Category Archives: Nonfiction Reviews

Reviews: de Jongh, Eipe, Parker and Scull

Today’s roundup includes a graphic novel set during the U.S. Dust Bowl, a Dylan Thomas Prize-shortlisted poetry collection infused with Islamic imagery, a book about adaptive technologies for the disabled, and a set of testimonies from the elderly and terminally ill.

 

Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh (2021; 2022)

[Translated from the Dutch by Christopher Bradley]

Dust can drive people mad.

This terrific Great Depression-era story was inspired by the real-life work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange who were sent by the Farm Security Administration, a new U.S. federal agency, to document the privations of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. John Clark, 22, is following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer, leaving New York City to travel to the Oklahoma panhandle. He quickly discovers that struggling farmers are believed to have brought the drought on themselves through unsustainable practices. Many are fleeing to California. The locals are suspicious of John as an outsider, especially when they learn that he is working to a checklist (“Orphaned children”, “Family packing car to leave”).

“The best photos have an instant impact. Right away, they grab our attention. They tell a story, or deliver a message. The question is: how do you make that happen?” one of his employers had asked. John grows increasingly uncomfortable with being part of what is essentially a propaganda campaign when he develops a personal fondness for Cliff, a little boy who offers to be his assistant, and Betty, a pregnant widow whose runaway horse he finds. The deprivation and death he sees at close hand bring back memories of his father’s funeral four years ago.

Whether a cityscape or the midst of a dust storm, de Jongh’s scenes are stark and evocative. Each chapter opens with a genuine photograph from the period (de Jongh travelled to the USA for archival and on-the-ground research thanks to a grant from the Dutch Foundation for Literature), and some panes mimic B&W photos the FSA team took. It’s rare for me to find the story and images equally powerful in a graphic novel, but that’s definitely the case here.

With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (2021)

This debut poetry collection is on the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist. I’ve noted that recent winners – such as Lot by Bryan Washington and Luster by Raven Leilani – have in common a distinctive voice and use of language, which chimes with what Thomas was known for (see my recent review of Under Milk Wood) and clarifies what the judges are looking for.

The placement of words on the page seems to be very important in this volume – spread out or bunched together, sometimes descending vertically, a few in grey. It’s unfortunate, then, that I read an e-copy, as most of the formatting was lost when I put it on my Nook. The themes of the first part include relationships, characterized by novelty or trauma; tokens of home experienced in a new land; myths; and nature. Section headings are in Malayalam.

The book culminates in a lengthy, astonishingly nimble abecedarian in which a South Asian single father shepherds his children through English schooling as best he can while mired in grief over their late mother. This bubbles over in connection with her name, Noor, followed by a series of “O” apostrophe statements, some addressed to God and others exhorting fellow believers. Each letter section gets progressively longer. I was impressed at how authentically the final 30-page section echoes scriptural rhythms and content – until I saw in the endnotes that it was reproduced from a 1997 translation of the Quran, and felt a little cheated. Still, “A is for…” feels like enough to account for this India-born poet’s shortlisting. (The Prize winner will be announced on Thursday the 12th.)

With thanks to Midas PR for the free e-copy for review.

 

Hybrid Humans: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Man and Machine by Harry Parker (2022)

I approached this as a companion to To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell and that is precisely what I found, with Parker’s personal insight adding a different angle to the discussion of how technology corrects and transcends flawed bodies. Parker was a captain in the British Army in Afghanistan when an IED took his legs. Now he wears that make him roughly 12% machine. “Being a hybrid human means expensive kit – you have to pay for the privilege of leading a normal life.” He revisits the moments surrounding his accident and his adjustment to prostheses, and meets fellow amputees like Jack, who was part of a British medical trial on osseointegration (where titanium implants come out of the stump for a prosthesis to attach to) that enabled him to walk much better. Other vets they know had to save up and travel to Australia to have this done because the NHS didn’t cover it.

Travelling to the REHAB trade fair in Karlsruhe, Parker learns that disability, too, can be the mother of invention. Virtual reality and smartphone technology are invaluable, with an iPhone able to replace up to 11 single-purpose devices. Yet he also encounters disabled people who are happy with their lot and don’t look to tech to improve it, such as Jamie, who’s blind and relies only on a cane. And it’s not as if tools to compensate for disability are new; the book surveys medical technologies that have been with us for decades or even centuries: from glass eyes to contact lenses; iron lungs, cochlear implants and more.

Pain management, PTSD, phantom limbs, foreign body rejection, and deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease are other topics in this wide-ranging study that is at the juncture of the personal and political. “A society that doesn’t look after the vulnerable isn’t looking after anyone – I’d learnt first-hand that we’re all just a moment from becoming vulnerable,” Parker concludes. I’ll hope to see this one on next year’s Barbellion Prize longlist.

With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 

Regrets of the Dying: Stories and Wisdom that Remind Us How to Live by Georgina Scull (2022)

A medical crisis during pregnancy that had her minutes from death was a wake-up call for Scull, leading her to rethink whether the life she was living was the one she wanted. She spent the next decade interviewing people in her New Zealand and the UK about what they learned when facing death. Some of the pieces are like oral histories (with one reprinted from a blog), while others involve more of an imagining of the protagonist’s past and current state of mind. Each is given a headline that encapsulates a threat to contentment, such as “Not Having a Good Work–Life Balance” and “Not Following Your Gut Instinct.” Most of her subjects are elderly or terminally ill. She also speaks to two chaplains, one a secular humanist working in a hospital and the other an Anglican priest based at a hospice, who recount some of the regrets they hear about through patients’ stories.

Recurring features are not spending enough time with family and staying too long in loveless or unequal relationships. Two accounts that particularly struck me were Anthea’s, about the tanning bed addiction that gave her melanoma, and Millicent’s, guilty that she never went to the police about a murder she witnessed as a teenager in the 1930s (with a NZ family situation that sounds awfully like Janet Frame’s). Scull closes with 10 things she’s learned, such as not to let others’ expectations guide your life and to appreciate the everyday. These are readable narratives, capably captured, but there isn’t much here that rises above cliché.

With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Recommended April Releases by Amy Bloom, Sarah Manguso & Sara Rauch

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”

U.S. cover

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.

U.S. cover

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?

Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich

A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.

 

Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)

Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:

“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”

and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”

The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.

Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.

“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)

“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:

“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)

Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)

“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”

This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.

The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.

All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.

Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

 

Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)

[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]

This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.

The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.

The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.

With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.

  

And a bonus:

I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

The Beginning of Spring with Penelope Fitzgerald & Karl Ove Knausgaard

(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)

This daffodil bookmark was embroidered by local textile artist Christine Highnett. My mother bought it for me from Sandham Memorial Chapel’s gift shop last summer.

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: Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Tóibín

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?

March Releases by Rebecca Brown, Luis Carrasco, A.J. Lees et al.

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)

 

Do any of these books appeal to you?

Two Memoirs by Freaks and Geeks Alumni

These days, I watch no television. At all. I haven’t owned a set in over eight years. But as a kid, teen and young adult, I loved TV. I devoured cartoons and reruns every day after school (Pinky and the Brain, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, etc.); I was a devoted watcher of the TGIF line-up, and petitioned my parents to let me stay up late to watch Murphy Brown. We subscribed to the TV Guide magazine, and each September I would eagerly read through the pilot descriptions with a highlighter, planning which new shows I was going to try. It’s how I found ones like Alias, Felicity, Scrubs and 24 that I followed religiously. Starting in my freshman year of college, I was a mega-fan of American Idol for its first 12 seasons. And so on. Versus now I know nothing about what’s on telly and all the Netflix and box set hits have passed me by.

Ahem. On to the point.

Freaks and Geeks was my favourite show in high school (it aired in 1999–2000, when I was a junior) and the first DVD series I ever owned – a gift from my sister’s boyfriend, who became her first husband. It’s now considered a cult classic, but I can smugly say that I recognized its brilliance from the start. So did critics, but viewers? Not so much, or at least not enough; it was cancelled after just one season. I’ve vaguely followed the main actors’ careers since then, and though I normally don’t read celebrity autobiographies I’ve picked up two by former cast members in the last year. Both:

 

Yearbook by Seth Rogen (2021)

I have seen a few of Rogen’s (generally really dumb) movies. The fun thing about this autobiographical essay collection is that you can hear his deadpan voice in your head on every line. That there are three F-words within the first three paragraphs of the book tells you what to expect; if you have a problem with a potty mouth, you probably won’t get very far.

Rogen grew up Jewish in Vancouver in the 1980s and did his first stand-up performance at a lesbian bar at age 13. During his teens he developed an ardent fondness for drugs (mostly pot, but also mushrooms, pills or whatever was going), and a lot of these stories recreate the ridiculous escapades he and his friends went on in search of drugs or while high. My favourite single essay was about a trip to Amsterdam. He also writes about weird encounters with celebrities like George Lucas and Steve Wozniak. A disproportionately long section is devoted to the making of the North Korea farce The Interview, which I haven’t seen.

Seth Rogen speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International. Photo by Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons.

Individually, these are all pretty entertaining pieces. But by the end I felt that Rogen had told some funny stories with great dialogue but not actually given readers any insight into his own character; it’s all so much posturing. (Also, I wanted more of the how he got from A to B; like, how does a kid in Canada get cast in a new U.S. TV series?) True, I knew not to expect a sensitive baring of the soul, but when I read a memoir I like to feel I’ve been let in. Instead, the seasoned comedian through and through, Rogen keeps us laughing but at arm’s length.

 

This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

I hadn’t kept up with Philipps’s acting, but knew from her Instagram account that she’d gathered a cult following that she spun into modelling and paid promotions, and then a short-lived talk show hosting gig. Although she keeps up a flippant, sarcastic façade for much of the book, there is welcome introspection as she thinks about how women get treated differently in Hollywood. I also got what I wanted from the Rogen but didn’t get: insight into the how of her career, and behind-the-scenes gossip about F&G.

Philipps grew up first in the Chicago outskirts and then mostly in Arizona. She was a headstrong child and her struggle with anxiety started early. When she lost her virginity at age 14, it was actually rape, though she didn’t realize it at the time. At 15, she got pregnant and had an abortion. She developed a habit of seeking validation from men, even if it meant stringing along and cheating on nice guys.

I enjoyed reading about her middle and high school years because she’s just a few years older than me, so the cultural references were familiar (each chapter is named after a different pop song) and I could imagine the scenes – like one at a junior high dance where she got trapped in a mosh pit and dislocated her knee, the first of three times that specific injury happens in the book – taking place in my own middle school auditorium and locker hallway.

She never quite made it to the performing arts summer camp she was supposed to attend in upstate New York, but did act in school productions and got an agent and headshots, so that when Mattel came to Scottsdale looking for actresses to play Barbie dolls in her junior year, she was perfectly placed to be cast as a live-action Cher from Clueless. She enrolled in college in Los Angeles (at LMU) but focused more on acting than on classes. After F&G, Dawson’s Creek was her biggest role. It involved moving to Wilmington, North Carolina and introduced her to her best friend, Michelle Williams, but she never felt she fit with the rest of the cast; her impression is that it was very much a star vehicle for Katie Holmes.

Busy Philipps at the Television Critics Association Awards in 2010. Photo by Greg Hernandez, from Wikimedia Commons.

Other projects that get a lot of discussion here are the Will Ferrell ice-skating movie Blades of Glory, which was her joint idea with her high school boyfriend Craig, and had a script written with him and his brother Jeff – there was big drama when they tried to take away her writing credit; and Cougar Town (with Courteney Cox), for which she won the inaugural Television Critics’ Choice Award. She auditioned a lot, including for TV pilots each year, but roles were few and far between, and she got rejected based on her size (when carrying baby weight after her daughters’ births, or once being cast as “the overweight friend”).

Anyway, I was here for the dish on Freaks and Geeks, and it’s juicy, especially about James Franco, who was her character Kim Kelly’s love interest on the show. Kim and Daniel had an on-again, off-again relationship, and the tension between them on camera reflected real life.

“Franco had come back from our few months off and was clearly set on being a VERY SERIOUS ACTOR … [he] had decided that the only way to be taken seriously was to be a fucking prick. Once we started shooting the series, he was not cool to me, at all. Everything was about him, always. His character’s motivation, his choices, his props, his hair, his wardrobe. Basically, he fucking bullied me. Which is what happens a lot on sets. Most of the time, the men who do this get away with it, and most of the time they’re rewarded.”

At one point, he pushed her over on the set; the directors slapped him on the wrist and made him apologize, but she knew nothing was going to come of it. Still, it was her big break:

what we were doing was totally different from the unrealistic teen shows every other network was putting out.

I didn’t know it then, but getting the call about was the first of many you-got-it calls I would get over the course of my career.

when [her daughter] Birdie turns thirteen, I’m going to watch the entire series with her.

And as a P.S., “Seth Rogen was cast as a guest star on [Dawson’s Creek] and he came out and did an episode with me, which was fun. He and Judd had brought me back to L.A. to do two episodes of Undeclared” & she was cast on one season of ER with Linda Cardellini.

The reason I don’t generally read celebrity autobiographies is that the writing simply isn’t strong enough. While Philipps conveys her voice and personality through her style (cursing, capital letters, cynical jokes), some of the storytelling is thin. I mean, there’s not really a chapter’s worth of material in an anecdote about her wandering off when she was two years old. And I think she overeggs it when she insists she’s always gone out and gotten what she wants; the number of rejections she’s racked up says otherwise. I did appreciate the #MeToo feminist perspective, though, looking back to her upbringing and the Harvey Weinsteins of the Hollywood world and forward to how she hopes things will be different for her daughters. I also admired her honesty about her mental health. But I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you are a devoted fan.

I loved these Freaks and Geeks-themed Valentines that a fan posted to Judd Apatow on Twitter this past February.

Review Catch-Up: Brackenbury, McLaren, Wellcome Collection

As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)

 

Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)

I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.

I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.

There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.

 

Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)

I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.

McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.

It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.

Some favourite lines:

only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”

“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”

“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.

 

This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)

This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).

I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.

With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 


And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.

 

I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)

What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.

A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:

“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”

“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”

Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.

Some lines I liked:

Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!

I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.

With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl

“Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back.”

Sarah Ruhl is a lauded New York City playwright (Eurydice et al.). These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after the delivery, she developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face that usually resolves itself within six months but in rare cases doesn’t go away, and later discovered that she had celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease, two autoimmune disorders. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression on her paralyzed side – she knew this was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet it provoked thorny questions about to what extent the body equates to our identity:

Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?

As (pretty much) always, I prefer the U.S. cover.

Women are accustomed to men cajoling them into a smile, but now she couldn’t comply even had she wanted to. Ruhl looks into the psychology and neurology of facial expressions, such as the Duchenne smile, but keeps coming back to her own experience: marriage to Tony, a child psychiatrist; mothering Anna and twins William and Hope; teaching and writing and putting on plays; and seeking alternative as well as traditional treatments (acupuncture and Buddhist meditation versus physical therapy; she rejected Botox and experimental surgery) for the Bell’s palsy. By the end of the book she’s achieved about a 70% recovery, but it did take a decade. “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of story is that?” she wryly asks. The answer is: a realistic one. We’re all too cynical these days to believe in miracle cures. But a story of graceful persistence, of setbacks alternating with advances? That’s relatable.

The playwright’s skills are abundantly evident here: strong dialogue and scenes; a clear sense of time, such that flashbacks to earlier life, including childhood, are interlaced naturally; a mixture of exposition and forceful one-liners. She is also brave to include lots of black-and-white family photographs that illustrate the before and after. While reading I often thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Terri Tate’s A Crooked Smile, which are both about life with facial deformity after cancer surgery. I’d also recommend this to readers of Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss, one of my 2021 favourites, and Anne Lamott’s essays on facing everyday life with wit and spiritual wisdom.

More lines I loved:

imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance. Our culture values perfect pictures of ourselves, mirage, over and above authentic connection. But we meet one another through the imperfect particular of our bodies.

Lucky the laugh lines and the smile lines especially: they signify mobility, duration, and joy.

My rating:

 

With thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.

March Reading Plans

It’s beginning to look a lot like spring, with daffodils a-blooming, so I have amassed a set of appropriate reads and aim to report on them in two installments between April and May. I was already partway through Davidson’s novel, I’m getting stuck into the Fitzgerald and Knausgaard, and I hope to start the Woolf soon. I also have a review copy of Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco.

Much as I tried with #FinishItFebruary, I still have some set-aside titles I couldn’t get through before the end of last month. It’s a good thing that (as I’ll never forget Damian Barr commenting) books are patient. I’ll reintroduce these to my stacks in the weeks to come, but NO MORE BOOKS can join them. I’m going to be strict with myself: keep going with a book or DNF it; no more limbo.


One of my informal goals for the rest of the year is to have a buddy read on the go with my husband at all times. I’d noticed that I happened to have duplicate copies of a couple of books, and then started to look out for extra copies at the free mall bookshop and Little Free Library in 2019–21, so I’ve ended up with 11 books in total: three nature classics, four travel books, three novels to reread, and one to read for the first time. Nature/travel is where our taste most often overlaps, but John Irving is our mutual favourite author and English Passengers is a novel we both loved. We’ll work out a schedule for 1–2 per month. He reads faster than I do (but has much less time to read overall), so we’ll agree on a time frame and chat either as we go or when we’ve both finished a book. Let me know if you fancy joining in with any of these.

 

Of course, it’s also Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, and I’ve earmarked these fiction options for the next few weeks. So far I’ve started Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. Plus I just got Wendy Erskine’s story collection Dance Move out from the library, and I have Colm Tóibín’s forthcoming poetry collection on my e-reader.

I’m currently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, a collection of autobiographical essays by Irish women writers that originated on the radio. I also got a jump-start in late February by reading these two short books by writers from Ireland:

 

Wild Child: A Journey through Nature by Dara McAnulty; illus. Barry Falls (2021)

I’d expected this to be just a picture book. Instead, it’s a guided tour through four landscapes – the garden, the woods, the uplands, and a river – and it combines Robert Macfarlane-esque poetry (the rhyming and alliteration are reminiscent of The Lost Words books) with facts and crafts/activities. It starts small, with the birds a child in the UK might be able to see out their window, and then ventures further afield. There is a teaching focus, with information on species’ classification, life cycles and migrations. I also learned to recognize hazel catkins and flowers, and then identified them on our walk later the same day! But the main aim, I think, is simply to encourage wonder and inspire children to get outside and explore the nature around them. I liked the illustrations, but wish the birds hadn’t been given slightly googly eyes. (Public library)

 

To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2021)

Like many, I discovered Ní Ghríofa through A Ghost in the Throat, a genre-bending work of feminist autofiction. I treated myself to a copy of this, her sixth poetry collection, as part of a Waterstones haul with my Christmas book token. One poem actually mentions Eibhlín Dubh, subject of A Ghost in the Throat, and the work as a whole has some of the same attributes, blending biographical portraits and historical reflection with autobiographical material.

“Two Daydreams” connects a teenager in a history exam with the generations leading back to the Famine. “An Experiment to Engineer an Inheritance of Fear” wonders if there is an inherited Irish trauma: “Give her terror in a meadow. / Bind her fear to a black potato. … / When exposed to the ancestral scent, great-grandchildren will show signs of distress.” A newborn’s stay in the NICU occasions “Seven Postcards from a Hospital” (originally addressed to Sara Baume, Ní Ghríofa reveals in the Notes). Marine biologist Maude Delap is the subject of one multi-part poem.

Sensual imagery abounds, and there are several incantatory spells, including the spring one below. My favourite poem was “Craquelure,” likening cracks in a fellow bus passenger’s phone screen to the weathering old paintings develop. (New purchase)