Category: Reviews

Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw

I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.

 

All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black

Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”

The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.

Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”

My rating:


All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee

Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.

I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.

Some favorite lines:

“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”

“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”

My rating:


Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw

A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.

Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”

My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.

A favorite passage:

“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”

My rating:


The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

 

Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?

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#16–17: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt & The Invisible Bridge

I’m coming towards the close of my 20 Books of Summer challenge. Now, I’ve done plenty of substituting – some of my choices from early in the summer will have to spill over into the autumn (for instance, I’m reading the May Sarton biography slowly and carefully so am unlikely to finish it before early September) or simply wait for another time – but in the end I will have read 20+ books I own in print by women authors. (Ongoing/still to come are a few buddy reads: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Anna Caig; Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders; and West with the Night by Beryl Markham with Laila of Big Reading Life.)

The two #20Booksof Summer I finished most recently have been the best so far. I’d heard great things about these debut novels but let years go by before getting hold of them, and then months more before picking them up. Though one is more than twice the length of the other, they are both examples of large-scale storytelling at its best: we as readers are privy to the sweep of a whole life, and get to know the protagonists so well that we ache for their sorrow. What might have helped the authors tap into the emotional power of their stories is that both drew on family history, to different extents, when creating the characters and incidents.

 

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013)

Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. When we meet our 81-year-old narrator, she’s just performed at the 1991 Transformer Festival and has caught the attention of a younger acolyte who wants to come interview her at home near Perth, Australia for a documentary film – a setup that reminded me a bit of May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. It’s pretty jolting the first time we see Lena smoke, but as her life story unfolds it becomes clear that it’s been full of major losses, some nearly unbearable in their cruelty, so it’s no surprise that she would wish to forget.

Though Lena bridles at Mo’s many probing questions, she realizes this may be her last chance to have her say and starts typing up a record of her later years to add to a sheaf of autobiographical stories she wrote earlier in life. These are interspersed with the present action to create a vivid collage of Lena’s life: growing up with a pet monkey in Singapore, moving to New Zealand with her lover, frequenting jazz clubs in Paris, and splitting her time between teaching music in England and performing in New York City.

With perfect pitch and recall, young Lena moved easily from the piano to the cello to the theremin. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion. Life has been an overwhelming force from which she’s only wrested fleeting happiness, and there’s a quiet, melancholic dignity to her voice. This was nominated for several prizes in Australia, where Farr is from, but has been unfairly overlooked elsewhere.

Favorite lines:

“I once again wring magic from the wires by simply plucking and stroking my fingers in the aether.”

“I felt the rush of the electrical field through my body. I felt like a god. I felt like a queen. I felt like a conqueror. And I wanted to play it forever.”

“All of the stories of my life have begun and ended with the ocean.”

My rating:


The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt was published in the UK by Aardvark Bureau in 2016. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010)

It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read. It bears similarities to other war sagas such as Birdsong and All the Light We Cannot See, but the focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience was new for me. Although there are brief glimpses backwards and forwards, most of the 750-page book is set during the years 1937–45, as Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe.

A story of survival against all the odds, this doesn’t get especially dark until the last sixth or so, and doesn’t stay really dark for long. So if you think you can’t handle another Holocaust story, I’d encourage you to make an exception for Orringer’s impeccably researched and plotted novel. Even in labor camps, there are flashes of levity, like the satirical newspapers that Andras and a friend distribute among their fellow conscripts, while the knowledge that the family line continues into the present day provides a hopeful ending.

This is a flawless blend of family legend, wider history, and a good old-fashioned love story. I read the first 70 pages on the plane back from America but would have liked to find more excuses to read great big chunks of it at once. Sinking deep into an armchair with a doorstopper is a perfect summer activity (though also winter … any time, really). [First recommended to me by Andrea Borod (aka the Book Dumpling) over five years ago.]

Favorite lines:

“He felt the stirring of a new ache, something like homesickness but located deeper in his mind; it was an ache for the time when his heart had been a simple and satisfied thing, small as the green apples that grew in his father’s orchard.”

“[It] seemed to be one of the central truths of his life: that in any moment of happiness there was a reminder of bitterness or tragedy, like the ten plague drops spilled from the Passover cup, or the taste of wormwood in absinthe that no amount of sugar could disguise.”

“For years now, he understood at last, he’d had to cultivate the habit of blind hope. It had become as natural to him as breathing.”

My rating:

20 Books of Summer #15: Twister by Genanne Walsh

As the members of a small Midwestern town go about their daily business, it’s impossible to forget that a tornado is on its way. We begin with Rose, an ornery woman who, especially after the death of her soldier son Lance shook the town, has kept herself to herself. Perry Brown repeatedly proposes buying her farm so that he can expand his own operation, but she spurns all offers. Estranged from her stepsister Stella, Rose only has her dog Fergus for company. Short meteorological and historical overviews serve as tense interludes, moving from the general to the particular and providing brief transitions between character portraits.

The successive chapters are simultaneous, interlocking stories that all take place in the immediate run-up to the storm touching down. We meet Scottie Dunleavy, an odd fellow who runs a shoe repair shop and leaves secret messages on the soles of people’s footwear. From Louise Logan, a gossipy bank teller, we learn how Rose and Stella fell out; through the eyes of Perry’s wife Nina we see just how tenuous Rose’s solitary existence has become.

After cycling through the perspectives of eight main characters, the book returns to the past in Part II, which starts with the meeting and marriage of Stella’s mother and Rose’s father and moves forward to the near present. The chapters turn choppier as the news of Lance’s death approaches. “Everyone shrank” after the loss of this hometown boy, Walsh writes; like the tornado, his death is an inescapable reality the narrative keeps moving towards.

I love small-town tales where you get to know all the neighbors and their secrets. Twister called to mind for me works by Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, with Rose also somewhat reminiscent of Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. Casualties by Elizabeth Marro is another readalike, focusing on a bereaved mother and her soldier son’s backstory.

Twister was a novel I read slowly, just 10 or 15 pages at a sitting, to savor Walsh’s prose. It’s not a book to race through for the plot but one to linger over as you appreciate the delicacy of the characterization and the electric descriptions of the impending storm:

“If all warnings fail, here is what to look for: the sky turns green, greenish black, brackish. Hail falls. There is a sound that some liken to a freight train, a jet engine, a thousand souped-up Buicks drag racing across a sky. Debris falls from on high—frogs, playing cards, plywood, mud, rock.”

“Warm air rushes ecstatic through the center, pulling and turning, forcing cold air out and down in waves, feeding the dance. Cold coils, pulling inward, more of it and stronger until the warm air snuffs out, the funnel choked, thinning and lifting away. It stretches into a long ribbon, harmless now, twirling across the sky.”

My rating:

 


Twister, Genanne Walsh’s debut novel, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015 and won the publisher’s Big Moose Prize. My thanks to the author for sending a free copy for review.

Two Records of Bodily Transformation: Amateur and Shapeshifters

 

Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee

Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.

What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.

I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

 My rating:


Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.

We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.

My rating:


Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.

I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.

Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.

 

Favorite lines:

“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”

“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”

 

My rating:

 


Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

#20BooksofSummer Bumper Edition! #9–14: Alden, Colwin, Danticat, Kimmel, Lipman & Steinbach

I fly back to the UK later today after a fairly busy few weeks of packing, unpacking, and more packing as I got my mom settled into her new home and dealt with the substantial amount of stuff I still had in storage with my parents. I’ll post later in the week about book culling versus acquisitions. For now, here’s a quick look at the books by women I’ve been reading in print towards my summer challenge: everything from a memoir of infertility to a perfectly summery novel set at a Vermont lake resort.

 

Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden (1998)

I first read this nearly four years ago (you can find my initial review in an early blog post that rounds up three of Alden’s works), and was moved to reread it this summer as a follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. The book focuses on Alden’s uncertainty about having children all the way up to her late thirties, when she underwent three years of somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, infertility treatment. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive,” she writes, an attitude very similar to Heti’s. Yet she feared missing out on the meaning and love a child could bring to her life.

More broadly, the memoir is about the search to integrate the different aspects of a life – including family history and the fateful decisions that seem to have been made for you – into a realistic vision of the future. I didn’t find the book quite as profound this time around, but I noticed that I marked many of the same passages I did four years ago, about the dearth of childless role models and the struggle to accept the life that has become yours, even if it’s not what you predicted for yourself. That proves how influential and comforting it’s been for me.

Favorite lines:

“About the closest I can come to imagining what it would be like to have a child is with our cat, Cecil. For Cecil I feel the most delicious love, but also the most anxious responsibility.”

“It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things—having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best. But who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”

My rating:

 

Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin (1974)

I mostly know Colwin as a food writer, but she also published fiction. This subtle story collection turns on quiet, mostly domestic dramas: people falling in and out of love, stepping out on their spouses and trying to protect their families. I didn’t particularly engage with the central two stories about cousins Vincent and Guido (characters from her novel Happy All the Time, which I abandoned a few years back), but the rest more than made up for them.

Several stories reveal the hidden depths of a character who’s only been a bit player in a protagonist’s life: a family friend who suddenly commits suicide, a Hispanic cook who has a rich boyfriend, a widowed piano teacher whose young student’s accomplishments buoy him up, and a supermarket employee whose ordinary life doesn’t live up to the fantasy background her manager, an art history PhD student, dreams up for her. In “The Water Rats” and “Wet,” water symbolizes all that we can’t control and understand, whether that’s our family’s safety or the inner life of a spouse.

Colwin writes funny, sharp descriptions, like “he was greeted by a young man wearing his hair in the manner of John Donne, a three-piece suit, and cowboy boots” and “she windowshopped, staring with rapt depression at rows of mannikins in glossy trousers.”

Favorite lines:

“She was three years married and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she did not see that she had become any more serious, any less young and heedless, or any more willing to get down to what Richard called ‘the things of life.’ He was right when he said that she had not made up her mind about anything.”

“He looked at his dissertation, or the heap that was to become his dissertation, and sighed again. He was of two minds about this Vermeer business, and he was of two minds about this supermarket business. That accounted for four minds in all, and it made life painful for him.”

My rating:

 

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)

Like her protagonist, Sophie Caco, Danticat was raised by her aunt in Haiti and reunited with her parents in the USA at age 12. As Sophie grows up and falls in love with an older musician, she and her mother are both haunted by sexual trauma that nothing – not motherhood, not a long-awaited return to Haiti – seems to heal. I loved the descriptions of Haiti (“The sun, which was once god to my ancestors, slapped my face as though I had done something wrong. The fragrance of crushed mint leaves and stagnant pee alternated in the breeze” and “The stars fell as though the glue that held them together had come loose”), and the novel gives a powerful picture of a maternal line marred by guilt and an obsession with sexual purity. However, compared to Danticat’s later novel, Claire of the Sea Light, I found the narration a bit flat and the story interrupted – thinking particularly of the gap between ages 12 and 18 for Sophie. (Another Oprah’s Book Club selection.)

Favorite lines:

“She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love.”

“I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too.”

My rating:

 

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001)

Maybe you grew up in or near a town like Mooreland, Indiana (population 300). Born in 1965 when her brother and sister were 13 and 10, Kimmel was affectionately referred to as an “Afterthought” and nicknamed “Zippy” for her boundless energy. Gawky and stubborn, she pulled every trick in the book to try to get out of going to Quaker meetings three times a week, preferring to go fishing with her father. The short chapters, headed by family or period photos, are sets of thematic childhood anecdotes about particular neighbors, school friends and pets. I especially loved her parents: her mother reading approximately 40,000 science fiction novels while wearing a groove into the couch, and her father’s love of the woods (which he called his “church”) and elaborate preparations for camping trips an hour away.

The tone is light-hearted despite hints of unpleasantness around town: open hostility towards people of color, a lecherous music teacher and a kid who abused animals. The more exaggerated stories are reminiscent of David Sedaris’s work – did she really cut hippies’ hair in exchange for an Irish Setter puppy?! Mostly, the book made me think about my mother’s small-town childhood versus my own suburban one, and how I would try to put all my early experiences together in a funny, nostalgic but honest way. It wouldn’t be easy at all, which makes Kimmel’s a noteworthy achievement.

Favorite lines:

“I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place … I will ask for the smell of my dad’s truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline.”

“Mom used to say that my dad was a mountain man, which was obviously just a figure of speech, since most of Indiana is flat as a pancake. Her point was that Dad is a wild man, which was certainly true.”

My rating:

 

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (1998)

This was a breezy, delightful novel perfect for summer reading. In 1962 Natalie Marx’s family is looking for a vacation destination and sends query letters to various Vermont establishments. Their reply from the Inn at Lake Devine (proprietress: Ingrid Berry) tactfully but firmly states that the inn’s regular guests are Gentiles. In other words, no Jews allowed. The adolescent Natalie is outraged, and when the chance comes for her to infiltrate the Inn as the guest of one of her summer camp roommates, she sees it as a secret act of revenge.

In fact, in the years to come, after she trains as a chef, Natalie will become further entwined in the inn’s life, helping the family recover from a tragedy, falling in love with one of the Berry sons, and unwittingly contributing to a livelihood-threatening accident. Natalie’s voice drew me in right from the start. Lipman’s comedies of manners have been compared to Jane Austen’s, and you can see that likeness in the witty dialogue. I’ll certainly read more by her.

My rating:

 

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach (2000)

In 1993 Steinbach, then in her fifties, took a sabbatical from her job as a Baltimore Sun journalist to travel for nine months straight in Paris, England and Italy. As a divorcee with two grown sons, she no longer felt shackled to her Maryland home and wanted to see if she could recover a more spontaneous and adventurous version of herself and not be defined exclusively by her career. Her innate curiosity and experience as a reporter helped her to quickly form relationships with other English-speaking tourists, which was an essential for someone traveling alone.

I enjoyed spotting familiar sites I’ve visited, but I don’t think you need to know these countries or even have a particular interest in them to appreciate the book. Whether she’s attending a swanky party or nearly getting mugged, Steinbach is an entertaining and unpretentious tour guide. Her attitude is impressive, too: “I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me.” You might not be willing to give up your normal existence for nine months, but I suspect that this travel memoir might make you consider how you could be more daring in your daily life.

My rating:

20 Books of Summer, #5–8: Anderson, Cusk, Fitch & L’Engle

I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.

 

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)

This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.

My rating:

 

Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:

“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”

“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”

“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”

 

Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)

I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.

Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”

“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”

 

White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)

Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.

Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.

Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”

“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”

 

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)

L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”

One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”

“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”