Category: Reviews

2017 Fiction Picks from Rosemary & Reading Glasses

I asked Carolyn Oliver of Rosemary & Reading Glasses for her top fiction picks from 2017 and she came up with this list of 13 cracking recommendations. I doubt you’ll be able to resist adding at least one of these to your TBR.

 

Best 2017 Fiction: A Baker’s Dozen

These were my favorite works of fiction published (in the United States) in 2017, listed in the order I read them. One caveat: as I write this, there are 22 days left in 2017, so I may find another favorite; there are some heavy hitters (Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing comes to mind) that haven’t found their way to my nightstand yet.

 

Human Acts, Han Kang: I admit, this book, which traces the human costs of the brutally repressed Gwanju Uprising, is difficult to read. Worth the effort, though, for its urgent questions about the nature of humanity.

 

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee: A twentieth-century family saga about Korean immigrants in Japan. Expansive and richly textured.

 

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry: A recently widowed natural historian and a village curate spar over rumors of a returned prehistoric serpent. Sumptuous.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: The resident ghosts look on with consternation as Abraham Lincoln visits their cemetery to mourn over the body of his son, Willie. Polyphonic; extraordinarily moving.

 

The Wanderers, Meg Howrey: Three astronauts undertake a long-term simulation of a mission to Mars, leaving their loved ones behind. Wonderful literary sci-fi, absorbing in its physical and psychological detail.

 

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid: Two young lovers become part of a global migration through mysterious doors that connect locations all over the world. Intimate and tender.

 

My Darling Detective, Howard Norman: A tale of family secrets set in 1970s Halifax, featuring plainspoken people and delightful use of radio drama. From my review: “noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice.”

 

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry: Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty chronicles his survival in the American West (and the Civil War) and his love for fellow soldier John Cole. Fearsomely beautiful.

 

The Mountain, Paul Yoon: Six exquisite short stories, set in different locations over the past 100 years, from a master of the form.

 

The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin: The blistering final book in Ms. Jemisin’s stunning Broken Earth trilogy (must be read in order, so start with The Fifth Season if you’re new to the series). Superb speculative fiction.

 

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng: The complexities of race, class, and motherhood swirl in a Cleveland suburb (my hometown) in this deft, compassionate novel.

 

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado: Short stories grounded in the body but shot through with elements of horror and fantasy. Won’t take it easy on you, but you won’t want to stop reading, either. Brilliant.

 

The Power, Naomi Alderman: Women harness a power within themselves that turns the tables on men. Atwoodian dystopia at its finest.

 

 


A huge thank-you to Carolyn for this guest blog!

Which one of her picks do you want to read first?

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November’s Novellas: A Wrap-Up

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.

For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)

To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.

Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:

(On the Kindle: Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki.)

 

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

[112 pages]

Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.

A favorite passage:

“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”

 

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)

[104 pages]

The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.

 

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

[151 pages]

Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.

Some favorite passages:

“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”

“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”

“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”

 

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

[110 pages]

West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.

 

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

[134 pages]

This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.

 


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

Classic of the Month: Under the Net (#IMReadalong)

I plan to dip in and out of Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to increase my familiarity with Murdoch and get through some of the paperbacks I happen to own. Even though I don’t own it, I decided to join in with Under the Net (1954) to see how her fiction career began. My university library copy is a rebound 1960s Penguin paperback, so – alas! – has a generic cover. See Liz’s introductory post for the different cover images and to get a peek at some of the recurring Murdochian themes that make their first appearance here.

Under the Net is narrated by Jake Donoghue, a translator who arrives back in London after a trip to France to find that he’s being kicked out of the flat where he’s been living for free with his friend Finn. In his desultory search for where to go next he takes readers along to Mrs Tinckham’s cat-filled shop, his Jewish philosopher friend Dave’s place, and the theatre where a former girlfriend, Anna Quentin, is in charge of props. (One of my favorite scenes has him accidentally locked into the theatre overnight; he has to sleep among the costumes.)

Anna’s sister Sadie, an actress, offers Jake a role as her bodyguard; she has a stalker of sorts, fireworks manufacturer and film studio owner Hugo Belfounder – whom, it turns out, Jake already knows. Together they were guinea pigs for an experiment on the common cold, and Jake secretly worked up Hugo’s conversations into a poorly received book called The Silencer. “Hugo was my destiny,” Jake muses; even though he’s embarrassed to see Hugo again, he gets drawn back into a connection with him.

One of the central themes of the novel, playing out with various characters, is the difficulty of seeing people clearly rather than resting with the image of them you’ve built up in your mind. I enjoyed Jake’s contrasting of physical and intellectual work, and his (sometimes contradictory) reflections on solitude and introversion:

I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life. I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer.

I hate solitude, but I am afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide.

If like myself you are a connoisseur of solitude, I recommend to you the experience of being alone in Paris on the fourteenth of July.

Many readers probably expect Murdoch’s books to be dense and difficult, bogged down with philosophical ideas. But what I most noticed about this first novel is how humorous it is: it’s even madcap in places, with some coming and going via windows and Mister Mars, the film star dog, playing dead to get Jake out of a sticky situation. Over at Liz’s blog we’ve been discussing whether Murdoch is a typical ‘woman writer’; if her books had been published anonymously or under her initials, would it have been assumed that she was a man? I think so, given her success in creating a male narrator and her focus on the world of work and less traditional domestic arrangements.

This is my sixth Murdoch book. I didn’t enjoy Under the Net as much as the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea or The Bell (), but liked it more than The Black Prince and An Unofficial Rose () [I’ve also read one of her philosophy books, The Fire and the Sun (; I could make neither head nor tail of it)], so it falls in the middle for me so far at a solid . I’m looking forward to participating with several more of the readalong books next year, starting with A Severed Head in March.

Another favorite line, spoken by Hugo: “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”

 


Have you read anything by Iris Murdoch? Do you enjoy her work?

Join us for one or more of the readalong books!

Nonfiction Novellas for November

Nonfiction novellas – that’s a thing, right? Lots of bloggers are doing Nonfiction November, but I feel like I pick up enough nonfiction naturally (at least 40% of my reading, I’d estimate) that I don’t need a special challenge related to it. I’ve read seven nonfiction works this month that aren’t much longer than 100 pages, or sometimes significantly shorter. For the most part these are nature books and memoirs. I’m finishing off a few more fiction novellas and will post a roundup of mini reviews before the end of the month, along with a list of the titles that didn’t take and some general thoughts on novellas.


 

“We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

[48 pages]

This isn’t even a novella, but an essay published in pamphlet form, based on a TED talk Adichie gave as part of a conference on Africa. I appreciate and agree with everything she has to say, yet didn’t find it particularly groundbreaking. Her discussion of the various stereotypes associated with feminists and macho males is more applicable to a society like Lagos, though of course the pay gap and negative connotations placed on women managers are as relevant in the West. 

Favorite line: “At some point I was a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men.”

 

Orison for a Curlew: In search of a bird on the edge of extinction by Horatio Clare

[101 pages]

Clare was commissioned to tell the story of the slender-billed curlew, a critically endangered marsh-dwelling bird that might be holding out in places like Siberia and Syria but is largely inaccessible to the European birding community. With little hope of finding a bird as good as extinct, he set out instead to speak to those in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria who had last seen the bird before its disappearance: conservationists, hunters, bird watchers and photographers. Clare writes well about nostalgia, hope and the difference individuals can make, but there’s no getting around the fact that this book doesn’t really do what it promises to. [Also, much as I hate to say it, this is atrociously edited. I know Little Toller is a small operation, but there are some shocking typos in here: “pilgrimmage,” “bridwatching,” “govenor,” “refinerey”; even the name of the author’s town, “Hebdon Bridge”!] 

Some favorite lines:

“A huge cloud of black storks jump up like an ambush of Hussars in their red bills and leggings, white fronts and dark uniforms.”

“The wheels click-beat the rails as we follow a river valley north past dozy dolomitic scenery in ageing lemon sunlight”

 

Herbaceous by Paul Evans

[106 pages]

This was Evans’s first book, and the first issued in the Little Toller monograph series. These are generally exceptionally produced nature books on niche subjects. Herbaceous is hard to categorize. In some ways it’s similar to Evans’s Guardian Country Diary columns: short pieces blending straightforward observations with poetic musings. However, some of them read more like short stories, and the language – appropriately for a book about flora? – can be florid. They probably work better read aloud as poems: I remember him reading “Skunk cabbage” at the New Networks for Nature conference some years back, for instance. Some lines are a little oversaturated with metaphor. But others are truly lovely. 

A few favorite lines:

“The following morning the text of journeys appear[s] on snow: trident marks of pheasant, double slots of fallow deer, dabs of rabbit.”

“Bordello black and scarlet, six-spot burnet moths swing on the nodding idiot scabious flower through a lavender-blue sky and deep, deep under roots, the fossilised fury of the mollusc’s empire heaves.”

“A bed of pansies tilts flat blue faces to the sun like a deaf and dumb funeral.”

 

 

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman

[83 pages]

Hoffman wrote this 15 years after her own bout with breast cancer to encourage anyone going through a crisis. Each chapter title begins with the word “Choose” – a reminder that, even when you can’t choose your circumstances, you can choose your response. For instance, “Choose Whose Advice to Take” and “Choose to Enjoy Yourself.” This has been beautifully put together with blue-tinted watercolor-effect photographs and an overall yellow and blue theme (along with deckle edge pages – a personal favorite book trait). It’s a sweet little memoir with a self-help edge, and I think most people would appreciate being given a copy. The only element that felt out of place was the five-page knitting pattern for a hat. Though very similar to Cathy Rentzenbrink’s A Manual for Heartache, this is that tiny bit better. 

Favorite lines:

“Make a list of what all you have loved in this unfair and beautiful world.”

“When I couldn’t write about characters that didn’t have cancer and worried I might never get past this single experience, my oncologist told me that cancer didn’t have to be my entire novel. It was just a chapter.”

 

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

[130 pages]

Though written in 1955 (I read a 50th anniversary edition copy), this still resonates and deserves to be read alongside feminist nonfiction by Virginia Woolf, May Sarton and Madeleine L’Engle. Solitude is essential for women’s creativity, Lindbergh writes, and this little book, written during a beach vacation in Florida, is about striving for balance in a midlife busy with family commitments. Like Joan Anderson, Lindbergh celebrates the pull of the sea and speaks of life, and especially marriage, as a fluid thing that ebbs and flows. Divided into short, meditative chapters named after different types of shells, this is a relatable work about the search for a simple, whole, purposeful life. The afterword from 1975 and her daughter Reeve’s introduction from 2005 testify to how lasting an influence the book has had. 

Favorite lines:

“Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

“The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”

“I no longer pull out grey hairs or sweep down cobwebs.”

“It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next.”

 

Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie

[116 pages]

Ruth Picardie, an English freelance journalist and newspaper editor, was younger than I am now when she died of breast cancer in September 1997. The cancer had moved into her liver, lungs, bones and brain, and she only managed to write 6.5 weekly columns for Observer Life magazine, which her older sister, Justine Picardie, edited. Matt Seaton, Ruth’s widower, and Justine gathered a selection of e-mails exchanged with friends and letters sent by Observer readers and put them together with the columns to make a brief chronological record of Ruth’s final illness, ending with a 20-page epilogue by Seaton. Ruth comes across as down-to-earth and self-deprecating. All the rather Bridget Jones-ish fretting over her weight and complexion perhaps reflects that it felt easier to think about daily practicalities than about the people she was leaving behind. This is a poignant book, for sure, but feels fixed in time, not really reaching into Ruth’s earlier life or assessing her legacy. I’ve moved straight on to Justine’s bereavement memoir, If the Spirit Moves You, and hope it adds more context. 

Favorite lines:

“You ram a non-organic carrot up the arse of the next person who advises you to start drinking homeopathic frogs’ urine.”

“Worse than the God botherers, though, are the road accident rubber-neckers, who seem to find terminal illness exciting, the secular Samaritans looking for glory.”

 

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

[108 pages]

This is something of a lost nature classic that has been championed by Robert Macfarlane (who contributes a 25-page introduction to this Canongate edition). Composed during the later years of World War II but only published in 1977, it’s Shepherd’s tribute to her beloved Cairngorms, a mountain region of Scotland. But it’s not a travel or nature book in the way you might usually think of those genres. It’s a subtle, meditative, even mystical look at the forces of nature, which are majestic but also menacing: “the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Shepherd dwells on the senses, the mountain flora and fauna, and the special quality of time and existence (what we’d today call mindfulness) achieved in a place of natural splendor and solitude: “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” 


 

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

Final Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist Reviews

A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.

 

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

By Minoo Dinshaw

Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).

Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”

Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:

Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.

The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.

Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.


Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

 

The End of the Day

By Claire North

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:

When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…

The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.

After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.

Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.

I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.


Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

Novellas in November, Part 1

This is my second year of joining Laura (Reading in Bed) and others in reading mostly novellas in November. I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for short books, limiting myself to ones of around 150 pages or fewer. First up: four short works of fiction. (I’m at work on various ‘nonfiction novellas’, too.) For the first two I give longer reviews as I got the books from the publishers; the other two are true minis.

 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

(translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak)

[146 pages]

I heard about this one via the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Quirkiness is particularly common in indie and translated books, I find, and while it’s often off-putting for me, I loved it here. Greg achieves an impressive balance between grim subject matter and simple enjoyment of remembered childhood activities. Her novella is, after all, set in Poland in the 1980s, the last decade of it being a Communist state in the Soviet Union.

The narrator (and autobiographical stand-in?) is Wiolka Rogalówna, who lives with her parents in a moldering house in the fictional town of Hektary. Her father, one of the most striking characters, was arrested for deserting from the army two weeks before she was born, and now works for a paper mill and zealously pursues his hobbies of hunting, fishing, and taxidermy. The signs of their deprivation – really the whole country’s poverty – are subtle: Wiolka has to go selling hand-picked sour cherries with her grandmother at the market even though she’s embarrassed to run into her classmates; she goes out collecting scrap metal with a gang of boys; and she ties up her hair with a rubber band she cut from an inner tube.

Catholicism plays a major role in these characters’ lives: Wiolka wins a blessed figure in a church raffle, the Pope is rumored to be on his way, and a picture of the Black Madonna visits the town. A striking contrast is set up between the threat of molestation – Wiolka is always fending off unwanted advances, it seems – and lighthearted antics like school competitions and going to great lengths to get rare matchbox labels for her collection. This almost madcap element balances out some of the difficulty of her upbringing.

What I most appreciated was the way Greg depicts some universalities of childhood and adolescence, such as catching bugs, having eerie experiences in the dark, and getting one’s first period. This is a book of titled vignettes of just five to 10 pages, but it feels much more expansive than that, capturing the whole of early life. The Polish title translates as “Unripe,” which better reflects the coming-of-age theme; the English translator has gone for that quirk instead.

A favorite passage:

“Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.”


Thanks to Portobello Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

[126 pages]

Written somewhat in the style of a bird field guide, this is essentially a set of flash fiction stories you have to put together in your mind to figure out what happens to two seemingly conventional middle-class families: the Harrisons and the Hungates, neighbors on Long Island. Frank Harrison dies suddenly in 2008, and the Hungates divorce soon after. Their son Gabe devotes much of his high school years to drug-taking before an accident lands him in a burn unit. Here he’s visited by his girlfriend, Lacey Harrison. Her little brother, Tommy, is a compulsive liar but knows a big secret his late father was keeping from his wife.

The chapters, each just a paragraph or two, are given alphabetical, cross-referenced headings and an apparently thematic photograph. For example, “Entertainment,” one of my favorite stand-alone pieces, opens “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood. It dwelled in a dim corner of the living room and came on for national news, Cosby, Saturday cartoons, and football.”

This is a Franzen-esque take on family dysfunction and, like City on Fire, is best devoured in large chunks at a time so you don’t lose momentum: as short as this is, I found it easy to forget who the characters were and had to keep referring to the (handy) family tree at the start. Ultimately I found the mixed-media format just a little silly, and the photos often seem to bear little relation to the text. It’s interesting to see how this idea evolved into the mixed-media sections of City on Fire, which is as epic as this is minimalist, though the story line of this novella is so thin as to be almost incidental.

Favorite lines:

Depending on parent genotype, the crossbreeding of a Bad Habit and Boredom will result in either Chemistry or Entertainment.”

Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as conservationists would have us believe, for without it, the Family would cease to function.


Thanks to Vintage Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

[100 pages]

This is the earliest McEwan work I’ve read (1981). I could see the seeds of some of his classic themes: obsession, sexual and otherwise; the slow building of suspense and awareness until an inevitable short burst of violence. Mary and Colin are a vacationing couple in Venice. One evening they’ve spent so long in bed that by the time they get out all the local restaurants have shut, but a bar-owner takes pity and gives them sustenance, then a place to rest and wash when they get lost and fail to locate their hotel. Soon neighborly solicitude turns into a creepy level of attention. McEwan has a knack for presenting situations that are just odd enough to stand out but not odd enough to provoke an instant recoil, so along with the characters we keep thinking all will turn out benignly. This reminded me of Death in Venice and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

[167 pages – on the long side, but I had a library copy to read anyway]

Neve tells us about her testy marriage with Edwyn, a Jekyll & Hyde type who sometimes earns our sympathy for his health problems and other times seems like a verbally abusive misogynist. But she also tells us about her past: her excess drinking, her unpleasant father, her moves between various cities in the north of England and Scotland, a previous relationship that broke down, her mother’s failed marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As best I can make out, we are meant to question Neve’s self-destructive habits, with Edwyn being just the latest example of a poor, masochistic decision. Every once in a while you get Riley waxing lyrical in a way that suggests she’s a really great author who got stuck with a somber, limited subject: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bus stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.”

Other favorite lines:

“An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real. I’d given my freedom away. Time and again. As if I had contempt for it. Or was it hopelessness I felt, that I was so negligent? Or did it hardly matter, in fact? … Could I trust myself? Not to make my life a lair.”


 

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

The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.

I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)

I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.

Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.

Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”

There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.

My rating:

 

The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:

  • Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
  • Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste  by Bianca Bosker
  • Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
  • The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

 

Other smell-related titles on my TBR:

Nonfiction:

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
  • Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
  • The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
  • The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Fiction:

  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro