this one: “The white corpus callosum came into view at the floor of the chasm, like a white beach between two cliffs. Running along it, like two rivers, were the anterior cerebral arteries, one on other side, bright red, pulsing gently with the heartbeat.” I highly recommend his work to readers of Atul Gawande and Paul Kalanithi.

My rating:

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Thomas Dunne Books on October 3rd.

 

 

What Marsh does for brain surgery in his pair of memoirs, Professor Stephen Westaby does for heart surgery in Fragile Lives, a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from his long career. A working class lad from Scunthorpe who watched his grandfather die of heart failure, he made his way up from hospital porter to world-leading surgeon after training at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.

Each of these case studies, from a young African mother and her sick child whom he met while working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to a university student who collapses not far from his hospital in Oxford, is told in impressive depth. Although the surgery details are not for the squeamish, I found them riveting. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

Like Marsh, he tries not to get emotionally attached to his patients, but often fails in this respect. “Surgeons are meant to be objective, not human,” he shrugs. But, also like Marsh, at his retirement he feels that NHS bureaucracy has tied his hands, denying necessary funds and equipment. Both authors come across as mavericks who don’t play by the rules, but save lives anyway. This is a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys books on a medical theme.

A few favorite lines:

 “We stop life and start it again, making things better, taking calculated risks.”

“We were adrenaline junkies living on a continuous high, craving action. From bleeding patients to cardiac arrests. From theatre to intensive care. From pub to party.”

My rating:


Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table was published in the UK by HarperCollins on February 9th. I read a public library copy. It will be published in the USA, by Basic Books, under the title Open Heart on June 20th.

Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Ironically, Tuesday’s post on all the books I’ve abandoned so far in 2017 was my most popular in ages; it received nearly twice as many views as most of my recent posts. I think readers must find it reassuring that they’re ‘allowed’ to give up on a book rather than struggle through to the end of something they’re really not enjoying. However, I unwittingly stirred up some controversy when I shared the post on a Facebook group for book bloggers and authors and got a few replies along the lines of “I would never write about a book I didn’t like or didn’t finish. It’s not fair to the author.” Hmmm.

Anyway, today I have five pretty much unreserved recommendations instead. An original take on the American Civil War, a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy, a highly unusual travel book, a creative blending of poems and recipes, and a wonderful book about sisters and betrayal from a Canadian author new to me. I hope you’ll find something here to enjoy.


Days Without End

By Sebastian Barry

An entirely believable look at the life of the American soldier in the 1850s and 1860s, this novel succeeds due to its folksy dialect and a perfect balance between adventuresome spirit and repulsion at wartime carnage. While it shares some elements with Westerns and Civil War fiction, it’s unique in several ways. Though thrilling and episodic, it’s deeply thoughtful as well. Thomas writes semi-literate English but delivers profound, beautiful statements all the same. Lovely metaphors and memorable turns of phrase abound. Finally, this book is the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: these may be clichés, but here’s one novel that is all these things and more. Truly unforgettable. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on the Native American practice of cross-dressing, known as winkte or berdache.)

My rating:

 

New Boy: Othello Retold

By Tracy Chevalier

(My second favorite in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.) Chevalier is known for historical fiction, but here she gives Othello a near-contemporary situation and a backdrop much closer to home: her native Washington, D.C. Spring 1974: it’s Ghanaian diplomat’s son Osei Kokote’s first day at a new school. Fortunately, he’s taken under the wing of one of the most popular sixth grade girls, Dee, and they’re soon inseparable. The novel takes place all in one day, divided into discrete sections by recess periods and a lunch break. Jump rope rhymes, jungle gyms, kickball games, arts and crafts, and a typical cafeteria meal of Salisbury steak and tater tots: it’s impressive how Chevalier takes ordinary elements and transforms them into symbols of a complex hierarchy and shifting loyalties. The language of possession and desire felt overly dramatic to me when applied to eleven-year-olds. However, it’s a remarkable exploration of the psyche of a boy isolated by his race. (Full review forthcoming at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)

My rating:  (maybe more like 3.75)

 

Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel

By Thomas H. Cook

Cook is a crime writer. In this out-of-the-ordinary travel memoir he blends personal experience and history to tell of the ‘dark places’ he’s drawn to visiting. In 28 chapters that jump around in chronological order, he chronicles journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. Some are well known – Lourdes, Auschwitz, Verdun and Ground Zero – while others, like a Hawaiian leper colony and the hideaway of a fifteenth-century serial killer, require more background. A section on Okinawa and Hiroshima is among the book’s highlights: excellent descriptions of the mass suicide rooms where the Japanese retreated as the Americans approached and the atomic bomb drop itself bring history to life. But the most memorable chapter of all is one in which suffering touches Cook in a personal way. A meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (See my full review at Nudge.)

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Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry

By Nicole Gulotta

This arose from Gulotta’s blog of the same title. It’s a luscious mix of food-themed poems – none of which I’d ever encountered before, even if certain of the poets were familiar to me (like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Wendell Berry) – commentary, personal anecdote and recipes that manage to hit the sweet spot in a Venn diagram between trendy, frugal, simple and indulgent. I could see myself making and eating any of these recipes, but my eye was particularly drawn to baked sweet potatoes with maple yogurt, vanilla-pear crumble, butternut squash macaroni and cheese, olive oil pumpkin bread, and cornmeal waffles. It might seem like this is a book that would only have niche appeal, but I don’t think that’s the case. Whether you like to cook or just like to eat, whether you love poetry or struggle to understand it, I’d recommend this for pleasant occasional reading. It only misses out on five stars because some of the observations are fairly obvious; these poems mostly speak for themselves.

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A Student of Weather

By Elizabeth Hay

Set between the 1930s and 1970s, Hay’s debut (shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize in 2000) focuses on a pair of sisters, Norma Joyce and Lucinda Hardy, and the frostbitten young weather researcher who stumbles upon their Saskatchewan farmhouse one January evening in 1938. “Two sisters fell down the same well, and the well was Maurice Dove.” Seventeen-year-old Lucinda became the capable family housekeeper after their mother’s death. Norma Joyce is a precocious, sneaky eight-year-old. On each of Maurice’s visits, and in the years to come, they quietly jostle for his attention. Despite the upheaval of war and a move to Ontario, some things never change. Hay lends her story allusive depth by referencing biblical pairs of opposites: Jacob and Esau, Mary and Martha, and the Prodigal Son and his jealous older brother. My favorite parts were when the sisters were together in Canada; once Norma Joyce moves to New York, the book starts drifting a bit. However, there are such astute observations about what goes on in family and romantic relationships, and many perfect sentences. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this slowly over the course of a month, and I’d gladly read anything else from Hay.

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Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?