Just two weeks until moving day – we’ve got a long weekend ahead of us of sanding, painting, packing and gardening. As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been so good as to send me. Today I review three short works: the story of accompanying a beloved husband to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, a coolly perceptive novella of American girlhood, and a vivid memoir of two momentous relationships. (April was a big month for new books: I have another 6–8 on the go that I’ll be catching up on in the future.) All:
In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
“We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”
(Ameche family saying)
Given the psychological astuteness of her fiction, it’s no surprise that Bloom is a practicing psychotherapist. She treats her own life with the same compassionate understanding, and even though the main events covered in this brilliantly understated memoir only occurred two and a bit years ago, she has remarkable perspective and avoids self-pity and mawkishness. Her husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. But he needed Bloom’s help.
“I worry, sometimes, that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out. It seems to me that I’m doing the right thing, in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would feel better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a dutiful duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s”
She achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality. Research into acquiring sodium pentobarbital via doctor friends soon hit a dead end and they settled instead on flying to Switzerland for an assisted suicide through Dignitas – a proven but bureaucracy-ridden and expensive method. The first quarter of the book is a day-by-day diary of their January 2020 trip to Zurich as they perform the farce of a couple on vacation. A long central section surveys their relationship – a second chance for both of them in midlife – and how Brian, a strapping Yale sportsman and accomplished architect, gradually descended into confusion and dependence. The assisted suicide itself, and the aftermath as she returns to the USA and organizes a memorial service, fill a matter-of-fact 20 pages towards the close.
Hard as parts of this are to read, there are so many lovely moments of kindness (the letter her psychotherapist writes about Brian’s condition to clinch their place at Dignitas!) and laughter, despite it all (Brian’s endless fishing stories!). While Bloom doesn’t spare herself here, diligently documenting times when she was impatient and petty, she doesn’t come across as impossibly brave or stoic. She was just doing what she felt she had to, to show her love for Brian, and weeping all the way. An essential, compelling read.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso
I’ve read Manguso’s four nonfiction works and especially love her Wellcome Book Prize-shortlisted medical memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. The aphoristic style she developed in her two previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. She’s an only child whose parents no doubt were doing their best after emotionally stunted upbringings but never managed to make her feel unconditionally loved. Praise is always qualified and stingily administered. Ruthie feels like a burden and escapes into her imaginings of how local Brahmins – Cabots and Emersons and Lowells – lived. Her family is cash-poor compared to their neighbours and loves nothing more than a trip to the dump: “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things; they simply liked getting things that stupid people threw away.”
The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. She has to make everything about her; any minor success of her daughter’s is a blow to her own ego. I marked out an excruciating passage that made me feel so sorry for this character. A European friend of the family visits and Ruthie’s mother serves corn muffins that he seems to appreciate.
My mother brought up her triumph for years. … She’d believed his praise was genuine. She hadn’t noticed that he’d pegged her as a person who would snatch up any compliment into the maw of her unloved, throbbing little heart.
At school, as in her home life, Ruthie dissociates herself from every potentially traumatic situation. “My life felt unreal and I felt half-invested. I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream.” Her friend circle is an abbreviated A–Z of girlhood: Amber, Bee, Charlie and Colleen. “Odd” men – meaning sexual predators – seem to be everywhere and these adolescent girls are horribly vulnerable. Molestation is such an open secret in the world of the novel that Ruthie assumes this is why her mother is the way she is.
While the #MeToo theme didn’t resonate with me personally, so much else did. Chemistry class, sleepovers, getting one’s first period, falling off a bike: this is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them. I found myself inhabiting memories I hadn’t revisited for years, and a thought came that had perhaps never occurred to me before: for our time and area, my family was poor, too. I’m grateful for my ignorance: what scarred Ruthie passed me by; I was a purely happy child. But I think my sister, born seven years earlier, suffered more, in ways that she’d recognize here. This has something of the flavour of Eileen and My Name Is Lucy Barton and reads like autofiction even though it’s not presented as such. The style and contents may well be divisive. I’ll be curious to hear if other readers see themselves in its sketches of childhood.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
XO by Sara Rauch
Sara Rauch won the Electric Book Award for her short story collection What Shines from It. This compact autobiographical parcel focuses on a point in her early thirties when she lived with a long-time female partner, “Piper”, and had an intense affair with “Liam”, a fellow writer she met at a residency.
“no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is”
“Longing isn’t cheating (of this I was certain), even when it brushes its whiskers against your cheek.”
Adultery is among the most ancient human stories we have, a fact Rauch acknowledges by braiding through the narrative her musings on religion and storytelling by way of her Catholic upbringing and interest in myths and fairy tales. She’s looking for the patterns of her own experience and how endings make way for new life. The title has multiple meanings: embraces, crossroads and coming full circle. Like a spider’s web, her narrative pulls in many threads to make an ordered whole. All through, bisexuality is a baseline, not something that needs to be interrogated.
This reminded me of a number of books I’ve read about short-lived affairs – Tides, The Instant – and about renegotiating relationships in a queer life – The Fixed Stars, In the Dream House – but felt most like reading a May Sarton journal for how intimately it recreates daily routines of writing, cooking, caring for cats, and weighing up past, present and future. Lovely stuff.
With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler and Autofocus Books for the e-copy for review.
Will you seek out one or more of these books?
What other April releases can you recommend?
Tomorrow the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve become much more invested in this prize over the past few years and will be following the 2022 race especially closely – look out for a related announcement soon. In recent years the nominees have tended to cluster thematically, which can feel redundant. This longlist has a notably high ghost quotient. Two novels I review below feature unquiet spirits, an appearance by the author, and the magical powers of books. The third is a straightforward contemporary dysfunctional family story.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
My second from Erdrich (I gave Love Medicine, her first novel, 5 stars in 2020). I will be revisiting this in June because it is our first pick for my tenure in the Literary Wives online book club. For that post I’ll focus on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux, which I won’t mention in this more general response. I was worried that a take on very recent events – this is set in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020 and covers the first six months of the pandemic plus local protests following George Floyd’s murder – would seem either rushed or dated. I’m still unsure how I feel about encountering Covid-19 in fiction (vs. I’ve read 20 or more nonfiction records now), but I think this novel functions as a sturdy time capsule.
Tookie, the narrator, has a tough exterior but a tender heart. When she spent 10 years in prison for a misunderstanding-cum-body snatching, books helped her survive, starting with the dictionary. Once she got out, she translated her love of words into work as a bookseller at Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minnesota independent bookshop (Louise herself is an occasional character). Bibliophiles are sure to enjoy the mentions of the books she presses into customers’ hands; there’s also a fun appendix of recommendations on particular topics.
However, the central mystery about Flora, a dead customer who haunts the store until Tookie figures out why she died and how to exorcise her, struck me as silly. I only appreciated this storyline to the extent that it explores authenticity (Flora may have fabricated her Native heritage) and the inescapability of history. I preferred real life: Tookie getting locked down with her stepdaughter and baby grandson and filling book orders from a closed shop.
Erdrich weaves in Indigenous customs naturally and the banter between the characters, including young shop employees, makes this hip and lighthearted, even as it deals with serious subjects. I smiled at the bookish lingo, like Tookie’s division of her reading into a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack (“books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped” – my occasional and set-aside titles could comprise the latter) and the “cowbirds,” self-published titles secreted on the shelves that aren’t found until inventory day. There’s also an excellent passage on novellas that I’ll be bringing out in November.
Like a vintage armchair, this is a little overstuffed, but so comfortable you’ll want to stay a while. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
Artists, dysfunctional families, and limited settings (here, one crumbling London house and its environs; and about two days across one weekend) are irresistible elements for me, and I don’t mind a work being peopled with mostly unlikable characters. That’s just as well, because the narrative orbits Ray Hanrahan, a monstrous narcissist who insists that his family put his painting career above all else. His wife, Lucia, is a sculptor who has always sacrificed her own art to ensure Ray’s success. But now Lucia, having survived breast cancer, has the chance to focus on herself. She’s tolerated his extramarital dalliances all along; why not see where her crush on MP Priya Menon leads? What with fresh love and the offer of her own exhibition in Venice, maybe she truly can start over in her fifties.
Ray and Lucia’s three grown children, Leah, Patrick and Jess, are all home for Ray’s new exhibition. They’re mere sketches: Leah is Ray’s staunchest supporter and is infatuated with the no-show caterer; Patrick’s mental health is shaky, interfering with his job prospects; Jess, a teacher in Edinburgh, is pregnant but not sure she’s committed to her boyfriend long term. I wanted more depth from all the characters, but especially the offspring. I also expected a climactic late scene on Hampstead Heath to come to more.
Still, the build-up to the exhibit (followed by a laughably pitiful reveal) and Lucia’s inner life form an adequately strong foundation for Mendelson’s sardonic prose. The dialogue, full of interruptions, is true to life. This is her fifth novel and called to mind Jami Attenberg’s and Claire Fuller’s work. (Liz found shades of Iris Murdoch. Susan loved it, too.) I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to seek out more by Mendelson, but this was a solid read. (Public library)
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.
What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.
When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction. For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.
Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.
With thanks to Canongate for the proof copy for review.
I’ve gotten to six books from the longlist so far and have a few more on order at the library. The others I’ve read, with ratings and links to my reviews, are:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
I’m also partway through The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which is enjoyable enough but, alas, suffers in comparison to Daisy Jones and the Six, whose format (a composite oral history of a fictional 1960s/70s musical act) it repeats. The addition of the race issue doesn’t feel sufficient to call it original.
I’ve also DNFed a few from the longlist, two of them multiple times, so I have my fingers crossed that they don’t advance!
- The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
My attitude to the rest of the longlist is…
- The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – No plans to read.
- Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – I might read this from the library. I’m leery of dystopias, but I’m there for a chorus of cows.
- Careless by Kirsty Capes – No plans to read.
- Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – I would happily read it if it’s shortlisted, but at over 500 pages I fear it’ll be too dense.
- Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – Maybe. Sounds like pretty standard Sarah Winman-type stuff, but it could go down well with a book club.
- This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – No plans to read.
- Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – I was actually pretty keen to read this one, so I have it on reserve at the library. Egyptian mythology makes a change from the overdone Greeks, and the Washington, D.C. setting is a big draw. Laura’s review has tempered my expectations, but I might still give it a go.
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
My predicted shortlist:
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
An overall winner? Gosh, it’s too early to tell. But maybe The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss or The Island of Missing Trees.
See also Laura’s shortlist predictions.
What have you read from the longlist so far?
Which of these books are calling to you?
A quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a women’s college campus, and the other is the story of a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem. (Both: University library; )
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
I have a real soft spot for novels set on college campuses. Any time I’ve looked through lists of options, Jarrell’s has been there. Still, it took the 1954 Club for me to finally pick up a copy. For about the first half, I was fully engaged with this academic comedy even though it doesn’t have a plot as such. The stage is Benton women’s college; the cast includes various eccentric professors and other staff, from President Robbins on down. Gertrude Johnson, a visiting writer, is writing a novel about Benton. The problem for her – and for us as readers – is two-fold: the characters are almost too eccentric to be believed, and nothing happens here.
The narrator, a poetry professor at Benton, knew Gertrude socially back in New York City. His descriptions of his fellow faculty are often hilarious. For instance, here’s his picture of Flo Whittaker:
Mostly she wore, in the daytime in the winter, a tweed skirt, a sweater-set, and a necklace. The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before
The Whittakers’ house is so full of kitschy knick-knacks that “Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body would not have been ill at ease.” And then there’s the Robbinses’ ill-behaved pair of Afghan hounds, and Dr. Rosenbaum the music professor, whose German accent is rendered over-the-top.
Funny as parts of the novel can be, the humour can feel dated and sometimes relies on niche cultural references. The very first line, for example: “Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”. However, elsewhere Jarrell mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and of the Benton set, who also seem woke avant la lettre:
Most of the people of Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically
Amusing pen portraits and witty lines made this pleasant to spend time with, but not a read that will stick with me.
As usual for any reading challenge, I bit off more than I could chew and started a fourth book but couldn’t get through it in time and, in all honesty, wasn’t finding it compelling. I’ll have to give it a better try on another occasion.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s work before (The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room), but didn’t make it much past page 30 of this novel about John Grimes, a preacher’s son in Harlem, before starting to skim. The central section contains long flashbacks to the backstory of three secondary characters, whereas I was more interested in John’s story (semi-autobiographical for Baldwin, apparently). Mostly I thought of how the content and narrative style must have influenced the following generations of African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Catherine Adel West – both of whom I was reading at the same time.
A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. The play’s the thing for this installment of the 1954 Club: Tove Jansson’s delightfully odd creatures end up in a floating theatre and rise to the occasion, and I’ve finally read Dylan Thomas’s famous play for voices. I’ll try to manage another couple of write-ups this weekend, too. (Both: University library; )
Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]
One never knows what magic or mischief will bubble up at Midsummer. For Moomintroll’s family, it all starts with the eruption of a volcano, which leads to a flood. Moominmamma does her best to uphold comforting routines in their inundated home, but eventually they leave it for a better-appointed house that floats by. One with thick velvet curtains, doors to nowhere, and cupboards full of dresses. I wearied ever so slightly of the dramatic irony that this is clearly a theatre but the characters don’t know what one is and have to be enlightened by Emma the stage rat. Meanwhile, Snufkin becomes accidental father to two dozen “woodies” and Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden are arrested for burning officious signs.
The teasing commentary on the pretensions of the theatre is sweet: Moominpappa decides to write a tragic play with a lion in; Emma tells him it simply must be in blank verse, so he obliges, but no one in the audience can understand a word until the actors speak normally. As usual with Jansson, there is separation and longing, disaster mitigated, disorientation navigated with pluck or resignation. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her others, I appreciated the focus this time on bending the rules of how things must be done. My favourite quotes were about the overwhelming nature of choice and the value of a good cry:
(The Snork Maiden on the dresses in the costume closet) “They were far too many, don’t you see. I couldn’t ever have had them all or even choose the prettiest. They nearly made me afraid! If there’d been only two instead!”
(Misabel) “I’m taking the chance to have a cry over a lot of things now when there’s a good reason.”
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
I discovered A Child’s Christmas in Wales just last year and delighted in the language and the flights of fancy. Under Milk Wood is a short play completed just a month before Thomas’s death at the age of 39. It features a chorus of voices as the inhabitants of Llaregyb, a made-up coastal Welsh town, journey from one night through to the next. Gossipy neighbours, bickering spouses, flirtatious lovers; a preacher, a retired sea captain, fishermen; and much more. Some of the character names are jokes in and of themselves, like “Nogood Boyo” and “Willy Nilly,” and others sound so silly they might as well be rhyming slang.
The dead feel as vibrant as the living. The musicality of the prose sometimes made me feel I was reading poetry instead (indeed, a number of songs and rhymes are performed), and there is a bawdy charm to the whole thing. What might be stage directions in another play are read aloud here by “First Voice” and “Second Voice,” who trade off narration.
Maybe it was too much to hope that there could have been a plot somewhere in there as well? No matter. I could see how Thomas influenced the likes of Max Porter and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, anyway). I’m sorry I missed the chance to see this performed locally last month.
A favourite passage:
“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
The Holy Week opening was the excuse I needed to pick up this review copy from 2021. Amadeo Padilla is playing Jesus this year in the Las Penas, New Mexico penitentes’ reenactment of the crucifixion. At 33, he’s the perfect age for the role; no matter that he’s an unemployed alcoholic and a single father to 15-year-old Angel, who is pregnant. Looping from one Good Friday to the next, this debut novel is a crushingly honest look at family dynamics. It’s what isn’t said that might tear them apart: Amadeo’s mother, Yolanda, hasn’t told anyone about her diagnosis, and Amadeo conveniently covers up the fact that he’s sleeping with Brianna, Angel’s teacher at the Smart Starts! high school equivalency program.
The title refers to the stigmata of Christ, but could just as well apply to the Padillas’ five generations, from baby Connor all the way up to Tío Tíve, Amadeo’s great-uncle. Substance abuse, poverty and abandonment are generational wounds that run through this family. Quade treats heavy subjects and damaged characters with kindness, never mocking or descending into cruelty. There is even levity to failures like Amadeo’s windshield crack repair venture. Any of these characters could have been caricatures, especially Angel as a teen mother, but Quade gives them depth. Angel’s emulation of Brianna and her classmate Lizette, her grudging care for Connor and Yolanda, and her ambivalent feelings towards Ryan, Connor’s father, are just a few of the aspects that make her a plucky, winsome protagonist.
The inclusion of Lent and Advent sets up the book’s emotional palette: waiting, guilt, self-sacrifice; preparing for birth, death and the determination to forge a new life. It’s refreshing, however, that the theological content is not just metaphorical here; these characters have a staunch Catholic background, and they take seriously Jesus’ example:
Good Friday was supposed to save Amadeo. He was supposed to be past the shame and failure and the mistakes that hardly seem to be his own and that unravel beyond his control. Amadeo feels cheated. By Passion week, by the penitentes, by Jesus himself. The fact is that no one can be crucified every day—not even Jesus could pull off that miracle.
Amadeo asks himself, with no trace of irony, what Jesus would do in the kinds of situations he finds himself in.
I would have liked more closure about two secondary characters, and at over 400 pages of small type, The Five Wounds is on the overlong side. But it’s so strong on characters and scenes, from classroom to hospital, that my interest never waned. Different as their settings are, I’d liken this to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud – two novels that had me aching for their vibrant characters’ poor decisions compounded by bad luck. The authors’ compassionate outlook makes the tragic elements bearable. I’ll be catching up on Quade’s first book, the short story collection Night at the Fiestas, as soon as I can.
With thanks to Profile Books (Tuskar Rock imprint) for the free copy for review.
I recently finished a limping reread of Watership Down by Richard Adams. This was my favourite book as a child, but I couldn’t recapture the magic in my late thirties. The novelty this time around was in being able to recognize all the settings – the rabbits’ epic quest takes place on the outskirts of Newbury; we’ve walked through its countryside locations. (In fact, my husband, in his capacity as a town councillor, has testified at a hearing in objection to a plan to build 1000 houses at Sandleford, where the rabbits set out from.) I can see why I loved this at age nine: anthropomorphized animals, legends, made-up vocabulary and an old-fashioned adventure narrative. But it’s telling that this time around, what most amused me was Chapter 48, “Dea ex Machina,” in which a little girl rescues Hazel from her cat.
I’m 40 pages from the end of These Days by Lucy Caldwell, a beautiful novel set in Belfast in April 1941. A long central section is about “The Easter Raid.” I didn’t realize the devastation the city suffered during the Second World War. We see it mostly through the eyes of the Bell family – especially daughters Audrey, engaged to be married to a young doctor, and Emma, in love with a fellow female volunteer. I was wary of the characterization of the lower class, and the period slang can be a bit heavy-handed, but the evocation of a time of crisis is excellent, contrasting a departed normality with the new reality of bodies piled in the street and in makeshift morgues. It’s reminded me of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.
Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.
From the Jhalak Prize longlist:
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)
Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.
Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.
“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).
Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.
There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
From the Women’s Prize longlist:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)
Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)
Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).
ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.
Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19
when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—
translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.
(from “Brain Fog”)
Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.
Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)
This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.
However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.
With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
(From To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa)
Reading with the seasons is one way I mark time. This is the first of two, or maybe three, batches of spring reading for me this year. The daffodils have already gone over; bluebells and peonies are coming out; and all the trees, including the two wee apple trees we’ve planted at our new house, are sprouting hopeful buds.
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)
My fourth from Fitzgerald. One of her later novels, this was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Its pre-war Moscow setting seemed to take on extra significance as I read it during the early weeks of the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Its title is both literal, referring to the March days in 1913 when “there was the smell of green grass and leaves, inconceivable for the last five months” and the expatriate Reid family can go to their dacha once again, and metaphorical. For what seems to printer Frank Reid – whose wife Nellie has taken a train back to England and left him to raise their three children alone – like an ending may actually presage new possibilities when his accountant, Selwyn, hires a new nanny for the children.
I have previously found Fitzgerald’s work slight, subtle to the point of sailing over my consciousness without leaving a ripple. While her characters and scenes still underwhelm – I always want to go deeper – I liked this better than the others I’ve read (The Bookshop, Offshore, and The Blue Flower), perhaps simply because it’s not a novella so is that little bit more expansive. And though she’s not an author you’d turn to for plot, more does actually happen here, including a gunshot. Frank is a genial Everyman, fond of Russia yet exasperated with its bureaucracy and corruption – this “magnificent and ramshackle country.” He knows how things work and isn’t above giving a bribe when it’s expedient for his business:
He took an envelope out of his drawer, and, conscious of taking only a mild risk, since the whole unwieldy administration of All the Russias, which kept working, even if only just, depended on the passing of countless numbers of such envelopes, he slid it across the top of the desk. The inspector opened it without embarrassment, counted out the three hundred roubles it contained and transferred them to a leather container, half way between a wallet and a purse, which he kept for ‘innocent income’.
I particularly liked Uncle Charlie’s visit, the glimpses of Orthodox Easter rituals, and a strangely mystical moment of communion with some birch trees. A part of me did wonder if the setting was neither here nor there, if a few plastered-on descriptions of Moscow were truly enough to constitute convincing historical fiction. That’s a question for those more familiar with Russia and its literature to answer, but I enjoyed the seasonal awakening. (Secondhand, charity shop in Bath)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; 2018)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey; illustrated by Anna Bjerger]
Knausgaard is a repeat presence in my seasonal posts: I’ve also reviewed Autumn, Winter and Summer. I read his quartet out of order, finishing with the one that was published third. The project was conceived as a way to welcome his fourth child, Anna, into the world. Whereas the other books prioritize didactic essays on seasonal experiences, this is closer in format to Knausgaard’s granular autofiction: the throughline is a journey through an average day with his baby girl, from when she wakes him before 6 a.m. to a Walpurgis night celebration (“the evening when spring is welcomed in with song in Sweden”). They see the other kids off to school, then make a disastrous visit to a mental hospital – he forgets his bank card and ID, the baby’s bottle, everything, and has to beg cash from his bank to buy petrol to get home.
Looming over the circadian narrative is his wife’s mental health crisis the summer before (his ex-wife Linda Boström Knausgård, a writer in her own right, has bipolar disorder), while she was pregnant with Anna, and the repercussions it has had for their family. Other elements echo those of the previous books: the formation of memories, to what extent his personality is fixed, whether he’s fated to turn into his father, minor health concerns, and so on. Although this volume is less aphoristic than the previous books, there are still moments when he muses on life and gives general advice:
Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all. … And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives. … The advantage of having siblings is that it is a lifelong attachment, and that nothing can break it.
All in all, this was the highlight of the series for me. Each of the four is illustrated by a different contemporary artist. Bjerger is less abstract than some of the others, which I count as a plus. (New bargain/remainder copy, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
A favourite random moment: A creeper coming through the tile roof of his office pushes a book off the shelf. It’s American Psycho. “I still found it incredible. And a little frightening, the blind force of growth”.
Speaking of meaningful, or perhaps ironic, timing: He records a conversation with his neighbour, who was mansplaining about Russian aggression and the place of Ukraine: “Kiev was the first great city in what became the Russian empire. … The Ukraine and Russia are like twins. … They belong together. At least the Russians see it that way. … The very idea of Russia is imperialistic.”
Any spring reads on your plate?
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)
The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.
Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.
Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)
In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.
Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.
This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.
I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)
These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.
I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.
The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)
I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.
There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Have you read any Irish literature this month?
As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been kind enough to send. Today I have a collection of essays on the seasons and mental health, a novella inhabiting a homeless girl’s situation, and a memoir about how skills of observation have been invaluable to a neurologist’s career. (I also mention a few other March releases that I have written about elsewhere or will be reviewing soon.)
You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe: On the four seasons, time and love, death and growing up by Rebecca Brown
Brown has shown up twice now in my November novella reading (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary in 2016 and the excellent The Gifts of the Body in 2018). I was delighted to learn from a recent Shelf Awareness newsletter that she had a new book, and its Didion-esque title intrigued me. These four essays, which were originally commissioned for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, and appeared in print between 2014 and 2016, move methodically through the four seasons and through the weather of the heart, which doesn’t always follow nature’s cues. Depression can linger and mock by contrast the external signs of growth and happiness; it’s no wonder that spring is dubbed the “suicide season.”
The relaxed collages of experience and research blend stories from childhood and later life with references to etymology, literature, music, mythology and poetry. Spring brings to mind the Persephone legend and Vivaldi’s compositions. Summer makes her think of riding bikes on dusty roads and a pregnant dog that turned up just before a storm. Autumn has always been for falling in or out of love. Winter is hard to trudge through, but offers compensatory blessings: “You stand inside the house of your friends and feel and see and everyone is in love and alive and you get to be here, grateful, too, however long, this time, the winter lasts.”
A danger with seasonal books is that, with nostalgia tingeing everything, you end up with twee, obvious reflections. Here, the presence of grief and mental health struggles creates a balanced tone, and while the book as a whole feels a little evanescent, it’s a lovely read.
Another favorite passage:
Maybe like how in the winter it’s hard to imagine spring, I forgot there was anything else besides despair. I needed—I need—to remember the seasons change. I need to remember the dark abates, that light and life return. This is a story I need to believe.
With thanks to Chatwin Books for the e-copy for review.
Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco
Carrasco’s second novella (after 2018’s El Hacho) takes an intimate journey with a young woman who sleeps rough on the streets of a city in the west of England (Cheltenham? Gloucester?). Elemental concerns guide her existence: where can she shelter for the night? Where can she store her meagre belongings during the day? Does she have enough coins to buy a cup of tea from a café, and how long can she stretch out one drink so she can stay in the warm? The creeping advance of the winter (and the holiday season) sets up an updated Christmas Carol type of scenario where the have-nots are mostly invisible to the haves but rely on their charity:
Hidden in plain sight amongst them, in nooks and doorways and sitting with heads hanging against cold stone walls are huddled shapes, blanketed and inert, with faces of indifferent boredom. Too cold to fish for cash and pity[,] they sit with their faces wrapped in dirty scarves and stolen hats, working the empty corners of tobacco pouches and sucking cold coffee from yesterday’s cups. Ghosts of flesh, they are here and everywhere and nobody sees a thing.
With no speech marks, the narrative flows easily between dialogue and a third-person limited point of view. The protagonist, generally just called “the girl,” is friends with a group of prostitutes and tries out a night in a homeless hostel and sleeping in an allotment shed when she takes a bus to the suburbs. Carrasco is attentive to the everyday challenges she faces, such as while menstruating. We get hints of the family issues that drove her away, but also follow her into a new opportunity.
The book has an eye to her promising future but also bears in mind the worst that can happen to those who don’t escape poverty and abuse. At times underpowered, at others overwritten (as I found for my only other époque press read, What Willow Says), this succeeds as a compassionate portrait of extreme circumstances, something I always appreciate in fiction, and would make a good pairing with another story of homelessness, Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
With thanks to époque press for the proof copy for review.
Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology by A.J. Lees
Dr Andrew Lees is a professor of neurology at the National Hospital in London and a world-renowned Parkinson’s disease researcher. The essays in this short autobiographical volume emphasize the importance of listening and noticing. The opening piece, in fact, is about birdwatching, a boyhood hobby that first helped him develop this observational ability. In further chapters he looks back to his medical education and early practice in London’s East End and in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. He profiles the hospitals he has known over the last five decades, and the neurologists who paved the way for the modern science, such as Jean-Martin Charcot and François Lhermitte.
The professors whose lessons have most stuck with him are those who insisted on weaving patient histories and symptoms into a story. Lees likens the neurologist’s work to Sherlock Holmes’s deductions – even the smallest signs can mean so much. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a doctor, is known to have modelled Holmes on Joseph Bell, a Scottish surgeon. I particularly liked the essay “The Lost Soul of Neurology,” about science versus spirituality. As a whole, this didn’t particularly stand out for me compared to many of my other medical reads, but I’d still liken it to the works of Gavin Francis and Henry Marsh.
With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free copy for review.
Plus a few more March releases I’ve read recently:
Reviewed for BookBrowse:
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
In an epic fictional sweep from 1822 to nearly the close of the century, Fowler surveys the Booth family’s triumphs and tragedies. Short asides chronicle Lincoln’s rise in parallel. The foreshadowing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the extended timeline means there is also some skating over of long periods. Booth is low on scenes and dialogue, with Fowler conveying a lot of information through exposition. Luckily, the present-tense narration goes a long way toward making this less of a dull group biography and more of an unfolding story. I also appreciated that the Booth sisters are given major roles as point-of-view characters. The issues considered, like racial equality, political divisions and mistrust of the government, are just as important in our own day. Recommended to fans of March and Hamnet. (I also wrote a related article on the Booth family actors and Shakespeare in performance in the 19th-century USA.)
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.
To review for BookBrowse soon: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, one of my favourite 2022 releases so far; just the sort of incisive contemporary American novel I love. Big questions of class, family, fate and politics are bound up in a campus-set love story between a drifting manual labourer with literary ambitions and a visiting writer. (Faber)
And coming up tomorrow in my Reading Ireland Month roundup: Vinegar Hill, Colm Tóibín’s terrific debut collection of poems about current events, religion and travels. (Carcanet Press)